Tuesday 12 March 2019
[James Gray in the Chair]
Fire Safety and Sprinkler Systems
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fire safety and sprinkler systems.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this morning, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for the debate, which the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and I requested on behalf on the all-party parliamentary fire safety rescue group. It is good to see a number of members of the group present to support the debate. I am also grateful to various organisations for their briefings, including the Library, the London Fire Brigade, the Fire Brigades Union, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Fire Protection Association, the Business Sprinkler Alliance, the Association of British Insurers, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
This is the first dedicated debate on this subject since 2014, when the first ever Fire Sprinkler Week took place. Several colleagues who were present at that debate are here again today. Although this is the first dedicated fire sprinkler debate since then, sprinklers have been mentioned many times in other debates over the intervening years, not least because of the Grenfell tragedy. The all-party group has been campaigning strongly on various matters, especially since the 2013 coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire. The four key issues are: a full review of approved document B to update building regulations and fire guidance, which is well overdue; an assessment of the progress made in deploying fire sprinklers in Scotland and Wales, which is clearly affording better protection to homes and businesses in those countries, leaving England behind; a reversal of Government guidance on fire sprinklers in new-build schools; and a requirement to install fire sprinklers in all domestic dwellings, especially new high-rise buildings, and the retrofitting of them in all high-rise buildings, especially post Grenfell. I will look at the first three briefly before focusing on the last item.
The Government are hiding behind the various inquiries after Grenfell: the public inquiry, the Dame Judith Hackitt review and the police criminal investigation. There is almost a standard response: “Let’s not anticipate their conclusions.” I say almost, because the Government did not wait to pronounce on cladding. They recognised that there was urgency and made a decision, which was a good job. That means that we do not have to wait for everything. On approved document B, the all-party parliamentary group was told in 2011 that the review would be completed and published by 2016-17. Not only was that not the case, it had not started properly, and Dame Judith is now overseeing a lot of that work.
In Scotland and Wales, better protection is now required for commercial coverage, and in Wales for domestic dwellings. On schools, last Friday the Government launched a call for evidence on “Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools”. In 2007, the Labour Government issued revised guidance that encouraged new schools to be covered by fire sprinklers, but the coalition reversed that guidance. Whereas previously the number of new schools that were being sprinklered rose to 70%, after the coalition’s reversal that figure dropped back to 30%.
However, the main issue—the issue that I want to focus on, that is uppermost in the minds of the public, and on which the Government can take action—is the retrofitting of fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings and sprinklers in all homes. It has been well documented that sprinklers were considered for the Grenfell refurbishment at a cost of around £200,000 from an overall budget of nearly £10 million, but were not fitted. What a mistake. Had Grenfell been a new building, it would have been a requirement. If the Government think that sprinklers are needed for new buildings, why not for those already built, where the majority of people living in high-rise buildings actually reside?
Turning to the points raised by those who supplied briefings, the London Fire Brigade said that sprinklers save lives; they are not a “nice to have” or a luxury. The London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton, has said repeatedly that they are a “no-brainer”. They are highly effective in detecting fires, suppressing fires rapidly and raising the alarm. Sprinklers are not expensive; if included at the design stage, they can cost as little as 1% of the total build. There is also overwhelming public support for sprinklers. It is deeply concerning that in recent years, on the two occasions when the Government have reviewed sprinklers, protection has moved in the wrong direction: first, in 2013 through section 20 of the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1939, and secondly in 2016—resulting in less coverage, not more.
The Royal Institute of British Architects calls for a requirement for sprinklers systems in all new and converted residential buildings, as is already required in Wales, and in all existing residential buildings above 18 metres. It states that the urgency for change in building regulations is simply not as evident in England as in our neighbouring countries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, given the urgency, the retrofitting of sprinklers should be a priority for the Government, and that they should not wait for any outcomes of reviews? There is overwhelming evidence that we need to act now.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for whom I have some affection, having been an operational firefighter in Battersea for 13 years. I will come back to her point later, because it is central to the issue that I am raising.
The ABI states that in the UK no one has ever died from a fire in a fully sprinklered building. It recommends that sprinkler systems be fitted by qualified engineers, using accredited systems and equipment, to a recognised standard. The ABI has also commented on sprinklers in warehouses, care homes, schools and high-rise buildings.
The National Fire Chiefs Council wants sprinklers to become a requirement in all new high-rise residential structures above 18 metres, and wants student accommodation to be included. It says that where high-rise residential buildings exceed 30 metres, there should be a requirement to retrofit sprinklers when those buildings are scheduled to be refurbished—and should be retrofitted regardless of future refurbishment plans where such buildings are served by a single staircase.
Back in 2014, we debunked the myths about fire sprinklers as depicted in TV adverts, drama productions and movies. The issue of cost has also been successfully challenged; the cost has been shown to be much less than was claimed by opponents. The tragedy of Grenfell is screaming out for Government action. To delay further is an abdication of responsibility at best, and criminally irresponsible at worst.
In 2014, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who is now the Housing Minister, said:
“I am proud to be an ambassador for the Derbyshire fire and rescue service…I am delighted to tell everybody in today’s debate that my local council, South Derbyshire…will be building new council housing because of the changes to housing funding, and because of that, it will be installing sprinklers in all the new council houses and council properties that it builds in future.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 181WH.]
If it is good enough for South Derbyshire, why not for the rest of England? In the same debate, the then Fire Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), proudly claimed that fire deaths were continuing to fall. Sadly, that is not the case now.
The Government, local authorities and housing associations that rent in the public sector should, as a matter of urgency, agree to install sprinklers as soon as possible in all their housing stock. All private rented accommodation should start planning to fit sprinklers in all new builds and during all refurbishments. Without sprinklers, some 300 people will die and thousands will be traumatised each year in domestic fires. Although most casualties occur in ones, twos or family groups, there is no guarantee that there will not be another Grenfell. The long period of fewer fires and fewer deaths has plateaued over the last five years, with cuts the most likely explanation.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He mentioned the Housing Minister, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler). The chief fire officer for Derbyshire is the lead officer for the National Fire Chiefs Council, which proposed unanimously that fire sprinklers be fitted urgently, without us awaiting the full completion of the consultation on approved document B. If all our fire officers are saying that, should the Government not go ahead?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I shall come back to in a moment.
Things that the Government can do to check the plateauing of deaths in fires include stopping any further cuts to the fire service, funding it appropriately, restoring the guidance on sprinklers in new schools, accelerating the review of approved document B and publishing it as soon as possible. However, the most urgent focus should be on fire sprinklers in homes, especially in high-rise buildings.
In one of my first meetings as fire Minister in 2005 or 2006, a senior civil servant advised me, “There’s room for a brave decision here, Minister.” I said that I recognised that as a line from “Yes, Minister” and told them to go away and bring back something else. Minister, there is room here not only for a brave decision, for a common-sense, pragmatic decision and for the right decision, but—most importantly—for a decision that saves lives.
The majority of people who die in fires are the old, the young, the poor, the sick or the vulnerable. Sprinklers are needed to improve fire safety in the UK’s buildings. The NFCC, the ABI, the FPA, the London Fire Brigade, the FBU, RIBA, RICS and the public all support them. The Government need a win, and this is an opportunity.
Order. A glance round the Chamber shows that plenty of hon. Members wish to speak. I do not really believe in time limits, but if colleagues could honourably restrict themselves to four or five minutes each, it would be a courtesy.
As always, Mr Gray, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I declare an interest as a former firefighter, a former member of the FBU—I think technically I might still be one—and a former fire Minister when responsibility for fire was first brought into the Home Office.
Not all of what we ask today is in the Minister’s gift. Personally, I think that the fire Minister should have much more control over building regulations. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I were firemen many years ago, most fire prevention work was done in-house in the fire service; I remember quite junior officers going away for up to two years to become fire prevention officers. Long before the terrible Grenfell disaster, we spent years and years, under numerous Governments, discussing whether we should have sprinklers in the home. As the hon. Gentleman says, the people who die in fires tend to be the most vulnerable. That is a national catastrophe.
Sprinklers have changed enormously over the years, from the drenching sprinklers that swamped everything to get the fire out and destroyed nearly everything apart from people’s lives, to the very fine particulate sprinklers that we have now, which create more of a mist. The need to protect environments as well as lives is much more obvious now, and the new sprinklers do that.
I support all the calls being made. I do not think that we need to wait for this or that report, because it is blatantly obvious, as old-fashioned common sense tells us, that there is a strong correlation between sprinklers and lives saved. As we have heard, where sprinklers have been installed, no lives have been lost. I do not want to say too much about Grenfell, but there is a strong possibility that the fire started inside the building and then spread to the outside and the cladding. A sprinkler system is inside, not outside. Quite simply, if the fire had never got to the cladding in the first place, the situation would almost certainly have been very different.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
May I make a tiny bit of progress first, because of the time constraints that we are quite rightly under? It is fantastic to see so many colleagues here.
It is obvious common sense to have sprinklers in all new housing. Interestingly enough, they not only save lives but make insurance premiums go down. As with other types of insurance, such as telematics in car insurance, we have driven the industry to say, “If you install this, things could be better and your premiums could be lower.” Sprinklers also matter to developers choosing to buy properties in a certain area. Surely they must be the way forward. I will come on to social housing in a second, but let me first give way to my hon. Friend.
I support the point made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) about the need for sprinklers. My right hon. Friend mentions the spread of fire. Does he recognise that the Grenfell tragedy could have been averted if the spread of fire by combustible cladding outside the building had been prevented? At current rates of progress, it will take five years to remediate all the private sector buildings in the UK. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but that is the current rate of progress. Where ownership or responsibility is unclear, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should step in and provide a fund to allow remediation work to take place more quickly?
I am sure that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point. Obviously we would like to see people sleeping in homes that are safe, and the faster that happens, the better. I am sure that the Minister feels exactly the same.
If the Government do not take action on sprinklers, they are really saying that property is more important than people’s lives. They may say that the costs are high or that the developers do not want sprinkler systems, but actually we have found that installing them in all new builds and major refurbishments would cost less than 1% of the build cost—not the retail value, the build cost. I cannot understand anyone in the 21st century arguing against installing sprinklers in all new properties. The insurers insist on it in most commercial and retail properties, and surely lives are more important.
As an ex-fireman and ex-Minister, I know the advice that the Minister has been getting, but he needs to turn round and say, “I am afraid that some of that advice is tosh.” The cost implications are there. New build could start tomorrow and refurbishment costs can be met. Now that we are building more social housing than ever—in my constituency we are building like wildfire, because we need more council houses—surely the Local Government Association could bring councils together to say that sprinklers should be installed.
I will not go into carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, but the successes in that area have caused a sudden drop in fatalities. We need to do more work on carbon monoxide, but this debate is about sprinklers. Sprinklers need to be in everybody’s homes as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), the secretary of the all-party fire safety rescue group, on initiating and leading this extremely important debate in the light of the atrocity at Grenfell Tower nearly two years ago. I also thank the group’s chair, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for his leadership over the past 20 years. I was delighted to be appointed as a vice-chair last year.
I am here to make a difference. First, I will challenge the resistance shown by the Government and their advisers towards the overwhelming and compelling evidence of the benefits of fire sprinklers to property and life. Their protection extends to the firefighters and other first responders to whom so many of my community owe their lives. Those who risk their lives every day to save ours also need protection.
As one of a package of fire safety measures, sprinklers work where other measures have failed. Where installed in flats, they have controlled or extinguished 100% of fires, according to research carried out by the National Fire Chiefs Council in May 2017, a month before the fire. The Building Research Establishment’s 2012 cost-benefit analysis confirmed that sprinklers are cost-effective in most blocks of purpose-built flats and in larger blocks of converted flats. Why have the Government not implemented that seven-year-old independent report? The public inquiry is reviewing what Ministers have failed to implement since the study in 2012, the coroner’s rule 43 letter in 2013 after the Lakanal House inquest, and the NFCC research. On behalf of a bereaved community, I ask the Minister to encourage the Secretary of State to push ahead with the building regulations review and, please, to act on the findings now.
Hon. Members will be aware that, following the atrocity at Grenfell, a full technical review has been instigated of approved document B, with a call for evidence. The NFCC has responded and set out its advice. I hope that hon. Members agree that it is well placed and qualified to determine the requirements and that we should support its position. All the chief fire officers in the country are saying with one voice that regulation needs to be improved, so I hope that the Government will listen to them, rather than waiting for the result of the review, and that hon. Members will support this interim measure to speed up the process and take action to protect lives against fire.
A change to guidance alone will not address this matter, as demonstrated by the approach to schools, which has guidance in the form of Building Bulletin 100. That document defines the expectation for automatic fire sprinklers in schools as a property protection, and saw the inclusion of sprinklers in 70% of new schools over three years, between 2007 and 2010, but that has since fallen to an alarmingly low level. The London Fire Brigade commissioner has said that it relates to very few schools now—only four of the 84 schools it has attended have had sprinklers.
The Hackitt report defines high-rise residential buildings in need of sprinklers as those of 30 metres, or 10 storeys. The most recent London Councils position is to support sprinklers in buildings of 18 metres, or six storeys—not just for new build, but also for retrofitting in existing buildings. It has asked that the work for council-owned buildings is funded by the Government in full. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institute of Building have jointly called on the Government to require the installation of sprinklers in all new and converted residential buildings of 11 metres, or four storeys. RIBA has expressed its concern to me about the very high-rise buildings that currently have planning permission but are yet unbuilt, and what rules will apply to them.
Different rules govern fire safety in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but fire does not respect political or geographical boundaries. Councils, developers and social and private landlords need clarity from the Government and are demanding action now, without further confusion or delay. As one of the Grenfell survivors, who predicted the fire, has said, without action now, “Grenfell 2 is in the post”. The Government must not let that nightmare prediction come true, and must listen to the experts—the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Building Research Establishment, London Councils, RICS, RIBA, CIOB—and legislate now, to save lives.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing the debate. He has been a magnificent voice leading on fire safety issues in Parliament. If his voice had been listened to over the years, we would not be in the powerless state that we are at the moment.
I congratulate and thank all the members of the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group. It is a wonderful group and we speak with one voice: we want sprinklers to be installed on a mandatory basis in certain buildings. If we had been listened to at the outset, there would not have been the Lakanal disaster and there would not have been the Grenfell disaster. I am in absolute despair: Ministers come and go, and yet the advice remains constant from officials and others. That advice is absolutely wrong. It has cost lives.
The debate is pertinent because changes to building regulations approved document B guidance are currently being considered following the Grenfell Tower disaster. That was nearly two years ago, but I am sure it only seems like yesterday to the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad).
I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says about the work of the APPG. Is the difference between us and the Government not that we have been willing to listen to expert opinion, and to take that into account when deciding the appropriate way forward? Surely, this is the time to listen to expert opinion.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have the privilege of not just one, not just two, but three former fire Ministers here today. It is about time that the present Government listened to their expertise on the subject. I cannot think of any meeting where the APPG has not had an item on the agenda about automatic fire sprinkler protection.
We should never have got to the position of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, especially after the warnings and recommendations of the coroner at the Lakanal House fire inquest in 2013, and the rule 43 letter to the Secretary of State. We have all the correspondence about what the APPG was trying to do at the time.
All Governments of all colours have failed us. On 4 July 2017, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), said that
“we may have to confront an awkward truth. That over many years and perhaps against the backdrop of, as data shows, a reduced risk in terms of fire, in terms of number of incidents and deaths, that maybe as a system some complacency has crept in.”
Well, I think that is what Dame Judith Hackitt feels about the situation, and we will just have to see how that pans out. Claims of complacency could never be aimed at the APPG.
In 2012, the Building Research Establishment updated its 2006 research into the cost-benefit analysis of installing residential fire sprinklers and concluded that sprinklers are cost-effective for most blocks of purpose-built flats, all residential care homes, including those with single bedrooms, and traditional bedsit-type houses in multiple occupation, where there are at least six bedsit units per building and the costs are shared. The APPG has consistently asked why the Government have not reflected those changes in its guidance in approved document B. The intransigence is absolutely unacceptable.
I say again: the advice has been totally wrong. The APPG, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the London Fire Brigade, the Fire Protection Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Fire Sector Federation, the Association of British Insurers and many others cannot all be wrong on this issue, but the advisers are still giving the wrong advice.
In March 2013, the Southwark coroner issued a rule 43 letter to the Secretary of State for the then Department of Communities and Local Government following the Lakanal House inquest, which stated:
“Evidence adduced at the inquests indicated that retro fitting of sprinkler systems in high rise residential buildings might now be possible at lower cost than had previously been thought to have been the case, and with modest disruption to residents. It is recommended that your Department encourage providers of housing in high rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retro fitting of sprinkler systems.”
The response from DCLG was lamentable. It said that
“any fire safety measures which might need to be implemented or installed in any particular building will need to be determined primarily by a careful assessment of the life-risk to the residents and others in the building.”
We know that. The word used in the letter is “encourage”.
At the Lakanal House coroner’s inquests in March 2013, the London Fire Brigade commissioner was asked by the barrister assisting the coroner whether, if sprinklers had been installed, the lives would have been saved. The commissioner replied with an unequivocal yes. That is what happened at the inquiry. What happened at Grenfell is an absolute disgrace.
The National Fire Chiefs Council commissioned a research study by Optimal Research collecting data on five years of real fires that had occurred in the UK where sprinklers had been installed. Its findings, published last year, showed that, on 99.5% of occasions in all buildings and in 100% of occasions in flats, fires were avoided when sprinklers were installed. Sprinklers are not a panacea; they are only one of a package of measures. I am sure the Minister may make some remarks along those lines, but sprinklers can be used to make properties safe from fire.
Let me close by giving an estimated progress report on the retrofitting of automatic fire sprinkler protection in residential tower blocks. I am advised by organisations that manufacture automatic fire sprinkler systems that an estimated 1,000 towers have commenced or committed to installing sprinklers in existing tower blocks as a consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Already, Wales and Scotland are much further ahead in regulating for automatic fire sprinklers in their built environment. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a good and wise man: this nonsense can no longer go on and we will not accept it. We want action on this, and we want sprinklers to be installed retrospectively, particularly in all new school buildings.
I will try to keep my remarks brief, as there is a lot of pressure on time. I am delighted to participate in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on bringing the debate forward. The Grenfell tragedy has brought the whole issue of fire safety sharply into focus and forced us all to re-examine and re-evaluate building regulations to ensure that they are fit for purpose and properly adhered to.
Building regulations are devolved, and the Scottish Government have responded extensively. The Scottish Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, has announced that amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 are being brought forward. In addition to other fire safety measures, regulations will ensure that sprinkler installation is mandatory in flatted accommodations, large multi-occupancy dwellings and places that deliver care. We must do all we can on fire safety; there is no room for complacency in any part of the United Kingdom. We must make the improvements necessary and monitor them to ensure they are fit for purpose.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, among others, made an impassioned case for sprinklers. The case was very well made. We know there is a correlation between sprinklers and reducing fatalities in fires. The fire at Grenfell taught us all a lot in many different ways, both about fire safety and about the kind of society we are trying to build. Most importantly, every single person is entitled—as a right—to the same high levels of fire safety protection. Homes, schools and hospitals must all be as resilient to fire as we can possibly make them. In Scotland, we have had the tragedy of the fire at the Glasgow School of Art—twice—which is still being investigated. There may be a public inquiry into it, so I limit my comments on that.
As we have heard, sprinklers are not expensive and are not an added extra. They are essential for building safety and public safety. We must all be vigilant on this issue. In the face of such a tragedy as Grenfell, we should all be humble and see what lessons can be learnt for the future, so that a tragedy on that scale is never allowed to happen again. I urge the Minister to heed the conclusion of the National Fire Chiefs Council:
“Standards in England must be enhanced and brought in line with national policy in Scotland and Wales with regard to water suppression systems.”
I take no pleasure in saying that. I believe that all people, right across the United Kingdom, are equally entitled to the highest safety standards. Today we have seen impatience in the Chamber at the lack of action. I look forward to hearing the Minister say that he will listen to the national fire chiefs and Members in this Chamber, and that all necessary improvements, especially sprinklers, will be implemented as soon as possible, so that the highest safety standards are reached and maintained for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He is a champion for addressing fire safety issues. With his lifetime of experience in this field, we should all listen very carefully to what he says. However, we should not be having this debate. Action to address the issues that we are raising should have been taken a very long time ago. A failure to do this has meant that lives have been lost and firefighters have been asked to take unnecessary risks.
On 14 July 2010, Wessex Foods—a large food processing factory on the south Lowestoft industrial estate—burnt down. No one was hurt, but 150 people lost their jobs. Nearby businesses were disrupted for days and weeks. Residents were evacuated from their homes and there were significant environmental impacts, such as the odour from rotting meat and 50 million litres of water being used to tackle the fire. It took 10 days to extinguish the fire, during which time almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene. If sprinklers had been fitted at Wessex Foods, the firefighters from the nearby Stradbroke Road station would have been back there within an hour.
I first took part in a fire sprinklers debate in early 2011. My ask at the time was very simple: the overwhelming evidence and support for the widespread use of sprinklers should be taken into account in the review on part B of the building regulations, which was due to start in 2013. It is completely wrong that the review is taking place only now. The time for talking has gone, and we need action.
Back in 2012, the various property and professional bodies were not all fully engaged. They are now, and they speak with one voice. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, of which I used to be a member, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institute of Building are all calling for building regulations to be harmonised across the four home nations; for sprinklers to be installed in all new and converted residential buildings, hotels, hospitals, student accommodation, schools and care homes of 11 metres or above in height; and for retrofitting to existing buildings when refurbishment occurs as
“a ‘consequential improvement’ where a building is subject to ‘material alterations’”.
The insurance industry is also calling for action, proposing that sprinklers should be compulsory in warehouses under 2,000 square metres and in new-build schools and care homes.
We have kicked this particular can down the road for too long, with devastating consequences. We now need action, and I urge the Minister to acknowledge this and to provide a suitable roadmap in his summing up.
I will keep my remarks brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—as has just been said, he speaks with enormous authority on this matter and the Government should listen.
