Wednesday 11 November 2020
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
North of England: Economic Support
I am sure that hon. Members are familiar with the new rules regarding Westminster Hall debates, so please respect social distancing and clean your microphones before and after you use them. Only Members on the call list may be here. This is an over-subscribed debate, so will those due to speak in the latter stages please use the seats at the back?
Bear in mind that, if you are sitting at a microphone and you have spoken, you can move. You are not required to stay for the winding-up speeches, so you can leave if you wish; you do not have to come back for the winding-up speeches, but if there is space, you are welcome to do so.
The House will observe a two-minute silence at 11 am in remembrance of those killed in conflict. The beginning and end of the silence will be marked by the Division bells. I will suspend the sitting before 11 am so that Members can leave the Chamber to observe the silence.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for the economy in the north of England.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Efford. I declare an interest as a metro Mayor.
Today’s debate takes place amid an unprecedented economic crisis affecting the whole country, but covid has only reinforced an argument that was already undeniable. We need to level up the north—not by tinkering at the margins, but through a full-scale transformation; not just for the sake of the north, but for the sake of the whole country. The question is, of course, whether the Government will make it happen.
Covid has hit the north hard. We have a disproportionate number of cases and hospitalisations, and the pandemic has affected deprived areas more—and the north still has far too many deprived areas. Our economy has been equally exposed. In South Yorkshire, the level of people claiming unemployment-related benefits is now higher than at any time since the mid-1990s, when we were in the aftermath of the pit closures. We risk undoing a quarter of a century of painful progress. The brutal reality is that the north is now on course for levelling down, not levelling up.
Meanwhile, the issues that made the case for levelling up in the first place have not gone away. The UK has the worst regional inequality of any comparable nation. We have unacceptably unequal education and health outcomes. Many northern council areas are among the most left behind in the UK. In the five years following the launch of the northern powerhouse, the number of our children living in poverty went up by one third, to 800,000.
Policy choices have made, or threaten to make, the situation worse. Planned cuts to universal credit could leave one in three working-age households in the north £1,000 a year worse off. Under austerity, public spending fell by £3.6 billion in the north, even as it rose by £4.7 billion in the south-east and the south-west.
Therefore the need for levelling up is clear, but there is a flipside to all this—the great potential and the strengths that make the positive argument for levelling up. We are still the heartland of British industry. South Yorkshire, for example, has amazing companies such as ITM Power, helping to build a hydrogen-fuelled clean energy revolution, and Magtec, developing contactless magnetic gears for wind turbines. Those enterprises reflect the north’s storied history of manufacturing prowess, but we also have huge strengths in culture, sport and tourism; incredible natural beauty; and world-class universities with fantastic strengths in research and skills. Together, we really can create a better economy, not just for our regions but for the whole UK, and help to drive the transformations that we all badly want to see. It is estimated that if we do rebalance national investment, that could add £97 billion to our economy by 2050.
However, we have not just shown our potential; we have also shown that we can use it. We can do our bit if we are given the tools; as the only MP with the somewhat unusual privilege of also being a metro Mayor, I know that at first hand. Since I became the Mayor in 2018, we have created or protected 15,000 jobs in South Yorkshire; our pioneering Working Win programme has helped 6,000 people with health conditions who want to get back to work; we have leveraged £319 million of investment and awarded more than £100 million for regeneration and redevelopment; and we have just committed £5.5 million of our own funds to kickstart nine flood prevention projects. We are putting our skin in the game and laying down a challenge for the Government to do their part, rather than waiting for them to take the initiative. I can safely say that we stand ready to be levelled up, and I know that my counterparts across both sides of the political divide in the north would say the same.
We are not coming to this debate today with a begging bowl: we have the need and the potential, and we have shown that we are ready. The north, perhaps more than anywhere, is where we will do the job of building a better Britain for all of us. What we are asking for is the tools to get on with that job, but we have not received them yet.
We have been quite successful recently in attracting funds into South Yorkshire, but none of that money, apart from the £30 million of gainshare that we are getting following our devolution deal, represents new resources specifically targeted at South Yorkshire, the north or even disadvantaged areas more widely. These are existing funds that have come under our control, such as the adult education budget; or a share of national funds that we have been allocated or successfully bid for on the same basis as any other region, such as the Transforming Cities fund. Do not get me wrong—it is hugely important that that money is being spent under local control and we are grateful for it, but this is not levelling up.
There is a similar picture across the north. There are a few exceptions. The towns fund is perhaps the most obvious, but it leaves out hundreds of very deprived towns in favour of some wealthier areas, and it is only a one-off £3.6 billion fund spread across the whole country. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm today how much new money the Government have put into levelling up since they took office, because the overall picture is one of tinkering and not transforming.
An indication of what we need is the UK2070 Commission’s recommendation: to triple the new UK shared prosperity fund to £15 billion a year for 20 years, which would be a total of £200 billion of new funding. That is for all deprived areas, but it shows the scale that we should be talking about. The moment to do that was at the comprehensive spending review, but in the current crisis is understandable that the Government are carrying out a more modest one-year review instead. However, that must not become an excuse to delay the transformative investment we need if levelling up is really to mean something.
Already, over two thirds of northerners believe that the Government will not follow through on levelling up; that is a concern that the 55 Conservative MPs who wrote to the Prime Minister last month—we will hear from one of them in a moment—seem to share. We all have an interest in proving those fears wrong, and here is where I think we need to start.
In the short term, we need better covid emergency support, including adequate funding for hard-pressed local authorities, but the key issue is that the reduced spending review should retain real ambition. First, it must extend the local growth fund, which expires in March. The LGF has been absolutely critical in generating jobs, investment and regeneration, and it would be great to hear a commitment to extend it from the Minister today. However, LGF renewal is only enough for us to stand still. For transformation, we need something much more like a new deal for the north.
In my patch, we think that that would look like our renewal action plan, which calls for funding and powers to expand kickstart and apprenticeship schemes, begin a massive investment in infrastructure and decarbonisation, increase active travel and plant millions of trees. Will the Minister confirm today what plans the Government have for investment at this transformational scale across the north?
Transport will be especially key. Northern Powerhouse Rail is often presented as the infrastructure that will be at the heart of levelling up, but there are growing fears that critical parts of it could be delayed, along with the north-east leg of High Speed 2. It is hard to overstate how damaging that would be for the levelling-up agenda.
Lastly, the Government should make some critical structural changes, especially reforming the Green Book to reduce the in-built bias towards more affluent areas in Government investment decisions and following through on proposals to move significant parts of the civil service. Perhaps the Minister could update us on that today. Of course, beyond the spending review, the new shared prosperity fund must also embed the same ambitions. Like the European Union funds that it replaces, it must be based heavily on need. It should be as devolved as practically possible. All this is not just about making the northern economy bigger; it is about making it better—more high-tech and more high value, more sustainable and more equitable.
My ambition for the north is for it to be stronger, greener and fairer. That should be our aim for the whole United Kingdom. Covid is not an obstacle to that, but an opportunity: there is a near-consensus on the need for spending to protect our economy. The question is whether that spending will serve a greater purpose. Crucially, the issue is about not just money but power—to be legitimate and effective, levelling up must be done with and by us, not to us. We need much more flexibility over how we spend the funds allocated to us, but we also need a more fundamental doubling down on devolution.
We have done a lot in South Yorkshire, but we have done it with modest powers and resources. We are still the most centralised large developed country in the world. That must change, not just to unleash our potential but to help address the disillusionment and division that is growing across our country and that threatens to break it up. The polls showing a majority of Scots expressing support for leaving the Union are only the most alarming symptom of a wider crisis of faith also visible in the north. For all our sakes, we must make levelling up part of a more ambitious vision for reform—one that lets people feel that they are taking back control and that they have a country, a United Kingdom, that they can believe in.
We are now at a moment of crisis, but also a moment of opportunity. There is an overwhelming case for us to rise to this moment with ambition—not just to give the north the means and the powers to rejuvenate our economy and our society, but to do so as part of a wider vision for a more prosperous, more equitable, more democratic United Kingdom. In the process, perhaps we can make this a transformative moment not just for the north but for the whole country.
What a pleasure it is to follow the thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). He does a fantastic job as the Mayor of South Yorkshire. We have a bit of history of working together to make sure that the area had the powers he mentioned. I am sure that he would want me to say that when he talks about South Yorkshire, and Mayors more widely, having a deal and investing money, that is a partnership of significant Government money and money that he will have raised locally. Of course, there was no devolution in England except in London until a Conservative Government were elected in 2010 with the sole desire of delivering a northern powerhouse of which devolution is such an important part.
I do not intend to talk about the challenges facing the northern economy because they have been well set out by the hon. Gentleman, but I do want to talk about two things briefly. The first is the hit that northern culture has taken from the covid crisis. Opera and ballet will be at the heart of the culture of many people who live in London and the south of England, but for many of us in the north it is our local football club—our Glyndebourne, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House or Royal Shakespeare Company will be Blackburn Rovers, Accrington Stanley, Barrow, Carlisle or Sunderland.
There is an argument going on between the EFL and the Premier League at the moment, and the time has come for the Government to intervene to seek to unblock it and save local football clubs across the north of England, many of which are the cornerstone of our communities and at the heart of our culture. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that during the debate.
A bright point for the north is that many of us in this room have the privilege of representing constituencies that have a significant manufacturing base. It was our constituents who, during the covid crisis, put their shoulders to the wheel—there was no furlough for them. They went into factories to do shift work. People at Bark Engineering in Bacup made ventilators; people at Perspex in Darwen made the screens that we see all over the country in retail and office space.
It is our constituents who have worked so hard for the economy, doing hard jobs to make sure that we can trade through covid. We can see that from the September purchasing managers index stats, which showed that the north of England—every part of the north—was growing faster than London. That is a testament to the strength of our manufacturing base and the huge amount of work that our constituents have done.
We formed the northern research group to pay tribute to our constituents and look at important issues such as the Green Book, which we are going to dissect in very short order. We will also press the Minister and the Government on this issue. We need a northern economic recovery plan and recovery fund so that we can ensure, as a praetorian guard for the Prime Minister, that we are levelling up our communities across the north.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important debate.
Last year, the Prime Minister fought and won an election on the promise of uniting our country and levelling up left-behind towns such as Birkenhead. As is often the case with this failing Government, the reality falls short of the rhetoric. When areas of northern England were placed under tier 3 local restrictions in October, the Chancellor imposed a cut-price furlough payment of just 67% on the thousands of people who were unable to work; only when the Tory heartlands entered lockdown did he agree to step up furlough to 80%. The message was clear in the eyes of the Government: workers in the north were simply worth less than those in the south. They remain left behind.
The UK remains one of the most regionally unbalanced economies in the developed world. It has nothing to do with accents or geography. There was a conscious policy over 10 years of Conservative Governments to channel wealth to the south-east and sit back while the traditional centres of industry and employment in the north became ghost towns at worst and tourist attractions at best.
Rotherham, once famous for its steel, is starved of hope as the mills close and the jobs disappear. St Helens, which used to be famous for making glass, now has a glass museum with too few visitors. My constituency of Birkenhead is at the sharp end of regional disparity. I represent two of the most deprived council wards in England. Unemployment is above the national average and my constituency can expect far worse outcomes in terms of job opportunities, income and even life expectancy than the people elsewhere in the country. Things do not need to be that way.
This week, the Labour party outlined our plans for the green economic recovery, which offers real hope to towns in the north of England. The proposals call for £30 billion in capital investment to create 400,000 high skilled, low-carbon jobs in just 18 months to provide vital support for UK manufacturing. The Trades Union Congress has estimated that £85 billion in capital spending on rail, social housing and green investment could create 1.2 million jobs in the next two years alone. The Chancellor should take note. To lead us out of the worst recession in living memory, the Government need to exploit historically low lending rates and invest in the high skill green jobs of the future.
Despite the Chancellor’s promise of a green jobs revolution, the UK has committed only £5 billion to green stimulus projects since the pandemic began. In contrast, France has committed to spending €27 billion and Germany more than €36 billion, with countries as diverse as Italy, South Korea and Colombia putting sustainable developments at the heart of their recovery. The UK risks falling far behind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I commend the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate. It is great to see the Minister in her place as well. This debate is important as we need to recognise that the pandemic is not only a health crisis, but an economic one. Nowhere has that been felt more than in the north. My constituency, like that of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), is also in the Liverpool city region and has felt the disruption of going into lockdown, then out of lockdown, then having additional restrictions—tier 3 with gyms, tier 3 without gyms—and now lockdown again. We need to get out of this lockdown and we need a tiering system that takes us out of it, but we need to know what the plan is.
There is no doubt that businesses in my constituency, and many others in the north, have suffered as a result of this disruption and uncertainty. They need our support now more than ever. That said, I wholeheartedly commend this Government for their world-beating furlough package, business grants and loans, reduced VAT, business rates relief and, of course, eat out to help out. That has been particularly important in my constituency, where one third of our businesses are in tourism and hospitality. That sector has probably had the most disruption, and the owners of these businesses just want to be able to trade again.
In Southport we have submitted a town deal. As with many other towns, particularly in the north, it is vital that we deliver on the £50 million proposed in that package to unleash £400 million for my constituency alone. Delivering on this would help other areas in the north, stimulating our economy and growing our businesses. That is only part of what is needed if all our constituencies are to prosper, because some do not have town deals. We need infrastructure projects to connect us better, to increase footfall and to increase business across our whole region. Better connected, we can work better together for a more prosperous future.
We want the north to be given support that truly levels up, which is why I wholeheartedly back my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) in his call for a northern economic recovery plan. We cannot just hope our way out of this crisis and towards a better economic future; we have to plan for that, and we want to be part of that plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I join all those who have thanked my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and not just for securing the debate, but for the leadership he has shown on this agenda. We are all grateful to him for that.
Halifax was punching well above its weight as a northern Pennine town prior to the virus. We have aspiration by the bucketload in my home town. This is certainly a timely debate because, like other parts of the region represented here today, we were still recovering from the second devastating floods of the past five years when we had to immediately turn our attention to fighting the virus.
For some of us in this room, it seems like only yesterday we were here in Westminster Hall advocating on behalf of small and medium-sized enterprises in our constituencies. As I explained in that debate, Halifax has been in the equivalent to tier 2 restrictions since July—alongside our neighbours Batley and Spen and Bradford South, if I am not mistaken. We entered restrictions over 3 months ago, and we were about to enter tier 3 when the second national lockdown overtook us. I share that to make the point that although we have a great deal to offer, we have also faced a perfect storm of challenges, and we look to the Government to recognise that when considering devolution deals, economic support packages and their commitment to local authorities.
Turning to Calderdale Council, any levelling up in the north must start with properly funded services. The cost to the council of the pandemic and related lost income from closed facilities is expected to total around £37.2 million by year end. That has been partly offset by £22.2 million of additional Government funding, but that still leaves a potential deficit of £15 million for the council to deal with. Some of the losses associated with council tax and business rates can be carried forward, but we know that the cost will continue to rise as long as local and national restrictions are in effect.
Alongside investing in local authorities, sorting out rail in the north will be one of the best ways to connect, to stimulate our economies and to drive regeneration, and I have no doubt that others will say the same. We need it all: HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the long overdue electrification of the Calder Valley line, which goes beyond these stations and connects Leeds and Manchester, two of the biggest cities in the north. In 2015, the north of England electrification taskforce recommended the full Calder Valley line as the top priority for economic and operational benefits, but we are still waiting for that to become a reality. I hope the Minister will pledge to work with colleagues to make that a focus of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
Those of us in this room would argue that we are the north’s greatest advocates, but there is no greater advocate for levelling up the north than God’s own newspaper, The Yorkshire Post. It does not hold back on holding the Government to account, which comes from its unwavering commitment to doing the right thing by its readers. It does need a little help, however, and I hope the Minister will reflect on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing the debate.
Walking around communities like ours, it is clear that businesses are struggling and are worried about the future where once, really not that long ago, they felt optimism. Furness’s economy has thrived in the past, almost in spite of its infrastructure—our roads are terrible; our rail network, although improving, is a branch line and not fast with it. People live in Furness for the amazing community, and businesses stay there because of its deep pool of skills and knowledge—from advanced manufacturing to life sciences and green energy—but it is not hard to think that we are running with our shoelaces tied together. We are achieving not because of our environment, but in spite of it; we are achieving because of those people.
In some areas we are not achieving. There are wide and deep economic and health disparities between wards that neighbour each other. We have excellent teachers, doctors, nurses and public servants, but our geography—it takes two hours to get from Barrow to Carlisle—means that those same public services are stretched, and covid has only made those challenges worse.
This Government were elected to level up, and there has never been a more pressing time to do it. Let us be clear that we are not asking for handouts; we are asking to be put on a level footing, and to be given the chance to stand on our own two feet. If we want to tackle some of those economic and health disparities in our communities, we need to trust those communities. We need to use covid as an opportunity to open up and empower civil society to step in, to start focusing on families now and not when they hit crisis points. We need to focus on prevention and not cure.
Some villages in my constituency do not have broadband of any type. They often cannot get phone signal, so let us level them up. Let us redouble efforts to get the infrastructure they need. Let us focus on the areas where we can meaningfully grow skills and recover. Cumbria is ideally placed to be the beating heart of a green industrial revolution. Let us think what an industrial strategy looks like and build on a base of offshore wind, nuclear and gas—and build towards hydrogen and tidal energy too. We have the skills, so enable us to do it. A northern economic recovery plan is what we need from the Government, for communities and constituencies across the north, so that we can build our way out of this pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank and pay tribute to my friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for securing this important debate. He has rightly made the case for better economic support for areas, such as ours, that have been hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic. Back in April, it was the former industrial towns that were predicted to be the most economically at risk. Indeed, Worsbrough in my constituency was given the unenviable title of tenth most at risk town in the country. The number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Barnsley East has doubled over the last six months and we need urgent help to get through the winter.
I will focus my remarks today on three simple asks. First, can the Minister outline the Government’s exit plan for the national lockdown? Last minute announcements by social media and the press have left too many businesses in limbo and unable to plan beyond the next week. We need clarity now more than ever. Secondly, will the Government us the national lockdown to fix the broken track and trace system and give control to local authorities? Test and trace should be run by people who know their areas best. The biggest threat to economies in the north is the spread of the virus and we need to get control of it now. Lastly, will the Government close the gaps in the economic support package and provide clarity on what support local areas should expect if they have to stay in lockdown for longer? Too many Barnsley businesses have gone to the wall and too many workers have been made redundant while the Chancellor has changed his plans from one week to the next.
Barnsley, like many areas across the north, was under strict tier 3 restrictions when the national lockdown was announced. During the negotiations, the Government said that workers in the north would receive only 67% of their pre-crisis income—80% was apparently impossible. Now, however, when restrictions are put in place in the south, the Government have again changed their mind. Clearly, there is one rule for the north and another for the leafy Tory shires. Last week, alongside fellow Labour MPs, Yorkshire Mayors and council leaders, I signed a letter to the Chancellor. We said:
“People in the north are not worth 13% less than those in the rest of the country.”
I ask the Minister to clarify the Government’s position.
The north of England is full of ex-industrial towns that have suffered, since pit closures, from a lack of investment, underemployment, a declining bus network and poor broadband performance. It is a simple fact that low-wage workers and those on insecure contracts are more at risk of becoming unemployed during recessions. The shutdown of pubs, restaurants and shops has had a devastating effect on the local economy in my area, where a large proportion of the population work in those sectors and rely on less secure and low-paid work. If levelling up is to become more than just a slogan, a genuine commitment will be required.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. Let me first address the key and core issue of the debate: the economy in the north of England. With or without covid, we are discussing a curate’s egg of sorts. It is good and bad in parts, given “the north of England” describes an area that is both vast and varied, encompassing seats as different as Richmond in Yorkshire—the seat of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is largely rural and wealthy—and my own seat of Leigh.
Although Leigh shares the designation of county constituency with the Chancellor’s seat, it is largely urban and poor. Indeed, measuring it by the yardstick of the super output area, it falls in the top 20% of most deprived constituencies in the country. We struggle with the legacy issues of the mining industry, in economic and health terms. Infrastructure in my constituency has suffered from under-investment for decades, and the town centres of its communities are in dire need of regeneration, although I am happy to report that recently the town of Tyldesley received a £1.5 million grant to begin the process of regeneration, so there is hope.
The other difference, of course, is that the Chancellor’s seat lies in historic Yorkshire, whereas Leigh lies in historic Lancashire, so we have one advantage at least. [Laughter.] All jokes aside, it is fair to say that in discussing the economy of the north of England we are discussing two economies—that of the wealthy part of the north of England, and that of the poor part. The contrast is often stark and visible. It is to the poor part of the north of England that we must devote our efforts, and in that I follow in the footsteps of my predecessor Richard Assheton Cross. He was the Member of Parliament for Leigh, and Home Secretary in the Government of Benjamin Disraeli, who first articulated the need to address these issues more than 170 years ago when he spoke of the country being divided into two nations.
