Tuesday 18 October 2022
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Floating Offshore Wind Projects
I beg to move,
That this House has considered delivery of floating offshore wind projects.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I am grateful to have secured time for a debate on the delivery of floating offshore wind power, which is one of the most interesting and exciting energy developments in play. It is good to see colleagues from across the United Kingdom and I look forward to hearing their contributions. I put on record my thanks to RenewableUK, the Crown Estate and many of the developers for reaching out ahead of the debate to provide briefing and insight.
This is a timely moment to discuss the role of floating offshore wind in the UK’s energy mix and to consider what further steps the Government need to take to facilitate the emergence of that new industry. The twin challenges of net zero and energy security mean that the strategic imperative around this home-grown clean energy solution is becoming ever stronger.
Floating offshore wind—or FLOW, to use the shorthand—harnesses the power of wind by using turbines based on floating structures rather than fixed. It offers an opportunity to deploy enormous turbines in larger, deeper, more exposed offshore areas where the overall wind potential is higher and therefore more energy can be generated.
There is a high level of expectation that floating wind is going to become an increasingly important part of our energy mix. The Government have set a target of 5 GW of FLOW to be installed by 2030, and Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult estimates that we could have up to 95 GW of floating wind in UK waters by 2050. At that point, the majority of the wind turbines in UK waters would be floating, not fixed to the seabed as they are today.
The UK is already home to the largest floating wind farm in the world—Kincardine, off the coast of Aberdeen in the North sea—which is using the highest-capacity turbines ever installed on floating platforms. The success of Kincardine should give both industry and Government confidence that the technology works and is scalable, and that it can be replicated elsewhere.
Floating wind will be critical to achieving the Government’s energy security targets, and if we do not choose to industrialise FLOW we will have to generate at least 15 GW of power by 2035 using other means. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the overall expansion of offshore wind envisioned by the Government’s targets would be technically possible without doing floating wind in a very big way. That industrialisation of floating offshore wind will create the pathway for cost reduction, as has been proven with fixed-bottom offshore wind.
Floating wind offers a huge opportunity for the world to harness offshore wind power, not just those limited regions with shallow sandbanks close to shore. Globally, the UK Government have set the most ambitious targets for developing floating offshore wind, but other countries are catching up fast. Spain has announced a target of 1 GW to 3 GW of FLOW by 2030. Similarly, France, Norway, Japan, Ireland and parts of the United States have set clear and ambitious targets. The world will therefore develop floating wind for sure. The UK is well positioned as the leading marketplace for investors, but if those targets are not followed through, I fear that the UK is likely to be left behind as other countries move to seize on the new technology.
Along with parts of the North sea, the Celtic sea—located off the coasts of south-west Wales, Devon, Cornwall and southern Ireland—is one of those areas with the greatest potential to deploy FLOW. It is attracting enormous interest from developers and investors, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea, is here today. I look forward to hearing her remarks.
Floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea represents a multibillion pound economic development and investment opportunity for Wales, the south-west of England and the whole UK. The area has excellent wind resource infrastructure and local industry for potential supply chain development. The Crown Estate’s Celtic sea leasing programme aims to deliver 4 GW of new floating offshore wind by 2035. It could provide power for almost 4 million homes, and the project will kick start an innovative new industry in the area, with the Celtic sea assessed to have the economic potential to accommodate up to an additional 20 GW by 2045. Just last week, the Crown Estate announced that it is seeking to accelerate the leasing process for that first stage of development, recognising the importance of bringing floating wind onstream as soon as possible, and will be looking to launch the tender process in the middle of next year.
For us in west Wales—I represent a Welsh constituency —floating offshore wind represents a hugely exciting and valuable prospect. It is another stage in the evolution of Milford Haven port in my constituency. Shared with my right hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), Milford Haven is one of the UK’s most important energy ports, beginning in the late 18th century when whale oil was imported for use in streetlamps. The late 20th century brought oil refining and trade in petroleum products, and the early 2000s brought liquefied natural gas imports. Strategically, Milford Haven plays an incredibly important role in our energy mix, and I believe that the coming decades at Milford Haven will be about floating offshore wind and hydrogen.
Early analysis by Cardiff Business School suggests that floating offshore wind, hydrogen and sustainable fuels investment could add an additional 3,000 Welsh jobs to the 5,000 already supported by the Milford Haven waterway. Floating offshore wind will facilitate the transition to a vital new green energy era, supporting the continued evolution of that major hub for another 50 years. On the Milford Haven waterway, we already have a number of very active projects: we have Blue Gem Wind, a joint venture between Simply Blue and TotalEnergies, which is looking to establish the first demonstrator projects in the Celtic sea. We have DP Energy, a joint venture involving EDF, and RWE—which has a major gas-fired power station on the Milford Haven waterway—is looking at floating offshore wind opportunities, in conjunction with exploring the possibilities of producing hydrogen and moving its entire operation in Pembrokeshire to a lower carbon future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the much-rumoured and long-awaited freeport status for places such as Milford Haven—even in conjunction with Neath Port Talbot or similar—would accelerate all of the exciting initiatives he has referred to?
I will mention freeport opportunities a bit later, but my right hon. Friend is exactly right. So often when people talk about freeports, it is in the context of an answer looking for a question; what we have in Milford Haven—together with Port Talbot, I might say—is a solution. It is something that will help facilitate a new industry, and if we can use the freeport process to help support that—I am looking towards the Minister—then that would be excellent indeed.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Building on his point about freeports, one of the key advantages of our freeport bid is that it is in synergy with the floating offshore wind opportunity. That will deliver a huge amount of added value through the manufacturing opportunities and long-term sustainable job opportunities that will come out of it, so the freeport offer is a strategic offer, not just transactional.
As is typical, the hon. Member has gone right to the heart of the matter. Floating offshore wind is going to happen in a big way in UK waters— I absolutely believe that. The challenge that we need to get our heads around is how much real economic value and content can be captured and secured for the UK. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right that a collaborative bid between Port Talbot and the port of Milford Haven provides a potential framework to allow that industrialisation and capturing of domestic content to happen.
FLOW presents an important economic opportunity for the whole of the UK—for ports, industry and energy infrastructure, and by driving up investment and regional and national growth, as well as increasing the numbers of skilled jobs and career opportunities. The levelling-up opportunities are enormous: tens of thousands of people are already working in the offshore wind industry and supply chain in places such as Hull and Hartlepool. That is the kind of domestic content and supply chain opportunity that we want to deliver for Wales and the whole of the Celtic sea region. With large-scale projects in the Celtic sea perhaps five to 10 years away, there is an opportunity now for the development of the appropriate infrastructure and supply chain capability, which will deliver significant local opportunities in the region and, in turn, drive regional economic growth.
While we are talking about Port Talbot, I should say that I was excited to see RWE recently announce a new partnership with Tata Steel in the constituency of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). That will explore how steel manufactured in south Wales could be used for floating wind projects, which is exactly the kind of innovative thinking that we need to achieve everything to which we aspire.
I hope to have outlined the scale of the vision and opportunity in front of us. It is ambitious and exciting, and in my view it is achievable. There is enormous private sector interest. However, along with the scale of the opportunity, there is an enormous delivery challenge. Ensuring that we have the appropriate offshore and onshore capabilities to deliver this is a big and complicated challenge. The 5 GW by 2030 target is ambitious. The industry is confident that it can respond to the challenge, but it will require a lot of work. Think about the sheer scale of what we are talking about: hundreds and hundreds of enormous new turbines being manufactured and towed out to sea. We have also to think about all of the onshore infrastructure around the turbine: the port infrastructure, new grid capacity, new grid connections, all the supply chain work that we have talked about, the financial architecture around it—contracts for difference—and, of course, the planning regimes in which the projects operate.
Projects cannot happen without the underpinning physical infrastructure—grid and ports—and the right policy architecture. Creating the right frameworks will require a lot of collaboration between the public and private sectors.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about all of the wraparound and complexity. One thing he may have mentioned—I may have missed it—is maintenance and servicing. Once the structures are in place, they require regular maintenance and servicing, which in itself is a huge employment-generating opportunity.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right about the operations and maintenance role. That is not just a job creator; they are valuable jobs. There is real economic value in those support services.
I come back to the delivery challenges around this big, complicated opportunity. The first challenge relates to leadership and co-ordination. As with the early development of fixed-bottom offshore wind, the support of the UK Government will be crucial in driving forward the political, regulatory and financial support frameworks that are needed to maximise the flow opportunities. I welcome recent positive statements by the Government, but there needs to be much more visible engagement from Ministers when it comes specifically to the Celtic sea opportunity. I have been impressed by the leadership that the Crown Estate has shown, and the work that it is doing to create robust frameworks around the tender process and environmental protections. However, there is a role for UK Government, over and above what the Crown Estate is doing, to push forward the Celtic sea programme. That role starts with setting credible, ambitious targets. We are in a relatively strong position when it comes to the UK’s clear pipeline of offshore projects, which is backed up by a firm commitment from Government. That is critical in increasing investor confidence in the UK market, but Ministers should be going further, perhaps by setting supplementary, longer-term targets to strengthen signals to investors and developers. Ministers should be clear about the UK’s intentions to scale up the sector rapidly in the coming 10 years.
The next area of challenge is getting the right financial architecture in place: a market environment that encourages price competition and industrial development. The contracts for difference have been incredibly effective at reducing the costs of renewable energy projects by reducing wholesale price risk, but the weakness of the structure of the CfD auction scheme is that it considers only the price of projects, and not wider industrial and economic considerations or future cost reductions. The Government should look to reform the CfD system to create a premium or incentive that recognises projects that make substantial commitments to industrial and economic development in the UK and to innovation in the UK. The aim of these reforms should be focused on fostering a market environment in which investment, innovation and economies of scale are incentivised. Consideration should also be given to what form of support can be provided to combined FLOW and hydrogen production projects, which cannot really be assessed alongside conventional FLOW from a cost perspective. I mentioned the work that RWE is doing in Pembroke, looking at the role of floating offshore wind to support hydrogen development, and there probably needs to be a different way of looking at that in terms of price support.
At the heart of the infrastructure challenge are ports. Floating offshore wind will require a lot of port infrastructure. No port close to the Celtic sea is currently ready to handle the key activities for deploying floating offshore wind, but we have a window of opportunity now to address this and ensure that the economic value of deploying these vast structures can be captured for the UK. The FLOWMIS—floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme—funding that the Government are making available will help. As far as I am aware, the Government have not yet announced how that money will be used, but a good chunk, if not the lion’s share, should be devoted to supporting the development of the Celtic sea industry.
Given the targets that we are looking to achieve and the scale of activity that will be required, there will be enormous opportunities for all ports across south-west England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a clear starting point, and we have already discussed it: the ports of Milford Haven and Port Talbot. Independent reports from the likes of ORE Catapult and FLOW developers have identified Pembroke Dock in the port of Milford Haven and Associated British Ports at Port Talbot as potential anchor ports for floating offshore wind. However, without collaboration and significant investment at both ports over the next decade, the vast majority of the potential £4 billion of benefits could simply go overseas. A combined, dual port solution, with close proximity to the Celtic arrays, has enormous potential to accelerate the deployment of floating offshore wind and increase prospects for UK Government generation goals.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way, and I thank him for that. He is right that port infrastructure is vital, but another key part of our infrastructure is the national grid. Does he agree that there are real concerns about the capability of the national grid to deliver the power that we need from offshore wind, and that the UK Government need to get round the table with National Grid and Ofgem to make that happen?
I swear I have not shared a copy of my speech with the hon. Gentleman, but he anticipates the next section extremely well. I will just finish this point about the freeport bid. I am not expecting the Minister to comment—it is a live bidding process—but as I said on the Floor of the House yesterday in Levelling Up, Housing and Communities questions, I hope that Ministers will look closely at what is coming forward from Milford Haven, Pembroke Dock within that port, ABP at Port Talbot and the two relevant local authorities, because it is genuinely exciting and represents something different. We should not get hung up on freeport labels; it is about doing something innovative and collaborative that can help to unleash the full economic potential of this opportunity.
Let me get on to grids, before I bring my remarks to a close. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is exactly right: potentially even more challenging than delivering port upgrades is achieving a serious step change in the way we increase grid capacity and make available new grid connections here in the UK. The planning and consenting processes are ridiculously slow and difficult—they are not fit for purpose. We on the Welsh Affairs Committee in recent months have been taking evidence on the grid infrastructure in Wales. Our report on that will be coming out soon, so I will not pre-empt that. I was pleased in the evidence we took to hear about steps that are being taken by Government to reduce the offshore wind consenting times, but the truth is that we need to see far more urgent action from Government to address grid capacity. The danger is that developers will increase their capabilities and be able to construct and deploy large-scale renewable energy infrastructure way ahead of the planning process, and that cannot be acceptable. We need more anticipatory investment so that new grid networks are built in time for those major new sources of generation and for demand. We could talk about other planning challenges: in the Welsh context, we have the devolved body Natural Resources Wales. Developers are concerned that Natural Resources Wales should be fully equipped to be able to handle the volume and complexity of the planning jobs that they will be asked to do, to assess the impact on seabeds and things like that.
Floating offshore wind represents a major, exciting opportunity for the UK to tackle a number of critical issues: wholesale prices, energy security, job generation, levelling up and net zero. It is an exciting package. Floating offshore wind presents a compelling answer to all those challenges. The key challenges for us to consider are the risks and potential difficulties around delivery, and achieving the scale of offshore and onshore capabilities and systems that will be required just a few years from now. I look forward to hearing from colleagues and the Minister.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing this vital debate.
If the last 12 months have taught us anything, it is that if we are to better protect ourselves from rocketing energy costs, as a country we must become more resilient and less exposed to fluctuating global energy prices. The good news is that the UK is well placed to do that, but we need a UK Government who will grasp the nettle and realise our potential.
A Labour Government will turn the UK into a green growth superpower through our green prosperity plan, by creating GB Energy, a new publicly owned clean energy generation company that will harness the power of the UK’s sun, wind and waves. We will establish the UK as a clean energy superpower, delivering a zero-carbon electricity system by 2030 and guaranteeing long-term energy security. It is only through a publicly owned company that we can ensure that communities and people across the country feel the benefits of the power created on our own shores through cheaper bills, good local jobs and putting money back into the public purse.
To achieve clean power by 2030, we will need to quadruple offshore wind. Floating offshore wind will be crucial in helping us achieve that goal. The Celtic sea will be a vital next step in that journey. The deployment of 24 GW of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea presents a major opportunity to establish manufacturing and logistical support in south Wales. Port Talbot is ideally placed to be the hub for that activity, and a catalyst for the growth of FLOW in the region. Unlocking the Celtic sea’s potential requires ports that are capable of constructing foundation substructures, component storage and turbine integration, and continuous maintenance of those turbines.
Port Talbot’s deep sea harbour, with the land around it fully available for development, makes it the only port with capacity to combine FLOW fabrication, assembly, staging and flotation. The harbour is sheltered from high winds by a natural bay, and the space, size and water depth means that it can easily accommodate the substructure construction for the largest turbines in sufficient quantity to meet long-term Celtic sea demand.
Port Talbot also has the key infrastructure to support that groundbreaking technology. We are centrally located and have excellent transport links, with easy access to the M4 and the rail network. We also have world-class steelworks and the existing manufacturing supply chains, which bring with them the vital workforce skills and labour pool, including port workers, heavy industry workers, and maintenance and servicing workers, to support the quality manufacturing and assembly jobs essential for FLOW to become a reality.
Local businesses already in the manufacturing supply chains are keen to bring their transferable skills to the table and be part of this new, cutting-edge technology. Such is the scale of the FLOW project that there is significant potential to attract new industries in the supply chain, to create thousands of skilled jobs and to open up a world of opportunity for my Aberavon communities and those well beyond.
In short, Port Talbot has the capacity to deliver this scale of growth. It is a daunting project, but we have the basic infrastructure right there; it just needs to be mobilised. We have the critical mass and established manufacturing base needed to make a success of this future industry, but it is not just Port Talbot that would benefit. The benefits would be felt right across south Wales and beyond. The Swansea Bay economy has the ability both to absorb the initial demand and to translate it into new economic activity, and the sheer scale of what we are talking about would require additional resources to support Port Talbot, with the ports of Swansea and, as the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire so eloquently pointed out, Milford Haven having the capacity to carry out vital supporting activities right through the supply chain, including integration, maintenance, and assembly of mooring and cabling components. This has to be a team effort if it is going to work.
A south Wales freeport centred around Port Talbot and Milford Haven has huge potential to support FLOW manufacturing, assembly, installation and associated supply chains, and those opportunities can be distributed between the ports of Port Talbot and Milford Haven, which complement each other and offer the prospect of establishing the energy and manufacturing coast in south Wales at the necessary scale. Freeport status for Port Talbot and Milford Haven would help to create an environment to attract inward investment for the manufacturing of components for FLOW and the development of wider industrial manufacturing. The proposed new port infrastructure at Port Talbot will be an attractive site for the co-location of manufacturing for offshore wind components, improving the logistics of the supply chain. Port Talbot will also offer access to new export markets as well as the industrialised economy of south Wales.
The ability to offer the benefits of freeport status for development land in close proximity to the newly constructed port infrastructure will provide significant advantages for potential investors seeking to establish new manufacturing capacity in the UK, but also across Europe. I have had extensive discussions with Associated British Ports, which stands ready to invest over £500 million in new and upgraded infrastructure to enable the manufacturing, assembly and launch of floating foundation substructures and the import, storage and integration of wind turbine components in Port Talbot. These plans would be transformative for my Aberavon constituency and the surrounding area, but support from the UK Government will be a crucial precondition for drawing in private sector investment so that the FLOW project can get off the ground. FLOWMIS co-funding would demonstrate the UK Government’s clear long-term commitment to developing the site and the sector, giving confidence to allow investors and other funding providers to back the project and unlock sizeable private sector investment potential.
There is no time to waste. As the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire pointed out, other European countries, such as Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, are also looking at investing in FLOW, so we must act now if we are to secure first mover advantage. We missed the boat with onshore and offshore wind in the past; other countries stole a march on us, and now they benefit from energy produced here. The largest onshore wind farm, which also happens to be in my Aberavon constituency, is paying for schools and hospitals in Stockholm. The Chinese Communist party has a stake in our nuclear industry, and millions pay their bills to an energy company that is owned in France. Such countries, rather than the local communities where the energy is actually being generated, also benefit from the manufacturing jobs that go with these industries. It is simply scandalous, which is why I am lobbying the Crown Estate to ensure that when it grants the lease for the Celtic sea, local benefits are maximised and we grasp the opportunity to build a homegrown manufacturing base to underpin these local industries. The manufacturing supply chain must stay in south Wales.
Worryingly, the Crown Estate’s announcement last week on the seabed licences lacked detail on the supply chain and the local content commitment that developers will have to give when bidding for seabed licences for FLOW development in the Celtic sea, and I urge the Minister to raise the issue with the Crown Estate as a matter of urgency. Under the current criteria, there is a real risk that the opportunity will yet again be missed to maximise prospects for local jobs and supply chains. The Crown Estate must therefore provide more detail on the local content commitment that developers will have to give as part of the bidding process.
