Wednesday 20 July 2022
[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]
War in Ukraine: UK Farming and Food Production
While the heat remains at this level, although in this room it is perfectly nice and a bit more survivable outside, I am content for Members not to wear jackets or ties in Westminster Hall. Those Members who have ties on might get to be even less formal, but apparently, there will be a lot more application of the dress code when we get back in September, both in the Chamber and here.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the war in Ukraine on UK farming and food production.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela, and thank you for your kind guidance on the dress code. I will make do at the moment, but we will see how we go when the heat of debate ratchets up.
For me, the debate had its genesis in discussions with many of the farmers in my constituency, and I start by paying tribute to them for their help with my preparations for today, and also to the National Farmers Union, which has given me so much information. The war, which in many respects came out of nowhere, has piled additional pressures on a sector that was already facing great difficulties. At the outset, however, I want us to turn our thoughts to the brave defenders of their Ukrainian homeland and the colossal humanitarian disaster that they face in Ukraine. I am afraid to say that we now also need to remember the countless victims, it would seem, of war crimes, the evidence for which mounts daily.
The invasion exacerbated existing inflationary and supply chain pressures, which will have lasting consequences for the scale of UK agricultural production. Globally, the conflict will exacerbate the pressure on food supplies in the poorest parts of the world. British farmers are growers, and they are price takers. That means they are exposed and vulnerable to the challenges of rising inflation in times of economic pressure. The cost of producing food in the UK has increased drastically in recent months. The cost of all agricultural inputs is going up, including fuel, feed, packaging, transport, energy and, of course, labour costs.
I pay tribute to all those who work in farming and food production. It is a tough sector to work in, and for people in such vital sectors, conditions have rarely been tougher. Costs are spiralling and profit margins are falling, but they keep going every day. The farmers from Cheshire I spoke to were absolutely clear that they love what they do, and they keep going because agriculture sits at the heart of the Cheshire economy and at the heart of the British economy. They do that to keep the country fed, and if we do not give them help—the help that they need—they will not be able to do it for much longer.
The humanitarian disaster in Ukraine is being felt across the globe. Large parts of the Ukrainian breadbasket are in conflict zones and crops cannot be harvested, or if they can, the grain and the produce cannot be exported, or, as we are seeing, they are being stolen by Russia.
We are seeing the crisis impacting across the world, especially in developing countries. Ukrainian grain feeds 400 million people. The UK is also affected. Brexit has not helped, with large reductions in the labour supply, but I was astonished to hear that last year an incredible 60% of the seasonal agricultural workforce came from Ukraine.
I thank the hon. Member for making that point. Ukrainians did indeed make up 67% of seasonal workers between 2020 and 2022—a huge contribution to the British farming sector. With more men staying in Ukraine to fight the war, does he share my concerns about the knock-on effect that that will have on UK food production?
I absolutely do, and the hon. Lady is right. Many of those workers are back defending their homeland—who can blame them for that? The resultant labour shortages have been met with an inevitable demand for increased wages. One Cheshire farmer told me of an 11% increase in this year alone. Without sufficient labour, farms simply cannot be profitable and, frankly, sometimes cannot work. As one farmer put it, “We’re all running hand to mouth.”
I am not going to query or reject the idea that farm labourers should not get a decent pay rise. I am a trade unionist and I absolutely support that, but the costs need to be shared fairly across the sector and borne by the whole chain. Day-to-day costs are rocketing. Fertiliser, which can increase crop yield by about 30%, has become cripplingly expensive. One Cheshire farmer estimated to me that his fertiliser costs had risen by 300% in just over a year, while another suggested that he was being optimistic and it was more than that.
The situation has not been helped by the closure of the CF Fertilisers factory in Ellesmere Port. I know how hard my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) has been working to find a solution to keep the factory open, and he has told me that he is in regular contact with the Minister and her Department—I thank her for that. I desperately hope that we get a solution to the problem, and I thank them both for their work.
Without fertiliser, crop yields will fall. I remind the House that farmers do not tend to buy fertiliser on the spot. They are already ordering their supplies for next year, just as they are already planning crops, ordering animal feed and securing energy deals for six, 12 and 18 months ahead. The uncertainty globally and domestically is impossible to live with.
One of the big asks of the NFU is to have a gas fertiliser price index. Fertiliser markets are opaque, meaning that farmers have low trust in those markets, and are receiving poor market signals to enable them to be responsive. That is a threat to confidence, because farmers do not want to invest in fertiliser, which is stalling fertiliser sales, as well as threatening farmers’ productivity and the UK’s productive capacity. The NFU wants farmers to have access to proactive forward prices on fertiliser, allowing producers, distributors and farmers alike to manage their risk. That will require Government to establish a trusted gas fertiliser index with the industry, to drive transparency in fertiliser markets.
In addition, the industry needs to be able to see clearly where the market is relative to the global benchmark prices. That is well established in the grain, dairy and meat markets. It is also a fact that much of the gas that was used to produce the fertiliser came from Russia. I welcome the fact that we are reducing—I hope to zero—any dealings that we have with Russia, including buying gas from it, but we have to recognise that that will have a major impact on this market.
Fuel costs are also on the rise. Red diesel is more expensive, with one farming contractor I know of having to increase their cash reserve by an astonishing £50,000 to pay for fuel costs. Meanwhile, farmers pay more than ever to fill up the machines that keep their businesses going. Those affected ask me why crude oil prices fall, but their costs go up. The answer is sadly clear: this is a broken market, and without action to address it, things will only go downhill.
Food production relies very much on the packaging available, much of it specialised for certain foodstuffs. Even essentials such as cardboard and the necessary plastics for meat storage are in short supply, before we consider more specialised materials such as silage. British food has some of the lowest carbon footprint in the world, due to how efficient British farmers are, but there is only so much they can do on their own. Such businesses are starting to feel that they are, almost literally, at the bottom of the food chain.
As things stand, the risk is entirely with the farmer. For example, a potato farmer stored his crop from the 2021 harvest until June 2022—just last month—without earning an extra penny from the processer. One grower was paid £200,000 for potatoes, which sold in the supermarket for £4.2 million, so the grower received only 4.7%. Free-range eggs have also gone up at least 20p per dozen in supermarkets, but only 5p of that increase goes to the producer. Farmers want to grow, to survive and to flourish, but we must have a market that allows that. We need to take the bottlenecks out of the system, so that it flows more smoothly. Only by threatening to withhold supplies did dairy farmers secure a slightly better deal, and they are still struggling.
This period of unprecedented agricultural inflation coincides with the introduction of the agricultural transition plan from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, under which the old direct support payments to farmers in England under the common agricultural policy are being reduced. Farmers have already received significant cuts to those old direct payments, with further to come this year. The largest farms will receive cuts of 40%.
The Government are in the process of rolling out new support schemes, but the NFU is seriously concerned that the new schemes simply are not ready for farmers to be able to access them and start to make up the shortfall. That is not just the view of the NFU; it has been echoed by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and the Institute for Government. Vital farm supplies sit inaccessible in Ukraine, and veterinary medication sits undeliverable in Northern Ireland because of the problems with Brexit. Alternative options are becoming scarce.
When British farmers suffer, so does the rest of the world. As the crisis in Ukraine hits other nations, one farmer asked me why Britain, as a leading member of the G7, does not consider its own agricultural sector to be part of the solution. The farmers who told me their stories also tell a sorry tale about the future of the sector. One simply asked, “Where is the future?” Every year, 8% of dairy farmers quit their business. Previously, others would step in to replace them. That, it seems, is no longer the case. As confidence falls, young farmers find that they cannot get loans. They cannot get started and cannot continue this proud British tradition.
I wish to finish on a positive note on behalf of the UK farming sector. I want to celebrate the success of the sector and the hard work and 365 days a year commitment of our farmers and farm labourers. Let us make every day Back British Farming Day and let us resolve to get a fair deal for farmers. The future could be positive. As I have said, British food has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world. Our farmers tell me they want to adapt to further change—certainly moving away, for example, from carbon-intensive fertiliser—but they want to be able to do so in a managed way and not in a way where they are faced, as they currently are, with the shock brought about by the war. They want to reduce emissions and move to more sustainable fertiliser, as I have said. They want to reduce antibiotic use and further increase animal welfare, but they are doing that now on wafer-thin margins. As one farmer put it in what is probably a very agricultural farming way, “We have no fat on our backs right now, and we need this.”
Farmers want to grow, survive, flourish and contribute to the success of our nation. The war has put intolerable pressure on them at a time when the prevailing situation was already difficult. They feel that all the increasing cost pressures are being borne by the farming sector when they should be shared across the entire food chain. We must have a domestic market that allows that contribution to flourish.
Thank you, Dame Angela. It is unusual for me, although I am very pleased, to be called first. You almost knocked me off my stride there. May I first of all thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)? He is a dear friend—he knows that—and I support all that he said in his introduction. He set the scene very well. We are all here today because we understand the importance of farming. For me and my constituents, it is critical. I live on a farm. I declare an interest as a farmer and a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate.
I do not have the time to work on the farm as I would like to. If not for my father’s illness many years ago, I would probably have been a farmer. Unfortunately, at that time it coincided with the purchase of the farm. My job on the farm—my mother still owns the farm that I live on—is to look after the buildings and maintain the structures and roads and so on. It is quite a job. On Saturday afternoon my job is to go about and make sure those tasks are done. Next week when I am off during recess I will have more time, and will be doing all those wee jobs at night-time as well. It is an absolute pleasure and privilege to live on a farm, so I am pleased to contribute to the debate on behalf of my farmers.
I am well placed, as others are in this Chamber, to highlight the needs of the farming community. I really am pleased to see the Minister in her place. She has an incredible understanding of the issue, and I know that when we speak to the Minister and ask her a question, we push at an open door because she always responds. I mean that genuinely and seriously, because every one of us appreciates that opportunity to contact the Minister about issues that are so important to us. I mostly contact the Minister about fishing, but I have occasion to ask about farming issues today.
Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of wheat, producing around 18% of international exports, and Ukraine produces around 12% of the world’s wheat. Ukraine also produces 17.5% of the world’s supply of maize, as Farmers Guide recently outlined:
“The war in Ukraine has added another layer of uncertainty for British farmers after an already tumultuous couple of years. Recent weeks have sparked concern over the supply and spiralling cost of input and supplies, with the market changing on a day-to-day basis.”
The hon. Gentleman referred to that: there is a change almost every week, a price increase and hike, which presents lots of problems.
Global food supply chains were already facing significant pressure before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Today, inflation has hit an astronomical 9.4%. There have even been reports that food banks are struggling to maintain enough resources. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there needs to be swift action, to ensure that vulnerable people have access to affordable food?
As so often, the hon. Lady makes a very sensible and helpful point. I wholeheartedly agree, not because she says it, but because I can see the practical issues for food banks in my constituency. The week before last we had a collection at the Tesco store in Ards, where people were incredibly generous. That helps the food banks to sustain their coffers, cupboards and shelves, but they tell me they see incredible pressures they have never seen before—and there have been some difficult times over the past while.
The Farmers Guide also points out:
“the market changing on a day-to-day basis—making business planning for the future extremely difficult…Livestock farmers buying in feed will have been hit by the wheat price increases from around £220/tonne to nearly £300/tonne, while fertiliser prices have reacted very strongly, rising from £200-300/tonne a year ago to around £1,000/tonne.”
That is something that farmers tell me. That is an increase of almost 400%, which is astronomical and leads to concerns about availability.
I spoke to a neighbour last Sunday on my walk at about 7 o’clock in the morning, which is always a nice time. I passed him in the lane and asked how he was getting on. He told me he does not put as much fertiliser on the ground because it is too costly. The only way to compensate is to cut back and use less fertiliser. He told me they had been fortunate this year. The first cut was not a good one, but the second cut was equal to last year, because of the weather, which has been incredibly warm, but there have been showers of rain as well. Less fertiliser is a godsend in a way; it means that the second cut of silage, and probably the third, will be good with less fertiliser. Maybe the soil had lots of fertiliser in it; I guess that might be part of the reason.
The main thing is that there is an incredible problem for farmers, who are in a precarious state at present. One local man said,
“The price we get has risen.”
That is the beef price, which is good at the minute. Lamb prices are not too bad, either. The hon. Member for City of Chester referred to poultry and eggs. Egg prices are under pressure; they are not matching the outgoings and are not sustainable. There is an onus on supermarkets to give a better price to egg producers. I am fortunate that I start every day with two eggs. Dame Angela, you are probably of the generation who remembers
“Go to work on an egg.”
I go to work on two eggs every morning, and would do that during the day, as well. I say that because of the importance of the egg sector. I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that.
That local man said,
“The price has risen but the money in our pocket has not.”
One of the greatest farm economists, Mark Berrisford-Smith of HSBC, has suggested that we are now in a position reminiscent of 1973, with the OPEC crisis and the Yom Kippur war. In 1975, we saw up to 25% inflation resulting from our inability to deal with the quadrupling oil prices. There was some encouragement in the press yesterday—if it is correct—that the price of filling a car may fall by £10. I hope that is right, and the cost keeps on reducing. We need that help.
Our farmers are facing long-term problems, and now is not the time to pull back on support. Indeed, it is the time to step it up. We need to sustain and help our farmers at this present time. Our farmers are not able to fill the breach from Ukraine and Russia—it is impossible; the gap is too large—but we need to look at how to help them. To be able to fill the gap, they need support. We need to be raising new generations of farmers who are trained in the old ways and who also want to push for the new ways that enhance production and the environmental protections, providing the best of both worlds. I am a great believer in the need for farmers to protect the land and have environmental schemes in place. I know the Minister is as well. There is a balancing job to do between the two. There is land that perhaps should be in farming, and there are some concerns about some projects by some of the bigger charities, for instance the National Trust, who want to set land aside and not use it for farming. I do not want to be critical, but I make that point. That is sometimes not the right way to do it.
The impact of the Ukraine and Russia war has been large and it will continue. This House, this Minister, our Government and ourselves as MPs on behalf of our constituents must play our part in the short term, as well as the long term.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this debate and on his excellent opening speech. I join him in expressing solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Last week, I met a group of farmers in my constituency of Wirral West, along with representatives of the National Farmers Union. I heard from them about the pressures that farmers are facing. We are in a time of severe economic pressure that has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. British farmers have been left exposed and vulnerable to the challenges of rising inflation. The cost of agricultural inputs such as fuel, feed, packaging, transport, labour and energy is increasing.
As the House of Commons Library has noted, the cost of feeding livestock has risen considerably in the past six months, with many farmers dependent on feed prices set on a global market. Feed prices for livestock were stable in the first half of 2021, but increased by 18% between August 2021 and April 2022. Energy input costs for farms increased by 34% between January and April this year. Farm motor fuel costs increased by 30% over the same period. All that means, of course, that the cost of producing food in the UK has increased considerably in recent months, and that affects the availability and affordability of food to consumers.
This period of unprecedented agricultural inflation coincides with the introduction of DEFRA’s agricultural transition plan, under which direct payments, the old support payments to farmers in England under the common agricultural policy, are being reduced. Farmers have already experienced significant cuts to direct payments, with further to come this year.
The Government are in the process of rolling out new support schemes, but farmers have expressed concerns about the timescales for their implementation and whether they will provide farmers with enough support. The Public Accounts Committee has criticised the Department for what it calls its “blind optimism” about the introduction of the schemes and the insufficient detail about how they will make up for the ending of current approaches. Can the Minister tell us what action the Government will take, as a matter of urgency, to address those concerns?
The UK’s food self-sufficiency has reduced significantly in recent years. In 1990, we produced 74% of our food; by 2000, that figure was 67%, and in 2021 it was down to 60%. The NFU is calling on the Government to commit to maintaining the UK’s food production self-sufficiency at 60% and helping to create an environment for farm and food businesses to thrive and compete in the coming years.
The NFU points out that we cannot be a global leader in climate-friendly food if we allow our own production levels to drop. The UK is only 18% self-sufficient in fruit, 55% in fresh vegetables and 71% in potatoes. For both veg and potatoes, that figure has fallen by 16% in the past 20 years. While the nation is encouraged to be healthier and eat more fruit and veg, our domestic production of those products falls below our potential. What assessment have the Government made of the UK’s declining food self-sufficiency?
In December last year, the Government published the “United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021”, in which they concluded that
“Global food supply and availability has improved since 2010”
and was “expected to recover” from the problems caused by the covid-19 pandemic. Of course, that was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the UK’s food security in the light of that?
