Wednesday 1 March 2023
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Health and Wellbeing Services: East of England
I beg to move,
That this House has considered health and wellbeing services in the East of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to have secured this important debate, and to be joined by my colleagues from the east of England across all parties to highlight and discuss the many substantive issues relating to health and wellbeing in the east of England. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Care, who will be familiar with some of these issues from the deluge of correspondence she has no doubt been receiving and the recent debates in this Chamber.
This debate follows the excellent one secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on 31 January on the progress towards the Government’s levelling-up missions in the east of England. He cannot join us for this debate, but I thank him for championing the levelling-up agenda in our region and other colleagues who have supported this, particularly those on the all-party parliamentary group for the east of England.
Today I will speak about some of the regional issues and the specific health and wellbeing issues that are relevant to Essex and my Witham constituency. The Minister will be familiar with the “Levelling up the East of England: 2023-2030” report and its commentary on health and wellbeing matters. The report highlights that, while many areas in the region excel, there is a significant number of places and communities where deprivation is affecting outcomes and opportunities and where we need to focus our efforts.
With the 2021 census data showing the east of England to be the fastest growing region in terms of population—up by 8.7% or just under 500,000 to 6.3 million people—it will come as no great surprise to Members that our region is, frankly, pressed. It faces challenges from the health and wellbeing pressures associated with a growing and ageing population. The Office for National Statistics projects that by 2041, the number of people in the region aged over 65 will have increased by more than 450,000.
In particular, the report highlights the data on healthy life expectancy. Both men and women are spending over one fifth of their lives in less than good health. In 2018 to 2020, average healthy life expectancy for men in the region was 64.6 years, compared with average life expectancy of 80.2 years; and for women, average healthy life expectancy was 65 years of an average 83.3 years. The challenge speaks for itself. Some of the figures are gradually improving, but this is a significant concern across the region. The scale and beauty of our region masks a number of health inequalities.
I thank my right hon. Friend for leading the debate. One of the challenges we have had in my part of Essex for many decades is the difficulty of recruiting doctors, in part because no doctors were ever trained in Essex. It was fantastic news when, five years ago, thanks to the Conservative Government’s policy and support, a new medical school opened in Chelmsford, training doctors in Essex for the first time. The first doctors will graduate in just a few weeks, and I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend that the drop-out rate on that course is only 3%—the average across the country is 8%—and many of those new doctors want to stay working locally in our area, which is fantastic. Will she and the Minister join me in supporting Anglia Ruskin University’s campaign to double the size of the medical school in Chelmsford?
My right hon. Friend is correct. I remember having the opportunity to support the business case for the medical school around seven years ago, and I pay tribute to everyone who was involved in establishing that amazing medical school. In Essex in particular and in the east of England region, we are very proud to have the Anglia Ruskin University medical school. I have seen the campus—the size, the scale, the facilities—but also the enthusiasm of the students there. My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, which is that we have to grow our own in Essex, and in the eastern region, and we need those students to be placed locally in GP practices to grow the footprint locally. I will come to that, particularly when I speak about primary care.
The point about the medical school, healthy life expectancy and the delivery of good health outcomes speak to the challenges we face in the region, which include heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, lung cancer, stroke, depressive disorders, falls and drug-related deaths. As our population grows, on top of the age profile changes that we are experiencing and will continue to experience, we will need more qualified GPs, but also medical specialists to serve those individuals and to support the community. The difficulties that we face comprise not only demographics, but the scale of the health challenges and, I say to the Minister, the issue of geography. The east of England is a diverse part of the country, and its rurality and coastal nature put pressure on services.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that since we have been devolving powers and money to local integrated care systems, centralised NHS England appears deeply inefficient in many ways? In Clacton, we have private dentists up and ready to serve with the NHS, but they are unable to do so. The integrated care boards are going to absorb new commissioning powers, but without flexibility in NHS England rules, will we not just be shuffling a deck of cards?
My hon. Friend is the voice of common sense on this. He will recall that we covered some of those issues in the debate we held here on, I think, 31 January. I spoke about the state being very inflexible and centralising too many resources, which need to be cascaded downwards to meet the needs of patient care.
My views on the size of the state are well known, but on this issue I think that, yet again, the centralised approach is wrong. It is simply not delivering the patient outcomes and the care that we need. We need more flexibility. ICBs are brand new, and they are finding their feet right now. We as Members of Parliament have to support them so that they can establish themselves and work with us to understand the needs of our constituents and communities. There is nothing worse than central Government funnelling cash to another centralised organisation and bureaucracy within a region, and that money going on, for example, NHS managers and bureaucracy, not the healthcare that is needed.
Let me pick up the point about NHS dentistry, the commissioning of which, I am told, is about to be transferred to the ICBs. We probably all have a pretty grim constituency experience of people trying to access NHS dentistry. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it might have been a good idea to hand that power back to local areas quite a long time ago?
The hon. Gentleman is right. For years, I have spoken about local healthcare provision. Practitioners know best, and it is not for central structures to dictate the needs of a local community. With that, there is the issue of access to services that matter so much. Dentistry has been controversial for too long. As a result, children are not accessing dentistry in the way they should, and health outcomes are absolutely shocking and appalling, particularly in young children.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I recently had a meeting with Dr Nick Stolls, who for 20 years ran the local dentistry committee in Norfolk and Suffolk and is now the professional lead for dentistry and wellbeing for the integrated care board. He described work done by the British Dental Association that points out that Norfolk is almost a dental desert, with no dentists able to take contracts, in some cases because of NHS England’s inflexibility. Does my right hon. Friend agree that reform is needed? Will she invite the Minister to agree that, as the British Dental Association said, fundamental reform of the NHS dental contract is urgently required to truly address the challenges that patients, dentists and the wider NHS are experiencing?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The British Dental Association has been pressing for reform probably for as long as I have been in Parliament, and I am very familiar with its case. My hon. Friend speaks very clearly about access and inflexibility. Importantly, if there is no flexibility in the system, there is no opportunity to provide services to meet local need accessibly and in a way that means people do not think they will be charged or subject to barriers to access.
I commend the right hon. Lady. She was a very effective Home Secretary and it is good to see her just as active on the Back Benches—well done. This subject does not affect me personally, but I want to ask her about a similar issue: face-to-face GP appointments. It is vital for a GP to assess what they see as well as the words they hear. My constituents wish to have face-to-face appointments, but they seem to be restricted. Is the right hon. Lady experiencing the same problems? What would she suggest should be done to solve them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I have a whole section of my speech on GP access, particularly in the Witham constituency. That has been a contentious issue throughout my entire time as a Member of Parliament. He is absolutely right, and I have no doubt that his constituents and constituents in the east of England and across the country are facing the same challenges. There is a range of reasons for that, which I will touch on.
I think the Minister will be interested to know that in the east of England—this relates to facilities and access to care—per capita spend is £2,889, which is the lowest of any region and below the national average of £3,236. Like so much of the rest of the country, we face challenges. Ours is an ageing part of the country—our population is getting older—so we face disproportionate health and social care challenges and workforce demands. The east of England has the smallest number of nurses per 1,000 people of any region in the country. I urge Ministers to review not just the flexibility of dentistry contracts, but the east of England’s metrics on healthy life expectancy—this comes back to the levelling-up report—and provide more certainty to the region to address the disparities, which affect constituents across the board.
I also ask the Minister to look at what can be done to reduce ill health and early death, particularly as a result of preventable factors. Prevention is rightly a significant feature of the NHS, but we have serious issues in the east of England. Health providers and local authorities across the region would be really keen to engage with the Government on that. I am going to volunteer them all, because they offer themselves up constantly for new pilots and initiatives; we are very proactive. I pay tribute to Essex County Council, which has done a great deal of work on this issue, and other key providers that have the ability, capacity and capability to provide services.
As well as support for the region’s levelling-up ambition on healthy life expectancy, we are very keen to see improvements in wellbeing, where social prescribing comes into the mix. I say to the Minister and all our colleagues here today and people across the region that it is incumbent upon us to start to narrow that gap from top-performing areas. We need to start closing the gap, so that we start to see equity across these big challenges. As the levelling-up report has demonstrated, this is a difficult health indicator and target to measure, but we have the opportunity now to be innovative, and to work with new providers as well as our county council in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) has spoken about—a less bureaucratic and more flexible way that helps to drive local outcomes with our partners.
In my part of Essex, great work is already being done on levelling up. For example, it was never possible for people to get IVF in Mid Essex due to lower levels of funding, but that has now been levelled up, so that from 1 April, women will be able to get IVF treatment on the NHS in Mid Essex, which is really important to so many women who want to start a family
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments.
I have some very specific Witham issues. The Minister and the Department will be familiar with my bundles of correspondence on the Witham health centre. One of the most important ways that health and wellbeing in Witham, in Essex and across the East of England can be improved is by strengthening accessible services that are delivered within the local community. We have already touched on this point. That applies to the provision of health services in Witham.
I never tire of raising the needs of my constituents across the constituency and in Witham town; it is growing as a constituency and a community, and we are very proud of that. We have seen some amazing outcomes—for example, in education, in our rail services and in the infrastructure that we have been pursuing—but there is more to do. We have seen hundreds of new homes being granted planning consent and thousands of homes being built, with more residents coming to my constituency. Ours is a fantastic part of Essex—I do believe that the only way is Essex. Importantly, we now have a blend of new families and families who have lived in Witham for many generations. Like many towns, we have a growing population of elderly residents living in care homes and homes around the town, and of young people as well—we are a commuter town—with young families. With that blend and that increase, we need a new health centre.
Since the start of the pandemic three years ago, the four GP surgeries in the town have seen their patient lists increase by nearly 3% to almost 32,000 people. Between the four surgeries, there are just 13 full-time equivalent GPs, giving an average patient to GP ratio across the town of about 2,440. That is about 50% greater than the national average. The patients to GPs ratios across those four surgeries range from 2,045 patients per GP to 3,150 patients per GP, and each surgery is well above the national average.
With so many patients—in fact, this has been the case throughout my entire time as Member of Parliament for the Witham constituency—many constituents regularly report not getting appointments, and far too many are unable to take action when it comes to dealing with their own health concerns. Cancer risks are being picked up too late. In the light of the health disparities that I have already raised, serious and debilitating health conditions will not be serviced and attended to in a timely manner.
This will be no great surprise to the Minister or anyone in the Department, and I apologise to no one for the vigorous way in which I keep on raising the need for a health centre. It is one of the key projects that I have campaigned for during my time as Member of Parliament. The money has to come directly to Witham town. With four GP surgeries and more than 30,000 patients, there is a clear and compelling business case. I have offered to write the business case for the GPs myself. I have done everything to facilitate the GPs coming together, which has been rather challenging; the Minister will be well aware of the business models that mean that GPs do not always want to reach agreement and work together. I am sorry to report that those models have been a major underlying problem.
Having a new facility—this is the key point—would mean more specialist treatments and services delivered locally. It would give local constituents the greatest assurance that, whether they have young children or they are elderly, their needs will be taken care of within the town itself, and that there will be medical practitioners, therapists, nurses and others who can absolutely ensure that care is there for them. We should also bring in new providers and do much more on social prescribing. I am a great advocate of that, and we have to have a blended approach when it comes to access to primary care.
On that point, I would like to bring up Clacton. We have a new community diagnostic centre, which is absolutely brilliant. I thank the Minister for that, but there was supposed to be a primary care hub, too. I had a meeting recently with one of our local GPs, and the primary care hub is not forthcoming at the moment. Hospitals such as the one in Clacton are very important because they take pressure off the bigger hospitals locally, such as those in Ipswich and Colchester. It is very important that we have a primary care hub, so I ask the Minister to respond to that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about his beautiful constituency and the healthcare needs.
I want to press the Minister. For too long, my constituents and the residents of Witham have been waiting for a medical facility—a new health hub, as we have dubbed it—and I am afraid that there has been inertia in the way that people have come together locally to drive this outcome. I give credit to the new ICB and to one of our NHS colleagues heading up the ICB, Dan Doherty, who is trying to get GPs to come together. We are looking at a new practice centre and locations are being discussed, but enough is enough. We need this to come together, and it needs central leadership. We have spoken about the centralisation of money and resources. The one thing that central Government could do that would actually make a difference is to say that the project needs to go ahead, and then to tell the local ICB and GPs, “You will get the resources, the help and the support, because it is your job and your responsibility to deliver for local constituents and residents.” That is key.
We are, proudly, a growing constituency, and Tiptree is another major population centre where there are challenges in health provision. Tiptree is a very famous village, although its village status is sometimes questioned because it is growing and growing. The village is famous for its legendary jam-making business, which has a royal warrant, and we are very proud of Wilkin & Sons. The medical practice there has 12,000 patients registered but has just two practising GPs, so although the practice has a range of healthcare professionals working there, the level of GP provision is too low.
To come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, if we are to stop the pressures on A&E—for my constituency, the pressures are on Colchester Hospital, which is where Tiptree faces, and the pressures on the Witham side are on Broomfield Hospital, towards Chelmsford—we have to ensure that our local practices are supported and that we increase our GP ratios. That also speaks to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) about the need to bolster the medical school and ensure that its graduates come to work in our GP practices. That is hugely important, and we in Essex absolutely believe that there is a great opportunity to increase GP provision. The medical school is outstanding. We want that link to be made and we need more GPs to come through from Anglia Ruskin. I will put in a shameless plug: come to Witham and Tiptree, and use the area as a network, through a new hub in Witham town, to then go further.
There have been interventions about dentistry, and I reiterate the point about the BDA’s statistics: around 93% of dentists in the east of England are not accepting any new NHS outpatients, and the proportion for children is 81%. We should pause and reflect on those statistics, which I find astonishing because of the health and wellbeing implications. We see poor dental hygiene and tooth decay in children, which is simply unacceptable. The Government announced a package of measures to improve dental health and access to NHS dentists in November, but the issue seems to be deteriorating for lots of reasons.
I know that the Government are doing much more on prevention, but we need what we have seen from the Suffolk and North East Essex ICB, which provided funds for children aged between two and eight to experience supervised brushing in early years and school settings. I am a big believer in our schools, which can do so much for children’s health and wellbeing. I said that we were all for innovation and pilots, and initiatives such as that should be supported across other schools to improve health and wellbeing with regard to dental care, and to show children what can be done and how to look after themselves. If we cannot get it right in the early years, frankly, we end up picking up the pieces later in life. This is about not just costs, but the wider health implications. There is so much preventive work we can do at the outset.
I will also take this opportunity to comment on our ambulance services across the east of England. I am sure that all of us here today—including you, Mr Hollobone, with Kettering Hospital—are all too familiar with the challenges for our ambulance services. Ten years ago, in 2013—I am sorry to say that I remember this too well—the East of England Ambulance Service was in crisis. There was a lack of investment in ambulances and paramedics, devastating concerns over patient care and appalling mismanagement of the board.
I pay tribute to colleagues across the east of England back then, because we came together, spoke with one voice and campaigned, to the extent that we forced the board of directors to resign and brought in new management—such was the scale of what was going on; it was appalling. The trust was turned around and I pay particular tribute to my noble Friend Earl Howe, who was a Health Minister at the time. Not only was he supportive, but he would sit in on meetings, come to the constituencies and sit with the ambulance trust. I also pay tribute to the successive chief executives at the trust who have improved plans and increased investment in ambulances and paramedics. It has been a slog, but we cannot overlook the hard work that has taken place over the past decade. I pay tribute to all those, in public service in particular, who gave up time with the trust to turn things around.
In January, I met the current chief executive of the trust, Tom Abell, and visited the call-handling centre in Broomfield, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford will know. They are changing things. The call handlers are first class and I pay tribute to them; they are dynamic and so engaged. They are also smart, agile and triaging calls, which makes a tremendous difference. We want to support that and the right kind of patient outcomes, and they really care about patient outcomes.
We have to recognise that our paramedics and ambulances continue to face delays. That is preventing them from being out in the communities and reaching medical emergencies and injuries, so we still have complaints. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts and insights on the east of England, and where further actions can be undertaken to improve services. I mentioned Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford and Colchester Hospital for emergency care treatments. Importantly, those hospitals are part of the infrastructure and need to be reassured that the golden thread of integration reaches them, so that we do not see the appalling days of stacking that we saw many years ago and patients facing unnecessary delays.
Alongside that, we need reassurance and commitment from the Government to invest in and support hospitals, particularly in acute care settings in Essex and the east of England. I know that other colleagues will want to touch on that. An ageing population has more complex needs and our hospitals must be equipped to support that. Just as our ambulance service has been on a journey of improvement, the two hospitals have been on quite a journey of improvement. Broomfield was burdened with the most ridiculous private finance initiative costs when I became the Member of Parliament for Witham. I am afraid that those PFI costs—it was subjected to them by the previous Labour Government—were eye-watering, and the most horrendous debt had been put on the hospital at the time.
Colchester General Hospital has had one of the most interesting journeys. It spent long periods in special measures and required improvements, and it has now become integrated into the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust. Many of the old issues have been resolved and there has been tremendous leadership there as well, notwithstanding the pressures faced during the covid pandemic. I pay tribute to everyone working at the hospitals who were involved in the turnaround plans. We have had periods pre and post pandemic with long waiting times.
Before the pandemic, Colchester hospital had a £44 million plan, which included the rebuilding of the day surgery unit and investment in a new orthopaedic centre. Those are important developments that we want to see come together. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who is welcome to come to the constituency—or the region, I should say—at any time to see the panoply of issues that we have. Services need investment. There are improvements, but at the same time we need to get that golden thread, the integrated care, totally integrated.
As well as speaking about GP surgeries and hospitals, I will also mention our pharmacies, which play a vital role in providing health services to our residents. Pharmacies are located in the heart of communities. I have many brilliant pharmacies, and there are fantastic pharmacists around the country. They are the unsung heroes in our communities. We should recognise that they are desperate to play a stronger role in primary care. They want to help people to get treatments and help with prescriptions. I urge the Minister to speak to community pharmacists. I was concerned when I recently met a community pharmacist in the wonderful village of Tollesbury, where I was informed that the funding that they had received over the past seven years has been squeezed by 30%. I have been in touch with the Department about that.
Community pharmacists say that without urgent intervention, pharmacies will close, because of pressures on funding associated with prescription drugs and the NHS tariff. Pharmacies are to a certain extent subsidising the prescriptions that they issue in the community. The concerns are such that we are now moving towards a large number of permanent pharmacy closures, putting the safe supply of prescription medicines at risk. I have also heard that there are opportunities for the Government to empower pharmacies to do more by providing a blueprint for the future of community pharmacy, but that has to be backed by investment, which we are not yet seeing—we are seeing a continuing squeeze.