Like many of our cities, Sheffield has seen a huge growth in high-rise developments in recent years. They are largely privately owned developments, and many are for students. I am grateful that my hon. Friend highlighted the need to include purpose-built student accommodation in the requirements for sprinklers. Many of the developments are for other purposes—mainly for rent, although some are for owner-occupation. There are complex ownership arrangements between developers and the owners of the freehold, and there are complex leasehold and management agreements. The people who live in them look to the local authority to guarantee their safety, and it is a responsibility that Sheffield City Council is keen to respond to. It acted unilaterally, without financial support, to retrofit sprinklers in its own properties after the Grenfell disaster, and it wants to go further on private sector properties.
When the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote to local authority chief executives in March 2018 to say it was
“vitally important that we identify any remaining private high rise blocks with potentially unsafe ACM cladding”
and to offer funding, the council was quick to respond. It put together a plan to compile a comprehensive register of all high-rise accommodation, set out ownership and management details, provide information on construction and materials used, and undertake a risk assessment and outline what was needed to make the property safe, including sprinkler systems. It would have cost just £740,000 over two years, but the Government offered just 5% of that cost from the money that had been set aside. Recognising that councils have faced disproportionate cuts—Sheffield has lost around 60% of its funding from central Government—does the Minister think that providing only 5% support for that work was adequate?
Sprinklers are key to saving lives when fires start, but we need to remove the risk of them starting in the first place. The Minister will be aware of the formation of the UK Cladding Action Group to voice the concerns of people who own flats in tower blocks with ACM cladding. It was reported in the last couple of days that only 10 of the 173 private buildings that were discovered to have combustible cladding have been fixed—this point was raised by the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) a moment ago. The barrier to action appears to be disputes over the funding and responsibility for the work.
Among the blocks affected is Metis Tower in my constituency. Residents there face a bleak future. One of those who contacted me, William Martin, summed up his situation in a plea to the Secretary of State:
“I’m a first time buyer stuck with a property covered in failed cladding. The freeholder is denying responsibility and the developers have ceased trading. I’m currently living out a nightmare and facing financial ruin. I and many others desperately need your help.”
A company called HomeGround represents the freeholder, Adriatic, and says that it is not the landlord and is therefore not responsible. It points fingers at the property management company, Fairways, which says that it is awaiting legal clarification on who is responsible. The suggestion is that the responsibility for the re-cladding will fall on those who own the flats, who face individual bills of upwards of £20,000 each. That is a disgrace—the residents cannot afford those sums. William says that he cannot get rid of the property or move on when he wants to, and that frankly, he feels trapped in a prison. That is not acceptable. If someone buys a dishwasher that is found to be faulty because of a fire risk, we put safety first: the product is recalled and the manufacturer takes responsibility. If that is good enough for domestic products, why is it not good enough for the homes that house them?
I recognise that some developers and freeholders accept responsibility, but others do not. The Government must act. We need first to make the building safe, and we need to make sure that the individual residents who own the flats do not foot the bill. The Government should hold the developers and freeholders to account. If the law is not currently up to the task, we need to change it. I hope that the Minister will outline what action the Government will take in that respect.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for securing this important debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), I declare an interest: I was a member of the Fire Brigades Union for 31 years and I think I am a fully paid-up out-of-trade member as I speak.
Experience over decades has shown that sprinkler systems, whether stand-alone or as part of other fire protection measures, are designed to contain or extinguish fire, and are certainly adept at reducing the spread of fire, if not altogether preventing it. They are a valuable asset for buildings with high occupancy numbers and potentially protracted evacuation times. Those of us who have experience as emergency responders know that despite exit signage, calculations of flow rates, widths of exit routes and so on, public behaviour in an emergency situation is often unpredictable. Sprinklers are also a life-saving asset in domestic dwellings.
A properly installed, acceptance-tested and maintained sprinkler system affords reliable protection for occupiers and, equally importantly, firefighters, in the unfortunate event of a fire breaking out, and brings reassurance to the insurers of the buildings and individuals. The difficulty in bringing the public and developers on board is the mistaken perception that sprinkler systems drive up prices to a horrendous level. That is not the case; it is a myth. Such installations account for a small percentage increase in the cost of a property—estimated at around 1%—but what is the price of life? Surely, lives are priceless.
There is also wariness about accidental water damage should the system fail and inappropriately discharge, but that is a very rare occurrence. A popular misconception is that all sprinkler heads in a building could suddenly activate rather than it being generally limited to the compartment of origin. In many instances, a single sprinkler head activates—perhaps with a neighbouring one—and the damage is minimal. We should bear in mind that fire water run-off from firefighters’ hoses—as my colleagues who worked in the fire service will know—has the potential to inflict much greater water damage, and has done so in the past.
Reliable and responsive installations are now seen as preferable to, or at least complementary to, large-scale offensive firefighting in buildings where, because of changes in construction methods and increased use of artificial materials, generated heat levels are absolutely unbelievable because of the additional fire loading, which is much greater than in my days of firefighting. A sprinkler system potentially reduces the heat release rate and the danger of flashover, to which all firefighters are vulnerable when they enter an ignited building. Sprinkler systems also prolong air quality by slowing down the accumulation of smoke—smoke alone can be the killer, not necessarily the fire itself. All that is particularly important given that the compartment of origin is frequently and sadly the locus where fire fatalities are found.
The future lies with investment in research and development so that fire engineering prevails as the first line of defence against fire to save life, with operational firefighting the last resort. There are many examples at home and abroad of sprinkler systems saving lives. In 2011, a building in Dubai became the world’s tallest residential building, and was referred to, oddly enough, as the Torch. It hit the headlines again in 2015 when a fire broke out and took hold on the 50th floor of the 79-floor structure. What an impossible task for the firefighters to deal with—it was quite unbelievable. The safe evacuation of that massive residential structure was down to passive and active measures, including the successful operation of a sprinkler system, which allowed containment of the fire and the safe evacuation of individuals.
Nearer to home, in Wales, the Building Regulations &c. (Amendment No. 3) and Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Regulations 2013 introduced a requirement to fit automatic fire suppression systems in residences before first occupation. The regulations covered care homes and rooms used for certain residential purposes and dwellings. In Scotland, sprinkler systems are already mandatory in certain circumstances and will be extended to new flats in 2019. That is the welcome result of the work of a Scottish ministerial working group, which was set up after the Grenfell tragedy. Regrettably, England appears to be falling behind its neighbours
Most studies over the years have concluded that sprinklers lead to a much lower or zero death rate, particularly in residential buildings, and I urge the Minister to consider any measures that would reinforce such a reduction and support enhanced life safety. Sprinklers are a natural progressive partner to detection. We have seen the success of smoke detectors. As has been said, it is simply common sense that the natural progression is with sprinklers.
The need for sprinklers is not a whim; it an evidence-based common-sense approach. Let us act now to further reduce the risk of fire deaths and to secure a safer operational environment for our firefighters. Every fire authority has a responsibility and a duty of care for those people and we can make their high-risk job that bit safer. I ask the Minister to act now, in the light of the clear need for sprinklers, to drive that forward, for the safety of individuals and of firefighters, and to secure properties and allow businesses to avoid being badly impacted by the ravages of fire.
I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing a Westminster Hall debate on the critical issue of fire safety and sprinkler systems. He has shown that he is at the forefront of the pursuit of the matter. I do not say this to give him a big head, but the honest truth is that his expertise and knowledge have allowed him to express the key points that he feels need to be addressed. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to back him and further reinforce those points.
We do not have the legislation that I would like in Northern Ireland. We are similar to England in that respect. How I envy the regulations that were introduced in Scotland in 2006, and in Wales in 2016. I often say that Scotland very often leads the way in many things, and it has certainly led the way on this issue, for which we must give credit where it is due—Scotland deserves that. Unfortunately we have a difference of opinion when it comes to the referendum, but that is by the bye. None the less, I recognise good when I see it.
The key in safety is whether something will save lives. Will sprinklers save lives? Yes, they will. Should they be in every apartment block? Yes, they should, but they are not, and they should never be viewed as a “nice to have” or a luxury.
There has been a lot of discussion on that point today; some have mentioned that this debate has been going on since 2011. If there are to be new regulations and procedures, surely the role of this House is to fast-track any legislation, so that we will not be sat here in the same circumstances in another two or three years.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He reinforces a point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, who said very clearly that we do not want to be sat here in a few years’ time having the same discussions, not having moved forward. As always, we look to the Minister and hope for positivity in his response.
Sprinklers are not the panacea for fire safety, but the evidence base tells us that they can have an impact on fires as part of fire safety measures. They are part of the compendium of fire safety measures that we need. They protect the environment from large emissions, smoke and volumes of contaminated water. I am not the only one who watches many films on TV—others have mentioned this—but in films where an actor appears after the sprinkler system has been on, it looks as though he has dipped himself in a pool of water, and all the stock is ruined. The fact is, however, that sprinkler systems today are not like that. They use 90% less water than hoses, thereby reducing and preventing costly water damage. Sprinkler systems are therefore constructive and positive, and can do their job well. Sprinklers are not expensive if they are included at the design stage, costing as little as 1% of the total build. That is the time to put such systems in—not later on, but at the very beginning. According to the latest poll, the general public want them in their buildings, so we have to respond to what we are being told.
Where are we now? Self-regulation is the norm, but is clearly not working. The fire brigade has asked Government to step up and step in. Also, we cannot ignore the campaign of the National Fire Chiefs Council, which is asking for a new UK-wide regulatory system for sprinkler systems, which are essential. We should consider the know-how of the fire personnel whom we rely on to put fires out. The fact that this is their campaign and their initiative underlines its importance.
Housing developers are consistently ignoring expert advice on sprinklers, every year, including in large projects. In 2016, in the last survey of new or refurbished buildings, only two out of the 15 blocks checked had sprinklers fitted. Again, that underlines important shortfalls. The advice given to developers is apparently disregarded, so regulations need to be brought in and enforced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and others have emphasised. That is where councils and local authorities can fulfil an important role quickly.
In a briefing I received, an example was given of a balcony fire. It took hold of not just one apartment block, but five, in a very short time. This illustrates the importance of sprinklers: within the 19 minutes between the call and the fire engines arriving, the fire had been controlled by the newly installed sprinkler system. I thank the Lord for that; it illustrates what sprinklers can do in the right place—they did the fire brigade’s work. That is what they were tasked to do, and it went well.
What do we need? We need sprinklers to be fitted into all residential care homes and sheltered accommodation, and existing homes should be refurbished to include them. Often such flats or apartments house people with mobility or health issues, who could suffer fatal or life-changing injuries. That also applies to schools, because the safety of our children is important. We need stringent controls. A change to our rules and regulations is needed for hotels, student accommodation, warehouses, historical buildings and deep-base complexes. The debate has given us a chance to air the issues, and I am happy to be part of that. I look to the Minister for his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow so many Members who are experts in this field. In particular, I thank the all-party group, which I have been a member of for some years. I have learned an extraordinary amount, especially from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I will do my best to follow those contributions.
As we have heard, there is a great deal of consensus not just in this Chamber but among experts with an interest in this field—the insurance industry, fire safety professionals, including the London Fire Brigade, local government in London and England, architects and surveyors. We have also heard about the good practice in the devolved Administrations, which are substantially ahead of England. This very much seems to be an English problem now.
The first point is that, as many Members have indicated, sprinkler systems work. According to the London Councils briefing for today,
“automatic fire suppression systems…operate on 94 per cent of occasions and when they do operate they extinguish or contain the fire on 99 per cent of occasions. They reduce fire injuries and fire damage by 80 per cent. They also reduce the environmental impact and the economic cost of fire.”
Also, as has been said, no one has ever died from a fire in a fully sprinklered building.
The relatively minimal cost—1% of build costs—of installing sprinklers has also been mentioned. In addition, as the London Fire Brigade reminds us, sprinkler systems on average use 90% less water than hoses, and can prevent costly water damage. Introducing such systems seems to be a bit of a no-brainer.
I can think of two examples from my constituency. In 2012, opposite the BBC Television Centre, we had a major fire in the Dairy Crest warehouse, which had a huge amount of combustible material in it—explosive material, too. It needed 15 fire engines and 75 firefighters. I think about the unnecessary risk to the lives of firefighters on such occasions. In 2016, a year before the Grenfell Tower fire, there was a major fire in Shepherd’s Court, overlooking Shepherd’s Bush Green. There were fortunately no casualties, but there was a full evacuation of the building. Six flats were substantially damaged by fire, but I think another 20 were substantially damaged by water. The consequence of fires, even when successfully extinguished without injury, is often huge costs and disruption to people’s lives over many years.
All that indicates the way in which we ought to be moving, and where we hope to see the Minister moving us. However, I have one other point to make, which is also made by London Councils:
“While…sprinkler systems are very important, it is important to point out that they are not a substitute for a holistic, whole buildings, risk-based approach to fire safety.”
The Royal Institute of British Architects makes four recommendations on where it thinks fire safety should be going. They will not be a panacea and cover everything, but looking at those four areas will go far towards reducing risk. No. 1 on the list is sprinklers—
“a requirement for sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems in all new and converted residential buildings…and in all existing residential buildings above 18m from ground level”,
as already required in Wales.
The other three recommendations are equally or more important. One is alternative means of escape. Buildings, including in my constituency, are still given planning consent although they have only a single means of escape—blocks that in effect replicate Grenfell Tower: 20-storey blocks of flats with a single means of escape—and that is purely for commercial reasons. It should not be tolerated.
The third recommendation is for centrally addressable fire alarms. That deals with the stay-put policy and what happens when it fails. Is there a fail-safe method of warning people when a building needs to be evacuated?
The fourth recommendation, which will come as no surprise to the Minister, is an extended ban on the use of combustible cladding. That is not the main topic today, but it is one that we return to time and again, because the Government’s measures are wholly inadequate. We have taken a long time to deal just with the issue of aluminium composite material cladding, and the Government are only now getting on to other forms of cladding, often more combustible than ACM, that are estimated to be on more than 340 high-rise buildings out there. Even the ban on use for new build or refurbishment projects is inadequate. It does not cover hotels, office buildings or lower-rise buildings used by vulnerable people, such as hospitals and care homes. Until we have a comprehensive approach not only to fire safety generally but to the removal and installation of cladding systems—not just cladding, but cladding and installation together—we are not seriously tackling the problem, or seriously dealing with the legacy of Grenfell.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken today. It is good to see such comprehensive agreement in a Westminster Hall debate that action must be taken, and on what that action must be. I was struck in particular by the comments of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) who talked about “unacceptable” intransigence, “lamentable” action and all Governments failing in this respect. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to what everyone said this morning. It is absolutely clear that there is no difference of opinion among people whose differences of opinion are usually vast. Everyone has agreed on the action that needs to be taken. I will not diverge from that.
I pay tribute to the people affected by Grenfell; their strong reaction inspires us all to do more and to do better. The hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) spoke movingly on behalf of her constituents and urged the Minister to act on the evidence. We need to keep up the pressure and momentum. If we let people down, more people will die or be injured as a result of further fires.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), a former Minister no less, has great expertise on this matter and is diligent in ensuring that the House never forgets the risks of fire. I have never been a firefighter like some Members in the debate, but I served as a councillor for a while, with the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service board. In June 2007, it did a demo of how sprinklers could stop fires. I was struck by the damage of a burnt-out husk of a room, compared with the minimal damage from sprinklers.
The myths about the cost and how the systems work continue, but the evidence is that they cause far less damage and harm than a fire burning an entire house, room or building. We must take heed of the changing development of sprinkler systems, as the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) mentioned. They have developed over the years. They are not the same systems as once existed but are very sophisticated. There is no barrier other than willpower to get them into buildings as soon as possible.
The Scottish building regulations are robust; the Scottish Government took prompt action following the Grenfell tragedy to improve existing legislation. The ministerial working group on building and fire safety did not hang around; it got on with the job, looked comprehensively at everything and came forward very quickly with minimum standards for smoke alarms across all kinds of property.
The minimum requirements will be that at least one smoke alarm will be installed in the room most frequently used, such as the living room; at least one smoke alarm will be in every circulation space on each storey, such as hallways and landings; at least one heat alarm will be installed in every kitchen; and all alarms should be ceiling mounted and interlinked. That is a huge difference, and it will apply to all properties from 2021, including in the private rented sector and new build homes. It is important that that change is comprehensive, because if we leave one housing sector behind, that is where the risk will remain. Often, that means people in poorer accommodation, who cannot access their rights and are most at risk of dying in fires.
Our response has been far more extensive than what has taken place in England. We will make sprinkler installation mandatory in flatted accommodation, larger multi-occupancy dwellings and places that deliver care. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) mentioned that we need to look at single means of escape. We are looking at measures to improve evacuation procedures, including the requirement for sound alerts, two escape stairways in all new high-rise residential buildings, and creating specific fire safety guidance for the people in dwellings, because people need to know that the flat they live in now might be different from the flat they used to live in. They need to know how to react.
Building owners and developers will be required to prepare and maintain a compliance plan for transparency about the building’s inspection regime, to both residents and regulators. That will help to maintain monitoring. As Members have said, we do not want to slip into complacency. Once a building is built, that is not the end of the story. People will live in that building for many years to come, and they need to know how best to prepare themselves.
The hon. Lady’s point is massively important. It is not just about the cost of installation; there may be a sprinkler system in a brand-new, modern house, but that has to be maintained and checked, like any gas product or anything else. Insurance companies will be important, because most insurance policies these days include pipe work and other things, so the cost should not be prohibitive, but people—and local authorities—will worry about the ongoing cost of having a sprinkler system in their property when they have to pay for it. However, the savings will be as great as the cost.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I was coming to the point about insurance premiums. People’s insurance premiums can be reduced if they have a burglar alarm fitted, and we need the same incentives for sprinklers. That needs to be a part of the environment, as it is for retail and commercial properties.
There is an important point about the cost of sprinkler systems. The Scottish Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart, has called for VAT to be removed from cladding. We need to look at removing VAT for sprinkler systems, too. That would be a significant saving to help people to install these items. There would be significant savings for property owners and housing associations—the full gamut of people involved in the property sector. A 20% reduction in the cost of installing something is pretty significant, and it could allow programmes to go forward more quickly than otherwise. I urge the Minister to speak to the Chancellor to see what can be done, certainly ahead of the Budget later this year, as we are probably too late for the statement later this week. That would be a real win for this Government to incentivise people to take action on cladding and sprinkler systems.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock spoke powerfully about firefighter safety. That has been missing from this debate. When firefighters go into those situations, they need to be kept safe. Nobody wants firefighters to lose their lives. I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about engineering out issues and ensuring that when new buildings are constructed, their fire safety is part of the plans from day one.
As part of my work in the all-party parliamentary group on working at height, I was having a conversation about materials used in buildings that may test well in isolation, but when put in a building become more dangerous. I urge the Minister to consider doing more to ensure that materials are testing in situ, to avoid the situation of Grenfell, where the whole of the cladding on the outside of the building went up. Testing in situ and the appreciation of the impact on materials when used in a building must be taken into account.
There are significant differences in how Scotland has defined “high rise”. The hon. Member for Kensington mentioned that it is 18 metres in England, and 11 metres in Scotland. Far more buildings will be caught by the regulations at 11 metres. Regardless of what we regard as high rise, it is important that people in bigger buildings can get out safely should there be a fire. There is a lot of student accommodation in my constituency—I was glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned that issue. Students can be more vulnerable, living away from home for the first time, in accommodation that is new to them. Having sprinkler systems would be most useful.
A couple of hon. Members mentioned water damage as a result of fires being extinguished. That has been a significant issue in my constituency lately, because the O2 ABC was damaged hugely by the water from the fire being put out at the Glasgow School of Art. That water was not from the mains but from the Clyde, and had been pumped uphill to put the fire out. Extinguishing fires can cause significant damage to buildings, which in many cases could be prevented by comprehensive sprinkler systems. I urge the Minister to look at how sprinklers can be sensitively retrofitted in historic buildings. They are significant—we are in one now. We need to ensure that all buildings where the public go are well protected from fire.
There has been comprehensive agreement today. There are good examples from Scotland and Wales of how action can be taken swiftly. We should act without any further delay, before any more incidents occur and there is any further loss of life. The Minister knows what he needs to do; I very much ask him to get on and do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. Given that the call for evidence on approved document B of the building regulations ends on Friday, this debate is exceptionally timely, and I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to the wise words of the secretary of the all-party fire safety rescue group. Hon. Members are clearly as one on the need for change, and that case has been made conclusively this morning.
The need for urgency percolated through everybody’s speeches. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said that this “nonsense” must not go on, and the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) asked whether property is more important than people’s lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) said that Grenfell 2 is “in the post”, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said that we should consider the cost and that this issue is a “no-brainer”. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said that we have kicked the can down the road for too long. We heard sensible arguments from all those who contributed this morning, including on the important need to protect firefighters as well as residents, and the fact that modern sprinkler systems can be installed at less cost and with less damage if they need to be used.
In 2019, we find ourselves in the sorry position of knowing that our fire safety and sprinkler regulations are woefully inadequate, and almost two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, we are still waiting for the Government to act. Seventy-two people died in the Grenfell fire, and that fire and its aftermath exposed a litany of fire safety failures across thousands of buildings. Hundreds of blocks are draped in flammable Grenfell-style ACM cladding, and many more are covered in other types of flammable material that is as yet untested. There are tens of thousands of faulty fire doors, and a huge discrepancy in the provision of sprinklers. We also know that warnings came years earlier. The coroner’s investigation into the Lakanal House fire recommended in 2013 that sprinklers be retrofitted in social housing, and similar calls were made by members of the all- party fire safety rescue group in the same year. In 2016, a building regulations review was promised by the Government but never delivered. The London Fire Brigade stated:
“It is deeply concerning that on the two occasions in recent years when the Government has looked at reviewing sprinklers legislation or guidance it has been in the wrong direction—seeking to weaken rather than strengthen it.”
As has been said many times this morning, no one has died in a fire where a sprinkler system was installed, yet in England sprinklers are a legal requirement only in new residential blocks that are more than 30 metres tall.
Labour party research found that more than 96% of tall council tower blocks in London do not have sprinklers—a huge number. Although 3% of those blocks are now looking to install sprinklers, the vast majority have no plans to do so because they do not have funding. Installing sprinklers at Grenfell would have cost a few hundred thousand pounds. Croydon’s fully retrofitted stock post-Grenfell cost £10 million, and Birmingham has projected a cost of approximately £30 million to retrofit more than 200 blocks. Despite repeated calls from local authorities and the Prime Minister’s promise that the Government will do “whatever it takes” to keep our people safe, no funding has been provided by central Government for sprinklers. We do not pretend that these changes come without cost—of course they have a cost, but what is the price of safety? As we have heard, the rules in Scotland and Wales are more comprehensive, and a multitude of experts have called on the Government to reduce the height requirement for sprinklers, and to extend that requirement to other buildings.
