Wednesday 21 July 2021
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Channel 4: Privatisation
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered privatisation of Channel 4.
I am very relieved to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thankful to have secured this timely debate on the future of Channel 4.
Ministers have made it clear, for the sixth time, that they want to privatise Channel 4. They have issued what they ludicrously describe as a consultation document, in which they reveal that their preference is wholesale, 100% privatisation of Channel 4. They have also decreed that the exercise will close on 14 September, which leaves little parliamentary time to resist this act of wanton cultural vandalism and leaves the public only the summer holiday period in which to notice the existential threat that the Government’s actions pose to one of the most successful experiments in UK broadcasting history.
Channel 4 was established in 1982 with an unusual structure and remit. It is Government owned but wholly commercially funded, which means that it costs the taxpayer nothing. More important, Channel 4 has no shareholders and is free to reinvest all the surplus it can generate back into content production. That enables it to develop adventurous and experimental programming that would never find more conventional commercial backing and would therefore never see the light of day if Channel 4 did not exist in its current form.
Over the years, Channel 4 has developed such programming with some panache, and as a consequence the UK has a thriving cultural pool of TV and film production talent and punches well above its weight in the soft-power stakes of cultural influence on the global stage. Channel 4 has also nurtured a younger audience, which makes it especially attractive to advertisers and to those who wish to sponsor content.
Channel 4’s public service broadcasting remit obliges it, among other things, to be innovative, inspire change, nurture talent and offer a platform for alternative, culturally diverse voices. In the 39 years since its creation, Channel 4 has fulfilled its remit—and more. It has become a pint-sized film powerhouse with 37 Oscars and 84 BAFTAs. Film4, its production arm, has co-financed successes such as “The Favourite”, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave”, to name but a few. Its successful TV output this year alone includes the AIDS drama “It’s a Sin”; a comedy about a female Muslim punk band, “We Are Lady Parts”; and the magnificent “Grayson’s Art Club”, which got many of us through the lockdown in better shape than we would have been in without it.
The support the channel has given to the Paralympics has been inspirational and genuinely groundbreaking. Its news output, although controversial with Conservative MPs, includes “Unreported World”, the Heineken of news because it reaches the parts that others simply do not go to.
Since Channel 4 is prevented from undertaking any in-house production, it has played a leading role in growing the UK’s world-leading independent TV production sector. It works with more than 300 production companies a year, and has been responsible for directly investing £12 billion in the independent production sector since being established in 1982. That supports 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, a third of which are in the nations and regions of the UK. It also means that Channel 4 effectively acts as a kind of early-stage venture capital fund that takes risks and is able to finance innovation.
It is absolutely clear that the channel’s more risky and experimental programming would never see the light of day if it had to search for commercial backing. If it were not for Channel 4, many exciting and successful careers for writers, directors and performers might simply never have happened. Crucially, the country would have been much poorer in cultural terms if such unusual, diverse voices and talents had remained undiscovered and unfulfilled, their voices and viewpoints stifled and unheard. That model has proved to be robust and resilient, and it has come through the pandemic in good shape, so why on earth are the Government seemingly hellbent on destroying such a successful and innovative system?
Only five years ago, after an 18-month review, the then Culture Secretary, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), described Channel 4 as a “precious public asset” and declined to privatise it. She did, however, require it to establish hubs in the regions, which it is doing in Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester, alongside a new national headquarters in Leeds. Any sale is likely to reverse that decentralisation to the regions and would destroy the hubs before they had had a chance to establish themselves. That is a peculiar manifestation of the Government’s self-proclaimed mission to level up, whatever we think that oft-used slogan actually means. Why destroy a unique institution that more than pulls its weight in the national interest?
Ministers have been desperate to find arguments to revive the privatisation threat for a sixth time, and appear obsessed with completing this irreversible destruction despite the fact that there is no merit whatever in the proposal. The Minister for Media and Data, whose response to the debate I eagerly await, has had it in for the channel for decades. Last year, he told an audience at the Tory party conference that the channel was struggling financially, but it is not. It has just returned its highest ever pre-tax surplus of £74 million, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Ministers and some Tory MPs have also attempted to justify their obsession with an irreversible privatisation by claiming that UK media players need scale to compete with the Americans, but not all of them do. Moreover, Channel 4 is competing superbly well with the Americans in their own backyard, as its haul of Oscars shows. It is not trying to be a huge, mega-global media player. That was never its purpose. It occupies an incredibly valuable niche of distinctively British programming with a distinctive voice of its own. All 4, Channel 4’s advertising-funded video-on-demand service, has just posted results that demonstrate a 25% increase in views of its streaming services. Channel 4’s social platforms have had 4.2 billion content views. That once more demonstrates that Channel 4 is evolving to compete in the rapidly changing media environment of on-demand without changing its structure or ownership. Ministers have claimed that Channel 4 needs access to capital to compete, but its executives have denied that that is the case, and its record of producing innovative programming in a unique way bears them out.
Privatisation is often justified as a money-raising effort, but as Channel 4 does not produce content in-house, it has no lucrative back catalogue, and its value has been estimated at between £1 billion and £2 billion. That will make scarcely a dent against the £400 billion that the Government have borrowed and splashed around with such abandon during the pandemic, so money raising cannot be a reason behind the Government’s intention either. What on earth is going on? Why are Ministers hellbent on this destructive act?
When we look at the flimsy arguments that Ministers have used to justify this cultural vandalism, it is hard not to draw the more obvious political conclusion that the Government wish to destroy Channel 4 because they do not like the fact that it caters for diverse audiences and different viewpoints—that they are pursuing a hegemonic media project to control public discourse and they do not like dissenting voices.
There are some hints around. The output of Channel 4 has been described by one Tory MP as woke rubbish. The clue is in the dripping contempt for anything different. Anything that does not share the current Tory world view is beyond the pale and ripe for destruction.
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but she must also, I think, reflect the fact that these are Government proposals. Many of us in the Conservative party are questioning them in the same way that she is and will be very interested in what the Minister has to say in winding-up the debate. She must not characterise this as a “Tories versus Channel 4” debate.
I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman being one of, I hope, more than 40 Conservative MPs who appear in the Lobby to vote against any such privatisation proposals. If he can raise that number, I hope to be in the Lobby with him.
It is certainly the case, though, that “Channel 4 News” has refused to be cowed by the Government’s none-too-subtle attempts to intimidate it. Those manifested themselves most notoriously during the 2019 general election when—this may be the real reason that we are seeing what we are—the Prime Minister was replaced by a melting ice sculpture in the Channel 4 leaders’ debate on climate change, which he had characteristically shirked. Following that incident, an unnamed Tory source briefed that Channel 4 would be privatised as punishment for lampooning the prime ministerial no-show. A complaint was made to Ofcom, but it was subsequently thrown out.
To silence such dissent in the future, the Government have decided that Channel 4 will be privatised, and Ofcom taken over by new, hard-line appointees. The BBC has already been cowed. Our national discourse is being drained of different voices as a deliberate act of political ideology. That reminds me more of the authoritarian events going on in Hungary than of something I ever expected to witness in the UK.
I hope the Government will step back from the brink that they have moved towards. For Channel 4, privatisation will be irreversible—an act of vandalism that does irreparable damage to a model that has worked well and provided a unique source of innovation and support, nurturing a vibrant independent production industry that should be the pride of our country. Already, the big beasts—Disney, Netflix, Discovery, Google and Amazon—are beginning to circle, and the Minister for Media and Data is spending his time facilitating the interests of those corporate big beasts by hinting that in-house production will be allowed following privatisation and that Channel 4’s “edgy” remit will be changed.
So there we have it: a sale that threatens to destroy in one fell swoop the independent production industry that Channel 4’s remit and inability to produce in-house have fostered in the UK for the past 40 years. That is deliberate vandalism of all that is unique and successful about Channel 4. If privatisation happens, the bland dullness of US corporate regurgitation may well await us all.
That may serve the immediate interests of what some in the Conservative party believe, but it does not serve the interests of the country. How does the Minister think that it is in the country’s cultural interests to destroy Channel 4? Will his Department prepare and publish an impact assessment of its privatisation plans? How do the Government intend to change the remit of Channel 4 to facilitate a sale? How will privatisation protect innovative and experimental programming that comes from diverse and often unheard voices?
Ministers have also announced that the current ban on in-house production could end with privatisation. That would put the UK’s thriving independent production sector and the 10,000 jobs that it supports directly at risk. How will the Government protect the sector? Finally, how will flogging off Channel 4, possibly to one of the corporate digital giants, preserve the UK’s unique voice in the age of bland corporate entertainment?
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s detailed answers.
The winding-up speeches will begin at 10.28 am. Therefore, given the number of Members who have indicated on the call list that they wish to speak, I will introduce a four-minute limit for speeches. For those who have not already done so, please feel free to remove your jackets, as it is unseasonably warm, yet summer.
I endorse much of what the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) has said.
Nearly 20 years before I was elected to this House, when I was aged 12, I put stamps on envelopes to help to save the Third Programme, which then became Radio 3. The Minister may point out that when Channel 4 started broadcasting, I had been in the House for—I think—seven years.
There have been a number of considerations of privatising Channel 4, under Margaret Thatcher’s Government, John Major’s Government and Tony Blair’s Government. I think that the public records, now that they are open, will show that in 1996, when my wife was the Heritage Secretary, most of the Cabinet Sub-Committee agreed to privatise Channel 4 for about £1 billion. She and the Chancellor had a discussion, and more and more money was offered in exchange for other cultural projects. She had to explain that privatising Channel 4 was not a question of money; it was a question of right or wrong.
The only thing that will not happen if and—I hope—when Channel 4 is not privatised is that the Americans will not take it over. I was influenced in my youth by a man called Graham Spry, the legendary father of Canadian national broadcasting. When the network of local radio stations in Canada was put together, he said, “The choice is between the state and the United States”.
I have heard no argument from the Minister or from anybody else that allowing Channel 4 to be taken over by a US mega-conglomerate of broadcasting or entertainment would be in this country’s national interest, in the interests of those who produce programmes for Channel 4 or in the interests of those who watch it. We are not just talking about the existing audience for Channel 4, and its many programmes and many ways of putting those programmes out; we are talking about future viewers and listeners.
I will not go through the programmes that Channel 4 has made that are of value; I will not even go through the things it has done that have annoyed me. But the fact that an MP could be annoyed by what they see in an entertainment programme or a news programme is just par for the course. Those programmes are not there to make us happy the whole time; they are there to alert others to what is going on and to make others think, and hopefully to make us think as well.
If one goes through the history of some of the stories that “Channel 4 News” has broken in its individual way, one can see that it has had a good impact. If what it is doing is wrong, it is exposed and its makers will either feel ashamed or apologise, and there is always Ofcom to regulate it. However, if we count up the number of times when its distinctive approach has been of value to the country—I would argue to the Government as well, but that is less important; it is its value to the country that matters—we see that the model chosen for Channel 4 counts.
As the Minister may remind us—and, by the way, the Wikipedia article on Channel 4 needs significant updating—we were expecting a second commercial channel for 10, 15 or 20 years before it came; the button for it was there on the television sets. The way Channel 4 has managed to adapt and evolve has been important, and I pay tribute to those who have led that, to the different chairs and chief executives of Channel 4. On balance, it has clearly been a successful method of allowing for flexibility that is distinctive from the normal commercial channels in this country, and from the BBC.
The Minister needs to explain how privatisation will lead to more content investment and more jobs if the independent producers say that they feel threatened, how content investment will come, and why the Government are planning to change some of the restrictions on Channel 4 so that it could, in the short term, apparently have greater income, which may give a better multiple to the price that might be obtained if it were to be floated off on the market.
I would like to pick up where the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) left off, because I was two months old when Channel 4 began broadcasting. I have grown up with it, and I think it is a fantastic channel. I am incredibly proud that Channel 4 has its creative hub in my constituency, so I stand to support its work, the £200 million that it has spent on Scottish productions since 2007, its commitment to increase spend in Scotland, and its bringing on of young talent, which is incredibly important to the industry.
I was really impressed when I went to visit one of the initiatives that Channel 4 ran to bring talent stream into TV, where it is still a challenge to work with under-represented groups. It is working very hard to bring folk into the industry. As well as being based in Glasgow Central, Channel 4 is important for independent production companies in my constituency because it has invested in indies through the alpha fund, the emerging indie fund and the indie growth fund. Those indies take risks and do different types of broadcasting, but it is the public service broadcasting model that underpins all that work.
Last year, Channel 4 worked with 161 production companies up and down the country and in their communities. Although people might see the front door of Channel 4, they do not always see the front door of the production companies that employ so many more people in skilled jobs. Blazing Griffin is one such company based in my constituency. It is a medium-sized production company that specialises in post-production and video games, and it has 60 full-time employees in Glasgow. When I spoke to people there yesterday, they highlighted the importance of the regulated environment in which Channel 4 exists and made specific reference to the terms of trade, which mean that Channel 4 does not own its copyright. That gives production companies a huge advantage, because they can own their intellectual property and sell it domestically and internationally. That contributes to international trade for this country, which I think the Government have completely forgotten about. As hon. Members have pointed out, privatisation may mean that that unique selling point will vanish overnight and destroy, at a stroke, a hugely successful industry.
[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
Independent production companies have gone from making a contribution of £600 million in 2001 to £3 billion in 2019, and the UK punches well above its weight in that contribution. Naysun Alae-Carew of Blazing Griffin pointed out to me that the story of Channel 4 is not yet complete. The early fruits of its investment in the nations and regions and in young talent have not yet been completed, and it would be premature of the Government to try to flog off the channel and pull the plug at this stage because there is a lot more to do in order to bring new voices to television, to bring in the nations and regions, and to bring black, Asian and minority-ethnic talent and working-class talent into TV. Channel 4, almost uniquely, is absolutely committed to doing that.
Blazing Griffin is working in a long-term, full-time and high-quality area in post-production jobs, and it points out that we need to look beyond the crew and location work that we often see at the front of TV, and to increase the spread of highly skilled, very stable and very lucrative jobs in areas such as post-production. As Blazing Griffin has pointed out, the Channel 4 model is absolutely crucial to that.
A lot has been said about Netflix, but Netflix also does post-production in the UK, and can do so only because of the Channel 4 ecosystem. Naysun Alae-Carew pointed out to me yesterday that when US states with incentives or short-term measures cut their investment—New Mexico was given as an example—the production companies and big corporates just move on to the next state. It would be incredible if the UK Government decided to pull the plug and allow a highly successful, talented and skilled industry in this country to fold for short-term gain. It would devastate the industry here, so I urge the Minister to consider the full ecosystem that exists because of the unique position that Channel 4 is in.
I draw the House’s attention to my interests as set out in the register. I approach this debate in a slightly less certain and more inquiring way than the very eloquent mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). I ask myself, what sort of media do we want to serve our constituents? My own experiences of the media are quite well balanced— I have suffered but I have also benefited enormously from the media.
All around the world, the lesson is that the strongest, safest societies have independent, raucous, cynical, largely unfettered and disrespectful media. That is what keeps us safe as citizens and defends our human rights and civil liberties. The question is, where does Channel 4 fit into that? It caters for minority tastes and diversity in modern Britain. It aids inclusivity. Its news quality is outstanding. In independent surveys it is the most trusted outlet; look at the experience of people like Cathy Newman, Jon Snow, Gary Gibbon and Matt Frei. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the coverage of Syria, and the depth and the decent length of interviews on what is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe that the world has faced in the last two decades—the numbers on the move into Europe are absolutely staggering.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to “For Sama”, a film made by Channel 4 that would not have been made by other outlets. It is brilliant, moving and was shown in Parliament. We have seen what Channel 4 has done for Paralympic sports and on the Sri Lankan atrocities. As recently as last night, it was praised by John Kerry for the Exxon revelations.
Channel 4 is different from the BBC. It is true that all around the world the BBC is venerated—look at the work of the BBC World Service. When I had responsibility for these matters, I increased its funding ninefold because it is so important. The hugely elevated level of international coverage under James Landale is known to us all but, unlike Channel 4, the BBC is extremely establishment. It is often criticised by colleagues, particularly colleagues in Government, for being biased. But the BBC tries to hold the Government to account, and I would argue that in some ways it is too close to the Government—it may pull its punches because it is worried about the funding model or, indeed the charter. Channel 4 occupies a unique position in our national media.
I come to my questions for the Minister, who is extremely experienced in this area, and I hope that he will answer them. First, will he ensure that there is an impact assessment before rather than after the decision is made? Secondly, what evidence does he have that privatisation will encourage more content investment and more jobs? All previous reports, as the hon. Lady said, including the Government’s own from 2017, concluded that Channel 4’s remit is better served in public ownership.
Fourthly, have the Government addressed the genuine dilemma—I speak here as a strong supporter of capitalism—of whether there could be a conflict of interest in pursuing public policy objectives where the pursuit of profit is the underlying model? Channel 4 does not take money from the taxpayer; it is publicly owned but commercially funded and 100% of its revenue is reinvested in the organisation. It has a new headquarters, not in Birmingham, I regret, but in Leeds, which is out of London—that is very important. It is a huge boost to the British film industry through Film4 and it commissions rather than produces its own programmes, which hugely stimulates and expands the private sector. Those are important matters and I hope very much that in making this case, the Minister will address them.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing this important debate. As broadcasters including Sir David Attenborough have warned, the privatisation of Channel 4 would have disastrous and far-reaching consequences for the film and television sector. The UK’s creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, widely admired across the world. Channel 4 sits at the heart, with its distinct remit to reinvest profits into commissioning. All that would be jeopardised by privatisation.
The claim that the consultation now under way is a response to a changing broadcasting landscape is not believable. The Minister first advocated privatisation all the way back in 1996. His attempts to push through privatisation when he was Culture Secretary were frustrated only because David Cameron, the Prime Minister who sold off Royal Mail for a pittance, recognised the irreparable harm that would do to the wider cultural sector.
In fact, despite all the challenges posed by the rise of the streaming giants, Channel 4 continues to thrive, both critically and commercially. Last year, the channel recorded a record £74 million pre-tax surplus, while also bagging a prime-time Emmy for its coverage of the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. Viewing figures for the terrestrial channels and All 4 continue to rise. The Minister is confecting a crisis where none is, in order to provide a flimsy pretext for privatisation.
The Minister should come clean about the Government’s motivations. This is not about money; it is about ideology. He wants Channel 4 to be consigned to the dustbin of history because it is simply too good at doing what it is supposed to do. For four decades it has been a leading provider of innovative content that resonates, not just with communities across Britain but across the globe. It is a showcase of what is possible when things are run in the interests of the public good and not for private profit. Since its inception, “Channel 4 News” has spoken truth to power and exposed injustices and corruption at home and abroad. That is something that this Government and this Prime Minister simply cannot stand.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and I thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing it. I am pleased to appear via a TV screen for a debate about TV.
One thing I learned early in my career running a media business is the value of taking risks, the need for platform commissioners to try different, find new talent and be experimental with subject matter. That is what gives creative businesses their edge. It is imperative that we regularly review the broadcasting landscape; technology is changing at great pace. It is also important to recognise that no business can exist in aspic. To suggest that nothing should ever change at Channel 4 would frankly be ridiculous, particularly given the significant shifts that we have seen on a global basis, the rise of platforms and the arrival of media organisations, such as Amazon and Netflix, in the past decade.
However, it is easy to overlook the unique nature of Channel 4, which has massive benefits to UK plc. I want to stress that my comments are not particularly related to the popular programmes seen on Channel 4, such as “Gogglebox” or “The Great British Bake Off”, which I am sure would find a place on any mainstream broadcast channel. We are fortunate in the UK to have a public service broadcasting ethos that runs through the core of our broadcasting networks. I strongly support Channel 4’s continued work in that area, even when sometimes I do not agree with the tone or the approach the channel takes. It is important that we have plurality of voices and ideas. The space and time Channel 4 gives to new, different and sometimes challenging content, from emerging producers across the UK, is what makes Channel 4 particularly valuable among the wide range of publishers that are available today.
Channel 4’s unique design in the 1980s, under a Conservative Government, has turned Channel 4 into one of the most creative platforms on the planet. That has immense benefit to GB plc, and to thousands of small businesses in constituencies such as mine, up and down the country. Channel 4’s model as a content commissioner from external production companies means it does not make any of its own programmes and it therefore allows independent producers to retain intellectual property rights. It is IP that has real value. Channel 4 provides that seed funding for production companies, funnelling money generated from advertising directly into the creative sector. That publisher-broadcaster model is unique among public service broadcasters. Having run a media business, I struggle to see how the idea of not owning IP would be compatible with a model that prioritised profit.
The Government consultation asked for views on removing the publisher-broadcaster element of Channel 4’s model. I worry that making that change will damage the super-creativity of the sector, forcing out new, untested content producers who, without the opportunity to produce something for Channel 4 to be broadcast—perhaps off-peak in the early hours of Sunday morning—would not get the break that would lead them to produce bigger and better content that might become a global hit, produced here in the UK.
I am keen to highlight the investment in British film. Channel 4 spends more on UK film than any other broadcaster based in this country. It is rather good at it too. Film4 has collectively won 37 academy awards and 84 BAFTAs. In 2021, “The Father” won best actor and screenplay at the Oscars.