Today I want to focus on infrastructure and the impact it has had on the economy of my constituency. Businesses are dissuaded from setting up in the town by a permanent snarl of heavy traffic. The associated economic and health costs resulting from poor air quality are significant. Air quality in some parts of the constituency is worse than that in central London. Since the mid-1960s, local residents and businesses have been campaigning for the completion of the Atherleigh Way bypass, to ease congestion, and for the reopening of the town’s rail links to Liverpool and Manchester, so that we will have access to jobs in the two major cities that our town lies halfway between. With that investment, Leigh could be transformed from a poor post-industrial community into a wealthy commuter community.
I have faith in the Government’s promise to invest in and level up the north, so that we can share in and help to build up the wealth of our nation. We must now deliver on the promises we made during the election.
Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Mr Efford. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on successfully applying for the debate and on the work he does as an advocate for the north. He has shown in his role as Mayor that devolution can be a powerful engine for real change in the north.
The Government talk a lot about levelling up. As we move on from covid, there is an opportunity for them to show whether they mean it. For too long, the north has been left behind when it comes to investment. The figures speak for themselves. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently examined the five most recent years of data and found that capital investment per person in London averaged £1,461 per year over the five-year period, compared with an average of £851 across the rest of the UK. Investment in transport in London was £688 per person per year, which is 2.8 times higher than the average of £247 across the rest of the UK. If the Government wanted to level up the north, then take, for example, research and development—to do that today, they would need to give us £500 million to make us equal with the south.
We know that economic hardship is on its way, and the impact on West Yorkshire could be severe. The worst-case scenario estimates 58,000 jobs lost in the next year, leading to an unemployment rate of 14% and £12 billion wiped from the value of the regional economy. As someone who grew up on a council estate in Batley and on free school meals, I know the crushing frustration and boredom of poverty, and I know that children will be hyper-exposed to this downturn.
It is time for big thinking and bold ideas. Using our local leaders and local levers, there is an opportunity to transform the economic imbalance of our country. West Yorkshire already has the vibrant cities of Bradford and Leeds. They are already economic powerhouses, but with fairer investment they could deliver so much more.
It is a lucky day for the Minister, because the West Yorkshire combined authority has an economic plan to support our area out of covid-19. Ahead of the spending review, I urge the Minister please to look closely at those proposals, which call for £2 billion over the next five years to support the region’s economic and transport recovery. This includes: a £194 million fund to support specific projects to tackle the climate emergency, fund new flood-alleviation schemes, create new jobs and help people gain the skills needed for those roles; £340 million to support aspiring entrepreneurs from all backgrounds to start their own businesses; funding to improve our transport network in an integrated plan for the north, as well as short and long-term funding for the region’s bus network; devolution of adult skills funding and £465 million to support the range of measures designed to lower unemployment and increase opportunities.
It is ideas such as these, and more in the plan, that will, if backed by Westminster, help West Yorkshire to build back better. The north has great plans and ambitions for its own future. I support the argument from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central that the time for tinkering is over: extend the local growth fund, implement the UK2070 Commission’s recommendations, and invest in transport. We can level up—it is possible—we just need the Government to back us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), also a metro Mayor, for securing such a vital debate.
The levelling up of regions of the UK is a stated focus of the current Government, as has been said across this Chamber today. Coronavirus has become the first—and, I would imagine, the largest— hurdle to this agenda for us all. At this first hurdle, the Government have fallen. They have given away the fact that, at their core, they do not value people and jobs equally.
In the spring, when the Government decided to lock down—lockdown 1—under pressure from the Opposition Benches, businesses and unions, they quickly drew up plans to provide 80% of wages through the furlough scheme for people who could no longer work. However, in October, when my constituents, and many others across the north, were plunged into tier 3, along with the Liverpool city region, it was decided that workers needed only 67% of their wages. The Chancellor told us that more money could not be found, but three weeks later—hey presto!—the Treasury suddenly uncovered more cash when we went into national lockdown. Now we are back to 80%, after a sustained campaign by many people—not only parliamentarians, but businesses and trade unions. What hope can we have of levelling up when, in the middle of an international crisis, the Government send the clear signal that northerners, northern livelihoods and northern businesses mean less?
As my Labour colleagues highlighted this week, we can harness the opportunities for green growth if the Government act urgently to deliver the economic recovery that the nation requires. That must include the plan that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central eloquently put forward for levelling up growth, skills and investment in the north through the UK prosperity fund. We must also look at the Green Book reforms that have been much peddled and promised in the media. In my constituency, we also need more investment in hydrogen, which hon. Members from across the House have mentioned, and investment in Sci-Tech Daresbury, with which the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), is very familiar—he was helpful with it in the past. We need more investment with a laser-like focus to drive up prosperity and economic recovery.
We have had enough of second-rate public transport and hand-me-down rolling stock, the talk of levelling up while levelling down to rubble a multimillion-pound college in the Northwich part of my constituency, and the spin of “build, build, build” while the Government’s housing algorithm means 28% fewer houses in the north and more than 160% more houses in London. Any investment in regional economies must be matched by investment in local decision making. We need to harness it is as much as we harness the economic power that the north is capable of. The levelling up agenda must include a radical transfer of fiscal and political power. We lack not just funding and investment in the north, but the ability to shape our fortunes and make change ourselves. We cannot continue to tolerate inequality of power, which drives inequalities of prosperity across the country and the north, so I ask the Minister to consider—
I thank my very near neighbour, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for calling this important debate at a critical moment in our national story. The border between us is at one point marked by the River Dearne, where it swirls and pools into a beautiful lake in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I suspect that fewer boundaries between two constituencies in this sceptred isle are more picturesque, although if you come to view it, Mr Efford, look from the south side towards the vista in the north, because the spires of Wakefield are a delight to behold.
In the 2019 general election campaign, the Conservative party pledged to level up parts of the United Kingdom that had long been left behind, such as Yorkshire. Disparities between the north and south have long been evident. In 2004, London’s economy was the same size as the north’s. This year, according to the think-tank Onward, London’s economy is a quarter larger. Certain forms of spending occur disproportionately in London and the south-east, in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. One glaring example is travel. It is believed that it would cost £2 billion to bring per-person transport spending across England in line with London’s. That highlights the shameful chasm that splits this country between the north and south.
In an excellent report, WPI Strategy’s levelling-up index ranked the Wakefield constituency as a priority and 126th most in need of levelling up. More than any other report that I have seen thus far, it showed the extent to which, through successive Governments and failed policies—national and local, of all stripes—the north has been failed. In my constituency, financial deprivation is 27% higher than the English and Welsh average, and deprivation is 21% higher than the English average. From a commercial perspective, there are 33% more empty properties in Wakefield than the national average—evidence of the disproportionate effect that London-centric policies have on the overall economic environment.
It is promising that Her Majesty’s Government have already pledged vast sums of money to tackle regional inequalities. A £5 billion package of new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links for every region outside London has been established. The pledge to create 10 new freeports is another key means to achieve the levelling-up agenda and provide a significant boost to the entire economy, with the first of the freeports expected to be opened in 2021.
The entire basis of Her Majesty’s Government’s approach to levelling up is through providing communities with the tools to achieve prosperity, not simply handouts. There is nothing more crucial to Conservatives than supporting people in achieving their ambitions. The investment that this Government have pledged to boost the number of viable apprenticeships is testimony to Conservative values.
I am greatly encouraged by the efforts of my parliamentary colleagues in helping to level up the north, and have been particularly heartened by the co-operation shown by neighbouring northern MPs from across the House. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central and I have been working together on opening a rail link between Barnsley and Wakefield, which will not only improve interconnectivity between northern hubs, but provide economic benefits for all of Yorkshire. I hope that more projects aimed at boosting the north will be championed and allowed to reach fruition.
Once we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it is vital that we utilise the opportunity of recovery to reset our economy. To achieve that, the Government need to ensure that their commitments to the levelling-up agenda are met, and that places such as my constituency are given the tools and the infrastructure to ensure their prosperity. I am confident that I and my fellow parliamentary colleagues will hold the Government to account and ensure that they deliver on their promise to our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this extremely timely and important debate.
Even before the covid-19 crisis, the UK economy was fundamentally unbalanced. As the Institute for Public Policy Research North put it:
“The UK is more regionally divided than any comparable advanced economy.”
I have spoken before about the issues with the Green Book, and I continue to believe that the method used to assess potential projects skews investment, and therefore growth, into where it already happens, rather than where it needs to happen. The Treasury is committed to reviewing the Green Book, but I know that hon. Members will be interested to hear from the Minister the progress that it has made on that, because covid-19 makes it more urgent, given the disproportionate economic hit that the north has taken and the heavy price that people in the north are paying.
The Government’s handling of the covid crisis, especially their approach to local restrictions and regional packages of financial support, has shown that the needs of the north are still too often an afterthought—or, worse, ignored altogether. Instead of establishing a clear, transparent framework of support, proportionate to need, the Government have employed a strategy of divide and rule. Local areas, most of them in the north, were forced into unfair negotiations on entering higher levels of restrictions, but were then told that there was no negotiating to be done on the level or share of the financial support offered.
Worse still, it appears that the substantial packages of support came only when restrictions were imposed on London. For example, on 22 October, the Chancellor announced new grants for businesses in tier 2. That came the day after London entered tier 2. Areas including Bradford had been under the equivalent of tier 2 for months and months. That is yet another example of the Government’s having a deaf ear for the people of the north.
We are now in a national lockdown and the furlough scheme has been extended until March, but the Government need to set out exactly what will happen at the end of that period. They have suggested that we will go back into the tiered system, but many businesses in places such as Bradford will simply not survive if we go straight back into tier 2 or tier 3, with the current level of support.
In the short term the Government must ensure that, wherever there are restrictions after 2 December, there is a fair set of financial support packages, which take into account how long an area has been in local restrictions already. For each measure, the Government should produce an impact assessment, region by region, which includes the impact on regional inequality and the regional economy.
In the longer term, we need a fundamental rebalancing of our economy. Levelling-up rhetoric and the odd project here and there will simply not be enough. Trust is in short supply and the people of the north will hold the Government to account for their promises and their actions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. So much has rightly been said about levelling up and the need to spread wealth and opportunity more fairly across the nation. Following the pandemic, during which the north has suffered disproportionately, there will be an even greater need to support our northern economy, so I welcome Sheffield city region’s renewal action plan.
The plan identifies three key areas where support should be targeted—our people, our employers and our places. Our people certainly need support, with unemployment rising and the future job market uncertain. The key to attracting productive, high-skilled jobs is surely to ensure that we have a productive, highly skilled workforce. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. We also need to support our employers as they adapt to a new post-covid economy. I commend the Government for their ongoing support for businesses during the pandemic, and I welcome Sheffield city region’s plans to help our employers adapt to digitisation. Of course, we must support our places, particularly the infrastructure that connects us. That is why I have submitted a bid to restore the Stocksbridge to Sheffield railway line and am working with local groups to improve rural bus services. Perhaps the Minister could provide an update of what the Government are doing specifically about northern transport.
Our people, our employers and our places all need support, but when we are thinking about our northern economy it is tempting to focus on what we lack—the jobs, productivity and opportunities that we do not have. If we are talking about investment into the north, perhaps instead we should start with what we do have. Investment is about finding an opportunity, spotting potential and catalysing growth by building on existing strengths. We certainly have a lot of strengths in the north. We have strong communities with healthy intergenerational ties. People are proud of where they live and value their relationships with families, friends and neighbours. We even talk to each other on the bus. I tried it on the tube; that did not go down well.
We can build on that strength of community to unlock economic potential. We have a proud history of manufacturing, which is a strength we should build upon. Just as in the north we were at the forefront of the first industrial revolution, we have the potential to lead the fourth industrial revolution—if we focus on growing our own talent, enabling tech investment and engaging with even the youngest children to inspire them to take part in our northern industrial future.
We also have world-class universities, whose expertise we can harness to invest in our local economy. I welcome the work that Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities are already doing in that area, but we need to think more about how the universities can reach into our more rural areas to foster talent in our towns and villages.
Yes, we have been left behind in the north; yes, we need financial support to level up our economy and opportunities, but let us also acknowledge what we do have, our significant capabilities, and look to invest in our strengths.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on calling today’s debate and showing what a difference a Labour Mayor can make.
Once a powerhouse in rail and confectionery, York’s industrial past evolved into tourism, retail and hospitality—insecure, low-wage work with significant under-employment. Now our economy is in a perilous condition and is predicted to be the worst-hit place in the country. Already the high street has reached that place, with the loss of 55 retail outlets this year alone. The local enterprise partnership predicts that unemployment could rise to as much as 27% of the population.
The city itself, often mistaken as a place of affluence, has been identified as one of the most inequitable places in the country, with some of the poorest communities. When we hear the words “levelling up”, I have to say that after a decade I have not seen the evidence. If the Government believe that sites such York Central, in the heart of my constituency, are places where they can just layer on more and more luxury flats, which people in my city cannot afford, they are missing the economic opportunity for York, North Yorkshire and the whole of the north.
The devastating consequences of covid-19 have shown that the resilience is not there, which is why today’s debate is so important. There are five things and five demands: power, pounds, plans, places and people. For power, we need to see that shift in power, not just to devolved authorities. I call on the Mayor of South Yorkshire and the incoming Mayor of West Yorkshire to work with us in North Yorkshire, to ensure that Yorkshire has real power to lever in the change that we need to see. We need that power held in the north across Yorkshire, to make the difference.
With regard to pounds, we have already heard the call for money. We need real economic investment and clear, transparent data with a matrix to show how money is being invested and prioritised and bringing in the change that is needed. We need to ensure that when plans are laid, they are honoured. In the devolution plan for North Yorkshire, BioYorkshire is at the heart of the deal. We need to bring it forward now, and I ask the Minister to have words with the wider Treasury team and the Chancellor to ensure that we get that money now to invest in jobs.
When there is development, we need to prioritise places and spaces for our communities, and ultimately people. In Yorkshire, people are resourceful and resilient, but they are creative and aspirational, too. We need to ensure that when we put plans forward, they honour people’s future and give them the opportunities that others have enjoyed for so long.
Order. I will put the question at 10.59 am, to allow time for the moment of remembrance. If the Front-Bench spokespersons take 10 minutes each, it will leave a short period for Mr Jarvis to wind up, in accordance with the convention. Before that, I call Nick Fletcher.
I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing the debate. I have enjoyed working with him since becoming the MP for Don Valley, and I know how deeply he cares about ensuring that the north gets a good deal.
We have heard, and will continue to hear, Members discussing the need for the Government to offer sufficient support for the north as it is hit by the covid-19 pandemic. I wholeheartedly agree with that feeling, especially as I know full well the pain that businesses and individuals are going through in my constituency. However, I want to discuss the dire need for the Treasury to continue with its policy to reform the Green Book, as the Chancellor set out in March this year. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central has spoken at some length on that issue in the past. I believe there is scope for a true cross-party consensus on such a reform. After all, it is nothing short of a scandal that successive Governments’ failure to reform the Green Book has led to a lack of infrastructure investment in the north for decades. That needs to change, especially as the north has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. I therefore welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to have the Green Book reviewed in March, although the pandemic and the pushing back of the Budget this autumn have inevitably delayed much-needed action in this area. However, I say to the Government: do not delay.
We are witnessing seismic shifts in our economy and its functions will be changed forever as a result of the pandemic. As such, the Government should be investigating ways in which they can create a more functional economy as part of their recovery plan, which has less of a focus on London and instead sees the potential of all regions in the UK. Areas such as Doncaster have considerable potential; the skills and workforce are all there. We now need ambitious infrastructure projects in order to truly level up the region.
Members will be aware that in March 2018, the then Government revised the Green Book to take greater consideration of environmental and distributional impacts of infrastructure funding. Of course, it was a step forward that had the potential to boost economic wellbeing in the north. However, I believe the Government should be even more ambitious. Treasury Ministers should now look at how they can completely rewrite the Green Book, so that the formula no longer rewards places that already enjoy good economic growth and high productivity with big investment projects.
The over-concentration on quick economic returns has only exacerbated the north/south divide and needs to be totally reworked; otherwise, the Green Book will continue to give the same answer to any infrastructure proposal in the north—“The computer says no.” Equally, the current data on regional economic progress is not sufficient. Infrastructure spending could be made fairer by integrating into a new Green Book formula, data that better shows regional capital investment—an improvement that hon. Members have called for in the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. Congratulations to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing the debate. I have listened closely, and there have been a lot of passionate voices for the north of England, which is utterly fantastic to hear. On this occasion, there is much more that unites the Members present than divides them. I certainly wish them well in trying to get the Government to keep the promises that they have made and to go further in some instances, as Members have requested.
My biggest take from the debate is that I need to get my hands on The Yorkshire Post to see what all the fuss is about.
We do not have The Yorkshire Post in Aberdeen at the moment, but I will put a call in with a local corner shop to see whether I can get it.
This debate has been wide-ranging and has focused on people’s priorities: jobs, support and ensuring that they can live good lives. I will provide a little context as someone who also represents the north, but, as Member for Aberdeen South, it is the north-east of Scotland. The right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) mentioned that many of his constituents have continued to work throughout the pandemic, which is also true of many of my constituents. As everyone will be aware, the oil and gas industry cannot stop. If it did, we would all be in a bit of trouble—that is for sure—so my constituents have been working incredibly hard throughout the pandemic.
When the oil price plummeted, however—it absolutely crashed in early March and into April—the Government did not lift a finger. Not a single penny of sector-specific support was put behind an industry that has given more than £350 billion to the Treasury over decades. That was a disappointment not just to me, but to each and every person in Aberdeen who has a friend or family member whose job is intrinsically linked to the success of that sector.
Beyond that, we have not seen any Government investment in what comes next. We all know that oil and gas are depleting resources, but as far as I can see, there has so far been no firm commitment to hydrogen, which has been mentioned by several Members, or to carbon capture and underground storage, which is also of keen interest to Members in the north of England. The Government have not made those commitments, whether for the north of England or the north-east of Scotland. Quite frankly, that is not good enough.
The issues do not stop there. Although we are in the midst of this pandemic, we cannot escape the fact that we are just weeks away from the end of the transition period and, potentially, from leaving the European Union without a deal. My city is projected to be the hardest hit in the UK as a result of Brexit. Where is the mitigation from the Conservative Government? There has been none to date.
Beyond that, in the last couple of weeks alone, my Aberdeen constituency has been the hardest hit in job vacancies—once again, across the entire UK—with a 75% decline. The issues in the north of England that have been spoken about are ones with which I sympathise, but they are not unique. Certainly, in the north-east of Scotland, we are bearing the brunt of the inaction of this Conservative Government, decades of inaction from UK Governments and insufficient investment in the future.
I am conscious of time, so I will bring my remarks to an end by reflecting on the wider situation in Scotland. As it stands, we have no clarity on the Scottish budget. Next year, we will have to rely on the UK Government telling us how much we will have before we can spend it on our vital public services. We have no clarity on what the shared prosperity fund will look like or whether Scotland will have additional borrowing powers.
On top of that complete and utter contempt for Scotland, the Internal Market Bill seeks to take back the devolved powers that we have. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central referred to the need for further devolution in the north of England. I commend him on those remarks and wish him good luck, but he needs to be wary of getting that devolution only for the UK Government to strip back the powers that they have given.
I appreciate that I have already said that I would make my final comment, but I have one more. [Laughter.] That is true of all of us in this House at times; repetition is something we are particularly good at. I will conclude by saying, once again, that I wish Members across the House well in their fight with the Government to get the investment that they need. Be mindful of the fact that Scotland also requires that investment, but where we differ is that we have a choice. We have another route to get what we want, which is for the people of Scotland to vote for independence.
It is a pleasure to see you chair the debate, Mr Efford; I am not saying that for brownie points. This is my first time speaking as the Opposition spokesperson, and my first time speaking in a Westminster Hall debate; I am not saying that because I want extra speaking time.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for showing leadership in bringing forward the debate; this is a really important time to talk about the issues facing the north. My hon. Friend mentioned how covid has massively affected the north—the unemployment numbers are much higher, and much more support needs to be given. I share those concerns and commend him for his leadership in helping individuals locally.
I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. All Members have shown so much passion for their constituencies, and I can see at first hand the challenges that they face on such a huge scale. It is good that we have been able to have deep, meaningful conversations without getting into any political point scoring.
I will mention those Members whose comments particularly touched me, although I will not be able to mention everybody. The right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) talked about football clubs in his constituency and the need for a northern economic recovery fund. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked about the £15 million deficit that her council has. I echo her calls for infrastructure investment in rail—a point also made by the hon. Member for Leigh (James Grundy). My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) spoke passionately about the challenges in her constituency and about extending the local growth fund, which is particularly important. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) referred to the unemployment in his northern constituency and spoke powerfully about more investment in hydrogen. That point was echoed by a number of Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the economic situation in York and called for transparent data, investment, modelling, infrastructure and a fresh economic plan. We need a shift towards economic investment. Rather than just maintaining current housing developments, we need to think about the future. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) made a really strong case for his constituency, which encouraged me to visit it again. I have been there once, and I will definitely go again. He talked about the disparity between the north and the south, and how he is working collaboratively to try to address the issues.
