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Westminster Hall

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 December 2022

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Asylum Seeker Employment and the Cost of Living

I beg to move,

That this House has considered asylum seeker employment and the cost of living.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My constituent Mary had to flee her home country of Kenya because of fear of persecution and sought asylum in the UK in 2017. I met Mary in August of this year and learned about her story and the barriers that she has faced since coming to the UK, one of which is the barrier to being able to work. Back in August, she told me:

“I was made to understand that I did not have the right to work as a person seeking asylum. This was…devastating for me as I knew I had some transferrable skills that I could use here to build my life and contribute to society.

Not being able to work really affected my mental health. It felt…demeaning for me especially being a parent and not being able to fully provide for my child. Most days, I was confined in the house, dealing with devastation and a lot of stress. There were days my daughter had to miss school when it was non-uniform…days”.

Mahmoud came to the UK in 2020, fearing for his life. He was forced to leave behind his wife and young son. Mahmoud was a civil servant and campaigner in Sierra Leone. He loved his job, but more importantly, he loved the fact that he was advocating for others. His life was sent into a spiral when the authorities began persecuting him. He said:

“Going hungry brings me some comfort. The money that could pay for my food has paid for the food my family is eating. My little son”—

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. While inflation has pushed the cost of energy and food to a 40-year high, the asylum support allowance has risen by just 13p from last year. Does he share my concern that the Home Office has not adequately considered the harm done when refugees cannot afford the very basics, such as three meals a day?

I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. I was just coming on to that point, but I completely and wholeheartedly agree.

As Mahmoud said, going hungry brings him some comfort. The money that could pay for his food has meant that his little son will not go to bed hungry. That is the only comfort that it brings him. He used to spend £10 on his weekly grocery shop, but now, increasing costs are making that impossible. These are not one-off instances; this is the life of an asylum seeker in a cost of living crisis.

Close to 18 months ago, I was in a debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill. In that debate, I said that asylum seekers travel through many safe countries, and that they essentially have a shopping trolley as to what they want as economic migrants. I want to go on record here and say that it is important to admit when you are wrong. My meetings with Mary and others have shown me that I was wrong, and I am sorry for that. Every week, the Government use scapegoats, and as we continued to see even yesterday in the Prime Minister’s statement, asylum seekers have been one for this Government for far too long. I am sorry for playing my part in that narrative as well.

These people are not arbitrary numbers for newspaper editors to froth at the mouth about, or to stoke the fire of intolerance. They are human beings, and we all need to remember that. They have had their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children dashed, but they still have hope. They want a good education; they want to live life without fear of persecution; and more importantly, they need our help and assistance. The persecution may be for a religious or political belief, due to war or because of the sexuality of the person they love, but when I have met asylum seekers, one thing has always been constant: the need for dignity after all they have been through. I am sure that we can all agree that having a purpose through work brings dignity.

People seeking asylum in the UK are in effect prohibited from working, and are forced to rely on just £5.84 a day while they wait for a decision to be reached on their asylum claim. During the cost of living crisis, that small sum makes it impossible to cover what is needed. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, an increase of just 13p in a year seems miserly in the crisis that we face as a nation.

You have fled persecution, and you fear for your life. You have taken on a potentially near-death experience, crossing dangerous waters in an overflowing dinghy with both your children. You get to your destination, but all avenues are blocked. That £5.84 does not even buy two cups of coffee. It is not enough to feed or clothe yourself or your children, to travel to appointments, or to buy toiletries and sanitary products; that is not feasible. That just is not fair.

Immigration rules dictate that people can apply to work only after they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year. There are many reasons why lifting the ban on asylum seekers working in the UK is the right thing to do. Forcing people fleeing persecution to spend months of their lives in poverty is inhumane. It has a detrimental impact on their physical and, more importantly, mental health. Enabling people to work provides them with the human dignity of being able to support themselves and their families while they build a route out of poverty. There are moral and ethical reasons why that would be the right thing to do. Lifting the ban would also provide considerable fiscal benefits to the country.

Without the opportunity to work, many people seeking asylum are forced into unsafe and exploitative practices, including forced labour. Research by the OECD found that a lack of permission to work can lead some people seeking asylum to work unlawfully, and that type of work can lead to situations of exploitation and modern slavery, as they do not have recourse to health and safety measures, or even regulated employment practices.

The Lift the Ban coalition estimates that reform of the policy could save the UK economy more than £333 million a year. If 50% of people who have waited more than six months for a decision on their initial asylum application were able to work full time on the national average wage, the Government would receive almost £249 million from the tax and national insurance contributions alone. If they no longer required subsistence support but retained support for accommodation, the Government would save an additional £84 million.

By the end of 2022, the Treasury will have wasted nearly £1 billion over 10 years as a result of banning people seeking asylum from working. Lifting the ban would also bring us into line with other countries around the world. The restrictive approach that the UK takes on the right to work makes it an international outlier. In comparable countries across Europe and in Australia, people are given an opportunity to support themselves earlier, with fewer restrictions. In France and Spain, there is a six-month wait, and in Germany a three-month wait.

Employment figures continue to show tightness in the labour market; the CBI has identified that three quarters of businesses are being hit by labour shortages. The British Chambers of Commerce suggests that reform of the shortage occupation list is required to allow sectors facing an urgent demand for skills to get what they need. It makes no sense for business, or for this country, to prohibit thousands of people who have the necessary skills from filling vacancies in industries that are desperately in need of workers.

Members should not listen only to me; the Lift the Ban coalition brings together almost 270 members, including the TUC, Unison and Oxfam, as well as those famous lefties at the CBI, Bright Blue and the Adam Smith Institute. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee released its annual report on Monday. It found that banning asylum seekers from working results in their entering the informal economy on poorer wages and conditions, which leaves them open to exploitation. It states:

“We also recommended that the Government review their policy more generally on allowing asylum seekers to work.”

It is not only businesses but the public who support that. YouGov polling carried out in March 2022 found that 81% of the population support granting the right to work after someone has waited six months. According to Refugee Action, 97,717 people seeking asylum have waited more than six months for an initial decision on their application—a sixfold increase from five years ago.

We have heard many times about the asylum system being broken. The figures alone show that to be the case. Just over three quarters—77%—of asylum seekers will eventually have their asylum claim accepted. The cost of living crisis has illuminated the ongoing dangers and frustrations of the restrictive rules. Soaring food and energy prices have pushed inflation to a 40-year high, yet the rate of asylum support allowance has risen by just 13p since 2021. Without the option of supporting themselves and their families through work, many people seeking asylum experience poverty, destitution and homelessness, and develop serious physical and mental health issues. The Conservative mantra has always been that the best route out of poverty is through work, so why are asylum seekers left in destitution and not offered that route?

Labour supports granting asylum seekers the right to work after they have waited for six months. The Minister for Immigration admitted recently that although he did not think the policy should change due to pull-factor concerns, there are good arguments on both sides of the debate. The Government’s defence of the policy is that enabling asylum seekers to work would act as a pull factor, and that wider economic policy schemes could be seriously undermined if migrants were able to bypass work visa rules by lodging unfounded asylum claims in the UK, but that falls flat given that a leaked Home Office report showed that permission to work is not a pull factor. The report revealed that many people seeking asylum do not have a prior understanding of welfare policies or access to provisions before they come to a country, and they have little knowledge of economic conditions in destination countries.

Equally, the argument that economic migrants will make false claims in order to access the labour market is not a strong line of defence. A six-month waiting period would provide a strong safeguard against that. It is implausible that somebody would bring themselves to the attention of the authorities on the basis that there might be a chance that their asylum application will not be decided within six months. In reality, most people seeking asylum do not have a choice about the country to which they flee. Many of those who have come to the UK have done so because of cultural, family or community connections.

I pay particular thanks to Refugee Action for all the important work it does in supporting asylum seekers. It has been an invaluable source of information and, more importantly, education to me. I also thank World Jewish Relief; it set up its specialist training and employment programme in 2016, which helps refugees to gain language skills and qualifications, and to get training. It also provides one-to-one assistance in CV writing and interview skills.

We need an asylum system based on compassion. I hope the Minister has listened closely to the body of supportive evidence and takes heed of it. Human beings all need support at some point. Please do not leave these people behind.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this debate, and on making such a powerful speech. It took a lot of honesty and courage, and I believe it truly honours his constituents.

When we see people through the lens of how they were created, we do not see the labels that people have adhered to them. We find our brothers and sisters, our colleagues and friends. For that reason, it is so important to seek the very best for people who are at their very worst. I have serious concern about people who are not in education, employment or training. We know the impact that has on our constituents, no matter where they come from or their circumstances. We know about the impact on their mental health, their self-esteem and their dignity. We know about the impact on wider society, the local economy and the Treasury. The desire to work is instinctive in all of us. We want to contribute and make a difference to our society, and people who have come far want to make their contribution, too.

Not allowing asylum seekers to work means that the public perceive them as living off the state. Much of the public do not know about the work restrictions and the lack of access to welfare. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government’s approach to refugees contributes to misconceptions, and may lead to racism?

I thank the hon. Lady for that point. There is a risk that that approach can be used to fuel a debate. That is why it is important to ensure that people who come to live in our communities are integrated into them, become part of our streets, families and society, and play a strong role by contributing and receiving, as we all do. That makes stronger societies. She makes a pertinent point.

People’s desire to work should be honoured, but as we know, across society, some of those people will be picked off by traffickers. Many people are trafficked to our country, and their securing good employment is one way to mitigate that. We know about the rise of modern slavery and exploitation. A black market is operating, and it would be far better for people to have the opportunity to contribute through legal employment than to be taken to darker places. When people are in employment, additional safety and accountability is placed around them. We hearing too many stories of people disappearing. That is not safe for them, or for wider society.

Let me look at another aspect of the argument. I hear constantly from employers in my constituency and across North Yorkshire that there is a serious labour shortage. I am thinking about the NHS and social care, where services are unsafe because they cannot be properly staffed. We have an NHS crisis; it needs to secure more and more people in work. I am thinking about our wider public services and the contribution that so many people could make to the UK, just as they contributed in the countries from which they fled. I am thinking about the opportunities in agriculture; we need to increase our food security. I am also thinking about logistics, in which, again, there are serious labour shortages.

So many of the people coming to our country could be part of the future economy. We have a climate crisis and are talking, at this very cold time, about the need to retrofit homes, yet we do not have the skills or the workforce to do that. We could train a new generation of workers to be part of the army that will be needed to address those issues. Construction and engineering are other examples. There are so many such areas.

In my constituency, many hospitality settings have to close for part of the week because they simply do not have enough labour. That lack of labour is having a significant impact on the economy. The Government have been challenged by productivity, yet people who desperately want to work are being denied that opportunity. They could bring a greater return to the Treasury and help the economy across the board to settle, so that inflation could be controlled and the cost of living crisis, into which we have all been plunged, addressed.

Asylum seekers have to wait 12 months before they get the opportunity to work. That demonstrates the crisis that has emerged, owing to the Home Office not having enough labour in place to process claims more quickly, and it costs people significantly. People’s talents are being wasted. I would fully support an employment programme that ensured that people had the opportunity to work. Last week, I met the Minister for Immigration to discuss that very issue, and to talk about the opportunities now that York has many asylum seekers coming to stay in our city. I offered our city, which is England’s only human rights city, as a city of sanctuary. There is an opportunity for people to come, and I suggested that in an orientation, they should receive the input and support that they need to address their trauma, and should receive any necessary language support.

We should also start to triage people, and to look at who would most benefit where—for example, for younger people, we should look at schools and colleges—and at where the skillsets are. For many people, it might be worth looking at the occupational shortage list; they could then move into skilled employment. Others should have the opportunity to undertake training, and work could then be identified for them. Alongside that, we should ensure that people have the accommodation that they need. If people are in employment, they can contribute to the cost of their accommodation and that of their family.

I also discussed a scheme that I would like the Government to adopt for people coming to the UK for asylum: homes for asylum seekers and refugees. That would give people the opportunity to integrate, and to live with families here. We have seen the success of the scheme for people coming from Ukraine, who have been able to integrate into communities. When 77% of asylum seekers have their applications granted, it obviously makes sense to get people ready for employment and for the opportunity to play a full part in our society as part of our communities. To deny those people that opportunity for 12 months is to deny them a year of their life, which is completely inappropriate. We know that work is therapeutic and healing, and it is one way of providing dignity for people. I have heard many stories of constituents who have come to me and begged for the opportunity to work, to provide and to be humanised through labour.

It is absolutely right that we now see the Government move; it is economically literate for them to do so, but it will also dignify people across society. It will build a stronger economy for the future, build better integration, take away the barriers that divide people and ultimately build a stronger society for all.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing the debate. Its timing is particularly good, given that we are about to go into the Christmas recess. Many of us will enjoy time with our families, and at the same time we are asking people not just to exist on £5.84 per day but live in cold and often damp housing. It is not a time of cheer for those people.

Earlier this year, I presented my Asylum Seekers (Permission to Work) Bill for First Reading. I discussed many of the issues that hon. Members have raised this morning. Ultimately, if we strip all this back and look at what the actual issue is, it is the Home Office; that is the bottom line. It is not making decisions and people are kept in limbo. Yes, we might hear about people kept in limbo for months, but for many of them—including a lot of my constituents—it is year after year of living hell. They cannot move on with their lives and they cannot do anything; they are literally just stuck there.

If the hon. Member’s inbox is anything like mine, she will have people who are waiting two or perhaps even three years. They come to my office literally every single day just to see if we have had any news whatsoever. Unfortunately, all that we can say is, “No, but we will chase it again.” It is not being able to actually get on with life; they do not have a life, because they are not able to. They are stuck in limbo, as she said. She is absolutely right; this is fundamentally a failure of the Home Office, and it needs to be corrected now.

Absolutely. One of my constituents has been waiting seven years for a decision. Are they an asylum seeker? Well, they are an asylum seeker—but are they a refugee or not? Surely we can come to a decision on that faster than seven years. We have a duty. If these people are not genuinely refugees, let us allow them to move on with their lives, because they cannot do that.

This is also economically stupid. We hear about the cost of housing these poor individuals. What we should be looking at instead is this: if they are working, what tax revenues can we gain? In fact, if only half of those currently awaiting a decision from the Home Office were able to work, it would generate nearly £200 million a year in tax revenues. We do not hear that; that is never put on the front of the Daily Mail. While there has recently been an increase in the shortage occupations where people can seek employment, there are still glaring gaps. Members have already talked about hospitality; I also have businesses in my constituency that are having to close because they cannot get staff. Meanwhile, literally upstairs from the café that is having to close, we have housed asylum seekers who are desperate to work. It makes no sense; when that café works, it closes. People—native Glaswegians, in my case—are also losing out, and money for the local economy is being lost. Simply by not allowing the neighbours upstairs to work, we are causing businesses to fail. It is economically stupid, but it is what we have come to expect.

Teachers are allowed to work if they teach maths, physics, computing or Gaelic, which is useful in Scotland, but there are huge shortages of teaching staff across the UK and we should be able to allow those people to come in and help. We have also seen shortages of HGV drivers, yet those people are not allowed to do such work.

In the rhetoric that we hear it is interesting that these individuals are coming here to steal all our jobs, at the same time as claiming all our benefits. That is the paradox that neither the Daily Mail nor this Tory Government seem to be able to solve. In fact, the reality is that these people do neither of those things. The majority of people are simply looking for somewhere safe to get on with their lives, where they can contribute.

