Wednesday 12 June 2019
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Domestic Abuse and Homelessness
I beg to move,
That this House has considered domestic abuse and homelessness.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and I thank everyone for coming this morning. I particularly thank all the organisations that provided briefings for this debate, and all the individuals who have provided their personal experiences and stories to help us make the case for improving the law to prevent people affected by domestic abuse from ending up homeless. The case is harder to make without that experience and those statements, so I am grateful for their input.
I speak as the Member of Parliament for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. Last week we published our report on this issue, entitled “A Safe Home: Breaking the link between homelessness and domestic abuse.” I thank the Minister and many colleagues for attending the launch, and everyone who has signed up to this campaign already. The campaign we are running is supported by many organisations, including Crisis, Women’s Aid, Refuge, St Mungo’s, Shelter, the Domestic Abuse and Housing Alliance, Homeless Link, Changing Lives, Hestia, Centrepoint, Depaul UK, the Chartered Institute of Housing, The Connection at St Martin’s and Surviving Economic Abuse. There is a huge platform behind the campaign, and my thanks go to all the organisations and individuals that have already signed up. The report and materials linked to it are on the Crisis’s website.
We hold this morning’s debate in the context of a change in Prime Minister and Government. I hope whoever next enters Downing Street, and whatever team they bring together, will not slow down the Domestic Abuse Bill and will accept the aims of our campaign. We have an evidence base that clearly demonstrates the need to improve housing support for survivors of domestic abuse. Some people get no help at all, and even those who can access emergency short-term hostels and refuges face huge and often insurmountable barriers to long-term safe homes. Too many people are being let down, having their lives further damaged and facing further isolation and risk. Sadly, that is today’s grim reality. However, we have a crucial window of opportunity to address this significant concern. I hope the Government will indicate today that they will act quickly, using the Domestic Abuse Bill as the vehicle for change.
The national evidence base is worryingly extensive and paints a grim picture of the current situation. I shall go through some key stats to inform this morning’s debate. Research carried out by Crisis found that 61% of women and 16% of men had experienced violence or abuse by a partner. Many of the men affected are from the LGBT community, but the vast majority of people affected are women. One in five of Crisis’s clients who are women report that domestic abuse was the primary cause of their homelessness.
Some 53% of survivors supported by Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project were prevented from making a valid homelessness application by their local authority. The project provides additional support to women who struggle to access refuge places, but nearly a quarter of the women involved were prevented from even making a homelessness application, as they were told upfront by councils that they would not meet the threshold for priority need.
According to official statistics, 1.6 million women and 695,000 men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales last year. Domestic abuse is inextricably linked with housing; most abuse occurs at home, and a lack of alternative housing is a key barrier to people escaping domestic abuse. The latest Government statistics, for 2018, show that 5,380 households were made homeless in England over a three-month period because of domestic abuse.
It is vital that victims are given a clear, safe route out of abusive and potentially life-threatening situations, and offered long-term stability. Currently, this is simply not available, but it is a situation that could be easily fixed. Without that fix in place, such abuse has contributed to some horrendous circumstances. One extreme example that was brought to the attention of the APPG on ending homelessness in 2017 was of a woman who was made homeless when her relationship ended after a neighbour contacted the police following a two-day assault by her partner. Despite the clearly visible bruising and a letter from her partner admitting the abuse, she was told by her council that she needed to provide further evidence of her vulnerability and that she was not in a priority need situation. She ended up sofa-surfing for two years.
Sadly, I have also seen evidence in my own constituency surgeries in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. It has been four years since I was first elected in May 2015—I see some other Members from the 2015 intake present this morning—and the casework that I have seen over those four years is something I am desperate to change. I am desperate to be in a position where we can actually reform the situation so that people do not end up in these circumstances.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The link between being a victim of domestic abuse and homelessness is undeniable, and the draft Domestic Abuse Bill will be an opportunity to change that. Currently, one person can end a dual tenancy, which means a victim can effectively be left homeless. Does my hon. Friend agree that this must be changed, and that we must ensure that it takes two parties to end a tenancy?
Of course, no one should end up homeless as a result of a decision made by someone else. The changes we are seeking would aim to address exactly those kinds of circumstances: domestic abuse situations in which there is a coercive or controlling partner who would do something like that.
Let me return to my casework in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. In four years, I have seen six women with children made homeless as a direct result of abuse. Those are just the women who have managed to come to my surgery sessions—not everyone will find their MP in such circumstances. Cases that I have seen include one mum who was told to sleep in Walworth police station with her children, rather than return to her abusive partner.
A pregnant woman with a one-year-old son recently came to see me. She was forced to sofa-surf following an incident of domestic violence by her ex-partner. She is not yet 18, so there is additional difficulty in trying to find alternative emergency shelter that caters for under-18s. Last year I met a mother with a five-year-old daughter who was made homeless after being kicked out by the abusive father, who dragged her out of the house half-naked. She was under hostile environment conditions, with no recourse to public funds, and was forced to sofa-surf before further intervention eventually helped secure a home. “No recourse to public funds” conditions used to cover only people who were in this country illegally, but they were extended by Cameron and Clegg’s coalition Government and now affect more than 50,000 British-born children in the UK. The APPG on ending homelessness recommends that no one with dependants is prevented from accessing public funds, as this has directly contributed to people staying with abusive partners, ending up with sex-for-rent landlords, or being forced into rough sleeping and homelessness.
Disturbingly, I have had brought to my attention instances of vulnerability being heightened after someone has sought official support or help. Women forced to stay with abusive partners have been told to go back to their partners to collect ID, or to prove abuse. One example came to the APPG on ending homelessness two years ago. A domestic abuse survivor got an injunction against her husband, who had threatened to kill her and take away her son. He broke the injunction and was put on bail. Her new address was revealed to him in his letter of probation, despite her being relocated due to the risks he posed. Despite the previous history of abuse, her council deemed her not to be at high risk and she was forced to remain in the same property, living in fear.
Despite all the well-documented evidence nationally, the problem persists. If anything, it is growing due to the strain on local authority resources. The Prime Minister— I know it is about to change—claimed austerity was over. That is certainly not how it feels on the frontline in council offices, or to people who seek emergency help. Of course, we are meant to have seen a change under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. We should not deny that that legislation has been successful in some ways, but a key loophole has opened up that councils use to deny help. The context is important, and we all have examples of what councils have lost, particularly since 2010—being starved of resources. My council has lost half its funding from central Government.
On top of losing funding, many councils have had additional responsibilities placed on them, putting further pressure on limited resources. That includes the families of parents who are subject to “no recourse to public funds” conditions. It is estimated that, last year, London councils provided £53 million of help to that group alone under what is supposed to be emergency children’s social services provisions. Southwark is disproportionately affected, and is forced to provide more than £6 million of support for families in those circumstances alone.
More positively, the Homelessness Reduction Act means that local authorities have a legal duty to provide meaningful support to everyone who approaches them as homeless. They must provide support to prevent people from becoming homeless and to find a home for those who are already presenting as homeless. Despite that welcome change, there is no guarantee that people fleeing domestic abuse will receive an offer of settled housing if the other options fail.
New research in the report published last week by the ending homelessness group reveals that almost 2,000 households fleeing domestic abuse in England every year are not being provided with a safe home by their local authority because they are not considered a priority need. That research was conducted after the Homelessness Reduction Act was introduced, which shows that there is a key weakness in this area. Of course, 2,000 households is not a huge number in Government terms, so extending automatic priority need to that group would not result in a new or significant burden on councils. It would, however, have a hugely positive and significant impact on the lives of the people fleeing dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations, who currently face the further devastation of homelessness.
Karen became homeless after suffering shocking violence at the hands of her partner. These are her words:
“It went from punching and kicking to trying to slit my throat, stab me in the stomach, splitting my head open, putting a cigarette out on me, pushing me through a glass coffee table, battering me with a table leg and the final straw was when he tied me to a chair and put my feet in a bowl of water he then plugged a car battery charger in and threatened to electrocute me. I knew I had to get myself and my girls out of there.”
She managed to escape her partner and was found a new home with her children, but she bumped into her ex a year later and the abuse began again. Eventually, social services got involved and her children were taken into care, at which point she was evicted because she was deemed no longer to have priority need. She and her partner ended up sleeping rough. She told us:
“We slept in empty garages, shop doorways, bus shelters even under railway bridges. I had given up on life at this point and didn’t care if I lived or died.”
It was only when her partner died from an illness caused by addiction that she finally felt free to save herself.
Our research shows that, despite the new prevention and relief duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act, survivors are still being found to be not in priority need for the main homelessness duty of settled long-term accommodation, and councils are still simply turning people away. The Government’s recent commitment to place a statutory duty on top-tier local authorities to assess and meet the need for emergency accommodation-based support services for people experiencing domestic abuse is welcome. Our group, and other organisations and all-party groups, have welcomed that, but we have done so with a significant reservation: the commitment falls short of providing people with the safety and security of a permanent long-term home. That is the problem that we are trying to address.
Currently, unless a person experiencing domestic violence can prove that they are more vulnerable than an ordinary person would be if they became homeless, they are not defined as being a priority need or eligible for an offer of settled housing.
Experience shows that domestic abuse in isolation is rarely considered sufficient to qualify someone as being in priority need, particularly if they do not have dependent children. In 2017, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government stats showed that only 2% of the people found to be in priority need and made an offer of settled housing were given housing because they were vulnerable as a result of domestic abuse.
Of course, it can be hugely stressful for a survivor to prove that they are homeless due to domestic abuse. During the all-party group’s inquiry into domestic abuse and homelessness in 2017, we heard evidence of local authorities consistently failing to provide people fleeing domestic abuse with the help they need. We also heard that the vulnerability test is being used as a gatekeeping tool to deny access to services and support. We also heard accounts of survivors being told to return home to a dangerous situation to retrieve ID or other evidence to prove that they were homeless due to domestic abuse. One woman told us that she was told to return home to get a letter from the perpetrator stating that he had raped and attacked her. Those situations must end, and we have the means to do it.
Crisis’s “No One Turned Away” research found that many local authorities are failing adequately to assist people presenting as homeless due to domestic abuse, and that there is often a lack of sensitivity when dealing with survivors. There are accounts of people being asked to recount experiences of abuse and violence in public, often in crowded housing office waiting rooms, or being asked to return to the perpetrator. That must end, and we have the means to do that.
We do not come to the Chamber empty-handed. The campaign believes that everyone who experiences domestic abuse is by definition vulnerable and should be placed in the automatic priority need category. We call on the Government to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill makes provision to ensure that all survivors of domestic abuse have access to a safe, long-term home. We ask that everyone fleeing domestic abuse who is homeless be automatically considered as in priority need for settled housing, rather than subject to the vulnerability test to determine whether they qualify. Without that change, people who are homeless due to fleeing domestic abuse will still be required to prove additional vulnerability, which can be impossible. Our findings show that almost 2,000 people in those circumstances are denied help.
Those are the aims of the campaign and today’s debate. We have even tabled amendments to the draft Domestic Abuse Bill that I hope the Government will accept. I hope the Minister can give us an indication about that this morning. I thank the housing team at Garden Court Chambers—especially Liz Davies—for their work on the amendments. For those who need a copy of the amendments in full, they are on pages 26 and 27 of the all-party group report. The “A Safe Home” campaign report, published last week, is on Crisis’s website.
If the Minister has any reservation about the amendments, I hope she will air them here so we can move forward and improve them. The Government can, of course, adapt or adopt the amendments or introduce their own proposals. I really hope we will hear something positive from the Minister. I thank other hon. Members in this Chamber in advance. I know that they have worked on this issue for many years and will bring a wealth of experience to the debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing this important debate and for his thorough and interesting introduction.
I have been privileged to be a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, and I was very interested to hear from the Minister on housing last month. We heard considerable evidence about how domestic abuse and homelessness are directly connected. Domestic abuse is, of course, inextricably linked to housing, which, alongside health and education, is devolved to Wales, whereas justice and policing issues are reserved to Westminster. That means that the draft Bill contains an interesting mix of responsibilities. During the Joint Committee’s work, we heard about the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. There is therefore a complex picture of devolved and reserved powers, and Government responses diverge as they develop.
The Government’s recent announcement about accommodation-based services is an example of that. They have promised funding to give refuges and other accommodation a long-term, sustainable future, which is welcome, but does the right hon. Lady agree that it is essential that they also ensure that Wales is funded to be able to do that? It is a national network, and we do not want to risk there being a postcode lottery.
Yes, indeed. Later, I will raise the issue of the difference in the definition of priority need. The reality is that it is one thing to have a definition, but another to have the resources to implement those policies in Wales. That applies to Wales as much as it does to Westminster and across borders.
In relation to Wales, Shelter Cymru found that in 2017, people from 1,218 households became homeless due to the violent breakdown of a relationship with a partner. Survivors of domestic abuse in Wales already have a priority need for accommodation, which is not the case in England. It is evident, therefore, that legislation in England should follow Wales’s lead. Automatic priority should be introduced to ensure that more individuals who have experienced abuse are given the help they need when at risk of homelessness. Of course, equally important in Wales and England is the need to ensure that sufficient resources are available to enable automatic priority in practical terms. Politicians have every temptation to create policies and legislation, but realising them is as, if not more, important.
By way of an effective response to domestic abuse, Wales cries out for co-ordination in its complex mix of devolved and reserved responsibilities. That means additional layers of governance and accountability for the Domestic Abuse Bill and for the domestic abuse commissioner that the Bill will create. I understand that the Minister present will not necessarily be directly responsible for the domestic abuse commissioner and the answerability of that person, but as housing is a devolved matter, and this issue will be raised in Wales and in Westminster because of the domestic abuse commissioner’s lynchpin role, will she tell us how she anticipates working with others on the role of the commissioner?
I urge the Minister to explain how the commissioner will work effectively in Wales to ensure the best outcome for victims. I propose that there should be a duty on the commissioner to consult specifically with partners and agencies in Wales, and that the work of the commissioner should be subject to scrutiny by the National Assembly for Wales. At present, although well intentioned and well planned, different activities are not co-ordinated between Wales and England, despite the cross-border aspect mentioned by my friend, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). There is real concern that the Domestic Abuse Bill will not effectively hold to account and measure the interface between devolved and reserved matters.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, which I am sure we look forward to as a means to address the problems under discussion, must respect the legislative divergence between England and Wales, and ensure that the UK and Welsh Governments work closely to bring about positive change. Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this debate and on all the work that he does with the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, which he leads ably, and presumably alone, now that his Conservative counterpart, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), has been promoted. I wish my hon. Friend well for the future of that all-party parliamentary group, which has done some incredibly important work and given Government clear direction on actions that they could take further to reduce homelessness and taking additional steps beyond that which they have already done.
I wanted to participate in the debate because on Friday, at my regular weekly surgery, three cases of domestic abuse came to me. I wish that that was unusual, but sadly, it is not. I will focus on two of those cases, which have particular links to housing. I thought that the Government response to today’s debate might come from a Home Office Minister, rather than the Minister with responsibility for housing and homelessness, because of the nature of the domestic abuse involved. I trust that the Minister will have close conversations with her Home Office counterpart following the debate.
The first case that came before me involved a woman who had experienced severe financial coercive control at the hands of her former partner. After six years of a relationship—five years as a co-mortgager with the individual—the woman has been left with full responsibility for the mortgage and all the utility bills, as well as associated bills for which her former partner happily took her money for five years, but never actually payed the companies. Her ex-partner will not allow her to remove herself from or seek to close down that mortgage, or make any progress whatever on selling the property, so he retains his control over her life and her ability to move on from the relationship, although she is the one who engages with all the different agencies to try to work out a payment plan for all the debt accrued as a result of that relationship.
This woman has been to every organisation that she can think of, whether it be Women’s Aid, StepChange or her local authority, and has even taken advice from a solicitor on how to extricate herself from this situation. The only response is that she should default on her part of the mortgage payments, which would significantly affect her credit rating, and allow the property to be repossessed and sold by the bank at auction, at a much lower price than if it were sold on the open market. Both she and her partner would lose out, but her former partner could not care less about losing out—all he wants is to ensure that she struggles and that she cannot move any further along.
As an exercise in domestic abuse, such financial coercion is already legislated for, but the police simply do not seem to have the ability, focus and priorities to investigate such incredibly complex and sensitive situations, and the available avenues left to my constituents are few and far between. I hope that the Minister will meet the Home Office Minister, with whom I have already had a conversation about this particular case, to ensure that we see in the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill a much greater focus on financial measures and packages, and on the institutions that can better support those in controlling relationships, particularly of a financial nature.
On homelessness, for that individual in that first case, getting either another mortgage or private rented accommodation will be very difficult and challenging with a poor credit rating.
The second case involves a woman who had been in a very violent relationship with her former partner, with whom she had four children. The partner was in a particular situation, and the police gave my constituent just 48 hours to get out of the family home and remove themselves as far away as possible.
The homelessness team put this woman and her four children into emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that was not entirely suitable. It was a long way from the children’s schools, which made it impossible for the mother to do any work because most of the day was spent taking four children back and forth to school on public transport. Her finances were certainly taken up by doing that, because she received no additional financial support in that situation. She then began sofa surfing with her family, which has gone on for more than two years since they were advised to move on from that housing association property.
The homelessness team has now found my constituent a home, which she has been told is permanent, but after a matter of months the walls are crumbling, the roof and the bathroom leak, the whole house has electrical problems and electricians have assessed it as a tinderbox waiting to go up, and an outbuilding in the garden is so dangerous that the children cannot play out there, and one of them has already injured themselves in it. There is a crisis in the kind of property that local authorities can offer people in such dire situations. It would be great if the council or the housing association had sufficient properties, but when my constituent has asked the housing association to rehouse her in more suitable accommodation, she has been told that she made herself voluntarily homeless, and she has accrued debts as a result of non-payment of rent.
I cannot believe that Lincolnshire Housing Partnership, the housing association in question in this case, does not allow a waiver for individuals who have experienced domestic abuse to say that they are leaving a property, particularly when that is done under police advice. I cannot believe that the housing association cannot do more to ensure that people are properly accommodated.
Government have done some good work to prevent those who are suffering from domestic violence and seeking housing support from being turned away from neighbouring or external local authorities merely because they have no local connection. That is welcome. The Minister will know that I am very aware of the work undertaken to try to tackle rogue landlords and protect those in the private rental sector, but these two cases show that financial coercion as a crime is not fully investigated with the same vigour as other forms of physical abuse. The support is not available.
Much more could be done to get the institutions that offer mortgages to provide some breathing space and freeze mortgages until the situation is resolved to ensure that individuals are not punished. The partner of my constituent has gone to ground and constantly changes address so that the mortgage company cannot get hold of him and insist that he sign documentation. That is deeply frustrating for my constituent, because in her eyes she is the victim: she has done everything she can, having done all the right things and having gone to all the right agencies, yet still she will lose out.
The housing association procedures do not seem to reflect the reality of people’s lives. In those extraordinary circumstances, there must be some flexibilities in processes and procedures to make sure that people, particularly children, are not at a disadvantage. Council homelessness teams do not have sufficient good-quality properties to house people properly and rogue landlords are still getting away with offering poor-quality—and frankly, in this situation, dangerous—properties to incredibly vulnerable people. They are taking advantage: a local authority would be charged a much higher rate to house such people, who would feel they had no other choice. There are feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and failing as a parent, as well as the great impact of the disruption on the lives and education of my constituents’ children. That shows that the Government have a role to play to offer greater resources to close the many, very obvious gaps.
I would not feel so strongly about this issue if people coming to see me about it was not a weekly occurrence, but that is what it is, and they all experience similar housing situations. We have a great refuge service in Great Grimsby run by Women’s Aid, which caters for people across the country, but that is not a permanent home. When victims have done nothing wrong, being forced out of their home feels like further punishment.
I hope that in the Domestic Abuse Bill, as well as in the Minister’s remarks, there will be an acceptance that Government should prioritise victims remaining securely in their own homes, with the perpetrator being removed and prevented from interfering with their victims and the wider family. I wholeheartedly believe that it should not be the victims who lose their homes, communities, friends, family, social clubs, schools or jobs, and I hope the Minister shares my view.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on bringing forward this matter for our consideration. It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). All Members who have spoken have given examples of why the system needs to do better. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I look forward to her response.
As always in these debates, I will give a Northern Ireland perspective and a couple of examples of how we can do better in Northern Ireland when it comes to domestic abuse and homelessness. Some of the shortcomings of the system that I see may replicate what everyone else has said so far. Domestic abuse is simply heartbreaking, and almost every week in my advice centre I deal with those issues on my constituents’ behalf. I am blessed to have extremely good, sympathetic and compassionate staff who can be a listening ear for the stories that are told, but also point people to where they need to go.