It is crucial that attention is brought to this issue, because covid-19 will affect not just London but the whole country. We have to acknowledge that some parts of the country are suffering a lot more than others. We have already seen businesses close. I have seen the impact in my constituency and know from conversations how it has affected so many people across the country. The Government are failing to plug the gaps and address those issues—a point that a number of colleagues have echoed.
Businesses that have survived so far will struggle without extra support pumped in, and we need to think about that. We need to think about protecting local and regional economies. We need there to be local jobs, local businesses and strong economies. We need there to be local jobs, local businesses and strong local economies. That is not just so that people can earn a living and survive, but so that the different regions of the UK can thrive.
This is not just a Treasury issue, but a health issue, a tourism issue, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport issue and an environmental issue; it goes across Departments. We are facing one of the biggest challenges of our time, and we need to ensure that the north of England and all other regions that continue to be affected by covid-19 are fully supported.
As some of my colleagues mentioned, local authorities have been forced to negotiate the financial support that they will receive in tier 3. An example is the negotiations last month with Greater Manchester, which continued for 10 days—10 days when the Mayor of Greater Manchester was fighting for sufficient financial support for his constituents. Initially, the Government said to workers in Manchester that they would get only 67% of their pre-crisis income—67%. They said that 80% was impossible. Then, when the restrictions in the south were introduced this month, they changed their mind. Why was that?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet to come clean on the phantom funding formula—I am still struggling to understand it—that he is using to determine funding for areas under tier 3 restrictions. What we really need is clear, consistent and fair funding for jobs and businesses, not to be playing poker with people’s livelihoods, because people are suffering. They are really suffering and are expecting to see leadership from us so they can address the barriers they face.
I want to echo calls from hon. Members in this Chamber, such as that from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who talked about an exit plan for the national lockdown. That was echoed by other Members. The Chancellor needs to end the last-minute scramble to announce economic support measures and set out a proper plan for the next six months.
The Government need to fix test, trace and isolate, so that different parts of the UK can understand their local covid risk and find a way to recover. We need clarity—this has been echoed by a number of colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins)—on the economic support for local areas and what they can expect once lockdown finishes. The Government need to set out what they plan to do with regard to recovery, jobs and rebuilding businesses.
So many people have fallen through the gaps. Now the Government must step up, working across all parties and with local leaders, to ensure that those affected are supported. A number of people have talked about a green economy—something I support. Can the Minister confirm that the upcoming spending review will secure a green recovery across the country? The Labour party really wants to see a safety net that includes scrapping the five-week wait for universal credit, the two-child limit, the savings cap and the overall benefits cap. That would help to alleviate the financial hardship faced by many of those on the lowest incomes during this pandemic.
We need to see the Government stepping up to provide support for those who have been excluded from the start. There is still nothing beyond social security for those who have been excluded, and many of the self-employed remain cut out from social security if they have amassed small amounts of savings.
The support must be long-term and help different regions, including the north, to respond to their individual needs and support local growth. The Government must put in place changes to enable people who are off work to use the time to gain valuable skills for the future. That needs to be done urgently; we do not have time to just sit and have conversations about it. Rapid work needs to be done.
I appreciate that it will take years to rebuild crucial industries and identities if this support is not secured. The Government must act now and treat every region of the UK with the same respect for local people and local pride.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) on her first appearance as shadow Exchequer Secretary. That is a very interesting role and I wish her all the best in it. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing the debate and thank Members for their insightful contributions, many of which were delivered with great passion.
As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), the north has been a hotbed of energy, ideas, innovation and creativity for centuries, and the region continues to power our economy. Global companies are taking advantage of the rich commercial opportunities in the north-west and the north-east is gaining a formidable reputation in areas such as advanced manufacturing, energy and the life sciences, while businesses in South Yorkshire, such as materials construction firm SIG and internet firm Plusnet, are generating jobs and growth. However, the Government are acutely aware that the past months have been incredibly difficult for people across the region, as they have been for the whole UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) said, the pandemic is more than a health crisis; it is an economic crisis.
We are committed to protecting the livelihoods of people throughout the country. To that end, we have provided an unprecedented package of funding worth over £200 billion. I will briefly remind everyone of its main elements before addressing other points that Members have raised. The coronavirus job retention scheme has protected the livelihoods of 9.6 million people, many of them in the north. We have boosted welfare payments for the lowest earners and paid more than £1 billion to hundreds of thousands of people in the north through the self-employment income support scheme. That includes 63,000 grants issued in the north-east, 213,000 in the north-west and 163,000 in Yorkshire and the Humber—all to the self-employed. While thousands of northern firms have so far received £10.5 billion from the bounce back and coronavirus interruption loan schemes, we have provided in addition billions of pounds to local authorities throughout the country, including the north, to protect vital services during the pandemic.
These vast sums show that that the Government are determined to help the whole country, including the north, through this difficult period. We will be using the forthcoming spending review to make sure we put the right financial support in place to continue the fight against covid. We will also be using the spending review to drive forward the vital infrastructure projects that will aid our economic recovery from the crisis and level up the whole UK.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (James Grundy) for giving me the opportunity to mention the towns fund. We are investing £3.6 billion in the towns fund to level up our regions and I am pleased that towns such as Tyldesley in his constituency are receiving this much-needed money.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) asked about the local growth fund. She will be aware that this is a matter for the impending spending review, and it would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the outcome of that process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) spoke about investment, and I would like to give a brief recap of our infrastructure investment so far. Over the next five years, we are going to plough more than £600 billion into capital spending. That means new roads, new railways, hospitals and schools. We have brought forward £8.6 billion of this to support activity in the near term—plans that the International Monetary Fund said will address productivity, climate goals and regional inequality, which my hon. Friend is rightly concerned about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) referred to northern transport and asked what, specifically, the Government are doing about that. In the last Budget, we announced more than £27 billion—a record investment—for strategic roads over the next five years. That includes £18 million to upgrade the A61 Westwood roundabout at Tankersley in her constituency, dualling the A66 across the Pennines and the A1 from Morpeth to Ellingham in the north-east, and upgrading the M60 Simister Island in Greater Manchester. In the last Budget, we also provided a £4.2 billion investment to eight city regions across the north, including Sheffield city region, for local transport in the five-year funding settlement starting in 2022-23.
The Government remain committed to investing in improving rail connections across the north. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) will be pleased to know that we are developing an integrated rail plan so we can deliver High Speed 2 phase 2b and northern powerhouse rail more effectively alongside other transport schemes.
As well as such landmark projects, we need to improve infrastructure at a more local level, as the hon. Lady pointed out. To that end, this summer the Chancellor launched the £900 million Getting Building fund. The fund aims to boost jobs, upgrade infrastructure and support the recovery, and targets areas that are facing the biggest economic challenges because of the pandemic. I am pleased that combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships across the north of England have received more than £319 million.
As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central will know, Sheffield city region has already been awarded £33.6 million. That funding will create more than 1,000 jobs and unlock new housing, commercial and learning space. Projects include improvement work for schools and colleges, enterprise space for businesses and start-ups, new pedestrian and cycle bridges and junction improvement schemes, and new charge points for electric vehicles. That is far from an exhaustive list.
Our levelling-up agenda is not just about what or where we invest; it is about fundamentally shifting the way Government policy is formulated. The hon. Gentleman raised relocating civil servants to the north. As announced at Budget 2020, we are working with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to establish a new economic decision-making campus in the north of England to be operational by the end of this Parliament, with at least 750 roles at the new site.
We continue to build on our successful English devolution agenda. We intend to bring forward the devolution and local recovery White Paper, laying out our plans for partnering with places across the UK to build a sustainable economic recovery.
I mentioned the BioYorkshire project in my speech; it will be transformative for my constituency. It will create 4,000 jobs and upskill 25,000 people. Will the Minister look at bringing that money forward? We need investment now because of the economic crisis we face, rather than waiting two and a half years for devolution.
That is something we can certainly review. I will write to the hon. Lady to explain our position exactly.
Many core city regions in the north now have a metro Mayor and a devolution deal. We have recently agreed one such deal with West Yorkshire. It includes £1 billion of new investment and a directly elected metro Mayor, in place from May 2021. We fully implemented the Sheffield city region deal, which includes £900 million of new funding, along with substantial new devolved powers.
Many Members have expressed a desire for a northern recovery plan. This Government accelerated £8.6 billion for capital priorities to drive recovery across the country, and the upcoming spending review will continue to support the economic recovery of the north and the whole country. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) raised the Green Book. We are planning to conclude the review and publish the updated Green Book at the spending review.
Several Opposition Members have insinuated that the south was given preferential treatment over the north. That is simply not true, as anyone can see, given the unprecedented support provided. They also completely ignore other measures, such as new testing technology being piloted in Liverpool city region, which could be a game changer in tackling both the health and economic impacts of the pandemic in that area.
We realise that these are profoundly challenging times for many people and many communities in the north. The Chancellor himself is a northern MP, who is very much aware and impacted by the issues raised today. I say to hon. Members and their constituents that he is very much on their side. As I have outlined, this Government are unwaveringly focused on ensuring that people and businesses in the region and throughout the country are not only able to weather the storm of covid-19, but also benefit from an even brighter future.
I am acutely conscious that Members will want to observe the two-minute silence on Armistice Day, so I will be brief.
We have had a really constructive debate this morning. We have heard a range of articulate views from Members across the House. I think there is a clear consensus around the need to level up the north and to invest not just in our infrastructure, but in our people. I also think that there is a clear consensus that the time to do this is now.
The spending review in a couple of weeks’ time will be a major test of the Government’s commitment to level up the north. I hope that the Government take the opportunity to stop tinkering and start transforming. We in the north stand ready to be levelled up. Please do not let us down.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for the economy in the north of England.
Sitting suspended for the observation of a two-minute silence at Eleven o’clock.
Supported Accommodation: HMOs
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conversion of family homes to houses in multiple occupation for supported accommodation.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford.
I want to make it clear that I have no problem with permitted development when it comes to individual homeowners adding a conservatory, a granny flat or an extra bedroom for an unexpected addition to their family, but I cannot believe that it was ever intended to allow developers to destroy existing family homes and create unregulated hostels, solely for profit.
I represent an area that is already plagued by developers adding extra rooms to family homes left, right and centre. Their actions have lowered the number of homes available for young families in the Selly Oak area and created properties that—once the student population for whom they were originally conceived makes greater use of the rapidly expanding supply of customised accommodation—will have a value only as unregulated hostels, which are more commonly described as supported or exempt accommodation. That is a real problem in my part of Birmingham and many other towns and cities across the country.
That destruction of family homes through conversions under permitted development is bad enough, but what consideration have the Government given to how the problem is likely to be exacerbated by their latest proposals to allow the addition of up to two extra storeys on dwelling houses and purpose-built detached flats? It seems like the perfect recipe for a rash of jerry-building on a scale previously unimaginable.
When I recently consulted my constituents about the Government’s proposals for reforming our planning laws, 97% told me that they wanted more power to seek redress against developers who breach or ignore existing planning laws. They want a deterrent against rogue builders and developers who are destroying their communities. Some 93% also want a right of appeal against applications that have a significant impact on a local residential area and change of use applications that are likely to have a similar effect.
This is a very important issue. For me, the big issues are vulnerable people and supported accommodation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for something to be classified as supported accommodation, the support workers must be on the ground? Therefore, the buildings must be suitable and accessible, not simply to the vulnerable individual, but to their family and indeed the families residing in the area. There must be a point of contact to protect the vulnerable tenant and the local neighbours.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and in fact I will touch on that point later in my speech.
My constituents say that because they are fed up with seeing perfectly good family homes destroyed by those who insist on converting them with the sole intention of turning huge areas of Selly Oak into little more than dormitories. The first target for that activity is students, who are a lucrative source of income as they are short-term tenants who are unlikely to make too many demands about repairs. As I said, students are increasingly being enticed to move to more modern, customised accommodation, leaving the owners saddled with large and unattractive houses in multiple occupation.
Unsurprisingly, those owners are looking for financial pickings elsewhere, and they have found them in what we tend to call support supported or exempt accommodation. My experience is that most of that non-commissioned accommodation is anything but supportive. It has become a gold mine, enabling Government money to roll in for houses in which vulnerable people from a variety of backgrounds are packed in like sardines.
In theory, supported housing refers to any scheme in which housing and support services are provided jointly to help people live as independently as possible. The sector covers a range of accommodation types, including group homes, hostels, refuges and sheltered housing. Much of that accommodation is excellent, and the providers should be applauded, but supported housing can be provided by a wide variety of bodies, and not all are as reputable as we might hope. Exempt accommodation, as the name implies, can be provided by non-metropolitan councils, housing associations, registered charities and other bodies, and it is exempt from normal licensing requirements and checks.
Research undertaken by the Spring Housing Association, the Housing and Communities Research Group and Commonweal Housing examined non-commissioned exempt accommodation in Birmingham. It concluded that there are many thousands of individuals living in non-commissioned exempt accommodation environments that are potentially unsafe, unsuitable and not conducive to progression or growth.
One problem with exempt accommodation is that there appear to be no standards beyond the most basic. They are supposed to be buildings fit for human habitation with no hazards, and to comply with the relevant legislation regarding building maintenance and conditions. That means they can accommodate an extraordinary mix of tenants, including youngsters from the care system, people with mental health difficulties, those released from prison, and victims of domestic abuse and their children. Such people often find themselves living together in the same house.
It is not unusual to find more than one exempt property or unregulated hostel in the same street. Local residents are frequently on the receiving end of problems emanating from those unregulated hostels. Regular complaints include noise, drug use, antisocial behaviour and other unacceptable activities. Local residents are verbally assaulted if they dare to complain. My constituent witnessed a person being chased down the street by her exempt accommodation neighbour, who was wielding an iron bar.
On occasions where a property has been reported to the police or local authority, its ownership has mysteriously changed hands. The tenants are given no say over their choice of residence and frequently cannot identify the landlord—these are often desperate and vulnerable people. I was contacted by a young woman who had been advised that the property to which she had been referred was not suitable for couples with children. She was several months pregnant at the time, but none the less found herself placed in a property in need of multiple repairs. When she complained to an employee of the supported housing group responsible for the property, she and her partner were threatened with a knife.
One establishment specialised in parties during the March lockdown. There was some difficulty in establishing who owned that property, but, again, it appeared that tenants had been placed there initially in the hands of one group, only for it to be replaced by another as the complaints mounted. In Gristhorpe Road, the landlords appealed against a notice for eviction by the local council because of repeated problems. The appeal was lost, but the notice has been ignored.
In another street, there are three properties side by side. Again, ownership is unclear, but there are reports of frequent drug dealing and antisocial behaviour. Just the other evening, I learned of a group of so-called paedophile hunters who turned up to deliver their vigilante justice at a property converted to bedsits for that purpose. The police are not consulted when a property is converted with the intention of providing exempt accommodation. They, like local residents, become aware of those residing there after problems emerge.
The research to which I referred earlier concluded that there is an accountability deficit with respect to this kind of accommodation and advised strengthening the criteria for housing benefit or universal credit rent paid to providers. It also suggests that new powers might be needed for the regulator of social housing to address some of the problems.
A key issue in my area and many other parts of the country is the shortage of family homes, but I submit that the relaxation of planning laws envisaged in the current White Paper is the wrong prescription when it comes to increasing their supply. The combination of existing permitted development rules, new flexibilities and the continued disregard for planning laws is likely to only increase the problems caused by unregulated hostels.
A prevalent view in Government circles seems to be that delays in house building are a problem with the planning process. When it comes to houses, nine out of 10 planning applications receive fairly prompt approval, but approval does not equate to building. Government figures show that 2,564,000 units have received planning permission from local councils since 2009-10, but only 1.5 million homes that have received permission have been built. How do the Government account for the shortfall? Proposed changes will tip the planning process in favour of developers but ignore the problems faced by local communities. In many cases, it will result in a reduction, rather than an expansion, of much-needed family homes.
We need better regulations. We need a clearer definition of what constitutes adequate support in supported accommodation, and we need increased transparency when it comes to identifying the providers. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government needs to consider mandating the regulator of social housing, in order to develop a stronger framework for consumers and better protections across the exempt accommodation sector. Providers should be monitored regularly, and close attention paid to client-tenant feedback. I would also advocate that any property intended for use as supported accommodation should be subject to a background planning check, to ensure that it is safe and suitable for such purposes and that there is no history of breaches of planning law or unapproved extensions or building work. We also need to be clear about who is responsible for managing and supervising such accommodation, and the owner should be subject to fit and proper person checks.
We need proposals to protect existing homes, not plans to ease their conversion to HMOs or unregulated hostels. We need permitted development to be used to help people with family homes, not developers who are determined to destroy them. We need policies to encourage more affordable housing, not policies likely to reduce the supply. We need planning powers designed to support local communities and vulnerable people in need of housing, not measures that will undermine them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for securing the debate; it has touched on issues that are of deep concern to me as a relatively new Minister in the post. I have taken a keen interest in how we can ensure that there is the right of supply of supported housing for people who need it, and that the right oversight arrangements are in place to ensure that it delivers the best outcomes for such individuals. Those are priorities for the Government.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the concerns of his constituents around some of the challenges presented to them when faced with a large number of properties that they believe are managed incorrectly. It is shocking to hear the stories of some his constituents this year. As he touched on, supported housing is critical in providing vulnerable individuals with the support that they need to live as independently as possible. For some, it is a transitional arrangement whereby short-term accommodation provides them with support and equips with the tools and skills that they need to move on, to live independently and to thrive in the community.
The Government are committed to ensuring high standards across all provisions of supported housing. That means delivering high-quality accommodation and support for residents, but also value for money for the taxpayer. We know that insufficient support and poor-quality accommodation leads to poor outcomes for individuals. That is unacceptable, and it fits with what the hon. Gentleman said. Although the vast majority of the sectors deliver high-quality provision and positive outcomes for individuals, I am aware of the issues surrounding poor-quality supported housing in some areas. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about supporting housing schemes in his constituency and others, where there are particular questions about the sufficiency and ownership of the support provided.
Such properties often house individuals with multiple complex needs who are extremely vulnerable. They may have experienced homelessness, rough sleeping, drug and alcohol dependency, involvement with the criminal justice system, poor mental health, or a combination of those factors. It is vital that they get the support they need to live and thrive independently.
The hon. Gentleman raised serious and valid issues—as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place—of which the Government are well aware. We are actively working to improve quality and oversight across the whole supported housing sector to ensure that all schemes meet the high standards set by most providers to improve the homes that people live in, so that the support those people receive is tailored to their needs and schemes provide good value.
Supported housing schemes should be appropriately planned and placed in the right locations within communities. That helps to foster good relationships between local residents and residents of the supported housing. I understand that lack of planning can cause issues that are detrimental to the cohesion of the community, such as antisocial behaviour. Social landlords are required by the Regulator of Social Housing to work in partnership with other agencies to prevent and tackle antisocial behaviour in neighbourhoods where they own homes. Collaboration between local partners and the relevant powers, including the council, police and landlords, is essential for tackling and solving the problem of antisocial behaviour, but it is right that decisions are taken locally.
The vast majority of supported housing providers are legitimate, ethical landlords who provide high-quality accommodation and support to vulnerable people. Most supported housing providers are registered providers, which means that they are registered with and subject to regulation by the Regulator of Social Housing, including on governance, financial viability, quality and value for money. The Government also have regulations in place to oversee the safety and management of HMOs and to monitor their proliferation in certain areas.
Local authorities already have powers, through the planning system, to limit the number of HMOs—Birmingham City Council has already used an article 4 order to restrict the development of new HMOs across the whole city—ensuring that all such properties will now be consulted on locally and that the view of neighbours and local communities are taken into account in the decision-making process.
HMO licensing was extended on 1 October 2008 alongside the minimum size for bedrooms, which, for a single adult, must be a space greater than 6.51 square metres. Through the Housing and Planning Act 2016, we are determined to crack down on rogue landlords who cause misery to their tenants and put their health and safety at risk. We have put measures in place to make it easier for local authorities to tackle rogue landlords effectively by introducing civil penalties of up to £30,000 and rent payment orders for a wide range of offences. Banning orders and the database of rogue landlords are an important part of the package to help local authorities to tackle the worst offenders.
Although the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak raised undoubtedly serious issues, I cannot stress enough that they relate to only a very small part of the sector. Introducing over-hasty regulations to control that very small part of the sector may have unintended consequences for the rest of it, particularly smaller providers. Being regulated by a national body and the local council could prove to be far too onerous, and there could be consequences for much-needed supply if good providers exit the market. The Government are committed to ending rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. Penalising good-quality providers, who make up the vast majority of the sector, could damage critical progress towards that aim.
The Government already have a programme of work in train on the regulation and oversight of supported housing, and it is right that we pursue that to thoroughly test ideas. My Department, which has been working jointly with the Department for Work and Pensions to drive improvements in oversight and regulation of supported housing, recently made two announcements on the progress of that work. First, we have published a national statement of expectations for supported housing, setting out the Government’s vision for achieving the best quality accommodation to meet local needs. That emphasises the importance of strategic planning in understanding and managing local need for and supply of supported housing, and empowering local authorities to develop a sustainable longer term plan to meet the needs of residents. The national statement of expectations also mentions the need for community cohesion and proper engagement with residents. I strongly support that.