As the Minister will know, the UK food security report also listed several factors that threaten the stability and long-term sustainability of global food production, one of which was climate change. The report stated:
“Longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures may have some positive effects for particular crops and regions, but overall risk magnitude is assessed to increase from medium at present to high in future. Increased climate exposure (including heat stress, drought risk, and wetness-related risks) is modifying productive capacity and will continue to do so in future in line with the degrees of warming experienced.”
Over the past few days, we have seen stark warnings in this regard, with record temperatures recorded across the UK, fields and buildings on fire, and emergency services facing unprecedented challenges. I hope the Minister and her colleagues will impress on the new leader of the Conservative party—and our new Prime Minister—the critical importance of addressing climate change as a matter of urgency. I have to say that the lack of concern put on this issue by the leadership candidates in recent days has been extremely worrying. The future Prime Minister bears a huge responsibility in this regard, not only for this generation but for future generations.
It is vital that we build resilience in farming and food production in England and across the UK, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many important points raised by Members in this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this important debate. Having spoken in other debates with him recently, I know just how passionate he is about UK agriculture and food production, and I thought that he conveyed that, and his understanding of the sector, very well.
It is also a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), who eloquently emphasised how much the cost of imports has increased, and the different impacts that is having across different sectors of the agriculture industry. That is presenting a challenge not only to farmers but further down the line, through food inflation, for household budgets, which is pertinent to this debate.
Today’s debate is very timely. Across the UK, over the decades, we have perhaps become a bit complacent when it comes to our food security and self-sufficiency. Members have already set out how the UK’s self-sufficiency has declined. It is worth repeating that, at the moment, UK agriculture produces some 60% of domestic food by value, and some 45% is exported. We import some 46% of the food that we consume. That compares unfavourably to the situation back in 1984, when we were 78% self-sufficient. The hon. Member for Wirral West detailed how that figure has declined over the ensuing decades.
I am willing to acknowledge that part of that reduction is a result of our changing dietary preferences and habits, and it is important to reflect that in the debate. We now enjoy a lot of foods that are not produced in the UK, or cannot easily be produced in the UK, and we want to consume them out of season. I may return to that at the end of my speech; it is a particular bugbear of mine.
It is worth pointing out that the self-sufficiency percentage is a general figure, which does not really tell us the story for different types of food produce. It would be remiss of me, as a Member of Parliament from Wales, not to point out that we produce more lamb in the UK than we consume. We also produce more milk than we consume, for that matter. Although we are still well below self-sufficiency in the fruit and veg sectors and the poultry sector, as has been mentioned, it is important to reflect that our self-sufficiency has increased somewhat in recent years even in those sectors.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has a massive impact on UK food production as well as global food production. We are interlinked: pressures on the global level are felt at the farm gate in Ceredigion, as well as in other parts of the UK. That is particularly challenging after two years of covid-19 and the disruption of the pandemic, not just for food producers but for the associated supply chains, and after a turbulent period before covid-19 for farm-gate prices in a whole range of sectors. We come to this debate at a time of unprecedented immediate pressures, having recently suffered another unprecedented shock to the global food system on the back of difficult and lean years before that. The UK food production industry is in a challenging and precarious situation.
I was struck by the definition of food security in the Government’s food security report, which reflects the fact that it is a complex concept. It states that food security
“encompasses the state of global agriculture and markets on which the UK is reliant; the sources of raw materials and foodstuffs in the UK and abroad; the manufacturing, wholesale, and retail industries that ultimately bring food to shelves and plates, and their complex supply chains of inputs and logistics; and the systems of inspection that allow consumers to be confident their food is safe, authentic, and of a high standard.”
I will not touch on all those aspects, although it is important to note them, but I will say that the shock that we are experiencing now, with the price of farm imports in particular, risks destabilising many of the other dimensions encompassed by food security.
The most pressing issues are import prices and the significant increase in the price of raw materials. We have already heard how the war in Ukraine has had a massive impact in that regard. That is reflected in the agricultural price index, which show that in the 12 months to April, the price for agricultural imports increased by 28.4%. A further assessment by the independent consultant Andersons suggests that the most recent estimate of inflation in agriculture is 25.3%.
We recently had a debate in this Chamber on some of those challenges, but it is worth repeating that the rate of general inflation is running slightly below that of agriculture inflation. Agflation is an acute problem and I am sure that other hon. Members share my concern not only that that is putting immense pressure on our farmers, but that it may well feed into further food inflation and pressures on household budgets down the line.
In my remaining time, I will focus on the way that price hikes in the immediate term pose a serious challenge to our production in the longer term. Having spoken to many farmers in Ceredigion, I fear that the true impact on the UK agricultural industry of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not be truly felt until next year. As has been mentioned, a lot of that has to do with farmers having to plan their future feed and import fertilisers at the moment, many of which are on onward prices. Farmers are having to make difficult decisions that will have an impact on their productive capacity in forthcoming years.
Let us look at fuel and energy. The hon. Member for City of Chester mentioned the impact of the price of red diesel on farmers. Indeed, if we compare the average price per litre from January this year with the most recent average price from the end of June, it has increased by 25p. We know that Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to the European market, which has seen an almost fourfold price increase since the invasion. That in turn is having an impact on fuel costs and, more specifically, fertilisers.
Other hon. Members present today were here for a previous debate in this Chamber in which we discussed the real challenges that increased fertiliser costs pose for farmers. I will not repeat myself, other than by noting that the increased cost of fertilisers is forcing farmers to make difficult decisions about their business models and practices. I acknowledge that the impact might be felt quite differently in different sectors of the agriculture industry—it might be different for certain arable farmers and livestock farmers.
It is also worth pointing out that, at least at the outset of the invasion, many arable farmers may well have been covered for their fertiliser requirements for this year, and may not have had to expose themselves to the price hikes that we saw thereafter. As I mentioned, however, farmers have to plan ahead, and I know that many—even in the arable sector—are looking ahead and thinking, “Do we need to carry over some of our fertiliser for this year and therefore use less in the current season, so that we can buffer ourselves a little bit for what promise to be very expensive prices next year?” It is a real headache for other sectors—livestock and beef in particular—and many farmers have told me that their fertiliser bills have increased from £200 to £700 per tonne before VAT. Of course, if we add VAT on top of that, it is an eye-watering sum.
The tragedy of the situation is that these price hikes have come after a turbulent period, with covid-19 and a decade of rather difficult times for farm-gate prices. Although prices have increased for some produce in the last few months—it is fair to say that dairy prices have increased significantly, and I am told that the lamb price is holding up fairly well, as is the price for beef—certain farmers will not have the reserves to shoulder and absorb a lot of these costs in the long term. I am worried that farmers and growers are having to adapt to higher costs and anticipate the impact of a prolonged period of turbulence, which they have to assume will be the case, by taking very difficult decisions regarding their farming practices, which in turn will have an alarming impact on UK food production.
NFU Cymru recently conducted a survey of more than 700 farmers in Wales, and it found that 71% intend to reduce production in the next year. To break that down into different sectors, 54% of beef farmers said that they will reduce stock numbers in the next 12 months, which will result in an estimated 10% cut to the beef herd. Some 46% of sheep farmers also said that they will reduce their stock in the next 12 months, and 39% of arable farmers said that crop production levels will reduce over the next year. That is already happening, and those decisions will probably have been made in order to be implemented by next year. That is a significant drop in our productive capacity at a time when we already know that we are not self-sufficient at the levels that we would like to be.
As well as not having enough productive capacity to become more self-sufficient for our dietary needs, we will find ourselves even more vulnerable in the long term to the global agriculture market and any external shocks that happen there. The war in Ukraine has led to tonnes of grain, sunflower oil and other produce being blockaded at Black sea ports, which is already having an impact in the horn of Africa. It is said that Ukraine feeds approximately 400 million in the world. That pressure will not go away; indeed, there is a strong argument that the real impact will be felt next year, when the harvest has not been harvested and the grain cannot get out. This is a very serious issue, which will weigh heavily on import prices for our own farmers. If we are to become more exposed to and dependent on the global market for many of our staples, that will mean higher prices for the consumer.
Ultimately, this debate has brought to the fore the need for us to think again about how we increase our self-sufficiency in the UK for the food that we consume and, therefore, for our food security. A few things have been mentioned already, such as the establishment of a fertiliser price index in order to have greater transparency and to allow farmers to plan with greater confidence and avoid having to make difficult decisions about the use of fertiliser. I repeat the plea for us to look again at fertiliser plants, and at whether there is a need for the Government to intervene to acknowledge them as strategically important pieces of infrastructure.
Finally—this is a debate for another day, but it is one that we must have in the near future—we need to shift our food production to a more local and seasonal basis. That will not always be popular, but perhaps we have reached the point where we need to face up to the reality. Is it sensible that we can go into our local supermarket on Christmas eve and buy fresh strawberries? I think we have come to the point where we can no longer afford that illusion of sustainability. Perhaps the future is more local and more seasonal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing a really important and timely debate on the situation that our farmers are facing just now. This is a time of real pressure for people working in the agricultural industry and the food sector, for lots of reasons. The hon. Member covered some themes that were repeated by other hon. Members: the cost of fertiliser, the cost of fuel, and farmers leaving the business. The theme progressed throughout the debate, and it would be well worth the Minister paying heed to the warnings that have been laid out very clearly in the Chamber. The Government fail to act to support farmers at their peril, given some of the issues that have come up.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a farmer himself, talked about the investment required by farmers. That is an experience that he has shared with me in conversations about his developments. Farmers have to make choices about investment, and quite often the money and reserves are not there for them to do so. There are ongoing costs. He talked about the importance of farming, which should be underlined: it is an important industry and an important business for people to be in. It supports us. He also talked about the need for investment in training and development, and for policies that take that forward. That is critical. We should look at farming as an essential career. That goes for all the nations of the UK: it should be considered as an essential industry and supported.
Another theme from the hon. Member for Strangford was the gap in world food production caused by the war. That is a pressure we must think about in relation to another recurring theme: food security. In her intervention, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) talked about the need to think about vulnerable people’s access to food, and she is absolutely correct. When we have these high-level discussions about what is happening, we forget that the issue affects people in houses and homes across our communities, who are now facing previously untold hardship—things that they have not had to face in their lifetimes. That is happening right now. It is all part of the cause and effect that is in place here.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) talked about changing dietary habits, and he is absolutely correct. That is a complex matter. We need to talk about what we must encourage people to do; about what kind of healthy eating and supply we must look at in future. Another theme was pressure for raw materials leading to longer-term impacts, which again need to be taken into consideration. There must be a longer-term plan for dealing with that. He talked about farmers making reductions and repeated the theme of farmers leaving the industry.
Thank goodness somebody—the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood)—raised the issue of climate change. It is an issue that we do not address enough in this Parliament—when I say “enough,” I am being very generous. It is another impact in the heady mix that we have to pay some attention to. We had record temperatures yesterday and houses burning as a result. This is something we are living with now, and hon. Members should be talking about it all the time. It is another impact that farmers are having to deal with; they are seeing changes to their environments, their farms and their livestock, with different ways of having to manage them. Again, that brings costs and puts pressures on the industry, including whether the farmers have the will to keeping working in it sometimes.
The hon. Member for Wirral West also talked about domestic food production declining—a theme I will come back to—rising prices for energy, feed and fuel; and the significant cuts to support that have been imposed on farmers over the past decade or so of austerity. Those are all important themes.
The Scottish Government are aware and are acting where they can, but the UK Government have a duty to act to safeguard domestic food security by supporting farmers, producers and consumers. I repeat that the Minister should take this warning and speak to colleagues about abandoning the laissez-faire policy on trade deals and protecting domestic food production.
The hon. Member for City of Chester brought up the effect of labour shortages. It seems to have gone quiet but it is a real effect. It is a Brexit-induced problem. We have a mad rush for dodgy deals with New Zealand and Australia, which are going to impact farmers directly. It is not just my opinion that it will harm the farming and food sector; it is also the opinion of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, the National Farmers Union, trade experts, academics and the UK Government’s own departmental advice about the deals. However, they are still going to impose it on farmers on this isle.
We have talked about the cost of fertiliser—which has trebled—the cost of feed and energy, and farmers selling off livestock and cutting production. As a consequence of Brexit, UK farmers are set to miss out on access to a proposed €1.5 billion emergency fund. The UK Government were warned before this crisis that their policies are undermining domestic production of food and forcing reliance on more food imports, and the New Zealand and Australia deals do not help that. As we have heard, UK food self-sufficiency is now below 60%. A couple of decades ago it was 80%. That is a red flashing warning light about what is happening. Food security must not be considered a thing of the past.
The UK Government must now correct their course and deliver a UK food security fund proportional to what UK farmers would have received as part of the EU, to be administered by the devolved Governments. Failure to do so in the face of denying financial powers for the Scottish Government to act, such as simple borrowing powers, only reinforces the glaring need for Scotland to have the full powers of independence in order to protect our own farmers and food sector where this place fails, and continues to fail. Unless there is a change in course, it will continue to fail farmers across the nations of the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on not only securing this important debate but making an eloquent speech, which I agreed with entirely.
I will start by acknowledging my own family history with Ukraine. My paternal side is from Lviv and lived there for hundreds of years. I had cordial discussions with the Minister in the run-up to the debate, and I will take up the recommendation to read “East West Street” by Philippe Sands. Labour stands unshakably with Ukraine and our NATO allies in supporting Ukraine against an unprovoked and unjustified invasion by Russia. We have supported the Government’s measures to provide greater military and aid assistance to Ukraine, but on the subject of this debate—the effect of the war in Ukraine on UK farming and food production—we are somewhat critical.
Ukraine is a beautiful country, with some of the most productive agricultural land in Europe, and indeed the world. It is the breadbasket of Europe and its hard-working farmers produce much of the world’s grain and sunflower oil. Ukraine and Russia, as significant producers of sunflower seeds, barley, wheat, maize, rapeseed and soybean, are collectively responsible for 29% of the world’s wheat exports. The World Food Programme estimates that Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people. This is not a short-term problem. The fact that there are Russian mines sitting in the fields of Ukraine will be with us for many years to come.
This debate is focused on the impact of the Russian war in Ukraine on food and farming in the UK. The UK’s food supply chain has been under intense strain over the past months and years, from spiralling food price inflation to the fertiliser crisis and labour shortages. These shocks impact businesses, workers and people up and down the country, who are forced to choose between putting food in the fridge or money on the meter, with those on the lowest incomes hurting the most.
The impacts on the food system go far wider, as much of the developing world is plunged into food insecurity and the risk of famine. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that the war in Ukraine will cause an increase in global food prices in 2022 of between 8% and 22%. The UK food sector has been raising its concerns over several months. The Food and Drink Federation has said that the invasion of Ukraine was likely to impact negatively on the trading ambitions of its businesses, and I feel that is somewhat understated. Food supply chains in the UK are already under intense strain, now exacerbated by war. Producers are struggling with a lack of availability of key ingredients, such as sunflower oil, which is used in many products on supermarket shelves. The price of alternatives is rising dramatically.
The impacts are stark and clear, and many experts have been warning of the situation we might face, yet the Government have been at best late, and at worst absent from this crisis. While tensions were mounting between Ukraine and Russia last autumn and analysts were warnings about what could be coming, the Government’s food security report cited Ukraine as a country with a high market share of the global maize supply and said they did not expect any
“major changes…in world agricultural commodity markets and the top exporting countries of these commodities.”
Early in December, the US released intelligence of Russia’s invasion plans. Later in December, the Government released their food security report, which said:
“Real wheat prices are expected to decline in the coming years based on large supplies being produced in the Black Sea region”.
Were the Government simply unaware of the potential for the situation to impact our food supply and global wheat prices, or were they just ignoring it? It is clear that there was a severe lack of planning going on in DEFRA. Labour called on the Government to reconvene the Food Resilience Industry Forum—something they eventually did and which we welcomed; we just wish it had happened sooner. The Government maintain that they do
“not expect significant direct impacts to UK food supply as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine”,
but the sector is seriously worried, as are consumers, who are facing rising prices. To no one’s surprise, except perhaps the Government, food price inflation hit 6.8% in the year to May 2022 and has continued to rise—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake).