The problem goes wider. Over new year, the Shurgard fire exposed our backward laws and regulations on fire safety across the board. Shurgard operates in Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, where sprinklers would have been required by law in a warehouse the size of the one in Croydon. In this country, however, there are no such requirements, and the property of nearly 2,000 people got burned.
I do not need to list the individuals and organisations calling for change. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith listed RIBA’s excellent four pillars for reform, including a requirement for sprinklers and automatic fire suppression systems in all existing residential buildings above 18 metres. In addition to the questions raised today, will the Minister listen to RIBA and implement its sensible set of policies? Will the Government extend their ban on flammable cladding to schools, hospitals and care homes, and introduce a requirement for sprinklers in schools and hospitals? Will they consider a fire safety fund that is available to help council and housing association landlords with the costs of retrofitting sprinklers and other urgent remedial work? Two years on from the Grenfell fire, will the Government understand the need for urgent action, get a grip on the situation and act, so that we can hold our heads up high and say that we have done what we could to stop such a tragedy happening again? There has been much talk in other places of the “Malthouse compromise”. If the Minister were to act today to prevent future deaths, we would call it anything he wanted, and we would thank him for it.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you once again, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), and other Members, on the formidable platoon of people who they marshal on this issue on a regular basis. As our call for evidence on the technical review of building regulations fire safety guidance is closing, I welcome this opportunity to respond to the debate.
I hope hon. Members recognise that ensuring that people are and feel safe in their homes is a priority for the Government, and that includes all parts of the Government, both elected and non-elected. Notwithstanding remarks by a number of Members about the official advice that Ministers receive, I hope people recognise that officials in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are as dedicated to the cause of fire safety as everyone else, and that their views and the advice they give are drawn from as wide a range of experts in the field as possible. As the former member of the London Assembly responsible for the constituency that contains Grenfell Tower, it is of particular importance to me that we reach a resolution on this issue quickly.
Before coming to sprinklers, I wish to update hon. Members about wider work that is under way on fire safety. In the immediate aftermath of the terrible Grenfell fire we acted quickly to establish the building safety programme, which worked tirelessly to identify and remediate buildings with unsafe cladding. Thanks to the testing and hard work of local authorities, we are confident that we have identified all social housing with unsafe ACM cladding systems in England, and we have made good progress in making those buildings permanently safe. Of the 158 social sector buildings, 125 have either started or completed remediation, and plans and commitments are in place to remediate the remaining 33 buildings. To help ensure swift progress, we have made £400 million available to social sector landlords to fund that remediation. I regret, however, that remediation in the private sector has been more challenging, with negotiations in some instances disappointingly slow.
Since Grenfell, we have worked intensively with local authorities to identify high-rise buildings with ACM cladding, and we have provided £1.3 million to assist them. Local authorities across England have assessed around 6,000 private sector high-rise buildings. They needed to take samples to test, and in some cases legal action was required to get owners to co-operate in that testing. We have taken strong action to give local authorities the support they need to enforce the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding. We have established a taskforce to oversee the remediation of private sector buildings, as well as a joint inspection team to support local authorities in pursuing enforcement action.
On 29 November, the Government went further and announced that we will back local authorities to take emergency action, including financial support, where building owners are not co-operating with remediation. As a result, we have made progress with commitments from owners to replace unsafe cladding. By the end of December 2018, 218 out of 266 privately owned buildings had either started, completed, or committed to remediation. Forty-eight private residential buildings remain where the owners are not currently co-operating, and that number has fallen from more than 200 buildings in June last year. We remain concerned about and engaged with leaseholders who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a difficult and stressful situation. I recently met the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to discuss the New Providence Wharf development in his constituency.
I am really pleased, and I think all hon. Members and people around the country will be pleased about the progress made on private leasehold properties. However, no matter how hard we try, and however many threats we make, a small group will fall through the net, particularly where developers have gone into liquidation. That is exactly where the Government need to step in, sometimes with the help of insurance companies—for example, when the situation with mesothelioma was terrible and many people did not get the compensation they deserved, we stepped in and put a tariff on those insurers. All these properties will have been insured, and people should get the compensation they need.
I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes; he is quite right. Of the remaining private sector buildings, there are some where there is a dispute about the extent or type of cladding—whether it is thin or decorative, and what percentage of the building it covers—but there are a small number where the situation that he raises will pertain, where for reasons of absence, insolvency or intransigence we may need to take more forceful action.
I have said that if local authorities assess that there is a category 1 hazard and a threat to life in a building, they have the power to enter that building, do the necessary work and we will support them financially in doing so. In the final analysis that can be the result, but we are considering what action we can take in the circumstances that my right hon. Friend raises. I would like to reassure everybody that the Secretary of State and I, as well as senior officials, are engaged in serious and intense discussions with building owners to try and resolve these situations.
Our timber fire doors testing programme is almost complete; there have been no failed tests to date. However, we had previous issues with glass-reinforced plastic composite fire doors and we stepped in quickly to ensure that defective products were removed. My Department has been working with industry to ensure that defective doors already in situ will be remediated. We have not stopped there. While the focus on aluminium composite material cladding following the Grenfell Tower fire was the right priority, we are now moving into a phase of testing a range of non-ACM cladding, such as zinc and high-pressure laminate cladding. Those tests are starting shortly.
We will take the advice of the independent expert advisory panel on these findings and take appropriate action. At this stage I am not able to say what that might entail. It could be further advice to owners, it could mean further testing or it could mean further remediation of residential high-rise buildings if necessary. I will ensure hon. Members are kept updated on this important area of work.
Alongside the focus on remediation, my Department is taking forward the recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report. We published our implementation plan in December, which set out the principles of our approach, and a more detailed consultation is expected later in the spring.
One priority, alongside the remediation work and the recommendations in Dame Judith’s report, has been to deal with immediate issues of concern. At the end of November we introduced new regulations implementing the ban on the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high-rise buildings. These regulations are now fully in force. In December we issued strengthened guidance on assessments in lieu of tests. We consulted last year on a clarified version of the building regulations fire safety guidance, approved document B. We received more than 1,300 comments on the draft, which we have been working through. We are working towards publishing the revised, clarified guidance later in the spring.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, we issued a call for evidence to inform our technical review of the fire safety guidance, which will close shortly. We have received 150 responses and I am grateful for the input of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety to this work, which is shaping the debate. I cannot go into the full detail of what that call for evidence covered, because of time constraints, but it sets out a wide range of issues, across the full range of topics covered by approved document B, many of which have been mentioned by hon. Members today, although of course it was open to stakeholders to suggest other issues for consideration.
This debate has focussed particularly on sprinkler systems. I understand the urgency and passion with which hon. Members have expressed themselves today and I share their desire for the Government to address the issue quickly. The call for evidence asked for data and views on sprinkler provision. Current building regulations guidance sets provisions for sprinklers in flats in blocks of flats over 30 metres tall. I know that there is intense debate about what should be considered to be the right height threshold; that debate is taking place in Scotland at the moment.
I am also conscious that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have recently taken action or are about to take action on this matter. These are obviously important considerations for the position in England. Members will understand that at this stage in what is essentially a legal process, I cannot make any firm commitments beyond reinforcing the point that we will consider the responses to the call for evidence carefully. We will set out our plans for how we propose to respond to the call for evidence as soon as we can. I recognise the need for speed.
Building regulations only apply when building work is under way. There is a separate question about whether sprinkler systems should be retrofitted to existing buildings, and, if so, how and whether this should be mandated. Retrofitting of sprinkler systems into existing tower blocks may not always be the answer to ensuring fire safety. Members may have seen that there was an enormous Ocado warehouse fire in my constituency a few weeks ago. I understand that the warehouse had an extensive fire suppression and sprinkler system, and it still went up in flames. Happily, there were no casualties but nevertheless it has left about 800 of my constituents worried about their future employment.
Decisions on whether to install a fire suppression system should be informed by a robust analysis of the specifics of a building, in consultation with the fire services. It was with this in mind that my Department offered local authorities a significant package of financial flexibilities through the housing revenue account, if they undertook analysis and decided that the installation of sprinklers was the right way forward. No local authorities have taken up the offer of these flexibilities to date, but I am willing to discuss the issue with any of them who may be considering taking up the offer made.
In the future we would expect the safety case approach for existing high-risk residential buildings, as recommended by Dame Judith Hackitt and which we will be implementing, to be the vehicle for building owners to consider what risk mitigation measures, including sprinkler systems, they need to consider and put in place. In doing so, if there is pressure from residents in any particular building to provide sprinklers, then I would expect local authorities and landlords to be alive to that and consider their options carefully.
I thank hon. Members for raising this important issue and for all their contributions. It is a timely debate, given the stage we are at in considering the review of approved document B, and I can assure the House that we will consider the issues raised today very carefully. I recognise the passion and commitment Members have for this cause, particularly those in the APPG. I also recognise the concern across the country among residents who live in high-rise buildings and feel insecure, whether that is because of the cladding or the general atmosphere around fire safety. It is critical for us as a Government to get this right, and I can reassure everybody that we will give it as much energy and urgency as we possibly can.
I am grateful for your excellent chairing this morning, Mr Gray. Movers of debates usually get about 30 seconds to respond to contributions and we have several minutes. I will not take all that time, as I can see the mover of the next debate and the Minister both in their places, and they would welcome a little extra time.
On the warehouse fire the Minister mentioned, I know he will look very carefully at the report. From my understanding, the sprinklers worked and did the job they were supposed to do, but the nature of the building, the density of the packing, the depth of the warehousing and the fact the robots were still working while firefighters were there complicated the matter out of all proportion. I do not see that as a failure of sprinkler systems, which are supposed to operate for up to 90 minutes anyway. The fire took hold long after the sprinklers were turned off. I know the Minister will look at that.
I am grateful to all colleagues who spoke in the debate—we have had 12 speeches and a couple of interventions—and to the Front Benchers for their responses. I am very grateful that the Minister did not say no. I know there were a lot of qualifications, but he did not say no. The matter is complex and the Minister is highly regarded. He is a key figure in London politics and he saved Brexit single-handedly, with the Malthouse compromise, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). It may not have been his most popular move among a number of colleagues, but none the less he takes credit for that.
The Minister is also doing sterling work on leasehold reform. I am grateful for the meeting I had with him last Thursday on the particular block in my constituency and the developer who was being intransigent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned, we look forward to progress on cladding, remedial work, costs and protections for leaseholders in due course.
The Minister defended his civil servants, correctly. There is high regard for the civil servants in the Department and no criticism of them intended. They will give their advice on the basis of the evidence available. Support from all the key stakeholders and all the professional bodies mentioned by so many colleagues must have an impact on the advice that the civil servants give the Minister, and the Minister will weigh them up against all the factors that need to be taken into account. There has been support from across the Chamber, as well as from professionals and experts.
Most importantly, the public support the measures. The measures could be the lifesaving part of the Minister’s legacy. He is in the very fortunate position to be the one to bring forward the conclusion. If he brings these measures forward, he will be applauded across the House and by the whole fire-protection community. There will be hundreds of people whose lives will be saved by the measures he brings forward in due course. We look forward to him doing that as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fire safety and sprinkler systems.
Depersonalisation Disorder: NHS Treatment
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
In the 2017 Christmas Adjournment debate I spoke about depersonalisation disorder, or DPD. I told something of the story of my constituent Jane, and requested a meeting to discuss NHS treatment of DPD. Since then the Minister has kindly met with me, Jane and Dr Elaine Hunter, a leading DPD clinician. The meeting was very sympathetic and I thank the Minister for that. We agreed that we would follow it up with a short Westminster Hall debate, to speak publicly about why the issue is so important. I shall therefore take the opportunity to talk about depersonalisation and put a couple of what I hope are gentle asks on the table.
What is depersonalisation? DPD can be triggered by a traumatic experience, a panic attack, stress or, indeed, drug use. It is a fairly common psychological or mental process for dealing with trauma. It feels as if the mind is detaching from the body; those affected feel as if they are outside themselves. Everything feels rather unreal. I have certainly felt that way before, at a time of significant and severe stress. However, depersonalisation is an intensified version of the feeling, and it is not temporary. It sets in indefinitely. When people have DPD it will often be accompanied by the sensation of noticing themselves as if from the outside, as if they are a character on a screen—almost as a character in the play of their life. The feeling can be so strong that those who have DPD are less aware of their bodily sensations, such as their heartbeat.
DPD is different from a psychosis such as schizophrenia because people who have it are aware that the experience is subjective, and not something changing in the world around them. A common difficulty for those with DPD is putting the experience into words. Many use metaphors or similes, comparing their experience to watching a TV screen. They may use adjectives such as “fuzzy” or “blurry” to describe how they feel. The lack of awareness of the condition, combined with the difficulty in communicating the precise symptoms, is the reason why many are repeatedly misdiagnosed.
I was present on the previous occasion when the hon. Lady raised this subject. I was quite alarmed when I did some research on the disorder that she has described. I am sure that she knows the figures. According to studies in the United Kingdom and the United States, DPD affects some 2% of the population—1.3 million people in the United Kingdom and 6.4 million in the US. The hon. Lady is clearly raising awareness today, but is there a greater need to raise awareness among GPs, to make sure that they can make early diagnoses, and understand and respond to the condition?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I want to talk later in my speech about how many people experience the condition, and about other conditions that similar numbers of people are diagnosed with but that are far more common and have more resources from the NHS. I will go on to argue that DPD is fairly significant, given the number of people affected, and that more resources and effort are needed to assist them.
Many sufferers, as I mentioned, are misdiagnosed— often for years on end. Often when someone with depersonalisation disorder is misdiagnosed they are given medication, which can either have little effect or be quite harmful. Naming the symptoms and people understanding what has happened to them can be an important experience. Understanding the condition and putting a name to what they have can make someone feel an awful lot better. My constituent Jane Charlton struggled terribly before she was diagnosed. She imagined that she might have a degenerative disease, or that she might be dying. Learning the name of the condition was a crucial step in understanding it, living with it and eventually learning ways of dealing with it.
The onset of DPD was triggered for Jane by cannabis use. She was just 18, on holiday with a boyfriend, and had smoked cannabis only once before. Her boyfriend prepared her some cannabis resin and mixed it into a yoghurt. Jane tried a little—no impact; so she tried a bit more. She describes what happened next:
“My perception drew back into my head, almost as though I was now looking at the world from the back of my own eye sockets. I perceived a delay between an external event, and my brain understanding or processing it. Suddenly there was a fracture between the world and me. While my body was still in the world, my mind had become a disengaged observer.”
As I said, in DPD the individual is aware that their perception has changed, so although the experience feels like a blurring or a distancing, for Jane it was terrifying:
“During that first episode…hours followed where I sought reassurance from those around me, wanting to touch and talk to them constantly. I wanted to check that I still existed. Eventually, exhausted, I slept, in the hope that it would pass overnight. It didn’t. The next morning, the shift in perception remained, and would in fact remain for every second of every day for the next three years.”
A temporary experience of depersonalisation can serve as a defence mechanism if there is a traumatic event. It allows separation from immediate reality, but if it spreads beyond that and becomes depersonalisation disorder, people such as Jane can become separated from other emotions as well:
“If I quieten my mind, I can almost taste the colour and richness of life as I knew it before...but I can barely remember what it feels like. These days I’m in a constant state of grief; I feel as if I’m grieving for my own death, even if I seem to be around to witness it.”
It is hard to imagine the impact that that would have on a young person’s life, for those of us who have not felt it. For three years, in Jane’s case, there was no diagnosis and no remedy. Even with the right diagnosis DPD is hard to treat. Jane has had four major episodes of depersonalisation disorder, despite all her hard work, often with experts in the field. Her current episode is ongoing, and entering its fifth year.
Another person who has depersonalisation is Joe Perkins. He runs a YouTube channel called the “DPD Diaries”, which is a wonderful accessible resource for learning about the condition. Joe told me he has had about 100 medical appointments over the past 10 years, but he can count on one hand the number of professionals who had actually heard of the condition. His diagnosis took 10 years. Sadly, that is a normal length of time in the NHS at the moment. He had 10 years living with DPD and not understanding that it was a recognised medical condition and he was not on his own. He explained his experience of the condition:
“The most difficult thing for me to deal with day to day is a complete lack of emotions. I experience neither happiness or sadness; life seems completely flat; and it’s very difficult to feel motivated for anything when everything feels meaningless. Having to explain to your partner that you’re unable to feel love for them is an incredibly difficult conversation to have—and one that naturally puts a huge strain on any relationship.”
I am sure we can all understand that.
Joe first started experiencing symptoms while he was studying for A-levels, when he was too young to be eligible for treatment at the Maudsley clinic, the only facility available in the UK. Fortunately, he has since started to receive treatment. The referral took a full year, and the waiting list is long, with numbers spiralling as awareness rightly grows.
The invisibility of DPD makes it all the more important that we speak about it in this place, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity today to do just that. Just a few facts will show that depersonalisation and derealisation—a closely related condition—are an urgent concern and need far better treatment under the NHS.
First, depersonalisation and derealisation have symptoms that many of us will find familiar; 75% of us will have experiences similar to depersonalisation at some point in our lives. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, between 1% and 2.4% of people are likely to have these conditions—a similar level to bipolar disorder, which is far better understood and resourced, and which our GPs and experts are able to spot.
Thirdly, it is important to know that there is only one small clinic in the UK that specialises in treating the condition and, as I have said, it does not treat people under the age of 18, despite the fact that sufferers from depersonalisation disorder typically have their first experience of it in their adolescence. Finally, and rather damningly, the average diagnosis takes between eight and 12 years from the point of symptoms appearing. Those are the facts I have received.
I have talked about what DPD is, what it feels like, and the fact that it is very poorly known, which helps to explain the almost unbelievable figure of eight to 12 years to diagnosis. How debilitating DPD can be is the most important thing to understand, but the lack of provision is extremely important, too. We have a lot of work to do if we are to build the same scale and quality of NHS support for those with DPD as for those with depression or bipolar disorder.
I pay tribute to Jane for all the work she has done on this issue. She is a brave woman. She featured in an article in The Guardian in 2015, which reached a huge number of people. In 2017, she followed that up with an appearance on the Victoria Derbyshire programme. During the programme, several people called the show to say that Jane had helped them to recognise their own condition.
Jane continues to raise awareness through lobbying—she lobbied me—and runs a peer support group for people suffering from DPD, so they can experience solidarity and share experiences. She has also founded a charity called Unreal, to unify all the different bits of work being done. Jane has done all of that while holding down a full-time job and dealing with her own DPD. She has my absolute respect and gratitude for that. Jane’s work is really helping, but we need to go so much further to spread awareness not only among members of the public, but among NHS professionals.
As I said at the start, Jane, Dr Hunter and I have already met the Minister, and I am hopeful that she will be able to tell us more about what action is already being taken, but I would like to use this opportunity to put on record our four asks. All of them can be accomplished within the next few years, and none, we think, would require huge investment of resources.
First, on training, a 2017 edition of The BMJ published new guidance on the assessment and management of DPD. That was very welcome, but it has not led, and will not lead, to better and faster diagnosis and treatment in and of itself. My first ask is that the Minister write to the presidents of the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to request that they bring this information to the attention of their members and ensure that training on DPD is made part of the core training for GPs and psychiatrists.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to push for the design and delivery of a programme of training in NHS mental health trusts around the country, not only to raise awareness, but to improve assessment and management of the disorder locally. That could include the appointment of a local depersonalisation disorder lead, who can thereafter provide guidance to local clinicians.
My third request is that those leads link together to improve access to treatment for those with the condition. I think the Minister would agree that it is not good enough to have just one small clinic at the Maudsley treating all those people across the country who have depersonalisation; we need better and more. Finally, given that expert support for young people experiencing DPD simply does not exist in the NHS, I ask her to ensure that there is specialist provision in child and adolescent mental health services, so that those under 18 can receive treatment when they need it.
Those simple steps could make a difference and bring down the average diagnosis time from an absurd and unacceptable eight to 12 years. They will help to ensure that no matter where someone lives, if they go to their GP, help will be available. So many people live in silence with this largely invisible condition. We have a long way to go to guarantee effective diagnosis and treatment for them on the NHS, but these four asks, if realised, would, I hope, start us down a good path.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is also a great pleasure to respond to the debate brought by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown).
As the hon. Lady says, we have met to discuss this before, and I too extend my thanks to her constituent Jane, who has been incredibly courageous, despite living with a condition that is profoundly distressing for her to manage, in none the less using that in such a positive way. Frankly, the most important thing we can all do is to raise awareness of this disorder, and she is doing that beautifully and is incredibly articulate in how she does it. I pay absolute tribute to her; she has certainly put the disorder on my radar, so I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it in the House and do our bit to raise awareness, because, as the hon. Lady has mentioned, eight to 12 years before getting a diagnosis is not good enough.
The reason people wait so long is that this is a disorder that is not understood, but it is also fair to say that many personality disorders are misunderstood. We tend to lump mental ill health and disorders together, but they require to be treated in very different ways. Often, when it comes to disorders, medication is not the best solution, so it is important that we get diagnosis right and the way we will do that is by raising awareness of what is, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, a very common condition. Many of us may have had out-of-body experiences when we are going through something unpleasant, because that is how the body naturally copes with trauma, but when people are going through sustained trauma, as many sufferers of DPD have, it becomes a way of dealing with life.
The worst thing, as the hon. Member for West Ham highlighted, is that that can often be brought on by drug use. I do not think we should be squeamish about mentioning that. We have a debate going on about drugs at the moment that is all about, “We have lost the war against drugs; it is all done through the lens of crime and disorder.” The reality is that the extent of cannabis use in this country is contributing to our mental health crisis—of that I have no doubt—and I do not think we should be squeamish about saying it, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to do exactly that.
We must ensure we do better. Last year, I had the great privilege of chairing the women’s mental health taskforce, and I saw that we are seeing a greater scale of mental ill health being experienced by women between the ages of 16 and 24. We put trauma at the root of much of that, and we have a strategy to roll out much more trauma-informed care across the NHS, which I hope will also extend to raising greater awareness of this disorder.