I understand the Minister’s point about being concerned about over-hasty regulation, but as she progresses this work, will she look at whether there is a role for the Regulator of Social Housing in relation to exempt accommodation, and at the easy access that landlords have to Government funds for exempt accommodation? Those seem to be two difficulties at the moment.
Absolutely. I will be looking at all the options that are available. There is a fine balancing act when it comes to decisions or regulations that we make. However, the hon. Gentleman will know of one of the pieces of work that we have already initiated—the £3.1 million of funding for five local authority areas to test approaches to improving quality and oversight in the housing sector. That will enable us to get data, evidence and best practice to test some of the work. That is ongoing work but we hope that the pilots will influence some of it.
There are a number of objectives for the pilots. Undertaking inspection and enforcement work through a multidisciplinary team will drive up standards in accommodation and send a clear signal to providers about our intentions and expectations for supported housing schemes. Also, through a review of the care and support provided at the properties, again through the use of multidisciplinary teams, councils will ensure that people get the support that they need and is appropriate to them. I understand and take the hon. Gentleman’s point about oversight of support and its quality.
Finally, in relation to the delivery of a comprehensive assessment of local need for and supply of supported housing, improved oversight of local provision will empower local areas and enable them to plan strategically to meet current and projected demand. I am pleased to say that, as I have outlined, the hon. Gentleman already has one of the schemes within his local authority, Birmingham City Council. We hope that that will drive up the quality of support, in addition to a focus on managing the antisocial behaviour aspect of supported housing in Birmingham. My officials are working closely with the council to monitor progress and provide support.
I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about achieving the best outcomes for the individuals in question, and have taken on board issues that he has raised about the impact, particularly in his constituency. I thank him very much and look forward to engaging and working with him as we progress the measures within Government to improve quality and oversight. I am grateful to have had this debate today.
Question put and agreed to.
Family Visits in Health and Social Care Settings: Covid-19
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and then place those materials in the bin. They should also respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe, and they can speak only if they are on the call list—that applies even if debates are undersubscribed.
Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the list. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-up speeches. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken—that is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that if there are lots of speakers, doing so might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to the horseshoe.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered family visit access in health and social care settings during the covid-19 outbreak.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. My main focus in speaking today is to highlight the need for improved patient advocacy and adult safeguarding via visitation rights for family members of working-age disabled adults in full-time residential care, including those admitted to hospital. Such patients often cannot speak for themselves and need additional access to family members who are able to advocate and communicate on their behalf.
I applied for the debate because of an awful situation of a mother in my constituency—a mother, much like me or any hon. Member present, who has had to endure a situation that I hope no mother has to face in the future. She is a teacher, a local community advocate, a single mother and someone who has tirelessly fought for her child’s care needs. She was prevented from caring for her son, Jamie, and forced to abandon him to a care home that did not live up to its name. At 21 years old and with no visitors, he was left isolated, bewildered and depressed, often calling out in anguish, “I want my mum. I want my mum.”
Jamie was a warm and affectionate young man who loved touch, kinaesthetic learning and being with people. His mother was denied access to her child, and I cannot begin to imagine what it must have felt like, knowing that her son was denied the care of his family for months—denied a hug, denied the comfort of a warm hand holding his, and denied dignity in his suffering. As a mother, my constituent felt powerless but sure that, had she been able to see him, she would have identified his decline and been able to intervene.
Underfed, Jamie wasted away, getting thinner and thinner in his confusion and isolation. Separated from those he loved and trusted, with multiple bedsores and open wounds left untreated, he began to withdraw within himself and into a catatonic state of unresponsiveness—a young adult with complex disabilities and care needs, left to suffer in silence. By the time his mother was able to see him, it was too late. She reflected on the lack of status that she felt as a mother, which she felt was shared by many family members. It felt to her as though families are often seen as a nuisance or even a threat, and they are sidelined and ignored by some in adult care homes. This mother also felt strongly that some adult care homes do not embrace the care of the whole person.
Jamie entered full-time care at age 13. As a child in a care setting, it was wonderful. The care was holistic and helped support Jamie in every aspect of his daily life and learning. He thrived in that environment, but the change came when he moved into adult social care. Many adult care homes are excellent and highly skilled in supporting adults with complex disabilities, but others—it might be a very small minority—seem reluctant to work with families or to provide adequate levels of transparency and care. It is an ongoing problem, which existed well before the covid pandemic; that has only highlighted these issues.
Disallowing visits or video links that allow families to see and interact with patients takes away a level of scrutiny that makes those already vulnerable chronically so. Depriving vulnerable working-age disabled adults who have complex disabilities and needs, especially those who already struggle with communication, of the love and support of their families is inhumane and cruel. As a society, we lessen our dignity and humanity when we allow our loved ones to perish alone and to wither away and give up on life. Jamie had no voice, so I am here today to speak on his behalf, and on behalf of his mother and grandmother, to make sure that his story is remembered and that other deaths can be prevented this winter.
I welcome the Government’s support for care homes and adult social care during the pandemic and I thank the Minister for reaching out to me the moment that I applied for this debate. She has been incredibly helpful and I thank her for her active participation in finding a solution and justice in Jamie’s case. I thank the Government for their care home support package in March that announced £1.6 billion funding for local government and £1.3 billion to go to the NHS and social care. In April, a further £1.6 billion was announced for local government and for the adult social care action plan and, in September 2020, the Government published “Adult social care: our COVID-19 winter plan 2020 to 2021”, which was shaped and recommended by the adult social care taskforce. The plan set out key elements of national support available for the social care sector for winter 2020; I welcome everything that was outlined in it.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s announcement on visiting guidelines from 5 November. Allowing visitation is so important for patient care, advocacy, safeguarding and mental wellbeing, particularly for disabled vulnerable patients who may not be able to advocate for their own care needs. Allowing family members to visit could save many lives during the winter months and prevent other vulnerable disabled patients from being neglected, abused and left to suffer and die in silence, while restoring a level of compassion, empathy and humanity to patient care both in hospital and in the care home setting.
Now that we are in the second lockdown I ask the Minister and others to consider what lessons we have learned from the excess deaths in care homes and from the adult safeguarding issues raised during the first lockdown. I understand that the main goal of the Department of Health and Social Care is to protect the NHS, particularly during the winter months, but we also need to save the lives of the vulnerable disabled by allowing each patient to have a family member with them as their advocate and carer. That would be aided by the improvement in mass testing in the coming months and the availability of personal protective equipment. This cohort needs a special exemption. A carer would allow for lives to be saved and, with mass testing and the arrival of a vaccine, that could help safeguard many other lives in the future.
If the NHS reaches capacity, as it often does in the peak winter months of January and February, another alternative would be for a family member or carer of the vulnerable patient to care for them directly in a home, a hospital or care home setting. A family member or loved one can also help with caring for the vulnerable person at home, further reducing the burden of care to the NHS. Many of these family members are able-bodied adults who are at a lower risk of developing serious health problems from covid-19 transmission. We also have to allow people to care for those they love.
I welcome the Government’s announcement in the winter care plan that local authorities should work with social care services to reopen safely, especially day services and respite services. Reopening such day centres would allow families to manage a disabled loved one’s care more effectively, while perhaps reducing the need for full-time residential care and lightening the burden on full-time carers who do not have access to vital daycare facilities. The Relatives and Residents Association, which is an advocacy group, reported that helpline callers had been concerned about the standard of care falling as already stretched services face staff shortages and burn-out. Stopping visits from family and friends restricts the ability for oversight and advocacy.
One of the callers to the association’s helpline said that his wife
“starved herself to death. Her death was due to the pandemic but she did not die from the virus itself. It wasn’t coronavirus—it was death due to a refusal to eat. She was isolated and alone.”
Perhaps the Minister could provide clarity as to whether families are now permitted to remove their loved ones from residential care home settings, and what the protocol for that would be, moving forward.
Jamie’s care home was in a neighbouring county, but his mother and grandmother lived in my constituency. Buckinghamshire County Council and the NHS are excellent and I worked extremely closely with them during the pandemic and the first lockdown to protect care homes and elderly residents, and to reduce the rate of transmission and death in care homes. I was proud of the work that we all did to protect the elderly in South Bucks.
However, the issue of working-age adults with complex disabilities in residential care facilities completely passed me by in the first lockdown, because many of my residents had additional needs and were at home. They were reliant on day centres and respite care. That was the issue I was seeing, not the issue of the long-term residential care crisis.
I did not learn about Jamie’s treatment during lockdown until the week before his death, when it was too late for me to help. That is why I am raising the matter now. This patient cohort cannot speak or advocate for their own care. They require extensive care and support from care home and hospital staff, and could run the greatest risk of being sidelined during a spike in hospital admissions, when staff resources are spread more thinly and they have to prioritise patient care.
Because these patients require the most care it is important that they have a family member who can be with them as their patient advocate and carer, to help ensure that they make it through these winter months. I welcome the Government’s announcement of a vaccine and I know that, with the highlighting of safeguarding, we can get through these winter months, and that Jamie’s memory will not be forgotten.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this debate on such a hugely important topic.
Throughout the pandemic I have received devastating correspondence from my constituents, as I imagine all Members have, regarding the inability to see their loved ones in care homes. Although the restrictions placed on care homes are for the protection of the most vulnerable and their carers, the loneliness and isolation that people feel, especially those with dementia, has increased due to covid-19 preventing them from seeing their family and friends.
Although more needs to be done for residents with dementia and other diseases, I welcome the guidance that was provided by the Government last week, which sets out plans on how our care home residents and their families can be reunited. For areas such as mine that have experienced heightened restrictions for more than three months, the measures will help tackle the mental health and wellbeing of care home residents and reunite families.
Prior to those tougher restrictions being imposed in July, the images of family members being able to see one another again were truly heartwarming. The joy in the faces of residents and their families will stay with me for a long time. To have that taken away seems not only heartbreaking but cruel. I truly sympathise with all families and care workers who have had to endure that hardship.
Some care homes in my constituency are extremely limited as to what contact between families they can provide, with either limited window space for window meetings or limited telephones to speak to family members. One care home, which I will not name, has only one phone for residents, and that frequently does not work or is not answered.
Along with all Members, I agree that we need to tackle this pandemic but we also need to be fair in tackling it. I fear that is one factor that we are forgetting. It is more important than ever to use technology to help mitigate some of those issues, but a lack of understanding of how to use technology, on the part of residents and even staff, has prevented it from being fully utilised. What is being done further to mitigate those issues?
There is no greater need than to spend time with one’s loved ones. That need is even stronger for our most vulnerable and we must go further in addressing that need. The Government’s announcement last week was a big step in the right direction, but we need to carry on our journey to tackle the issues of loneliness and mental health.
I will put on the record my thanks to all the care workers across Radcliffe, Prestwich and Whitefield for the immense work that they have undertaken during the pandemic, for the work that they continue to undertake, and for the hardship that they must endure in having to deal with the frustrations and heartbreak that they see on a daily basis.
I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing the debate and I congratulate her on her moving speech on Jamie’s behalf. I lived in her constituency through my teens, and in fact I stood against her predecessor a long time ago. My mother is still one of her constituents. She is living very much independently, but maybe one day I will need to go to the hon. Member for help with my mother regarding the issue that we are debating today.
I will also place on the record my thanks to those working in the social care sector. Their courageous work during the pandemic, delivering quality care in horrendously difficult circumstances, has not gone unnoticed. The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but for those residing in care homes, or for those with loved ones living in them, it has been nightmarish. Over 40% of covid-19 deaths have taken place in care homes—more than 26,000 deaths. The combination of fear and isolation, coupled with a dearth of familiar emotional support, is creating a mental health crisis in our care home settings.
Recently, I received this letter from a constituent:
“Dear Alex, my letter is concerning my bedbound 81-year-old mother. who is currently resident at a care home in Leeds North West. My mother, Patricia, has been a resident for many years. Along with many families, we had no contact with mum over the course of the pandemic, apart from a very short video, which lasted around a minute, sent when requested at desperation in the early months of the pandemic.
We requested that should a window room become available, could mum be moved, so we could at least visit her from a safe distance without entering the premises. Six weeks ago, a room did become available and we have been visiting mum at a window since. Today, however, I was contacted by the care home manager to inform me that we can no longer visit mum.
We are devastated that our family is being so cruelly torn apart. I thought that, as a strong woman, I would be able to deal with the mental impact, but it is destructive. Surely, there are humane options which can keep families together.”
I am thankful to the Minister and to the Government that guidance has now been released that says visiting through screens or windows is allowed, which is welcome news for my constituent. However, for many residents with dementia or other cognitive impairments, the distress that would cause makes it untenable. Similarly, the British winter makes outdoor visits impractical for older and vulnerable visitors.
In addition, the cost of implementing measures that have been suggested to create environments that are safe from covid-19 are to be met by care providers. There is no commitment of additional money, excluding the infection control fund, to cover the costs associated with purchasing screens or visiting pods. Government shortcomings will doubtless result in convenient finger-pointing at individual care homes, which are unable to front the additional costs for safe visiting.
We also need to give family members the same rights as key workers, who are afforded regular access to testing and trained to wear personal protective equipment. The Government must know that that is the best way forward, as they promised a pilot scheme on those lines, but that was nearly a month ago and no date for the pilot has been forthcoming. I look forward to hearing the Minister say when we can expect to see that pilot begin.
The wellbeing of residents must be placed at the forefront of the Government’s plans. That should include a recognition of the important role that social workers play in facilitating providers’ and residents’ decision making about visits. Social workers must be recognised as professional visitors, to ensure that residents’ views and wishes are central to decision making about visits, and to support care providers to explore thoroughly rights and risks alongside all the other factors that must be considered in making bespoke visiting arrangements.
Practice is different across the care sector. Hospices such as the Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice in my constituency have given social workers access, unlike many care homes, which have denied them access. Social workers are mentioned briefly in the guidance issued for lockdown, which states:
“Social workers can assist with individual risk assessments, for visits, and can advise on decision-making where the person in question lacks capacity to make the decision themselves.”
But social workers do so much more, and are pivotal in promoting strengths-based human rights models of good practice. Social workers undertake a variety of statutory and non-statutory functions on behalf of public bodies. Recognition of the importance of safe access to care and health settings for social workers as professional visitors is essential. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on this matter.
Residents, staff and the families of those in care homes have been failed by this Government since the beginning of the pandemic. From woefully inadequate PPE—I had to deliver PPE myself to care settings—to inadequate testing, I am afraid that the social care sector has been treated with contempt. On top of a decade of underfunding, that has created a crisis within a crisis that is entirely of the Government’s own making.
Beyond the pandemic, long-term reform of the social care system is urgently needed. But for now, at the very least families should be able to see their loved ones, so I urge the Minister for Care to press forward with the pilot, to ensure that it begins as quickly and safely as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair in this important debate, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing it and for sharing the harrowing story of Jamie from her constituency. It will stay with every single person who heard it.
I will begin my remarks, as others have done, by sharing a passage from a letter from a constituent called Penny Hutchinson. Her mother, Yvonne, is living with dementia in a care home in Halifax. She said: “Imagine that you had not seen your mum for eight months because she has been locked away in isolation with no meaningful family contact. Then imagine the huge feeling of relief and elation as restrictions are lifted and the vulnerable are told they no longer need to shield. Now imagine the feeling of complete desolation when you discover that those freedoms and privileges don’t apply to your mum and dad. Add to that the overwhelming feeling of guilt when you try to explain to your loved one why you can’t come in to see her, hold her hand or give her a hug, and that there is no end in sight.” I sent that letter on to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care because it said more than I could have done on her behalf.
Like Penny’s mum, more than 70% of people living in care homes have a form of dementia. Visits from family members have a really important part to play in the cognitive state of those residents, but instead of being able to be close to loved ones at this anxious time, the best they can hope for is a socially distanced meeting behind plexiglass or outside in this weather. Although that is well intentioned, it can often cause confusion and distress.
Efforts to protect those who are older and clinically vulnerable by managing contact diligently will still of course have to be a priority in the coming weeks as we strive to avoid outbreaks in care homes and manage them where they have occurred. The Alzheimer’s Society has been keen to make it clear that for those with dementia, limiting visits in that way can lead to their symptoms increasing and their condition deteriorating more rapidly, ultimately leading to premature death, so a rebalancing of those risks is required.
I want to put on the record my thanks to Calderdale’s director of public health, Debs Harkins, who has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic alongside her colleagues, including the director of adult services and wellbeing, Iain Baines. They have both met Penny and others to try to make progress.
Before I move on to the solutions, I want to point out that when I received a response to Penny’s letter from the Minister’s civil servants, it said: “The Government’s guidance for visiting arrangements for care homes published on 22 July allows for local decision making based on the assessment of the director of public health and the care provider. Further details can be found at the gov.uk website by searching for ‘visiting care homes during coronavirus’.”
I followed that link, and at the time it stressed that:
“For local areas with a high local COVID alert level (high risk or very high risk)”—
Halifax has been in tier 2 equivalent restrictions since July—
“visiting should be limited to exceptional circumstances only”,
such as end-of-life care. That gives no discretion for directors of public health, and puts them in an impossible position with family members desperate to see loved ones. Some clarity on decision making for visits would be incredibly welcome.
I imagine that everybody in this debate feels that the situation is far from acceptable—we have heard from many hon. Members already—so what would make a difference? I have been pleased to see news this week of mass testing, rapid testing and vaccines being developed at pace. We must ensure that residents of care homes, those working in care homes and designated family members are the first in line to access them as they become available. Treating designated family members as key workers would be a logical step. It would not overwhelm the system and would ease the distress of so many care home residents and their families.
We all know that social care workers have been among the many heroes of this crisis. They have carried themselves with dignity, honour and respect in the face of unimaginable pressures. However, as they tell us, not even they can provide full care to their residents without the support of family members. For those with dementia, family visits are not privileges or luxuries but a vital part of their care and treatment. Therefore, it seems appropriate to consider measures such as this—the shadow Minister has also been calling for it—which would ease the considerable pressures that social care workers have been placed under and the mental anguish faced by separated families. We must work together to reach a better settlement for care home staff, residents and their family members.
When this is all over, we will bring the economy back from the brink, but there will be some opportunities that we will never get again. Let us not regret not doing everything possible when we had the chance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I offer sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this vital debate.
It is clear that many MPs have been contacted by worried—often terrified—constituents whose parents, children, relatives or friends are in care homes. I for one have felt utterly heartbroken listening to some of them describing the fear and isolation that they know their loved ones are experiencing, and I, too, have an example—one of many. The mother of my constituent Steph is in a care home. Steph is one of five children and for a long time they have each spent hours on end with their mother. They lovingly held her hands, combed her hair, remembered stories together and reminisced about the past. They were not just visiting their mum; they were providing essential care.
Eight months on from the arrival of coronavirus, Steph still cannot touch her mum. People like her all over the country cannot hug their mothers or fathers, children, siblings or friends. They still cannot hold their hands to comfort or reassure them. All that they can do is watch their often rapid decline, for just half an hour at a time, from a distance—perhaps from a structure in a garden, or sometimes through a closed window, or maybe a screen if they are lucky. Like Steph’s mum those vulnerable people are struggling to understand why their children and families cannot be with them. An entire lifetime of love and closeness is ripped away from them and torn apart. For every person affected, every single passing day is a precious day lost.
Now, as winter approaches and, predictably, we are in the second wave, there are still no guidelines in place to protect loved ones from dying not only in loneliness and isolation, but from it. The Government like to talk up their ambition in many other areas. We have all heard of Operation Moonshot, Nightingale hospitals and world-beating apps, but there has been barely a whisper about allowing family carers to be with their loved ones. The announcement of a trial period was welcome, but for many people it created an even greater desperation, because they could not see any end in sight for the enforced separation.
Last week I co-ordinated a group of 40 MPs from across the House who wrote to the Secretary of State with a real plan. It would allow a designated family or friend carer to have the same key worker status as someone paid to work in a care home. They would have the same access to tests and PPE, and the same access to their loved ones. A number of groups have been calling for various measures of that kind for some time. They include the National Care Forum, Age UK, One Dementia Voice and the British Association of Social Workers. We are pleased to give them and the people they represent our full backing and a strong voice today.
I want to be clear: care workers have been magnificent throughout the pandemic, but the care that our families give is no less important for health and wellbeing. The cruel 30-minute time limit on visits must be scrapped, and care homes must have protection from legal action if covid is introduced to a home by a designated visitor. Those are the same protections that have been agreed for the NHS. Time is running out. With every day that passes, isolation, loneliness and deterioration grow for many of the most vulnerable in society, and friends and family carers experience more anguish. They pass another day of separation from their loved ones as they slip away faster, and more painfully, than they should.
It is often said that the true test of a country is how it treats its most vulnerable. For as long as the Government hold out and do not implement the plan I have described, they are failing that test, and failing the thousands of families who experience anguish every single precious day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this vital debate and opening it so well. I also want to join in with the calls of thanks to the staff across the social care sector who have worked so hard for residents across the country. I send my thoughts and best wishes to all the residents, and their families and friends.
East Sussex has the highest proportion of care homes in the south-east, and yet our county has the lowest covid rate. That suggests that our care homes have stood up to the challenge and done a great job, despite the enormous task that was in front of them.
