Monday 13 September 2021
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019-21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, HC 526, and the Government response, HC 770; oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 14 July 2021, on Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, HC 479; and summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, reported to the House on 5 July 2021, HC 479.]
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen—welcome back. Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when not speaking, if possible, in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I apologise to Members for the fact that, having given you that advice, I may not be able to adhere to it myself because my glasses steam up and I might not be able to see anybody. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 586700, relating to funding and affordability of childcare.
The petition is about the need for an independent review of childcare funding so that we can really think through what we want our childcare and early education sector to be, and what we hope it can do for the families who need it and for us as a society. So many economic and social benefits flow from the sector that it is difficult to summarise in the time we have, but I think most of us would agree on three key reasons why it is so important to support high quality early education.
First, we know from international evidence that so many important life outcomes—from health to wealth and wellbeing—have their origins in the early years. Quality early education can benefit children’s academic and social development, and evidence shows that those benefits are often stronger for children from disadvantaged families, as it starts them off on a more equal footing with their peers when they go to school.
Secondly, access to childcare is crucial for working parents. Closures during the pandemic have served as a real reminder of just how important it is. The pre-school years are a particularly significant time for new mothers: regrettably, decisions around their childcare in that short period can have a huge impact on their lifetime earnings and, consequently, on the gender pay gap.
Finally, helping with the cost of childcare and early education is one of the best ways for the Government to ensure that families with young children—particularly those on low incomes—are not financially crippled by high costs. As the petitioners point out, childcare in the UK is expensive. Statistics from the OECD show that, however we look at it, we are close to the top of the list of developed countries for childcare costs.
I think that most of us would agree on what we want our early years sector to deliver and on those broad criteria, but some may place different emphasis on them. Analysing whether we are meeting those objectives, and how we can improve on them, is a huge task that touches on many complex areas, such as funding, training, accountability and outcomes. I do not think this House has the expertise or the time to cover those in depth, which is why we need an independent review.
During the debate, I want to look specifically at funding, which is the focus of the petition. In that key area, there is strong evidence that we are letting down children, parents and providers, and I will make the case to support the petitioners’ call for an independent review. Determining the right level of funding for the early years is of course the subject of long-running disputes between the Government and sector representatives, but it goes to the heart of what early years really means to us as a country.
Childcare is as necessary for parents to get to work as the roads and the rail network, so why do we not approach and fund it as the vital infrastructure investment that it clearly is? I am sure the Minister will point out that spending on free entitlements—the 15 and 30-hour entitlements for three and four-year-olds, and disadvantaged two-year-olds—has more than doubled to around £3.4 billion since 2010, but it is important to look at what has driven that increase. Most of it has come from successive expansions of eligibility, which are of course hugely welcome. However, what providers are concerned about is a discrepancy between the cost per hour of delivering the free entitlements and the funding per hour that they receive.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest annual report on education spending shows that funding per hour of childcare is now only about 13% higher in real terms than in 2004, despite an increase of about 150% in total spending. In recent years, funding per hour has declined from its 2017-18 peak, showing that even the modest increase introduced alongside the 30-hour entitlement in 2017 has not been maintained.
Even more importantly, we know that it is not enough just to provide for the costs of delivering childcare. The Department for Education’s publication in June of a much-delayed freedom of information response to the Early Years Alliance showed that the Government were aware of the consequences of introducing the 30 hours policy with an insufficient level of investment. Ministers knew that the investment would meet only around two thirds of costs—meaning higher costs for parents—and force early years staff to look after the maximum legal ratio of children, with significant impacts on quality. With a lack of proper investment in the free entitlement, providers are forced to cover their costs by charging more for the non-funded hours. That means spiralling costs for parents and carers, whose fees have risen three times faster than earnings since 2008—and that is just the average. For the parents of two-year-olds in some parts of the country, childcare costs have risen seven times faster than their wages.
As a working mother both before and since becoming an MP, I have my own experiences of the heart-wrenching stress and pressure of getting the right childcare and support, and of the enormous costs. Our childcare costs are now the highest of almost any developed country. In a Petitions Committee survey earlier this year, 77% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that cost had prevented them from getting the kind of childcare they really needed. One respondent said:
“I do not have the option to have family or friends look after my child when I return to work and I can’t afford to not be in work, but childcare costs more than my mortgage for full time hours.”
“My wages will just about cover our childcare costs, therefore I am basically working only to ‘hold my place’ until my baby is old enough not to need childcare i.e., once she starts school.”
That has a huge impact on the gender pay gap. Clearly, it is still by and large women who take on most of the responsibility for childcare. Research by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 62% of women who returned to work worked fewer hours, changed jobs or stopped working because of childcare costs. Sadly, we know that the resulting loss of wages has a long-term impact on far too many women.
Properly funded childcare also means ensuring that providers have the money to pay and train their staff appropriately. I want to thank early years staff and management for their efforts over the last 18 months. Most staff have worked through the entire pandemic, and many settings have kept their doors open the entire time, looking after the children of key workers and others and keeping our country moving through this international crisis. Early years staff and management deserve our thanks and appreciation, and our commitment to tackle the serious issues raised by the petitioners.
According to research by Nursery World, one in 10 childcare workers relies on foodbanks, and 45% claim some form of benefit. One in eight earns less than £5 an hour, meaning that staff turnover is high, which can impact on the quality of care, the quality of education and the stability provided for children. We also know that in the past decade, there has been a long-term decrease in the number of people who want to work in the early years sector. One nursery manager told me just how difficult it is to retain staff, particularly in a setting with a disadvantaged intake and a high incidence of special educational needs.
Employees feel that they are sacrificing any semblance of work-life balance for minimum wage, leading to higher absence rates and higher staff turnover. That means that a child’s key worker might change to someone both they and their parents are unfamiliar with multiple times in a year, affecting the quality of education that they receive. It also means that settings are regularly thrown into chaos because they cannot recruit fast enough to fill the gaps. I was told that, at least once a month, staffing issues mean that nurseries hope that not every parent will bring their child to nursery, because if every child attended there would be no way to maintain the required legal ratios. It is shocking that this is what some settings face, and it shows how badly off track we have got.
It cannot be right that while staff are poorly paid and parents pay high costs, the sector’s biggest customer, the Government, get away with paying what they know is insufficient funding. Deciding on the right level of funding and the best way to provide it is, of course, not an easy task, and I think that speaks to the need for a comprehensive, independent expert review to consider the matter in detail. Our answer to the crucial funding question speaks to what we want our early years sector to be.
Is it the state’s role to provide the minimum funding to cover, or just about cover, basic costs so that parents can at least return to work? That would mean maxed-out ratios, stressed-out staff, higher costs for parents, and providers that are unwilling to provide childcare as cheaply as possible being driven out of the market. Or are the benefits of a more generous childcare and early years education system worth it? That is what I would argue, as it means that we can unlock greater productivity, put a big dent in the gender pay gap, narrow the attainment gap at school and, in the long run, reduce other social problems such as poor mental health, unemployment and crime.
Unfortunately, in their written response to the petition, the Government said that there are no plans to commission a review of childcare funding, but I do not think that the Minister should be so quick to dismiss the petitioners’ concerns. We need a childcare system that helps not only to make the lives of families and their children better, but to make our economy work. With both parents and providers struggling and with early years staff undervalued and underpaid, childcare is becoming a big political issue, and it is not going away any time soon. I urge the Government to consider the petitioners’ request for an independent review so that we can get this right for everybody who would benefit from it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate the Petitions Committee and its Chair on securing today’s debate. I thank everyone who signed the petition.
Investing in early years provision and education is one of the best ways to secure a successful economy and tackle the root cause of many social problems. A stable and supportive environment during the first few years of life has a crucial impact on people’s life chances, so good quality early years education can be an engine of social mobility. I pay the warmest of tributes to people working in early years in my constituency, in settings such as Bright Little Stars Nursery on Leicester Road, Alonim Kindergarten at the North London Reform Synagogue, and the three maintained nursery schools run by the Barnet Early Years Alliance.
As we have heard, the pandemic has highlighted that childcare and nursery providers form a crucial part of our infrastructure. Without these dedicated individuals, our public services and our economy would grind to a halt, because essential workers would be at home minding the kids. I welcome the around £3.6 billion a year that the Government are devoting to childcare and early years, and I believe that that does not include the further support that many parents receive through the universal credit system.
The petitioners, however, have a valid point. At a recent street surgery, a constituent told me that almost the whole of his wife’s salary as a teacher was being spent on childcare. I, too, would welcome the review that the petition asks for, and appeal for a simpler system of Government support that helps parents, family budgets and providers right across the PVI—private, voluntary and independent—and maintained nursery sectors.
The most urgent financial issue that needs to be resolved is funding for maintained nursery schools, such as those run by BEYA in my constituency. They have excellent results, particularly with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs or disabilities. As I have highlighted many times in Parliament, and recently in a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, time is running out for those great schools. They lost out when the funding formula was changed in 2017, and ever since much of the sector has been just about kept afloat by £60 million in supplementary funding. If those schools are to continue their vital work, they need a stable, long-term financial settlement, which they were promised in 2016-17. That would see them take on a new role as system leaders and centres of excellence for the local area. Most urgently of all, maintained nursery schools in Barnet need a share of the supplementary funding, which they have been denied up to now. Without it, their future looks bleak and uncertain.
I ask the Minister to take action to save maintained nursery schools and to take action in response to the petition. If the Government are to realise their ambition to level up the country, and if they are to make further progress on gender equality and tackle the health inequalities exposed by the pandemic, it is essential to get childcare and early years provision right and to give the sector the support it needs.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to have this debate. I am grateful that you gave me an opportunity to put my jacket on because, like any parent of an under-two-year-old, I have snot and Weetabix on the back of my clothes. I have accepted that having two children means that I will be permanently sticky for the next 18 years. Because I have two children under the age of two in London, I also accept that I will probably never be able to go out because the cost of childcare is so prohibitive.
We have one of the most expensive systems in the world, but high cost does not necessarily mean high impact. The TUC found that, for parents with a one-year-old child, the cost of their child’s nursery provision has grown four times faster than their wages, and more than seven times faster in London. In communities such as mine, which has the 10th-highest level of child poverty, families are already choosing between eating and keeping a roof above their heads. Affordable childcare, like affordable housing, is an illusion. I thank Pregnant Then Screwed, the Early Years Alliance, the Women’s Budget Group, the Fawcett Society, the National Day Nurseries Association and the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education for their refusal to let this be the new normal. Childcare is something that everybody needed during the pandemic and nobody got.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out, during the pandemic the Government found time to make the case for infrastructure investment. They found £27 billion for roads and for 50 million potholes, money for new railways and stations, and even £5 billion for broadband. What did our children get? Well, the Chancellor did say that mums everywhere were owed a debt of thanks for juggling childcare and work. That pat on the back shone a light on how this Government think about working parents. This is an infrastructure issue, and as a result of failing to see it that way, we are losing tax revenue, losing women from our workforce and hampering equality in our society.
We have already talked about the lack of childcare provision prior to the pandemic—30% of local authorities accept that they did not have enough places, and only one in five said they had enough places for children with special educational needs—but it has become a lot worse during the pandemic. The consequences for families are clear: 75% of children in this country living in poverty are in working households, and childcare accounts for 56% of the overall costs of children for working couples.
Nothing about this system makes any sense. I am a parent of two children under two, but why on earth do we think that when children hit two or three, they are special? What am I supposed to do with these children until then, when it comes to childcare? Frankly, the people who will leave the workforce because they cannot afford childcare will already have done so by the time a child is two, and those of us who can afford childcare will be able to afford it after the age of two.
The Minister will no doubt point to the universal credit system, but it does not make sense in the real world either, because it expects parents to pay for childcare up front and then recoup the cost, as if parents on universal credit have spare cash to begin with. The Minister might say that the flexible support system is there, but only a few have used it on childcare. Anyone who has tried to get childcare in London knows that universal credit, which has been frozen since 2016, means that for most parents it is not a runner.
Failing to invest in childcare is baking inequality into our system for parents and children alike. We know that the vast majority of people using the 30 hours of funded childcare are from the top income earners. We know that the parents of 240,000 children aged two to four could potentially access childcare, but do not because of the cost of it.
We know that this issue is hitting gender inequality, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North is right to point out that the burden of childcare too often falls on women. Only 2% of new fathers take any parental leave: that is because we ask them to pay for it, rather than recognise it as the investment in the child’s development and in the family that it represents. Almost 870,000 stay-at-home mums who want to work cannot do so because of the cost and availability of childcare, and those problems have got a lot worse during the pandemic. Some 46% of mothers who have been made redundant said that a lack of childcare was a factor in their selection for redundancy. When furloughing ends, many more will not be able to go back to work because the childcare will still not be available: the loss of places during the pandemic means that many more will be out of work. That means that we will not get the tax revenue from those mums’ work, and it means that their families and their careers will suffer.
The crazy thing about this is that investment in universal childcare from the age of six months pays for itself. When we provide that, not only do we get an income from the sector—and, by God, we should be paying these people a lot more to look after our children—but we get the income from the higher number of women who can be in work. There is an army of mums out there who are mad as hell that they are being ignored and expected to take on childcare at short notice, and I tell the Minister that mums can multitask too, and they can vote. We have to get this right, because we owe it to every child and every mum in this country to see them right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who is a friend, on the new arrival. The importance of this issue in the eyes of our constituents, mine included, is reflected in the fact that almost 113,000 people signed this e-petition, which—as has already been set out—calls for
“an independent review of childcare funding and affordability”.
The public, I think, feel we could do more to create a sustainable future for the early years sector, which I represent here today as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education, which has been mentioned. We in that group have spoken for some time about what I would describe as a market failure in this sector, and the need for a meaningful review of it, so it is good that we are having this debate.