The Government delayed their promised response to the national food strategy, citing the invasion of Ukraine as a reason. I understand they were facing a changing situation, but I reiterate that it was not an unexpected one. Are they suggesting that the necessary planning for possible impacts began only after the invasion was first declared in February this year and not when the first warnings were put out by reputable intelligence analysts? Perhaps if we had seen a proper White Paper from the Government when it was originally promised, there would have been a more robust and effective framework for dealing with the shocks that the sector is facing.
The war in Ukraine is placing significant pressure on British agriculture. This sector has suffered crisis after crisis in the past few years, from the pig backlog, which saw tens of thousands of healthy pigs culled on farms, to the botched roll-out of the environmental land management scheme. During these difficult times, when other nations in the UK and in mainland Europe stepped in to help, our Government have consistently refused to lend a hand to English farmers. The message is they are on their own and the market is the final arbiter. Some of them will go bust but, as the Government see it, that is the way things have to be. Now the conflict in Ukraine poses one of the biggest challenges yet. I would like to say that the Government have finally come to understand that their approach is the wrong one and they are willing to step up and provide meaningful support, to farmers and protect British food security. Sadly, they have been so far unwilling to intervene.
The Opposition take a different view, however, because intervention is not alien to us. Labour has routinely raised its concerns that many farms will be unable to cope with the war in Ukraine pushing up the price of agricultural inputs. The agricultural prices indices for inputs and outputs in the UK increased dramatically from the end of 2021 to the beginning of 2022, and the Ukrainian conflict has resulted in significant gas price increases throughout the world. At the start of 2021, growers were being charger 40p per therm, but prices have since surged as high as £8. The Lea Valley Growers Association has issued a warning that UK harvests of sweet peppers and cucumbers will halve this year after many glasshouse growers chose not to plant in the face of surging energy prices. Producers have warned that yields of other indoor crops, such as tomatoes and aubergines, will also be hit.
Fertiliser production is reliant on gas, and as the international gas price soars, so does the cost of fertiliser. In January 2021, the cost of ammonium nitrate was £200 per tonne. That figure now stands at £900 per tonne. That is simply unsustainable for many agricultural businesses. The Government’s recently announced measures to address fertiliser inflation are too little, too late. CF Fertilisers’ announcement that it will permanently close one of its factories in Ellesmere Port is yet another blow to the farming sector—another point eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. After months of dither and delay, can the Minister set out the steps the Government are taking to help farmers access affordable energy and fertiliser, and how the Government intend to curb agricultural inflation?
At the same time as farmers are contending with sky-high inflation, they must deal with a shortage of seasonal workers. The shortage is, in part, a consequence of the war in Ukraine; in 2021, 67% of seasonal agricultural visas went to Ukrainians, while a further 11% were awarded to Russians and Belarusians. However, the blame for the worker shortage lies squarely with the Government. It was originally announced that there would be 30,000 horticultural seasonal worker visas this year, a figure that was then increased to 40,000, with 2,000 of those visas awarded to poultry workers—an increase that many farming bodies have said is too little, too late. The National Farmers Union has predicted that there will be demand for 70,000 seasonal worker visas this year. A farmer confidence survey conducted by the union in January found that 86% of respondents expected low or very low levels of worker availability.
The shortages have had enormous consequences for farmers and keep pushing up prices at the till, at a time when 7.3 million households are experiencing food poverty. Industry experts claim that the labour shortage on British farms has resulted in “catastrophic food waste” of home-grown fruit and vegetables. Many farmers face bankruptcy if they cannot access the labour they need to harvest the crops.
We are in this dire situation because the Government have once again stumbled their way into a crisis, refusing to listen to warnings from farmers, industry and the Opposition, who have been raising the alarm about worker shortages for months. Their refusal to listen has left the Government pursuing a failed post-Brexit approach to agricultural labour that will see food rotting in the fields while millions of households go hungry. Can the Minister say how she intends to help farmers struggling to find seasonal labour, and what plans the Department has to put an end to the shortage?
The war in Ukraine has further exposed Britain’s flawed food system. Despite ample opportunities to take action, the Government have failed time and again to strengthen the system. I fear that the change in management in the Conservative party will not result in any real change, as its MPs have been more than happy to support Government inaction for months. Looking at the contenders left in the leadership race, we are likely to see even more zealous commitment to the market fundamentalism that is happy to let British agriculture go to the wall.
While the Conservatives may be unwilling to support British farmers and food producers, Labour will. On the shortage of seasonal workers, through our five-point plan to make Brexit work, Labour will deliver. We will sort out the poor deal that the Prime Minister negotiated and seek to find new, flexible labour mobility arrangements for those making short-term work trips. On inflation, Labour will support struggling agricultural and food production businesses to make, buy and sell more in Britain, investing in jobs and skills and using the power of public procurement. We will also look at using a windfall tax to support farmers and food businesses.
Thank you very much for your sensible approach to the heat, Dame Angela. I am sure we all felt for the farmers who were harvesting yesterday, in extraordinarily hot conditions. I know that many of them will have harvested all night in order to have a slightly more comfortable time. I would like to reassure the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) that climate change is a very large part of the discussion about leadership in the Conservative party at the moment, and rightly so.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing this important debate, and indeed colleagues across the House for their engagement. It is right to say at the outset that we all condemn the Russian state’s outrageous attack on Ukraine, and that we remain absolutely committed to standing with the people of Ukraine as they defend their country and their democracy.
The Government are certainly not unaware of the situation in Ukraine. I have talked to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) about his own family links; my daughter lived in Ukraine until December. We now have a Ukrainian woman living with us at home, and five Ukrainians living in a cottage on the farm. We were aware that war was coming, but I do not know that we were aware of all the consequences or how severe that war would be—a feeling that is probably global. I do not think any of us were expecting Russia to behave quite in the way that it has.
We are here today to discuss UK food security and the effect on farmers. As the agriculture Minister, and having had to travel a great deal in order to deal with the consequences of the war, I feel very strongly that we are fortunate in the UK, as we have a highly resilient food supply chain that is built on strong domestic production as well as imports through very stable trade routes. When I look around those international fora, I feel blessed with the food supply that we have in the UK. That is not at all to say that we are complacent; as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) said, it is important, and our food security depends on not being complacent about this. We are not complacent, but we are very lucky.
Our food strategy sets a goal for the first time—a real win, which I am pleased about—that the level of food security in this country should be broadly where production is at the moment. Currently, 74% of what we can grow here we do grow here, and about 60% of what we eat altogether is grown here. That has been stable for about the past 20 years and it is important that we maintain that sort of level and always keep an eye on where our trading routes are and their stability. I could not agree more with hon. Members that the future should be more local and more seasonal—that is an important point.
In summary, our food import dependency on the eastern European region is low, and we do not expect any significant direct impact on overall supply as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. We are very much in touch with food and farming industry figures, who remain confident that our food supply chain remains stable.
However, there is, of course, the matter of increasing costs. The global spike in oil and gas prices has affected the prices of agricultural commodities, which are always close to energy costs. Gas prices were rising as we emerged from the pandemic anyway, and the invasion of Ukraine has caused some additional turbulence in international commodity markets—for example, the global prices of wheat, maize and vegetable oil have all increased substantially since the start of the war.
Rising food prices are dependent on a combination of factors, including agrifood import prices, domestic agricultural prices—which are, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion noted, quite high in some cases, although the farmer is still struggling with rising input costs as well—and domestic labour and manufacturing costs. In the farming sector, increased costs are particularly affecting fertiliser, animal feed and fuel, and that is undoubtedly creating short-term pressures on cash flow for farmers. To help, this month we are bringing forward half of this year’s basic payment scheme payment as an advance injection of cash to businesses. Subsidies will be paid in two instalments each year for the remainder of the agricultural transition period.
On the agricultural transition generally, unlike the NFU and Opposition Members I simply cannot justify the current BPS payments situation, whereby 50% of the payments go to the 10% of largest landowners. I remain convinced that there are fairer and better ways to support farmers. I reassure the House that the yearly £3.7 billion pot of money available to support farmers remains the same. Where we take from farmers in BPS payments—which I am afraid I cannot justify, and in the long term I am sure there are better ways to do it—we give back in other schemes. I am pleased that farmers are voting with their application forms: 52% of farmers are now involved in stewardship schemes of some kind, which pay well, and farmers are now applying to the sustainable farming incentive—the lowest tier of our new schemes—which was rolled out gently a couple of weeks ago, and significant numbers of applications are already being approved.
On fertiliser, we have issued statutory guidance to provide clarity to farmers on how they can use slurry and other manures during the autumn and winter. Although global fertiliser prices have risen, the UK has remained quite dynamic in sourcing products, and CF Fertilisers continues to produce ammonium nitrate at its plant in Billingham. We remain concerned about the Ince plant, and remain in touch with the hon. Members for City of Chester and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).
I reassure the House that we are working closely with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the Agricultural Industries Confederation and the NFU on how best to establish fertiliser price transparency. I have a large follow-up roundtable on fertilisers tomorrow, as part of a long-term piece of work we are doing with the industry to see what more we can do and to assist the partial change—it is never going to be a complete solution—from chemical fertiliser to bio-fertiliser. We have also delayed the changes to the use of urea fertiliser until spring 2023 and introduced new slurry storage grants.
We know that feed is a substantial input cost. On 1 June we concluded the removal of section 232 tariffs, allowing us to remove the 25% tariff on imports of US maize, which is a key ingredient for animal feed. That went down well with the sector.
I know that farmers need seasonal labour; we are the only sector with an immigration carve-out in that regard. An extra 10,000 visas were announced in the Government’s food strategy, so this year we have 40,000 seasonal visas. I have been working with the contractors throughout the year and am aware that last year around 80% of our seasonal agricultural workforce came from Ukraine, Russia or Belarus. The operators who help us to source the workforce are confident that they will be able to find the workers they need for this season, and all the indications are that those visas are being taken up.
As well as farmers, we work closely with the food and drink manufacturing sector, through strong industry and cross-Government relationships. Despite the ongoing supply chain challenges in global inflation, our manufacturing sector has maintained a stable food supply. Some specific commodities, including sunflower oil and white fish, have been badly affected by the invasion of Ukraine. The Government are supporting the industry to manage those challenges.
We work closely with the Food Standards Agency to adopt a pragmatic approach to enforcing the labelling rules so that alternative oils can be used in place of sunflower oil in certain processed goods without requiring changes to labels. On white fish, we continue to engage with the seafood sector, including the fish and chip shop industry, to monitor impacts and encourage the adoption of alternative sources of supply other than Russia.
It is very important that we maintain our sanctions against Russia. We recognise that it is very difficult for some of our sectors. Our global partners are feeling a far greater impact from the war than we are. Russia is once again using food—or the lack of it—directly as a weapon of war. It is not just a weapon of war in Europe; it is a weapon that is firmly targeted at Africa, where there is already starvation caused directly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resultant increase of the global wheat price. There is now insufficient wheat for certain areas of Africa to have enough to eat.
We are engaging with like-minded partners through multilateral global forums, including the World Trade Organisation, the UN and the G7, to build important consensus on keeping markets—particularly the grain market—open to support global food security. I have worked closely with the Ukrainian Agriculture Minister, both at the UN global food summit and at various G7 meetings. I am pleased with one achievement we have been able to make ourselves directly—in fact, it was paid for by DEFRA—which is the establishment of a global grain sampling library. In itself, it will not stop Russia stealing grain, but it will have a chilling effect on those buying grain from Ukraine that is clearly stolen.
There is a great deal more work that the world needs to do and I reassure the House that as a Government we are determined to play our part in that work globally. We are aware of the pressures caused by the knock-on effects of this war. We continue to work in partnership with farmers and food producers to ensure that the UK is well equipped to respond to the global forces that continue to drive the supply and price issues that we are facing.
Thank you, Dame Angela, for calling me to speak again and for your stewardship of this debate. I also thank the Minister for her response and all hon. Members who have taken part. We have heard contributions from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—from all parts of the UK—but they have all had similar messages about the same types of issues that our farmers and food producers are facing.
I accept the gentle admonishment from my good friend the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) about not putting the climate crisis at the forefront of this debate. He is absolutely right about that. One of the potato farmers in my area tells me that when potatoes are growing and it gets too hot, they stop growing, so the current temperatures will affect this year’s potato crop. As I say, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I thank him for that gentle kick up the backside.
The message from this debate is that we do not know how long this war will go on for and we do not know how long its effects will last, so we need to start planning now, because our farming communities are certainly planning now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the war in Ukraine on UK farming and food production.
Disability and Gender Inclusivity in the Media
I beg to move,
That this House has considered disability and gender inclusivity in the media.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, in a debate on disability and gender inclusivity in the media, which is such an important issue. In this short debate, I plan first to look back at where we have come from. Then I shall look forward and refer to some of the progress that has been highlighted to me since I secured the debate. That progress comes from a number of media companies that are trying their best to strive and go forward.
To start, it is important to remind ourselves that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have empowered women around the world to speak out against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. That has given hope to a new generation who are marching on a path towards equality. However, we must be cognisant of the fact that the report “Gender Inequality and Screenwriters”, supported by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, has revealed an alarming set of statistics, such as the fact that only 16% of film writers in the UK are female. It has also been uncovered that only 14% of prime-time TV is female written. That consistent imbalance was observed over 10 years, and the evidence indeed demonstrated that those figures had flatlined during that period, with no signs of recent improvement in gender representation. We can see from the figures presented in the report that the glass ceiling is still firmly in place and the problem remains locked for so many women—so many talented people who should be contributing to industry.
For an example, we can look way back to the roots of patriarchal society and the ’50s and ’60s, when Sylvia Anderson was a female pioneer in television. As most of us will know, she co-created many groundbreaking children’s shows and characters, from “Fireball XL5” and “Stingray” to “Thunderbirds” and the iconic Lady Penelope. Sylvia Anderson was described in the publicity material of their own production company, AP Films, as the driving force behind the puppet kingdom, and she devised the characters, co-wrote the scripts and the storylines, and often directed the filming herself at a time when there were so few women in such pivotal roles.
During Sylvia’s lifetime, as a result of a patriarchal system, she found herself often omitted from the work and creations that she produced alongside her husband. To this day, those productions are still often referred to with no mention of co-creator Sylvia.
Gender inequality is not limited to writers, as many main creative roles in film production are held predominantly by men. Worldwide, women are still being denied their voice and their due recognition, so why, in 2022, are we still having this debate? Why should this argument exist at all? It seems that, like Sylvia, women are still suffering the effects of gender inequality in respect of which intolerance of women’s place is still a huge factor.
We are pleased to have Dee Anderson, Sylvia’s daughter, with us here today. Dee is supporting the Time’s Up campaign in order to promote gender inclusivity in the media and take forward a more inclusive and gender-balanced industry for the future. I congratulate her on all the work she is doing in that regard.
I want to look briefly at some progress that is being made. I have heard from a number of organisations, such as the BBC, which contacted me to let me know that it is driving forward a campaign called 50:20:12, which has as its targets 50% women, at least 20% people from an ethnic minority background and 12% disabled employees. The BBC is using the campaign to drive a senior leader index for each of its departments. This is so important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have heard from so many people who have told me that they have no role models within the industries who are from their area and background, and have their characteristics. That can be extremely disheartening.
To see industry trying to drive forward inclusion and equality on our screens is like osmosis. We take this in every day of our lives, when we are watching television, live-streaming or looking at media. Those are the images we see, the people we hear from, the presenters who face the world on our behalf. It is so important that young people from every background and sector of society have those role models to aspire to and know that they can achieve their full potential.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing this debate. Does she agree that public service broadcasters have an important role to play when it comes to inclusivity, whether disability or gender? Will she join me in applauding the work of Channel 4, particularly ensuring that the Paralympics coverage in 2012 not only gave opportunities for people to reappraise or rethink their views on disability in front of the camera, but gave many people behind the camera the opportunity to establish careers, when they might have found that difficult before because of their disability?
Absolutely. I entirely commend the fantastic work that the right hon. Lady does on equality, right across Parliament. It is second to none; she is a force for good in showing leadership in those roles. She is absolutely right. I spoke to Channel 4 a number of years ago in my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability. They told me that, at the start, it was seen as a big risk to have so many hours of livestreaming of the Paralympic games. They were not sure how that would go with regard to audience participation and numbers. It has actually been overwhelmingly positive. People are so engaged and inspired by the Paralympians. They see first hand on their screens the achievements of so many people who have overcome adversity and challenged their disabilities, turning them to ability and potential. I congratulate Channel 4, who sent me information about the work they are doing, which I can mention alongside that which the right hon. Lady highlighted. That was a pivotal moment in disability representation.