I conclude by asking the Minster a couple of questions. How does he envisage the remit of Channel 4 changing were it to be privatised? I am experienced enough to know that many owners buy a media product and then their first port of call is Ofcom to ask for a licence change. How will the Minister ensure that that does not happen? What impact does he envisage on smaller independent production companies, were Channel 4 to be privatised, and how might he mitigate those changes?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue.
I am a child of the ’50s and ’60s. If we cast our minds back, there was a great deal of American stuff on our television—“The Lucy Show”, “Batman”, Dick Van Dyke, and on and on it went. Just before the pandemic, I and others from this place had occasion to visit NASA in Florida. After the day was done, we had dinner with the astronauts, all the NASA officials and their wives. Over pudding, the wives talked about the shows they really liked. They said that we had some “swell stuff” coming across the Atlantic.
While we have name-checked some of the great shows that Channel 4 has produced, I will add two more films: “The Madness of King George” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. One of the American wives looked at me and said, “You know, you just remind me of one of the characters in that ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’.” I thought she meant Hugh Grant, but she said, “No, the goofy preacher guy.” This is soft power, which has already been alluded to. It is a real change from what went before when we had so much American telly on British telly. We know just how important that is to this country.
That was about looking outward. Looking inward, Members have mentioned what is achieved through delivering public service content that speaks to the nation. “Gogglebox” has been mentioned, as have “Channel 4 News” and “The Great British Bake Off”. Think what an impact it has had on people’s lives. The Paralympics have changed our attitudes towards disability. It is arguable that “It’s a Sin” has led to a rise in HIV testing. It has been good for the nation.
All the other points have been touched on. It is private money in a public enterprise, and all that money is reinvested. That is incredibly important. Look how well Channel 4 did during the pandemic. It passed through with flying colours and has repaid all the furlough money, which is really something.
I conclude with one of my favourite quotes, which is a message I send, with the greatest politeness, to the Minister. It is a conversation between Mr Charles James Fox, the erstwhile leader of my party in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and Mr William Pitt the Younger, arguably one of the greatest Prime Ministers that the country has ever seen and a Conservative, from “The Madness of King George”:
“FOX: Do you enjoy all this flummery, Mr Pitt?
PITT: No, Mr Fox.
FOX: Do you enjoy anything, Mr Pitt?
PITT: A balance sheet, Mr Fox. I enjoy a good balance sheet.”
Channel 4 pays its way and reinvests its money, and that strikes me as something that is unusual and very good for this country. We chuck Channel 4 under a bus at our greatest peril.
The 31 October 2018 was a day of profound joy in Yorkshire. It was the day when Channel 4 announced that Leeds would be its new home. It is not often that we celebrate something started by Maggie Thatcher in Leeds. Just three years later, we hear that Channel 4 may be privatised, with little realistic prospect that some global media company will want to headquarter its new UK asset, with the largest free streaming service in the UK, in Yorkshire. In a small space of time, all the work done and investment decisions made, which are benefiting some of the most left-behind communities in the country, will be undone so the Government can tick some culture war box that says everything has to be run by space cowboy billionaires or sovereign wealth funds who do not care about our sovereignty.
Channel 4’s publicly owned but entirely commercially funded model means it can operate in a way that no other British broadcaster can: it puts public service before profit at zero cost to the taxpayer. It is for and owned by the people. This distinctive model generates economic, cultural and social impact in Yorkshire and across the UK. Channel 4, as it stands, will not put a billionaire into space, but it will give thousands of jobs to Yorkshire folk.
What has Channel 4 achieved through its unique commercial funding model for Yorkshire and other centres outside London? Some £843 million has been invested in production in the north of England since 2009. Channel 4 will have around 400 roles based outside London by the end of this year. The new national headquarters has already been the catalyst for a clustering of TV, film and creative organisations in our region. It includes a number of independent production companies, the new UKTV Leeds hub, the trade association PACT—the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television—opening a new office and the country’s first Centre of Screen Excellence.
Channel 4’s new emerging indie fund is designed to help indies outside London to break through key stages of growth. The emerging indie fund replaced the alpha fund, which invested in many production companies in the north of England over the years, supporting early development and growth. The indie accelerator provides development funding and bespoke support for 10 indies with black, Asian and minority ethnic leadership, including ClockWork in Leeds. The indie growth fund supports the UK’s independent creative sector by investing in UK-based small and medium-sized enterprises, taking minority stakes to help them grow their businesses to the next stage. Growth fund investments include Yorkshire-based companies Candour, Duck Soup and True North.
What has that meant for public sector broadcasting during covid? Leeds-based Candour Productions produced “The Truth About Long Covid”, which was filmed entirely in Bradford, and Leeds start-up ClockWork Films produced “Ramadan in Lockdown”. Channel 4 only commissions content from external production companies and therefore allows independent producers to retain the IP. Channel 4 funnels the money generated from advertising directly into the creative sector. This publisher-broadcaster model is unique among public service broadcasters but would not be compatible with a model that prioritises profit.
Channel 4’s model is robust and highly resilient. It has been tested by the pandemic and a sharp decline in advertising spend, alongside the rest of sector, but Channel 4 ended 2020 with a significant financial surplus. The corporation was able to repay its furlough payments and avoid the drastic measures taken by other media organisations, such as mass lay-offs or pay cuts for junior staff. In a privatised future, the victims would be British staff at the expense of foreign billionaires. Its model allows Channel 4 to put public service at the core of everything it does.
Thus far, the Minister has not produced an economic impact assessment for privatisation, nor a plan for one prior to making the decision. Perhaps today will be the day. We all suspect that there will not be one, as it would show that, rather than levelling up Yorkshire, privatisation will significantly level it down, with a dismantling of our independent production sector replaced by foreign imports and the old boys of Soho making our programmes once more. That is why I am working with Tracy Brabin and our metro Mayors across the north, as well as the Co-op party, to look at mutualisation, not only to keep Channel 4 in Yorkshire but to keep it in public hands. That is the only way to guarantee its unique offer into the future. If this privatisation goes ahead, it will be the tombstone of this Government’s cultural policy.
I thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing this debate on what she described as the wanton cultural vandalism that the UK Government are planning. The UK Government’s plan to privatise Channel 4 is completely unjustified. It is politically motivated and totally vindictive. When viewed in the wider context of other legislation going through Parliament on voter suppression, the right to peaceful protest and undermining the Electoral Commission, it is deeply worrying for our democracy.
Not only is this further evidence of a Government allergic to criticism and terrified of independent scrutiny; they are also ideologically driven to undermine anything that proves that public service can be delivered by a publicly owned organisation. By any measure, Channel 4 is and has been a success. It has more than met the remit it was given. As we have heard, it has been responsible for some of the greatest creative and commercial successes in UK television and film in the past 40 years. It has given creative opportunities to people who otherwise would never have had their voice or ideas heard, and it has taken a London-centric industry and reminded it that there is life on these islands beyond London. In short, Channel 4 has achieved what it was asked to do, and viewers like what it does.
Why are this Government so determined to change something that has been a demonstrable success? It is not for the money: the way Channel 4 is structured means that it does not have shelves of tapes or mountains of intellectual property rights waiting to attract a potential buyer. Any money generated would likely be absolutely minimal.
It is beyond credible that the UK Government honestly believe that UK viewers would be better served by Channel 4 being subsumed by one of the huge international TV conglomerates. As it is currently constituted, Channel 4 can experiment with format and take risks with new writers, and it can occasionally bomb without having to explain why profits might be down this year to an angry accountant representing a consortium of international investors. Let us be honest: not one of those multinational TV giants will give two hoots for the hugely successful model of spending outside London and supporting independent film and television production in the nations and regions.
The Government also know that even though Ofcom found that the multi-award winning “Channel 4 News” has been one of the most trusted media sources of information during the pandemic, no giant profit-driven multinational TV conglomerate will invest the money to continue to support it. That is where this begins to make sense: in the absence of any commercial, creative or public interest reasons for privatising Channel 4, one can conclude only that the motivation is politically driven spite. Channel 4 is the one thing that the Government fear most: a public service broadcaster that delivers good, informed and wholly independent news, and that makes people think, question and challenge what is going on around them.
Unlike the BBC, Channel 4’s greatest strength is that it provides that public service without relying on the UK Government for its finance. Unfortunately, its greatest strength has become its greatest weakness. This Government are gerrymandering the electoral map, curtailing citizens’ right to protest, and removing the teeth of the country’s electoral watchdog, so the last the thing they want is an independent non-compliant media. That, more than anything else, explains why they are determined to privatise Channel 4. The Government know that if they do, it will not come back, but has that not been their intention from the very start?
I am secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, so naturally, when this issue came up again, I sought a meeting with those at the NUJ and talked with them about their views, and they consulted their members. I think we are all in the same position: we just cannot believe that this matter has come around yet again—especially those of us who were involved in the 2016 discussions, when we thought that the future of Channel 4 had been sensibly resolved. The privatisation seems to be a particular obsession of the Minister—it is almost as though he needs some counselling. It has become an addictive obsession that he has been pursuing since the 1990s, as others have said, and it is completely irrational.
From the trade union point of view, we look at the security of jobs and the economics of the organisation that we are negotiating with. When looking at the economic performance of Channel 4, I cannot for the life of me understand what the problem is for the Government. The latest figures show a record £74 million pre-tax surplus. As other hon. Members have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), Channel 4 is now opening up offices around the country—hubs in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol—and is doing exactly what the Government want by investing in the regions as part of the levelling-up strategy. Channel 4 is economically sound and completely in line with the Government’s policy direction.
Channel 4 provided 10,600 jobs across the UK in 2019, of which 3,000 were jobs supported by Channel 4 in the nations and regions. As the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) set out, it is working with private sector producers to bring forward talent on an eminent scale. It has done so successfully, and has been well rewarded by the various independent bodies that adjudicate on these matters.
It is very difficult to understand the rationale for the Government’s pursuit of this privatisation. Others have given their views about the range of attitudes. The Father of the House has demonstrated yet again his wide-ranging experience of what has been going on over decades. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), in a very balanced way, indicated the concerns that he and many others in the Conservative party have. Paul Siegert, the NUJ’s national broadcasting organiser, gave a true reflection of its members’ views in saying:
“It’s hard to see any justification for privatising Channel Four other than ideology. Channel 4 has achieved what it was asked to do and has proved a hit with viewers.”
If it is not broken, why are the Government proposing the fix of privatisation? Four years ago—I remember this, because I was there—the Government said that Channel 4 would continue to be owned by the public. In our view, they should honour that promise. I hope they see sense. I have to say that the consultation that is going on, particularly over the summer period, flies against all the rules of consultations.
Let me ask one final question of the Minister. At the moment, the Government are being advised by a panel they set up on the future of public service broadcasting. The panel does not publish its minutes and is not meeting in public. Why is that happening? Why is it not more open and transparent? Why can the Minister not explain the role of the panel, and indeed its composition? That generates concerns that there is more to this than any rational thought about the future of broadcasting. It is more about ideology, and maybe an element of political spite.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this matter. I thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for leading this debate on the privatisation of Channel 4.
Channel 4 has been around for many years and has provided many years of entertainment to the British public. It was introduced in 1982 under Thatcher’s Government, and was set to lead as the second largest commercial broadcaster in the UK. It followed ITV, after its birth in ’54.
Television and visual entertainment have proven incredibly necessary throughout the covid-19 pandemic. They have become a much-valued tool for many people, and we were most definitely thankful for them during lockdown.
Recent statistics show that 16% to 17% of Channel 4 viewers are aged 16 to 34, showing that there is a keen interest in Channel 4 shows, particularly among the younger generation. Interestingly, recent figures show that the quarterly reach of Channel 4 television in the United Kingdom is now some 51.1 million viewers, highlighting that there is still a call for the channel itself.
In recent years, large television broadcasters have proven dominant in the TV industry. Others have referred to Netflix, iPlayer, BritBox and so on. As a traditionalist, I usually watch the channels in front of me. I just about control the handset for switching channels. Fewer people are watching channels such as the BBC and Channel 4. I wonder why that is. We all watch television programmes that we are interested in. I have to admit that there are few programmes that I would be inclined to watch on Channel 4, and in all honesty there are certain things that I take exception to, but I do watch it for the films and the news, because they are both good. It provides an opportunity to follow those.
However, I would like to praise Channel 4 for the work it does with Stand Up to Cancer and charity TV programmes. There are many things that it should be commended for—not forgetting, of course, “The Great British Bake Off”, which is a household favourite, not because I can cook or bake but because I like to watch those who can.
I would not be against the privatisation of any channel if it meant that there were programmes available to cover interests for a range of people, regardless of age or political beliefs. Some of my constituents have been in touch with me ahead of this debate and have expressed the same concern: that there is simply not much that they would choose to watch. We have to have a channel that gives variety and opportunity, and that people are inclined to watch.
One brilliant factor is that Channel 4 runs solely on commercial, self-organised funds. An issue that has come to light, perhaps for older members of the public, is the payment to have no advertisements for Channel 4 on-demand. Many will inquire whether those fees would still be incurred after privatisation, so any change could well mean a change in the cost for those who view the programmes they wish to watch on Channel 4. On the other hand, many would argue that Channel 4 could become a for-profit company, with the programme quality drastically decreasing. That is a concern that I have and that others have also expressed. We also have to consider whether the producers of programmes would be comfortable airing their shows via private means.
I thank Channel 4 for all the entertainment that it has provided for us. It should be credited for offering a free channel that we in the UK are able to take advantage of to watch the programmes that we desire to watch. However, I also feel that, if a service is national and available to all, its content should also be suited to all. That is something that I would like to see. When it can be argued that some of the programmes are inaccessible for some sections of the community, a call for reform or change is required.
There is certainly scope for the channel to remain. The figures show that Channel 4’s share of viewing among black and minority ethnic audiences has grown by 3% over 2020, which is good news, and that its 16-34 linear viewing share in all time has grown by 9% on 2019—more than any other terrestrial channel. However, when this does not cover the national population, there are suggestions that privatisation could improve viewing demographics. I urge the Government to keep that in mind and put our constituents’ views at the forefront of decision making.
Here we go again. Only four years ago, in what turned out to be the Government and Channel 4’s phoney war, the privatising zealots were licking their lips at the thought of a corporate takeover at Channel 4, a much-loved public service broadcaster. After all, bus, water and rail privatisations under the Tories had been such resounding successes, so why not turn to yet another institution about which they knew absolutely nothing? In the end, the privatising zealots backed off. Why? The then Secretary of State told us at the time that Channel 4 works, that it delivers on its remit and that privatising it would involve too much grief for too little financial return.
In the intervening years, nothing has changed—well, apart from an 80-seat Tory majority and an enhanced desire to clip the wings of a pesky station with a news outlet that No. 10 fears for its independence and high journalistic standards. The thing is that Channel 4 does work. The Conservatives are fond of reminding us that they set it up. They did, and it delivers on the remit that it was given.
On diversity in programming and staffing, Channel 4 has been a trailblazer for women, black and minority ethnic people, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as people living with disabilities. According to Ofcom, Channel 4 employs a greater proportion of women than any other public service broadcaster. The same is true of staff with disabilities. In 2019, Channel 4 also committed to doubling its target for employing staff with disabilities from 6% to 12%. According to last year’s Ofcom report, more than 10% of staff at Channel 4 were living with disabilities. Channel 4 News has a higher proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic viewers than any other public broadcaster in the UK.
Channel 4’s commitment to diversity stems from its statutory remit to appeal to culturally diverse groups, to offer alternative perspectives and to nurture new talent. That is underpinned by Channel 4’s unique not-for-profit model. It is lamentable, therefore, that only months after we discovered that the BBC has so far spent over £1 million in legal fees fighting equal pay cases, the UK Government are now seeking to put one of our best and most diverse public service broadcasters at risk through a threatened, albeit sleekitly planned, privatisation.
I came out as gay—the first BBC network TV presenter to do so—when I was presenting BBC Breakfast on BBC 1. My bosses were furious, and my BBC Breakfast presenting gig was soon over. By contrast, over at Channel 4, the company was blazing a different, more inclusive trail. In February 1999, the first episode of the award-winning series “Queer as Folk” aired. Written by Russell T. Davies, the series chronicles the lives of three gay characters living in Manchester, and it marked a significant watershed moment for LGBT programming across these islands. For the first time, young gay men had people like themselves portrayed proudly onscreen. Fast forward to 2021, and both Channel 4 and Russell T. were breaking new ground again with the incredible “It’s a Sin”, which powerfully depicted the human impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic. What is more, the show has been credited with an upsurge in HIV testing, taking the channel’s public service obligations to a whole new level.
In news and current affairs, Channel 4 has also been trailblazing, with outstanding, high-quality factual output, in particular “Channel 4 News” and “Unreported World”. In an age of festering misinformation and disinformation and plummeting trust in the media, impartial and accurate public service broadcasting has never been so important. Public service broadcasters such as Channel 4 have been lifelines during the pandemic, providing coverage of daily briefings from leaders in all our nations across the UK. Huge efforts have been made to ensure that expert voices are featured and truthful information provided, in accordance with the public service broadcasting ethos.
As the vaccine is rolled out, Channel 4 coverage could not be more appreciated. In a world where anyone can spread disinformation and misinformation about covid, it is vital that we bolster the presence of our public service broadcasters on TV and online as a means of combating it.
The privatisation of Channel 4 would almost inevitably mean cuts. No privatised company would fund “Unreported World” or the Channel 4 daily news programme at its current length. Of course, that is perhaps what the Government want. A privatised Channel 4 would bring more commercially lucrative entertainment output. It might mean editorial lines being subjected to the whims of advertising and profit. We cannot afford to lose a second of factual programming in the dangerous times in which we live.
The Government have presented no serious case for the privatisation of Channel 4. If they press ahead, privatisation would see profit put first. It would mean slashing the half a billion pounds which go annually to independent production companies. There would also be a centralisation of Channel 4’s headquarters—the very antithesis of levelling up. Perhaps most concerning of all, we would likely see cuts to Channel 4’s hard-hitting news and current affairs programming, which effectively hold this Government to account. I suspect that is why the UK Government are so passionate about the prospect of privatisation. With record profits recorded last year and not a single penny taken from the taxpayer, it is certainly not to satisfy any public demand to tinker with—or attack—this much-loved public institution.
We all know what this is about for the Government. It is revenge—payback time, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the Conservative Chair of the DCMS Committee has suggested. Channel 4 is all the things it is meant to be: innovative, inclusive, and, above all else, independent. The Secretary of State wants it brought under control. It is time for us as MPs to defend independent programme-making and journalism.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Fovargue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) on her outstanding introduction. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed today, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I was expecting my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to mention “Derry Girls” in his speech, so passionate is he about Northern Ireland. I am sure at some point he will.
British television is renowned and envied around the world, and Channel 4 is no exception. For nearly four decades, Channel 4 has given us an endless list of brilliant, progressive and world-leading programmes. It is a British success story which gives small British independent companies with a drive of entrepreneurship and innovation an opportunity to take on the world.
Channel 4 was established to provide distinctive and challenging output to complement the then three main channels and to drive forward growth in the independent TV production sector. By any measure, and as hon. Members have suggested, it has far exceeded those goals. Channel 4’s remit remains clear and its output sharp, challenging, diverse and entertaining. It is there to appeal to a wider and younger audience and, according to Ofcom, it is doing very well to fulfil that purpose.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, I do not often praise Margaret Thatcher, but I cannot deny that her changes to the broadcasting landscape gave us Channel 4. However, although the channel was launched under a Conservative Government, successive Conservative Governments have threatened to sell it off and privatise it; I believe that this is the sixth attempt to do so. “Yet again” was the phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. This time, the Government seem more determined than ever to succeed, despite completely—
I hope the hon. Gentleman is not opposing this proposal on the grounds of privatisation per se, because it is for the Minister to tell us whether privatisation could add to the many points that have been raised in support of Channel 4. Will he make it clear that he would not oppose privatisation if he thought that it would benefit the objectives that we all want to see Channel 4 fulfil?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have a presumption against privatising successful public assets, simply because among Conservatives there is an ideological presumption in favour of privatisation. However, if he will bear with me, he may well find that I address that point in my speech—at least, I hope I do.
It may well be right once in a while to review the make-up of Channel 4. However, it seems that the Government have simply presented a done-deal proposal rather than an inclusive and thought-out consultation. The decision to press ahead with the proposal to privatise Channel 4 has surprised many in the industry, as there does not seem to be any solid evidence behind the Government’s proposals. In fact, as we have heard, Channel 4 has just had one of its best financial years on record.
Many people do not realise that Channel 4 is publicly owned but funds itself almost entirely through advertising, and it reinvests any profits into new British programming. In other words, although it is publicly owned, it does not cost the taxpayer a single penny. When the advertising market dropped last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government saw an opportunity to attack the broadcaster once again. However, despite the hit to advertising spend, Channel 4 has bounced back stronger than ever. It has reported a record £74 million pre-tax surplus and an increase in viewing figures across all its platforms, and it is on track to top £1 billion in revenues for the first time this year. Its streaming viewers are up by 30% on last year, the linear portfolio is up by 4% and there have been 4.2 billion content views on social platforms.