The future of our country is in our air, sea and skies, and mother nature has truly given us a gift in Wales. We were the cradle of the first industrial revolution, and now Wales can be the cradle of the green industrial revolution, with Port Talbot at the forefront. Investing in Port Talbot as the hub for this game-changing form of renewable energy would turn south Wales into a green power superpower in the generation of renewable energy. I therefore urge the UK Government and all other key stakeholders to come together to ensure we grasp this opportunity with both hands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing this important debate. I will reinforce and reiterate much of what he and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said.
I set up the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea because the opportunities presented by the Celtic sea were apparent, but there was a disjointed approach, which many of my Welsh colleagues have discussed. I was concerned that we might miss out on the opportunity altogether in North Devon, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) is here to put in a case for the south-west of England. If we are to deliver these projects, we need a strategic approach that takes into account all the ports, skills and opportunities right the way around the Celtic sea. This is a national and international opportunity, and I am delighted to have the support of the Celtic sea APPG secretariat here today. We have been working hard to drive forward the issue, and we now have a Celtic Sea Developers Alliance. We have now established that the wind blows the opposite way in the Celtic sea, so we are delighted to have an opportunity, alongside our Scottish counterparts, to work across the whole country to see how we can deliver these projects.
On the strategy, like others I am concerned about the UK supply chain, because pretty much everything that is planned is coming in internationally. We are not realising the economic benefits that these enormous turbines present. I have seen the work going on in Blyth, and it is clear to me that my beautiful constituency is probably not best placed to develop a big port. However, we are the closest port to the development sites, and yet I cannot see anything local that is developing the kind of maintenance system that we need to service the 250 floating offshore wind turbines that are coming at us in the next five to 10 years.
In addition, as has been said, our ports are not ready. Much as it is lovely to hear everyone bid for projects for their ports, it would make much more sense to have a strategy that delivers the floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme—FLOWMIS—and liaises between the ports. Competition is great and drives innovation, but we need a decision so that we do not have three or four ports building exactly the same thing, none of them terribly well. We need to say, “This one can maintain and this one will build blades,” so that strategically we take the opportunity that we are presented with.
That is no better demonstrated than when it comes to cables, which are a particular bugbear of mine, given what has happened on the east coast with fixed offshore wind. Now that we understand that blue carbon is released every time we disturb the ocean floor, why on earth are we not insisting that cable corridors be put in at the start of the projects so that we can connect to the grid—I will come to the problems there—and damage the floor only once? When assessing the bids, we need to consider the full environmental impact, because we tend to look just at the benefits of delivering the wind power from the turbines without considering the international components—how far they have come, how they were made and what happened to the carbon in their production—let alone the damage to the floor.
I want to highlight some of the very small development sites, which I am sure were designed to deliver great opportunities and develop scientific insights. I have a small one in my North Devon constituency that can go into a small substation, but because there is no cable corridor connecting to the main grid, its cables go across four highly designated beaches, straight through my biosphere, and disturb all my sites of special scientific interest.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene because she hits on an important point: the lack of co-operation and strategy. It is not just about cable corridors, important though they are. It is also about how floating offshore wind and, perhaps later, tidal stream generation sit with other users of the seabed. Fishermen in my constituency, and I do not doubt in hers, are already concerned about spatial squeeze. It should not be a barrier; it would be an unnecessary conflict if we do not take the opportunity now to do something meaningful, and hold the ring around the different people who want to use the sea and the seabed.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention—I agree entirely. I am also grateful for the work of the Crown Estate in trying to tackle some of these matters. We need to take a far broader strategic approach when it comes to the ocean floor.
Once we have got things into a cable, hopefully in a corridor, and have connected into the grid, the grid is perhaps able to take 30 kW out of the Celtic sea, but is that the full potential? What work is being done to upgrade that grid? Why have we got small substations, such as the development site at Yelland, when potentially it could go into the main national grid? Alternatively, if Yelland is to become a proper substation, can we have a proper cable corridor, so that it has to go through our precious beaches only once?
I hope that as we move forward we can look at the full environmental impact, and properly cost some of those points into the next round of contracts for difference. It is important to recognise that it is not always about price. As touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, other factors could be considered when awarding the contracts.
My other big concern is skills. We do not have anyone to do any jobs in North Devon right now, to be honest. I would like to see skills incorporated in the contract for difference, and that we reward developers who are prepared to invest in science, technology, engineering and maths facilities along our ports, right around the Celtic sea, so that all of us along those patches are able to develop the next generation of engineers.
On strike price, I would highlight concern in the industry that the price was too low in the contract for difference auction round 4, because it took into account some of the infrastructure that was already present. That is not a true reflection of where the price would be moving forward. I urge the Minister, as we look to take advantage, please can we consider some of the other elements that have been discussed today, such as the supply chain, environment and skills, and not just price, as we look to develop contract auction round 5?
We have the world’s largest pipeline and target for the sector, and there is long-term confidence in the UK. However, it is critical that that next auction round—AR5—demonstrates that we also have the right market conditions, or we could fail to realise the investment opportunities already displayed, and see it move to more competitive markets, which will have knock-on effects for subsequent auction rounds for contracts for difference.
Although I love the fact that my APPG has been able to drive some change. As a former maths teacher and not an engineer, I do not think I am best placed to drive this forward. I very much hope we shall see some big strategic interventions to achieve the potential of the Celtic sea.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I concur with him on the future possibilities. I have a minor comment, meant as an assistance rather than a chastisement: the pronunciation of the windfarm’s location is actually Kincardine, although he is not from those parts and is not to know. Otherwise, I fully agree.
Scotland has 60% of the UK’s onshore wind; it has 25% of Europe’s offshore wind capacity. It is not simply the Celtic sea; it is all around Scotland’s shores. The Berwick Bank field, between East Lothian, my constituency, and Fife is able to power something like 2.5 million households. Scotland only has 2.4 million, and that is one field alone, so the potential is significant. It follows on from oil and gas and precedes, as has been mentioned, tidal possibilities and even carbon capture and storage, so our country has been blessed with huge natural resources—a significant blessing. Scotland is energy-rich, but Scots are fuel-poor. It is no comfort to be able to see turbines turning—if they are—onshore or offshore if people cannot heat their home, power their business or obtain employment. That is why we ask: where is our country’s and our communities’ benefit from resource?
I appreciate that there is a disconnect that has to be resolved. Scotland has more energy than it requires, as I mentioned with the Berwick Bank field. England has a surfeit of requirement, but not the ability to access that energy and therefore cabling makes sense. But where is the consequent payment? Where are the jobs? At present, they are simply not coming.
The turbines are going to be constructed, but sadly almost none in Scotland. Every yard in Scotland should be clanging and riveting. Every estuary in Scotland should be producing them, but we are bringing them in from south of the border, from the Netherlands, from Indonesia. Where is the work for our people? It is not evident in my constituency or across the country.
Transmission stations are also—correctly—being built. I have one near Torness that will take the cabling south to Redcar. A similar one is going from Peterhead down to Drax, but where is the consequent payment and compensation for Scotland’s losing the energy from our shores? Where is the money that we should be entitled to? It is simply coming in and going on. I get told there are supply chain jobs. I spoke to Scottish Power. The transmission station will employ four people in my constituency. That is an inadequate return. It is simply unacceptable. We accept cabling, but there has to be compensation and it cannot simply be a few pounds for the Crown Estate. It has to be for the communities and the country as a whole.
It is not simply, as I say, the cabling. Although the Berwick Bank field is in Scottish territorial waters and although it lies between East Lothian and Fife, 40% will be cabled directly south to Blyth. The Crown Estate will not even get any benefit. The Scottish Government, Marine Scotland, the councils, the communities, Crown Estate Scotland—nobody is getting any financial recompense. That cannot be right. It has to be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman has hit on something really important: community benefit. In Orkney and Shetland for the last 40 years we have derived real community benefit from the presence of offshore oil and gas in our communities. It would be an absolute scandal if we cannot get the same benefit from the next generation of clean renewable energy. Does he agree that it is rather perplexing that when the ScotWind round of leasing was facilitated, a cap of £100,000 per sq km was put on bids in the auction? I do not understand for the life of me why that was necessary. It is a real missed opportunity. Scotland’s seabed has been sold cheap.
It has. The right hon. Gentleman raises two issues, including the community benefit that there should be. I pay tribute to Mr Clark and Shetland Islands Council, who negotiated that. Anybody who goes to Shetland will see the community benefit. East Lothian would give its eye teeth for that. That community benefit should apply not simply in Scotland and the Scottish islands, but across the UK. There should be a community benefit. It would not be a disincentive to investment, and it should be available for communities.
With regard to the Scotland project, the bulk of my criticism, because energy is overwhelmingly reserved, is against the UK Government, but the Scotland auction has been lamentable. Nobody goes into an auction, whether at a fundraiser for a political party or whatever, and puts a cap on an auction. Normally we put a floor on an auction, but for some reason the Scottish Government decided to put a cap on it. They returned a benefit of £700 million and crowed about that being a great benefit to Scotland. Of course, £700 million is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but one month later New York had the New York Bight. It put up for auction one quarter of what was disposed of in Scotland and it obtained $4.3 billion. The Scottish Government have to answer for their incompetence and the UK Government for their failures.
There are opportunities. There should be employment in Scotland. There should be energy storage, because that is now coming onshore with the battery, so we should be able to keep stuff in Scotland. We should be able to manufacture hydrogen—green hydrogen, not blue hydrogen. In my constituency, what do we require for hydrogen? In the main, we require water and energy, and we have that by the score, so there has to be more. This is a huge potential benefit that has landed in Scotland and its communities, but at present—through failures by the Scottish Government but primarily the UK Government—we are not seeing that benefit in terms of employment. We are not seeing our share, because it is ours and we should be taking it. It is absurd, as the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) mentioned, that Vattenfall and the Chinese national corporation are owners and yet our people are not. This potential must be for the benefit of our country and communities. The Government have to up their game and, indeed, so do the devolved Governments.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing this important debate, which places a spotlight on an exciting emerging sector for my constituency of Truro and Falmouth in Cornwall and the south-west as a whole. Cornwall is already at the heart of the green revolution. We are mining and drawing out lithium and are drilling for deep geothermal, which is why I have worked on the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea to promote floating offshore wind projects off our Cornish shores.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), who set up the all-party group. She works tirelessly on this issue and is brilliant at bringing all the different threads together. When we became MPs in 2019, I was lobbied by only one company. Not a year later we had a reception on the Terrace where there were between 50 and 100 companies present, and that number continues to grow. It is a growing sector and one that should benefit all parts of the United Kingdom.
I was delighted to welcome the Defence Secretary, the COP26 President and the Business Secretary to Falmouth to see first hand how Cornwall can help deliver this vision. It is right that the Government have a target to raise the UK’s floating offshore wind capacity from one gigawatt to five by 2030. Floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea will be crucial to reaching that target, with the Crown Estate recently announcing that the leasing round for the region will be launched in mid-2023. That could deliver 4 GW of installed UK floating offshore wind capacity by 2035, supporting up to 3,200 jobs, with the potential of £682 million spend in the local supply chain by 2030.
A key part of the strategy is the TwinHub project, which is the first floating offshore wind project in the Celtic sea, based off the Cornish north coast. TwinHub has developed a new design that places two turbines on one platform, which gets twice the bang for its buck. This offshore wind farm will produce more energy while taking up comparatively less space and, by 2025, will be generating enough electricity to power 45,000 homes. The wider opportunities that floating offshore wind and the Celtic sea present will create over 1,500 skilled jobs, with £900 million headed for the regional economy by 2030 based on current projections.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire alluded to, the grid support maintenance will require cohesive collaboration between the public and private sectors, but we need the big port upgrades to build these floating offshore wind farms. Falmouth is one of the deepest ports in the world and is ideally positioned to become an integration port where turbines will be put together before being towed out to sea. Falmouth is also best placed for the maintenance of components and used vessels. The south-west supply chains will then be built up and will develop a strong network of experienced project developers and a wealth of skills and experience. These are all high-quality careers for the future of Cornish children in my schools. Falmouth should therefore receive its first share of the £160 million floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme to unlock wider private sector investment in the Celtic sea.
North sea ports already have the necessary infrastructure to be competitive due to their historical industry. If Celtic sea ports such as Falmouth are not upgraded, we risk utilising just one sea rather than the two. I urge the Government to look at further streamlining planning regulations to speed up the upgrades. One thing that the Celtic sea APPG has done perfectly is to encourage a port strategy. If I have one plea for the Minister, it is to try to do that, so that we know which ports will be best placed to do which parts and we can turbocharge development to ensure we get it right. Incidentally, Cornwall Council has submitted its application for an investment zone, which will include Falmouth port. I pay tribute to the council and our portfolio holder for economic growth, Louis Gardner, who has turbocharged efforts since coming into post recently to ensure we get this right for Cornwall.
Cornwall has a rich and proud maritime industrial history. I believe the Government can build on that by supporting investment in the port of Falmouth and the development of TwinHub, as well as ensuring high-skilled, well-paid careers for Cornish young people. If we can do that, Cornwall can continue to be at the heart of the green revolution. I urge the Government to listen to everything that is being said today.
I thank the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for leading the debate, and all the right hon. and hon. Members who have made significant and helpful contributions. I look forward to hearing from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), as well as from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), and from the Minister, who I welcome to her place.
With the spikes in global wholesale gas prices, the rise in our national price cap and Russia invading Ukraine, we have seen an acceleration of the UK’s British energy security strategy to combat those circumstances. More recently, that has been seen in the floating offshore wind projects across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is great to be a part of the conversation, and to ensure our commitment to a UK-wide low carbon future.
Initially, I seek an assurance from the Minister that all of the United Kingdom can feel the benefits of the offshore wind policy—I believe that is happening, but it is always good to have it on record. To give an example, I know from my discussions with the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation that it sees opportunities for some of those in the fishing sector in that field of alternative technology. That is something from back home that I am aware of, and it is good news.
The United Kingdom has announced plans to speed up consent for offshore wind projects across the nation to improve our energy sustainability, which is welcome news. They include reducing the consent time from four years down to one and assessing environmental considerations at a more strategic level. While that is welcomed, all nations throughout the United Kingdom have a role to play on offshore wind. In March 2022, just seven months ago, Simply Blue Group launched its latest offshore wind project in Northern Ireland, called nomadic offshore wind. It will be located between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Our Gaelic cousins, both in Northern Ireland and Scotland, are intertwined on that project. The company responsible is MJM Renewables of Newry, and it is playing a pivotal role in tackling climate change and developing offshore wind in Northern Ireland, this time in conjunction with those in Scotland as well. We are pleased to be part of that project.
Government must play a leading role in incentivising the use of greener energy. This winter has been a real eye opener in proving how global circumstances can impact upon our daily lives. Green energy and offshore wind will create additional projects such as manufacturing facilities, hydrogen production, and data and research centres, thereby creating the opportunity for more local jobs. I am always greatly encouraged by what the Scottish Government do on renewables in Scotland, and I often wish that we were in a position to match that. The UK is one of the world’s largest markets for offshore wind with the projects currently installed. BP has stated that the capability is there to power over 6 million homes, with 11 gigawatt of power currently under construction. Ørsted, the world’s largest renewable energy company, has invested over £14 billion in the construction of new offshore windfarms in the UK, generating 7% of the UK’s electricity.
I am pleased to see the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea, the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), in the Chamber, and I thank her for all that she does. I am pleased to be vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on marine energy; the hon. Lady does all the work, I just have a VC—not a Victoria Cross, but rather a vice chairman title. As an MP for the coastal constituency of Strangford, it is imperative for me that marine technology be developed to maximise the economic impact in the UK. Ørsted has said that that is crucial for creating world-class UK supply chain companies.
I have been contacted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has raised concerns about the deterioration in UK waters, which is evident through the catastrophic declines of globally important seabirds. I want to ensure that we have protection within the green energy strategy that we are pushing forward. Between 1986 and 2019, the number of breeding seabirds fell by almost a quarter across the United Kingdom. I seek reassurances from the Minister and the UK Government that any further consideration for offshore wind will not impact our marine wildlife. That must be a commitment from not just this Minister, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as well.
There are ongoing concerns over the security, affordability and sustainability of our energy supplies. We have aspirations for our climate strategy, and offshore wind is proving to be one of the leading initiatives. We must do more to put the United Kingdom in the best position to benefit from the growth that the renewable energy sector has to offer. What an opportunity. What possibilities there are for the future.
All nations across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have a part to play in achieving our net zero goals by 2050. Offshore wind projects truly present a great opportunity for us all. I call on the Minister and the Department to see this as a priority in meeting our climate change and net zero targets. I commend the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for bringing forward the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for bringing forward this incredibly important debate. I will start in a slightly unusual fashion, by referring to something that happened 10 years ago. In April 2012, there was a Scottish parliamentary inquiry into renewable energy. An Aberdeenshire hotelier put forward a submission, both in writing and in person. He said that offshore wind was unreliable and an expensive form of power. Much like many things that Donald Trump has said, that has been proven to be completely untrue. As we know, offshore wind is six to nine times cheaper than its gas equivalent, and it is very reliable. He was referring to the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group, a joint venture with Vattenfall, which sits off the coast of Aberdeen. It has been providing clean, green, sustainable electricity—enough to power all the homes in Aberdeen—since it came onstream. I was fortunate to visit it recently with the team from Vattenfall.
Another wind farm that sits just off the coast of Aberdeenshire is the Kincardine development, which has been referred by both the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill). I went to visit Kincardine just under two weeks ago with a couple of colleagues. The weather was very Scottish—put it that way. The waves were choppy, and it would be unfair of me to name my colleagues who were perhaps a bit sick, although of course we cannot name people in the Chamber or Westminster Hall, so I guess my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber have nothing to worry about.
It was a fascinating visit to the world’s largest offshore windfarm, and it showed us what can be done. Scotland’s potential in this regard is absolutely enormous, as has already been mentioned. We have 25% of Europe’s offshore wind capacity. What does that mean in real terms? At the moment, Scotland has about 1 gigawatt of installed offshore floating wind. There are 7 more gigawatts in the pipeline, and 28 gigawatts are due to come onstream from the first ScotWind licensing round in the years to come.
People want to know what that means for them. In the first instance, we need that to mean jobs and opportunities. That is particularly true for my constituency, given the sheer volume of individuals who work in the pre-existing oil and gas sector. We need to see a just, managed, fair transition that protects their employment and allows them to have new jobs in the future. I firmly believe that can be achieved. It is about not just jobs and opportunities, but energy security. It is about not just ensuring energy security for Scotland, because we are going to have far too much electricity to meet our own needs, but ensuring energy security for our friends and allies elsewhere on these isles and right across the European continent.
It is not just about energy security either, but about what we could achieve. Scotland could become not just an offshore wind delivery hub for these islands or Europe, but a global renewable offshore wind hub. Again, I firmly believe we can achieve that. The reason I believe we can achieve it in Scotland is that we have achieved it with the oil and gas sector. We lead the world in our expertise in that field, and we can do the same in renewables.
However, the issue is not just about all those things; there are also massive opportunities for the Scottish economy. Primarily, those will come from exports and the ability to turn renewables electricity into clean, green hydrogen, and again, to export that not only to our friends and allies across the UK, but across Europe using the hydrogen backbone. We have to aspire to that because it will bring not only employment and good jobs, but core economic value for the Scottish economy, which we will need when we break free from this place in the not too distant future.
What does that mean in real terms? It means around £25 billion of gross value added and 300,000 jobs by 2045. Do not take my word for it; take the word of David Skilling, who has produced a report of this very nature in recent weeks. The opportunities and the scale for Scotland are huge, but we need to grasp those opportunities and make sure they are delivered.