Disability Rights UK contacted me with the following information:
“Disabled people make up a fifth of the population. There are disabled professionals in all walks of life—politicians, lawyers, academics, sports people, doctors, business owners—and disabled people working in every part of public life. But when we watch the news or read the media—social, print or digital—it is rare to see disabled people, and when we do, we are almost always speaking about individual disabilities or personal horror stories. A huge lack of representation means our stories are going unreported, talent is unrecognised…and negative attitudes towards disability are going unchallenged. We do not have enough of a percentage of a voice. A fifth of us are disabled but we are not a fifth of the news. Media often represents us as heroes or scroungers.”
Even when representation does happen, it can be stereotypical and quite depressing for the audience. It is important that people are engaged in employment in every sector, particularly in the media. We have to change the mindset, the attitudes, the representation, behind the scenes as well as in front, in order to make a long-term difference. Newsrooms rarely include disabled staff. Newspapers have columnists, but how many are disabled? How many programmes currently harness that talent? Those issues need to be collectively worked on and taken forward by Government policy, agencies, organisations and the whole sector in order to make sure that we can turn the situation around for those who feel unrepresented at the current time.
I understand that the Daily Mirror ran a week of features called “Disabled Britain: Doing It For Ourselves”, which was the first time that Disability Rights UK recalled a national paper allowing disabled people to tell their own stories in their own way. Most importantly, rather than focusing on individual impairments, it spoke strongly about a social model of disability, which posits that people are impaired by the lack of access in society and the inability to engage, rather than by their impairments alone, and that the public do not understand the social model of disability. There is still an “us and them” mindset when it comes to disability, but the truth is that—we can be quite candid about this—with our populations living much longer, many people who have not previously had disabilities will develop them in the future. Having a normalised representation in the media supports everybody, takes us all forward together, and reflects the society in which we live.
I will speak a bit about the work that the BBC is doing on the workforce, because one of the issues is the disability employment gap, which was mentioned specifically by Disability Rights UK. I know that the BBC has been very committed, and I have met its representatives to discuss the projects that it is working on and the launch of its disability passports. The BBC is trying to enable the movement of disabled talent right across the industry, alongside being a Disability Confident employer at leader level 3. Throughout my time in Parliament, I have been encouraging MPs to walk the talk in this regard and to make sure that we are signed up to being Disability Confident employers, in line with the Government’s programme. The BBC is really trying to change things behind the scenes and on screen, and it has formed a partnership with Netflix to develop and fund new, ambitious dramas featuring disabled creatives, with two productions already in development. We are keen to see them in the near future.
I turn now to Channel 4. As has been mentioned, it is the home of the Paralympics, “Born to Be Different”, “The Undateables” and “The Last Leg”, and it champions talent such as Rosie Jones, Billy Monger, Briony Williams, Ed Jackson and Ruben Reuter. The station has also cast people with disabilities in major formats, including “Big Brother”, “First Dates” and “The Great British Bake Off”, which we all love to watch, but which I could never emulate, because my cakes are always total flops—I have no chance of ever participating.
Channel 4 also makes “Hollyoaks” and “Googlebox”, and it is driving change. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) mentioned, the 2020 Paralympic games reached 20 million viewers—a third of the UK population. The “Super. Human” marketing campaign reached 81% of the population. I have to say that I am not the most up to date with technology, but there was also a bespoke Paralympics hub on TikTok, which generated 4.1 million views. With the Beijing 2021 winter Paralympics, Channel 4 built further on its work, proudly announcing a 100% disabled line-up of world-class presenters. Progress is definitely being made.
I want to turn briefly to ITV, which was in contact with me, before asking the Minister for an update on how the Government can collectively work with the sector to harness disabled talent and move things forward in a positive way. ITV got in touch and spoke to me about its diversity acceleration plan, which commits to increasing representation of disabled people in senior editorial positions, ensuring that ITV better reflects the lives of disabled people on screen, improving diversity and career progression in TV production and improving opportunities for working on programmes or behind the scenes. ITV has 9.6% of disabled talent on screen to date, which it says is the highest proportion of all broadcasters in the report “The Fifth Cut: Diamond at 5”.
Progress is being made across the board. ITV also spoke to me about improvements it has made. Of course, we have heard some more historical examples, but ITV says it has 49.6% women representation on screen and off screen in production teams, and that, in the workforce, 52.6% of all colleagues and 49.2% of managers are women. It has also launched a menopause policy. It will support colleagues who are going through the menopause, ensure that they have adequate time, reduce stigma and ensure that the menopause does not adversely impact careers. ITV says that 48 women are in its 100 top earning roles, and it is committed to achieving a 50:50 gender balance.
This debate is important because we seek to represent those who have perhaps not had that representation in the past, and we want to make changes. As drivers of change in Parliament, we must work together across parties. Certainly, as chair of the APPG for disability, I am very keen to take this agenda forward with the industry—print, media and more modern types of screening—but also, as parliamentarians, we need to keep the momentum towards equality going.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke for coming to the debate and taking time out of her busy schedule. She is a champion in this field. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this important debate, because representation matters. It strengthens the media for it to be more representative of the people that it serves. As a white man who used to be a journalist, I am acutely conscious of the diversity, or lack of it, in some newsrooms. Diversity in the media influences society as well. One of the crucial points that the hon. Lady made is that the incidental presence of people with disabilities not talking solely about their disability on screen normalises something that should be completely normal. There has been progress on that issue, among many others, but it is important that the Government are realistic and say that there is more to do in this area. A huge amount of progress has been made, but there is no room for complacency.
Ofcom’s 2021 report on news consumption showed that TV was the most used platform for news consumption. Nearly 80% of over-16s get their news from TV, which is ahead of the internet, and yet TV has many of the problems that she describes. TV needs to be representative of the country in which we live, and to offer opportunities for people from all backgrounds to contribute and achieve—so too, of course, does the rest of the media. Evidence indicates that there remains a huge number of barriers preventing access to the media sector for under-represented groups. Those from working-class backgrounds, women and disabled people are among the most greatly impacted. Initiatives such as “Time’s Up” are hugely welcome, and it was welcomed by the Secretary of State at the time, but she also said at the time that there remained more for the industry to do to get to those shared goals.
To look first at gender representation and inclusion in the sector, it is a welcome development, of course, that three of our four main public service broadcasters are led by female executives: ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. However, to look at that one metric would lay us open to reasonable charges of tokenism, and that is not enough. There is increased visibility of women on screen in sports media roles—sports commentary and punditry roles—that have traditionally been dominated by men. That is hugely welcome, and I am sure that the hon. Lady also welcomes the increased coverage of women’s sports, which has seen the women’s Euro tournament hosted in England and getting publicity that it would never have received a few years ago. Although that increased visibility is welcome, it does not add up to equality, and it remains the case that women are less well paid and less likely to advance to influential senior positions than their male counterparts. The Government are keen to work with the industry to change that rapidly.
According to Ofcom’s five-year review of diversity in broadcasting, which was published last year, the representation of women in TV and radio workforces was close to or above 47% of the UK labour market, but the representation of women at senior levels falls to 42% for television and 43% for radio, which is close but not sufficient. Data covering the same period also shows that, for TV and radio, the proportion of women leaving the workforce was greater than those joining. Ofcom found that broadcasters were focusing on entry level recruitment at the expense of retaining diverse staff and enabling them to progress.
Whether it is women leaving the workforce or the lack of older people in general on screen or behind the camera, there remains much to do. Those imbalanced pictures perpetuate harmful stereotypes, which is also seen in the online abuse of high-profile female figures, which further exacerbates the problem of retaining talent. I know that the hon. Lady has experienced that and has spoken powerfully about it. We witness it far too often in public life, in the media and elsewhere. The Online Safety Bill seeks to tackle some of that, but nobody in Government is naive enough to pretend that it will be a panacea.
On the representation and inclusion of disability in the media, the evidence presents a more concerning picture. Disabled people are the most under-represented group in television; the industry is significantly failing to meet the targets that it has set itself for representation in the workplace on and off screen. Of course, the setting of those targets is hugely welcome, but meeting them is what matters.
Ofcom’s diversity report shows that the representation of disabled people in the TV and radio workforce in 2020-21 was less than half the UK benchmark of 19%, as the hon. Lady highlighted, and that even the highest-performing employers have a long way to go. At senior levels, disability representation failed to show any progress since Ofcom’s first diversity in broadcasting report was published in 2017; in the case of radio, the situation had actually got worse. Ofcom again found that in television, more disabled people were leaving the industry than joining. Although we should welcome all those initiatives, they are still not sufficient.
As the hon. Lady said, the highlight has to be Channel 4’s incredible coverage of the Paralympic games, and the broadcaster’s brave decision to have the team that it put in place. It was a resounding success and, in many ways, made more progress than anyone predicted in advance.
The Creative Diversity Network, whose members include public service broadcasters and Sky, collects on and off screen diversity data through its project Diamond, which found that only 8.3% of onscreen contributions in general were made by disabled people compared with, as the hon. Lady said, nearly 20% of the population. That lack of representation results in limited visibility and inaccurate and sometimes damaging portrayals of disabilities. In the excellent report from Underlying Health Conditions and Jack Thorne, “Everyone Forgot About the Toilets”, we see a lack of provision for disabled people at almost every level. It is the same in many walks of society, but the media have an ambition to go further and lead the way. As I say, that ambition is welcome but meeting it is what matters.
There are a huge number of challenges to be met if there are to be real improvements in disability representation, whether that be attitude, awareness, knowledge or inclusive and accessible work environments. They all need to be addressed and the Government are keen to work with the industry to do that. The work of the APPG is also an important step that I am sure will make a real contribution.
Barriers to careers in the media and creative industries start early. The Secretary of State has spoken of her desire to see improved access across the sector, recognising that this is a systemic issue that requires sustained collaboration from everybody. We welcome the work being done by the industry: a number of organisations have launched their own individual strategies, some of which have been highlighted today.
Ofcom has an important part to play in holding broadcasters to account through its statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity in relation to employment in the broadcasting sector in particular. It has the power to ask broadcasters to provide information about their equal opportunities policies and the make-up of their workforce. Its work in this area is important for increasing transparency and accountability and ensuring that the industry has the available data to support the case for change and measure progress.
The Government are committed to supporting the sector to achieve those improvements. The national disability strategy sets out our ambition to improve the lives of millions of disabled people, and DCMS is working closely with its seven disability and access ambassadors, including Allan MacKillop—I think he is well known to the hon. Lady—whose work includes introducing confidential access and inclusion passports to support better inclusion of disabled people across all major broadcasters, and delivering the Elevate and Extend programmes, which provide entry and mid-level placements for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people on BBC shows. The forthcoming creative industries sector vision will set out the Government’s vision for addressing those barriers and making careers in the media and creative industries accessible to all.
Once again, I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I genuinely commend her for her work on representing and championing those under-represented groups, particularly in the APPG. A huge amount more can be done, and the Government look forward to working with her and many others to pursue those important efforts.
Question put and agreed to.
Anti-social Behaviour Awareness Week
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Before we start the debate, while the heat remains at this exceptional level, I am content for Members not to wear jackets or ties in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker has announced similar arrangements for the Chamber. When the House returns in the autumn, Mr Speaker will expect Members to revert to wearing jackets, and strongly encourage male Members to wear ties, when speaking in the Chamber or Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Anti-social Behaviour Awareness Week.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is also my pleasure to host today’s debate on an issue that affects every part of our nation, and touches every Member of this House, as can be seen from the cross-party participation today.
Recent YouGov research commissioned by Resolve, an organisation that deals with antisocial behaviour, found that over half of people—56%—believe that
“more needs to be done”
to tackle antisocial behaviour in their community. It is a blight on our towns, cities and neighbourhoods. It causes terror, particularly for elderly and vulnerable residents, causes damage to our community facilities, undermining pride of place, and breeds a culture and perception of lawlessness, which ultimately ends in only one way.
This is my second ever Westminster Hall debate, and I picked this subject because antisocial behaviour is one of the most pressing issues in my inbox every week. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the debate during Anti-social Behaviour Awareness Week. As my constituents can confirm, antisocial behaviour comes in many forms. One of the biggest problems that we face in Redcar and Cleveland is linked to off-road bikes. The motorcycles are often not roadworthy or registered, and the users are not wearing the protective gear necessary to prevent serious injury.
The problem is particularly prominent in the TS6 postcode area, around the High Farm Estate in Normanby and leading up to the Eston hills, where people on such bikes are destroying precious natural habitats on our hills. However, it is even more disturbing to learn from speaking to the children at Green Gates Primary School in Redcar that they see off-road motorbikes driving past at great speeds, often around school opening and closing times. We must also recognise the distraction that the sound of motorcycles can be for young people as they try to focus on their learning in school.
Another big issue often linked to the off-road bikes problem is the drugs trade and the ease with which criminals can avoid detection by using an off-road bike, as they know that, due to safety concerns, the police are unable to intervene and stop them. That laughable situation can see a yob on a bike mooning a police officer on the trunk road in Eston, and the police officer unable to do anything in that instant other than attempt to identify the individual.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for securing this vital debate in this important week on antisocial behaviour awareness. I concur; I have a similar problem with off-road bikes in my constituency, in the Runcorn area, the Northwich area and certainly the Frodsham area. Weaver Vale Housing Trust is involved with various partnerships, and I know that Cheshire’s fire service is involved—when it is not involved with the other things that you referred to, Mr Sharma. However the police are undoubtedly under-resourced. We need more neighbourhood policing, such as neighbourhood hubs, which certainly the Opposition would propose. Would the hon. Member concur?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member, which is why I am pleased that, in the Cleveland force area, we have increased the number of police officers by 200 since the 2019 election. I also agree with him on that focus on neighbourhood policing—a return to common-sense policing, which I hope to come back to later in my remarks.
As I was saying, those situations can leave my constituents baffled. I have many law-abiding constituents who just want to do everything they can to make our area a better place, and they cannot understand how a problem as ridiculous as this is able to continue.
Another element of antisocial behaviour that I wanted to touch on was the criminal damage and vandalism that we see in communities such as Grangetown and South Bank, and in areas of Redcar and Marske. It was fantastic to see local children from Zetland Primary School recently create a beautiful mural depicting our town on a once-graffitied railway bridge. That is a great example of a community-led approach to helping us improve our area. Sadly, the following day vandals once again graffitied that bridge, destroying all of the hard work the schoolchildren had put in. I am sure hon. Members can understand how disappointing that was for the young people, but I am sure it will not prevent them making a difference in the future.
In Cleveland, our local police and crime commissioner, Steve Turner, is also the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners’ lead on neighbourhood policing and antisocial behaviour, which means we are in a unique position to learn from best practice in this area. Steve has been able to reduce reoffending rates among first-time offenders by a whopping 94% in parts of the force area, through the DIVERT programme, using resources such as the safer streets fund, which we are grateful to the Government for providing.
We cannot keep relying on one-off funding pots. We need the Government to set out their plans for further reducing this societal menace. For the first time since the establishment of PCCs in 2014, 100% of published police and crime plans now highlight preventing and tackling antisocial behaviour, which proves we are giving it the attention it now deserves.
We know that antisocial behaviour is not just a policing problem; it is a partnership problem. It is down to education providers in tackling those not in education, training or employment. It is the local authority failing to identify neglect and poor parenting. It is the local health authority and its strategies for tackling drug addiction and abuse in our communities. It is housing associations that fail to act when confronted with problem families and individuals who know the system better than they do.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. Given I have her in front of me, there are a few issues that I feel the Government need to tackle. I appreciate not all of them may be within her remit. First, on sentencing, it cannot be right that the police spend hours of their time collecting evidence and processing paperwork to arrest an individual, to see them get only a slap on the wrist.
For repeat offenders of these crimes seemingly to face no escalation in penalty only leads to further harm in our communities. I refer to what I said earlier about antisocial behaviour breeding a culture of lawlessness. If they know that they can get away with it on their first try, their second try, their third try, perhaps on the fourth attempt the criminality begins to escalate. At that point, it is no longer a young lad flying around on an off-road bike. He might try to shoplift and ride off on his bike. Then it escalates and he mugs a woman in the street and flies off on his bike once again. To some extent, we have enabled that downward spiral to occur, as we have allowed a culture of lawlessness to take hold among some of those criminals.