In the period from 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017, the Police Service of Northern Ireland recorded 29,166 incidents of domestic violence, 13,933 domestic crimes and three murders. That is in a small population of 1.8 million. Unfortunately, that is a fairly clear picture of things in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman underlines some stark statistics, and obviously each number represents a person. Although it was not in Northern Ireland, last week at the White Ribbon UK conference we were lucky enough to hear from Luke Hart, who gave extremely powerful and humbling testimony about his father killing his mother and sister, just days after he and his brother Ryan had managed to secure their freedom from the family home where they had been under coercive control and abuse, which had been normalised, for more than 30 years. It is about not just securing appropriate accommodation, but keeping the abused safe from the perpetrator thereafter. That is an additional requirement that we cannot forget when we are talking about ending homelessness caused by domestic abuse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing that story; it is a salient reminder to us all that there is a lot more to domestic abuse than meets the eye.
We are very pleased to have Women’s Aid refuges there to assist when needed, but they are frequently filled to capacity and must turn away women and their children. This debate enables us to look at how the system can respond better, because although Women’s Aid refuges can give assistance, more often than not it is the housing associations on the frontline that have to respond.
The relationship between domestic violence and homelessness is complex, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) made clear in his intervention. It is often underpinned by a range of factors such as gender inequality, socio-economic disadvantage, mental ill health and poor access to income support and housing. Although domestic violence occurs in same-sex relationships and can happen to men, the overwhelming number of victims are women at the hands of a male partner or family member. That is the reality that I see in my constituency. In nearly every case, the victim feels as though they are tied into that unhealthy, bad relationship because they do not know where they will live with their children if they leave.
I will give an example of someone who came to me with a problem and did not know what to do, because they did not have the finances—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to that at some length. I am dealing with a case where the partner of a young lady with three children threatened her with a knife, and her 13-year-old daughter heard it. That was the moment when the mother decided to do something, because until then, the threats, beatings and physical abuse had been only against her. At that moment, the mother released that she was no longer the only one who was affected—although that had been bad enough.
The mother came into the office unsure what to do, as she and her partner both work. She does not understand the Housing Executive system and the allocation of points. I am sure the system in the rest of the United Kingdom is the same, but if it is not, it might help if I explain how the Housing Executive system works. She told my personal assistant, “I just don’t know how to get out with my three kids, but when my eldest daughter heard him say that, I knew I had to do something.” That was the catalyst. She said, “I can’t have her growing up and thinking that this is a normal situation.”
It has taken not threats against the mum, but threats against the future mental health of her children to make her take that step. She is still in that house while she tries to find a way forward. The sad fact is that because her mum and dad have a three-bedroom house, her situation is not classed as overcrowding. I will explain the system. She will automatically quality for 70 points for being homeless. The threat of violence will probably mean another 20 points, because it is not a deep threat in the sense that someone could be murdered—she would get more points for that. The solution for that lady is to move in with her parents. She would have qualified for overcrowding and sharing points, but because her parents have a three-bedroom house, there are probably enough bedrooms available, so she will not get any overcrowding points and she may not get some of the sharing points.
We have to try to find a system that would enable that lady, who is suffering from domestic abuse, automatically and urgently to receive the necessary points to find her a house anywhere in Newtownards. Since she has to rely on the current system, she is trapped. That worries me. Under the system currently applied by the Housing Executive and the housing associations, she would need 150 or 160 points to get a house in Newtownards, so 70 points is a long way off what is necessary. We need a system that reflects that.
My hon. Friend outlines the difficulties and complexities for domestic abuse victims of getting accommodation if they choose to do so. Does he agree that, on some occasions, the perpetrator of the domestic abuse is well aware of the difficulties the person they are abusing would face in getting accommodation and actually deploys that, to some effect, to try to ensure that they stay in the home where the abuse is taking place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The partner often knows the system better than their other half—the lady who is trying to find a way out. The situation is also complicated by the fact that, more often than not, the finances of the family are done by the male partner. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to that, and I know it to be true in almost every case. The name on the rent book is probably the male partner’s, the application for housing benefit is probably in his name, and although the lady’s name would be on the tax credits system, applications for working tax credit would be done through him. For someone who has to leave because of threats to themselves and their family, the financial implications complicate matters. They ask themselves, “How do I get out of this system? How do I make sure I have finance to get me beyond whenever I move out?”
However, many people step in to help. The girls in my office have asked the local church charity shop to send a team to pack that girl and her kids up in one day so that when her partner returns it is a fait accompli. A method of getting her out of that house has been found. We always look to the Government, as we probably should, for a response, but the Government cannot step in all the time, so voluntary bodies—in this case a church group—sometimes step in to make the move to get a person out. My office is working with the Housing Executive and the local community group to get that young lady’s points assessed urgently—in other words, to get her the extra points she needs to get on the list so she can go elsewhere—and is providing her with emotional support, including looking at schools in a different location.
Although it does my heart good to see that we are able to help that person, we always wonder—I am sure you think the same as the rest of us, Mr Davies—how many other people out there are going through all this but do not know about the help that is available. It is good when victims know that there is help available, that people care, that they are not alone in their cycle of abuse and that that cycle can be stopped. We need a system that responds urgently to the victimised person and their family. How do we do that? Will the Minister say how we can have a system in which people’s circumstances are more urgently assessed?
Knowing that a domestic abuse call is made to the PSNI every two minutes shakes me to my core. As a grandfather, I pray that my granddaughters, when they grow up, will find good men, and that they will be good women as well. However, sometimes things do not work out, so we also need to know that should that happen—should they be blinded and miss the warning signs—there would be help available to get them out of a harmful situation. I very much agree with Women’s Aid that the current system does not respond in the way it needs to. It is not enough.
I hear these stories in my office and in the church circles I move in. I call for an urgent overhaul of the allocation system so domestic abuse victims are homed as quickly as possible. They should also be able to request correspondence only by email. Sending a letter through the post may inadvertently alert a woman’s partner to the fact that she has applied to be housed by the Housing Executive, for example. The partner may open the letter and say, “You’re moving out? What’s this all about?” There has to be another method. We must be sensitive to how we communicate with and treat people in such difficult positions. No one should feel stuck in a dangerous partnership that they seem unable to get out of. The welfare system is in place for the vulnerable, as it should be, and it is the responsibility of us all to point people in the right direction, but we need to do better by them. For the sake of my grandchildren and everyone else’s, we need to do very much better.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for bringing it forward.
This is an incredibly important issue and it is vital that we tackle it. Someone who is going through domestic abuse is incredibly vulnerable. They may be being physically or verbally abused, or both. They may be being coerced or controlled financially. Despite all that, leaving that situation is not easy. For someone who has been coerced and controlled, and whose partner has made it clear to them that they are the one in the wrong, finding the energy to leave that situation is very hard. It is even more difficult when they know they do not have anywhere to go and that there is no system in place to ensure that they have safe accommodation.
I have discussed this issue with a number of constituents who have come through my door, and I have spoken to Women’s Aid and various other organisations about the issues people face. If we could make it easier for one person to leave an abusive partner and get out of that situation, that would be a good thing. Anything we can do to make that process easier—to ensure that people who are suffering from abuse can find the energy to leave because they know they will be supported—is a good thing. It is incumbent on us to make those changes and to promote any policies that will bring them about.
The position of children in domestic abuse situations has been mentioned. There are often, although not always, children in these situations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out that we have to consider things such as schools when children are involved. Why should somebody who is being abused—who has not done anything wrong—have to move their children’s school, and go through a massive change to their life and the lives of their children, just because of the perpetrator’s evil behaviour? We can and should do better in that regard when providing support to people.
We also need to ensure that we stop people from going back. We must do everything we can to ensure that support is in place—both physical support for housing and navigating complex systems if, for example, schools and so on need to be changed, and emotional support—so that people can start the healing process and get through it. If someone has been so badly controlled that they believe everything is their fault and not the perpetrator’s, it is much more difficult to get through that process; it is much easier to contemplate going back. That is why we need to ensure that the emotional support is there.
The Scottish Government have been trying to address the issue of split payments and universal credit. Does the hon. Lady agree that that has been one way of trying to enable people—through being in power by having their own finances—to leave? None the less, although that policy is in place, I understand it has not been all that easy to put into effect.
That is absolutely right. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady can see my speech, as I was about to come to that point. That universal credit is a single payment is a really big problem, particularly for families where there is a financial control element to the domestic abuse. Because of that, it is really important that the victim has their own financial means and the ability to build up a pot of money. It must be even more terrifying for them to think about leaving if they have not got any money.
The SNP Scottish Government are determined to deliver split payments for universal credit, because that would be a good way to stop the exacerbation of financially controlling behaviour. The problem is, the Scottish Government cannot deliver split payments until the Department for Work and Pensions gets the system sorted out. We would like to do so as soon as possible. The Scottish Government have proposed to DWP how they think it could be delivered, and it would be good if that happened as soon as possible. I urge the UK Government to do so in the rest of the UK, because the single payment is a big problem that aids those who are determined to financially control their partners.
Instead of split payments, which I support—the Work and Pensions Committee is also working on that—has the SNP Government also considered making payments automatically to the primary carer, who is almost always the woman in the relationship and the mother of the children?
I honestly do not know and I do not want to give a wrong answer. That is not my area of expertise. I will find out and get back to the hon. Gentleman. We are keen to see split payments, but his proposal also has merit.
I turn to universal credit and increasing homelessness. Some 75% of local authorities believe that universal credit will increase homelessness. The Scottish Government are doing what they can to mitigate the impacts of austerity on the social security system, but it is really important that the UK Government halt the roll-out of universal credit, because it has not long happened in Aberdeen and I am beginning to see a massive increase in the case load coming through my door. I imagine a number of those families will end up homeless as a result of the changes to the benefit system made by the UK Government.
To tackle homelessness, we also need to build more homes, and not just homes that people can buy with a mortgage, whether at normal prices or affordable prices. It is also about social housing. In the four years to 2018, the Scottish Government have delivered per head of population 50% more affordable homes than have been delivered in England, and five times as many socially rented properties. I still maintain that one of the best things ever done by the SNP Government was cancelling right to buy. The social housing situation in my constituency has changed drastically. It is still far from perfect, because we have not had time to build all the new houses we need, but if more socially rented properties were available, people would be able to go into those properties. We also do not have a priority need system in Scotland; everyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness is in priority need and therefore given access to the housing they require. On 1 April the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 came into force. It makes clear that coercive and controlling behaviour is domestic abuse, and that it is a crime.
To return to the availability of safe housing for all, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the women—and men, in fact—who were not born here but who have come to this country and have no recourse to public funds. Those cases are the most devastating that I see around the table at my constituency surgeries. Basically, “no recourse to public funds” means that someone cannot claim public funds because of their immigration status. They cannot claim housing benefit, which is incredibly relevant for those in a domestic abuse situation looking to go into a refuge. I found out only recently that in England—this is not the case in Scotland—such families do not have access to free school meals, so children are not being provided with food. In Scotland, John Swinney sent a directive to local authorities saying that such children should be entitled to free school meals whether they have recourse to public funds or not, and schools are working together to ensure that that happens. We should not see children going hungry.
On “no recourse to public funds”, I tabled a private Member’s Bill that asked for the destitution domestic violence concession open to those from outside the European Economic Area fleeing domestic violence to be opened to EU nationals as well. That would allow them access to housing benefit for a period to go into refuge provision, which is incredibly important. In fact, we could also cancel “no recourse to public funds”, which would be incredibly helpful. It is vital that everyone has a home.
I finish with advice and a stat from Police Scotland. It launched a campaign called “every nine minutes”, because it responds to a domestic abuse call every nine minutes. Domestic abuse is illegal, and it is really important that we remember it is the perpetrator’s fault. It is not anybody else’s fault; it is the fault of the person who chooses to be abusive. We must do what we can to protect survivors, and we must let everybody out there suffering from domestic abuse know that we will do everything in our power to protect them. We must follow through on that.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate so soon after the launch of the report by Crisis and the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I join the tributes to him for the work he has done as chair of the group.
That important report is founded on the real-life experiences of the survivors of domestic abuse, and their struggle for a home and other support. At the launch event last week we heard from the APPG’s vice-chair, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who gave the story of one woman survivor who was told by her local authority to return home and get a letter from the perpetrator of the violence; only then would it consider finding accommodation for her. Another was told that domestic violence is not a primary case for rehousing.
Today we have heard so many examples of people really suffering, and yet that seems to count for nothing. We are told that being abused by a partner is not a good enough reason for being rehomed in some parts of our country. The risk of a person being killed by someone they live with is also supposedly not a good enough reason. Someone may even find that having children, with all those additional vulnerabilities, counts for nothing.
Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke of the need for any action to include all women who find themselves homeless after surviving domestic abuse and violence. That includes migrant women, who are much more isolated and less likely to get the support they need. The Minister spoke of her determination to make that change, and I hope she will confirm that today.
More importantly, last week we also heard from the survivors—women fleeing their homes because of mental and physical violence. A mother of four told us how she had suffered two periods of homelessness and thought that she had nowhere to turn, and only because of Crisis was she able to get a home of her own. The third sector stepped in where Government and local authorities had failed. We all know that there is no easy fix. Finding someone a home is one measure to help those fleeing domestic violence to rebuild their lives, but many other areas need to be fully funded to support victims in the way they deserve. Instead, however, funding has been cut, local authorities are unable to sustain services, and the health service is under real pressure.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about the heartbreak caused by domestic violence, and he praised support services for their work. We must recognise the tremendous work done by such organisations across the country. He emphasised the need for more capacity in the system, and said that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive could do much more.
Women are fleeing their homes because of mental and physical abuse. The third sector is acting. We know we must provide that support, yet such services are wide and varied. A briefing from the Royal College of Psychiatrists stated that victims of domestic abuse are three times more likely than other women to develop mental illness—indeed, those who shared their stories last week all spoke of that. Addressing this issue only begins with housing, and we must fight for the health support that survivors need, and do whatever it takes to get them back on their feet. That could be help in pursuing further training or education, if that is what they want, or support in getting into employment. We must give people control over their own lives.
I can only imagine what it must be like for those who have experienced domestic violence and abuse to fear going home to the place where they are supposed to feel safest, to be frightened of the person who is supposed to care for them, or to cover physical marks and pass them off being caused by an accident. As we know, domestic violence is not always physical, but it can torture and abuse one’s mind in ways that some simply will not understand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said that it was not unusual for her to hear about three domestic abuses cases in each of her surgeries. Is that not a terrible condemnation of our society? She spoke of the coercive financial control that had left her constituent with huge debts, and yet that constituent was told that she should just default on her mortgage payments and lose her home, and then she might escape. That is not good enough. My hon. Friend called for changes to the domestic abuse Bill, and for the various agencies to recognise the specific needs of people who have been abandoned in a similar financial situation. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Some might say that stopping domestic abuse is an impossible task, but we must ensure that there is support to make leaving as easy as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark outlined the tremendous barriers that survivors face. Work to put things right starts with putting those who have experienced domestic violence at the top of the housing list, but there are other considerations, and the wishes of the victim must always come first. We cannot have people being moved, without a say, away from their families and friends or their support network. Those networks are essential parts of helping a victim of domestic abuse to get on in life, and we cannot allow politicians and council officers to decide what happens to a person in such circumstances. Let me be clear: Labour’s position is that survivors of domestic abuse must be put in the highest possible category when it comes to housing, and I invite the Minister to match that this morning.
We will not get anywhere without an adequate housing supply. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby spoke of local authorities and housing associations, and of the shortage of homes. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) smiled when she stated that obvious fact, as if it is a no-brainer. We need more homes in this country, and we cannot meet the need if we do not build them. There are already countless people in the highest category for housing support—older people, young people and people with families who, at best, are living with friends or family. Waiting lists for homes are incredibly long, and to address the problem we must build more housing stock. It is of little use including victims of domestic violence in the top priority band if they simply have to compete with others in the top bands and wait years for an adequate home. Unless we have the housing stock, I fear that changing the law could be just a formality and not help those who need it.
Many excellent organisations have come together to back a change to the Housing Act 1996, and other legislation, and to support the domestic abuse Bill and introduce that automatic qualification for survivors of abuse to have priority need for settled housing. It would be good to hear the Minister say that that will happen. Those organisations include Refuge, Women’s Aid, St Mungo’s, Shelter, Crisis—I could go on, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark already gave a considerable list in his opening remarks. Those organisations are the experts in tackling domestic violence and homelessness, and the Government must listen to them.
The Government must recognise that there is a gap, and that vulnerable people are being let down. We can address that with a change to the legislation. In 2017, nearly 7,000 people cited the breakdown of a relationship with an abusive partner as the primary reason for their homelessness, and that did not include the number of people who opted not to leave an abusive partner because they feared being made homeless. We can change the law to give victims more support to leave if they wish, and we could provide the resource for their lives to change for the better. It must be a priority for those people to be rehoused by the local authority.
We must build more houses if we are to address waiting lists in this country but—I say this with experience of serving as a former councillor and cabinet member in a local authority—the homes that we provide must be of a decent standard. Many of us will have heard of the poor housing conditions in which our constituents have found themselves—with mould, with heating that does not work, and with unsuitable or unhygienic furnishings. That is supposed to be a place that they consider home. Local authorities must ensure that those homes, whether they are in the private sector, the local authority or a housing association, are fit for use. We know that some landlords are indifferent to the quality of the home they provide, as long as they get their rent. Local authorities must step in and ensure that those homes are fit for people to live in.
Vulnerable people will often not complain about poor conditions because they fear being turfed out and losing their sanctuary. They should never be put in conditions that we would complain about, and they should not fear making such complaints. This weekend I heard the case of a woman in my constituency who is fleeing domestic violence and has been given a house. She said:
“I realise I am extremely lucky to be given a house given the shortage of housing”
but the house she has been given is in awful condition. She was offered the property in early March, but because of errors there have been long delays. She received the keys last week, and she sent me the pictures of what she was confronted with—severe black mould in the bedrooms that would be her children’s accommodation. She has gone through extreme difficulty, but she has been given a house that is unsuitable for her and her family. The £125 decorating grant was no consolation at all, and she is distraught. My caseworkers are working to try to get her a better deal.
This is not just about putting domestic abuse survivors in the top priority category; we must also ensure that the home they are given is of a good standard and quality. That is not just about cleanliness, but about the safety and security of the property—that point was raised by other Members this morning. Some domestic abusers will try to find their victims, particularly if their victims are housed in the same locality. Many victims choose to stay in the locality, because it is their community and it is where they have family connections. They should not be fearing for their safety and the safety of their family once they have left the abuser. Damaged windows and doors must be dealt with before new tenants move in.
The last thing that those who are fleeing domestic violence need is a requirement to prove their abuse before they can be rehoused; others have spoken in more detail and better than I can on that topic. Tell me Minister, how does a person prove emotional and mental abuse? I certainly do not have a clue. There are no bruises or scars that the eye can see, but that does not make the injuries less horrific or the victim in any less need of a home. Putting the burden of proof on to the person who has made the move to leave their abuser is inhumane and cruel.
Those who are fleeing domestic violence are quite literally running for their lives; let us give them priority, but let us build the housing they need. We must make sure that we can put a roof over their heads, but also provide the support services that they desperately need.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank hon. Members from across the House for their considered speeches. I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and on his tireless work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I am delighted that his health has recovered since last week, when he missed the launch of this interesting document.
This Government have made domestic abuse a key priority and we are committed to doing everything we can to end domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a cross-Government issue, but I shall focus solely on the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Since 2014, our Department has invested £55.5 million in accommodation-based services, including refuges, to support victims of domestic abuse.
We have recently launched a consultation on future delivery of support to victims and their children in accommodation-based domestic abuse services, which ends on 2 August. The consultation complements wider Government work on tackling domestic abuse and supporting victims, including the new Domestic Abuse Bill. Proposals in the consultation include a new legal duty on local authorities to provide support for domestic abuse services for victims and their children. This will provide a range of services to support victims and their children in secure accommodation.
Local authorities will be required to work together across boundaries to ensure domestic abuse services reflect the needs of local people, including targeted, specialist support for black, Asian and minority ethnic survivors; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender survivors; and, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors. We will work with local authorities adequately to fund the new duty. We estimate the early broad annual cost to be around £90 million per year. However, we want the full cost to be informed by the consultation and taken into the spending review.
I was asked questions about the domestic abuse commissioner.
Is the Minister planning to accept the amendment proposed in the report “A Safe Home”?
We want to be informed by the consultation, which finishes on 2 August. We will look at everything in the round after that.
The domestic abuse commissioner will be funded by the Home Office and operate UK-wide. The £90 million will be subject to the Barnett formula for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Ensuring that everyone has a decent, affordable, secure home is a key priority for this Government. That is why we have made a commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end the practice altogether, and why we are dedicated to preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. It is simply unacceptable that people have to sleep on the streets in 2019. That does not reflect the country we want to be and I am determined to put a stop to it.
My Department, with support from colleagues across Government, has been working tirelessly to put in place new support for people who sleep rough. This has included the rough sleeping strategy, published last August, which sets out our plan to end rough sleeping, alongside bespoke support and funding for local areas through the rough sleeping initiative.