There are challenges, however—obvious challenges, some of which have been touched on in the debate. There is the concerting challenge of ensuring that these projects, which we want to come on stream, do come on stream at pace with jobs locally. Those local jobs will not appear in the next year or two, and maybe not even in the next five years: we cannot click our fingers and create an industrial base, but we can in the years to follow, and we must make sure that we do.
There are challenges in relation to the grid, which I hope the Minister will address, and challenges in relation to TNUoS—transmission network use of system—charges, whereby renewables projects off the coast of Scotland pay to access the grid and projects in the south-east of England get paid to access the very same grid. That is an inequity that should not stand: we have the highest grid charges not just in the UK, but in Europe. If we want to fulfil our potential, we need the UK Government to act in the interim, and we need to be free from this place to make our own decisions in the longer term.
One important thing has been mentioned by absolutely nobody. We have heard a little about skills and ensuring that we upskill people on our island. I do not disagree with that but, as the Government say all too often, employment is at a record low, so where are the people coming from? We need people to come from elsewhere and we need the Government to change their immigration policies because the reality is that the volume of jobs that need to be filled cannot be filled without a change to those immigration policies. We do not just need to talk about skills; we need to talk about that reality, and it is about time the Government got real.
We have had what I would characterise as one of the most sensible debates that I have heard in quite a long time in this place, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on bringing that debate to us. I also congratulate him on covering all the bases on offshore wind because the debate is not about pie-in-the-sky reflections on something that might be. It is about something that can make an enormous contribution in pretty quick time to the UK’s energy requirements, and do so in a way that unlocks a lot of resources that we have in this country, but which have hitherto been rather set aside because we have been concentrating on other technologies in other parts of the country.
Floating wind in particular is the energy answer for the western side of the UK, just as offshore fixed wind is the answer for the east coast. As far as the east coast is concerned, we have the great benefit of having an only slightly drowned large offshore island called Doggerland to come to the aid of wind. Offshore has successfully been planted in sea depths of 50 feet or less, but of course that is not the case for the west coast of the UK. Floating offshore wind is the answer to that problem: it can be established in much greater depths, and—as we know from the Scottish floating wind farm that has already been established—its efficiency level is far higher than fixed offshore. An efficiency level of 57% has been recorded for the Scottish floating offshore wind farm, compared with an average of about 40% for fixed offshore wind.
We in the Labour party are completely convinced that floating offshore not only can but will play an enormous role in the ambitious targets that we are now setting for wind overall to supply a very large proportion of our future energy needs. We have heard important and thoughtful contributions, not only from the mover of the resolution, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, but particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). He concentrated on the things we need to do to really get offshore floating wind underway, particularly in the Celtic sea. Those include what we do about fabrication, the installation of floating offshore wind—because the techniques for installation are quite different between floating and fixed—and how we land the power we are going to get from floating offshore and integrate it into the grid system generally. We will have to address all those issues very quickly if the potential of floating offshore wind is to be realised as well as we hope it will be.
The industry has its own targets that it thinks it can install: about 18 GW of floating offshore by the early 2030s. Those are realistic appraisals, including supply chains and all sorts of other factors. To give Members an idea of the contribution that would make, that is 1.5 times the present installed capacity of all the offshore wind we have at the moment—which, as I say, is mainly fixed. An enormous contribution can be made, and I personally think that our targets—the original 1 GW target for 2030, now increased by the energy security strategy to, I think, 5 GW—can be easily exceeded over the immediate coming period.
However, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) alluded to quite substantially in her contribution, we need a great deal of anticipatory investment to make sure we can secure the potential that we know is there. That means proper investment in port infrastructure. From my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon and the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, we heard that there is an opportunity for joint arrangements between Milford Haven and Port Talbot to secure fabrication, servicing, assembly and so on in areas where we have the resources to do so. That will service what is beginning to be a tremendous opportunity in the Celtic sea for floating offshore wind. It is a tremendous opportunity not only within the UK. As hon. Members have mentioned, it is an opportunity to be an international leader in floating offshore wind: sited in the UK, using UK components and perhaps exporting not just to countries around the Celtic sea, which are also beginning to think about floating offshore, but to a much wider canvas.
The UK component element of the task, which includes getting the Crown Estate around the table and giving them a good talking to about the UK content in bids, is not important just because bringing some industry to the UK is a nice thing to do. It is important because, by developing all the supply chains, skills, know-how, fabrication and so on in the UK, we can become an international leader in floating offshore in the way that, as hon. Members have mentioned, we failed to do in previous iterations of offshore wind. I want to see us supplying floating offshore wind to Denmark, rather than Denmark supplying us with offshore turbines and various other things, as it has so successfully over many years.
Today’s debate has summed up both where we are with floating offshore wind and where we need to be in the not-too-distant future. That leads us to what the Government need to do now to ensure that this revolution can succeed. It means proper anticipatory investment in ports and infrastructure. It means a great deal of anticipatory investment in the grid: both the development of the offshore grid, and the ability to land and incorporate energy properly into the onshore grid. We absolutely must not repeat the mistakes that we made in offshore grid connections: we connected each wind farm separately, just on the basis of the concerns of that particular wind farm, on a point-to-point basis with cabling. We must ensure that the infrastructure is available—in south Wales, Cornwall and Devon—to take the power, and to extend that out into the Celtic sea in particular, so that we are able to develop a collective collection of the resource.
Hopefully, there is a very rosy future for floating offshore wind; Labour is absolutely committed to that rosy future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon mentioned, one of the vehicles, I am sure, will be the GB energy company that we intend to set up in Government. That will be able to take the anticipatory investment forward, and will be a leading partner in the development of everything that is necessary to make floating offshore wind a great success. I look forward to hearing what the Government’s contribution to this exciting prospect will be. I hope that it will be positive; I am sure it will be. Together, we can then move forward to the rosy future of floating offshore wind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank you for making sure that I behaved in an orderly way at the beginning of the debate; I am very grateful. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing the debate, and all Members who have taken part.
As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) just said, this has been a very sensible debate. I would say it has been a very mature debate in which we have reflected on what needs to be done to properly take advantage of the huge opportunities that we have around this island for floating offshore wind, and I want to highlight some of the contributions that we have heard. There was an absolutely fantastic advertising pitch for Aberavon from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and I heard about the freeport application from both his representations and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. Obviously, that is not a decision for me, but from the agenda that they both articulated, it seems to tick all the boxes for what we are expecting from freeports. I say that as a former chair of the maritime and ports all-party parliamentary group, which has been involved in many of the bids. I wish them all well with the application, which is a competitive one.
At the heart of it, both the hon. Member for Aberavon and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire articulated a clear vision for what freeport status would do for the bid—a clear vision based on a port that is based on energy. Frankly, what better objective could we have in these times, when energy security is such a challenge? It is great to see such imagination and, more to the point, such a practical application of policy to fix a significant strategic problem. We will wait and see.
I was very struck by what the hon. Member for Aberavon said about British ownership of these industries. As a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, this is something that I reflect on very often. Yes, we are an open, free-trading nation and open to inward investment, but we also need to recognise that maximising those opportunities for this country means that we have to be very careful about making sure that we are doing everything we can to encourage homegrown investment. We have seen too often that some of these investments are made by state-owned overseas players, which is something to reflect on.
We heard from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) about the net contribution that Scotland can make in this area, and long may that continue. I will take away the points about what that means in terms of compensation.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) reflected on the environmental implications. As we realise the benefits of floating offshore wind, we absolutely have to address the environmental consequences. We in Government have to look at all this in a very joined-up way, and sometimes the silo culture does not necessarily make for the best decision making, but laying cables once is sensible and cheaper. A more strategic approach might be necessary and the way to go.
I will reflect on the reference to investment zones by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory). Of course, we are in a position whereby investment zones are a vehicle for securing the investment needed to achieve the kind of supporting infrastructure that we need if we are to properly exploit floating offshore wind. This is going to be a significant industry, and the sector could give a completely new lease of life to the port infrastructure at Port Talbot and Milford Haven. We must make sure that we are properly looking at everything, rather than just at what we can do to exploit new energy sources. It is about what floating offshore wind can do to contribute to economic regeneration and development more widely.
We have heard a great deal, and the Government would completely agree that renewable energy is central to the UK’s decarbonisation and economic growth, with floating offshore wind remaining a part. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire referred to it as FLOW. I absolutely hate acronyms, but it just so happens that this one conveys exactly what we are talking about and is a very good description of floating offshore wind, which is a bit of a mouthful. It provides secure, low-cost and domestically generated electricity, and reduces our dependence on imports from overseas—there is no better lesson than the one we have learned over the past year—so what is not to like? It is absolutely essential that the Government get behind this source.
Offshore wind generates 11% of our electricity, and through the development of floating offshore wind, that figure will grow. As we have heard, we can be proud that the UK is already a world leader in offshore wind deployment. We have the most installed capacity in Europe, and we currently generate enough to power nearly 10 million homes. As I mentioned, it also has an important role to play in delivering the Government’s growth agenda by generating jobs and attracting significant private investment. According to the WindEurope trade association, the UK attracted investment worth €56 billion over the past decade, making it the biggest offshore wind market in Europe for capital spending commitments.
The Government intend to build on that success through the ambitions set out in the British energy security strategy for developing up to 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030, of which 5 GW will be from floating offshore wind. We estimate that will bring in £25 billion to £32 billion of private investment to the UK, and we expect it to support about 90,000 jobs by 2030. Those jobs will mainly be in coastal communities, which are in most need of job creation as they have traditionally been more reliant on heavy, high-carbon industry.
On that point, I was struck by what my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said. We often talk about those communities as if their greatest days were in the past, but they are not; they are in the future. If we get our offering right for these new industries, those communities can be the powerhouses they were at the time of the industrial revolution. We should not be modest in our ambitions. This is a great country, and we need to make the best of our assets. We really need to put our shoulder to the wheel for this sector.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened, because that is the one thing I was really tackling in my head. I really worry about the grid’s ability to respond to the demands we are making of it through our transition to renewables. We collectively need to give it enough support and oomph to make sure it delivers that. I am acutely aware of companies that have been doing the right thing by investing in renewables, but then have difficulties finding connections to the grid. It is a bit chicken and egg: if we are to exploit offshore wind, we must ensure that the grid connections are there and are effective, not least because otherwise we lose so much in terms of transition.
The Government are working with Ofgem and the National Grid Electricity System Operator to bring forward a series of strategic network designs to determine what the required infrastructure will be to support our net zero targets. A holistic network design was published in July, which includes the 1.5 GW Mona project off the north Wales coast, and an indicative network design for floating wind in the Celtic sea with a connection to Pembroke dock. It is being planned for, but we collectively need to ensure we execute that in order to realise the benefits as soon as possible. I will invite the responsible Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman fully about that, because it is a very real concern, given our experience with renewable energy in the past.
As I said, we recognise the potential of floating wind technology playing a key role in our energy mix as we move towards net zero. The floating wind deployments we have identified in Scotland and the Celtic sea represent a major development opportunity for the sector, which will create major employment opportunities.
Our support for floating offshore wind is demonstrated by the floating wind pipeline being supported in the previous contract for difference allocation round with a ring-fenced budget. That resulted in the first ever contract for difference-supported floating wind project, the 32 MW TwinHub project in Hayle, Cornwall. My Department has also joined the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult’s floating offshore wind centre of excellence. We are providing the centre with £2 million over four years and strengthening its mission to accelerate innovation in the UK’s floating wind sector. I hope that will put us in a prime position to capitalise on a growing export market as other countries look to use this technology. Our pipeline project is growing. This year’s ScotWind seabed leasing round for Scottish waters resulted in 28 GW of new projects, of which 18 are floating wind projects.
We have heard much reference to the role of the Crown Estate. As we speak, Crown Estate Scotland is running a leasing round for innovation projects to decarbonise, which could result in another 6 GW. There are more than 400 MW of floating pathfinder projects already leased in the Celtic sea next year. The Crown Estate will run its Celtic sea floating leasing round, which will bring forward 4 GW of this innovative technology in the waters around south west England and south Wales. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said, there is potential for a further 20 GW of floating wind by 2045. That is transformational in terms of decarbonisation, and we must ensure we do what we can to secure it.
Our fixed-bottom pipeline is also strong, and we have 12.7 GW already operational, with a further 6.8 GW under construction and due to come on line by the mid-2020s. The world’s largest wind farm, Hornsea 2, became operational off the Yorkshire coast this summer, and offshore construction has already started on Dogger Bank, which will eventually take over Hornsea 2’s mantle as the world’s largest wind farm.
However, it is important that we do not rest on our laurels. This summer, the Government published results of the latest allocation round of contracts for difference. This year’s auction was by far the most successful yet, at a combined capacity of almost 7 GW. The successful offshore wind projects represent a significant step towards meeting our increased 2030 ambitions. Those projects are now finalising procurement and construction plans.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. This is just the start, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue to ensure that we realise the capability of floating offshore wind to contribute to our energy mix. I wish everybody well with the projects that they are supporting.
I thank the Minister for her response to the debate. I am also grateful for the contributions from the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) on the Opposition Front Bench. It has been a good debate, and I look forward to continuing the discussion with the Minister and her team of colleagues and officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about how we deliver this exciting new industry.
There are two takeaways for me from this debate. There is a key point around co-ordination and leadership and the need for strategy. It cannot just be left to the marketplace; it will require Government to pick winners in places, to set out a plan and execute it. The second takeaway is the point made extremely well by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) about community benefit, ensuring that the communities closest to this large-scale infrastructure directly feel the benefit, yes, in terms of jobs and training opportunities, but also financially. It comes down to that: if we are to deliver on major new energy infrastructure in a timely way, communities need to be incentivised. The hon. Member’s points were well made.
If those who have participated today or are watching online have had their appetite whetted on floating offshore wind, the Welsh Affairs Committee is hosting an evidence session next Wednesday morning with many key players from the Celtic sea, including Associated British Ports from Port Talbot, Milford Haven, RWE and a number of others, along with the Crown Estate.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for your chairmanship this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered delivery of floating offshore wind projects.
Northern Ireland Residents: British Passports
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British passport ownership by Northern Ireland residents.
I am thankful that this debate has been called and placed on the Order Paper today. I am also glad to see the Minister in his place.
The issue that I wish to raise unites people of all backgrounds, traditions and preferences in Northern Ireland in terms of their nationality, whether they describe themselves as British, Irish or Northern Irish. Here in the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has looked at the issue on several occasions and, again, there has been unity, with hon. Members from the DUP, SDLP, Alliance, the Conservative party and the Labour party all agreeing on the issue. It is uncontroversial with everyone except, it would seem, the Home Office. The issue was first raised by me back in 2005 via a private Member’s Bill, which had insufficient parliamentary time and therefore did not proceed. So, what is the issue?
Our Government and, indeed, successive Governments have accepted that people in Northern Ireland can describe themselves and be accepted as British, which is what they are under the United Kingdom constitution, Irish, if they prefer to be known and regarded as Irish, or Northern Irish, if they wish to be so. Indeed, the census results released last month demonstrated that a vast majority of people describe themselves in a multitude of ways and a combination of those three ways. The position with passports is that residents in Northern Ireland, whatever their background or description, can apply for an Irish passport and there is no additional cost or form filling as a result of Irish Government action taken several years ago, which regards them as Irish if they so choose.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for bringing that forward. He is right. My father, who is not with us anymore, was born across the border and yet grew up as British when he moved to Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend not agree that those who may be born a mile or two across the border, have lived in Northern Ireland all their lives and have happily paid their British tax with their British national insurance number are entitled to pay the same amount as anyone else under the same circumstances? It really is illogical. My hon. Friend has pursued the matter at some length and we look forward to the Minister giving a decent response to a matter that has been outstanding for a number of years.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head in a succinct way, which I hope to elaborate on over the next few moments.
The Irish Government took action because they regard citizens on the island of Ireland as Irish citizens, if they choose to be so regarded. Unfortunately, our Government have not done the same. There are those who are resident in Northern Ireland, and have been for decades, who must be able to do the same for a British passport as those who choose to be Irish can do for an Irish passport, yet they are not permitted to do so. We have an open land border with more than 280 crossing points along its 300-mile length and we are all familiar with the issue in relation to the protocol, the EU and all those things. Over decades and for generations, communities and families have traversed this open border for business and socialising. For that reason and because of the common travel area, successive British Governments have indicated that they do not mind which nationality people prefer to have.
According to UK law, anyone born before 1949, when the Republic of Ireland left the Commonwealth, who wishes to become a British subject can do so, but anyone born after 1949 cannot. That means that if someone were born in the Republic in 1950 and the day after their birth moved to live in Northern Ireland, became a UK resident, grew up and became a UK taxpayer and UK voter—in one famous instance they sat in the British establishment of the House of Lords—they would still not be regarded as a British citizen, because they were born at the wrong time. People born a few miles across the border are disadvantaged in this way. They have to go through the same naturalisation process as people coming from the other end of the earth in order to be regarded as British citizens. This has obviously created angst and annoyance.
We now have a tale of two passports. One is a passport of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which people like me cherish and will have for as long as we live, as will our children and grandchildren. The other is of the Irish Republic, which some people in Northern Ireland are forced to have because they cannot have the passport they associate with their sense of identity, allegiance, loyalty and belonging. They are British, but they are forced to have an Irish passport, because they of an accident of birth a mile on the wrong side of an open border.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned on the issue for many years. Does he agree that it has been clear throughout the peace process and indeed stretching further back that the British Government have been incredibly generous to those who want to take Northern Ireland out of the Union and have made Northern Ireland an incredibly accommodating and welcoming place for them? Does he agree that they have been generous on citizenship and dual identity and such issues, but when it comes to supporting those who believe in the Union, choose Northern Ireland as their home and who have been British citizens for the majority of their life, the generosity does not stretch that far?
My hon. Friend’s comment is very appropriate and accurate. In fact, many draw on the contrast of how our Government treat those who want to break up the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland compared to those who would prefer that we remain, because we are, in the words of what is more than a cliché, better off together.
The issue at the moment is that some people have an Irish passport because they need it to travel, but they would prefer to have a British passport. The Home Office in effect say to them, “Just naturalise. Just pay the £1,330 to get what is your right.” If they go on to the Home Office website—I hope the Minister can read this paper even from this distance, as I have enlarged it—the first page reads:
“Check if you can become a British citizen”.
They already are! That is what they demand. That is what they have been for decades, and then the Home Office says to check if they can become a British citizen. There is nothing more insulting or demeaning than to have that on the Home Office website. It tells them, “Well, of course you can avail yourself of British citizenship, now trot along and fill out the necessary form. Then apply for the passport and you will get one.”
Meanwhile, the neighbour in the house next door—or, in some cases, family members who were born at a different time—may want to have an Irish passport and may never even have visited the Irish Republic. They simply go along to the post office and ask for an Irish passport application, fill it out and attach the necessary fee, and an Irish passport comes in the post. The Irish Government have declared that they are prepared to recognise those people as Irish if they choose to apply for a passport. We want our Government to do exactly the same.
People have chosen and demanded to be regarded as British because they have lived here virtually all their lives—in some cases, for 60 or 70 years. They should not be forced down the route of applying for citizenship and going through the naturalisation process, which applies to people who come from thousands of miles away. That is particularly true when the same Government say repeatedly to everybody in Northern Ireland, “We accept that it is a diverse place.”