As hon. Members have alluded to, we are all aware that the Government have had a bumpy relationship with “Channel 4 News” and a number of close run-ins with it—indeed, that is true not just for the Government, but for MPs from across the political spectrum. However, the Government cannot simply run away from scrutiny and throw a tantrum every time they dislike something. The Conservatives—or, I say with respect to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, some Conservatives—complain about a cancel culture, but this is a perfect example of the sinister trend with this Government of closing down or selling off any mechanism that can scrutinise or oppose them. In view of the figures mentioned earlier and the information available, can the Minister assure us that any decisions on the future of Channel 4 are made on the basis of concrete evidence and not simply based on an ideological vendetta against the broadcaster?
Not only do the Government’s proposals make no sense, but they would be catastrophic for the creative sector, particularly independent British TV companies. Channel 4’s success has been instrumental in helping to grow the UK’s world-beating creative industry. The channel has invested £12 billion in the independent production sector, and each year it works with more than 300 production companies.
Channel 4 has also been investing in regional TV and production, and giving voice to communities right across the UK, long before “levelling up” became the latest empty Tory slogan; other hon. Members have already mentioned that today. The channel is crucial in both representing people and providing jobs for people right across the country.
As well as people directly employed by Channel 4, the channel supports over 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, 3,000 of which are in the UK’s nations and regions. As hon. Members have mentioned, Channel 4 is now a truly national organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West has said, it has opened up its new headquarters in Leeds; he and Tracy Brabin, our former parliamentary colleague, are fighting hard to support that move. Channel 4 has set up creative hubs in Glasgow and Bristol, to make the channel more reflective of UK life. Nearly 400 Channel 4 roles will be located outside London by the end of 2021, and the channel is also committed to investing at least 50% of its spend outside London from 2023, bringing jobs and investment to all parts of the UK.
Changing the very DNA of Channel 4 will mean that indie TV production companies simply will not have the opportunities that they have now. They will be hit by a double whammy. Not only will they not be able to make programmes, but they will not even be able to own the IP, and they will essentially become service provider companies to potential buyers. The plan would suppress the brilliant entrepreneurship and innovation of the UK’s production industry. If the Government’s proposals go ahead, they will clip the wings of one of the most successful industries in Britain.
The creative industries are a key growth area and will be crucial to the UK’s economic recovery after the pandemic. Office for National Statistics data show that in summer 2019, 9% growth in the TV and film sector was key to the UK avoiding recession. The sector has been growing at five times the rate of the UK economy and contributes £111.7 billion to it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) have asked, what assessment has the Department made of the impact of its proposal on the wider creative sector? Was an impact assessment made when drawing up the proposal?
The proposal would also impact on the UK on the global stage. Channel 4 is a national asset with a global reach. As an exporter of uniquely produced content, Channel 4 projects British talent, culture and soft power around the world, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). It was created to reflect the cultural diversity of the UK through programming, boosting Britain’s reputation overseas and showcasing British values to the rest of the world.
Channel 4 has commissioned formats and shows that producers can then sell around the world, helping to launch hundreds of UK creative businesses on to the global stage and generating British IP. The UK independent sector is now worth £3 billion, and it exports soft power around the world through formats, talent and sales.
There is also success at the award ceremonies. Channel 4 spends more on British film than any other UK broadcaster does. Film4 films have collectively won 37 Academy awards and 84 BAFTAs. As the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned, in 2021 “The Father” won best actor and best screenplay at the Oscars. From the outside it looks as though the Government are punishing success. In reality, they are passing on British success to their mates and big companies in America, once again showing where their true loyalties lie.
We all know that big foreign tech companies have only money on their minds, so I simply cannot see them showing any sympathy for Channel 4’s current remit and structure. That is bad news for the TV production industry and the unrepresented voices in the UK. We cannot lose Channel 4’s distinctive remit and let it simply become Channel 4.5—in other words, like Channel 5.
The Government may well argue that this change needs to be made for Channel 4 to be able to keep up and compete with giants such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+, but they are simply missing the point. Channel 4 was created to be different, diverse and daring, and to champion the under-represented voices of this country. It does not need to splash millions of pounds to compete with Netflix. It simply needs to do what it does best—make fundamentally British content that speaks to and represents British audiences. As we heard, a prime example of this is the fantastic “It’s a Sin”, a masterpiece that broke down barriers and demonstrated the true brilliance and success of Channel 4 and the British TV production industry.
Our TV industry is a British success story. We cannot allow the Government to place a huge “For sale” sign on Channel 4 and lose it to the highest bidder. Great British TV belongs in the UK, and I would very much like it to stay that way.
I thank you, Ms Fovargue, and Mr Deputy Speaker, for presiding over our debate. Neither of you expected to be in this position today, so we appreciate your giving up the time to join us. I also thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing this debate. As she says, it is a very important subject, so I am glad that the House has an opportunity to debate it.
However, I do not think a single speaker has talked about the revolution taking place in television at the moment. Every speech has been backward looking. Each one has been a list of admittedly terrific programming over the past 40 years, but there has been no looking forward and no reference to what is happening to television viewing and how the landscape is changing. Linear viewing is in rapid decline. Young people are no longer looking at scheduled programmes on the traditional broadcast channels. The competition for eyeballs, which comes from streaming services, a new one of which joins the market almost every few months, is completely changing. Therefore, what we intend and wish to do is look forward. Yes, Channel 4 has a terrific record and is doing well at the moment, but it is the Government’s job to ensure that Channel 4 has a viable future going forward—not this year or next, but in 10 years. That is the purpose of the consultation.
I think the Minister can be assured that each Member present has read the consultation document. We know that the Government say the structure of broadcasting has changed. We have seen that All 4 has 41%, which is only a little lower than Netflix. Channel 4 is doing all those things. At every paragraph, the Government say, “Change the ownership, and we’ll do xyz.” The only example given by the Government is Royal Mail, looking backwards to 2013. The Minister is right in thinking that we understand what he is going to say, because we have read his document. We are challenging the idea that a new owner is necessary.
Only Channel 4 provided the seriousness that was needed on that subject. Secondly, the Minister will find that young people and people across society are accessing “Channel 4 News” in many modern and futuristic ways, so his point about Members being uninformed and looking backwards might require a little elucidation.
If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I am going to come to those points. Given the limitations of time, I am anxious to do so.
I do not dispute the list of programmes, many of which are great, made by Channel 4 over the past 40 years. There are some real jewels among a lot of other programming. It was once said that Channel 4 is a public service tail wagged by a very large commercial dog, and that is the consequence of the model under which it operates. I have enjoyed things such as “It’s a Sin” and “Gogglebox”, and I want to talk specifically about “Channel 4 News”.
Occasionally, I have been cross with “Channel 4 News”. I have been just as cross with Sky News and BBC News. Channel 4 is an essential contributor to plurality. It is worth bearing in mind—again, this has not been recognised in the debate—that “Channel 4 News” is not actually produced by Channel 4. It is an ITN production, and ITN has done a terrific job in providing news programming that is different from the other broadcast news services. It has also been extremely successful internationally, as it has an Oscar-nominated newsroom and has won five Emmy awards.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am not going to have time to give way.
I absolutely pay tribute to ITN for the work it has done for Channel 4, and it is certainly our intention that, whatever happens to Channel 4, news should remain a major part of its schedule. However, there have been huge changes. When Channel 4 was created, there was a choice between the BBC and ITV. Channel 4 was founded by a Conservative Government in 1982 to provide alternative viewpoints, and it has been very successful in doing that. Since that time, we have seen the advent of satellite television and the coming of digital terrestrial television. Now we have the streaming services, so there has been a huge explosion in choice. Some of that content, which was originally not available and which Channel 4 was set up to provide, is now available in a large number of different places, so Channel 4 needs to adapt to that.
The latest Ofcom report on the future of public service broadcasting states:
“Rapid change in the industry—driven by global commercial trends and a transformation in viewing habits—is making it harder for public service broadcasters to compete for audiences and maintain their current offer… Change needs to happen—and fast.”
That is why we have set up the review of public service broadcasting, and why it is right to consider whether Channel 4 is best placed to continue to thrive under the current ownership model, because there are some worrying signs.
Channel 4 is entirely dependent on advertising, unlike other broadcasters such as ITV, which has successfully diversified into production, or the BBC, which can rely on the licence fee. Channel 4 relies on advertising. More than 90% of its revenue comes from linear TV advertising, and advertising is under pressure. It is likely to come under greater pressure, in part due to the actions that Parliament is going to take in restricting advertising spending on, for instance, foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, and possibly such spending with respect to gambling, which we are considering at the moment. Therefore, that model is already coming under pressure.
Competition from the streaming services is almost inevitably going to lead to a decline in audience share over time as more and more content is provided by such services, which can outspend Channel 4 by a factor of 10 with respect to how much they can invest in high-quality content.
Reference was made to Channel 4’s performance. Yes, it did well to record a profit this year, but it is worth bearing in mind how it did so. It is not difficult to continue to make a profit if spending on content is cut by £138 million. That is what happened. Channel 4 slashed the budget on content. It did not, incidentally, slash the budget on employment expenditure, which actually went up—all the money came out of content spend. It is difficult to see how that it is going to be able to return to a position of spending the amount that it was previously. Yes, Channel 4 has been supporting independent producers, although the figure that was quoted of support for more than 300 independent producers is not actually correct. The annual report shows that 161 production companies have been supported that actually meet the definition of indies.
Yes, Channel 4 has moved its headquarters to Leeds—against great resistance—and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) is right to celebrate the fact that he has a new building there, but it is worth bearing in mind that Channel 4 still has a very large and expensive building about 100 yards from where we are today. Therefore, if it is properly committed in that regard, there is a case for it to move more employees and to do more outside London.
There is a question whether private ownership might result in greater investment. I was surprised to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) that he questions whether it is possible to fulfil public policy purposes and to satisfy shareholders. He will know that any number of utility companies are doing exactly that. I point to examples such as the telecommunications companies, the electricity companies and the gas companies.
I do not think I am going to have time.
I also point to Channel 5. Its spend on content was very small while it was under UK ownership, but when it was bought by Viacom, it became channel of the year and there has been a massive investment.
The one thing I make categorically clear is the reason the Government are looking at the future ownership of Channel 4, which is that we wish to sustain Channel 4. We are concerned that, in the longer term, the model is going to come under ever-increasing pressure and will be unable to deliver the content that we all want to see.
I am afraid I do not have time.
I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no political agenda attached to this. I am completely committed to an independent Channel 4, and I welcome the fact that it has a questioning news programme. This is not motivated in any way by a political agenda or ideology. It is about sustaining Channel 4 and making sure that it has a viable future. That is why we are having a consultation. It is a consultation.
I want to answer the point about remit. We are asking a question about whether the remit might or might not be amended to take account of changes. It is not a question of removing the remit. In some areas, there may well be a case for strengthening the remit, and there is absolutely no intention to strip the remit away. The remit will be there. Whether it is tweaked in some way, perhaps to increase the requirements for production outside London, is something that we are asking questions about.
I also want to answer the question about the impact assessment. The impact assessment will be determined by the answers to those questions. An impact assessment cannot be carried out before those things have been decided—for instance, what the remit should be, as that will have a huge effect on the impact. All those matters are subject to an open consultation, with no decision taken.
The hon. Member for Wallasey referred to lack of parliamentary time. I can promise her that, if it is decided to change the model, that will require primary legislation. There will be no lack of opportunity for Parliament to debate any changes that we decide to make. There will be an impact assessment at that time. No decision has been taken. It is the job of Government to look forward and to ask how we can best ensure that Channel 4 has a viable future. That is what we are doing.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. That is two Chairs in one debate. I am disappointed that the Minister declined to allow me to question him, since this is my debate. I do not think our arguments have been backward looking, and many of us have made the point that Channel 4 is already evolving.
This is the question I would have put to the Minister, had he allowed me to do so: why have the Government made it clear that their preference is for 100% privatisation of Channel 4? If the consultation is open-minded, they would not have been so firm in their view. It appears to me, from reading the documents, that the Government have already decided that they are going to flog off the entirety of Channel 4. They have made that clear in the way the consultation is worded.
I agree with the last two points the hon. Gentleman has made, although I am not sure I agree with the point about the Treasury, as selling off Channel 4 would not raise much money. That makes the threat to the model and to the remit all the more problematic, especially, as many hon. Members have pointed out, with respect to the ongoing health of our independent sector, its ownership of IP and the trade benefits that that gives us.
I hope the Minister will in future demonstrate, more than he has today, an open mind on what is happening with Channel 4, and will be more forthcoming, more quickly, on how he thinks the remit will change and whether the in-house production ban will remain. We need to know how Channel 4—which offers unique things to our country, many of which we have heard about today—can be facilitated, not changed out of all recognition, and that it can look forward to a future in a changing media environment that preserves all that we value it for.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered privatisation of Channel 4.
Early Years Education Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered early years education funding.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue.
I begin by saying a big thank you to early years providers for their efforts during the pandemic. Early years leaders and staff have risen to every challenge that the past year and a half has thrown at them. Time and again, they have put their health at risk to ensure that children are cared for and educated. They have truly put the needs of our children first. Each and every one of them, in Bath and throughout the country, deserves not only our thanks but our commitment to addressing the serious shortfall in early years funding.
I am delighted to have secured the debate, and I very much hope that the Minister will take on board the sector’s concerns. All the evidence points to the immense value of early years settings. They are about not only childcare—of course, that is extremely important—but education. The first five years of a child’s life are the most critical in shaping their development. Getting that right gives children the greatest chance of reaching their potential—a greater chance than is given by any other stage of their life.
Early years settings also provide long-term benefits for our economy. They remove barriers to employment and training, particularly for women, and help to close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers. Research shows that 40% of the gap in attainment outcomes is evident by the age of five.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been in regular contact with early years providers in my constituency. Far too often, they have felt like an afterthought. I pay tribute to First Steps Bath, which does excellent work in our local community to narrow the attainment gap.
Early years leaders are working hard to ensure that they can provide high-quality care and education. They are up to that challenge, but they need support from the Government. Their message to the Minister today is, “Acknowledge the value of early years education and pay what it costs to deliver it.”
I congratulate the hon. Lady on initiating the debate. What she has referred to is replicated in my constituency of Strangford. In the past year, the pandemic has highlighted the issue, with many small children being looked after by private babysitters or family members, so I echo and support the hon. Lady’s request for further funding. Does she agree that there is certainly a need for that funding to ensure that adequate childcare and further opportunities for education are in place at a very critical time?
Absolutely—I think everybody in the room is agreed. We have all acknowledged that getting the early years right is right for the child, but is also right for us all, so the issue is to get the balance right. The Government are committed to levelling up, and this issue is part of that levelling-up agenda. It is not just about capital infrastructure projects; it is about getting the long-term funding to address our social inequalities.
Funding continues to be a widespread concern. The survey conducted by the Petitions Committee found that 72% of parents expect that the pandemic will have a major or moderate effect on their settings’ long-term financial sustainability. To this day, not enough progress has been made on delivering educational recovery resources. The majority of support that has already been announced has focused on school learning, and the Government continue to miss a crucial group of learners in early years. What has been the impact of that oversight? A recently published report by the National Day Nurseries Association reveals that nursery closures have increased by 35% in the past financial year, which affects more than 11,000 children’s places. What is more, the highest number of closures happen in the most deprived communities. High-quality early education is by far the single biggest factor in reducing the attainment gap and inequality.
My plea, again, is for the Government to look at levelling up the long-term funding stream for education for the more deprived communities in our country. They must make that an urgent priority, but the shortfall in early years funding existed long before the pandemic. Covid has simply widened the gap between the funding and what it costs to deliver. It has placed even more strain on an already fragile sector. Most providers say that they realistically need more than £6 an hour per child just to break even, let alone to reinvest in their business, and the funding rates simply do not match that. According to YMCA research, 80% of childcare settings cannot deliver childcare at the funding rate provided by their local authority.
In Bath and North East Somerset, our local council receives £5.59 an hour for two-year-olds. For children aged three or above, it receives just £4.48. Far too many settings are choosing between operating at a loss and subsidising the cost of delivery through feepaying families. In the private community, the majority of families access only funded childcare places, so that gap cannot be made up by feepaying families. All too often, there is no choice but for the providers to operate at a loss.
The other key funding challenge facing the early years sector relates to staff. Staffing is one of the biggest expenses that a childcare provider has, and amounts to about 70% of costs. Headteachers in my constituency have shared their concerns about staff retention rates. It is of course right that early years providers are able to pay their staff a proper wage, but they are struggling. Early years leaders are doing their best to acknowledge the efforts of their staff and give pay rises, but funding is not increasing at the same rate as the national living wage. During the past decade, there has been a long-term decrease in the number of people wanting to work in the early years sector. The cost of living in or commuting to Bath is making it more and more difficult for early years staff to work on low wages. More recently, the lack of vaccine priority for childcare staff has left many feeling overlooked and under-appreciated, which is such a shame.
Research from the National Day Nurseries Association suggests that the early years workforce has shrunk again by 2%. It is still making use of the coronavirus job retention scheme, as demand for places has not yet recovered. When it came to recruiting, 90% said that hiring level 3 qualified staff was difficult or very difficult. Even at apprentice level, 52% reported the same challenges.
When I spoke to an early years provider in my constituency earlier this year, I was told:
“Sadly, I feel that the Government do not value early years staff and do not see our professionalism and dedication to our role.”
It cannot be right that that dedicated workforce exists on minimum income while parents have to pay some of the highest childcare costs in Europe. Providers are not making money, and many of them are being forced to close. All that will make childcare more expensive and will create more employment barriers for parents, particularly mothers, and those from the most disadvantaged communities will be the worst affected.
There needs to be a total rethink of early years funding. The recent publication of the much-delayed freedom of information request from the Early Years Alliance confirmed that the Department for Education already knew that funding rates were insufficient. The result has been financial hardship for many providers and increased costs for parents. I hope the Minister will outline in her response what plans the Government have to correct that. I hope she will also outline the assessment she has made of the disproportionate impact on providers working in deprived communities.
The Government say that they understand parents’ concerns about the cost of childcare. I hope, then, that the Government will prioritise the early years sector for investment in the upcoming comprehensive spending review. It is absolutely essential that funding rates meet the costs of delivering high-quality education and care. The Government should go further, however. Will the Minister commit to a catch-up premium of £2,964 per child per year under the 30 hours entitlement? The early years sector has a vital role to play in meeting the needs of our children and supporting parents back into work. The Department must do all that it can to help them in that role.
Early years leaders in my constituency need to plan for the coming years, so they need certainty. Will the Minister commit to a meaningful review of early years funding that includes a multi-year funding settlement? Such a review should look to simplify the funding system so that the uptake of Government-funded places improves and funding follows the child. The review should also ensure that all allocations of early years funding consider the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities across all settings.
Finally, the review should set out a clear vision for the early years and childcare workforce, which has so consistently put our children’s needs first throughout the pandemic. The review must reiterate the importance of achieving well-qualified, high-status and better-rewarded professionals. A review of that kind has broad cross-party support. It is also supported by the all-party parliamentary group for childcare and early education. I am pleased to see that the chair of that APPG, the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), is here to comment.
Early year settings and their staff are vital parts of our national infrastructure. They will play a pivotal role in our covid recovery, supporting parents back into work. They will help each child reach their full potential in the critical first five years of development.
I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for allowing me to make a contribution.
I am speaking with two hats on today. First, as a Conservative MP, I am of course very proud of the work that the Government have done to support young families through the 30 hours entitlement. It is a landmark commitment and one that I fully support, but it has had some unintended consequences.
Secondly, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for childcare and early education, as the hon. Lady said. We represent the private, voluntary and independent nurseries that make up the vast majority of the early years sector. I am also a member of the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes, so I know that maintained nurseries, which are often overlooked in such debates, are also important.
The Minister will rightly highlight that the Government have put in place a significant package for parents and early years educators. Despite that, there are still significant funding shortfalls. Early Years Alliance data shows that there is a gap of £2.60 per child per hour for every 30-hours place. That is just under £3,000 per child per year. So our all-party parliamentary group is calling on the Treasury and the Department for Education to fully fund all 30-hours places. I repeat the call for the catch-up premium for the early years sector in the comprehensive spending review. There is a chance, when we do that, to address wider issues in the early years funding system.
The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the NDNA FOI request on the underspends in local authorities. We think that that totals around £62 million, which shows that money is not getting to where it is most needed. Tens of millions of pounds could fund the 30-hours places for 20,000 children under our proposed catch-up premium. The Treasury and the Department need to look into that underspend and pull it back. That is why we are asking for the meaningful review of early years funding, which would include a multi-year funding settlement to allow providers some certainty to allow them to plan over the coming years.
More funding for the sector would, of course, be welcome but we cannot pour water into broken plumbing. The failings of the system are already being felt. I repeat the point that 35% of nurseries closed between April 2020 and March 2021—an increase of 35%. They are coming out of the sector. It is a worry. I am proud of the work that we have done on the 30 hours. As we emerge from the pandemic, we need our early years sector—our fourth emergency service—more than ever.