This issue is a no-brainer. In any village, constituency or community that has a community pharmacy, people can go there to be reassured if they feel unwell and want advice, rather than putting pressure on local GPs or, worse still, hospitals. With the son of a pharmacist now our Prime Minister, there is a great opportunity for the pharmacy agenda to take greater precedence and priority across the NHS and in our communities, so I want to press the Minister on that.
As my Essex colleagues are still here, it would be remiss of me not to raise one of the most contentious subjects that we face in Essex: the pressures of mental health services in our county, which has been raised in this Chamber before. I am sorry to say this, but we have seen families left devastated when loved ones in the care of mental health services have lost their lives, and families are now frustrated when they seek answers from the bureaucratic side because of the lack of accountability and transparency in the NHS trust.
On 31 January, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford held a debate on the Essex mental health independent inquiry, and our concerns are not being allayed at all. The inquiry’s chair, Dr Geraldine Strathdee, has raised many concerns. I pay tribute to her for her diligent work and boldness in speaking out and raising concerns about the lack of transparency and people not providing evidence to the inquiry. Both she and the current chief exec of the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust are encouraging and supporting staff to come forward to participate in this inquiry.
The Secretary of State, to his credit, has shown strong interest. He is trying to give us assurances that the inquiry may be put on a statutory footing, and we welcome that. However—I say this as a former Home Secretary who has been involved in setting up public inquiries into some of the most devastating issues—we would prefer evidence and information for the inquiry to come forward as soon as possible. I am conscious that—and I have said this to many of the families and victims—when inquiries are put on a statutory footing, it sometimes becomes harder for people to feel that they can come forward. The disclosure of names and personal details can become subject to some contention.
The point is that, for too long, families have been fobbed off with excuses and have had a lack of support. They have not been treated with respect and seriousness when they have raised concerns about their loved ones. Many are victims that have experienced the most horrific abuse at the hands of the trust. We now need the inquiry to deliver the answers that everyone is seeking. I would like the Minister to give an update on where we are on that.
Let me turn to another important point that is linked to the inquiry. We are experiencing too many mental health issues across society, and that is devastating. There is much more that we can do now with a focus on mental health and wellbeing in our schools, colleges and universities. We must put a particular focus on our young people. I am deeply concerned to hear of young people self-harming. That is not the subject of this debate, but it has been a subject in the House around online safety, the forthcoming Online Safety Bill and the roles and responsibilities relating to the type of information that is put out on social media networks and things of that nature. This comes back to prevention, but there is more that we can do on education and awareness. However, we must have specialist practitioners locally and in the community to provide the essential support. I would welcome some insights from the Minister on what education providers are doing in this area.
As a former Home Secretary, I will take the liberty of raising the issue of policing and mental health. In the police and crime plan, the Government that I was involved in made it abundantly clear that the police should not be the automatic backstop and default in dealing with mental health cases and patients. That therefore uses valuable police resources and means hours spent sitting in hospitals and A&E because mental health facilities were just not accessible. That is changing thanks to the Government and the initiative that I and the former Policing Ministers put in place, but it speaks to the mental health ecosystem and the numerous pressures on it.
On education providers and schools, constituents have raised concerns with me about how the health services are supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities. The Minister will be aware that health partners have a role to play in education, health and care plans for young students. However, the delays are not just cumbersome, but deeply stressful for pupils, families, parents and households. I am sure that all Members present can wax lyrical about the challenges in securing services, including speech and language therapy, to help young people and support them with their needs.
I go on about this a lot, but I believe that the money must follow the student. I still think we do not see enough of that. I have a terrible case of a youngster with very specific needs—high needs—as part of his education, health and care plan. However, the money that has gone to the school is just not following him in the way that it should for outcomes. We all know about delays in securing autism assessments. That is simply not good enough. We know it has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but we must do more to address the issue.
I will come to a near-conclusion by touching on a few other areas. I have already mentioned Essex County Council, which—all credit to it—has a strong record on investing in health, social care and wellbeing. I know that it would welcome details of its public health grant; it is that time of the calendar year when funding allocations come up. The council is also involved in piloting Active Essex, exploring what more can be done through prevention and enablement in health and social care systems to improve independence and health through increased physical activity.
On health and social care, I pay tribute to Essex County Council and Councillor John Spence. He is a remarkable individual who is really championing this area. If I may say so, central Government should spend some time with us in Essex to look at the innovative ways in which we are driving outcomes. The council has also transformed day services. It has established the “Meaningful Lives Matter” programme, and it is working with local employers to support adults with learning disabilities and autism. As a former employment Minister, I believe the more we can do to support people to get them into meaningful work, the better. It has great outcomes for health and wellbeing. We want more of that.
The council has a care technology service, which was launched in 2021 and is supporting 5,200 people. Of course, we all believe in making use of technology, and technology to improve health outcomes and independence is crucial. People do not want to be centralised or institutionalised; they want to be able to access services and live their lives. We are seeing good outcomes for people experiencing memory loss.
The council is working with the three integrated care systems that cover the county and supporting hospitals with discharges, which is obviously important from the social care perspective. The Essex Wellbeing Service has evolved. I emphasise that it is using both statutory and community service resources to support health and wellbeing outcomes. I invite the Minister to come to Essex to meet our colleagues—not just John Spence but the leader of the county council, Councillor Kevin Bentley. We are on the cusp of a good degree of innovation.
I am also keen to support new schemes that can help physical and mental health and wellbeing. I have touched on social prescribing, but I am also about to launch a new initiative with schools called “Get Witham Growing”. Among other things, I will involve schools in growing cosmos seeds from the national plant collection, as well as food seeds. We can get much more holistic outcomes, as well as the education, health and wellbeing benefits. Frankly, we can plant them now for future generations. I encourage other hon. Members to pick that up as well.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford mentioned IVF support. Hormone replacement therapy treatments are also in the news. It is important to raise that point, because constituents have expressed concerns; people across the country would like reassurance from the Minister on that issue. I have already spoken about the health hub in Witham town, but phlebotomy services are something that we have raised consistently for over a decade. Access to blood tests is crucial; we want to see much more support in that area, both locally and across the region.
My final point is quite topical. I raise it because my constituency is growing. In fact, Essex is growing—not just from planting seeds; our population continues to grow. We have a lot of house building, with developments across Chelmsford, Clacton and Witham. They are not small. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has Beaulieu Park, which is a massive development in various phases. I have Tollgate, which consists of thousands and thousands of new homes. In Witham town we have phased development, which used to be the old Witham Lodge development. However, something is missing when it comes to planning.
That is the whole issue when we speak about pressures on local health services. We are not seeing developer contributions stack up to meet the needs of the growing local population when it comes to the moneys going to local councils, whether through the community infrastructure levy or section 106, to get long-term, sustainable investments. Currently, we see developers offer cash amounts based on a formula relating to the number of new dwellings being constructed. It is impossible to refuse applications on these grounds—that is a planning point. However, we need to ensure that the cash amounts made available to councils and the NHS for new facilities actually materialise, because the money is currently not following people and outcomes.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the money for infrastructure that comes from developments needs to go to every sort of infrastructure that our households need. I was deeply shocked to learn that over the past four years, Chelmsford City Council, under Lib Dem leadership, has not allocated a single penny to the NHS. Indeed, neither of the two projects approved by the previous Conservative leadership—the Beaulieu Park and Sutherland Lodge medical centres—has moved forward under Lib Dem leadership. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is shocking, and yet another reason why we need to take back Conservative control of Chelmsford City Council this May?
I absolutely agree. If I remember rightly, both my right hon. Friend and I have been involved in meetings with one particular health provider, which I will not name but which was totally inadequate, about Sutherland Lodge and another practice in my constituency.
The situation is untenable and totally unsustainable. I have pressed this point many times, but I would really welcome the Minister’s working with Ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to secure those health contributions. It is a bone of contention—one that our constituents and their Members of Parliament are angry about. That Department used to be called the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. My constituency has been subject to proposals for a garden community on which millions of pounds were wasted, when money from central Government—from the old MHCLG—could have gone, via new homes, into our community to give us a health hub in Witham, which would have bolstered health services across the constituency and across Essex, because we are growing.
I have deliberately referenced many parts of the NHS and the challenges around health and wellbeing in the region. I hope that I have shown how interconnected many of these issues are; none of them sits in isolation. That speaks to a wider point raised in a previous debate. While the size of the state grows and grows, the lack of integration in our communities and at the grassroots is a sticking point. It is very challenging.
I thank colleagues for their contributions. Importantly, this is a real moment for the Government to start to integrate our statutory service delivery, not just through the integrated care boards, but across local councils, and hopefully drive better outcomes in health and wellbeing across Witham, Essex and the east of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate the APPG for the east of England on shining a light on how the east of England is getting a raw deal in Government funding for public services.
Nowhere is that raw deal more acutely felt that in health and wellbeing services. In the east of England, per capita spend on health is the lowest of any UK region or nation, at £2,889 compared with £3,236 nationally. Combine that with the fact that the east of England has the highest population growth of any region, at 8.3%, and it is not difficult to see why, after 13 years of Conservative mismanagement, people are waiting far too long for GP, hospital and dental appointments, and even for an ambulance to turn up to a category 1 call, where there is a threat to life.
Figures released yesterday by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine show that the east of England has been the worst performing NHS region for the last four months, when measured against the four-hour standard. One in 11 patients who were admitted to hospital in the east of England waited 12 hours or more in an emergency department after the decision to admit them was made. That means that the sickest and most vulnerable patients disproportionately experience delays to care, which is why the excess morality rate is going through the roof. Many of them are preventable deaths.
For years we simply have not had the investment in the workforce to provide enough medical staff, including doctors, nurses and midwives, to look after a growing ageing population with increasingly complex needs. Staff are burned out covering gaps in care, and exhausted after covid. The problems are so extensive that the Government do not seem to know where to start to fix the broken system. The urgent and emergency care recovery plan, announced just over a month ago, does nothing to get patients a GP appointment sooner, or to restore district nursing so that patients can be cared for in the community.
The Chancellor recognised the importance of investing in the NHS workforce while he was Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee. It is a shame that he does not put his money where his mouth is now, and broker a deal with nurses, ambulance drivers, paramedics and junior doctors to end the strikes that are causing so much disruption and stress to staff and patients alike. East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust employees will strike next week for the first time.
Many public service workers cannot afford the cost of living. Why will this Government not listen to them and consider offering them a fair wage for a day’s work? This is not just any work; it is critical, life-saving and highly stressful work. My constituents in Bedford and Kempston want to see the end of these industrial disputes. They are sick and tired of the fact that nothing works any more in this country. They are tired of the Government blaming anyone but themselves for the state we are in. It is the Government’s job to sort the disputes out, so they should get on and do it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that it would be far better to have a 5% wage rise when inflation is down at 2%, which would make the rise much more effective? One of the most effective things that we can do right now is bring inflation down and make wages actually mean something.
The hon. Member must know that these people have faced real-terms pay cuts for years. They are critical workers in our NHS; they deserve better. After many years, for the Government to offer them 5% during this cost of living crisis is not good enough. They should be concentrating on work, but they cannot pay their bills, they have to choose between heating and eating, and they are worried about their families. That is the problem. These people deserve better working conditions and pay than they are getting from this Government.
I put on the record how pleased I was to see the East London NHS Foundation Trust people and culture team named team of the year at the Healthcare People Management Association annual awards. It is time that the Government got their act together to release the capital funding to give the trust the go-ahead to build the much-needed mental health village in Bedford. The number of mentally unwell patients, including young people, who are forced out of the area to access treatment is alarming, and it is growing. How much longer do they have to wait for the promised in-patient facility in their area? My constituents deserve better community care and hospitals need relief, so I urge the Government to finally release the funding to build the facilities desperately needed in my constituency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by thanking and paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this important debate and her continued pursuit of the issue, but also for painting a comprehensive picture of the health and wellbeing disparities in her constituency and across the east of England. I welcome her comments about and the enthusiasm she showed for further including pharmacies in the way we deliver health. I support that wholeheartedly.
May I praise the important contributions made by all Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin)? It is clear that patients are being failed in all aspects of health and wellbeing services in the east of England. We have heard about many aspects of those services, but let me start by talking about the front door of the NHS, the GPs. Primary care and GP services are struggling, and patients are struggling to gain access to primary care. The latest patient survey tells us that those who are able to get an appointment are less and less likely to see a GP because of staff shortages.
The right hon. Member for Witham mentioned that patient numbers and needs are growing in the area, but we know that the number of fully qualified GPs in the east of England fell from 3,263 full-time equivalents to 3,020 in December 2022. Across NHS England, there is a shortage of 4,200 GPs, so I welcome the call from the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for the number of medical school places at Anglia Ruskin to be doubled, although I would go further and say that we should do that across the country, maybe every year.
There is also a quality issue. Essex has five inadequate GP services, according to the Care Quality Commission, which is second only to London. Maternity services are also failing communities in the east of England day in, day out. At Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, such services have been found by the CQC not to have staff with the right qualifications, skills, training and experience to keep women safe from avoidable harm. Since last year, the use of gas and air pain relief at a hospital’s maternity suite has been suspended on and off following a botched repair, which exposed some staff to high levels of nitrous oxide, and routine testing of the maternity suite revealed that midwives had been exposed to excess nitrous oxide levels during their shifts.
It is heartbreaking that services for mothers are so poor, and maternity services are unable even to provide the basics. Access to gas and air pain relief should be a basic when someone goes into maternity, and it is really disappointing that it is not available to mothers in the area.
A moment back, the hon. Lady mentioned inadequate GP services and how some GP services fail, but is it not the job of us MPs to get involved? There were failing GP services in poor practices in Clacton. I got personally involved, we got new management in, and we turned things around. We, the MPs, can get involved. We got involved with what was then the local health authority, and we changed things. We can do that by getting together and being united with our health leaders.
I welcome those points, and I absolutely agree.
On mental health, the stories that the right hon. Member for Witham set out are devastating. I offer my sincere condolences to all those affected by the loss of loved ones between 2000 and 2020 at Essex mental health services. I also pay tribute to the families and the local MPs—especially the right hon. Member for Chelmsford, who is no longer in her place—for fighting for justice for the loved ones. A mental health unit should be a place of safety for patients, and it is heartbreaking that that was clearly not the case in Essex. It is imperative that the truth of what occurred in Essex is finally heard. As the right hon. Member for Witham said, it is vital that the families and loved ones get answers about what happened, and above all lessons must be learned. That is why the work of the Essex mental health independent inquiry is so important.
Concerns were raised in January, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), said that he expected changes to be made. I will be grateful if the Minister can set out the steps the Government are taking to ensure that the inquiry can effectively investigate what went wrong and can make recommendations so that it never happens again. The inquiry is currently non-statutory. The Government said in January that they would not hesitate to change their approach if we do not see the change we need rapidly. Will the Minister tell us whether there have been any changes? Is there an update on that?
Although there are tragic extremes to health and wellbeing services in the east of England, they reflect issues that we see across the country, including patients not being seen on time and not receiving the care they need and deserve. That ultimately leaves them at risk at of adverse harm. Patients in the east of England—indeed, patients across the country—deserve more.
I would be grateful if the Minister set out the actions the Government are taking to improve care in the east of England and ensure access to primary care, safe maternity care and dentistry. Will she also give us a further update on the mental health inquiry?
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing it. She brought her legendary laser-like scrutiny to healthcare in her constituency and the wider east of England region. As we would expect, she covered a huge amount of ground with passion and insight. She forensically dug into the detail and asked many challenging questions of me and the Government more broadly.
Several other hon. Members from the east of England made contributions, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). From a little further afield, we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he is no longer in his place, but it always a pleasure to hear his frequent and well-informed contributions to healthcare debates.
I welcome the work that hon. Members are doing in their constituencies to support their constituents’ health and wellbeing. They are showing an interest in the activities of health and social care services in their areas, and are asking very pertinent questions. That is a very important way of driving improvement and holding the people closer to the frontline to account. I also thank them for the work they are doing, including in this debate and behind the scenes by lobbying Ministers such as me and others in the Department of Health and Social Care, to get the things that they rightly want for their constituents.
It was good to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham pay tribute to Essex County Council; her comments chime with my experience of working with it. I had a call with the council on Monday to talk about the work we are doing together to reduce the number of patients in hospital waiting for discharge. I know it is working extremely hard. Its data is better than the average data across England. I heard some really good things about what the local authority is doing, working with the NHS to help patients get out of hospital more quickly, and to avoid going into hospital in the first place, which we know is better in general, particularly for older people who can lose condition if they have a long stay in hospital. I, too, have been very impressed by Essex County Council and the innovative, proactive approach that it is taking in these areas.
My right hon. Friend covered a huge amount of ground. I will respond to several of her points, but if I do not manage to cover every single one—not all of her points address areas within my brief; it might also take a huge amount of time—I am happy to ask my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to follow up on those topics beyond my social care and community health brief.
I turn first to primary care, which is clearly a significant part of the points that my right hon. Friend and others have raised. She talked about the GP numbers in her area, in the context of a fast-growing population in the east of England. Nationally, we have an ageing population living with more health conditions, which is putting greater demand on our health services and, crucially, on GPs, who are not just the gatekeepers but also, in knowing the individual, have real expertise in understanding the complexity of people’s health conditions. Those relationships are really important.
The GP-patient ratio is a particular concern for my right hon. Friend and other east of England colleagues. We have been boosting the primary care workforce, as she will know. The Government are on track to deliver our manifesto commitment of 26,000 more people working in primary care by 2024. We have already recruited more than 25,000 of those 26,000. On GPs specifically, there are more than 2,000 full-time equivalent doctors in general practice as of December last year compared with a year before. We are increasing the numbers of people working in general practice.
I realise that the pressures still remain and it takes time to make these changes; I also realise that there are disparities in the numbers of GPs in different parts of the country. Within a particular area, from one town to the next, there can be very different levels of GP coverage. This is very much a work in progress, and of course it takes time to train doctors, as we all know.
I was very glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford speak about the Anglia Ruskin medical school, one of five new medical schools that we have opened. It is playing its part in delivering a 25% uplift—a record uplift—in the number of medical students training in England. I know that my hon. and right hon. Friends supported the opening of this medical school, which is really important.
The school is not only important for its contribution to increasing the number of future doctors across the country, but also because it is located in the east of England. That is no coincidence. This and the other medical schools—there is one close to my constituency in Kent—are particularly located in areas where there is a relative shortage of doctors, because medical school graduates are more likely to work when they qualify in the area in which they have trained. We would expect to see graduates from Anglia Ruskin medical school sticking around in that area, to help to address some of the shortages of doctors locally.