Prior to the summer, I had the pleasure of speaking in another debate on this issue, in Westminster Hall in its other incarnation—these debates come around often—and in the months since, things have moved on. The Chancellor has now announced his comprehensive spending review alongside his Budget on 27 October, and it was very useful to speak to him last week—I was in that meeting too, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers)—about many of the issues we are debating this afternoon. I must stress from the outset, as I did to the Chancellor, that this is not all about money. For me, it is about getting back to brass tacks to make our early years funding system work for the children of this country, and for the families who rely on it and the economy that relies on those families. It is about ensuring that our hard-working early years educators—I declare my interest: I am married to one—are rewarded. Most importantly, it is about putting our early years sector on a sustainable footing so that this debate will not keep coming around again and again.
I am here as chair of the all-party parliamentary group, but I am also a Government MP, and I am very proud of the landmark commitment that we as a party made through the 30-hours entitlement. However, I have to say that through my work chairing the group, it has become clear to me that systemic reforms are needed to make this flagship policy work better. Data from the National Day Nurseries Association, which is one of the sponsors of our group, show that in 2019-20, three quarters of councils underspent their early years funding by £62 million. Meanwhile, there is a funding shortfall of almost £3,000 per child per year for every 30-hours place. My hope is that Government will agree to use the forthcoming spending review to fund an early years catch-up premium and address this shortfall, including facing down the local authorities on that underspend. Merely by overhauling the system and tackling the existing underspend, we could properly fund many of those 30-hours places for children right across the country.
That is just one example of how reviewing the funding system would ensure that the existing funding follows the child and is best used. For me, the two issues are intrinsically linked: we cannot fund our early years sector without holding a fundamental review of the funding system, and we cannot simply wait for a review of that system to report without some sort of bridging measures and the long-term certainty that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet spoke about. Between April 2020 and March 2021, there was a 35% increase in nursery closures, just at the time when parents who are key workers needed them most. That is a grave concern for us. The nurseries that are struggling and closing tend to have a higher proportion of Government-funded children. Therefore, the poorer families suffer more from the shortfall between the funding and delivery costs. That causes the lag that is causing the closures.
The future of the sector is in peril, and with it the benefits that it brings to children, their families and the economy. It is not just about the bottom line for providers, but rather the future and development of our children, who are then ready to go on to reception and their primary and secondary education.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case, as have others. Does he agree that grandparents often have to step in to the breach and provide the necessary childcare? While that is very welcome and they do it willingly, it results in an uneven pattern of child development.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point goes to the heart of the issue. I talked about early years educators; these are not well-meaning amateurs at the end of their career who are just providing plasticine. They are educators and they are preparing children for the world of learning when they go into their primary and secondary education. It is a very good point and it is well made.
Nursery settings have remained open and ready to receive children to help their families get back to work. At the same time, their staffing costs have risen on average by 8.6% through the new national living wage and pension contributions. With the reintroduction of business rates looming, the average nursery will face a bill of about £12,500 for those alone. Surely it would be better to see this money going into the pockets of our early years educators and directly invested in the future of children across the UK. That would be a fitting way to recognise the unsung contribution of early years educators over the last year and to help develop our country’s most valuable asset—the next generation.
Early years staff have worked incredibly hard during the pandemic, sometimes putting their own health at risk to ensure our children are cared for. I thank each and every one of them. However, one of our early years providers in Bath said, “I feel the Government do not value us and do not see our professionalism and dedication to our role.” Too many childcare workers have felt this way throughout the Government’s response to the pandemic. Guidance to them has been ambiguous, and provision of PPE and testing has come far too slow. Recovery funding has focused primarily on school-aged learners.
I secured a debate on early years funding before the summer recess. My message to the Minister is the same now as it was some weeks ago—acknowledge the value of the early years sector and pay what it costs to deliver it. Funding has been a widespread concern long before the pandemic. Research from YMCA suggests that up to 80% of settings cannot deliver childcare at the funding rate provided by their local authority. I take the point that there is underspending in some local authorities, and we need to get to the bottom of that, but the overall funding gap is still too big. Most providers realistically need more than £6 an hour per child just to break even, let alone reinvest in their business. However, the funding rates do not reflect this. In Bath, in north east Somerset, our local council receives £5.59 an hour for two-year-olds, and just £4.48 an hour for children aged three and above. It means providers have to choose between operating at a loss and subsidising the cost of delivery through fee-paying families.
Of the expenses, 70% are staffing costs. If funding continues to increase at a much slower rate than the national living wage, it will become more and more difficult to pay staff properly. In a country where parents pay the second-highest childcare costs in the world, one in 10 childcare workers are officially living in poverty. Affordable childcare is essential to our economic recovery from covid-19, but with childcare costs adding up to about 30% of the average wage, many parents—usually women—will be forced to make difficult decisions about remaining in or returning to work. Should one of the legacies of covid-19 the roll-back of decades of progress on equality for women in the workplace?
This Saturday is International Equal Pay Day. What better time could there be for the Government to commit to a total rethink of childcare funding? And I add my full support to calls for a meaningful review of early years funding, which must include a multi-year funding settlement, simplifying the funding system and making sure that funding follows the child. All allocations of early years funding must consider children with special educational needs and disabilities, across all settings.
Childcare is an investment in our future. It is time that it was treated as such.
I thank the Petitions Committee and everyone who signed the petition to secure this debate today.
The childcare juggle is real. Parental life should come with a military gold command schedule-planner. Instead, it is made up of grandparents—if people are lucky enough to have them about—after-school clubs, childminders, understanding bosses, nurseries and friends doing favours for each other.
This morning, I dictated a weekly article for my local newspaper down the phone to my team, while trying to put my wriggling daughter’s leggings on, in between trying to put my face on, answering messages and making sure that she was fed before I handed her over in order to come here. On top of all that, the cost of childcare is truly painful for many people.
I will make five key points before I move on. No. 1 is that we cannot afford to have the vital talent of the parents of young children being kept out of the workforce; the country and the economy will not thrive without them.
No.2 is that if anyone has ever seen what a working mum fits into an hour of “free” time before legging it back to the school or nursery gates, they will know that mums could singlehandedly fix the economy’s problem with productivity if they were freed up to do so.
No. 3 is that child carers, nursery teams, nannies and early years teachers are all skilled angels who need more career recognition and pathways to higher salaries. This profession deserves respect and everybody found that out when they tried to home-school children over the past year.
No. 4 is that the wellbeing of a child will always come first for parents. We must work harder to ensure that childcare providers improve our system, so that the choice for parents is not one between having a career and having a child.
Finally, No. 5 is that employers are not the enemy and neither are the Government. If there was a single solution, it would have been put in place by now. I am concerned, because if this issue is turned into a political football, as I have read and heard about in some of the coverage today, nothing will get done.
I have long thought that childcare needs a bit of an overhaul, but without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Parents in my constituency tell me that the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds has been invaluable, and approximately 60% of disadvantaged two-year-olds benefit from 15 hours of free childcare a week.
We have a £1 billion flexible childcare services fund being established and I am part of the early years taskforce with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), so I know well that we are thankfully bringing about some really interesting changes for families at the moment. So, to lambast the Government for not doing anything, or claiming that they are not trying to help, is wrong.
I would also like to see cross-party working on this issue. We saw Labour, when it was in Government, struggling to address rising childcare costs; those costs rose by significantly more than inflation in 2003 and faster than earnings in 2009. Labour knows how difficult this issue is; Labour Members know how difficult it is. Let us work together to try to find new solutions.
Personally, I am open to the petition’s call for an independent review. However, such reviews really cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds and—frankly —if that money is available, I would prefer it to go to the childcare sector. So I am also quite cautious about the request.
However, putting myself into action, I am an advisory board member of the think-tank Onward and I am already in discussions with it about conducting an investigation into childcare. I am also a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, and after hearing from some fabulous young women parents who came to give evidence last week, I have asked the Committee’s Chair to consider reviewing childcare policies under universal credit. I say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) that that would include considering issues surrounding up-front payment.
The early years of a child’s life are absolutely critical; the relationships in their life, which include those with all the people in the childcare sector who they encounter, will set the scene for them for years to come. I ask the Government to work with us. I know the Minister cares deeply about this, as does the Prime Minister, who has a baby and another one on the way and knows this struggle, but we have to look at all aspects of childcare alongside what we are doing with the early years taskforce, which is critical. The Chancellor is very interested in this area, and I am pleased to hear that Members have spoken to him already.
The issues have got much worse during the pandemic. We owe it to every parent and child and the childcare sector to improve the system. We can show we are working hard for working parents to give every child the best start in life.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Roger, on a topic very close to my heart. I thank the Petitions Committee and all the petitioners for securing the debate. I want to start by paying tribute to all the early years educators in my constituency: the nurseries, pre-schools and childminders all worked tirelessly during the pandemic to look after some of the youngest in society.
Early years are critical for a child’s development and for determining their life chances, but the childcare sector faces pressures because of Government neglect over the last decade. Chronic underfunding has left nurseries and childminders facing a growing financial crisis. In this year alone, 2,500 providers have closed, and many talented staff have left the profession. Since 2015, 12,000 early education and childcare providers have been lost, with 30,000 more at risk of closure in the next year.
Millions of parents, particularly mothers, rely on childcare in order to work, and analysis by Pregnant Then Screwed shows that 345,000 women will be at risk of losing their jobs if further childcare providers are lost. Despite that, the Government have said that they are not planning a review of the childcare system or early years funding, but it is clear that urgent steps need to be taken to prevent further childcare closures and to rebuild that essential infrastructure. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), I imagine that the experiences of childcare and affordability are very different for the Prime Minister than for the vast majority of my constituents.
The funding model has a huge number of issues. Prior to the pandemic, 11% of childcare providers were running at a significant loss, with the industry as a whole suffering an estimated £662 million shortfall in funding. Meanwhile, public spending on childcare has fallen as a share of GDP since 2010, and remains considerably below the OECD average.
The Sutton Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that some of the poorest children are “locked out” of the 30-hours childcare scheme for three and four-year-olds simply because their parents do not earn enough to qualify, and that contributes to the widening gap between the poorest children and their peers before school even starts. The funds provided for that childcare, even by the Government’s own estimate, are not enough to fund the scheme.
A related issue is affordability. Fees have risen three times faster than wages since 2008, making the UK home to one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. A survey published today, commissioned by a dozen organisations, found that 97% of respondents thought childcare was too expensive, and one third said that they paid more for their childcare than for their mortgage. We have already heard that in London, where I am an MP, the cost of nursery provision for a one-year-old grew seven times faster than wages between 2008 and 2016. It simply is not good enough for my constituents who rely on affordable childcare to be able to go out to work.
Finally, I want to say something about the conditions for people working in the childcare sector, where the average wage is £7.42 an hour. In 2019, almost half of childcare workers had to claim state benefits and tax credits, with one in 10 workers officially living in poverty. That is awful. How can we expect such an important job educating the youngest in society to be done for such low pay?
More and more evidence has been published on how critical early years are for a child’s development and future attainment. Investing in childcare therefore offers a huge opportunity to give each child a greater and more equal start in life. Investing in the sector should start by giving workers pay that reflects the importance of their work. High quality early education is an investment in the future—not a cost. A decade of neglect has left the sector in crisis. However, despite this, there are now so many opportunities for reform to benefit working families, future generations and our economy. I hope the Government will listen to the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition calling for today’s debate, and will provide good quality, genuinely affordable childcare for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the Petitions Committee, and the Chair, for the debate today, and everyone who signed the petition. I also say a huge thank you to all the nursery and early years workers who have done such a sterling job over the last 18 months.
I come at the subject as someone who took full advantage of the Government’s 30 hours scheme. When my daughter was nine months old I had to go back to work, but, as we know, MPs are the most flexible of employers and I was lucky enough to work for one. I took full advantage of grandparental childcare until my daughter was old enough to take advantage of the 30 hours scheme—and I was very grateful for it. Having become an MP, I find myself on the other side of the fence, hearing from those early years providers how difficult it has been, and is. I will not repeat what we have already heard this afternoon.
I, too, sit on the early years taskforce with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), and we hope to make some very exciting new proposals in the coming months and years. We had a meeting with the early years providers and the children and families sector at Cornwall Council, and we were both pleased to hear that Cornwall is already doing a lot of what we want to achieve. I am hopeful, and want to put another call out, that if any pilot schemes or funding schemes are going to be running for early years and early years sectors, then Cornwall with its very clean boundaries and co-operative and fabulous team of MPs, councillors and council workers will put itself forward for them.
When someone has a baby—as many of us will know—they have the mum guilt. Many parents do not actually want to go back to work. That is at the thrust of this debate. The cost of living today, mostly because of housing, means that it is very difficult to pay a mortgage on just one salary. That is different to where we were 30 years ago. It is absolutely important that we get this right, and I would support any review that we can have. I am encouraged by what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said, and I would support that too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading this debate, speaking so passionately and making the argument for the review so clearly. That is supported by the more than 130,000 people who have signed the petition, so I would like to thank them for taking the time to sign, ensuring that we have this important debate—it is not a debate that we have often enough. I thank the almost 500 people in my constituency of Putney who signed the petition. I thank all the early years staff in my constituency and across the country, as other Members have, for their amazing commitment to educating children before and during the pandemic, when we saw so many changes and challenges. I thank the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education, as well as Pregnant Then Screwed, for leading campaigning in this area.
As has been said before—it is shocking—the UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. We should aim for that not to be the case. Some 75% of children living in poverty are in working households, with childcare costs accounting for 56% of the overall cost of a child for working couples. Childcare costs are 30% higher than average in inner London—in my constituency—and up to 50% higher than in other regions. It is a postcode lottery as to how affordable childcare is.
I started paying childcare costs in 1998, when I had my first child, and I had to carry on until 2017 when my fourth child left primary school. I have experienced many years of struggling to afford childcare costs. The local Sure Start centre in my area was closed—it had been a lifeline for me. For many years, the childcare costs I was paying were equal to my salary; as has been mentioned before, I was literally just paying childcare costs to keep my place in my career. I stepped out of the workforce for many years, because it was just not affordable. I then went back part time. It was a struggle throughout all of those years to afford childcare. The fact that only 389 maintained nursery schools are left in the UK is adding to the crisis, as they are such an important part of our early years provision.