The lockdown by stealth courtesy of the “ping” must end for us all—apparently, it will end on 16 August—but it must certainly end by exception for the early years sector, which, once again, feels that it is being left out. I know that the Government have suggested that they will not produce a list but will deal with it on a case-by-case basis, and today is an opportunity for the Government to deal with early years on that basis. I look forward very much to hearing from the Minister, as she has plenty of time to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important topic, and it is great to be joined by the chair of the APPG on childcare and early education, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine).
Nurseries, childminders, teachers and parents have continued to support and educate our youngest children, providing crucial support throughout the pandemic. I would like to put on record our continued appreciation for their hard work. Taking a lead from my hon. Friend, I would also like to put on record our thanks to maintained nurseries in particular. I am a regular visitor to Chichester maintained nursery, which does a fantastic job, and I place on record my thanks to Ruth Campbell and the team at Chichester maintained nursery.
The early years experience is, as Members have said, a vital part of a child’s education, developing the cognitive, social and emotional skills that set them up for life. Evidence shows that high-quality childcare supports children’s development, prepares children for school and, of course, allows parents to balance work and family life. We are doing more than any previous Government to ensure that as many families as possible can access high-quality, affordable childcare. Some 96% of childcare settings in England are now rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted. In 2019, 71.8% of children achieved a good level of development at the end of the early years foundation stage profile. That is where children have met the expected level across a wide range of learning areas, and compares to 51.7% in 2013—quite a remarkable achievement.
The Government invest heavily in high-quality early education. That includes the universal 15 hours of childcare for all three and four-year-olds, plus the additional 15 hours for working parents of three and four-year-olds. That was introduced in 2017 under a Conservative Government. The 15-hour early education entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds helps to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children, to give them the best start in life. In fact, we have spent over £3.5 billion a year in each of the past three years on our early education entitlements, and we continue to support families with their childcare costs.
At the spending review last year, the Chancellor announced an extra £44 million for 2021-22, so that local authorities can increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s free childcare entitlement offers. At the same time, we increased the minimum funding floor, meaning that no council can receive less than £4.44 per hour for the three and four-year-old entitlements. To maximise the amount of funding reaching the frontline, we require local authorities to pass on to early years providers at least 95% of the Government funding for three and four-year-olds.
Further, we are varying our approach to funding the early years sector over this financial year to give local authorities and providers better certainty about their funding income. For the spring term 2021, we provided top-up funding for authorities that could demonstrate rising demand for free early education entitlements. For the next three terms, we will fund each authority based on attendance data they provide to us for each term. That will ensure that our funding aligns with attendance, which should provide very welcome reassurance for providers that funding for the entitlements will be commensurate with up-to-date data. The last 18 months have been particularly difficult. Nurseries, carers and parents have demonstrated a heroic effort in supporting the youngest members of our society. That is why we have provided significant support to the early years sector throughout the covid-19 pandemic.
Early years settings have had access to a range of business support packages during the pandemic, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, which is now extended to the end of September 2021. As long as their staff meet the criteria for the scheme, early years providers are still able to furlough them if they experience a drop in income. Findings from the childcare and early years provider and coronavirus survey have shown that in November and December 2020, 74% of the group-based providers had made use of the coronavirus job retention scheme at some point.
Eligible nurseries may also have qualified for business rates discounts to help reduce their bills. Eligible nurseries could get 100% off in the first three months of the 2021-22 tax year, with 66% off for the rest of that tax year. From 6 April, eligible nurseries have been able to access our new recovery loans, which were set out by the Chancellor on 3 March. Those help with access to loans and other types of finance, so that nurseries can recover from the pandemic. There has also been help for childminders, who are usually self-employed. The self-employment income support scheme has also been extended until the end of September 2021.
Our support for the sector goes wider than that. We are reforming our technical education. In September 2020 we introduced new T-levels, which are designed by industry experts and employers to bridge the gap between what they need and what young people can offer them. I am delighted that we have our first cohort of around 650 students now studying the T-level in education and childcare, which includes a large work placement. I thank the sector for its support for T-levels, which will provide a much-needed skills pipeline. Our investment in T-levels will benefit the early years sector.
Does the Minister not recognise that, however good the training is—and of course good, qualified staff are absolutely what our children need and our parents want—the qualification itself is not what brings staff into the sector? They must actually get wages so that they can pay their own bills. Unless we pay them more, we will not get staff into the sector, however good the training and qualifications are.
Of course there is a relationship between pay and the work, work-life balance and type of job, but the sector still attracts a lot of young people. There is a lot of demand. In fact, the T-level in education and childcare is the biggest of the three T-levels that we have launched. There is the most demand for it.
In June, we announced £153 million of funding for training for early years staff to support our very youngest children’s learning and development, as part of a wider recovery package. In response to the pandemic, we announced £27 million to support children’s early language development, £17 million of which is to deliver the Nuffield early language intervention, or NELI, which is making a real, positive difference in schools up and down the country.
The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), recently visited All Saints’ Church of England Primary School in Merton and spoke to staff delivering the NELI programme about the children’s increased confidence with language and communication. That excellent programme is proven to give children the equivalent of around three months of additional progress. Some 40% of primary schools have already signed up, helping 60,000 children in this academic year.
Funding of £10 million will support language development for pre-reception children in the next academic year. Children in reception year will also benefit from the Government’s £650 million catch-up premium for schools, which will ensure that they are supported to make up for any lost teaching time.
Thanks to the financial support provided by the Government, and the hard work of settings to remain open since June 2020, I am pleased to report that we have not seen or heard of a significant number of parents being unable to access the childcare that they need. In fact, the number of places available to parents seeking childcare has remained broadly stable since August 2015. The majority of eligible two, three and four-year-olds have continued to access free childcare, despite the challenges of the pandemic.
Since 2013, more than 1 million two-year-olds who otherwise might not have received any early education have benefited from the childcare entitlement. Ofsted data published on 30 June shows that there were 72,000 childcare providers registered with them on 31 March 2021—a dip of 4%, or 3,300, since 31 August 2020. The data shows that the dip is largely driven by a fall in childminders, not nurseries.
Numbers of childcare settings on non-domestic premises are fairly stable over time, with a drop of just 1% since 31 August 2015 and a decrease of 2%, which is 400, between 31 August 2020 and March 2021. As Members would expect, the Department continues to work with the early years sector to understand how it can best be supported to ensure that sufficient safe, appropriate and affordable childcare is available to all those families who need it now and in the longer term.
I welcome the interest of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has now left his place, and all hon. Members who joined this important debate. All the information and data that we collect is valuable because the Government obviously have to consider that in the forthcoming spending review.
The Minister is coming to the end of her remarks. I quite like the point she made about there being places in the system and people being able to access those places, but they have been able to access them at great inconvenience to themselves. When Kings Worthy Pre-School in my constituency closes later this year, if indeed it does, people will access other places, but people who cannot drive will do so at huge expense and great personal cost. That is the issue: as suppliers come out of the system, it creates problems for parents. That is why we need a meaningful policy review.
Of course, this is in the private sector. Places come in, there are mergers and acquisitions, businesses develop and businesses also exit the market. In fact, there were 3,929 settings left, but 2,108 new companies joined the market, providing 1.7 million places, so there is some volatility in the market. Clearly, if there is enough demand—that will obviously change over time, and demographics have an impact on that as well—the most important thing is to make sure that local authorities and parents can access childcare, and that there are sufficient places in the system. That churn will continue, because it is impacted by demographics, and obviously children move around the country.
I thank the hon. Member for Bath for scheduling this debate and for giving us the opportunity to discuss this vital issue, ahead of the spending review; it was very well timed. I hope she is reassured that the Government have the interests of children at the heart of our decision making. We are supporting our incredibly hard-working early years sector, and we appreciate it. It has risen so spectacularly to the extraordinary challenge presented by covid-19. We always look to continue to work with the sector to make sure that it continues to provide that fantastic service to families, parents and children across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
Trade and Agriculture Commission: Role in International Trade Deals
[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 27 April 2021, on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, HC 1346.]
[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
Before we start, I would like to make an announcement. As everybody will be aware, the weather in London is very hot, so Members who are wearing jackets are welcome to take them off and speak without them; I am sure the public will have significant sympathy. I have also permitted the Doorkeepers to remove their jackets, so that everybody can stay conscious.
Members will be aware that social distancing is no longer in operation, but I remind them that Mr Speaker has encouraged us to wear masks between speeches. Members participating physically and virtually must arrive for the start of the debate and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks at email@example.com. Members attending physically, I will be grateful if you could clean your spaces before you use them and when you leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in international trade deals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am delighted to see support from colleagues from across the House on this issue, including the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), a former member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and a very good one; the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies); and my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who are all current members of the Committee. I also thank my fellow Devon MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Simon Jupp) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who also join us.
I called for this debate because I am concerned about the lack of urgency from the Government in matters relating to the Trade and Agriculture Commission—both the non-statutory body and the statutory body. During the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Trade Act 2021, serious concerns were raised by me and many other MPs, as well as the farming sector and non-governmental organisations, about the potential impact of free trade deals on the UK’s high environmental and animal welfare standards. The creation of the TAC was important in reassuring us that the Government listened to those concerns. The non-statutory TAC published a report on 2 March this year, providing the Government with 22 recommendations on how best to advance the interests of British food, farming, producers, consumers and trade deals. Summer recess is upon us, Minister, and we are almost five months on from that report, but we are still in the dark about what the Government will provide in response.
I know the Minister is very capable, but I cannot understand why it has taken him and his Department so long to response to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. I have repeatedly asked the Trade Secretary when she will respond the report. As Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I first wrote to her on 29 April. I wrote to her again on 26 May after I did not receive a reply. I then received what I can only describe as a holding reply from the Trade Secretary on 10 June. To be blunt, Minister, the Trade Secretary’s reply says very little and I suspect was just an attempt to buy more time. In her reply, the Trade Secretary agreed that the UK’s approach to agrifood should be “bold and ambitious”—hear, hear, I agree—but refused to expand on the Government’s response to the exact recommendations made by the TAC or provide any date for when the Government will respond. I have since written to her again to press on this.
Perhaps our able Minister can update us on when the response will be published. It needs to be now. We have an agreement in principle with Australia, but we are not clear whether the Government have ever read the report and taken it on board before pursuing a trade deal that directly impacts on our farming sector and the quality of food, both environmentally and in animal welfare. It is also as though the Government intend to bypass the advice they commissioned. I am, to say the least, disappointed about that. During the passage of the Agriculture and Trade Acts, I was led to believe that the TAC would be a useful tool to help us during negotiations because it would clearly set out our trade policy. However, I received a response from the Minister very recently that stated:
“The role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission is not to advise on negotiations.”
Likewise, the Secretary of State has said that the TAC
“was tasked with providing advice towards an overall strategy regarding the UK’s future trade policy”
but was not
“set up to influence…trade deals.”
That is putting the cart before the horse. We should be basing our trade negotiations on an overall strategy, especially when those deals will set the tone for what will follow.
We urgently need a response to each of the 22 recommendations in the TAC report. In case Members have not read it, one of the most important recommendations was that we establish a list of core standards that would safeguard us in all future trade deals. That would prevent our farmers from being undercut by imports that have been produced in ways that we would not tolerate.
The hon. Gentleman is making compelling points. Can I suggest to him that in fact, with the agreement with Australia, the pass has already been sold? What other country with which we have now to enter into agreements is going to accept anything less than Australia has been given?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Although I agree with him up to a point, we have only a deal in principle with Australia. The final parts have to be done, and we want the new Trade and Agriculture Commission up and running to fulfil its legal responsibilities. There is time to recover from where we are.
A list of core standards would prevent our farmers from being undercut by imports that have been produced in ways that we do not tolerate here. We do not have one. At present, there appears to be a lack of joined-up thinking between the Government’s trade policy and their food and farming policy. British farmers are being told by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to raise their already world-leading environmental and animal welfare standards while their basic payments are being reduced. At the same time, the Department for International Trade is potentially allowing them to be undercut by foreign suppliers that are not held to the same high standards.
We need a very clear strategy on what exactly our key standards are and what the mechanism to enforce them in free trade deals is. That must be in place before we negotiate a deal that will allow hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Australian agriproducts into our country.
I expect that the Minister will tell us that the non-regression clause on animal welfare standards is the first of its kind in a free trade agreement. I would hate to think that the Minister introduced that clause just to make it look as though we are taking steps to protect our animal welfare standards when in fact very little may be achieved. I hope he can enlighten us.
Without that core list of standards on which we will not compromise, what is the point of a non-regression clause? We first need to know which measures we cannot regress. The Australians already have practices that, if we were to adopt them here, we would consider regressions. In Australia, the practice of mulesing sheep is permitted, egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages and chickens can be washed with chlorine. Cattle can be transported on journeys lasting up to 48 hours. The Australians are still using organophosphate dips, which were banned in this country in 1999 because of health risks to farmers. I saw their impact on my own father’s health; he used almost to bathe in the dip, which he should never have done. It is a nasty product.
We must set out very clearly what measures we will not accept and then sign a non-regression clause. Henry Dimbleby, who the Government asked to conduct an independent review of our food policy, endorsed that approach in the national food strategy. One of the strategy’s key recommendations is that the Government define minimum standards for trade and the mechanism for protecting them. Mr Dimbleby also raised concerns about the precedent the Australian deal sets and about not having that set of standards in place. He says:
“The way we do one trade deal inevitably feeds into how we do the next. Brazil—which has significantly worse environmental and welfare standards than our own, or indeed Australia’s…is also being lined up for a trade deal. If we are seen to lower our standards for the Australia deal, it will make it much harder to hold the line with Brazil —or the next potential trading partner, or the next.”
As Mr Dimbleby says, more deals are in the pipeline and the nature of them will be driven by what has gone before in the Australia deal. The likes of New Zealand, the US, Brazil and Mexico will be all looking at what we have given away to Australia and licking their lips.
Mexico has four times as many laying hens as we do, more than 160 million in total, and 99.8% of them are kept in conventional battery cages in very cramped conditions. That practice has been banned here for almost a decade. We will have to be clear in the negotiations that we will not accept such eggs, but the Mexicans will see that we have conceded to the Australians. Why would they not ask?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, much of which I agree with, but I am afraid that I do not agree with point that every single trade deal will find itself being similar to the last. The Mexicans may well ask about having their eggs included in the trade deal, but it is up to our trade negotiators to say no. We have that power and that ability. Does he not see the value of our negotiators standing up for our own British produce?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Yes, he is absolutely right that it is absolutely possible for our trade negotiator to stand up for these conditions, but until we have got this Trade and Agriculture Commission and the core principles in place, how on earth will we be certain that is going to happen? We will have to be clear in negotiations that we will not accept these eggs.
Likewise, I have been very critical recently of Brazilians and their environmental record, given the massive increase in deforestation that we have seen under their current Administration. If we signal to them that we are willing to compromise on our standards, that would completely undermine our negotiating position before we even get to the table. At a time when we are passing the Environment Bill and supposedly setting world-leading laws on deforestation, that would be such a failure of joined-up thinking.
The second key recommendation by the TAC report, which we need a response to, is that we need a proper export strategy if our producers are to benefit from these opportunities. In particular, we need an export council to co-ordinate our export efforts and an increase in the number of agricultural councils as a priority, so that we can have counsellors all across the world, as the Australians and others do. We also need to have a better link between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the DIT. The TAC argues for a dedicated Minister for agrifood trade who will work across Government; I would be very interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that suggestion.
One thing that I am very keen to see is an expansion in the number of agriculture counsellors that we have abroad. The UK has an agriculture and food council in just two of our embassies, in China and the United Arab Emirates. These were funded largely by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. The US spends over $200 million on its foreign agriculture services to help its exporters to break into markets, with offices in over 90 countries. Recently, Australia has been spending 20 million Australian dollars on its network of agriculture counsellors around the world, who operate in 15 locations across Europe, South America and Asia. New Zealand has a network of 22 counsellors; it has eight counsellors in China alone, because it knows that it is challenging but important to enter a new market that presents a prime opportunity for exports. It has a very senior official based in China to lead on the ground, who comes from New Zealand’s equivalent to DEFRA. That is what the Chinese really want—somebody very senior in China to negotiate these deals.
The New Zealanders are very good at getting technical specialists on the ground. In some markets where the rules are strict, they have policy counsellors but they also have veterinary counsellors, who have the technical knowledge to work around the requirements for importing into new markets. They learn exactly what needs to be done on standards for imports, but they also help to produce the right legal paperwork. They do so by building networks with the local equivalents of DEFRA, the AHDB and the Food Standards Agency. They do all that before they enter into negotiations for a trade deal. We need to emulate this model and we need to crack on with it before deals are signed, or we will not have the framework in place for exporters to benefit from a deal straight away.
As I mentioned, the AHDB funded the agriculture and food counsellors already in Beijing. The New Zealanders’ veterinary counsellor in Brussels is funded 50% by industry and 50% by Government, because the New Zealand AHDB equivalent recognises the value of veterinary counsellors in getting a route into a market. I would like to see the Treasury stepping up to find more agrifood counsellors. The Trade Secretary has suggested to me that there could be potential for some money to be made available, but I am unclear how much will be forthcoming. I recently questioned the Prime Minister about this in a Liaison Committee hearing. He stated that he was especially devoted to increasing food and drink exports in more embassies across the world. While I have the Minister here, let me ask him whether the Secretary of State has had conversations with the Prime Minister about Government funding to increase the number of agrifood counsellors.
We could look at the New Zealand system, and fund through the Treasury and half through the AHDB levy boards. Farmers and our food producers pay levies worth more than £60 million a year, which are supposed to be spent directly to further the interests of the trade. We have needed to reform the levy boards for some time and give the farmers more say in how they are run and how the money is spent. One thing we could ask them is whether a higher proportion of their levies should be spent on opening markets and getting their products abroad. I think that they would take up that suggestion.
We urgently need the new statutory TAC up and running. The Government are dragging their feet in appointing a chair and members. I believe that the expression of interest for members of the new body has now closed, but only very recently, so where are we on getting those who expressed their interest on to the commission to make it operational? It is not just about the chair and the members; the commission needs an independent secretariat and the technical capacity to get into the deal and draw on the views of stakeholders. The Government have refused to say what support the TAC will be provided to examine complex technical documents. Will the Minister clarify how many staff the TAC will have? Will it have the capacity to commission its own modelling and technical analysis?
I would also like the Government to allow the TAC to have a broad view of its responsibility so that it can provide expert advice on all matters relating to trade and trade standards. A narrow interpretation would look only at the aspects of a deal that require an immediate amendment to UK law. The TAC will need a broad view of where a deal may incentivise practices that we wish to put a stop to, such as deforestation. Putting into our list of core standards, for example, the principle that we will not eat any food produced on land that has been deforested, alongside measures to cut deforestation in the Environment Bill, which was mentioned earlier, would set a truly world-leading standard and encourage our global partners to follow suit. If the TAC does not examine those sorts of serious issues because it has a narrow remit, we would miss a great opportunity to tackle them in a joined-up way. That would also undermine our negotiating position, as I mentioned earlier.
On a positive note, I welcome the recent commitment from the Trade Secretary that Parliament will have three months to examine the final Australia deal. That is a step forward. It would be better, of course, if we had an opportunity for meaningful scrutiny of a draft deal, or even the possibility of rejecting a bad final deal. I therefore ask the Minister whether the TAC will get advance sight of the deal to conduct its analysis so that its report on it can be published alongside the final text at the start of that three-month period. Or will the TAC get to see the details at the same time as everyone else, meaning that it has to rush its analysis and produce a report late in the scrutiny stage? A rushed report would add little value to our scrutiny and would not be in the spirit of the legislation that makes provision for the TAC.
I will conclude. First, will the Minister give us the date on which the Government will respond to the TAC’s report, and will that response take on board its recommendations? Secondly, we really must have a list of core standards on which we must not compromise. Thirdly, we need an overarching strategy for agricultural and food trade that joins up with our policy at home and abroad. Fourthly, that should include more agrifood counsellors and an export council. Fifthly, I would like to see the Government hurry up and set up the statutory TAC so that it is ready to provide scrutiny on the Australia deal, as it is legally obliged to. Finally, we need some detail on what support the statutory TAC will have. Will it have the technical capacity and staff to fulfil properly its role and ensure that the interests of our farmers and producers are looked into?
Colleagues will know that I am a man of almost limitless patience, but I have to say, I am running out of it. This has taken far too long. We need some answers and we need them now.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), on securing this debate. I have lost count of the number of times we have debated these issues over the last few years.
In my view, it is very clear that the Trade and Agriculture Commission, in both its iterations, was brought into being only to give the Government a get-out clause—to buy off potential rebels on the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill who shared my concerns and those of many others, including the National Farmers Union, about the Government’s real position on protecting our current environmental and welfare standards in future trade deals.
Despite all the rhetoric that we got from Government Ministers when we questioned them at the EFRA Committee and in the Chamber, it was obvious that something was up, because the Government refused to enshrine these protections in law and came up with excuse after excuse for why they did not need to do so. Minister after Minister said, “Trust me.” We just did not. So they came up with this mechanism—the TAC—and, while some of us remained highly sceptical, others thought that maybe it might just work. We hear today from the Chair of the Select Committee, as I am sure we will hear from other speakers, that patience is wearing thin.