Another point about the new medical schools is that they are looking at how they train the doctors that we need for the future NHS, where more care needs will be out of hospitals. We know that people will be living longer with multiple health conditions. Medicine is shifting, and therefore students in the new medical schools are particularly likely to spend time as part of their placements in primary care and community care settings, and so will be ready and trained to work in those settings and to address some of the gaps in primary care, for instance.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham called for a new health centre; my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton also talked about a primary care hub. I have been in contact with the Minister for Primary Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), during the debate. I assure my right hon. Friend that he stands ready to meet her to discuss the proposal for a new health centre in Witham. I am sure he will also be delighted to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton about his campaign. We know these facilities are really important. We clearly need to make sure that we have the workforce to meet the demand, but having the right facilities can make a real difference to what services can be provided closer to people’s homes as part of primary care and community care, rather than people having to go into hospital.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham and my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton and for South Norfolk spoke about access to dentists, which we know has been a huge challenge. Clearly, the pandemic has made a difficult situation harder, with a lot of appointments not happening during the pandemic because of the covid risks, so there is a backlog to make up. The Government recognised the challenge back in 2022 and made an additional £15 million of funding available for dentistry, of which £2 million was provided specifically to the east of England region. There has since been an increase in the number of dentists in the region. However, we recognise that there are ongoing challenges. Back in July last year, the Government announced a package of improvements to the NHS dental system as part of the plan for patients. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, has oversight of dentistry and continues to work on improving the dental contract in order to improve access to dentists, and I am sure that he will make further announcements in due course.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham talked about the Essex mental health independent inquiry. I know how important it is that the inquiry makes progress, because all patients deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and my thoughts are with those affected and their families. Following concerns from the chair, a discussion took place in January with the chief executive of the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, which has been taking action to encourage more staff participation in the inquiry. The Government continue to believe that a non-statutory inquiry remains the most effective way to get to the truth of what has happened, but we must ensure that this approach works and exhausts all possible solutions. There is an ongoing problem with staff engagement, and if the inquiry finds that it is unable to access relevant records, the position will be reviewed. I can assure my right hon. Friend that Ministers and officials are in regular contact with the inquiry and with NHS England colleagues, who are working closely with the trust to review progress.
This morning I met Paul Scott, the CEO of EPUT. He assured me that, even though it is has been cumbersome and there have been problems with staff reporting back and so forth, the trust is reaching out and wrapping its arms around them. Although I feel that sometimes EPUT is a large and cumbersome body, he feels confident. Is the Minister equally confident?
It is very good to hear that update. I refer my hon. Friend to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who has oversight of mental health in the ministerial team and who can go further into the progress of the inquiry. It is good to hear that he is taking such an active interest in the work of the inquiry, because it is clearly important, and I thank him for that.
Hon. Members have touched on community diagnostic centres. We in Government see them as incredibly important, because we know that many patients across the east of England, and more widely across England, are waiting for a diagnosis for their condition. Waiting for a diagnosis can be one of the most worrying times, particularly if someone is concerned that they may have cancer, which is why the Government have been opening more community diagnostic centres across the country—an innovation to provide easier access to vital community diagnostic services and to speed up diagnosis. By separating some of these services from acute hospitals—the hot site, I suppose—we can ensure efficient processes to diagnose as many people as possible at pace. The good news is that we have recently announced the approval of two new community diagnostic centres via the mid and south Essex integrated care board, and there are more in the pipeline with other Essex integrated care boards. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham and others to keep an eye on our progress with community diagnostic centres, as I am sure she is doing.
Finally, I want to talk about integration and the broader question of health and wellbeing in our communities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham spoke about the health challenges and disparities in her constituency and across the east of England. We see real differences and inequalities, not only in life expectancy but, crucially, in healthy life expectancy. That means people’s ability to work and have fulfilling, independent lives, to have relationships and the quality of life we would like for everybody.
The Government are determined to improve that—for instance, under the auspices of levelling up in healthcare. Crucial to achieving that is the work of our integrated care system, the integrated care boards and integrated care partnerships. They bring together all the organisations across the national health service, local authorities, social care and third sector organisations, which play an important part in our health and social care systems. Indeed, joining up NHS organisations is an important part of that in its own right. All of us who spend time with the NHS in our constituencies know that it is not one thing; it is multiple organisations. Bringing them together, along with the wider health and social care system, is important.
It is crucial for our integrated care boards and integrated care partnerships to look at the needs of populations, looking at the population as a whole, and to set out strategies for reducing health disparities and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham talked about, for closing the gap—levelling up for those with a lower healthy life expectancy. That is absolutely crucial to the work of integrated care systems. It is relatively early days for these entities. The extent to which they are established varies around the country, but we are seeing an excitement and a willingness in those organisations to come together.
I have spoken to many chief executives and chairs of integrated care boards, as well as local authorities around the country. We have talked about integration many times before; it has been a buzzword for decades in health and social care. What I am hearing from the frontline is that this time it really feels like it is working and making a difference. As part of those conversations, I have spoken to many about the work they are doing on looking upstream at prevention, crucially, and the steps we can take jointly between the health system and local authorities to prevent ill health.
The Minister mentioned prevention and the role of local authorities. She will know that the public health funding formula for local authorities was set in 2013 and has not been reviewed. There are real disparities across the country in how they are funded. Do the Government have a plan to review that, to ensure that areas such as the east of England get the fair funding they deserve?
The hon. Lady will know very well that we are under substantial fiscal constraints as a Government, recognising the extra spending we put in through the pandemic to keep our economy going and come out as strongly as we have. We also face challenges with inflation and the cost of energy. She will also know that in the autumn, against those constraints, the Chancellor showed the Government’s commitment to health and social care by putting an extra £14.1 billion into health and social care, including a record funding increase for social care of £7.5 billion over the next two years.
The Government’s commitment to health and social care should be clear to the h L. We are driving efforts behind the establishment of the effective working of integrated care boards and integrated care partnerships, because of the importance of joining up the system. It is not just about the public health budget; what we need to do to prevent future ill health and reduce disparities is much broader than that.
In conclusion, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham and other hon. Members for this important conversation, which has shown the complexity and the interconnections in our health and social care system. It is important to have joined-up systems, not only to treat people in the here and now, but crucially to intervene earlier and prevent ill health. We want to achieve not only longer lives for our constituents, but healthier and happier lives.
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing the debate, and all colleagues who have contributed today: my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and for Clacton (Giles Watling), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). I want to reflect on the wide-ranging nature of the debate, including in my remarks. The NHS is enormous and covers a range of matters and the east of England is a very large part of the country. I thank the Minister for her comments, support and encouragement. The debate was very much premised on the “Levelling Up the East of England” report and the Government have to start addressing the fundamental disparities and issues.
I want to touch on a few points made by the Minister and a couple of other colleagues. It would be helpful to have some follow-up from other Ministers with direct responsibility. I mentioned the report on levelling up and there is more for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to do in this space. Producing reports is one thing, but we have to drive outcomes. We want less centralisation and more integration. We have the ICBs, but a role for local government and specialist health providers is essential. The state cannot do everything. No disrespect to Labour colleagues, but if money were the answer, we would have all the best outcomes right now. There is no doubt about that. We have to have integration.
The hon. Member for Enfield North mentioned the fair funding formula. In the east of England, devolution is taking place in Norfolk and Suffolk. Cambridge has already gone through it. That could change outcomes tremendously through NHS integration and addressing the disparities that the report mentions. I want to emphasise the need for the Minister to go back to DLUHC and challenge it, because it needs to be on the hook for a lot of this. All colleagues in her Department have been helpful. I pay tribute to everyone in the NHS as well.
The hon. Member for Bedford touched on something very particular to me: the number of practitioners in the NHS, which we have raised in this Chamber before. Broomfield Hospital has told me that it is going overseas to recruit doctors and nurses. As a former Home Secretary who bolstered the NHS health and care visa, I think that we have to stand firm and stand by that as well as growing our own talent. We definitely need that in our medical hospitals as well. The NHS is becoming more and more blended, but we have to ensure that the skills are fit for purpose and meet the demographics of our local communities and our region, as well as the challenges of the report on levelling up health.
Every Member who has contributed to the debate, including the shadow Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister, recognise the interconnectedness of driving outcomes, but there is a greater role to play at a local level. As a participant and an observer for 12 years as the Member of Parliament for Witham, I genuinely believe now that although the funding comes from the centre, the centre has to do much more to follow the money, people and outcomes. It is driving the outcomes that Ministers, the Department and central Government must be obsessed with, because there is too much of a lack of transparency and accountability. Given the billions of pounds that goes into the NHS, we in the Witham constituency in Essex and across the east of England are simply not seeing the outcomes that match the large sums of funding, so I hope that will change, and I hope we will be back in this Chamber—and the main Chamber —to keep pursuing this agenda across Government.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered health and wellbeing services in the East of England.
Charity Sector Funding: Transparency
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the transparency of charity sector funding.
It is always an enormous pleasure to have you chair a debate, Mr Hollobone.
The charitable sector has a long and proud history, with truly ancient charities still very much in existence, in particular in education and the almshouse sectors. There was a huge blossoming of philanthropy in the first Elizabethan period, and much of that tradition continues today, with service clubs, the Round Table, Lions Clubs, the masons, the Rotary and many thousands of other organisations, working daily through charity shops and a host of other activities to raise funds to assist in domestic and international projects, in particular at times of emergency, which we have seen in the situation in Syria and Turkey at the moment.
Domestically, charities have often filled gaps in society that Government could not, or perhaps should not even attempt to. We can safely say, however, that that has blurred over time, as we have moved to a situation where the demands and expectations of modern society are for the Government to meet and they are expected to solve, frankly, everything.
One of the oldest educational charities, the King’s School in Canterbury, which is just a few miles over the border from my constituency, dates back to AD 597, now faces threat after nearly 15 centuries because of Labour’s ambitions to tax such providers and users of education. I have numerous independent schools in South Thanet, the largest possibly being St Lawrence College, which is similarly under threat because of political game-playing and the usual politics of envy. I have called the debate not for that reason, but to question whether in some cases the “charitable” tag, with its incumbent benefits, is being stretched beyond credibility.
I have a number of strands for the Minister to consider. First, my fear is that too many charities, often financed by vast Government—that is, taxpayer-supported—grants that run into multiple billions annually are straying into the political arena. That is particularly true of many charities in the refugee and immigration sphere. I note one, Care4Calais, which receives no direct Government funding that I can see. However, there is complete opacity that I could not penetrate as to where its £1.6 million of funding—according to its most recent accounts—comes from.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. We all want to ensure that our charity giving goes where we expect it to go. As he may be aware—this is factual, not me saying it for the occasion—Northern Ireland is the most generous nation per capita in the world. This matter is therefore incredibly relevant in my constituency. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that when people donate money after they see a registered charity number, there is a belief that the charity is accountable and that accountability means transparency and simple access to the accounts and spendings of any charity?
The hon. Member is quite right. That imprimatur of a charity registration number has always given people confidence that the charity has charitable aims and is being looked at properly by the Charity Commission and others, and it is often the reason that people are willing to give to such charities. I also note the extensive charitable sector in Northern Ireland.
Where does the income of many charities come from? It might often be from another charity, higher up the chain, which is a key thread in what I want to discuss. I note, too, that that Care4Calais charity has been under investigation by the Charity Commission since August 2020, but with no outcome as yet. We are getting towards the three-year anniversary, which in itself I find quite remarkable—the case of a £1.6 million institution is patently uncomplicated, and that leads to questions about the Charity Commission’s competence and ability to investigate properly.
Refugee Action received £2.2 million in Government grants and contracts in its accounts to March ’22. The British Refugee Council received £7.5 million in Government grants and contracts. That is close to half its revenue, yet I find that those selfsame charities, and many more, put up commentators to attack the Government—I have faced them regularly on the media—and in some cases take the Government to court on various migration issues, particularly the Rwanda situation. Care4Calais and Detention Action have got themselves involved in those activities.
I have no issue at all with whichever person, company or entity wishes to take the Government to court—that is a strength of our system that we do not see everywhere in the world—but the question for the taxpayer is, should such action be taken under the auspices of a charitable organisation whereby the donors receive tax relief, or indeed taxpayers themselves are in the funding chain?
Let me analyse what happened during the covid support period. There was £1,570 million—a truly exceptional sum—of Government funding under the culture recovery fund. That was distributed by the Arts Council. I found it bizarre at the time, although I do not know what other Members thought, that we were all provided with embargoed lists, which were provided at the same time to local media, yet we had had no input whatever to the grant allocation or the consideration of the suitability of the recipients, although we MPs have unique local knowledge of our patch.
I saw on those lists various institutions, charitable and commercial, in South Thanet that are often in receipt of five-figure grants. Looking through the list, I saw that they were often the same institutions that had been driving very unpleasant social media against me over long periods, some of it quite vile. This was overly political, and, bizarrely, these institutions are willing to bite the hand of the Government who are feeding and supporting them.
There is one local institution I would like to note, which is Faith In Strangers, in Cliftonville in my constituency. It achieved a planning consent for a venue based on a community workspace with incidental community music opportunities. Since then, that has shown itself to be nothing but a sham, and it has morphed into a full-on, late-night drinking and music venue. It causes so much noise and interference with long-term residents who live above that many have had to move out. One has taken to living in a camper van. This has rendered their life investment worthless.
To its credit, Thanet District Council initiated a licensing hearing on the venue. I invested four hours in assisting residents and making representations myself at the hearing, but this institution, Faith In Strangers, employed one of the most expensive, hugely skilled and, I have to say, very impressive licensing barristers in the country, and was supported by a local Labour councillor, who sided with a corporate nightclub over local residents. It was truly shocking. That private company received £160,000 across the two tranches of the culture recovery fund, and a further £5,000 from the Music Venue Trust—another charity in receipt of direct Government grant funding.
Let me summarise what we saw during that period. This was just in my constituency; there must be similar stories across the country. Taxpayers money, via Government grants, financed institutions with an overly anti-Government leaning, which loudly expressed their views, and funded institutions that had been making the lives of local people a misery. Those institutions then employed top notch legal support to quash residents’ objections, which left me, the local MP, to try to pick up the pieces.
While many charities take care not to suggest who people should vote for, and hence have not come to the notice of the Electoral Commission—I must declare that I am a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission—the activities of many of these charities are, by negative inference, hinting that a vote should not be cast for the Government in power.
There is an increasing case for the Electoral Commission to look more closely at the activities and pronouncements of many of these charities—not just on the issue of asylum and immigration, but more widely—when there is an obvious straying into politics. I am sorry, but that would have to apply to those charities that many of us would deem very good. Let me mention the Trussell Trust, for instance.
I have collected with the Trussell Trust, particularly at Christmastime—I am sure most Members have, and are very supportive of its aims—but I am increasingly worried as to its true objectives. I met the then chief executive officer at a parliamentary reception for the Trussell Trust back in 2016; I was, indeed, younger and a little more naïve in those days. As a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser, I proposed a scheme to the CEO that could be put to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to allow gift aiding of the food donations received under the gift aid small donations scheme. That could have triggered a 25% cash top up under the scheme. I followed the proposal up with the CEO, sending a detailed letter offering my services pro bono to promote a means by which such a scheme might be accepted by HMRC. I received no reply.
I am a big supporter of the founding ambitions of the Child Poverty Action Group, and I always buy its annual book, “The Welfare Benefits & Tax Credits Handbook”—it is an invaluable tool for my caseworkers. The group received close to £1 million in Government grants up to March 2022, and it is a very worthy organisation. However, I am afraid that the Government are often at the receiving end of very political campaigns. I do not know about the Minister, but I receive various campaign emails that the organisation promotes to its subscribers—standard form emails that we receive on a daily basis. That is purely political campaigning.
The Charity Commission does disclose Government grants received. There is a snapshot on the front page of the financial affairs of any charity one searches for, but it is rather opaque. As ever, I thank the House of Commons Library—it gathers a wealth of information for us, and as an institution it is unrivalled on the planet—which has tried to pull together various sources, public and other. It has become clear, however, that in the charitable sector, which now runs to many tens of billions of pounds a year, it is very difficult to find the true ambitions of many charities or their sources of funding.
The second strand of my debate is sub-funding by super-sized charities to non-charity organisations, or even to smaller charities down the chain. In those instances, the opacity becomes truly muddy, and I feel it is a means of directing overtly political funding. Stop Funding Hate led a campaign to put pressure on advertisers not to advertise on GB News when it started. Stop Funding Hate is not a charity, but a community interest company. It received a £50,000 donation from the huge Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Following the concerns that I raised with the Charity Commission, a review was undertaken, but it was decided that the aims of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation were within scope to allow such funding.
Let us stand back a bit, because I find that rather bizarre. A charitable institution advanced funding to a non-charity to put pressure on potential corporate advertisers not to spend money with a duly UK-licensed TV channel that it simply did not like. There is virtually no way of shining a light on the extent of this channelling of funds from charities to non-charities. For the first time in my experience, the House of Commons Library were similarly stumped by this inquiry.
My third strand is about the fact that, although Government grants are visible—albeit with some difficulty —local government gives huge amounts to the charitable sector. I have no particular issue with much of that; for instance, the bedrock of funding for Age UK is often via county and unitary authorities. But it is very difficult to find the amounts that are going through local government, unless one takes the trouble to trawl through the register that has to be published of spending over £500 within any council. My fear is that taxpayer funding is routinely channelled to chumocracy charities at the local level, virtually out of plain sight.
On this point, I will refer to Ramsgate Town Council. It has channelled taxpayer funds—small amounts here and there—to so-called charities and community interest companies, for which I can perceive no objectives for public good except that they are often chums of local Labour councillors. I raised that in relation to a project some weeks ago called the Ramsgate Arts Barge, which has received funding from Ramsgate Town Council. I am a local taxpayer, and some of the precept that I pay goes to Ramsgate Town Council. Its latest accounts for the Ramsgate Arts Barge show the balance sheet in deficit, but the mere airing of my concerns, as a local taxpayer, elicited an outraged call from one of its directors threatening me with legal action.
Let me summarise that point. Taxpayer funding through local councils supports various charities. A local MP and local ratepayer who pays for all of that gets threatened with legal action for even querying whether such taxpayer funding—my funding—represents value for their local taxpayer pound. Thank heavens that I have legal privilege here today.
The Commons passed the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill a few weeks ago to provide greater disclosure of the ownership of entities and sources of funding, and the Bill is now in the Lords. We have increased the reach and activities of the Electoral Commission to ensure that all political funding that is designed to influence voters positively or negatively is open, transparent, published and backed up by the rule of quite stiff law. Yet we allow the charitable sector—unaccountable and hidden, but very influential and in receipt of vast amounts of taxpayer funding—to continue pursuing, in many notable cases, anti-Government activity to overturn the will of Parliament and attack legitimate and registered businesses that it has decided that it does not like.