Successive Governments have repeatedly said they accept that many people regard themselves as British—I hope they will remain so—while some regard themselves as Irish. Each United Kingdom Government here in Westminster say that they accept those people’s right to be so regarded—except when it comes to the symbolic matter of owning a passport. What greater symbol is there of a person’s sense of belonging and nationhood, of who we are and what we are, than a passport? It describes who someone is and, if they are overseas and get into difficulty, to whom they should go for assistance. However, these thousands of people are regarded differently.
I understand that the Minister is Minister of State for the Northern Ireland Office, and that this is primarily a matter for the Home Office to resolve, but I hope that he will acknowledge in his response the hurt and anguish that people have felt over many years. I hope that he can relay to the Home Office the fears, views and demands of people who want this insult rectified.
Successive Home Office Ministers have come to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and tried to defend this, saying that they do not regard some of these people as the people of Northern Ireland, even though they have lived there all their lives. This is indefensible and it cannot be sustained. I hope that the Minister will take action with his colleagues in the Home Office, whose responsibility it is primarily to respond. I hope they will deal with the matter satisfactorily for all concerned, because there is nobody in Northern Ireland who objects to this proposition.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to address this issue, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell)—my hon. Friend, if I may say so—for making his case so articulately. His constituents will certainly know that he has made their case with great force and passion, and I have understood it clearly. There is a point to be made about the difference between identity and citizenship, but I want to ensure that I spell it out accurately with reference to my notes, so I will come back to it.
On the issue of the Union, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am defiantly and ferociously pro-Union. Equally, under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the Government are obliged to participate impartially, which may sometimes create tensions. I want to make it clear to everyone that I am pro-Union and this is a pro-Union Government.
On passports, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I slightly playfully point out that although I am somewhat known for my pro-Brexit views, I have not troubled to update my passport. I still carry an EU passport, which may surprise some. I want to put that on the record. I know that many people will share with the hon. Gentleman the passionate belief that our passport is a great symbol of who we are. However, personally, I am defiantly independent of the state, Government Minister though I may be. For me, my passport is an administrative thing, not a definition of who I am. I gently make that point to illustrate that perhaps not all of us feel exactly the same way about our passport.
The Minister is entitled to consider his passport whatever way he likes. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned a Member of the House of Lords. To encapsulate the absurdity of the position that my hon. Friend has outlined today, if the Member he mentioned went through the naturalisation process, he would have to demonstrate that he could speak English and he would be invited to Hillsborough castle for a citizenship ceremony governed by a lord lieutenant. The very same man was the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly for eight years and has been in the House of Lords for many years. If that does not encapsulate how absurd the requirement to go through the process to obtain a British passport is, I am not sure what else could.
The hon. Member makes his point with great clarity, of course. However, I observe that in public administration there are quite often moments, particularly around transitions and edge cases, that look absurd on the face of it.
Before I get on to my notes, I will make two points. Representing Wycombe, I have observed that geography is very different from what it used to be. The internet has shrunk the world immeasurably, and many of my constituents are closely in touch with events and people thousands of miles away, so geography has a slightly different meaning these days. I will also pick up the point on hurt and anguish; if I have learned one thing in my few weeks as Northern Ireland Minister, it is the decades—possibly centuries—of hurt and anguish that have built up on one another. I do take those issues very seriously, knowing how deeply felt they are. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has spoken with great passion, and I know he sincerely means everything he has said.
Turning to matters of law, the right to apply for and hold a British passport is wholly contingent on the holding of British citizenship. It is perfectly possible to remain a British citizen even if someone chooses not to hold a British passport, or if they acquire and hold another passport. The people of Northern Ireland are guaranteed specific protections under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and they are considered by the agreement to be
“all persons born in Northern Ireland and having, at the time of their birth, at least one parent who is a British citizen, an Irish citizen or is otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland without any restriction on their period of residence.”
The two birthright protections of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement guarantee this group the right to identify and be accepted as British, Irish or both, and the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship. The protections recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and do not apply more widely. The UK Government are steadfastly committed to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and those provisions are given full effect in law, which provides for British citizenship to be conferred at birth.
In that context, non-British nationals living in Northern Ireland would need to obtain British citizenship in order to receive a British passport, just as they would anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I think that is the heart of the matter. I have heard clearly the point made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry. It is the difference between identity and the administrative and legal status of citizenship.
I accept what the Minister says, and it is the repeated mantra that we have got from the Home Office. However, he alluded to the unique circumstances that pertain to Northern Ireland. That is what successive Governments of recent vintage have always done. Does the Minister not understand and accept the unique circumstances of the case that has been made, and that this is why the Home Office should act?
I certainly do understand the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the hon. Gentleman is very articulate and once again makes his case with great clarity. However, I have to tell him that unique circumstances in those matters apply in a great many places in the UK, including in my own constituency in some number. They are not the same unique circumstances, by any means, but I am gently trying to make the point that there are large numbers of people in the country who would claim special circumstances. The Government are under an obligation to deal fairly with everyone in the UK. The hon. Gentleman will remember some of the unfortunate circumstances of the Windrush affair, and there are other people who have had various difficulties. There are people in my constituency who, although they were born elsewhere, have lived there longer than I have been alive. They may or may not have British citizenship or a British passport, but I am glad to represent them.
Let me turn to some of the specific points that the hon. Member for East Londonderry made. He said that there are 40,000 people resident in Northern Ireland who were born in Ireland after 1949, and there is a sense of unfairness that they are made to apply for naturalisation. He enlarged a piece of the website that I could not quite read, but he made his point with some force. The crux of the matter is that an Irish national can naturalise in the same way as any other long-term resident who now considers the UK their home. I appreciate that at the heart of the sensitivity is the fact that people who identify as British, who were perhaps born not far from the border, but on the other side of it, are being told that they need to naturalise. He made the point clearly that for those who are British but were born on the other side of the border, this is a matter of utmost sensitivity.
The Government are treating those people—from an administrative point of view, they are not British citizens and they need to naturalise—in line with other nationals who reside here in the UK. We are glad that they feel at home here. We are of course glad that they identify as British—that they choose to be British—and we welcome them. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of our noble Friend in the other place. In order to ensure that we treat everyone in the UK fairly, they need to naturalise to make their nationality align with their identity.
That is the key point, and it is a matter of administration and law—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I know that that is unsatisfactory to him, but we do not want to assume that all who identify as British necessarily wish to align their nationality. He might well ask whether it could be made easier and quicker for people of Northern Ireland who were born in Ireland to apply for naturalisation, but the requirements are made in statute. Irish nationals would enjoy more favourable provisions for naturalisation should they wish to apply.
One might ask why the Irish-born people that the hon. Gentleman represents have to naturalise at all. Under the common travel area, Irish people do not need to naturalise to reside in the UK. The common travel area provides that British and Irish citizens have the right to enter and remain in the other state without requiring permission. That is provided for in law, which the hon. Gentleman knows very well. They can make the decision to become a British citizen when they are ready to do so, as with any person who wishes to become British.
I think that the hon. Gentleman wants me to make specific commitments, but I have to disappoint him. The Government are very clear on the need to treat people fairly right across the UK. If we were to make special exemptions for the people he recognises as being on the cusp of a border, we would find ourselves in some considerable difficulty administratively.
In many ways, the Minister is arguing against himself. He knows that he does not have the space to concede in this debate. Whether people are a mile from the border or at the very south of Ireland, the principle remains the same. The entirety of the Republic of Ireland is legally treated differently from any other country in the world, with the common travel area, the lack of immigration controls and no restrictions on working or living in the United Kingdom.
Will the Minister reflect on the fact that in the last four years, His Majesty’s Government have blurred the lines between citizenship and identity? The shoe was on the other foot, but a Northern Ireland resident, and therefore a British citizen, who wanted British citizenship for her partner was uncomfortable with the notion that she had to denounce citizenship that she did not want. She is, in identity terms, an Irish nationalist, and she objected. She lost the case in court because the Government argued robustly the distinction between citizenship and identity. However, the British Prime Minister ordered a review into the matter thereafter and wanted to show generosity of spirit, given the complaints. All we are asking is that the Minister and this Government do exactly the same thing for people who are notionally, emotionally and in every other way practically British.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman makes his point with great passion and clarity. The Government welcome people’s choice to identify as British. We welcome the choice that people born in Ireland can make to apply for a British passport, and for non-British citizens to become British citizens. We recognise that the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is all the stronger for its rich diversity in all aspects, whether people travel to Great Britain from the southernmost parts of the Republic of Ireland or from far overseas. For all its diversity, the United Kingdom is improved. Britishness is perfectly compatible with Irishness and Northern Irishness, just as much as Englishness, Welshness, Scottishness or, in my case, Cornishness.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement rightly understands the highly personal nature of decisions around identity and citizenship, and the exercise of those distinct birthrights. It affords the people of Northern Ireland the freedom to make their own choices on identity. To reduce Britishness to the passport that someone holds in our United Kingdom would overlook the freedoms that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement rights enshrine and a fundamental truth of the strength of the Union: that Irishness and Northern Irishness readily coexist and compliment Britishness. That is a fact that we all ought to celebrate.
Hon. Members have made their points with great clarity. I will certainly reflect on what they have said, but they will understand that the Government’s policy is as it stands.
Question put and agreed to.
[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for kinship carers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali, and introduce this important debate. I am grateful to have this opportunity to acknowledge and champion the thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and family friends who step up to support a child in crisis. With the Government due to respond to the independent review of children’s social care by the end of the year, this feels like a pivotal moment to recognise and unlock the role that family and friends can play in raising children who would otherwise be brought up in care.
I want to use this debate to commend to the Department for Education the proposals contained in my Kinship Care Bill, which I presented to Parliament earlier this year. Sadly, the day after I presented my Bill, the then Children’s Minister, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), resigned. I hope that today’s debate does not have the same impact on the new Minister, whom I welcome to her place. As the then Minister could not respond when I introduced my Bill, I look forward to hearing what the Minister present has to say today. I will touch on a range of issues that I brought up when my Bill was introduced and go a bit beyond that, too.
This is a big week for kinship care. Today, we have this debate. Tomorrow, I am hosting a reception to champion kinship carers and Kinship Week, which was earlier this month; I look forward to the Minister and the shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), joining us. On Thursday, ITV will broadcast a documentary highlighting the struggles faced by grandparents who look after children whose parents are not able to care for them.
Members might wonder why I decided to champion this particular issue. The reason is plain and simple: it is because of the stories that some of my constituents have brought to me. I want to tell the story of Kim, who lives around the corner from me in my constituency and who was one of the first constituents to approach me during the first covid lockdown to highlight just how little support the family had.
Kim is a kinship carer to her grandchild, who sadly had a difficult start in life with her parents and maternal grandparents—Kim is her paternal grandmother. At one point, Kim and her husband found themselves literally holding the baby. When the family courts were considering the case, the judge very unusually took aside Kim’s husband and asked if they would be willing to apply for a special guardianship order for the child. The story of how their situation came about from the sidelines in a not particularly routine way is representative of how many kinship carers find themselves looking after children who have either lost a parent or whose parent is going through a difficult situation, meaning that they can no longer care for them.
Kim, who is self-employed, reduced her working hours to manage her childcare commitments. She was initially given an allowance, but it was means-tested. When her allowance was withdrawn, Kim and her husband challenged it, but it is now half of what she used to get, despite the fact that her costs have increased as her granddaughter grows older and her work income reduced through the pandemic.
Raising children is expensive. Over the past year, 89% of kinship carers reported that they were worried about their financial circumstances. Does the hon. Lady share my concerns that this kind of widespread financial stress will inevitably lead to negative impacts on the mental wellbeing of both carers and the children they are looking after?
Absolutely. There was a recent survey by the charity Kinship that showed the financial stress that many kinship carers found themselves under. The cost of living pressures that everyone faces are felt particularly acutely by kinship carers, who often find themselves looking after an additional member of their family without additional financial support. That survey showed that some kinship carers are struggling to pay their mortgage and even to put food on the table.
As I was saying, Kim had to remortgage her house, and accept financial help from friends and family, to afford the legal costs of applying for a special guardianship order. That was despite the fact that, as I have already mentioned, it was the family court judge who had made the suggestion of applying for the order. Kim’s granddaughter had a lot of mental health needs, and needed a lot of emotional and development support, but social services were very slow to provide that support. It was only after about a year that Kim was finally granted funding for some attachment therapy for her granddaughter through the adoption support fund. When I have talked to Kim about her situation, she described at length the damage that her granddaughter would sometimes cause to possessions in the house and to the house itself, and she would physically attack Kim and her husband, because of this attachment disorder. However, Kim had to fight to get support for therapy for that child. Kim says:
“On a personal level, we’ve had to give up our roles as grandparents and become her parents. We have done so gladly, but there are moments when we do grieve for those lost roles that we will never get back. Our grand-daughter is in our care until she turns 18 and we will be in our early and mid-seventies—not what we expected as we headed towards our older years.”
The sad irony is that Kim is actually one of the lucky ones, because her granddaughter was classified as “previously looked after”, so she was eligible for far more support, such as the adoption support fund money that funded the therapy, and pupil premium plus. That is much more than many other kinship carers receive.
Kim’s grandchild is one of perhaps more than 160,000 children across England and Wales who are cared for by someone who already knows and loves them. The numbers are quite sketchy. That is partly to do with the poor definitions, which I will touch on later, and the fact that we do not count how many people are in these sorts of arrangements.
We know that those who end up being looked after by somebody they know and love, as opposed to going into foster care or being cared for by someone they do not know, have equal or better mental health, education or employment chances than those children looked after by unrelated foster carers. Indeed, a child is over two and a half times more likely to live in three or more placement settings if they are in foster care than if they are in kinship care. The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care found that kinship care placements are 2.6 times more likely to be permanent than unrelated foster care arrangements. Additionally, most people prefer kinship care to living with unrelated foster carers.
Despite the fact that we hear all of those statistics, which show better outcomes for children looked after by people who know them, kinship care is the Cinderella service of our social care system. It is less well understood than foster care, despite there being double the number of children in kinship care than there are in foster care. Kinship carers also receive only a fraction of the support received by foster carers or adoptive parents. That is why I introduced my Kinship Care Bill in July, which calls for kinship carers to be provided with three types of support, to put them on a par with the support that foster carers and adoptive carers receive. It proposes that kinship carers are provided with a weekly allowance, at the same level as the allowance for foster carers; it would give kinship carers the right to paid leave when a child starts living with them; and it would provide extra educational support for children in kinship care, by giving them pupil premium funding, and priority for their first choice of school, as which looked-after receive.
Earlier this year, I had an encouraging but brief discussion with the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Colchester, when he was Children’s Minister. During that brief conversation, he suggested that while the Government were broadly supportive of providing greater support to kinship carers, Ministers had two main concerns. The first was who should be regarded as a kinship carer—the definition issue that I pointed out—and the second was how the Department for Education could possibly persuade the Treasury to make the extra money available to pay for it. Sadly, the events of the past few weeks will probably ensure that that second part is a lot harder for the Minister to achieve.
The independent review of children’s social care recommends making weekly allowances and paid employment leave available to carers with either a special guardianship order or a child arrangements order where the child would otherwise be in care. That would begin to provide a definition of who should get some additional support; it would be a huge step forward, and I understand the logic of that approach. Kinship care arrangements with a legal order are less likely to deteriorate, with just one in 20 special guardianship orders dissolving before the child turns 18.
However, that narrow definition ignores the realities of most kinship care arrangements, where a close relative is phoned at short notice by the council warning that if they do not take the child now, they will go into local authority care. Those people do not have a legal order—at least initially—despite the council proposing the arrangement, yet they are then expected to cough up thousands of pounds of their own money to secure a special guardianship arrangement, as we heard in Kim’s story. The independent review of children’s social care noted that four in 10 families receive no help with the legal costs associated with becoming a kinship carer, spending on average more than £5,000. Moreover, denying support to close relatives using informal arrangements punishes families who have sorted out their situation themselves without getting the local authority involved at all.
The Government already have systems in place for identifying informal carers, which could be adapted. The Children Act 1989 provides a definition of privately fostered children: a person other than a close family member caring for a child for at least 28 days. Informal kinship carers are also exempt from the two-child limit on benefits if their social worker signs form IC1, so I encourage the Minister to reconsider the eligibility criteria for schemes such as pupil premium plus or the adoption support fund where support is only available to kinship children who were previously looked after by the local authority. Why is it that if a grandparent steps up when asked by the council to look after a child to prevent them going into care, they are then punished by the state for making that decision, whereas that child would have been entitled to extra support had they gone into care? It is a totally perverse incentive to allow the child to go into care in order to receive additional support.
Turning to the issue of financing support for kinship carers, my message to the Minister is this: the question is not whether her Department can afford to support kinship carers, but whether it can afford not to. The numbers speak for themselves. The independent review of children’s social care warns that on the current trajectory, more than 100,000 children will be in local authority care by 2032—a record high—and it will cost local authorities £5 billion more than it does now. On average, it costs £72,500 a year for a local authority to look after a child; by contrast, in 2021, it would have cost on average just shy of £37,000 to provide a child in kinship care with a social worker and a weekly allowance for their carers. Well-supported kinship care could therefore save the taxpayer over £35,000 per child a year. The Minister’s Department will be speaking to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the efficiency savings—otherwise known as cuts—that it will have to make, and I suggest that preventing children who could otherwise be looked after by a kinship carer from going into care is a very good efficiency saving.
Tomorrow, Kinship is launching its national campaign, “The value of our love”, to highlight how it makes sense to invest in kinship care. It delivers better outcomes and experiences for children by keeping them within their loving families, and is good value for the public purse. During the cost of living emergency, that support is needed more than ever. As has already been pointed out, Kinship’s 2022 financial allowances survey found that four in 10 kinship carers could not afford household bills, and one in four were struggling to afford food for their family.
I thank the hon. Member for all the outstanding work that she has done on this issue with her Bill. It is important that the issue of support for kinship carers, including many in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby, is discussed in the House today. Many families say that they feel invisible, undervalued, unimportant and ignored by the Government. Some 75% of kinship carers entered the cost of living crisis in severe financial hardship.
Important work is happening in Liverpool, with the kinship charter, which was developed with kinship families and has been finalised with local authorities so that they can adopt it. However, families urgently need change at a national Government level, so does the hon. Member agree that the Minister must make changes in law about the statutory duty, and provide the vital funding and support that kinship families need, so that we achieve the best possible outcome for families?
I congratulate Liverpool on the work that it is doing on this. I agree with the point that the hon. Member made on recognising kinship carers and providing them with additional support.
Returning to the Kinship financial allowances survey, it found that while seven in 10 special guardians received allowances, those were means tested, and fewer than one in 10 carers with no legal order received support. However, in more than two thirds of cases, those allowances were means tested and subject to regular reviews, unlike the allowances that foster carers receive. Kim’s story shows us that that really is precarious and depends on what the local authority is willing and able to fund. Given that local authority budgets have been cut to the bone, we need those national regulations and legislation in place to ensure that kinship carers get an equal amount of support, regardless of where they live.
Almost any kinship carer will say that it is a decision that they do not regret. One carer told the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care:
“The decision to become a kinship carer has cost me £180,000 plus in terms of pension benefits etc. I would do it again, my grandson is worth every penny.”
The independent review of children’s social care is due to receive a response by the end of this year. While I do not agree with everything in that review, its recommendations around kinship care could mark a step change in the support that we provide for kinship carers, and would recognise the value of the love and support that they give to children.