I want to focus specifically on the work the Department is doing to help women. We know that violence and abuse are a key factor in women being made homeless or having to sleep rough. Through our rough sleeping strategy, boldly backed by £100 million in funding, we are providing more support to those sleeping rough or who are at risk of sleeping rough. Crucially, this includes additional funding for dedicated accommodation, frontline workers who are trained to support vulnerable women, staff working with victims of domestic abuse in local authority housing options, rapid rehousing pathway navigators, and our Somewhere Safe to Stay assessment centres. We will extend this to voluntary organisations, commissioned and non-commissioned services, and staff in homeless hostels.
We have undertaken a procurement exercise to recruit the right organisations to deliver the training and we expect to award contracts to successful suppliers in the near future. As part of our rapid rehousing pathway, we recently announced a Somewhere Safe to Stay hub in Brighton, which will focus on supporting women to get off the streets. These hubs build on the No Second Night Out model rapidly to assess the needs of people who are sleeping rough and those who are at risk of sleeping rough, and support them to get the right help quickly. The Brighton service will be a two-hub model, with one hub reserved for women only and specialising in tackling complex needs. The second hub will be delivered by the domestic abuse charity partner RISE.
We are continuing to provide funding through the rough sleeping initiative to ensure that provision is in place for women who sleep rough. This supports a locally driven approach, with local authorities leading the charge. For instance, Southwark is receiving funding of £585,000. This includes funding for a support worker, through Solace Women’s Aid, who will work with offenders who have experienced domestic abuse. Medway is receiving funding of £486,000, which includes a specialist mental health worker to work with people who have experienced domestic abuse and other health issues, as well as additional housing-led approaches for women with medium and high needs, and couples.
We are supporting 63 projects across England to provide support for over 2,500 victims and their families, and over 2,200 additional bed spaces in accommodation-based services, including refuge. In response to the earlier question, the definition of domestic abuse used by the Home Office and by us includes coercive control.
Underpinning our work on rough sleeping is the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force last April. This is the most ambitious reform to homelessness legislation in decades. I am sure many Members are aware that the Act brought in a number of new duties and strengthened a number of existing ones. The Act extends the duties that local authorities owe to homeless households and expands the types of household that are entitled to help. That means that, for the first time, people without dependent children, who are often not deemed to be in priority need and were often turned away with little or no assistance, are now entitled to help from their local authority.
The Act strengthened the advice and information duty. This enhanced duty means that local authorities must provide free advice and information about homelessness and the prevention of homelessness. They must also ensure they design that advice to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable groups, including those who are victims of domestic abuse.
The Act also strengthened the prevention duty, meaning that local authorities must take reasonable steps to try to prevent a person who is threatened with homelessness within 56 days from becoming homeless regardless of priority need status or whether they have made themselves intentionally homeless. Local authorities must now also take reasonable steps to try to relieve a person of their homelessness, again for a period of 56 days, regardless of priority need status or whether this was done intentionally. At the heart of the Act is a more person-centred approach to find bespoke solutions, including for victims of domestic abuse.
We want survivors to stay in their own homes, when it is safe and possible to do so. Sanctuary schemes are supported as part of our £22 million fund, which lasts from 2018 to 2020. The duty also covers sanctuary schemes across the country. We will work closely with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to make sure that that option is always there.
A new duty was also introduced for specified public authorities to refer those whom they think might be homeless or threatened with homelessness to a local housing authority of their choice. Children’s services and A&E services are among the specified public authorities. That will help to ensure that people’s housing needs are considered and that services work together more effectively. We know there have been significant changes for local authorities, which it has taken time to embed. Good progress is being made, but we know that there is more to be done by local areas.
As to our most recent statistics, they are experimental, but there are some promising signs. Since the introduction of the Act just nine months ago, more than 60,000 households, including families and single individuals, have been helped to secure accommodation.
I welcome the report produced by the all-party group, but there are a few discrepancies in it, which I think I must pick up on. Certainly, most of the experiences cited happened before the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force, and I completely understand why. I am aware that prior to the Act people were sometimes turned away without being able to make a homelessness application. That is precisely why the Act is so important and why it had cross-Government—indeed, cross-Chamber—support.
Local authorities must now assess everyone’s needs if they are homeless or threatened—
I think it is a little unfair to criticise the report without the collection of proper and robust data by the Government. If the Minister disputes the evidence that has been collected, is she committing the Government to undertaking their own research to get to the bottom of the matter?
The experimental data are dealt with under the new H-CLIC process—homelessness case level information collection—and when the national statistics authority signs them off as robust, they will be the data. We are collecting them now, and I was just giving a caveat by calling the data experimental. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly what is happening now.
Local authorities must now assess everyone’s needs and are duty bound to provide help for those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. If any hon. Member is aware of incidents where that is not happening, I would be grateful if they provided me with the names of the authorities, so that we might investigate further. The thresholds for considering someone homeless and at risk of abuse are deliberately low. For example, a woman living in a refuge is considered homeless even though she has a safe place to stay. The definition of domestic abuse includes all forms of abuse, not just physical violence, and a chapter in the statutory code of guidance contains extensive advice on how local authorities should assist people at risk of abuse. It was drafted in collaboration with Women’s Aid.
Our focus is to ensure that the new prevention and relief duties are being deployed to provide help to all eligible people, including single people who do not have priority need. Existing legislation provides that a person who is pregnant or has dependent children, or is vulnerable as a result of having to leave accommodation owing to domestic abuse, already has priority need for accommodation. The Government’s focus is on ensuring that the Homelessness Reduction Act works for all and that those fleeing violent relationships get the support they need.
I hope that my remarks today demonstrate the Government’s commitment to supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Survivors of domestic abuse should not have to fear that escaping their abusers will force them into homelessness, or on to the streets. Survivors must be afforded the dignity of a roof over their head and the ability to move on to build full and independent lives.
On the matter of universal credit and the Department for Work and Pensions, we are working closely with a number of Departments, including the DWP, and will continue to do so as we assess responses to the consultation, which, as I said, ends on 2 August.
It is always an honour for me to represent the Government in debates of this kind. Hon. Members from both sides of the House share the aim of ensuring that people fleeing domestic abuse do not become homeless as a result. The Government have a commitment to providing funding, and to publishing legislation, to go further than ever to support those brave victims. In that spirit, I thank hon. Members for their speeches and questions today. I look forward to working further with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark in his capacity as chair of the all-party group, as we continue to address what is a vital issue.
I thank Mr Coyle for taking the trouble to dress like me, and invite him to make a short winding-up speech.
I got the memo, thank you, Mr Davies.
We have heard from all four countries of the United Kingdom this morning, beginning with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). The prevalence of the issue is clear from our casework and surgeries, and from examples such as those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). We should not lose sight of the fact that the measures we seek, and that the campaign seeks, are meant to tackle the fact that, sadly, in this country today, two women a week will die at the hands of their partner or ex-partner. That is what we are trying to change, and we have the opportunity before us to do it.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not in his place, but he made an important point about our staff. We are reliant on our caseworkers to support us in the job we do, and there is not a single member of my team who has not been reduced to tears after trying to help people in circumstances such as those we have discussed this morning. From the Front Benches, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made points about the need for more housing, but also about changes that could help—even if they helped just one person to escape.
As to the report, another 2,000 people have been affected since the introduction of the Act. The Minister asked us to name local authorities that are not providing the required help. That could be done through the freedom of information process, with the organisation involved in compiling the report. We are seeking a simple, outright commitment to accept at least the rationale behind the amendment, even if the amendment itself needs changes. It is frankly disappointing not to have had that this morning.
The Minister has restated commitments on rough sleeping. However, the Government are three decades behind meeting their own target to halve rough sleeping. The figure fell by only 74—according to data based on putting a thumb in the air. Some councils do not even do a head count. There is no way on earth that Southwark could go through every bin cupboard that people are sleeping in—every stairwell, or all the places outside the lifts in tower blocks on the Brandon estate. It just is not done. The Government are not collecting enough data to make the case.
Then the Minister suggested that the all-party group’s report is not sufficient to make the case. I think that the evidence base is there, and that she should work more closely with organisations such as Women’s Aid that support the change. Many organisations back it. She should commit to securing that change during consideration of the Domestic Abuse Bill. We have the opportunity before us and should not let it slip.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered domestic abuse and homelessness.
Vaccination and Public Health
I beg to move,
That this House has considered vaccination and public health.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a particular pleasure to participate in a debate on health with my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for the first time in her new position as Minister.
Vaccination and public health is an immensely important area not only for the UK, but across the world, and vaccination has contributed so much to our public health. It is a pleasure to open this debate, following on from a Westminster Hall debate that I recently secured on clinical trials. It highlights the UK’s strength in the life sciences sector, not only in the companies and corporations involved, but in the importance of our medical research charities and the academics who work in the sector. In this area, we truly are a world leader.
Some of the concerns that I highlighted about clinical trials also feed into this debate. Fundamentally, it is about saving millions of lives every year, and with immunisation we can also eradicate diseases. The World Health Organisation declared in 1980 that it had eliminated smallpox, a terrible disease that killed a great many people and left survivors with terrible afflictions throughout their lives. I suppose the most famous example of a smallpox sufferer was Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1796—we were a little bit behind the Chinese; I think the first example of Chinese inoculation was about 1,000 years ago—Edward Jenner in Gloucestershire and others noticed that milkmaids caught cowpox, but milkmaids who caught cowpox did not catch smallpox. When that was identified, Edward Jenner inoculated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, and that inoculation protected James Phipps from smallpox. Since then, the World Health Organisation and health organisations around the world have targeted smallpox with such amazing success that the terrible disease has been defeated and eradicated.
Immunisation speaks to something that is increasingly important and increasingly recognised in the national health service: maintaining one’s health rather than having something go wrong and then repairing the damage. It is about asking, “What can we do to keep fit, keep active, avoid excesses in one regard or another and maintain our health?” It is so much cheaper, more effective and better for our standard of living to maintain our health than it is to lose our health and try to regain it. It is also immensely cost-effective; like all organisations, the national health service is under resource pressure, and, in terms of both direct and indirect costs, immunisation is reckoned to provide a saving of £13 for every £1 spent.
In the United Kingdom, we do well on immunisation. The population of the UK is well informed and well educated on immunisation, which leads to a high take-up of those vaccinations; but we cannot rest on our laurels. In 2017-18, there was a 91% take-up of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination in England, the lowest since 2011-12.
It is reckoned that, in order to have herd immunity, an immunisation take-up rate of 95% is needed. A 95% uptake protects the remaining 5% of people who, for whatever reason, fall through the gaps, do not take the immunisation or perhaps move to the UK after missing the opportunity. England is falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom; in the rest of the UK, the take-up rate is 3% higher than it is in England, and it is important that we close that gap.
Media, and particularly social media, present a problem. When we look at the information that is available, we can see that it is easy for scare stories to develop in the media or to be perpetuated on social media. When stories or misleading ideas not backed by any evidence get out of hand and people buy into them, it is very important that they are challenged.
A sense of solidarity is also important. It is very difficult if a number of people think, “I am concerned about the risk of this immunisation, so I will rely on the 95% of other people to have their children immunised and I will be part of the 5% who are otherwise protected.” We cannot rely on everyone else to do the right thing, because the proportion of people who do not take up the immunisation may increase to more than 5%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and calling out the frankly irresponsible behaviour of some in the anti-vaccination movement. Does he agree that it is particularly important that mothers get their children inoculated with the MMR vaccine, because otherwise they are potentially putting at risk not just their own children, but other mothers whom those children may come into contact with, who may develop measles, mumps or rubella—all of which can be very harmful to a developing foetus and to mothers in pregnancy?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. When I was young, I had both chickenpox and measles. At that time, it was part of growing up, and many people who have had those diseases think, “It’s not a big thing; it’s not a big problem.” However, serious health outcomes or problems can develop from diseases that people may dismiss as not being terribly important. In that sense, solidarity is vital; we must all take responsibility not only for ourselves and our own families, but for the wider community.
Media and social media concerns are just one factor. There are a number of other barriers to achieving comprehensive vaccination. The World Health Organisation highlights vaccine hesitancy, and identifies three Cs: confidence, complacency and convenience. Is it convenient to have the vaccination? Are people confident or complacent about take-up, with a sense of, “I’ll be one of the 5%,” or, “It’s not really a problem in our society; the treatment isn’t actually dealing with a significant problem”? Or do people think that the disease has gone the way of smallpox and been effectively eradicated? That is not the case, especially given the ease with which people can travel across the world.
The UK is a leader in what we do here, but our support for countries around the world is also incredibly important. Support for funding the Department for International Development is often challenging, but I think there will be pretty much universal support for the announcement earlier this year of the £10 million to develop vaccines against global infectious diseases. That came on the back of the Ebola crisis in west Africa, where 11,000 people were killed, and it goes into a wider fund of £120 million committed to infectious diseases. The UK is the single largest contributor to GAVI, contributing a quarter of its funding and saving hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.
The UK also has an important role to play in co-ordinating and helping other countries. If another country does not have the health infrastructure that we have, they will need that support—that was the case in the Ebola example in west Africa—and we can lend our expertise. I reiterate that with flights from west Africa to the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, the transition of easily communicable diseases is a significant risk.
It is great that the hon. Gentleman has secured the debate.
Order. According to the rules, Front-Bench spokespeople are not supposed to intervene in half-hour debates, but if Chris Green is happy to take that intervention, I will allow it. I just thought that I needed to put that on the record.
I am happy to take the intervention.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, I was very disappointed that our debate in the Chamber sadly clashed with the local government elections and was therefore poorly supported. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comment on health systems. A huge amount of work has been done on eradication, but less than 10% of children have had their full World Health Organisation vaccinations. Thankfully, the big global players are beginning to see that it is about universal health coverage and routine vaccination.
Absolutely; those comments are so important. I recognise the hon. Lady’s chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on vaccinations for all, which is a really important group.
There has been a slight decline in the UK in the take-up of vaccinations. Is the Minister concerned that recent healthcare reforms have inadvertently contributed to the decline in vaccination rates, as highlighted by the British Medical Association? The loss of care roles—such as primary care trust immunisation co-ordinators, who provide training as well as co-ordination—occurred as responsibility was moved away from primary care trusts.
Turning around the gradual decline in vaccination coverage is likely to involve the provision of more accessible services and more active outreach by health professionals into individual under-vaccinated communities; the wider provision of vaccination services, through things such as school visits by community nurses and mobile vaccination services; better training of health professionals on what vaccines are, what they do, how they work and what is in them, so that those professionals are ably equipped to answer parents’ questions; increasing public awareness of the benefits that vaccines confer and the danger that the return of vaccine-preventable diseases poses; provision of the right public health funding to enable vaccination services to function effectively, including by reaching under-vaccinated groups, which costs more than standard provision; and communicating with parents to improve their access to evidence-based information. By implementing some, if not all, of those ideas, we will help to address the difficulties that are leading to a fall in vaccination rates, and make a positive case for why immunisation is good for public health.
This debate is timely, given that NHS England is currently undertaking a review into GP-led vaccinations and immunisations. The review was first announced in January as part of the NHS long-term plan, but it began properly only in the last six weeks. The purpose of the review is to consider how screening and vaccination programmes could be designed to support the narrowing of health inequalities, as well as to reduce complexity, improve value and increase the impact of the current vaccination programmes delivered by general practices. That includes reducing the administrative burden on GPs by simplifying the system, addressing the anomalies in the system that directly incentivise some vaccines but not others, and looking at how we deal with outbreaks and catch-up programmes.
The review is a perfect opportunity to assess how each vaccine programme is performing and to address and improve underperforming programmes. There are also opportunities to streamline the system and introduce a consistent approach. For example, some programmes, such as flu and pneumococcal programmes, include call and recall measures to boost uptake, but that is not the case for other programmes, such as shingles.
Community pharmacies have a really important role, and they could make an important contribution to vaccination. They are a convenient way for people to address their healthcare and receive vaccination services, perhaps without the need for an appointment. Many community pharmacies in England already deliver the NHS flu vaccination service, which has proved popular among patients. Following that success, would it not be possible to provide a wider range of vaccines in that way? That would help people to remain healthy, and it would reduce GP’s workload and the wider pressure on the health service.
Community pharmacies are uniquely positioned to help the NHS to meet its immunisation targets in England, and to help to ensure that people in more deprived communities receive the vaccinations they need. In contrast to other healthcare settings, there is a greater density of pharmacies in the most deprived areas per head of the population, making pharmacies ideal for bridging the gap in areas where people face greater health inequalities.
I reiterate that the UK has a strong history of vaccinations, from being the country that invented the first ever vaccine to becoming a truly global player in creating a healthier world for everyone to live in. However, we must take stock of vaccination levels here at home, and we must not allow complacency or misinformation to reduce the level of immunisation. We must continue to strive for the highest levels of immunisation, so that our children continue to enjoy living in a healthy society free from disease. I thank the British Society for Immunology, Save the Children and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee for their help. I am glad that we are having this important debate, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to stand before the House in recognition of one of our greatest achievements in health. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), my Lancashire neighbour, for tabling the debate. He is a great champion for his constituents and for raising science and health issues on to the parliamentary agenda.
Immunisation offers every child the chance of a healthy life, from their earliest beginnings and into old age. It saves millions of lives every year, and after clean water is the world’s most successful and cost-effective public health intervention. Our vaccination programmes are a cornerstone of the UK’s public health offer, and I know that all hon. Members here will join me in commending those involved in the delivery of our world-class vaccination programmes, which protect both individuals and all our communities. Our routine vaccination programme protects against 16 different diseases that, even today in developed countries, can cause serious long-term ill health, and even death, if not prevented.
The Government are committed to keeping vaccination uptake rates as high as possible. We constantly review ways to do that, and we are committed to ensuring that everyone eligible for vaccination takes up the offer. We should be proud that our routine vaccinations in England continue to have a high uptake, with more than 90% coverage for almost all childhood vaccines. That reflects the high levels of confidence that the vast majority of parents rightly have in our vaccination programmes.
The levels are above 90% for the majority, but does the Minister accept that the WHO advice is that the figure should be 95%, for community safety? We have to tackle this drop of even a few per cent.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady, who brings to this place her great expertise from a career as a doctor. The Government have a commitment to reach the WHO target of 95%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is no longer in his place, but he made an intervention. He referred to mothers, but I think that all parents—mothers and fathers—have a responsibility to ensure that their children are immunised. I urge parents who are thinking of getting the last rounds of MMR vaccines for their children to do so. In every classroom, there will be children who are immunosuppressed and unable to have those vaccinations, so it falls to all the rest of us, as parents, to ensure that our children have their vaccinations.
Evidence from Public Health England’s annual attitudinal surveys, which have been run since the early 1990s, shows that more than 90% of parents trust our vaccination programmes and most people automatically get their children vaccinated. Regrettably, there has been a small, steady decline in coverage since 2013. That is of concern. There are likely to be many factors contributing to it, not just a single one. We are not complacent and we know that we need to take action now to halt the decline. That is why I am so glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West sought this debate: it enables me to outline some of the measures that my Department is taking.
The Department of Health and Social Care leads on policy for immunisation in England, and officials are working very closely with Public Health England and NHS England to take steps to improve vaccination coverage and reverse the downward trend. That includes better national co-ordination of our vaccination programmes; making it easier for people to access vaccinations; making information readily available to parents and those needing vaccines; and better training for staff to enable them to answer questions that parents may have.
In addition, we have data systems to ensure accurate information on the immunisation status of children and young people, so that health professionals can provide a “catch-up” on any missed vaccinations. We will continue to improve those systems. For example, the Digital Child Health programme, which includes the development of a digital personal child health record, will create a system that allows parents and healthcare practitioners to access a child’s immunisation history, improving the ability to give immunisations at every opportunity.
NHS England is reviewing vaccinations in the context of the GP contract, to ensure that GPs are properly reimbursed for vaccinating their populations and that the right incentives for increased uptake rates are in place. That is set out in “The NHS Long Term Plan”, published in January of this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West asked about community pharmacies and the very important role that they have to play in our primary care. I thank him for his suggestion. The Government recognise the value and importance of the services that community pharmacies provide. We want to see them working with primary care networks to encourage more people to use their local pharmacy to keep them healthy.
With regard to vaccinations, I am aware of the success, which my hon. Friend highlighted, of seasonal flu vaccines. Indeed, the number of seasonal flu vaccinations provided by pharmacies between September 2018 and March 2019 was more than 1.4 million. I had my seasonal flu vaccine in my local pharmacy in Penwortham. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a very responsible parliamentarian, had one as well. His facial expression suggests otherwise; perhaps he will have one this September. I will write to him regarding his suggestion. NHS England is currently leading a review of GP vaccinations, and I would not want to pre-empt its findings.
It is very important that our vaccination programmes continue to evolve. They are constantly reviewed and updated to reflect the changing nature of infectious diseases, based on expert advice. The Government receive expert advice on vaccination programmes based on decisions from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. That includes advice on new and existing programmes and on which vaccines should be used. Recent examples of JCVI advice leading to improvements to our vaccination programmes include the extension of the seasonal flu immunisation programme to children and the extension of human papillomavirus vaccination to adolescent boys.