I want to focus on what it says in the national food strategy—I have the great big document here with me— which was commissioned two years ago by the Government. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has mentioned the overlap between some of its recommendations. In part one of the strategy, which was published a year ago, last July, one of the recommendations was that the Government should
“commission an independent report on all proposed trade agreements, assessing their impact on: economic productivity; food safety and public health; the environment and climate change; society and labour; human rights; and animal welfare. This report would be presented alongside a Government response when any final trade treaty is laid before Parliament.”
The Government adopted that recommendation but did not implement the two other recommendations on trade—on giving preferential tariffs to food products that “meet our core standards” and on giving Parliament
“the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal.”
Part two, which was a larger piece of work, has just been published. Recommendation 10 calls on the Government to:
“Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.”
It says the Government should draw up
“a list of minimum standards which it expects imported food to meet in support of the objective of a healthy and sustainable food system”
and that the Government should “defend these standards” in any future trade deals, stating that the Government need to “set out a mechanism” by which they propose to do that.
The strategy sets out compelling arguments on why the Government needs to act and to act now before we start seeing trade deals with Australia, Brazil or the United States, which can produce food much more cheaply than we can, but at a much higher cost.
I have asked the Minister several times about our trading relationship with Brazil, and what we are doing to stamp out links to deforestation in our food supply chain. I do not really expect any better answers today, but I want to ask him what response we will get from the Government—from DEFRA, which has responsibility for the National Food Strategy, but also from the Department for International Trade—to the recommendations that I have just outlined.
Will the Minister respond today on these two points? First, will the Government ask the TAC to draw up a list of core standards covering food safety, animal welfare, use of antibiotics and the prevention of severe environmental impacts, such as deforestation? Will he do that? These are the absolute minimum standards. They are not something that should be negotiated away. That would not remove our negotiators’ freedom to negotiate trade deals, because these things should not be on the table in the first place. Secondly, if he does not accept the suggestion that when striking new trade deals, the UK should offer to lower tariff barriers only on products that comply with those standards, will he explain to us why?
Setting out minimum standards to be defended in any future trade deals and setting out a mechanism to defend them—I really do not think that is too much to ask. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate. I very much agree with the points he made forcefully and eloquently. It is indeed a privilege to serve under his chairmanship as a member of the EFRA Committee. I declare a strong professional and political interest as a veterinary surgeon and as the MP for Penrith and The Border, which is home to many fantastic Cumbrian farmers who produce superb food to the highest production standards.
Many constituents have been in touch to express their concerns about the free trade agreement with Australia and what it might mean for our local farmers and producers and for animal welfare standards. I share their concerns. Broadly, I welcome the possibility of a mutually beneficial trade deal between our two nations, but it has to be the right one. Although we have so much in common with our closest friends in Australia, our economies are very different, and any trade deal should reflect that.
For example, when it comes to livestock farms, the costs of production are much lower in Australia, and the animal husbandry methods are very different. I say that as someone who has worked as a vet on farms in both the UK and Australia. It is vital that we have a thriving UK food production industry that is not undercut by imports. I am clear that any deal must not disadvantage our farmers and food producers, or compromise animal welfare. That is why I have repeatedly called for animal welfare chapters to be included and tariff rate quotas to be used.
I am pleased that the Government have listened to my calls for an all-important animal welfare chapter in the agreement. However, we are still unclear on the detail of the chapter and on the exact use of tariff rate quotas to safeguard any deal. Importantly, we still await the Government’s response to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s report. When I asked former TAC chairman Tim Smith about those issues during our EFRA Committee session in April, he said he would be
“squeamish about allowing a tariff to sort the problem out”.
He went on:
“You are absolutely right, Neil, that there is a gap, but I just have to cross my fingers and hope, in some ways, that the negotiators, some of whom we spoke to during the course of our investigations and report, have read the report”.
We are still going into these deals in the dark and hoping for the best. We can make it work, but we need urgent parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that any trade deal is not rushed through, and we need the TAC to be reconstituted immediately to help with the process. Parliamentary scrutiny needs to be meaningful, and it must include the option for the House and relevant Select Committees such as EFRA and International Trade to amend and potentially block deals rather than just delaying them.
I will continue to stand up for the farmers in Cumbria and across the whole United Kingdom. We have the best farmers and we produce great food using high standards. We should be very proud of that. By promoting high animal welfare standards in the UK and using animal welfare chapters in our free trade agreements, we can be a beacon to the rest of the world, driving up animal welfare standards globally. It would be an excellent use of some of our international aid budget to help farmers in the developing world to farm and rear animals more sustainably.
I deeply regret the Government’s decision to cut our aid budget and not return it to 0.7% as soon as possible. That will have devastating impacts around the world in healthcare programmes, nutrition and water programmes, and in supporting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. I continue to urge the Government to restore the 0.7% as soon as possible.
Finally, we can get this right. If we do, everyone will benefit—farmers, the wider public, and, very importantly, animals right around the world.
I am very pleased to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Bardell. As you know, I have been involved in the Council of Europe as a trade rapporteur. I am also a member of the EFRA Committee. I very much welcome everything that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) has said. I serve on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, and we looked at this important issue as well.
The Government refused to put a list of welfare and other standards and constraints in the Trade Bill. They said that the Trade and Agriculture Commission would act as an advisory body that would provide information to Parliament so that we could make an informed decision before trade deals were made. We can see that the Government are not taking this seriously because, since 2 March—almost 22 weeks ago—the 22 recommendations made by the Trade and Agriculture Commission have not been responded to. There is great concern that the Government are desperately trying to sign off any deal as quickly as they can, irrespective of the welfare and industrial implications. We have taken evidence to that effect in our Select Committee.
It is important that we realise that Australia will serve as a benchmark. I appreciate the intervention of the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who seemed to think that we could have different standards for different deals, but the World Trade Organisation will judge that, so we cannot have inconsistent standards. The standards in Australia are significantly worse; the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned that cattle are allowed to travel for 48 hours instead of 24 hours, and sheep are subjected to horrendous removal of the skin on their buttocks—without anaesthetic for 44% of them, and with some sort of pain relief for 40%. The Australians said they would stop that practice in 2012, so we cannot really trust them on their word to improve welfare standards if it is not in their competitive interest to do so.
I am sitting in Wales, and I know that the average size of a sheep farm in Australia is 100 times that of the average farm here. We also know that the Government are looking to agree a tariff and quota system, with a 15-year phase-out of the tariffs. The quota that has been allowed for 2022 is four times the amount that was allowed in 2020—25,000 tonnes, rising to 75,000 tonnes by 2022. At the same time, farmers are having their farm payments withdrawn. Some environmental payments will be phased in, but not at as high a level. Obviously, there will be cash-flow issues. With lower costs, with the problems that we are experiencing over exports to the EU and with extra imports, the situation looks pretty dire from the industry’s point of view.
The Australian negotiator Dmitry Grozoubinski gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, pointing out that over 20 years, the Australian share of the beef market in the United States developed from a non-entity to hover at about a third of value. The US has a much bigger population, but we eat more beef. We are in danger of being swamped by beef that is produced to lower welfare standards.
This Australia deal looks to form a precedent for the subsequent deals with Mexico, Canada, India, Vietnam and so on, and we need to get it right. We cannot have a situation where we do not get the right advice from the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and then we are faced in the final hour, as we were with the EU, with deal or no deal—this or nothing.
It is imperative that we get these things right for the long term. Let us remember that international trade deals are treaties that trump domestic law. There is no good our passing some sort of welfare or animal sentience Bill and having a special committee that says that we will embed the interests of animal welfare in all our decisions, because that law would be trumped by international trade treaties. We need to get it right; we need it to be informed; we need parliamentary democracy; and we need to work together, so let us do that. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this important debate. Between us, we represent most of east Devon. This corner of the south-west has a proud tradition of agricultural excellence and a keen eye on the future, thanks to state-of-the-art training courses at Bicton College in my constituency.
This year’s Devon county show, which was held in my constituency, amply demonstrated the agricultural sector’s strength locally. The county show also brought ongoing concerns from across the industry into sharp focus. As the Government continue their superb efforts to strike trade deals around the world, we must remain mindful of the amount of change facing our farmers and always work hard to bring them with us. They are, after all, the custodians of the countryside.
The Government state that the UK’s high domestic environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards will never be undermined. Scare stories about chlorinated chicken are for the birds but, crucially, not the birds in our beautiful countryside. International trade deals will prise open opportunities for farmers across the United Kingdom, and we have already seen those trade deals bear much fruit. We are now shipping British beef to the US for the first time in 20 years, with industry estimates suggesting that that will be worth £66 million to the industry over five years. Because we have opened up the market for beef and lamb to Japan—worth £127 million over five years—it is possible that the Japanese will enjoy the delicious taste of Devon Ruby Reds in the future.
Although the opportunities are obvious, we also need to listen to concerns from the industry as we embark on our journey into this brave new world. The Trade and Agriculture Commission will play an important role and must be put on a statutory footing with a clear structure and dedicated support. A date must be set for it to become fully operational, sooner rather than later. The commission released its report in March with 22 recommendations, and we are yet to see a response from the Government. I encourage the Government to pay close attention to the recommendations on core standards and an export strategy, in particular. Standards are a crucial issue for consumers, so that they can have confidence in what they buy off the shelves.
I recognise that the Government have a lot on their plate at the moment. Ultimately, the commission’s work will help to decide what is served at the dinner table. We have many opportunities that we can grasp for the good of food producers across the country, and helping the sector to realise the potential of international trade must be a priority. Our farmers have fed us for generations. Any deal we sign must look after them and the agriculture industry, and not undercut them. I want our food, produced to exceptionally high standards, to feed people across the globe. In my view, trade deals and a permanent Trade and Agriculture Commission are central to achieving that aim and will take the entire industry with us.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your leadership and chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Bardell. I give my huge thanks to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for characteristically introducing this debate, which is of such importance.
The Trade and Agriculture Commission reported in March and made 22 recommendations. Here we are, two thirds of the way through July, and we have heard nothing in response. There has been inaction on responding to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s recommendations and lots of action on the negotiation of a deal with Australia. Why this mismatch and inequity—frantic effort on the deal, and Olympic-standard heel-dragging when it comes to dealing with the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s recommendations? It does not make any sense.
One’s best guess is that the Government set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission under pressure from the National Farmers Union and others in order to appease their Back Benchers and get through Third Reading, among other things. People fell for that, but I believe the Government’s plan all along was simply to disregard anything that their new watchdog said. That shows contempt for the very good people on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and for the commission itself. It shows even more contempt for Cumbria’s farmers, rural communities and the agricultural community right across the country. In fact, it shows contempt for the Conservative Government’s own Back Benchers.
Among the recommendations—I will just pull out two—is the proposal for the development of core standards that have to be met before a deal can be agreed. In other words, that would ensure that standards are not reduced and that farmers are not undercut and ruined by any deal. To push ahead with trade deals of any kind, but particularly one with Australia, which has demonstrably lower trade, agriculture and animal welfare standards than ours, is to deliberately throw Britain’s farmers under a bus.
One of the other recommendations is to improve the modelling of the impact assessments. In other words, it is to ensure that the Government, Members of Parliament, farmers and consumers can be sure of the consequences of each trade deal before it is signed. We should know before it is signed whether a deal will increase or undermine the quality of animal welfare, reduce animal welfare standards or damage the livelihoods of British farmers.
The failure to produce proper impact assessments resonates with other failures that the Government are inflicting on our farmers. The movement from the basic payment scheme to environmental land payments will clearly create a position where our average livestock farmer depends for 85% of their revenue—their business income—on the basic payment scheme. The basic payment scheme will be got rid of before there is a replacement scheme to fill our farmers’ pockets and keep them farming. Yet at the same time the Government are introducing golden goodbyes to get rid of farmers, with no plan for new blood. That can be seen in our county of Cumbria, where the Government have failed to intervene and save the Newton Rigg agricultural college. Where is the new blood? Where is the confidence in British framing in the future? We ask that especially as we see that the Government’s plans for trade deals will undermine the livelihoods of so many farmers. We say we have the best farmers in the world. Yes we do, but do the Government understand why? It is because of good regulation and culture. The culture of British farming is rooted in the small family farm that not only breeds good-quality animal welfare—close husbandry—but also means that we take care and look after the landscape.
We saw earlier that Liverpool has lost world heritage site status—we could speak more about that. It reminds us that that status is not sacrosanct and can be taken away. The landscape of the Lake District is a world heritage site. If we see the Government undermining family farmers in Cumbria, across our beautiful county and the Lake District, we will not be surprised if the killing of that important goose that lays the golden eggs for our local economy leads to a ravaging of our landscape, and we lose world heritage site status. The Government must answer those 22 recommendations before any deal is signed.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Ms Bardell, and to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who serves with me on the all-party parliamentary group for farming, which I chair. I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and congratulate him on securing the debate. If the Government do accept the TAC’s recommendation that a Minister for agrifood should be created, I could think of no one better for the job.
I am delighted to speak in this debate because farming is so important to my constituents. According to the House of Commons Library, Brecon and Radnorshire is 48% agriculture and 47% forestry. We are beef and sheep farming country, on which thousands rely. I make no apology for consistently standing up for my famers because it is not just about the way they look after and produce our food, but also, in my constituency, about the way they look after the countryside, jobs, views, language, clean air, water and soil. Agriculture is the beating heart of my constituency and I want it to stay that way.
However, farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire are rightly concerned about the future of their industry. They want their children to have prosperous jobs to inherit. That is why I campaigned for the creation of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and lobbied Ministers to ensure that it be put on a statutory footing. I thank the Secretary of State again. I was keen for there to be Welsh representation on the commission and am delighted that NFU Cymru and the Farmers Union of Wales were both heavily involved. I urge the Government to make that a formal part of the TAC. At lunchtime, I met a group of farmers who were clear that they want us working together. Trade is, of course, a reserved matter, but they want the Welsh and UK Governments to work closely together to make their lives just a little bit easier.
I was listening to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) as he reeled off his list of complaints about the Government. He said nothing about what the Welsh Labour Government are doing to farmers in Wales with their “draconian” nitrate vulnerable zones plan. That is not my word, but how my farmers described it. I wish he would recognise that his Government have a role in that.
It has been said that the deal with Australia will serve as a blueprint for any future deal. That simply is not true; otherwise, the deal with the European Union, which is zero-tariff, zero-quota and the first time in history that any such deal has been agreed, would have served as a blueprint for the deal with Australia. Of course it has not, so I challenge that point.
However, I do agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) that the Government should be going as fast as possible. Farmers do not want to stand still. They want every opportunity to trade their way around the world. I have known the hon. Gentleman for many years. We have worked together well, so I hate to disagree with him, but I think he is being a tad harsh on the Government when he criticises them for not formally appointing members to the TAC. That process is under way, because I have been encouraging my farmers to get involved, so I think he is being a little tough on the Government. I do want the Government to put their foot down on this issue and work quickly to create the commission. Again, I urge them to find ways for Members of this House to engage with the commission, so that we can make sure that the voices of our constituents are heard loud and clear.
My final point, as I am conscious of time, is that the membership of the commission needs to be the practical voice of farming—not the men in posh suits but those with dirty fingernails who really understand what it is like on the ground for a day-to-day farmer.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate. This time last week we were here talking about fishing. Today it is agriculture, dealing with many of the consequences of the promises that were made to the staple industries of many of our rural communities prior to our leaving the European Union. We are perhaps now seeing some of the disjunction between the rhetoric of the time and the reality of today.
The hon. Gentleman outlined the history of his and others’ interventions on the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill when they were before the House. I observe gently in passing that today’s debate illustrates very well the truth that Opposition Members and Government Back Benchers are never in a stronger position than when Governments are facing votes on legislation in the House. Perhaps if the resolve of some had been stiffened at the time, and guns had been stuck to, we would not be dealing with this problem today.
As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a need for a strategy. I fear that we may already have a strategy, and if it is to be seen in the agreement in principle with Australia, our farming and crofting communities face some serious problems. I would like to see at its heart a concern for animal welfare. Others have made this point, but let me repeat it for emphasis: Australian animal welfare standards are very different from those maintained by our farmers. Australia allows growth hormones in beef production. It continues to keep its poultry in battery cages. It allows the branding of cattle and the cutting away of healthy flesh from the hindquarters of lambs.
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he makes a point about hormone-injected beef. Alongside trade deals, agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary measures are signed to protect standards. If he asks any Trade Minister or departmental official whether we will see hormone-injected beef in this country, he will get a one-word answer: “No.” It is misleading to suggest that we will see such produce in our country.
We are talking about the difference in standards. The problem that the hon. Member has, and many of his hon. Friends face the same difficulty, is that there is a fundamental unfairness in the Government’s approach. For decades, we have told our farmers that it is in their economic interest to go for top-end production, and raise the standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. Now they risk having the rug pulled out from under their feet. That is the question to which Government Back Benchers require an answer, and against which their actions will be judged at the next election.
To come back to Australian standards, the cap that has been set in the agreement in principle on imports is so high as to be meaningless. I come back to the point that I made to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton: when other countries go into negotiations with us they will expect the same opportunities as we have given Australia. We will hear from the Minister later, but it would appear that the Secretary of State is very keen to offer them the same opportunities. She seems to be on a mission to get more of such agreements. Her ideological commitment to free trade risks putting our farmers and farming communities at real risk.
Other Members have made the point that the TAC will need to have representation from across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is good that we have, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) said, people with practical experience, not just the posh men in suits, but as we enter into trade agreements the experts in relation to farming, fishing and foodstuffs are to be found among the devolved Administrations around the United Kingdom, and they have to be taken along with them.
Hill farming and crofting are the economic backbone of some of our most economically fragile communities to be found anywhere in the country. The money earned stays in those communities; it goes into the shops, the agricultural merchants, the vets and the post offices. It keeps children in schools; it keeps doctors, solicitors, accountants and others in practice.
That is why these trade deals will not happen solely in an international sphere; they will have real and immediate impacts in some of the smallest and most economically fragile communities represented here today. That is what the Government have to address. Their concerns are not fanciful; they are not confection. They are real and legitimate and they must be addressed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this important debate. I speak as a fellow member of the EFRA Committee.
As we embark on the next stage of our role as an independent trading nation in the world, it is vital for our food, farming and agricultural sector to ensure that the Trade and Agriculture Commission has teeth, is fit for purpose and has sufficient weight in providing critique, feedback and recommendations that will enhance any future trade deals for the better. It should work to open up export opportunities for our farmers and ensure a competitive domestic farming sector that is able to provide sustainably produced, affordable food. I fear that in its current form the Commission does not have the teeth it deserves in order to ensure those objectives.
Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Great Yorkshire Show, to meet farmers and hear their views about the direction that the Government are taking. I even sat on a panel discussion kindly hosted by the Future Farmers of Yorkshire, taking part in a debate entitled, “Brand Britain on agriculture’s global stage”. What is clear, as strongly communicated to me at the show, is that there is uncertainty in the industry regarding the future of international trade. The hot topic was the recently agreed Australia trade deal, particularly the impact that could have on beef and lamb farmers, and the possibility of an undercut by Australian imports.
In my view those fears will be unfounded, based on the trade deal struck, the transition period agreed and the projected modelling. For example, Australia currently exports only 0.15% of beef to the UK. However, one message clearly communicated to me was the much greater concern related to the uncertainty for British agriculture represented by future trade deals to be negotiated, particularly with the US, Canada and South American countries such as Brazil, and to what extent the free trade deal agreed with Australia will set a precedent for those negotiations.
There are concerns about discrepancies in animal health and welfare standards, environmental protection, plant health and food standards in those countries. With a strong domestic DEFRA agenda focused on rewarding UK farmers for increased environmental protection measures, alongside the Government’s current positive drive to raise further the UK’s animal welfare standards, it is feared that, unless those discrepancies in standards with other countries with which trade deals are likely to be agreed are taken into account throughout future negotiations, UK farming and domestic market opportunities will be at a disadvantage.
It is, therefore, vital to ensure that the Trade and Agriculture Commission has the teeth and the ability to scrutinise those deals. I would like the commission to be up to that job, and have the weight to do it, so that our trade negotiators are fully informed and can make decisions accordingly. Of course, the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission is to seek out both the impacts and the opportunities for our food and farming sector, so that we can ensure that “Brand Britain” for our agriculture sector is feasible and viable domestically, but also works and seeks out opportunities on the global market. In seeking out those global markets, we must be in selling mode, building relationships across the globe. That means ensuring that we have trade attachés and agricultural trade counsellors in vast numbers, strategically positioned across the globe in markets that we want to explore. Those must be in place now.
In summary, the Trade and Agriculture Commission has a vital role to play, but it must have teeth and it must be listened to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I start by thanking my friend and fellow Devon MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for securing the debate. I feel somewhat outnumbered as the only member of the International Trade Committee among all the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. It is right that we have this debate because—to start off with a point of enormous agreement—it is right that if the Government commission a report, they respond to it; and it is right that if people have given time to come up with suggestions, the Government respond. The Government need to listen carefully to the context of this debate and to the comments of previous speakers and make sure that a response is given in good time and good order before the Australia free trade agreement is produced in full detail. That is very necessary.