One fantastic state-maintained nursery is Eastwood Nursery School, in my constituency. The headteacher at Eastwood recently said to me:
“The quality of what we can offer is in real jeopardy if our funding is reduced. We are fearful that the much-needed service we provide to the children of a very deprived community is at great risk if we do not have the secure funding to continue our work.”
Funding is only given year-by-year, which is why she talked about secure funding.
“Nurseries will simply not be able to continue at the current rates. Closures of early-years settings across the country will deepen both financial and educational inequalities, while slowing the recovery from the pandemic.”
We need a review; a review has been called for by the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education from before the pandemic, but it is even more important now. It needs to look at the pandemic’s impact on nurseries, childminders, pre-school children and jobs. It would be a landmark opportunity for a radical rethink of how we fund and deliver childcare.
I was disappointed that the Government dismissed the call for the review out of hand when so much research has shown the impact of covid-19; 7% of parents have attended an early years setting that has subsequently closed, and single parents were twice as likely to be forced to change jobs—or leave work entirely—as a result of the high childcare costs. The statistics could go on.
We are failing children if affordable childcare is a postcode lottery. We need a review to see what is going on across the country, where the early years sector is failing families, what we need to support the early years workforce better and what the impact has been for children’s development, and to make recommendations that will be implemented and funded. One parent’s comment particularly shocked me:
“I had to cease being self-employed as I could not find or afford childcare. I have secured a new job but this is a massive pay cut and a big demotion…It leaves me with not enough for after school club for my eldest child.”
That is the experience of parents across the country.
I fully support and echo the call of these petitioners. It is time to start treating childcare as the essential infrastructure investment that it is—in our economy, in our families, and in our country. I urge the Minister to go back and look again at this and to urgently launch a comprehensive, expert and independent early years review.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). I followed her in a debate in Westminster Hall, last week, and today I do the same, again on a subject that we agree on. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for setting the scene, and for giving us a chance to participate.
Childcare and its affordability are of great interest to every Member in this House. I am sure that not one of us has not sat with a young family to tell them that they are above the threshold and cannot get help. That is, unfortunately, something that I have had to address in my own office recently as the extra £50 per month that they get prevents them from accessing four times that in childcare help—and I want to put on record my thanks to all who provide childcare in my constituency of Strangford, who have helped so many people through the pandemic with what they do. These are everyday problems in my constituency. The options for those families are to live with it, or go to their bosses, cap in hand, and ask for a reduction in hours that will be just enough to put them under that threshold. Many will not do this, as it is not as easy a fix for their boss as it may seem at first glance.
A couple contacted me last week; the lady, in particular, is very unwell. She is on employment and support allowance and personal independence payment. Unfortunately, if she was to transfer to universal credit to access working tax credits and child tax credits, she would automatically find that the childcare that she would qualify for would make her financially worse off. There are many complex issues.
For many, grandparents, whether they are fit or not, are left to fill the breach. There are approximately 14 million grandparents in the UK; one in every three people over the age of 50 is a grandparent. In the past two generations, the number of children being cared for by their grandparents has increased substantially— from 33% to 82%. That is massive. Grandparents are the childminders of today. Almost two thirds of all grandparents regularly look after their grandchildren, saving working parents approximately £6.8 billion nationally in childcare costs, but what is the cost to their quality of life?
We have upped the pension age—we all know about the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, and how those women are unable to leave work at 60. Many women drop their hours at that time of their life to take care of their grandchildren, so they are not able to answer the call of their body and simply slow down. There must be something better for grandparents—more than just a national insurance stamp for minding their grandchildren. Many parents in the middle income bracket simply cannot afford to pay for childcare themselves.
My parliamentary aide is the youngest of five siblings. Her sister was 20 when she had her first child, in the middle of her nursing degree, and my aide was 32 when she had her first. Their mother, Roberta Armstrong, has been providing childcare for almost 50 years: initially caring for her own children and, for the last 27 years, constantly caring for her working children’s children. She has grandchildren in the workforce, grandchildren in medical college, and grandchildren at the start of their education in P2. Roberta Armstrong had her first child at 18. She is not the same as she was at 39, when her first grandchild was born, and yet the demands are the same. Caring for her children and grandchildren has been her way of life, but she has to do what a childminder could never do, and which the parents cannot afford to pay for.
What respite is available for the grandparent, and for my parliamentary aide? She works flexitime to allow her more time off in the holidays; this works well for me, and ultimately it means she can take time off during recess, but jobs like that are not readily available. My wife, Sandra, and I are grandparents as well. She looks after the grandchildren—there are five at different ages. She says the wee boys are the hardest—I would not know, because we only ever had boys—and the wee girls are not too bad. How do we breach the gap for families like those, who are asking too much of their elderly parents because they have no other option?
Many parents are caught in a Catch-22 situation. They earn too much to get help or subsidised childcare, and yet they do not earn enough to pay someone to do everything that needs to be done. This leads to examples such as the 67-year-old grandmother with a heart condition lifting and laying a five-year-old with a broken leg.
Do we consider longer school days? Would that eat into their childhood? Do we ask employers to do more, when the pressure of paid holidays and sick days is already too much for many to bear? Do we provide additional paid clubs that work like wraparound childcare? Something needs to be done. I ask the Government to decide today to help those who work hard and simply want a little help to enjoy their children, instead of waiting until their children have children to take care of their grandchildren. I believe that now is the time. Let us break the cycle and strengthen the family.
Having listened to contributions from colleagues across the House, it is clear that we must open up the language we use when speaking about childcare. It is all too common for the debate and, often, the responsibility for practical and logistical arrangements to fall solely on the mother. In doing so, we are at real risk of alienating hundreds of thousands of fantastic fathers from the wider debate. This is particularly evident when we consider the paltry paternity leave allowances on offer from the UK Government.
I know from first-hand experience that when someone has a newborn in hospital, the ticking clock of a return to work is truly the last thing on their mind. I recognise that my husband and I were luckier than most, because he was able to pool his annual leave to secure more paid time off work, but it really should not have to be that way. I pay tribute to the fantastic work of charities such as Bliss, which has fought for more paternity leave in the case of neonatal care for years. The campaign is working: I was pleased to see the Government recently announce plans to introduce neonatal leave that will cover up to 12 weeks when a baby is receiving neonatal care. Frustratingly, the policy is unlikely to come into force until 2023 at the earliest; even then, it is unclear whether these rights will be extended to fathers. For the 300,000 babies who will spend time in neonatal care over the next three years, that is simply not good enough.
It is a dreadful, sorry state of affairs when the UK Government, which, in their 2019 manifesto—although we know how they feel about manifesto claims—claimed that they have a vision for the labour market that includes being able to
“balance work and family life”
but they are unable to support parents with a robust and fit for purpose childcare system. Thankfully, in Wales the situation is in the hands of the brilliant Welsh Labour Government, which have shown their commitment to supporting parents with childcare costs for many years. This includes the brilliant Flying Start programme, which is a targeted early years programme for families with children under four living in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Wales. The Welsh Labour Government also offer everyone 33 hours of childcare per week for children aged three to four with no conditions.
It is clear that a huge number of our childcare providers are still struggling financially, as has already been mentioned. Thankfully, in Pontypridd and Taff Ely, we have fantastic childcare providers, including Little Inspirations, who have branches in Llantrisant and Tonyrefail. However, in the last year nursery closures have increased by 35% compared with the previous year, and the highest numbers of closures were in the most deprived communities. In addition, Ofsted data has shown that over the last 12 months we have lost 442 nurseries from the childcare register. Childcare is one of the very few female-dominated industries, and low-paid workers in this industry are being hit the hardest.
Yet the care providers working in our childcare settings are not the only ones losing out financially. The motherhood pay penalty refers to the pay gap between working mothers and similar women without dependent children, and it has been well documented over the years. The realities of the gap are genuinely shocking and are impacting people every day. The TUC’s recent report into the pay penalty shows that by the age of 42 mothers in full-time work earn 11% less than women in full-time work without children.
To combat this disparity, a number of steps must be taken. We need to enable more equal parenting roles, so that women are not held back at work. We need to see flexible working—and not just in the form of working from home. I am sure that colleagues will be well aware of the recently reported employment tribunal involving estate agent Alice Thompson. Ms Thompson won a pay-out of more than £180,000 after her boss refused to let her leave to pick up her daughter from nursery. I know that her situation will be familiar to so many. Alice simply wanted to work four days a week and finish at 5 pm, when her childcare finished, rather than at 6 o’clock, and her boss rejected her request, claiming that the business could not afford for her to go part time. That is just one example that reflects the extremely difficult situation that so many parents find themselves in. The Government simply must do better.
To conclude, Sir Roger, I sincerely hope that in her remarks today the Minister reflects on the real need for systemic change in our approach to both the funding and availability of childcare across the UK. The system is failing so many groups of people across society: from our childcare workers in unstable employment to single-parent families, mums who are earning less than their counterparts and dads who want to do more but cannot take the time off work. Parenthood is, of course, a privilege, but it is one that should not come with unnecessary and excessive financial burdens. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues across Government Departments and the devolved nations to take bold action to support future generations and tomorrow’s parents.
It is pleasure to follow hon. Members across this House in this debate in particular, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the organisers of the petition calling for a review of childcare in England on securing 100,000 signatures. It would be wise of the Government to listen to the collective voice of the signatories.
It might be thought rather strange that I should speak in a debate on childcare in England. However, while childcare is devolved to the Scottish Government and the SNP have chosen in the first instance to take a different path from England, it is concerning that, as the petition points out, many families are being pushed further into poverty as a result of the high costs of childcare. That, of course, will be exacerbated by the pandemic.
According to the Early Years Alliance, the UK Government’s offer of 30 hours of free childcare per week in England is not well funded enough, as we have heard, leaving parents scrabbling around for a provider that will give them the right hours and flexibility. As we have already heard from hon. Members across this House, the benefits of good quality childcare speak for themselves, and the need to fund the facilities providing this vital care is essential. As we have heard, the issue is not just about mothers; it is about parental leave, paternity leave and shared parental leave. Ultimately, all those options prevent a motherhood penalty.
The Sutton Trust found that the UK Government’s childcare policy was compounding inequalities and harming the life chances of children. Sir Roger, there are only a few seconds left for me to say that—if the clock is correct—
Turning, finally, to the Minister, this is her opportunity. I know that she knows only too well the economic consequences and benefits of good quality childcare. Smashing the gender pay gap needs bold, innovative policies, and good quality, affordable childcare is a pretty good place to start.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would like to thank all my colleagues across the House who took the time to speak in today’s important debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and little Pip, I want to begin by paying tribute to Joeli Brearley and everyone at Pregnant Then Screwed for starting this important petition and for the inspiring work that they have done to support women and parents in this country and to fight against gender inequalities.
On no issue is it more important to have dedicated campaigners like Joeli than on childcare, which is all too often ignored by politicians, despite it being a fundamental building block of our economy and our children’s development, as has been repeated several times in the debate. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that well over 100,000 people signed the petition, including 400 of my constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn.
In the Chamber last week I raised the Government’s own statistics, which show a loss of over 3,000 childcare providers in England in the first half of this year alone. This comes on top of a net loss of over 100,000 providers since 2015. I was very surprised that the Minister responded by claiming that there were no problems with sufficiency in the early years sector, given that a third of English councils do not have enough childcare places for parents working full time. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow raised this in her speech. I was surprised by the Minister’s remarks on childminders, which have now drawn much criticism, including from the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, who commented:
“To hear the Children and Families Minister so casually dismiss the closure of thousands of childminders—and falsely imply that what they provide is just care, rather than education—is both insulting and infuriating.”
I do not want the outside world to think that that is how politicians in this place think when it comes to early education.
Every year, Coram Family and Childcare publishes a survey of childcare costs and availability, and every year it shows that there is a postcode lottery in childcare provision. All too often, the costs are soaring well above inflation. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) outlined her own experience of living through this postcode lottery and how much misery it has caused so many people in her constituency. A survey published before the debate by Pregnant Then Screwed found that a staggering 19 out of 20 working parents said the Government are not helping enough with childcare, with a third paying more for it than their rent or mortgage—again, a point that has been made over and over in the debate. That is because a full-time childcare place in the UK costs £14,000 a year. As my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Putney constantly said, ours is one of the most expensive childcare systems in the whole world. That should make our heads hang in shame.
The sad truth about the eye-watering costs of childcare in this country is that it was a predictable result of the decision that the Government took to underfund the free childcare policy by a third in the last financial year alone. We know that because the Department for Education itself predicted it. Secret Government documents from 2015, uncovered by the Early Years Alliance, warned over and over again that failing to fully fund this policy would drive up costs for parents. Ministers pushed ahead regardless, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, left the sector with a £662-million annual funding gap even before covid hit.
As if that was not bad enough, there was almost no targeted support either for early years or for wraparound childcare providers during a pandemic that has seen their attendance levels and income plummet to the ground. Then came what early years analyst Ceeda calculated as a quarter of a billion pounds’ funding cut this spring term, due to the premature withdrawal of pre-covid funding levels. It is no wonder that 85% of childcare businesses expect to make a loss or break even this year, as research by the National Day Nurseries Association shows.
It is not just about statistics. There is a very real impact on families, who are struggling to make ends meet. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked passionately about equal parenting, the pay penalty, proper flexible working, and how children are being priced out of education at the most important stage of their development. Not only are private fees for early years childcare well out of reach for many families, including those in Hampstead and Kilburn, but a recent Sutton Trust report confirmed that the eligibility for the 30 hours free childcare scheme excludes the poorest. Are these the policies we want to have in our country, where we exclude the poorest from accessing high quality childcare?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out, parents are being forced to cut hours and quit jobs because they cannot find or afford childcare. Of course, this affects women disproportionately. Three quarters of working mums were forced to cut working hours in the first lockdown due to a lack of childcare. In 2018, there were over 800,000 mothers who wanted to work, but could not for financial reasons.