Contributing is important: if we allow them to work, they contribute to the community and become part of our society. We all benefit as a result. I pay tribute to my constituent, Jean, who worked very hard with the asylum-seeker community about 20 years ago in Glasgow, when the Home Office was trying to deport people. She mobilised the local community to stop that happening. The story was told as “Glasgow Girls”, and one of those Glasgow girls, Roza Salih, is now an SNP councillor in Glasgow. Jean was the power behind the movement to stop the deportations happening. Kingsway Community Connections and people such as Jean are working hard to help people integrate and learn the language, and to show that they are welcome, which they are, but all the time we are battling against the poisonous rhetoric that causes so much difficulty.

We also hear about safe and legal routes. I would love the Minister to tell me what the safe and legal route is for my constituent’s sister, who is women’s rights worker in Afghanistan. Her brother was shot in front of her a couple of months back, by people who told her they are coming back for her. What safe and legal route is available to her? She is literally under threat of execution at the moment.

Working while waiting for a decision on an asylum claim allows for better integration, is economically sensible and allows us to learn from other cultures. It provides economic benefits to our communities and allows them to thrive. Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South once again on securing the debate and allowing us to put on record some of the issues.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I offer huge congratulations to the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this important debate and on making a brave and moving speech. I thank him for what he said.

The right to work is a frustrating issue. I find myself unable to get into the Government’s head on many parts of the discourse in this place about migration and how we treat refugees and asylum seekers, but the right to work is one area where the Government may be able to be pragmatic. I will make the case for that more fully if I have time at the end of my contribution, but to put it very bluntly and crudely, there are great left-wing and right-wing arguments for giving asylum seekers the right to work.

There are good bleeding-heart liberal reasons why we should care for people who are asylum seekers, as giving them dignity and the ability to integrate is a kind thing to do, but if the Conservatives, and the newspapers to which they tend to bow down, are really bothered about the cost of the asylum system, the answer is to allow people to pay their own way. There it is—I have solved the problem in one fell swoop: allow them to work, pay taxes and contribute to our society. That would be such an easy thing to do and I have a slight sense of hope from the Minister for Immigration, who was in Westminster Hall the other week responding to a debate on a related issue, that there may now be a little strain of pragmatism in the Home Office. I will continue to push for that, and I hope and pray that it might come to the fore.

Allowing refugees to work lets them integrate into their new communities faster. It could help tackle modern slavery. According to the campaign, Lift the Ban, it could hugely benefit the economy to the tune of £97.8 million per year in net gains for the Government. Does the hon. Member agree that allowing asylum seekers to work is beneficial for both them and the UK?

It really is, and I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. She is absolutely right, and I completely agree with her. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that some of the Government’s tough posturing on asylum seekers contributes towards modern slavery. For instance, the nonsense about deporting people to Rwanda—what will that do? Will that stop people coming to the UK? Nope—it will stop people claiming asylum when they get to the UK, and then they will end up in the black economy, involved in modern slavery, forced labour and exploitation.

The objections to giving asylum seekers the right to work, or allowing the UK to make use of their talents—let us put it that way—are bogus. Fundamentally, they focus on the nonsense of the pull factor. Let us deal with that, first and foremost. The idea that the UK is being swamped by asylum seekers is nonsense. The massive majority—up to 90% of refugees—remain in a country neighbouring the place they have fled. Of those who find their way to Europe, four times more asylum seekers are in Germany than are in the UK, and there are three times more in France than the UK. If we were briefly to put the UK back in the EU for league-table purposes, we are 17th out of 28 when it comes to the refugees we take per capita. We are neither overwhelmed nor swamped.

The extent to which we are is because of a broken asylum system, where we fail to triage people’s claims, and leave them rotting for months, even years, without an answer. That is absolutely outrageous. Yes, the cost of having people in hotels is huge, and it is entirely down to Government incompetence, not down to us being swamped by people seeking to invade and exploit us—and all that nonsense.

I have been to Calais, I have been to Paris to talk to displaced people from Calais, and out to some of the Greek islands where refugees first arrive in Europe. I talked to those who are seeking to come to the United Kingdom. First, they are a small minority. Secondly, when I dug down and asked why they wanted to come to the United Kingdom, their answer was family ties, and cultural reasons—particularly if people come from a country that was once part of the British Empire, and for whom this is the mother country. If that is the case, this is a place that people will seek to come to—but they are a relatively small minority.

With regards to all the hostile environment argument the Government comes up with to try to punish and dissuade people from coming here, there is no law that is dastardly enough even to remotely compete with the biggest “protection” this country has from asylum seekers—the small matter of being a flippin’ island. It is hard to get here—really hard. There is nothing that we could do that would be able to match that bar to coming here, which is probably why we are 17th on the European league table, and have nowhere near the numbers of France and Germany.

It is worth saying that there is one pull factor. There is a pull factor about Britain—it is our centuries-old reputation. That is something that makes me proud. When one listens to people who are heading here, they are not saying, “I want to cream off the taxpayer.” They are not saying, “I want benefits,” or “I can get free NHS treatment.” They are not even aware of those things. They are aware of Britain’s reputation as a place of sanctuary. These are people who have been persecuted because of who they are, what their beliefs might be or what ethnicity they might be. They see Britain as a place where they can have a family in peace and quiet, and earn a living.

It is also because Britain may well have had a colonial footprint in the country that they are coming from, so they have a feeling of affinity with Britain.

That is absolutely right. They probably speak English, or have been taught it, so there is a sense of Britain being the mother country. The reputation of Britain as a place of religious and political liberty—a place of freedom—where people can live a quiet life is the pull factor. No amount of ridiculous legislation from this Government or any other will scrub out several centuries of having that reputation—a reputation we should be proud of.

I spent a little time in the constituency of my neighbour and friend the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), who is a Conservative MP—I will not say “but a decent human being”—and a decent human being. I went to one of the places where asylum seekers are being kept, and the people supporting them spoke highly of the hon. Member and his work supporting asylum seekers in their casework applications to have their cases heard. I came across people who had obviously gone through enormous trauma in the places they had fled, particularly those who fled through Libya, which is a place of terrible persecution and awful deprivation for those who have to pass through it to get to the Mediterranean. Many of them have post-traumatic stress disorder, and the mental health impact on them of having to wait for months on end is utterly intolerable. Many were not there because they were on antidepressants and simply could not get out of bed. My experience of meeting those people and seeing the talent they had made me think, “What a waste it is that that talent is not allowed to be deployed.”

Let us consider: why should the Government give asylum seekers the right to work? Why should the Government give the UK the right to benefit from asylum seekers’ talent? It is simply because they will pay their way. If we are worried about the cost of asylum seekers to the taxpayer, we can stop worrying about it by giving them the opportunity to work, so they will be less of a burden and, by paying tax, will actually be contributors. We should think what it would mean for their mental health and dignity, which is important, and for their ability to develop their English and fit in more. As others have said, over three quarters of asylum seekers will be granted refugee status or granted asylum in this country.

I rise to intervene because while we have been speaking, there has been an incident in the channel. Forty-seven people have been in the water and unfortunately several have died. That shows the dangerous lengths people go to to come here. It is not just for economic benefit and migration; people are taking a serious risk for cultural and familial reasons, and all the reasons we are talking about in this debate. We are a proud, tolerant country that should be accepting and trying to abide by that. Unfortunately, I feel that in the rhetoric we are hearing if someone said, “Build a wall”, I would not be surprised, so we need to overcome that and show compassion now more than ever.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I know I have gone on for longer than I should, and I will wrap up in a minute. What he said was obviously heartbreaking, and it is a reminder that the reason why all the channel crossings happen is the lack of safe routes. If we allow people to apply when they are on dry land, they will not make ridiculous journeys like that. It is a minority of people who are fleeing who come to this country and, because we are protected by that body of water, people have to do dangerous things to get here. That is not a decision people take lightly. They take it because they are desperate and they see the United Kingdom as a place of safety for them. Giving asylum seekers the right to work will absolutely lessen the financial burden on the taxpayer. It will give the Government a defence for the many people encouraging them to be even more beastly because they are allowing them to share the cost of the system. It will help with integration, mental health and, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly pointed out, workforce issues. One of the major reasons why our economy is in recession is that there are parts of the economy where there is more demand than we can meet—that is an outrage.

It is really disheartening to hear about those deaths from the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). While the moral and economic justifications are obvious, allowing asylum seekers to work would, conversely, deprive the Government of propaganda that says, “Asylum seekers are a drain on the country and a detriment to our society”. We all know how much the right-wing mainstream media love to fall back on finger-pointing and othering the poor, the vulnerable and especially refugees. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) will agree that allowing asylum seekers to work would give them the opportunity to provide a better standard of living for themselves and their families and improve their participation, engagement and contribution in UK society.

I completely agree with everything the hon. Lady has said.

In conclusion, I want quickly to make a point about workforce in my community. There is a stat I often reel out—I did it yesterday in the main Chamber—that comes from a survey of Cumbria Tourism members. The lakes is the second biggest visitor destination in the country outside London. We have 20 million visitors a year and a relatively low population, so workforce is an issue. Some 63% of tourism businesses in the lakes report operating below capacity because they cannot find the staff. I am not saying that giving asylum seekers the right to work is the only answer, but it would contribute and help us economically. There are good self-interested reasons for the country to do this, but it is also the right thing to do morally.

This is about leadership. The rhetoric and discourse from the Government on asylum in particular—how we treat those who come to us for sanctuary—are a failure of moral leadership and show a lack of courage. They say there are two forms of leadership: one is where the leader sees the direction the crowd is travelling in and goes down to the front and says, “I agree”, which is not leadership, by the way; the other is where the leader has the courage to make the case. Leaders should lead and make the case. There is a strong, hard-nosed conservative argument for doing this, as well as a bleeding-heart liberal reason. Would the Minister agree to look into the mechanisms that would need to be employed to give asylum seekers the right to work or, to flip it the other way round, to allow the United Kingdom to make use of the talents of those who come to us for sanctuary?

It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate on a subject that is very close to my heart. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who captured the exact reasons why we are here. It is because we believe there is a good case to be made, and I am going to make my case for my constituency, as he did for his.

All of the hon. Gentleman’s speech captured my attention, but the one particular point that I took out of it was the fact that many asylum seekers may have a connection with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are well aware of what the country that they may see as their mother nation has to offer them. The hon. Gentleman captured the emotion of the occasion very well, as well as the importance of the case we are trying to put forward. It is because of issues relating to human rights and freedom of religious belief that many asylum seekers have fled from where they came from, whether that is Afghanistan, Syria or Ukraine, as is topical at this moment in time and very fresh and real in our memories.

I want to put forward the case for Strangford. I am going to name some of the firms in my constituency that have offered jobs. Their offers are on the record and I have made those companies’ names available to Ministers. I do not understand why people who are here have not been offered those jobs when they are available, but I will speak more on that in a minute.

The rise in the cost of living is having a severe impact on many across the United Kingdom. People in full-time employment with possible savings are still struggling to make ends meet. I say this respectfully to Government: I believe that there must be some element of compassion for those who are awaiting asylum decisions and living on incredibly low amounts of money. I have always had the belief that we must help those who do not have the capacity to help themselves. We are fortunate and privileged to be Members of Parliament. Our job is to speak up for those who do not have anyone to speak for them. We may never meet them, but that does not mean we will speak up for them any less. Each and every Member who has spoken so far in this debate has reiterated that point. I know that the shadow Ministers who will follow will also confirm the stance that we all share on this matter.

There are currently 97,717 people in the UK seeking asylum, often waiting well over six months for a decision—a sixfold increase from five years ago. Numerous concerns have been raised about the amount of money allocated to those awaiting asylum decisions just to survive. I challenge anybody in this place to survive on that amount of money.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to Lift the Ban, which is a really good project. It focuses attention on this issue, and I have some questions for the Minister. The Lift the Ban campaign has given Northern Ireland businesses and others across the United Kingdom a real insight into the benefits that would come with allowing asylum seekers to work. One asylum seeker living in a hotel in Belfast stated, “Now, the asylum seeker receives just £8 a week—that is not enough.” He said, “An asylum seeker living in shared accommodation receives £37 a week—that is also not enough and, even worse, not fair.” I do not believe that it is fair, either. I am no more compassionate than anybody else in this Chamber, but I understand fairly well what everyone is trying to say. Relying on that amount of money per week to cover essentials such as food, clothing and travel has never been easy for people seeking asylum, especially given the financial turmoil that we have all faced in the last couple of months and will face in the months to come.

I greatly respect the Minister and we have been friends for some time, but has she seen the Lift the Ban campaign? If not, I respectfully ask her to take note of it and to look at the options and solutions that it has put forward to try to address this issue. Will the Minister adopt and promote the proposals espoused by the campaign?

With consumer prices rising by 11% since last year, there have been increasing calls from the Lift the Ban campaign and others to encourage the Government to allow asylum seekers out of inactivity and let them partake in some employment. It is probably no secret that I am a bit of a workaholic; I like to be busy. I suspect that other MPs like to be busy, too. Can you imagine sitting in a hotel or shared accommodation for seven days a week and only being able to go out for a wee stroll? Your mind does not function—I say that very respectfully—your body does not function, and you become depressed. Indeed, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to asylum seekers being prescribed medication for depression.

We should allow those who are skilled and, more importantly, willing to work to get into employment and find some part-time or full-time work that requires little official training. I do not say that in a demeaning way; I say it because it would mean that asylum seekers could step into a job tomorrow, which would allow them to earn a little extra cash and make their daily lives easier. I have companies in my constituency of Strangford that are looking for workers, and I have conveyed that to Ministers on numerous occasions. Syrians, Afghans and Ukrainians in the asylum system have skills and there are job vacancies, so why not help them by giving them the opportunity to find employment? It would also give them some dignity and lift their confidence. Families would know that their breadwinner was out there earning for them, and it would keep families together—I am very conscious of that.

As usual, the hon. Gentleman is giving a well-considered speech. Does he agree that it is the most natural thing in the world for human beings to have purpose and meaning in their day? Going out and earning a living gives them that purpose. Without that, asylum seekers are vulnerable to exploitation from those who would take advantage of the very vulnerable in our society.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right and I could not put it any better, because that is exactly how I feel. We should give them dignity and a purpose in life—I genuinely do not think that is too much to ask. That is why this debate is so important.

I will give another indication of the jobs that are available. The owner of a bar in Belfast revealed that they were crying out for staff. As we come up to Christmas, there are literally hundreds of jobs that could be taken advantage of in the hospitality industry in particular. Again, I just do not understand why those jobs are not being offered to people. If they cannot fill the jobs from the society we live in—whatever the reasons may be—there are plenty of people in hotels not too far away who would love that opportunity. There are people from Afghanistan sitting in a hotel in Bangor, which is a city in North Down. They have been there for over 15 months. My goodness. I am going to challenge everybody in this room: would anyone like to be sitting like that in a hotel? Bangor is nice, by the way, but that is not the point. It is not in my constituency, but I say that with honesty. Could anyone’s mind take that? Could anyone physically take that? I do not think so.

On the hotel issue, this is portrayed as some sort of luxury. Can anyone imagine being in a hotel room? I stay in hotels here in London. It is bad enough doing two or three nights a week, but imagine that being your only place, with no cooking facilities, no place for the children to sleep, no separation of family members and no privacy. It would be hell.

I agree with the hon. Lady. I am not sure it would be hell. As a Christian, I think hell is a place you never want to be and worse than anything in this world.

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I did not say that to be judgmental, by the way. I just wanted to make that point.

Although I appreciate and respect the Government decisions on not permitting asylum seekers to work, I believe that schemes could be put in place by our Government—my Government—to allow them to get back to society. They want to get back to society. They want to do something. They want to be purposeful with their lives here in our country. For example, they could take part in community service and assistance by means of cleaning streets or doing local gardening—for those who just want to be physically active. It does not mean the job is demeaning. It is important. It helps us out.