I urge the Minister not to miss this important opportunity to step up for the kinship carers who step up for children, sometimes in the most dire circumstances, at zero notice. The Government talk a lot about levelling up; it is about not just geography but different groups of people in society. They also talk about the importance of the family; there is no better example of how families really step up than when the chips are down and a child desperately needs that help.
Kinship carers have been overlooked for far too long, so I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to provide us not just with words of encouragement but with some actions to follow, by responding to those recommendations from the independent review and indeed going beyond that. Every child, no matter their background, deserves the opportunity to flourish, and we know that those who had a troubled start in life are much more likely to flourish in kinship care than those who end up looked after by a foster carer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. It is also a pleasure to see the new Minister in her place. I wish her well.
I start by sincerely thanking the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), not only for securing today’s important Westminster Hall debate, but for her tireless work on this subject. I know that kinship carers across the country are very grateful for the voice she gives to this cause. I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care and as a kinship carer myself. As many hon. Members will know, my wife Allison and I care for our extraordinary three-and-a-half-year-old grandson Lyle. Soon after Lyle was born, it became clear that his birth parents would be unable to care for him, and Allison and I went through the family court before securing a special guardianship order. That is a heavily truncated version of the story, which spares listeners the seemingly endless legal wranglings, anxiety, confusion, fear and frustration that the vast majority of kinship carers will understand. At the end of the process to become a kinship carer, provided there is a positive outcome, those carers will be left caring for a child that they will love unconditionally, but the process itself is nothing short of traumatising.
I could spend hours talking about my experience, and many more hours sharing the experiences of people I have spoken to in my capacity as APPG chair. Instead, I will reiterate some key figures, which speak to the current state of the child welfare system. The independent review of children’s social care in England projects that there will be nearly 100,000 children in care in England by 2032. Unless we implement the systematic change that families are crying out for, the system will be overwhelmed. Personally, I think that ship has sailed. Provision for looked-after children living with unrelated foster carers or in residential homes is already extremely stretched.
Local authorities routinely place children in accommodation far away from their families and their support networks. I am sure many hon. Members will have read the recent BBC story about the shocking decision to place one 12-year-old boy 100 miles away from his siblings and school. That is just not acceptable. We need to utilise family support networks, and to incentivise kinship care. We are not doing either of those things, and children and families are suffering as a result.
As many hon. Members know, poverty is an enormous issue for kinship carers. Research by the Family Rights Group points to the fact that 75% of kinship carers experience severe financial hardship. Almost half of them—49%—are forced to leave their jobs to provide adequate care for children, many of whom have complex needs arising from trauma, as the hon. Member for Twickenham set out in her opening speech. It is worth noting that, because of the cost of living crisis, those figures will only get worse unless more is done to support kinship carers. I would be grateful if the Minister recognised in her response the dire financial situation that many kinship carers find themselves in, and outlined what the Government plan to do to reverse that worrying trend.
Another issue is the legal system. A scarcity of legal aid, combined with a system that can generously be described as convoluted, means that many kinship carers literally do not know where to turn for help. There is also little regard for how the process can further split families that are already under enormous emotional and financial pressure. That was highlighted in the all-party parliamentary group’s recent legal aid inquiry, which I was proud to chair.
We need to see better access to information, support networks and support services for kinship carers. Make no mistake: empowering kinship care has benefits far beyond improving the lives of children and those who care for them. The charity Kinship estimates that for every reduction of 1,000 in the number of children looked after in local authority care, up to £40 million is saved. Put simply, the moral benefits of supporting kinship care are matched by the economic case for supporting kinship care.
Allison and I were lucky enough to be in a financial position to seek the requisite legal support. It was costly. Even with that support, the experience was totally overwhelming. It impacted our work and caused immense emotional strain. As an aside, it would be nice to see the Houses of Parliament—this House of Commons—take a lead. When the social services stork dropped a baby at our front door, there was no provision for me to take paternity leave, because I was not the father. I was the grandfather—the kinship carer. That is crazy, and it shows how much the system has to change. My wife, a local councillor, literally had to arrange her entire diary around the care of a new baby for whom we had not planned. It caused enormous problems with her work, and enormous strain for both of us.
But I would do it all again, of course. That is just the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham. She is my friend: out goes the etiquette in this debate. All kinship carers do it because they love their families. They love their grandchildren, nephews or nieces. They want to support the family, and to support that young child. Should people have to go through all that we went through just to care for a child whom they love so dearly? I do not think anyone in this Chamber would say that they should. We need comprehensive change.
The Minister will no doubt be aware that the independent review of children’s social care made a number of far-reaching proposals, including an extension of legal aid to more kinship carers, an entitlement to kinship employment leave and a single legal definition of kinship care to improve recognition and access to support. The Department for Education indicated that it is considering those recommendations, and will publish an implementation strategy later this year—there is not much of this year left.
In her response, will the Minister provide more information about the strategy? When will it be published? Are all the recommendations relating to kinship care being considered? Is there any way she can expedite the response, to provide clarity to kinship carers? There needs to be a sense of urgency. Every day that passes without action from Government is another day when carers try to navigate an emotional and legal labyrinth. That hurts families. It hurts the childcare system. It hurts children, who deserve to be looked after in a caring, safe and supportive environment. Minister, it is time for that change.
What a pleasure it is to speak in this debate, Ms Ali. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) put forward a very concrete case, not that she had to do that for me—I was already on her side. I think we all are. She outlined the detail of kinship care and how important it is. It is something in which I have a particular interest. This is an opportunity to express the views that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) put forward. I thank him for sharing his story. He and his wife gave that young child a chance in life; without their love and affection, who knows where that young child would be today?
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place; we have had many engagements in the past. When she was responsible for high streets, we had her over to Newtownards and she was most responsive to our enquiries. Even now, that visit is still talked about very favourably by the people the Minister met. I look forward to her response to this debate because, looking at her past responses, I am certain that she will be every bit as positive as she was when she came to Newtownards.
I am well known as an advocate for kinship care. I believe that knowing they are part of a family means something to a child, even if circumstances sometimes mean they cannot be with their mummy and daddy. Having a familial bond with a loving care family is helpful. I am shocked by what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said—that one 12-year-old boy was located 100 miles away from his siblings. My goodness! The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and I were just saying that we could hardly believe that. Why would they do that? Surely the sibling bond is important to keep going, and siblings should be kept together.
Over the years, I have had some good friends who have fostered and given kinship care. One lady in Newtownards, whom I know very well, fostered all her life; I was always amazed because she gave young boys and girls an opportunity to have a loving family relationship. Sometimes those young people came from very challenging circumstances. It is not always a bed of roses being a foster or kinship carer.
I also have an extremely good friend who has been my friend for all of my life—he is younger than me, so I should say all of his life—and who fosters five children. He tells me now and again some of the things that happen. Some of those children come from very disturbed homes; they come from a background where love was never there. When they come to a new home, they find a mum and dad, and also a number of siblings from different families who love and care for each other. Kinship care provides an incredible chance to give an opportunity to young people.
I always give a Northern Ireland perspective—the Minister and others will know that—and we have a very high rate of kinship care there. On 30 March 2021, 81% of children who were being looked after—2,857 children—were living with foster carers. Of that number, 1,400 were in non-kinship foster care; 1,457 were in kinship foster care—an even break in the numbers. In Northern Ireland, we are still eagerly trying to encourage others to take up the opportunity of foster and kinship care, because there are still many children who do not have a parent to look after them, or a mummy and daddy—be that biological or not—to give them the love that they need.
Those numbers show a high level of families who want to help out in the short term, and even in the long term. The 81% represents children who are in kinship foster care and non-kinship foster care, but it leaves 19% who do not have anybody. An interesting statistic that I came across, which poses a challenge in a factual but hopefully compassionate way, is that 25% of children of compulsory school age who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more had a statement of special educational needs. That compares with only 6% of the general school population.
As the hon. Gentleman has just said, many children in those arrangements do have additional support needs. That can be difficult for carers if both the carer and the child do not have access to the right support. Health services are under a massive strain across the UK at the moment with long wait times, but formal diagnosis can often be the key to accessing the right services for ongoing support. Does he agree that this is an area that must be reviewed urgently?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward something very pertinent to the debate, as she so often does in Westminster Hall and the Chamber. I wholeheartedly agree with everything she said. It is really important that these issues are addressed.
The figure of 25% of children in kinship and foster care having special educational needs compares to the figure among the general population of just 6%. That tells us—or should tell us, as the hon. Lady has just said—that something needs to be done. When she sums up, can the Minister give us some indication of how the extra help that is clearly needed can be given?
People can give love—mums and dads do that, foster carers and kinship carers do that—but sometimes, no matter how hard people want to love, it can be challenging. It is important that the extra help is given. It is not always an easy decision to bring a new family member into the home. It can be a disruption to one’s own family and children. In life, I try never to judge anybody, so I never judge a grandparent, aunt or uncle who simply cannot make it work, because it sometimes does not work, and sometimes the reason for that is that they are on their own.
People who are able to foster should be encouraged and should know that they are not alone—in other words, there is somebody there who they can talk to. There are support networks and social workers, and there is financial help to make it work if at all possible. I am ever mindful of that. Sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved. Quite often it helps just being able to bounce off somebody and talk about what something means. The hon. Members for Twickenham and for Denton and Reddish referred to how important it is to have someone just to share things with. I think it is probably the same with all of life. It is always good to share something with someone. I think it always helps to talk issues through if at all possible.
In this cost of living crisis, I would like to think that carers will be given a bit more to help, so that additional strain is not placed on the family unit’s finances. We are here to underline these issues. I would ask the Minister in a kind way, not to be negative, for a response that can encourage us. Will there be a cost of living payment to kinship families to help with the additional pressure of groceries and petrol increases? All these things are a substantial part of fostering and kinship care. Bringing other people into the family unit adds pressure, and we need to ensure that financial stress is not part of the equation. How often in life do financial bills seem to overwhelm us all? Our constituents tell us that they place such a burden that they are unable to focus on the love, care and affection they want to give.
As of April 2022, foster carers receive £141 a week for a child aged nought to four, £156 for a child aged five to 10, £177 for a child aged 11 to 15, and £207 for those aged 16 and over. That does not seem to take into account the additional cost of living increase. Some may say that the house needs to be heated whether there are one or five people in the house, but anyone who has a teenager knows that heating the water for a daily shower can require a mortgage itself. I say that jokingly. I had three young boys, and they were always showering. They were always chasing the ladies—I suppose that was the reason. They always wanted to look well, and their hair had to be in place. They are lucky; my hair disappeared 20-odd years ago and it has never come back, but that is by the bye.
I am asking that more help be temporarily allocated to the kinship allowance in the light of the crisis we are all in. It is easy for us to always ask for something, but we are asking on behalf of the kinship and foster carers who do such fantastic work. We have all heard the statistics on the outcomes for children who are looked after, who are not always as well placed as children who are in their own family units, and I understand that, but what carers try to do is make the home and its surroundings easier for those children to settle into.
Through no fault of their own the odds are stacked against these children, and we have a duty to do all we can to place them with family members in their own communities. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, we should not send one sibling 100 miles away; that should never happen, and it annoys me to think that it did—I am sure the trauma that all the siblings went through as a result was quite substantial. Kinship fostering is absolutely vital to enable their little lives to continue, including their schooling and the friendship groups and friends that they have made and that the might suddenly lose.
I conclude with this: the debate has given us an opportunity to highlight the issue, to raise awareness of where we are and to bring together all the detail, information and evidence, while hearing about the personal involvement of the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish and for Twickenham, who set the scene so well. I look forward to hearing the SNP shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is a dear friend of mine and who knows this subject well—we will certainly hear some important words from him shortly. I also look forward to hearing the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). Then it is over to the Minister, who will have to answer all those questions in a way that will encourage us. I am pretty sure I will not be disappointed, but it is important that we do all we can to offer more help and better outcomes to vulnerable children. It is worth any investment that it takes to provide additional support for those who take on children to make their lives just that wee bit more settled.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. It is also a great pleasure to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I have often raised eyebrows back home in my constituency when I have explained that one of my best friends in this place is a Democratic Unionist party MP from Northern Ireland—but less on that, I suspect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate. It will come as no surprise that this is not one that my party would normally have sent a speaker along to; I do not think it was planning to do so this time, because of the devolved nature of the issue, but I intimated to our Whips Office that I was keen to come along and support the debate, for reasons I will explain in a moment. The hon. Lady was right to talk about some of the support that perhaps was not offered during covid-19. Clearly, arrangements for kinship carers will vary in different parts of the UK, but it would be churlish for any of us to think we managed to support kinship carers properly during the pandemic, in particular. I have seen quite a lot of casework coming through my constituency that shows that the legacy and the impact are still there.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I have known about the situation with his grandson for quite a while now. I remember when I came to this place in 2017 having been a fresh-faced researcher—I am certainly not fresh-faced anymore, after five years here—and how surprised I was that he was actually a grandfather, because I did not think he was old enough. Hearing him recount some of his story was not only genuinely moving, but a reminder of that.
The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to talk about the link to poverty. In my constituency, which lazy newspapers such as The Guardian characterise based on things they saw 20 years ago, there is no doubt that there are still challenges, particularly around poverty. Again, it is no coincidence that there is a relationship between poverty and a high number of kinship carers, particularly in the Easterhouse area of my constituency—there is a clear correlation there. He was also spot on to talk about some of the challenges that he and his wife Allison faced, particularly in juggling their work.
One of the immense frustrations I have had, particularly in this Session of Parliament, has been the lack of an employment Bill. We have done some really good stuff through private Members’ Bills—whether on neonatal leave or the allocation of tips—but we are doing a lot of piecemeal stuff in legislation when it comes to supporting people in employment, and particularly those who have different responsibilities. We have not done enough on maternity leave and miscarriage leave, or on the point raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. I appreciate that employment rights are no longer in the Minister’s domain, although they were at one point, but it would be good if she could take back to her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy some of the points about caring responsibilities and how they are juggled.
The main reason I wanted to come to the debate today is based on my five years as a constituency MP, and I have mentioned the high number of kinship carers in my constituency. I am not here to do a sales pitch on behalf of the Scottish Government—according to my colleagues, they get everything right and nothing wrong, which is clearly daft—but I do want to pay tribute to the local organisations in my constituency. I had the pleasure about five years ago of running the marathon to raise money for East End Community Carers, which is in the same building as my constituency office. As my staff and I go in and out doing our surgeries, I never cease to be amazed by a lot of the families that come in—grandparents, aunties and uncles. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish is absolutely right: these people never expected to be in that position.
When we leave this place and go back to our constituencies, we often say what a hard week it has been, but kinship carers do not have that luxury or the ability to just switch off. There is a much wider conversation that we should have about the provision of respite. Far too often, local authorities think, “That person is a kinship carer. They’re sorted now.” If we reframe how we look at this, we realise that kinship carers, foster carers and many other people are saving the state a hell of a lot of money by stepping in and providing support. That must be recognised by Governments as well.
North of the border, kinship carers get the same allowance as foster carers. The kinship care allowance recognises the importance of kinship care. It is a really difficult thing to do, especially when money is tight, so we need to look at the financial support there.
I want to round off by mentioning another couple of charities. Glasgow North East Carers is led by Jean McInaw up in Easterhouse, an area where there is quite a high number of kinship carers. The final organisation that I want to commend in this place is Geeza Break. For those not well versed in the vernacular of Glaswegian, that is “Give us a break.” Geeza Break has been working for 30 years—this year is its 30th anniversary. It is led by Doreen Paterson, the chief executive, who I am privileged to count not just as a key stakeholder in my constituency but as a real friend. The work that Doreen and her team do all year round supporting kinship carers—last year they supported 428 families—is amazing.
I am sick, tired and fed up with having to write funding support letters for such organisations, when many of them should be a commissioned service. That will not please some of my colleagues back home, but those organisations are doing a tremendous job to support kinship carers, who do an invaluable job. We need to stop putting them up for funding once every year and to perhaps look at using them as a commissioned service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate and on the work she does to raise the profile of kinship carers and the issues they face.
I want to put on record that, until late last year, I was an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). In the work of that group I met kinship carers regularly and was involved in the parliamentary taskforce on kinship, which made recommendations on the ways in which Government policy and practice should be changed to support kinship carers. I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who spoke so movingly about his own experience as a kinship carer and on behalf of the APPG and kinship carers across the country about the poverty and intensely stressful processes that kinship carers have to endure. I have said it before in this Chamber and I will say it again today: little Lyle is very lucky to have such a wonderful grandad.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke of the willingness of families to step up and care for children who need support if only they can be supported better to do so, and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who paid tribute to voluntary sector organisations in his community that work to support kinship carers. I am sure all of us would want to recognise the work of such organisations across the country, which—as he rightly said—often step into the breach and into the spaces where public services really ought to be. I pay tribute to kinship carers across the country, who step in to look after a child when a family member or friend is unable to do so, and to the Family Rights Group, the charity Kinship and the Kinship Care Alliance, who work to support kinship carers and advocate on their behalf.
Recently, during Kinship Care Week, I was glad to have the opportunity to meet an amazing group of kinship carers, and I am grateful to Kinship for arranging that meeting. It is always humbling to meet kinship carers. Everyone in the group I met wanted, first and foremost, to convey their unconditional love for the children they look after and the joy and pride they receive from being able to play a part in their lives, but they wanted to talk about the challenges too. Every single person in that group had had to give up work or reduce their hours to look after the children in their care. One had taken retirement and used her pension lump sum to provide for the everyday needs of her grandchildren. She spoke about her commitment to ensure that one grandson could keep on doing football, which he loved and which helped him to deal with some of the other challenges he faced, but football comes at a cost that simply cannot be covered from her regular income.
Another carer told me that contact arrangements had been really challenging, but when she approached her local authority for support, she was told that it regarded them as private and that it had no role to play. One told me how difficult it had been for her grandchild when they were making the transition to secondary school, but no additional support had been available. A fourth spoke movingly of the trauma the children she cares for have been through and of her fears for the long-term impacts it will have.
All those women were doing what the vast majority of us would do if a cherished niece, nephew, grandchild or child of a close friend was at risk of being taken into care; they were doing it gladly, but they really needed more help and support. Some 180,000 families across the country are in the same situation: they have stepped in to care for the children of a family member or close friend, but they find that enormous personal sacrifice and considerable extra cost are involved, with little meaningful support.
In thinking about the needs of kinship carers, we must also look at the reasons why the number of children who are unable to be cared for by their birth families is increasing. The Family Rights Group has highlighted the erosion in early help and support for vulnerable families. More than 1,300 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, a loss that is not nearly matched by the paltry commitment to open family hubs in just 75 locations. The National Children’s Bureau estimates that Government the funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% between 2010 and 2020, and the pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention for families. Now we are once again faced with the spectre of public sector cuts, which will most likely fall on local authorities up and down the country. The failure of this Government to ensure that early help is always available to the most vulnerable families, wherever in the country they live, has a direct bearing on the extent to which families are able to overcome challenges and avoid a crisis in which it becomes unsafe or impossible for children to remain with their parents.