This is an area of grave concern. I have been thinking about it for some years, but a number of things have come together to cause me to want to air it in this Chamber. I ask the Minister for new transparency rules throughout national and local government; that we publish amounts granted to charities in a clear way; and for proper disclosure of amounts granted down the line from charities to other charities and non-charities. I ask for the Electoral Commission to look more closely at the whole field of political campaigning that is done under a charitable umbrella.
In my view, the charity commissioners need to take a firmer view of core charitable activities. On behalf of taxpayers, I ask whether it is wise, fair or value for money for Government to pass billions of taxpayer funding annually—outside of core contracts, which are a slightly different issue—to the web of charities that now constitute a £50 billion-a-year industry and have well-paid CEOs and boards.
I fear that the charitable sector is the new area of non-transparent activity and funding. I am in favour of transparency; transparency is good, and it shines a light on activities. As an accountant, I always say, “Follow the money.” I welcome anything the Minister might say on this, but I certainly hope that the Government will agree with my view and take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for tabling this important debate on the transparency of charity sector funding.
The transparency of charity funding forms a central tenet in enhancing public trust in charities. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this important issue and to highlight the regulatory framework in which charities operate. It is this framework that provides transparency about where a charity’s funding comes from and how it is spent.
I acknowledge, as other hon. Members have, the huge contribution that charities make to the lives of individuals and communities up and down our country. There are over 169,000 charities on the Charity Commission register. Those organisations operate in areas as diverse as education, religion, sport, health, the environment, heritage, and arts and culture. My background in the charity sector makes me proud of its contribution to our society. The vast majority of charities are small in scale, operate on modest incomes and are run by passionate volunteers who are committed to helping others in their local communities, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned in relation to Northern Ireland.
The charity sector’s income comes from a wide range of sources, including public donations, trading activities and Government grants and contracts. Therefore, the scale of the sector’s finances necessitates strong, robust and independent regulation to ensure that funds are properly accounted for. In England and Wales, the role is carried out by the Charity Commission as the independent registrar and regulator. By ensuring that the sector is well regulated, the public can have trust and confidence that their generous donations are spent appropriately.
Members will know that the Charity Commission is an independent non-ministerial Government Department. It is answerable to the courts for its legal decisions and to Parliament for its work. The chair of the commission, Orlando Fraser, has spoken about his focus on charities’ legal compliance and their accountability to the public for the money that they receive.
The Charity Commission plays an important role in ensuring that charities act within charity law to further their charitable purposes. All registered charities with an income of more than £25,000 are required to submit annual returns and accounts, including a trustees annual report, containing information about finances and activities. That enables the public to understand where a charity’s income has come from and on which activities it has spent its funds. The register of charities gives assurance about and transparency over the more than £80 billion of annual income across those charities.
Public trust in charities remains higher than in most other parts of society, and that is a reflection of the value the public thinks that charities can bring. Charities are such an important part of society and I share the wish of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet for them to be proactively transparent in how they use their money.
Unfortunately, there are a small number of cases of deliberate abuse of charity or serious mismanagement that puts charitable assets or beneficiaries at risk. In these cases, the commission has broad powers to intervene, investigate and take appropriate and proportionate regulatory action, ensuring charitable resources are used properly for the purpose for which they were provided.
However, I would point out that the Charity Commission is a small regulator with limited capacity and funding. It must therefore prioritise its resources where they will have the greatest impact. If hon. Members have any concerns that charities are acting outside of their charitable purpose, they should absolutely raise them, as my hon. Friend has done, with the Charity Commission. The size and scope is obviously something hon. Members may wish to consider.
Funding other charities and non-charitable organisations can be an effective way to further a charity’s purpose. However, charities must only fund activities that further their charitable purposes, and trustees must ensure they take steps to protect their charity’s assets and reputation.
I am aware that Members have expressed concerns about the campaigning activities of certain charities. It is important to stress that non-party political campaigning can be a legitimate way for charities to spend their resources, so long as they act within charity law. The law is clear: to be a charity, an organisation must exist only for charitable purposes. A political purpose is not a charitable purpose and therefore any organisation that has political purposes cannot by any degree be a charity.
However, charities can engage in political activity that is actively intended to change or influence decisions taken by the Government where it helps deliver the purpose of the charity—for example, a health charity could engage in political activity for a change in a policy on a particular health issue if doing so furthered their purposes—but charities are prohibited from supporting political parties or politicians, and where they engage with political parties, charities must take a balanced approach. If concerns are raised about a charity’s campaigning or political activity, it is of course right that the Charity Commission assesses those concerns and determines whether regulatory action is required. To help trustees understand the rules, the commission recently published an accessible five-minute guide. The guide supports its long-standing and longer-form guidance on this subject, and it is known as CC9.
Fundraising is a key source of income for charities. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned, the generosity of the public is evident in appeals such as the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Turkey-Syria earthquake appeal, which has already raised more than £100 million. Again, because of the scale of fundraising, a strong regulator is required to promote best practice and assess concerns. That is why, in 2016, following a cross-party fundraising review, the Fundraising Regulator was established as the independent regulator of charitable fundraising.
While a significant amount of the sector’s funding comes from donations, some charities receive Government grants and contracts to deliver important public services, such as healthcare and addiction services. However, it is important to note that nearly two thirds of charities do not receive any funding at all from the Government. To ensure that taxpayer money is well spent, Government grants must comply with the grants functional standard, which requires due diligence to be undertaken on all potential grant recipients before an award is made.
There are also strict rules preventing taxpayer money from being used on lobbying or political activity. Such funds must be used only for the purposes set out in the grant agreements. The Government are committed to their transparency agenda, and annual statistics for all grants distributed by the Government can be found on gov.uk. Members of the public can search for grants awarded to charities by downloading the latest grants tables and filtering by a charity’s registration number. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says about how easy or accessible that is, and I commit to looking at that to ensure we are getting it right.
I would also say that some campaigning done by charities has improved public policy—think of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, whose campaigning brought about legislation on the wearing of seatbelts—and no one would argue against that. What has changed in recent years is that debates have been polarised or divisive. My hon. Friend has raised a number of examples today, which I cannot comment on specifically right now, although I assure him I will look at them and write to him.
It is clear from today’s debate that we share the same ambition to ensure charities continue to be supported through effective regulation. As I have highlighted, there are a variety of ways in which charities can demonstrate transparency in their funding and compliance in their use of public funds. I have heard my hon. Friend’s concerns today, and I commit to raising them with the chair of the Charity Commission at our next meeting. In closing, let me once again thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and all in attendance for such a valuable discussion. I commit to coming back to him as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Homes for Ukraine Scheme Anniversary
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the anniversary of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Dowd. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the excellent research support I receive from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project and as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration. I want to make special mention of and thank the Sheffield branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, with which I have been working to highlight the challenges facing Ukrainian refugees as they come to this country. The contributions of such groups have been extremely helpful and have better equipped us to learn lessons from the past year.
Since the war started in February 2022, more than 8 million people have fled Ukraine and some 6 million have been displaced internally. According to the British Red Cross, more than 160,000 of those who have fled have come to the UK. I think I speak for all Members present when I extend my huge thanks to all those who have opened their homes to refugees. While the war has shown the very worst of humanity, the resilience of ordinary Ukrainians enduring extraordinary violence, alongside the response they have received from our communities, has shown the very best.
A year into the war, it is time to take stock of our own response and the support we have extended to those fleeing the conflict. Now is a timely moment to highlight two problems facing the refugees who have come here: the shameful prospect of homelessness for some Ukrainian families, and the restrictions they face as they transition into private sector rented housing.
A new British Red Cross report, “Fleeing, fearing, facing the future”, has found that homelessness is a key risk for Ukrainians in the UK. Government figures reveal that well over 4,000 Ukrainian households in England have been homeless or at risk of homelessness in the past year—a 97% increase on October 2020. According to data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in my own local authority area, a total of 30 Ukrainian households, half of which included children, have been homeless, offered homelessness prevention or relief duty services by Sheffield City Council. Of those households, 17 are here under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and 13 are here under the family scheme.
I am loth to interrupt the hon. Lady so early in her deliberations, but I wondered if she would like to take this opportunity to congratulate or comment on SNP-run Perth and Kinross Council, which has the third highest number, and the highest number per capita, of Ukrainian guests in the whole of Scotland, as well as the smallest number in temporary accommodation. That is because of building a positive relationship with the private letting sector and creating our own agency. Does the hon. Lady agree that P and K’s approach of actively bringing together guests and hosts works, and that being prepared to build on existing structures with existing relationships is the way to give good options to our guests from Ukraine?
I completely agree. Where things have worked well, we should be learning lessons and rolling those lessons out across the country—across all the countries of Great Britain. We need to take stock at this point to see where things have progressed and been valuable to the community, and where they have not worked so well.
We should be concerned about the figures I was just highlighting, which show that we urgently need to support people to either continue to stay with their hosts or move into their own longer term accommodation, especially as the conflict seems to be lasting a lot longer than any of us would have hoped.
The reasons behind the homelessness that many Ukrainian refugees face are multifaceted, ranging from the impact of the rising cost of living for hosts, the changing circumstances of hosts and guests, the inappropriateness of accommodation and difficulties being rematched with other hosts if the relationship breaks down. Sponsors were initially asked to host for only six months, but sadly there is no sign of the military conflict in Ukraine abating, which makes the precarious nature of the future for many refugees all the more worrying.
As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, many sponsors simply cannot afford to continue hosting, and I ask the Minister to consider that in her response. In November 2022, 18% of Homes for Ukraine hosts said that the rising cost of living was “very much” impacting their ability to provide support, which is double the proportion in July 2022, when the figure was 9%. Clearly, the impact on host families is getting worse, which is having a direct impact on Ukrainian refugees. The Government have announced that hosts on the Homes for Ukraine scheme will receive more financial support, which is increasing from £350 to £500 a month, but that is only after the people they are hosting have been in the UK for 12 months. The cost of living crisis is happening now, and that should mean action now to support refugee households.
At the same time, despite accounting for around a third of arrivals, and unlike under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, people hosting family members through the family scheme do not receive any monthly “thank you” payment, and are not protected from the increased council tax bills that come from having additional household members. Similarly, although local councils ensure that those on the Homes for Ukraine scheme receive a £200 per person interim payment on arrival, to help with the cost of food and essentials, Ukrainians on the family visa scheme do not receive the same support unless they are in Northern Ireland.
The Government need to take Ukrainian families’ risk of homelessness seriously and act quickly. The British Red Cross suggests that the Department should extend the interim £200 payment to everyone arriving on the Ukrainian family scheme to support people waiting for their first universal credit payment. Ministers should also consider increasing the monthly payment immediately for all hosts, no matter what scheme they are on, instead of waiting for people to have been here in the UK for 12 months. At the moment, the costs are falling on hosts. Those hosting people who arrived in the UK through the Ukrainian family scheme should receive the same financial support as those hosting under the Homes for Ukraine scheme to support their continued hosting. Are discussions along those lines between the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities already under way, and if not, why not? In addition, the Department should ensure that the council tax regulations are further amended so that hosts on the Ukrainian family scheme are also protected from increasing council tax bills, especially as they are not currently receiving any extra financial support in that way. Will the Minister set out the Government’s position on those simple steps, which could make a difference?
The second set of issues I want to raise relates to what happens after refugees leave their hosts. Our unfair and exploitative private rented sector is a huge barrier to many people’s living their lives as they want. For Ukrainians, the situation is no different. Even once they are ready to move on from their accommodation and strike out on their own, there are significant challenges. Without a UK-based guarantor, rental references or a deposit, it can be difficult for people to find privately rented accommodation. Although people on both schemes have the right to work and access public funds, including universal credit, the British Red Cross reports that across the UK many refugees struggle to afford the rent for longer term accommodation. Frozen local housing allowances also restrict access to private rented accommodation for those who work part time or are single parents, often with multiple children. The demographics of the Ukrainian refugees who are coming over here—many are mothers with children, which is a complexity of the war—should be borne in mind when we develop policy, so that these conditions, issues and individual circumstances are understood.
All that is supported by data. In my own city, of 322 families who arrived in Sheffield under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, only 44 have been moved into private rented accommodation to date. A survey by the Office for National Statistics published in December 2022 found that 69% of Homes for Ukraine hosts had guests looking to move into private accommodation, but 81% of them reported barriers when helping their guests to look for private rented accommodation: 67% could not afford to rent privately, 64% could not provide a guarantor, 57% could not afford a deposit or other up-front payments, and 43% had no suitable properties in the area that they had arrived in.
DLUHC has announced £150 million additional funding for local authorities across the UK to support refugees to move into their own homes. It was also announced that local authorities in England will get a new £500 million fund to acquire housing stock for refugees, and tackle homelessness in refugee communities. The announcement rightly said that not only those who arrived from Ukraine and Afghanistan but all those fleeing conflict would be included. I welcome those measures, but I know local authorities are unclear about how to use the funding. Will the Minister clarify the details? How will the £150 million one-off funding be allocated and spent, so that local authorities have more certainty when addressing growing housing needs? It should be noted that, in addition to that funding, there is support for local authorities to implement rent deposit schemes where they do not already exist, and to ensure that eligibility criteria do not exclude people displaced from Ukraine. Last week, the Secretary of State told the House that his Department would investigate Government-backed rent guarantee schemes specifically to support displaced Ukrainians. What action are the Government taking in that respect?
The local association has raised with me the fact that a crucial part of making the transition to an independent life is access to skills and training. Many of the people who have come here are already highly qualified, but either their qualifications are not recognised, or they are struggling to find work that matches their qualifications. How are the Government working across Departments to ensure that refugees settling here can fulfil their full potential and find gainful skilled employment?
The toll of the war on those who have left Ukraine as refugees, fleeing the bombs raining down on their homes and neighbourhoods, has been immense. They have gathered their lives into suitcases or even less, unsure of what they will return to, whether they will return to anything, or whether they will return at all. Across the UK, and certainly in Sheffield, which is a proud city of sanctuary, the greeting they have received is a light in the darkness. It has represented the hope of refuge far from the violence and destruction. Now, a year later, it is time to transform hope into certainty, and turn the promise of safety into the opportunity of building new, secure and stable lives in the UK, free from the worry of homelessness and destitution. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and those of other hon. Members, knowing they will care deeply about the issues I have raised, on how we can help refugees to build that life in the UK while they are here.
Thank you, Mr Dowd, for allowing me the time to debate this issue. It is important to keep it highlighted, learn the lessons from this scheme in our broader approach to refugees, and show solidarity to Ukrainians.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing such an important debate. I could not agree more that we need to keep this subject at the forefront of our mind. It has been over a year, but we must never forget what it was like at the beginning. I certainly do not forget waking up a year ago to those dreadful scenes on the news—Putin’s maniacal aggression destroying homes, schools and hospitals, and turning communities into war zones. Understandably, millions were desperate to flee Putin’s war machine.
The UK has a proud history of welcoming refugees fleeing war and persecution. It was right that we provided a safe and legal route for those fleeing the conflict. In the early days of the conflict, the focus was on getting Ukrainians into the UK. That was no small undertaking. I am sure many hon. Members here will remember the frustrations we had with the Home Office, which often took a “computer says no” attitude to visa applications. We were dealing with incredibly complex, highly emotive cases of families separated and loved ones left behind in Ukraine.
I thank the teams in my constituency and Westminster offices who helped 114 Ukrainians travel to Oxfordshire. They spent hours and hours waiting to speak to UK Visas and Immigration and queuing outside the hub in Parliament to help those fleeing the conflict. I remember one case of a mother who was eight months pregnant and had a five-year-old child. She was in Italy and needed a visa within days or she would not be allowed to fly because her doctor would not give her the fly note. She was terrified about having to give birth with doctors she could not understand because she did not speak Italian. Luckily, we were able to sort out her visa.
Helping people get here to the UK was only the first piece in the puzzle. In the last year, 2,113 Ukrainians have arrived in Oxfordshire and settled. That is the fourth highest number out of any local authority in England. Yulia Horetska moved in with me and my family. Supporting her in her time of need has been an honour and a privilege. I know that that feeling is shared by many of the hosts. Many people wanted to host, but were not able to—maybe they did not have a spare room. We have gained a lot, so let us not frame this debate as though we were giving, because we also got.
Such help would not have been possible without the vital work that our councils have done alongside community groups and voluntary organisations. This has been a whole community effort. South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils provided fantastic wraparound support to settle guests in the districts, and Oxfordshire County Council helped. The councils co-ordinated and distributed grants and provided housing and homeless advice; they supported access to schooling, language lessons, medical services, benefits and employment advice. I give a special thanks to Adrianna Partridge at the Vale, who went above and beyond in leading the co-ordination of that effort. I am delighted to say that in February the councils decided to fund vital support for a further two years. We did not think we would get to a week, let alone a year, but we now need the certainty of the medium and long term.
I also thank the community groups and volunteers who have provided huge support and help for guests and hosts. St Michael and All Angels in Summertown run a Ukraine friendship centre every Wednesday, which I was lucky enough to visit. It provides English classes and children’s activities. Hubs have been set up with citizens advice and the council to provide a one-stop shop and a co-ordinated place with translators, so that a Ukrainian family in need of help knows where to go and has one place to go get it.
As we mark the anniversary of the scheme, there are, as has been ably set out, a new set of challenges that I want to focus on. With Putin continuing to wage war, what began as a temporary stay, a short-lived safe harbour, now looks for many families to be more permanent. One sponsor said,
“As the children begin to form friendships through schooling and other local activities many refugees are seriously contemplating setting their roots down here in the UK.”
Many hosts, with the best will in the world, are simply unable to continue their sponsorship arrangements for more than a year, so local councils are working hard to provide rematching.
Councils are also trying to help guests into affordable independent living arrangements and to alleviate the pressure on homelessness services, but there is a problem of housing capacity in Oxfordshire. Ukrainians are struggling to access the private rented sector because referencing procedures can penalise people on universal credit and those with no credit history. There is a case for the Government stepping in pretty strongly on that point. One Ukrainian mother of two wrote to tell me about the problems that she faced. The host asked the family to move out and they searched for rented accommodation, but they were refused by numerous landlords because they do not have suitable proof of income or credit status. She said,
“We want to settle here, give our children some stability and keep them in the schools they have started, and we want to find more secure employment. We have degrees and are young, healthy and hard working. We thought the UK government would support us in settling here but we are completely reliant on the help of friends and neighbours.”