To recognise the work that the Government have done so far, I mentioned the safer streets fund, and they have also introduced community behaviour orders. I say to the Minister that CBOs simply do not go far enough. They do not have enough teeth to act as an effective deterrent. Some officers tell me that they are not worth the paper they are written on. As well as beefing up CBOs, I would like to see the police feel equally empowered to use parenting orders more frequently, to place responsibility for looking after young people who are committing antisocial behaviour back on to the parents.
The police can only be in so many places at any one time. As I have mentioned, we are grateful in Cleveland for the extra 200 police officers we have gained since 2019, but it is fundamentally the responsibility of a parent to ensure that their child is not terrorising people in their area. That should also be linked to social housing, and there should be a duty on housing associations to seek to address problem tenants.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. An issue I see more and more, which I know others across the UK also see, is a rise in youth disorder. Constituents and businesses in Burnside in Rutherglen in my constituency are becoming increasingly frustrated with the antisocial behaviour. The local police have been excellent in doing what they can, but there are various barriers to tackling the problems. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that youth disorder presents its own set of difficulties, which perhaps need more investment when it comes to finding a solution?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. Let us not forget that at the end of every act of antisocial behaviour, there is always a victim—someone who is feeling harassment, alarm or distress at what has been done to them or their community. I continue to believe that the core principles of both our justice and policing systems should always put the victim first.
I will end on that point and allow other Members to come in, but before I do, I will give a quick statistic. A recent YouGov antisocial behaviour poll found that after witnessing or experiencing antisocial behaviour 57% of people did not report it to anyone. To speak directly to anyone watching this debate, the most important thing that they can do if they are witnessing or experiencing a form of antisocial behaviour is report it to the police or the local authority. From my personal experience, I know that sometimes it can feel that nothing is being done or that intervention is meaningless. However, my message is that the only way we can finally get a grip on the problem is by all of us working together to resolve it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) on securing an important debate.
This week marks a year since the end of all lockdown restrictions. For most people who had been consigned to staying at home away from loved ones, it was a most welcome development. For the first time in what felt like eternity, people were able to gather, catch up with friends and reacquaint themselves with normal life. However, for some people, the ending of covid-19 restrictions has brought only misery, with a dramatic rise in reports of antisocial behaviour in my inbox. From across my constituency, I have received reports of graffiti, damage to rugby pitches, off-road biking, drinking, drug taking and threatening behaviour.
As we have moved into the summer months, things have got worse, not better. A few weeks ago, I held a meeting with market traders, shop owners, local councillors and the police in Blackwood in my constituency. I also attended a meeting in Newbridge, where I was told that antisocial behaviour was leaving people fearful for their safety. In both meetings, constituents were reluctant to report that behaviour, simply because of the amount of time they spent waiting on the phone having rung 101.
Antisocial behaviour accounted for one fifth of all crimes reported in May this year in my constituency, but I worry that that is not the full picture. Antisocial behaviour can often lie in a difficult place between a non-emergency crime and a time sensitive one. Many people are mindful not to place undue pressure on 999 lines, but are frustrated at being unable to quickly report antisocial behaviour.
A few weeks ago, I spoke in an Adjournment debate about the importance of having quick response times for 101 calls when illegal off-road biking is reported, as often perpetrators speed away before people can even make the call. I heard what the hon. Member for Redcar said about antisocial behaviour. Very often, we can be partisan on the issue, but I was pleased that the Policing Minister agreed to meet with me and several colleagues from across the House to discuss ways to combat off-road biking. It is an issue that affects anybody with a patch of green grass in their constituency and it is important to have a joined-up approach in how we tackle it.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that he has no grass in his constituency, but I fully understand what he means. Like I said, I do not think there is a single constituency that is not affected by illegal off-road biking. My point was that we need to come together, cross-party, to tackle it. I am pleased that the Government have seen how important the issue is and have agreed to meet with me and several colleagues in the autumn. With the political situation as it is, I do not know who the new Policing Minister will be, but I look forward to meeting whoever they are once they are in post.
The inability to report these issues in a timely manner is leading to the under-reporting of these crimes. I have heard from many constituents that they have previously tried to report incidents, but the inability to get through has deterred them. As incidents are often reoccurring, many constituents continue to suffer in silence as their previous attempts to report crimes have been nothing short of hopeless. People can often go for years without seeing any permanent action being taken against perpetrators, as police and councils are often unaware of the true extent of the problem.
Another issue that has been raised is the intimidation being caused by antisocial behaviour, which makes people nervous to visit their high street. I have long been concerned, even before the lockdown, about the future of our high streets, due to the competition from the internet and the rise of business rates. They do not need people being intimidated to come to town centres; that could prove the death knell of so many of our high streets.
The fear of being approached and intimidated often leaves people too scared to leave their homes to interact with the community. One constituent described to me that they feel like they have become a prisoner in their own home, unsure of what they will face when they leave their house, having previously found strangers in their garden, and having their family members approached with a knife. That is no way to live. People deserve to feel safe in their communities and in their homes.
Safety is one of the main concerns raised by constituents. Gwent police have imposed dispersal orders, but they simply push the problem into other villages. For example, when an order was imposed on Newbridge recently, the neighbouring communities of Abercarn and Crosskeys saw a spike in instances of antisocial behaviour. What makes this worse is that many of the young people do not live in the locality and take advantage of cheap rail fares to travel into places such as Newbridge that have a train station, cause havoc, then leave. That makes it difficult to identify them.
It is not just rail. In the north-east of my constituency, we have very poor public transport of any kind. In terms of people committing antisocial behaviour, it is often not in their village, but a neighbouring village or somewhere fairly close by, so I would agree with the hon. Member’s point.
I thank the hon. Member for his point, which proves how important it is that we have a cross-party view on this, and that we get together and come up with some solutions. He is right: there are young people jumping on buses, jumping on trains, causing havoc, and then leaving.
Bikes as well; I have mentioned them.
The pandemic undeniably caused a lot of financial hardship for businesses and many high streets, and things have only just returned to normal. Antisocial behaviour around these businesses now acts as another threat to their financial viability. Without proper action to tackle antisocial behaviour, I fear many businesses will struggle to survive.
As the hon. Member for Redcar said, victims are often elderly, and struggle with mobility or health issues, which already makes it harder for them to get out into the community. It also often makes dealing with systems such as 101 much harder, and they become more vulnerable, more isolated, and sadly experience the worst impacts of antisocial behaviour.
I have heard from constituents about the worry of being threatened by groups after reporting previous abuse to the police or to their housing associations. One constituent told me they once witnessed a neighbour being cornered and verbally abused after reporting instances of drinking and drug taking; they now fear for their own safety if they report an incident. Perpetrators are often young people, and there has long been a stigma around young people and antisocial behaviour, and a perception that they are only out to destroy and cause chaos.
I do not know if the hon. Gentleman is aware of how serious this intimidation can be. In the last year, there was an incident in Wingate in my constituency, where a constituent waved at a quad biker. As a result of that, his house, his caravan and his car went up in flames. It is shocking the way that things can accelerate to such a degree. The need to get to the root cause, and to address this, is absolute, as the hon. Member says.
I am sad to say to the hon. Member that that is something I have heard too, and I am sure that everyone receives accounts in their inbox of terrible incidents like that. Such incidents are occurring everywhere. I hope the hon. Member’s constituent has found some peace, and that the perpetrators have been brought the justice—I genuinely hope that, and I hope he can pass that message on to his constituent.
The underlying causes of antisocial behaviour run much deeper than just young people. Over the past several years, youth services have been decimated, and only now are we trying to rebuild those vital services back up in our communities. It is crucial that young people have somewhere to channel their energy to avoid getting involved in antisocial behaviour. Our plan to tackle antisocial behaviour must include a plan to provide places for young people to go. As a sports fan who—I will admit—has written two books on boxing and football, I think that sports clubs have an important role to play in that. I hope that in future there will be a way of ensuring that young people interested in sport in school have such an outlet in the community.
The issue often spreads so much further than antisocial behaviour. We know, as the hon. Member for Redcar said, that what starts as lower-level crime can escalate into more serious crimes, leaving communities feeling unsafe. A plan is needed that addresses antisocial behaviour from multiple angles. We need better support for young people to prevent them from turning to this behaviour. We need shorter waiting times on 101 services so that if incidents do occur, victims will not only be able to speak to someone quickly, but feel empowered to report it again. Everyone deserves to live in peace and go about their business as they wish. It is finally time that we —together as a Parliament—take meaningful action to combat the problem once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) for securing the debate. It is a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Minister in her place to respond to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar knows, as I do, that antisocial behaviour and the fear of it is of great concern to our constituents. It is like a cancer in our society that imprisons people in their homes, leading to them fearing venturing out, and causes part of our community to be perceived as a no-go area. That cannot be right in a civilised society.
I want to concentrate on a problem specific to Darlington: off-road bikes. From previous speeches, it seems that off-road bikes are a perennial problem across the country. Off-road and quad bikes are the vehicles of choice for those in my community who want to tear around our estates and parks, creating noise pollution, posing an intimidating danger to pedestrians and making life grim for those who live nearby. Parents are fearful of the danger to their children. Pedestrians are fearful of being knocked over, and the all-pervading drone of the engines make parts of our community inhospitable. We must do more to rid our communities of this problem.
I praise Durham Constabulary’s Operation Endurance, which is focused on tackling this scourge and, I am pleased to say, has had an appreciable impact. Since February, section 59 warning signs have been erected to notify offenders of the new powers. Anyone seen riding an off-road bike, quad or 4x4 in Darlington will have their vehicle seized straightaway by Durham Constabulary. That has had an immediate effect. By 15 February, 24 fixed penalty notices, three speeding tickets and 18 barring notices had been issued. Three illegal quads and one illegal off-road bike had been seized, while two stolen mopeds were also recovered. Furthermore, one vehicle was seized and the driver was arrested for drug driving, while a further driver was reported for careless driving. These actions are working, removing the ability of offenders to offend and acting as a deterrent by demonstrating real consequences to those involved. Durham Constabulary, Darlington Borough Council and others are working closely to tackle the problem.
On working together, one thing I see in Ferryhill, part of my Sedgefield constituency, is groups of young schoolchildren coming together as what are called ambassadors. They reach out to the community and raise issues. One of the big issues they have been raising lately is antisocial behaviour and the fact that low-levels of it are affecting Ferryhill town centre and the way that children are going from the primary school to the senior school. It is wonderful to see these sorts of community-led things starting to engage with the process. As the hon. Member knows, my constituency surrounds his.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituent for his valuable intervention extolling the virtues of working together. I would like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) to the proposal to bring forward an all-party parliamentary group on this issue. I encourage him to speak with his colleague the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), who I have had extensive discussions on this particular topic with.
As the MP for Darlington, I have continued to share the powerful messaging from Durham Constabulary and Darlington Borough Council to ensure that everyone reports these incidents to the 101 service. I could say much more about the Labour police and crime commissioner’s ability to improve response times on that service in County Durham, but I will not. It is vital that local communities play their part in tackling this scourge if enforcement is to be successful. I repeat my message that every sight and sound of off-road bikes should be reported, so that our police can gather the intelligence they need to eliminate this problem.
The problem, as we have heard, is not limited to Darlington. I would ask the Minister to respond to some simple, practical and sensible suggestions on how to tackle it. Compulsory insurance for off-road bikes and quad bikes would dissuade the casual user from illegal use of the bikes. Compulsory registration of off-road bikes would make the identification of these vehicles much easier for law enforcement. Mandating manufacturers to install immobilisers to these vehicles would also help to reduce theft and misuse by unauthorised riders. These suggestions have been raised in discussion with the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), and I do believe that the time has come for Home Office Ministers and Department for Transport Ministers to work more closely on a package of measures to target this issue.
One further point on off-road bikes is the question of what happens after the vehicle has been seized. Currently, the police recoup their recovery and storage charges for seized vehicles by auctioning them off. This leads to a ridiculous merry-go-round of offenders buying back the very same vehicles the police have seized. Our police forces need a ringfenced pot of money to enable them to pay the recovery and storage charges, crush these vehicles and get them off our streets. There are many other types of antisocial behaviour, but the essence of today’s debate seems to have concentrated on off-road bikes, which are a scourge on all our communities.
Another issue I have seen in my constituency is graffiti. It upsets residents, who take a lot of pride in their community. Cambuslang Community Council has taken a great initiative in brightening up Cambuslang with some beautiful murals. Does the hon. Member think that cleaner, nicer surroundings that people can take pride in can deter graffiti, or is it something we will always see happening?
The hon. Member raises an important point. I think we can summarise this as the “broken window” theory. We all want to live in good, clean and smart communities. Graffiti is a symbol of decline in our urban environment. I think we should continue to double down on addressing it.
Darlington also faces illegal and unacceptable fly-tipping in our alleyways by fly-by-night operators, who will rock up in a Transit van or a flat-bed truck and take household rubbish away for a tenner, avoiding the inconvenience of contacting the council or taking a trip to the tip.
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity. One of the biggest areas affected by the scourge of fly-tipping are the farms that surround Darlington. People take their rubbish and just dump it in the middle of a farm. It can be very serious for that farmer. It can block his access, destroy his crops and all sorts. I would encourage my hon. Friend to reference the rural, as well as urban, situation.
As my hon. Friend well knows, I have very little rurality in my constituency. My job is to represent the people of Darlington. As a constituent of mine, he knows the problems that Street Scene in Darlington faces in cleaning up our streets, but I commend his efforts in highlighting rural crime and the scourge on our farms. I have spent time on our streets with Street Scene—Darlington Borough Council’s environmental services department—and seen at first hand the impact that this issue has on local residents and on the town as a whole.
Since 2019, the now Conservative-led Darlington Borough Council has been delivering for local people, and I want to take this opportunity to praise it for all of its hard work. The new administration has also been taking action on fly-tipping, listening to the concerns of residents and working hard to tackle this scourge, with increased prosecutions of those found to be fly-tipping, and with Street Scene responding more speedily to incidents and taking a more proactive approach to rooting out those responsible.
While our Government, council and constabularies are tackling antisocial behaviour, more could be done through cross-Government working to tackle some of these issues, and with ringfenced pots of money to support the steps taken. I know that the Minister is a sound and sensible woman of integrity, and that she will have listened closely to the debate. I would like to invite her to Darlington, to see at first hand the problems, actions and further solutions to our first-hand experience of antisocial behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) on securing this important debate, which is timely and very pressing. My first job after university was working for the former Member for Redcar, Mo Mowlam, so I know his area a bit, and some of the challenges that he talked about were similarly challenging back then.
Anti-Social Behaviour Awareness Week is a good initiative. There are lots of groups that I could pay tribute to, but I will highlight ASB Help and Resolve in particular —two really good organisations that work year-round to tackle this blight on our communities. Hon. Members who made contributions have spoken about the lack of a co-ordinated approach to tackling antisocial behaviour. The hon. Member for Redcar said that it was one of the most pressing issues in his inbox, and I think that is probably the same for all Members of Parliament, whether their constituencies are rural, urban or a mix of both. His call to return to a common-sense policing approach to antisocial behaviour is the right one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talked about all of the issues with off-road biking, as did others, and that is something that particularly affects people across the country. I did not know that he had written two books, but I do now—I will make sure that I read them. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) talked about people feeling imprisoned in their homes, and had some good suggestions on off-road biking, which have been mentioned in this place many times before. There is a package of measures on off-road biking, and various Bills have been suggested by Members across the House, so there is agreement there and I hope the Minister is listening to those suggestions.
We are all aware of the real misery that antisocial behaviour causes. Before Christmas, in the autumn, I made trips across the country, in my role as shadow Policing Minister, to try to understand the scale and diversity of antisocial behaviour: how it affects different communities, the impact it has on them and what is being done about it. Those were eye-opening trips. Although each area was unique, everywhere I went it was clear that antisocial behaviour is not low-level crime; it is massively underestimated and massively under-prioritised in the way that policing is done in this country. It ruins lives, makes people feel unsafe and worried, and creates division in communities.
That is an important question. Several things are linked to the reporting. First, people do not believe that anything will be done. Sadly, that is partly because twice as many people as 10 years ago now perceive that they never see a police officer on the streets. People do not feel that it is worth reporting, because they do not think they will get a response.