I want to mention two companies. Willowbrook Foods has a number of jobs and I met the chief executive officer, John McCann. He told me to tell Government that he has jobs available. He has been trying to fill those jobs within our own constituency but has not been able to do so, so there are jobs and opportunities. The CEO of Mash Direct is Martin Hamilton. I heard the same thing from him. I think Willowbrook Foods employs about 260 to 270 people, and Mash Direct employs about 230 to 240. They have jobs available and they have specifically said that they want to help the Afghans, the Ukrainians and the Syrians get the jobs and make their lives better. I believe this allows for an improvement of local standards and improvement in the mental and physical health of asylum seekers. It would give them a way to give back to our community and a chance to make some money in order to get the essential items that they need and want.

Amid the cost of living crisis, the Government are taking steps to assist all aspects of our society. I ask that that includes those awaiting asylum decisions. To be asked to live on as little as £8 a week is shocking. Yes, accommodation and essential bills, such as for heating and electricity, are covered, but many of these families have young children. What about their schooling? What about the help for young children? They are just wee children, who look to their mum and dad for support, succour and help. But, at the end of the day, they also need to have active minds and bodies. Is that too much to ask? Some even have babies who require nappies, formula and baby food, which come at extortionate prices. In the last month I have become a grandfather again—it is the sixth time around. Rachael and Luke tell me that the price of baby stuff—they already have a child so they can compare it—is getting extortionate.

I strongly encourage and urge Government to consider the introduction of schemes, such as Lift the Ban and others, to ensure that asylum seekers have the possibility of earning some money for themselves while serving and working in our local communities, as well as dignity, understanding and opportunity. It is due time that Government understood that asylum seekers have abilities and skills and there are jobs available right now that they can do. To my mind, to give asylum seekers jobs is a win-win.

Thank you so much for that. There has been a fantastic array of Back-Bench speeches. I now invite the Front Benchers to speak, starting with Alison Thewliss of the SNP.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing this debate and being honest and courageous enough to say that he has changed his mind. Many people get stuck in the position of thinking, “I’ve said something once so I have to stick to it forever,” so it can be difficult to do that. I thank him very much for doing that; it is incredibly powerful.

I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who fulfilled this portfolio role with great ability over the past couple of years. I am honoured to take it up following them; I have large shoes to fill.

I thank Refugee Action for its action on this issue and its campaigning over many years as part of the Lift the Ban coalition. More locally in Glasgow, I thank the Maryhill Integration Network and the Red Cross VOICES Network, which have done so much to bring this issue to light.

We all agree that, regardless of our constituency, political party and ideological position, there is a case to be made for allowing asylum seekers the right to work. The Migration Advisory Committee is giving the Government the same advice, so they really ought to be listening to it. I am desperately sad to hear the news that some people may have died in the wee small hours trying to cross the channel this morning in perishingly cold conditions. It highlights that we urgently need safe and legal routes to come to this country. People need to be able to apply for asylum from abroad. The only reason that people are crossing the channel in that way is that there is no safe way to do it, and I urge the Minister to give great consideration to that.

Article 23 of the universal declaration of human rights recognises that the right to work is a fundamental right, yet the UK Government’s restrictive approach to asylum seekers leaves people in limbo while the UK labour market suffers chronic shortages. All Members have spoken about the need for people to fill jobs in their constituencies and the frustration that many of us feel. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who had a private Member’s Bill on that very issue, said that people could be living above the shop that is closing and not be able to work in it. The situation is absolutely ludicrous.

Many of the constituents who come to my surgeries week in, week out have skills that they wish to use, but the longer they are away from the labour market, the more difficult it is for them to get back into it. They feel themselves daily losing their skills, languishing, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, in hotels and guest houses, unable to do what they wish to do.

There are organisations in Glasgow working on this problem. The Bridges Programmes helps people such as doctors get back into employment in the UK, wherever they have come from. Radiant and Brighter does a brilliant job of helping people to gain skills in business. Many people have had businesses in the places they are from and want to get started here, but it is difficult to navigate that path. I spoke to Pheona Matovu, who runs Radiant and Brighter. She came here unable to work and did not want to let her children know, so she kept herself busy. She started the organisation and trained other people to give the appearance, at least to her children, that she had a job with dignity and was not sitting waiting for something to happen, because she was not that type of person. Many asylum seekers are not that type of person. They want to get on in the world and contribute. For many of my constituents, that is incredibly important, and their frustration at the Home Office is palpable.

My constituent Sandra was able to study. She has been training as a nurse, and the call went out to all trainee nurses on her course that people were wanted to help with vaccination during the pandemic. They were to do that as volunteers—they were not fully trained as nurses, so they were not employed—but she could not even get an answer from the Home Office about whether she could go and volunteer with everybody else on her course. Despite the shortage occupation list, and despite the shortage of healthcare workers, she was not able to get the assurance from the Home Office that she needed to do that. Nobody wants to fall foul of the rules, because of course that counts against their application.

Shortly after I became an MP, I spoke to a gentleman who had been volunteering with the Red Cross while waiting for his citizenship application. The Home Office took that to be almost akin to work, and that counted against him as a mark of bad character. Working for the Red Cross is a mark of bad character according to the Home Office, even though he was not being paid for it. We were able to get that case resolved, but it illustrates the ludicrous situation that many asylum seekers are in. They want to keep their skills up and they want to do more, but they know it might count against them because some civil servant in an anonymous bunker in the Home Office might decide it is a bad thing.

The next generation of people coming along is also affected. A family of seven came to my surgery some weeks ago. They have been in Scotland since 2014 and are now eligible to apply for leave to remain, because they have been here so long. They have kept their children in school and supported them. The parents have not been able to work throughout that time; we can imagine the financial pressures of supporting five children on so little. They travelled across the city so that the children could stay at the same school, even though their accommodation changed quite regularly.

Two of those children are now at university, doing incredibly important courses, in engineering and medicine. The children cannot work while they are studying, and the parents cannot work to support the children. It is incredibly difficult for that family to keep going. They should have a decision; they should not be waiting in Home Office limbo forever. Just think of the contribution that their children are going to make to this country. It is incredible. We should thank them, not make life more difficult for them.

In this cost of living crisis, the cost of food, of heating a home and of essential items such as nappies and infant formula, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, has soared, yet the amount that people have to survive on has gone up by 14p. Nobody can be expected to survive on that. We see the impact on the charitable and third sector in all our constituencies, because it picks up the pieces when the state has failed people.

Organisations such as Refuweegee in Glasgow face increasing demands on their services. People cannot clothe themselves, feed themselves and heat themselves, and the Government are doing nothing to help. People are stuck in Home Office limbo for years, unable to work, unable to contribute, and having to depend on services. That is not good for anybody. As hon. Members right across the board have pointed out, that costs the economy, when asylum seekers could instead be working and contributing to the economy in so many valuable ways.

The hon. Member for Bury South mentioned remittances, which is an important point. A gentleman from Afghanistan came to my constituency surgery a few weeks ago. This man was in pieces. He has been through a very difficult time. He worked with US forces in Afghanistan, and he has been here for a few years; he did not come in the most recent iteration. His family managed to get out of Afghanistan and are now in Pakistan, waiting for the family reunion visa. They do not know when they will get it.

That gentleman is having to send the very limited money he gets from the asylum system—all of it—to his family, to make sure that they do not starve in Pakistan while they are waiting for the UK Government to make a decision on their case, which means he is reliant on charities in Glasgow to try to get by. He is not even able to access the tiny amount of money that the Home Office gives him; he feels he has to send that to his family, because he does not want them to starve. He is going without.

I think the Government miss that sort of situation entirely. Perhaps the constituency surgeries of Government Members do not look like ours and they do not see the people that we see, but I assure them that people in Glasgow and across the UK are really struggling just now. The UK Government need to do a great deal more to address these issues.

I could talk on this subject until the cows come home, because I have so many cases that I could mention. It is desperately important that the Government recognise the peril that people are in and the reasons why people come here. As others have said, they come here because of family ties. They come here because of the English language. As Afghan interpreters told me, “We are here because you were there.” The Government should remember that. They should support people properly. They should make decisions sooner, rather than wasting fortunes on the failed Rwanda deportation programme. They should listen to the Members who are here today. We want our constituents to flourish, to do their very best and to contribute in the way they know they can.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for calling this important debate, and I commend him for his brave, powerful and honest speech. I thank all hon. Members who have made such excellent contributions —in particular my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who always speaks with such passion and commitment on these matters.

I echo the comments about the terrible incident in the channel today. It is just appalling to think of those poor people suffering. It shows that the issues that we are discussing today are matters of life and death in the most literal sense.

The debate about whether asylum seekers should have the right to work has come to the fore largely because of slow asylum claim processing by this Government. After 12 years, a series of Conservative Home Secretaries have openly admitted that their asylum system is “broken”—and they should know, because they broke it. The backlog of asylum seekers awaiting decisions stands at 143,000. An enormous 97,700 of those have been waiting more than six months. The root cause is that the Government have failed to process asylum claims with anything like the efficiency required. In 2012, Home Office decision makers were making an average of 14 asylum decisions a month; now, they are making just five.

Tory Ministers try to blame covid, but the truth is that this is a mess of their own making. They chose to downgrade asylum decision makers from higher executive officer grade to lower executive officer grade, leading to a less experienced workforce on lower wages and with lower morale, lower retention rates and a collapsing process. The inevitable consequences were slower decisions, more decisions overturned at appeal, an increasing backlog, and ballooning costs for the taxpayer.

As a result, the British taxpayer is now forking out almost £7 million every single day on emergency accommodation in hotels—with private contractors, by the way, making a killing. It is worth noting that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 has made the whole situation worse by adding an extra layer of bureaucracy through its so-called inadmissibility provisions. Make no mistake: the system is a shambles.

That is the backdrop against which we discuss the right of asylum seekers to work while they await an asylum decision. Currently, asylum seekers who have been waiting more than a year are able to work in shortage occupations. The Labour party is clear that that period should be reduced to six months. It would not be appropriate for people to work straightaway on arrival, as those with clearly unfounded claims or who have come from safe countries should be swiftly returned. The asylum system is for those fleeing persecution and conflict; it is not an alternative to the normal immigration rules for those who are not. However, where people are in limbo for more than six months simply because of Home Office incompetence, there are real problems with expecting the British taxpayer to pay them about £40 in weekly earnings. That money and more could be being paid by employers, especially at a time of high job vacancy rates in Britain.

The current state of affairs is damaging to the taxpayer, damaging to the Exchequer, and damaging to the wellbeing of asylum seekers. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee said that restrictions were pushing asylum seekers

“into exploitative situations by preventing them from obtaining safe and legal sources of income.”

The Lift the Ban coalition, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South, estimates that reform of the policy could save the UK economy more than £333 million a year. Moreover, research by the OECD found that being refused permission to work leads some asylum seekers to work unlawfully, which exposes them to exploitative working practices because of the absence of health and safety and other regulatory employment protections. That, of course, tends to lead to undercutting and a race to the bottom right across the labour market, so absolutely nobody benefits from the mess in which we currently find ourselves. Does the Minister recognise the absurdity of the situation?

Currently, the Government allow asylum seekers to work in jobs on the shortage occupation list if they have been waiting more than 12 months for their claim to be heard. As I mentioned, we support the view that asylum seekers should be able to work after six months, on the basis that the Government should not be taking longer than that to process a claim, except in the most exceptional circumstances. There is strong support for that view across the House, including from a number of Conservative Members.

In case the Minister has forgotten, may I remind her that the long-standing target of processing 98% of straightforward asylum claims within six months was scrapped by this Government more than four years ago, with no indication of when or whether it would be reinstated? Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us about whether that service standard will ever be reinstated. It is a shocking sign of Conservative Government failure that almost 100,000 asylum seekers have now been waiting more than six months.

It appears obvious that the right to work should exist alongside a functioning system. That is why our entire focus, when we are in government, will be on clearing the backlog and getting back to the six-month service standard. In other words, the debate about the right of asylum seekers to work is a symptom of the fact that the Government are not clearing the backlog or stopping the boats.

On the issue of small boats, we on the Labour Benches are clear that the dangerous channel crossings are a real problem and that preventing them is a priority for our party. In 2019, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said that she would stop the small boat crossings in months. Three years later, the numbers have rocketed to around 45,000. Meanwhile, we recently had the chaos of 4,100 people living in Manston—more than double the legal limit—with the local Conservative MP blaming the Home Secretary for failing to provide the appropriate accommodation. Last month, another Conservative MP called on the Minister for Immigration to consider his position over the procurement of hotels around the country. We know that 222 vulnerable children have gone missing from asylum accommodation, and there have been other deeply disturbing safeguarding issues.

The public can see that the asylum system is neither firm nor fair, neither compassionate nor competent, and neither safe nor secure. The system needs fixing, but unfortunately the Conservatives are more concerned about chasing headlines than doing the nitty-gritty of good government. They put tough talk above hard graft. The country can see that government by gimmick is not working. An obvious example of that is the failing Rwanda offloading plan: with a mere threat of deportation, we are supposed to prevent crossings, but crossings have increased dramatically since that announcement.

The Labour party wants to stop refugees crossing the English channel and to crack down on the smuggling gangs that exploit refugees for profit, but the Rwanda plan is unworkable, unaffordable and unethical. Labour has shown leadership by setting out a five-point plan to deal with the mess. It is a serious approach based on sensible policy solutions; it is not based on what would best achieve a right-wing tabloid front page headline. First, we would crack down on the criminal gangs by repurposing the wasted Rwanda money for an elite unit in the National Crime Agency that would partner with France, Belgium and Europol to crack down on people smugglers.

Secondly, we would speed up asylum decisions by restoring order and smart management to the Home Office and by returning to 2016 levels of asylum processing. As part of our plan, we would fast-track applications of asylum seekers from safe countries in order to ensure swift returns. The previous Labour Government used the safe countries list to fast-track returns, but when this Conservative Government lost control of the asylum system as a whole, the fast-tracking process fell off the cliff with it.

Recently, the Labour party has been pushing for that system to return in the context of the number of Albanian channel crossers rising to 12,000. The Government have announced their intentions, but the detail is still unclear. It feels like more rhetoric, but we hope we are proven wrong on that. Labour’s common-sense fast-track system, combined with the much-needed injection of energy and competence that we would bring to government, means that we would deal with the issue in our first 100 days.

Thirdly, we would reform resettlement schemes better to target those most at risk of exploitation by trafficking and smuggler gangs, and liaise closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to get the Afghanistan scheme working properly. Fourthly, we would replace the Dublin agreement on returns. Fifthly, we would work internationally to address crises that lead people to flee their homes.

Does the hon. Member not agree that the immigration system is based on the hostile environment and that we are going to have difficulties unless we do something about that? The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 effectively introduced internal borders. That means that every aspect of someone’s life, including going to a bank and accessing any type of service, is being policed by immigration control internally, as opposed to at the border. That is the problem of the hostile environment, and it would be much easier simply to allow asylum seekers to work.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right that the hostile environment is profoundly counterproductive. Much of the thinking around the asylum system is based on a hostile environment for assessing applications, which has led to the system becoming completely blocked, and that has become a magnet in itself. The backlog is a magnet for many people, who pay people smugglers knowing that when they arrive in the UK it will take up to 450 days for their claim to be processed, so it is counterproductive in terms of the efficiency of the system. Of course, the hostile environment to which she refers is also the root cause of the appalling Windrush scandal, which has had such a damaging impact on communities across our country.

Having set out our approach to the right to work and how Labour will deliver on that in government, I look forward to the Minister’s response to these vital questions. We need to get away from empty rhetoric and towards something that resembles the efficiency, speed, compassion and control that we need, so that we can have an asylum system that works for our country, we can start to get control of our borders again, and we can ensure that people who come here fleeing war and persecution are able to make a valued contribution to our society and, indeed, our economy.