Eventually the family found accommodation, but it was over three hours away in West Sussex. They have been forced to move house, move schools, and change jobs. We have a desperate need of workers in Oxfordshire, so I was desperately sad to read that. Also, it is a huge upheaval for that family
Another issue that councils have identified is the temporary legal status of those in the UK under the scheme. At the beginning, we thought the situation would last for weeks or months, not years. Two years sounded generous, but we are now a year in and people are looking to move out and find new, permanent employment. However, when employers see that people have only a year left on their visas, that is a black mark against them when it comes to interviews. I hope the Government will ensure that an automatic extension is applied, which will give families and employers certainty if the situation continues. It is common sense to step in at that point and help people get on the job ladder; they will then pay taxes and contribute back, which is surely in everyone’s interest.
Above all, the councils that have done so much are in desperate need of longer term funding solutions. They are doing their best, but with budgets already squeezed, there is a limit to the support they can provide. The Homes for Ukraine scheme has shown the UK at its best, with communities coming together and providing support for those in need. The Government has listened and there have been tweaks, but we now need them to put their shoulder to the wheel and work out how we are going to keep funding and supporting the scheme in the medium and longer term. The Ukrainians who have come to the UK have contributed so much to our families and our society. I hope the Minister agrees that we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do that little bit more.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing the debate and on the points and questions she put to Ministers. On behalf of the SNP group, one year on from Putin’s illegal invasion, our party’s message to Ukrainian arrivals is very clear: Scotland is your home for as long as you need it to be.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded over 8 million refugees from Ukraine across Europe, which is around 20% of the Ukrainian population. From the outset of the crisis, Scotland has stood ready to help. As the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said at the time:
“Let people in and do the paperwork afterwards.”
When the Homes for Ukraine scheme was launched in March 2022, thousands of people across Scotland signed up to host Ukrainian refugees and the Scottish Government became a super-sponsor, enabling people fleeing the war to secure visas without having to arrange a private sponsor first. The super-sponsor scheme has been overwhelmingly popular, with local authorities, the third sector and local communities all working in partnership.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) about the work that Perth and Kinross Council is doing in that regard. We have had an excellent briefing from the British Red Cross that underlines what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As of 17 January 2023, 314 people displaced by the conflict in Ukraine have arrived in Perth and Kinross through the Homes for Ukraine and Scottish super-sponsor schemes. That is the third highest for local authorities in Scotland by number and the highest number per capita.
The council has actively engaged with the private rental sector for over 10 years and has an in-house letting agency, which runs a charitable service. As a result, the agency is well connected to council services such as welfare rights, environmental services and council tax. The council chose to run the service separately from social housing, as it found that that did not work well in practice. The council was able to expand that service to accommodate those coming from Ukraine and did not need to build new relationships with local landlords. Relying on that existing system contributed to Perth and Kinross having the lowest number of households in temporary accommodation.
My hon. Friend is being customarily and particularly kind to my local authority, and I think it is worthy of congratulations for what it has achieved. By setting up an in-house agency, the council is able to properly connect with other council services, such as the welfare rights department, which has been on hand to serve the Ukrainian guests. It serves as a great example of what can be done when the right type of focus is applied by local authorities. We have done spectacular things in Perth and Kinross in the face of the crisis. Will my hon. Friend encourage other local authorities to look at Perth and Kinross Council as an example and perhaps replicate what it has done?
My hon. Friend knows that I come from a local government background—I was not a councillor but a local government employee—so I am passionate about its role in society, which enables it to address a number of issues. He is correct that Perth and Kinross Council has shown what local authorities, including SNP-controlled local authorities, can do, so I thank him for that.
In the past 12 months, nearly 23,000 people from Ukraine have secured safety in Scotland, and just shy of 19,000 of them arrived through the super-sponsor scheme. That represents 20.4% of all UK arrivals—the most per head of any of the four UK nations. None of that would have been possible without the generosity and warm-heartedness of people across Scotland, who opened their hearts and their homes to Ukrainian arrivals.
The Scottish Government are supporting the scheme and have allocated over £70 million for the Ukrainian resettlement programme for 2023-24 to ensure that communities continue to receive help to rebuild their lives. That will build on the £200 million that the Scottish Government provided to support resettlement this financial year. The funding will help to ensure that those displaced by the war continue to receive a warm welcome in Scotland and are supported to rebuild their lives in our communities for as long as they need to call Scotland their home. All that, of course, depends on funding. I hope the UK Government will step up to the plate and ensure full and sustained funding is in place to allow those programmes to continue for the coming year and beyond. I will touch on that later.
The Scottish Government are taking action to allow arrivals from Ukraine to take the next steps in their lives in Scotland. As part of the safe and welcoming accommodation, the Scottish Government chartered two passenger ships, one of which is based in the Glasgow South West constituency. I have regularly visited the ship, which provides a very high-standard facility for guests, and the on-board accommodation is well received. Glasgow City Council is on hand, the Department for Education ensures that children have access to schools in the area and helps with their travel, and Department for Work and Pensions staff have been on the ship to ensure that Ukrainian refugees can find employment.
I support the principle that refugees who come to this country should be allowed to work. We need to look at giving the right to work to other people seeking sanctuary, because that is a problem in other parts of the immigration system. The focus should now be on matching people with suitable longer-term accommodation. The ship in Govan will no longer be there at the end of March, so work is being done to put in place a longer-term resettlement fund to ensure that people find accommodation. People are on the passenger ship temporarily, and they are very quickly able to find accommodation to rent. I have seen from my constituency case load that one of the problems is unnecessary delays for the Ukrainian refugees on the ship in receiving biometric residency permits. I hope the Minister will take that back to the Home Office to make sure the BRPs are provided quickly.
I agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. Concerns have been expressed to me that there may be a need to further promote the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Does he agree? The people on the boat do not always have the option to move on somewhere else. There are still people trying to flee Ukraine because the conflict is ongoing, so the additional support and additional promotion of that scheme would be very welcome.
I agree. It is important that we continue to promote the schemes that are available. We must be a welcoming nation and say to those in Ukraine that there is a place here at the moment with quality education and access to employment to help them get on with their lives. Of course, some people want to go back, and that is perfectly understandable. There are people from Ukraine who view this country as a refuge home, and they are hoping for the opportunity to return to their country.
The cost of living crisis has disrupted the finances of many hosts and local councils. I hope the Minister can talk about what funding will be made available to ensure that anyone who wants to continue with the Homes for Ukraine scheme is not priced out of doing so. It is important that we get those guarantees so we can take them back. The last year has placed unprecedented financial pressure on households, with the cost of living crisis playing havoc with people’s finances. Many hosts who opened their doors to Ukrainian arrivals last March could not have fully appreciated how bad the cost of living crisis would become, with inflation spiking at 10.5% by December last year.
From January, the UK Government support available to local councils appears to have been cut from £10,500 to £5,900 for each arrival. That short-sighted decision seems to have been taken without any consultation of the devolved Administrations, and certainly without consultation of local authorities across the board. As a result, some hosts now feel that they simply cannot afford to continue participating in the scheme, which is a pity. The Local Government Association has warned of the growing number of Ukrainians presenting as homeless to councils, particularly the significant rise in those who arrived on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That backs up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
Data released last month showed that 4,295 Ukrainian households have presented themselves to councils as homeless. That is a 40% increase since November 2022. I hope the Minister can assure us that we are not simply passing the buck to local councils, and that there will be sustained funding. The uplift in the “thank you” payment to hosts from £350 to £500 is welcome, but that should be available to all volunteer hosts to meet the increasing cost of living since March. I hope the Minister can assure us that there is continuing dialogue with organisations such as the British Red Cross, which is saying that the increase could come too late and will not always be enough. I thank all those who have participated in the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for leading this hugely significant debate during this hugely significant period. Only last week we marked the one-year anniversary of the Russian Federation’s wholly unjust invasion of Ukraine.
My hon. Friend is an extremely doughty campaigner in this area. She eloquently made the case in her excellent speech. She was absolutely right when she spoke about the resilience of Ukrainians and the generosity of those opening their homes to them, showing the best of the United Kingdom. She was also right, and very clear, when she spoke about the unfair and exploitative private rental sector being a huge challenge for Ukrainian families leaving host families.
Skills and training for refugees are clearly important to enable them to fulfil their potential. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) spoke movingly about her personal experience of bringing a Ukrainian family into her home, and the benefits that it gave her. It is very much a two-way street, which is often forgotten. I thank her for sharing that, because it is hugely important. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) also spoke movingly. His passion for local authorities and the incredible work they do is clear to see—not just in this area, but each and every day in our local communities. It was particularly interesting to hear about the in-house agency system used in Scotland.
Clearly, there has been little disagreement during the debate, and that is really heartening. I join hon. Members in paying tribute to the amazing work done by local charities in this area. Indeed, the House is united in its support for Ukraine and her people. The Opposition’s support for the Ukrainian war efforts against Putin’s brutal aggression is unshakeable. As a member of NATO and an ally to Ukraine, we have a very real obligation to ensure that justice is done and Ukraine emerges as the victor in the conflict.
However, we cannot forget, as hon. Members have stated, that we have very real obligations here at home. We have deep obligations that extend to more than 200,000 Ukrainian individuals and the many families who have sought refuge and safety in these isles. I, for one, do not doubt the sincerity of the Government’s intentions with respect to Ukrainian refugees; after all, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is the largest refugee scheme ever administered by this country. It is reflective of the generosity of the British people, with many thousands opening up their homes to welcome in the most vulnerable—often women and children.
Despite all that, the problems emerging on the ground are clear. In some instances, relationships are breaking down; host family circumstances have changed; and, to boot, conditions in the private rented sector are unforgiving and the welfare system is entirely inadequate. All in all, the data shows that more than 4,000 Ukrainian households are now turning to local councils for somewhere to live after their placement on the scheme has ended. More than 4,000 households are potentially facing homelessness or being referred to homelessness services.
As we have come to understand over the last decade, we have a Government who are inherently reactive to the big questions, rather than a Government focused on getting ahead of the curve. Back in November, I and many other voices from the Opposition were warning that unless the Government got a grip, we were going to face real issues, with our cash-strapped local councils once again being left to clear up the mess on the back of Whitehall short-termism.
At the onset of the war, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), asked the Secretary of State if he would put a safety net in place in case of placement breakdowns in the future. The Opposition probed the Department further, confirming that families left homeless in that situation would not be able to claim their housing costs under universal credit. Can the Minister advise whether that is being reconsidered? Sadly, no real answers were forthcoming at the time, so hopefully that can be clarified today. The refusal of the Government to give certainty to local authorities, host families and refugees is not only profoundly wrong, but damaging to us on the international stage, and we are better than that.
In her response, I hope the Minister will talk about the ongoing discussions that her Department is having with the Home Office; be clear with us about local government funding and the assurances she can give on that; update us on lessons learned to date; and explain what funding will be available. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, rather than leaving it until the last minute, can we have something in place that will prevent any further distress to the Ukrainian families? I am particularly interested in the fact that all Members have spoken about the importance of education and skills, not only in the contribution to society but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam eloquently said, to enable these brave Ukrainian refugees to transform uncertainty into hope.
I will finish by urging the Government to truly heed the words of the Opposition, charities, the LGA, the APPG for ending homelessness and the Government’s own MPs and peers, including the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and act quickly to save their blushes and, most importantly, to fulfil our obligations to the Ukrainian people who chose this country for sanctuary.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank everyone for the constructive tone of the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on her very comprehensive and interesting speech.
I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for her personal contribution to the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which is one of the most remarkable schemes this country has ever seen. It is because of the generosity and compassion of British people that we have been able to welcome so many Ukrainians to this country. The informed and impassioned contributions to the debate speak to the fact that, one year into this war, none of us has allowed there to be any creeping normalisation of the horrors we have witnessed in Ukraine. Our commitment to the people of Ukraine has not wavered, and it will not waver in the years ahead.
The debate is very important to me, not only because I am the Minister responsible for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but also because my constituency of Kensington is the home of the Ukrainian community in London and, to an extent, throughout the UK. In my constituency, we have the Ukrainian embassy, the phenomenal St Mary’s Ukrainian School, where the numbers have gone up astronomically, the Ukrainian community centre and the Ukrainian Institute London, so the subject is very important to me. I first visited the Ukrainian community before the invasion, when tensions were rising, and I have been with them on a constituency basis all the way. I am delighted to say that in my small borough of Kensington and Chelsea we have 423 registered sponsors under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and 617 Ukrainians have arrived in the borough, 152 of whom are children.
From the moment the first tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, the stoicism, courage and determination shown by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people have been a constant source of inspiration to us all. We have been clear from the get-go that if we want to live in a world where peaceful sovereign nations are free to choose their own destiny, Ukraine must win.
I will address the many points that Members have made, but I would like to start by emphasising that the Government and I are enormously proud of the support the UK is providing to Ukrainian nationals and their families. Most of all, we are proud that these schemes are being powered by the British people.
The Minister has referred to the housing issues, but one of the other uncertainties for families is the lack of clarity about family reunification rights under the different schemes and whether those will change over time. Will the Minister address that?
I will address the different schemes and how they fit together in a few moments.
Before the Homes for Ukraine scheme even opened, thousands registered their interest in helping. As soon as it did open, thousands more opened their hearts and their homes to people whose lives had been torn apart by a conflict that they did not ask for. The scheme was the first of its kind in the UK and, since we launched it on 18 March 2022, we have welcomed a remarkable 115,800 people. When combined with the Ukraine families scheme, we have now helped to find over 163,500 people a safe and secure home.
At the outset, we vowed to keep the routes for Ukrainian refugees under constant review, and that is what we have done. The scheme did not stay static; it evolved as the weeks and months went on, including an extension to bring over unaccompanied children who were not travelling with a parent or legal guardian, with robust additional safeguarding checks. We have also adapted the scheme in terms of rematching. We have offered further money. The scheme is a living organism; it will potentially adapt further with time.
As a Government, we have been determined to reciprocate the generosity of the hosts who have come forward with offers of help. To that end, we have provided £1.1 billion to councils through a tariff for each arrival in their area to support guests and sponsors alike. In recognition of their generous support, all Homes for Ukraine sponsors will receive an increased “thank you” payment of £500 a month once guests have been in the country for over a year. We have extended the duration that sponsors can get “thank you” payments from one year to two years. Our absolute focus is providing stable homes for Ukrainians fleeing war and starting a new life on UK soil.
Let me take this opportunity before my concluding remarks to follow up on a few specific points. I will start with homelessness, because a number of Members raised it, and will go through our latest homelessness numbers. For the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is 2,495. For Ukrainians as a whole, including the families scheme, it is 4,295. Homelessness is defined as a local authority having a duty to prevent and relieve, so, just focusing on the prevention part, a lot of these numbers will cover local authorities that are going in there to help people and put roofs over their heads. I want to be very clear on that definition. Local authorities are doing their job in many of these cases and preventing. If one looks at the 2,495 number in the context of 115,000 arrivals under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is a small percentage. We do not want any Ukrainian to be homeless but, if one looks at the prevention and relief duties, it is a small percentage. As I said, it is a good thing that local authorities are doing their jobs and doing them incredibly well.
There are 735 households in temporary accommodation. What are the Government doing to support local authorities? I want to put it on the record that I think local authorities are doing a tremendous job. First, as I have already mentioned, the Government are providing £1.2 billion in tariffs. Those tariffs can be used for homelessness prevention—for example, to help guarantee private rental sector rents. We have also put a £150 million fund in place to relieve homelessness. I believe it was the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam who asked how that fund would be allocated. It will be allocated to the devolved authorities, and in England. We are in discussions with the devolved authorities—I have regular update calls with them—and are finessing the split of that fund. As soon as that has been done and we have agreed the split among the DAs, we will communicate the allocations to local authorities, but that is very much a work in progress.
I thank the Minister for thanking local authorities, because they have done an extraordinary, incredible job—South and Vale have taken a wraparound approach and been very successful in driving down homelessness, not just in the scheme but across the entire district. I encourage the Minister to look not just at the raw homelessness numbers, but at local authorities that are efficient and have done that, often by taking resource from elsewhere and putting it into this team, which has stopped many people from being homeless or even getting anywhere close to that point. When the Government look at the allocation, will they not just assume that, because the numbers are not huge, there is not a problem elsewhere in the council? Indeed, the fact that there are very few has caused problems elsewhere in the council.
The Minister is being typically generous in giving way. Might one of the reasons for homelessness or some of the other difficulties be related to the point I raised about biometric residence permits? What discussions is she having with the Home Office to make sure BRPs are issued quickly?
When we are talking about homelessness under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, these are all people who are here with their visas, so I do not think it relates to the BRP scheme. However, I am happy to relay the hon. Member’s comments to the Home Office, as he has asked. To the extent that he has details about particular issues, if he could feed those in to me, I can pass them on.
We have also set up a £500 million fund for local authorities to purchase, build or redevelop homes, with an initial focus on Ukrainians and Afghans, although the aim over time is for those homes to be for the benefit of the local community. We are very focused as a Government on homelessness prevention; indeed, we want to prevent homelessness from ever happening. In the last fiscal year, 2022-23, we spent £316 million, but we got an extra top-up from the Treasury of £50 million to alleviate winter homelessness, which makes £366 million. These are big sums of money, and in December we announced £654 million over two years for homelessness prevention.
Let me turn to the private rented sector. I had a look at the last Office for National Statistics survey, in which 17% of those surveyed were in the PRS; however, I am conscious—and clearly I have heard—that there have been issues with some Ukrainians accessing that sector. Sometimes it has been because of a lack of credit history in the UK; sometimes they have been unable to put down deposits. We have encouraged local authorities to think innovatively about how to use the tariff to help people access the private rental sector—an awful lot of local authorities have said that people are using the £10,500 that was received last year to put down deposits. We would encourage them to look at those solutions. Local authorities know best what the funding situation is in their local area.
We are also working very closely with the LGA and the National Residential Landlords Association to get to the bottom of any problems and see how we can incentivise landlords to get round these issues, because it is quite clear that a lot of Ukrainians would like to be independent. While many sponsors are prepared to go longer than six months—in fact, I had another look at the ONS data, and 90% of sponsors said that they were prepared to go longer than six months, while 60% already have—clearly, access to the private rental sector is an important option for Ukrainians. It is something that my Department is working on with a lot of focus. As I say, we are encouraging best practice. We are also funding the strategic migration partnerships to share that best practice among local authorities.