The challenge before us now is as follows: keeping vulnerable people safe without taking away their right to live their years in dignity, and in the company of family and friends. I have been helped by many residents across my constituency to put that dilemma into words. A contribution from Heathfield sums it up:
“In the care home where my partner resides, they allow two half-hour visiting slots a day. There are forty residents, that will give each resident one half-hour visit every ten days, even so it is still not enough. On each visit the loved one sits at one end of a room, the visitor at the opposite end and the carer in between…My partner’s mental health has remarkably deteriorated in the last few months, apathy and depression are more dominant on each visit. Every time we visit she seems more and more withdrawn and most likely feels abandoned by her loved ones because of the limited visiting.”
Last week, the Government issued revised guidance for visiting arrangements in care homes, to ensure safe access and visits by families and loved ones. The guidance proposed a range of options to create covid-19-secure care home environments and visits, including visits taking place outside and the installation of wall-to-ceiling screens.
I recognise that we have now liberated care home visits, compared with the last lockdown. I also recognise the dilemma for the Minister, because she has been a target for some. We try to do the right thing by residents, and yet here we are saying, “Open up!” If we do so, we need to protect the Minister—the onus, if we take more risk, is based on a cross-party decision.
I hope I am not overdramatising, but some of the measures read to me as more akin to a prison visit than a care home visit. They are also costly, in a system that is already financially constrained. Furthermore, the measures could be avoided with the introduction of testing for designated family and friends.
I want the Government to consider the following seven measures: regular testing for at least one designated family member and all visiting health professionals; the vaccine—when ready, as we hope it will be—to be prioritised for care home residents, and given to the designated family member and the staff of the care setting when given to the resident; a recognition that with testing and PPE, safe and closer contact can be permitted, and that we have learned from the devastating impact of the first lockdown; additional funding to support care providers to create covid-19-secure environments to enable members of the wider family to visit; national and local monitoring, and a reporting process for any blanket decision to ban visits; an acceptance that virtual technology, as good as it is, cannot replace human in-person interaction; and, finally, for providers at a local level actively to promote the safe visits.
This Friday, I will partake in my regular care home quiz with the residents at Ardath in Bexhill. Sadly, we cannot be physically together, but will join on Zoom. Our quiz master, the remarkable resident Georgie Farrow, always sets a tough challenge for me and brings laughter to the room. That residential care setting, like many others I visit, demonstrates the love, fun and spirit that can exist. It is vital that we do not lose that ethos while rightly seeking to keep residents safe.
We should not shy away from the real danger. In seeking to protect vulnerable residents, we might not only diminish their quality of life, but end up prematurely ending it altogether. The ingredients of love, care and protection, which loved ones deliver, are vital to keep vulnerable people alive and with a life. On that note, I very much hope that the Government and all of us, across parties, will work together as one to give more life into our care homes.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this important debate.
One of the harshest features of the restrictions that we introduced many months ago to stop the spread of covid has been for our constituents not to be able to visit their loved ones in care homes. I have received—as I am sure has every colleague in this place—many letters expressing the real frustration and angst that they feel because of the restrictions that we have introduced. The updated guidance released last week is welcome, and it attempts to address some of the concerns, but we need to bring an element of humanity and empathy to the guidance. I know that many in this room, and our constituents, will feel that something has gone wrong over the last few months.
I want to talk briefly about a family in my constituency whose situation is very similar to those already raised by other Members. There is a young man whose family live in my Warrington South constituency, but his care home is in Greater Manchester. While we did not have any restrictions in Warrington, he was existing under restrictions in Greater Manchester, and different approaches were being taken. I tried many, many times to speak to the director of public health in Greater Manchester about the issues facing this family. I must say, it was a real nightmare to communicate across different county boundaries and to try to have a one-to-one conversation with someone from the care home and with the people regulating that care home.
The young man did not get to see his parents for about five months in total. That is simply wrong. Not only did the young man not get to see his mum and dad, but mum and dad did not get to see their son. I can only imagine how awful it would be, as a dad, not to see my son for that length of time. I think we do need to think again about the way we have interpreted some of these rules.
I want to recognise—we cannot forget it—how badly the first wave hit care homes. Therefore, everything I have just said is tempered against the fact that far too many elderly residents passed away as a result of covid-19. Some of the most awful conversations I have had in the past 12 months were with family members—daughters, sons, wives and husbands—who had lost a loved one in a care home.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there were around 66,000 deaths of care home residents, and around 19,500 were covid-related. That means around 30% of all deaths in care homes were related to covid-19. Therefore, it is no surprise that we have had to put measures into place to try to protect residents in care homes, but they are not prisons; they are care homes—the clue is in the word “care”. Care is not just about protecting someone from a virus, but about ensuring that their mental health is maintained.
At the same time, we all know that being able to offer more visits will help everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. That is why we need to look further than the visits that are being carried out today. We need to be able to define the importance of the therapeutic impact that visits can have or, equally, how the suspension of visiting can damage the mental health of individuals and their families.
Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease was the most common pre-existing condition found among those people who sadly died as a result of covid-19 within care homes—around 50% of all deaths. For people who suffer with dementia, a lack of social contact not only is bad for their mental health, but has a significant impact on the progression of that dementia. This is a real priority for those who care for people suffering with dementia. Family and friends must play a significant role in the care of those people. Interpreting their needs and providing that personal care is incredibly important, but also very challenging in very difficult circumstances.
I welcome the announcement of a pilot scheme to enable informal carers to be given key worker status, and I am looking forward to the Minister giving us more details on that. The introduction of the lateral flow rapid tests for Warrington—10,000 being given to Warrington this week—is very welcome. I am encouraging the director of public health in Warrington to make sure that she is in touch with care homes, to ensure that those family members who need to get into care homes can get those frequent tests.
I will finish with a brief mention of a constituent who wrote to me earlier this week—a gentleman who, I think it is fair to say, is in his mature stage of life—to say that he had purchased a piece of technology and had installed it in a window in his wife’s care home. He told me that it was similar to the system used in a post office, with a microphone and a speaker, and it made a world of difference to him and his wife. He could now do a visit in complete safety, with no risk whatsoever. The window remains sealed, but he does not have to shout or practise sign language. He has been able to share his ideas with other people in the care home, and other visitors and relatives have taken on board his ideas and introduced them in other care homes.
I finish by paying tribute, and recording my thanks, to those who work in care homes in Warrington South. They have done an incredible job over the last 12 months. I also thank the members of the social care team in Warrington who look after elderly residents in their own homes by going into a home every day to ensure that they are well cared for.
There are many issues that we need to tackle for families and people in care, and I hope the Minister can take back to the Department some of the things that we have talked about today, so that it can come forward with some more ideas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I should say to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) that I was really moved by the way she opened the debate, particularly the way she described Jamie’s story. It will be imprinted on my mind and, I am sure, on the minds of all hon. Members present.
When things do not add up, I ask questions. During the first lockdown, I had to jump through hoops just to obtain data to find out what was actually happening in our care homes. I spoke to managers, the local authority, relatives, staff and whistleblowers, then I put the jigsaw together. In the vast majority of care homes, residents were kept safe, and I thank the staff for their extraordinary work and for the ends that they went to in order to care for the residents. However, some care homes stood out. In the first period, around half of covid-related deaths in York were in care homes. Discharging patients into care homes—something I pleaded with the local authority not to do—seeded the infection. It then spread with the lack of PPE and no training in barrier nursing.
However, there was another conclusion to my inquiry: care homes became closed environments. One thing that we know about closed environments is that they are also unsafe. We have heard so many times in this place about the bitter experience of that. The plethora of informal inspectors were not there—GPs, community pharmacists and other professionals. They did not go in and see for themselves. Families did not go in either.
Families notice things. They notice if mum cannot reach a cup of tea, is looking unwell, has not eaten or is confused, and they notice if dad is slightly more unsteady on his feet, upset or withdrawn. But they were not there do that. However, one family noticed the eerie silence at one care home. Having been told that everything was fine, they learned that 15 people had died over a fortnight. They were not informed of the risk, only that the deaths had occurred. By the time it came to their deathbed visits, of course, it was all too late. During a deathbed visit to their mum, who had been fine, they found her emaciated, as if she had not eaten since their last visit in previous weeks. On another visit, they noticed that mum’s mobile was uncharged. On another, she had a fractured pelvis on discharge. That is why visits must occur; if they do not, these things go unnoticed.
It was whistleblowers who informed me that, at one care home, people contracted covid but their death certificates with marked with their underlying health condition. Covid was not put on the death certificate, because there were fears of reputational damage to the care home. The staff’s concerns were dismissed, and they were bullied. Even when the CQC came at my calling, they were shifted out of sight or moved to other shifts. Families would have noticed such issues.
Families must be proactively communicated with at all times and supplied with the information that they need to make care choices. As one relative said,
“We would have brought mum home had I known there was covid. It took her life.”
I am sure we were all distressed to see a nurse who went to take her 97-year-old mum home being arrested for doing what any of us would do in those circumstances. Families must visit and must have the choice where care is provided.
A constituent wrote to me this week, having celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary in September. He and his wife are both in their 80s and were told they could not visit. He said:
“When your whole existence is dedicated to the love you have for one another, it tells you something is very wrong.”
A distressed daughter told me this week that her father “couldn’t visit mum”. What are we doing to people? This is just so wrong. People are separated because our care system does not allow spouses to join their life partners unless they pay extortionate fees that they cannot afford.
I urge the Minister to look at that issue in the care sector. Not only must we give choice around visiting, but it must become a human right for older people. Visits can be facilitated with dedication and focus, PPE supply, and lateral flow testing to open up more opportunities and create safe spaces. We need to ensure that indemnity insurance does not prohibit the care home sector from pursuing that.
On the vaccine, the most vulnerable and those wishing to visit them must be prioritised. We must also ensure that there are clear and easy routes for staff, residents and relatives to raise any concerns they may have. We all know that we need to look into the eyes of those we love—hold them, and know that they are safe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. This debate matters so much to so many people. Like colleagues, I have been touched by correspondence and have taken to heart so many of the difficult personal circumstances that my constituents have been through in recent months. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) on securing the debate, because I do not think that the issue has had enough attention in the House, especially with so much changing guidance over recent months.
We know the headline coronavirus figures because they are so stark: we are reaching 50,000 deaths in this country. Families are grieving loved ones, and people across the country are losing their livelihoods and facing hardship through no fault of their own. Let us remember that almost 30,000 of those deaths were excess care home deaths in the first wave of the pandemic, when residents of care homes were so tragically failed.
Behind the numbers, there are countless personal stories: families forced apart; special moments with loved ones missed; and the grief of losing family members. Visits to care homes and to health settings are just one of those sacrifices. Visits play a vital role—not just for families, but for ensuring the proper running of care homes and the protection of their residents. The first set of guidance, published on 2 April 2020, stated:
“Family and friends should be advised not to visit care homes, except next of kin in exceptional situations such as end of life”.
In the summer, when restrictions were eased slightly, further guidance was issued for limited visits. The most recent and up-to-date guidance puts the ball in the court of care homes providers, families and local professionals to work together to ensure that visits are covid secure.
In reality, care home visits are a lottery. Relatives tell me that it is still proving difficult for them to secure consistent visits. That lottery means that one home in my constituency facilitates window and garden visits and arranges Facetime and Zoom calls. Another home had facilitated window visits when they were allowed, but found that residents were left upset and agitated as they did not understand why they could not see their family as normal, and Facetime and Zoom calls often led to more confusion and upset. That home now has a designated area so family members can visit during the winter, and has created an action plan to put that in place.
I want to share the words of one constituent, who has kept in touch with me throughout recent months as she has tried to visit her mother in a care home. She wrote to me this week to say:
“I was allowed in the care home on Thursday to see her, poor mum, its heartbreaking see her wither away to nothing. I was not allowed to hug or touch her, she kept getting up from the chair to come to me and I had to walk away and around the table, she was following me. Gut wrenching, all she wanted was her daughter, to feel safe, feel reassured and be with me.”
Of course, people have so many questions that need answering to ensure safe visits. As it stands, some visits are happening, but the practicalities and ability of some care homes means that visits are just not possible and too many families are still being left out. As colleagues will know, Liverpool is now piloting mass testing and I welcome the fact that Liverpool City Council is exploring how we can use the Mast lateral flow testing to support more direct visiting. I encourage the Minister to touch on that point.
Nothing can replace being able to visit a loved one in person, and nothing is more important to the people suffering the heartache of being separated from them week after week, month after month. I implore the Minister to do everything possible—I am sure she will—to ease that pain for my constituents and the millions across the country who have been affected for too long. There is no excuse for the inhumane treatment of care home residents in this country. Care homes need funding, PPE, testing and expert advice to set up safe visiting.
I am very glad to participate in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), who set out the importance of social and family contact for older and vulnerable adults. She made specific reference, in disturbing detail, to her own constituent in a way that sums up the difficulties that we face.
I have found this debate difficult. The issue before us, and certainly before the Minister, is very fraught—every choice in this situation brings its own serious challenges. I am conscious that these matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I speak in the spirit of common areas of concern about the issue. Specifically, how do we support the emotional and social needs of our older people while taking due cognisance of our need also to keep them safe? We have shared that goal today across the Chamber. I put on the record that those working in our care sector, I think we can all agree, do sterling work and deserve our thanks and recognition. I declare an interest: my sister Kathleen and my niece Chloe both work in the care sector.
Keeping older people safe and allowing them access to loved ones is something that every participant has highlighted. The balance is very difficult to strike, I think; we have heard about the tensions as we try to work through how we strike that balance correctly. I speak as one with some personal insight into the issue: my mother-in-law is in a care home in Saltcoats. She has dementia and lockdown has caused a dramatic and shocking decline in her condition. She has simply stopped eating. Her decline has been so great that I do not, in all honesty, believe that it can be reversed, or perhaps even halted, in her case; I accept that that may not apply to many people in her position, of whom I know there are many.
I have also heard from staff in several care homes that older people are suffering very badly from their lack of social interaction with other residents, their lack of contact with family and their missing out on the kinds of exchanges and conversations that could once have been taken for granted as a normal part of their day.
The lack of stimulation for many older people—it is horrible to say it—is akin to a slow death and is very upsetting. It is upsetting for the families of those who live in care homes and for the staff who work in them, who, throughout the pandemic, have coped with enormous challenges in a way that I hope they know we are very grateful for and of which they can be proud. Care home residents with dementia do not really know or understand why they cannot see their loved ones, which only adds to their distress and that of their relatives, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) illustrated for us.
Conversely, many people who have elderly parents in care homes are very keen and anxious that their elderly relatives should be kept as safe as is possible at this time, until there is a vaccine for the virus or it subsides. We need to be mindful that the average age of those dying from covid is 83 years old. That stark statistic reminds us of the kinds of choices that we are trying to balance.
We are now in a position whereby visits to care homes to see elderly relatives can resume—obviously, with strict measures in place to ensure that they are as safe as they can be. Residential care homes have made use of screens and windows, and outdoor and virtual visits. However, there is some concern among care home owners —we have heard a bit about this today—that they will face litigation over covid deaths as their insurance premiums soar in the midst of this pandemic. I think that, just as the NHS has some protection in that regard, so too must care homes.
We have all heard of the distress and loneliness, the destructive sense of isolation, that older people have felt, particularly but not exclusively in care homes, as they miss that very important contact with loved ones. A phone call or a Zoom connection is a substitute, but it is much less satisfactory in terms of emotional connection. There is no substitute for an isolated older person having a cup of tea while sitting in their favourite chair just across from a loved one, having a hug and seeing the smiling faces of their grandchildren. A virtual substitute can never replace that.
As our older people wait in a limbo of loneliness, missing loved ones, they do not know—we do not know —how long this limbo will last. That uncertainty is very distressing, because if someone is at the very advanced stages of life, their fear is that they will never again have close contact with their family. That awful prospect must leave people despairing.
In all this, we must not forget the staff in care homes. They dedicate their days to looking after our elderly relatives. They see every day how some of our older people are simply not coping with the restrictions, and it is very distressing for them; I am sure that it takes an emotional toll on them as well. They feel very keenly their duty to keep their charges safe and they, too, often feel torn and helpless, as so many of us feel in the face of this cruel pandemic.
The biggest fear as the pandemic rumbles on—turning our lives, as we knew them, upside down—is that we save our older people from covid only to lose them to despair. Most residents in care homes have dementia, and I fear that they are utterly bewildered and confused by the current situation. They cannot understand why they cannot mix freely with others, as they used to.
Expanding testing to include designated visitors to care homes—we have heard a bit about this today—as soon as capacity allows will, of course, be part of the solution as we try to make inroads into this difficult situation. We also have the prospect of a vaccine, which we all hope will be available before too much longer. However, we need to continue to look for creative ways, such as that pointed out to us by the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), to navigate the road ahead. For as long as restrictions are in place, we need to find ways to combat the despair, distress and isolation of our older people, who feel very keenly this separation from loved ones.
Last week, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport met again with families of people in care homes. Like all of us, she is acutely aware of the importance of visits for the health and wellbeing of care home residents and their families. Indeed, leaders of all parts of the UK are grappling with these very human issues in which lives are at stake and every choice they make needs to be very finely balanced and is fraught with potential danger. I am sure that these matters give those leaders and the Minister sleepless nights. I do not envy them their task. During these terrible times, a stark and difficult set of choices and decisions have to be made which could literally mean the difference between life and death. Across the UK, guidance for social care settings continues to be under review so all that can be done, will be done, to support safe visiting.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on these important matters and how she thinks we can better support our older people in care homes. Theirs is a generation whose lives were blighted by war in their youth and are now blighted by this cruel virus in their old age. Of course, we need to protect them and look after them, but for many the cost of isolation from loved ones and of restrictions on stimulation, is very high, as they lose their sense of who they are and their dementia takes greater hold of their lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) on securing this important debate and on her brilliantly powerful speech. I am particularly grateful that she focused on working-age adults with disabilities who have all too often been ignored in this debate so far.
Since mid-June, I have been calling for a way forward that will keep residents safe and get family visits going again. I will come on to that later, but I start by paying tribute to all those who have been working so hard to bring families back together: the local authorities that have championed face-to-face visits throughout lockdown, including Leeds, Sheffield and my own Leicester City Council, and the organisations that have campaigned on the issue, such as Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, the National Care Forum, the Care and Support Alliance and the National Care Association.
In particular, I thank and pay tribute to Jenny Morrison and Diane Mayhew from Rights for Residents. After their own terrible experiences, they started their campaign to give a voice to all the other care home residents and families who have been prevented from seeing their loved ones since the first lockdown started more than eight months ago. They have had a phenomenal reaction to their campaign, and rightly so, because the issue really matters. It matters because of the anguish it causes families to be separated from the people they love most and because of the increasing evidence that the physical and mental isolation that results from restricting family visits is causing serious harm to a large number of care home residents. In a recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Society, 80% of care home managers said that lack of social contact is causing deterioration in the physical and mental health of residents with dementia. That is unacceptable.
All hon. Members present have spoken on behalf of constituents who have contacted them about the desperate agony they are going through and their real fears for their mums, dads, husbands and wives. I have also been contacted. A woman called Trudy got in touch to say,
“Today I’ve had to try to comfort my terminally ill mum in a video call, she’s scared and she needs us. Not on a screen or behind a screen—but with us stroking her hand. It is destroying us that the end of her life is like this. It’s destroying my family. I feel I am breaking every promise we ever made on looking after her.”
My constituent John rightly asked me,
“What quality of life do residents have if they can’t go anywhere, see any of their family and friends or have meaningful relationships? My family are absolutely distraught by the fact that we are not being allowed to see our family member but are having to hear them sobbing on the telephone and being told by staff how agitated they are and how ‘lockdown’ is affecting them and causing their condition to deteriorate. We can’t get this time back with our family member and time is precious”.
That point is really important, because the average length of stay in a care home for an older person is two years. After eight months of visitor restrictions and lockdown, there is simply not enough time for many of those living in care homes to wait and watch for a pilot scheme or another set of guidelines.
We need action now, because husbands, wives, sons and daughters are not just making social calls to their loved ones in care homes; they are playing a fundamental role in the everyday care of the person they love. Residents and their loved ones have human rights, both as individuals and as a community, and a ban on visiting arguably denies them those rights, as the Minister will know.
What should the Government do? I always hope to be practical in putting forward solutions. I and the 60 organisations that recently wrote an open letter to the Minister and the Secretary of State about this issue understand why the Government are so worried about the risk of covid-19 in care homes, given the catastrophic suffering and loss of life during the first wave of the pandemic, but the Minister will know that the Government’s own independent scientific advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and its working group on social care said in evidence published on 21 September that the risk of family transmitting the virus from visitors to residents was low. Those 60 organisations, which include the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Geriatrics Society and the Social Care Institute for Excellence, which is responsible for promoting good-quality care, say that
“there is no evidence that a blanket ban on visiting, or near ban, is the right response. It is also the case that homes are much better equipped now to manage any risk. There is much greater knowledge of transmission and infection prevention and control practices than there was in March. Homes should be fully supported to enable visiting.”