I have a small point of rebuttal for the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who said that trade deals overrode our domestic legislation. That is not the case, because our sanitary and phytosanitary standards are enshrined in domestic law, and whatever we sign does not allow those trade deals to overrule our domestic legislation. The second point I make is about the unique nature of each trade deal that we sign around the world. Just as the Japan deal is different from the Australia trade agreement that we signed, it is not likely or fair to say that the New Zealand or Canadian, or potentially Brazilian, trade deal will be exactly the same. Our negotiators stand up for our rights and interests and will be put on a footing to make sure that we secure the best possible trade deal for our country.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) in suggesting that if any person is suitable to be the agrifood Minister, it would be my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. I would willingly put myself forward as his Parliamentary Private Secretary; I can see us doing a round-the-world tour to make that work. However, there is a serious point to this, because the Minister, who cannot be in the room today but is here virtually, has done a superb job in speaking to farmers in Devon—particularly to my farmers in Totnes and south Devon—about the importance of food and agriculture exports and taking on that role. It may not be my hon. Friend, but that role is being ably performed by the Minister.
Point 17 of the 22 recommendations talks about promoting agricultural exports. There seems to be a little bit of confusion, if I may put my International Trade Committee hat on, about what is already being done in British embassies around the world to promote British exports and products and to make sure that they are being promoted under the GREAT campaign. Do not get me wrong: I feel that we can go far further on this. However, we should be clear that there is already concerted continual action to make sure that that is happening.
Tariff-rate quotas are being phased out over 15 years in the proposed Australia agreement to give a sense of reassurance and comfort to the direction of travel, and there are SPS checks, but the Government also made a commitment to look at labelling. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the Chair of the International Trade Committee, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), are already in discussions about what that labelling system should look like, and it is for this House to try to find something that reassures Members. After all, the point of this debate is about reassuring our farmers and making sure that they are protected in the years to come, just as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said; his constituency and mine are very similar in economic output. We need to reassure our farmers and make sure that they look at the trade deals and see the value of the export potential that they have and which I believe is there.
I hope the Government will listen to the comments about setting up the Trade and Agriculture Commission and responding to recommendations. I hope that we will also recognise that the trade deals that we are signing provide a huge opportunity for us to make sure that fine British produce is available around the world. Future membership of organisations such as the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership will give us access to millions upon millions of people and ensure that our produce is famed and known around the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell.
I must congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall, and I commend his opening speech, which was excellent—laid out with great clarity and, of course, with great knowledge, as befits his position as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Also made clear was his palpable exasperation with the Government’s approach to the problem. He described himself as a man of limitless patience, but that patience has run out, and we all very much hear that.
I want to mention the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), with whom I have had the pleasure of serving on several Committees and who spoke—as always, with great passion and great clarity—about the need for core standards to be established, which is an important point. She referenced the “National Food Strategy”, which I hope will not join other papers that have been submitted to this Government—I assume they are in a pile somewhere, being roundly ignored.
I must commend the speech made by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), which was politically brave, I have to say, but welcome. He, too, made some excellent points.
Several Members referenced the Government’s failure to follow through the promises made during consideration of the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill. The TAC—version 1 and version 2—was promised to allay fear on the part of farmers, who could see that Brexit was about to destroy their businesses. The commission was supposed to be in place before any trade deal was signed. It was supposed to scrutinise such deals in advance. Setting it up was one of the very few concessions that the Government made during the passage of the Agriculture and Trade Bills as the clamour from farmers and others in the food and drink sectors—desperately concerned at the impact the new trade deals would have on their livelihoods—and the increasing cries from Tory Back Benchers, who were feeling the heat from their constituents, grew ever louder. It is still not there, though.
The Secretary of State for International Trade sprinted to the finish line and the Aus-UK trade deal in principle is in place. That has provided a blueprint for future agreements, but the Government seem set on a path that ignores Parliament, the devolved Administrations, and businesses and individuals from those sectors.
Let us recall the first announcement of a TAC by the Secretaries of State for International Trade and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It sounded impressive until we realised that it was only a temporary set-up and had no real power to do anything but wag its collective finger at Ministers. Indeed, as many people have pointed out, we are still waiting for a Government response to its first report—its first and only report. As I pointed out during the debates on the Trade Bill, not only was the temporary TAC not allowed any real power or influence over the outcomes of trade deals, but the insult was compounded by the installing on the commission of members such as the former lobbyist and free trade enthusiast—and perhaps even a posh man in a suit—Shanker Singham, who is on the record as arguing that we should accept chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-injected beef and genetically modified crops from the US. He recently described the TAC as a body
“whose primary focus was to study the interaction between trade and agricultural policy issues.”
So, “to study the interaction”—it is not quite the proactive and influential organisation the Government implied it would be.
Putting wolves in sheep’s clothing among a group of people genuinely committed to protecting livelihoods and standards in agriculture and in our enormously valuable food and drink sectors seems deeply cynical. The question I asked then was whether the commission was there to provide safeguards for our food standards or just to draw some sort of veil of decency over the Government’s indecent position on all this, and I am afraid we know the answer to that. There was a power struggle between the free trade hawks in the Department for International Trade and the poor wee lambs in DEFRA, and it is clear which Department won. The EFRA Secretary should be hanging his head in shame—well, someone should, as it certainly will not be the Secretary of State for International Trade, who seems remarkably proud of the part she is playing in all this.
Here we are, some months down the track and after the trade deal has been agreed in principle with Australia, and we are none the wiser as to who will make up the new statutory version of the TAC, which will supposedly have a more technical focus. Will it, too, be full of free trade hawks, who might, behind the scenes, seek to water down any recommendations that might at least maintain protections? Will the UK Board of Trade, boasting members such as Lord Hannan and former Aussie PM Tony Abbott—ferociously pro free trade, the pair of them—which just yesterday came out strongly against a proposal for a carbon border adjustment tax that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was reportedly considering, stamp all over the commission’s best efforts in its single-minded support of the freest of trade?
The hon. Lady is making a speech of some sort, but I am not entirely sure that the commission has been taken over by one person who has free trade ideals; it has 14 other members. This is not particularly fair. If she wants diversity on the commission, diversity should indeed be there. Does she not agree? We cannot have everyone touting the same opinion, which would be fairly pointless.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examine the background of such people as Lord Hannan and Tony Abbott and figure out whether they are genuinely fit to be on the trade board. I do not believe they are. It is always good to be patronised by posh men in suits, Ms Bardell.
The International Trade Secretary said that the commission was there merely to advise on future strategy, which suggests, alarmingly, that the UK’s future trade policy will in fact be based purely on the judgment of Ministers, with no independent scrutiny until the deals are done and the hands shaken. So much for taking back control. In contrast, in the EU there is a rigorous process of consultation with industry, following a mandate approved by the EU27, and ratification by the EU27 and the European Parliament. Briefings are also provided for the institutions throughout negotiations. In the UK, we will have, in effect, trade policy by decree, with no proper scrutinising role for the UK Parliament. Thinking back to all the Brexiters’ vilification of faceless EU bureaucrats, I find that extraordinary.
It is clear that industry and Parliament were promised the TAC for the sake of quiet ministerial lives and to ward off what would have been, for the Brexiter parliamentarians particularly, some uncomfortable defeats. I am exasperated not with the NFUs, and certainly not with the businesses and individuals who were taken in by those Government promises, but with the many Conservative MPs who chose, outwardly at least, to trust the Government and their blandishments, despite their dismal track record. I leave aside, of course, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, others who have spoken in today’s debate and others who have spoken in the Chamber during previous debates.
The TAC was a performance designed to fool constituents into thinking that something was actually being achieved, but it was nothing more than a fig leaf to cover the exposure of a successful industry to deeply unfair international competition.
The unfortunate thing for us is that, despite the disproportionate importance to our country’s economy of agriculture, fishing and the food and drinks sector, and the likely impact on Scotland’s fragile rural and coastal economies, the devolved Administrations will get little or no say in trade deals. In fact, we have seen determined efforts by the UK Government to block any involvement of the devolved Administrations. That is in marked contrast to, say, the territories and provinces of Canada, whose deep understanding of the needs of their lands and peoples is acknowledged and respected by the federal Government and which play considerable roles in trade deal negotiations.
Another disastrous situation was brought about by the UK Government: when the devolved Administrations want to stop inferior products being shipped via England to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, thanks to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, batted through Parliament by the Government, they will not be able to do so.
I have little time left to speak, unfortunately. I would have liked to mention in more detail the NFU Cymru rep who warned, in front of the Welsh Affairs Committee, that the Australia agreement could set the bar for future trade deals. He set out the clear differences between UK and Australian products. Questions raised by the NFU in May have not yet been answered by the Government—for instance, where is the detailed economic assessment of the cumulative impact on domestic UK agriculture of all the UK’s current and future free trade agreements? It is difficult to believe that any responsible Government would jump into such agreements without, at the very least, such measures being in place.
I remind Members that, although chuntering and interrupting might be acceptable in some parts of the parliamentary establishment, under my chairship and in this Chamber they are not. If Members choose to give way, they choose to give way; if they do not, please be courteous and respect colleagues. There are members of the public watching, and we have to prove to them that we are a respectable bunch. I call Bill Esterson.
Very well said, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on an excellent opening speech. I agree with very much of what he said, as will become clear.
Standards in food and animal welfare are an important part of a functioning modern society. Standards prevent abuse and dangerous practices by businesses and individuals, and they prevent animals from being kept in such conditions and treated in such ways that, if we saw them, would make us shudder. However, the Conservatives have a problem with standards. One need only look at the proposed Australia trade deal. If the deal goes through, it will undercut our farming industry and allow the dangers of food imports produced in ways that are not tolerated here, as the hon. Gentleman put it so well. That would mean lower-quality goods for British consumers and an even more difficult trading environment for farmers, whose margins are already incredibly slim.
The Government cannot say they were not warned. As the RSPCA pointed out last month, the Australia trade deal will
“set a dangerous precedent on animal welfare”
and encourage other countries with similarly poor welfare standards to demand the same favourable terms when they negotiate with us. Regardless of what Conservative Members say, that is the reality. This will be the benchmark for future deals and what others want to negotiate with us.
Despite what the Minister might claim shortly, the Australia deal involves the Government giving away quotas that allow 60 times the current level of zero-tariff beef imports straight away—not after 15 years, as Ministers like to claim. That all means that consumers could soon face supermarket shelves stocked with imported beef from cattle raised on enormous bare feedlots, or with pork from pigs that have been forced to breed in restrictive sow stalls. As the UK’s procurement standards allow low-welfare imports, those products could even find their way on to the menus of school children and hospital patients, who do not have a choice about their food.
All that means that our farmers face potential competition from high volumes of meat that has been produced more cheaply on the basis of poorer animal welfare standards. That is before a deal with Brazil—the same Brazil with which Ministers said they wanted a deal when they predicted an Amazonian Brexit boost—or with the United States. There are many areas where we would like a deal with the US, including a worker-led trade policy and putting carbon reduction at the heart of agreements, to name but two. On agriculture, however, we have serious and legitimate concerns. If the United Kingdom has a deal with Australia that allows imports of meat that has been produced to low welfare standards, the US will demand the same. As the Minister knows, the US agricultural sector has long wanted access to our market because its low-cost production would allow it to dominate at the expense of UK farmers.
The TAC was set up to head off a rebellion on the Conservative Benches over the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill because Conservative MPs knew—as we did, and as the terms of the deal with Australia show—that British farming was being sold down the river. In November, the Secretary of State said that the TAC would give advice to Parliament on trade and agriculture and that it so doing would allow MPs properly to scrutinise the deals the Government were negotiating. That changed significantly in June, when the Secretary of State said:
“The TAC’s role is specific and focused: it will look at the text of an FTA to see if the measures relating to trade in agricultural products have any implications for maintaining our domestic statutory protections—specifically those relating to animal and plant health, animal welfare and the environment”.
Ministers can say all they like about the TAC fulfilling the statutory remit it was given, but that is not what they said when they announced the same remit to head off a Back-Bench rebellion.
On 6 November, the Secretary of State told NFU Wales:
“We have no intention of ever striking a deal that doesn’t benefit farmers, but we have provided checks and balances in the form of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. That is an important reassurance as every deal is different.”
She did not mention assessing potential changes to statutory requirements, which she now says is the remit. The crucial check that we need on the deals proposed with Australia and New Zealand, which the Government are now pretending they never promised, is whether they would benefit British farmers.
The RSPCA, the NFU and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee all have the same concern that the TAC’s role has been watered down—a far cry from scrutiny during negotiations, or an ability to ensure that high farming standards are maintained by resisting clauses in trade agreements that undermine those standards. The TAC’s role will be limited to advising where domestic legislation has to change because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) correctly said, international agreements override domestic law.
The latest published remit is a clear attempt to scale back the previously briefed role of the TAC, and is a transparent attempt by the Secretary of State to avoid the embarrassment of the commission criticising what it called the “sell-out” deals that she is trying to get over the line with Australia and New Zealand, as happened last year. Why has the Secretary of State still failed to establish the TAC in permanent form? Why is she dragging her feet on appointing its chair and members? Why will she not say what support it will be provided with in undertaking its duties?
The failure to set up the TAC to do the proper job of scrutiny shows that the Government have no desire to support British farmers or farm workers, or to maintain high animal welfare standards in the UK. No wonder my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) voiced the suspicion of many that the TAC is being set up only to give the Government cover for lowering standards.
The Labour party would buy British, which means supporting British farmers and British fishers, and encouraging supermarkets to have more British produce on their shelves. Where Labour would make, buy and sell more in Britain to support our domestic industries, the Conservatives seem to want to buy more that is made—or, in this case, grown—abroad to sell in Britain, and outsourced to the highest bidder with the lowest standards. It is no good the Minister saying that because it is Australia, New Zealand or the United States, we should sign whatever we are offered. Good negotiation means trade deals that do not undercut our domestic industries, for goodness’ sake. Good negotiation means there should be give and take in trade deals, but the Conservatives have proven that they will give, give, give, with little expectation of anything in return, just for the PR of signing a flashy deal.
The story of the TAC so far is that, far from supporting our farmers, the Tories’ negotiating objective seems to be to give away the farm shop.
I apologise for having to join you virtually, Ms Bardell. I am self-isolating, as many are. I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in what has been an excellent and generally well-informed debate, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is a respected and long-standing committed advocate of British farming interests. He was likened to a Rottweiler three years before he even got to the House of Commons, which is tribute indeed.
As the Government chart a new course for the United Kingdom as an independent trading nation, we will pursue the interests of our farmers and producers with the same energy, tenacity and determination that my hon. Friend has demonstrated. The UK is already tasting great success in agrifood exports, exporting nearly £22 billion-worth of food and drink globally last year. We have a trade surplus in the sector with the United States and with Japan and Australia as well.
The important market access work that my Department is doing with our international partners is also bearing fruit, including gaining access to the United States for UK beef producers for the first time in over 20 years—a success the industry estimates could deliver £66 million-worth of sales by 2025—and securing entry to Japan, China, Taiwan and others for British beef, lamb and so on. In Japan, for example, that could be worth as much as £127 million over five years.
Our plans for accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, or CPTPP—the world’s hardest acronym to say—would give British exporters improved access to a community of 11 dynamic global markets with a combined GDP of £8.4 trillion. That would be a gamechanger for UK trade with the Asia-Pacific region.
The Government have made an iron-clad commitment to uphold the UK’s high standards for food and farming throughout our FTA negotiations. No compromise on our standards in animal welfare, food safety and the environment is enshrined in the Government’s manifesto, which the Conservative Members in this debate are all signed up to. After all, the UK’s production standards are second to none, which is why our farmers are proud to put the Union Jack quality label on their produce.
We heard from the Labour Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), that he wants to see more British food in our supermarkets. One hundred per cent. of beef in our major supermarkets is already UK-branded. We cannot go higher than 100%.
We very much want to see British produce here, but also able to be exported. That is why it is important that our agrifood sector can scrutinise the detail of the deals that we are negotiating. Underpinning that is the work of the original Trade and Agriculture Commission, which this Government established not under duress, but willingly, to examine our trade policy and identify new opportunities worldwide for British farmers and agricultural producers.
I am grateful to the commission’s chairman, Tim Smith, and to its members for their ambitious and comprehensive report, which puts forward innovative and far-reaching proposals to ensure that UK agriculture remains internationally competitive and that our animal welfare and environmental standards are protected.
Turning to the debate, the Chair of the EFRA Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, asked when the response will be made. It will be made as soon as it is ready. The report is immense and covers strategic policies, standards, export, promotion, staffing, marketing, environment and animal welfare. It warrants a serious and considered response. The role of the new TAC will be as debated and approved during the passage of the Trade Act 2021 and the Agriculture Act 2020.
On standards, which the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) also asked about, our key standards rolled over in the withdrawal agreement. Those standards that we took from the European Union rolled over in the withdrawal agreement. I think there is some confusion about market access with standards. Others have raised greater market access for Australia. That has no impact on our standards. What is allowed into this country under our standards today will remain exactly the same after the Australia free trade agreement comes into force.
The question of the agricultural council is very important. They do a great job for us and it is important to understand that it is not just the agricultural counsellors who work to promote UK food and drink and agriculture abroad. The DIT’s international commercial network is in 119 different markets around the world, with 1,500 people working on export and market access.
There was a suggestion that we are dragging our feet. I do not agree with that at all. The new Trade and Agriculture Commission will be up and running in good time to scrutinise the Australia free trade agreement as soon as the legal text is available.
Support for the new TAC was also raised by the Chair of the EFRA Committee. It will have a secretariat. It will not have the capacity for modelling, as it is not within its remit to model the economic impact of a free trade agreement. It is important that the TAC focuses on its statutory mandate as set out in the Trade Act and the Agriculture Act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) rightly welcomed the animal welfare chapter in the Australia trade deal. He questioned the scrutiny, but I think our system of scrutiny stands up as at least as well as in any Westminster-style democracy when it comes to trade deals. He made a point about using international aid to promote sustainable farming. The UK currently does that very professionally. I have seen it for myself in countries such as Zambia and Colombia.
The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) is wrong, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall)—FTAs do not trump domestic law. There would be no need to put in amendments to domestic law reflecting a free trade agreement, if the FTA simply trumped domestic law. He is not correct on that.
On production costs, we have to look at why Australia currently sells 75% of its beef exports and 70% of its lamb exports into Asia. A large reason for that is the high costs of production, which are much higher. The cost of producing a tonne of beef, for example, in Japan is around £7,300. In Korea, it is £7,200. In the UK, it is £3,700—about half that. There is a good reason why Australia is much more willing and able to sell into those markets.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) ably made points on the opportunities for exports. He is absolutely right. To be able to export, though, we have to abide by the rules of the international trading system. We cannot have it one way for imports and a different way for exports. The UK benefits enormously from international trading rules—we are a trading country—and we need to ensure that we abide by them. That point was made by various Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon. He asked for the Trade and Agriculture Commission to be put on a statutory footing sooner rather than later. It will be sooner; it will be up in good time to scrutinise the Australia trade deal.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) spoke of demonstrably lower standards in Australia. I refer him to the letter sent to him by the Australian High Commission. It is not my job to defend Australian agricultural practices, but it can put up a reasonable case. It is rated five out of five by the OIE—the World Organisation for Animal Health—in terms of performance in veterinary inspections. Also, Australia bans certain practices that I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale welcomes that are prevalent in the EU. Sorry—I should rephrase that. I know that he welcomes being in the EU; he does not necessarily welcome the practices. For example, the production of foie gras is allowed in the EU; Australia bans it. Australia bans the castration of meat chickens and so on, so Australia can put up a halfway reasonable case that it has good standards of animal welfare.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) raises very strong points—I am delighted to address her farmers—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, who made a thoughtful, well-informed and balanced speech. The role of the devolved Administrations is very important. Trade policy is reserved, but it has an impact in areas of devolved competence. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) raised the precedents of the Australia free trade agreement. He is also right that each FTA is treated individually.
I thank all Members for the debate, which has been very helpful. We look forward to making further progress on all these matters in due course.
It is a pleasure to follow the Minister. It would have been much better to have had him in the Chamber to question him further on exactly when he will respond to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. He has had five months, and I believe that his Department is more than capable of getting that out straight away to reassure the agriculture community in this country that the great standards that we maintain in food, farming, the environment and animal welfare will be maintained across Government, so that as we drive agricultural policy in DEFRA towards higher and higher standards we will at least maintain those standards when we do trade deals.
What does the Minister have to fear from the Trade and Agriculture Commission? Why will he not publish the core proposals and put the new commission in place? The Australia deal may be finalised in September, yet we do not have the new Trade and Agriculture Commission. The Minister has nothing to fear from it. The whole idea is that we can welcome the Australia deal, if it is on a level playing field, and other deals in the future. Then we can go on a great promotion of agricultural products and the Great British brand across the world. As we draw in up to 100,000 tonnes of Australian beef, let us export 100,000 tonnes of Great British beef across the world.