It is important to remember—the House will be aware of this—that if we do not continue to vaccinate, diseases that we rarely see in the UK at the moment will return. Examples of such diseases are diphtheria, measles, tetanus and polio. Vaccines are responsible for a substantial reduction in the number of those infections.
Let us cast our minds back to the early 1950s, when there were epidemics of polio infections, with symptoms ranging in severity from fever, to meningitis, to paralysis. At the time, there were as many as 8,000 annual notifications of infantile paralysis caused by polio in this country. Following the introduction of polio immunisation, the numbers of cases fell rapidly to very low levels. The last outbreak that started in the UK was in the late 1970s. Today, protection against that disease is included in our 6-in-1 vaccine, and owing to the success of the vaccination programmes, that disease and its effects are now rarely seen in the UK.
We should be very proud of our successes in the UK and of the public health benefits afforded by our immunisation programmes. However, as I hope I have made clear to hon. Members today, we are not complacent. We will continually seek to improve those services, seeking advice from experts and taking proactive action, to ensure that we have the best vaccination offer in order to protect the health of our nation.
Question put and agreed to.
Local Bank Closures
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government response when the closure of the last local bank is proposed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am delighted to have secured this debate, because the closure of our local bank branches in Moray has been an issue of significant concern for some time. I want to start with a roll call. Since 2015, we have seen 16 bank closures in the following towns in Moray: Cullen, Dufftown, two in Aberlour, three in Keith, two in Buckie, Elgin, a further two in Lossiemouth, two in Forres, Burghead and Fochabers. Those bank closures have affected communities in the north, east, south and west of Moray—no part of our area has been unaffected. The issue continues, with growing frustration for my constituents in Moray and constituents across Scotland and the UK.
In the UK, bank branches have reduced from 11,365 in 2007 to just 7,207 10 years later. In Scotland, between 2010 and 2018, a significant number of branches closed. RBS reduced its branch network by 70%, Clydesdale bank by 53% and Santander by 42%. Which? estimates that there are 130 communities in Scotland alone that are described as cash deserts. That means they do not have access to either a local bank branch or an ATM.
The banks have their reasons for doing this. They explain that footfall is decreasing, that more people are taking up online banking and that people can use different methods to deal with their banking needs. I disagree with that for a number of reasons, but an email I received from a constituent summed it up perfectly. The constituent comes from Portknockie, and wrote:
“I support you in calling banks to account. We know that bank closures in Moray have been severe and that banks have not even followed their own protocols when closing branches.”
“I use online banking and am fortunate to have both the skills and fast broadband which make this possible, but I think that it is wrong that banks are acting on the assumption that everyone has these and increasingly that they have smartphones and good mobile signals. I have a smartphone but the mobile signal where I live in Portknockie is so poor that SSE were unable to install a smart meter.”
Yes, the banks do have many reasons for suggesting that these closures are the right way forward, but I believe that this constituent and many more who contacted me ahead of this debate are absolutely right. People are not unaffected by these closures. A large number of people in our communities either do not have access to fast broadband, to allow mobile banking, or simply do not want to use it, but wish to continue the face-to-face contact that they value with their banks.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. His constituent also raised the question of the procedures and processes that banks go through before they disengage with a community. In the experience of my constituents and my own experience in Bridge of Allan, that is a tick-box exercise and nothing more.
I endorse and agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. I want to focus specifically on how banks approach this whole process. It could be done far better—indeed, it could not be any worse.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case for why it is wrong that these banks have been closed. In my own area in the Scottish Borders, we have lost many bank branches, which causes great anxiety to many of the residents. When banks shut a branch, they say that there are mobile or other banking options, but many communities do not have access to mobile phone signals or broadband. Does my hon. Friend agree that the banks should be doing more, before they shut the branch, to ensure that all residents and communities are properly connected? The Government may have a role in supporting that, too.
My hon. Friend’s seat in the Scottish Borders, my own in Moray and many others across Scotland do not have adequate broadband provision to allow a suitable online connection, to which the banks are directing so many people. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to the point made by my hon. Friend.
It is right that we should discuss bank closures in the round, but this debate specifically addresses the point at which the final bank branch in a town closes. Sadly, we have recently seen that in Lossiemouth. Lossiemouth is not a small town; it is a growing town. The population is increasing, largely due to the UK Government’s investment there. We are putting £400 million extra in RAF Lossiemouth, which will be the home of the P-8 Poseidon aircraft. With that, there will be at least an additional 400 personnel and their families coming to the town.
It is all the more bizarre and upsetting that now, when Lossiemouth has this huge investment and is preparing for an increase in population, the last branch in the town should have decided to go—it closed last week. This weekend was the first without the branch and, as I will mention later, the ATM was also removed. In the first weekend after the branch closed and the ATM was removed, a town with almost 8,000 residents was left with no cash whatever. The two remaining cash machines in Lossiemouth ran out of money.
I am sure that all of us here now have experience of towns with no banks in them. If a town known to be highly dependent on the cash economy, as many of our tourism towns are—this particularly affects bars and pubs—loses its last bank, people will be aware that cash is being kept on premises. To what extent have the Government considered the security of the towns and the threat of organised crime? Bars and pubs in particular—on bank holiday weekends, say—will no longer be able to deposit cash locally, so that cash will be held on the premises, which are not equipped and not necessarily insured to hold that level of cash. This is an aspect that we have not considered so far.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because that issue came up when I held a public meeting in Lossiemouth, following the announcement that the final branch in the town would close. The local football club, Lossiemouth F. C., said that it had checked with its insurers, who said that they would either increase the premium to a level that it could not afford or simply not insure it at all, because it would now not be able to deposit cash at the end of the night: the cash would have to remain on the premises. I hope the Minister addresses that issue, but we also have to put it to the insurers, because it is no fault of the football club or other operators in these towns that the banks are now closed and people cannot deposit money.
I want to return to Lossiemouth, a huge town in Moray, being left without cash this weekend. Denise Bedson of the Lossiemouth Business Association told The Press & Journal:
“The situation at the weekend was disgraceful. A lot of small businesses can’t afford card facilities. I know there are cheaper solutions but the phone signal isn’t always the best here for them to work properly. We’re trying to get more banking facilities here because the situation is very difficult”.
It was so difficult that there were reports of people going into the local store to buy one tin of baked beans just to get cash back. They had to buy something that they did not want or need, simply to get money from the store, because the cash machines were not working. Councillor James Allan, my colleague, who represents Heldon and Laich, has been a great local champion for this cause for years. We have gone from four banks and seven ATMs down to just two ATMs. In a community the size of Lossiemouth, that is simply unacceptable. This is just the first weekend. We have serious concerns that this will go on further.
Mention was made of tourism and tourist businesses. Lossiemouth is a great attraction for tourists, with whom it is very popular. We have takeaways and taxi firms, which do not accept credit cards or debit payments. They will suffer as a result of this. Lossiemouth Community Council and its councillors Mike Mulholland and Carolle Ralph have been highlighting the bank closures for some time; they also held a public meeting about them, following my meeting. The issue has been of considerable concern since the announcement was made last November. We knew that this was coming, but the banks have deserted Lossiemouth and other communities across Moray, Scotland and the UK. I believe that they have to do more about it.
While I am speaking about Lossiemouth, the area in Moray that is most affected because it has no branch left, I also want to mention post offices. They play a vital role, but there are some limitations. I know how hard Tony Rook, owner of the post office in Lossiemouth, and his staff are trying—as he commented in The Northern Scot this week, they are doing their level best—but when there is a spike in use and they are away for the weekend, there is nothing that they can do to put more money into their cash machine. He has one of the two cash machines in Lossiemouth. It costs his business to have it facing outwards to the street, but he does it as a public service. It is a great service, but even with great efforts from him and his staff, we were still left without money in a Moray town at the weekend. That is something that we need to look at.
It is not just Lossiemouth that has been affected. At the same time as the closure in Lossiemouth was announced, there was another in Keith. I held a public meeting there as well; I was grateful for the attendance of local councillor Donald Gatt, as well as Paul McBain, representing the post office, and Pearl Hamilton from the Federation of Small Businesses.
When we consider the impact of branch closures or the reduction of ATMs, we often think only about the customers who want to take money out, but the small businesses in our communities suffer just as much, if not more. FSB Scotland retweeted my tweets about today’s debate because it has great interest in the matter. Small businesses are losing not only the branch that they bank with and deposit their takings at, but the opportunity for people to take money out and spend it in their shops. They are the lifeblood of our local communities, so it is unfortunate and deeply reprehensible that they are being drawn into this.
I also want to speak about the bank’s response. I have to say that its contempt both for its own customers and for local communities is disgusting. As the local Member of Parliament, I got a phone call about the Bank of Scotland’s closures in Lossiemouth and Keith, days before it even wrote to its customers; I know my MSP colleague did, too. It came to the politicians to tell us, “This is what we are doing—oh, and by the way, we will tell our customers after the bank holiday weekend.” It thought that they could wait a few days before even bothering to tell its customers about news of such magnitude.
The banks get involved in the process that has been laid down to consult and inform communities of their decision, but they never change their mind. It is a fait accompli—they have decided what they are doing. When communities rightly stand up against these cuts and removals to express their concern about how deeply damaging they will be, the banks turn a deaf ear: they are not interested, and they do not want to hear it. I have to say that I think their behaviour shocking and unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is making a most persuasive speech. When a local authority in Scotland wants to close a school, there has to be a proper public consultation process. Does he agree that something similar would be appropriate for proposed closures of bank branches?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point with which I wholly agree. Like him, I have been involved with school closures as a local councillor, and they are not easy decisions to take. When we were proposing to close Cabrach Primary School in Moray, we had to have a full consultation, even though it had no pupils left at all—the final two, a brother and sister, had moved to another school. There has to be a full consultation with the community to close a school with no pupils, but a bank branch with so many customers that is so valuable to the local area can be closed when the bank comes in and ignores every view put to it.
My most abiding memory of Lloyds’s reaction to what it was doing in Lossiemouth and Keith was that it was not even willing to engage. I wrote to it when I quickly assembled the public meetings, which were attended by people from community councils, the post office and business associations. The meetings in Lossiemouth and Keith both had an empty chair for the bank; because it could not even be bothered to turn up and face the public about its decision, I thought it only right to show the public that it was absent by leaving a chair empty.
People wanted to challenge the figures about reducing footfall or the number of transactions. There were several people in the community who did not believe the figures that were put forward. The bank should have either substantiated its claims and stood up to support them, or gone back to the community and said, “This is where we were correct, and this is where you were correct.” That it was unwilling to do that demonstrates its whole attitude to this crisis.
The bank’s next response is, “Well, we’ll put in mobile banking.” A town the size of Lossiemouth, which has gone from four branches to none, now has a mobile bank coming for an hour or two a week. We have a great climate in Lossiemouth, but it is not always sunny and beautiful; it is sometimes cold and wet, and yet we expect elderly bank customers to stand outside and wait while others go in and carry out their business. There are also elements of privacy that a mobile banking service cannot replace. It is wrong that we should keep hearing, “We are closing your branch, but we will continue to have a presence.” That presence is pitiful, and it does not match the needs and aspirations of the community that uses it.
As I have mentioned before in Westminster Hall, in a debate about access to cash, RBS in Moray has a mobile branch van called the Moray Rambler. There have been so many closures of bank branches across the north-east of Scotland that the Moray Rambler now has to ramble into Banffshire and Aberdeenshire to cover areas outwith my constituency. Not only have we a poor service, but it is being stretched further and further and towns are getting less and less time with the mobile bank.
Post offices rightly have a role to play that we all value. Paul McBain represented the National Federation of SubPostmasters at my public meetings, and he did so well. Some tasks can be done at the post office instead of the bank, but some simply cannot be replicated: transferring money from an account, seeking advice about bank accounts, opening or closing accounts, registering a power of attorney or grant of probate, making complaints or inquiring about savings, current accounts, credit cards, mortgages, personal loans or investments. There is a role for the post office and there are tasks that it can do, but there are many that it simply cannot. It is wrong for the bank to say, “We’ll put in a mobile branch, or you can use the post office as an alternative.” It is not a like-for-like alternative; it is misleading and wrong to say so, and we will be in trouble if we go down that route.
Research into post office usage by Which? reveals that only 55% of adults are aware that they can use the post office for banking—almost half of the population do not know that—and that 47% are unlikely to use a post office for banking in the future. I hope that we can change those figures; as I said in an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber a couple of months ago, we need to encourage the public to use our post offices. However, many people out there do not want to use them for certain aspects of their banking needs. Some 42% of people did not want to go into a post office for banking because queues were too long, while 32% believed that they were not private enough.
The key thing is that post offices have to be financially viable. If they are to take on more services, they have to be able to make a living from them. That is a fundamental challenge to the existence of many sub-post offices.
I agree wholeheartedly. That is an issue for the Government, but not for the Minister; I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), has been discussing it. I want our post offices to be rewarded for doing the tasks that the banks are currently doing, because they are not being rewarded at the same level as banks for the jobs that they do.
My final point about closures goes back to the figures on footfall. In Lossiemouth, we have been told, “Your nearest branch is in Elgin, which is not too far away.” It is not far away in mileage, but getting there can be quite difficult because our bus services are not as good as they once were. People are expected to get the bus from Lossiemouth into Elgin, but ironically the branch there is not as accessible: people cannot park very easily on the high street, so they have to pay to use a car park and then troop round to the bank. Customers of the same bank used to go from Elgin to Lossiemouth because it was easier to park outside, and now we have closed the branch that they actually wanted to go to. Again, that shows how ill thought-out these plans are.
I know that many hon. Members want to speak in this debate, but I will just highlight access to cash. I have already mentioned the scenario in Lossiemouth where there was no cash available over the weekend. There has been a decline in the use of cash, but research undertaken in 2018 showed that 73% of people used cash frequently—that means once or twice a week.
The next figure that I will cite is interesting: 60% of 18 to 24-year-olds use cash frequently—again, that is once or twice a week. I am looking around me in Westminster Hall; before my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) came in, I thought I was the youngest Member here, but she has beaten me to it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) may have a complaint to make about that. Generally, we think that younger people—those in their thirties, or younger—are more likely to use smartphones, other technology or contactless payment, but we are told that 60% of 18 to 24-year-olds still use cash. Access to cash is not just something that affects the older population; it affects everyone in our communities. Industry figures predict that in a decade’s time, cash will still be the second most popular payment method.
A further concern that was mentioned today in a press release from Which? is that 7 million people were unable to use a payment card last year because of IT glitches. We can encourage people to use different payment methods and move away from cash, but people will still be affected if there are IT glitches, and such problems sometimes cost them money. We need to bear in mind that in the last year, 7 million people were affected by IT glitches.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Access to cash machines is also important for people who are on a budget. They like to withdraw small amounts without being charged to help them to budget, whereas better-off people may make one large withdrawal for the week.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Research into the issue shows that some of the lowest paid in our society will be most affected if there is an even greater reduction in access to cash.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the importance of cash. There is a wider economic point, because many of the small towns that he represents, and many of those that I represent in the borders, are absolutely dependent on cash. In Coldstream, Hawick and other towns in my constituency, when the banks have shut and the cash machines have gone, many traders have noticed a significant decrease in footfall and sales. That undermines the economic viability of the high street.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As he mentioned Coldstream and Hawick, I am sure he will get two press releases out of that intervention—something he always does well in debates such as this. Our high streets are vital to our communities, but we have seen a reduction in the number of shops on them. If that continues, we will really suffer.
I will briefly mention banking hubs. They are an idea that we have to consider, and I want to hear what the Minister has to say about them. The idea is not a new one; I know that it was suggested as far back as 2002. Last year, I wrote to every bank operating in Scotland about the suggestion of looking further at banking hubs—I know it has been made by several politicians from different parties—and I have to say that the response was disappointing. Some of the banks ignored the suggestion, and others said that hubs were not right for them. Nationwide said that it did not believe it was in the interests of its members to enter into a branch-sharing scheme. Such a scheme might not be in the interests of Nationwide’s members, but it might be in the interests of our constituents and its customers.
We have to do far more to get the banks to work together. They may have some concerns, but if we cannot have the four branches that we used to have in Lossiemouth, let us at least have one hub where the banks can work together to ensure there is still a banking presence.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for bringing this important issue to the House. We have seen the starting up of a pilot business hub in Birmingham, whereby four bank branches have come together to help businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows that there is a mechanism for banks to do this, and that they just need the will to ensure that they help their personal banking customers just as much as their business ones?
My hon. Friend makes the point that hubs have been created before and there should be no blockage. However, the banks seem unable or unwilling to move forward on the issue, and perhaps the Minister can use either a carrot or a stick to encourage them to do a little more.
I will end by putting some points to the Minister and asking him some questions, and then I will allow others to contribute to this debate. I was interested to read a report from July 2018 by the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee, which was chaired by my colleague Gordon Lindhurst. The report contained a number of key points, including that there will be an indefinite ongoing need for cash and universal face-to-face banking provision; that the access to banking standard, with its post-closure-decision consultation, is failing and a binding pre-decision consultation is needed; and that there is a need for the UK Government to research the issue properly and come up with binding statutory and regulatory conclusions.
I know that the Minister listened intently and understood the concerns of Scottish Members when he addressed this issue at the Scottish Affairs Committee this morning. I hope that, with some of the asks from me and other Members, the UK Government can make some progress on this issue.
I hope that the Minister will look at the access to banking standard and toughen it up, because some banks are not part of it. As I said when I read out communications from a constituent and others, there are concerns that banks are not adhering to the standard. I also hope that he will engage with the banks about banking hubs; the banks have too easily written off that suggestion rather than engaging properly on it. Although I accept that there are commercial reasons why banks choose to leave towns, I hope that the Minister will accept that the situation is different when a bank branch is the last to leave a town or village, and that that has a far greater impact than earlier closures.
To conclude, there has already been a devastating reduction in the number of branches across Moray, across Scotland and across the UK. We almost always lose ATMs at the same time, and therefore access to cash as well. We need to reverse that trend. Banks can improve their image—it is not always the most positive—by listening to communities and working with them, and not by simply leaving towns and villages. To date, I do not believe that the Government have done enough. We can also improve our image on this issue by working with communities and ensuring that they retain the banking presence and bank branches that they so greatly need.
I intend to start calling Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.27 pm. That leaves roughly between four and five minutes if each Back-Bench Member who wishes to speak is to have an equal share of the time that is left; I leave Back-Bench Members to manage their time themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this extremely important debate.
This is not the first time that I have spoken in this Chamber on this subject area. Last Thursday, we discussed a Treasury Committee report; the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), who is the Labour spokesperson this afternoon, also attended that debate. The issue cuts across two Government Departments and I hope that they will soon get their heads together and sort it out.
As has been said, Scotland has lost more than a third of its bank and building society branches in the last eight years. New analysis from Which? shows that 610 branches in Scotland closed between 2010 and 2018, and Santander’s recent decision to close 15 branches in Scotland will have a devastating impact on staff and local firms.
As we have heard, communities are devastated when local bank services close, and when the last bank goes it can have an unacceptable effect on local communities. In its report, the Treasury Committee said that
“there are still large sections of society who rely on bank branches to carry out their banking needs.”
As the hon. Member for Moray said, it is not only the elderly who need cash; everyone seems to need cash at some point during the week. If they cannot access it, there are real problems, and there is a deleterious effect on our local high streets and our local businesses.
The UK Government must step in and act; they can no longer argue that they cannot intervene. They made a similar argument about Royal Bank of Scotland closing branches, but we now know that the Treasury thought that it was okay to force RBS to pull finance from customers through the asset protection scheme.
The view of the Treasury Committee is that
“the Government should make changes to competition law to allow banks to share facilities in order to maintain a sustainable branch network”
“intervention by Government or the FCA may be necessary…to provide a physical network for consumers”,
which is extremely important. We need people to be able to access cash. Perhaps we need the Lending Standards Board to be involved in this as well, to increase transparency and the potential for external scrutiny over branch closures. It could publish examples of non-compliance when people do not do the right thing through their annual reports.
Post offices are a subject in which I have taken a great deal of interest; I secured a backbench business debate on the sustainability of the post office network. Post offices have lifted a heavy burden when banks in their vicinity have closed. One sub-postmaster in my constituency told me that because of the closure of local banks, he was now having to work extremely hard simply counting cash, and he worked out that in one week his take-home pay was £1.37 an hour. I am aware that Post Office Ltd has increased the rates it pays sub-postmasters, but that increase will not come into effect until October of this year. It is extremely important for local authorities, communities and businesses that where the last bank closes, the Government do what they should be doing: supporting banks through banking hubs, charging banks to use those hubs and using any other means that they can find to do a good job and keep cash going in local economies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for having secured today’s debate. This issue is of real concern to my constituents, who have been hit by a number of closures of bank branches in recent years. I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, which has done a lot of work in this space: we have done a bespoke short inquiry into RBS’s significant run of bank closures, and we are going to do another one into access to cash. I am sure the Minister will be sick of the sight of me, since he was in front of the Committee this morning.