I call the Minister to respond. Perhaps she will leave a minute or so for Christian Wakeford to wind up at the end.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Before I move on to substantive matters, I want to say that we are all now aware of possibly tragic news—certainly a major incident—in the channel. The authorities have been responding to the incident and full details will be forthcoming in due course. I understand that the Home Secretary is coming to the House to make a statement, so we will have more information then. It is of course a tragic situation that is evidence of what is happening in relation to the present system, which is why the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are very keen to resolve the issues that we have in relation to asylum applications and economic migrants.

I thank the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing this debate and all who have contributed today; there have been heartfelt contributions. The UK has a proud history of welcoming and supporting those in need of our protection. We take our responsibilities very seriously and are committed to ensuring that we act in accordance with our international obligations.

Let me touch first on the eloquent points made by the hon. Member for Bury South. I am looking forward to even more eloquent apologies; there were a lot of policy issues on which he was flagrant and boisterous—I think that is the way of describing it—in the Chamber when he sat on the Conservative Benches, and there need to be various apologies to his constituents. It was interesting to read about his speech in The Guardian at 9.17 am, before he had been able to make his apologies, but I am grateful for his explanations today.

I turn to the cost of living. There has been a series of economic shocks. Cost of living issues, which people have raised today, are very much in the mind of the Government. The pandemic has contributed to them, and Russia’s unacceptable invasion of Ukraine has led to global pressures on the rising cost of living. The Government understand that people are worried about the cost of living challenges ahead. That is why decisive action has been taken to support households across the UK. We continue to keep the situation under review and will focus support on the most vulnerable while ensuring that we act in a fiscally responsible way.

We are of course alive to the potential impact of rises in costs in the asylum system. It is important to remember that a full package of support is in place for asylum seekers while their claims are assessed. The Government have a legal obligation to provide support to those asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute, through accommodation and allowances to meet their essential living costs. The pressures exerted on the asylum accommodation system in recent weeks and months have been well documented. Nevertheless, despite those acute challenges, we have managed to continue to provide support where needed.

The level of allowance is reviewed annually to ensure that the amount provided meets the essential needs of asylum seekers. As of the end of September 2022, 100,547 individuals were in receipt of support—46% more than at the end of September 2021. Of those, 95% were in receipt of support in the form of accommodation and subsistence. The remaining 5% were in receipt of subsistence only. Since 6 September, over 100 new hotels, providing over 9,000 additional bed spaces, have been brought into use, and we continue to add to the pipeline of available accommodation.

It is no secret that the UK’s asylum system has come under severe strain. One of the main factors has been the extraordinary and unacceptable number of people crossing the channel with, as we have seen again today, possibly tragic consequences. As I said, around 100,500 individuals are currently on asylum support. That is an unprecedented figure. The cost of accommodating asylum seekers in hotels is more than £5.6 million a day. All of that underlines why change is so badly needed. Getting a grip of the situation has been a priority for the Home Office.

It might be helpful if I set out some of the key rationale informing our asylum seeker right-to-work policy, which has been mentioned. It is important to distinguish between those who need protection and those seeking to come here to work, who can apply for a work visa under the immigration rules. As the hon. Member for Bury South is aware, our current policy allows asylum seekers to work in the UK if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months through no fault of their own. Those permitted to work are, as we know, restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is focused for a good reason. It is based on expert advice from the independent Migration Advisory Committee.

As part of reforms to our economic migration routes, we have set up cutting-edge skilled labour migration routes. To protect those routes and enforce our approach, we operate the compliant environment, which among other things serves to deter people who might otherwise undercut the rules from working illegally. Our asylum seeker right-to-work policy does not operate in isolation; it is a constituent part of a wider whole. We must ensure that it supports our objectives elsewhere in the immigration system and does not undercut it. That is why the policy is designed as it is. It is primarily intended to protect the resident labour market by prioritising access to employment for British citizens and others lawfully resident in the UK.

The Minister is reeling off the Government’s current policy, which clearly is failing catastrophically, and then highlighting shortages in the labour market. We know that there is so much need in the labour market because of the lack of supply of skills, so will she admit that what she is reading out is simply failing? It is time that the Government got a grip of this and had a real reform of their policy, to enable asylum seekers to work.

It is certainly not phoney, but it is time that the Government got a grip. We cannot go back to the situation alluded to by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), when the Home Affairs Committee reported—I think in 2011— that over half a million legacy cases had been left by the Labour Government. We certainly should not get anywhere near that, so the Government are indeed getting a grip.

When Labour left Government in 2010, 6,000 asylum cases had been outstanding for more than six months. It is really important to correct the record on that.

I was referring to the findings of the Home Affairs Committee, which heard the evidence at the time. However, I will make some progress.

Relaxing our policy could enable people to access the very same jobs for which we, with very good reason, require a visa application process. That would make a mockery of the whole system and would simply not be right. I should be clear that, where reasons for coming to the UK include family or economic considerations, applications should be made via the relevant route, not by undercutting the system, which is simply not fair to everybody else. Either the new points-based immigration system or our various family reunion routes should be used. We must guard against creating an environment that encourages individuals to come to the UK to claim asylum inappropriately in order to circumvent economic controls. Equally, the Government have a firm position that individuals should claim asylum in the first safe place they come to.

Let me finish this point. I remember the hon. Member for Bury South talking about the shopping trolley. He explained that economic migrants were using their shopping trolley to go through various safe countries. We must remember, as the tragedy today shows us, that France, for example, is a safe country.

The Minister is talking about people coming through the established routes, but there are hardly any. Unless someone is from Ukraine, or among the tiny number of people from Syria or the tinier number of people from Afghanistan, there is no way of getting to this country safely without doing what the Government now decide is—but what, under international law, most definitely is not—illegal. What will the Minister do to establish safe routes from the region? What about working in north Africa, or indeed with our partners elsewhere in Europe, so that we do not have tragedies such as the one that we learned of today?

To answer that point, there are many safe routes—countries where, internationally, there are agreements for taking various people—to come to this country to claim sanctuary. I am proud of the Government’s history of welcoming and supporting those in need. We need to focus protection on those who need it most, not on illegal migrants.

I must make a bit of progress to allow for closing comments.

We cannot readily dismiss the risk that removing restrictions would actually increase asylum intake, reducing our capacity to take decisions and support refugees. Let me take this opportunity to make it clear that I acknowledge the hon. Members’ concerns. In particular, I am aware of the debate about the best way to look at the right to work.

The comments made by the Opposition spokesperson about productivity were on point. The Prime Minister has committed to triple the productivity of case workers to abolish the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of next year. The Government are committed to ensuring that asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay, to ensure that individuals who need protection are granted asylum as soon as possible. We are pursuing a programme of transformation and business improvement initiatives that will speed up the decision-making process.

I will briefly mention one or two comments made by hon. Members in interventions. The mental health of people is extremely important to the Government; indeed, as the Minister for Safeguarding I find that some important and cogent arguments have been made. There is, of course, voluntary work. It is important that people get out of the unfortunate situations they are living in and that they live, breathe fresh air and do voluntary work. They do not necessarily have to be paid financially. We must protect the integrity of the whole system.

On the points about Manston, as of yesterday, there were five people staying there. The figures are not quite the same as those given by the Opposition spokesperson.

Many points were made about the Lift the Ban campaign. The Government’s view is that, as with its early reports, its most recent report was unduly and overly optimistic about the amount that might be saved by changes in the system. When cases such as the seven-year-old case mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) are raised, it is important to recognise that they are likely to have an extremely complicated legal history. After 12 months, people can work, so there is no reason not to be working for seven years and blaming the system for that.

I will conclude to give the hon. Member for Bury South a few moments to sum up, if he pleases. I am sorry that it is only a minute.

I thank all Members for their poignant comments, including on economic illiteracy. In that respect, correcting this policy would boost productivity, growth, revenue and the economy.

We are a compassionate nation, and we need to show that, but language is also important. The Minister mentioned figures, not people, but what we have seen today is a tragedy of people, not figures. She also highlighted opportunities for volunteering. I would like to know how someone could accept voluntary work on £5.84 a day when they probably will not be able to travel the necessary distance.

I am disappointed with the Minister’s response, and there are still many questions left to be answered on this policy, but I am sure we will keep asking them.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered asylum seeker employment and the cost of living.

Integrity of the Voting Process

I will call Paul Bristow to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up—that is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the integrity of the voting process.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I start by paying tribute to Lord Hayward, who has introduced the Ballot Secrecy Bill in the other place. It is a crucial piece of legislation, and my remarks will focus on the contents of the Bill and the intent behind it.

Few things are more important than exercising our democratic right by voting. The integrity of our elections can sometimes be threatened. Two main problems have been identified in the UK: voter fraud and forced family voting. There is an attempt to tackle voting fraud through the introduction of voter ID. That is controversial; some will think that it is the right thing to do, while others will not. Personally, I think it is absolutely right to put protections in place to tackle any type of voter fraud at polling stations.

The Ballot Secrecy Bill seeks to tackle the issue of family voting, which is when two or more people attempt to vote together in a polling booth, affecting, directing or overseeing the votes of another person in an attempt to influence their decision. The term “family voting” sounds like a friendly thing; it sounds uncontroversial, but that is not the case at all. Quite often, family voting involves malign influence or an attempt to influence someone who perhaps does not have English as a first language or who is inherently vulnerable. That cannot be right; it fundamentally goes against everything we believe in about the secrecy of the ballot.

Families often fight. To give the example of my own wife and me, I would not say we fought significantly, but we certainly had a few cross discussions about whether Britain should leave the European Union. I was very much of the opinion that Britain should leave; she took the alternative view—at least I am led to believe that she cast a vote for the alternative view. I am also led to believe that she now supports how I vote—certainly, she supports her local Member of Parliament when there is an election. But that is entirely up to her to determine; it is certainly not for me to do so.

Politics is sometimes a controversial thing, and families will fight and argue when it comes to the right way forward. That is their right. It is absolutely wrong for another person at or near a polling booth to attempt to influence someone voting. That is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The police need more powers to deal with that and tackle the issue of family voting. The chance of imprisonment or a fine will deter perpetrators from doing that. That is what the Bill is all about.

It is not just me talking about family voting. There are organisations that talk about it. Notably, the United Nations development programme describes family voting as

“the situation in which the heads of family (often extended family and often male heads of family) influence other family members in how they cast a vote… Family voting can be a serious violation, especially when it is malicious, i.e., when it is carried out with the intent of influencing or removing the freedom of choice of a voter. In these cases, family voting violates the central principle of voter secrecy.”

It goes on to say:

“Family voting often stops women from casting a vote of their own choice. In many situations, while the woman physically casts her own vote, she is under a strong cultural expectation to obey her husband or father and vote for the candidate or party that she has been instructed to vote for. The influence may extend to accompanying the female family members to the voting centre in order to oversee the casting of the vote”.

That cannot happen in the United Kingdom in 2022, but it obviously is happening and I will go on to set out evidence that suggests that.

The Bill is intended to ensure that police, electoral staff and others have powers to address this issue. It is vital that voters can cast their vote in secret. Once at the polling station, nobody should be able to influence who a voter votes for or whether they vote at all, and nobody should know how a voter has cast their vote.

This is not a party political matter. As I understand it, the Ballot Secrecy Bill was supported by all parties represented in the House of Lords, and support was not divided according to political party. A new clause was tabled by Baroness Scott of Bybrook to cover behaviour intended to influence a vote either in or near a polling booth, which was supported by parties of all colours in the other place.

The secrecy of the ballot is, and must remain, a priority for presiding officers. It is their responsibility to maintain order at polling stations and to make sure everyone has the right to vote freely and without intimidation. I pay tribute to all those who work in that capacity, including presiding officers and all those who monitor elections, not just in Peterborough but across the country. They are professionals and often have to do their jobs in difficult circumstances.

Peterborough has had challenges with electoral malpractice in the past. A great deal of effort has been invested by Peterborough City Council and those responsible to clear those issues up. My experience in Peterborough, when we talk to people about family voting and the idea of casting votes in secrecy, shows that there is a grey area in the law. Activists do not know what they should be encouraging or what the law looks like, and nor do the police—who sometimes seem reluctant, or do not know how, to react to allegations of electoral malpractice—presiding officers, polling agents and other staff. This is a grey area, and perhaps the lack of clarity on what power the police have is one reason why family voting is so widespread. Hopefully, the Bill will address that.

We need to empower presiding officers to deal with suspected offences, and we need to involve the police where necessary. We need a system where voters are accompanied only by appointed companions, acting in accordance with rule 39 of the parliamentary election rules and the equivalent rules for other elections, or by children under the supervision of the voter, and not by someone who may intend to influence the voter’s voting intention or infringe their right to vote in secret.

There are times when it is right for a voter to be accompanied by another person. For example, people would not be punished if they were in a polling booth to assist a grandparent, but only if they intend to influence a voter. There must be an intent to influence someone, eliminating the potential for prosecuting the intended victim. In certain circumstances—for example, when a voter is disabled or unable to read—an eligible companion or the presiding officer can assist them. That will give reassurance that such assistance is still possible where necessary. The Bill and my comments here today do not seek to stop such a practice. The Bill also means that children can still attend a polling station with their parents, and it does not prevent people from coming into a polling station if they have a young child with them.

Where is the evidence to suggest that such practices are a problem in the United Kingdom in 2022? I would like to draw attention to a report by the Democracy Volunteers, a non-governmental organisation that specialises in electoral reform, on the May 2022 elections, which outlines just how widespread family voting is. Some of the report’s findings were concerning, especially the claim that staff in polling stations were reluctant to intervene when they saw family voting. This is not a criticism of polling station staff, as this is a grey area, as I pointed out, but that is exactly why legislation is needed: to make sure there is clarity, and that everybody understands their responsibilities.

In the report, 1,723 polling stations were observed across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The observations lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. At 25% of those polling stations, family voting was witnessed. It is important to note that I am not talking about 25% of all ballots in those polling stations, but in 25% of the polling stations at least one example of family voting was witnessed by those observers. The problem is not exclusive to any one area, and affects all parts of the United Kingdom, as can be seen when we break the figures down further; it was observed in 21% of polling stations in England, 42% in Northern Ireland, 19% in Scotland and 34% in Wales.

Perhaps I could offer an explanation for the figure for Northern Ireland, which is double that for England. We have two systems of voting in Northern Ireland. For Westminster elections, it is a straight x vote—a voter nominates one person. For the council elections and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the voting system is proportional representation. A voter marks the candidates 1,2,3,4,5, up to 9, or whatever it might be. That is confusing for many people. I understand from the spoilt votes that are cast in my constituency and others that there is some confusion among people; they mix up the two systems. There is also perhaps the pressure that they feel to get in, and as a result of the queue of people after them and so on. I think that is in part an explanation of why the Northern Ireland figure is so high.

Absolutely; the hon. Member makes a very powerful point. The argument he makes is for simpler voting systems. Often, PR systems, which we see in other parts of the United Kingdom, are complicated, not straightforward. There is not a binary choice in who to vote for. That might in some way explain the higher figure in Northern Ireland.

The report also states, worryingly, that in more than 70% of the cases of family voting that were observed, the voters were women. Those figures are astounding and shocking. On equality grounds alone, we need to stamp this practice out. Women and polling station staff are being intimidated. It is an ugly practice, and we have to get a grip on it in the United Kingdom in 2022.

Democracy Volunteers also reported on the 2022 English mayoral elections, where family voting was witnessed in Croydon, at 35% of 63 ballot boxes; Hackney, at 26% of 50 ballot boxes; Lewisham, at 35% of 57 ballot boxes; Newham, at 36% of 50 ballot boxes; South Yorkshire, at 13% of 24 ballot boxes; Tower Hamlets, at 32% of 96 ballot boxes; and Watford, at 14% of 42 ballot boxes. This is a serious problem, and widespread activities of this nature across different parts of London, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland prove that.