A lot of Members talked about the importance of English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—and skilled employment, and I could not agree more. I chaired a cross-Government meeting last week, attended by a Minister from every Department, where we talked about how we can ramp up that provision of English language classes and ensure that professional qualifications are recognised. Clearly, professional qualifications are recognised by independent bodies, so we cannot tell the Nursing and Midwifery Council what it should approve, but we encourage it to focus on this. There are issues that these bodies need to take into account. It is a focus of Government; I am working very closely with the Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), on that matter.
I would like to pick up on a few other issues that were raised, such as that about council tax. I want to make it very clear that people who arrive in the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and are living with people will be disregarded for the purposes of council tax. Let us say you are a single person and you get the single person discount. If you bring in two Ukrainians under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, you are still one single person for the purposes of council tax, so you will still get the 25% discount.
Not to disagree—that is correct, and it is fantastic. But again, this is a problem in the Ukraine family scheme. People are not getting that extra payment, but they are getting the extra cost of turning from a single-person household to a multi-person household. That is the question for me, really: what can you do to ensure that these schemes are equitable to allow stability? As you rightly pointed out, people are leaving both the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the family scheme because of difficulties with the cost of living.
This may be a good opportunity for me to talk about how the schemes came about, and our thinking. First, I stress that both schemes give those who have arrived a three-year visa and, very importantly, the right to work, be educated and receive benefits here. The Ukrainian arriving here has the same rights under both schemes.
The family scheme came about because we wanted to extend the most compassion that we could very quickly. It was a temporary and more generous alternative to the family route, and it extended the number and type of family members who could come in. Homes for Ukraine is a very different scheme. It is unique. It is for those fleeing conflict who cannot rely on family support. As I say, individuals have the same rights under both schemes. The difference comes about because in one scheme there are no thank-you payments. We think that is appropriate, because in the family scheme people come over as family members, whereas in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, they have no connection to their host, so we think it appropriate to offer the host a thank-you payment.
The other difference is that the tariff payment to local authorities is paid under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That is important because of the obligations on local authorities to, for instance, carry out safeguarding checks and ensure integration into the community. Those obligations are specific to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. I want to give hon. Members our logic as to why we see the schemes as separate, but the important point is that the individual has the same rights under both.
I appreciate what the Minister says about why she makes those distinctions between the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the family scheme. However, a case that I dealt with in my constituency involved a person whose parents had come under the family scheme. The parents could not stay with their daughter, because she had only a one-bedroom flat, so there was no room for them. Those parents ended up being put up by my constituent—she wanted to help and had the space to do so—but my constituent was not entitled to any support payments for that. That made things quite fractious for the host, because she was not hosting them on the same basis as other hosts. Does the Minister agree that, for the people who fall in between those two stools, those circumstances seem quite unfair?
There have been one or two examples, such as that of the hon. Lady’s constituent, where hosts thought that they were potentially hosting under the Homes for Ukraine scheme but were not. On homelessness under the family scheme, local authorities have an obligation to deal with homelessness regardless of which scheme a person comes under. I want to make that clear, because the £150 million fund is to relieve homelessness. It is not ringfenced, and it is for local authorities to decide how it is spent.
Let me pick up the point about housing benefit. We have amended the eligibility criteria to ensure that arrivals from Ukraine under one of the Government schemes are eligible for housing assistance from day one of their arrival. I believe there was also a question about family reunification. That does not fall within my remit; it is a Home Office matter.
Let me conclude. At every stage of this process, we have developed our humanitarian schemes in close consultation with Ukrainian leaders and, very importantly, the diaspora community in the UK to ensure that what we offer responds to their needs. The needs of Ukrainians will continue to be at the heart of our approach. I am hugely proud of what we have all achieved, cross-party, by putting politics to one side and instead focusing our collective efforts on supporting Ukraine and its people through the war. Today’s debate, with the strength, passion and commitment that has been on display, has left me more convinced than ever that Ukraine can and will win the war.
I will finish by thanking most of all the sponsors in the UK. Without their generosity and compassion, the scheme would simply not have been possible. On behalf of this House, thank you.
Apologies for my earlier use of “you”, Mr Dowd. I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has taken part in today’s debate. We heard about personal experiences from the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), and about the innovative schemes in Perth and Glasgow. It is important that we look across UK borders—or should I say devolution lines?—to make sure that we learn as much as we can about how the schemes are working.
I was privileged to work closely with host families in my area. I hosted joint surgeries, so that we could share experiences, and hear from people going through the process, which was iterative. That approach at Government level is important, so I thank the Minister for addressing the concerns raised. We might have to agree to disagree on the issues around the difference between the two schemes, as things are a bit more complicated in reality than they were outlined as being.
I forgot to mention the question of how we monitor the number of people returning to Ukraine. In Sheffield, 34 families have returned to Ukraine. According to the Sheffield branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, that was primarily because of an inability to get private rented sector housing. Information of that kind is key to our understanding, and gives us the opportunity to improve the scheme.
I thank everyone for taking part in this debate. I am grateful that time was allowed for us to consider the issues. Although the scheme has been a success, we can always learn lessons, so that we can make sure that, in the medium to long term, we give our full support to the people of Ukraine.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the anniversary of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Authorised Push Payment Fraud
I beg to move,
That this House has considered authorised push payment fraud.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I am pleased to bring forward this debate, because I have had protracted discussions with a business in my constituency that has been targeted by fraudsters, resulting in some of its clients losing thousands of pounds through authorised push payment scams. Those scams deceive an individual into unknowingly transferring funds to a criminal. They now represent the largest type of payment fraud in the UK, both in the number of scams and value of losses.
I do not normally intervene this early, but this issue is critical for my constituents in Strangford—and indeed for everyone, I suspect. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this debate. The latest figures are astounding: £249.1 million was lost to APP scams in the first half of 2022. That indicates how prevalent these scams are. Messaging about these scams is not as effective as it should be. Does she agree that more steps need to be taken to safeguard vulnerable people who are losing money? They are not great at tech, and have been taken advantage of.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. In 2021, losses to this type of fraud totalled £583.2 million. That represents a 38% increase on the previous year. It is worth noting that a lot of cases of authorised push payment fraud go unreported, so those figures are likely to underestimate the true amount lost to these scams. As he suggested, the impact of fraud can be devastating. Victims can lose substantial sums of money. The impact on their health and wellbeing cannot be over-stated. Research from Which? showed that 71% of fraud victims felt that their experience had a detrimental impact on their stress levels; 63% said it was harmful to their mental health, and 39% said it affected their physical health.
I too am very grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this subject before the House. She is right to mention the huge damage this fraud can cause to individuals and families, including in my constituency. I have two constituents who were caught up in the episode that she described. Does she agree that progress in making compulsory both full reimbursement and the code has been slower than we would like? It is crucial that we make fast progress on ensuring that full reimbursement and full compliance with the code are in place by the end of this year.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right, both about the people we are discussing who are directly affected, and about the framework generally. Progress is needed now. I will come back to both those points.
My constituent owns a successful business. Despite proper security controls, its email server was unfortunately infiltrated by sophisticated fraudsters, who then sent emails to business clients. The emails sent by the scammers looked just like genuine emails that would be sent from the business. That allowed the fraudsters to cloak their identity. I have heard of other cases of this, too. It is worth stressing that the emails were sent to clients who were due to make payments, which made the fraudulent emails seem entirely credible. This type of fraud is highly sophisticated. In fact, it is a huge and growing industry, which should be of deep concern to us all. I hope to hear the Government’s reaction to it from the Minister. Little wonder that many people unknowingly end up transferring funds to fraudsters when the scams are so sophisticated and complex.
My constituent’s case was only one type of APP scam, namely that of impersonation. There are other types. For example, there are purchase scams, in which a victim is tricked into buying goods or services that are never received. They are regularly found on Facebook and Instagram, and victims are lured in by the promise of cut-price goods. Quite commonly, it will be something like a reduced-price games console, which the victim pays for online but does not receive. Another type of APP fraud is the investment scam: victims are tricked into handing over money for bogus investment schemes that never materialise. Romance scams are obviously less common, but are deeply distressing; people are persuaded to make a payment to a person online with whom they believe they are in a relationship, but who they have never met.
The need to prevent all those types of fraud is paramount. An individual can take steps, particularly in cases such as the one I outlined, to ensure that their money is transferred to the correct bank account. For instance, a straightforward step is to never hesitate to question a payment request robustly. Ideally, an individual should make contact via means other than the ones through which the payment request was made. They should not just reply to an email or click a link, but find another way of contacting the business. We are essentially asking consumers to be responsible for working out where a sophisticated and complex crime is being committed. We need to strike the right balance, and recognise that those actually responsible for this terrible crime are the criminals.
A client of my constituent’s business was asked by their own bank to confirm with the business that it had requested a payment before the bank proceeded with the transfer. At that point, the business became aware that there had been an intrusion into its systems, and it took proactive steps to prevent customers from making any further payments. I welcome the way the business has dealt with the issue throughout.
I welcome the efforts made by several banks to introduce confirmation of payee services. They check the account name and details to ensure that the payment arrives at the correct destination, providing an additional layer of security. However, only some banks have set up such services. TSB Bank believes that all payment service providers should be required to introduce confirmation of payee services, because it seems that organised criminal gangs have shifted to using banks that do not have those checks enabled. It is noticeable, certainly to me, that there is not a unified view in the banking sector on how best to prevent this kind of scam, or on the issue of mandatory reimbursement. The UK Government could do more to take the lead on bringing the banking and payment sectors together to solve these issues. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that.
I thank Lloyds Banking Group, which took the time to meet me this week, ahead of the debate, to discuss these issues and some of the cases I am raising. I hope that a satisfactory conclusion can be reached. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) very clearly laid out the distress caused to the people who are caught up in these situations. I encourage Lloyds to look further at this particular case, but I am grateful for its positive discussions with me about fraud prevention.
In total, four clients of my constituent’s business were targeted by fraudsters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East suggested, the first case involved a couple unknowingly transferring £40,000 to an HSBC-held bank account. They have been reimbursed over £19,000 by their bank, which is the Bank of Scotland. The second case involved an individual who, again unknowingly, sent £12,500 to an HSBC-held bank account. In the third and fourth cases, clients received emails asking them to transfer money to fraudulent HSBC-held accounts, but thankfully they did not do so.
The contingent reimbursement model is a voluntary code that 10 firms covering 21 banking brands have signed up for. That code aims to reduce the occurrence and the impact of authorised push payment scams. It was designed to give people confidence that if they fell victim to that kind of scam, they would be reimbursed if they had acted properly. The responsibility for reimbursement, according to the contingent reimbursement model code, lies solely with the sending bank.
With that in mind, I return to the case that I outlined, where only half the funds have been returned. I wonder how that can be. The couple has been reimbursed £19,555 by the Bank of Scotland—the sending bank, if you like. Now, the Bank of Scotland has signed up to the contingent reimbursement mechanism, so I would have expected it to reimburse its client to the tune of the full £40,000. However, it did not do that and instead suggested that HSBC should refund the other half of the £40,000 because it was the bank with whom the fraudulent account was held. The individual who mistakenly sent £12,500 to an HSBC-held account has in fact received no reimbursement at all.
Both those cases are now with the Financial Ombudsman Service. I hope—although I am not sure this will be borne out in reality—that there will be a sensible resolution to the situation, because none of these people deserves to be impacted in the way that they have been. It is important to stress that terms such as “blame” and “fault” are used too often in these conversations, in a way that is both unhelpful and unfair, given the sophistication of these scams. The only people to blame for authorised push payment scams are the criminals who create these fraudulent ventures, not the people who fall victim to what are designed to be highly convincing criminal efforts to part them from their money.
With that in mind, I would like to make several points to the Minister. First, the banking sector must improve its internal mechanisms for identifying accounts engaged in fraudulent activity. During my correspondence with HSBC regarding the situation I have set out it stated:
“HSBC undertakes robust due diligence as part of our account opening process, and has payment screening in place to identify fraud.”
I have no doubt that HSBC has internal mechanisms to detect potential fraudsters, and I do not seek to suggest otherwise, but my constituent’s clients were targeted by fraudsters with four different accounts, all of which were held by HSBC. We should remember that this particular case of fraud was stopped at an early stage, so I cannot say how many potential frauds the fraudsters may have wanted to carry out or how those would have related to particular banks. However, all the cases I am aware of involved HSBC, so HSBC—and every other bank—can and must do more to identify and shut down accounts engaged in fraud.
Secondly, I welcome the move towards making the contingent reimbursement model a mandatory code covering all banking firms. I note that clause 62 of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which is currently in Committee in the other place, enhances protections for victims of authorised push payment scams by putting a duty on the Payment Systems Regulator to take regulatory action on APP scam reimbursement, ultimately giving it the power to make reimbursement mandatory across the faster payments service.
The introduction of a voluntary contingent reimburse-ment model code has resulted in the rate of victim reimbursement rising from 19% in the first half of 2019 to 41% in 2020. With a mandatory CRM, I am sure that that number will rise further, meaning that more and more victims of this type of fraud should receive reimbursement. Some banks, such as TSB, offer an authorised push payment scam refund guarantee, fully reimbursing all authorised push payment scam victims up to £1 million, unless the customer has been grossly negligent. Some 97% of fraud claims with TSB have been refunded since the refund guarantee was introduced, which is well above the industry average and should give food for thought to others.
Last November, the Payment Systems Regulator consulted on a package of measures to combat authorised push payment scams, including mandating reimbursement for victims. The regulator is now consulting on specific proposals that would put that mandatory reimbursement in place for all online and mobile payments. In line with protections for other payments and financial services, reimbursement would be on all payments over £100, and a time limit of no less than 13 months would be set for claims. A mandatory reimbursement code would ensure that, regardless of what bank or building society individuals choose as their provider, they would be protected from massive financial loss due to these scams.
To come back to the situation I am dealing with, two clients of my constituent’s business have lost £20,000 and £12,500 each. These are significant sums of money. Who could possibly afford to lose them? I welcome all legislative changes that will help to bring about a mandatory reimbursement code, but what steps will the UK Government take to ensure that people who have been affected before the code comes into place are reimbursed, particularly where their payment service provider signed up to the voluntary code but failed to carry through on its commitment, as the sending bank, to reimburse?
I would also like to hear the Minister’s views on social media firms and tech giants taking fraud more seriously and on what action they can take to stop fraudsters using their platforms to target people. It is also incumbent on them to take steps to clamp down on bad actors but, at the moment, they have no financial incentive to remove fraudsters from their platforms, because banks are ultimately held responsible for refunding lost money. That is a conversation that needs to take place with Government.
I welcome some of the progress that has been made and the action by banks, Government and other organisations but, although mandatory reimbursement is desirable, some are still concerned about how it will be enforced. The Treasury Committee recently published a report entitled “Scam reimbursement: pushing for a better solution”, which highlighted some of these concerns. That report supported the principle of mandatory reimbursement but noted concerns about how the plans would be implemented. The Payment Systems Regulator proposes that Pay.UK will make, maintain and enforce reimbursement rules. That is problematic for several reasons set out in the report. Pay.UK is not independent; it is an industry body and guaranteed by the very banks and other service providers it would be asking to reimburse fraud victims. More worryingly, it is not a regulator and lacks the powers necessary to enforce its rules, so there could be foot-dragging and other challenges.
The other reason the Treasury Committee gave for not liking that solution was the potential for further delay and kicking the can down the road. Given the earlier point that this has been ongoing for a few years, the last thing we need is more delay.
It is almost as if my hon. Friend had read the end of my speech. He is absolutely right; that is it in a nutshell. We want to prevent fraud, punish fraudsters and ensure that victims are reimbursed. That is the way to reduce the harm that these scams cause. Surely, we should all support those principles. I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the credibility of the Payment Systems Regulator’s current suggestions, to look closely at how social media interacts with these systems and to commit to listening to victims such as those I have talked about today.
To conclude, I ask that the banks involved in the cases I have outlined give serious consideration to their part in the challenges that people are facing through no fault of their own. They should look to ensure both that people are reimbursed and that they clamp down on fraudsters using their services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I commend the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing this debate, which addresses an issue that she clearly cares about deeply. I know from my own constituency and from conversations with colleagues across the House that it is, sadly, one that we see across the country, which is why the Government also care deeply about it. It is a growing issue and demands urgent intervention.
As the hon. Lady set out articulately, authorised push payment scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated and often target the most vulnerable in our society. Because they are so sophisticated, they are also able to target professionals, businesses and so on—people who would otherwise consider themselves to be alive to these sorts of risks. It is a very clever form of fraud.
Under the European regulatory system that we have inherited, there is no statutory or regulatory requirement for banks to reimburse the victims of these scams. Although the creation of a voluntary reimbursement code has improved matters, reimbursement for victims has, as the hon. Lady set out, been inconsistent across banks and for victims, and only about half the stolen money is reimbursed. As a result, many victims are left facing significant losses; in the worst cases, they can lose their life savings. From the hon. Lady’s descriptions, we know the impacts that that can have on people and businesses. We are acutely aware of the impact of this type of fraud, so we are determined to help victims and to crack down on these scams and the impact that these fraudsters have on people and businesses.
Front and centre of those efforts is our action on victim reimbursement. As part of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, we are introducing world-leading legislation to protect people as a matter of urgency. Once passed, the Bill will remove legal barriers in retained EU law that currently prevent regulatory action on reimbursement by the Payment Systems Regulator. That will enable the regulator to mandate reimbursement for any payment system under its supervision. However, the legislation goes even further: it will also place a specific duty on the regulator to implement a reimbursement mandate for the faster payments system within six months. I hope that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members will be assured that there will be swift regulatory action once the Bill receives Royal Assent.
This issue does not just require timely action; it also demands effective action. We are confident that the regulator has the appropriate objectives, expertise and powers to design the details of mandatory reimbursement in a way that ensures strong and consistent protections for victims. In its recent consultation on the matter, it stated its intention to require firms to fully reimburse victims of all APP fraud occurring through faster payments, with very limited exceptions. That would ensure that victims are reimbursed in the vast majority of cases and at far higher rates than under the existing voluntary reimbursement codes.
I was going to attempt to answer the question posed by the hon. Lady later, but I will answer it now. Regarding current victims, the legislation is not retrospective—she will know that it is very rare for this place to pass retrospective legislation—but we expect banks to honour past voluntary commitments. That may well be something that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has primary responsibility for this area, has put his mind to. I will ask him to write to her with his thoughts on it.
Given that the hon. Lady has intervened on me, I will respond to the interesting points she raised about social media and tech companies. I will do the same as on the previous point, and ask the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to write to her. From my own portfolio, I know some of the challenges with the use of social media when it comes, for example, to repayment agents who are not behaving as they should. As the hon. Lady says, the ability of fraudsters to present themselves as legitimate, by stealing people’s business logos or details, is highly sophisticated. It requires a joined-up reaction from across Government, law enforcement and so on.