The shadow Minister is making some very important points. Does she agree that it is not fair for the burden of childcare to fall upon the shoulders of grandparents, who do not have the physical ability to look after children in the way they probably did at one time? I believe that the onus is on the Government and the Minister to come back with a response that helps people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was listening to his speech very closely, because I was reflecting that there is no way I could have got through six years of being an MP without relying on my mother—who, by the way, turns 65 today. She is someone who helped me with my childcare, because my father is in a wheelchair; she was responsible for looking after the children when I did not get proper maternity leave from this place. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Government will recognise the pressure that is put on grandparents. My mother is 65, but there are lots of grandparents who are a lot older and struggle physically to look after small children. I hope the Minister takes heed of what the hon. Gentleman has to say.
I also want to talk about childcare workers, 93% of whom are women, who are languishing on poverty pay after suffering years of real-terms pay cuts under Conservative Governments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge pointed out, the average wage in the sector is £7.42 per hour, and shamefully, one in 10 staff earn less than £5 an hour. These talented and dedicated workers are unsurprisingly leaving the sector as quickly as they can. It is clear to anyone who has direct experience of the childcare system in this country that there is something seriously wrong with it, and it could get a lot worse if nursery and childcare closures continue as they are at the moment. This petition should be a wake-up call for Ministers and the Government to rethink their approach to child- care funding.
That is why my Labour colleagues and I have been banging on about the need for targeted support to halt the collapse of the childcare sector. We are not being dramatic, and we are not scaremongering: this is the reality of the situation. Our childcare recovery plan also proposes a real, substantial hike in the early years pupil premium, from £302 per person per year to £1,345, as part of a £15 billion package to give every child new opportunities to learn, play and develop. I believe it is time to give childcare the attention and the funding it deserves, so that we can be a country that values children, parents and family and so that childcare becomes a part of the country’s infrastructure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North so eloquently put it when she opened this important debate.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would like to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this important debate on childcare. Every parent wants their child to have the best possible start in life, and high quality, accessible childcare is a really important part of that. Many right hon. and hon. Members have taken time this afternoon to thank childcare workers, and I agree with them: childminders, playworkers, and each and every member of our early years staff deserve our admiration, our gratitude and our thanks. I also thank Joeli Brearley for having started the e-petition that prompted this debate. Parents such as Joeli value the strengths and opportunities that our childcare sector delivers, and my Department is committed to maintaining a sustainable network of early years providers.
I recognise the strength of feeling about our childcare system, and the Government will continue to consider ways of making childcare more accessible for parents. Many right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out the special importance of childcare to women—to mothers—and as someone who once had three children under the age of four, boy, do I remember that juggling balance that so many Members have mentioned. It has been particularly impressive to hear so many fellow women MPs speak with such passion today. However, I would also like to thank the male colleagues who have taken time to join us in this debate, because it is vital that we all stand together.
I also recognise the importance of the quality of our early education and childcare. Earlier this summer, I visited the Guildford Nursery School and Family Centre and saw how committed its staff are to giving children the best start in life, like so many other hard-working nursery staff and childminders across the country. It has been a true delight to hear so many Members of Parliament mention providers in their constituencies.
Access to high quality early childcare is important because it has such positive benefits for a child’s educational and life outcomes. As we know, childcare is important in helping parents to be able to work. I am proud to be part of a Government who have extended access to early education and childcare to millions of children and parents over the past decade. In 2013, the Conservative-led coalition Government introduced 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds. That has helped more than 1 million children to get a much-needed early boost to their education. I encourage all hon. Members to encourage families from lower-income backgrounds to take up that offer, because when they do so children do better at school and it gives them vital skills that set them up for life.
Back in 2017, the Conservative Government announced 30 hours of free childcare for working families, which enabled hundreds of thousands of parents to return to or take up paid work, and many of those families have saved thousands of pounds. Working families can also get help from the Government’s tax-free childcare scheme, which offers a 20% contribution towards their childcare fees and is worth up to £2,000 a year for children aged up to 11 or £4,000 for children aged up to 16 if the child is disabled.
I would get even more rest if this place moved with the times and the law and provided proper maternity cover.
The Minister is talking about the take-up of the 30 hours of free childcare. As has been said, the evidence shows that the vast majority of people taking it up—70%—are from the higher-earner income bracket, and that just 13% of eligible families from the bottom third of the income bracket are taking it up. Why does she think that is the case? Does she recognise that the way it is funded at the moment means that we are excluding some of the poorest families because they cannot afford the rest of the cost of childcare? What does she think is happening?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. When it comes to the take-up of the two-year-old offer, which is particularly targeted at disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a huge discrepancy between different parts of the country. For example, there are parts of London where up to 70% of families have taken it up, and other parts where it is far lower. That is why I encourage Members to get in touch with me if they want and I will tell them about the take-up in their area. As I said, there are areas where seven out of 10 families are taking it up and are continuing to do so. I will talk more about disadvantaged families later.
As the hon. Lady is aware, the Government can also help with 85% of childcare costs for universal credit claimants even if they work only a few hours a week. I know it can be challenging to claim, but it is important to recognise that it is there. In my own jobcentre, the job coaches are working closely with parents to help them with making a claim that so that they can get back into work.
Wraparound childcare is also important as it not only supports parents so they can work but can benefit children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and their educational and social development. I was absolutely delighted to go around the country this summer looking at our holiday activities and food programme, which has ensured that thousands of school-aged children on free school meals have had access to childcare as well as exciting activities and food. I thank all Members who visited their HAF programmes this summer. It is the first time that we have ever had anything like that type of project for our children. Of course, we piloted it for three years, but this year it has been all across the country, and local authorities are already setting out their plans for Christmas.
The Government invest a significant amount in early education and childcare, including £3.5 billion for each of the past three years on funding our entitlements for two, three and four-year-olds. In November 2020, the Chancellor announced another £44 million investment for this financial year to help local authorities increase their hourly rates paid to childcare providers. All local authorities have seen an increase of at least 8p an hour in the two-year-old entitlement. The vast majority of areas have had an increase of 6p an hour for three and four-year-olds. Significant increases were also made for hourly rate entitlements funding in 2019.
Several hon. Members from London constituencies mentioned the cost of childcare in London. It is important to note that we pay a higher funding rate for those entitlements in areas where business costs are higher. The average hourly funding rate for a three or four-year-old across all of England is £4.91, but the equivalent for London is notably higher at £6.11. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) may be interested to know that in her constituency, the amount we pay to Camden is one of the highest in the entire country at £8.51.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned the spending review. As hon. Members know, we are already working on a multi-year spending review. In the Department for Education, we are absolutely continuing to press the importance of early years care and education right across Government as part of that spending review. Given that we are in the middle of spending review negotiations, it would not be appropriate to launch a separate independent review of childcare at this time because the outcomes of such a review would not be able to feed into the speeding review that is happening right now. We expect the outcome of the spending review to be announced later this year. My hon. Friend also mentioned closures.
Hang on, this is important. We do not recognise the description of a 35% increase in closures. Between August 2020 and March 2021, approximately 2,000 settings joined the early years register while around 4,000 left. However, the overall number of childcare places has stayed broadly the same, suggesting that some of these closures were mergers, and in parallel some providers are increasing the number of places they offer.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) mentioned access to childcare for vulnerable children. It is important to remember that our early years pupil premium provides up to £302 per eligible child per year, specifically to improve outcomes for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds. She also suggested that three and four-year-olds not having access to the full 30 hours of childcare could have a negative impact on their educational development. In fact, the Sutton Trust admits that its research does not conclude that more formal childcare results in better educational outcomes. The evidence for the positive impact on educational outcomes of attending more than 15 to 20 hours of childcare per week is limited. Over that number of hours, it is helpful for childcare, but less so for educational outcomes. There is evidence that those exiting the market are less likely to be providers in disadvantaged areas of the country.
I really want to get some of this on the record because it is important to providers. Between June and December last year, a lower proportion of childcare providers leaving the early years register were from the most deprived quintile in comparison to other areas, with 12% of providers that left the market located in the most deprived areas.
What is important is ensuring that there is sufficient childcare and the Government’s priority is to track whether there are enough childcare places locally for parents. It is encouraging to see that the proportion of parents using formal childcare appears to be similar to before the pandemic. Every six weeks, the Department calls local authorities across the country to discuss childcare provision at the local level. At no time since June 2020, when provision reopened more widely after the first lockdown, has any local authority reported a significant lack of sufficient childcare places for parents who need them. The number of places has stayed broadly stable over the past five to six years, despite an average 3% decline in the number of births each year since 2017.
Throughout the pandemic, settings have continued to access a range of business support packages, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, if they experienced a drop in their income or if parents were unable to attend their usual place. We are also supporting the early years sector by ensuring expert training and development is available to the workforce. That includes an investment of £20 million in high quality, evidence-based professional development for practitioners in targeted disadvantaged areas, which will give early years settings in those areas the skills to help the disadvantaged children who will benefit most from this assistance.
In June, we announced another investment of £153 million over the next three years, including funding for training of early years staff to support the very youngest children’s learning and development, especially in areas such as special educational needs and disabilities.
On the issues raised by the Minister about sufficiency, are councils’ childcare sufficiency reports used to make an assessment of whether there are sufficient places or not, and of the impact of the sufficiency of places on childcare costs in an area? For example, in my borough of Wandsworth, there may be a sufficient number of places but they are not necessarily in the right areas. We have heard reports of childcare places in the most deprived areas closing more than others, and that may be happening across the country. Does the Minister have a sufficient assessment of sufficiency reports to know this?
I thank the hon. Member for her great interest in this subject. We see the number of providers joining and entering the market through the Ofsted register, and we have looked at the providers joining and entering based on areas of deprivation. As I said, those leaving the market are less likely to be providers in disadvantaged areas of the country. Only 12% of those leaving the market were in the most deprived areas.
In the last statistics in March 2021, there were reported to be about 1.3 million places in childcare settings. That has stayed stable over the past five to six years, despite the fact that year on year, for the past few years, we have seen on average a 3% drop in the number of children being born. We have regular contacts with local authorities, and we are not hearing about systemic failures in any local area or about parents not being able to access childcare. They may not be able to get exactly the place or the flexibility they would most like, but there is not a systemic shortage.
High quality childcare, delivered by trained, dedicated staff makes a real difference to children’s outcomes. I include and value childminders when I talk about high quality, dedicated staff.
I think it is extremely important that businesses involved in the childcare sector pay the national minimum wage. The 8p and 6p an hour by which, as I said, we have increased the average early years funding, have been more than enough to meet the increases that have been announced in the national minimum wage. That was certainly true in those 8p and 6p increases that we gave last year.
What is really important is the quality of our childcare. Parents not only want childcare, but they want to know that their children are loved, safe and well educated, so high quality childcare is important. We have achieved so much here. The last time we assessed our five-year-olds, nearly three quarters—three out of four—of our country’s youngest children had achieved a good level of development. That is a massive improvement, because back in 2013 it was only one in two of our children.
I know that there are many questions about funding. My officials are in regular discussions with the Treasury as we prepare for the forthcoming spending review. Throughout the pandemic, the early years sector has been a cornerstone of protecting livelihoods and family life, letting our youngest children enjoy their early education with minimal disruption and helping to secure a positive future for each one of those children. I reiterate my deepest thanks to all those who work in early years.
I thank the Minister for that response, but I fear that the more than 112,000 petitioners who signed the petition would disagree with her assessment that there is not a problem to address. Indeed, Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed and the 12 organisations that supported the in-depth research and survey of the parent and provider experience of the childcare system would disagree with the Minister’s assessment.
The petition is very reasonable. It is not asking for a specific amount of funding. It is not even diagnosing exactly what should happen. The petition is asking the Government to hand over to experts for a full assessment of what we want our early years and childcare sector to be and to provide.
I agree—I think hon. Members in all parts of the House who spoke in this debate agree—that we need to get the best out of the funding that goes into the sector. I agree that it should not be a party political issue. The way to ensure that that money is spent in the best way possible, however, is not just to turn down the petitioners’ request for an independent review, but to take it away and consider it.
I appreciate what the Minister said: that this does not fit with the current Budget and spending review schedule. However—I implore her again—the petitioners are not asking for a specific amount of money; they are asking for a wholescale review. We can keep going on, sticking plasters over the cracks, pumping some money here or there, or putting a funding pot in place, but in reality we have a postcode lottery, a family lottery, and parents crying out for more help and support. We have many people silently falling out of the workforce, a productivity problem and a crisis point for many families, with many in the most deprived families just not being heard or supported at all.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate plea for why we need the review. One issue that the review could settle is the Minister’s claim that the country has not seen the closure of any places, although the evidence from the National Day Nurseries Association is very clear: in 2019-20, there was an increase of 300 nurseries in this country; but in 2020-21, there was a net minus of 400 nurseries. The Minister is shaking her head, but does she recognise that at the very least, an independent review could get to the bottom of that, so that we as parliamentarians could make informed decisions and have informed debates, because she seems to think something completely different from what the sector is telling us?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. With the greatest of respect, I think that petitioners listening to the Minister’s response will feel that hers is an alternative reality, an alternative universe, from the one that they are living in. Parents and providers are struggling. Early years staff are undervalued and underpaid. Childcare is becoming a big political issue, and it will not go away any time soon.
I urge the Minister to take away the petitioners’ request. I appreciate that the answer today is no, but I say, “Don’t close the door on this,” because it needs to be looked at. Not only are parents and providers being let down; ultimately it is the children who would benefit from getting the best early years and childcare system in the world—not just the most expensive, and we are nearly there, but the best in world. Let us aspire to that, and let us ask the experts to guide us in a cross-party way on how we can best achieve that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 586700, relating to funding and affordability of childcare.