The hon. Lady’s point about making GPs and practitioners more aware of this disorder during their training is very good. We—collectively, as a system—need to think what more we can do to educate the whole NHS about the difference between severe mental ill health brought on by other conditions, things that are brought on by, for example, trauma, and the whole issue of disorders. We should not just medicalise treatment through prescribing drugs but should put together wraparound support and care, giving people the tools to manage what are often debilitating conditions.
As I said, I greatly enjoyed meeting Jane and the clinicians from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust last year, where I was given a compelling presentation. We need to explore this condition more, so that we get this right. Its triggers are poorly understood but may be related to previous trauma, as we have heard.
The hon. Lady asked for more support through CAMHS. A lot of this trauma starts and is sustained in childhood. An important tool in spreading awareness of this disorder will be the new children’s mental health teams that will go out into schools. We are looking for mental health leads within schools to refer children that they sense are having difficulties, so that we can intervene early to support them. We know that the longer people live with this ongoing trauma, the harder it is for them to manage. Without going into individual cases, because it is very distressing for the people involved, I am certainly aware of cases of adults now living with this disorder having gone through sustained trauma in childhood. We clearly need to find a way of dealing with that.
We have come a long way in breaking down mental health stigma and raising awareness of different conditions, but I repeat that there is a real lack of awareness about disorders. We now talk broadly about bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, but do people really know what they mean? I do not think so. We need to spin our education around that. As the hon. Lady mentioned, at the moment only one clinic specialises in this disorder. Partly because of the lack of awareness, it is fair to say that the research evidence on what works to treat this disorder is still at a very early stage. Obviously, the NHS will support further investment in those treatments based on evidence. We lack National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines for the treatment of DPD. That must be on the do-to list.
Essential to that support will be finding out more about this disorder. This is a learning process for everyone, and people like Jane obviously contribute massively, but it is for clinicians and researchers to do their best and really get to grips with what will be required. I acknowledge the world-class work being undertaken at the Maudsley clinic, which is one of the leading research and clinical treatment units in the world for this condition. It has pioneered an incredible service, which Jane praised to the hilt for what it has done for her health. It really works to improve health outcomes for patients and is dedicated to expanding the understanding and treatment of depersonalisation through its research, which I encourage, because further research is vital to improving our understanding of the prevalence of this condition and its treatment.
The Maudsley clinic has successfully assessed more than 500 people since the inception of its service, which is amazing, but as 2% of people suffer from it, there is more to do. It also works closely with the research unit at King’s College London, which adds to that understanding. Clearly, waiting nine to 12 months for therapy after diagnosis is not good enough, so I am pleased to say that the Department held an initial roundtable meeting at the end of last year to hear about the work of the service provided by the trust and to discuss current research into those treatments and suggestions on NHS management of the condition. We look forward to taking that work forward. We also discussed options for next steps with the Maudsley clinic, including its applying for a development grant from the mental health policy research unit of the National Institute for Health Research.
I understand that the team at the specialised unit at the Maudsley clinic has faced challenges in acquiring such funding in the past. It is tricky: we need evidence to get the money for research, but money for research is needed to feed the evidence. I completely understand that. However, I say to the hon. Lady that the Department’s research team will discuss with the unit the most appropriate type of research funding for it to bid for. Clearly, we want to make sure that we make the most of its expertise and expand our understanding of this condition. I hope that that brings some reassurance. I look forward to seeing further developments in this space.
As always, I am delighted by what the Minister has offered us, especially on research, which is fantastic. I thank her for that. However, I would not be me if I did not press her on the three things on my list that she has not mentioned—writing to the presidents of the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, introducing a programme of training for mental health trusts and improving access to treatment for under-18s. I am happy for the Minister to write to me on those.
I would like to take that away and discuss with the NHS clinical lead how best to do those. I agree with the hon. Lady, but I will look at this in the broader context of disorders and really getting that understanding of severe mental health conditions and ongoing disorders, which need different tools. However, I will write to the hon. Lady, and I know that we will continue to have dialogue on this issue.
In conclusion, I readily acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done to support people with this disorder and to help them to make a full recovery with treatment and support. I assure the House that that is very much on my to-do list. I look forward to having further dialogue with the hon. Lady and Jane, who I wish every success in managing her condition. I hope I have provided sufficient reassurance that we are committed to doing what we can for these people.
Question put and agreed to.
Modern Farming and the Environment
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the interdependence of modern farming and the environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This subject is close to my heart; and for clarity, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have interests in conventional and organic farming, as well as the agrifood industry.
It may be patently obvious that farming and the environment are interdependent, but a narrative exists that agriculture undermines the environment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described farmers as
“the original friends of the earth”.
The essence of today’s debate is that, certainly in the UK, the environment, the countryside, has been shaped by farming and human beings. Even in Scotland, where 85% of the land is less favoured areas, almost every acre has been shaped by human intervention.
The National Farmers Union of Scotland is clear in its view. It says:
“Active agriculture is best placed to manage land for environmental benefit”
and the objectives of production of food. The NFU of England and Wales produced a paper entitled “United by our environment, our food, our future”. It makes it clear that food production is at the heart of land use and that public goods are directly affected by agriculture. The responsibility for those public goods lies disproportionately with agriculture, but most importantly, the sustainability of our environment has always been key to the future of farming, which we have been doing for generations.
What more does my hon. Friend think that we and the Government can do to encourage the positive ecological effects of beekeeping? It seems to be incredibly important in plant pollination, among other things.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have to ensure that we have joined-up thinking in relation to beekeeping. There is an example from Scotland. Neonicotinoids have been banned, and the possible result is the use of other sprays. No less a supplier than one to Her Majesty the Queen at Balmoral considers that the flea beetle, which is now not controlled by neonicotinoids—that is a very difficult word to say—was potentially the reason for the destruction of an oilseed rape crop and therefore why he produced less honey. This is one of the questions that I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister: we must have joined-up thinking.
As custodians of the land, we see and manage the whole picture. That is really the point of policy as we go forward. Farmers and agriculture draw together the entire picture.
I meant to let my hon. Friend finish his point before I intervened, but I thank him very much for letting me in. I, too, draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. For me, the most important thing as we go into the future is that the food we grow not only will be top quality, but should be fed to people. I strongly support the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, of which I am chairman, because we believe that grass should be consumed by animals. That does not work unless the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs changes the labelling so that people know that if it says “grass-fed” on the package, that means 100% grass-fed, so anything that my hon. Friend can do to support better labelling, better information for the public and therefore better support for our farmers would be most welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I have to say, coming from north of the border, where it is slightly colder and we keep cattle inside for several months—I am a cattle finisher myself—that Scotland clearly produces the best beef in the world by some measure. Cattle inside my buildings were fed silage, which of course is grass as well as cereal, so I do not disagree with the point that my hon. Friend makes.
This point is not allied to the last one, but the police have raised with me their concerns that the grubbing up of hedges and boundaries around farms has not only destroyed habitats, but made it very difficult for them to police the environmental aspects of agricultural establishments in particular, because there are just open fields that can have hare coursing and things like that conducted on them. Has my hon. Friend come across that?
I recently met the chief of police in my area, and I have to say that rural crime is fought very much better, partly because of technology. There is a great deal of usage of text messages and WhatsApp, which enables us to keep in touch. I would say that, if anything, in the north-east of Scotland, every time that a white van drives mysteriously anywhere, NFU Scotland is immediately raising suspicions that the white van may be up to something. I therefore take my hon. Friend’s point on board.
Sustainable food production is underpinned by five key areas on which I think we can all agree: landscape, biodiversity, soil, water and air. Farmers, by design or results, pull all five together. Farmers, by the very nature of what we are doing, have shaped the landscape and have a responsibility. It is important that farmers engage with the general public, apart from allowing them access on to land, because they are of course the ultimate consumers of what we produce.
Farming is integral to protecting habitats and wildlife and key to protecting and rebuilding our biodiversity. We have heard reports recently that other parts of the world are having significant problems in that respect. British agriculture, the agriculture of the United Kingdom, is doing much to be careful of our biodiversity.
The hon. Gentleman is one of the best qualified of our colleagues in this place to talk about this subject, given his expertise. Farming and crofting are crucial to the viability of my constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. My concern is that the next generation of crofters and farmers are not necessarily coming forward, as they are being discouraged from going into the business. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have to ensure a follow-on, with generation succeeding generation, to ensure continuity of life on the land?
I absolutely agree. I am particularly conscious of the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the country and the low-population areas represented by other hon. Members. It is important that we get a number of things right. First, we must give new entrants an opportunity to get into farming. We must ensure that tenure and ownership or tenancy of land is clear and clarified, so that people have the confidence to rent land and to rent land out, which as politicians we must get the policy right on. We must also recognise the financial burden of getting into agriculture. Let me say this to the Minister. As we go forward, we have to be very conscious of how we give new entrants a leg-up. The reality is that land no longer has any connection to the value of what it produces. We have to be very conscious of how we will give new entrants a leg-up and how Governments can play their part in that.
Soil is clearly the basis of farming.
My hon. Friend has just made a point about new entrants. Does he agree with me, a fellow son of a fellow farmer, that it is just as important to encourage next-generation entrants into the business as it is to encourage totally new entrants? Sometimes it is assumed that the son or, indeed, the daughter of a farmer will just follow in their footsteps, but they also need that support.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Young as I look, it was not many years ago that I was one of the—[Interruption.] Is that going to be a point of order? I was one of the youngest people sitting round the ring at Thainstone mart, buying cattle; the average farmer was aged 60 to 65. Let me comment, in response to my hon. Friend’s point, that perhaps the common agricultural policy payment scheme has, if anything, stopped the intergenerational change, and now that we are able to design our own policy, I hope that, as I said to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), we can find a process to encourage new entrants. However, we cannot get past the fact that this industry is hugely capital-invested. We have to be realistic about what we are bringing new entrants in to do.
Since the war, there have been three generations on my farm in the north-east of Scotland. My grandfather was a doctor from Glasgow, but mysteriously decided to be a farmer. Apparently, land was cheap in the 1940s—there was a chap with a moustache who wanted to devalue most of the land in Europe. My grandfather bought a farm in the north-east and he will have started off the soil process of modern farming by putting on lime and draining the land. My father will have gone to the next stage by analysing the nutrient value of the crop and trying to do something about further drainage of the land and improving the soil. It is an ongoing process. Finally, I tried to introduce precision farming to reduce the compaction of soil.
It is important to recognise that farmers have made mistakes on land usage. My businesses previously were in east Anglia, where I saw monocultures. I recognise that monocultures do nothing for the soil. We have a relatively traditional approach in Scotland. Water will clearly become more of an issue, even in wet Aberdeenshire, where we already have nitrate-vulnerable zones. We must be conscious that the water is affected by everything that runs off our land.
On that point, having run businesses before, I was amazed to discover that as much as 75% of the nitrogen used on crops cannot be used by the crop. If cars leaked 75% of their fuel from the tank, we would try to redesign the system. Farmers are well aware that some of our farming practices can be improved. There are great opportunities in technology. Air is clearly a public good. Agriculture is said to produce 10% of gases emitted, but we have come a long way.
The NFU’s report showed that we increased economic growth in agriculture, while reducing the inputs, between 1990 and 2016. Farmers are taking action while output increases. This is an important point. Modern farming tries to produce as much as it can from an acre, in an efficient and sustainable way. Some 87% of farmers are recycling waste materials from their farms, 69% are improving fertiliser application accuracy, where, as I have said, an enormous amount can be done, 75% are improving energy efficiency, not to mention the amount of renewables, 38% are increasing their use of clover in grassland, 27% are improving nitrogen feed efficiency for livestock, and 27% are increasing the use of legumes in arable rotation. In all those figures there is still a great deal of room for improvement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making a good point about the contribution that many British farmers are making to reducing their carbon footprint. Does he agree that there is an environmental argument for supporting British farmers, in order to reduce the food miles associated with importing a lot of food, and that, particularly in the post-Brexit landscape, supporting British agriculture to reduce our carbon footprint and ensure sustainability will mean reducing the food miles from imported food?
It is also an issue of displacement. If we are too restrictive and prohibit too much in the UK, we may simply displace productivity to other regions, such as the Mediterranean, where water is obviously in short supply, and where aquifers may be used that cannot be resupplied, or—the classic example—the rain forest; we may import beef from there, because it is cheaper, but there is a huge environmental impact. When we make policy decisions, we have to be careful not to displace production from the UK, where we have high sensitivities, to other countries. Perhaps we need to find technological answers to that problem.
There are examples of piecemeal policy on renewable energy. The report from the National Farmers Union and NFU Scotland both commented on this. Take the issue of anaerobic digesters in the renewable heat incentive scheme. There are monocultures of maize in northern Europe, Germany, the Paris basin and, to some extent, parts of England. In creating a monoculture, we have to be very careful not to create a problem, whether that is soil erosion or potential for further flooding, for the sake of producing what is effectively very expensive energy. In the north-east, a 3,000-acre traditional rotation farm might these days just grow grass. Growing grass is less damaging than growing maize, but I am concerned that we are subsidising things that distract us from our primary aim, which is to produce food. We have to make sure that the policy is sustainable. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at the fuels used in anaerobic digesters.
Also on the renewable heat incentive scheme, there is concern in Scotland—and, I am sure, England—that in the forestry industry, raw material is being cut down immaturely for use in RHI. We policy makers must not deal with one issue or priority without thinking about what could roll on from our actions.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I expect he will come on to the fact that the common agricultural policy disproportionately rewards larger farmers and large landowners, at the expense of many smaller farmers in the UK. A consequence is that many smaller farmers are looking to diversify out of necessity, to maintain the profitability of their main farming business. As part of our green and environmentally friendly agenda, we should help farmers into suitable diversification into renewable energy where that can help the profitability of the farm.
I would say there is an opportunity there. Smaller farms can come together to share machinery. There are also schemes for them to come together to share environmental and biodiversity priorities. There is an opportunity for smaller farms to interact. Scale is not everything. Clearly, sharing a combine over many thousands of acres will lower the cost of that equipment per acre. Aberdeenshire is not unusual in that respect. It is rural, but not all of it is arable. I would rather not suggest that this is all about farms becoming much bigger, and us ending up with a similar situation to East Anglia, which is a relatively large-scale operation. East Anglia is also a good example. In Cambridge and Suffolk, G. S. Shropshire & Sons Ltd are doing some brilliant things on biodiversity and having a more holistic approach to their farms, instead of simply using the land for the crop that they want, and not being concerned about the next stage.
If we are to preserve the environment, wildlife and habitats, we must consider the potential of the most productive land. In Scotland, under the CAP regulations, we have seen as much as 10% of very productive land being taken out of arable use, rather than other land that would be better suited for environmental schemes. We all remember set-aside, which, in the long term, created weed banks and other problems on farms. We have to consider how to make the most of the best land, and make it as productive as it can be, in a holistic and sustainable way.
I recently read about gene editing technology, which offers us an opportunity as we leave the EU. I hope the EU changes its mind about this technology. It could offer the answer with regard to drought resistance, plants capturing nitrogen, pest resistance and the reduction of pesticides. On animal diseases, too, there are opportunities and technologies that we should be looking at.
Last July, the European Court of Justice declared that gene-editing crops had to jump the same bar as genetic modification, but it is significantly different technology. While I am not an expert on it, I would like us to explore it further. I am particularly conscious that we have some of the best research and scientists in the world, yet we are giving up an opportunity to look into a very interesting area that could have answers. According to scientists from the Sainsbury laboratory,
“This ruling closes the door to many beneficial genetic modifications such as breeding of disease-resistant plants”.
They added that it was
“A sad day for European plant science.”
While we do not want to drop our standards, there is genuine science that we should be exploring and looking at. Policy mistakes have been made in other parts of the country that I do not want to see here, so I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about gene editing.
Farming should be able to monetarise environmental benefits such as carbon sequestering. The Scottish NFU says that it is
“supportive of measures such as carbon accounting, which offer farmers the tools and recommendations to make efficiency improvements whilst also taking into account business operations.”
That is poignant, because if there is a zero-carbon target, we have to get much better at accounting for sequestering carbon on farms. We hear about industrial ways to capture carbon, but every day that we are in the countryside, we are standing on the biggest carbon bank that this country has. Particularly in northern Scotland and the central highlands, with regard to reinvigorating—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. There is an opportunity there. We should reverse the idea that we are going to grub up every inch and acre, but equally, we have to monetise that value. Again, we do not have a holistic approach to that.
The Department’s 2018 farm practices survey showed that 50% of farmers took action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of those, 83% did it because they considered it good business practice; 68% did it through concern for the environment; and 53% did it to improve profitability. That is clearly an example of farming realising the monetary benefits.
Again, however, policies have unforeseen consequences. The EU considered banning glyphosate, which would limit minimal tillage and reduce the potential benefits from controlling greenhouse gases. Minimal tillage does not work everywhere, but it works in many parts of the country. Banning glyphosate would certainly mean that we would have to return to deep ploughing to bury slug eggs and weeds, so we would simply use another chemical. I was asked about bees. It was Mr McGregor from Blairgowrie—it is almost a made-up name—who recently said that his honey production was being limited by the flea beetle. We have to think about the consequences of our decisions.
I will move on; I realise that I am using up all the time, but I will soon finish. On policy to increase biodiversity, what we have done to date in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is to be applauded. I highlight that shooting estates are an integral part of modern agriculture. The James Hutton Institute, along with Scotland’s Rural College, investigated the economic and social contribution of the moors in fragile landscapes in Scotland. Grouse moors support 2,500 jobs, of which the vast majority are local, and they increase wild bird numbers because vermin are controlled. In contrast, Scottish Labour wants to restrict shooting, but we have to be aware of its economic contribution. It may be a minority sport, but it is a countryside pursuit that is also making environmental headway.
We need a pragmatic approach. Many hon. Members will be aware that in the highlands, there is no longer a top predator of the red deer, so whether by Scottish Natural Heritage or the Red Deer Commission, the numbers have to be controlled for wholly laudable reasons—to protect our environment and to try to allow tree numbers to come back up. We hear in the press about rewilding parts of the country, but this is not Alaska or Siberia. With the greatest respect, if we put a predator such as a wolf back anywhere, it will eat the sheep, then the dogs, then whatever cannot run fast, then finally, perhaps, the red deer. We have to be realistic about that. Why anybody would go hill walking in the highlands if they thought a wolf was running around is beyond me.
I am keen to hear other hon. Members’ contributions; they must be wondering how long I will waffle on for. Farming policy can shape interdependence, so I have a few questions for the Minister that are all shaped towards improving the environment and modern farming playing its part. Should the Agriculture Bill recognise food and its production as a public good? Outwith the EU, how are we going to join up policy? Instead of Europe’s one-size-fits-all approach, can we come up with policies and frameworks for the whole United Kingdom that will protect the environment?
Raising productivity per acre in a sustainable way will raise output and food security, so will the Minister consider amendments to the Bill on that? Will he take into account the risk of displacement where domestic policy encourages imports and there are environmental impacts? Most of all—this is what I would really like—to protect the environment, modern farming needs a sustainable financial model; will he support a multi-annual settlement? We will do our part to convince the Treasury that that is the way forward. Modern farming has a clear interdependency with a healthy environment.
We have about half an hour for Back-Bench contributions. I will not impose a time limit, but please constrain yourselves to about five minutes.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. It is also a pleasure to be reunited with two former colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) and the Minister, who have both gone on to other things. We also went into battle on many occasions during the Agriculture Bill Committee, although it is fair to say that we were not always on the same page about everything. Now the Minister has taken up his post, to which I welcome him, he may have to revisit some of his views, compared with the freedom he had as a Back Bencher.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, I support the idea of a whole-farm system based on nature-friendly farming. As a nation, we should do far more to make organic farming and agroecology mainstream, as they do in France. Organic farms have on average 50% more wildlife and 30% more species than conventional farms. We should also do more to support agroforestry; pasture-based livestock systems, which have already been mentioned; integrated pest management; and low-input mixed farming, as we look to restore ecosystem services and our long-term food security. At every opportunity, we should move away from unsustainable intensification and an over-reliance on agrochemicals.
Over the years, numerous studies have shown that farming in an environmentally beneficial way is not just good for nature, but better for business. In 2018, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board found that introducing wildflower margins around the edges of fields increased bumblebee numbers in courgette fields and boosted yields by 39%. Due to the reduced input costs required from the farmer, that provided pollination services valued at £3,400 per hectare, so just because land is taken out of production, the farmer does not necessarily lose out. At the moment, under the common agricultural policy, there is a distorting incentive to farm absolutely every inch of the field, but we will hopefully move away from that under the new public-money-for-public-goods approach.
Despite a lot of professed support for more nature-friendly farming, the reality on the ground is different. Soil degradation in England and Wales costs £1.2 billion every year, with a staggering 2.2 million tonnes of soil lost annually. In the Agriculture Bill Committee, this Minister was sceptical about that and said that the soil on his farm had never been healthier, but the then Farming Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), subscribed to the view that we need to do far more to support our soil. I suggested that we need a specific public good in the Bill, but the then Farming Minister said that that was already covered by the listed public goods. Whatever our views as to the wording required in the Bill, we all need to do far more to improve soil quality.
The decline in bees has been well documented over the years, but farmland birds are another indicator. Their numbers have declined by 56% in the past 46 years and 12% of British farmland species are now threatened with extinction.
The State of Nature report 2016 identified the intensification of agriculture as having, by a huge margin, the biggest negative impact on wildlife in the UK when compared with other sources of wildlife decline. As has been mentioned already, that has partly been driven by the CAP. I hope that we do not leave the EU, either today or towards the end of the process, but I would be glad to see the back of the CAP.
To reverse the decline of species and address the serious environmental challenges facing us, farmers must be incentivised to provide environmentally beneficial outcomes. That is why I have supported the introduction in the Agriculture Bill of the new environment land management scheme, based on the principle of delivering public goods, such as adaptation to climate change, improved water quality and public access, for which no functioning market exists. This approach is overwhelmingly supported by the public. A World Wide Fund for Nature/Populus poll found that 91% of those surveyed wanted the Government to pay farmers to protect nature.
However, as has already been mentioned, farmers need funding certainty if they are to go down that path. They need certainty beyond 2022 and I support the amendment that the Chair of the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), has tabled to the Agriculture Bill—whenever that Bill reappears—because we need multi-annual funding to give farmers that certainty.