That brings me to what we are doing across Government. Although this is an insidious form of fraud, it is not the only one our constituents face. We will therefore shortly publish a new, broad-based fraud strategy, which will detail how we will prevent fraud, so that people do not lose their life savings and money in the way the hon. Lady set out and we can crack down on these gangs.
In the meantime, the Treasury has worked diligently with the Financial Conduct Authority and the Payment Systems Regulator on the roll-out of fraud prevention measures such as confirmation of payee, which the hon. Lady referred to, which can help and has been designed to stop some forms of APP fraud and accidentally misdirected payments. I know that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members will welcome the regulator’s action to mandate that service for the vast majority of faster payments transactions, and I highlight its intention to achieve near-universal coverage in the near future.
The Treasury continues to assess industry proposals for legislation to enable further delay to high-risk payments. The hon. Lady asked me about internal banking processes, and that is one way that we have looked to address that form of fraud.
The regulator has consulted on further measures to prevent payment fraud, including enhanced information sharing between payment providers so that scammers can be identified and shut down quickly. That is in addition to mandating confirmation of payee, which I have already described. That will enable payers to check that they are, in fact, sending payments to the right person.
In short, we very much understand why the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire has raised this important issue. We share her determination to tackle it, and look forward to working with law enforcement agencies, banks, the regulators and colleagues across the House to ensure that our constituents are protected from this invidious form of fraud, which I know we all want to see stopped.
Question put and agreed to.
Poverty: Food Costs
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling poverty and the cost of food.
It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my colleagues for turning up today; there is very good attendance and I am sure they are all going to be very supportive.
The world’s farmers produce enough food on this planet to feed 1.5 times the global population. It is enough food to feed 10 billion people; there are currently about 7.6 billion people on the planet. In the UK we waste about 10 million tonnes of food every year, and yet we have seen a reported increase in food bank use. Takeaway sales are up year on year; the market is set to reach £23 billion this year, with us British people spending an average of £641 a year on takeaway food—and yet we see a rise in food bank use. We have a big obesity problem in the UK, and it is spiralling out of control. It is costing our NHS a massive £6 billion annually. That is set to rise to £9.7 billion each year by 2050—and yet we see a significant increase in food bank use.
No one should go hungry in the UK—we know that. We produce enough food across the world to wipe out global hunger.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, and want to open an invitation to not only him but everybody here. I am the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks. The issue is clearly something the hon. Member cares about. Our annual general meeting is later this month; I hope to see him there.
That is a very kind invitation and I will do my very best to attend—thank you for that. Like I said, 40% of food goes to waste; that is 2.5 billion tonnes that we throw away each year on this planet. If that food was given to the people who need it, we could give chronically undernourished—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
To recap, I was talking about the amount of food wasted, not only throughout the world but more specifically in the UK. The UK has cut down its food waste in recent years, but we still throw away far too much edible food. The UK creates 9.52 million tonnes of food waste per year, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP, for short.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this tremendous debate forward; I am looking forward to making a contribution. Does he recognise that the likes of Asda, Tesco and some of the other larger shopkeepers already have a system in place for food waste? In my constituency of Strangford, in Newtownards town, all the stuff at its end date is put out for community groups, which can take advantage of it. Some of the big stores are already making steps in the right direction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am going to speak about big stores such as Asda later, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right that they are doing their bit at the moment—I would like to see them do a little bit more.
A lot of the wasted food is disposed of during the manufacturing process. Some is disposed of by the retail and hospitality sectors, but a big chunk of waste comes from households all over the country, which are throwing away food on a daily basis.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate forward. What he says about wasted food is very important; the waste of food is something that most of us find very difficult to see, but it is criminal. He may not be aware of this, but on Scottish television last summer there were news stories over a number of weeks about soft fruit rotting in the fields because of a lack of seasonal agricultural workers to pick it. Does he agree that we need to take action to get workers in to pick that fruit?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, and she makes a good point. I am not fortunate enough to get Scottish TV where I live; we do not quite get the signal. Yes, there is a problem in the agricultural sector with seasonal workers. I did have a solution, but I was shouted down when I first got to this place. We have 90,000 people languishing in jails in this country, and we are about 90,000 people short for picking fruit and vegetables. I think that would be a good start. If we have a labour shortage, we need to look inwards.
I will move on. The hospitality sector alone tosses away about £3.2 billion of food a year, according to WRAP. Households could cause 70% of the UK’s food waste, throwing away about 6.6 million tonnes of food, of which 4.5 million tonnes is actually edible. That is far too much, especially at a time when nearly 70% of UK households are worried about their energy prices; I am worried about my energy prices. Some people think it may mean they are not able to buy enough food to carry on, according to the Food Foundation.
Overall, 6.4 million tonnes of completely edible food is thrown away every year. I think that is criminal. The consumable food that we waste costs the UK about £19 billion a year, which adds up to £284 for every single person in this country. Households alone get rid of edible food worth £13.8 billion. If we split that between all the UK’s 28.1 million households, each home would save £491 per year. Food waste presents a significant problem due to the volume of waste produced each year. In fact, it is estimated that in the UK alone, we throw away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste annually, most of which will end up in an already overcrowded landfill.
Every day, I get emails and messages on social media from people saying that we have starving children in the UK, and that we voted not to feed schoolchildren. That is dangerous and misleading.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this really important debate. The Food Foundation published an opinion poll today on extending free school meals to every child whose household is on universal credit. The poll showed that almost eight in 10 of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents support that policy. With more than a quarter of children in his constituency living in poverty, will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Chancellor to extend free school meals to every child living in poverty?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. There is a myth in this country that if people are on universal credit, they are in poverty. I will dispel that myth right now. We have people—not just in my constituency, but all over the country—who are on universal credit, but have a household income of more than £40,000 a year. Now that is not poverty. If people in London on universal credit work a few hours, there is a loophole in the universal credit system meaning they can top up their wages by £30,000-odd a year. That is not poverty. Being on universal credit alone is not an indicator that a family are in poverty, so I totally dismiss that idea.
But I do admit that some families in this country are struggling, and they need our support. A few months back, I visited a school in Ashfield after concerned parents contacted me because the breakfast club had been stopped. The school had stopped providing free breakfasts because the private funding it had secured had run out. Those parents were concerned not about their own children, but about the more disadvantaged children from the poorer families in the area. So I contacted the school and asked what I thought was a reasonable question: “Why are you giving every single child a breakfast in the morning?” I did not get a breakfast, and my kids got a breakfast at home, so it is something new to me. The school told me that people were struggling to feed their own children at home.
I also asked if the school had asked for a donation from any of the families. The families I was speaking to wanted to make a donation to the school, but it said no. When I asked why, it could not answer me. Then I asked, “Why are some families unable to feed their children at breakfast? Why can’t they give them a slice of toast or whatever?” The school struggled to answer me. Eventually, it said, “Well, it’s the cost of living crisis, isn’t it?” I thought, “How much does Weetabix and a bowl of milk cost?” Not even the 30p that I’m famous for—it probably costs a lot less than that.
I wanted to help, so I went on to ask if I could meet the parents who were struggling, to give the whole holistic approach and see where they were going wrong, if we could help and if they had debt, budgeting or social problems. That was nearly four months ago, and I have still heard nothing back. Why have I got nothing back? I’ll tell you for why: there is a reluctance in certain parts of this country, now, about getting to the root of the problem. It is far too easy to say that there is a cost of living crisis. Yes, we know that people are struggling, that food prices are up and that energy prices are up. We know all that, but we cannot keep throwing taxpayers’ money at people. That is what it is: it is taxpayers’ money—our money, our constituents’ money.
We are talking about communities struggling. A report last week said that the minimum universal credit paid should be £120. We have got people receiving £85, so they are already down before we even factor in the rent. Does the hon. Gentleman understand the magnitude of the crisis that people are facing now regarding rent, food and the cost of everything? Is that coming through in his constituency? It is certainly coming through in mine, and it is certainly coming through in the national picture as well.
We have got to understand and quantify the magnitude of the problem. Also, how do we solve it politically? It is not by saying that someone should be able to afford a Weetabix and a pint of milk. How do we solve the problem of millions of people going hungry?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, I do live in the real world. When I talk about these things in this place, I am talking on behalf of my friends, family, neighbours and constituents. I will take no lectures from anybody in this place about living in a deprived area.
I was listening carefully when the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to meet the people using the service in his constituency that he talked about. He said that he wanted to see what the problems might be for people who were struggling to afford food, and that he had had no response in four months to his offer to speak to them to understand their circumstances better. I grew up in poverty—deep poverty. If my mother had the opportunity to discuss with a local MP why she was struggling, I do not think she would have taken that invitation up. That is quite a difficult conversation, and it can be quite intrusive.
Order. Before Lee Anderson comes in, I remind hon. Members that, although I accept that people are passionate about this issue, the more interventions there are, the less time there is for people who have not intervened. I ask Members to bear that in mind. It is a matter for hon. Members, but I will be clear and unambiguous on the time.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I might say that if her mother had had a first-class Conservative MP like myself, maybe she would have been more comfortable coming for that advice. [Interruption.] It’s true.
I speak as a former adviser for a citizens advice bureau; I worked there for about 10 years. If hon. Members want to know about poverty, come and have a chat with me, because I saw these people on a daily basis. The people I used to see came with all sorts of problems—social problems, debt problems, benefits problems—and a lot of them had to rely on food banks. The first thing we used to do was go through an income and expenditure sheet with the service users. In most cases, there were lots of savings to be made. These people had not had the best start in life, a lot of them, and they needed help—a bit of education and a bit of support—with their bills and debts. They were paying ridiculous Provident loans off at high interest rates. They needed support; what they did not need was money thrown at them. Ten years later—it took me 10 or 15 years to learn this—I was seeing the sons and daughters of those families, who were coming to see me with the same problems that mum and dad had had 10 years before. We were not actually breaking the cycle; we were not supporting people.
I did a bit of work with my local food bank last year, as hon. Members will probably be aware—it was reported in some newspapers. I was delivering meals from the food bank to vulnerable families with an award-winning local chef; he works at a really good restaurant. After a few days of delivering meals, he said to me, “This is totally wrong. These people need proper help. They need teaching how to budget and how to cook a meal from scratch.” What we learned at the food bank was that people could not make a meal from scratch. They were struggling to cook a vegetable properly—to batch cook, to freeze stuff. He gave me a challenge. He said to me, “I can feed a family of five for 50 quid a week.” I said, “No, that’s nonsense. That’s rubbish—you can’t do that.” He said, “I’ll challenge you.”
So we went to the food bank and got the people invited to the college. There were schoolchildren there, as well as four MPs, including me, and the chef, and there were also some TV people. The day before, I got £50 and went with some schoolchildren to the local Aldi with a shopping list from the chef. The next day, we went back to the college, batch cooked five different meals and put everything in little packs, which we put away and delivered later to vulnerable families. And it worked out at 30p per meal.
I am not saying that people can cook on that scale at home—that is ridiculous—but what we are trying to prove is that if you learn how to cook from scratch, you get the right ingredients and you batch cook, you can save a hell of a lot money and make nutritious meals on a budget. Obviously, after that I was tagged as “30p Lee”. I don’t mind, because every time it comes up, somebody asks me, “Why do they call you 30p Lee?” When I tell them, they completely understand—so keep firing away and calling me 30p Lee.
Funnily enough, after this exercise I wrote to every single Labour MP inviting them to my food bank and to take part in it. I got two or three dismissive responses, but nobody else bothered to reply. The challenge was there, but nobody bothered to come.
What upsets me—this gets to me a little bit—is that there is a culture in some deprived areas where people are so dependent on food banks that it is like a weekly shop for them. One particular family who I was really trying to help were going to the food bank two or three times a week to get their groceries, but then I would see them in McDonald’s two or three times a week. My goodness. I do not want to stop little children going for a treat once in a while, but this is all about priorities. If you are really struggling for money and are going to a food bank two or three times a week, you should not be going out for fast food and getting takeaways every week. I know people are going to start sighing and ah-ing and saying, “He’s wicked and he’s cruel,” but those are the facts.
I never went for a McDonald’s when I was a kid, and I come from poverty. My mum and dad really struggled to feed us. He was a coalminer who worked seven days a week, and my mother was a factory worker. At the weekends, my dad did his garden. We had vegetables in there from top to bottom, and it also had chickens, rabbits and ducks. That was our food bank. We had nowhere else to go—that is what we did. We provided for ourselves. We have lost that over the past 20, 30 and 40 years, but we need to remind ourselves of where we have come from and to have those traditional values that our parents had. Food banks are being abused; I know that, because constituents tell me every single day about people making it up, telling lies or whatever. Food banks are abused by people who do not need them. We should target the food banks.
Thank you, Mr Dowd, and I do apologise. I get passionate about this subject, which is very close to my heart.
Ashfield, Mansfield and Bolsover are deprived areas. Many of the red wall seats are very deprived. They are deprived for a reason—we all know why, but I am not going to go into that now. We are going to see more and more fast food outlets—McDonald’s, KFC and others—springing up everywhere. They are springing up every 10 minutes in my area alone. Why are they coming to these deprived areas? It is because they know that there is a market there. We say that poorer people tend to use these places, and I know that that is true.
Food bank use is increasing in places such as Ashfield, yet obesity is also increasing in the same poor areas. Why is that? What we need is a proper food strategy in this country; I do not think we have had one for years. We have not had one since the 1970s. [Interruption.] You can laugh, giggle and scoff, but that is true. Why was it that in the 1970s, in the schools that I went to and all over Nottinghamshire, there were no obese children and we were fit and healthy? We did not have much money, but we ate less junk food and had a better diet and healthier lifestyles.
Maybe it was a poor choice of words. What I meant was that we have not had that proper culture in this country for decades—that personal responsibility of feeding ourselves. I like to hark back to the days when I was growing up, because they are on my mind at this moment in time. We were a lot poorer; we had less money and less food, but we seemed to manage okay. I think we could all do a little bit more. [Interruption.] Whatever! You can chip away all you want, mate.
I hear this nonsense about junk food and processed food being cheaper than fresh food. It is not. The chefs who I speak to say that is absolute rubbish. You can still go and buy a big bag of veg for a couple of quid, and a bit of meat, and make wholesome, nutritious meals and batch cook. I have done that before. Parents have done that before. We can do it with a little bit of effort, education and training. People always bleat on about the Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he has been very generous with his time. When I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) with the APPG on ending the need for food banks, one thing we saw was kettle packs. Because people do not have access to equipment to make the nutritious food that the hon. Gentleman is referring to, they are forced to utilise kettles or other means. Does he accept that some people do not have the means to make that nutritious food in their own homes?
We had that problem with our food bank, which I helped out at. We were giving people vouchers to put the gas and electric on their meters. Then we had a complaint that they did not have any pots or pans, so we gave them pots and pans to make their food with. Then we had a complaint that they did not have a fridge or a cooker. Then we showed them how to apply for white goods, energy support grants and stuff like that through their utility companies. So there is no excuse.
We could go on and make excuses all day. We live in a great country, and there is a lot of support out there to get all these things—not just food, but the stuff to cook it in and help with energy bills. This Government have provided billions of pounds of support over the past two years, especially through covid. They have spent over £500 billion of taxpayers’ money.
I will close now because I know quite a few people want to speak. I will finish by going back to the “30p Lee” thing. It comes up every single day on social media. I made a little list earlier of celebrity chefs—millionaire chefs—who can make meals on a budget. Lesley Negus can make a meal for 20p. Jack Monroe can make a meal for 20p. The website frugal.org.uk has meals for 25p. Savvy Meals can do meals for under a quid. Even the BBC has recipes for meals under a quid. Jamie Oliver—£1 wonders. Asda has recipes for meals under a quid. Toogoodtogo.com—under a quid.
I mentioned the food blogger, Jack Monroe. She was celebrated last year in the Daily Mirror for producing a meal for a staggering 11p. These people are celebrated; they are national heroes. Yet when a Conservative MP tries to help a local food bank and people in his own community, he is called “30p Lee”. Like I say, it don’t matter to me.
I am not going to bang on. Somebody contacted me today from Derbyshire—not my constituency. She said:
“As a retired foster carer for Derbyshire, I taught our looked after children cooking skills. Batch cooking and storing meals in zippy bags (re-useable) and massively space saving for the storing in a second hand small chest freezer (for £30). Meals that cost pence to make (proven by costing out on a spreadsheet so extra skills learned there!) The key is the motivation to do this type of cooking when you can make the time, but the advantages of convenience and cost speaks for itself. They could feed themselves when independent for £20 a week. Indisputable!!!”
What a great lady!
I will go at a rate of knots. I thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. The issue is of even more importance to us in Northern Ireland than it is anywhere else, because of the astronomical rise in production costs in Northern Ireland, rising transport costs, and the cost of the insidious Northern Ireland protocol. Food inflation has accelerated to record levels, and many households suffered a challenging Christmas due to soaring prices. The price of food in Northern Ireland has risen by 13.3% in the last month, up from 12.4% in the previous month; if we add those together, that is 25% in the last two months.
A friend of mine, Glyn Roberts, who is the chief executive of Retail NI, said:
“With cost pressures right across the supply chain, food inflation is becoming a huge challenge for households. Our members are doing everything they can not only to mitigate this and to limit prices increases for hardworking families in their grocery basket. With a 'cost-of-doing-business crisis', the most expensive business rates in the UK, rising energy costs, inflation and a fall in spending, 2023 is going to be the biggest ever challenge for Northern Ireland's high streets.”
The most recent statistics, for the 2020-21 period, suggest that some 316,000 people, or 17% of the population, in Northern Ireland live in relative income poverty before housing costs, and 12% of the population—approximately 223,000 people—live in absolute poverty before housing costs. Some 92,000 children live in absolute poverty—that is 21% of children in Northern Ireland. The number of children in poverty has risen in the last few years.
I am ever mindful to adhere closely and clearly to your timing indications, Mr Dowd, so I will finish with this. These figures are stark and clear. What is also clear is the fact that what may seem like a small increase in the cost of food to some of us in this Chamber is in fact a very difficult barrier to healthy food. We must step in to secure affordable access to good food for our constituents—especially for those in Northern Ireland, who paid the price for the Brexit deal. Work must be done, and it must be done now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for giving us what I think everyone looked for in his contribution. I suspect that everyone can leave happy with what they have heard and with what they came for.
In my two minutes, I will focus on my hit list of people who have annoyed me over the past year. We know that food inflation is running much higher across the country than the inflation rate overall; it is roughly 17% at the moment. We also know that inflation is a tax on the poorest, so the cost of food does matter. The poorer someone is, the higher the rate of inflation they experience because so much of their budget goes on energy and food. Retailers know that, but they avoid tackling it.