I draw attention to the report by Democracy Volunteers on the 2019 parliamentary by-election in my constituency, Peterborough, in which I came a majestic third. The report states:

“Family voting was not simply localised to a couple of polling stations, it was identified across the constituency and ‘family voting’ should be challenged in whatever circumstances it occurs. Our observer team saw ‘family voting’ in 48% of the polling stations attended”.

That means that at almost half of all polling stations in Peterborough, family voting occurred in that 2019 by-election. That is appalling. The behaviour of those people, who clearly have no respect for the secrecy of the ballot, is wholly inappropriate, and is becoming a rising threat to British democracy.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, which I back wholeheartedly. In Keighley, voters are going to the ballot box intimidated, and encounter threatening behaviour on their way into the polling station. Complaints have been made to polling staff and the police. As for where the balance of power lies, the issue of whether people are empowered to take action is a grey area, as he outlined. Although he is clearly referring to families, does he agree that the issue extends to intimidating behaviour among friends and in wider community networks? We have to get on top of that, and I support him wholeheartedly.

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically powerful point. He has been a champion in this area; he, like me, campaigns for the integrity of elections and ballots. I completely agree that the intimidation of individuals, whether by someone in the family or in the wider community, while they are making a private judgment about who they feel will best represent them needs to stop. He has my full support on any measures—perhaps we can introduce them together—to strengthen the law in this area.

We need to create a level playing field. The Government have committed to that already through the Elections Act 2022, which I strongly applaud. Voter identification will prevent voter fraud and tackle intimidation, while increasing transparency and preventing interference in our elections. I completely and utterly support that. The Bill tabled by the noble Lord Hayward would continue that work. I hope that the Minister recognises the importance of that work, and of what I have said today. We have a responsibility to uphold our values and traditions. Secret voting was introduced by the Ballot Act 1872, and the fact that it is still a problem in 2022 is wholly wrong; 150 years later, that is unacceptable. I hope we will do something about it soon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for instigating the debate, and for the strong argument that he has made for change in this area, particularly given the enduring concerns expressed by Democracy Volunteers and others over a long period throughout the country. He is absolutely right that the key principle for the Government in their approach to elections is to ensure the integrity of the ballot box and the system, and to ensure that it works for everyone. We are committed to doing that in any way we can. He highlighted a number of broader points, which I will come on to.

Before I speak about the Ballot Secrecy Bill, which is before the House of Commons at the moment, I too pay tribute to Lord Hayward for all his work in the other place in recent months. Good debates were had there—I read them in Hansard—and they demonstrate the acceptance across all political parties of the challenge, and a willingness to find solutions to the issues that have been highlighted. I therefore welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government today.

As I say, the Government believe that the integrity of our electoral system is fundamental to the health and strength of our democracy. The 2019 Conservative manifesto affirmed a commitment to protecting our electoral system, so that it continues to command the trust of voters and the public.

I will quickly and directly answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough rightly asked. He expressed concerns about family voting, which that Bill seeks to tackle. He has highlighted some examples of where there are problems, or perceived problems, around English as a second language, and where people are inherently vulnerable. He made a powerful point about those scenarios and others in which the problem may apply. The Government accept those concerns, and believe that it is of fundamental importance that people can vote in secrecy and without the threat of interference from others. We are committed to working with my hon. Friend and hon. Members on all sides of the House to safeguard democracy against those who would do it harm.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government supported the Ballot Secrecy Bill when it was in the other place, and I can absolutely confirm that we will continue to do so now that he has taken it up in this House. It is pleasing to note that the Bill is making progress. I put on record my thanks to Democracy Volunteers, whose work my hon. Friend outlined. It did a significant amount of work in the recent elections, and highlighted concerns that gave rise to the legislation and the proposals before us.

Under the Ballot Secrecy Bill, a person will commit an offence if they accompany a voter into a polling booth, or are near the polling booth when the voter is in it, with the specific intention of influencing that person to vote in a particular way, or to refrain from voting. The Bill is intended to strengthen the existing law on the secrecy of voting. Importantly, as my hon. Friend highlights, the measures are intended to give greater clarity on the law as it stands, and to ensure that presiding officers in polling stations have the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour wherever it occurs. That was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore).

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough is right that this is about proportionality and ensuring that we do not preclude people from going into the polling station where it is reasonable for them to do so. It is also about making sure that those in charge of the station have a very clear understanding of when things are reasonable and when they are not, and are able to take action when unreasonable things occur. There should be clear penalties in the law when that is judged to have been the case. All told, when this Bill’s passage is concluded, should it be the will of the House, voters should enter a polling station alone in almost all circumstances when casting their vote, and should not be accompanied by another person unless they are appointed companions or children under the supervision of the voter. We look forward to continuing to support the Bill as it progresses.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to talk about why we think voter integrity and ensuring the security of the ballot box is so important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough has outlined, we have brought forward a number of measures on the subject, particularly through the Elections Act 2022. This is my second debate this week in which I have responded for the Government on elections. The first one was slightly better attended, but that did not have anything to do with the subject under discussion. It was somewhat more histrionic. That was on Monday night, when we talked about voter ID. I much prefer these kinds of discussions, where Members have the opportunity to explain the issue, and then we talk about them in a temperate, calm and careful manner, with the gravity that the issue deserves, and without the histrionics demonstrated on Monday night.

It is vital that we get policy in this area right. If we do not, people will be prevented from taking part in an activity that is fundamental to the premise of a civilised society: choosing who rules them and who makes the laws on their behalf, and kicking people out of power if they are not making laws in the way that they would prefer.

We have to be cognisant as a country of the fact that our systems may not be perfect, and that fraud goes on. We have to look at opportunities to reduce that fraud over time. That is one reason why, in local elections from May next year, and then in subsequent elections, we are making it a requirement for people to show photographic identification to vote. That is a controversial issue in some parts of this place, but when I speak to my constituents they tell me that it is a logical and reasonable thing to do. We have to show identification to pick up a package, buy alcohol or access certain parts of the high street and licenced premises, so it seems entirely reasonable and proportionate that photographic ID is needed for the very grave, important and serious act of determining who makes laws, who is the next Government and who is in charge of the country.

Secondly, we have brought forward changes to absentee voting and postal voting, including through a number of provisions to make postal and proxy voting more secure, and to determine any person or any group who might seek to undermine the integrity of the electoral system. As an example, the Elections Act 2022 addresses the harvesting of postal votes by introducing a ban on political campaigners handling postal voting documents that have been issued by somebody else. The Act includes a provision that means that nobody will have a permanent postal vote, and a person’s entitlement to vote by post is reviewed at least once every three years.

There has also been more general strengthening of protections for voters. The Elections Act has updated the offence of undue influence to ensure that all electors and proxies can cast their vote free from intimidation, harm, and deception. That has made sure that the offence remains fit for purpose, given the technological changes in the last 20 years or so. It does that by providing broader legal protections for voters from different types of intimidatory behaviour, as well as through clearer legal drafting, which assists authorities when they are enforcing those protections. That should help the police to deal with intimidatory behaviour anywhere, including the behaviour in or around polling stations that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley highlighted.

In the short time that I have left, I thank again my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough for both securing this debate, and for being willing to support and ensure the progress of the Bill. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his question on Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for his contribution, and for highlighting his support for the Bill. It is an important part of continuing to ensure the strength, health and integrity of our democracy. We are grateful to the Members of the other place who instigated it. We look forward to continuing to support it in the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended.

Visa Processing Times

[James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered visa processing times.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This is a short debate on an important but, I believe, ignored issue. Routine processing times do not excite the public or, arguably, cause a ruckus in the media, but MPs and our caseworkers see day in, day out the stress and misery that they cause.

The Government like to talk about “illegal” and “legal” migration. The Minister will appreciate that that is not a division that I generally support, but for the purposes of today I want to talk about what his Department deems to be legal migration: the families and workers who want to live in this country but have been left in legal limbo because of the Home Office.

I have spoken to my colleagues, some of whom are here today, and I can tell the Minister that this is not a one-off issue that constituents of North East Fife just happen to experience; the problems I will outline are systemic ones faced by people across the entire UK. If he speaks to his own staff, he might find that they have similar experiences.

Let me start with the most obvious issue: the pure length of time it takes for visas to be processed. The most egregiously delayed case currently in my case load will have been waiting for an outcome for an entire year this coming Sunday—not a birthday that those involved want to recognise. I will not use their names, as the applicant is a minor, but a teenage girl, the stepdaughter of one of my constituents, is currently living in a state of limbo, with her previous visa expired and without an outcome on her family visa. Let me make this clear: it was the Home Office that advised that she should apply for a family visa in November 2021—and she did so in December last year, well in advance of her student visa running out—but now, a year later, the Home Office is unable to tell her whether she is going to get her visa.

I ask the Minister to imagine for a minute that he is a teenager—I do not know whether his teens were longer ago than mine—settling into a new country and a new school, and making new friends, with a half-sibling who has an automatic right to be in the UK, only to be left not knowing whether he will be told that he has to leave. That has the potential to be incredibly damaging to both the young person and their family. We are always told that the Home Office has to carry out checks—rightly so—but what on earth could a teenager have on their record that means their mother can get a visa but theirs gets held up for this long? It certainly does not make sense to me. Let me make it clear that this is not their fault; it is the Home Office’s fault.

The Home Office’s standard response is that their resources have been incredibly strained since the Homes for Ukraine scheme opened earlier this year. I do not think anybody will dispute the hard work done by the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration staff in processing those applications. Our staff worked with them day in, day out for months, and we saw at first hand the efforts that were made. But here is the key thing: delays with standard visa processing predate the invasion of Ukraine. I supported a constituent in 2021 who, after having lived here legally for five years, wanted to apply for indefinite leave to remain, and it took her almost a year to get a response.

Both the cases I have mentioned have been classified by the Home Office as private life applications, although that has been disputed by my constituents. That means that the Home Office can hide behind the fact that it has not set itself a processing time goal. Other visas have expected processing times; private life visas, where someone applies for the right to live here to be with their immediate nuclear family, just like the Minister and I do, can exist in the system endlessly. The previous Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), intervened in a serious case that I raised in early 2021. I was grateful for his intervention, but we MPs should not have to intervene at that level to make things happen.

There are three points that I hope the Minister will respond to. The first concerns how the Home Office designates a case as a private life case. The experiences of my constituents suggest that decisions are often made to designate applications as private life applications, whereas the applicants believe they should be processed under other routes. Often no information is given as to why that is the case. The system is opaque and, as a result, the Home Office can effectively designate cases as low priority, which I can only presume helps it to meet targets it might otherwise miss.

A constituent recently contacted me to ask for assistance with his family’s visas. He had recently received indefinite leave to remain, having arrived from Iran. His wife and two young children were still in Iran. Sadly, his wife passed away, leaving his two very young children alone in Iran without a guardian. It took three months to get them visas so that they could join their father in the UK. In that case, the visas were granted under “urgent and compassionate” dispensation, but even then it took three months. Does my hon. Friend agree that three months falls far outside what should be considered an urgent timeframe?

I absolutely agree. Clearly, there were specific circumstances in that case. I am looking for a response from the Minister about the more standard cases, but that case highlights how much of an issue we have in this area, and I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this matter forward. I spoke to her in the Chamber before, knowing that the debate was coming. Working visas take over eight weeks to extend, so many workers who are asked to stay on and extend their contracts, perhaps for another three months, are unable to do so because of the waiting time. Should the Government not aim for a shorter process to allow those working and paying tax here to continue to do so while that is mutually beneficial for everyone?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. We know how tight the labour market is, and we know there is a need for a degree of immigration to help with some of the labour shortages we see. Later in my speech, I will talk about some particular issues that the University of St Andrews faces.

On my point about the Home Office designating cases as low priority, perhaps I am being sceptical, and perhaps there are perfectly good reasons for cases to be designated as private life visa applications, but it would be highly beneficial if the Minister could set those reasons out. That would help us to give proper feedback to our constituents. It would also be helpful if the Home Office set out the reasons clearly to applicants when their cases are being processed.

On the point about transparency of criteria, my constituent, Catherine, who is a British citizen, applied for a spousal visa for her husband to come over. She applied back in July, when she was five months pregnant, because she wanted her husband, Donald, to be with her for the birth of their first child. In November, just days before the baby was due, the Home Office said that his case did not meet the criteria for expedition, because it was not “compelling compassionate” or a health circumstance. He missed the birth of his first child and was not there to support his wife, and he has missed the first four precious weeks of his baby’s life. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Home Office needs to review its service level agreement times, and review and be much more transparent about its criteria for what it considers worthy of expediting?

I entirely agree. If that does not qualify as compassionate grounds to expedite a visa, I do not know what does. That brings to mind my urgent question in the last Session about visa processing times in relation to Ukraine. It seems that people are treated as clients or customers, and sometimes we forget that there are families and real people behind these cases.

The second point on which I would like a response from the Minister is whether any visa processes should take place without a target processing time. That gives the Home Office nothing to aim for, it gives us no way of holding the Home Office to account, and it gives applicants absolutely no certainty whatsoever. We know and understand that some cases will be complicated and might take longer than a standard processing time, but surely the Home Office should justify that, rather than leaving all applicants in a form of legal limbo.

My third point is about communication. I appreciate that providing updates takes up time and resource, but that has to be balanced against the immense stresses that people live under while they wait for months on end with no news. As human beings, we need to feel that we are grounded in our homes and communities—that is fundamental to feeling safe. Leaving people for months without any news as to whether they can stay in their community destroys that. MPs know from the constituents who contact us that people are often under so much stress that it is making them physically ill. When a rare letter does arrive, usually after the intervention of an MP—I am always of the view that so much of our casework is the result of processes not working properly in the first instance—the words we usually get are, “It is under consideration but we can provide no timeframe in which you can expect a response.” That is hardly a comfort.

The Homes for Ukraine drop-in centre in Portcullis House earlier this year provided a different form of interaction with the Home Office for our staff; we could be told, “Okay, I can see that the application was last worked on so many days ago.” Obviously, it is not practical to set up a drop-in centre like that in the long run. No one wants to see those queues across Portcullis House or the hours wasted in them—my caseworker would come in an hour early to sit in the queue, waiting for the centre to open—but those snippets of information gave people comfort and meant they did not feel so lost in the system. Especially as the Home Office moves further and further towards a digital system, surely there must be some way of replicating that and letting people have some insight into what is happening to their applications. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to look at what can be done to improve communication with applicants as they sit through these horrendous waiting times.

So far I have focused on delays with visas with no target processing times, but there are also significant delays with visas with target times; often, the delays go far past those targets. North East Fife is home to the University of St Andrews, which is The Guardian’s top-rated university in the UK. It is a hub of research and teaching and it attracts some of the brightest minds from around the world. The projects they work on are wide-ranging, but encompass medical research and energy. If we have learned anything from the last three years, it is that we need solutions in those areas and that we want to be at the cutting edge of progress. There is absolutely no doubt that there are increased challenges and barriers to ensuring that progress following our departure from the EU, so it is immensely disappointing to find that, when the Home Office sets itself an eight-week target for skilled workers’ visas, it ends up missing it by 10 weeks.

I am sure the Minister knows how employment contracts work and about the need to book airline tickets, find accommodation and so on. All those things need some element of certainty. If the delays continue, I worry that top academics will simply stop wanting to come here. We will fall behind and we will lose research funding and contracts. I am sure that is not a legacy the Minister wants to be involved with, so will he explain why these routine delays are happening? Is it that there are problems with the system that mean that eight weeks just is not possible—a degree of honesty would be fantastic—or is it that the system is just under-resourced, with bones cut so bare of fat by this Government that they are barely creaking on?