I will touch a lot on some of the points that our Committee has drawn out through our inquiry, and focus in particular on the impact of bank branch closures—especially the last bank in town—on the local post office network. That network is often used by banks as a justification for abandoning a community and a high street. It seems to me that banks effectively want post offices to do their work for them, often at a loss, as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) has explained. From evidence given to my Committee, we know that banks do very little to ensure the longevity and sustainability of the post office network on which they rely so heavily. In East Renfrewshire, half a dozen post offices have closed over the past couple of years for a variety of reasons. Just about every single one of those post offices was included in the so-called consultation documentation produced by a local bank as the nearest place for customers to carry out their transactions.
The Government need to set out a clear policy paper on how to tackle this issue, and reform the access to banking standard from a voluntary agreement into something with more legislative backing. They also need to do more to facilitate genuine alternatives to banks using the post office as a quick fix when closing branches. Post offices are not a replacement for branch services, and their staff do not have the training to act as banking specialists; my hon. Friend the Member for Moray ran through a whole range of things that they cannot do and explained well the lack of awareness about the post office. However, it is crucial to ensure the post office network is receiving adequate funding to deliver banking services, rather than post offices subsidising bank branch closure programmes, which is effectively what is happening at the moment.
I agree that banks need to look seriously at sharing space to keep a local presence; that is particularly important when the last bank leaves. If those banks still want to pass the buck to the Post Office, the Government should explore making them responsible for setting up and funding banking hubs. Such hubs could be located or co-located in post office branches in certain instances, but the post office branches themselves and the services currently available through them should not be seen as a replacement for banking services. The Government could raise the bank corporation tax surcharge and the bank levy to fund the provision of banking services in the post office network and a network of community banking hubs, especially when it comes to staff training. In 2019-20, those two taxes are forecast to raise over £4 billion. Of course, funding should also be available through fines collected for non-compliance with the standard.
My constituents living in Neilston saw their post office suddenly closed in March, leaving that village without any banking services whatsoever. The same has happened in Eaglesham, at the other end of the constituency. Post offices that banks used as excuses for why their branch was no longer needed are gone. Where are the banks? They simply do not care; as far as they are concerned, it is now the Post Office’s problem. Their responsibilities to the communities they used to serve are, in their view, over.
Surely, the least we can expect is that if banks want to pass the buck to the Post Office, they ensure that post offices are sustainable alternatives to bank branches in the long term. It is quite clear that for my constituents, they are not. As I told the executives of RBS, Bank of Scotland, TSB and Clydesdale Bank when they appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee, it is completely unacceptable for high street banks to rely on the post office network as a justification for abandoning local communities while doing nothing meaningful to ensure the continued survival of that network.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on having secured it. While I am always pleased to support any debate that the hon. Gentleman secures, I have a deep interest in this particular topic.
I used to come to these debates and talk about my rural areas and social isolation. As I did that, bankers nodded at me, all the while pushing on with their plans to close rural banks, which succeeded. The last banks in the Ards peninsula in my constituency closed over a year ago, although to give a bit of credit to Ulster bank, I highlight the fact that it provided a mobile bank and a customer adviser on a weekly basis. That has been useful, so some of the banks—one of the banks, anyway—took the opportunity to do something.
These closures mean that much of my constituency has no local branch. When that is paired with the fact that some areas of the peninsula are using dial-up internet, the isolation becomes incredibly clear. However, according to the banks, the numbers did not tally, and the customers could be relocated to another branch—how frustrating it was to watch that. It was fine until the closures started hitting the main town, Newtownards, which has a population of some 30,000 and serves the Ards peninsula. We saw the First Trust bank close, as well as the Bank of Ireland branch. Someone from Portaferry, some 30 miles down the road, has to travel to Bangor or Belfast simply to speak to their local bank.
I thank God for Danske bank, Ulster bank, Santander and Nationwide, which have carried out enhancements to their Newtownards branches. Those enhancements show their dedication to the local area, and I highlight them to anyone who asks me about those banks. I much prefer to work and do business with those who are prepared to have a local branch, paying rents and providing a service. Most people now are doing things online, which is phenomenal for the people whose lives are made easier by doing a lot online. My parliamentary aide is at that all the time—she is always on the app, moving her money around to cover bills, which is great—but at lunch time she goes down to Nationwide to lodge money in the children’s accounts; she has access to the banks and can do transactions there. How much more is this a case of enforced technology for people my age or older?
I will give Members a real example: in the six months before the consultation on closing one of the banks in Newtownards, a staff member had been designated to stand in front of the counter and ask people in the queue if they could help get them online and do their transactions online for them. The bank then raved about the uptake of online banking. That is a slight false economy when a staff member had to stand patiently with the customer, who got to jump the queue and get what they wanted if they had talked to that staff member. In addition, the banks began to say, “We have to charge a fee, but if you do it online yourself, it is free.” Explaining all that to the customer took longer than carrying out the transaction would have done, but that would not provide the same excuse to say that the branch had become obsolete.
I read a story in the paper at the weekend, which is a true story. I am rather loath to use the bank’s name, although anyone who reads The Mail on Sunday can find out which bank it was. The headline states:
“As banks continue to axe branches around Britain and force firms to go cashless, this furious baker—”
who is one of the bank’s customers; not a banker, but a baker—says that her bank
“‘talked me into a pricey card reader…then shut down my branch’”.
Wow! Listen to this one: she pays £39 a month for a debit card reader, and 1.85% of every transaction goes to the bank. If cash disappears, there is a danger that contactless card payment fees will soar. That is the bottom line and the unwritten rule: whenever they get control of your assets, they will screw you a wee bit more.
The next one comes from a lady in a village—this is an absolute cracker. Her bank boasts that it is “by your side”. It was so much by this person’s side that it closed down her branch last year. That illustrates what the issues are.
I have constituents who do not know how to, or have the facilities to, carry out their banking online, and even those who do still frequent their bank regularly. People need that service and pay for that service; that must be the priority, not simply giving shareholders a bigger dividend. No one expects the banks to be charities, but providing a service to those who pay is not being charitable. Let us bring back the banks, the local branch manager and the forgotten ideal of being part of a local community. That is what banks should be, and very often now they are not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing this important debate.
It is all very well for the banks to say that people are required to move with the times, but there is a generation out there who came through school having been taught mental arithmetic, not IT skills. Not all members of that generation will be fortunate enough to have children and grandchildren fluent in IT speak, with a knowledge of apps and so on, to act as trusted advisers and able to direct them through the technological maze. Not all have good memories for the passwords required, and it is a regrettable fact of life that our faculties fail us with age. I am testament to that.
On a brighter note, I congratulate staff and pupils at Kyle Academy in Ayr in my constituency, whose pupils are learning about cyber-crime and passing on that skill to others, including small businesses and the elderly in the Ayr community. I congratulate them.
Online is a modern maze where, on occasion, even the most skilled might fall victim to scams. At a rural crime event in my constituency, it was highlighted how a farmer had been scammed when purchasing and paying via an online bank account for expensive agricultural equipment. Might it have been different had there been a bank branch open to conduct that business? The banks and the Government need to instil confidence in the user of digital banking services, whether that is in relation to the availability and basic reliability of the internet in the first place, or protection from the cruel, heartless scammers who appear to be able to read bank cards or secure an individual’s bank details. Is it any surprise that, until the banks and Governments robustly and timeously minimise, if not eradicate, those known risks, the public will remain averse to bank closures and feel that they are being pressured to move online?
The banks place great emphasis on the fact that shared facilities exist through post offices by virtue of the Post Office banking framework, which is an agreement with around 28 high street banks, supported by the Government. However, stand-alone post offices are virtually a thing of the past as well. Most are incorporated into stores and, again, privacy is often an issue. Worryingly, some postmasters have contacted me, and I am sure many others throughout the UK, regarding the profitability of their business being driven down by the Post Office itself. Thankfully, the Post Office has been listening and in October we should see changes that afford greater support to sub-postmasters, which is to be welcomed.
I am delighted that a bank—the TSB, I believe—in the seaside town of Girvan has survived the closures, having stated that it was determined to make significant efforts to keep branches with low footfall open by reducing opening hours. A face-to-face presence remains, at least for the time being. Perhaps that is a model worth considering. On the negative side, the nearby village of Dailly no longer has a visit from the mobile bank, which appeared there for a couple of hours a week. I understand the Government acknowledge the valuable role of credit unions. However, I have constituents who remain aggrieved that banks are permitted to provide services through post offices while credit unions are not permitted to co-locate with post offices. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to review that somewhat restrictive practice.
The Government refer to the access to banking standard and have said that the decision to close a branch is a commercial decision for the management team of the bank, and the long-time policy of successive Governments has been not to intervene. Yet Members will remember that in 2008 the Government of the day chose to intervene when banks’ management decisions nearly brought the banks to their knees, so why not consider their stance and intervene now to extend the presence of the last bank in town?
It is very important that we endeavour to avoid financial exclusion and age discrimination. We still see ATMs and Link is working on initiatives to preserve access to cash, despite the reduction in the use of cash by some groups in society, but, as has been said, for those living on a pension, benefits or lower incomes, dealing in cash sometimes makes financial management easier. Too often, tapping a card or entering a four-digit pin number fails to register in the mind of the purchaser the actual spend building up until it is too late and they are plunged into unaffordable debt.
Will the Minister assure us that personal customers—particularly, although not exclusively, the elderly—and small businesses will not be prejudiced by the continuing bank branch closures and that choosing to use internet banking will be better protected from the impact of cyber-crime?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan.
I want to draw Members’ attention to the county of Sutherland in the highlands, which is part of my constituency. Since 2005, eight branches have shut. With the recent announcement that the Clydesdale is going to shut its branch in Brora, we will be left with precisely one branch, the Bank of Scotland in Golspie, in a very large county of 2,028 square miles, with a population of some 13,500 who will have only one branch left. For some people that means a 150-mile round trip to get to the bank, if someone lives in Durness in the upper north-west—a three and a half hour bus journey for my constituents. And it gets worse. We have talked about post offices and how the banks say, “Go online or use the post office,” but Clydesdale bank seems to have conveniently forgotten that the post office in Brora has been shut for some time, making a complete mockery of that.
I and other Members have always said that the point of having a real branch is to have a human face behind the counter. Even if people can go online—not a lot can in my constituency—if someone has a big payment coming along but they do not know what it is, which can be a real worry for people, old and young, it would be better if they could go into a branch and see somebody who would say, “This is what it is,” or, “This is a scam.” That is why we want the human face, which is very hard to replace.
In my huge constituency, we are told to use mobile banks, but it is not awful funny going to a mobile bank in Wick if it is sleeting in January. The weather in good old Wick can sometimes be very inclement.
My contribution is short, but the matter of Sutherland serves the purpose of helping all Members here today, because it provides such an extreme example: one branch in a vast county of 2,028 square miles, which is astonishing. However, I give credit where it is due to the Minister. He has met and listened to a cross-party group of MPs, and I think he has taken the issue on board, but I say to him from the bottom of my heart that we have to get something together. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) made a superb speech. This is about getting the hubs to work. Where there is a will, there is a way before us. If we could get those hubs to work together that would not solve the problem, but it would make things a heck of a lot easier, so I say to the Minister, “Go and bang the banks’ heads together. Tell them to get off their backsides and get the show on the road!”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate. It provides me with an opportunity to review the position just over a year since the last bank branch closed in the market town of Bungay in my constituency, where there had been a bank branch since 1808 when Gurney’s, the predecessor of Barclays, opened one of its first branches.
Looking back over the past year, I shall highlight three issues. The first is the pace of change in the transition to what I would term an almost cashless society, which has been much quicker than anticipated. Very often when I am in a queue for a sandwich or a newspaper, I feel self-conscious as I get out my wallet. Invariably, particularly in London, I am the only person paying by cash, and I sense that eyes are gazing at me with a sense of bemusement. The transition is happening much quicker in metropolitan areas than in market towns and the countryside. The breakneck pace of change causes difficulties for the elderly, the disabled and, particularly, those on low incomes for whom cash provides the best means of managing a very tight budget.
Secondly, having ready access to cash is the main challenge that has arisen out of the Lloyds bank closure in Bungay last May. There are no longer 24/7 cashpoints available in the town centre. There is a cashpoint in the post office, but it is not accessible all the time, and when the extremely popular Sunday street fairs take place, there is a major drawback for traders without card machines.
It is also appropriate to highlight the emergence of a postcode lottery along the Suffolk-Norfolk border. In Bungay, there are no 24/7 cashpoints. Likewise, 9 miles away in Halesworth in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), there are no such facilities. However, if I go 8 miles west to Harleston, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), there are three such cashpoints within 100 metres of each other.
That revolution is happening when high streets and town centres are under pressure and face the challenge of reinventing themselves. For that to be done successfully, it is important that business should not unwittingly be diverted elsewhere. Bungay and towns like it serve a large rural hinterland, from where many residents, once a week, come into the town to shop, go to the bank and socialise over a coffee or a meal. Take away the bank and they might go to another market town instead. To adopt the practice of King Canute and try to stop the change would, I sense, be futile, but we can manage that change properly, so that the vulnerable are not compromised and towns such as Bungay can compete on a level playing field with their neighbours.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who gave an excellent speech, logically and rationally explaining a situation that we face in many parts of the United Kingdom but which, speaking parochially, is very much an issue for Scotland. If my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) thinks that people look at him strangely when he uses cash in London, I encourage him to try using a Royal Bank of Scotland £20 note. Recently I was refused the opportunity to spend my money in London—an issue that I took up with WH Smith. I got a good apology, which is only appropriate.
Since I was elected to this House, I have been involved in many campaigns to fight unwanted and unnecessary branch closures. In my constituency, Balfron, Bannockburn, Bridge of Allan and St Ninians have no bank branches at all, owing to recent branch closures, and Callander is down to its last branch. When a town is down to its last bank and that bank is threatened with closure, I strongly believe that it is right for the Government to act—and I say that as a Conservative Member of Parliament.
We had an anomalous situation in Bridge of Allan, which may be of interest. Clydesdale Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland both closed their branches at the same time. Each bank justified its closure by citing the existence of the other branch. How ridiculous is that? They have now both closed leaving the people of Bridge of Allan without a bank branch, despite both banks stating that there would be one. That situation must not be allowed to happen. The Government must be prepared to act to remove that kind of justification, when two bank branches announce their closure at the same time. When Royal Bank of Scotland closed its Bannockburn branch, it justified it in terms of proximity to city centre premises—but guess what: it then moved those premises further from the customers. The branch in question happens to be very plush, but there are a few obstacles to getting there in the first place.
It is important that the consultation process that banks are required to go through should not just be a tick-box exercise. I am fearful that it is exactly that—a fait accompli from the point of announcement—and that any consultation is a completely pointless exercise. I might add that that could also be true when post office closures are announced. They are also, I think, nothing more than a tick-box exercise. I should like to hear from the Minister what the Government plan to do. I know him, and he is a very good fellow. There have been many representations, debates and speeches on the subject, and it is time for the Government to produce some kind of policy initiative, to do something about it.
The Treasury Committee has been referred to, and post offices are not a fair substitute for a branch of a bank. It is very unfair: many sub-postmasters in my constituency do not have the facilities or resources to become an alternative to the bank branch that once existed next door to them, or on the same street. It is not fair on the customers, or on the community that those branches served.
Another suggestion that has been made—and it is a fair one—concerns banking hubs. I strongly believe—as, I say again, a Conservative—that the banks should be encouraged, and perhaps more than encouraged, in the light of the earlier reference to carrots and sticks, to come together and fund the creation of a community banking hub. Perhaps that could be done in conjunction with the Post Office, but I do not think that just taking a laissez-faire approach to the facilities will hack it. The banks have said that the Post Office should be encouraged to take up the slack, and they have said they will support local post offices, but I asked one postmaster in my constituency what support the bank gave him when it moved out of town. He said, “I got a bundle of leaflets, so I could put them out on my counter.” That was the sum total of the support.
When bank branches are closed and the community is told that the banks will support it through local post offices, what is the mechanism for delivering that support? What positive encouragement is there for the bank to deliver on that? What will the Government do about the situations that I describe? Is it not time we came up with a policy to deal with the situation? I hope that the Minister will be able to describe fully what the Treasury will do—because this is not any old Minister of the Crown replying to the debate: he is a Treasury Minister, so we have great expectations. We need radical ideas now to make sure that vital banking and community services will be available across the villages and towns of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. The Government have a role in enabling and supporting that, and a responsibility to do so. I urge them to do it.
I cannot sit down without mentioning the people of Dunblane, who were told they would have a mobile banking service for a few minutes every other week. That is not a replacement for a bank facility. However, it is the kind of support and recompense that communities have been offered by banks that have deserted them, although the people of this country were not slow to step up to the mark and bail them out of the mess they had made. My colleagues and I will not forget that in a hurry.
I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for bringing this important debate forward. Moments of agreement are rare, so when they happen they should be celebrated in a mighty fashion—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—although the debate is not over yet.
I feel that I spend half my time in this place—I do not exaggerate and I know that others will share this view—bemoaning the stampede of banks out of our communities without so much as a backward glance. I represent a constituency where several towns have no bank at all. They are Ardrossan, Stevenston, Kilwinning—a town of 21,000 people—West Kilbride, Dalry and Beith. Kilbirnie’s last bank is having its opening hours reduced, and that is the only bank left in the entire Garnock valley, where there are three distinct towns with a collective population of more than 19,000 people.
My constituency has been hit particularly hard, so I fully appreciate the similar concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). In Scotland we have lost one third of our bank branches in just eight years. Research from Which? has shown that 610 branches closed across Scotland between 2010 and 2018. The recent Santander announcement of closures is the latest in a long line of such announcements from banks across the board.
The hon. Member for Stirling talked about consultation on bank closures being a tick-box exercise, and that is true. I remember the same thing happening in 2007-08 when there were, in my constituency anyway, mass post office closures. Perhaps naively and innocently—this was long before I was elected to this place—we had street stalls and went door to door with petitions to move the banks and Post Office, but nothing changed.
This has to stop. The Minister will be aware that the Treasury Committee concluded that
“there are still large sections of society who rely on bank branches to carry out their banking needs. A bank branch network, or at least a face-to-face banking solution, is still a vital component of the financial services sector, and must be preserved.”
The Minister will probably not agree, but I genuinely believe this: there was no UK Government intervention when RBS, which was owned by us, the taxpayers, announced a significant—eye-watering—closure programme, and I believe that the fact that nothing was done emboldened other banks, with no element of public ownership, in their closure programmes.
If the Government were willing to accept the closure of RBS branches, which they owned on behalf of the taxpayer—I listened carefully but did not hear them condemning those closures—then closing local branches seems to have been an option that other banks could employ almost without consequence. As a result, communities have suffered for want of a bank, and they continue to do so—we have heard much about that today. Mobile banks are not disability compliant, and their reliability is questionable at best.
The Government said that they could not intervene in the RBS closure programme—as the Minister will know, that rankled with many of us—and they insisted on leaving all operational decisions to RBS throughout the closure programme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) pointed out, the Government apparently pressured RBS to pull finance from customers through the asset protection scheme. If the Government had tried to use whatever influence they could in the original RBS closure programme, I am curious to consider what effect that might have had. Would we still be where we are now? I think we might not be.
RBS is not the only bank to have closed branches, but it has certainly emboldened the others. As the hon. Member for Moray set out, the gaps left by banks cannot properly be filled by post offices, regardless of what we have been told. The Treasury Committee concluded that post offices
“should not be seen as a replacement for a branch network, but as a complementary proposition”,
and we have heard similar sentiments from every Member in today’s debate.
Over the past two years, I have corresponded with the UK Government and Post Office Ltd about the poor rates of pay for postmasters, and I am delighted that some action has been taken. We cannot have a situation where banks abandon our towns and the provision of some banking services is carried out by post offices, but those post offices are not properly paid by banks, which then rake in huge profits while some postmasters do not even earn the minimum wage—the hon. Members for Stirling, for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw also made that point. Such a situation is simply not acceptable.
We are witnessing the demise of free cash machines—3,000 in the past 18 months across the UK—and 32 free cash machines a month are closing in Scotland. There is a stampede to charge people to use cash machines. The ATM Industry Association has warned that one fifth of Scotland’s free ATMs will start charging consumers in the next year, which can only be seen as a cynical move to force us to become a cashless society.
Just as bank closures have, in my view, been a tool to force people to bank online, so are banks now cutting the fees that they are willing to pay machine operators to provide bank customers with access to cash. Banks are attempting to put pressure on customers who are not acting in a way that they find convenient. What happened to the customer being king? Going cashless and banking online is the preferred option for some, but although some of us do not wish to go down that route, there are increasingly aggressive efforts to force us to do so at breakneck speed, as the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) pointed out. I and my constituents who do not favour those options will not be forced to do that—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also made that point—and we will not be bullied into going cashless and digital. In any case, those options are not available to some people for a variety of reasons.