Secondly, at a national level, the Government do not collect data on antisocial behaviour. There was a debate in this place a few months ago where a Conservative Member made the case for the Government to record antisocial behaviour nationally, because it is not part of the metric so everybody reports and records it differently. Everybody has different approaches—some people use some interventions and some people use others—and there is no consistency across the country. In answer to the hon. Member’s question, people are loth to report it because they think that nothing will be done, and they do not see it as something that is prioritised at a national level.
I am truly enlightened by the hon. Lady’s response to my intervention, and truly shocked that we do not have national statistics and that there is not a level playing field across the country to assess and deal with that. I wonder whether the Minister, when she sums up, can address that problem and perhaps suggest what more we can do to drive forward that change, from which we would all benefit.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Minister has obviously been in her position for only a short time, so we will all be gentle with her today, but there is a good conversation to be had about how we measure these things, which I will come to.
It is a hidden epidemic. Any constituent will say that antisocial behaviour is an important issue, but the stats do not bear that out. Polling by YouGov found that a third of the UK public had experienced an increase in antisocial behaviour in their area, with just 1% believing that the problem had decreased a lot.
Crime and its causes are complicated and we do not have time to go into all of them now. Antisocial behaviour tends to be localised—whether it is noise, fly-tipping or graffiti—and there is a correlation between antisocial behaviour hotspots and deprivation. The rolling away of some parts of public services has had an impact on the support that is given to people with mental health issues and on youth services, which we have talked about many times, and that has had a knock-on impact on the prevalence of antisocial behaviour. Where antisocial behaviour is rife, other crime follows. We know that it can be the starting point for real issues building up in communities.
Since the 2019 Government came to power, crime overall is up 18% and prosecutions are down 18%. Rates of arson are spiralling: incidents are up by 90,000 compared with 2019 but the charge rate is just 4.3%, which is down from 8.3% in 2015, and nearly 60% of investigations—more than 280,000 cases—are closed without a suspect being identified. Arson does huge damage to local communities. It ruins property, of course, and it ruins people’s sense of safety and pride in their community, so the vicious cycle continues. When I was in the north-east, there was a particular issue with arson that local people were very concerned about.
On the sense that nothing will be done if these issues are reported, that is sadly now the case when it comes to some crimes. Recent figures on car theft, for example, show that just one in 100 thefts of cars resulted in a charge. If someone’s car is stolen, and only one in 100 get a charge, the chances of them reporting antisocial behaviour and thinking that something could be done are quite low. Recent figures showed that in nearly half of neighbourhoods in the country, no burglaries had been solved by the police in the last three years at all, which is truly shocking and shames us, and speaks to some of the struggles that the police are having in doing the common-sense policing that we all want them to be doing.
In this context, the presence of neighbourhood police officers is very important. There are over 7,000 fewer neighbourhood officers on the frontline now than there were 12 years ago. There is only one neighbourhood officer for every 2,400 people in this country now, whereas 10 years ago there was one per 1,600 people. That does make a difference.
For the first time, the Government have introduced a new metric for measuring neighbourhood crime, which is a combination of four other crimes: vehicle-related theft, domestic burglary, theft from a person, and robbery of personal property. It is an interesting measure. The Government will say that neighbourhood crime has fallen in the last year, but the metric does not include any level of antisocial behaviour and it does not include bike theft, criminal damage or arson, so it is not a clear and complete picture of what neighbourhood crime is. I ask the Minister to look at that issue in her new role.
We know that a third of 999 calls are now about mental health emergencies and the police just cannot cope; they are responding to mental health issues and not to the crimes that they should be investigating. They spend significant time dealing with other crises in the community, and the impact of noise, graffiti, fly-tipping, drug dealing and vandalism is felt more and more acutely.
Good work is being done in patches, and I am sure that all of us would pay tribute to the police and crime commissioners who are working hard to make a difference. When I was in Northumbria, I saw the rural crime network with police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness, which seemed to be working really effectively. When I was in Cardiff, I learned of a reduction in antisocial behaviour through the Step into Sport programme; my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn mentioned the importance of sport earlier. In Merseyside, there is a youth diversion fund, which more than 6,500 young people engage with. These are pockets of good practice. Sadly, because the police simply do not have the resources to do what they want to do, they are only pockets and not the norm.
I hope that neighbourhood policing will be a real focus for the Minister. Last week, I had the pleasure of welcoming some police community support officers to Parliament to celebrate the 20 years since PCSOs were introduced. That was under the last Labour Government and Lord Blunkett, who was there to talk to them. Those PCSOs’ insights were really interesting: they knew their patch inside out, they had built up relationships with local people, and they were able to intervene to de-escalate and tackle some of the issues of antisocial behaviour in a really effective way. Some of them told me stories of how they had dealt with kids who had been antisocial who then, later in life, came up to them in the street and told them how proud they were of what they had become, in part because they had a good relationship with a PCSO.
However, the number of PCSOs has been cut by nearly half since 2010. The peculiar thing about that is that it has not been a Government policy; it has just happened because of cuts to services. It was not deliberate. I ask the Minister to look at PCSOs and consider whether we need to restore their numbers. I think that we do, because they are the eyes and ears of the police.
As I have said, hard data is not collected properly. I have made a series of freedom of information requests across the country about how forces deal with antisocial behaviour. They all do it in different ways. The issue needs gripping at the centre, with some good measurements in place.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the value of our PCSOs and the work they do in our community. In Darlington, we have seen 136 new officers recruited to Durham constabulary, and some of those new recruits to our police force were directly recruited from among existing PCSOs. The skills, talents and abilities that those PCSOs learned in their job have not been lost to public service, as those PCSOs have gone on to work in the police.
That is a really interesting point. The same has happened with specials, but there is then a shortage of PCSOs and specials, because they go up to become officers. Alongside that, we have lost the experience of all the police who have been cut over the last 10 years. Although we have the new recruits coming in, some of whom are PCSOs and specials, the experience of local communities and the knowledge that the police have built up over many years has gone, and it will take some time to bring that back.
Labour has made commitments to put police back into neighbourhoods through police hubs. That way, there will be a space in every community where people can interact with the police, but with the infrastructure around them of local authorities, enforcement officers and youth services. Such neighbourhood prevention teams, as it were, could work collectively to try to crack down on some of the antisocial behaviour and its causes in the community. We think that would have a big impact on presence, problem solving and focus on antisocial behaviour. That is really needed, as are some of the measures hon. Members have mentioned, such as changing legislation around off-road biking and similar issues.
We also think that there should be a recruitment drive for special constables. I was with the south Wales special constables last night, who have won a Queen’s award for volunteering. They give up their time for free and it is quite extraordinary how proud they are of the work that they do. Their numbers have also fallen by about 50% over the last 10 years, and it will be interesting to see whether the Minister has any thoughts yet on specials and whether those numbers need to increase.
There is much to be done. We talk about antisocial behaviour often in this place, particularly in Westminster Hall, where Members often feel the need to come and talk about it because it is such an issue. Sadly, we do not get the response from Government that we would like. I ask the Minister to think about PCSOs and specials, about measurements of antisocial behaviour and about how we grip the issue nationally and really understand it.
I also ask Conservative Members to think about these issues when they are considering who to vote for to be the next Prime Minister. The right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) wrote in The Daily Telegraph yesterday that he would ringfence child exploitation teams from any future policing cuts. Does that mean he is planning future policing cuts? That is a question that hon. Members should ask him and others, because it is an important issue for the next Prime Minister.
The Home Office has a key leadership role to play, and I ask the Minister to make sure that is happening. Criminals cannot be given free rein. When low-level antisocial behaviour is not tackled, it leads to greater and more significant crime—drug running and all the other issues that have been mentioned. That is not good enough for our communities; they need more support and reassurance. I hope the Minister will take these issues seriously.
May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Sharma? I have only been in the role for a few days; anything that I fail to answer I will take away and respond to in writing. I will be delighted to pass on some of the questions about policing to the Minister for Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) on securing this incredibly important debate. He is always a forceful advocate for his constituents, as he demonstrated in his remarks, but on this occasion there is an added element of timeliness. As he and other Members referred to, the timing of this debate is particularly appropriate because it is Anti-social Behaviour Awareness Week.
Antisocial behaviour plagues the lives of victims. It has an adverse impact on the atmosphere and the environment of areas where it is rife. It ruins law-abiding citizens’ enjoyment of public places. It is not, therefore, something that we can focus on for a week and then move on from; it must be a priority all year. This awareness week is, none the less, a vital opportunity to highlight the damage done and the misery caused by antisocial behaviour, and to bring together the various agencies that have a role in confronting them. I have been delighted to support the awareness week, and I have sent messages to launch the event that took place here in the Palace of Westminster and to the conference that is going on today.
Antisocial behaviour should never be dismissed as low level. It is a serious problem and the Government are serious about addressing it. That is why this week, the Home Office is launching a set of principles designed to galvanise and strengthen the response to antisocial behaviour. The principles will act as a kind of benchmark, setting clear expectations for local agencies and guiding their approach to issues, such as how they encourage reporting and delivering appropriate and effective interventions. Ultimately, we are trying to get real consistency in the understanding of and approach to antisocial behaviour across the country.
I realise that to some this may be familiar territory, but it is worth taking a moment to touch on the powers that can be used to tackle antisocial behaviour. The police, local authorities and other local agencies have a range of flexible tools and powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. There is a particular local dimension to the issue, which manifests itself in different ways in different locations, as has been mentioned. It is therefore for local areas to decide how best to deploy the powers available to them, depending on the specific circumstances. They are best placed to understand what is driving the behaviour in question and the impact that it is having, and to determine the most appropriate response.
To support local areas in making effective use of powers, the Home Office published statutory guidance, which sets out the importance of focusing on the needs of the victim and the local community, as well as ensuring that the relevant legal tests are met. The guidance was updated last month to include expedited public spaces protection orders, and further guidance on the community trigger, referencing the role of health agencies and police and crime commissioners. As colleagues may be aware, the community trigger gives victims of persistent antisocial behaviour the ability to demand a formal case review. Further clarification has also been added to the guidance on community protection notices, and the role of restorative justice as an option in the community remedy section.
We need to ensure that local areas are making proper and effective use of these powers to tackle the underlying drivers of antisocial behaviour and protect victims and communities.
I welcome the Minister to her place and thank her for giving way. I think there is a link between the soaring cost of living and a rise in antisocial behaviour. As more people are pushed into poverty, mental health deteriorates and they become disillusioned. Does she agree that better resourcing and funding for drug and addiction services in communities is vital to addressing that crucial contributory factor to antisocial behaviour?
The reasons why antisocial behaviour occurs are incredibly complex. The hon. Lady will know that I am a great advocate for mental health and how we support mental health issues in the community. That is why we continue to keep the issue under review through the Home Office-chaired antisocial behaviour strategic board, which brings together a range of partners and representatives from key agencies and other Departments.
The Government are providing significant funding to drive efforts to tackle antisocial behaviour. An important scheme in this space is the safer streets fund, which was established to help local areas put in place measures designed to prevent crime and improve safety. Earlier rounds of the fund had a secondary focus on tackling antisocial behaviour through initiatives such as improved street lighting, increased CCTV and training. We are now taking the emphasis on this problem a step further, with antisocial behaviour one of the primary crime and issue types to be targeted in the fourth and fifth rounds of the fund.
In addition, crime and antisocial behaviour form part of the prospectus for the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund. The Government are also funding diversionary interventions to help safeguard young people away from crime. We have invested £200 million over 10 years in the Youth Endowment Fund, a charity whose core mission is to fund interventions to identify what works in reducing and preventing serious violence. It was a great pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talk about how interventions such as boxing and sport can help in these situations. I, too, will have a look at the book—I will be very pleased to look at it.
Most Members mentioned off-road biking. We know that the inappropriate use of off-road bikes can have a significant impact on individuals and communities. I listened very carefully to the suggestions by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), and I will look at those more fully. Reckless use of these vehicles can cause people to feel intimidated and fearful. Enforcement of road traffic law and decisions about how to deploy available resources are rightly the responsibility of chief officers.
A suitably trained police driver may undertake a pursuit of a motorcyclist. The decision whether to undertake a pursuit is an operational one, taking account of risk and proportionality in each situation. It is worth noting, however, that the police have the power under section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to seize vehicles, including off-road bikes, being used in an antisocial manner.
I am grateful to the Minister for highlighting section 59 notices, which, as she will have heard in my speech, are having an appreciable impact in Darlington. The specific problem my local force has is the cost of disposing of the vehicle, to stop the merry-go-round of seizing the vehicle and auctioning it to cover the cost of disposal, which ends up with the perpetrator getting their vehicle back and continuing to perpetrate the problem.
I would appreciate a longer conversation and would, therefore, love to take up the offer of visiting my hon. Friend in Darlington. The police can also use the powers in the 2014 Act to deal with antisocial behaviour involving vehicles.
On the point about motorcycle noise outside schools, the Department for Transport is trialling noise camera technology to understand whether it can be used to automatically detect when vehicles are excessively noisy. The objective of that is to provide local authorities and police with effective enforcement tools capable of capturing sufficient evidence to support successful prosecutions of offenders. That will further enable local areas to enforce against vehicles that have been modified or driven in a way to create excessive noise.
In closing, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. It is clear from speaking to constituents and others just how important this issue is. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar said about how important it is to report these crimes. Antisocial behaviour matters a great deal to constituents and, therefore, to us as their representatives. It strikes at the heart of how decent, law-abiding citizens want their neighbourhoods and communities to feel. We will not tolerate a situation where people have to suffer because of the actions of a selfish minority. Antisocial behaviour is a blight. We are determined to tackle it wherever, whenever and however it rears its ugly head.
I thank everyone who participated in today’s debate. It is a real pleasure to see the Minister in her place. When she is visiting Darlington, I invite her to come along to Redcar and Cleveland, where there will be a lemon top waiting for her. I have heard the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), speak before about my predecessor, Dr Marjorie Mowlam. It is right that we acknowledge the great impact that she had on Redcar and the country.
It has been distressing to hear some of the stories, including those from Wingate, where constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) were victims of arson, from Darlington, where fly-tipping blights communities, and from Newbridge high street, where businesses do not feel safe. I have said for some time that the problems we face on the high street include not only the fact that there are not as many shops any more—we have to do more to create spaces that people want to visit and make it easier for people to visit those spaces—but, crucially, the fact that people have to feel safe when they visit the high street. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for mentioning that.
As I said at the start, this issue affects people across the country. We heard from the hon. Member for Islwyn in Wales and from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) in Scotland—there is still time for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to burst through the doors and intervene. I am grateful to the new Minister for addressing some of the points raised. I know that, as the diligent Member of Parliament for her constituency of Derby North, she knows these issues all too well. I hope that, in her new position, she is able to resolve some of the sticking points that our local police forces face, as well work with other agencies to tackle underlying causes of antisocial behaviour.
Finally, I thank my constituents, who provided me with examples of antisocial behaviour that they witnessed, and the charities mentioned, such as ASB Help, Resolve and others, which do a lot of work in this field to make a difference every day. I also thank my local police officers and PCSOs, who do everything they can in incredibly difficult circumstances. I am very proud to represent Redcar and Cleveland and all my constituents who work so hard to make our area the best it can be. We are let down by a small minority with no respect, but that does not take away from the amazing work that some do in our communities day in, day out, and I pay tribute to them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered anti-social behaviour awareness week.
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
Children’s Social Care Workforce
Before I ask the mover to move the motion, we expect two votes around 5 o’clock. Once the votes are called, I will suspend the sitting for 25 minutes. If hon. Members come back early, we can start early, but that will be the procedure, so it is up to hon. Members to decide which way they want to go, making contributions now or waiting until later.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the children’s social care workforce.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I begin by stating why this issue matters. Social workers look after the most vulnerable children in our society. These are children for whom the national Government, local authorities and all of us here today have a responsibility. The state has a duty to ensure that these children get a good upbringing and the opportunity to do well in life. That brings me to the subject of the debate: the children’s social care workforce, in particular the failure to recruit and retain enough social workers. I will look at three aspects in turn: why recruitment and retainment matter, the current dire situation, and what needs to change.