While I think about the University of St Andrews, I have a side point that I would like to get the Minister’s views on. This is not the responsibility of the Home Office, but it is definitely something that it has an interest in: the academic technology approval scheme. Where researchers have contracts to come to work at St Andrews in sensitive fields, such as energy, they are required to go through additional Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office checks. Visas are applied for at the same time and, if the ATAS certificate is delayed—as they generally are, to be quite honest—there is a risk that the visa approval has to be voided and the process must be started all over again.

Given that the rest of this debate is focused on delays and under-resourcing in UKVI, that seems a huge waste of time and resources. I am told by the university that delays are pretty much universal, but it gave me some typical examples: instead of the mooted processing time of 20 days, we are looking at 65 days, 75 days, and 102 days and counting. Is the Minister having conversations with his colleagues in the FCDO about this? Is there anything that can be done to streamline the process, or at least to better align the visa and ATAS processes to avoid reapplications? That would be incredibly helpful for universities across the UK, not just my own in St Andrews.

Finally, let me turn to turn to some Homes for Ukraine visa cases that my office still has open. Earlier, I praised the hard work of the UKVI staff in dealing with the influx of applications, and I fully stand by that, but my office currently has 11 unresolved cases of people left in a warzone because of delays at our end. The first 10 of those visas were applied for by one sponsor in June; the processing time now stands at 25 weeks. We have tried to escalate the cases, but we keep being told that they are under consideration.

The 11th case is a separate application. The complication comes because the applicant initially applied to come to Scotland under its super-sponsor scheme. Unfortunately, she was told in September that, due to operational difficulties in the scheme, her application was on hold. She then applied again through the UK-wide route to stay with a family. It has now been almost 14 weeks since she sent in that application. Our office has been given conflicting information about the application. At one point, we were told that it was deferred, but with no explanation. That is incredibly worrying for someone who has been waiting six months to reach safety.

As I said earlier, this should not take a Minister’s intervention, but I have a list of cases; if the Minister is willing to look at those that I have raised today so that we can at least find out what the delays are, I will be incredibly grateful. I have raised a few specific cases, but it is clear from my experience and the experiences of my colleagues that these are systemic issues. I would be hugely grateful if the Minister would look at the specific cases that we have raised today, but more than that, I hope that he can give me some reassurance that the Government are addressing the broader issues that I have raised, and that he will go back to the Home Office and effect some change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing the debate and to hon. Members from across the House who have joined us, no doubt sharing the hon. Lady’s concerns.

My door is always open for individual cases. If the hon. Lady would like to give me the details of the cases she raised after the debate, I would be happy to look into them, but she is right that it should not take a request to a Minister to get the good service that the Home Office and our agencies should be delivering routinely. The concerns that she has raised are important to me and to the team behind the visas and immigration service.

In my short time in the Home Office, I have been impressed by the good work that the team has done in recent months to turn around some of the delays that we have experienced in recent years. The hon. Lady very fairly mentioned that two huge events have affected the performance of UKVI. First, the pandemic affected productivity in all areas of the public sector and the private sector. It has taken us time, as it has other developed countries, to regain the level of customer service that we would like to offer. In most areas, the UK is actually in a better position than our direct competitors around the world, but of course we aspire to be in that position—or, indeed, to go further.

The second factor is Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. My predecessors made the right decision to transfer a great deal of the workers in the Home Office and UKVI to work on the Homes for Ukraine scheme so that we could get those visas issued as expeditiously as possible, but that did come at a cost to some of our other visa customer standards. It is now our hope that we can quickly recover that lost ground and bring each of the visa categories into line with the service standard as quickly as possible. The good news is that in most cases that has now happened. In the small number of cases in which it is not happening, it will happen very soon. I have been meeting regularly with Marc Owen, who leads the service, and have been impressed by the work that he has done to turn it around in recent months.

I will go through a couple of the principal areas that have been raised, just to give some comfort that we are very alive to these issues. Despite the need to take resource off the emergency situation in Ukraine and restore the service that the rest of the visas and immigration service needs to deliver, it remains important that we process applications under the Homes for Ukraine scheme quickly. If the hon. Member for North East Fife gives me details of the cases she mentioned, I will happily take them forwards, but we are generally processing applications in a matter of days. If some are taking longer, that is clearly concerning; it may be that there is something specific about those cases, but I will happily look into them.

Before my arrival in the Department, an entirely reasonable decision was taken to make work and study our national priority. We need to get the economy going again after the pandemic, and we needed to get students who had left because of covid back into the country, in order for universities to get going again. Resources were put in place to ensure that those visas were decided quickly. The number of cases was very high, as can be seen from the net migration statistics, which were published recently. The number of foreign students who have entered the UK in the past 12 months has been exceptionally high, and more than 590,000 study visas had been processed by the end of September 2022.

I am interested in the hon. Lady’s example from St Andrews University. The national statistics show that we are meeting the study route customer service standard. The 15-day service is being met. In fact, it is averaging 11 days for a standard study visa. For leave to remain—the more complex and longer-term settlement cases—we have an eight-week standard, and that is at six weeks currently. In general terms, therefore, we are meeting the standard, but that is not to diminish the cases that she raised, which again I will happily take up.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate. I have had a case in my constituency of a sixth-form student who was already studying at a sixth-form college, but who ran foul of the visa rules and had difficulty re-entering to continue their course. It is not necessarily about the easy cases here; it is about how we deal with what was called the long tail of casework. Some cases are still taking several months to clear up, which is interfering with student studies and sometimes with the supply of staff. I wonder what the Minister might be able to do to address that issue.

I will happily look into that. As I say, the overall standard is being met and indeed exceeded—that was not always the case, but it is where we are now—but my hon. Friend is probably right that there is a longer tail of complex cases, which clearly take longer. It is important that the Department looks after those individuals to the same standard.

I thank the Minister for giving way—he is being generous with his time. There is absolutely no doubt that the student situation has improved massively, and my casework team would acknowledge that, but the issue is the work visas of people coming for research or employment with the university. It will degrade the university’s reputation if people coming to deliver courses to students cannot get here.

Without repeating myself, I am happy to look into those cases. There is a conflict here between the standard practice and the cases the hon. Lady is raising. Again, that is not to diminish what she is saying, because there are without doubt cases where we are not performing as we would wish.

It is fair to say that the overall picture for work visas is mixed. For non-sponsored work visas, we are falling below the standard that we aspire to, which is 15 days; we are averaging 36 days, according to the latest statistics that I have seen. For the sponsored routes, which have been given priority by the Department for understandable reasons—this is where an employer is actively seeking for a person to come to the UK as swiftly as possible—the opposite is true. Our 15-day target is being exceeded; we are processing those claims in eight days on average. However, we would like to bring all those categories into line with our service standards as quickly as possible.

For visitors to the UK, we are also now in a much better position that we were recently, which helps with the return of international tourism to the UK. Generally, we are now at or exceeding the customer service standard that we aspire to, which is between 14 and 21 days to turn around an application.

The area where I think there is still room for improvement is family visas, which a number of hon. Members raised today. For the settlement visas, we are about in the position that we would like to be in, which is that we are turning cases around in 93 days. That is still a long time in the real world for someone who wants to get a loved one into the country for important reasons, so I appreciate that, although we might be achieving our customer service target, it is probably not the target that we as a country aspire to. We would like to improve on that.

I will, but let me just finish the point. For spouses and partners looking for either leave to remain or indefinite leave to remain, the overall picture is much better. For leave to remain, we have a target of eight weeks. We are currently processing claims in three weeks. For indefinite leave to remain, we have a much longer target, of 26 weeks, but we are processing those claims within 10 weeks. Overall, the team has done a good job of turning around those times, but I appreciate that the hon. Member for North East Fife has some examples that tell a different story. Perhaps in the time remaining she would like to intervene one last time.

I appreciate the Minister giving way for a final time. It is interesting that he admits that family visas are where the poorest performance is. That goes back to the very first point I made at the start of the debate: the Home Office does not have a target time for those visas. It is very good that the Minister is giving us data that shows that some tracking is happening, but perhaps if he agreed to set a target the performance would improve.

We do have targets for those claims. I have been happy to read some of the targets today. For each visa category, we set our own internal customer service target, and as Ministers we push the team to deliver on it. Those targets can progressively be improved, now that we are out of the long shadow of covid and are able to move some of the resource that was on the Homes for Ukraine scheme back on to business-as-usual processes. I hope that, in the early months of next year, each visa cohort will be brought to, or will exceed, our customer service standard. Then I, as the responsible Minister, will be able to work with the team to set better targets that provide an even better quality of service to the hon. Lady and all our constituents across the country.

On the length of time the Minister cited for spousal visas, in our experience 26 weeks is much closer to the reality on the ground. Will he clarify for our constituents and caseworkers what the criteria for getting a case expedited are? The example I gave was not considered worth expediting.

I do not have the exact criteria with me. I am happy to have a conversation with the hon. Lady to give her some further guidance, but it is fair to say that some of the cases that we receive cannot be expedited, even though they relate to what many of us would regard as important life events, such as an individual’s decision to get married. It is the Home Office’s advice that someone should get their visa before setting the date for their wedding. The issues that we take most seriously are obviously those of life and death, where individuals need to come into the country for a funeral or to see a relative or loved one just before they pass away. A high standard has to be applied, because we receive thousands of requests for expedited cases that relate to important life events and heartfelt issues. We have to set a high standard to ensure that we can truly prioritise important events.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife for raising this matter. As I said, I will be more than happy to look into the specific cases that she, or indeed other Members, raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Cost of Food

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of food.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I would like to start this debate on the cost of food by speaking about the situation today in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby. Food prices have increased by 16.4% in the year to October, and one in three people in my great city are in food poverty. One in six constituents in West Derby are missing meals or going without food, and two in three are cutting back on hot water, heating or electricity. The situation is getting worse by the hour.

I am here today to deliver a message to the Minister, the Government and this House: the rising cost of food, coupled with falling wages and a completely inadequate system of welfare support, is a catastrophe for my constituents and my community, and its long-term effects will be catastrophic for generations to come in Liverpool, West Derby.

Like many Members present, I have been contacted by constituents who have never been so scared about their future and their situation. We have workers in almost every industry taking strike action as a last resort, because work does not pay and does not meet rising costs, such as those for food. In West Derby, there are nurses, educators, firefighters, postal workers, rail staff and civil servants using food banks. What have we become?

This is one of the gravest and most frightening crises seen in our lifetimes, and my constituents tell me they feel abandoned and ignored by the Government, whose job it is to protect them—a Government who commissioned the national food strategy and ignored it when it reported back. For all the report’s shortcomings, its author, Henry Dimbleby, attempted to answer some of the failings in Government policy and proposed changes that would have immediately lifted many people out of food poverty if they had been implemented.

Food insecurity levels have doubled since the start of 2022, affecting an estimated 10 million adults and 4 million children in September alone. If the Government cannot ensure that everyone has enough to eat and cannot guarantee their right to food, they are a Government who are fundamentally broken. The 16.4% rise in the price of food in the past year is the highest since 1977, and we have seen the sharpest fall in wages since that year. These catastrophic statistics have a devastating impact on our communities, which I am sure we will all speak about today.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. A recent survey by the trade association for school caterers found that food ingredient prices for schools have gone up by 20% in just two months. Schools are having to subsidise free school meals from their own budgets or to charge struggling families more, for those who are entitled to free school meals. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should not only extend free school meals to every child on universal credit, but fund schools properly to provide free school meals?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I would go further and call for universal free school meals for every child, but I will speak about that later.

Calorie for calorie, healthier foods are now nearly three times more expensive than less healthy foods. Terrifyingly, the cost of baby formula has soared over the last year, with the cheapest brands increasing by 22%. We have seen pictures of baby milk locked away and put on the highest shelves in supermarkets—images that surely epitomise this entirely broken system.

Inflation hits the poorest hardest. The poorest fifth of the population would need to spend 43% of their disposable income on food to afford the Government’s recommended healthy diet in “The Eatwell Guide”. How is that achievable with so many pressures and so little income?

The hon. Gentleman is making a number of excellent points. Tomorrow, Good Food Scotland will open the Linthouse Larder. Does he agree that what we want to hear from the Government is how they are going to assist organisations that provide affordable food at affordable prices for so many of his constituents and my constituents, so that they can survive from week to week?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I fully agree with everything he said.

I want to highlight the appalling impact that the cost of food is having on children in particular. Professor Ian Sinha, a paediatrician at the fantastic Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in my constituency, told me:

“We see the almost Dickensian effects of poor nutrition in children in Liverpool and other working class cities. We see rickets, poor growth, and deficiencies in minerals and vitamins that reflect that their nutrition revolves around getting enough calories to survive...not around developing optimal health…We have seen malnutritioned children so anaemic as a result of poor nutrition, and so acutely sick, that we thought they had leukaemia. We see children sharing food portions, in schools and in houses, and so no wonder they are falling asleep and struggling to concentrate in class. Paediatrics is about ensuring children live their best life—as per the UN Convention on the rights of the child—and their lack of food is shackling them and their opportunities.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the outstanding work he is doing on the Right to Food campaign. Does he agree that the Welsh Government are leading the way on food, particularly for children? We have already introduced free school meals in primary schools, and hopefully that will be extended to secondary schools at some point, despite the fact that Wales does not get a fair, needs-based funding formula. Wales really does care and is compassionate about the needs of people and future generations. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK Government need to take the lead from Wales?

I fully agree, and I commend Mark Drakeford and the Government in Wales for absolutely leading the way on this issue and showing that a different way is possible.

Professor Sinha goes on to say:

“When I tell families in my asthma clinic that nutrition is crucial, they tell me that by the time they can get to the foodbank any fresh fruit and vegetables have gone. When we explain the importance of how food is prepared, they tell us that the only mechanism of heating food is a kettle. They are limited to ultra-processed, calorie dense foods that are cheap and easy to store. When we see analyses such as those in the British Medical Journal last month, showing associations between ultra-processed food and the risk of death, we know that the children coming to our clinics are often on this path, but they can’t afford to get out of it.”

It is a disgrace that my constituents face this appalling and grave situation, and yet at the same time we read reports that global food companies have paid out £15 billion in profits to their shareholders. Supermarkets are not doing too badly either: they have also paid out vast dividends during covid and the cost of living crisis.

At a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee session, we heard evidence from the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, who told us:

“Corporations have a significant amount of power in markets and there is not much being done to hold corporations accountable. Food prices are at the mercy of speculation…Governments have tools in place to stabilise prices.”

At the same time, research from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union highlighted that the workers who produce the food and enable those profits are some of the hardest hit by the rising cost of food.

Hunger and out-of-control food inflation are not inevitable. They are a political choice made by this Government and compounded by cutting away vital protections from rising fuel costs, dismantling the social safety net, cutting universal credit, imposing benefit sanctions, eroding workers’ rights and presiding over a decade of austerity that has cut to the bone our vital services, which are needed now more than ever. The time for sticking plasters to address the rising cost of food—such as the reliance on thousands of food bank and food pantry volunteers and donors—is over. We need systemic change so that all our people have the opportunity of health, happiness and dignity.

That is why we need to legislate for the right to food. We need enforceable food rights to ensure that the Government of the day are accountable for addressing the cost of food and making sure nobody goes hungry, and that they are prevented from making decisions that lead to people being unable to afford to put a meal on the table. A right to food should be not a safety net but a rope ladder, with ever-higher standards of provision.