Kinship carers are an essential part of the way in which our society looks after children. They deliver outcomes for children that are as good as, and often better than, foster care or children’s homes, and for a fraction of the cost. This Government have been failing children and their families for 12 long years now. It is absolutely right that the independent review of children’s social care included a focus on kinship care and set out recommendations for ways in which the system can be improved to provide more support to kinship carers. However, nothing will change until the Government set out their response to the independent review and their implementation plan for reform of children’s social care. I welcome the Minister to her place, but it is very hard to see how a Government so mired in a crisis of their own making will be able to find the space and time to prioritise the needs of vulnerable children. However, I hope they do.
During her first Prime Minister’s Question Time, responding to my question, the Prime Minister committed to publish a response to the independent review and an implementation plan before the end of the year. I hope the Minister will set out today how that will be brought forward for full scrutiny by the House, so that the reform that is so urgently needed to support vulnerable children and their families, including kinship carers, can be delivered with urgency. Labour put children first when we were in government. I can assure the House that we will do so again. In this place, the very least we owe kinship carers up and down the country for the job they do on our behalf of caring for the most vulnerable children is not to leave it a moment longer to deliver the reform they need.
It is a great honour to be here today responding on behalf of the Government in my new role. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing what is an important debate. I agree 100%. Also, I have never had the opportunity to say this directly to him, but let me say in my role here that what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and his wife Allison have done for their grandchild is just fantastic and to be commended. He is a fine example of how kinship can work, so well done.
All hon. Members who have joined today’s debate will agree that kinship carers are an untapped and undervalued asset. Their value to the children’s social care system and the lives of children up and down the country cannot be overstated. A fortnight ago, we celebrated national Kinship Care Week, which recognised the important role that such carers play in children’s lives. As part of those celebrations, we invited a group of kinship carers into the Department to hear their stories and inform the work we are doing to produce a children’s social care implementation strategy by the end of the year. I also wish to thank the APPG for the work it has done in this area, as well as charities such as Kinship and other organisations in the sector, which have been doing so much for this cohort of carers.
Hon. Members may be aware that I have a deep personal connection to this issue. My own sister is a social worker, and I have been an independent visitor for a looked-after child for many years. I have seen many children thrive in the care system but then face significant challenges when they reach the age of 18 and are often left with few loving relationships to sustain them throughout adulthood. Kinship care can be the antidote to a lifetime of isolation and loneliness. It allows young people to remain safely rooted within family networks and local communities, which provide us with the mental, emotional and physical support we all need. The need for family and community was acutely demonstrated during the recent covid-19 pandemic.
I am passionate about improving the lives of children. That is why I was honoured to become the Minister for Schools and Childhood last month. Supporting kinship care is a route to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to grow up in a loving, safe and stable environment and to maximise their potential. I welcome the opportunity to set out what we are doing as a Government to make that vision a reality.
This year, we have seen the publication of three reviews that, in their own way, call for a reset of the children’s social care system. As we know, they were the independent review of children’s social care, the national child safeguarding practice review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson and a report by the Competition and Markets Authority into the children’s social care market. In Prime Minister’s questions on 7 September, in response to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), the Prime Minister told the House that the Government would publish a response to those landmark reviews before the end of the year. We are still committed to that timeline, and that has been a major part of my work since being appointed to the Department. Hon. Members will understand that I cannot give full details of the response today, but I am glad to be able to update the House on the progress so far.
First, we have established a national implementation board, which will include people with lived experience of the care system and leaders who have experience of implementing transformational change. The board will oversee a programme to reform children’s social care. Secondly, we have made early progress on commitments that the Government made when the independent review of children’s social care was published earlier this year. On Thursday 6 October, we launched the data and digital solutions fund, to help local authorities to unlock progress for children and families through the better use of technology. That includes a project to better understand data on kinship care, and to scope options for improving its use.
Perhaps most importantly in the context of this debate, the independent review of children’s social care shone a spotlight on successive Governments’ lack of focus on kinship care and the children who live with kinship carers. The review made seven specific recommendations, which sought to prioritise and improve support for kinship carers and children, and we will respond to those in the upcoming children’s social care implementation strategy. Although I cannot announce the detail of the response today, I can commit that kinship care will be front and centre. It will get the focus and backing from Government that it deserves in the years to come. Our response will address many of the issues raised by hon. Members today, including the hon. Member for Twickenham—hopefully including financial support, entitlements for kinship carers and the creation of a new definition of kinship care, which was a specific recommendation made by the review.
Kinship carers play a vital role in looking after children who cannot be cared for by their birth parents. There are over 150,000 children in England living in kinship care, many of whom would be in local authority care if those families had not stepped in. It is clear that more needs to be done to build a system in which every child’s right to a family is safeguarded. We must give all children an opportunity to grow up in a loving kinship home when that is in their best interests and when they cannot be safely looked after by their parents.
Some local authorities already make greater use of kinship care placements than others. The proportion of children in care placed in kinship foster care ranges from 4% in some local authorities to 39% in others. It cannot be right that children’s opportunities to live with their families are based on their postcode, and I will use the response to the care review to begin to address that disparity.
Children growing up in kinship care achieve better outcomes than their peers who grow up in care. That includes achieving better GCSE results on average, and having a greater chance of being in employment than children who grow up in foster or residential care.
In my contribution, I referred to two figures. Some 28% of those in kinship care are educationally challenged—to use that terminology—as against a national average of 6%, which is a real anomaly. The figures to which the Minister referred are greatly encouraging, but can she confirm what extra assistance is available for kinship carers who are looking after young children who are educationally challenged?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We need also to look at this through the lens of our work in the Green Paper on special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision. In my experience, this issue affects not just children in kinship arrangements but looked-after children. My focus throughout this whole process is achieving better outcomes for children. That will always be front and centre of all decisions and all information that I receive.
Despite the good outcomes for children in kinship care, they still lag behind those children who have never had involvement with children’s services. There is much more to do, with greater Government focus and close collaborative working with local authorities, schools and colleges. I am convinced that we can reduce that gap.
As hon. Members will no doubt recognise, the theme underpinning many of my points today is that we have made progress but far more remains to do. Last year we announced £1 million of new funding to deliver high-quality peer support groups for kinship carers across the country. We know that becoming a kinship carer for the first time is often a frightening and bewildering experience, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish illustrated.
The support of peers can act as a beacon to help people through. Those support groups are already building powerful communities and enabling kinship carers to connect with those in similar situations. The Government recently confirmed that we will invest a further £1 million next year to ensure that more than 100 peer support groups are established across the country by January 2024.
Hon. Members have raised with me, including in this debate, the issue of educational entitlement for children in kinship care. That area is important to me, and I recognise how much has been done, but there is more to do. Since 2018, virtual school heads and designated teachers have had a responsibility to promote the educational achievement of pupils who leave state care to live with an adopter or special guardian. Children who live with special guardians and were previously looked after by the state are eligible for the pupil premium, as the hon. Member for Twickenham outlined.
Kinship children who were not previously looked after but had been entitled to free school meals, at any point over the past six years, attract the pupil premium funding. We constantly review that and assess the effectiveness of the pupil premium, to ensure that it supports pupils facing the most disadvantage. Last year we consulted on changes to school admission codes to improve in-year admissions. Children in formal kinship care were in scope of those changes, which mean that kinship carers can secure an in-year school place for their child when they are unable to do so via other means. Those new measures came into force on 1 September 2021.
Finally, children living with special guardians who have previously been in state care can access therapeutic support via the adoption support fund, which has already been outlined. This year, we have also made that support available to those children who live with relatives under child arrangements orders. We are looking to improve local authorities’ engagement with the adoption support fund, to increase the proportion of eligible kinship carers who apply.
As hon. Members have eloquently outlined, I recognise the strain that kinship families are under, and will continue to work collaboratively with local areas to ensure that children, young people and families have access to the support they need to respond to the cost of living pressures. I am committed to supporting kinship carers. The independent review of children’s social care recommended a financial allowance for carers looking after children under a child arrangements order and those looking after children under a special guardianship order. My Department is considering each recommendation, and will respond by the end of the year.
I wanted to be part of this debate, but I had two meetings about my private Member’s Bill next week, so I could not be here at the beginning, for which I apologise. I wanted to implore the Minister, in considering the financial issues, to reflect on a situation in my constituency, where the grandmother ended up having to look after the grandchildren while the parents were having issues. The problem was that she had to spend her own money, and she did not have a lot of it. When we asked social services, they said, “Only if we place the children in her care will she get some financial funding, but not until then.” For weeks and weeks, nothing happened. This issue may have been discussed, but I wanted to raise it.
I know that the hon. Lady is passionate about this area, and I recognise what she has illustrated. The stories that Members have told in this debate have alluded to similar pressures that they have come across in their constituency casework, and it is something that I have seen at first hand, prior to becoming a Member of Parliament. Given that we recognise the value of kinship carers, we are taking the recommendations very seriously, and I am doing my best to show that the Government are committed to looking at this area and taking reasonable decisions.
Kinship carers often develop strong bonds with children who have just entered their homes, and taking leave from work could play a role by giving those carers time to do so. There is currently a range of Government support for such carers and employers, and some employers provide significant support to employees without a legal requirement to do so. We would encourage employers to continue to respond with this flexibility, but we will be considering the case for extending parental leave to kinship carers as part of our response to the independent review of children’s social care later this year and—I hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—when I speak to my successors in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on this topic.
I also recognise the importance of making informed choices about the legal status of children entering the homes of kinship carers. The Ministry of Justice laid a statutory instrument yesterday to make legal aid available for special guardianship orders in private family proceedings, which will help prospective special guardians to get advice and assistance on the order before processing. My Department is working closely with colleagues in the MOJ on implementing the recommendations from the social care review, and on giving access to legal aid to some kinship carers.
Today’s debate has rightly focused on some real issues that we know kinship carers face. My hope is that we will be able to respond to the concerns and recommendations with the implementation strategy by the end of the year. I am absolutely committed to that, and to listening to and learning from kinship carers, who make the selfless decision to care for a child who cannot safely remain with their parents. I look forward to working with them and all hon. Members on this important issue, because it is important not only for many of us across this Chamber, but for our country and for how young people develop and thrive in the United Kingdom.
I thank everybody who has participated in the debate. Like everybody else, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). He and his wife’s story is inspirational, and Lyle is a very lucky little boy. I thank the hon. Member for what he is doing, and I thank kinship carers up and down this country. As has been pointed out, they are doing an amazing job and helping so many children to have life chances that they would not otherwise have, as well as saving the taxpayer a huge amount of money.
Although I set out the short-term economic case in terms of the cost savings that could be achieved, the hon. Member talked about the moral benefits and the long-term economic case. We hear this so often about children and young people. It depresses me that Government policy so often does not think long-term enough. Under the “invest to save” argument, we invest early in our children and young people. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), talked about early intervention and ensuring that we are really investing in those vulnerable families so that we prevent a lot of the challenges further down the line.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always in every single debate—I do not know how he does it—in particular for shining a light on the additional needs of many of those in kinship care, and indeed in all types of care, as the Minister pointed out. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for pointing out the important work of charities working on the ground and for stressing the connection between poverty and kinship care. The data shows us that kinship carers are disproportionately those from the most disadvantaged families and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, so there is all the more reason for us to provide them with the right financial support. As the shadow Minister said, we must not lose sight of these issues amidst this political turmoil.
I was encouraged to hear some of the things the Minister said today. I thank her for her work and for her sister’s work in supporting children in care. I know that the Minister cannot make any firm commitments today; clearly, she cannot announce anything. However, I was encouraged that she referenced the fact that the Government’s response will talk about financial support and definitions of kinship carers, and the fact that extending parental leave is on the table. A lot of the language was clearly very hedged—she said that these things will be considered and there will be a response. I hope that the response is positive, in terms of both the money and the leave available to those carers. I welcome the news that an SI was laid yesterday for legal aid for those seeking a special guardianship order. We are slowly edging in the right direction.
I thank the Minister for the work she is doing, but I urge her to continue to be a champion for children and young people. They are often the ones who suffer the most when we are in economic and financial turmoil. They have suffered the most through the pandemic, and they suffer the most when there is an economic downturn. It is incumbent on all of us as elected Members to be their voice here. Children and young people have neither a vote nor a voice, so it is up to us to be their voice.
My Bill had cross-party support, so I am really disappointed that there are no Back-Bench Conservative Members present. However, I know there is support across the House for these measures, and I look forward to working with all Members and the Minister to make some of those recommendations a reality.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for kinship carers.
Port of Dover: Border Controls
I beg to move,
That this House has considered border controls at the Port of Dover.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. Today I will raise three matters of concern about border controls: illegal entry of people; legal transit of people and goods; and illegal dangerous food and goods.
Dover stands as the guardian of and gateway to England. Currently, with the number of people in small boat crossings at over 35,000 people, that guardian role is being sorely tested. The Home Secretary says that this situation is out of control and it is. There is much more to do to secure our sea border.
We need to recognise that every person coming into Britain through this route is breaking the law, and every person organising and facilitating such small boat crossings is committing a crime. This is organised criminal activity and it is no different from the smuggling of guns, drugs or any other contraband. Indeed, it is not simply criminal: it kills people, too. I will never forget how 27 people died in the channel last year; they drowned when their small boat sank.
Every person who steps into an inflatable boat on the French coast is putting themselves and others at risk when they are completely safe in France. They are not safe at sea, crossing the English channel in an overcrowded, unseaworthy inflatable boat. They will become even less safe as winter approaches and the weather becomes colder and the sea rougher.
I was pleased to meet the Home Secretary last week and again earlier today to hear about her plans and her determination to tackle this issue. I was also glad to be able to raise it directly with the Prime Minister at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, urging her to take urgent action with President Macron.
The bottom line is that it is only when migrants and people smugglers alike know that they cannot break into Britain through the channel that this route will be closed down and lives saved. That will only happen when Britain and France act in concert, jointly patrolling the French coast and the English channel, and jointly ensuring that illegal entrants are returned to France.
In my area, people are fearful that there will be further tragic loss of life this winter. Both the UK and France have a human and moral obligation to act now to save lives. That starts and ends with ending this crisis for good and the best way to do that is to keep people out of the dangerous inflatables and safe on land. In order to help genuine refugees, save lives and stop the criminals, more must be done to tackle this issue and secure the border. I look forward to hearing the Minister on this point.
Stopping illegal entry of people is vital, yet ensuring the smooth flow of legal trade and people through Dover is essential, too. The channel ports, Dover and the tunnel together transit around 60% of the UK’s trade with Europe. Goods come from across the whole country to Dover for export, and goods come from across the EU to Dover for import. Whether that is just-in-time manufacturing goods for the hubs of the midlands or seafood from Scotland bound for the continent, Dover plays a key role in making the midlands engine rev, in driving the northern powerhouse and in ensuring that the economy as a whole continues to hum. It is not just trade that goes through Dover. There are also the HGV drivers and a huge number of passengers—both tourists and workers—who come and go from the EU and the UK.
Last December, I secured an urgent debate here in Westminster Hall to set out my belief that we should be immediately ready for the upcoming EU entry-exit checks at the port of Dover. Those checks are part of the EU digital controls and they are now due to come into force in 2023—a matter of months. I am sorry to say that since I first raised this issue in this place, over 10 months ago, it is still not clear how the checks will work. There appear to be working groups, but we do not know if they have an implementable plan. Indeed, judging by the evidence given by the chief executive of the port of Dover to the Transport Committee last week, I fear not. If not, a delay in processing could result in miles and miles of traffic jams all along the Kent roads. The impact of that is not just traffic misery for those in Kent, Dover and those stuck for hours and hours, even days, in those traffic jams, but it would be catastrophic for UK trade and tourism. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell the House what the progress has been, so as to avoid delays to the preparation for those checks.
Danger to our trade comes not simply from failure to be ready on day one for entry and exit checks, but it also comes from the failure to invest in necessary physical infrastructure too. We have long needed upgraded roads, lorry parks, check-in facilities and so on, yet these have simply not been progressed. They need to be if we want to avoid the risk of tailbacks and delays on Kent’s roads. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who so ably chairs the Transport Committee, for his and his Committee’s diligent and expert work on pressing for infrastructure investment and facilities to facilitate this important trade route. I would encourage the Minister to meet with him as well as me, as he has much information and expertise on this matter that would be of great assistance to the Department in planning for and delivering effective borders and a strong national transport and transit infrastructure.
I have explored the dangerous small boats crossings and the danger of trade disruption. I will now turn to the dangers of poisonous food and unsafe goods coming from the EU to the UK through Dover. Since leaving the EU, a new port health facility at Dover has been fitted out, fully ready for border checks. It was ready to go live, with extra staff recruited, but then it was unexpectedly mothballed in the summer by the then Brexit Opportunities Minister. That was in spite of the Cabinet Office receiving a shocking report from Dover’s port health authority in May, ahead of the decision, about poisonous food and serious biosecurity concerns. The report said,
“To not mobilise the facility would be an act of negligence that would significantly increase the risk of devastating consequences of another animal, health or food safety catastrophe.”
Further, it said that
“we cannot control what is coming through the border and ensure national food safety, public and animal health and biosecurity are maintained, as we do not have a facility to complete the escalating number of checks required”.
The evidence is that the problem with poisonous food and dangerous goods has not gone away. Indeed, the evidence from the Dover border is that the problem has got worse, if anything. At the beginning of this month, Dover Port Health Authority undertook Operation Ouzo, a multi-agency exercise designed to check the adequacy of existing controls at the border. Over a 24-hour period, from Saturday lunchtime to Sunday lunchtime, they searched some 22 vehicles of Romanian, Moldovan, Ukrainian and Polish origin. In those vehicles, they discovered raw animal products loosely stored in carrier bags and paper tissue without temperature control, refrigeration or labelled identification. The products were not separated from ready-to-eat products such as cheese, crisps and cake.
In one case, raw, unlabelled and loosely-wrapped pork had been popped in the bottom of a taped-up wheelie bin, which was filled with other products intended for free circulation within the UK. The operational report contained some 20 pages of disgusting images from this very small operation. We need to remember that it is not 22 vehicles a day entering the UK at Dover. There are up to 10,000 vehicle movements across the channel each day. It is clear that the risk of maggoty meat, meat of unknown origin, which often means horse or other illegal meat, rotting meat due to the lack of temperature controls, as well as fresh blood dripping on to other products, is of real concern.
It is not just meat. Pesticides on eastern European flax seeds, the sort that we might sprinkle on our cereal, have been found to exceed the maximum level for UK health safety—in other words, they could be dangerous to human life. None of that food meets the EU requirements, and it should not be coming in; it is illegal for the UK market. That highlights why it is wrong to outsource our food and biosecurity to the EU, and not have our own robust controls. Moreover, those are just the things we know about. What about the things that we do not know about because the Government mothballed the facility and slashed the funding for port health officers at the Dover border?
Biosecurity is also a real concern. Take African swine fever, about which the Government have said,
“The disease poses a significant risk to our pig herd and our long-term ability to export pork and pork products around the globe.”
Ministers deem the risk of African swine fever to be high, and have even put in special measures to prohibit certain types of EU pork. However, the illegal pork trade is rife at the port of Dover—so rife that around 80% of that illegal trade comes through the short straits. Without adequate checks, there is nothing to stop it. The October Dover port health report concluded,
“The exercise validated Dover Port Health Authority’s advice to Government that biosecurity at the border is not secure.”
The Port Health Authority has said that
“greater mitigation is needed to control the risk of African Swine Fever entering the UK via illegally imported EU porcine at the Short Straits.”
The port authority says that it has been left in limbo, without direction or appropriate engagement, so can the Minister say when controls, facilities and staff will be put in place to tackle the risk of more poisonous food, dangerous goods and biosecurity risks coming into the UK?