Failing to recruit and, even more importantly, retain enough social workers is a real problem. It negatively impacts children across our country who most need extra support. That is why this issue matters. Failing to recruit and retain enough social workers can destroy any chance of social mobility for children in care for the rest of their lives. It often leaves children more vulnerable to being preyed on by grooming gangs or county lines gangs. I am sure many hon. Members here have had briefings from their local police force on how these evil gangs prey on vulnerable children—often those in care. That is not a fate that these children deserve. How the Government and society as a whole look after these children is a good judge of our values as a country. At the moment, the Government are failing. Charlotte Ramsden, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has said:
“It is important for children to have a consistency of social worker in their lives where possible, but this is increasingly difficult with more social workers leaving the profession”.
To give these children the best life chances, the Government need a proper strategy not only to recruit social workers, but to retain them.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the stability that children need. The recent independent care review chaired by Josh MacAlister, which I am sure she is aware of, found that agency social workers contribute to the instability experienced by children, which she mentions, and cause a loss of over £100 million a year. I am sure she will agree that that money could be spent on the frontline to improve the life chances of these children. Does my hon. Friend agree that with the rates of agency work at a record high of 15.5%, the Minister needs to explain what the Government’s strategy and policy is to tackle the overuse of agency staff?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend—in fact, that point is in my speech. When a child loses a social worker, the trust and relationship they developed no longer exists. These are children who have often experienced horrific trauma and abuse. I am sure that all Members in this room have dealt with constituency casework of this kind. It is these very children who are more vulnerable who are least trusting of adults. That is why consistency of social work is crucial to success in giving these children a good start in life. Of course, a change of social worker cannot always be prevented—a social worker could move home, or circumstances change for certain reasons—but there are many aspects that are well within Government control.
Secondly, the current situation is dire, and recruitment and retention are not good. Children’s social worker shortages have reached a five-year high. In 2021, 3,630 social workers left a post at a local authority—a 16% increase on the previous year. Of those, 33% left after less than two years of service, and 36% left after serving between two to five years. Losing many social workers who are at a relatively early stage in their career is not sustainable. If the Government do not fix this issue, and fix it fast, more children will suffer the consequences. Of those who left, 77% left children’s social care altogether, and 23% moved to agency roles. This in invaluable expertise that is being lost.
The Government tend to paint such departures as having been for personal financial reasons, but that is just out of touch. Social workers do not go into their line of work to get rich; they do it out of a duty of care to children. They have an incredibly difficult job, looking after our most vulnerable children. In a survey by the British Association of Social Workers, over half of social workers are seriously considering leaving due to unmanageable caseloads. I am sure that many here who are fortunate enough to count a social worker among their friends or family will know how stressful the job has become over the past five years. Resources are stretched thin, and caseloads are becoming increasingly unmanageable. It is a serious problem when seven out of 10 social workers feel they are unable to complete their work within contracted hours.
Social workers are unable to leave their job at the workplace. This puts additional stress and strain on a social worker’s home life. There is little chance of a healthy work-life balance, and that has a knock-on effect on to the children. Social workers really care about the children they support—they want what is best for them. Yet, in a survey by Community Care, social workers themselves were clear that the increasing number and complexity of cases was impacting the quality of their work. That is bad for social workers, and it is even worse for the children they look after.
Local authorities are having to rely on agency workers at a rate of over 15%, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) mentioned. That is double the rate of agency workers who are used in adult social care. Each agency worker costs a local council at least an additional £26,000 per year. That money is going to the agencies, not the workers, which results in a loss of over £100 million per year that could be spent on frontline services, including social workers. The current strategy—or lack of strategy—needs to be addressed.
Thirdly, what can be done, and what recommendations should be made? The Conservative party manifesto promised that the Government would review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings provided children and young adults with the support they needed. It is quite clear, after almost three years, that this has still not happened. I understand that the current news headlines are dominated by finding out who the next Prime Minister will be, but that does not mean that important issues such as this should be pushed to one side. The independent review of children’s social care published its final report almost two months ago. The previous Minister, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said he was working on a response; that has not been received. We are about to enter the summer recess without that response. The Government need to make progress on their promise—and quickly.
This is not a party political issue. It is an issue the Government should be working on cross-party, as we all want what is best for these children. However, each day, recruitment and retention remain a problem. More and more children are denied the opportunities and life chances they were promised. To help solve the problem, first and foremost we need an early career framework. Evidence shows that it is mostly social workers who had worked for less than five years who were leaving the profession. An early career framework could last five years, with plenty of training and opportunities provided.
Currently, the only real progression for social workers is to go into a management position, yet many want to remain on the frontline. As a country, we should seek to keep their expertise. We need career routes for the development of frontline social workers. We also need standardised pay and conditions, which need to be developed in a way that recognises expertise. Although social workers do not enter the profession to get rich, they should not be forced to go food banks. Social workers should be rewarded for their expertise and development.
Under the current system, local authorities compete against one another. That is bad for social workers and the children they look after. The models for teaching and healthcare professionals set out how standardised pay can be done, so why not look at these models? Finally, and perhaps more importantly, we should attract new social workers to the profession. We need a national recruitment and communications strategy. Being a social worker is an incredibly rewarding job. Social workers look after the most vulnerable children in our society, yet they are not receiving the respect they deserve for the value they add to our country. This fundamentally needs to change. Being a social worker is a difficult job, but a vital one for any civilised society and country. How we look after our most vulnerable children is how our society can be judged.
The importance of children’s social workers to the country needs to be emphasised in a national recruitment strategy. The recruitment campaign needs to target not only those who may become social workers, but also the wider public. Often, as has been the case with countless TV shows, social workers are depicted as villains. The reality is that they look after those in need. A national strategy to promote the invaluable role that social workers play in our country is essential.
Although it is not the topic of this debate, it is worth remembering that profits in the children’s residential home sector increased from £702 per child per week in 2016 to £910 per week in 2020. More importantly, the 10 largest providers of children’s social care placements made more than £300 million in profits last year. Those profits are made off the back of children in care—that care is not always good, and is often far away from home. As profits are going up, the situation of children in care is not getting better. Social workers can be proud of their contribution to our country. It is time the country gave them something back.
I urge the Government to take on board the recommendations that I, and I am sure many colleagues, will make today. We all want what is best for these children. Now is time for the Government to act. I urge the Government to make this issue their No.1 priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for introducing this crucial debate. I am saddened that Westminster Hall is not packed today. After 12 years, we must recognise that families are being failed, as are children, and our social work workforce is being set up to fail. We have around 80,000 children in social care—let us think about that number. If we do not change direction, in 10 years’ time that will be 100,000 children. If we put in the changes needed, we could see that number fall.
The crime is that we know what has to be done. We have had the report of 1,001 critical days. We have had Josh MacAlister’s report for the independent review of children’s social care. Today is the day on which the Minister must commit to pivot the system in order to invest in our young people. We know the trauma that being in care brings to children and families. Our social workers work so hard and are so dedicated. It is one of the hardest jobs—keeping children safe, keeping families together and acting as a corporate parent—but they are fighting a fire that will not go out.
We all know the constituency cases: the desperate situation where social workers are trying to keep a family together, but they remove a child and we question whether that was the right decision. It is hard. Perhaps parents can no longer cope because their charge is at significant risk of harm to themselves or others because they are so traumatised. That is the daily experience that social workers have to deal with. It is not just the shared pressure they are under, because of the volume of unsafe case work—they have so much of it and do not have the resources they need—but the emotional stress of the job that takes its toll That is why we need to look after our social workers and ensure that they have the support they need, because they want to break the cycles. They want to ensure that families are given that chance in life to stay together and have the support they need.
The independent review of children’s social care was an important moment. I really do thank Josh MacAlister and his team for the work that they did. They had so many children, young people and families with lived experience, and care-experienced people, leading that work, which is crucial to setting the path for the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston said, we need proper support for people who are newly qualified, with the five-year early career framework ensuring that people are working under supervision, with the opportunity learn, gain competencies, get knowledge and skills and focus on rebuilding families with the right interventions, which is a central part of Josh MacAlister’s report. They should not make those really difficult decisions until they have that experience. He suggests working with family helpers, bringing together early help and a child in need of support.
There should a multidisciplinary team wrapped around that, as opposed to pulling the child in so many different directions. There should be consistency in support around the child. As that practitioner gains experience to become an expert practitioner, there is a career path for them to gain and use that knowledge, so that they can have those sensitive conversations and deal with challenging situations. They analyse all the information and their experience in order to make the right decisions on behalf of a child and their family, and to deal with the courts. An observation that my colleagues in York have made is that dealing with the courts is challenging for social workers. We need to ensure that there is good training for judges, who are often quite removed from the real experiences of those social workers or the children for whom they are advocating. We need to look at the court system as well. We must ensure that we provide good support.
I say to the Minister that, although there is much churn in his party at the moment, we have to invest in these people. We have got to ensure that they get decent pay and recognition for the work that they do, rewarding the skills that they have and doing such an important job. Josh MacAlister’s report talks about a national pay framework, which is really important for the profession to stop the constant churn as social workers move to another authority because they pay that little bit more. That is destabilising the relationship with the child. The child should be central to all of this. We should ensure that there is a proper framework. In the NHS, we call it Agenda for Change and it is a good system of job evaluation that has lasted for 20 years, showing that it is sustainable as a mechanism for a pay and progression system.
I hope that the Minister looks at Agenda for Change and considers how it can be applied to social workers across the board, to ensure that caseloads are safe, which means that we need more capacity in the system. We need more social workers to carry out this crucial role and to get on top of the number of children who are at risk or who are presenting a need. If make an injection of funding, we can ensure that the eventual financial outcome will be far, far less. Fiscally it is a smart thing to do to invest at this point, because Josh MacAlister says in his report that it would mean that instead of having 100,000 children in care, that figure would go down to 50,000 children in care in 10 years’ time, which is certainly something we should fight for.
I have to agree with Josh MacAlister when he refers in his report to the “broken market” around residential care. I do not know whether the Minister heard the “File on 4” programme on BBC Radio 4 about this issue, but it was truly shocking; if he has not heard it already, I recommend that he listens to it. The programme is about the experience that children have in residential care. Profiteering from vulnerable children? It is disgraceful that that happens. We have to consider how we bring that care closer to the child, closer to the family and ensure that they both get the support they need; rather than making money out of these vulnerable children, we should invest in them and their future.
We must also invest in our social workers, supporting them to achieve their very best and to keep them safe. That is what we want to see, wrapping around them a multi-disciplinary team, including mental health services, education and even services related to play. Instead of services fighting against each other, they should work together.
What came out of Josh McAlister’s report was a view that every child or young person must be in a safe, stable and loving environment. That is not the experience of children today, but we must make it the ambition. We do not have time to waste; these are lives that are vulnerable right now.
Consequently, I trust that the Minister will take that report and will ensure that we get a response to it. I do not know what timescale the Minister is thinking of; perhaps he can tell us today, because these children cannot wait—and Labour Members certainly cannot wait either.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for securing this important and timely debate.
The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, and there are surely no members of our society who are more vulnerable than the hundreds of thousands of young people currently in our social care system, too many of whom spend every day at risk of physical harm—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. There are surely no members of our society more vulnerable than the hundreds of thousands of young people in our social care system, too many of whom spend every day at risk of physical harm and neglect and who are denied the most basic security, safety and affection that is every child’s birth right. By that metric, our country—or more accurately, this Government—is guilty of grotesque moral failure. There are far too many young people falling through the cracks of a social care system that is breaking at the seams.
In recent years we have heard endless arguments about how to fix the crisis in children’s social care. Countless debates have been tabled in Parliament, roundtables convened and studies commissioned. However, the situation we face today is far worse than it ever has been. It is time for Conservative Members to recognise that the causes of the crisis are very simple. It is the direct and chilling consequence of 12 long years of cuts to frontline services that have left children’s services in every corner of this country at breaking point.
In the first 10 years of this Tory Government, central Government funding for children’s services was cut by almost a quarter in real terms. Spending on vital early intervention services almost halved nationally, and in some local authorities it has fallen by as much as 80%. The result is that we are reaching far too many young people in need far too late. The number of children being taken into care is soaring in deprived towns such as the one that I represent. It is young people in our most left-behind communities, such as in the north end of my constituency, who are suffering the most. For all this Government’s talk on levelling up, spending on children’s services has fallen three times faster in the north of England than in the south.
It is not just young people who are suffering. Social workers are truly our nation’s unsung heroes. Their job requires a strength of character, bravery and compassion that I would struggle to muster. However, they are increasingly being forced to handle unmanageable workloads while surviving on pay that has stagnated for over a decade. The fact that growing numbers of social workers are being forced to return from a hard day’s work supporting the most vulnerable children, only to line up for food banks to feed their own, should shame us all.
We should not be surprised that more social workers left the sector last year than at any point in the last five years, with more than one in three leaving after just two years of service. We should not be surprised that, increasingly, vulnerable children and their families are becoming accustomed to a revolving door of social workers, with little chance to establish the lasting and meaningful bonds that are so essential in getting them the support that they need. “The Case for Change” report has highlighted a desperate need to do more to recruit, retain and support a high-quality workforce. However, we have no hope of doing that unless we look urgently at restoring funding for children’s services and ending the scourge of in-work poverty in that sector.
I would not be surprised if my pleas to the Minister fall on deaf ears. After all, my calls for renewed investment in services supporting the most vulnerable could hardly be more at odds with the programme of slash-and-burn economics being advocated by all of the country’s prospective future leaders. If the Minister will not listen to me, then I hope he will heed the warnings of the Public Services Committee, which last year called for funding for children’s services to be returned to 2010 levels. Perhaps the Minister will listen to Action for Children, who are so active on the frontline of the crisis and are demanding that the funding gap in the sector be addressed by 2025, with a clear link between funding and the level of needs in communities like my own.
If even that will not steer this Government to action, I hope that the desperate message that I received from social workers in my constituency will. They are telling me that we are standing on the brink of a catastrophe. Enough is enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), who displayed her regular passion and insight during her opening speech on such a vital topic of recruitment and retention in the children’s social care sector. We have spoken at length about the subject over many months on the train coming down to this place.
So far, we have had consensus from voices in this Chamber today—certainly from Labour—with hon. Members expressing their gratitude to those working in the sector. It is a vocational calling that offers a lifeline of support, providing that helping hand in times of crisis. In fact, I think my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to that responsibility as corporate parents. It is ultimately about safeguarding 80,000 or so of the most vulnerable children.
Children’s social work is personal to me. I have lived with a children’s social worker for decades—quite literally. I have seen the joy on my wife’s face when a child in care has secured a job, gone to university or got a training opportunity, when a kind-hearted local business has brought Christmas presents when there is no family to bring them, or when siblings have finally, after waiting a very long time—often far too long—secured a loving adoption in the safe and caring environment that has been referred to. I have also been witness to tragedy and heartache, from my wife helping a team to provide support to families in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester Arena terrorist atrocity to ensuring that the most vulnerable children are protected from the most inhumane individuals on planet Earth.
That professionalism, dedication, hours and sheer determination to get things done for children most in need humbles us all. I am not just referring to my wife, of course. Many thanks go to all the social workers in my local councils of Cheshire West and Chester and Halton and to all those working up and down the country.
To have a children’s social care system that does right by children and families, we need a stable workforce. That clarion call has echoed across the Chamber today. The recent independent review of children’s social care by Josh MacAlister recognised that:
“The greatest strength of the children’s social care system lies in its workforce.”
However, social workers are just not getting the support that they need.
Across the country, and in both my local authorities, caseloads and case complexity seem to be ever increasing, making it hard for councils to recruit and, especially, retain experienced staff. Although both my local authorities have some brilliant social workers, the scale of deprivation found in parts of Halton, in my constituency, means very high and complex caseloads and that impacts on the council’s ability to recruit and keep good, experienced social workers. That fact has been evidenced by Unison in its manifesto for social work. If we do not look after the wellbeing of social workers, we are not looking after the wellbeing of the children and families that need their support. Social care has a deep and profound impact on the lives of vulnerable children, but a system that cannot maintain a stable, supported workforce will ultimately fail. That is what we have seen—a crisis up and down the country.
It has got to the point where for every new social worker coming to work in Halton, there are two leaving. For every new one, two leave—that is a fact. It is completely and utterly unsustainable. Nationally, as referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston in the opening of the debate, a third of social workers left their roles after two years of service, with almost three quarters of those who resign leaving social work altogether. A lack of public understanding and appreciation of social work, unbearably high workloads, wages that have stayed low while costs increase—agency costs in particular—and a system that does not provide support, especially for early-career social workers, all contribute to a perfect storm. A depleted and dejected workforce—that is why three quarters of social workers are leaving altogether. The other quarter move on to agency roles, which make up an increasing proportion of social workers in our system. That is something the review called “inexcusably high”. In Halton, levels of agency workers have gone from between 7% and 12% pre-covid to up to 40% in some teams now.