[David Mundell in the Chair]
Before we begin, I ask Members to adhere as best they can to the social distancing guidance produced by the Government and the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes to firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 563380, relating to HS2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The petition that we are debating is entitled “Stop work on HS2 immediately and hold a new vote to repeal the legislation”. For convenience, I shall read the petition into Hansard:
“We ask Parliament to repeal the High Speed Rail Bills, 2016 and 2019, as MPs voted on misleading environmental, financial and timetable information provided by the Dept of Transport and HS2 Ltd. It fails to address the conditions of the Paris Accord and costs have risen from £56bn to over £100bn.”
The petition was open for six months and has gained over 150,000 signatures, 459 of which are from my constituency. As we all know, HS2 has been a topic on the public’s mind since Parliament first voted on it in 2009, and many of us represent constituencies that are deeply divided on the issue.
The construction of vent shafts for HS2 on Adelaide Road and in South Kilburn in my constituency is already causing major disruption to residents in Swiss Cottage and a part of Brent with some of the highest deprivation levels in the country. With the projected cost of HS2 having quintupled since 2010, does my hon. Friend think that the disruption, pollution and environmental damage that will be caused by this project over two decades is worth the £106 billion that it is now likely to cost?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important point, which I will come to.
I have been wrestling with whether the cost of HS2, both economically and environmentally, outweighs its benefits. I represent the west midlands constituency of Coventry North West, where HS2 is projected to add many jobs locally, better connect our cities and bolster the regional economy, and I welcome those benefits. I also applaud any efforts to invest in clean and green public transport infrastructure, such as high-speed rail. Building high-speed rail that connects our country with cutting-edge train technology should be something that we can all rally around.
Does the hon. Lady recall that when HS2 was originally planned, it was going to go not into Curzon Street, but into Birmingham New Street? That would have given her constituency greater connectivity. Moreover, it would have connected with HS1 so that people could travel direct to the continent without changing trains in London. Would not that have been the connectivity that she talks about?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I will come on to connectivity later in my speech. However, I have my own reservations about HS2. As somebody whose constituency contains woodlands at risk of increased pollution from HS2, I harbour concerns about the environmental damage that the railway will bring locally. I therefore intend to use my remaining time to expand on the petitioners’ key contentions, which beg the question: should the Government continue to fund HS2’s construction?
There is no direct advantage for my constituents in Northern Ireland. However, if the Government follow their levelling-up process, suppliers in Northern Ireland should have a chance to feed into the process. Does the hon. Lady agree that, when the Minister replies, there should be a commitment to jobs in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I know he is a champion for his constituents in Northern Ireland.
There are many reasons to be vocal about the benefits of HS2 if it is built as initially promised. In many ways HS2 should be a green and environmentally friendly new railway. It should present an important asset in achieving net zero carbon in the UK, creating an alternative to an emission-heavy mode of transport. By shifting more commuters to rail travel, not only will carbon emissions be 76% lower than those of an internal flight, but it would compete on journey time and cost.
We are starting to move to the nub of the question. First, HS2 was greatly flawed in its initial assumptions about the costs and benefits. The costs have escalated, but, most importantly, covid has brought a dramatic change in demand. At the moment, only 50% or 60% of journeys are made by rail. On inter-city it is probably even less. Does that not fundamentally undermine the case, and is there a need for a reassessment by Ministers? Could we ask the Minister whether he has done that reassessment?
The hon. Lady talks about greening the economy. Is it not the case that HS2 will allow more capacity on the old and virtually full Victorian network so that we can take freight and polluting lorries off the road and on to electric trains on the railways?
That is a contentious point. HS2 would emit seven times less carbon than the equivalent car journey. I would, however, ask the Government whether they plan to adjust that calibration in light of the goal that the UK aims to have all electric vehicles by 2040.
Economically, HS2 could bring benefits, including for my own city of Coventry. Nationwide, an estimated 500,000 jobs and 90,000 new homes have been pledged as part of the HS2 project. Currently, HS2’s construction supports 9,000 new jobs and has created contracts for 2,000 businesses, of which some 1,400 are small and medium-sized enterprises.
Given what we have heard about the clear economic benefits and the additional connectivity and capacity that HS2 will provide, does my hon. Friend share my deep concern that we keep getting reports in the newspapers and elsewhere that the Government are going cold on the HS2 route to Leeds? We have been given a clear commitment. Does she hope, as I do, that the Minister will make it absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to building HS2 in full, including bringing it to Leeds?
My constituent, Darren Bartlett, has been suffering for years after he had to give up his land and business to HS2. For almost three and a half years, HS2 has not made any compensation available to him. He is in a dire financial situation. The HS2 people have refused to have discussions with him, and he is having to remortgage not just his business but his property.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I share many of the concerns about HS2 that she has raised. These concerns were made very clear to me when I joined constituents affected by the project earlier this year and saw the impact of HS2 on them and their local area. In addition to the environmental issues that my hon. Friend has raised, what keeps coming up time and again from constituents is noise pollution. Does she agree that it is long overdue for HS2 to put up noise-cancelling barriers to stop the disruption that is plaguing so many constituents?
Thank you, Mr Mundell, and I will try not to take any more interventions.
The benefits that I have just outlined are dependent on the Government following through on the entire project. As was highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), earlier this summer the Department for Transport directed HS2 to stop all work on the leg linking Birmingham with the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. I know that the Government have made efforts to quell rumours that this leg of HS2 will be scrapped, but they have not issued any outright denial of that possibility.
That certainly brings into doubt some of the predicted economic benefits of constructing HS2. To be clear, the Government’s business case for HS2 depends upon building an entire railway network, not just fragments of HS2 for the favoured few. Failing to build that network would not only break the Government’s promise regarding the returns on HS2, but destroy their promise on levelling up the west midlands and, indeed, the midlands as a whole.
The Government must be clear about which part of HS2 will in fact be constructed, so that MPs have all the facts. As is evidenced by this petition, the potential benefits of HS2 have often been overshadowed by the controversies over how the Government have so far managed this major project. The petition refers to the extraordinary increase in the bill for building HS2. Back in 2009, the projected cost was £37.5 billion. By 2020, that figure had ballooned to £107.7 billion—an increase of 361%—and that hike is before much of the construction has even begun. That is completely unacceptable—how in the world did it even happen?
A review by the National Audit Office concluded that the key reason the price of HS2 skyrocketed was the Government’s failure to estimate accurately how quickly and cheaply they could build HS2 and the constantly changing scope of the project. In many ways, this project has clearly been mismanaged and there are no guarantees that the cost of it will not continue to rise.
Due to the time constraints, I will proceed quickly and then I will give way later on.
As I was saying, there are no guarantees that the cost of this project will not continue to rise and I am deeply concerned that taxpayers will not receive the promised returns on their investment if the cost continues to climb. The taxpayer has already seen a diminished expectation on that return. Indeed, in 2011 the initial economic case presented a benefit-cost ratio for the full train network that was nearly twice the current estimated return. The cost and benefit to the taxpayer must be at the forefront of our minds during this debate.
Separately, there is the very legitimate concern about the cost of constructing HS2, and I will also talk briefly about the cost of using HS2. One of the main reasons why I originally had some hope for the construction of HS2 was the understanding that a high-speed rail link such as HS2 would not only provide better mobility for commuters, but improve social mobility. However, if the only people who are able to take HS2 are the wealthiest among us, I cannot see how it will be used as a tool to boost social mobility—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I sincerely thank my hon. Friend for taking my intervention. I draw Members’ attention to the substantial impact on, and disruption caused to, residents in my constituency by vent shaft works associated with tunnelling under Ealing North. I recently carried out a survey of residents on Carr Road and Badminton Close in Northolt; I would welcome my hon. Friend’s support in asking the Minister to review the results of that survey, and to join me in pushing HS2 to improve its communication with, and accountability to, residents.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important point, which I will come on to.
I am deeply concerned about the environmental destruction that this project is causing to ancient woodland areas. The Woodland Trust estimates that 108 ancient woodland areas are at risk of loss or damage as a result of construction on HS2, and that irreparable damage to an ancient woodland ecosystem and biodiversity cannot be adequately addressed by planting a few saplings over a few years or generations. These environmental concerns alone give me pause for thought.
If HS2 is to be anything close to a success story, it must change course. I am worried that this project will continue with the same mismanagement that has characterised its construction so far, and has increased the projected construction time by about eight years and projected costs by over £60 billion. The same mistakes will continue to plague other phases unless we see change. HS2 Ltd needs to be much better at listening to the communities that it is impacting most, and to take the time to allow contractors to weigh in on what truly works best for local communities.
Finally, I will touch on something larger that is at stake: public trust. When we consider new and ambitious infrastructure projects, the public must trust that the Government will be open, transparent, trustworthy, cost-effective and efficient. With HS2, that has all too often not been the case, and I worry that the public’s diminished faith in Government’s ability to manage such projects effectively will prevent them from supporting positive and ambitious infrastructure projects in future. The end does not always justify the means. I look forward to hearing from the Government how they plan to address the important concerns I have raised, and to hearing the issues of concern to MPs from across the House and their ideas on how to drastically improve the HS2 project.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to speak in this debate. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for bringing it to this Chamber, and I agree with a great many of the concerns that have already been expressed about HS2. For what it is worth, I always argued that the line should follow existing transport corridors; that would have done a lot less environmental damage.
Ever since legislative authority was given for the line as it stands, I am afraid that HS2 Ltd has too often—there are a few individual exceptions—acted in a thoughtless and high-handed way, failing to communicate effectively about the nature of its works and the road closures and other disruption that they cause. As we have heard, HS2’s budget has risen dramatically, seemingly without anyone being held to account for it, yet in so many of the compensation cases I have dealt with, every penny claimed by vulnerable people whose lives have been ruined by the line has been fiercely contested.
I welcome the appointment of a dedicated HS2 Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has been doing a good job of getting to grips with these issues. However, he will agree that there is much more to do, and much more of the construction phase to go. HS2 Ltd and its contractors have to work much harder on talking to and listening to local residents who are affected by their work, and they and my hon. Friend need to do more to answer legitimate challenges on compliance with environmental standards, and about what was known when about cost overrun.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) outlined the criteria of honesty, transparency, value for money and openness. Has HS2 not failed the test on all those things? The rocketing costs make people feel like they are on a runaway train that has not even had the opportunity to get out of the station. This is a mess, and it must be fixed.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is incumbent on everybody involved in the project, including the Government, to make improvements in those respects, and we must expect that to happen.
As we have discussed, there is much to criticise HS2 for, but this petition does not ask us to criticise HS2—it asks us to cancel it. It seems to me that we should not be making a judgment based entirely on frustration, considerable though it may be. The reality is that legislative authority for HS2 has already been given, and this debate does not provide a mechanism to reverse it. Even if it did, given the amount already spent and the work already done on phase 1, it is likely that any cancellation decision now would be to cancel phase 2 of the line—not phase 1, which passes through my constituency and others. That would leave us with a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, with all the inconvenience caused to my constituents to build it, but not a wider network. The positive case for a wider network can be made, but the positive case for a new London-to-Birmingham line cannot. Stopping after phase 1 seems to me to be almost the worst-case scenario for my constituents, and I cannot support it.
If HS2 is to proceed, the Minister will need to assure us that it will be delivered with more efficiency, flexibility and consideration for the people impacted by it than we have largely seen so far.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing forward today’s debate, and the 311 constituents of mine who have petitioned. The Government need to get a grip of this project; that has come over loud and clear in the debate so far, and that point will no doubt be echoed in the next hour or so.
We are in the midst of not only a climate emergency, but an environmental emergency. We cannot plough lines through the middle of these cathedrals of nature, while avoiding wonderful cathedrals such as that in the destination city that HS2 is meant to arrive at some time in the future—we know not when. The paths these lines take should be integrated with the rest of the rail network.
I agree that the sequencing of this project needs to be re-examined, because we need interconnectivity, and we need it mapped on to the rest of our rail system.
I want to focus on the impact the plans are having on the economy of York. In Crewe, we are talking about 36,000 jobs, and in Curzon Street, 37,000, yet in York there will be just 6,500 jobs, in areas adjacent to the rail system—on Network Rail land, which comes under the Minister’s Department. The question I want answered today is: why is the economic opportunity of HS2, which the Minister has espoused, not translating into reality? Network Rail will redevelop that land for luxury apartments—not for anybody in my constituency to live in, but so that people can commute down to London, sucking out the wealth from my constituency. It does not make economic sense. It does not make sense for transport, and it comes at a cost to our environment. Therefore, the project needs to re-examine its purpose.
The Minister has a responsibility to ensure that jobs come to my city. There is no point talking about spending all this money if it is not going to drive up the opportunity for my constituents, so I ask the Minister to take a look at the figures. We see that 2,500 housing units are to be built adjacent to the station. My constituents simply cannot afford them because of the high cost of living. It does not make sense to push out those job opportunities while saying that they are the whole purpose of the railway. I have to say to the Minister that in the light of HS2’s economic suction from the north and my constituency, and its environmental impact, he has not yet presented a case that stacks up, and that says that HS2 will benefit places such as York. I ask him to look at that again.
Finally, if we are looking at truly levelling up, we have to look at all the opportunities for interconnectivity. In the north we need to see Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and York as part of the rail network, and have proper integration and speeds, and that simply is not happening. The east-west route is far too slow and costly for my constituents to really benefit from. We have to see connectivity across the network before this project proceeds, not least because we know that people have changed the way that they are moving about our country. At this time, we need to ensure that we are investing in things that will increase our productivity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I stand with the petitioners calling for HS2 to be scrapped—first, on cost grounds. At a time when the state is reaching deeper into people’s pockets, it is obscene to keep throwing money into this unwanted project. The latest estimate for the total cost is £146 billion; that is 10 times the original estimate.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention; he has read my mind—this is a point that I will come to shortly. The National Audit Office has noted that 50% of the costs for phase 1 are still based on HS2 Ltd’s estimates, consultant designs and benchmarking information, rather than actual costs—real pounds and pence—agreed with industry. Therefore, the overall cost could clearly rise again. HS2’s own revised cost estimates assume that it will be able to find £2.8 billion of savings, yet there has already been a substantial dip into its contingency budgets. We all know that the case for HS2 was ropey to start with; some estimated a 66p return for every taxpayer pound spent. If rumours of the eastern leg being scrapped are true, that must make the business case utterly untenable.