We also need a strong regulatory baseline for the farmed environment to thrive, which is something that we discussed in the Agriculture Bill Committee, and if we have those standards, they must be enforced by a new farm inspection regime.
The other issue that will have a massive impact on farming in a post-Brexit world is what trade deals we negotiate with other countries. Again, this issue has been discussed in a lot of detail in other forums, so I do not intend to dwell on it here. However, as I have said, the Chair of the EFRA Committee has tabled new clause 4 to the Agriculture Bill and I have tabled new clause 1, which is very similar; we are working together, on the same page, on this issue. We are at serious risk of exporting our environmental footprint abroad while sparking a race to the bottom in food production and safety to compete on price at home. There is no point in having all this talk about keeping our environmental standards and promoting nature-friendly farming in this country if we allow imports from other countries that are produced to much lower standards than our own produce. As Minette Batters, the National Farmers Union President, said a few weeks ago:
“Mr Gove has said that over his dead body would British standards be undermined. I don’t want it written in blood. I want it written in ink.”
We want it “in ink” in the Agriculture Bill and we want that Bill to come back sooner rather than later.
The final issue that I will mention is climate change. We have 12 years to avoid a catastrophic climate emergency, and we must openly discuss the impact of livestock on climate change and the environment more frequently in debates such as this one. It is now almost 13 years since the Food and Agriculture Organisation published its “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report, which stated that
“the livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.”
Nearly 10 years ago today—it was actually 25 March 2009—I stood here in Westminster Hall, having secured a debate on the environmental impact of the livestock sector. There was quite a good turnout, but everyone else who turned out was there basically to give me a hard time. I like to feel that I have been slightly vindicated since then, because there have been so many other highly authoritative reports—it is not just me who says they are highly authoritative; my opinion does not count for very much—that make exactly the same point, and I ask the Minister, “When will we listen on this and do something about it?”
In its 2018 progress report to Parliament, the Committee on Climate Change identified agriculture as one of the key priority areas for an emissions reduction programme over the next decade. Otherwise, we will not meet our fourth and fifth carbon budgets.
I know the hon. Lady is very passionate about this issue, and I believe that we are both on the soil inquiry that is being conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee. Does she agree that if only we could get our soils to the right level of health and standards, that would go a long way towards reaching all of our climate change targets, because soil holds so much carbon?
Before I call Kerry McCarthy again, I remind Members that I have said that speakers should take about five minutes each, and your speech has now lasted for eight minutes.
Sorry—I did not quite get that. And, yes, soil is absolutely brilliant for carbon sequestration.
I will just conclude, Mr Evans; I apologise, as I did not know that you had said Members should take five minutes. The signs that are being sent out by the Government at the moment are that they are trying to head in the right direction with the Agriculture Bill, but the need to act swiftly is imperative, and I would like to see more ambition.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) for securing this debate, and he is absolutely right that modern farming and the environment should be inextricably interlinked. Having been brought up on a farm, on which I also worked, and having studied the environment and worked on that, too, I have always thought that it is an absolute no-brainer that the two should just be part and parcel of one another, because, of course, without a sustainable and healthy environment we cannot produce healthy sustainable food.
That is more important than ever in the south-west—including in Taunton Deane, obviously—where we have so many farmers. Agriculture and the food industry collectively is our biggest industry, and it is beholden on us to ensure that this business and this industry can thrive, but it has to be sustainable. That point will be a key part of my speech today.
It is clear that although great work is being done by farmers and there are many great environmental schemes, for diverse reasons—not least the way that funding has been directed from the EU—we have reached a point where our environment, in the widest sense of the word, is under great pressure and much of it, sadly, has been severely degraded.
There are lots of modern techniques that we could use in agriculture and we must use them all; in fact, the agritech strategy encourages this approach. Whether it is drones, precision farming, field mapping, scanning, or thermal imaging, all of these things, along with breeding, must be utilised. However, sustainability must be at the root of all this.
Rural areas are the powerhouses for our urban areas, and we need to keep them stable and productive; they are the green lungs for our urban centres. So, they are even more important than we give them credit for at the moment, and that is not just about food production but about services being delivered. That is where we get to this new idea, which I am behind, and that is paying for the delivery of public goods and services, and our farmers are absolutely key to that.
It must be said that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already gone a very long way towards this aim. The Agriculture Bill is coming through, along with our 25-year environment plan, our Fisheries Bill and the Environment Bill. How exciting is that? It will be the first piece of new legislation on the environment for 20 years, and we have an enormous opportunity here to rethink completely our land use strategy.
Trust me, the farmers in Taunton Deane are all behind this plan. They want to do what they can and so indeed do the people of Taunton Deane, who come to see me in their droves, whether it is Taunton Green Parents, the Quakers, or the transition groups. They all say, “Please can you put sustainability at the heart of everything you do?”
I will touch on two main areas: one is biodiversity, which has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon. Biodiversity is crucial to agriculture and food production, but the statistics about it are stark and devastating: 54% of farmland birds have been in decline since 1970; only 2% of our ancient woodland is left; only 3% of our wonderful wildflower meadows remain; and three quarters of flying insects are in decline—insects are crucial to our food delivery.
May I just check the clock, Mr Evans? I started at 3.4 pm, did I not?
I make it that you have spoken for three and a half minutes, so could you conclude soon, please?
Thank you so much, Mr Evans, because the clock in here is very confusing.
Biodiversity is at the root of everything we are now trying to do. Instead of just focusing on special areas—for example, those funded by our higher level studentship grants, which do great work—we need to raise the general standard of biodiversity across the board, and it is something that we need to introduce in our new legislation. For that, we need accurate monitoring and data, spatial plans and a statutory requirement to monitor what is being paid for. I would ask the Treasury, “Please, can we include the net gain principle in the Environment Bill?”
As many of my colleagues know, soil is one of my passions—strange, but true. A third of the world’s arable soils are degraded. Every minute, we wash away 30 football pitches’ worth of soil and send it down the water courses. In England and Wales, the loss of our soils is costing our economy £1.2 billion. That is unacceptable and we need to do something about it.
Soil delivers so many of our services: it cleans water; it holds water; it grows the food we need; and it holds carbon. That carbon-holding property is crucial and we could really tackle our climate change targets if we addressed soil.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I totally agree with her on soils. Does she not agree that the key is to raise organic matter? Raising it in soils means more carbon captured and also more water absorbed and held, which means sustainable crops in extreme weathers and huge benefits to our local environment.
My hon. Friend makes the case clearly: it is so important.
I really believe that soil should be included in part 1 of the Agriculture Bill and should be paid for as a public good alongside land and water. That seems a complete no-brainer, given the importance of soil. It is surprising, too, that in the 25-year environment plan, soil is not one of the 15 headline indicators and is instead buried in the framework as a systems indicator. We should surely get it listed as a proper headline indicator. If we do not, we will miss a massive opportunity to get soil health right. Conservatives were going to create a better environment than we inherited, and this is one of the key ways in which we could do it. As we leave the EU, it is one of the ways in which we can really show leadership. The addition of soil would act as a powerful demonstrator because it is not an EU directive as water is. It would show that we are going our own way and creating our own much better and much more productive and sustainable environment where farming is the key driver.
I call Rebecca Pow—sorry, that was Rebecca Pow. [Laughter.] I call Jim Shannon.
I can be many things, but I can never be Rebecca Pow—or Rebecca “Kerpow!”, as we call her.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) on setting the scene. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and as a landowner as well. For the record, I understand the interdependence of modern farming and the environment. On our farm we have retained the hedgerows, created two ponds and planted 3,500 trees. We have seen the return of the yellowhammer, which was missing for many years on farmland where I and other farmers live. We have seen the return of birds of prey and hares as well. Lots of things have happened because of our commitment to our farm and diversity and the environment.
I hail from a rural constituency. In Strangford, the farming and food industry is a massive employer. Indeed, as the Countryside Alliance has said:
“The food and farming industry is nationally important, generating over £108 billion a year for the UK economy and underpinning our food security. It is particularly important for our most rural areas where farming is often central to the economic and social life of the community, as well as playing a vital role in conservation.”
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the point made by the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) about getting younger people back into the industry? I speak as the 53-year-old son of an 87-year-old farmer. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have never been tempted to enter the industry. If we can get this right, we can create opportunities right across our agricultural and rural communities, and get children into schools, keep post offices and shops open and keep public transport running in rural areas.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Bringing all those things together is key for rural communities. We need to encourage young people. I will quickly speak about sons and daughters taking over farms. In my constituency we have been fortunate over the years that that has happened. Some sons and daughters do not want to take farms on, but the ones who have are still there, so we have seen a progression of farmers’ sons or daughters taking over. Farming communities are not employees of the land, but caretakers of the land for future generations. I read in Shooting Times magazine that the wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we want. We hold it in trust for those who come after. That is a fact. That is what we do, and the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
Unless we recognise the dual role of farmers as food producers and conservationists, we risk turning farmers into environmental contractors, which we do not want to do. We want them to have an incentive to continue farming. A farmer does not farm to become rich—that is the case in my neck of the woods, anyway. A farmer farms because it is in his blood and it is his calling. I recently highlighted an important point in my local press, and I want to make the point here before the debate ends. The latest figures show that some farmers, especially younger farmers in my constituency, have had very high levels of depression. Strangford has a large rural community and many farmers have handed over the reins of their farms to their sons and daughters, but there are levels of EU bureaucracy—I do not want to bring in the dreaded Brexit word again—and red tape that have almost strangled the farmers, and they are sick to the back teeth of it. They understand that regulations are necessary to bring food up to standard, but they do not need all of the extra paperwork that goes with it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I also express an interest as a landowner. He knows that the uptake in the agricultural colleges in Northern Ireland has increased. There is an enthusiasm for the land from our young people and they need help to drive it forward.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen a great interest in farming in my community. The sons and daughters want to take the farms over and are doing so. I have written to the permanent secretary of DAERA—the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—in Northern Ireland to express concern about the mental health of young farmers and the levels of stress and depression among them. We cannot ignore such big issues. We need to address them.
The hon. Member for Gordon referred to rewilding, but it is not suitable everywhere. It is not just about wolves and beavers and all the other wildlife; home-grown mink and foxes need to be controlled, although others might not agree with that. Farmers are not nature’s enemies; they are caretakers. That is the starting point. When we listen to the knowledge and expertise that has seen successful seasonal farming for thousands of years in the wonderful soil of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is the starting point. We must ensure that the current different payments for farmers in less favoured areas under the CAP regime continue, under the principle that upland farmers require greater financial support. The hon. Gentleman referred to that as well.
To conclude, nature has a wonderfully delicate balance set in place by God Almighty. It is up to us to retain that balance as best we can, and we can do that only by working together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) for securing this excellent debate. It is also a great pleasure to have here our new Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), a good Yorkshire farmer. I also pay tribute to our previous Agriculture Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), for his five years’ great service to agriculture and the environment.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate because British agriculture is a great success story, not only for production but for the environment, and we all need to work together for a great new policy. I look forward to working with our new Minister to deliver proper, good food production along with securing the environment. We have a poultry and pig industry that has reduced the amount of antibiotics used in production. We are doing great things for the environment. We have the potential for gene editing with crops in future. We also have the potential to go down the route of a blight-resistant potato. We have to use all the tools to make sure that we have a better environment, but also greater production.
The point has been made this afternoon that if we are not careful and do not produce food here under good environmental and welfare standards, we will import it from across the world under lower standards. In Brazil they are driving cattle towards the rainforest, which they are knocking down, and they are ploughing up the savannah to grow crops such as sugar beet and soya. In the end, that is where production will come from. We must link it all together.
A third of the forests are in our farms, with our copses. We have the Blackdown Hills, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). Of course, they are even better when they get to the county of Devon. It is absolutely certain that we have got great farming, which is where so much of our wildlife and biodiversity is. We can do better, but we are doing extremely well. I know that I do not have to tell the Minister that the great landscape that we have across this country is not there because God provided it; it is there because it is farmed, looked after and managed. Therefore, we are the friends of the earth. Farmers do not have to prove that. We have to go out there and make sure we can produce good food.
Grassland holds carbon and we can capture more. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made the point that as we increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, it can hold more water, as well as carbon. We have an excellent story to tell. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out the amendments that have been tabled to the Agriculture Bill, on the long-term funding of agriculture and the environment, and on making sure that imported food meets our high standards. The Secretary of State wants higher welfare standards, which is great, but let us not import food that does not meet those standards. As to animal welfare, let us not export to conditions across the world that are nowhere near as good. We have every possibility of doing far greater work in the future, not only with gene editing but with smart spraying, robotic spraying and even electrocuting weeds. All sorts of improvements are possible to reduce the use of chemicals, and achieve good production. I want us to produce good food to high standards, with less chemicals, and I believe we can do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) for securing this important debate. Amazingly, agriculture occupies more than two thirds of the UK landmass, and more than 60% of farmland is permanent grassland and common rough grazing. Almost a third of the UK’s forests and woodlands are on farmland. Those trees provide shelter and shade for livestock and a habitat for wildlife, as do hedgerows and dry-stane dykes—or stone walls—which have been introduced and, it should be remembered, maintained by farmers.
It must be appreciated that not all wildlife is welcomed by the farming community, as some birds attack newborn lambs and some mammals, such as badgers, potentially carry diseases transmissible to cattle. The introduction of beavers would not necessarily be welcomed by all in agriculture. However, pollinators such as bees are to be encouraged, as they are crucial to a healthy environment. Insect pollination of UK crops is estimated to be worth around £600 million per annum. Farmers are the custodians of much of the natural environment, which most of us enjoy responsibly, in accordance with the countryside code, but there are some foolish and selfish members of the public who are still irresponsible in allowing unleashed dogs to chase or in some cases worry and attack sheep, in particular. Also, fly-tipping takes place on agricultural land. Both those types of behaviour are totally irresponsible and unacceptable.
Access to the natural environment has the potential to enhance our health and wellbeing, and so does the nutritious food that UK farmers produce for us on a daily basis. Management of soil is crucial to that food production, and I am pleased to say that the rich Ayrshire soil is renowned for producing the famous potatoes that we up north would call “Ayrshire tatties”. Local quality produce, with its traceability factor, is popular at the regular farmers markets. However, that has not always been the case. Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who was a poet and a farmer and, I am sure, an environmentalist, wrote critically of the heavy clay soils at his father’s farm at Lochlie, and the soil of his own farm at Ellisland, as being simply worn out. Thankfully, science and research have assisted with soil improvements over the centuries. Farmers are more aware of the soil types of their acreages and how best to farm soil as a carbon storage area to mitigate climate change and lock in greenhouse gases. It is to be hoped that in doing so they will take account of the UK Government’s 2019 clean air strategy, as agriculture is responsible for about 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Farmers are undoubtedly innovative, and they are enthusiastically embracing the use of artificial intelligence, and diversifying. In East Ayrshire, an Ochiltree dairy farmer’s milking parlour epitomises the new approach, with its use of robotics and laser technology. I was pleased to note that animal welfare was at the top of the scale there, and at the forefront of the business plan. Educational visits by local school children to the farm are encouraged, to enhance their understanding of farming and the environment.
Under the Agriculture Bill, farmers will receive rewards proportionate to environmental benefits and the sustainability of food production. Collaborative working on projects will be encouraged where there is a common goal. I fully appreciate that agriculture is devolved and future policy in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Government. However, it benefits from UK-wide investment, and a large part of Scotland’s market for agriculture produce is the rest of the UK. Echoing the National Farmers Union, we need to ensure that our farmers are the first-choice suppliers in the UK and are competitive elsewhere. I ask the Minister, when he is promulgating policies, to continue to help farmers to achieve the dual aim of improving the environment and securing high-quality food production.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) on securing the debate and echo others in welcoming the Minister to his new post.
It is appropriate that we should be debating farming and the environment today, just 17 days away from our exit from not only the EU but the common agricultural policy. Our farmers—particularly those in my constituency—have always seen the CAP as a one-size-fits-none approach. Farmers are looking to the Government and the devolved Administrations to create a system more tailored to our sector and our environment. It is vital for the future of our agricultural sector that all levels of Government get the balance right between productive farming and enhancing the environment.
The Agriculture Bill is aimed at rewarding farmers for “public goods” such as good environmental stewardship, while encouraging them to continue growing high-quality produce in more innovative, efficient and sustainable ways. The omission of a schedule specifically for Scottish farmers from the Bill has left them—particularly the farmers in my constituency—in the dark. Therefore, I encourage the new Minister to make it a priority to work closely with Scottish Government Ministers to agree a way forward that respects devolution but also gives Scottish farmers the clarity and certainty they deserve about the future of their sector.
I am just checking whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Scottish Government recently announced that they would be introducing an agriculture Bill of their own.
I was aware of that, although I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. However, what is not clear is when that process will completed; when will there be Royal Assent? The UK Bill, from which a Scottish schedule is absent, is going through Parliament as we speak, and is due for Report any time now.
Brexit will pave the way for new trade deals with economies around the world, but it is vital that our high standards should be preserved in those deals. Many farmers are concerned that a trade deal with the United States, for example, could mean pressure on us to drop our standards or possibly could price British farmers out of a lot of the market. It is not that farmers are against free trade or free trade deals—quite the opposite. However, those things should not come at the price of our environment, food standards and animal welfare, or the prosperity of our own agriculture sector. I am therefore pleased that the UK Government have been consistent in saying that our high standards will be preserved in our future trade deals. I hope that, as we enter the Brexit transition period, in which new trade deals will start to be negotiated, that commitment will be reflected in reality.
There need be no conflict between embracing innovation and technological development, and having high environmental, quality and welfare standards. An example is the ground-breaking work of the James Hutton Institute, based in Aberdeen and Dundee, which is one of the biggest research centres in the UK, and is the first research centre of its kind in Europe. It is fair to say that the agriculture sector will face a number of changes and challenges in future, and that many of those could have an effect on the environment. It is worth noting that not all those changes will be technological. Farms are businesses, and farmers are increasingly applying new management practices from other sectors to their approach to agriculture. However, technological developments in machinery, food processing, artificial intelligence and, yes, genetics promise to have a profound effect on the sector. It is important that we take a balanced approach to those developments. There is no reason why advances that improve productivity should necessarily run counter to sustaining our environment and other standards of quality and welfare. That is what farmers do, after all. As other hon. Members have said, farmers are the original friends of the earth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) mentioned the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill. I am looking forward to the Bill, which I hope will reflect a balanced approach. Agriculture is vital to the economy and to rural life across the country. Food and drink remain our largest export to the world. It is my hope that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations can work constructively to ensure that the sector can deal with the challenges and opportunities of the future in a way that maintains harmony with our natural environment.
It is a great delight to serve under your chairship, Mr Evans. There may have been times in the past when farmers cared not a jot about the environment—I doubt it, but there is that possibility. A crofter or farmer who does not value and protect the land and environment would be devaluing their business, and good agricultural stewards are the guardians of future environmental protections.
Yesterday on Twitter I was interested to see Leigh Farm take issue with Chris Packham over his comments about farmers. She pointed to her pollen and nectar meadow as an example of good farming practice—something I certainly agree with—and she has previously offered photographs of her borage bee pasture, which seems to demonstrate a commitment to environmentally friendly farming practices on her Cornwall farm. She pointed to an article by another farmer that indicates the environmental benefits of flail cutting hedges—something of a surprise to me—although that practice is condemned by some environmentalists. My speech may have wandered a little, but it is important to bear in mind that none of us has all the facts, and experts may inhabit different sides of a debate. However, farmers are unlikely to wish wanton destruction on their land or ability to continue farming productively. There will always be rogues in every walk of life, but the nature of the agriculture industry makes it unlikely that a custodian of land would wish to see its destruction.
Agriculture provides us with public goods in the form of environmental protections and enhancement, by dint of farmers’ commitment to ensuring that their business prospers. We should support crofters and farmers as food producers and environmental guardians, and ensure that adequate financial assistance reaches the most marginal agricultural areas, rather than being siphoned off. Support for agriculture is support for communities that are often remote and do not have the same advantages that other communities enjoy. Take away that support and communities could struggle, wither, or even cease to be viable. They could suffer from depopulation, resulting in a loss of community services such as schools, post offices, shops and so on—I have seen that in areas of the highlands. Such problems are what less favoured area support under the common agricultural policy was designed to address, and it was frankly reprehensible for the Government to keep as convergence funding the £160 million that was supposed to go to farmers and crofters in Scotland. We still want that funding back, so perhaps the Minister will keep the issue in his new in-tray.
If we take away that funding—I know that some areas in Wales, England, and Northern Ireland face similar problems and have similar needs—we risk leaving land untended. Some may prefer such a rolling back of human intervention, but that ignores the fact that those lands have had human intervention for centuries, and are not in what might be considered their natural state. We also need that land to continue producing food—especially after Brexit does its damage—and the environment will benefit from that production. We are part of the environment; farming is part of the ecology of this planet. We are animals who have had a huge impact on the planet, but we are part of it and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Agriculture has changed and will continue to change, and in the main, today’s farmers are more environmentally aware than previous generations.
In Scotland, the Farm Advisory Service has been delivering the Farming for a Better Climate initiative, which helps farmers to optimise inputs on their farms, minimise emissions, lock in carbon, and get the best return for their investments in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. That is good news, and it has been a good project so far, but it is funded partly by the EU and partly by the Scottish Government, and since we have had no indication from the UK Government that they will keep their previous promises to match or exceed Scotland’s EU funding, its future is in doubt. I was also impressed by my introduction to the Soil Association in Scotland. Its programmes on mob grazing, and its “less toil, better soil” initiative, have had a tremendous impact. I thank it for enabling me to be part of such initiatives, especially on mob grazing, and to go out to farms and see it in action.
Such educational and enabling schemes seem a far better way to deliver environmental benefits than the vague and rather unusual public goods suggestion in the Agriculture Bill. Indeed, that strikes me as an idea that focuses public resources around harsh ideas of punishment and reward—the odd concept that deprivation of resources acts as an incentive to improve, or of us starving our way to perfection. There is no evidence to suggest that such a mindset creates true and lasting change in population behaviour, and scant evidence that it creates alternate behaviour in the short term. It could, however, create a thriving trade in ways around the system, or lead to ways to game the payments, resulting in large and already wealthy landowners sucking up more of the available public resources, while those who should get help fall foul of a system that was never designed to help them. Grouse moors and shooting estates will benefit at the expense of hill farmers and smallholders. I am not sure that I agree entirely with the comments by the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) about shooting estates, because many questions remain to be answered about their biodiversity benefits.