Agency workers, as discussed in the Chamber today, are a less stable presence for the children and the families they support. They are more expensive and were the subject of a Competition and Markets Authority study last year that found that the largest private providers are making excessive profits—they are profiteering from the most vulnerable children. That should have no place in our public services. Improving children’s social care means reducing the dependency on agency workers and ending this dog-eat-dog situation with councils competing against councils and the price going up.
My asks of the Minister, whom I welcome to his place —I am not sure how long he will last, but all the best—centre on Josh MacAlister’s recommendations, and those of the British Association of Social Workers and Unison. What are the Government doing to ensure that we have a valued social care workforce able to meet the needs of those most vulnerable children and families who rely on it? What plan do the Government have to implement an effective recruitment and retention strategy for children’s social care workers? How will the Minister ensure that social workers spend less time dealing with complicated bureaucracy and give more time with children and families? What will the Minister do about low levels of pay—without doubt—a lack of support for career progression and training, and the need better to expand and fund social care bursaries? An early-career framework was referenced, as well as in the review. Finally, what will the Minister do to tackle the overuse of agency social workers? The money of our taxpayers is literally draining off shore, out of this country, to companies that do not even pay a fair share of taxes for our public services.
In conclusion, the safety and welfare of all our children in need is paramount for any Government of any political persuasion. Children’s social care has been woefully underfunded, with council finances hollowed out by 50% over the past 12 years—a political choice, which the new Prime Minister, when anointed on 5 September, will have to focus on urgently. A well-rewarded and valued workforce would focus on our most in-need children, and ensure that they live in a safe, loving, compassionate and caring environment, with opportunities in the future of their lives.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Sharma.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) on securing this important debate. She spoke powerfully about the crisis in children’s social care: the difficulties of local authorities in recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of social workers; the lifelong impact that the experiences of children who enter the care system can have if there is not that therapeutic, supportive and consistent intervention and support to help them address their challenges; the way that children are left vulnerable to exploitation; and the pressures on our social care workforce in terms of unmanageable caseloads. She spoke about the urgency of the need for a response to the independent review, the need for an early-career framework for the first five years of a social worker’s career and the fact that we really need and want social workers to be able to make a lifelong commitment to work in the profession, to develop their skills and to be able to progress. She also spoke about the urgent need for an end to profiteering in the children’s home and private foster agency sector.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who highlighted the work that social workers already do on a day-to-day basis, often battling in very difficult circumstances. She spoke about the need for a national pay framework to stabilise the workforce and stop different local authorities from competing with each other, and the parallels with the agenda for change in the NHS. She also spoke about the broken market in children’s residential care. I will return to that later in my remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke powerfully for social workers in his constituency, who say they are on the brink of a catastrophe if the crisis in children’s care is not addressed, and about the urgency of the need for action.
Finally, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who spoke powerfully of his wife’s experience as a children’s social worker—about the immensely rewarding difference that social workers can make in the life of a child, but also the challenges of working in the most difficult circumstances, and the way that social workers across the country stand ready when tragedy strikes and children find themselves in unimaginably difficult circumstances. He highlighted the wider context of deprivation bearing down on families, affecting the wellbeing of children and adding to the pressures in the social care system, which we must not forget in this debate. He mentioned the shocking statistic from one of his boroughs that for every one new social worker, two are leaving the profession—that illustrates the importance of the debate, and why we are talking about the crisis in the children’s social care workforce.
The challenges that have been brought to the House by hon. Members from the north-west of England and from York are not unique to those parts of the country. The recently published independent review of children’s social care, written by Josh MacAlister, concludes that our children’s social care system is broken, and that a total reset is needed.
I pay tribute to everyone working in children’s social care, who strive day in, day out to provide safety, support and stability to children who are in need, or whose birth parents are unable to care for them. Their work is vital and it makes a huge difference. Social workers are highly skilled; they make carefully balanced decisions about what is in a child’s best interests, in a context where the risks are often extremely high.
It is no exaggeration to say that their work can all too often be a matter of life and death, but the statistics on children’s social workers tell a clear story of a workforce in crisis. In 2021, there was a turnover rate of 15%: the highest rate recorded in the past five years. In the same year, there was a vacancy rate of one in six, meaning that social workers across the country are stretched to the limit covering the workload of vacant posts. A third of those leaving social work left after less than two years of service and 36% after less than five years. Around 60% of children and family social care workers have been in service for less than five years.
The MacAlister review is damning. It describes a
“lack of national direction about the purpose of children’s social care”.
The review also highlights unacceptably high levels of agency staff, and observes that once a social worker moves to an agency
“they are more likely to move around, contributing to the instability children and families experience.”
Agency social workers are also much more expensive to local authorities, causing
“a loss of over £100 million per year”
that could be spent on children and families. The response from the Government to date has been utterly complacent. Half of all children’s services departments across the country are rated inadequate or requiring improvement, yet there is no urgency from the Government: no national programme for improvement and support, no strategy to ensure that good practice from the best-performing local authorities is rolled out across all local authorities and simply no plan to address the crisis. There is also no plan to stop the grotesque profiteering by private providers of children’s homes and foster agencies—the largest 20 of which made a staggering £300 million of profit last year.
Delivering effective children’s social work requires a stable workforce embedded in the local community that they serve, with individual workloads that are manageable and a supportive and professional management culture. While there is such a crisis in the children’s social care workforce, it is children in need and their families who suffer.
At the heart of the Government’s failure is the erosion of early help and family support to stop families getting into the crisis situations that result in the removal of children into the care system. That is demonstrated no more starkly than by the 1,300 Sure Start centres that have closed across the country since 2010.
I welcome the Minister to his place, but I hope that he recognises the urgency of the issues facing children’s care, and that a merry-go-round at the top of Government is the last thing that social workers, or the children and families they serve, need or deserve. I hope that he will set out today what he is doing to address the crisis in children’s social care. How is he progressing the Government’s response to the independent review? When does he anticipate the response being published?
What is the Minister doing to increase the urgency of the Government’s response to the crisis? What representations is he making to the Treasury on children’s social care funding? What representations is he making to the candidates in the Conservative leadership race, because I have heard no mention of children in that debate so far? When will he end profiteering in children’s social care?
What is the Minister doing to ensure that dedicated social work practitioners and social care workers across the country are recognised and supported, and that local authorities are fully supported to address the crisis in recruitment and retention? How is he ensuring that as the Government respond to the independent review, they work closely with social workers and trade unions, as well as children, young people and their families, to ensure that reform can really deliver the total reset that is needed?
Labour will always put children first—we did so in government and we will do so again—but our children cannot afford any more dither and delay from the Government. We will hold the Government to account every single day on the framework of support they provide and the outcomes that they deliver for our most vulnerable children. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort that there is urgency within the Government on this important agenda.
Of course, Mr Sharma, and may I say what an absolute pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) on securing this important debate on a subject that she is passionate about. I share that passion and I thank her for bringing her extensive knowledge of local government to the table as well.
I thank our children’s social care workforce: the child and family social workers, our children’s homes teams, our family support workers, and all those with whom they work. I pay tribute to every single person working in children’s social care and striving to offer life-changing support to children and families day in, day out.
I am sure the hon. Member will be pleased to know that I will chair the first interim meeting of the national implementation board tomorrow, bringing together experts to deliver the kind of transformational change that we want to see in children’s social care. I also met Josh MacAlister today to discuss our ambitions, so I am equally keen to progress this as quickly as possible. I hope that I can address the concerns of other hon. Members present; I believe we share a great deal of common ground on a number of issues.
Children’s social care is central to our mission to level up the country and enable all children in the country to make the most of their abilities. I was in Worksop in Nottinghamshire on Monday where I had the opportunity to speak with social workers on the frontline. I want to capture the good news stories that are all too often overshadowed by the tragedies. I saw the excellent services and dedicated professionals that the hon. Member has focused the debate on. I applaud her work on ensuring that we have the opportunity to talk about this vital workforce that we so value and am pleased to be doing so in my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister, which I hope will not be my last.
As my predecessor, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said on World Social Work Day in March, there are few professions that can claim to transform lives as much as child and family social workers. The Government are dedicated to ensuring that there is an excellent child and family social worker for everyone who needs one. That is why there are more child and family social workers than ever before: 32,500 such social workers were employed by local authorities in England in September 2021, which is the most recent data we have at a national level. That is 14% more than in 2017.
We invest over £50 million each year on recruiting and developing child and family social workers to ensure that the workforce continues to have the capacity, skills and knowledge to support and protect vulnerable children. We train an average of 800 new social workers annually through our fast-track programmes Frontline and Step Up To Social Work. The Frontline programme alone plays a fundamental role in our recruitment strategy, with approximately 3,000 new social workers due to graduate and enter the workforce by 2024 since the programme began in 2013. In addition, each year almost 3,000 newly qualified child and family social workers are supported through our assessed and supported year in employment, and around 750 social workers go through one of our leadership development programmes.
I am delighted that just last week we announced our new leadership programme, which will run from this August to July 2024, called social worker leadership pathways. It will provide consistent and high-quality leadership development throughout a social worker’s career. That will run alongside the upon future leaders programme launched in 2020, which gives aspiring and new directors of children’s services the skills they need to thrive in such a challenging and pivotal role. However, I absolutely recognise the challenges that colleagues have described today. I know that local authorities face increasing challenges with their workforce, and I am grateful to everyone who has brought those issues to the fore. As I say, we share a lot of common ground on the issues.
The Government recognised the need for children’s social care reform in our manifesto, as has been rightly stated, and we announced our intention for an independent review of children’s social care. As the review sets out, and as we have heard, social worker recruitment, retention and quality are not consistently at the levels they need to be across the country. Sadly, that inevitably has an impact on the outcomes for our most vulnerable children. That is why, in addition to continued investment in our programmes, we intend to publish our children’s social care reform implementation strategy by the end of this year. As we develop the strategy, it is an absolute priority to work with the sector to ensure there are sufficient numbers of child and family social workers with the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of the families with whom they work. We are currently considering the recommendations from the independent review of children’s social care and the national panel review.
I thank the hon. Member for her question. When we come to the implementation board, those are exactly the things we will discuss and I share the view that there is a lot of good stuff in that report, and I would like to see us do as much as possible. That will obviously come when the board meets, and those are things that we will discuss. I can promise that we will look seriously at all the recommendations that have been made there before making any decision. That is something that certainly want to put across as the Minister. It is a passion that I equally share, and I will do my best to make sure that we have the best reform possible based on the information and resources available to us.
Some of the ideas we are considering in the review include regional staff banks, national pay scales and memorandums of understanding to help to reduce the cost of agency social work, which I agree is a problem and something that needs to be addressed. As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester set out on the day of publication of the independent review,
“Providing more decisive child protection relies on the knowledge and skills”—[Official Report, 23 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 33]
of all those in the workforce, and in particular our child and family social workers. That is why we are keen to support the principle of the review’s proposed early career framework.
We intend to set out plans to refocus the support that social workers receive early on, when the Government publish their implementation strategy later this year. The plans will have a particular emphasis on child protection, given the challenging nature of that work. I am particularly delighted to share with the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston that yesterday I signed off £250,000 of improvement funding for St Helens and the Liverpool city region. That will go towards a staff bank pilot, with the ultimate aim of reducing the region’s reliance on agencies.
It is not right that social workers feel their work is undervalued and overlooked. It saddens me to think that those working to protect our most vulnerable children are stigmatised in such a way. Unfortunately, the public only hear about social workers when something goes terribly wrong. They do not hear about the hundreds of thousands of cases where children and parents are empowered and supported to create a better life. Those are the stories that we should hear continually, to remind us of the crucial role that social workers play in protecting the lives of vulnerable children.
Importantly, it is because most social workers do their jobs so well that we are able to overlook them in such a way. That is a national scandal, because dedicated social workers are essential to keeping children safe. It is impossible to quantify the number of children’s lives that social workers have saved, the number of families that they have helped or the harm that they have prevented. When children are in need, social workers work hard on their behalf to ensure that they receive the love and care they deserve. When families are in awful situations and children are in danger, social workers help to make things better. When a family is able to stay together, a social worker is behind the scenes helping to make that happen. Throughout the pandemic, social workers have continued to meet families in person, helping to turn lives around. That is why the Government have invested heavily in training and support for child and family social workers, and will continue to do so.
The quality of a work environment is key to recruitment and retention, including effective professional supervision, wider support and case work levels. Our programme seeks to address a number of those points directly. We are supporting the recruitment of social workers through our investment in initial education and our fast-track programmes. Our investment in continued professional development programmes has a leadership focus, precisely because there is such a strong relationship between leadership, retention and quality.
There is great practice out there, with local authorities driving down agency rates and stabilising their workforces. We see the fruits of everyone’s labour in the number of child and family social workers increasing every year, up 14% from the number in 2017 to 32,500 in 2021. Average case load numbers have fallen from 17.8% in 2017 to 16.3% in 2021, something that we continue to build on.
We recognise that that may not be the picture that some local authorities are seeing on the ground. We are working closely with local authorities, using central programmes and funding to respond to their needs. Informed by the recommendations in “The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care” and the national panel review, we are aiming to stabilise and strengthen children’s social care as we transition out of the pandemic. We want the best possible outcomes for children and young people and to provide a strong foundation for longer term reform.
In addition to our £50 million investment every year in social worker initial education and professional development programmes, the Government have set up a brand-new regulator just for social workers. It is called Social Work England and has been running since 2019. Social Work England’s role as a specialist regulator for social workers is a fundamental part of our reforms to improve the quality of social work practice. Social Work England ensures that people who have a social worker receive the best possible support whenever they might need it in life. Its regulatory framework allows the organisation to adapt to emerging opportunities, challenges and best practice.
We introduced clear post-qualifying standards in 2017 to strengthen the social care system and improve social work practice and safeguarding across the country. They set out the knowledge and skills expected of child and family social workers. We remain committed to assessment and accreditation as key elements of improving children’s social care. We also continue to engage and collaborate with stakeholders and subject experts as we develop the long-term future of post-qualification training and development for child and family social workers.
This year, local authorities have access to more than £54 billion in core spending power to deliver their services, including those for children and young people. That is £3.7 billion more than in 2021-22. It is right that councils should be able to make spending decisions based on their local needs.
The Conservative-led Local Government Association has recently published figures about the funding pressure. Of course, that was based on a settlement, with inflation around 2%. We are looking at a shortfall of around £3.4 billion for local government, and 60% of local council finances and budgets go on social care. The system is broken; the current situation is not sustainable.
I thank the hon. Member for his point, and I agree there are considerable pressures on local authorities. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston mentioned agency rates earlier, and the spiralling cost of those. What the Government believe—and I have spoken with the LGA about this—is that the early intervention in some of the things that we are looking at putting in place, and this implementation, will help us to cut some of those costs. I fully recognise that there are significant challenges at the moment, but I hope that what we are doing will drive down some of those costs for local authorities and allow us to provide them with the support that I accept local authorities certainly need.
On a similar theme, there has been a real increase in demand for services. Many of the figures the Minister gave predate the pandemic, and after the pandemic we have seen a real spike in demand for children’s services. How is the Minister compensating that with the investment in local authorities?
Coming out of the pandemic, we face significant challenges in the workforce across the country, not just in the social care sector. Regarding funding, as I said, that is why the implementation board will be so important, because these are the things that we really need to focus on. I can assure the hon. Member that this is something that I do take seriously, and we will look at the points she raised as part of this review.
I am enormously grateful for the time we have had today, and to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston for bringing this debate. This is a subject I share a passion for, and I hope the steps we have taken underline the importance of this and our commitment to getting this implementation done. I hope the pace at which we move towards that goal reflects the importance of the issue.
I regret that I did not recognise that the Minister is new today; that is how fresh it was to me. I am pleased to see him in his position, and I hope that he stays there, because I know that he has shared a passion for this subject for some time, but please look at the outcomes in local government of the decisions that the Government are making. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, 60% of the spend of local government is on social care. Cuts in local government are cuts to children and adults’ social care, so please look at the outcomes. Caseloads are increasing—