Opposition Members—indeed, Members on both sides of the House—agree, which is why Labour has been calling for families to get the regular testing and PPE that they need since 17 June, when I first wrote to the Health Secretary warning about the impact of isolation on care home residents. I wrote again to the Health Secretary on 14 September, specifically calling for families to be designated as key workers, so that they can get the regular testing that they need to safely visit, alongside the regular testing of care home staff. That, as the Minister will know, is precisely the approach advocated by the 60 organisations that recently wrote the open letter.
The Government still have not really listened. Their latest guidance says that indoor care home visits will need floor-to-ceiling screens, which will keep residents and their families separated throughout. Alternatively, families can meet outside a care home window. I am afraid that that guidance fails on many levels. It fails to understand that it will not be possible for many care homes to put such screens in place. Even if they could, having a screen will not work for many residents, especially if they have Alzheimer’s or dementia. That is before making the frankly obvious point that the winter weather and dark afternoons make outdoor visits very difficult indeed.
It is little wonder that the Alzheimer’s Society says it is “devastated” by the new guidance. Its chief executive officer says that
“this attempt to protect people will kill them… The prison style screens the government proposes—with people speaking through phones—are frankly ridiculous when you consider someone with advanced dementia can often be bed-bound and struggling to speak.”
Age UK agrees, saying:
“In practice we fear it will result in many care homes halting meaningful visiting altogether, because they will be unable to comply with the requirements laid down.”
I know that the Minister will say that we are going to have a pilot to test families, but when will that pilot start and how long will it take? It has been eight months since lockdown began. Why has this not been a greater priority and why has more progress not been made? The bottom line is that a pilot is not good enough or quick enough. We need those visits now. Will the Minister finally agree to prioritise family members for testing, including with the new lateral flow tests that are being used to mass test people in Liverpool and students across the country?
I understand that those tests have low numbers of false negatives and can be turned around in 20 or 30 minutes, making them a good option for testing families with loved ones in care homes, as my director of social care in Leicester is calling for. I know that families, including my own, are desperate to get their children back from university for Christmas, but what about families who have not seen their loved ones for eight months? They want to know where they are in all the extra testing that is going on.
We all know this pandemic has had unimaginable consequences for care workers and for families and their loved ones. Care workers have made immense sacrifices to look after our loved ones, and they deserve not just our praise and admiration, but to be properly valued and paid. However, we have to understand that families are an integral part of the care system too. I believe you cannot have good-quality social care without the real involvement and active participation of families. People who have dementia lose their memory; their families are their memory, and the best possible quality help and support cannot be given without families. I hope the Minister will listen to the concerns that I and other hon. Members have raised and I look forward to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate and sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this debate. My thanks also go to all those who have come here today and made such powerful speeches, talking about the really difficult situation of visiting restrictions in care homes. My hon. Friend spoke extremely powerfully on behalf of Jamie, acting as his advocate in this tragic situation. I thank her for discussing this with me in advance of the debate; I am looking into that case.
As many hon. Members have said this afternoon, and as Minister for Care I strongly agree, visiting is incredibly important for those living in care homes. It is hard to put into words how paramount, how crucial, contact with their loved ones is for residents in care homes, but let me offer three reasons. First, for the individual in residential care, it can be what makes life worth living. The chance to see a loved one—a husband, wife, son, daughter, grandchildren or oldest friend—these visits are things to look forward to.
Secondly, visits to see their loved ones are important for family members. I have recently heard about a couple, both in their 90s; the wife is living in a care home and her husband always used to go to see her, but he has not been able to do so for months. This is actually affecting him more than it is his wife, who sadly has much less awareness of the situation due to her advanced dementia. It is affecting him because he is not able to see her. So the visits are important for the family who want to visit as well.
The third reason is the role that families and visitors play in making sure their loved one living in the care home is safe and well—the role they play in their care, in fact. Hon. Members have spoken today about the problem of residents, especially those with dementia, who are deteriorating without the visits they are used to. The advocacy role is also important, as my hon. Friend mentioned.
To step back a moment, the Government’s overall aim is to keep people in care homes safe and well—as safe and well as possible in the extremely difficult circumstances of a pandemic of a virus that is so cruel in in how it affects the old and most vulnerable. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, it is an incredibly hard balance to strike, and I appreciate the way she spoke about that. On the one hand we want to enable visits to care homes, to enable people to have the things that make life worth living, but on the other hand, we know that when covid has got into care homes, when there have been outbreaks, it has been extremely hard for care homes to control it. That we have seen so many deaths of people in care homes is tragic. The hon. Lady is absolutely right; it is a cause of sleepless nights for me and others who are trying to make the right decisions.
In my remarks, I intend to speak first about what has happened, then say where we are now, and finally look ahead. I will do my best to pick up some of the questions and comments from colleagues.
When the pandemic hit us, it is true to say that visits were stopped, other than in exceptional circumstances such as end of life. The problem was so bad and there seemed to be such a risk for care homes that visits were stopped. During that period, I spoke to care workers who really went the extra mile to support care home residents through that time—to try to make their lives still worth living and to have positive moments, and to use technology to keep people in touch.
I am not naïve—I know that having a screen is not the answer to the problem of visiting, but for some people in some circumstances it has enabled more contact between those living in residential care and their families. It certainly does not work for everybody. It is not the whole answer.
That is one reason why, as covid rates came down during the summer, new guidance was published on 22 July to encourage the opening up of care homes and to enable more visiting. It supported local discretion; the director of public health and the local authority would work with care homes to agree a reasonable level of safe visiting, using PPE and social distancing and so on. I was very keen to see care homes opening again. Many people did have the chance to see their family members in care homes during that period. Unfortunately, not every care home managed to open its doors at that point and, as the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) mentioned, those in tier 2 or tier 3 high-risk areas still maintained strict restrictions on visiting.
As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned, there is a real problem of closed environments. One of the things that visitors do is raise a concern if there is a situation in a care home. She and I have spoken about an issue in her constituency a while ago, which was of great concern. That is why, when we went into the current lockdown, I was determined that we should not return to the situation of the first lockdown, where care homes were closed. I was determined that we should continue what visiting we could safely allow, and continue to have the Care Quality Commission crossing the threshold of care homes to identify and investigate where concerns had been raised. That is why the current visiting guidance is to encourage care homes to enable covid-secure visits, using screens, windows, visiting pods and so on.
Some care homes have been incredibly creative and innovative. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) had a great example of a care home in his constituency. The guidance draws on methods that we have seen care homes using over the last few months, with the aim of getting others to follow suit. It is supported by being able to draw on the infection control fund. We have put £1.1 billion into funding to support care homes with the extra costs of providing covid-secure care.
I absolutely hear the message. This is not where we want to be. I want people to be able to hold hands again, hug again and have the physical contact we all need, which is particularly important for those with dementia and those for whom this whole situation is confusing or frightening. We know it has been bad for their health and wellbeing. Right now, however, to allow such contact goes strongly against the clinical advice I have received.
I have been advised that every single additional person going into a care home takes with them the risk of taking covid into that setting. In some parts of the country, one in 40 people have covid. If there is a care home with 40 beds and each person has a visitor, one of those visitors may well be carrying covid into that care home, unbeknownst to them, because they may well have no symptoms. When it gets in, it can be extremely hard to control. That is why we have taken a cautious approach, but I absolutely want to open up care homes to allow for the kind of visiting that people want. I am looking ahead.
Hon. Members have asked about testing, which will be so helpful in reducing the risk that someone going into a care home is taking covid with them. We have a huge testing programme in place in care homes for staff and residents. Staff are tested weekly, and the vast majority of staff are now undergoing that. That is really valuable in catching covid outbreaks early. Residents are tested every 28 days, and the next step is testing for visitors. A trial will be launched this month in four local authorities in areas of lower prevalence, where the risk is lower. That will launch on 16 November in a range of 30 different care homes both to assess the practicalities of testing and to make sure that we are confident in its safety. That will trial both the polymerase chain reaction—PCR—test that has been used for some time and the newly introduced lateral flow test that can be turned around quickly.
Trialling both will enable us to see which is the best to enable visiting, and we then plan to roll that out more widely across the country in December to see how many visits testing will enable. I am optimistic that that, combined with the lower covid rates that our national self-discipline during the lockdown should achieve, will make it much more feasible to enable more testing. Looking ahead, the prospect of a vaccine that may be effective against covid, alongside testing and a supply of PPE, should put us in a much better position to achieve the level of visiting that we all want.
I am happy to do that, because I have been looking into that issue as well. The guidance I have been given is that Public Health England and those running the trial want it to take place first in the 30 care homes, which I mentioned. That will enable us to have confidence that those who have had a lateral flow test will be able to visit. There is sequencing to be done, but the issue is at the top of my mind. Lateral flows tests are already being used, and we should make the most of that to enable visiting. I hope to be able to put that more formally in writing in due course.
In the time available, I wish to pick up on a few of the other points that were made in the debate. The hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) referred to the 30-minute time limit. I believe that that must be something that the care home in question has chosen to put in place. Our guidance advises that one should book a visit with a care home, but does not stipulate a 30-minute limit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) set out an excellent list of things for me to take forward. Many of them are indeed in train, such as testing and work on the vaccine. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has proposed that care home staff and residents should be at the top of the list for that. He mentioned a reporting mechanism, which I am also taking forward.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) referred to the lottery of visits. On the one hand, we responded to local authorities and care homes when they asked for more discretion and a local say in how we respond to the pandemic; on the other, we can find that in one area there is far more access than in another, so we need to combine allowing local discretion with being able to investigate whether somewhere is not being so supportive of visits. We need to ask what is going on and how can we bring this about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield focused on the situation of those of working age living in a residential care home. As she said, they have been talked about less during the pandemic than those of an older age, but the people of working age living in residential care are absolutely at the top my mind. As we have seen during the pandemic, those with learning disabilities might be at greater risk if they catch covid, and, like those of an older age with dementia, they need family visits and the support, love and advocacy of a family member.
As my hon. Friend also said, the pandemic has shone a light on some of the problems that existed in our social care system before the pandemic. Yes, the pandemic has been hard for social care, but there were problems before. Although the vast majority of care homes have provided wonderful supportive care—indeed, loving care—for those who live in their buildings, some have sadly let down those they care for. We must continue to identify, intervene and prevent cases where there is neglect or, worse, the abuse of those living in residential care.
We are in the thick of a pandemic that has made life so hard for those living and working in the social care sector. We have to step forward, get on the front foot and really achieve the social care reform that everyone has been crying out for, for so long. This is an, “If not now, when?” moment. We will seize this moment not only to support social care through the pandemic, but to bring about a system of social care where we can hold our heads up high and be happy for the care of our loved ones, our friends and family, or indeed for ourselves, should the time come when we need it.
I thank the Minister for her kindness and humanity, and for how she and her Department reached out to me personally. That demonstrates her care and her compassion both for this subject and for those working age adults with complex needs and disabilities whose voices might not have been heard over the years. I appreciate her one-on-one attention and the engagement she has dedicated to the topic. I am incredibly grateful.
I want to highlight the excellent contributions of all hon. Members today. Although we come from different parties, we are united in wanting to highlight the needs of the most vulnerable and wanting to thank our care workers.
I also thank the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for her incredible weighing up of the impossible situation that every Government, every Member of Parliament and every public health official finds themselves in. We did not even know what the devastating effects of the virus would be. It attacks the elderly and those who are already in care. We have the impossible situation of their mental wellbeing versus the actual preserving of life. No matter what party we are from and no matter our background, this is one of the most difficult challenges that any generation of politicians has ever had to face. I thank her for reminding us of the humanity involved.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Future of the National Trust
[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the National Trust.
Congratulations on your appointment, Ms Bardell; I am sure that we will give you no trouble.
This year is the National Trust’s 125th anniversary year. I start by paying tribute to the founding visionaries, benefactors, members, volunteers and staff who have made it the great mediating institution that it certainly is.
For the entire eight years of planning and execution, I was the Prime Minister’s point man for the United Kingdom’s commemoration of the centenary of the great war. I was immersed in the sensitive handling and portrayal of history and narrative. I think we did well, and I take particular satisfaction in helping to shed light on the part played by people whose contributions had been overlooked for 100 years.
Today is Armistice Day, so I shall recall particularly a truly remarkable exemplar whom we ensured played a big part in the commemorations: Lieutenant Walter Tull. As it happens, his likely last resting place in a plot near Arras has recently been discovered. I mention him in the context of some of the difficult things that I want to touch upon in this short debate. I do not want to be either misconstrued or misrepresented.
In my constituency, we have one of the trust’s principal possessions. Stourhead is about a mile from my home and we are frequent visitors, alongside tens of thousands, every normal year. Indeed, pre-covid, the trust had a membership that was gusting 6 million. It has eye-watering financial resources that would be the envy of most charities at this difficult time. It has international standing and an international reputation, and several countries actively seek to emulate it. So what is the problem?
The trust mission is clearly laid out in statute: to be clerk of works to a large wedge of our national treasures. There is evidence, however, that in recent years the trust—frustrated no doubt with that simple custodial function—has been interpreting its remit much more broadly. I submit that that requires scrutiny.
The key to the unhappiness expressed in recent times is contained within a collection of documents of varying status, some leaked, some published. The material, entitled “Towards a 10-year vision for place and experience”, is a blueprint for a different National Trust from that envisaged in statute in 1907 and in subsequent National Trust Acts.
That document might have been convincingly dismissed as a think piece had it not been followed by a series of supporting “Reset” documents. Taken together with the recently announced round of redundancies and reduction in access to small sites, it amounts to a dramatic change in direction—one that has alarmed the trust’s members, volunteers and workforce, and provoked a storm in the media.
Of particular concern is the proposed closure of smaller houses, I would say under the cover of covid-19. Those rather crudely referred to by the trust as treasure houses, including Stourhead, have always cross-subsidised those smaller properties. That has been the business model, which is commendable. We now find the properties that have been sustained by that model—for example, George Stephenson’s house in Northumberland—are being closed. It could be that they are closed permanently.
We also find that it is not receipts, per se, that are the problem, because the outdoorsy attractions appear not to be in the crosshairs. Rather, the issue is with buildings, particularly what are referred to as mansions. The trust says it does not want to close or repurpose its sites, but has to cut its cloth because of covid-19. But look at its reserves, as well as its access to a huge volunteer workforce, together with furlough and other assistance given by Government during this crisis, and ask whether the trust, faced with the inflexibility of covenants and reserves, has approached either the Charity Commission or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see what statutory or non-statutory mechanisms there might be to assist in freeing up funds in these difficult times, in order to support its charitable purposes.
On top of that, we have a hobnailed boot of a document called, “Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery”, which is considered sufficiently off-piste to attract the interest of the Charity Commission as regulator.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate on the National Trust. On his point about the report, what is wrong with the National Trust researching the history of the buildings it looks after? Historic Royal Palaces has just advertised for a curator to uncover its links to the slave trade. Is he suggesting that that organisation should also be subject to this kind of witch hunt by the Charity Commission?
The hon. Gentleman ought also to look at English Heritage’s 2013 publication on broadly the same subject. He may wish to compare the quality of that report with the National Trust’s report and form his view as to whether it is appropriate to associate some of our national figures with slavery, as the title of this particular contribution does.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is legitimate for organisations to explore history and present material in a balanced, measured and considered way. The judgment we all have to make is whether the National Trust has achieved that. I suggest to him that, against the standards of other organisations, such as English Heritage, the National Trust in that respect has fallen well short. Indeed, any reasonable appraisal of the material would suggest to me and many others a corporate culture at odds with its membership. I would argue that it is also at odds in important respects with statute that underpins the National Trust.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate; I also join him in offering congratulations to our new Chair.
The National Trust obviously employs a vast number of people in the Lake district; the jobs of many of them are now at risk, which is deeply concerning. It also owns a huge amount of land and acts as landlord to dozens and dozens of important hill farmers, who are essential in maintaining the heritage of our landscape. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Trust should do everything it can to act as a landlord that encourages succession on those farms, rather than turning the buildings into second homes or holiday lets? Likewise, does he agree that it should encourage the Government to make sure that, in transitional terms, the payments coming into the farming industry from January onwards encourage the maintenance of the family farm and not a move to ranch-style farming?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point; I feel sure that he is more expert on upland farming than I am. I would always encourage a landlord to be responsible, especially a big one, and in particular a massive one such as the National Trust. I would be distressed if it was tempted to sell off properties for them to be turned into second homes or holiday homes. That seems entirely the wrong thing for the National Trust to do, and I would argue that it is probably contrary to the 1907 legislation that founded it. The idea behind the National Trust is conservation, and it is difficult to see how selling off property in the way that he has just described would service that end.
Much of what we have had from the National Trust in recent times is entirely commensurate with the fears expressed by many that what it is doing, in its own terms and the terms of the leaked documents we have seen, is to “dial down” its role as what it calls a “major national cultural institution”. We see the corporate upper lip curling at an “outdated mansion experience” that is of interest only to what it calls a “niche audience”, which is apparently “dwindling”. It is a “niche audience” that was on the rise before lockdown and that is bigger even now than the population of the Republic of Ireland, but it is one that the trust’s clairvoyants anticipate will have moved on, as the trust seeks to
“flex its mansion offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future.”
I have “fun” every time I go to a National Trust property —that is the whole point of going—and it is not clear to me what “useful” means, but we do learn that
“Everywhere…we will move away from a narrow focus on family and art history.”
This has been pejoratively described as the triumph of the “trendies” over the “tweedies”. What it means in practice is that professional curator posts will fall from 111 to 80. There will be a new curator and it will not surprise right hon. and hon. Members to learn that that curator will be called
“curator of repurposing historic houses”.
But out will go actual curators—those internationally renowned experts and scholars, who are specialists in one of the world’s greatest collections.
I suspect that most of the membership, like me and my family, flock to National Trust properties to admire an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake—job done, and happy days. It is leisure, it is breathing space, it is succour for the soul and a welcome break from the remorseless hectoring about this and that, to which, as citizens, we are subjected day in, day out.
There are those, particularly on the hard left and perhaps within the trust’s hierarchy, who will say that an organisation makes a political statement every time that it does not advance an opinion—that silence is violence. But the National Trust needs to be a politics-free space, a great mediating institution, and not an organ for promulgating a particular world view, whether one sympathises with that view or not. That, surely, is the service that it renders to civil society.
My parents liked to drag me and my brother around National Trust properties when we were younger. Fifty years on, they all merge into a perpetual search for ice cream, but I do have one abiding recollection, and it is not some politically correct right-on narrative, misspelt on a piece of slate. It is inequality. Those great houses stand as silent witness to an unequal past. We do not need to be force-fed that by the trust’s high command; it is there and it is in your face. It is also plain to most visitors that the wealth required to throw up those mini-palaces did not often come from a post office savings account. Some of that money was highly questionable—some of it very dirty indeed by today’s standards and even by the standards of the day. But here we are in 2020, with the public—on whose backs, to a greater or lesser degree, those palaces were built—possessing them. That is a triumph and a restitution.
I mentioned that I did not want to be misconstrued or misunderstood, and it is therefore with trepidation and in anticipation of a wall of hate mail and trolling that I come to the document—the trust’s slavery and colonialism report. It is a catalogue of its properties that have some links to those subjects, but much of it is flimsy and tendentious. In 2013, English Heritage published “Slavery and the British country house”, which is a serious, thoughtful, measured contribution to a subject of significant public interest, in contrast with the National Trust’s colonialism and slavery report, whose title, which conflates two things as a common evil, gives the game away. The conflation gets worse because, wittingly or not, it by association diminishes towering figures in British history, notably Winston Churchill. The trust speaks of context, but where is the context for a man who, more than any other, stood against fascism, racism and antisemitism? The best that could be said of that piece of work is that it is plain shoddy. Otherwise, we are left to conclude that it is indicative of the trust’s corporate mindset.
Does my right hon. Friend share my confusion and that of lots of National Trust members about the fact that, only recently, the chair of the National Trust said that BLM is a
“human rights movement with no party political affiliations”,
when last month one of the leading lights in BLM, Lemara Francis, said that
“BLM is proud to be a political organisation”?
I think those words and facts speak for themselves. It is very important that those who associate themselves with a great institution such as the National Trust are very careful about what they say and the way they project themselves. They must not make themselves hostages to fortune, as I fear has happened in this case.
However, there is always hope. Faced with a wall of unhappiness, trust bosses have been back-pedalling, at least rhetorically, and that is very much to their credit. We are told that the leaked “Towards a Ten-Year Vision” was an initial draft, despite no such caveat being present in the original. The director general was at pains to reassure me about that when she spoke to me yesterday, and I note that her op-ed in The Daily Telegraph today uses similar terms.
We have to take the trust’s leadership at its word. It seeks a “reset”—its word, unambiguously stated. We have a good idea now of what is in its mind and where it is taking us. Given the trust’s statutory underpinning, that is not to be undertaken lightly or without wider public cognisance, so let us commission an independent review like the recent Glover deep-dive into national parks. Thus fortified with a refreshed set of marching orders, the trust that we all love can then chart a course for the next 125 years.
I remind Members that there have had to be quite quick changeovers between debates. You have antibacterial wipes on your desks, so I ask that you do your best to clean the microphones in your areas before you leave and when you arrive as we fight covid-19. I would like to call the Minister by 4.22 pm.