The Cabinet Office is thought to believe that due to digital borders, little or no infrastructure or extra staffing is now required. Given the unhappy history of Government with IT systems, that is inevitably a real worry, especially given the many delays to date in border-related IT systems. Those systems have been subject to scrutiny in the official reports of the expert Joint Committee in the House of Lords, and are very troubling and long delayed. Digital borders, blockchain, end-to-end invoice processing and the rest are part of a modern border and trade environment, but do the Government recognise that the digital world will not stop the real-world gaming of the system, and for that reason, physical audits will always be needed? Digital borders can absolutely improve the efficiency of physical borders, but cannot replace them.
To conclude, it is vital to end the dangerous small boats crossings, prevent the danger of trade disruption and endless traffic queues, and stop dangerous poisonous goods and other dodgy goods entering the UK. The smuggling of illegal goods and people is rife at Dover, and it is shocking. It is time for the Government to confront those dangers and bring them to an end, to restore order and effective controls. That includes a review of the decision to mothball the port health facility and reinvestment in port health staff. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government intend to restore order at the border, and would be happy to meet with him to discuss the matter further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for securing today’s debate. She has been a tremendous campaigner on this issue since her election, not just in her constituency but nationally. It is something that has certainly been raised in my constituency many times, and I am grateful for the contribution she continues to make on this matter.
I will respond to the helpful contributions that my hon. Friend has made in a moment, but before I do, I would like to underline the Government’s commitment to safe, secure and—of course—efficient borders. In April, the Government announced that the remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced this year, saving British businesses up to £1 billion in annual costs. The controls introduced in January 2021 on the highest risk imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products will continue to apply in order to safeguard the UK’s biosecurity.
The Government further recognise the negative effect traffic build-up can have on the residents of Kent. My colleagues and I are committed to working with all the relevant stakeholders and the Kent Resilience Forum, which has the statutory responsibility for planning and holds operational decision-making powers in managing any disruption in Kent if and when it occurs.
Alongside my colleagues from other Departments and on the Back Benches, I am taking the issues that will be posed by the new entry-exit system seriously. This is an EU requirement being implemented by France, which is responsible for the systems, technology and processes. We have been working with French logistics operators and others to ensure the implementation of the entry-exit system minimises any impacts on border flows and traffic build-up. We are working closely with the operators of locations with juxtaposed controls, including the port of Dover, Eurotunnel and Eurostar to support them in their engagement with the French and with implementation plans. I am encouraged by recent developments on transition arrangements that have been proposed by the EU Commission; however, we need to see more progress on implementation and transition arrangements, and we will continue to actively raise this with our EU counterparts.
We recognise that the entry-exit scheme has the potential to impact on throughput at the port of Dover, and minimising that is a priority that we share with the port. We are already engaging with the French Government on this, and will meet them again at the start of November to look at the progress implementation plans and ways of mitigating negative impacts: the port of Dover will be involved in those discussions. The UK and French Governments share commitments to determine the infrastructure requirements, processes and procedures that take place on one another’s territory through the juxtaposed control arrangements. The entry-exit scheme is to become one of those processes, as part of the EU operating a secure border. We are fully aware that requiring all passengers to exit vehicles in order to register their biometric and biographic data would be hugely challenging, and we are exploring alternatives to this with the French Government—especially given the additional safety considerations around requiring passengers to mix with traffic flows.
While it is not the direct focus of the debate, it is worth noting that EES presents similar challenges, particularly in terms of disruption to passenger flows for Eurostar services both at St. Pancras International and its continental stations. Officials are equally engaging with Eurostar and French counterparts to agree plans for installing EES kiosks at St. Pancras, albeit there are major space constraints there too. As with the short straits, we are pressing for pragmatic solutions so we alleviate pressure at the border as far as possible. The Government recognise the strategic importance of the short straits for UK trade.
The Department for Transport works closely with the Kent Resilience Forum to manage disruption in Kent. The Kent Resilience Forum has extensive traffic management plans in place, including Operation Brock, to keep traffic moving. The Kent Resilience Forum, which is operationally independent from the Government, is responsible for managing traffic disruption. The Kent Resilience Forum has well-tested traffic management plans in place in their Operation Fennel plan, which includes the option to deploy Operation Brock on the M20, allowing portal-bound freight to be stored on the coast-bound carriageway while a contraflow enables both the coast and London-bound carriageway to remain open to passenger and local freight traffic.
The Kent Resilience Forum can manage a queue of up to 5,000 HGVs while keeping the M20 open; that figure rises to 8,450 HGVs with partial or full closure of sections of the coast-bound M20. The Government recognise the strategic importance of the short straits for UK trade, and my Department works closely with the Kent Resilience Forum to support it in managing disruption in Kent whenever it comes. Operational decisions on how best to manage this therefore sit with the Kent Resilience Forum, including the deployment of Operation Brock.
The disruption at the start of the summer holidays, in the busiest period for passenger travel so far this year at the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel, was caused by a combination of fewer than expected French border officials staffing the controls at Dover and a serious road traffic accident that caused the M20 to be closed for a prolonged period. Kent Resilience Forum and local partners worked tirelessly throughout to manage the worst of the disruption and cleared it within 48 hours.
On border controls, the Government announced in April that the remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced this year, saving British businesses up to £1 billion in annual costs. The controls introduced in January 2021 on the highest-risk imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products will continue to apply to safeguard the UK’s biosecurity.
Having left the EU, we can now put in place a new global import regime that best suits the UK’s needs, and it is important that we get that right. We will design a global regime for importing goods that is safe, secure and efficient, and that will harness innovative new technologies to streamline processes and reduce frictions.
We also want to speed up our system and get closer to frictionless trade. Our live “ecosystem of trust” pilot tests how we can use supply chain data and physical assurance technology to give border agencies confidence about goods moving in and out of the country, enabling better targeted checks at the border. If the Government can confer more trust on traders, we can start giving them benefits in return, such as fewer admin burdens, less physical intervention and delay at the border, and other policy facilitations that make it quicker and easier to move goods.
The Government have been clear that, in consultation with industry, we will publish a target operating model in the autumn. That will set out our new regime of border import controls and will target the end of 2023 as the introduction date for our controls regime, which will deliver on our promise to create the world’s best border on our shores.
The target operating model will describe the user journey for the import and export of goods across the border, explaining what must be done, by whom, and when. For traders, it will explain what must be done upstream of the border before goods arrive at it, and what must happen at the border—including border control posts—and after goods have entered free circulation. For the border industry, it will explain how policy, processes, systems and infrastructure act together to deliver that user journey, and what is required of them to implement those.
The new approach will apply equally to goods from the EU and the rest of the world. It will be based on a proper assessment of risk, with a proportionate risk-based and technologically advanced approach to controls. That includes a single trade window, which will start to deliver from 2023 the creation of an ecosystem of trust between Government and industry, and other transformational products, as part of our 2025 border strategy.
Inland border facilities were introduced to deal with customs checks at the border post-Brexit, and are constantly under review to ensure they provide value for money. A new proposed site at Dover was part of that review and, after looking into the amount of cross-channel traffic and the necessary associated checks, a decision was made in June 2022 not to progress that site. The review showed that the existing facilities had enough capacity to deal with the flow of traffic and that, therefore, a new site was not necessary. The decision saw a taxpayer saving of around £120 million, which was the anticipated cost of developing and running the Dover inland border facilities for the intended duration, and allowed the funds to be utilised elsewhere.
That decision to not build the inland border facility, however, does not mean that that asset is not required by the Government. The Department for Transport is exploring alternative options for its development to ease pressure at the border, given the issues with disruption on the strategic road network in Kent and at the ports. The Department for Transport will continue to engage with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, local leaders, businesses and residents to ensure that any development will also benefit the local economy and the community.
Alongside Dover inland border facilities, the Government are also considering our options concerning the future of Dover sanitary and phytosanitary border control post sites. Importantly, no decision has been made at this stage about the future of the site. I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to engage with local leaders, businesses and residents before one is made.
The Government are committed to investing in towns across the country and, in Dover, we have put our money where our mouth is. The future high streets fund is providing £3.2 million for Dover town centre and waterfront, and the UK shared prosperity fund is providing £1 million for Dover as part of the £7.5 million for constituencies across Kent. For Kent as a whole, the Government are also providing £6.8 million for 10 projects as part of the community renewal fund.
Small boat crossings are dangerous and unnecessary, and scores of people have been killed attempting to cross the channel in unseaworthy vessels. Every crossing attempt is a potential tragedy. The UK remains committed to continuing to address illegal migration via France through our enduring relationship. We continue to engage with the French at all levels, political and operational, and are supporting the provision of technology and the sharing of intelligence to meet our strategic aims.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 includes significant new measures to increase the fairness of our system, so that we can better protect and support those in need of asylum, deter illegal entry into the UK and remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Since the passage of the Act, the number arriving on small boats has passed 33,000, far exceeding the 2021 total in just nine months. We cannot continue, year on year, with the inexorable rise in the number of illegal arrivals, which adds to the pressures on our public services.
We will break the business model of the people smugglers and deter those seeking to enter the UK illegally only by putting in place a system in which it is clear to all that anyone arriving in this country illegally will not have their asylum claim considered here, and that they will instead be removed to Rwanda, or another safe country, to have their claim processed. We will be able to solve this issue only when those facilitating and attempting hazardous and potentially fatal journeys realise that their claims will not be processed. Following the decommissioning of the temporary structures at the Tug Haven site at the start of 2021, reception and processing facilities have been significantly improved, with the opening of the new premises in Dover and Manston.
Active consideration is being given to investment in the road network in Kent as part of the third road investment strategy. We are continuing to work closely with my hon. Friend and local stakeholders, who are making a strong case to improve the A2. Final decisions on the schemes will be taken in the investment plan for the road investment strategy, which is set for 2024.
In their recent joint statement, the Prime Minister and President Macron recognised the need to strengthen our co-operation, with a view to concluding some ambitious packages this autumn. We will update the House on that in due course.
The Nationality and Borders Act is a long-term solution to the long-term problems that have beset the asylum system over decades. It has three central objectives: to make the system fairer and more effective, so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need; to deter illegal entry, breaking the business model of evil criminal trafficking; and to make it easier to remove those with no right to be here. The Government remain committed to delivering the partnership between the UK and Rwanda, so that we can break the business model of the people smugglers.
The Government remain committed to all their international obligations, including the refugee convention. As we review the Bill of Rights Bill, we remain a committed party to the European convention on human rights. UK policy on migration should not be derailed by the abuse of our modern slavery laws, the Human Rights Act 1998 or orders of the Strasbourg Court. Although we will work within the bounds of international law, we cannot allow the abuse of our system to continue.
In conclusion, it is a pleasure to close the debate on behalf of the Government. I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and for all the hard work she has done, and continues to do, on the issue. To be truly world leading, we need to look beyond improvements to the border that other countries have already implemented, to a radical reimagining of how Government and industry can work together to enable secure trade. That will ultimately enhance the reputation that Kent and the UK have for facilitating business and encouraging investment.
Question put and agreed to.
Cost of Living: Support for Young People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cost of living support for young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Ms Ali.
This debate could not come at a more important time, as everyone’s bills are skyrocketing, the cost of food and other basic items seems to be increasing exponentially, and our country’s Government are in utter turmoil. Young people across Britain, who have had to live through the pandemic, are now faced with a cost of living catastrophe. In north-east Leeds, young people are facing the huge impacts of the crisis, with 6,712 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit. Of those, 32% are in work. It is shameful that the Government have still not committed to increasing universal credit in line with inflation.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He is talking about the point that I want to mention: the Government really should be increasing universal credit in line with inflation. Many young people and children in my constituency are having to go without breakfast and, in some cases, without lunch as well. No Child Left Behind recently said that 26% of households experience food insecurity. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is absolutely wrong?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, because I am just about to describe what a difference it makes to increase universal credit in line with inflation, rather than in line with wages. Her point is very well made indeed. If universal credit rose in line with wages, young people in my constituency and throughout the country—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I said earlier, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Ms Ali, in spite of the interruptions. I shall continue where I left off an hour and a quarter ago.
The fact that the Government still have not committed to increasing universal credit in line with inflation is shameful. If universal credit rose in line with wages, young people would receive just £7.42 extra per month. If, however, it rose in line with inflation, they would receive an additional £21.49 per month. Given the huge difficulties young people are facing at the moment, does the Minister think that failing to commit to an inflation-linked increase is morally acceptable?
The stark reality of this crisis could not be clearer for Jack, who attends YMCA sessions in Leeds. Jack is not his real name, of course. Jack is 10 years old and lives with his parents and two siblings. He has been quoted at YMCA sessions as saying that
“we’ve got no food at home.”
The fact that a child as young as 10 has been put in this position is unforgivable. It is a humiliation for our country not only at home but abroad. With wages squeezed more than ever, Jack’s family also receives support at school, through the uniform exchange, because they cannot afford to buy new school uniforms. The pressures of the current crisis are now causing issues between family members at home.
I commend the activists in Leeds for pioneering school uniform exchanges across the city, but it is outrageous that their brilliant work is even necessary in modern Britain. I ask the Minister what he would like to say to Jack and his family after yesterday’s day of shame for the Government, when the Prime Minister and her new Chancellor effectively gave the green light for energy bills to go up to a predicted average of £5,000 a year for most households from April.
The failure to provide cost of living support to young people often affects their parents as well. A report released by UNICEF today states that 59% of parents with children under five say that they are struggling with their mental health, and 66% have been negatively affected by the rising cost of living. That amounts to a total of more than 2 million families in the United Kingdom. The status quo is simply unacceptable, and this crisis will only deepen as we approach winter and enter the new year. Among parents feeling the pinch from the rising cost of living, the report also found that just under half have already cut back on their electricity and gas usage, with one in 10 unable to adequately heat their home as winter approaches. As we know, that will be hugely detrimental to the development and education of young people.
As I said earlier, the cost of living emergency, coupled with covid, will amount to a disaster for many families up and down the country, especially young people. Public Health England data shows that across the first three quarters of 2021-22, nearly one in three children aged between two and two and a half were assessed as having missed out on reaching their expected level of development. That contrasts with around one in six in the first three quarters of 2019. A recent YouGov poll pointed to the fact that over a quarter of people aged between 18 and 24 feel unable to cope with the cost of living crisis owing to the stress that it is causing, so I ask the Minister what plans are in place to ensure that the mental health problems in parents and elder siblings do not have a knock-on impact on younger people and children.
I turn now to university students, who have also missed out on learning because of the pandemic and are currently facing huge financial problems, but who risk being a forgotten group of people suffering from the impact of the crisis.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I am glad that he is including students. There will be mixed experiences in terms of students’ ability to fall back on family support, but is he aware that recent research conducted for Universities UK indicated that over half of students were considering whether they would be able to continue with their studies as a result of the pressures they are under? Does he recognise that university students cannot draw down the support that is generally available through the council tax system, because they do not pay council tax? Is he aware that other countries, such as Germany, are treating students in the same way as other low-income groups—for example, pensioners—by giving them additional grants? Does he recognise that the Government need to make some sort of national intervention on this issue, and not rely on a patchwork of different measures that are being introduced by some universities and some councils?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a very old friend of mine and has a great reputation for standing up for students and universities—certainly in this place and before he came into the House. I was not aware of many of those facts. I did not realise that half of students were considering giving up their courses, and I can only imagine the detrimental effect that it will have not just on their futures, but on the future of our whole country.
From my time on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I recall visiting South Korea and asking people how they could account for their massive success since the second world war. That was 15 or so years ago, and since then South Korea has become even more successful and has risen higher up the scale of G20 countries to become one of the most powerful industrial nations in the world. The Korean Education Minister at the time said to me, “It is one very simple fact. We took a decision after the Korean war that the only future for our country, as a rural agrarian economy, would be to invest in our young people, and educate them to such a level that that education would follow through in terms of our industry, our scientific research, our know how and our intellectual property.” We can see that that has happened.
A country that relinquishes the potential of its young people to develop, not just themselves but the economic future of that country, is one that is in trouble. I do not want to see that happen to this great nation—it would be absolutely tragic. I think we can learn from our economic, social and geopolitical partners, in countries such as Germany, as to how we can handle a crisis like this. They have the right idea. Not everything that happens in Europe is bad, believe it or not; there are some really good policies there. I think we should learn from those, and I hope that the Minister will begin to address that question.
Those university students who have missed out on learning because of the pandemic and are currently facing financial problems risk becoming a forgotten group of people suffering from the impact of the cost of living crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has said, it has serious implications for the long-term job market in the UK. Recent polls suggest that 55% of those who felt concerned about managing their living costs were worried that it might prevent them from continuing their studies. That rises sharply—up to three quarters—for those students who are severely disadvantaged or from poorer backgrounds. We simply cannot afford for more than half of our young people to drop out of university before graduation. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what support the Government are providing to universities, centrally, to tackle the issue before it is too late.
It is increasingly clear that urgent action is needed to prevent more young people from sliding into poverty. In a recent Barnardo’s report, one young person was quoted as saying that
“mentally, it’s taken a massive toll. I was thinking of seeing a counsellor, but I don’t want to because of the fear of how much it would cost. I haven’t been able to get the correct help”.
I am the president of Leeds UNICEF, and through that group I have heard first-hand about the horrific experiences of my young constituents, as well as of the many people across the city of Leeds who are struggling.
I conclude by strongly urging the Minster to look closely at extending free school meals, at improving mental health provisions for schools, and at backing the Labour party’s call for a breakfast club in every primary school in England and Wales. Those measures would at least give parents and young people some of the support they so desperately need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this important debate. It gives us an opportunity to shine a light on young people, who are often overlooked. In my short remarks, I will focus on students.
The last decade will have a long and significant impact on the younger generation. Many entered their youth in the throes of the financial crisis, went through the pandemic in their formative years and are now experiencing the full force of the cost of living crisis. The latest economic shock is presenting a new set of challenges for young people, particularly students.
I recently met a group of students from Bath Spa University. They are hugely worried about the financial pressures that rampant inflation is placing on them, and their concerns are not unfounded. UK students have seen a 7.5% cut in their maintenance loans. That has had severe consequences: research by the National Union of Students shows that a third of UK students are being forced to live on £50 a month after paying rent and bills. Some are having to choose between feeding themselves and carrying on with their education; many are holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet. Mercy In Action, a local charity in Bath, has seen a fivefold increase in the number of young people and students who need to use its food pantry. Inevitably, students from the poorest backgrounds are disproportionately affected.
The cost of living crisis goes far beyond a purely financial hit. The Bath Spa students I spoke to described how the crisis was causing them considerable stress and anxiety. The Student Value Report showed that nearly two thirds of UK students felt their mental health had been negatively affected, while two fifths of students thought that their physical health had been affected. That is no way to go through a demanding course of study, or to sit and prepare for exams. The Government claim to view economic growth as a priority, but growth is not sustainable unless we support our young people. The students of today will shape our future, and should have ample opportunity to do so. The Prime Minister talks about equality of opportunity, yet she is not giving students the opportunity they need to achieve their potential.
Of course, failing to support students has a knock-on effect on local economies. Student spending supports over £80 billion of economic output: that is crucial for places such as Bath, where over a third of our population is made up of students. If students are struggling, the local communities in which they live will lose out too. To prevent the devastating effects of student poverty, the Government need to tie student support to inflation, as we have already heard, and deliver urgent maintenance grants and bursaries to those who need them.