If we wish to marry agricultural production with environmental benefits, the community buy-outs of land in Scotland should provide some pointers. One or two schemes have not quite taken off, but those that have are carving tremendous new futures for their communities and visitors. Environmental sustainability is not just part of the plan; it is central to people’s ambitions and the futures they see for themselves.
I am sure that if I had not intervened, the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) would have done, because shooting contributes somewhere in the region of £20 million in Scotland. It reinvigorates the grouse moors and creates 2,500 jobs, and it boosts the economy, especially in rural areas where shooting is so important. The hon. Lady cannot ignore that.
I am aware of some of those figures, but there are still questions to be answered about many things to do with shooting estates; for example, I think the review that the Scottish Government are undertaking will include some interesting answers about the shooting of hares.
In conclusion, England is in need of serious land reform. It should take a long and hard look at what Scotland has done on land reform and community interest since devolution got under way 20 years ago. That started under the old Labour-Lib Dem Executive, and it is continuing under the new and vibrant Scottish SNP Government, who protect our environment as well as delivering community benefits.
I thank the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) for securing this debate, and for the thorough way he presented his speech. It is good to have such expertise in the Chamber when discussing a sector as important as farming. I also welcome the new Minister to his place. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), was known to many of us, and his work commanded respect across the House. Indeed, since he left the Government, many of his statements have also commanded respect across the House, and I hope that that honesty will continue. There has been a trend of declaring interest in this debate, which I must also do. That is not because I have a farm tucked away, but because my wonderful baby sister is a rare breed sheep farmer in Cornwall. She does a fantastic job, and she has some chickens, too.
We have had an important debate so far, with good contributions from across the House. The Opposition Benches might not have quantity today, but we certainly have quality; I will come on shortly to the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about agro-ecology.
Farming plays a vital role in promoting sustainability and nurturing biodiversity. It has shaped our landscapes through continual management, creating a patchwork of unique environments across the uplands and lowlands, and has adapted to the pressures of a growing population. We must ensure that we provide our farming communities with the resources they need to continue that stewardship of our agricultural land. Farmers must be well resourced, and incentivised to continue to fight climate change and to reduce the carbon emissions caused by their activities.
Almost every Member in this debate has said something about the new system that we will move to once we leave the European Union. Farmers are absolutely key to tackling climate change. We must welcome the work they have done across the country, but also re-commit to supporting them in continuing that work.
The National Trust, which is the largest private landowner in the UK, has called for the introduction of a new environmental land management system based on the principle of delivering public goods. Introducing such a system would help with heritage conservation, public access, adapting to climate change and improving water quality, but it must be supported by long-term funding based on an independent assessment of need, alongside the provision of good-quality advice for farmers, safeguards against the import of low-standard food—mentioned by a number of Members—a complementary approach to improving productivity and a strong regulatory baseline. The way that farmers manage their farms can have a positive or negative impact on the surrounding environment, and we need to support, especially through a decent financial and information support system, those who are taking extra steps to protect not only their local environment but the national one.
The National Farmers Union argues that if farmers are struggling financially, prioritising environmental objectives is nearly impossible. I would like to highlight the importance of linking the plans to reform agriculture with the existing challenges that farmers and land managers face. We all know stories of farmers struggling financially; we must ensure that the new regulatory environment supports farmers in both large and small landholdings, because we need farming to be sustainable, both environmentally and economically.
We cannot ignore the need to invest in new technologies and innovative infrastructure to provide farmers with efficient systems that work to reduce their carbon footprint. Many new innovative methods have been spoken about today; it is important that we take the public along with the farming community, especially when it comes to genetic engineering and technological interventions on our farming estates. It is important to have public confidence in new methods. Farmers should have access to the necessary data and information not only to link farming methods with the environment but to allow for continual exposure to the most up-to-date methods and environmental land management strategies, and partnership is key in that.
Encouraging farmers to engage in agri-environment schemes has to be done alongside a commitment to environmental targets. The Government have the responsibility to lay out those targets, especially in legislation such as the Agriculture Bill, which the Opposition believe is missing such commitments. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out when he expects the Bill to come back to this place. I know he is new in office, but I am sure that that was one of the briefings he would have been given.
For centuries, farmers and land managers have closely engaged with ecosystems, using the land and nature around them to build a home for their livestock and to create businesses. Farmers understand, more than most, the interdependent relationship between agriculture and the environment, not only because of their daily interactions with nature but because climate change has directly affected them, and will continue to do so.
With the necessary support systems, growing numbers of farmers would undoubtedly turn to agro-ecology. The Landworkers’ Alliance has spearheaded some great work on agro-ecology, making it a viable farming method for more people through initiatives such as the whole farm agro-ecological scheme. There are key examples of the impressive nature of agro-ecology in its integrated production, which, on mixed farms, recycles biomass and reduces waste, using by-products from one process as inputs in others. Nutrient availability is optimised over time by generating fertility on the farm, instead of using artificial fertilisers. That theme of reducing the amount of fertiliser through the use of new methods has come up in a number of interventions. With the optimal use of sunlight, space, water and nutrients, and through synergistic interactions between biological components, fewer resources are lost. These practices conserve and encourage biodiversity in agricultural species and the wider environment, creating diverse ecosystems that are more resilient to climate change.
A great example of agro-ecology is agroforestry, which has not been mentioned as much as I expected. Agroforestry includes traditional practices that are easily recognised in British landscapes, such as hedgerows, as well as new innovative systems such as silvo-arable cropping, a method of growing alleys of productive trees through arable land. If more farmers were supported with accessible information, relevant data and long-term multi-year funding, more of them could adopt agro-ecological approaches. The benefits would not only directly benefit the farmers’ land; they would help to fight climate change. The Soil Association has said that integrating trees into farms on a significant scale could dramatically increase the amount of carbon sequestered on those farms, as compared with farms where there are monocultures of crops or pasture—a point made by the hon. Member for Gordon. The Committee on Climate Change has highlighted that converting just 0.6% of agricultural land to agroforestry could contribute significantly to our meeting the fifth carbon budget target by 2030.
Alongside carbon emissions, we need to deal with a big issue facing the agricultural industry: soil erosion. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East and my west country neighbour, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), soil erosion costs England and Wales £1.2 billion annually, a cost we cannot continue to afford. Trees integrated into arable settings have been proven to reduce soil erosion by up to 65%. Agriculture is unique when it comes to dealing with the challenges of improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, because it can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in vegetation, generating low-carbon renewable energy. It also has a really important role in upstream flood prevention, as has been hinted at by Members.
This debate is so important because although the interdependence of the environment and farming is clear, unless the right structures, funding and support are provided for those working the land, we will not see the much-needed improvement to the environment that we all want. The environment must be at the heart of our future agriculture policy. Public subsidies have been used to fund destructive food and farming practices for too long. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, I am no fan of the common agricultural policy, and we must take time to ensure that the systems we introduce do not replicate its problems or create new ones. The Opposition are pleased to see pesticide reduction, improving soil health, cutting climate change emissions and supporting wildlife on the Government’s to-do list, but to deliver those things in a way that reverses the current damage, we will need adequate funding and bold ambition, including clear targets. How does the Minister intend to do that, given the scale of subsidy-related cuts we are expecting after leaving the European Union?
We recognise the interdependence of modern farming and the environment, but a fresh approach to agriculture cannot work by itself. The Government must introduce appropriate provisions to protect against unfair buying practices and to promote fairness in the supply chain. The EU regulations that protect our environment must be maintained, and we should look to build on them. For the avoidance of doubt, I invite the Minister to confirm that it is his personal as well as his ministerial position that environmental protections must not be reduced after Brexit. Will he reconfirm that any new trade deals that undermine our green standards or animal welfare must be rejected? If they were not rejected, the Government would be turning their back on British farmers.
This is a really important debate, and Members from right across the House have raised appropriate and timely issues. With that, I will sit down so that the Minister can respond to those points.
I welcome the Minister to his new position and remind him to leave at least a minute for Mr Clark to wind up.
Thank you very much, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) for calling this important debate, and I recognise his work on the red meat levy on behalf of Scottish farmers. He began his speech by talking about “friends of the earth”, and I confess that, as is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I too am a friend of the earth. I had the pleasure of serving with my hon. Friend on the Agriculture Bill Committee, and he consistently championed the needs of Scottish farmers and the link between farming, food production and the environment.
I, too, would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). Not only did he serve the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so expertly for five years, but his vision has ensured that we are now taking up all the opportunities provided to us by leaving the inflexible common agricultural policy and the frustrating common fisheries policy. His will be a hard act to follow. It now falls to me to take the helm and guide the Bills underpinning our ambitious future policies through to Royal Assent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon talked about how we should get more new entrants into the industry. It is important that we get new young blood in, bringing with it innovation and energy. Sadly, I know from my own constituency that many farmers’ sons and daughters are not taking over family holdings, so we need to consider new ways of getting new entrants in. It was interesting to see on this week’s “Countryfile” new models of tenancies being tried out to get young people into the industry. The Agriculture Bill will certainly look for opportunities to bring new blood and diversity to the industry.
A number of Members referred to the concerns about the multi-annual settlements. Farming needs a sustainable financial model, and I am happy to agree with those who support the idea of a multi-annual settlement for the industry. It is a manifesto commitment that guarantees the same cash total until 2022—indeed, our farmers have more certainty than farmers in the EU. I welcome the efforts that have already been made by DEFRA, which is working closely with the Treasury on arrangements for future funding. We are committed to offering multi-annual contracts to farmers under the environmental land management scheme for the delivery of public goods.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon also mentioned gene editing. As somebody who studied for a degree in agriculture a whole generation ago, when gene editing and some of the more advanced methods of breeding crops were not known, I put on record that the Government disagree with the European Court of Justice’s ruling on gene editing. We argued that gene-edited organisms should not be subject to GM regulations if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. That remains our view, but the Court has decided otherwise, and its judgment is binding on the UK. We will be considering our future approach to regulation in the context of negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
We recognise the potential for advanced breeding techniques such as gene editing to make farming more productive and sustainable. We want to support innovation in that area, and ensure that any regulation is science-based and proportionate. We want the UK to be a leading player in developing the possible applications of new technologies, such as gene editing, building on the excellence of our science research base and our plant breeding sector. Ultimately, we want our farmers to have the best access to the tools available, so that they can remain competitive and boost productivity. The available evidence about the impact of current GM crops is variable, but it indicates that such crops have delivered both economic and environmental benefits. For example, a meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded that, on average, the adoption of GM crops has increased yields by 22%, increased profits by 68% and reduced pesticide use by 32%.
Is the Minister therefore confirming that he supports the introduction of GM crops in England? Can he clarify his personal views on GM crops?
At the current time, as a member state of the European Union, we must comply with its legislation. However, whatever decisions we make in the future must be based on the best available scientific evidence.
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon raised the question of whether food is a public good. Food is a commercial good, and the prime purpose of British agriculture is to produce good food, fibre and fuel. Recognising that those products are integral to UK agriculture should be front and centre in all our policies. He also mentioned the displacement of CO2. I have previously been involved with that topic as a Member of the European Parliament, when energy-intensive industries such as the metallurgical industry were being exported to countries with environmental standards that were not as good as ours.
I agreed with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) more than I had thought I would when she got to her feet. Having served on the Environmental Audit Committee with her, I know that her views are to be taken seriously. Organic farming has a part to play. Under our new agricultural regime, we may look at how we can encourage farmers to innovate, and organic farming is one of those innovations. However, organic production should be demand-led, because we do not want to create surpluses of organic food that cause a collapse in the market and make the farms that produce such food un-economic.
The hon. Lady also talked about wildflower margins. As part of a mid-tier scheme on my farm, we are planting those margins, which are certainly a public good. The Government are in the process of designing an environmental land management system to ensure that farmers are rewarded for the environmental benefits they deliver, such as creating habitats for wildlife. Decisions about how public goods such as biodiversity, clean air and water are delivered will be in the hands of farmers and land managers, who may choose, for example, to lower their pesticide use through integrated pesticide management. We will pay for the public benefits that they deliver.
A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol East, talked about improving soil. The question of how we increase the organic matter in soil is important. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon talked about minimum tillage, and the chemicals needed to ensure that we can engage in minimum tillage contribute to the amount of carbon we can store in our soils. Mixed farming, including livestock production, is particularly important, as manures are a vital source of plant nutrients and improve the structure and heart of our soils. That means keeping livestock, and ruminants in particular, as they are the only way in which we can utilise some of our upland soil and areas that are not suitable for intensive cereal or crop production as upland pastures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is a champion of farmers and the rural environment, and she is right that soil is a public good. Some 300 million tonnes of carbon are stored in our upland peat areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, to which I have given evidence before, but I look forward to appearing before him again. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) represents a great farming area. When I was studying agriculture at university, we went on a field trip to Ayrshire, and I am very jealous of its mild climate, brought to it by the gulf stream. It is clear that food production and the delivery of environmental objectives are not mutually exclusive; there is a synergism between those two goals, and we need to deliver them in parallel.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) asked whether the pursuit of trade deals around the world will jeopardise our high standards, as did the Labour Front-Bench representative, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I am clear that we will not lower our standards. Indeed, our very high standards and high-quality produce give those countries with which we engage in trade deals a lot to worry about. We will have a great opportunity to market that produce around the world, as is already the case for good products such as Scotch whisky.
I am delighted to hear the new Minister’s comments. Does he support the amendments to the Agriculture Bill that would maintain high standards for imported food, so that we do not import lower standard food through future trade deals?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will be looking at those amendments line by line—who knows, there may even be Government amendments tabled that will achieve many of those objectives. I was a member of that Bill Committee, so hon. Members can look at what I said at the time. I will aim to be consistent with what I said.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) talked about the intra-UK allocation of domestic support. On 16 October 2018, the Government announced a review of intra-UK allocation of domestic farm support funding that will run until the end of this Parliament, which will be in 2022—I hope. The review aims to ensure that all parts of the UK are treated fairly, and that individual circumstances are taken into account. Lord Bew will chair the review, supported by a panel drawn from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The review will look into intra-UK farm support allocations between 2020 and the end of this Parliament, in line with our manifesto commitment.
I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for welcoming me, and I welcome him in return. He actually talked a lot of sense—indeed, the points he made were an oasis of sanity within Labour policy. I am confident that we can work together constructively to deliver a successful Brexit. If he really wants to help me with this, the first thing he can do is join me in the Lobby tonight, to ensure that we deliver a successful Brexit. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned forestry, and I look forward to working with Sir William Worsley, who has been appointed as the Government’s forestry champion. He is one of my near neighbours in north Yorkshire, so I have visited him there and know that he has an amazing tale to tell.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon for securing the debate, and all those present for their contributions. The UK is a global leader in environmental management and scientific breakthroughs, including earth observations, sensors, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics. The agriculture sector can be transformed when we apply those strengths alongside our excellent reputation for producing food. The Government are committed to delivering a modern, tech-savvy and sustainable farming sector in England, with the protection of the environment at its core. The Agriculture Bill is paving the way for that shift, and I look forward to sharing further information and engaging with colleagues about our future policies in due course.
This has been an excellent debate. I think we now have 18 or 20 proponents of agriculture and modern farming, and I expect all hon. Members present to jump up in the Chamber to defend modern farming at every opportunity. I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate him on his position—I am delighted that we have a hands-on farmer in DEFRA. It is important that we think through the implications of policies announced by Ministers and Government, as we have seen in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the interdependence of modern farming and the environment.
Online Gambling Protection
I beg to move,
That this House has considered online gambling protection.
I am very conscious that today there are distractions elsewhere in the House. This debate on online gambling was never going to pull hundreds of Members away from the business of how, when and indeed if we are to leave the European Union. However, that was never the point of it. Today is a chance to update the record on where we are on online gambling, to recognise the damage being done in some very sad cases, where lives have been ruined, and to offer thoughts and float ideas on what is ahead, as well as behind us, and on the trends and direction of what is happening.
Given that the statistics show that 430,000 adults have a serious gambling issue, with 2 million more in danger of addiction and 55,000 children between the age of 11 and 14 already addicted, and with all those figures rising fast, it must be clear to us all that, yes, Houston, we absolutely have a problem. At a time when many in the country believe that Parliament and the Government are all-consumed by Brexit, it is even more important to show that that is not so. We can, and must, address an issue that will become one of the great challenges of our generation: how do we deal with online gambling?
There was a time when I thought that online gambling was a modest offshoot of the traditional bookies on the side of Cheltenham race course and Gloucestershire point-to-points. I thought they were flutters by computer for the technically savvy, but it is not so. In fact, online gambling has a higher percentage of problem and at-risk gamblers than any other type. When people log on to online gambling, they meet a plethora of sporting opportunities on which to gamble. How many throw-ins will there be in the first 15 minutes of an under-15 Azerbaijani football game? Nothing is too obscure to have odds attached to it. Not a single sport—I did not check Mongolian archery, but I am sure that someone, somewhere can offer odds—is without a gambling moment. With some 3,000 websites competing, there are plenty of options.
The size of the sector and its business is enormous, with annual industry gross profits of some £14 billion and tax receipts of £3 billion, 100,000 employees and some £200 million of advertising revenues. Is it, therefore, a huge UK success story? Yes, but even more no, because the dark side is horrific and growing. When some of those brave enough to talk about what has happened in their family do so, we really have to wonder whether we are doing enough to prevent addiction and disaster. I will give just one example: Martin Jones in Swindon, who talked to me this morning, explaining the story of his son, Josh, who eventually committed suicide in 2015 after years of fighting addiction. It is a truly tragic story, and there can be no doubt that the system is failing individuals and therefore us all.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. Is it not the case that online gambling has a predominant effect on the young, and it is the young that we need to protect in this situation?
I do not think it is exclusively an issue for the young, as the figures show, but what is true is that the figures for young gamblers are rising faster than for any others. If we are to address the problem, my hon. Friend is right that we need to tackle the youth issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a very fine line between online gambling and online gaming? Some games require a degree of gambling. I draw his attention to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s present investigation into the problems of addiction caused by online gaming, and the negative, in some cases devastating, effect that it can have on families.
My hon. Friend is right. I welcome the report that the Committee is working on; it may show higher correlations between addiction to gaming and gambling than we previously knew, which would be extremely valuable.
What we are hearing is that Josh’s case is not a one-off; hundreds commit suicide every year as a result of gambling. We do not know exactly how many—it is somewhere between 250 and 650 a year. That is a margin of error about life and death that would be completely unacceptable in any other sector. The implication that we just do not know whether 400 people committed suicide as a result of a gambling addiction or for other reasons is truly shocking. Were it, say, the construction sector or the armed forces, there would be a public inquiry about dereliction of duty.
The first thing that we have to do is radically to improve our knowledge of the facts, and to improve the research and data that is collected. The Gambling Commission, the regulator, is working on a series of partnerships with the police, the NHS, GPs and so on to improve the situation. I am sure that the Minister, who I know is very concerned about this matter, will show support for all that work. However, serious money is needed to do it effectively, and the current £8 million a year or so given by the industry as a percentage of turnover is, given their £14 billion of profit, frankly peanuts. No wonder we know so little.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Two or three really important facts are only just becoming known. One is that the big gambling companies give inducements to those who have the highest level of losses because those people make them their profits. I understand that they also do their level best eventually to get rid of those who are not in debt, and do not lose so much. They do not want them on their sites; they want those who lose, whom they can condition to it.
On the all-party parliamentary group, we have also discovered that gagging orders are being put in place to stop employees talking about what is going on. Companies are not supposed to give inducements to people who are already addicted, but it happens. Does my hon. Friend accept that that is a real problem?
My right hon. Friend, who has done a lot of work on this subject, not least through the Centre for Social Justice, is right to highlight some shocking practices that have undoubtedly happened. In my own constituency, a friend of mine who is a taxi driver ran up £650,000 of debt with one gambling firm. I hope that all taxi drivers in Gloucester are well remunerated, but frankly none of them can afford such vast amounts of money. Part of it came from inducements—indeed, there was a lot of wining and dining of such a profitable customer. That is one of the intrinsic slight conflicts of interest within the sector. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning that.
My first call today is for a serious contribution by the industry to fund vastly improved and independent research. Campaigners have been calling for it, the gambling review supported it and the industry expects it; William Hill has even called for it. I therefore ask the Minister when we can expect to see legislation in the shape of a statutory instrument to implement a levy of 1% of company gross profits as soon as possible.
It is not just research that will help us to prevent the rapid growth of what is fast becoming a social epidemic. As my hon. Friends have said, action is needed to protect the young. That means action on the astonishing amount of online gambling advertising on sports programmes. It is rampant. Fathers watching football or rugby at home and having a flutter with an accumulator on Raheem Sterling scoring a hat trick for Man City are unwittingly starting their children off with the idea that gambling is normal. We need to keep gambling adverts off TV sports programmes.
The difference between gambling and gaming has already been mentioned. Gambling companies seem to be using loot boxes as a pernicious practice to target children who are gaming and get them into the habit of gambling. It normalises the process, effectively grooming children as their next market. We could legislate to close that practice down, as Belgium, the Isle of Man and other places have done.
The hon. Gentleman makes good points. I believe that he is working closely on the issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) in the all-party group. As he points out, such practices are rampant all over the country.
Three big companies—bet365, William Hill and Ladbrokes—have already agreed in principle to a whistle-to-whistle ban during live sports before the watershed, and after it for games that start before 9 pm. That is encouraging, but I believe that we must go further. My second proposal is therefore to ban all gambling advertising during live sport as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister will confirm the point, but I do not believe that such a ban would need legislation, so I make it an ask of the regulator. I hope that the Gambling Commission’s report, which is due at the end of the month, will include a clear recommendation for such a ban. It could then be implemented by the Advertising Standards Authority, perhaps with some encouragement from the Department.
I would like to go further still. I remember watching many John Player Sunday league games and Benson and Hedges knockout matches when I was a boy cricketer. It never occurred to me at the time that there was something odd about tobacco companies sponsoring sports games while encouraging spectators to smoke, but we later learned the high risk of smokers severely damaging their lives through lung cancer and creating a huge burden for the NHS. Gradually, we all came to understand that tobacco sponsorship of sports was odd and—more importantly—unacceptable, and it was banned in 2002.