Thank you, Ms Bardell, for allowing me to contribute to this debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for bringing it to the House.
The National Trust has done immense work over 125 years. In its own words, its mission is to cherish the
“nation’s most significant cultural collection”.
It is, however, struggling. Covid has made that task harder, with falling membership and fewer visitors. Frankly, the membership has declining faith in the trust’s leadership, as evidenced at the recent virtual annual general meeting.
I wish the National Trust well. Its work is vital, but it really is not appropriate for a charitable organisation to become involved in politics. The chairman, in a recent letter to a member, chose to defend Black Lives Matter, describing it as a human rights organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said. That is not a fair reflection of that organisation in its own words or by any routine or reasonable assessment. It is very dangerous for the National Trust to stray into that territory. It is not in line with its charitable purpose, as the Charity Commission made clear.
To remind hon. Members, the trust’s charitable purpose is
“to look after places of beauty”.
Beauty, because it is the exemplification of truth, is the most important thing to which we should all aspire. In beauty, we begin to have sight of the Lord. The National Trust is beginning to lose credibility, frankly, both with its membership and the public, because of misunderstandings about its purpose.
It is hard to know whether it was malign, naive, malevolent or just ignorant, but the defence by the trust’s chairman, Mr Tim Parker, was essentially that Black Lives Matter is not a party political movement and has no affiliations. That is a pretty thin defence if he is merely naive; surely he must know that political organisations are not all linked to parties.
Octavia Hill, who founded the trust and who came from Wisbech near my constituency in the Fens, said:
“We all want beauty... We all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.”
The National Trust, whether gently or more loudly, needs to disassociate itself from some of the rather foolish things that some of its leading members have said. I hope that the Minister will tell us how much the review into colonial links cost, how many staff were involved, how much was budgeted, and how much public money was spent on it.
It is a genuine honour to serve under your maiden chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing the debate, and thank all those who have participated. No debate is complete without a quote from my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), so it was a pleasure to hear from him today.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire acknowledged, the National Trust is one of the largest and most respected heritage membership organisations in the world. It has more than 5.5 million members, welcomes nearly 27 million visitors to its sites each year, has around 9,500 staff and is supported by 65,000 volunteers. The trust’s first property was acquired in 1895 for £10 and is still open today, and from that, the trust has steadily grown. Today, it has 250,000 hectares of land, 780 miles of coastline and more than 300 historic houses and gardens.
Some 125 years later, the National Trust is still helping people to enjoy the country’s enormous wealth of heritage sites. The trust is, in so many ways, a hugely successful heritage organisation, but that does not mean that we should not ask serious questions about it or how it should be held accountable. As I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, the National Trust is a creature of statute: it was formally created by the National Trust Act 1907, which has been amended several times since, and the organisation has evolved since Royal Assent.
The organisation’s vision is to preserve,
“protect and care for places so people and nature can thrive.”
To deliver on that ambition, the trust is governed by a board of independent trustees. The chair is supported by a team of trustees who bring expertise to the running of the trust. It is also a registered charity and is therefore regulated by the Charity Commission, which is itself answerable to Parliament. The board must therefore ensure that its activities do not contravene or compromise the trust’s charitable objectives.
I set out those governance arrangements to make one point: the National Trust is an independent body. It is independent of the Government and does not receive any ongoing public funding for its work, and its activities are overseen by its board and the regulatory Charity Commission. Of course, as I have said, the trust is a creature of statute, so although the Government could, in theory, instigate a review into the trust’s operations, for which some have argued, we would not be able to implement changes in the way that some have suggested. If the trust is found to have breached its charitable objectives, the Charity Commission, as the trust’s regulator, would be a more effective body to implement that.
That does not mean that the Government are not actively interested in what the trust does or how it goes about its business. I gently suggest, however, that tasking a Government commission to look into the trust to solve its complex problems is not a realistic idea. If there were an appetite for it—both in Parliament and in Government—the statute could be reviewed to consider whether it continues to provide a suitable legislative framework. I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will agree that that should be done only as a last resort, but it is an option. There are many other avenues of influence to effect change, including debates such as this one.
Parliamentary interest can be extremely influential, and I am sure the National Trust will be listening closely to the views expressed today, as I am sure are members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who will also reflect on what has been said.
I understand the Minister’s remarks about the Government’s position, but surely asking the National Trust—at a time when it is laying off something like 1,300 staff—how much it has spent on the review, how many staff have been involved and what it has budgeted for a review of the link between 93 properties, including Chartwell, and colonialism is not an unreasonable question for a culture Minister to ask.
I do not think my right hon. Friend is understanding what I am saying. We do need to hold the trust to account and to ask it questions, but it is, after all, an independent body. We have many mechanism to do so—of course, we are doing so today. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that I will write to the National Trust. I will send it a transcript of the debate so that it can hear the strength of feeling expressed today and answer some of the questions raised. I repeat: it is an independent body, and we need to respect that.
Reports of the events at the National Trust’s annual general meeting suggest that some of its members are not impressed with some of the trust’s activities and direction. It was reported as being bombarded with complaints, with its members wanting it to focus on managing the beautiful houses and gardens, and not on the historical links to slavery and empire in its collection. The chief executive was reported as saying that the National Trust was still deciding how it will use information in the recent slavery report, and the Government will continue to take an interest in that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has also made his views clear about the trust’s review of the links to slavery and empire in its collection. On 22 September, he stated firmly that the National Trust should focus first and foremost on protecting and preserving our heritage. He was right to highlight that as the trust’s chief concern, and he rightly pointed out that neglecting it will understandably surprise and disappoint people.
I hear the calls for a review or commission on the National Trust. As I set out earlier, however, I am not convinced that a commission is the most effective way to bring about the sort of change that right hon. and hon. Members would like to see. Given the current state of play, I believe that the best approach is to rely on the good sense of the board and its executives to heed and respond to the voices of its members, its army of volunteers, the general public, the media, the Charity Commission as its regulator, and of course Parliament.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire is aware, the trust is losing approximately £200 million of its budgeted revenues for this year as a consequence of coronavirus. It is having to draw on its reserves, though it is also making use of Government assistance, such as the furlough scheme. However, it is important for us to bear in mind that 80% of the National Trust’s funds are legally restricted, meaning they are not available to the trust to spend on running costs or redundancy.
The loss of funding has meant that, sadly, the National Trust has made 513 compulsory redundancies and 782 redundancies. As I understand it, the redundancies protect as far as possible the conservation and curatorial functions of the trust, and it has stressed that the changes do not alter its mission. I also understand that there are no plans to permanently close any of its properties. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire mentioned that he has heard otherwise, so I will seek clarity on that point.
For the reasons that I have set out, I believe the National Trust is a success story. One hundred and twenty-five years on from its foundation, it continues to serve the country by preserving the United Kingdom’s rich tapestry of heritage sites and buildings for the public to enjoy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire has argued, however, its future must be a focus, and it must focus on its core functions: to curate and preserve historic houses, gardens and landscapes for everyone to enjoy.
Although I completely understand the intent behind the National Trust’s decision to undertake a review of its historic houses, especially in this time of heightened awareness of discrimination, I think the National Trust will feel that the way that it was done was unfortunate. I accept that the trust did not intend to cause offence, but we must acknowledge that, for many people, it did cause offence. The trust must reflect on that and learn from it.
For over a century, the trust has focused on preserving and curating our great historic houses, gardens and landscapes for the nation. That is what it should focus on during the next century, too.
Question put and agreed to.
Order. I draw Members’ attention to the antibacterial wipes on their desk and ask that they clean their microphones and work area as they arrive and leave and dispose of those wipes in the bin on their way out. Our cleaners do an excellent job, but let us make it as easy as possible for them.
I would also like to read a statement before we begin the debate. Before I call the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), I should advise hon. Members that the judicial review currently before the High Court is not sub judice, because it relates to a ministerial decision. There are several other historical Northern Ireland cases which have active legal proceedings and are, therefore, sub judice. Reference should not be made to those proceedings in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle for his courtesy in consulting the Table Office in advance of his debate, and I remind any other Member participating in this debate to be equally mindful of the sub judice resolution in matters still before the courts.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of a public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell.
I want at the outset to recognise Geraldine Finucane and her family. I also want to recognise John Finucane, who is a Member of this House. That family have been put through the wringer for decades. They make it clear that they do not believe that this murder is any more special or deserving of truth and justice than another, but there is a particular point about Pat Finucane’s murder that goes right to the heart of the British involvement in Northern Ireland. Let us just take a moment to remember, in all the conversation, debate and politics around the issue, what actually happened to Pat Finucane, a human rights solicitor from Belfast.
On 12 February 1989 Pat was with his wife and three children having dinner one Sunday afternoon. Loyalist paramilitaries used a sledgehammer to beat his front door in. They went to the kitchen and they murdered him. They shot him with 14 bullets, in front of his children. Mr Finucane’s now adult son Michael said that the image of the attack is
“seared into my mind. The thing I remember most vividly is the noise; the reports of each bullet reverberating in the kitchen, how my grip on my younger brother and sister tightened with every shot.”
What happened on that night? Here is what we know. Brian Nelson was a force research unit agent linked to the Ulster Defence Association—an agent of an organ of the British Army, which, of course, told John Stevens when he investigated this case and others that it never had any agents in Northern Ireland. We now know irrefutably that that was total and utter balderdash.
We know that two gunmen entered that house and murdered Pat Finucane. We know that one of them, Ken Barrett, was a Royal Ulster Constabulary agent, and that William Stobie, who supplied the gun, was also an RUC agent. So three agents of the British state were involved in the fingering of Pat Finucane, the planning of his murder, the supplying of the gun and the pulling of the trigger.
We also know that David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, said that there were “shocking levels of…collusion” involved in what happened to Pat Finucane. We know that the offices of Lord Stevens, an eminent former police officer in this country, were firebombed when he investigated the case—I wonder who did that. He also said as recently as last year that the state held back oceans of information on Pat Finucane’s case.
A few weeks before Pat’s murder, Minister Douglas Hogg stated in the House of Commons that a number of lawyers in Northern Ireland were
“unduly sympathetic to the IRA”.
What did they expect to happen after that statement?
We know that in 2001, at the Weston Park negotiations, the two Governments—the Irish and British Governments —and all the political parties in Northern Ireland agreed to set up a number of public inquiries. The British Government prevaricated. In 2004, Judge Cory recommended that there was sufficient evidence in the case of Pat Finucane to allow a public inquiry, because of the “sufficient evidence of collusion” that he found. All the other inquiries that he recommended have happened and have reported, apart from this one; this is the only one outstanding.
Over an 18-month period in 2010-11, the family were in long conversation with the British Government and Downing Street. The conversation was not about whether there should be a public inquiry, but about the nature of that public inquiry. We then had the de Silva review and, more recently, the Supreme Court ruling that the British Government had not delivered their international obligation to have an article 2 compliant investigation.
There is absolute clarity that there were “shocking levels” of collusion, in David Cameron’s words. Let us think for a second about what that means. It means that a previous British Government murdered a human rights lawyer in Belfast in front of his family and that they have denied every single opportunity to give the family what they absolutely deserve, which is the full truth in the matter.
It would take a long time for anybody in this Chamber to convince me of the righteousness of the British Government, the British state or the British Army. But British MPs should ask themselves a simple question: “What would you do?” What would the Minister do if he had a family in his constituency whose father was murdered in front of their eyes for no crime other than being a human rights lawyer?
I believe in a different kind of constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland, but I recognise the reality that the British Government have jurisdiction in Northern Ireland as it stands. The British Government have a responsibility to the citizens of Northern Ireland. They have a responsibility not to murder them. They have a responsibility not to cover up their murder and they have a responsibility to do everything in their power to get to the truth of what happens when something like that is done.
I have very little faith that this British Government will do the right thing in this case. They absolutely should, but this is the same British Government, of course, that put out a statement on 18 March, moving themselves as far away as possible from the Stormont House agreement—another international agreement that they are prepared to break, it seems. They are seemingly prepared to sacrifice victims at the altar of political expediency, to throw some red meat to the Back Benches of the Tory party, and to abandon the opportunity for all of the victims of our terrible conflict to have the full truth of what happened.
In my view, there is no chance whatsoever for my community to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation unless we get to the full truth of what happened during the conflict. I implore the Government, once and for all, to live up to their commitments in Weston Park, to live up to the promises that were made to Pat Finucane’s family and to live up to the needs of the community of Northern Ireland, who need to be able to move forward.
We do not want to live in the past anymore. We want to move forward, but we have to do that on the basis of truth, justice and democracy. It cannot be held back any longer.
It is an unusually great pleasure to be able to serve under your chairship, in your first outing as Chair here in Westminster Hall, Ms Bardell. It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and to belatedly welcome him and his party back to the House of Commons. In the last Parliament, there was a missing piece in the parliamentary puzzle, which meant we did not see the whole picture when it came to Northern Ireland politics. It is very important that the nationalist viewpoint in Northern Ireland is represented here in this House.
Given my own family background, I have taken an interest over many years in the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I have visited Belfast on many occasions during my parliamentary career. When I went there, I was always struck by the similarity between the cities of Belfast and Cardiff, which I represent—in their architecture, in their size and in the warm welcome of the citizens of those two cities.
In drawing on that comparison, I have to ask whether it would be acceptable in my city, and to my constituents, if the state were involved in hampering the discovery of the truth about the murder of one of its citizens. The answer to that question has to be an emphatic no. If that is the case for Cardiff, or for Leeds, Barnsley, St Helens, Sheffield, Worcester or any of the other constituencies that elect Members to this House, it is equally unacceptable for Belfast.
The troubles were a dark and violent time in the history of these islands. Thousands of civilians and soldiers—we remember our armed forces on this Armistice Day—lost their lives as a result of calculated brutality, which still echoes darkly down the generations. In that awful period, the appalling murder of Patrick Finucane in February 1989 was one of the darkest moments. Thirty-one years on, it remains a source of grave public concern, not just in Northern Ireland and Ireland, but across the United Kingdom and anywhere in the world where people seek and care about justice.
Both Lord Stevens and Judge Cory were clear that there was state collusion in the murder of Mr Finucane. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle said, the then Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, described the outcome of the separate de Silva review as revealing
“shocking levels of state collusion.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 296.]
It is now 20 months since the Supreme Court found that inquiries into Mr Finucane’s murder had been unlawful under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. Investigations that have taken place have had profound shortcomings, and those shortcomings, in the words of Lord Kerr,
“have hampered, if not indeed prevented, the uncovering of the truth about this murder.”
That this crime could happen at all in our country is in itself a shocking stain on the fabric of our recent history. That it has never been investigated to a lawful standard is a tear in that same fabric that needs to be repaired.
The issues at stake could scarcely be more important. The European convention on human rights is the foundation that underpins the Good Friday agreement and is the fundamental safeguard on which citizens rely. Those rights are not trivial. Compliance with them is non-negotiable.
As my hon. Friend has said, the family of Pat Finucane have had to wait too long for the adequate and effective investigation into his murder that is their right and the right of all citizens whom we represent in this place. Last month, as we have heard, Patrick Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, was forced to take action in the High Court to seek a resolution from the Government. Mr Justice McAlinden, overseeing the case, described his deep unease at the approach of the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This delay has added insult to injury. Mrs Finucane has received unequivocal undertakings from the British Government that such an inquiry will be held, and that should now be honoured.
The administrative burden in establishing an inquiry is simply not a justification to prevent the truth from emerging. The long years that have passed since the ceasefire and the Good Friday agreement have served to demonstrate that unless justice is done and seen to be done, the wounds of the past simply will not be allowed to heal, so I say to the Minister: the time has come to right past wrongs and allow this public inquiry to proceed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and, indeed, to see you in the Chair.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) on securing this incredibly important debate. The troubles were a violent and appalling time in our history. Veterans in my constituency served in Northern Ireland, and some lost colleagues who were murdered while on duty. Those whom I have had the privilege to meet since being elected value, as all of us do, the rule of law in this country. Upholding the rule of law is, and must be, one of our fundamental values.
Pat Finucane was going about his professional duties, in a professional manner, when he was murdered, in a cowardly and horrifying act, in his home in Belfast. For the Finucane family, like hundreds of other families of people who lost their lives during the troubles, the adequate and effective investigation into the murder of their loved one that is their right and our obligation has never taken place. Thirty-one years on from his murder, his family are still waiting. That is not a view or an opinion. The institution that has determined that an effective investigation has never taken place is UK judges in the highest court of the United Kingdom, on the basis of British law.
I therefore profoundly believe that the right thing for the Finucane family, for Northern Ireland and for everyone in the United Kingdom is for the commitments made by the British Government to hold a full public inquiry to be honoured. Why? It is important to remember why Judge Cory felt that a public inquiry was so important in this case—as he did with five of the six cases he identified for review at Weston Park. He said that a public inquiry must proceed in order
“to achieve the benefits of determining the flaws in the system and suggesting the required remedy”
and to address public concern. That is why it must be delivered and why commitments made to the Finucane family and the wider community must be kept. But it is also impossible not to think of the hundreds of families whose loved ones were murdered in the course of the troubles and who are still waiting for the truth about what happened to them.
The murders of more than 170 British soldiers are unsolved, as are the murders of hundreds of civilians at the hands of republican and loyalist terrorists. That is why it is more important than ever that a comprehensive solution to the legacy of the past is delivered. That means one that can deliver the truth and that has the confidence of those who are all too often forgotten—victims and their families.
The extraordinary work of Operation Kenova, led by the former Bedfordshire chief constable, Jon Boutcher, is demonstrating that even many years on, important evidential opportunities can still be uncovered. As he told the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, families want investigations to be robust in search of the truth. That is why the recent statement from the Secretary of State, which seemed determined to draw a veil over legacy cases, would have been profoundly unsettling for many families of people who lost their lives at the hands of terrorists. As Jon Boutcher said, that would be
“a legal novelty in the United Kingdom for serious crimes such as murder”.
The whole basis of the Stormont House agreement, which I fully accept was not perfect, was an effort to build a broad-based consensus on establishing and investigating the truth about unsolved murders. I therefore strongly urge the Minister not to resile from those commitments, and to remember the deep responsibility that he and the Northern Ireland Office have to deliver the truth to all victims and, from that, to build reconciliation.
I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) for bringing before us this important debate. It is crucial that we get a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane after all these years, and that we discuss the wider issues of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and Army, police and secret service collusion in particular.
Those are difficult, painful issues, but sweeping them under the carpet serves our society badly. If we want to live in safe, stable and hopeful communities, we cannot ignore our troubled past. If we want to create a future where violence and terrorism are a thing of the past, we have to start with an honest and truthful assessment of what led us to that dark place.
Clearly, it is important to remember the circumstances of Pat Finucane’s murder in 1989, painful as that may be, and the wider circumstances that led to this atrocity, but there is no need for the campaign for a public inquiry to persuade anyone of the facts, which have been conceded by Government. It has already been found that Pat Finucane’s shooting by loyalists involved state agents. That collusion has already been established.
Not only that, but in February last year the Supreme Court held that previous inquiries into the murder did not meet human rights standards. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has given a commitment in a court of law that a decision will be made by the end of the month on whether to order a public inquiry. I plead with him to do so, not just for the Finucane family but for the thousands of victims of the troubles.
The reality is that the family of Pat Finucane represent so many other victims of the troubles, families whose lives have been shattered not just by the tragic events that deprived them of their loved ones, but the secrecy, delay and cover-ups that have stood in the way of justice and truth. Since joining the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in June this year, I have sat in a number of hearings in which victims groups have described the distress of waiting for justice—sometimes not even justice, but only information—to understand the truth of what happened to their family members.
In the eyes of the people who matter most of all in this, the victims of the troubles, the Government have failed on the legacy issue. I have heard from all communities about a lack of confidence among the victims’ families that justice will be done, facts established and lessons learned. The Government now have a serious responsibility to repair some of the damage and to give people some sense of closure and peace, no matter how hard that is.
For Pat Finucane and his family—as the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), said—we need the full truth. The family and the many victims of the troubles need that, but also Northern Ireland needs that. The people of Northern Ireland, from all communities, have to be sure that the lessons of those terrible acts are learned, so that they will never happen again.
To get to that point, the Prime Minister, the Northern Ireland Office and the Government should act now, without any more delay. That starts with ordering a public inquiry into the full circumstances of Pat Finucane’s murder, and it must continue by re-establishing some confidence in the legacy process. Finally, we must all learn the lessons of those terrible tragedies and Northern Ireland’s traumatic past, not in order to dwell on the past or to reopen old rifts, but to look forward.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I endorse what hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), have already said. I congratulate him on securing the debate.
In supporting the need for a full public inquiry into Pat Finucane’s murder, I want to make it clear that that is not because I or the Finucane family believe in a hierarchy of victims or that the grief and pain of some is greater than that of others. It is the merits of this case and the appalling vista of state involvement and its planning of murder that mark it out as totemic in getting to the truth of exactly what went on during the troubles. Geraldine Finucane’s dignity and dedication to her husband and her pursuit of justice, not only for him but for many other victims, is inspirational. She was left to be her children’s mammy and daddy—to be the breadwinner—and to do it all while suffering the unbearable grief of losing her beloved partner. She is a remarkable woman and I am proud to know her.