As my right hon. Friend says, there is also the aftermath of covid. The Transport Committee heard last year that rail passenger numbers are unlikely to recover to more than three quarters of 2019 levels—other estimates have it as low as 47%. The pandemic, and new working patterns, should surely allow for fresh eyes to look at High Speed 2.
I fear that the cat was somewhat let out of the bag by Douglas Oakervee, who, at the Transport for the North annual conference last year, was quoted as saying,
“The construction industry was in a very fragile position”.
He went on to justify his recommendation as a way of preventing harm to the construction industry. That is a purely unacceptable rationale.
This leads me to the environmental destruction. Hedgerows, trees and nature reserves, such as Calvert Jubilee in my constituency—destroyed. Water quality and wildlife are being put at risk; environmental standards that were agreed are now not being met, as has been well documented by the Chilterns Conservation Board and the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. Now, in my constituency, we have uncovered evidence of limestone being applied to land taken, rendering it useless for any future agricultural use. No prizes for guessing what the endgame is there; there is more to this gravy train than just the train.
Worst of all, HS2 brings real human misery to my constituents, and constituents up and down the line of route. This is through the endless road closures; the destruction of local rural roads, which are in conditions that are not safe to travel on; the grossly unfair way that landowners and farmers are treated; and people being left in a state of severe stress and anxiety by not knowing what will happen to their land, homes and businesses—not for days and weeks, but for months and years. I am devastated to tell this House that, from among the hundreds of people in this state of stress and anxiety, there have now been cases of people suffering heart attacks and losing their life, which I fear is not a coincidence.
Let us look at the reality. Let us call time on HS2 right now, ending this waste of money and this destructive project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. My constituents have made no secret of how important this issue is to them. That is why it does not surprise me that so many residents of Chesham and Amersham put their name to this petition. I join their plea to stop HS2 and put on record my opposition to it.
I have had hundreds of emails about this debate, as well as various emails and meetings in which specific concerns have been raised about the construction now taking place. I could fill the time available to us by listing those concerns, but I will resist. What many locally hoped would not happen is now happening. As far as they are concerned, it is happening to them, which is why it does not surprise me that the highest number of signatories to the petition are from Chesham and Amersham.
From the daily correspondence that I receive on this issue, what strikes me is the persistent lack of trust in HS2 Ltd, which is openly acknowledged by the team at HS2. They have assured me more than once that they are working hard to address that with the local community, but we have been here before. Five years ago, in December 2016, a special report by a House of Lords Select Committee highlighted its concerns about community engagement. Three years later, the Oakervee review said something similar. I therefore ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that he is seeing enough improvement in this area from HS2 Ltd. The lack of trust is inevitably compounded by the day-to-day reality of the largest infrastructure project in Europe happening on our doorstep. Let us not forget that those affected have years of this to look forward to—a decade of debilitating disruption.
I will finish by discussing the real fears for the aquifer and water supply. The Minister will be aware of concerns about the use of bentonite. Indeed, my predecessor asked in July 2018 whether there was a plan to use bentonite under pressure when tunnelling under the Chilterns. The reply she received from the Minister at the time was that
“Bentonite will be used in the construction of the diaphragm walls for the 5 intermediate shafts. Prior to the use of bentonite in these locations the construction methodology dictates that the ground surrounding the diaphragm walls will be grouted, therefore sealing and protecting the ground water from the bentonite.”
However, the Minister will know that it has come to light that, during diaphragm wall excavation at the Chalfont St Peter vent shaft late last year, there was a significant loss of bentonite. There is a clear correlation between that loss and changes in water quality in the area. HS2 Ltd chose not to share this information with the community; we know about it only because of a freedom of information request that was submitted to the Environment Agency.
The last thing that local campaigners want to say is, “I told you so”, so I ask the Minister whether he will come and hear from residents, whose fears for our water supply are real and have not been allayed by the assurances that they have received to date. Given the repeated calls for increased transparency and openness over the years, I ask the Minister to come and meet some of my constituents and decide for himself whether HS2 Ltd’s commitment to openness and transparency is being fulfilled.
I have always voted against HS2, from its inception. My constituents have agreed with me, and I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) in this debate. I have yet to see any objective report supporting HS2, and it has been put on red watch by the Government’s economic advisers. HS2 Ltd has continued to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as it takes a wrecking ball to some of our most beautiful countryside and woodlands and devastates communities. The voters of Chesham and Amersham let the Government know how they felt in no uncertain terms, and they are not alone.
HS2 Ltd seems to have learned nothing about respecting the knowledge of local people. The company has repeatedly treated my constituents with contempt and refused to engage in meaningful consultation, paying lip service by planting a few new trees, putting in footpaths and holding glossy events. When HS2 Ltd has met communities, it has stubbornly refused to listen, and when technically challenged on its responses, it has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal its engineering weaknesses. HS2 Ltd must admit the lack of engineering feasibility that this represents.
HS2 should also listen to the massive advantages presented by the professional and forensic analysis from my constituents, which has been made available to the Government. It would reduce dramatically the impact on Staffordshire, North Shropshire and Cheshire during the construction of phases 2a and 2b, deliver a valuable engineering asset that could build and maintain the western leg of HS2, and save the taxpayer approximately £600 million from the HS2 budget, which could be reinvested—please note, Treasury—in local rail projects that would transform rail connectivity across the north and through the midlands to the east coast, and provide the economic boost that those parts of the country richly deserve, including the levelling-up agenda.
I have absolutely no doubt that HS2 is a disastrous white elephant, but there are other opportunities and means whereby the Minister can change course. I strongly recommend that he does.
The arguments put forward against HS2 are very similar to those put forward by the stagecoach owners against the original investment in the railway system. That is relevant to this debate because one of our problems is that, although the stagecoach owners did not win the argument 200 years ago, over the years equivalent arguments have stopped investment in infrastructure in this country. We have the lowest motorway density in what used to be called western Europe. We are still relying on the railway system that the Victorians built for us, and because it is inadequate we have more cars on congested motorways, creating pollution and potentially many collisions.
My constituents and most of northern England have supported HS2 because of the economic benefits that it brings. In fact, I do not believe it is ambitious enough. In place of HS2 trains being put on the current railway lines to go to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scottish and northern MPs should be demanding that HS2 goes directly to Scotland and be joined, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) said, by HS1. That was part of the original plan. We have not been ambitious enough in our investment in infrastructure in the past and currently.
Before I finish, I want to deal with two or three of the arguments that have been put forward. The most absurd is the covid argument. This project will last 100 years—or perhaps 200 years, like the current railway system. Hopefully, covid will be over much more quickly than that—over the next six to 12 months—and we will get back to a normal economy and transport system.
It is often counterposed that the Liverpool-Hull railway, or HS3—it has been called many things—should be given priority over HS2. Both are required. One will feed into the other. If passengers are dispersed off HS2, they will need to go on to a line with capacity between Liverpool and Hull, and vice versa; we need to feed into that position.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that this is about freight? We can only expect freight movements to increase, and we want them to get off the roads and on to the railway. That will be possible only if we create the extra capacity that HS2 will give us.
My hon. Friend is right, of course, and she has expertise as a previous Chair of the Transport Committee. HS2 frees up capacity, not only for passengers but for freight. That will take pollution off our motorways in all sorts of ways.
I am opposed to this petition. It will not have any impact. It allows MPs to voice their constituents’ concern, but an expanded HS2 is important for the future of this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am very grateful to the Petitions Committee for securing this debate, because HS2 is undoubtedly the single biggest issue in my constituency of Aylesbury. Indeed, 2,999 petitioners are from my constituency—it is second only to Chesham and Amersham—and I have received more than 400 emails asking me to speak today.
I completely share the views of the vast majority of residents across the Aylesbury constituency that HS2 should be scrapped. As I stated at the beginning of my own election campaign, I do not believe that we need this railway. It makes no sense economically, owing to a weak business case and dramatically escalating construction costs. It makes no sense environmentally, with more than 100 ancient woodlands being destroyed for a line that will never be carbon neutral over its 120-year lifespan. I remain absolutely convinced that the scheme will do enormous damage to our area with zero benefit for the people of Aylesbury and the nearby villages.
Let us take some examples. The residents of Stoke Mandeville and Fairford Leys are already impacted by the construction work that is under way. Aylesbury itself is at risk of flooding owing to some of the methods that HS2 Ltd insists on using, despite repeated pleas to do more to alleviate the peril. Indeed, a recent FOI inquiry revealed an alarming lack of detailed knowledge of the impact on the aquifer of HS2’s construction.
The popular and beautiful village of Wendover
“will be more directly affected by the first phase of the HS2 project than any rural settlement of comparable size.”
Those are not my words. That is a direct quote from the House of Lords Select Committee. One key way to mitigate the horrendous consequences of HS2 for Wendover would be the construction of bored, mined tunnel. Time and again, local residents have provided compelling evidence of the case for such a tunnel, but time and again they have been told they cannot have it, so they have asked for a full, thorough and independent analysis of their proposal versus the one in the consented scheme. Even for that, they have again been told no. It is hardly surprising that they are up in arms.
Of course, we should not need a tunnel in Wendover because we should not have HS2 at all. There are so many things the HS2 budget could be better spent on. I have three suggestions. Local train lines—across the north of England and indeed in my constituency, notably the Aylesbury link of East West Rail, which has a better business case than HS2—would dramatically cut traffic congestion on the roads and reduce environmental harm, but we are still waiting for funding approval.
We could use the money for high-speed broadband, which would enable the new ways of working that are now becoming embedded following the pandemic. Parts of my constituency still struggle to get wi-fi despite being less than 50 miles from central London. Indeed, we could just save some of the huge bill, given the hundreds of billions of pounds we have had to borrow in the past 18 months. Any of those options would be much better for my constituency and for the country than this painful, lumbering white-elephant project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell.
The Government’s response to the petition states that HS2 will be the
“long-lasting legacy for both wildlife and future generations.”
Well yes, it certainly will—a long-lasting legacy of environmental annihilation, eye-watering expense and broken promises.
I want to focus on the environmental harm of HS2, and I would point out that almost 600 Brighton constituents have signed the petition. If a convincing case for a new railway cannot be made on environmental grounds, that shows how fundamentally flawed the scheme must be. We face a climate and ecological emergency, and we need to start acting like we face such an emergency. Only if there are overwhelmingly positive environmental cases for HS2 should it go ahead. Clearly, there are not. However, there are, as we have heard this evening, many genuinely greener alternatives in which such large sums of money could and should be invested within the UK’s transport system. Let me give one more example: the New Economics Foundation estimates that a national rail investment fund of £55.2 billion over the next 10 years—just over half the cost of HS2—including £18.9 billion allocated to the north of England, would help commuters, speed up long-distance journeys, cut carbon emissions and bring benefits to many regions that are not even served by HS2.
On nature, the Government response to the petition says that there will be
“‘no net loss’ to biodiversity”.
Well, even if that were meaningful or credible—frankly, it is neither—it is utterly inadequate. The wildlife trusts have highlighted the fact that ancient woodland is
“by its very nature irreplaceable”,
so an ancient wood that is lost to HS2 is a permanent loss of nature and wildlife, yet 15 hectares of ancient woodland over 400 years old have already been obliterated. It speaks volumes that HS2 keeps no record of the number of trees felled. Can the Minister provide the figure for trees felled? I think that would be interesting.
Finally, on climate, the response by the Department for Transport to the petition claims that HS2
“will play a vital role in delivering the Government’s carbon net zero objectives”,
yet HS2’s own forecasts, even over 120 years, show the project will cause carbon emissions of 1.49 million tonnes. Achieving our climate goals means rapidly decarbonising the transport system, and protecting and restoring habitats such as woodland. HS2 does neither. Frankly, the way in which these decisions are being made does no justice to the seriousness of the situation, given what is at stake with environmental harm. The experience of HS2 shows that we need to change fundamentally our approach to economic decision making and to the criteria for major infrastructure projects. We urgently need to give top priority to the health and wellbeing of people and nature. It is time to stop annihilating nature in the name of short-term financial gain for some rather big construction corporations and the pursuit of infinite economic growth on our finite and fragile planet. The petitioners are right: HS2 should be scrapped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. When I became a candidate for Crewe and Nantwich in 2018, one of the big decisions for me was whether or not I supported HS2. It was not well-paid lobbyists or Government or business interests that convinced me of my position but knocking on doors and speaking to dozens of local men and women who worked on the local railways and told me how vital this project was. Although I recognise many of the concerns raised by Members, and I hope that HS2 representatives are listening to them, I support the project.
Crewe has a proud and close relationship with this country’s railways. It was a village until the locomotive works and the railway station were founded in the 1830s. It built on that industrial heritage to forge a new future as a home for a wide variety of businesses, but with the railway remaining at its heart. That future is at risk if we cannot deliver locally and improve links via the railway.
Members have raised the issue of reduced capacity as a result of covid. It is important to note that some travel routes are already back up to 70% of pre-pandemic levels. It would be unwise to make major, decades-long decisions about transport in this country on the basis of less than a few years of travel patterns, which I fully expect to return to normal.
I think that the west coast main line will return to being the busiest mixed-use railway line in Europe. For my local residents and businesses, that means no capacity for freight, congested timetables and fewer smaller local journeys, because inter-city journeys take priority. The answer for some is to just upgrade what we have, but I remind everybody that the last time we did that we faced similar cost overruns and delays to those currently being experienced by HS2. I have said before in the House that I do not think that arguments about our ability to deliver big infrastructure are valid. We have to become better at doing infrastructure. As we deliver projects, we have to listen to MPs in order to improve them. We should not say no. If we stand still, we are certainly not going to deliver or improve our local infrastructure.