The analogy is never identical, but it is relevant. Gambling is no more suitable a partner to sport than smoking, so my question to the House is how long the same journey will take us with gambling. How long will it be before we ban gambling advertising in sports altogether? If the research on the levy shows what I hope it will show, we have a real opportunity to do something about the problem. Thousands of lives are at risk, and we should move fast. I would like to see real consideration given, depending on the evidence, to banning gambling companies from sponsoring sports altogether.
That brings me to other measures to protect vulnerable gamblers—those who are most prone to addiction and least likely to be able to afford it. Like users of fixed-odds betting terminals, many online gamblers simply cannot afford their losses, as colleagues have said. Can we not build on Monzo and Barclaycard’s encouraging start of allowing gamblers to put blocks on their debit cards against payments to gambling companies? The regulator is working well on the issue with financial industry bodies and financial services, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is also playing a part. I encourage those organisations and the Minister to take the policy forward and get all banks to offer it as soon as possible.
Gamblers know that self-exclusion can be got round easily enough—in many cases, a slightly different name will suffice, as one constituent showed me—and once a company has someone’s mobile number or email address, it pumps special offers at them day and night. My next ask is therefore that the Government endorse the Gambling Commission’s initiative to persuade banks and other credit card issuers to disallow gamblers from using their credit cards altogether. It has been put to me that banks would never directly loan money to a gambler, so why do they do so indirectly?
Using blocking technologies such as Gamban can also help. It could be made mandatory for all gambling companies to have such systems, approved by the commission and paid for by the companies themselves. Ultimately, however, I sense that it will be artificial intelligence that provides the real breakthrough in technology—through facial recognition, for example—that enables the sector and companies to block most efficiently and the regulator to do its protection work even more effectively.
That work needs to be part of a strategy that includes the NHS implementing as soon as possible the five pages on gambling in its 10-year review—an important start—and creating more gambling clinics. London and soon Leeds is a start, but it will not be enough on its own.
I hope that all hon. Members agree that there is much to do. I believe that the Gambling Commission’s report will be important; I encourage the Minister to give an oral statement as soon as the report is released, to highlight its recommendations and give the House a chance to debate the issues in more detail. In the meantime, I know that the Government are concerned about the issue and the Minister is committed to it, so I urge them to start the ball rolling as soon as possible with a statutory instrument to introduce a new 1% levy to fund research to give us the facts that we need to make the difficult decisions. I also urge them to move fast on the review’s recommendations, which I hope will include much of what I have suggested today.
Ultimately, online gambling protection is about saving lives. If we can do things that achieve that, our time in this House will have been well spent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate.
We have to look at this in the round. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise his concerns, on behalf of his constituents and more broadly. We have to balance that with the fact that millions of people enjoy gambling responsibly. A day at the races—Cheltenham is on at the moment, as we know—an evening at the bingo or a regular bet on the football each week can be enjoyable, but we must balance that against the need to protect the most vulnerable people from gambling-related harm, wherever they gamble.
Hon. Members will be aware that online gambling is an area that I care deeply about and that I have already discussed with my hon. Friend. We have also met the all-party parliamentary group for gambling-related harm, alongside the Secretary of State; my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) brings to the debate his expertise on the group’s work and ongoing concerns.
It is absolutely right that we focus on ensuring that the regulatory framework for online gambling is robust. I am aware of concerns about the need to keep pace with technological advances, so I was particularly interested in the facial recognition idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned. I assure hon. Members that the Department will act where there is evidence of harm and will always keep the issues under review.
The Gambling Act 2005 provides the Gambling Commission with strong powers to ensure that all forms of gambling, including online gambling, are crime-free, fair and open and that they focus on protecting children and vulnerable people. Any operator that sells to customers in Great Britain must be licensed by the Gambling Commission and must comply with strict regulatory requirements. The commission has shown, rightly, that it will act where those rules are broken. For example, action against online casino operators resulted in penalty packages of almost £14 million last year.
The data held by online operators allows them to identify vulnerable customers and those at risk of harm. I note with caution the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green about companies looking for losers and focusing on gambling losses. I will absolutely take those concerns away and look at them.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned gagging orders. The Gambling Commission’s rules state that businesses should work with it to ensure that they are operating appropriately and should
“disclose anything which the Commission would reasonably expect to know.”
We want to help the regulator to take robust action to guard against any breaches of the rules, so if the all-party group’s work suggests that something is not being disclosed, or if hon. Members have anything to raise, I am keen to hear more. We want to see only responsible businesses in this sector. We want to ensure that people can have an open conversation about what responsible gambling looks like.
I was struck by Josh’s story, which was told by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester. There is real concern about suicides related to gambling. As my hon. Friend points out, the number of suicides cannot be ignored. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board has published a report on measuring gambling-related harms to focus on the need to commission more research on the risk of suicide, so that we can identify harmful behaviours and so that people who enjoy a flutter or a bet can start to recognise such behaviours in those around them.
We need to remove the stigma around addiction to gambling. If someone feels like it is controlling them, the potential risk, the awareness of people around them and the opportunity to get support are really important. We need to take the stigma away and be able to work with partners. I must thank the Gambling with Lives charity, which has helped to identify the role of education in preventing harm. The Government’s review on gaming machines and social responsibility measures, which was published last May, set out a comprehensive package of measures to focus on safer and fairer gambling, and to ensure that this is paramount and at the heart of advertising and online operations.
We have heard about technological solutions. In December, Ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and I brought together the technology and gambling industries to explore the use of further technology in preventing harm and stress the importance of learning together. More recently, the Secretary of State and I met major banks that are working on interventions this summer and into the autumn, in order to discuss how they can react in a way that challenger banks have been able to, by allowing customers to block gambling facilities. I want to emphasise that technological solutions to help to protect vulnerable people from gambling-related harm are absolutely vital, and we should seek every opportunity that we can.
An example of a technological solution is the online multi-operator self-exclusion scheme, GamStop, which ensures that people who take the difficult step to self-exclude are fully supported. For the first time, people who self-exclude online can sign up once to be excluded from all operators in the scheme. It currently extends to over 90% of the market, and over 60,000 people have used the service so far.
Last week I met gamban, which is based in Southampton—I will be popping down to its offices. Its new blocking software is freely available via GamCare and prevents devices from being able to access gambling websites. This is where innovation and direct experience is helping to drive player protections, which is vital. To support such initiatives, the Gambling Commission is consulting on stronger customer interaction requirements. I met GamCare yesterday and was delighted to hear about its initiatives with operators, including providing training to industry staff on player protection and the “safer gambling standard” quality mark. Let us get this moving—it is new and something that GamCare is moving towards.
For over 20 years, GamCare has been on the frontline of service provision, and it has reflected on the change over that time. It has a helpline, which is open between 8 am and midnight, seven days a week. It is a freephone number—if anyone is watching or reads this in Hansard, the number is 0808 8020 133. When I met GamCare yesterday, I was struck by its results on getting people out of crisis and to a place where gambling is not controlling them and they are able to sort matters out. Once people have contacted the charity—it does not appear on itemised bills—the first step is to talk things through and get some help.
GamCare is running programmes for schools that are aimed at 11 to 18-year-olds, and is looking to develop new packages for 18 to 24-year-olds. I urge all operators to work with GamCare on this, so that we can educate people on the risks, what is healthy, and when and how to find help when it is needed. I intend to use the opportunities across Departments to ensure that we give advice to parents, so that protecting children is co-ordinated—that work is going on with GambleAware, which brings me to advertising and the charity’s work.
A responsible message must now appear on all TV advertising for gambling companies for the duration of adverts. The Gambling Commission has introduced tougher sanctions for operators that break advertising rules. In addition, I am delighted to have worked with GambleAware to launch the industry-funded, multimillion-pound “Bet Regret” advertising campaign, which aims to help to start a conversation around risky betting behaviours and how to reduce them. In response to public concerns, the industry has announced the “whistle-to-whistle” ban on all TV betting adverts during pre-watershed live sport.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester on the relationship between sport and gambling—both particular sports and as a whole. I have already challenged gambling companies on this. Everything is on the table with regards to responsible businesses coming forward and doing the right thing; otherwise, it is absolutely right that we should act. There are positive signs that the industry is stepping up to the challenge that we have set, but there is scope to go further. I want to see the industry meet GambleAware’s donation target of £10 million by April this year. As I have said before, we want the voluntary system to work. If it does not, I do not rule out other ways of funding support, which could include a mandatory levy.
I am working closely with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care on the recently announced problem gambling clinic in Leeds. As we heard, the NHS long-term plan has a commitment to extend access to treatment. Public Health England has developed guidance for local authorities on gambling and is undertaking an evidence review. I have even spoken locally to my GP clusters about how, through social prescribing and local conversations, we can direct people to help. I have met the Minister for suicide prevention, who is clear that she will be working on gambling as a priority. Let me be clear on my position on the policy in this area: any life lost due to gambling is a tragedy, and we will work in every way that we need to in order to keep vulnerable people protected.
From May, the Gambling Commission will bring in further changes to operators in order to include age and identity verification to allow consumers to ensure that they do not partake if they get free-to-play demo games. These changes will also include further protections for children and vulnerable consumers and will help GamStop to be more effective. The Gambling Commission recently launched a call for evidence on gambling online with credit. The Secretary of State and I are very keen to look at this, and we have already raised it with banks. It will help to develop a comprehensive picture, including the prevalence of using credit cards for gambling, and the associated risks.
We are aware of immersive gaming, an issue that was raised with regards to “skins gambling” and loot boxes. The Gambling Commission has made it clear that unlicensed gambling with in-game items known as skins is illegal, and it will take tough action. It prosecuted operators in 2017, making it the first regulator in the world to take such action. Loot boxes currently do not fall under gambling law where in-game items are acquired and confined to use within the game and cannot be cashed out, but we will continue to look at that. I am aware that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is also looking at this area.
I thank hon. and right hon. Members for taking part in this debate and ensuring that the Government hears very loudly that gambling online should be fair and safe. It is something that we all take seriously. We have delivered some important changes to online gambling regulation and will continue to review the protections and take action where it is needed. My hon. Friends have spoken passionately on this issue, and it is clear that that is our aim. The Government intend to work with the industry to bring it to the table, and to work with colleagues to ensure that vulnerable players are protected.
You do not get a comeback on a 30-minute debate, I am afraid.
Question put and agreed to.
Automatic Enrolment: Lower Earnings Limit
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the lower earnings limit for automatic enrolment.
I am very grateful to have been granted time for this debate, especially during a rather chaotic week. It serves as a reminder that although all eyes are on Brexit, a number of massively important issues still need to be dealt with; that is the day job for some. One of those problems is the low earnings limit for automatic enrolment.
I want to make it clear that we support automatic enrolment. It has had a lot of positive impacts, as I am pretty sure all hon. Members agree. An estimated 10 million workers have been enrolled in workplace pensions by more than 1.4 million employers. That is an estimated £18.4 billion a year extra in workplace pensions due to auto-enrolment. Opt-out rates have been lower than expected, and participation by eligible 22 to 29-year-olds has increased. There are obvious moves in the right direction but, as with most things relating to pensions, the devil is in the detail.
The first issue is the delay in scrapping the limit. I have a problem with the lower earnings limit, and I am glad that the UK Government agreed to scrap it eventually, but I cannot understand why it is taking so long. All we have been told is that no changes will take effect until the mid-2020s. TUC research shows that a delay of six years in scrapping the limit could cut a saver’s pension pot by £12,000. That is for workers with annual earnings of £10,000, and it includes missed contributions and investment growth on funds. An employee who earns £10,000 would get more than double the amount of employer pension contributions when the limit is scrapped. The UK figures show that that would mean an extra £2.6 billion a year going into workers’ pensions, including £1 billion more from employers. If we are serious about creating a culture that recognises our ageing population and the problems relating to pensions that are on the horizon, and if we want people to save persistently throughout their lives, the low earnings limit cannot continue. It does not make sense.
The positive impacts of auto-enrolment are evidence that it is working and that things are moving in the right direction. We should be trying to include everyone in auto-enrolment. Those who are paid the least are the very people we should be looking out for the most, because they are the most likely to slip through the cracks. Their pension pot, no matter how small it is, is probably the only useful capital they have in retirement. Will the Minister give a concrete guarantee, rather than a vague timescale, about when the limit will be scrapped?
The second issue is that those on the lowest incomes are the most likely to lose out as a result of an increase to the lower earnings limit. For the lowest earners, £6,136 is a large proportion of their earnings. If employers do not include that amount in people’s earnings when calculating pension contributions, pension savings will be affected considerably. Worryingly, the changes will predominantly affect women in multiple part-time jobs, as the rise means that less of a low earner’s salary attracts pension contributions. The TUC has rightly pointed out that there is no mechanism to include those working multiple jobs with earnings below £10,000 in auto-enrolment.
The Pensions Policy Institute calculated that if income from multiple jobs was taken into account, a further 80,000 people could be saving for retirement. That breaks down to 60,000 women and 20,000 men. Once again, the Government are not responding fast enough—or, arguably, at all in some cases—to women’s concerns about their pensions. That is a theme that I have seen since I was elected.
Those concerns have been raised previously. Baroness Drake put it perfectly when she said:
“we are designing a private pension system that does not work for women who work part-time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 February 2014; Vol. 752, c. 201.]
I would argue that women do not have an adequate state pension to rely on at the moment. Ultimately, this increase is contradictory to the apparent aim of scrapping the limit altogether.
The third issue is that as the gap widens between the personal allowance and the lower earners limit, low earners are in a pension lottery through no choice of their own. The Treasury has said that the personal tax allowance will rise to £12,500. However, under the net pay method, pension contributions are deducted before tax is calculated, and savers’ tax relief is based directly on their marginal rate. That means that savers who earn less than the £12,500 tax threshold do not receive the 20% relief that they would through their employer if they were in a relief-at-source scheme. This issue affects more than 1 million people who earn more than the earnings trigger of £10,000, but less than the personal allowance of £12,500. As auto-enrolment brings in more lower-paid earners, the number caught in the net pay trap is likely to increase.
I am grateful for the fact that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has said that it recognises this issue and is looking at ways to resolve it. It has said that one of the possible routes is a digital answer. I only hope that it is within closer reach than the so-called digital answer to the Irish border question. It would be helpful if the Minister could update us and say what conversations he has had with colleagues in HMRC about potential fixes.
On top of that, there are rumours that the UK Government will reduce tax relief on pension contributions in the upcoming Budget. Will the Minister give us a concrete commitment that that will not happen under this Government? Has he sought confirmation from the Chancellor that the inconsistency between the net pay schemes and other schemes will be corrected before the spring statement?
I have made these comments in this Chamber and elsewhere quite a few times. Pensions are a mess just now, and anything we can do to get more people saving has to be seen as a positive. The evidence so far suggests that auto-enrolment is a positive, so I ask the Government to stop dragging their heels and get this in motion.
I am grateful to you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing it.
Since October 2012, the Government have placed new duties on employers to ensure that their workers are automatically enrolled and contributing to a workplace pension. The duties ensure access to workplace pensions for workers who were not previously in a workplace pension scheme, who earn more than £10,000 and are above 22 years old.
The automatic enrolment into workplace pension schemes has broadly been a success. Ten million workers have now been enrolled into workplace pension schemes by more than 1.4 million employers. That means that 84% of eligible employees were participating in workplace pension schemes as of 2017—a nearly 30% increase since 2012. An estimated additional £18.4 billion a year will now go into workplace pension schemes because of automatic enrolment. I am also pleased that 79% of young workers aged 22 to 29 were participating in workplace pension schemes as of 2017, alongside 84% of women. The increase in workplace pension scheme participation among private sector workers is also welcome. There has been a nearly 40% increase between 2012 and 2017.
Despite initial concerns, opt-out rates from automatic enrolment into workplace pension schemes stood at 9% in 2017. That is significantly lower than initial Department for Work and Pensions estimates of 25% and highlights that employers and workers recognise the benefits of participating in workplace pension schemes. The initial success does not mean that more progress cannot be made. An estimated 12 million people are still thought to be under-saving for their retirement. Workers who earn more than £10,000 per year are automatically enrolled but end up losing out because their contributions are calculated from the bottom of the qualifying earnings band. Non-eligible workers who earn £10,000 or less a year in each of their jobs do not qualify for automatic enrolment, even if their combined earnings exceed £10,000.
Some eligible workers who earn at or just below the lower earnings limit in each of their jobs are not necessarily entitled to an employer contribution, even if they opt into a workplace pension scheme. Those earning less than £10,000 are missing out.
Young workers—particularly those aged 18 to 21—do not benefit from automatic enrolment because the lower age limit is set at 22. Employers are not required to automatically enrol workers whose earnings are below £10,000. There are other issues around automatic enrolment of those with multiple jobs and fluctuating earnings, and of the self-employed. I can add zero-hour contracts to that, because they often mean earnings of less than £10,000.
Those issues must be addressed if we are to encourage greater participation in workplace pension schemes and greater savings for retirement. We need to look at solutions to those issues, such as lowering the age limit from 22 to 18, as well as automatically enrolling low-income workers by calculating pension contributions from the first pound earned, rather than using the current lower earnings limit.
It is vital that we get right the system of auto-enrolment of workers into workplace pension schemes in the light of the Government’s attacks on pensions over recent years. There have been increases to the state pension age; suggestions from the Chancellor that the state pension may no longer be ring-fenced from spending cuts after 2020; threats to benefits that our pensioners enjoy, such as the free TV licences for the over-75s; and the disgraceful treatment of the WASPI women, who I fully support in their fight for justice.
The policy of automatic enrolment for workplace pension schemes began under the last Labour Government, was implemented by the coalition Government and was supported by the SNP in its 2015 manifesto. We all want to ensure that workers can save for retirement, and that they have all necessary support to do so. That is why it is important not only that we commend the success of the scheme up to now, but that we make real progress on outstanding problems with automatic enrolment. I urge the Government to tackle those issues. Let us deliver for the working people on low pay in this country. Let us give them some dignity in retirement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for his contribution.
I am a firm believer in workers’ rights, but with Brexit on the horizon, it feels like even the most basic rights are no longer guaranteed or a priority. It speaks volumes that we are having this debate in this Chamber while the Brexit debate takes place in the main Chamber. It is important to recognise where the Government are taking positive action. Although it is not perfect, the attempt at auto-enrolment was one way for the Government to recognise the huge issues with the current pensions system. It has meant that eligible workers are automatically enrolled on a pension scheme, with the employer obliged to pay towards their employee’s pension.
In reality, however, it will allow pensions contributions to be paid at set limits and with set criteria, which the Government have set out in a phased timeline. The Government have made no firm commitments on when exactly the conclusion of that timeline will be, and in reality, it does not quite meet the mark of what is required for people to truly be able to plan for financial retirement.
If the Government were to scrap the lower-earnings limit, as my hon. Friend outlined, that would allow pension contributions to be paid from the first pound of every worker’s salary. Currently, employers do not have to include the first £6,032 that an employee earns when calculating pension contributions, so if the Government removed the lower earnings limit, that would mean a significant increase to the employee’s pension pot.
As was outlined earlier, that would account for an extra £2.6 billion a year going into workers’ pensions, including £1 billion more from employers, according to the Government’s own figures. The Government released detailed plans to scrap the lower earnings limit in 2017, but have given only a vague commitment to take action on it in the mid-2020s. When does the Minister envisage that that will happen? 2023? 2024? 2025? 2027? Rather than the vague timescale that the Minister has set out previously, can he give a concrete guarantee about exactly when the lower earnings limit will be scrapped? To put that into perspective, research by the TUC outlines that a six-year delay could cut a saver’s pension pot by £12,000—based on the 2022 figure rather than the 2028 figure—which would make a sizeable difference to the affected individuals.
I will address some of the key flaws and primary concerns of the issue. The lower earnings limit trigger provides eligibility for the auto-enrolment programme. When it was introduced, it was set at £5,035 a year, and then increased to £7,457, which resulted in the exclusion of 600,000 workers, of whom 78% were women. After increases over the years, the earnings trigger was frozen at £10,000 in 2015-16 up to the current period of 2018-19. That resulted in the exclusion of an additional 40,000 workers, of whom 30,000 were women, notwithstanding the fact that increasing the lower earnings limit to £10,000 excluded 170,000 workers, of whom 120,000—69%—were women. I hope that that illustrates to the Minister, who I am sure already knows this, my key concerns—as spokesperson for women and equalities—about the problems this poses for women.
A whole raft of evidence, relating particularly to young or middle-aged women, shows that the Government are not hitting the mark on these matters. The WASPI women issue has run for many years and, if we consider the last economic crisis, women took the brunt of it: £14 billion was taken from women, through various tax measures, to deal with the crisis. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is about time that something was done about that?
I wholeheartedly agree. The Government have been remiss in their responsibilities to address those epidemic concerns that have increased during their stewardship in government.
I will turn to the concerns that I have outlined, including those of women, low-paid workers and the WASPI women, on whom the Government have a shambolic record. Low-paid workers, including those who have multiple jobs that do not meet that threshold, are more often than not below the earnings threshold and do not therefore meet the criteria for auto enrolment. There is no mechanism for auto-enrolment for the self-employed.
Another group of individuals has also been completely forgotten in this programme. There is a duty to enrol for those aged between 22 and the state pension age. Those in the six-year gap between the ages of 16 and 22 will therefore be adversely impacted by that decision. The Government acknowledged that problem, but addressed it by saying that many people in that age group tend to move jobs a lot, so it is not administratively worthwhile to account for them in the programme.
What do the Government say, however, to a young person who goes into a full-time permanent job at 16? Are they not entitled to pension contributions? The UK Government have said that they will lower the age to 18 by the mid-2020s. Can the Minister tell us exactly when that will happen?
The contribution is currently set at £6,032, going up to a threshold of £46,350. That has been on a phased increase since 2012. In reality, the minimum recommendation that is currently estimated for pension savings is 15% to 18%. If the Government were to remove the lower earnings limit, it would add £2.6 billion to the annual pensions pot. That would still account for only 8% of the estimated required pension savings. That means a shortfall of 12%, on average, for each individual of working age in the UK. The Government have to address that.