We need to move from a commercial model of access to cash to having a more utility approach, and keep cash sustainable for longer. Our cash infrastructure matters, and we cannot sleepwalk into a cashless society without serious consequences for many of our constituents and small businesses, which already face challenges if they are unable to bank takings or customers cannot access cash in order to shop on their premises. Not everybody has a debit card; as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) said, not every small business is equipped to take plastic. This issue therefore affects the footfall and sustainability of those small businesses.
I have corresponded with the Minister, and he accepted that broadband access is not good enough for everyone to rely on digital banking. I know he wants more banking services to be provided by post offices, but that is not the issue at hand. The Government, and the Access to Banking standard, must ensure that banks have a social responsibility to provide banking facilities to all our towns. Such services could be provided relatively easily through banking hubs, and there is no discernible obstacle to that option except—I am sure the Minister will correct me if he thinks I am wrong—a lack of political will, and the arrogance and intransigence of the banking industry. Our communities and constituents deserve better. Banks must face up to their social responsibilities and get their heads together to create banking hubs. There is no real impediment to that, and it is what customers want.
I urge the Minister to use his good offices to bang some banking heads together and ensure that their customers’ voices are heard. The Government have a role to play when the last bank in a town is closed. The Government have said repeatedly that these are commercial decisions, but this is not just a commercial matter. This is about social responsibility and financial inclusion, and I urge the Minister to reflect further on the strong feelings and concerns expressed today. Will he consider legislative proposals to ensure that our banks live up to their responsibilities to our communities?
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Ms Ryan, in this interesting and well-informed debate, and to sit across from the Minister. I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms because there have not been many statutory instruments recently, although I am sure the Government will rectify that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate, as I know that the issue has seriously affected many of his constituents and local businesses. For those without an intimate knowledge of north-east Scotland, let me underline that the communities we are talking about are often far apart. They either have next to no public transport, or it is of poor quality and very expensive. Local facilities are therefore incredibly important.
As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) rightly said, we had a debate on a similar topic just a few days ago. It was mentioned that in certain circumstances an ATM might close on a high street that still has a number of different facilities. We are not talking about that in this debate; we are talking about situations where few facilities are available. This is not about duplication; it is often about the last services moving away. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, this is about social and rural isolation.
High street banks are an essential part of our financial infrastructure and they help to support local economies and communities. The bank branch network has been shrinking at an accelerating pace. Many statistics have already been given, but the UK has lost nearly two-thirds of its bank and building society branches over the past 30 years. In 2018 and 2019, banks and building societies will have closed, or planned to close, a total of 1,080 branches, and 3,318 branches have shut in the past four years. Banks have been closing at a rate of nearly 70 a month. Overall, a fifth of the population lives more than two miles from their nearest branch—and a good deal further away in some of the situations that have been mentioned.
The debate has focused particularly on Scotland, where there have been a large number of closures, with RBS alone closing more than 200 branches—a 70% reduction in just five years. There have been similar developments across the country. In the north-west, 425 bank branches have closed since 2015, and even in the south-east—I represent a south-east constituency—more than 410 branches have closed since 2015, including one in Headington in my constituency. Such closures occur everywhere, and they often have a particularly significant impact on the most disadvantaged people.
The recent debate on the Treasury Committee’s report on consumer access to financial services emphasised the importance of local banks at a time when many people are not able to access basic financial services. That disenfranchises them from many different activities.
Research shows that in 2006-07, more than 1 million people had no access to a bank account in their household. Although that fell to 660,000 in 2012-13, it increased to 730,000 in 2013-14. We are going in the wrong direction in terms of access to basic financial services. We need to be clear that in many cases the process is leading to people who are already digitally excluded being financially excluded. That point was very well underlined by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont).
There are also impacts for businesses, particularly small and medium-sized businesses. A YouGov poll showed that more than 68% of SME customers said that a branch was important, and 66% said they needed the bank branch because of the need to discuss issues face to face. The Federation of Small Businesses has done some interesting work on this. The situation in Lossiemouth when the town ran out of cash has happened in other places as well—it is not the only instance of that occurring. As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) said, bank branch closures put a burden on businesses and organisations. Sports clubs were mentioned. They might be collecting a large amount of cash and want to be able to get rid of that cash to a bank branch, but they are not able to.
Worryingly, the situation is also leading to issues with SME lending. For example, the British Bankers Association pointed out that bank branch closures dampen SME lending growth by 63% on average in postcodes that lose a bank branch. That figure rises to more than 100% when an area loses its last bank in town. This is not just about inconvenience. It is a much bigger issue for many businesses, and is arguably part of the reason why we have not seen investment come back to the level we want.
The Opposition acknowledge the importance of dealing with this issue and have set out plans for a radical shake-up of the UK banking system, which needs a change to the law so that banks cannot close a branch where there is a clear local need. We believe that the duties of the Financial Conduct Authority need to be broadened, and that amendments are needed to the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000—particularly part 4A, which authorises banks to carry on regulated activity: the banking licence.
We would seek to amend the process substantively. I was pleased to hear a number of Members mention that, including the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). I will not go through all the details on how it should be amended, as others need to speak, but it is important that we see meaningful consultation. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) also rightly underlined the fact that local authorities are often not part of the process, but they need to be.
The hon. Member for Moray and many other Members referred to the role of the post office network. There are strong grounds for believing that that role can be boosted, but not simply through it becoming the default option for offering services without any extra support. That is simply not sustainable. The Labour party has commissioned research to look at how a proper postbank network could be set up, how it could be financed and how it could operate. I hope the Government will look at that. The current approach is just not working, and we cannot rely on sub-postmasters who are already overburdened to deliver the services. A big part of the answer has to be to boost credit unions, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). I know the Minister is interested in that, but we need to do more.
As the debate has highlighted, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to take action to deal with the shrinking bank branch network. The Government need to do more to invest in our communities and to support local high streets. Strengthening their approach to bank branch closures would be a straightforward way to deal with a number of issues. We need to take immediate action to preserve and build on our banking infrastructure to create a system that works and that serves a diverse range of customers and communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this important debate. I acknowledge the contributions of all who have spoken this afternoon. I have listened carefully to the speeches, and it is good to have seven of my hon. Friends from north of the border here. I will endeavour to answer the points substantively.
I gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee this morning on this very issue. Straight after this debate, I hope to make a speech at the Which? cash summit, where I will set out the work being done by industry, the Government and regulators to ensure that access to cash is safeguarded. I recognise that this is a very important issue for many of our constituents. In my own constituency of Salisbury, I have seen bank branches close and I understand how difficult that is for communities. We have heard some specific examples this afternoon of the distress that can be caused when the process does not go smoothly. I recognise there are different opinions across the House about how the challenge should be met, and I will address those shortly.
Undoubtedly, the fact that the retail financial landscape is changing rapidly, as more consumers and businesses opt for the convenience, security and speed of digital payments and digital banking, is a significant factor. Ten years ago, cash accounted for more than three fifths of all payments in the UK; today, the figure is less than three in 10—and that is anticipated to fall to less than one in 10 in nine years, by 2028. In 2017, debit cards overtook cash for the first time as the most frequently used payment method in the UK.
I am very sensitive to the point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) that debit cards are not everyone’s choice; it is really important that we keep in focus the need to maintain access to cash. In 2018, two thirds of UK adults used contactless payments, 72% of UK adults used online banking and 48% used mobile banking. How we use financial services is changing and consumers have more choice than ever. It is an exciting time, but it is also a disruptive and potentially confusing time for our constituents.
Closing a branch is never an easy decision, but the decision will ultimately be a commercial one for the bank. The Government have been clear that we do not intervene in those decisions because industry is best placed to know what works best for its customers. I recognise that branch closures can be very disappointing for customers and the impact on communities must be understood, considered and mitigated where possible. I will therefore set out some of the ongoing work in this area—in particular, access to the banking standard and how it might be enhanced.
The Minister says that closing a bank is a commercial decision and the banks are listening to their customers. How can they be listening if they take those decisions prior to any consultation and if, when they are encouraged to engage, they do not even turn up?
That behaviour that my hon. Friend experienced in his constituency is not best practice. It is not acceptable. It is very unfortunate when that happens. My job is to try to ensure that there is a systematic upgrade to the quality of the consultation and engagement from the banks, and I will now set out what is happening.
The access to banking standard has been noted by a number of colleagues today. Since May 2017, the major high street banks have been voluntarily signed up to the standard, which commits them to work with customers and communities to minimise the impact of branch closures. The standard ensures that banks keep customers informed about branch closures, and that the bank sets out its reasons for closure and the alternative options for continued access to services. How meaningful that consultation process is has been raised, on the basis that it happens when a decision has been made and not prior to the decision. I am looking into that. I have written to the Lending Standards Board and will be meeting its representatives to discuss the matter further.
The options for continued access should include specialist assistance for customers who need more help. For example, the Lending Standards Board, which monitors and enforces the standard, has told me it sees evidence of support from firms to assist customers in understanding and using alternative banking options. I recognise that that happens in some, but not all, cases. Such support might include digital experts being placed in the relevant branches to demonstrate how mobile and online banking works and assisting those customers who wish to use that functionality, as well as making introductions to nearby post offices and retained branches.
I continue to be very supportive of the access to banking standard and I value the commitment it places on banks to communicate the next steps for customers when the decision is made to close a branch, but I am aware of the concerns that colleagues have expressed about the standard. I confirm that I recently wrote to the Lending Standards Board to seek reassurances that the access to banking standard remains fit-for-purpose, and I intend to meet the chief executive to discuss matters further, drawing on the meetings I have had with various groups from all parts of the House and on the representations made so forcefully by colleagues this afternoon.
I turn to the Post Office. I was pleased to see the successful renegotiation of its commercial agreement with high street banks. That will enable 99% of personal customers and 95% of small and medium-sized enterprise customers to continue to carry out their everyday banking at one of the UK’s 11,500 post office branches; that is 91 more branches than there were in March 2018. I acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray made about functionality and how not all functions can be carried out at the post office. That could evolve, but we already see aggregation of banking services at the sub-regional level when more specialist advice is required. The issue is about working out ways to solve that challenging problem. I am engaged in that work and am happy to explore that further with him.
As a result of the renegotiation, postmasters will see a considerable increase in fees for processing deposits, and the fees will rise further if transaction volumes continue to grow. An increase in fee income will help the Post Office and its network become more financially sustainable and will allow for investment in automation, training and security in post offices. Some £2 billion has been invested by the Government since 2010.
It is essential that more people know about the banking services offered by the Post Office, which is why I asked it to work together with UK Finance to raise awareness. According to a survey by Which?, only 55% of UK adults are aware that they can use their post office for banking services; that statistic was made clear this afternoon by my hon. Friend. The point he did not make was that 77% of those who had used the post office for banking said they would do so again. We are on a journey of understanding, as people become familiar with what can happen in a post office. After that work, UK Finance and the Post Office found that awareness had increased and committed to using community outreach to further improve awareness. I will continue to take a keen interest in the progress of that work.
Although many customers are satisfied with the Post Office’s banking services, I am aware that there are still some outstanding concerns—they have been mentioned this afternoon—such as with privacy and queueing. I have therefore written to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), the Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy responsible for postal affairs, to request that our officials continue to work closely to explore the issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) made a point about credit unions and post offices. I welcome any feasible innovations in that space. The main trade body for credit unions is conducting extensive UK-wide consultation, and it will come back to the Government in September. I would be happy to explore with it how the solution he suggested might be acted on.
Related to bank closures is the issue of continuing access to cash. It is clear that for some people, cash remains their preferred, or only, method of payment for a variety of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) set out his experience, and that situation remains true for many people out of choice. Our financial system needs to cater for everyone in our society. Although it is exciting for many consumers, technology must not come at the expense of choice. There will be therefore be no changes to our current system of notes and coins. We want to ensure that cash is available for those who need it, when they need it.
In 2015, we established the Payment Systems Regulator, a powerful economic regulator of the payments industry. Its objectives balance the need for competition and innovation on the one hand with the protection of consumer and business interests on the other. Through the creation of the joint authorities cash strategy group, we are acting to ensure a comprehensive approach to regulation in light of changing trends and preferences for cash. The Payment Systems Regulator is already examining the factors that affect the distribution of ATMs across the country. I was concerned by what happened in Lossiemouth: it is a good case study for the regulator to be examining during the early weeks of its work.
I welcome today’s announcement by UK Finance, the trade body for banks, that it too intends to explore key issues around access to cash, including the role of local areas and communities. The industry must continue to play its part, and developers should consider the needs of all customers as they design new digital banking products and forms of payment. We are seeing companies such as Square trying to increase the use of card payments in small towns. No one should be locked out of the benefits that technology brings.
I recently concluded a Westminster Hall debate speech with a call to arms to the industry to think about all consumers when developing its services, and I re-emphasise that here this afternoon. I welcome the innovations that banks are introducing to respond to changes in customer behaviour as more of us choose to bank on demand online or via an app, rather than visiting a branch. We cannot reverse digital innovation, and nor should we, given the benefits it brings to our constituents—I acknowledge once again the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) about his constituents’ experience of connectivity—but we need to find solutions for the whole of the United Kingdom. Improving digital and financial inclusion is key to ensuring that vulnerable customers are not left behind.
I will keep pushing the industry—someone mentioned the carrot and the stick: both are required—to move forward and do more. I hope Members will recognise that I have responded thoroughly to the points made. I am happy to continue the dialogue, but I am working to engage on the specific issues raised and to secure the improvements needed.
First, I thank you, Ms Ryan, for how you have chaired this debate; there was a subtle change in your demeanour indicating that I had spoken for long enough, and that ensured other colleagues were able to speak.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone); to my hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr); to the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), the Opposition spokespeople; and to the Minister for a constructive, detailed and hopefully positive debate—not only for Lossiemouth, Moray and Scotland, but for communities across the United Kingdom who have been affected in this way.
The Minister said that the Government have made progress, which is welcome, but we can also agree that there is more to be done after this debate. His constructive response shows that the Government are listening. I have written down the actions that he is taking at the moment and that he will take going forward, but he will be left in no doubt by today’s debate that there are still major issues in all our constituencies that need to be tackled. There was mention of banging heads together and carrots and sticks: we have to use any and all means to find a solution to the problem. Although it is useful to have had this debate, talking only goes so far. We need action, and we need it now. I am encouraged by this debate that that will happen, but the pressure will remain until we can ensure that our communities can continue to be served by the banks they need.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government response when the closure of the last local bank is proposed.
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the accountability and role of housing associations.
I am pleased to see you presiding, Mr Owen, and to see the Minister in his place. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I thank the National Housing Federation; Grenfell United; the Deputy Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Councillor Rachel Blake; the House of Commons Library; the Charity Commission; the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership; and Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association for their briefings ahead of the debate, as well as Jenny Symmons in my office for pulling them all together.
I do not believe that what I will say today is at all controversial, which might reassure the Minister. There are more than 1,400 providers of social housing in the UK, and roughly one sixth of our households live in a housing association or council property. There is clearly agreement that the status quo on oversight needs changing.
On Monday, the Minister and I attended an event at Speaker’s House to mark the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire. A speaker for the group, Ed Daffarn, made the point that the regulator had let them down. We all know that disastrous decisions were made in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that led to the tragedy, and Ed identified that a key issue was the lack of regulation.
In the wake of Grenfell, the Government’s Green Paper on social housing, released last year, promised to create “safe and decent” homes,
“empowering residents and ensuring their voices are heard so that landlords are held to account”
“improving and speeding up how complaints are resolved”.
Those commitments were very welcome; however, we are yet to see the fruits. One of the biggest areas that needs tackling in the sector is the lack of clear regulation and accountability for housing associations. Solving that problem would surely lead to the delivery of safer homes, empowered residents and an effective complaints procedure.
I often find it confusing what the exact roles of the social housing regulator and the ombudsman are. Where are the lines of responsibility? It is unclear what the demarcations are in the roles of the two bodies, which causes serious problems not only for residents who need to report concerns, but for me. Currently, the social housing regulator seems to oversee financial regulation and value for money, and in extreme cases consumer standards, but does not handle routine customer service oversight. That lands in the jurisdiction of the local government ombudsman.
However, residents can turn to the ombudsman only if their complaint is rejected by the housing association in the first instance. Even then, many residents do not know that they have that option. I have been informed that even if a resident does know that they can escalate their complaint to the local government ombudsman, it can take at least a year for their case to be dealt with due to the huge remit covered and the high volume of complaints.
There is also the issue that two ombudsmen cover housing. The local government ombudsman technically covers social housing, but the housing ombudsman supposedly covers all housing. That leads to confusion about which body to turn to, and sometimes residents turn to both, which is a waste of time and resources. Labour’s Green Paper, “Housing for the Many”, makes it clear that the way forward is to have a single housing ombudsman who takes responsibility for the regulation of all housing, and who completely covers customer service and complaints handling. That dedicated service could deal with complaints in a shorter timescale, and would cut out confusion and restore authority to residents.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, owing to their status, neither housing associations nor private landlords are required to respond to freedom of information requests? Given that, tenants might therefore have no access to fire safety reports or other such important information?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will come to that point later.
For residents, be they social renters, key workers, people with shared equity or leaseholders, accountability and transparency are key. For public sector home owners or renters, responsibility for their home maintenance is generally clear, but in the private sector it is not. A recent example of such confusion is the Barking fire on Sunday. There appears to be a complete lack of information on who owns the freehold. Responsibility for the failings therefore cannot be allocated. How are residents supposed to feel confident in their homes when no particular company or individual will take responsibility for their safety and welfare? A clear system of regulation for housing association homes would go some way to making residents feel comfortable and protected.
This is an important debate. We had similar issues in Tower Hamlets, across Barking and Dagenham and Havering, with Old Ford, which was Circle Housing, and a notorious case on the Orchard Village estate because of a lack of effective regulation across the sector. At the same time, a number of housing associations increasingly saw their role as being developers, rather than fulfilling their historical ethical role of delivering for working people. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of regulation plays into the changing role of housing associations across the sector?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will come on to the role of housing associations and the change in their ethos. That will reinforce the concern that he expresses.
I hear all the time from constituents who are having trouble getting complaints about their housing associations dealt with. Issues such as above-inflation rent increases, unjustified service charges, unreasonable refurbishment costs and problems with repairs seem to be rife. The lack of information about tendering arrangements has also been a source of frustration. Residents often find it unclear who they can go to with their complaints, and do not have confidence that they will be given a fair hearing.
Accountability questions are all too common. In my constituency, there are many housing associations, many of which are very good. Some are average and some are poor. One of the best, if not the best, is Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association, commonly and locally known as HARCA. HARCA is a much-valued organisation in Tower Hamlets, going beyond its brief in housing to create community hubs and therefore maintaining a strong social ethos. It is also exemplary in its accountability. Its board has always had a majority of members from the local community, and it has created a tenant advisory panel with the aim of strengthening relationships with tenants and landlords. It was also an early adopter of the National Housing Federation’s “Together with Tenants” plan, again prioritising building good relationships with tenants.
In a recent consultation regarding plans for the Teviot estate in my constituency, there was a turnout of 81% of residents, 87% of whom voted in support of the plan. That demonstrates the high level of approval for HARCA’s work. HARCA also runs a resident-to-resident survey, where residents are trained to call other residents to get their comments on issues such as recent repairs, providing unbiased feedback for Poplar HARCA and involving the residents in shaping their local services.
Those initiatives have proved successful for Poplar HARCA not only in operating an efficient not-for-profit business, but in achieving high levels of resident approval. Its most recent survey, conducted in May, found that 83% of tenants and 75% of leaseholders were satisfied with the service. Clearly, involving residents in decision making at every possible level and seeking feedback regularly works in favour of both residents and housing associations.
However, that level of provision for, and investment in, tenants sometimes seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Housing associations are no longer obliged to have residents on their board. I urge the Minister to consider bringing back that requirement, as another means of making associations directly accountable to residents, and ensuring that executive boards have a local perspective.
At the opposite end of the spectrum to Poplar HARCA is A2Dominion, notorious in the housing world for its, at best, neglect of or, at worst, disdain for residents. The Daily Mirror recently reported that residents in Clyde House in south London are scared to sleep in their homes due to unsafe conditions. Thick mould covering pipes, water leaking into flats, vermin across the building and an assessment declaring it a
“moderate to high fire risk”
all appear in a new development.
A2Dominion is supposed to have the exact same social purpose as Poplar HARCA. However, residents are being ignored in their justified complaints. The lack of clear accountability means that it can get away with not taking responsibility for the necessary repairs and upkeep, while still charging tenants extortionate service charges. Associations such as A2Dominion need clear regulation, and residents need to know who they can turn to when they are not being taken seriously.
As the Minister knows, I have spoken several times in this place about fire safety in high-rise flats—not as often as him, of course—and the dangerous, highly flammable cladding that is still in place in too many blocks. If we want to show that we have learned the lessons from Grenfell, we have to bring in stringent legal oversight, so that no further lives are lost due to its absence, in addition to shoddy, cost-cutting workmanship, poor maintenance, wrong materials and weak fire regulations.