I propose the following as an extremely modest and deliverable beginning. There should be a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure the food security of our nations, which should be taken into account when setting competition, planning, transport, local government and all other policies. We should be eradicating food deserts, not enabling them. Ministers should be under a duty when setting the minimum wage and any relevant social security benefits, including pensions, to state how much of the prescribed sum has been calculated for food, because right now it is nowhere near enough.

Finally, we must legislate for universal free school meals—a nutritious free school breakfast and lunch for every child in state education. We heard powerful evidence at the EFRA Committee recently about the benefits that that would bring for children’s learning, happiness and health and about how that investment would allow our children to enjoy futures that are far brighter than what they are looking forward to now. Crucially, from the Government’s perspective, it would pay for itself in the long run. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

I urge the Minister to come forward with action now and not to repeat the indifference they have shown when I have raised this issue repeatedly in the House. Constituents are starving, and we need political leadership that guarantees and realises everyone’s right to healthy food. If reliance on charity alone was a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling or a national health service. This horrific situation demonstrates that we need the same vision and ambition when it comes to food security—and it cannot wait a moment longer.

Colleagues will recognise that we have around half an hour until the winding-up speeches at 5.23 pm. Eleven people are trying to catch my eye, and that works out at around two and a half minutes apiece. I shall not set a formal time limit, but if Members could be courteous to each other by keeping to two and a half minutes or less, that would be most appreciated.

It is an honour to speak under your chairship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing the debate.

One in six Jarrow constituents have gone without food in recent months, and two in five have cut back on food spending. Food prices increased by 16.4% in the 12 months to October 2022, and the cost of wholesale food is having a huge impact on charities and food banks. At my surgery last week at Hebburn Helps, it reported that wholesale food prices are severely impacting its ability to help those in need. Food insecurity rates have doubled since the start of 2022, with an estimated 10 million adults and 4 million children impacted. Reductions in food quality and quantity are having serious health consequences for children, the elderly and the vulnerable.

We are hearing reports that food prices are so high and wages so low that firefighters, nurses, teachers and many others are now reliant on food banks. Yesterday in Parliament, the National Education Union told us that support staff are using food banks set up in their schools. Teaching assistants are still trying to feed students from their own pocket, while they themselves are being forced to use food banks to put food on the table in their cold homes. One million children living in poverty do not even get a free school meal. No child should go hungry; no child should be left behind. The nationwide figure that 28% of children live in poverty is appalling. In my constituency of Jarrow, that rises to 39%. That is a horrifying statistic, but we must not forget that behind all these stats is the face of a hungry child and a family who are struggling. When we visualise an average primary school class of 36 children, we should recognise that 14 of them will be living in poverty, too hungry to concentrate at school.

Poverty is clearly a political choice—one that this Government keep on making. This Government should be ashamed that poverty pay and the cost of living crisis have led to millions living in in-work poverty. Throughout the pandemic, supermarket profits soared and they continue to do so. Tesco’s pre-tax profits jumped from £1.1 billion to £2.2 billion in the 12 months to 26 February this year, and the company recently announced a 20% increase in its interim dividend to its shareholders. There are increases in company profits and shareholder pay, yet people are being asked to pay more. We need an urgent change of direction in this country. We need a right to food. In the sixth richest country in the world, it is not too much to ask that our kids do not go hungry.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for bringing forward this debate and I pay tribute to the tremendous work he has been doing to tackle hunger. Alongside fans of his beloved Liverpool, as well as Everton fans, his Right to Food campaign has helped tackle the food insecurity faced by 11 million people across the United Kingdom.

The Scottish Government allocated almost £3 billion this financial year to help households facing the Tory-induced cost of living crisis, including £1 billion to providing services and financial support not available anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That included increasing the Scottish child payment by 150% in fewer than eight months, to £25 per child per week for those aged between 6 and 15. However, most of the key policies and fiscal levers are held here by this UK Government, given that over 85% of welfare policy is reserved. We continue to press the UK Government, who have all the levers at their disposal, to tackle this emergency on the scale required, including enabling access to borrowing, providing an uprate in benefits and offering extra support to households.

Unlike the Tories, the Scottish Government rightly see food as a basic human right. Everyone should be able to afford the food they need to sustain a healthy life. The Tories have not only taken a wrecking ball to our economy but are decimating the chances for working people, who are often working multiple jobs, to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

The charity Action for Children has unearthed heartbreaking stories of the current cost of living crisis, including the fact that 25% of young people are donating their own pocket money to help their parents through the festive period. Other parents are having to rely on their children’s leftovers, and many families are simply going without. How shameful is that? In my own constituency, I hear personal stories of vulnerable people not leaving their beds because of the price of energy and the current Arctic snap. A constituent contacted me yesterday in a cry for help after spending the last four days in temperatures of minus 8° without any money to heat her home or heat up the homemade soup she had received from a neighbour.

This is a crisis—a food crisis— and one that has been exacerbated under the Tories. Food bank usage has soared over the last 12 years, and yet they turn up gleefully, scissors in hand, to cut the ribbons and open new food banks—or should I say pantries, as the Leader of the House has been referring to them lately? This is terrible stuff. The Trussell Trust revealed that 1.3 million emergency food parcels were provided to people by food banks between April and September this year, and almost half a million of those went to children. Is this truly the society we now consider acceptable?

It is important in these debates that we try to get to the roots of what the cause of this food crisis is. We will be told that it is largely to do with the crisis in Ukraine. I believe that it is actually to do with supermarkets profiteering and world global speculation on the food markets.

With regards to supermarkets profiteering, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, Tesco has doubled its profits, while those of Associated British Foods have increased by 48% and those of Lidl by 319%. Now is the time for an excess profits tax to ensure that we prevent food speculation at the national level.

In addition, there is speculation at the global level. As I have said time and again on the Floor of the House, we saw this during the banking crash, when billions were moved from the sub-prime housing market into the food commodity market, creating a famine. As a result, we introduced regulation, MiFID II, which put position limits on how much of an individual food commodity could be held by speculators. However, the Government have now introduced the Financial Services and Markets Bill, and in Edinburgh last week the Chancellor announced further deregulation of the market system, meaning that that regulation will be lifted. Instead of regulation by Government or the Financial Conduct Authority, food commodity limits will be handed over to the traders themselves—the very people who are making profits out of this speculation.

Let us put in context the argument that somehow Ukraine has caused this crisis. Ukraine produces 3% of the world’s wheat and 2.6% of the world’s corn—the basic food stuffs. This is about speculation and profiteering. It is not just me saying this about deregulation. The Governor of the Bank of England today stated his anxieties about the Government going too far on deregulation overall, and not learning the lessons of the banking crash. People will starve as a result of profiteering and speculation. That is why we need an excess profits tax and regulation of the food commodity market along with our partners globally.

Finally, I know people do not want to talk about Brexit, but if we look at the London School of Economics analysis, we see that £6 billion has been put on our food bills over the last two years—that is 3% a year. We have got to sort out a new deal on Brexit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for his fantastic contribution and his hard work on this issue. I agree with everything he said.

Earlier this year, Salford’s Labour council declared Salford a Right to Food city. When my council made that commitment, along with ramping up support through its Spirit of Salford network, we were facing acute levels of food insecurity across the city. Sadly, since then the number of people in need has risen exponentially. Indeed, tomorrow I hope to visit an event called Five Days of Christmas, where a group called For the Love of Food, led by the brilliant Councillor Sammie Bellamy, will be distributing hot meals to anyone over 65 who might need one. Sammie and her team have been helping those who are struggling to afford hot cooked meals for months now, and they are joined by a stream of other charities across the city providing urgent food support. They include the Salford Families in need Meals Project, Salford Foodbank, Swinton food bank, Mustard Tree, More4Less, Salford Community Grocery, the Food Collective, Audacious A-Teams, Family FoodFayre, Lucie’s Pantry, Salford Loaves and Fishes, Salford Food Parcels, FoodCycle, Oasis Hub and so many more. The list is becoming endless.

The work these brilliant organisations do is nothing short of heroic, but we must question why, in one of the richest economies in the world, the people of my city are having to rely on charity to feed their families. The answer is that more than a decade on from the financial crisis, UK workers are still earning on average £75 a month less in real terms than they were in 2008, and it is getting worse. Nurses’ pay, for example, has fallen by 20% in real terms, and workers in the UK are facing the worst real wage squeeze of all G7 nations. At the same time, the cost of food has soared by at least 11.6% over the last year, which is the sharpest increase on record, not to mention energy costs, which have skyrocketed.

We are at a point when even those in work, even those thought to be in good work, cannot afford the basics they need to survive. All this is why so many workers are now choosing to take strike action. They are choosing to go without pay this Christmas in order to ring the alarm. They simply cannot survive any more.

I agree with the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on the imposition of price caps on essential goods and items in supermarkets to assist with addressing this crisis. I also agree with his suggestion of an excess profits tax for supermarkets. We need to listen to trade unions, which are calling for the national minimum wage to be increased to at least £15 an hour, with an end to exploitative youth rates, and we should be looking at scrapping the widespread use of zero-hours contracts.

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has made a very important suggestion. It is calling on the Government to convene a national food emergency summit as soon as possible to bring together all regional and national leaders to put forward a plan to ensure the people of this nation have their basic needs met. I call on the Minister to address that point when he sums up.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the global situation. There are calls for the Government to regulate and recognise the casino economy and commodity prices. I want to reiterate my right hon. Friend’s comments, because what he raises is so important to addressing this crisis.

We should call this what it is. This is about hunger, poverty and desperation. It is about kids going to bed hungry, waking up and not getting enough food to be able to study at school. This is Britain, one of the richest countries on the entire planet. In this debate, there is not a single Tory MP present who does not have to be here—[Interruption.] Forgive me, there is one.

This is a political choice we have here. It is a political choice to keep wages down. It is a political choice not to match inflation. And It is a political choice to attack the people who are ringing the alarm bells. Tomorrow we will have the first nationwide nurses’ strike. In Plymouth we are seeing nurses using food banks. We are seeing teachers using food banks. We are seeing armed forces personnel using food banks and emergency food vouchers. These are people in good jobs—jobs they have had to study and learn skills for, and jobs that should provide a decent wage so that they can put food on their table for them and their kids. Yet they cannot. This is a reboot of Dickensian Britain. It is sickening. It is utterly sickening.

I launched a campaign with our utterly brilliant food bank in Plymouth a month ago to buy electric blankets. An electric blanket or throw costs 20p a day and people can put their families underneath them to keep them warm, rather than spend £6 a day to heat their home using central heating. We have raised £3,500 to buy electric blankets. The people coming in to collect their food parcels need food that they do not have to heat, because they cannot afford the utilities. It is sickening that this is happening in one of the richest countries.

Brilliant charities such as Provide Devon, a relatively new charity, have seen their fresh food costs go up by a third. They have seen demand go up by a third. They have served an amazing number of people, especially children, but they are seeing their food and their monetary donations fall at the same time, because people are struggling to make ends meet.

I think that when we look at the price of food, it is right for us to also look at the speculators and the supermarkets. I want to give a shout out to our farmers, because it is not the primary producers in this country who are profiteering from high food prices. Many of them are locked into contracts whereby they cannot get a decent price for the food that they grow. It is time that this changed.

Let me first thank you, Mr Gray, and thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for this very important debate.

I will pick up where my friend the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) left off and say that no policy of trying to tackle food poverty in this country will get anywhere if it does not look at how we produce our food and the amount that we produce, so let us talk about our farmers and the difference that they can make. We have a 14% rise in food prices—it amounts to much more for the poorest people. I agree with everything that hon. Members have said in the last few minutes about the heartbreaking reality of children not having enough food to be able to study and to maintain their health. It is utterly outrageous that in the fifth richest country in the world, we are in this situation.

However, the United Kingdom produces only 60% of the food that it eats. It is a decision of the Government to allow that to be the case, or rather it is the absence of decisions that would have solved that problem. The Government are moving towards the new farm payments scheme. Many or all of us probably support the principles underlying that scheme, which is about public money for public goods. But this month, farmers will see a 20% cut in their basic payment, and that is without most of them having access to anything new to replace it. We see new incentives in order to give landlords financial support for turfing out their tenants and so reducing the amount of food that we produce. This Government now have a farming policy that actively encourages the reduction of food production in this country. That does two things: it pushes up the price of food, and it pushes Britain on to the international commodity markets to buy food elsewhere, pushing up the price of food for the poorest people in the world. That this Government have a farming policy that actively encourages us to produce less food in this country and to push up the price of food for the poorest people in the world is morally reprehensible. I can tell the House, representing, as I do, Cumbria, the lakes and the dales, that Britain’s farmers are determined to feed Britain’s people and to tackle the food poverty that exists in every community. On their behalf, I beg the Government to change tack and allow them to do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on his work on the right to food. He certainly stands in the traditions of the greatest MPs from the great city of Liverpool, second only to Leeds of course—[Interruption].

Controversy apart, in this, the fifth richest country on earth, not a single person—adult or child—should need to be fed by a charity. I congratulate all those wonderful people who donate to charities, whether it be money or food, and who work in food banks. In this, one of the richest countries on earth, that simply should not be necessary. It is a political choice, as my hon. Friend and others have said, and the campaign for the right to food is so important. We need immediate action. I think that, in this historic cost of living crisis, we need price caps on food and other essential items. The state should intervene for the benefit of everyone in our society, particularly the most vulnerable. I believe that we need a tax on supermarket super-profits, to create a fund to tackle hunger. And we should certainly back the campaign by the National Education Union and others for free school meals and support for families over the school holidays.

What should a right to food mean? Every single person in this country should have a right to a decent home, a right to good-quality and healthy food, and a right to free healthcare and education. The right to food should include free school meals for every single child in compulsory education. Let us have a universalist approach and end the stigma of means-testing. There should be a framework of legal duties on national and local government to provide community kitchens. As we have heard, the Secretary of State should be required to consider the cost of food when calculating the minimum wage and benefits.

This is an emergency—a food emergency, a nutrition emergency and a health emergency. Food insecurity levels have doubled since the start of 2022, affecting an estimated 10 million adults and 4 million children in September 2022. Everyone should have the right to food. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, for securing the debate, and every Member of Parliament, across the parties, who has committed to supporting the right to food.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this debate. As other Members have said, we have to look at price controls. The price of vegetable oil has risen by 65%, pasta by 60% and tea by 46%.

As other Members have done, including the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), I want to pay tribute to organisations in my constituency, such as the Scottish Pantry Network and the Children’s Holiday Food Programme, funded by Glasgow City Council. This is a cross-party issue, too—the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) is chair of the Country Food Trust, and his organisation donated 400 food pouches to a number of my local charities only last month. There are many other good organisations out there, including Shettleston Community Growing Project and Cranhill Development Trust, of which I am a director, which are doing some really good work in teaching people not just how to grow food, but how to cook it as well.

In the course of the debate on the cost of food, we have to have a conversation not just about the food available, but about the quality of that food. Quite often, food banks have a plethora of tinned foods, but fruit and veg are not as freely available. The idea that in these islands there are fields where, as a result of a lack of labour, fruit and veg are rotting, should shame a vast number of us, and I attribute much of that to Brexit.

Feeding people should not be something that charities have to do. The comedian Henning Wehn is quoted as saying, “We don’t do charity in Germany. We pay taxes. Charity is a failure of Governments.” That is the fundamental problem. As a result of Government policies, such as the sanctions policy, the five-week wait for universal credit and many other Government-driven issues, we are in a situation where charities in my constituency are having to step in and feed people. That is not a sustainable situation.

We talk about food sustainability. The ultimate issue about sustainability is how the Government behave and their lack of support for the poorest in our society. That is a message that the Minister needs to take back to his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions.

This Christmas, millions of children will go hungry in the sixth richest nation in the world, completely unnecessarily. It is said that this is about Ukraine, but in 2010, 26,000 people were using food banks, and by last year, that figure was 2.6 million—a hundredfold increase, Now, one in four people are in food poverty, having faced a decade of frozen wages; they are now feeling the cold wind of 17% food inflation.