All that will work, but why will the Minister not publish the proposals, and put the new Trade and Agriculture Commission in place? That is all I ask him. I believe that we will then be much more on the same page, but at the moment I cannot see why he is so reticent. I fear that there is a conspiracy. I hope that that is not the case, and I look forward to being reassured. The question that he did not answer I will put to him in writing, and I hope that it will not take three months for a response.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in international trade deals.
Do Not Attempt Resuscitation Orders: Guidelines
Given the extreme heat, both in London and here in the Boothroyd Room, if Members want to speak or intervene without their jackets, that is permitted. I am sure the public will have sympathy. I have also advised the Doorkeepers that they may take their jackets off. Members will also be aware that social distancing is no longer in operation, but I remind them that Mr Speaker has encouraged us to wear masks between speeches and interventions.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered guidelines for Do Not Attempt Resuscitation orders.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I will be fairly brief. I welcome the fact that hon. Friends have come along, and I am very happy to take interventions from them.
I requested this debate to raise the important matter of the use of do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation and do not attempt resuscitation orders, which have been widely reported as being overused in recent years, particularly over the course of the covid-19 pandemic. I do not have a science or medical background. I am generally happy to defer to the opinions of the experts, who are far more qualified than me to speak about a patient’s condition. However, we have had a year of frequent and extremely worrying cases, some of which were highlighted by an article by Camilla Tominey in The Daily Telegraph on 12 June. I thank Ms Tominey for providing me with other articles. As a result of reading them, I felt compelled to raise this matter in the House today.
As a result of those reports, there are many people who have real concerns about this issue. Will they be consulted? I do not doubt that the medical professionals involved feel that they are doing their best and that they are acting in the best interests of their patients, but decisions of this kind must be made only after discussions with the patient or, if the circumstances demand it, their next of kin.
The Care Quality Commission published a report on 18 March following concerns raised at the beginning of the pandemic about the use of blanket DNACPR decisions across groups of potentially vulnerable people. It found that almost 10% of DNACPR decisions had been made and communicated inappropriately, involving potential breaches of the individual’s human rights.
Concerns have been raised by other Members during questions to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Health Secretary. Indeed, last week, when I questioned my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary, he said that a ministerial oversight group had been established to follow through on the CQC recommendations. I hope the Minister will be able to give more details about the work of that group. Many colleagues will have heard and read deeply saddening stories from constituents and citizens across the UK who have been impacted by this seemingly widespread approach.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue forward. When I saw it on the agenda for Westminster Hall, I just knew that I had to be here. As light is spread, Members like me had the same idea. That is why I wanted to be here. During the first wave of the pandemic, there were ongoing issues with DNAR orders. It has been stated that human rights may have been violated in over 500 cases. That is an enormous amount. Every one of us knows people who have found themselves in those difficult positions. The hon. Gentleman made a critical point: when decisions are made for DNAR orders, full protocol must be followed. Most importantly, the next of kin, who really need to know what is going on, have been ignored. That cannot happen again.
The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points, particularly, as I just mentioned, about the involvement if not of the patient themselves, certainly of the next of kin.
There have been examples of elderly people who reported that they felt pressured into signing these orders against their will. On 16 June, the Daily Mail reported that research carried out by the University of Sheffield found that 31% of the patients in its study who were admitted to hospital for covid were issued with do not resuscitate orders. That is unacceptable. Decisions of that nature are for the individual. They have the right to make their decisions without feeling unduly pressurised.
There have also been reports of care home residents having these orders imposed without consent and some reports speak of “blanket use”, which again is completely unacceptable.
Another report was of a 76-year-old man being issued a DNAR order following a heart attack, from which he made a full recovery. The order had not been discussed beforehand, but when his wife protested, she was reportedly told to “let him go with dignity.” The situation was only put right after the intervention of a more understanding member of staff and the order was revoked.
Throughout the pandemic, there have also been distressing reports of disabled people being denied vital medical treatment. According to the charity Mencap, a number of disabled people have died prematurely when intervention could have saved their lives. However, such intervention was denied owing to DNAR orders that should not have been in place.
Suffice it to say that some of the stories I have heard are frankly sickening, especially those involving the disabled or those suffering from mental illness. Having said that, I do not want to identify individuals in specific cases, although one widely reported case referred to a former Member of the European Parliament, which is sort of halfway to identifying the person involved. However, as I say, that case has been public for some time. She was admitted to hospital in Oxford for an operation on a broken pelvis. After being discharged, she was, of course, shocked to discover that a DNAR order had been in place, without her knowledge or consultation. In the event, her heart stopped during the procedure, supposedly owing to the fact that she suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
I am sorry to say that, as a result of reports I have read, I am able to come to no other conclusion than that clinicians are making assumptions regarding their patients’ quality of life and chances of survival that frequently are harsh and unnecessary. It is evident that a robust response is required from the Department of Health and Social Care. Any delay is unacceptable.
Ministers from the Department have rightly offered reassurance. However, it is time we saw action. Best practice guidelines are already in place, having been set by the Resuscitation Council UK. However, the examples I have given clearly show that the guidance does not appear to have been adhered to by some clinicians.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that when a loved one is admitted to hospital or a care home, whatever their age, when DNAR is discussed with their friends or relatives it has to be handled very carefully, because it could be a great shock? Also, was he aware that a former colleague of ours has said, following my raising this subject at business questions two weeks ago, that her husband had a DNAR order placed upon him without her express consent?
My hon. Friend makes some important points. I was unaware of the particular case that he mentions, but it is yet another example of what is happening without the approval of the patient or their family.
As I say, Ministers from the Department of Health and Social Care have quite rightly offered reassurance, but clearly some clinicians appear—I say “appear”—to be treating the guidance merely as a tick-box exercise. However, we are talking about life and death decisions.
Decisions regarding our own mortality can be uncomfortable, obviously for ourselves but also for our loved ones. This issue highlights the need for a cultural shift to ensure that everyone feels supported to hold open and honest conversations about what they would like to happen at the end. These conversations need to take place as early as possible, as we approach old age or learn that we have significant health problems. It is only by doing so that we can be sure that our wishes and those of our loved ones are honoured, as well as reducing the distress of the relatives of patients who have chosen to have DNACPR orders in place.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister what she proposes to do to support health and care clinicians, professionals and workers in holding conversations about these orders, and the importance of their involving patients and their families.
Earlier, I referred to the ministerial oversight group. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are thinking about that recommendation? I stress that the group must include health and social care providers, including those in the palliative and end-of-life sector, as well as those involved in local government and voluntary and community organisations. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that.
To conclude, the overuse of these orders over the course of the pandemic is a national scandal. Reports suggest that there are people who are not with us today who otherwise would have been. Likewise, some of the lucky ones who have made a full recovery did so despite having one of those orders attached to them. We all recognise that our medical professionals face extremely difficult decisions. This issue deals with profound matters: the relationship between doctor and patient, and for many like me, who regard human like as sacred, the orders go against our deepest religious and spiritual beliefs and cannot be dealt with in a matter-of-fact way. I know that the Minister and her colleagues will take this matter extremely seriously and will want to provide the reassurance and confirmation that it will not be allowed to go on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for bringing this extremely important topic to our attention.
I am well aware that the issue is highly emotive. Conversations around end of life and DNACPRs are some of the most challenging conversations that a clinician can have. It is important that they are approached in a compassionate and meaningful way that takes fully into account the wishes of the patient. I have had such conversations myself, both in the distant past in my professional capacity as a nurse, and recently in a more personal capacity, so I share and understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. I understand how difficult those conversations are, particularly if the person with whom a clinician is attempting to have the conversation does not want to have it.
I reassure my hon. Friend that the Department remains crystal clear that standards and quality of care should be maintained even in pressurised circumstances. Failure to consult people and their families on individual decisions on CPR causes significant distress. It is essential that such conversations are held in a sensitive and compassionate way, and that that is consistent across the health and care system.
There is already commendable joint guidance for clinicians on DNACPRs from the British Medical Association, the Resuscitation Council UK and the Royal College of Nursing. That guidance reflects that the agreement to a DNACPR is an individual decision and should involve the person concerned or, where the person lacks capacity, their families, carers, guardians and other legally recognised advocates.
In addition, significant work has been done over the last 16 months by the Department and clinical leaders to support practitioners in understanding best practice guidance. Clear messages around the use of DNACPR decisions were reinforced in our adult social care winter plan in September 2020, making clear that any advanced care decisions, including DNACPR decisions, should be fully discussed with the individual and their family where possible and appropriate, and signed by the clinician responsible for the individual’s care. Those guidelines were reinforced as recently as September 2020.
It has been well reported, however, that the pandemic shone a necessary but critical light on the application of DNACPR decisions, and highlighted how, in some cases, conversations were not always held in a patient-centred way. We heard particularly worrying reports about the inappropriate or blanket application across groups of people, including our most vulnerable.
To ensure that we could take early learnings on what was happening across the system, in October 2020 I commissioned the Care Quality Commission to review how DNACPR decisions were being made in the early stages of the pandemic. Its report, which was published on 18 March, highlighted examples of what good conversations around DNACPR look like. However, it also drew a worrying picture of the reasons why some of these conversations fell short of the high-quality personalised care people deserve. Of the three key areas for improvement the report identified, the application and adherence to guidance across the system was an area of concern. The report found a greater need for information, training and support for health and care professionals, to enable them to hold good, meaningful conversations. It is integral, therefore, that the training practitioners receive reflects that, to ensure that people’s needs and rights are met. It is critical that all staff have the knowledge, skills and confidence to speak with people about, and support them in making, appropriate DNACPR decisions, as well as feeling empowered to speak up when they do not feel the decision is right.
That is why I established a ministerial oversight group. The first meeting was held on 8 June and it brought together key organisations responsible for driving forward system-wide improvements, and provided an opportunity to set up their commitments. I found it encouraging to see a shared commitment to improve the use of DNACPR orders. I heard first hand of the ongoing work to improve knowledge and understanding of these issues, and the work being done to support colleagues across health and social care, to maintain and champion personalised approaches to care treatment. I believe that the terms of reference for the ministerial oversight group have gone live today on the gov.uk website, so that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes can see the issues that we have decided we need to address in order to improve the use and application of orders.
Although I mentioned that a considerable amount of excellent guidance and support around DNACPRs already exists, with meaningful conversations taking place every day, it is clear that improvements are needed on consistency, training and implementation. It is a difficult conversation for clinicians to have. A priority of the ministerial oversight group will be to ensure that there is better awareness, understanding and use of the guidance and resources available across the system, so that everybody can practise these conversations to the same degree of effectiveness and the same standards.
We are also working closely with our stakeholders across health and care to ensure that that happens. Clearly, this is a work in progress and training should remain under constant review, both in the wider workforce and to ensure that staff understand the training that they receive. We must also ensure that people feel equal partners in their care, and are well equipped for conversations around the end of life.
NHS England has published public-facing guidance on DNACPR decisions, along with the release today of the terms of reference of my ministerial oversight group. NHS England has also published where people can get support if they are concerned about a DNACPR decision, on england.nhs.uk. If anyone is concerned, they can find the guidance and know what they can do and say to challenge decisions.
Sensitive and well communicated DNACPRs can and should be an important part of patient care and end-of-life experience. We are committed to taking continued action—that is the point of the ministerial oversight group—to ensure guidance on DNACPR decisions is adhered to, that the training is in place, that the guidance is adhered to and that clinicians have the appropriate support to hold those difficult conversations.
Question put and agreed to.
Social Justice and Fairness Commission
Before we begin, as many hon. Members will be aware, the weather in London and here in the Boothroyd Room is very hot. I have no problem with Members speaking without jackets on, and I have also advised Doorkeepers that they should take their jackets off, so that we all stay conscious. I remind Members that although social distancing is no longer in operation, Mr Speaker has encouraged us to wear masks between speeches and interventions. Members participating virtually must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and will be visible at all times to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Social Justice and Fairness Commission and implications for Government policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and to introduce this debate on the important work that has been done by Scotland’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission, led by Shona Robison MSP and Neil Gray, the former Member for Airdrie and Shotts who now sits in the Scottish Parliament. The commission was established by Nicola Sturgeon in September 2019 and comprises both SNP Members and respected independent contributors, including Doctor Angela O’Hagan, former convenor of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group; Dr Nighet Riaz, academic, educator and community and political activist; Professor Sir Harry Burns, the former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland; and Chelsea Cameron, activist and campaigner and the Sunday Mail Young Scot of the Year 2017.
The commission took evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals who provided valuable time and insights during a period of great uncertainty. The commission published its report, “A Route Map to a Fair Independent Scotland” in May this year. The focus of the report is how much more Scotland could achieve with independence, but it also considers what is achievable with the powers of devolution.
As the commission highlights, the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are under attack by a UK Government using the challenges posed by Brexit to undermine the very fabric of devolution. In the run-up to the first independence referendum in 2014, Scotland faced the choice of two futures. One of those choices—independence—is still available and will be revisited soon in a further referendum, as voted for by the people of Scotland. The other future, which was described by Theresa May as a “family of nations”, by Gordon Brown as a “new federal UK” or by Ruth—now the unelected Baroness—Davidson as the only way to keep Scotland in the EU is to vote no. The future that they described is now well and truly dead.
The question facing the people of Scotland, which also faces the people of other parts of the UK, is what comes next? Where are our Governments taking us and what is the vision that drives their actions? The commission’s report is based on the central principle that the function of Government is to make life better for everyone and to ensure that no one is left behind.
The words, “no one is left behind” have been used by Ministers in the UK Government, but it is clear to all but the most dogged idealogue that they are weasel words. Ministers use them to put a gloss on such regressive decisions as letting up to 3 million people fall through the cracks of pandemic support, and please let us not mention universal credit as a safety net. Many applicants receive little or no support, because someone else in their household has an income. There is also the wilful decision to remove the £20 uplift in universal credit in September, just as the furlough scheme ends and many workers face post-pandemic unemployment. The UK Government’s failure to bring forward an employment Bill is an example of calculated inaction, as Ministers understand that many people, including pregnant women and new mothers, face blatant discrimination in post-pandemic employment, but they have chosen to do nothing.
The commission highlights three key elements in the roadmap at a fairer Scotland, which I would argue are equally applicable to the UK. The first element is democratic renewal by changing how we make decisions to be more inclusive, consensual and empowering. The difference in the direction of travel between Scotland and the approach of the UK Government is stark. As the Scottish Government work to extend the franchise, the UK Government use manufactured concern about voter impersonation as a smoke screen to disenfranchise many of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, many of who are likely to be from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. While the activities of the Scottish Parliament and devolved Administrations are subject to review by the courts, the UK Government have made clear their intention to use the anachronism of the UK’s unwritten constitution to put their own actions above the law. Given their scandalous behaviour, that is a worrying proposal.
The commission’s recommendations for citizen empowerment include working with affected communities to co-design and co-produce policies, developing and expanding participatory budgeting and giving communities greater control over their land with accelerated community ownership. These build on work already under way in Scotland, including the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, which provides for greater transparency of land ownership, a fundamental resource for development. Ownership has been shrouded in secrecy for far too long. The UK Government are going in the opposite direction to that recommended by the commission, with a union connectivity review and levelling-up fund to haul decision making back to Westminster, and prioritise party objectives and vanity projects over local benefit.
The second leg of the route map is that Governments should operate based on values rooted in human rights and equality. As the Prime Minister chooses to align himself with leaders such as Viktor Orbán, the outspoken anti-immigrant premier of Hungary, his preferred direction of travel for the UK is clear—to the fringes of right-winged populism.
The commission highlights that the UK immigration policy is not only hugely damaging to Scotland, but inhumane and ineffective, founded on the relentless pursuit of a hostile environment. Recently, asylum seeker mothers and their babies were removed from flats in Glasgow and transferred to cramped bedsits where the babies had no room to even crawl. It is difficult to identify any logic to that policy, other than to say, “You are not welcome here.” The commission highlights the damage done by so-called welfare policies driven on the back of austerity. The bedroom tax, two-child limit, rape clause, benefit cap and five-week wait for universal credit all undermine social solidarity and make families reliant on food banks, charities and one-off crisis funding. How can the Minister can defend policies such as the rape clause? Surely that is simply indefensible.
The values underpinning these policies are not the values of the people of Scotland. They are not the values underpinning the job start payment, or the child winter heating allowance, introduced by the Scottish Government using their social security powers. They are not the values shown by the SNP in government, with the introduction of a range of progressive polices, such as the baby box, and game-changing poverty reduction measures, such as the Scottish child payment and the best start grant.
As a range of commentators have recognised, there is a limit to the ability of devolved administrators to tackle poverty while discriminatory polices remain in force at a UK level, and are reinforced by policies such as cutting the £20 weekly uplift to universal credit just as post-furlough unemployment is likely to soar. That change alone will wipe away the benefit brought to many families by the Scottish child payment.
The commission proposes pilots of two key models of social security: universal basic income and the minimum income guarantee. Despite repeated calls from the SNP and other devolved Governments, the UK Government continue to obstruct basic universal basic income pilots, content to leave gaping holes in the social security net for people to fall through. As the commission makes clear, by imposing cruel and damaging austerity measures, and undermining devolution, the Westminster Government are an obstacle to achieving a fairer society in Scotland.
I am learning the lessons of this dysfunctional United Kingdom. The commission recommends that an independent Scotland agree, define and enshrine our shared values and goals in a written constitution, incorporating international human rights conventions guaranteeing the right to home and access to a secure living income. Those values, allied to a commitment to equality, underpin the third and final leg of the route map: the delivery of transformative policies that put the wellbeing of people first.
By contrast with the centralising efforts of the UK Government to undermine devolution and take control of devolved powers, the re-elected SNP Government have committed to continuing strong action to tackle poverty and support families. The measures to be adopted include paying a further £100 for each child eligible for free school meals on the basis of low income, in addition to the £100 already paid at Easter; beginning the phased implementation of free school meals for all primary pupils, starting with primary 4 children in August and primary 5 children in January 2022; completing the roll-out of 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare; increasing the best start foods payment to £4.50 a week, and with the regulations already laid, families will start receiving the increased payments by mid-August; and legislating to give unpaid carers on some of the lowest incomes an extra coronavirus carer’s allowance supplement payment in December 2021. Such policies demonstrate the Scottish Government’s determination to support families and to give children in Scotland the best start in life. They are part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to creating a wellbeing economy, which is being taken forward internationally, with the First Minister taking a lead through the Wellbeing Economy Alliance.
Brexit and the pandemic have had a major impact on all our lives. With independence, Scotland would have the tools, such as the full range of welfare powers, tax and employment law, to navigate future challenges. The transfer of those powers to the Scottish Parliament would empower the people of Scotland and present us with the opportunity to transform our country for the better. However, those powers currently rest at Westminster. They could be used productively on behalf of the people of Scotland and people across the UK, but the UK Government have made it clear that they do not intend to act, and certainly not in a way that would be supported by people in Scotland.
The transfer of employment law would enable the Scottish Government to pursue a fair work agenda, including the commission’s recommendations of raising the minimum wage to the real living wage, banning the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts, outlawing unpaid trial shifts, and legislating against the practice of fire and rehire. The UK Government have failed to deliver such reforms, despite repeated calls to do so. They cannot even say that the reforms will appear in the much-promised Employment Bill. In fact, they cannot even say when the Bill will eventually arrive.
As the UK Government continue to dither over their plans for the post-pandemic economy, the suspicion grows that we are drifting towards the right’s long-sought-after Singapore-on-Thames, with the UK competing on the international stage with low-rights, low-cost labour forces, and a focus on international investors looking for low regulation. That is not the future for Scotland that is recommended by the commission, and I suspect it is not the future wanted by many workers elsewhere in the UK, either. A recent study in Grimsby, which has been published this month by the Institute for the Future of Work, highlights a yawning gap between the needs of that town’s residents and the UK Government’s focus on deregulated and low-tax freeports, which are claimed to attract internationally mobile investment. However, that did not stop the Conservative Government abandoning freeports in 2012. What emerges from the study is that the situation in Grimsby would certainly be replicated in communities right across the UK, as projects emanating from Westminster reflect the aspirations and influence of international financiers, rather than any clear analysis of local community aspirations.
Moving forward from the pandemic, especially in the world of work, we face a radically different future from the one that we faced just 18 months ago. The pandemic will undoubtedly be seen as a turning point for many industries, with home working, distributed working, automation and online access to services all challenging pre-pandemic norms. The sudden change will throw up a number of challenges for individuals, businesses, local authorities, transport providers, the retail and hospitality sectors and property owners. The commission sets out a coherent method of working as we plan for the unexpected shift in our future. It is an approach that puts the wellbeing of the people, whom Governments are supposed to serve, right at the heart of policy making—a method that is radically different from the approach of the UK Government.
I commend the commission on its work in these difficult times, and I encourage the Minister and his colleagues to study it closely.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I start by commending and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate. Having campaigned with her in Clarkston and Neilston, I know what an advocate for social justice she is, not only in her constituency but in her role at Westminster.