I understand the concerns. I also want to flag up the context of the money we are spending. It is a lot of money but let us keep in mind that we already plan to spend £6 billion a year maintaining and making much smaller upgrades across the railway network, and £40 billion over the next five years on projects other than HS2. In the context of those figures, it is naive to think that we can build a major new railway line without substantial forms of public investment. Are we really saying that this country is never going to build a big, major new railway line? I do not think that that is wise or that it reflects the ambition in my part of the UK, all of the north and the rest of the country—an ambition that HS2 helps to deliver.
The Government talk about levelling up, and there can be few more glaring examples of regional inequality, and few where the role of central Government is critical, than our rail infrastructure. That is why I have been campaigning for some time for greater connectivity to and between major northern cities via the east coast main line, but HS2 matters, too, particularly the eastern leg. If the Government are serious about investing in the north, they must build and integrate all phases of HS2, along with Northern Powerhouse Rail, and deliver major upgrades to the east coast main line.
I know from some of the emails that I received before this debate that many people want HS2 to be scrapped, and for investment in local rail links in the north to be prioritised instead. I understand those concerns, and we absolutely need to correct the chronic under-investment in the north-east transport network, but it should not be an either/or proposition.
Nobody would argue that London should have only one major infrastructure project at any one time, and neither should that be the case for the north. Moreover, as hon. Members have said, the primary purpose of HS2 is to free up capacity on existing lines. Without it, we will struggle to improve local commuter and freight services. Our existing lines struggled to keep up with pre-pandemic levels of demand, and they will not be able to accommodate more or longer trains. We need a significant, coherent programme of rail infrastructure improvement across the north of England. That includes delivering HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full and improvements to existing lines, particularly the east coast main line. If the Government’s intention is simply to build 21st-century rail links between London and Birmingham while passengers and businesses in the north are left behind, it will make a mockery of levelling up. I hope the Minister will reassure us today that that is not his intention.
I return to the need for investment in the east coast main line. If the eastern leg of HS2 goes ahead—I hope it does—it will deliver a continuous new high-speed railway between London and the midlands, and a junction with the east coast main line in North Yorkshire. However, from that point on it is envisaged that HS2 trains will travel on the existing east coast main line to serve the north-east and beyond. The line carried 50 million passengers each year before the pandemic. It is used for long-distance, regional and local passenger and freight services, but it has just two tracks, suffers from chronic capacity issues, affects the reliability of existing services and stymies the potential to add further services.
The single congested track between Northallerton and Newcastle is one of the worst examples of capacity problems on the east coast main line. After decades of underinvestment and a failed, piecemeal approach to rail infrastructure in the north, the Government have an opportunity to invest in capacity and connectivity, attract investment and truly boost the north by delivering HS2, NPR and east coast upgrades.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
I start by saying that the time allocated to the debate today is woefully short. That adds to the public’s sense that people are not listening to them, that they are being silenced and that the Government do not want to listen to opposition to HS2. Nearly 2,000 people in Tatton signed the petition and I stand squarely with them and the other thousands of people to say, “Stop HS2.” Later, I will give a reason why a vote needs to be held again in the House of Commons.
I would like to mention a few groups and people from Tatton because they have worked tirelessly to unearth the failings of HS2. They are Ashley Parish Council; Lach Dennis and Lostock Green Parish Council; Mid Cheshire Against HS2; Kathy O’Donoghue; and Ros Todhunter for her technical expertise.
Many colleagues have talked about the failings and there is not just one failing, but many. Indeed, the more we look into the project, the worse it gets, from its ballooning costs to the destruction of land and countryside, to its being out of date. We need high-speed broadband —1 gigabit capability—which would connect everyone, everywhere, not HS2.
Let us talk about the cost. It was £37.5 billion. It is now £150 billion. A scheme might be viable at £37.5 billion and perhaps even at £50 billion, but when does it become unviable? Are the Government saying that they will pay for it whatever the cost? I bring up the very serious point that Lord Berkeley made in the other place on 9 September. He said that he had
“received from senior managers in HS2 —I think you can call them whistleblowers”
information. They had
“produced a detailed estimate of this project from the beginning.”
That was news to him because:
“They had always denied that…but they have an estimate and the problem is that it came out at £48 billion, at a time when Ministers were telling the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House that the cost was £23.5 billion. It was on the basis of that £23.5 billion the House approved phase 1 of the HS2 Bill.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 September 2021; Vol. 814, c. 980.]
If that is the case and we were given misinformation, is not it right that the vote needs to held—and heard—again?
I have some final questions in the time I have. What is the cost of cancelling the scheme? On what is that estimate based? On what measurements does HS2 level up the north? Can we look at that serious allegation in the House of Lords and, if it is true, have another vote?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
More than 155,000 people have signed the petition that we are discussing, including around 200 of my constituents. Some have written to me directly, raising their concerns about the spiralling costs of HS2 and its impact on the environment and climate emergency. I share their concerns.
As Members have observed, travel patterns have changed significantly over the course of the pandemic and businesses have adapted to new ways of connecting over the internet. With more people working remotely, it is important that the Government revisit the arguments that were originally put forward for HS2. I ask hon. Members who argue strongly against this to reflect on the opportunities that the internet offers to businesses in how they operate going forward, and on the generations coming through who are so adept at using those technologies and developing them.
If the Government wish to encourage greater use of rail by passengers, they should act on the high costs of train tickets, particularly at peak times, which are frankly prohibitive.
In response to a written question that I tabled to the Minister in May this year, the Minister said:
“There is significant uncertainty around how travel patterns will change post-Covid.”
He also said the Government has
“not yet completed modelling the sensitivity of its major project business cases to post-COVID demand.”
Will the Minister update us on what the Government are doing to understand shifts in business behaviour and their impact on the case for HS2?
As we prepare to host COP26, the UK should be leading the way in the fight against climate change. In May 2019, this House declared an environment and climate emergency and called on Ministers to outline urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment, yet there has been no route-wide environmental impact assessment for HS2. As has been mentioned, the Woodland Trust has pointed out that 108 ancient woodlands are at risk of loss or damage as a result of the project. The Government should take urgent action to understand the environmental impact of HS2 across the whole route.
Finally, I turn to the management of the project. In its 2020-21 annual report, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave phase 1, the London to west midlands section, an amber/red rating, meaning that
“Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas.”
It gave phase 2b of HS2, which would extend the line to Manchester and Leeds, a red rating, meaning that
“Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.”
It is clear that High Speed 2, the Government’s flagship national transport project, is in chaos.
The climate crisis is real, it is here, and it is with us. The financial costs of the project have spiralled and work patterns are changing. I urge the Minister to give very serious attention to these most pressing concerns, and I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
This project first came to my attention back in 2009, when my party manifesto pledged to consult on this massive white elephant seemingly to make up for rejecting a third runway at Heathrow. As a new Back Bencher back in 2011, I led a debate begging the Government to look again at the economic case for the project then.
HS2’s heroic forecasting of up to 4% year-on-year passenger growth was, even then, undermined by the experience of HS1, which had achieved less than half its forecast. The economic case for HS2 had assumed that all time spent on a train was wasted, so a 20-minute time saving between Birmingham and London could account for huge economic gain. The green credentials of HS2 assumed that the power required to run it would be 100% generated through renewable sources. At the time, the cost was forecast to be £32 billion, with HS2 opening by 2026.
So, where are we now? Train passenger increases bottomed out long before covid and everybody can now work on a train using wi-fi. Government figures show the costs of the project have risen exponentially to well over £100 billion. Here we are in 2021, with enabling work only just begun.
The High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act—the paving legislation—received Royal Assent in November 2013, effectively giving HS2 a blank cheque. I was one of the 38 Members who voted against it. Then we set up a compensation and mitigation forum, with a number of MPs who were determined to protect their constituencies. At the time, we were all promised that no expense would be spared to ensure that our communities and countryside were looked after. Well, how wrong that proved to be.
The toll on lives and livelihoods has been massive. Andy, Ben, Murray and Anne in Radstone have had to battle for years to get HS2 to confirm what was agreed in writing during the hybrid Bill: a proper sound barrier to protect their village and a lowering of the line. Five years later these issues are still outstanding. Pauline and Doug’s successful holiday business was shut down by HS2 taking their land. Four years later, they are still awaiting compensation. They are stuck in their old home and have no income. The beautiful village of Chipping Warden is now surrounded by construction materials that HS2 has just dumped in this lovely countryside.
For me as an MP, dealing with what can only be described as the appalling treatment of my constituents by HS2 has taken on average 25% of my time since 2010, and it has caused real mental health issues for hundreds of local people. My hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for HS2, is working very hard to help, but I will just say it straight: HS2 is an appalling waste of money and I am ashamed of the way that it is being implemented. We need a fresh vote.
HS2 is probably the most poorly explained and poorly understood policy in our national discourse. Over the past decade, a series of myths have been perpetuated about it, by a combination of muddled thinking and the efforts of well-funded self-interest groups. I therefore welcome this opportunity to address some of those myths head-on.
First, despite its name, HS2 has never been simply about shaving 30 minutes off journey times down to London. It has always been about tackling the capacity challenge on the country’s most important strategic railway, the west coast main line. If we were to cancel HS2 and do nothing, within a few years this most vital artery of our entire national railway network would quite simply grind to a halt, causing huge damage to our economy, especially in the north and midlands.
I have seen many people claim that the internet and remote working will take care of this problem all by itself, ignoring the fact that—excluding the period of the pandemic—rail passenger figures have gone up in every single year since the internet was invented. They also ignore the issue of rail freight. I am all for harnessing technology, but with the best will in the world we cannot deliver millions of tonnes of goods via Zoom. We are already seeing the consequences of being overly reliant on road haulage, with the problems being caused by the shortage of continental HGV drivers. A failure to invest in our rail freight capacity would only make this situation worse.
Secondly, let us examine the cost of HS2 and let us give the anti-HS2 lobby the benefit of the doubt, taking their absolute worst-case scenarios on both costings and completion date at face value. Doing that, we would be looking at spending just over £5 billion a year; to provide some context, that is about half of what we spend on overseas aid. It is a lot of money, but investing around 0.25% of our GDP every year for a limited period to fix the most important railway network in our country is hardly disproportionate.
Thirdly, perhaps the most common argument against HS2 is that we should prioritise fixing existing commuter rail services instead, which is an argument that buys into a completely false-choice narrative. After all, London was not forced to choose between Crossrail and Thameslink; the north and the midlands should not be forced to make a choice, either. This argument also completely misses the point of HS2, which is to free up capacity on existing commuter lines and enable other transport improvements, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. When the Transport Committee visited Birmingham, we heard very compelling evidence from Andy Street that HS2 also allows improvements such as the midlands rail hub.
My constituency is a good example of this situation. I have two railway lines, which have very limited capacity, that run through one of the busiest corridors in the country—Stockport to Manchester. HS2 would free up that capacity and allow for significant improvement in rail services for places such as Buxton, New Mills, Chinley and Whaley Bridge.
Finally, and most erroneously, a myth has developed that HS2 will be bad for the environment. If people are serious about tackling climate change and decarbonising the economy, I cannot see how they can credibly oppose HS2, a project specifically designed to reduce our reliance on domestic flights and to get cars and HGVs off our roads, shifting people and freight from a high-carbon form of transport to a low-carbon one.
In conclusion, therefore, completing HS2 is good for jobs, good for the economy, good for public transport and good for tackling climate change. It is vital that we keep HS2 on track.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Mundell; I am conscious of the time.
I stand here in Westminster Hall today to oppose HS2, as I have opposed it ever since being elected. Over 700 of my constituents signed the petition. And I was actually joined at one of my street surgeries just last Friday by Sandra Haith, a stalwart member of the Bramley anti-HS2 group. She gave me another petition that was signed by 8,000 constituents a couple of years ago. In Rother Valley, a northern seat and a seat that the Government want to level up, we say that we do not want HS2.
I want to challenge this fallacy that HS2 is involved with levelling up. It is quite the opposite: HS2 takes money and resources away from levelling up. I say that HS2—I am particularly talking about the 2b arm that runs roughshod through my constituency, destroying 400 homes—damages the levelling-up process. Why is that? First of all, we have heard about £150 billion. What my constituency could do with £15 million would be transformative. Give us some of that; do not give us a rail line that we cannot get on to. That money is what we need.
On top of that, we have talked about the trans-Pennine route here today; that is what we need. But what I hear from suppliers and construction companies is that there are not enough resources. There is not enough concrete; there are not enough tradesmen at the moment actually to build anything else. That is because HS2 is this gaping maw that is sucking in resources, sucking in money and sucking in everything, but not actually delivering anything. That undermines the whole concept of levelling up, so I say to the Government: we need to stop HS2 and the 2b arm.
If newspaper reports are to be believed, the 2b arm will be scrapped. I welcome that and I hope the Minister will confirm that. Hundreds of my constituents, whose homes are being destroyed or compulsorily purchased, are being left in limbo. They do not know what is going on. We cannot just mothball it. We need to cancel it so that they can get on with their lives.
I have one more point: we are destroying 400 homes in the Rother Valley. At the same time, Rotherham council is building new homes on the green belt, which is ridiculous. We are destroying the homes that we have and building on the green belt to make up for the loss. The HS2 project is a disaster, and 2b needs to be fully cancelled.
It is strange but indeed a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. The debate has been excellent, with impassioned contributions from both sides, although clearly skewed to one side of the debate. I do not have much time to reflect on many of the speeches, but I will single out the Transport Committee face-off between my colleagues on the Committee, the hon. Members for High Peak (Robert Largan) and for Buckingham (Greg Smith). I am sure it will be discussed tomorrow in Committee.
That it took the UK so long to reinvest in rail after decades of de-investment and line closures and to attempt to offer a much more realistic alternative to domestic flying is to be regretted. In fact, there is an argument to be made that, given the changed working practices born out of the covid pandemic, HS2 is perhaps already too late. However, in principle we remain in favour of high-speed rail, with the Scottish Government recognising the economic benefit that a well-planned and well-delivered project could bring.