Another point of consideration is bringing local government into a more formal role in oversight. Local authorities are well placed to understand the performance, or underperformance, of housing associations through the relationships between councillors and residents, and through public realm services.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech with many good points. On his earlier point about accountability in the context of having a more effective national ombudsman, given that we all, I hope, accept that social housing is a social good and, in many respects, a public service, the out-and-out free market approach that has been taken to its provision has not been effective and there is evidence of market failure. Does he believe that greater local oversight and giving local authorities a role in holding housing associations to account for how they treat their tenants are also important parts of improving the regulatory framework?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I am also trying to make. The Government’s proposals for a national regulator and beefed-up regulations are sound and welcomed across the sector—the House reinforced that last week during the Grenfell debate—but there is a gap that local authorities could easily fill. There could be local oversight through local authorities engaging with the housing associations that operate in their local authority area, as well as national scrutiny through the national regulator, so there would be a local and national partnership to hold housing associations to account. Some housing associations are getting so big that they are becoming far too remote from their residents.
On that point, local authorities have no official role in formal regulation. If councils were given a role locally, alongside a national social housing regulator that focused on customer service, associations could be held to account and complaints dealt with more directly. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that possibility.
Another concern is the practice of under-the-table mergers between housing associations. Although the Government do not officially play a role in that, they have created an environment that has led to more mergers and takeovers of housing associations. Those have to happen sometimes, but as housing associations get bigger, whether through mergers or national expansion, their ability to be financially transparent and locally accountable reduces. That is a serious problem for residents who pay service charges, as it becomes less clear to them where their money goes. Bigger and more remote associations can also avoid being answerable to residents on other questions about repairs not being done, or not done to a high enough standard, or about costs going up or questionable rent increases.
My worry is that the bigger housing associations become, the more they become like money-driven businesses, rather than locally focused organisations with a social purpose, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) said. I am grateful for the commitments in the Government’s Green Paper, which was published last year, and for the matters raised by the Secretary of State in last week’s written ministerial statement, but we need progress to be made through regulation and legislation.
On a separate matter, I agree with Grenfell United, and the recent Labour party paper, that it is high time that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 covered housing associations, rather than just council properties, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). Residents and the public should have the right to information about safety standards and the like, to ensure that conditions and costs are monitored.
The Green Paper and the written ministerial statement offer better protection, more transparency and real accountability for residents in social housing, and I would be grateful for any assurance from the Minister that those commitments will be met as soon as possible after the close of the consultation that was announced last week. We want to ensure that our social housing lives up to its purpose of providing comfortable homes that are considerately managed, and that residents feel empowered in decisions made about their homes.
As I said at the start of my speech, I do not believe this issue is controversial or rocket science. There is support across parties and across the housing sector for what the Government are proposing—more transparency in respect of housing regulation, policing and enforcement—through a more powerful regulator. We need a strong commitment from the Government that they will move with speed and efficiency. As we approach the two-year memorial to Grenfell, some recommendations in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report have been enacted, but the Grenfell public inquiry will likely not conclude or produce a report until 2021 or 2022.
As I think the Government recognise, they need to take action where and when they can to reassure the public that their safety and wellbeing are paramount. A new regulator would be an easy way to demonstrate that determination, as would the other ideas I have suggested. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I would be grateful if he considered this speech my contribution to the Department’s consultation on the matter.
It is a pleasure to appear under your wise gaze, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this important debate. He has been a consistent and persistent voice on housing issues, particularly the safety and welfare of residents, not just in his constituency but nationally. I understand his concerns about the accountability and role of housing associations, and particularly about the situations that some of his constituents face. I acknowledge the continuing role that hon. Members across the House play, as I know from my own experience, in resolving issues raised by tenants with their housing associations and other types of landlords; they rightly spend significant amounts of time trying to resolve problems when something has gone wrong.
Everyone has the right to be and feel safe in their home, and to expect their complaints to be dealt with effectively. The Government have taken recent steps to make sure that that happens. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we published the social housing Green Paper last year. We engaged extensively with residents to inform and shape it. After its publication, I held roadshows across the country with hundreds of residents in social housing and listened to them to understand their experience at first hand.
The Green Paper contains proposals to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords, setting out the level of service that residents should expect and clarifying how to hold landlords to account when they are not delivering. We heard that residents want redress quickly when things go wrong, and that they want processes to be clearer and simpler. The Green Paper asks how we can ensure clear and effective redress for residents, including a question about the future of the democratic filter, which can delay the complaints process. I confess that when I was first elected to the London Assembly in City Hall, it came as a surprise that people came to ask for permission to go forward, through the democratic filter, to the ombudsman, which injected a significant amount of delay. We are grateful for the input of residents, landlords and other stakeholders through the process. We are assessing the consultation responses and finalising our response to the Green Paper, and I hope that we will publish that response shortly.
Alongside the Green Paper, we launched a review of the regulation for social housing to make sure that regulation maintains standards for residents while ensuring that landlords remain well run and financially robust. We asked whether social housing regulation focuses on the right things and whether the regulator should be able to take action more swiftly where landlords are not fulfilling their responsibilities. We are analysing what we have heard and will publish the outcome of the review of regulation in due course.
Registered providers of social housing must comply with the outcome-based regulatory standards set by the independent regulator of social housing. It has three standards covering economic regulation and four standards covering consumer regulation. The regulator takes a proactive, risk-based approach to enforcing the economic standards for private registered providers. It monitors landlord performance against those standards and, for larger associations such as Clarion, carries out in-depth assessments and publishes ratings for financial viability and governance.
All local authority landlords and housing associations must comply with the regulator’s consumer standards, which seek to ensure that homes are safe and of good quality, and that landlords deliver the right services. The regulator may take action where a breach of those standards has caused, or may cause, serious harm to tenants. Again, we asked questions in the Green Paper about whether that is the right threshold for intervention by the regulator.
Providers have principal responsibility for effectively identifying and resolving problems, and they are accountable for complaints about their service. The first step for residents with a complaint is to report the problem to their landlord. The regulator expects registered providers to have a complaints process that deals with issues promptly, politely and fairly. The onus is on individual landlords, working with residents, to set their approach and timescales for handling complaints. I stress that if any hon. Member, acting on a constituent’s behalf, is unhappy with a registered provider’s response once their internal complaints process has been exhausted, they may take the matter further.
Social housing residents can also approach the housing ombudsman service at any time to seek advice, but for a complaint to be formally referred, it must pass through the democratic filter. Should the ombudsman determine that a complaint falls within its jurisdiction, it will investigate the complaint to determine whether there has been maladministration by the landlord. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the ombudsman can then issue a determination letter, which may include orders and recommendations to resolve the dispute. The landlord is expected to follow any orders within a specific timeframe.
All housing associations must be a member of the housing ombudsman service—a free, independent and impartial complaints resolution service. It is primarily the role of the housing ombudsman to investigate individual complaints from tenants. For example, it can consider complaints about how a landlord has responded to reports of a problem. The regulator meets and communicates regularly with the housing ombudsman, in line with the memorandum of understanding that has been agreed between the two organisations. This includes sharing data on providers, such as evidence of potential systemic issues with registered providers, and on other issues. The regulator will intervene should it find that a landlord’s failure to meet a standard has caused, or may cause, serious harm to tenants, and it is for the regulator to decide on the appropriate level of action to take.
The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point on the plethora of ombudspersons. It is certainly the case that we will add to that number—as he will know, we have already pledged to introduce a new homes ombudsman. He raises an interesting question on whether there should be a general aspiration to agglomerate these ombudsmen into a single housing ombudsman, which is something that the Department has been thinking about. However, there is an argument about specialism and responsiveness in a particular area that needs to be addressed before we move to that stage.
My hon. Friend mentioned this earlier. From a tenant’s perspective, one of the main challenges is the issue of serious harm and how it is defined. The threshold for serious harm often relates to something that might cause a danger to life or safety. If we are talking about having civilised housing conditions that are free from damp and fit for human habitation, we need to have a lower threshold. I hope that is something that the Government will look at very seriously in the Green Paper and their further work in this area.
My hon. Friend is quite right. As I said earlier, the serious detriment test is one of the hurdles that need to be passed before there is intervention. We have asked in the Green Paper whether this is at the appropriate level. I would just point out that there is a difference between detriment and harm. In a situation where there is the threat of serious harm, local authorities have powers to step in and do the work that is required to deal with any immediate threat to safety or life. We have enhanced the housing health and safety rating system assessment tool, which local authorities can use when they look at a particular property in order to detect whether there is a particular harm that will allow them to intervene. That has been very pertinent to safety, particularly on the cladding issue that we have been dealing with over the past few weeks. We expanded the test to cover the envelope of a building, so that the local authority can make such an assessment.
Have local authorities actually availed themselves of that power in respect of defective cladding? It is quite difficult for local authorities to step in, is it not?
It is, and the bar for that is very high, because there has to be an immediate threat to life. With cladding, one of the things that we have tried to ensure is that everybody is safe tonight. I have just commissioned and received reassurance through a review that that is still the case—everybody is still safe in buildings. If interim measures are in place in buildings that have not yet been remediated, one hopes the immediate threat is receding. Nevertheless, the power is there for local authorities to use. That is not just the case in a situation involving cladding; it is available to them in any situation.
I shall move, rather conveniently, on to safety. The hon. Gentleman and I have both spent time this week with Grenfell United, and we will spend more time with the group later in the week. Safety is uppermost in our mind. When things do go wrong, particularly on safety, it is of the utmost importance that such concerns are resolved as soon as is practicable. Registered providers must ensure that properties meet, and are maintained at, the decent homes standard. The regulator’s standards also require landlords to provide a repairs and maintenance service that responds to the needs of tenants and offers them choices. The objective is for landlords to ensure that repairs and improvements are right the first time. When they are not, tenants should complain and have the right to expect that something is done.
I should point out that if hon. Members believe they have constituents living in properties with serious hazards that present a risk to health and safety, they can report that to their local council, which can inspect and assess properties using the HHSRS. Should the local council become aware of a category 1 hazard, it can intervene.
I am sorry to intervene on the Minister, but we are expecting a vote very shortly. It might be helpful if he could finish.
I will conclude very quickly.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse raised several other issues. The first was accountability for safety. As he will know, we accepted all of Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations. In the consultations that we published last week, however, we are seeking to pin individual responsibility for safety on a named individual throughout the process—from design, through construction and management—so that there is clear accountability.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly raised the issue of the residents’ voice, which is something that I heard consistently on the roadshows. Again, this is a big part of both the Hackitt review and our social housing Green Paper, because a lot of residents feel that either they are excluded from the conversation in a committee, or it is just not happening at all. We already have a group of housing associations that stepped forward to look at best practice in this area, and they are working away at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman raised the size of housing associations. There is some truth to the view that the bigger any organisation gets, the more it has to have due regard for its responsiveness on the frontline. We hope to address in the Green Paper whether that is a structural issue about it being localised, or whether it loses focus on its primary product, which must primarily be the happiness and care of its tenants.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman raised freedom of information. There is a technical issue with freedom of information: the Office for National Statistics tends to classify organisations that are subject to freedom of information as being part of the Government, hence their debt moves on to the national balance sheet. Given that housing associations have something like £72 billion-worth of debt, that would make a fairly significant dent on our national accounts. Having said that, one of the issues that we will, I hope, address in the social housing Green Paper—when it eventually emerges—is transparency.
One of the key issues that Grenfell United has raised with me again and again is that the group has asked for information and has just not been given it. We think all those organisations—they are fundamentally not for profit, but serve the public and their tenants—have a duty to be as transparent as they can, subject to commercial sensitivities. That is something we hope to embed when the social housing Green Paper reforms come to light.
I thank hon. Members for their participation; it has been very useful. I will take into account the hon. Gentleman’s submission to our general consultation. As he knows, we have stood shoulder to shoulder in trying to reach the reforms we need to ensure that everybody is safe and well served in their homes.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Public Health: County Durham
I beg to move,
That this House has considered public health in County Durham.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am pleased to have secured this debate, but it is unfortunate that we have to have a debate on public health to highlight the effects that the Government’s cuts have on one of the poorest counties in our nations. I thank the men and women of the NHS, those who work in public health for the county council, and the voluntary and community sectors, which are part of the matrix of support for delivering in County Durham not only general healthcare, but public health.
In recent years, there has been debate about Government funding not just in health, but in local government and other areas. That debate starts from the premise that everywhere is the same, so a fair funding formula spreads the jam evenly around the country, but I am sorry—that is just not the case. Deprivation and need are factors that must be taken into consideration. In local government funding, fire service funding and police funding, need and poverty have been removed as determinants.
County Durham is a large rural county of 525,000 people. It faces some unique issues on health, partly because of the legacy of the county’s industrial past of coalmining and heavy industry, which means a high incidence of diseases associated with those industries, such as respiratory diseases, which put particular demands on the health service.
We also have a legacy of rapid deindustrialisation in the 1980s, when the hearts of many of the coalmining and steel communities across County Durham were ripped out by the policies of the Thatcher Government. That legacy remains in terms of hopelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and smoking, as well as the poverty that goes with all that. Previously, I have described County Durham as a rural county with urban problems, but those urban problems are sometimes ignored because of County Durham’s rurality.
We also have a growing elderly population. In the period to 2035, the number of people aged 65-plus will rise by 31%, and the number of people aged 85-plus will rise by 82%. That puts particular demand on the health service at all levels, in both the community and the acute sectors. Life expectancy in Durham is 78.3 years for men and 81.4 years for women. I will mention to two other counties, and allude to the reasons for doing that later in my remarks: in Surrey, life expectancy is 81.5 years for men and 84.8 years for women, while in Hertfordshire, it is 81 years for men and 84.2 years for women.
The figures for healthy life expectancy, which indicates the age at which people develop serious health concerns, are even worse. In County Durham, they are 58.9 years for men and 58.7 years for women, whereas in Surrey, they are 68.3 years for men and 68.7 years for women, and in Hertfordshire, 64.9 years for men and 65.9 years for women. People in County Durham who get long-term health issues get them sooner than people in more affluent areas, which leads to demand on our health service. We are always told by the Government that we need to stop people using the health service to reduce the demand placed on it, but unless we tackle some of the underlying causes of the problem that pressure will continue.
Responsibility for public health funding was transferred from the Department of Health and Social Care to local government in 2013-14. I supported that move because public health is best delivered locally. The budget devolved to County Durham in 2013-14 was £40.5 million, based on the assessment of health needs by the primary care trust, which was abolished under the same legislation that introduced the transfer of responsibilities. To give credit to County Durham, it has used that money effectively, with services commissioned both directly by the county council and externally by private and third-sector organisations.
As with many things, however, devolution of responsibility for public health came with a sting in 2016, when the budget was reduced by 12.8%. That was part of George Osborne’s strategy, in a host of areas, to devolve money locally and tell the local authority to decide where the cuts would come. He could then stand back and say, “That decision has to be made locally.” But that misses the point. By sleight of hand, he sought to give the idea that somehow he had no responsibility for the cuts when he had top-sliced the budgets.
To be fair to County Durham, its public health priorities were the right ones to tackle. The funding was directed towards the control of tobacco and cessation of smoking, teenage pregnancies, obesity and weight reduction, mental health—an issue close to my heart—and improved dental services. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of this, but when I was first elected in 2001, certain areas of my constituency had no access to dental services at all. That has changed—not since 2010, I hasten to add, but certainly under the last Labour Government.
County Durham also targeted tackling drug and alcohol addiction. I give it credit for the work that it has done on that. In the light of the recent confessions of the Conservative party leadership contenders, I think that they could take note of the available drug and alcohol services. However, unlike those middle-class people who have confessed to drug use, the young people we are talking about will not go on to glittering careers in the media or elsewhere. They will be pushed into a cycle of poverty and desperation at local level, and will add to our shared tax burden, because their demand on health, police and other services will increase. I always look at public health as an investment in our local communities to ensure not only that we have good public health outcomes, but that we reduce demand elsewhere in the system.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on to the next section of his speech, I want to congratulate him on securing this important debate. What shocks me is the fact that in Woodhouse Close in my constituency, the healthy life expectancy is 10 years lower than that in Barnard Castle, yet those two places are only 10 miles apart. The notion of cutting public health funding seems grotesque.
My hon. Friend is correct. She highlights that example in County Durham, but there are many more between the more affluent areas and the pockets of poverty. They have been there since the 1980s and they need to be addressed. I am passionate about this issue; the idea that where someone lives should determine how long they live, in a wealthy country such as ours, is wrong. We should be able to tackle that in this day and age.
The new funding formula, ironically called the fair funding formula—trades description comes to mind—is based on the premise, pushed mainly by a lot of Conservative Members, that somehow the needs of individuals in health and other areas are the same across the nation. That is just not the case. The methodology put forward by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government means that County Durham will lose 38% of its existing budget—that is £18 million a year. It is the worst loser in this process, because the dedicated, ring-fenced public health budget is being abolished. It is being pushed in terms of the business rate retention scheme, which concerns me because it means that there will be areas where councils—I will refer to two in a minute—that get a budget increase will have no duty at all to ring fence that money and put it into public health. That is a retrograde step.
County Durham has achieved a lot: smoking is 22% down and teenage pregnancy is down to a level that is no longer statistically different from national averages. That certainly was not the case when I was first elected in 2001. We have made great strides getting cardiac mortality down from 31 deaths per 100,000 in 2001 to 5.7 deaths per 100,000 by 2015. A lot of effort has gone into addressing suicide rates, particularly among men. That is a credit to multi-agency work, including the police, the voluntary community sector and others. We have a good-news story in the sense that we have a good partnership-working approach in County Durham, yet the Government want to take that budget away.
People ask, “Why can’t it be made up from elsewhere in the council budget?” This is a county council that has had its budget slashed by nearly £240 million since 2010. It is due to lose another chunk of funding under the so-called local government funding formula. The scandalous situation, and the reason I mentioned Surrey earlier, is that, while County Durham will have its budget cut by 38%, Surrey County Council’s budget will be increased by £14.4 million a year, and Hertfordshire’s by £12.6 million a year. It cannot be right—I will give some reasons in a minute—that money is being moved from deprived areas such as County Durham in the north-east to some of the most affluent areas in the United Kingdom. The life expectancy and other figures that I mentioned earlier are not comparable. That is not a fair way of distributing that money.
It is not just County Durham that is affected; the north-east loses some £40 million under the proposals, in some of the most deprived parts of this country. Gateshead, for example, loses 12.44% of its budget; Redcar and Cleveland loses more than 27%; South Tyneside, once of the most deprived parts of the region, loses 29%; and Sunderland loses 24%. That will not address health inequalities and stop people going into the health service; the cuts to the most deprived areas cannot be right.
There is a deliberate policy—not just here, but in other areas—of moving the central Government grants or funding formulas to benefit mainly Conservative-voting southern areas. That is the worst example of pork barrel politics. The Conservative party leadership contenders talk about one-nation conservatism. If this is one-nation conservatism, they can keep it. The cuts will have a direct effect on the ability of healthcare professionals to provide services. It is not acceptable to go backwards on smoking cessation and drug treatment.
What has been going on? The county council has lobbied; it has written to the Minister, met Public Health England and worked with other local authorities not just in the north-east but elsewhere, such as Blackpool Council, which is also affected. It has contributed to the fair funding review. It is not just politicians on the Labour county council; the health and wellbeing boards, the police and crime commissioner, and the local NHS trusts have all argued that this is not correct, because they see what is coming down the road. If these short-sighted cuts take place, the demand on local acute services will go up—exactly what the Government and NHS England want to avoid. That disjointed approach beggars belief.
What do we want in County Durham? We want and need a clear commitment to public health. That is referred to in the NHS forward plan, but with no funding commitment or power to ensure that local councils deliver good-quality public health. We need a form of funding that reflects need. We also need a clarification on timetable. I understand that a decision is being kicked right back to the spending review. When the spending review will take place, given the chaos in the Conservative party, I do not know.
There is real pressure on the county council and other bodies because they have to let contracts—the current contracts come to an end in March next year. If there is no clarification by the end of this year, that will not leave much time for those organisations not only to tender but to let those contracts. That will lead to a lot of organisations worrying about their future. A lot of public health is delivered by the local voluntary community sectors. They rely on that, and they do a fantastic job. We cannot have money deliberately moved to areas of prosperity. I challenge the Minister to conduct an impact assessment on the effects of the cuts, to highlight those effects.
It does not surprise me what the Government are doing because they have done it in every other area, particularly local government funding. I do not question the commitment of the Minister to good-quality public health, but there is a disconnect in relation to the funding formula and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. On 7 January, I asked the Health Secretary directly about the issues concerning County Durham. He said:
“That is obviously not right. Indeed, there is a whole section of the plan on reducing health inequalities, which is extremely important.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 77.]
He might recognise the importance of public health, but MHCLG does not. That is not a very good example of joined-up government.
This is not charity; it is an investment, not just in the lives and wellbeing of individual constituents in County Durham but in the future of the country. Unless we tackle some of these health inequalities through good public health, our efforts to relieve the pressures on our health service will come to nothing. In a statement on exiting the EU, the Prime Minister, who will not be with us much longer as Prime Minister, said she wanted to work
“across all areas to make this a country that truly works for everyone, and a country where nowhere and nobody is left behind.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 25.]