There is a convenience store on an estate called Grange Park in my constituency. It is known locally as Harrods, because of the extortionate prices it charges for basic goods. That is a classic example of the poverty premium; someone either pays more to buy locally, or they pay the bus fare to go to the large Tesco at Mereside on the outskirts of town. The consumer campaign Which? found that Tesco Express costs people 8% more on average. I accept that smaller stores have higher running costs, but that should not stop supermarkets equalising those costs so that they do not penalise those who have no choice but to shop there.
I tried to speak to the chairman of Tesco, John Allan, about this. He told Laura Kuenssberg in October that Tesco had
“a moral responsibility to look after people who, in the real world, are being impacted by”
the cost of living. Well, here is one way he could do that: by talking to me about what my constituents in Blackpool experience. Clearly, he finds the Leader of the Opposition a more interesting person to go and talk to than me. How offensive; I am an interesting person too. Come to see me, Mr Allan; it is not as grand as Canary Wharf, but come up to Blackpool—but he would not come up to Blackpool. He agreed to meet with me, but then he cancelled. I am now trying to beg him yet again to come and meet with me, as he did the Leader of the Opposition. Let us talk about how Tesco can really help my constituents and do a better job.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for securing the debate, and for his certainly interesting take on tackling food poverty.
I want to make it clear at the outset that the catastrophe of hunger and poverty in our communities is the result of political choices made by this Government. If a Government cannot ensure that everyone has enough to eat—and not just to eat, but to thrive—they are a Government that is fundamentally broken. The time for sticking plasters is surely over. We need to legislate for a right to food and enforceable food rights, and to ensure that the Government of today are held accountable for the cost of food and ensuring nobody goes hungry.
I pay credit to Mayor Sadiq Khan. I am so happy that he is sorting out universal free school meals and introducing them in London for all primary school children, which is an essential part of the right to food. It is a fantastic move forwards, but it is clear that our communities are in crisis at the moment. I pay tribute to all the workers taking industrial action in defence of their communities, including the teaching staff in West Derby, who were out on the picket line yesterday. The 17% rise in the price of food is the biggest rise since 1977 and comes alongside the sharpest fall in wages since 1977. Food inflation up, wages down—do the maths.
It is really important to look across the piece at how people are being demonised. The demonisation of those in food poverty is an act of political cowardice by an Administration bereft of ideas to solve the problem, and lacking humanity toward the millions who are suffering and looking to the Government to lift them up and not punch them down. If reliance on charity alone was considered a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling and a national health service. The current horrific situation demonstrates that we need the same vision and ambition when it comes to food security. It cannot wait a moment longer.
It is a privilege to serve under you, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for bringing this debate to us. I start by paying tribute to the many in my own constituency who are dedicated and devoted to helping those in need in a variety of forms, not least by preparing and delivering food through food banks. I thank them and acknowledge the good work that they do.
In the two minutes I have, I would like to draw attention to the inadequacy of our approach to poverty. This debate is about
“tackling poverty and the cost of food”
and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield on not calling it food poverty. I have written an essay on this, “A Common Sense Model for Poverty”, which highlights the inadequacy of a purely financial measure of poverty. In the context of food, a simple example is that the price of a bag of pasta has risen from 50p to 95p. That is the food premium that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield mentioned. The impact of that price rise is far bigger at the bottom of the affordability scale than at the top.
I will give three very quick observations. First, there are structural problems in our economy because it has accelerated the capacity to produce food through, for example, businesses focusing on adding value through processing to foods to make them more convenient, rather than focusing on nutrition or health. That is the maximising of profit, again at the expense of local food producers, and the supply chain suffers for it. I doubt that farmers who are worried about feed, fuel and fertiliser are seeing the benefits of many of the price rises in our shops. Finally, businesses are concentrating on the markets that can pay, not the local and global markets that need the food themselves. When it comes to health, we are all after a hot, filling and nutritious meal. That is well within our grasp.
I would like to conclude by mentioning the social benefits of food. The most powerful projects that I have seen are about bringing people together around the making and breaking of bread, so our approach needs to change. Market drivers introduce unhelpful factors—
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing this debate. A mark of having brilliant parents—and I had brilliant parents—is that you do not realise that you were brought up in poverty until later, when you look back. One thing I can say about food poverty is that there is something worse than being in poverty and that is to be made to feel guilty about being in poverty. There is something worse than virtue signalling: vice signalling. There is something better than both: actual practical virtue. I praise my food banks and the food share schemes in Westmorland and Lonsdale and elsewhere in Cumbria.
I want to focus my minute and a bit on those who produce our food. I am desperately concerned that what Britain is doing at the moment with its agricultural policy is reducing the amount of food that we produce, which will inevitably increase the cost of that food. The Government’s transition from the common agricultural policy to the environmental land management scheme would actually be one of that rare, rare species—a Brexit benefit—if it was done properly, but it is not being done properly. In my constituency, we have a thousand farms. All of them will lose at least 35% of their basic payment this year. Two per cent. of them have qualified for the new sustainable farming incentive. We need to pause the phase-out of the basic payment scheme, so we can protect our farmers and stop the eradication of our ability to produce food. We need to look again at the perverse incentives in some aspects of ELMS, which give big cheques to very large landowners for clearing off their tenants, which is morally outrageous and will again reduce our ability to produce food. It is a foolish approach to pit nature against farming when they work beautifully together.
If we lose farmers, we lose not only our ability to look after our environment, our natural landscapes and our biodiversity, but our ability to produce food. We need to go on to international markets to buy the food that we do not produce ourselves, which pushes up the costs of food for the poorest people on the planet. Protecting our farmers means producing food for us locally and keeping food prices down domestically and abroad.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing this welcome debate, but I do not agree with many of the things he said. He thinks that people who use food banks are abusing them, cannot budget or cook properly, have access to huge amounts of food waste—
The hon. Member had plenty of time to speak; I have only two minutes. He has just made provocative statements completely detached from the facts as I have seen them at my local food bank and from visiting so many people in my constituency. In Southfields and in Roehampton with its Community Box, food banks are doing a fantastic job, but no one going to them wants to go there; they want to be able to go to the shops to choose their food and provide for their family.
In Sherwood, the Minister’s constituency, 1,233 emergency three-day food supplies were given out last year, and in my borough of Wandsworth, 10,000 emergency food supplies were given out. There is a reason for the huge increase in the need to go to food banks, and that is that the system is entirely broken after 13 years of the Conservatives breaking that system.
The people I meet who have gone to food banks are the best at budgeting, at working shifts, at making ends meet and at never wasting food. They do not want to visit food banks, but they are a lifeline in emergency times. Instead of blaming people who go to food banks, the hon. Member for Ashfield should have been looking at the two-child benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the frozen local housing allowance. I commend Sadiq Khan for bringing free school meals to London schools—they will make a huge difference.
In London, housing is the main issue, so I lead with some questions on that to the Minister. With the Budget coming up, will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to urge him to use it to end the freeze on the local housing allowance, restoring it so that it covers the cheapest third of rents in an area? With April looming, will the Minister reassure my constituents by ruling out any increase in the Government’s energy price cap from April, but instead pass on recent falls in the gas price to households, so that they will not need to rely on food banks anymore?
I will be as brief as possible. With inflation at a record high, rising again to reach 17.1% in the four weeks to 19 February, one quarter of people say that they are struggling financially, versus one in five this time last year. That is why people are going to food banks. There are social, physical, mental health and economic costs, as food inflation is one of the largest contributing factors to general inflation. Basic foodstuffs such as bread and milk have soared in price. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that more than 17 million households across the UK go without essentials and 13% admit that they have skipped meals. How can we hear such statistics and not be ashamed?
The Trussell Trust reports that food bank use is soaring, as the cost of living in general bites into households. Food bank users tend to be those who are destitute, disabled or in single-parent households. Those on universal credit are not well off, and they often have to contend with the five-week wait for the benefit and being put in the ludicrous position of having to pay back benefit from their universal credit when they receive it. Given that a bank would never give a loan to those on universal credit, I have never understood why the state thinks that such people are able to pay back from the pittance they receive from Government. All that does is drive people further and further into poverty, which drives them further and further from work. Who does that benefit? Our welfare state is simply not doing enough to support people.
The hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who introduced the debate, talked about how he had spoken to and met people in poverty. Perhaps he has noticed that poverty bleeds into every aspect of someone’s life. Material poverty breeds poverty of self-esteem, of world view and world horizon, of ambition, of health and of life outcomes. He has seen these things, I suppose; I have lived these things. He actually said, “I have seen these people.” Well, I was one of them, and I can tell him that they are not living high on the hog, and it is ludicrous to say so.
The hon. Gentleman wants to speak to people who are poor, but they would not come and speak to him. I would gently say to him that it is staggeringly insensitive of an MP, who is on a pretty good wage by anybody’s measures, to think he should be able to lecture those who are living and struggling on universal credit or low pay. I would not take kindly to that; indeed, I do not know many people who would take kindly to being told by somebody who is well off what they were doing wrong as they struggled to survive and feed their family every day.
I am a great fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, and as I was sitting listening to the hon. Gentleman, for all the world he reminded me of Mr Scrooge—without the compassion. Add into these difficulties the economic damage of Brexit and it is not good enough to tell people who are struggling that they need to buck up—that they need to work more shifts, try harder and buy containers to batch cook. It simply is not good enough. It is complacent and staggeringly insensitive, and when the Minister gets to his feet and offers a perhaps more measured approach, I hope he will tell us what more he can do to help families and households who are struggling. I know that he will tell us what has already been done, but he will appreciate that that is not enough when we have children going hungry, families relying on food banks and no end to this pain in sight, because the soaring food inflation is not expected to ease any time soon.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing this debate. I am also grateful, as ever, for briefings from Sustain and the National Farmers’ Union, among others.
The rise in food poverty and the emergence of food banks is one of the most shameful and baleful consequences of 13 years of Conservative Government. In 2010-11, the Trussell Trust was operating 35 food banks; last year, it was 1,400. While we all applaud its work and we are extraordinarily grateful to our local food banks—I pay tribute to the volunteers and supporters in my city of Cambridge—our goal must be to put food banks out of business by ensuring that they are no longer needed. Let us be clear: although there are unwelcome shortages on supermarket shelves, the issue with food poverty is a money problem, not a food problem. There is enough food in our communities, but not everyone has enough money to access it. That is the problem that needs to be resolved. I would like to hear from the Minister just what discussions he has had with colleagues on how they intend to tackle this problem.
We have had some powerful contributions to the debate, particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson. We should indeed be angry about how our country has got to this state. It increasingly feels like a country drowning in a worsening cost of living crisis, high inflation, rising food prices and stagnating growth. Up and down the country, too many of our constituents are suffering constant anxiety about how they will make ends meet. We heard this week that energy bills will continue to rise in the coming year, which combined with wages failing to keep up with inflation means that people will be poorer. That means less for essentials, including food.
The figures from the Food Foundation make grim reading. In April 2022, 7.3 million people, including 2.6 million children, were in food poverty across the UK. Data out today, again from the Food Foundation, shows that the number of households where children are experiencing food insecurity has nearly doubled in the past year. In January 2023, 21.6% of households with children reported that their children had directly experienced food insecurity in the past month—an estimated 3.7 million children—compared with 11.6% the previous January.
Another clear indicator that people are suffering food poverty is the rising number of people who are turning to food banks. In 2021-22, the Trussell Trust supplied 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels to food bank users. It is expected that the next annual figures will show a marked increase. That is a view supported by November’s data from the Trussell Trust, which shows that 1.3 million emergency food parcels had been provided to people in the six months between April and September 2022, a third more than during the same period in 2021.
It just goes on: the latest ONS figures, released just two weeks ago, showed inflation of food and non-alcoholic drink prices—up 16.8% in the year to January 2023. The consequences are severe. In January and February, more than four in 10 adults said they had to spend more than usual in the previous two weeks to get what they normally buy when food shopping. In November and December, about one in seven adults said that in the previous two weeks they had been worried about running out of food before they had money to buy more. That rose to one in four adults with dependent children, and 29% for adults living in the most deprived area in England.
I am afraid that everything is going in the wrong direction and I ask the Minister to reflect on why that is the case. What has gone so wrong over the last 13 years to cause such a surge in food bank use? When does he think we will no longer need food banks—or are they a permanent feature for the Conservatives? There are some practical things the Government could do. Just why did they pull the funding for FareShare after its successful trial to tackle food waste? That scheme helped to cover the extra costs to small-scale farmers, growers and producers of redistributing their good-to-eat waste food rather than letting it go to waste. The trial resulted in 85% more fruit and vegetables reaching frontline charities and community groups. The Government funding ended in 2020 and, despite widespread calls, has not been continued. Why not, and why have the Government been so parsimonious when it comes to the suppliers of school meals, which face endlessly rising costs but have to try to provide nutritious meals with only a few extra pence?
Much more could be said, but I am conscious that this is a short debate. Disgracefully, we now live in a country where food poverty has become endemic. It is a record of which the Conservatives should be ashamed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) on securing the debate. Given the time restrictions, it will be difficult for me to respond to all the points that have been made, but I will start by recognising the impact that high food prices are having on household budgets.
High food prices are a result of many different factors, including agrifood import prices, domestic agricultural prices, domestic labour and manufacturing costs, the exchange rate for sterling—and not least, of course, Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and the aftershocks of the pandemic, which are having a global impact, with food prices rising at home and abroad. Other countries are experiencing high food price inflation, with 16% being recorded in the euro area in December last year. Rising food prices are a big contributor to the high levels of inflation that people are currently experiencing. However, we have seen a slight fall in the official food price inflation figures for January. We will continue to watch and monitor the situation as food price inflation continues to move around.
Given the impact of high food prices, tackling inflation is the Government’s No. 1 priority. We plan to more than halve inflation this year, and we are monitoring all key agricultural commodities so that we can work with the food industry to address the challenges that it faces. Low-income households are most affected by high food and energy prices, which is why we have provided a package of support to help people with rising food costs. The Government have already committed £37 billion to support households with the current exceptionally high cost of living, £1 billion of which has gone towards help with the cost of household essentials.
Looking forward to April, the Government will uprate benefit rates and the state pension by 10.1%. The benefit cap levels will increase by the same amount in order to increase the number of households that can benefit from these uprating decisions. In addition, for 2023-24, households on eligible means-tested benefits will get up to £900 in cost of living payments, which will be split in three payments of about £300 across the 2023-24 financial year. A separate £300 payment will be made to pensioner households on top of their winter fuel payment, and individuals in receipt of eligible disability benefit will receive a £150 payment.
In order to better understand who is currently experiencing food poverty, we introduced a set of questions into the family resources survey to measure and track food bank use from April 2021. The first results of those questions are due to be published very soon, subject to the usual quality assurances.
The Government spend around £1 billion annually on free school meals, and protections are in place to ensure that eligible pupils keep their free school meal entitlement even if their household circumstances change. The end date for that has now been extended to March 2025. The latest figures from the Department for Education show that around 1.9 million pupils are claiming free schools meals, which equates to 22.5% of all pupils, up from 20.8% in 2021.
Of course, we recognise that there are cost pressures throughout the whole food supply chain. That is why the Government are offering huge amounts of support to households to try to cope with that. However, we acknowledge that there are challenges—not just in schools but in the Prison Service, the NHS and many Government Departments. That is why we need to address inflation, which is one of the Government’s highest priorities.
We continue to work with food retailers and producers to explore a range of measures that they can take to ensure the availability and affordability of food. It would be remiss of me not to mention the recent issues that we have experienced with the supply of certain fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in the UK. We are continuing to engage with industry throughout this period, and I hosted a roundtable with retailers this week to explore with them their contractual models, plans to return to normal supplies and contingencies for dealing with supply-chain challenges. I have also asked them to look again at how they work with our farmers and how they buy fruit and vegetables so that they can further prepare for these unexpected incidents. In the meantime, I reassure hon. Members that the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, which was demonstrated during the covid-19 response. It is well equipped to deal with situations with a potential to cause disruption.
I want to address the comments made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He tried to divide the House this evening on the statutory instrument that provides funding for ELMS. That is a real disappointment and a misunderstanding of the challenges that we face. In effect, he tried to keep English farmers tied to the EU’s bureaucratic and tiresome common agricultural policy by trying to shout down that legislation.
I will give way in a moment. The hon. Gentleman made a point about wealthy people. Under the CAP, 50% of the budget went to 10% of landowners, and it did little to support food production or environmental improvements. With the new schemes, we are trying to ensure that nature works hand in hand with those who produce food.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He will know that all parties here are united in our support for the principles of ELMS, and we think that moving to public money for public goods is the right thing. I said on the record just a few moments ago that the CAP was one of the worst aspects of the European Union, and it is one of the few reasons to celebrate not being in it. The key thing is that the Minister’s party and the Government supported, proposed and promised £2.4 billion of ringfenced farm support. I am sure that he will confirm that that money is not being spent at the moment, because the basic payment scheme has been withdrawn and the new schemes are being taken up by a fraction of those to whom they should be available. That means he has broken that promise to farmers.
No, I absolutely stand by that commitment. We will spend £2.4 billion of taxpayers’ money every year in this Parliament. If we fall short and spend only £2.3 billion this year, we will roll that forward and spend £2.5 billion next year. In rolling out those schemes, farmers clearly needed time to adjust, have a look at those new schemes and ensure that they could bid and understand the process that is taking place. It has taken a while to get those schemes right, but we worked with farmers to ensure that they were right. We have now rolled them out, and there are huge numbers of farmers bidding for capital grants on slurry and equipment, to enter into sustainable farming incentive agreements and get involved with countryside stewardship. That is the right thing to do and the right way to go forward.
I am conscious of time, Mr Dowd, because I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield time to respond. I thank him for introducing this debate. The Government have a shared ambition to ensure that our food system delivers healthy and affordable food for everyone. I thank him and other colleagues for engaging in this debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond. I will be very brief. I am little disappointed with some of the divisive comments from the Opposition. I don’t do divisive politics. I like to debate sensibly. It was interesting that I accepted every single intervention, but the Opposition would not accept one. That is what debates should be all about—accepting interventions.
Some of the divisive language was awful. I did not say that “everybody” was abusing the food bank system or that “everybody” who uses a food bank cannot cook or budget—I said, “some people”. We should be very careful with tone and delivery because of tomorrow’s headlines in the papers. It leads to hatred, nastiness and threats. All I am going to say is that the Opposition need to be very careful with the way they speak in this place, because it does lead to some horrible and divisive behaviour.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of tackling poverty and the cost of food.