The response of the Government and the Chancellor is, “Oh, it’ll be all right. We will increase universal credit by 10% and pensions next April.” Food inflation is at 17% now, and it is freezing cold out there. We have just granted 490,000 warrants for energy companies forcibly to convert people’s electricity to prepayment meters, so they will not be able to cook and will be freezing cold. The starvation that we are going to see this winter is much worse than we saw in the aftermath of world war two, when we had rations. It is shameful. It is disgraceful. It is unnecessary, and it must be changed.

Not only should we provide benefits and support for those in greatest need, but there are other obvious things that we can do. As I mentioned, in Wales, there are free universal school meals, both at breakfast and now rolling out for lunch. We could do that immediately.

We need to think about the quality of food. The cheapest calories are the worst calories for diabetes and obesity, and that stores up a time bomb for the future, not just in life chances but in life expectancy. That is unnecessary and stupid, and it is not what we should be doing in a healthy, prosperous, growing economy for all.

In the NHS, 7 million people are already on the waiting list and the nurses are on strike because they cannot afford to feed their own children. We should ensure that the pressures on the NHS are alleviated by feeding all people—children, obviously, and all families and people—so that they are prosperous for the future. Clearly, we need a situation where we stop profiteering; we are seeing the doubling of margins by retailers. We must stop the speculation, ensure a supply of healthy food and ensure fairness and a right to food for the future of Britain.

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for setting the scene. He is always here to speak on issues that every one of us supports, and I commend him for bringing this forward.

Between the rise in the cost of living, increasing inflation, rates for basic household goods and the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol on goods coming into Northern Ireland, my own constituents are facing higher prices daily. Why is that? It is because—as the Minister will know, and as I will reiterate for the record—Northern Ireland faces increasing haulage fees. There has been an increase of some 30% in haulage fees this year, in the past six to nine months. It is important that people are aware of this, when other parties state that the Northern Ireland protocol is good for our local economy; here is a figure that proves it is not—not when local businesses are faced with having to put up their prices for the consumer because they cannot afford to make ends meet.

As of 9 December 2022, the inflation rate for food in Northern Ireland was about 10.6%. For a large or small family with kids or elderly pensioners, that is extortionate. My office has seen an incredible rise in the number of people asking for help from food banks. Up until about two months ago, we made between 25 and 30 referrals; we are now making 50, 60 and 65-plus. The people who are coming in are not just the food-poor; they are middle-class people who are now finding it difficult to deal with this as well.

As Members will know, I was in the picket line on Monday past with NHS workers, and the nurses and care staff over there were telling me that they are visiting food banks. That is a fact; that is where we are. I also worry about the lone pensioner who, when it comes to getting their energy payment, has the added stress and pressure of shopping; they worry about whether it is a sustainable price and whether it will last.

I appreciate that times are hard, but we often cannot help the circumstances that occur internationally that cause them. I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that our constituents are supported wherever we can do that little bit extra to help, and that goes for our farmers as well.

Thank you, Mr Gray. Food poverty is a political choice. It is slow violence; we are talking about social murder. The sheer numbers of people who are suffering hardship in this country is staggering. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that over 20 million people in the UK have been forced to cut back their spending on food and essentials because of the spiralling cost of living. Despite the energy crisis, the No. 1 reason that they reported for having to cut their spending was the rocketing price of food itself. One in six households in the UK are food-insecure. In Leicester East, where more than four in 10 children live in poverty and food bank use has soared by more than 300% in recent years, people are facing the worst of this crisis. Food-bank use is again at record levels, and the numbers are rocketing up. These are horrifying figures; a country with so many people in these situations cannot claim to be truly civilised.

I will end on this, because I want to tell this story. It seems that the most popular—

Thank you, Mr Gray. The premise of this debate, and all debates about food, is that everyone should have access to the food that they need. That ought not to be a controversial thing to say. The ONS today reported that food prices continue to rise, with annual food inflation hitting 16.5%—the highest rate for 45 years—and staple items such as tea, pasta and bread rising sharply. Alongside that, the UK is set to suffer the sharpest decline in economic growth of any European nation, with a drop in growth of 1.4% in 2023. That compares unfavourably with a small independent country similar to Scotland such as Ireland, which will see its economy grow by about 3%.

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee told MPs that Brexit added 6% to UK food prices—or £210, as the London School of Economics study indicated, which has caused real harm—and a real-terms cut of 2.6% to wages across the UK. I know that that is uncomfortable for the Brexit enthusiasts in the Labour party, but there it is. Add to that the inflationary pressure created by the exchange rate going down due to Brexit, mix it through with the consequential increase in interest rates—despite a recession, as explained by the former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney—and add it all together with the complication of the disastrous mini-Budget, which we are now supposed to pretend did not even happen, and which blew a £30 billion hole in the UK’s finances, and here we are.

My constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran and households across the UK are struggling to pay for essentials. Wages are eroded in the face of soaring inflation, with even buying food a challenge, not to mention heating the home. Where does this leave us? Food banks in Scotland experienced their busiest six months on record from April to September, providing 116,000 emergency food parcels during that period, with 40,000 parcels for children—a 29% increase on the previous year. That is the most parcels ever distributed for children in Scotland by food banks in the Trussell Trust network.

Alongside that, we have the issue of food security itself. We know that Ukraine has had an impact on food production, as have the soaring costs of fertiliser and energy. However, we need to take action now to better understand the full impact of challenges and disruption to our food supply chain and how industry and Government could work together to manage and mitigate the resulting impacts on the cost of food products.

The Scottish Government have established the food security and supply taskforce jointly with industry experts—the first of its kind in the UK. I hope that the UK Government will follow the Scottish Government’s example and the Good Food Scotland strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) has told us, the Scottish Government are doing all they can with the very limited powers they have. They have allocated almost £3 billion this financial year to help households face the cost of living increases, including £1 billion to provide services and financial support not found anywhere else in the UK. That support includes the Scottish child payment, which has increased by 150% in less than eight months to £25 per eligible child per week for those aged between six and 15 years old, as well as free school meals for all primary 1 to 5 children, which will be rolled out for all primary pupils soon.

Let us not kid ourselves. The real way to tackle inequality is to have control over the full range of tax and welfare powers. Anything the Scottish Government try to do to tackle inequality is done with one hand tied behind their back, with 85% of welfare powers reserved to Westminster. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) pointed out how wealthy the UK is, but it is also the most unequal country in Europe. The UK Government must wake up and come to terms with the shocking reality that work is no longer a route out of poverty. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that the chances of being pulled into poverty have doubled for households where two people work. That is a disgrace.

Doing nothing is not an option. For those who are really struggling, what is already being done is simply not enough; really, what we need to hear is what more will be done. I sincerely hope that the Minister will respond to the debate in that spirit. I hope that he responds from the starting point that everyone should have access to the food they need and that whatever he plans to say about what is already being done to support people needs to be built on, because it is not enough.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing this timely debate. He is a hugely passionate and determined campaigner on this issue who speaks up for people across the country who are left hungry as prices soar. It is striking that, with one honourable exception—the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter)—the Government Benches are empty, while the Opposition Benches are overflowing with Members who have spoken passionately in this debate. I have been impressed by the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and my hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). I am not going to repeat the points they made because time is short.

I will go straight to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who observed the effect of food prices on primary producers. We have seen with rising egg prices that the issue has been well rehearsed but not resolved. Consumers pay more but producers do not cover their costs, so they stop producing, leading retailers to turn to lower standard imports. The excellent and widely reported research by Sustain last week shows just how fine the margins are for many producers, and how, when they are locked into fixed-term contracts, they are blown away by sudden and dramatic rises in costs.

For probably the third or fourth time in these debates, I ask the Minister for an update on the dairy code, the pork code and the fate of the Grocery Code Adjudicator. I do not expect any answers. I could not help smiling at the comments by Minette Batters of the National Farmers Union at the weekend, when she told The Times that the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), was “asleep at the wheel”. I thought that was a bit unfair; the Secretary of State does not even think she should be at the wheel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West will recall, she made clear it to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week that she does not think it is the role of the Government to hand out free food or make price interventions.

That prompts this question: if it is not for the Government to intervene when people go hungry, then whose role is it? Ministers may be surprised to find that many people in this country do think that the Government have a role—just not this Government. My big question for the Minister is: what does he think his role is as the Food Minister? What is he for? It is almost exactly a year on from the Government sneaking out the food security review under the Agriculture Act 2020. Can he tell us what the situation is today? Farmers tell me that we are less food secure than we were a year ago. Growers are not planting, the sow herd is smaller and poultry farmers are not restocking. Are the Government concerned? Do they have a view? Can he even tell us whether we are more or less secure than we were a year ago?

I am grateful to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for pointing out in its briefing for this debate that the Government said the biggest medium to long-term risk to the UK’s domestic production

“comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity.”

What have the Government done to address that challenge, other than miss their own so-called legally binding date to publish the targets promised under the Environment Act 2021?

Has there been any progress on the Government’s half-hearted food strategy from a few months ago? Although we all accept that there are big cost pressures, a more active Government would be using their convening power to make a difference. Will the Minister tell us how often he meets the major players in the industry? What are they telling him? What is he telling them? Is it down to just the big retailers to decide the nation’s food policy, or does anyone else get a say? Perhaps he can tell us how often the Food and Drink Sector Council meets and what it has achieved to tackle this crisis. Its website says that it last met in February, although I understand there was a more recent meeting. What did the Minister get from it? Can he tell us?

What assessment have the Minister and his colleagues made of the impact of the rising cost of food? What discussions has he had with Department for Education colleagues on the impact on children of real cuts in the nutritional value of school meals? Caterers try to provide meals, and yet they are handed just a few pence to make up the loss when costs soar.

What are the health consequences of the changing buying patterns, as people move to cheaper options? What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care; or has he succumbed to his Secretary of State’s clear intention to dump any plans to tackle the obesity crisis that Henry Dimbleby highlighted? There are plans to ban adverts for foods that are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar before 9 o’clock. Why, when type 2 diabetes is rising faster in children and young adults in Britain than anywhere else in the world, has implementation been delayed until 2025?

I doubt we will get any answers today. I wish the Minister and his colleagues a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but my sense is that on the cost of food—a very real issue facing every family in the country this Christmas—this Government have nothing to say, and frankly they show little interest. As always, their message is, “Leave it to the market; it is nothing to do with us. You’re on your own.” For too many this Christmas, that is exactly how it will feel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this debate and I congratulate all Members who have spoken passionately on the topic.

The rise in food prices is a result of global shocks, including a spike in oil and gas prices and the conflict in Ukraine. I certainly recognise the impact that rising food costs is having on households across the country. My Department is engaging closely with industry to understand potential pressures on our food supply chain, which has shown resilience in coping with unprecedented challenges.

As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, we have had a number of debates in this Chamber. He has speculated about us running out of turkeys for Christmas, predicting Armageddon. I reassure him again today that no such Armageddon has taken place, and turkeys will be available for Christmas. Despite his gloom and doom, the measures that the Government have put in place are delivering against the challenges that he described some time ago.

We continue to monitor food prices using the ONS inflation figures. Recent pressures have been sustained, and food price inflation continued to rise to 16.5% in November, up from 16.4% in October.

The Minister talks about monitoring food prices. How often does he monitor the increase in food banks?

We continue to monitor food prices across the country. The hon. Gentleman also said that Brexit was a huge challenge for food prices. Actually, food price inflation is greater in the eurozone and the EU than in the UK, so I do not think that that is the challenge. Consumer food prices depend on a range of factors, including agri-food import prices, domestic agricultural prices, domestic labour and manufacturing costs and the sterling exchange rates. Some of the factors are influenced by our trading arrangements with other countries, which a number of Members referred to. Change in food prices is dependent on changes in one or more of those factors.

I am glad that the Minister is monitoring food prices, but does he monitor the cost of infant formula? The all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities has been doing so, and many groups are concerned that the cost of formula is now outpacing the amount of money that people are getting through the UK’s Healthy Start programme. People just cannot afford it, and are watering it down.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The Government monitor all food prices. We are of course aware of the price of the grocery basket, so we are aware of the spikes in food prices across a range of products.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking action to maintain an efficient food supply chain by mitigating any potential burdens or friction that could otherwise drive up consumer food prices. In the UK, we are fortunate to have a large and resilient food supply chain. Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources, strong domestic production and imports through stable trade routes.

Has the Minister assessed the impact on food prices and business profitability for farmers of the 20% reduction in the basic farm payment this month?

The reduction in the basic payment scheme is well advertised. Farmers are aware of it. We engage on a daily basis with farms up and down the country, as we are about to roll out the new environmental land management schemes. In fact, I have been engaging with farmers today on some of the new schemes that are coming, to give confidence in the marketplace that those farmers will continue to produce food, as well as improve our environmental footprint and biodiversity. There is good news there, which will give our farmers the confidence to continue to produce great food.

The Minister will recognise that we cannot protect the consumer from price rises without protecting the food producer. What specific support are the Government providing to help UK farmers with the unprecedented rises in input costs that food producers are facing, and to deal with some of the supermarkets’ cartel behaviour in fixing prices, which is having an effect on producers and consumers?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The honest truth is that a lot of support is going to primary producers to help them through the challenges they face. The energy scheme is helping producers, but a lot of the debate this afternoon has been diametrically opposed, with calls for lower food prices for our consumers and, at the same time, a rise in payments to our farmers who produce the food. We cannot have both. If farmers are paid extra at the farm gate—[Interruption.] Look at some of the margins in retail, production and manufacturing. For lots of those businesses, margins are being squeezed quite dramatically and there is a challenge. I would like to see more of the profit trickle down to primary producers. [Interruption.] We are absolutely in a place where we are engaging with primary producers to try to help them with that.

Will the Minister at least tell us what interventions he has made with retailers to make this happen, rather than just let it trickle down?

I have had lots of meetings with retailers and with many sectors. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the egg sector; we specifically had an egg roundtable last week, where we pulled together retailers, packers and primary producers to try to get some co-operation within the industry. The meeting was productive and conducted in a spirit of co-operation. There is clear willingness on the part of all parties to make sure the sector works, and we have recently seen improvements in both the supply of eggs and the sharing of costs across the supply chain. That is good example of where we as a Department recognised the challenge, pulled people together, got them around a table and made sure that we had a positive impact on the sector.

The Government are in regular contact with food and farming industries to ensure that they are well prepared for a range of scenarios. We continue to take all the necessary steps to ensure that people across the country have the food they need. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby for securing the debate and bringing people together.

Before the Minister concludes, will he address the issue of hunger, particularly child hunger, which has been raised by so many Members? I appreciate his focus on farming—as a farming nerd, I like that—but there are kids who are going to bed hungry tonight. Will the Minister address that before he sits down?

There is a huge package of intervention from the Government to help families up and down the country who are struggling with the cost of living. The Government recognise those challenges. That is why the current Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, invested £37 billion in supporting households who are facing such challenges, to ensure they can pay their domestic bills and have a level of support. We are also investing in our local authorities to help them to help those families. That is what the Government are trying to achieve, but there are huge global pressures at play that make that very difficult and challenging.

I cannot take another intervention as I have to give the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby the opportunity to conclude the debate. I thank hon. Members for their time today and for the spirit in which the debate has been conducted.

I thank hon. Members for their powerful contributions; it has been a brilliant debate. I acknowledge the Minister’s interesting reply, but we need deeds, not trickle-down words. Listening to the leadership coming from the Minister and from the Government, Beveridge would be spinning in his grave. We definitely need something, and I am just not seeing it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the cost of food.

Sitting adjourned.