If these cuts go through, those words will be pretty hollow, because County Durham will be left behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend—
He is my right hon. Friend, as he reminds me. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this timely debate. He has been a real campaigner on this issue in County Durham for many years, and I know he takes a real interest in the public health issues we face in Durham.
The backdrop to the debate is this: we face cuts to public health provision in the north-east of England, primarily in County Durham, at the same time as we see a parade of candidates to be leader of the Conservative party, virtually all of whom want to cut taxes by billions of pounds. I am beginning to wonder where exactly the money will come from for any kind of public sector provision. Those claims of future tax cuts will probably end up being unfunded after Brexit, considering that the pot of tax money for the public sector will be reduced anyway.
As my right hon. Friend said, we may face cuts to public health services of around £18 million in Durham. I reiterate what he said about Surrey and Hertfordshire: under the new formula, there will be a £14.4 million increase for Surrey and a £12.6 million increase for Hertfordshire. That cannot be right when we consider the problems we have with health and healthcare provision in Durham. Sedgefield grew up, as a community, on coal. The number of men who worked down the collieries and are still alive today but have ailments related to that industry, such as lung disease and arthritis, just goes to prove that there is a requirement not to cut funding but to increase it.
If we look at random at some areas of health, the figures for Sedgefield are worse than the national average in all of them. It has higher than the national average cases of dementia, patients on antidepressant drugs, patients on painkillers, asthma sufferers, people with high blood pressure, people with depression—the list goes on and on. We are talking about a formula devised by algorithm rather than by listening to what healthcare professionals say the county needs. People in Durham can expect to live a decent life in good health for seven years less than people in Surrey and nine years less than people in Hertfordshire.
Great strides have been made over the years in the use of the public health grant in County Durham. For example, the smoking rate has reduced from 22% to 14%. However, smoking during pregnancy is still an issue and still above the national average. About 20% of the people who live in Durham—I think that is about 114,000 people—are under 19. They should all be due some kind of safeguarding provision. If the cuts go ahead, will we have the health visitors to provide that? The cuts will affect the safeguarding of young people. If drug and alcohol services are reduced, the police will have to deal with an even greater problem of rising crime.
The chief executive of the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS mental health trust came to see me about the cuts a couple of weeks ago. Because of cuts to public health, fewer and fewer health visitors and school nurses are going to schools and people’s homes. Because that provision is not there, the trust has to see people it would not otherwise have seen because they would have been seen at home or school. Its provision for people with mental health problems is being put under more and more stress. The cuts are impacting services other than those provided through public health funding.
One thing for which public health services have mandatory responsibility is health visiting services for those under the age of five. The breastfeeding initiation rate in County Durham is 59%, compared with 74% in England as a whole. Health visitors play a pivotal role in helping and encouraging women to continue to breastfeed their babies until they are at least six months old. Public Health England guidance acknowledges:
“Mothers who are young, white, from routine and manual professionals and who left education early are least likely to breastfeed.”
Cutting the public health grant to an area in which many women fit that profile and which is already way behind on breastfeeding rates would once again penalise an area with real need.
Then we have obesity. In the fight to keep the population healthy and active, healthy weight is of core importance to the public health agenda. An estimated 14% of adults on GP registers across the Sedgefield constituency are obese, with the figure in some areas as high as 19%. Five of the 15 neighbourhoods with the highest rates of obesity are in County Durham. In the south-east, which may end up with increased public health provision, those rates are in single digits—around 8%, if not less. In Richmond Park, the figure is 3.6%.
The common theme in all this is that if we cut public health provision in our communities, other providers will be affected. Those providers, which otherwise would not have had to provide those services, will end up doing more and more. The mental health trust told me that case loads are skyrocketing for some of its workers. How, for example, will they be able to look after young people with mental health issues that are not picked up at school or in the home? Those young people will be passed along the road to mental health trusts, which will not be able to cope because they, too, face cuts. That needs to be addressed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, especially in mental health, the outcomes for an individual are better if we intervene early, at a young age, rather than leaving problems untreated for many years?
That is absolutely right, and that is an issue that the mental health trust raised. If those issues are picked up in the early years or when someone is still at school, they can be resolved. Leaving them just puts extra strain on the mental health trusts in the area.
I want to end on a positive note. I had some schoolchildren in Parliament yesterday from the primary schools in Ferryhill and Chilton. Cleves Cross Primary School in Ferryhill has a whole host of initiatives around mental health, eating properly and so on. Around the village, it is setting up edible walkways: instead of flower beds, it is planting vegetables, which people can pick when they mature. It is great that schools are coming up with those great initiatives, but if the same thing is to happen in schools across Country Durham, there needs to be central provision from public health services.
For wellbeing, there are initiatives to make sure that children have meals together with their families, and to ensure that if there are problems, other children and friends from school are invited along to share those meals. Such initiatives for those aged seven to 10 bode well for the future, and the public health service in Durham needs to look at them, but they must be funded.
We also need to think about how we develop best practice, so that we see such initiatives not just in Ferryhill and Chilton but in Consett, Barnard Castle, Durham city, Esh Winning and Easington—all over County Durham. There needs to be some strategy. As my right hon. Friend said, we need some kind of audit or impact assessment of what cuts to public health mean to areas like ours. What is the reasoning behind making cuts in Durham, where services are needed, and increasing funding in places such as Surrey and Hertfordshire, where they will not be?
Order. Before I call Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, I remind Members that this an hour-long debate. I will call the Front-Bench speakers at 5.25 pm, with five minutes for the Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, allowing Mr Jones a couple of minutes to finish the debate.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen? I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for bringing forward this important debate. In 2013, there was a general welcome for the transfer of public health funding to local government, because it meant that public health and addressing public health issues could be integrated into the council’s service delivery objectives to better promote public health objectives.
On transfer, the grant to County Durham was £44.5 million, based on an assessment of health needs in the county by professionals—albeit one heavily influenced by the Government’s austerity programme. It is therefore extremely alarming that the Government now plan to move to determining the county’s grant level not on need but according to a new formula, under the huge misnomer of the “fair funding review”—it is anything but. The public health grant to County Durham will be reduced by a massive 38% while resources are transferred to more affluent areas of the country that have much better health outcomes. That is clearly madness and cannot be right.
The public health team in County Durham has done a good job, despite facing the hugely complex health issues discussed in some detail by my right hon. Friend. The county has an industrial past of heavy industry that has left a huge legacy of negative health impacts on the local community. Despite that, and through use of the public health grant, public health professionals, to whom we all pay tribute this afternoon, have done much. They have reduced smoking prevalence and teenage conceptions, and they also provide excellent support for vulnerable families on health and wellbeing issues, including access to mental health services. Those positive changes will be very much put at risk by the massive reduction in funding. In fact, given the severity of the problems Durham faces, it should be given more funding, not less.
Public health professionals in Durham have to address not just the problems of our industrial legacy but high current levels of poverty, because proper regeneration of the county has not taken place as yet. For example, just one food bank said that it gave out 20,000 emergency food bank parcels in Durham last year. We are talking about massive levels of poverty. Almost a third of children in County Durham are being brought up in households affected by poverty. Increasingly, such households are those with parents in work, sometimes having to do multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
Under the last Labour Government, my hon. Friend, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), pioneered a free school meals initiative. Is she alarmed that, as I learned yesterday, the national school breakfast programme, which costs only £12 million nationally and affects quite a few schools—primary schools in particular—in her constituency, my constituency and other parts of County Durham, has still not had its funding guaranteed for next year?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and I will take up in the coming weeks. That is an indication of how little the Government seem to be concerned about the children growing up in poor households.
Let us look at the Durham situation. The starkest indicator is the seven-year healthy life expectancy gap between females in Durham, currently at 59, and those in Hertfordshire, where it is 66, and Surrey, where it is 68. That begs the question of why the Government are transferring resources from County Durham to Surrey and Hertfordshire. I know the Minister is new to her post, but it would be helpful to get an explanation of why the Government think that is a good idea, because we have not had one so far. The appalling health inequality is compounded by overall life expectancy figures, which for women are 81 in Durham compared with 84 for Hertfordshire and Surrey. There is a similar gap for men.
Let us look at other measures. Suicide rates in County Durham were above the national average, with 20.6 deaths per 100,000 of the population for males. On mental health, the rate of young people admitted to hospital because of self-harm is significantly above the national average. On alcohol, 33.8% of people in County Durham drink more than the low-risk guidelines recommended, and 290 people died due to alcohol-related problems last year. There were also 12,500 hospital admissions and 108 road traffic accidents. That suggests a significant problem that needs to be addressed.
Furthermore, the percentage of mothers smoking at the time of delivery is above regional and national averages. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) made clear, breastfeeding rates are low, yet we know that it provides the best nutrition that babies and young children can get. Seven out of 10 adults in County Durham are overweight or obese, significantly more than the national average, and cardiovascular mortality rates are also higher than the national average.
I could go on with endless statistics, but we are making the point that County Durham is an area with high levels of disadvantage and poverty. It is below the national average on almost every public health indicator imaginable, yet what are the Government doing? They are not giving additional funds to address those problems and ensure that our services continue to improve; they are threatening to take money away.
The workforce would be significantly affected by this measure. There would be a significant reduction in the number of visits that health professionals could make and the universal work on emotional wellbeing would be removed. Instead, only higher level and more targeted work would take place, although we know that misses most of the families and individuals who would benefit from services. Other prevention priorities, including visits and programmes trying to address problems around smoking at the time of delivery, breastfeeding, unintentional injuries and obesity, would also be reduced. The service would have to focus on safeguarding, which would increase inequalities, and issues would be missed.
I could go on and on. We have already seen a massive reduction in services. For example, my constituency has no Sure Start centres operating, which means there is nothing in place to bring together services that could support very vulnerable families. Can the Minister look at that issue as well?
What do we want the Minister to do? The point was put forcefully by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham: we need a commitment from the Government to increasing public health funding in line with need; an extension to public health funding to be used in areas where the grant has been utilised effectively; and clarity on the timescale for decisions. We have already seen concern in County Durham about future funding, especially from the voluntary sector organisations that do much of the heavy lifting in terms of providing services to improve public health outcomes. The Government do not seem to be aware that funding for such organisations is often precarious and that they need some certainty from the Government to invest in staffing and services for the future.
The Government should certainly not be moving money from areas with the greatest health inequalities to those with the least health inequalities. They should be carrying out an impact assessment of any funding decision, so that we are really clear about what the impacts of that massive reduction of 38% in County Durham would lead to. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, this is an issue across north-east England. I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say to address this problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Owen. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing this important debate and for his excellent speech. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for their insightful and powerful contributions.
As I have said many times before, under the Tory-led coalition and the current Conservative Government, public health budgets have been cut by £700 million since 2013, with no financial settlement agreed so far post-2020. As we have heard, that means that vital public health services, such as those for smoking cessation, obesity, sexual health and many more, have been stripped back to the bare minimum. That has consequences: gonorrhoea is at its highest level in 40 years and syphilis at its highest level in 70 years; rates of smoking among pregnant women have risen for the first time on record; and Victorian diseases, such as scarlet fever, whooping cough, malnutrition and gout, have seen a 52% upturn since 2010, with an increase of over 3,000 hospital admissions per year.
Life expectancies are stalling and, in some places, declining, with the north-south divide as wide as ever in terms of health and productivity. For a number of us in this room, it was the north-south divide that drove us into politics; to see it as wide as ever, and not closing, drives us to come to debates such as this one. This is a welcome opportunity to highlight and discuss public health in County Durham.
Overall, health and wellbeing have improved significantly in County Durham, but it still remains worse than the England average. Although it has improved in the north, the rest of the country has also improved, so the gap remains wide. In addition, large health inequalities still remain across County Durham, especially with regard to breastfeeding, babies born to mothers who smoke, childhood obesity and premature deaths. The impact becomes obvious when we look at life expectancy. As we have heard, a child born today in the most deprived areas of County Durham can expect to live between seven and eight years less than one born in the least deprived areas.
With that in mind, it is concerning and shocking that County Durham is the worst affected local authority in England when it comes to cuts to the public health grant. Current predictions suggest that Durham County Council will lose £18 million this year from its public health grants. To put that into perspective—I will repeat the figures we have already heard, because they are more shocking the more times you hear them—this means County Durham will be receiving an £18 million cut to public health budgets but Surrey County Council will receive £14.4 million extra and Hertfordshire County Council will receive a boost of £12.6 million.
What assessment has the Minister made of this funding disparity between councils in the north and south, and the impact that has on health outcomes? Does she agree with me that where there is need, funding should follow? How will the Minister support Durham County Council in delivering vital public health services to those who need it most?
The current grant for County Durham, with a population of 525,000, is £47.4 million, which equates to £90 per head. Does the Minister believe that this is a substantial amount of funding per person to tackle all the public health issues, as well as look at prevention for smoking, alcohol and drug misuse, obesity and weight management? Does she believe that £90 per head is enough to also fund early years services, nutrition and physical activity programmes and support mental health and wellbeing services?
As has already been mentioned, there is a life expectancy gap between the north and south of England: it is clear that money follows higher life expectancies, rather than the other way around—or, indeed, deprivation—as it used to. In County Durham, women have a healthy life expectancy of 59. That is compared to in Hertfordshire, where women have a healthy life expectancy of 66, and Surrey, where it is 68.
To give time for the Minister, can the hon. Lady finish up, please?
Yes, I will. I ask the Minister: when will the Government agree a future funding settlement for public health? I am under the impression that this has been postponed now until after the leadership contest. Local authorities and public health services need to know where they stand. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said when he opened the debate, we cannot have County Durham or other local authorities being left behind any longer.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for raising this important issue, and the hon. Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) for their contributions.
The Government fully appreciate the importance of protecting and improving the health of the population. We share hon. Members’ commitment to prevention and public health, which this debate has highlighted. The costs, both to individual lives and to the NHS, are simply too great to ignore.
The population in England is growing, ageing and diversifying rapidly. Some 40% of morbidity is preventable, and 60% of 60-year-olds have at least one long-term condition. Helping people to stay well, in work and in their own homes for longer is vital. As hon. Members have highlighted, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas of England is approximately 19 years for both sexes. As somebody who was born in Lancashire and represents a Lancashire seat, I see that disparity in my constituency. It is a great motivating factor for me in my role, as it was for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she set her grand challenge of extending a person’s period of healthy, independent and active life by five years by 2035.
However, we will not achieve that by simply adding five extra years at the end of life; as with many things, the earlier we start, the more we stand to gain. Investment in early years and onwards is essential if we want positively to influence future lifestyle choices, prevent disabling conditions and enable people to contribute fully to society. We must continue to focus our efforts on areas such as digital technology and behavioural science so that we can show the public that the healthy choice is the easy choice.
We are doing work—on childhood obesity, smoking, air quality and more—that has the potential to make a real difference to people’s health and wellbeing. The amount of sugar in drinks has been reduced by 11% and average calories per portion have been cut by 6% in response to our soft drinks industry levy. By 2020, the NHS diabetes prevention programme will support 100,000 people at risk of diabetes each year across England. Last year’s ambitious prevention vision statement and the forthcoming prevention Green Paper will enable us to meet the ageing grand challenge and address health inequalities, supporting people to live longer, healthier lives.
We recognise that the funding position for local authorities is extremely challenging and understand the huge efforts that local government has made to focus on securing best value for every pound it spends. The 2015 spending review made available £16 billion of funding for local authorities in England over the five-year period. I remind the House that that is in addition to the money the NHS spends, which is part of the public health offer on prevention and includes our world-leading screening and immunisation programme and the world’s first national diabetes prevention programme.
Today’s debate has highlighted an important issue about the distribution of funding for local authority public health functions. Historically, funding for public health services in the NHS was left to local decision and was not necessarily based on need, which led to wide disparities in the amount of funding dedicated locally to public health services. Before these functions were transferred to local government, we asked the independent Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation to develop a needs-based formula for the distribution of the public health grant. The introduction of that formula meant that some local authorities received more than their target allocation under the ACRA formula and others received funding under target. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, when the overall grant was subject to growth, local authorities’ funding was iterated closer to their target through a mechanism called “pace of change”.
In 2015, ACRA was asked to update the formula to take account of the transfer of responsibility for commissioning health visiting services from NHS England to local authorities. We consulted on this formula and ACRA made recommendations to Government in 2016. I understand that the public health formula is more heavily weighted towards deprivation than either the adult social care formula or the clinical commissioning group formulation.
It is not working.
Of course we want evidence. The shadow Minister says from a sedentary position that it is not working. We did an impact assessment in 2015-16 and we are reviewing all the evidence in preparation for the next spending review.
Just for clarification, did the Minister actually say that the formula is not working?
No; I said that.
No, I was repeating what the shadow Minister had said.
The recommended formula, which would create winners and losers in terms of overall levels of funding because of the disparity in historical spend compared to current need, has not been implemented because of the Government’s intention to extend the system of retained business rates. We continue to review the position, and future spending levels will be decided as part of the spending review, where we will review all available evidence.
I commend all local authorities on the efforts they are making to improve population health, as well as third-sector groups such as the children in Cleves Cross with their edible walkways. We continue to believe that local authorities are best placed to make decisions about the services that best meet the needs of their populations.
I am sure the Minister would accept that any formula that moves services from areas of relatively high need to areas of low need cannot be working properly. Does she also accept that it is simply not fair to push the onus to provide more services on to local authorities? As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) made clear, Durham County Council’s budget has been cut by 60% since 2010.
I believe that local authorities and local communities are the right place for public health to be situated, because they best understand the needs of their communities.
Will the Minister give way?
May I just finish addressing the point made by the hon. Member for City of Durham? I also want to ensure I give the right hon. Gentleman, who moved the motion, time to wind up the debate. We recognise that there has been pressure on local authorities and we commend them for the work they have done. As I have said, we continue to review the position, and future spending levels will be decided as part of the spending review.
I agree with the Minister that local communities are best placed to decide these things, but is she happy with the fact that under the new funding formula, there is no onus on local government at all to use money for public health?
I think public health is ring-fenced, and local government does have to use the funding for that. We are reviewing the position, and we will look at all the evidence carefully in the upcoming spending review.
Across England, we are seeing examples of councils adopting new service models and commissioning more effectively and innovatively. Stakeholders often tell us, most recently through the review of commissioning sexual health and health visiting services, that councils are achieving better value for money while maintaining or improving outcomes in challenging financial circumstances.
However, we need to acknowledge that improving public health is about far more than the grant, and we know that spending more money does not necessarily improve outcomes. What we spend it on matters a lot. That covers all local government activity, including transport, planning, housing and the economy, all of which contribute to population health and wellbeing. The work that local government does on the ground through place-based approaches makes joining up those different factors easier, and the NHS long-term plan has a significant focus on prevention and reducing health inequalities.
We do not know what the outcome of the spending review will be, but I am committed to working closely with local government and other partners to build on the achievements of the past six years. We need to take action on a local, national and global level to meet the public health needs of the present and rise to the public health challenges of the future.
I thank the Minister for that. She is a new Minister, so I will give her a word of advice: do not come to a debate and just read out a civil servant’s speech, as she did today. It is all right her saying that she recognises the importance of public health, but in her position she needs to be a champion for public health. If that means giving the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government a kicking, she needs to do it. Without that, demand will increase on her Department of Health and Social Care and its budget.
I am sorry, but I just do not accept what the Minister says about efficiencies. No organisation can have 38% taken out of its budget through efficiencies while delivering the same thing. Morally, this policy, which is like Robin Hood in reverse—taking from the poor and giving to the rich—is just not acceptable. I expect her to be a champion for public health, because all the evidence from this country and internationally—not from politicians for party political points—is that early and proper direction of public health funding not only reduces demand on the health service but improves people’s lives.
It cannot be right that one of the most deprived parts of the UK—the north-east of England, and County Durham in particular—has its budgets and its council’s ability to provide public health services to its population reduced because of a funding formula put in place by this Government. Other areas, which I and my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) highlighted, have far fewer health needs.
We cannot take need out of the funding formula and hide behind the NHS long-term plan. The plan has all good intentions in trying to address health inequalities, but that will not be done without proper investment. Since 2013, Durham County Council has proven—in very straitened circumstances, and not just in this area but in how it has administered its budgets—that it has been able to get efficiencies. However, there is a limit to that, and taking 38% out will not work. This is simply not fair, Minister. As someone who represents a northern constituency, she should recognise that.
On whether we will see any change from the new leadership of the Tory party, if the front-runner gets it I very much doubt that. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield is correct: directing money to tax cuts for the wealthy will not mean a growth in public services. Public health is not a luxury; it is a vital part of a strategy not only to tackle inequality, but to tackle unfairness and to make people’s lives better.
I went into politics to make people’s lives better, as I am sure the Minister did. Her Government—I accept that it is not her Department, but the local government Department—are making people’s life chances worse. That cannot be right.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered public health in County Durham.