I was reflecting during the debate, and I think that the past year has shown time and again the clear blue water between the British Government—the Conservatives in Westminster—and the SNP Government here in Scotland. The Scottish Government have stood in opposition to the Prime Minister and his Tory Government, who throughout the pandemic have implemented haphazard and irresponsible decision making, risking countless lives and causing economic hardship for a great many. On the other hand, the SNP has been clear and cautious in its covid-19 policy, relying on expert medical opinion and focusing on facts rather than the risky rhetoric of freedom day announcements that culminated in the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Health Secretary and now the Leader of the Opposition all having to self-isolate.
Our differences are not confined to the pandemic. The SNP has been clear that the £20 universal credit uplift must remain. We reject the benefit cap. We reject the rape clause. I know that the Minister does not like to call it the rape clause. Indeed, he wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) pleading with her to call it the non-consensual sex exemption; I guess he is not happy with it not being called its Sunday name. We also reject the five-week wait for universal credit. We have made clear our opposition to the brutal Home Office raids that took place here in the city of Glasgow, in Kenmure Street, earlier this year.
During the Kenmure Street protests, a man placed a sign outside his home that read:
“If this is team UK we reject it”.
I can tell hon. Members quite authoritatively from this great city of Glasgow that he speaks for every single one of us, not only in Glasgow but, I suspect, those in the Livingston constituency as well. The problem is that this is happening all across Scotland. People are rejecting the heartless policies of a British Government that we did not vote for—indeed, we have not voted by a majority for a Conservative Government since the 1950s in Scotland—and we continue to reject the Prime Minister and his band of cronies. Not only that, but Scottish people are rejecting this failed Union that does not serve them or reflect their values.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) so eloquently outlined, the Social Justice and Fairness Commission focuses on the routes that we need to take for Scotland to be a more fair and equal society. Key policies proposed include a universal basic income and a minimum income guarantee. Both those policies would ensure that everyone in Scotland could live healthy, financially secure and fulfilling lives. The UK Government have continually failed to raise people out of poverty—indeed, they have almost redefined what they define as poverty—while their heartless policies have pushed more and more people into financial hardship each year. I am afraid that the pandemic has only exacerbated that.
However, we in the SNP have a clear plan, starting with, as my hon. Friend suggested, full devolution of employment law, which the commission resoundingly backs. We are clear that we would recommend raising the minimum wage to the real living wage; ban the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts; outlaw unpaid trial shifts, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald); and legislate—yes, legislate—against the practice of fire and rehire, which has been called out so consistently by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands).
Alongside these key employment recommendations, the commission is clear that wider toxic Tory policies have devastating implications for employment in Scotland. For instance, Tory immigration policy is hugely damaging to Scotland, where our problem is not immigration but emigration. The commission recommends that freedom of movement be restored, and that asylum seekers have the right to work, which was so cruelly taken away from them by the new Labour British Government in the early 2000s.
Since taking office in 2007, the SNP Government have made enormous strides forward in implementing progressive policies, including the baby box, equal marriage, the Scottish child payment to best start grants, free university tuition and, of course, world-leading climate change legislation. However, this re-elected SNP Government have no plans to slow down. Indeed, in our first 100 days back in office, the SNP Government committed to strong action to tackle poverty and support families by increasing the best start food payments to £4.50 per week, paying £100 for each child eligible for free school meals on the basis of low income and commencing the phased implementation of free school meals to all primary pupils.
Despite those huge steps forward, there is undeniably a limit on the progress that can be made under the current powers of our precious Scottish Parliament. That is why the work of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission has made me incredibly hopeful. It paints a positive image of Scotland’s future—a future built on fairness, equality and social justice. However, the devolution of powers can only go so far, and the only way to achieve all the aspirations set out by the commission is with the powers of independence. With the full powers of independence, we could make a huge difference to the lives of a great many people across Scotland. With full powers of independence—in particular on social security—we could lift countless people out of poverty, allowing them to live full and healthy lives. With full powers of employment law, we could create fairer workplaces, increase wages, reduce insecure work and truly shift the curve on poverty. With powers over immigration, we could reinstate freedom of movement and promote fair, empathetic policies for asylum seekers and refugees.
An independent Scotland would not be constrained by the constitutional ceiling of devolution, which halts our ability to effect transformative policies. Independence would give our Scottish Parliament the tools it truly needs to eradicate poverty, rather than just reduce or mitigate the worst effects of harmful Tory welfare cuts.
The commission’s recommendations are a blueprint for what an independent Scotland can look like, and I for one look forward to the upcoming independence referendum that we know the UK Government are preparing for. Indeed, I look forward to watching people in Scotland seizing that opportunity for a more just, more equal and fairer society.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate, which has clearly been an opportunity for the Scottish National party to put their case on the record. I cannot blame constituents in Scotland—or in England, Wales or Northern Ireland—who are appalled at the Conservative Government’s failures over our social security system and employment law and want something better. That is perfectly understandable, and we agree with them, as I will set out. That does not mean, however, that we accept the SNP’s desire to break up the United Kingdom to achieve the changes needed.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that the Scottish people’s aspiration is for a fairer, more equal and empathetic country, but that aspiration is shared across the UK. Labour opposed the Government’s plans to end the universal credit uplift, slashing £20 a week from the people who need it most and undermining demand in the economy. Everybody recognises the hurt that that will do to struggling families just as we enter the economic uncertainty of the post-furlough era. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that the withdrawal of the uplift will risk bringing 700,000 more people, including 300,000 more children, into poverty. It could also bring 500,000 more people into deep poverty.
Rather than cutting that lifeline, the Government should recognise that that uplift was an implicit recognition that universal credit was too low to begin with. They failed to give proper support to legacy benefits, income-based jobseekers allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support and child tax credit. Those should have been uplifted all along. It was discriminatory and unfair not to do that, and after stalling for so long, the Government now intend to have parity for all at the inadequate level.
Labour would keep the uplift and extend it to legacy benefits until a new, fairer system can be put in place. The delays to scrapping the rule of certifying that a terminally ill claimant has less than six months to live caused indecent anguish to too many people. Marie Curie and the Motor Neurone Disease Association estimate that about 7,000 people may have died while waiting for a decision on their benefits claim—utterly appalling. We have called for the benefits cap to be scrapped, for free school meals to be extended over holiday periods, and for personal independence payments and work capability assessments to be replaced with a personalised, holistic assessment process.
In short, we believe that the Tories are letting down the public, particularly those most in need, with their mismanagement of the social security system and demonisation of those who need to claim from it, a majority of whom, let us not forget, are in work. However, the SNP’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which suggests a land of milk and honey in a separated Scotland, seems not to recognise the choices that the SNP has made with the devolved powers that it already has. Labour is the party of devolution. In 2016, we helped to ensure that social security was devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but it has treated it like a hot potato.
SNP Ministers twice asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the devolution of the benefits in 2016 and in 2018. Now full devolution of the benefits has been pushed back further, to 2025. Why should people have to wait for a supposedly kinder and better system that they deserve now? Considering that the proportion of Scottish pensioners stuck in persistent poverty has increased under the SNP and is now higher than levels elsewhere in the UK, and that more than one in four of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty, it should be a priority—not a fantasy to put off for some other day.
I have been really enjoying the hon. Lady’s contribution. I appreciated that we would have some areas of common ground and some differences, but in all this it would be helpful to hear from her whether she appreciates that the report deals with the here and now as well as the future, that it is important for Governments to aspire, and put action in place, to make things better for populations, and that it is for people in Scotland to determine what their future should be, rather than this place.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She refers to the commission’s report being on decisions to be taken in the here and now, but as I outlined, the Scottish Government have been offered those powers and chosen not to use them. They could be making things better for people in Scotland in the here and now, despite the fact that they are still waiting for further devolution from the UK Government, which my party and the hon. Lady’s can agree is an utterly inadequate Government in all parts of the UK.
What about the small policies that have a big impact? Scottish Labour has repeatedly called on the SNP to mitigate the two-child benefit limit, but it has refused. It would cost just £69 million, or 0.2% of the Scottish Government’s total 2019 budget spending. It is a toxic policy that has hit some of Scotland’s most vulnerable families the hardest, and it is inexplicable that the SNP has not sought to scrap it.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the policy and all that it stands for, but perhaps she is missing the point. This is an issue for this Parliament. If we look at it in conjunction with all the action that the Scottish Parliament and Government take to support children, and to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up, that would be a more sensible approach than expecting the Scottish Parliament to be simply a Parliament of mitigation. People in Scotland deserve better than that.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and refer her to my previous answer: we both agree that this is an utterly inadequate Government in all parts of the UK, but that does not mean that the Scottish Government could not be doing more to mitigate the effects of the UK Government, as has taken place with regional devolution in other parts of England. Why has the SNP chosen instead to talk up the findings of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission—a commission made up of SNP politicians? Presumably because it is easier to condemn than to construct with the powers available, and certainly easier to make utopian promises about the future.
We know that the SNP’s economic forecasts do not stack up. The London School of Economics reports that the combination of separation and Brexit would reduce Scotland’s income per capita by between 6.3% and 8.7% in the long run, equivalent to a loss of income of between £2,000 and £2,800 per person every year. The SNP’s blueprint for independence, the Sustainable Growth Commission, proposes a five-to-10-year timeframe to cut Scotland’s deficit to 3%, meaning that a separate Scotland would face many years of austerity. If that happened, it would be cutting social security, not extending it.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for being kind enough to give way on one more occasion. I am enjoying our ability to have this debate, but may I point out to her that all the things that she has said are predicated on this place being in charge of Scotland and most of the levers of power? In an independent Scotland, Scotland will be in charge of all the levers of power, and it is inconceivable that we will run things the way this place runs things. The real issue is that Scotland cannot afford not to be independent.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, again, and echo her remark about enjoying a debate that, from the call list at least, seemed as though it would not be as lively as it has been. I thank her for that. As I said earlier in my speech, the economic forecasts that relate to the future of Scotland are the basis on which I made those remarks.
About 350,000 people in Scotland earn less than the real living wage. They deserve a better system than the one that the Tories trap them in and they deserve the genuine action that the SNP has refused them. The Labour party offers a better, fairer and more credible system than either of them—and I am really pleased to see the hon. Member for Glasgow East enjoying my speech and agreeing with me so strongly!
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. May I personally thank you for your enlightened approach and position in relation to jackets and the wearing thereof, given the heat? I also thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing this debate on a report that covers many important issues.
The report from the Social Justice and Fairness Commission, set up by the Scottish National party, is very wide-ranging. It covers a number of areas where policy is already devolved to the Scottish Government. I will predominantly focus, as I mentioned to the hon. Lady ahead of the debate, on areas that fall within my remit and that of my Department.
Let me start by reminding hon. Members of the UK Government’s long-standing commitment to devolution. The Scotland Act 2016 gave the Scottish Parliament significantly increased powers as well as responsibility for social security benefits worth about £3 billion. It also has powers to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility, to top up reserved benefits and to provide discretionary payments in this area.
My Department has made every effort to support the Scottish Government in the delivery of their plans and priorities. There is close working at every level. There is also regular constructive ministerial engagement through the joint ministerial working group on welfare to discuss the transfer of powers, in the spirit of the Smith agreement.
Returning to the key focus of today’s debate, I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and other hon. Members about poverty levels in Scotland and, indeed, in the UK as a whole. As a Government, we are wholly committed to tackling that, and it is only right that any Government are held properly to account for the effectiveness of their policies in this area. I want to put it on the record that I do not want to see anybody in Scotland—or anywhere in our United Kingdom, for that matter—living in poverty; and although I do not have within my control all the levers to tackle poverty, I want to assure the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire and other Members that I take this issue incredibly seriously and I am working with counterparts across Government to identify, tackle and address the root causes and drivers of poverty.
Over the past 16 months, our priority has of course been to help people to withstand the financial hardships brought about by the pandemic. Such unprecedented economic circumstances have called for an unprecedented economic response, and I believe that this Government have delivered that by spending more than £407 billion on support measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including, for example, the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. That has helped to protect one in three jobs in Scotland, helped to keep businesses afloat and helped families, wherever they live across our United Kingdom, to get by. As we move forward, our collective priority must be recovery—recovering from the challenges that the covid pandemic has created. I stress that the UK Government will of course work hand in hand with the Scottish Government on this mission, because we will recover faster and stronger if we work together.
That spending also includes the additional £7.4 billion injected into the welfare system, which the hon. Lady referred to, to provide further support for those most in need, raising our total spend on welfare support for people of working age to over £111 billion in 2020-21. As she rightly said, this extra funding includes the temporary £20 increase to the universal credit standard allowance and the working tax credit standard allowance, and nearly an additional £1 billion to the local housing allowance, topping up the rates to the 30th percentile of local market rents, which we maintained in cash terms at the same level this year.
The measures brought in by this Government in response to the pandemic targeted support at those who needed it most in a swift and effective way.
The Minister spoke about the £20 uplift and then moved swiftly on, as if the people in receipt of that uplift will not still have the same need when it is pulled from under their feet. How does he think that the families concerned will manage without that money, which has clearly been much needed? How does he think that it suddenly stops being needed when he pulls the plug?
The hon. Lady is right to point out that universal credit has provided a vital safety net for approximately 6 million people during the pandemic and, as she rightly suggests, we announced the temporary uplift as part of the £400 billion package of measures that was put in place to support those facing the most financial disruption and economic shock as a result of the pandemic. I hasten to add that that measure was not being called for by any other party in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, it was a measure to support those facing that economic shock and financial disruption, and the point is that it will last—the temporary uplift having been extended further by six months—well beyond the end of the road map.
Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Lady makes, and I know that they come from the right place and that she is very passionate about these issues, our focus now is on our multi-billion pound plan for jobs, which will support people in the long term by helping them to learn new skills, to increase their hours and, of course, to find new work.
The report talks at length about universal basic income, so I will touch on that very briefly, if I may, and also services. However, we know that these do not target support at those in greatest need and that they fail to take into account the significant additional costs faced by many individuals, including those, for example, with disabilities or childcare responsibilities.
As we look towards our economic recovery, tackling poverty will be very much at the heart of our mission. We have long championed the principle that the best way to do so is to support people, wherever possible, to move into work and to progress in work through our reformed welfare system, which ensures that families of all backgrounds are better off in work.
Statistics for 2019-20 show that, before the pandemic, the UK was in a strong position overall, with record levels of employment, rising incomes and 1.3 million fewer people, including 300,000 fewer children, in absolute poverty after housing costs, compared with 2010. In Scotland, the proportion of children in absolute low income reduced by 3 percentage points to 17% before housing costs in the three years to 2019-20, compared with 20% in the three years to 2009-10. But there is still a lot of work to do in that area.
Helping people back into work is key to levelling up across the whole of Great Britain, and the Department for Work and Pensions is playing a central role in delivering this Government’s ambitious £30 billion plan for jobs, which is already helping people of all ages right across the country. That includes over £7 billion on new schemes such as kickstart. Since it launched last September, over 10,500 kickstart jobs have been advertised in Scotland and over 3,500 young people have started in kickstart roles.
The evidence is clear that parental employment, particularly where it is full time, substantially reduces the risk of a child growing up in poverty, but we know that having a job is not always enough to lift families out of poverty. People also need the right skills and opportunities to progress in their roles, so that they can increase their earnings and build a career. That is very much a focus of the Department going forward.
The independent In-work Progression Commission published its report on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay earlier this month and we will consider its recommendations carefully before responding later this year. I encourage both the Scottish Government and employers across Scotland—indeed, across the whole of the United Kingdom—to do the same.
Through our recently expanded UK-wide network of jobcentres, we are also taking wider action to support those whose ability to work is affected by a range of often complex barriers to work. Customers with a drug or alcohol dependency who are not in treatment can be referred for a voluntary discussion with a local treatment provider to discuss their dependency issues and treatment options, for example. We are able to put in a six-month drug and alcohol easement for those in structured recovery treatments, so that work availability and work search requirements within UC are switched off for up to six months, giving the claimant the time and space to recover. Furthermore, for those in recovery who are moving into work, our Access to Work grant provides adaptions and specialist equipment for the workplace.
Work coaches have been key to the support that we have been able to provide over the last 16 months. They can also play a crucial role in preventing homelessness through the provision of tailored support via universal credit. That can include pausing the requirement for homeless claimants to look for work while they resolve things such as accommodation issues, and helping customers to access the right additional housing assistance and all-important expert support. Additionally, work coaches can offer voluntary referrals to local housing teams under the duty to refer.
Before I conclude, I will touch on pensions, which are also referenced in the report. We are absolutely committed to maintaining a private pensions system that ensures financial security for current and future pensioners. Automatic enrolment has, without question, been hugely successful, with more than 10 million individuals—including more women, lower earners and young people—now building greater financial resilience for their future. We are committed to reaching more of those previously under-served groups by implementing the 2017 automatic enrolment review, and to further improving schemes and information for savers under the Pension Schemes Act 2021. That is a joint endeavour, so Government, employers, industry and individuals all need to play their part in delivering a system that is affordable and sustainable for all.
A number of important points were raised, and I understand that the Minister cannot possibly deal with them all in the short time available. However, I am particularly keen to hear from him about the rape clause and how such a policy, which causes such harm and damage to women, can be part of any just social security system.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. I know that the two-child policy is not supported by the Scottish National party, and it is regularly raised at oral questions. What I would say is that a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is unsustainable, notwithstanding the points that she makes. The 2020 figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that 85% of families with dependent children have a maximum of two in their family; for lone-parent families, the figure was 83%. The Government therefore feel that it is proportionate to provide support through child tax credit and universal credit for a maximum of two children, but we recognise that some claimants cannot make the same choices about the number of children in their family. That is exactly why exemptions such as the non-consensual sex exemption, which the hon. Lady mentioned, have been put in place to protect those individuals.
Let me finish answering first. Even if we park the fact that it would cost around £2 billion a year to reverse the policy decision, it is based on fairness, because the idea is that those who are in receipt of benefits should have to make the same life choices—
It is important to say to the Minister on the record that it is unhelpful to use the phrase “life choices” when talking about things such as the rape clause. I know that he is thoughtful about matters in this area of social security, but he is trying to defend the indefensible. I come back to the question of how this could possibly be just.
The hon. Lady is conflating two issues. She is conflating the two-child policy, in and of itself, which is a matter of fairness—it is about putting those who are in receipt of benefits in the same position as those who are not, when it comes to facing life choices—with what she refers to as the rape clause, which I refer to as the non-consensual sex exemption. That is exactly why we have that exemption in place.
I am interested in how a policy that, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said, affects only a very small number of people can be unsustainable. We know that all money put into early years represents a saving over a child’s lifetime, particularly for those children who are in the sharpest financial straits because of their family circumstances. Those are, of course, no fault of the child, so how can this be a matter of fairness?
To pick up on the point about the rape clause—non-consensual sex is rape—how can it possibly be fair that at a time when we have a conviction rate of less than 1.6%, women are being asked to re-traumatise themselves, not only through the justice system, but in accessing the support that their families need?
Again, on this particular policy, we are not going to agree. It is one of many issues on which the hon. Member for Warrington North and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire will not agree with me, and I understand that. They say, “It is not very much money. It is a very small policy—it is £2 billion here.” If I add up in my head the cost of the policies that the hon. Ladies have said over the past half hour that they would like to bring in, it comes to more than £15 billion, plus inflation at the consumer prices index rate, every year for ever more. We should bear in mind that we already spend around £100 billion a year on benefits supporting working-age people. This is probably a debate for another day. I think that the position is very much one of fairness, but I have no doubt that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire will continue to champion this cause and campaign on the matter.
Our full focus must be on recovering from the challenges that the covid pandemic has created. We have protected all the jobs we could through the furlough scheme, and we are now pivoting towards getting people back into work and progressing in work through our plan for jobs. We are also focusing on ensuring that our children can catch up on their missed education and giving young people the right opportunities to get a foot in the labour market.
It is absolutely right that as the country begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, we ensure that the welfare state continues to support the most disadvantaged in our society. As we have done throughout the past 16 months, we will continue to assess how best to target taxpayers’ money on support for the most vulnerable families beyond the pandemic.
I thank all the contributors in this small but very interesting debate. It has been a useful discussion. The small number of participants has made the debate a little bit more interactive than many of us are used to. I am also very grateful to all who were involved in the Social Justice and Fairness Commission for the huge amounts of work that they put in.
This all comes down to what the right future for Scotland is, and that is obviously a decision for the people in Scotland to take. It is evidently a choice of two very different futures. The opportunity to have a fairer country—a country that puts social justice and equality at the heart of policy making—would make a significant difference to the life chances of people in Scotland now and far into the future.
The Minister talked about choices a couple of minutes ago when we talked about the rape clause, and that is what this comes down to. It is about what Governments’ choices and priorities are. The choices and priorities of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are radically different from the choices and priorities that we see in Westminster. Supporting children is clearly a priority for the Scottish Government, over and above paying all the money that the Trident nuclear weapons cost. In their first 100 days, the Scottish Government are working hard to ensure that our recovery is right for Scotland and that it is sustainable. As we move forward and look to the future that the Social Justice and Fairness Commission has illustrated for us, people will see that having a fairer and more sustainable future is the way to make all our lives better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Social Justice and Fairness Commission and implications for Government policy.