The Minister himself, however, has admitted that 8% is not a sufficient contribution for a long-term retirement, and the Government’s own figures suggest that approximately 12 million people are under-saving for retirement. I hate to take words out of the Minister’s mouth, but he will probably point to the pensions dashboard to support better planning for retirement. However, for women, low-paid workers, those in multiple low-paid jobs, those aged from 16 to 22 who are in full-time permanent employment, the self-employed, and those on zero-hours contracts who fall below that threshold, can the Government say that they are serving them? For society as a whole, does the existing lower earnings limit sufficiently
“support better planning for retirement”,
to use the Government’s own words? The Government record on WASPI women alone proves that, more often than not, the evidence is that in most instances the most vulnerable in society are an afterthought.
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady’s flow—but I am also allowing her to take a sip of water. Of course I will cite the pensions dashboard, which I am sure that the SNP very much support and in reality will make a significant difference, but there is also the Single Financial Guidance Body, which was set up under legislation passed last year. It is there specifically to cater for the vulnerable and to assist those who require greater ongoing access to pension advice. I hope that she will accept that such matters, passed on a cross-party basis, are evidence of ongoing assistance to people she and I genuinely care about.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. He might well remember that the SNP supported the concept of a pensions dashboard, but the Government rejected a number of key amendments in which we argued for the protection of vulnerable individuals. We are singing from the same hymn sheet about our ambitions and aims, but the fact of the matter is that the Government have the responsibility to introduce the scrapping of the lower earnings limit and the introduction of auto-enrolment pensions contributions, at the very least for those aged 18 and over, and at present they have not made a commitment to do so. He must act on his own words.
Women are often the primary parents or carers for loved ones. They are often the ones who take career breaks and part-time or flexible work to fit in with their responsibilities. They also live longer and work more hours to make ends meet. They are the most likely to be impacted by this Government’s decisions and will bear the long-term impact of the changes. Why is the Minister delaying, and to what end? Is he hoping to kick the issue further down the road so that this Government do not have to deal with it, and a future Government will, or will he give a cast-iron commitment today that he will do something to address the issue on lower earnings limits and for each of the vulnerable groups that I have mentioned?
Ultimately, ensuring that every pound earned by every worker counts towards their pension should be an ambition that we all strive for. If the estimated savings of a pension ought to be 15% to 18%, the Government’s ambition to reach 8% already falls short. The whole low-paid workforce should predominantly be recognised for their hard-earned contributions. I hope that the Government will answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South and I have asked today, and that they will commit to deliver on this policy.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Sir Gary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing this debate and once again leading the agenda in this place on pensions matters. Frankly, as the youngest Member of the Commons, she is an example and a role model to speak so well with authority and eruditeness on an issue that more young people should embrace and engage with. As I approach my 33rd birthday, I include myself and my peers in that youthful bracket—
We are going for consensus in this debate, Minister, so we should continue on that ground.
The SNP supports and has always supported auto-enrolment but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South highlighted, we remain critical friends. Only last month, I raised the delay in scrapping the lower earnings limit threshold when the Minister brought the relevant statutory instrument to the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend mentioned a number of benefits if only the Government would scrap the threshold, and during the SI debate the Minister said that auto-enrolment was a success story. I agree, but we could make it so much more successful if we only got on with it.
I hope that we can build on what my hon. Friend rightly said in arguing for the lower earnings limit to be scrapped and that, in summing up, the Minister will provide us with a clear and concrete timetable for the UK Government to meet and achieve their policy promise. I would also appreciate him clarifying whether implementation of the commitment to scrap the lower earnings limit will require a submission to the comprehensive spending review and, if so, is that being prepared by his Department?
I am sorry that I do not have more contributions to the debate to sum up. It is obviously an important debate and I am sorry that no one other than the Minister—I look forward to hearing from him—and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), managed to drag themselves away from the unfolding Brexit mess going on in the main Chamber.
I am grateful to those who have contributed to the debate, including my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), for being present and for his speech. He also spoke in favour of the Government’s policy being implemented, and he rightly reiterated much of the information and statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South provided to the House in her speech. He was also right to refer to the age restrictions; he mentioned the WASPI women, and I am sure he would agree that no one outside the WASPI campaign has done more to raise the profile of those women, argue their case, or represent them in this place than my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made a powerful, fact-based speech. She was right to say that the delay in implementing the policy in full is preventing people from being able to plan adequately for their future. I know that is not the Minister’s intention, but he must acknowledge that the longer that the delay is allowed to continue, the more that will be the case. She was also right to ask whether a 16-year-old working the same full-time job as a 26-year-old colleague should continue to be discriminated against by not receiving pension contributions when their colleagues do.
In conclusion, I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South. She was right to say that things are moving in the right direction and that that is what we want to see, but we want greater and swifter action. The delay, the problems with making progress on realising the pensions dashboard, the WASPI women issues, and the lack of a concrete pensions policy all highlight, in our view, the need for an independent pensions commission. In summing up, on an otherwise troubling day for the Minister and his colleagues in Government, I hope that he will bring some joy and set out a clear, concrete timetable for scrapping the lower earnings limit. I look forward to hearing from him in that regard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) for initiating the debate. I strongly agree with her that however central Brexit is to the future of our country, we run the risk of issues of immense importance and concern to the general public not being properly addressed here. I therefore commend her for bringing forward the debate.
The Minister will forgive me if I say what I have said on previous occasions: auto-enrolment is a testament to the previous Labour Government. I played a bit part in the process by chairing the policy commission that led to the appointment of Adair Turner. It was his genius and the team he brought together that ultimately produced the proposals for auto-enrolment. That was at a time when there were great strengths in the pensions system, such as many more defined-benefit schemes than, sadly, there are now. However, it was clear then, as it is now, that millions of people were simply not covered, or not covered adequately, by the existing pensions arrangements, so auto-enrolment was an important step in the right direction.
I welcome the fact that there has been continuity of policy. There is also cross-party consensus about the importance of auto-enrolment and of building on it at the next stages. There is no question but that a better pension landscape has been created; 10 million more workers are estimated to be newly saving, or saving more as a result of auto-enrolment into master trusts. That has led to an additional £17 billion and rising of pension savings put away, mostly by lower-income workers. We welcome the Government’s direction of travel, yet to be delivered on in practice, for those who are 18 and over; but I support the representations made that however welcome the direction of travel, it has to be acted on urgently at the next stages. I, too, look forward to the Minister’s response.
Although auto-enrolment is a landmark achievement, it is not a perfect system. Over and above the issue of the age threshold, there are other issues that crucially need addressing. First, the threshold for which workers are automatically enrolled is simply too high. In previous debates we have referred to the statistics, which speak for themselves. Department for Work and Pensions statistics show that 37% of female workers, 33% of workers with a disability and 28% of black and minority ethnic workers are not eligible for master trust saving through auto-enrolment.
Secondly, auto-enrolment does not cover the self-employed or workers in the gig economy. The Government are undertaking pilot projects, and we support that crucial initiative. Sadly, because of the nature of work as a whole, female workers, workers with disabilities, and black, Asian and minority ethnic workers are over-represented among low earners, the self-employed, those with multiple jobs and carers.
On the gig economy, we strongly believe in, have argued for and will continue to press for the redefinition of those employed as workers, to make them eligible for auto-enrolment. The problem is that self-employment and bogus self-employment are increasingly prominent in the modern economy. Figures released last year suggest that the number of self-employed workers in the UK rose by 23% between 2007 and 2017, from 3.8 million to 4.7 million. That represents a shift in the nature of the world of work and the way in which the British economy works. The self-employed represent about 15% of the workforce, and 91% of businesses say that they hire contractors. Of course, there are many people for whom self-employment is their employment of choice, and who welcome it, but too many are increasingly conscripted into self-employment against their will, with no alternative. That is why it is so important that we change the definition of employee.
To return to pensions, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that only 19% of the self-employed are saving into a personal pension. The Government need to address that as a matter of urgency. The pilot projects are a step in the right direction, but the sooner they are completed and action is taken, the better. It is wrong to combine decreased security in the world of work with decreased security in retirement as a consequence of bogus self-employment.
The Minister mentioned that more workers have access to a pension pot; that is welcome, but the public’s awareness of and knowledge about their pensions need to increase at the same time. He made reference to the Single Financial Guidance Body, established as a consequence of the Act of Parliament passed last year. That was an important step in the right direction. The SFGB is rightly tasked with ensuring that more of the public are properly educated about their financial issues, including their pensions. Crucially, the new body needs to be adequately resourced, but it is a strong step in the right direction. The almost parallel move towards a pensions dashboard is welcome, but urgent action must be taken to bring it into being, although the steps thus far are welcome.
The hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) spoke about the lower earnings figure; we first raised that important issue in Parliament back in 2014. We proposed lowering the automatic enrolment earnings trigger to the same limit as the threshold for paying national insurance—£5,773 at the time. That would have brought 1.5 million more workers into saving for their retirement. Two thirds of the extra savers would have been women; that would have gone a long way to tackling the 37% of women who are not automatically enrolled into saving.
Not bringing lower earning workers into auto-enrolment risks leaving a ticking time bomb for the state to deal with when those workers retire. Scrapping or lowering the lower earnings limit for auto-enrolment and reducing the minimum age to 18 will introduce many more savers into auto-enrolment, and will welcome workers into saving for their pension as soon as they start work. The earnings trigger and the lower limit are crucial issues, and we hope that the Government will act on them. We look forward to the Minister’s response.
In conclusion, a number of issues have arisen from this debate. Auto-enrolment is a strong step in the right direction, but we always ought to see such steps as the first, and not the last, word.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) on securing the debate. It is a fair and legitimate comment that some hon. Members are a little distracted by other matters taking place in the House of Commons, but I make the point that although we may have our differences on Brexit and all the difficult issues that are being debated in the main Chamber, the House is still debating and considering other matters, such as legislation on female genital mutilation, which was passed on a cross-party basis last night, and auto-enrolment, which is crucial to the long-term retirement future of all our constituents from all different backgrounds.
I genuinely welcome the debate. When I saw it on the Order Paper, I felt pleased to have the opportunity to debate auto-enrolment and to address this particular issue. The hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), have raised the issue in a series of parliamentary questions. I answered those questions at reasonable, but clearly not sufficient, length on 20 and 21 February, and I will attempt to address them in more detail today.
It is right to celebrate, as other hon. Members have done, the fact that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, 6,000 men and women are benefiting from auto-enrolment. Thanks are due to the 1,130 employers that have genuinely stepped up to the plate and are in the position to make that contribution through their payroll deduction to employees up and down her constituency.
I should also say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Given that I have a little time, I make the point that in your Devon constituency, you have 6,000 employees who are benefiting on an ongoing basis, and 1,350 very good employers that should be thanked.
It is embarrassing how often I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), but he is right that this is a cross-party success story that, in my view, all political parties have got behind. I will turn to the points of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South in a second, but the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington is right to say that the process was started under a Labour Government with the Turner commission. It was then brought forward under the coalition, when my position was held by a Liberal Democrat, Steve Webb, late lamented of this House—although I think we took his seat, so he is not that lamented.
More particularly, I am the latest in a long line of pensions Ministers and Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions—including the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is married to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington—who have brought forward these very positive changes. They were developed by the coalition Government, and we have expanded on them.
The key issue in relation to this is the automatic enrolment review of 2017, which, as Members can see, is not a small document. It addresses the issues and was independently commissioned by the Government. A number of experts took a great deal of evidence and addressed what should be done in considerable detail.
In answer to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, the issue is not whether we will lower the earnings limit; we will do that. Nor is it whether we will lower the age limit from 22 to 18; we will do that. The question is when. I accept that there is a legitimate and real debate to be had in this House when legislation is brought forward as to when those changes should take place. I do not want anyone to be in any doubt: there is no question but that our policy, as set out in the 2017 review, made clear in the House previously and confirmed today, is to bring the age limit down from 22 to 18, and to bring the threshold down to the first pound earned.
I accept that there will be pressure today, as Members have made clear, to do this much sooner. I take the point that the SNP, individually as Members of Parliament and collectively through their shadow Minister, is urging the Government to act sooner. There is a serious point that the House needs to consider; we all celebrate the successes of auto-enrolment but it would be naive and wrong to say that it is an utterly done deal yet.
We accept and are grateful for the Government’s continued commitment to scrapping the lower earnings limit and reducing the age limit. We welcome that commitment today. It is not just the SNP and the official Opposition who have been putting pressure on the Minister. The Minister has put pressure on himself, because he committed that this would be done by the mid-2020s. Is that still likely? If so, my previous question stands: where is the timetable for that to be achieved?
I will give a long answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I promise that I will answer it. Some 1.4 million employers have met their duties and are now offering members of staff a pension as a right. That is a significant change for those employers, and a significant burden for them. Raising the threshold, from 2% to start with, up to 5% last year and going up to 8% in April, is a significant burden. We are not talking about just the bigger employers, who can cope with it much better and have advanced payroll systems. Some of them have been paying over the odds from the word go and, to their great credit, some companies up and down the country immediately went to 5% or above. There are two key impacts that need to be assessed. We have only just got the information about the April 2018 increase and the opt-outs that took place then. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there was just under 1% opt-out out because of the increase to 5%.
One of my main jobs in this position, which, contrary to popular belief, I actually asked to do and enjoy doing, is to take the 1.4 million employers and the 10 million employees in this country up to 8% with the minimum number of opt-outs, and the minimum impact on the economic outlook of the country. The harsh reality is that there will be a significant change to the deductions made from individuals’ pay packets, but also to the burden on businesses, whether they are large FTSE 100 businesses or coffee shops or corner shops in our local communities. Dealing with how things go this April is one of the most important, if not the most important, job I have, given the massive impact of this on all our communities. We have only just raised the threshold to 5%. We have the most important rise—a double jump—this April. It would be wrong if the Secretary the State and I, and the wider Government, talked about changing the basis for auto-enrolment before assessing how the 8% rise had gone.
This is quite a complicated process; it will genuinely take the best part of 9 months to go through all the data and get a definitive understanding of where we are on the 8%. At best, I will not know the degree of opt-outs until Christmas. It seems utterly wrong for me to seek to change the nature of the legal basis until I have a real understanding of the impact of the 8% increase.
The Minister says that we have to wait for more evidence. As I said in my speech, the DWP assumed that roughly 25% of those eligible would opt out, and the 2017 average was 9%. The Minister has talked about getting updated figures, but the participation among 22 to 29-year-olds increased from 35% in 2012 to 79% in 2017. The evidence already suggests that we are heading in the right direction and that the changes are working. Further to that, the logic of the lower earnings limit being set was that some people will not earn enough to get value for money out of their pension towards the end. Would it not be an easier answer just to pay people more, and to introduce a real living wage?
We are getting slightly off topic, but I am very happy to make the point that in 2010, when the coalition came into government, the living wage—the minimum wage as it was then—was £5.80. It is now £8.21, going up to £9, as the hon. Lady will be aware. I am happy to have a discussion about the tax threshold, which means that individual members of our communities have a huge amount more in their pockets. The tax threshold was £6,500 in 2010. It is now going up to £12,500, which will make a massive difference to the individual take-home.
All those things are good things. There is also the benefit of free childcare. We have gone from having no free childcare available whatever, up to 15 and 30 hours. It depends on how one values childcare, but taking it even on a very low basis, individual low earners would have the benefit of 30 hours a week free childcare, in those circumstances where that applies. If they have 30 hours a week childcare, that is a benefit of £150 a week minimum. I have worked it out on a £5 basis, but other statistics could give the rate.
My point is that if one looks solely at individual earnings on a long-term basis, taken in isolation that is one thing, but we also have to look at the impact of the rise in wages. It may not be as high as the hon. Lady would like, but she is making my point, so I will stop being partisan and saying, “Aren’t we doing well on the living wage, the tax threshold and childcare?” Park that for a moment. Some of those matters are burdens on individual employers.
The harsh reality is that the corner shop in the hon. Lady’s Paisley constituency, or the coffee shop—forget about the big employer—is now paying a considerably larger wage bill, because the low earners who were previously on the minimum wage are now on the living wage. The larger employers are also potentially paying the apprenticeship levy, and in April will pay up to 3% on auto-enrolment. The engagement that took place in the 2017 review indicated that time should be allowed before we reassess the way ahead. I am absolutely sure that there should be consideration of that. I accept that there is pressure on that.
I will try to address the other couple of points that the hon. Lady made, before moving on to some of the other questions. She asked about the reduction of pensions tax relief and the difference between net pay and relief at source. It is entirely right to raise those matters; she will understand that they dealt with by the Chancellor and the Treasury.
The idea that I have full control over the spring statement or the Budget, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) suggested, is something that I think we all understand is not the case. I do not have advance sight of the spring statement, but if he wishes to push for my promotion, I would be very keen for that—not that I want to be promoted, because I actually enjoy this brief.
The reality of the situation is that there is clearly a difference between relief at source and the net pay arrangement. It is acknowledged; there is no question but that something must be done on an ongoing basis. HMRC and the Treasury are aware, and there is ongoing discussion with them on that particular point.
While I am dealing with the Treasury, the question was raised about where we are in relation to long-term tax relief on pensions. Again, that is a matter for the Chancellor, but although I accept that there was some discussion about it in some comments made before the last Budget, hon. Members will be aware that there was no fundamental change to the tax relief on pensions.
I have rather disregarded my speech, but I will go back to a couple of key points. First, hon. Members will be aware that we debated this matter briefly in January, and the House debated and then agreed that the lower and upper limits of the qualifying earnings should be aligned with the national insurance earning bands in 2019-20, at £6,136 and £50,000 respectively. Not only does that provide stability and harmonisation on an ongoing basis, but we maintained the earnings trigger at £10,000, meaning a real-terms decrease due to anticipated wage growth, which brought an additional 40,000 savers into automatic enrolment, three quarters of whom were women.
I will address a couple of the other points raised. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, whose constituency I know very well, having ridden at the Overton point-to-point far too many times—not very well; I did not win there—will be pleased to know that there are 14,000 individual employees in her constituency who benefit from the automatic enrolment. She specifically raised the issue of somebody aged between 16 and 22 who was earning but not able to get access to a pension. It is not often known—I have the great delight of telling the House this and urge the hon. Lady to tell others—that that individual aged between 16 and 22 can opt into an automatic enrolment pension with their employer. They have the ability to do that. Similar comments apply to the self-employed; they can opt in and be addressed on an ongoing basis.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts called for a pensions commission. With respect, we had that: it was called the Cridland report, an independent pensions commission to which all political parties, including the SNP, along with trade unions and the Labour party, made submissions. Whether they agreed with it or not, it was definitely the case that they made submissions.
On the self-employed, the reality is that we are continuing to expand in a great deal of detail the trials that are going on. We are considering the Taylor review, and it is my strong view that we should expand that more. I am certainly pressing to ensure that the self-employed have greater access to a pension.
I thank the Minister for enlightening me on his experiences of his jockey career in my constituency; I am sure that will be a treat for my constituents to learn. Going back for a second to the point about 16 to 22-year-olds and the opt-in, ultimately there is an emphasis on young people opting into that process and no requirement for the employer to contribute to their contributions. Does he agree that even if the Government bring forward this change for 18-year-olds and make it mandatory for employers to contribute, “mid-2020s” is a vague definition? I would be keen to hear exactly how the Minister defines “mid-2020s”, and when 18-year-olds can be guaranteed to get the same matched back from their employers.
The hon. Lady will understand that there is a big lead-in time between the passing of a parliamentary Act—this applies particularly in pensions—and when that Act kicks in. The reality is that I cannot give a definitive date today, nor do I intend to do so. I do not believe it would be appropriate to do so. I am not just giving what some would describe as a politician’s answer; I am giving my strong belief, which is that, until we have got through the 8%, we should not make a decision, because the impact on employers and employees needs to be measured on an ongoing basis. There is no dispute between us in any part of the House, I believe, that this needs to be done; the only question is when that process should take place.
I am keen to try to address the points of the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who has 10,000 employees in his constituency who have had the benefit of auto-enrolment. He raised individual points in relation to the state pension. I make the point that the state pension is up more than £1,000 in real terms since 2010. There is no evidence for his assertion that the state pension could not be afforded post 2020 as per the Chancellor. That is simply not the case. It is most definitely not the indication from the Chancellor, and it is definitely not Government policy whatsoever. We have committed to the triple lock.
I am conscious that I need to wrap up very shortly. The reality is that, for women, pensions enrolment has gone from 40% to 80% by reason of auto-enrolment; enrolment in the private sector has risen from just over 40% up towards 80%; 22 to 29-year-olds have dramatically improved enrolment to above 75% from a very low base; and low earners from the £10,000 to £20,000 bracket have gone from 20% enrolment up to nearly 70%.
At the same stage, we are doing things such as the pensions dashboard, on which I hope to report back to the House within a matter of weeks. We are doing the Single Financial Guidance Body, which is now up and running, with the former chair of StepChange, Sir Hector Sants, in charge. We are also pioneering things like the midlife MOT, which has a public sector angle, with what we are doing at the Department for Work and Pensions, but is also private sector-led as well, to get a greater engagement. We are also doing simpler statements for those with private sector pensions. It is my intention that all private-sector businesses that provide pensions will be giving a simple two-page statement to all their customers. Whether that is done on a voluntary basis or by statute is a matter to be decided.
It is definitely the case that we are, I believe, in glorious agreement about what the position is going forward. It is not the case that there is much dispute between us. I accept that this is something that we will have to return to in the future. For the moment, I cannot give the definitive date that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East seeks, but I am very happy to continue the debate as we go forward.
Just very briefly, on the Minister’s end point there, it would be very useful if he could at least tell us whether the scrapping or lowering of the limit will be phased in, or whether it will be a blanket switch-over one night. Some detail on that would be much appreciated.
The thing that makes me quite uncomfortable in this speech and in this debate is that one of the key arguments here is that women will again bear the brunt of this. I am actually glad that we cannot get through any debate on pensions without someone mentioning WASPI, because, if anything, WASPI actually shows exactly the kind of reputation that the Government are gaining with regard to pensions. To see problems such as this being pointed out to the Government and there being no real answer as to how they are going to support women, who are yet again bearing the brunt of the worst that is happening, is quite depressing. I hope that is something that the Minister will reflect on.
I am grateful, finally, to my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for pointing out that if people can work at the age of 16, they should be able to contribute to their own pension. I do not see why the age reduction should stop at 18. If people can start working at 16, they can start saving for a pension, especially if it is at the point where their employer does not actually have to contribute.
Again, I am grateful to everybody—all six of you—for attending the debate. This is a very important issue, and I hope that we have given the Minister food for thought.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the lower earnings limit for automatic enrolment.