I have already halved my speech. We would also look to eventually have high-speed rail all the way to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Will the Minister tell us by what year high-speed rail will be delivered to the border? The Scottish Secretary could not answer that question last week. As an England-only project, HS2 falls within the remit of the UK Government with oversight by English MPs. The SNP does not usually attempt to interfere in devolved decision making for England unless there are budget implications for Scotland.
Although we support the principle, it is fair to say that the HS2 project has now regressed and become short-sighted. It does not place proper emphasis on connectivity across these islands. The fact that there is no discussion to link up to Wales directly and not even giving the Welsh Assembly any Barnett consequentials is shameful. As an England-only national infrastructure project, HS2 delivers spending consequentials to Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that that will continue to be the case to enable the Scottish Government to continue to build the carbon neutral transport infrastructure for Scotland? As the cost of HS2 continues to increase, UK Ministers must make sure that all devolved nations are not left out of pocket because of their decision to spend so much on one project in England.
We are also not oblivious to the environmental issues that many of us, even Scottish MPs, have been inundated with. It is important that any work on HS2 takes into consideration the wider environmental impact. As we have heard from many Members this evening, that certainly has not been the case thus far. The Scottish Government are of course looking to decarbonise Scotland’s transport network through decarbonising rail and investing in green buses and public transport. Scotland’s electrification scheme is an ongoing exemplar to the rest of the islands, particularly the DFT, which has electrified lines at half the pace of the Scottish Government over the past 20 years or so.
We are beginning the process of bringing ScotRail into public ownership to create a network that works for the people of Scotland and not just private profit. Scotland and the other devolved Administrations have robust processes for identifying investment priorities, each setting their own strategies and priorities for transport. Transport infrastructure, as you know, Mr Mundell, is devolved. Decisions on investment were taken by the Scottish Government through an infrastructure investment plan and the second strategic transport projects review. It will consider infrastructure proposals that are founded on robust evidence and that support the vision and outcomes of that strategy and meet the needs of the people and businesses of Scotland, not the political whimsy of the Prime Minister, whose track record in this area is nothing short of calamitous.
The Minister has said previously, and will no doubt say again today, that HS2’s connectivity will benefit the whole UK, so it is therefore important to make my final point—I know you would not agree with it, Mr Mundell, but you are an impartial Chair today. The Union connectivity review was established without any meaningful discussion with the devolved Administrations, and it undermines devolution. The UK Government are now threatening to withhold funding to Scotland unless the Scottish Government sign up to the review, which was carried out without Scottish Government input. That shows that the review is not about collaboration, but about the UK Government inserting themselves into devolved areas of government. The UK Government must respect the devolution settlement and stop undermining it for the single purpose of being able to put Union Jacks on Scottish projects.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to hon. Members for speaking so passionately and eloquently about what can be a very divisive and emotive issue for our constituents. Hon. Members have put forward their well-considered views on what is such an important topic for the future of our transport system, and I know that people who have signed the petition have important concerns that must be addressed. Although I believe that HS2 should continue to be built, and built in full, I feel that the Government have failed to address such concerns adequately.
The debate comes at a very important time for the HS2 project. A year ago today, formal construction on the project began—building from London to Birmingham, rather than starting from the north, as Labour advocated. In that time, HS2 has launched two giant tunnel-boring machines, provided 20,000 jobs and done much more besides. It has taken over a decade to get to this point. Back in 2009, a Labour Government announced the birth of the project in the face of growing rail usage by passengers and freight, which was caused by:
“Passenger choice, better rail services, road congestion and environmental factors”.
The project aimed to cut journey times and, crucially, increase capacity substantially.
Until recently, that remained unchanged. Between June 2018 and June 2019, the number of passenger journeys reached a staggering 1.77 billion. As home working became the norm, questions naturally arose around HS2, as hon. Members have highlighted. One of the main critiques from the petition is the substantial impact of the pandemic. There is no denying that the past 18 months have had a substantial impact. At its lowest last year, the level of rail usage dipped to a mere 4% of the norm. As people tentatively return to offices, many have chosen to drive rather than use our railways, with train commuting at just 33% of 2019 levels. However, the answer is not to give up, end construction and abandon the progress that HS2 could make on decarbonising billions of passenger and freight miles.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman received the 85 megabytes of documentation from whistleblowers within HS2 and the Department for Transport, which indicated that phase 1 is now unlikely to be open for passengers before 2041 and that the whole project is going to be £160 billion in today’s money. Phase 1 is already £70 billion, and the enabling works are running massively over budget. They are being suppressed, and that is going to be thrown into the main budget at the end.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has supported the point that I have made thus far and will continue to make in my speech—namely, that the Government do not have a grip on the project. It is right that the opinions of whistleblowers and others in our communities are taken into account, because we cannot have ballooning costs and we must ensure that the project is delivered in full but also within budget.
As I was saying, we cannot abandon the progress that HS2 could make on decarbonising billions of passenger miles and, as hon. Members have pointed out, freight miles. We cannot reverse the construction progress made or the jobs created. It is about making our railways work better for passengers. It means committing to HS2 in full, including the eastern leg to Leeds. I know that people feel passionately about that, especially in the east midlands and the north, including those to whom I have spoken in and around Leeds. It is about ensuring connectivity for onward travel at HS2 stations, whether that is bus stops, taxi ranks or park and ride. It is about making flexible season tickets actually flexible, reducing delays, improving our rolling stock and guaranteeing that it is modern, clean and accessible. The project should be run efficiently, and issues, such as those raised about the local environment and local communities, should be addressed.
As I am sure the Minister knows, I am not alone in these concerns. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) has written to him about ancient woodlands and the environmental impact of HS2 on behalf of her constituents, as well about the uncertainty around the project.
Speaking on behalf of the people of Denham and the ancient woodlands in Denham Country Park and Colne Valley, there has been destruction to the ancient woodlands and aquifer there. We are at the coalface. I ask that we remember the environmental damage being done.
I thank the hon. Lady. I gave way to her because she is my neighbour and I know she wanted to get those things on the record on behalf of her constituents. I agree with her to the extent that when I last spoke extensively on this matter in Parliament, it was when the Government accepted Labour’s amendments on two key issues: reporting on the impact on our ancient woodland and protecting it, and properly consulting local communities. I hope the Minister is mindful of these two important factors in the continued construction of HS2.
Ultimately, it is those in the villages, towns and cities along the route who best know the environmental and logistical issues HS2 will bring. Prioritising engagement and transparency is the best way to deliver this project. In order to encourage even more people to travel by rail as one of the least polluting mass transport forms, rail should be the most convenient, affordable and connected option. We cannot lose sight of the initial reason for building this project. If we fail to provide these solutions for passengers, they will simply resort to more polluting and convenient forms of travel.
I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, I am always happy to engage in a debate in the main Chamber. Given the level of excitement and passion among hon. Members, I think the Government and the Leader of the House should look closely at that.
Just last week, the Rail Delivery Group warned that a further 20% shift from rail to roads would lead to an increase of some 300 million hours of traffic congestion. We cannot allow the pandemic to push us backwards in our plight of decarbonising transport. The impact of returning commuters and building HS2 is wider than just transport, with £30 billion in high street spending that is crucial for keeping businesses open in our towns and city centres. Many businesses and commuters have made crucial plans around the guarantee of HS2 being delivered, and the Government have promised that it will stimulate the economy and rebalance the north-south divide.
However, continued failures of Government to properly commit to the eastern leg to Leeds paints a very different picture. No integrated rail plan, no Northern Powerhouse Rail and no eastern leg—does the Minister think that is good enough? Siemens, Hitachi, Alstom, Aecom, British Steel, Mace, Babcock and many other businesses certainly do not. This week, they noted that
“scaling back the line would have a ‘devastating impact on confidence’ in the industry”
“it is the communities in those regions who will be most let down should the eastern leg not move forward”.
I ask the Minister to address this in his response. The Government’s usual dither and delay will not cut it. The mismanagement of HS2 has left Government contemplating a decision to abandon those promises. Ballooning costs and persistent delays, which have become characteristic of this Government, have hurt communities, leading to some losing their confidence in such a project. That is why I urge the Government and HS2 to get a grip on this.
Although the Labour party stands behind the completion of HS2, that does not mean that constituents’ concerns can be ignored. I hope the Minister has listened today and will provide some concrete reassurance on the environmental, cost and business case for HS2. If we do not commit to it in full, significantly increase capacity in our network and encourage a seismic shift towards rail, I fear net zero may be out of reach and communities will be left behind. We must therefore ensure that the Government deliver on their promises.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for opening this debate, and right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions.
I welcome the continued public scrutiny of the high-speed rail programme. I will address some of the key issues raised during this debate, although I probably have only about seven minutes left to reply.
Unfortunately, I did not get called in the debate, but the Minister already knows my strong opposition to the scheme. I want to press him on the benefit-cost ratio. The Oakervee review said it had already dropped from 2.3 to 1.1, and post pandemic we can expect it to come down even further. Does he agree that we need another review so that we can properly assess the value of the scheme?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I will talk about the benefit-cost ratio if I get there in time. The last benefit-cost ratio for the scheme was of course published when the last full business case was published in April 2020. It is worth saying that this is a long-term investment in the future of our country, and we should not base long-term investment decisions on what has been happening over 18 months.
I am one of those who are deeply sceptical about the value for money of this project. I can think of considerable other ways to invest that money that would have a much stronger economic benefit. On the impact of the covid pandemic, has the Minister considered the long-term impact of the growing use of Zoom, electronic communications and so on? Surely any sensible Government would look at the impact of that on business travel, commuter travel and so on as part of this project.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her point. Of course, the Government are looking at this in a cross-Government way. We are looking at changing working patterns, which have impacts not only on transport investment but on regeneration and a whole range of things. We will say more about our thinking in the coming months. As we said in the Queen’s Speech, we intend to bring forward a western leg Bill. Obviously, it would have to be accompanied by projections for the whole network, not just the western leg, so I hope we will publish more information on that in the very near future.
I look forward to the Minister publishing more information. I also look forward to the integrated rail plan, which I am keen to see, with recommendations to scrap the Golborne spur leg, which impacts my constituency. It is a £2 billion line that basically goes nowhere. It brings all the pain and no gain to Warrington, so I ask him to prioritise scrapping it.
My hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Leigh (James Grundy) continue to push me on the Golborne spur. That is one of the many decisions that will be taken as part of the integrated rail plan, so I hope to be able to say more about that soon.
I spoke earlier about my constituent Darren Barnett and his colleagues, who are stuck in a financial straitjacket, both economically and personally. They are not able to move on because HS2 management in Birmingham has not made the funding available. Will the Minister meet them to explore how we can move this issue forward?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I am happy to meet him to discuss this issue. After doing the land and property review shortly after I became a Minister, I looked at a number of these tricky cases. I now review all the cases that are brought to my attention by right hon. and hon. Members on a fortnightly basis. I am more than happy to add that case to the list and meet him personally to see whether we can find a way forward.
I thank the Minister for coming to Marsden in my constituency to meet constituents. It is on the TransPennine route. Can we get rid of a myth this evening? Investment in HS2 is not instead of but as well as upgrading the TransPennine route, as well as Northern Powerhouse Rail and local infrastructure. We will get all the benefits only if the eastern leg is delivered and all those investments are made. That would improve jobs, connectivity and the environment, and it is good for our constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have about two minutes left, so I will say that HS2 is going full steam ahead. It is a railway of which we hope the country can be proud for many generations to come. Construction has now begun in earnest, with more than 300 active construction sites along the line of route from Birmingham to London. This year, we have achieved significant milestones, and momentum behind the project is growing. Today, we announced that HS2 is now supporting more than 20,000 jobs, just one year since the Prime Minister declared the formal start of construction of the Birmingham to London stretch of the route. This year, we will celebrate many brilliant feats of engineering, including the start of tunnelling under the Chilterns, with our two tunnel-boring machines having now tunnelled 1.5 km underground.
Many Members have expressed various concerns, and I am more than happy to meet them after the debate. I know that HS2 is a project that inspires strong feelings on all sides, as all major infrastructure projects do. All right hon. and hon. Members present know that the Government carefully considered the merits of proceeding with HS2, which has almost certainly been subject to more parliamentary scrutiny than any other infrastructure project. Our firm conclusion was that HS2 should go ahead, and it is now progressing, as I have outlined. In setting out the decision to proceed, we made a clear commitment to draw a line under past problems. This is a once-in-a-generation major infrastructure project that will shape this country for well over 100 years, showcasing our skills in engineering and construction.
Many comments have been made during the debate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) made a very reasonable speech, and I look forward to visiting his constituency next week. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised her concerns about regeneration plans around York station. I heard about those plans when I visited the National Railway Museum, and I am more than happy to meet her to talk in more depth about them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) has been consistent in his opposition to HS2. I was grateful that he recently took the time to introduce me to some of his councillors and residents. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) raised her concerns about community engagement, aquifer and bentonite. Let me be clear that the continued supply of high-quality drinking water from the Chilterns aquifer is a high priority. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) made clear his opposition to HS2, but also his desire to see changes to phase 2a. I am happy to continue to engage with him on the changes that he would like to see. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made some valid points about the opposition that infrastructure projects have always attracted over the years, and I thank him for his support on pushing ahead. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) raised some concerns on behalf of his constituents, as he has been doing consistently since he was elected. I look forward to continuing to work with him to mitigate those impacts.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. I thank everyone for participating in such an important debate. What we have heard reflects how difficult it has been to strike a balance between achieving high-speed rail and managing that ambition in a genuinely clean, green and cost-effective way. Indeed, I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and many others about the devastating environmental impact that HS2 is having, with more than 15 hectares already utterly destroyed.
I also highlight the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) about the environmental and economic issues associated with the Wendover section of HS2. The offhand rejection of the Wendover tunnel proposal has demonstrated the need for the Government to actually commit to an independent investigation into a more truly environmentally friendly and cost-efficient mechanism for building sections of the railway should its construction continue.
I look forward to seeing the steps that the Government take in response to the points that have been raised today. I thank colleagues for joining me in the debate, and I thank you, Mr Mundell, for chairing it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 563380, relating to HS2.