I know that the hon. Member regularly takes up student issues and is a strong advocate for her student constituents. Does she recognise that students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, went into this crisis already at a disadvantage, not least because the salary threshold for eligibility for maximum loans in England has been frozen at £25,000 since 2008? Does she agree that a simple measure the Government could implement, and should not necessarily rule out, would be to adjust the threshold so that those from poorer backgrounds are more able to access those loans in England?
I thank the hon. Member for that remark—I have to admit that I was not totally aware of the detail, but I fully support what he has said about what needs to be done. It is clear that young people, including those who are now in their 30s, have already lost out because of the financial crisis. We need to support that younger generation, but we also need to support the young people who are coming through now, those who have been at a disadvantage as a result of covid. The least we can do is listen, and the Government need to listen to the recommendations that have been made today and act on them urgently.
As I said, the Government need to tie student support to inflation and deliver urgent maintenance grants and bursaries to those who need them. The cost of doing so would be low compared with other recent Government spending commitments. It would support the vital economic growth on which this Government tell us they are uniquely focused. While I applaud universities that have provided hardship funds, those institutions do not have enough means adequately to protect students in need: that is the responsibility of central Government. The Prime Minister has talked regularly about equality of opportunity and about growth. If this Government are serious about growth, they need to invest in people, especially young people.
The cost of living crisis is hitting all our constituents hard, but today we are focusing on children and young people, the support available and what is still needed. The bottom line is that, despite ongoing interventions from the Scottish Government, too many children are still living in poverty as a result of decisions made in this place. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, one in five people in the UK live in poverty. That is 4.3 million children.
I praise the incredible work of East Dunbartonshire’s food bank and all its volunteers for the support they provide, but they should not have to do so. Welfare provided by the UK Government should be uprated in line with inflation. Not to do so is a disgrace, but the Government have made their stance on support for students and workers crystal clear.
Are young people not being consistently left behind—whether by the benefits system, the fact that they are not paid equal wages, or the fact that the living wage is not a real wage? It is fair to say that not every young person has the support of mum and dad and can live at home, so should we not ensure that universal credit is equalised? The price of a pint of milk is the same, whether someone is over 25 or under 25.
I welcome that intervention from my very good friend; it is correct that students and young people should be paid the same amount, because goods cost the same regardless of age.
The UK Government’s disastrous mini-budget has caused economic uncertainty and market upheaval, meaning that working families with children to support are now terrified of losing their homes. With one hand tied behind their back, the Scottish Government are doing all they can to help Scotland’s children and young people—through free university tuition, free bus travel for under 22s, free school meals for children in primary 1 to 5, free prescriptions, the young patients family fund, the young carer grant and the rent freeze. With the powers that they have, the Scottish Government are building a wealthier, happier, fairer Scotland. Successive Tory Governments in this place are getting in the way, and that is why Scotland needs independence.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for introducing this important debate. When we talk about the cost of living crisis, the impact on young people and children often gets missed. They are an incredibly important group, and they will grow up with their life chances stunted and their health impacted if we do not consider their needs.
In preparation for this debate, I reached out to some youth groups in my constituency to ask how their young people are coping. The Urban Youth Project in Pollokshields got back to me with a response from one of its young people:
“As a student who lives on his own and has a part time job to keep food on the table, how much longer can I afford to juggle both these responsibilities? Sooner or later I’ll need to choose, do I continue with University or get a full time job? At my age (20) I should be able to study in university as I worked hard to get in.”
It is worrying that people are now choosing whether to continue their studies or give up and just work, because they are finding it hard to do both. Another young person said:
“It’s all very well budgeting for rising costs if you earn in the first place. How much higher will these costs rise? My parents are stressed, my brothers and sisters are feeling the change in spending, it’s not nice. My parents both work hard and they are talking about second jobs. Does anyone in parliament need to consider that option? Didn’t think so.”
There are choices made in this place that impact people. Many of the people making those decisions and choosing those policy routes never have to live with them. A piece of Barnardo’s research out today said that 49% of its frontline workers have supported children, young people and families who have had to choose between feeding themselves or paying their bills in the past year. That is nearly half of people facing that choice, and it is only going to get worse.
I will talk about some of the ways in which this is affecting people, and some of the choices that families in my constituency are having to make. In particular, I note a report from Migrant Voice about visa fees. For many families, each application costs £2,500 every two and a half years. If a family is having to bear that cost every two and half years, there are choices that they are not able to make for their children. One witness that Migrant Voice spoke to as part of its work said:
“I can’t feed my kids due to the visa fees and borrowing money.”
At the very least, the Government could suspend those fees for children and give folk a break, because it is really quite difficult. That is a choice that the Government have. They choose to add those costs for families as part of the immigration system. It means that those young people do not get the same choices as their peers at school. Furthermore, there could be two identical families with parents working identical jobs and children of exactly the same age, but the Government deliberately put one family at a disadvantage by giving them no recourse to public funds status. Those families are not entitled to the same benefits and they have to work twice or three times as hard to put food on the table as their neighbours. They deserve support. It is a system that is basically unfair, and I see many cases like that through my constituency office.
This situation is not news because the then UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, noted in 2019 that UK Government policy changes since 2010 were unravelling two decades of progress on child poverty. The UK now has the worst poverty and inequality levels in north-west Europe. In the UK, 11.7% of people are living below the poverty line. That is significantly higher than in countries such as Iceland at 4.9%, Denmark at 6.15% or Belgium at 8.2%. These are deliberate choices leading to deliberate impacts on people.
We did not hear much from the Government yesterday about what exactly they intend to do about this situation. We have the largest real-term cut to benefits in a single year. We have families struggling to get by on the national minimum wage, and young people are significantly disadvantaged by the way in which it is staged. An under-18 or an apprentice is entitled to only £4.81 an hour. In comparison, a 23-year-old starting the same job on the same day is entitled to £9.50 an hour. It is age discrimination baked into Government policy, and I would be interested to hear why the Minister thinks discriminating against young people in this way is justified. Universal credit also deliberately discriminates against young people, and the Government should explain why that is the case.
I could talk for a long time about the Government’s policies and the way in which they impact young people, but I want to highlight a few things that are happening in Scotland, where we have a choice and we are making a difference to the lives of young people. We have the young person’s guarantee, aiming to connect every 16 to 24-year-old in Scotland to an opportunity, which could be a job, apprenticeship, further or higher education, training programme, formal volunteering or enterprise opportunity, and that opens up opportunities to young people. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) mentioned, we have a greater free school meal entitlement in Scotland. We provide free period products for everybody, not just young people, but certainly that will help young people setting out in the world.
We have launched free bus travel for under-22s, which approximately 930,000 young people in Scotland are entitled to. The scheme could be worth up to £3,000 for a child by the time they turn 18, opening up horizons for young people and making it easier for them to get to work or their studies and to live their lives. This is just the start. Scotland has a vision for how we want to see young people go ahead in the world. We want to be the best country for young people to grow up in. What is holding us back is Westminster. What will give us those opportunities is independence.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you as Chair, Ms Ali. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this important debate and comprehensively setting out the need to support young people through the cost of living crisis. Growing up at any time brings its challenges, but young people today are living through a time of particularly great turbulence and uncertainty. We know that today’s young people will feel the impact and cost of 12 years of Conservative rule and the economic chaos of recent weeks longer than any of us. After 12 years of presiding over low economic growth and of undermining our public services, in the past few weeks the Conservatives have crashed the economy. Their unfunded tax cuts for the wealthiest and their reckless approach to public finances have caused enormous damage that will be felt well into the future. The new Chancellor’s U-turn in the past few days had become unavoidable, but the damage had already been done. That damage will be felt by working people across this country for many months and years. Let me be clear: this is a Tory crisis, made in Downing Street and being paid for by working people, many of whom are just starting out in adult life.
The former Chancellor’s disastrous mini-Budget shattered the plans of many young first-time home buyers, as the reaction to the Conservatives’ recklessness saw more than 40% of available mortgages withdrawn from the market and saw lenders begin to price in interest rates over 6% for two-year fixed rate deals. For many young people who have been able to get over the hurdle of saving for a deposit, they have fallen at a new hurdle put in their way by the Government. This follows 12 years during which home ownership rates have fallen. There are now 800,000 fewer households under 45 who own their own home, and nearly a million more people rent privately than when the Conservatives came to power in 2010. We have seen the prospect of home ownership slipping out of reach of more and more young people. In contrast, at the recent Labour party conference, we set out our plans to introduce a mortgage guarantee scheme, raise stamp duty on foreign buyers and give first-time buyers first dibs on newly built homes. Labour is the party with a plan to increase the rate of home ownership and support councils in making social housing the second tenure in our country.
Of course, many young people across the country are renting privately, often out of necessity rather than choice. They are left vulnerable to unaffordable rent rises and no-fault evictions. We are concerned by the confusion about the reports that the Government have U-turned on their commitment to scrap section 21 no-fault evictions—although they have subsequently U-turned on that apparent U-turn. As things are changing so rapidly, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that—assuming the current Prime Minister is still in office, which I realise is a dangerous assumption—the Government can give a cast-iron guarantee that they will introduce a rental reform Bill in this Parliament.
We know that another reality of the Conservative cost of living crisis is food poverty. A recent survey of 2,000 young people carried out by the Prince’s Trust found that a quarter said they had skipped meals to cut back on spending, and 14% had used a food bank at least once in the past 12 months. Furthermore, a third said they could not afford to turn the heating on, while a similar proportion have struggled to afford the cost of travelling to work. Just yesterday, representatives from the Trussell Trust, Independent Food Aid Network and Feeding Britain delivered a letter to the Prime Minister signed by more than 3,000 food bank volunteers, in which they called for urgent help as they face “breaking point”. The letter warned that food banks are “struggling to cope” as demand outstrips donations. The volunteers said they were “overstretched and exhausted”, and urged the Government to take action to
“end the need for charitable food aid by ensuring everyone has enough income, from work and social security, to buy the essentials.”
According to the Children’s Society, a third of children were living in poverty prior to the cost of living crisis and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East mentioned, that is why Labour’s commitment to breakfast clubs in every primary school in England is so important. More widely, the continued failure of the Conservative Government to commit to uprating benefits in line with inflation will leave families with children significantly worse off. Does the Minister personally agree that benefits should now rise with inflation?
Finally, we know that the cost of living crisis has had an impact on mental health, particularly the mental health of young people. I know from speaking with young people in my constituency how aware they are of the need to look after their mental health, and since I was elected I have often been struck by how clear so many young people are about what support they need. That is why I am glad that we have been able to set out our plan to use funding from closing tax loopholes for private equity fund managers, and removing the VAT exemptions from private schools, to strengthen mental health services for young people. This funding would improve mental health services, particularly those for young people—from guaranteeing mental health treatment within a month to all who need it to ensuring there is a full-time mental health professional in every secondary school and a part-time professional in every primary school.
Young people today face great uncertainty and insecurity after 12 years of the Conservatives, and never more so than after the damage caused by the economic chaos of recent weeks. Changing the Chancellor and making U-turns will not undo the damage that has been done by this Prime Minister and Conservative Government. The damage they have caused has come from Downing Street, but it will be paid for by working people, and young people will face the impact and the costs for longer than any of us. Only a Labour Government will support young people with the jobs, homes, public services and stability they need to succeed.
What a great pleasure it is, Ms Ali, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for securing the debate, and I thank the hon. Members who have contributed, including the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan). I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for a number of very useful interventions, and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), and my colleague on the Front Bench opposite, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), for their contributions.
It was good that the hon. Member for Leeds North East started by referring to the YMCA publication entitled “Inside the cost of living crisis: The experiences of young people living at YMCA”, which was published earlier today, along with some other reports. I would like to draw colleagues’ attention to the statement with which that report starts, with which I am sure we can all agree:
“Everyone should have a fair chance to discover who they are and what they can become.”
The YMCA does great things across the country to enable people to achieve that objective.
There are real challenges facing our economy after two decades of low inflation. The world is now confronted with a high bout of fast-growing prices and the United Kingdom is not immune. While that takes place, we should all remember that our friends in Ukraine are at war, and the United Kingdom will continue to support them in a number of ways. We recognise that Putin is using energy as a weapon of war, pushing up prices and piling pain on citizens across the free world and particularly in Europe.
We should also recognise that young people can be in a particularly precarious position, because they are still in education or just starting out in their careers. They may not have had time to build a financial safety net. Many are at a critical stage of identifying and then seeking to accelerate their potential. I want to be clear: this Government are responding to help the most vulnerable to get through these tough economic times.
I want to answer some of the questions that have been raised. Very directly, on the uprating of welfare benefits in line with inflation, I will be honest: there are difficult decisions to be made. I want to reassure people that helping the most vulnerable will continue to be central to our decisions, just as it was when we announced support of £1,200 for millions of the most vulnerable households. The Government are required to review the rates of benefits annually to determine whether they have kept pace with price inflation. The Work and Pensions Secretary is yet to conduct her annual review of benefits and more will be said in the medium-term fiscal plan.
I think I heard the hon. Member for Glasgow Central ask why the universal credit standard allowance is lower for people under 25. That is to reflect that those claimants are more likely to live in someone else’s household and to have lower living costs. However, it is acknowledged that some claimants under 25 do live independently, which is why universal credit includes separate elements to provide support to claimants for those additional costs.
I want briefly to talk about the trend of poverty since 2009-10. Between 2009-10 and 2021, 2 million fewer people were in absolute poverty after housing costs—a figure that includes 500,000 children. In 2021, 536,000 fewer children were in workless households than in 2010. The youth unemployment rate fell by 1.3 percentage points in the quarter to August 2022 and is at a record low of 9%, which is around a quarter below its pre-pandemic level.
That progress requires us to talk about economic stability, which is vital for everyone and particularly for young people who may be looking for their first jobs or next steps. Instability affects the prices of things in shops, the cost of mortgages and the value of pensions, meaning that bringing stability to the economy will ease the cost of living for everyone. As the Chancellor has said, the United Kingdom will always pay its way and we remain committed to fiscal discipline. There will be more difficult decisions to take on both tax and spending as we deliver our commitment to get debt falling as a share of the economy over the medium term. We will publish a medium-term fiscal plan to set out our responsible fiscal approach more fully at the end of the month.
The only real way to create better jobs, deliver higher wages and spread opportunity is growth. Growth is what frees us to invest in the services that ordinary people need and to give people the financial security to live their lives as they want. Stability is a prerequisite for growth.
Yes of course, but the hon. Lady did not answer her question. The question is, how do we tap that potential? It is important to design policies that tap that potential. I was struck by a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central about migrant families coming to this country and how they start their life. It is a fact around the world that first-generation migrant families, more often than not, contribute a greater proportion to the growth of the country that they go to than the population that they join. That seems to be a fact. I have not forgotten previous discussions with her before I took this role. The hon. Member for Bath said that we have to focus on people’s potential, but we have to find that strategy to achieve growth.
I remind hon. Members that while tackling these economic challenges, the fundamentals of the UK economy remain resilient. Unemployment is at its lowest in nearly 50 years. Our growth rate since 2010 has been higher than that of Germany, France, Italy and Japan, and it is forecast to be higher than that of any G7 country this year. The Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Ealing North, is shaking his hands, but these are the facts.
Our need for competence and stability is not at odds with the help that we are providing to those struggling with the cost of living. That is why the Government are focused first and foremost on helping everyone with the cost of living, most notably the cost of energy. The energy price guarantee and the energy bill relief scheme are supporting millions of households and businesses with rising energy costs. The Chancellor has already made clear that they will continue to do so—
I must finish up, if I may. They will continue to do so from now until April next year. The Government have also announced £37 billion of targeted support for the cost of living this financial year.
Many young people will have benefited as their wages got a boost from the national minimum wage increase. As a result of our changes to the national minimum wage, from April 2022 people aged 21 or 22 saw a 9.8% uplift, to £9.18 an hour, while 18 to 20 year-olds received a 4.1% rise, to £6.83 an hour, and 16 to 17 year-olds had an equivalent 4.1% increase, to £4.81 an hour.
Yes I can. The fundamental point is that we are investing in young people. Many businesses wish to invest and add additional costs for training and support to tap into those skills, so that people can earn higher wages later on. It is because companies have the incentive to invest in young people that young people can then earn more. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but she should recognise that the national minimum wage is not a cap on what people can be paid but a floor. If companies invest in young people to get those skills, they can earn more.
Our youth offer provides guaranteed foundation support to young people searching for work on universal credit. That includes 13 weeks of intensive support to help new claimants into suitable opportunities and provision. Youth hubs are co-delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions and local partners, and youth employability coaches are available for those with complex needs.
We will always encourage labour market participation and make it pay to work. Through universal credit, the Government have designed a modern benefits system that ensures that it always pays to work and that withdraws support gradually as claimants move into work, replacing the old legacy system, which applied effective tax rates of more than 90% to low earners.
Questions were raised by the hon. Member for Bath about free school meals and breakfast clubs. The Government spent more than £1 billion on delivering free school meals to pupils in schools. Around 1.9 million disadvantaged pupils are eligible for free school meals, as well as an additional 1.25 million infants who receive a free meal under the universal infant school meal policy. The Government are also providing an additional £500 million toward the cost of extension, which has come via a six-month extension to the household support fund.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East talked about breakfast clubs. The Government are providing over £200 million a year to continue the holiday activities and food programme, which provides free holiday club places to children from low-income families. The Government are providing £24 million over two years for the national breakfast club programme, benefitting up to 2,500 schools.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central and others asked questions about support for university students. He may know that the Government have increased maintenance loans every year, meaning that disadvantaged students now have access to the highest ever amounts in cash terms. He may know that the Government have made £260 million available through the Office for Students, which universities can use to boost their own hardship funds. He may know that many students also benefit from the wider package of cost of living support, and he will know that maximum tuition fees will be frozen until 2025. He mentioned one particular idea on thresholds, which I would be grateful if he could write to me about.
I will write to the Minister on that point. It is all very well saying that the maximum loan has been increased, but people cannot access it because the threshold has not changed. I think there is some serious work to be done by the Government on that. It could make a very real difference to some of the most hard-pressed students.
I would be grateful for his insight on that issue. I want to close on the issue of mental health and young people, which is an issue close to my heart. We are all aware that the response to covid had a dramatic effect on the mental health and wellbeing of young people more than others. The Government appreciate the importance of responding to the significant demands on children and young people’s mental health. The Government are delivering record levels of investment in mental health services. These investments are part of the NHS’s long term plan and include an extra £2.3 billion per year for mental health services by 2023-24. This will give an additional 345,000 children and young people access to NHS-funded services or school-based support by 2024.
It has been an interesting and pithy debate. It is clear that we owe it to the next generation to deliver higher wages, new jobs and improved public services. We owe it to young people to deliver stability and a strong economy on which they can build their future securely. We must make sure they have the safety net they need now. The Government will help them with the cost of living today and continue to invest in them for the future; that is what young people will benefit from, and that is what the Government are focused on delivering.
I thank all who have contributed this afternoon, from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who made some very important points, to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), to the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I also thank my colleague the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who is a good friend.
The debate should have been far longer in many ways, because there is so much more to say. Let me conclude by saying this: if we ignore investment in children and young people, we will pay a price, but if we invest in young people and their welfare, education and mental wellbeing, we will all benefit. Our society will be stronger. Our country will be better, and it will deliver the growth we are all after.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered cost of living support for young people.