My friend Phyllis Carrothers is another such woman. Her husband Douglas—or Dougie, as he was known to family and friends—was murdered by the IRA in County Fermanagh in 1991. He was an RUC reserve constable and Phyllis went on to chair the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Widows Association. She and her children have never had the truth, nor has she ever had an apology. The unanswered questions about the who, the what and, fundamentally, the why still remain. She deserves justice too. We must remember that the cases of Pat Finucane and all others is about people, and not just about process—their lived experiences and the impact it had on them and subsequent generations. Time is not always enough to heal.
January will be the 45th anniversary of a period of days in 1976 that saw some of the worst incidents of the troubles take place in the part of the world that I come from. On 3 January 1976, a bomb was left outside my grandmother’s pub, the Lough Inn in Camlough. A great deal of damage was caused to the village and my Aunt Ann, who was 12 years old at the time and saw the bombers, was injured. It is widely believed that members of what had become known as the Glenanne gang were involved.
The next evening, on 4 January, elements of the same gang, which included members of the security forces, murdered three members of the Reavey family a few miles away in Whitecross and three members of the O’Dowd family—they, like my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, were members of the Social Democratic and Labour party—in Ballydougan. They were targeted and killed in their home simply because they were Catholics. No one has ever been brought to justice. The following day, 5 January, 10 Protestant workmen from Bessbrook were taken off a minibus and murdered at Kingsmill. Like those the night before, their religion was the only basis on which their lives were so cruelly taken. All those dead left behind loved ones.
Eugene Reavey lost his three brothers. The unimaginable impact that must have had on him and his family was exacerbated when, just over 20 years ago, it was said in this House that he had had some involvement in Kingsmill. Whatever the motivation behind that allegation, it caused incredible pain. It was and is completely and utterly false. The police, including the then chief constable, and the Historical Enquiries Team’s investigation are very clear that Eugene Reavey had no involvement whatsoever in Kingsmill. It is right that the record is corrected here today.
There were two survivors of Kingsmill. The first was Richard Hughes, the only Catholic on the bus. When it was stopped by masked men, he was singled out and at first believed that he was going to be killed, only to be told to run and not to look back. He never spoke about it or the trauma and aching pain he must have felt. My memory of Mr Hughes — as the paperboy who delivered his Belfast Telegraph every evening — is of a kind, quiet gentleman. He was a victim too. Although he passed away some years ago, I hope his daughter Bernadette has some comfort that what he and his family have endured is recognised in the House.
The second survivor was Alan Black, a Protestant, who was shot 18 times and lay in the rain while the dead bodies of his friends lay on him and around him. I urge hon. Members to read about Alan’s experience and his words. His dignity, loss, compassion and grief are simultaneously inspirational and crushing. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. He deserves justice too. Alan, along with Brian Sloan and others, set up a cross- community football club in Bessbrook, Brookvale FC. Many years ago, they developed a link with a Merseyside schools football association official, the wonderful and recently sadly deceased Terry Duffy, whose local club Rainford Rangers is, in a pretty remarkable twist of fate, based in my constituency. It was a special and incredible honour for me to welcome Brookvale to Rainford as the MP from Bessbrook for St Helens North.
None of this is easy. The answer is not in the wishy-washy, “Why can’t we get along?” whataboutery. I know that these are deeply divisive hugely emotive and seemingly intractable matters, but I do believe that in unlocking the case of Pat Finucane, we can go to the heart of providing a way forward. The Government have a duty to keep their word and ensure a full public inquiry. Then we must all dedicate ourselves to that inclusive, comprehensive approach to dealing with the past; one that puts victims and survivors, truth, justice and remembrance at its core.
May I first congratulate you, Ms Bardell, on being elevated to your new position? I wish you well and know that you will do the job extremely well. I thank the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) for raising the issue. I spoke to him beforehand, so he knows where I am coming from. I just want to put some things on the record. On the facts of the case that he has so meticulously outlined—I say this for the record—my heart goes out to the family members who have been left with an empty chair that will never be filled. They have my sincere condolences. No one should ever lose a loved one in such circumstances. That is where I am coming from. That is my standpoint.
Unfortunately, it is the history of Northern Ireland that too many families have been left feeling this endless grief. The hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) just referred to that. Too many daughters have walked down the aisle alone, too many sons have graduated without their proud parent watching on, and too many mothers have wept over the clothes of their sons whose scent has long faded away. The devastation is clear in so many households in the Province to this day, and their loss must be acknowledged. I want to put that on the record.
I wish that that were not the case. I wish that my cousin Shelley did not have memories of that first Christmas without my cousin Kenneth Smyth after he was ruthlessly murdered 49 years ago, on 10 December 1971, by the IRA. I wish that his companion, friend and fellow worker, Daniel McCormick, had not been murdered. He happened to be a Roman Catholic, by the way, and the IRA murdered both of them on a road outside Castlederg 49 years ago. When Shelley came to me with Kenneth’s file clutched in her hands and tears in her eyes, I wish that I could have given her the justice she sought—I and everyone else here has equally sought justice—but I could not do that because it was not in my power.
This is not about tit for tat. I do not seek in any way to take away from the pain that the Finucane family felt and feel today. I, too, have had my debate in this House calling for the murder of Kenneth Smyth to be reopened, as well as that of Lexie Cummings, who was murdered by the IRA in Strabane. I have called for their murderers and the collaborators to be brought to justice, but nothing has been achieved, not because they did not deserve it—they did—but because they did not get their justice.
Kenneth Smyth’s sister and family, including my side of the family, long to see justice, yet we must trust in the most righteous judge of all. I am a Christian and I believe that you might escape justice in this world, but you will not escape it in the next. I believe that in my heart. I am sure that others here would concur with my sentiments. The righteous judge will mete out the appropriate justice to all those evil men and women who killed and have not been made accountable.
This debate was titled well: that consideration be given to the potential merits of an inquiry. I do see a family devastated and I want justice for them. At the same time, I see Kenneth Smyth’s family and Lexie Cummings’ family. I have a meeting coming up on a case that has come to me in the last few weeks. Private John Birch was one of the four Ulster Defence Regiment men murdered at Ballydugan, which I have spoken about in this House—two or three Members here will remember that debate. Of the four UDR men murdered, I knew three of them personally. I know where they come from. Private John Birch’s son seeks answers to assuage his perpetual grief. He wants an explanation. He has told me in an email that he needs to talk to me about it. I said I will do that.
In any consideration of any public inquiry, the consideration of the third of cases that remain unsolved must be enshrined within. Do the families that I have spoken about, my constituents, not deserve the same treatment? They do. With all due respect, who will meet my cousin Shelley and tell her why the disgraceful murder of Pat Finucane deserves a level of justice that Kenneth Smyth is unworthy of? Who will explain why her pain and quest for answers should not merit a public inquiry, but Pat Finucane’s does?
I wish—I mean this with all my heart—for every grieving person in the Province to have the closure that we all need and we all wish to have. I wish for every child to feel that the loss of their father or mother has not slipped by. I want to fight for Jonathon Birch to have the full story of the murder of his father at Ballydugan 30 years ago to be heard, just as it is being done on behalf of the Finucane family today. I will not say that one person must simply accept a life of pain and questions while someone else deserves attention from the Government— I say that very respectfully.
Unless someone will attend the homes of any of the 211 widows of RUC officers and tell them that the slaughter of their loved ones is acceptable but that of others is not, I will not be able to accept this call. Unless someone will tell a child whose father was taken away so early that he has no memories of him, that his pain is not deserving of a high-level intervention, I will not be able to accept this call. I say again that this is not tit for tat, or saying that my pain is worse that your pain—it is not that. It is acknowledging that the Government should not create levels of mourning.
I want peace. I want peace for the Finucanes, just as I want it for every family who still grieves, but public inquiries cannot be the solution. Pat Finucane’s death mattered, and it still does, but so did the killing of Kenneth Smyth and Lexie Cummings. The same is true of John Birch, Steven Smart, John Bradley and Michael Adams—the four UDR men killed at Ballydugan—and of Stuart Montgomery, an 18-year-old police officer who was murdered in Pomeroy. It is also true of the other 3,200 murders in the Province. Their loss is felt today, and the pain of the innocent matters. So does the call for equal justice and, indeed, for this nation collectively to move forward.
Unfortunately, we are missing a Member, so we will now move to the shadow Minister and then the Minister. Even though we have gained a bit of time, I ask that we make time for Colum Eastwood, given the importance of the debate, so that he has an opportunity to wind up at the end.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell—that rather exposes the idea that we are not being quite so genuine when other Members occupy the Chair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) on securing the debate and on his extremely powerful contribution about the merits of a public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. We have heard from Members with real lived experience of Northern Ireland about the merits of such an inquiry, and we have heard powerful, heartbreaking testimony about that murder and about many more from the troubles that remain unsolved and were never fully investigated.
Let me respond first to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), because he makes a powerful case. He and my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) are right to say that none of us is arguing for a hierarchy of victims. All of us want to see truth and justice delivered for the families of victims of the troubles, just as they would have received had their loved ones lost their lives anywhere else in the UK.
One of the tragedies of the troubles is that the killing of Pat Finucane was not distinctive enough to merit a public inquiry. Such brutal murders—many of which have never received even the pretence of an investigation, let alone one that is fully compliant with article 2 —numbered in their thousands, as the hon. Member for Strangford said. That remains one of the most significant and enduring elements of the Good Friday agreement that we have yet to deliver on in Westminster.
It is therefore reasonable to ask why the killing of Pat Finucane merits a public inquiry and more attention than any other murder during the troubles, not least the killing of police officers, veterans and civilians. As has been spelled out, however, the answer dates back to the Weston Park accord and the findings of Judge Cory, who recommended public inquiries into a number of murders. As we have heard, of the four inquiries that he recommended, only the killing of Pat Finucane remains outstanding. None of the subsequent investigations has met the legal standards that are held by the British Government. All have fallen short of the public inquiry that for too long the Finucane family have been campaigning for. Disgracefully, they have been forced yet again to take the Government to the highest court in the country in order to be told that the Government remain in breach of article 2 of the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998.
As we know, the Court stopped short of directing the Government to set up an independent inquiry, but the Labour party is clear, as indeed are the Finucane family, that it is the only legal way forward for the Government to proceed. If the Minister considers that they can meet their obligations in another way, we believe it is incumbent on him to lay out what options he considers are available to the Government.
Northern Ireland is a society that has made so much progress towards reconciliation in the past two decades, but the intervening years have served to demonstrate that families, communities and society as a whole will struggle to take the difficult remaining steps towards reconciliation until a solution is found to deal with the legacy of the past. It is dangerously naive to think that a veil can simply be drawn over so many atrocities and outrages that occurred over so many years.
We have an opportunity now for Northern Ireland to escape the grip of the past with a mechanism that delivers the truth about what took place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said, Operation Kenova and the outstanding work of Jon Boucher demonstrate that that is still possible, that there is a way forward and that a victim-centred approach can deliver the truth. That is what the majority of the victims, including the Finucanes, have been fighting for all these years. They have been fighting for a truth process that acknowledges the injustice of the past, clears their loved ones’ names and enables reconciliation. That was the essence of the Stormont House agreement and the basis on which consensus was reached. I say to the Minister, achieving that will be impossible without building that consensus.
Everything that has been achieved in Northern Ireland has been achieved on the basis of consensus. The Belfast, St Andrews, Hillsborough Castle, Stormont House and the New Decade, New Approach agreements were all made possible by painstakingly building consensus across communities and parties, and in partnership with the Irish Government. It would be foolish to think that that legacy should or could be any different.
Ministers committed 10 months ago to find that broad- based consensus on legacy, underpinned by the Stormont House mechanisms, so the departure from that approach in March this year caused enormous anger and shock from victims and people across Northern Ireland society. Trust in the Government’s approach has been understandably fractured in Northern Ireland. We are desperate for the Government to get this right.
I will repeat in public what I have said to the Secretary of State in private. We will work with the Government and help them to achieve consensus on this issue in a way that respects the Stormont House agreement and delivers on legacy. There must be no party politics for Labour and the Conservatives on this. As co-signatories to the Good Friday agreement, we deeply feel the duty for Westminster to get this right, whichever party is in power. It falls to our generation of politicians to take grave decisions and finally deliver on legacy.
I say to the Minister, it is time for the Northern Ireland Office to start engaging. I urge the Government to think carefully about their next steps, to work to build that broad-based consensus. Families have had to campaign for too long for the basics that would have been afforded them, had their loved-ones been murdered anywhere else in the United Kingdom. If we do not resolve this now, victims and survivors will be here in another 10 years’ time having the same debates, and the people of Northern Ireland will continue to suffer for our collective failure.
I am grateful for your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. Congratulations on taking the Chair. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this powerful debate. I see that the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) has just joined us and was unable to speak, but I am sure he would have made similarly powerful points.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) spoke passionately and poignantly on behalf of his constituents. I absolutely recognise the force and importance of his contribution. The murder of Patrick Finucane on 12 February 1989 in front of his family is one of the highest-profile cases from the troubles. As the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) said, it is a shocking case in any situation. It was an appalling crime and it caused tremendous suffering. I acknowledge the tributes paid to Mr Finucane’s family and their quest for justice in this respect.
Previous investigations have made it clear that there was collusion in this case. That was totally unacceptable and the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised publicly for what he described as the “shocking levels of collusion” that took place. I want to reiterate that apology today. This case is, sadly, but one example, as the hon. Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, of the violence and tragedy experienced by far too many individuals and families across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom during the troubles.
Members have referred to a number of tragic cases affecting far too many families, including the case of the Reavey brothers in 1976. I thank the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for the important intervention he has made on that matter, and I note that the Police Service of Northern Ireland Historical Enquiries Team found no wrongdoing whatsoever by Eugene Reavey in the incident that he raised.
Over 3,500 people were killed during the troubles, the vast majority at the hands of republican or loyalist terrorists. Many of those murdered were members of the police and security services, and it is only due to the courageous efforts of our police and security services that we have the peace and relative stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today. This Government are sincere and unstinting in their gratitude to those who served throughout the long years of the troubles to uphold the rule of law and democracy. Many hundreds of them, as we have heard, paid the ultimate price for doing so.
As the Government of the United Kingdom, we must be equally clear when the high standards to which we rightly hold ourselves and our service personnel have not been met. As hon. Members will be aware, the murder of Patrick Finucane has been the subject of a number of different investigations, some of which I will set out briefly. A major investigation into his death was launched immediately after the murder by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Responsibility for his murder was claimed by the proscribed loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Freedom Fighters the day after the murder.
An inquest into the cause and immediate circumstances of the death was held on 6 September 1990. Between September 1989 and April 2003, Lord Stevens, the former chief constable of the Metropolitan Police, carried out three separate investigations into allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, the third of which—Stevens 3—was specifically into Mr Finucane’s murder.
As a result of the Stevens 3 investigation Ken Barrett, a loyalist terrorist, was charged with the murder of Mr Finucane. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in September 2004. William Stobie, a former RUC agent, was also charged with aiding and abetting the murder of Patrick Finucane, but the Director of Public Prosecutions discontinued the prosecution in the light of concerns about the mental state of a key prosecution witness.
As part of the investigation, the Stevens 3 team also investigated allegations that RUC officers had encouraged the murder by providing information about Patrick Finucane, that they assisted in the aftermath by removing a roadblock, and that they failed to act on intelligence in the aftermath of the murder in relation to the movement of weapons. The investigation also included the operational activity of the Army’s force research unit, reviewing and analysing all material relating to the FRU’s operational activity. The findings and recommendations from the investigation were submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and in June 2007 the DPP directed that the test for prosecution had not been met.
A further independent review conducted by Sir Desmond de Silva, QC was announced on 12 October 2011. His terms of reference were to produce a full public account of any involvement by the Army, the RUC, the Security Service or any other Government body in the murder of Patrick Finucane. Sir Desmond had access to approximately 12,000 witness statements, 32,000 documents and more than 1 million pages of material produced as part of the three investigations led by Lord Stevens. He also sought and published a significant amount of additional material, including original intelligence documents, alongside his report. All relevant Government Departments and agencies co-operated fully and openly with his review.
The Historical Enquiries Team within the PSNI subsequently reviewed the content of the de Silva report to determine whether it provided any opportunities to progress the investigation into Mr Finucane’s murder. The investigating officer appointed to carry out the review concluded that there was no reason to review the decision of the Public Prosecution Service in 2007.
As we have heard, following judicial review proceedings the Supreme Court made a declaration that the state had not discharged its obligation to conduct an article 2 compliant investigation into the death of Mr Finucane; however, the court stopped short of ordering a full public inquiry, stating:
“It is for the state to decide, in light of the incapacity of Sir Desmond de Silva’s review and the inquiries which preceded it to meet the procedural requirement of article 2, what form of investigation, if indeed any is now feasible, is required in order to meet that requirement.”
Following the Supreme Court judgment, an independent review of previous investigations was commissioned by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), to help establish what steps should be taken to address the issues identified by the judgment. The current Secretary of State also met the Finucane family shortly after his appointment in February 2020.
The Secretary of State recognises the importance of reaching a properly informed decision on this matter and is committed to making that decision by the end of the month. That involves many complex issues, and it is right that he considers them all carefully. As the process remains ongoing, it is not appropriate for me to make further comment at this time. Although I am therefore not in a position to respond to all the specific points and requests made by Members, please be assured that I have listened carefully to them and they now form part of the public record.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I assure him that we will seek to update the House as appropriate. Clearly, the first response should be made to the court and to the family, but I will pass on that point to the Secretary of State and urge him to make the decision clear to the House at the first opportunity.
A number of Members raised concerns about progress on wider legacy reform. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to addressing the legacy of the troubles in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims and ends the cycle of reinvestigations that has failed victims and veterans alike. As with other priorities, progress on that has been affected by the circumstances of the past few months, but we are moving forward as quickly as we can.
The Government understand just how complex legacy issues are—that is why they remain unresolved, more than 20 years after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. However, we are determined to get it right, and we remain committed to working with all parts of the community in Northern Ireland, including victims’ groups and families, to do so. I recognise the challenge to engage in that respect from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and I can assure her that that engagement will be taking place.
It is vital that we now find a way forward that helps society in Northern Ireland to look forward together, rather than looking back to a divisive past. As the hon. Member for City of Durham said, we must ensure that, as we move this process forward, people can look forward to the future.
I thank all hon. Members who took part in the debate, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his words and for his attitude. Seamus Mallon once told me that every single death diminishes us all, and I stand by that principle today. I want truth for everybody: no matter where you came from, no matter who murdered you, you and your family deserve truth. I believe that our society deserves truth, and needs truth, because we cannot move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and partnership unless we take away the dark clouds and dark corners where this information is held.
I am also very grateful to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for righting a wrong today. A former Member for North Antrim made a scurrilous accusation in this place about Eugene Reavey. Eugene Reavey is one of the most decent, upstanding people I know, and what was said about him was absolutely wrong and totally hurtful. Why anybody would think that piling more pain on to a family—one of many such families—would have some sort of value, I just do not understand.
This is about all of us. Pat Finucane’s family are not trying to tell anybody that their pain is worse than anybody else’s or that their truth is more deserving than anybody else’s, but this case, as I and others have already said, goes right to the heart of the British Government’s involvement in Northern Ireland. The act of the murder, the cover-up of how it occurred and the denial of truth tell us a very clear story about the UK’s intervention in Northern Ireland.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I had shadow Front-Bench duties, which meant I could not take part in this debate earlier. I thank him for allowing me to make an intervention. I was a witness to the Macpherson inquiry on Stephen Lawrence. That single murder and that inquiry shone such a light on police practice in the UK that they fundamentally changed it. The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent winding-up speech. The same light, shone on the case of Pat Finucane, in terms of the police and Northern Ireland security services and their practices, such as the wiping of hard drives, could transform things in the way they were transformed post Stephen Lawrence. That is why I think this is such an important case, and the hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent case for it.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; that gets to the core of it. I just do not believe that our society will properly move forward unless we know the truth of what happened. I know the Minister says that legacy issues are complex—well, they are difficult, they are painful, but they are pretty straightforward. What people want is the truth. What is complex about that? We know how hard this is—we live it every single day. Pat Finucane’s family live it, the O’Dowds live it, the Reaveys live it and all the victims of our terrible, terrible conflict are living it still today, and our society is sick because of it.
The Minister has an opportunity to take some of that pain away, to shine some light into dark corners. The Government made this promise—20 years ago, a promise was made to a family and it has not been kept, and this Government have a responsibility to keep that promise. A full, public, independent judicial inquiry is all now that will suffice. The case has been made. The promises have been made. It is time now to deliver.
If we want to deliver on all of the truth and if we want to get right to the heart of it, to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, there is a process. It is agreed. It is another international agreement. It is called the Stormont House agreement. If we want to sort all these issues out, we must implement that, bring the victims in from the cold and deliver the truth that they require. That is what we need to move forward as a society, and I fundamentally believe that we will not do so unless this issue is dealt with.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of a public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane.