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Westminster Hall

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 June 2023

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Import and Sale of Fur

[Relevant document: e-petition 630751, Retain bans on cat, dog, seal fur imports, and extend to ban all fur imports.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the import and sale of fur.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. As Members are aware, the welfare and protection of animals is an issue that our constituents care deeply about. In this country, we have a proud track record of leading the charge on the international stage in animal protection law. Only last year, we marked the bicentenary of the UK’s first animal protection law—indeed, the first national animal protection law in the world—the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, known as Martin’s Act. We in the UK lead the way.

In our ever-more connected world, British people are both informed about and concerned by the plight of animals, not just in this country but overseas, and we are rightly and especially concerned when animals suffer overseas to be turned into products that eventually reach the UK as a consumer market or important trading hub. Today’s debate is about our current double standard. In the UK, fur farming is banned on the grounds of ethics and welfare, but we continue to allow the import of farmed fur from animals that have suffered overseas. The debate is about recognising that when it comes to protecting the welfare of sentient animals, it is not enough simply to prevent cruelties occurring in our own backyard. We must look beyond our shores and ensure that we do not perpetuate the infliction of cruelty overseas by trading in cruel products such as fur.

The Government’s 2021 action plan for animal welfare pledged to explore action on the UK fur trade. It noted that although it is illegal to import seal, cat and dog fur,

“it is still possible to import other fur from abroad”.

In June 2021, the Government conducted a call for evidence on the fur market that received almost 30,000 responses, although they have not yet released a summary of those responses or a policy position. I hope we might have some progress on that point, and to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister about it today.

Today’s debate on the UK fur trade might be seen as a debate about an animal welfare problem. Indeed, animal welfare will feature significantly in my remarks. However, it is also a debate about the trade in an unsustainable product that causes great environmental harm and the production of which carries significant and extremely concerning human health risks through a strong association with the spread of zoonotic diseases, including covid-19. But let us begin with the animals themselves and their experience in the global fur trade.

Fur farming has rightly been banned across all nations of the UK since 2003. We were the first country in the world to ban it and we blazed a trail that 18 countries have followed, with legislation for fur farming bans currently progressing through the Parliaments of Romania and Lithuania. The shrinking list of countries that continue to allow the farming of animals for their fur includes Finland, Poland and China. Across all countries where animals are farmed for their fur, the conditions are broadly similar.

I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate on an important issue that our constituents care deeply about. He talks about other countries that have continued to farm fur, but of course here we have a ceremonial hat worn by the King’s Guard that is made from the pelt of Canadian brown bears. Is it time to look for alternatives, given that right in the centre of any big parade we have that symbol of cruelty to animals?

I am glad the hon. Lady mentioned the fur cap. I think it takes one bear to produce one cap. A lot of the caps are ancient and historic, but we now have alternative products that are very effective and hard wearing. There is no reason why we cannot move to that. We will need to talk to the Ministry of Defence about that and take it further. It is something I would be glad to pick up, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.

Let me return to the condition of animals on fur farms, including foxes, raccoon dogs, mink and chinchillas, which are kept in wire battery cages that typically are no larger than 1 square metre, according to the industry’s own literature. They spend their short lives—typically around eight to nine months—in such cages. They are never permitted to run, dig, swim or hunt, or to engage in any of the other behaviours known to be vital to their physical and mental welfare.

I thank the hon. Member for securing such an important debate. He is making extremely powerful comments, but what does he make of the comments of Mike Moser, the former chief executive officer of the British Fur Trade Association and former director of standards at the International Fur Federation? Mike Moser spent 10 years defending the fur trade, but he now dedicates his life to being an anti-fur campaigner, and he confessed that

“neither welfare regulations nor any industry certification scheme, would ever change the reality of these animals being stuck in tiny wire cages for their entire lives.”

Do not those comments add to the argument that there is no such thing as humane fur farming?

I could not agree more. In fact, I shall use that very quote later in my speech. The hon. Member will find that we agree wholeheartedly on the issue.

Specifically in the case of mink, of which an estimated 20 million a year are farmed in tiny wire cages, veterinarians and welfare experts point out that as they are naturally solitary and wide-ranging animals in the wild, being kept row upon row, just centimetres from their equally unfortunate neighbours, is doubtless very stressful for them. Such an environment, and such cramped and barren conditions, comprehensively fail all scientific measures used to ensure that animals are kept in conditions that meet their welfare needs, such as the five freedoms of animal welfare and the five domains. Unsurprisingly, such conditions lead to physical and psychological suffering. The suffering in those cages is ubiquitous, and the fur industry builds into its so-called welfare assurance schemes an ambition to keep the percentage of animals suffering from diarrhoea, purulent discharge from the eyes, obvious skin lesions, and severe gum or tooth infections to less than 10%.

I echo the comments of colleagues in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he share the concerns of some about the impact of fur farms, which become reservoirs of disease, on human health? We need only look to our experience of the recent pandemic in that regard. That experience is another good reason for the UK Government to take the steps the hon. Gentleman is advocating.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, although we seem to be on a repeat cycle as I shall refer to those very issues later in my speech. I think he will be glad to hear my remarks.

Such health problems are widespread on fur farms and are the result of the grossly inadequate conditions in which the animals are forced to live. Investigations by organisations such as Humane Society International, to which I am incredibly grateful for its support during my preparation for the debate, repeatedly show the mental suffering of those wild animals, including a high frequency of stereotypical behaviours such as pacing and rocking as well as self-mutilation and cannibalism. Despite what the fur trade might like consumers to believe, there is no such thing as humane fur farming. Industry-led assurance schemes of high welfare fur farming permit a wide range of cruel practices, including the use of battery cages and cruel traps, such as leg-hold traps and even drowning traps for beavers.

At the end of their tragic lives, mink are typically gassed to death—veterinarians tell me that that is aversive to them, which of course it is, and that it causes suffering, which of course it does—while foxes and raccoon dogs are mostly anally electrocuted. Sickeningly, investigations, including one by Humane Society International in 2020 in China, show that animals are crudely beaten to death with metal poles and even skinned alive.

The hon. Member is making a fine speech. What brought the issue home to me was something that happened at school when I was 14 or 15. Our physics teacher, Mr Thompson, took an amber rod and showed us that rubbing it would produce a positive charge, but what he rubbed it with shook me to the core. It was a pussycat skin. He had a box of skins. He said, “It is all right; they came from abroad.” The hon. Member mentioned wild animals; that was a domestic moggy, somebody’s cat. That is what put me right off. Like the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), I have had numerous messages from constituents on the subject.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right: it does not matter where these skins come from, we should take it very seriously and consider legislating heavily against it.

Could fur production be made humane? The simple and truthful answer is “no”, because the fur trade’s economic model remains completely reliant on battery cages. There is no humane alternative to the fur trade’s model of intensive confinement. When the Governments of Germany and Sweden brought in laws requiring that foxes be given digging substrate and, in Germany, that minks be provided with swimming water, the respective segments of the industry in those countries closed down, as it was no longer economically viable to meet the requirements of those sensible laws.

It is not only animal protection organisations, such as the HSI and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that are calling time on the fur trade. The former CEO of the British Fur Trade Association, Mike Moser, who was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome), resigned after 10 years defending the fur trade. In September 2020, he publicly pledged his support for the Fur Free Britain campaign to ban fur sales in the UK. It is worth reading his statement again:

“Over time I realised that whatever soundbites we devised to reassure consumers, retailers and politicians, neither welfare regulations nor any industry certification scheme, would ever change the reality of these animals being stuck in tiny wire cages for their entire lives.”

That is a good point, well made. An estimated 95% of fur traded—the majority—is from animals kept on fur farms.

Let us move on to wild animals. Wild animals trapped for their fur suffer different but similarly awful plights. In countries including the USA and Canada, such animals are frequently caught cruel leg-hold traps that have been banned in the UK since the 1950s. Animals such as coyotes and racoons can suffer for days in those traps before they eventually succumb to the elements or dehydration or are killed. Horrifically, it is not uncommon for animals to rip or chew off limbs in a bid to escape. Such suffering is impossible to imagine, all for the purpose of a sentient creature ending up as the trim on a jacket hood or fur cap.

The case against the cruelty of the fur trade is straightforward. Less commonly understood, perhaps, is that fur farms can act as a reservoir for viruses and present a risk to public health, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) mentioned earlier. More than 480 fur farms across Europe and north America have been affected by outbreaks of covid-19 over the past three years, with six countries confirming spillover events from fur farms back to humans. Some 20 million animals were culled to protect public health, but mink farming continues in several countries across Europe and beyond.

An outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza on a mink farm in Spain last autumn further raised pandemic fears, with virologists from Imperial College, London, writing that it is “incredibly concerning” and “a warning bell” for humanity. A recent statement by the World Organisation for Animal Health warns:

“Some animals, such as mink, may act as mixing vessels for different influenza viruses, leading to the emergence of new strains and subtypes that could be more harmful to animals and/or humans. Recently reported infections in farmed mink are a concern, because infections of large numbers of mammals kept in close proximity of each other exacerbate this risk.”

By importing animal fur, we are importing cruelty, and we are facilitating a trade that could very well be the source of the next pandemic.

Lastly, let me outline briefly a final, compelling reason for the Government to act to end the UK fur trade: its sizeable environmental footprint. A new report published by Humane Society International has found that among the eight materials considered, fur from minks, foxes and racoon dogs had the highest air emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and water pollution per kilogram. The carbon footprint of 1 kg of mink fur was found to be 31 times higher than that of 1 kg of cotton, and the water consumption in fur production was found to be five times higher than that for cotton, with a kilogram of fur requiring a staggering 29,130 litres of water. The fur trade is bad news for animals, bad news for human health and bad news for the environment. An import ban, as they say in the vernacular, is a no-brainer.

By means of an intervention, I have already said what I said about my teacher, Mr Thompson. The main point I will make is that that was then. I am quite old; that was an education in the late ’60s, in the hands of Scotland at Tain Royal Academy. Things change over time. That is precisely why the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) made the speech that he just did: things change and human opinions change. If someone talked to my three children, they would find the whole idea of the fur trade or breeding any animal to kill it by some ghastly means simply to have its skin, as has been outlined, abhorrent. There is a sense of decency out there, and I am proud that our country is saying what it is saying, and it has a lot more to say. We await the Minister’s response with great interest.

There is a sort of moral high ground. We are a nation of animal lovers, which is precisely why my constituents have been in touch with me in the way that they have. I take this opportunity to put on the record that I thank them for saying those things. I hope that we can spread the word to other nations that it is absolutely out of order to do what the hon. Member for Clacton told us about. We have only one planet together, and we are all—pretty much—sentient beings.

I have a much-loved pet cat at home called Hattie, which gives my wife and myself great pleasure; the same is true of everyone who has a pet, or, indeed, if I look out the window and see a blackbird hopping about or just a wild animal. In my constituency, we are blessed with an enormous amount of wildlife, from deer to badgers to otters, and even the occasional roving beaver, so I am led to understand. We all love that, and it makes our lives worth living.

This is a short contribution, but I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Clacton for raising the matter today. It is an honourable cause, and well done to him; I hope his constituents will see the good work he does.

Like the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), I did not plan to make a speech this morning, but I take the opportunity to congratulate both the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) on introducing the debate and the other Members who took the time to participate.

We are a number of nations—four nations—of animal lovers. Since we are mentioning pets, I do not think my own pet has been on the record before, so I will ensure that I mention Wee Jean, who, in 2019, won Westminster Dog of the Year—so I will get Wee Jean on the record.

I will just point out that several years ago my cat Hattie was runner-up for the Cat of the Year award.

I thank the hon. Member for that.

On a more serious point, we rarely have constituents getting in touch—in fact, I never have—to say “Can we keep fur imports? Can we continue doing this?” On almost everything, we usually get constituents getting in touch on both sides of the debate, so we can say that in this case the issue quite clearly has the support of the public. Many high-street brands have already banned fur, and I believe that Marks and Spencer, H&M and Adidas have all taken a stand against it. There is no reason why we need it, because there are perfectly acceptable alternatives.

I mentioned Canadian bears—I think I said the Canadian brown bear, but I meant to say the Canadian black bear, whose fur is used for hats. There are alternatives. Last year, a group brought an alternative into Parliament and said that it had been tested under lots of different conditions. The group felt that it was just stubbornness and refusal to give up tradition that meant we were continuing to use real Canadian black bear pelts for hats. We need to move on. There is no reason to be doing this.

One thing the hon. Member for Clacton did not mention was foie gras. It is a cruel method of production for a luxury food item that really is not required.

I will mention one other thing. Just a few months ago, the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) successfully introduced the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill and got the support of the House. That was a real show of cross-party strength on an issue, and I think we can do the same for fur. I thank the hon. Member for Clacton once again for bringing forward this issue, and I look forward to other Members’ contributions.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Dame Maria. I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate, and the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for leading it. Many of my constituents across Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill have written to me on the issue and have signed e-petition 602285 on the import and sale of fur.

Banning imports of animal fur is a crucial step in upholding high standards of animal welfare. If we are to pride ourselves on our commitment to compassion and ethical practice, we must take action now to ensure that our actions are aligned with our words. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 was heralded by all at the time, and rightly so, but fur production has long been associated with acts of animal cruelty and unnecessary animal suffering.

The Government talk the talk, but they have dropped the ball completely on animal welfare with the shelving of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Last year, rumours were swirling around the UK that the Government could back out of their promise to ban the importation of fur. At the time, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs corrected the reports, saying:

“Future legislation to ban the imports of fur and foie gras has not been ‘dropped’”.

It said that the legislation faced a lack of progress due to “limited Parliamentary time”. Considering how early the House’s business has collapsed in recent weeks, we know that not to be the case, don’t we, colleagues?

As the hon. Member for Clacton said, the UK has historically been a leader on animal rights, becoming the first European nation to ban fur farming on ethical grounds back in 2003. As consumers become more concerned about animal welfare, public health and the environment, the demand for fur products is thankfully decreasing, but the United Kingdom still imported around £55 million-worth of fur in 2019 alone, according to the UK charity coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link.

We know that there is strong public backing for a UK fur sales ban. Over 1.1 million signatures have now been collected to date, with a poll from April 2022 showing that 77% of UK voters think that the Government should ban the importation of animal products such as fur.

The hon. Member and I were no supporters of Brexit, but much of the talk following Brexit has been about how the UK Government are going to place animal welfare at the top of their international trade policy. Would banning the import of fur not be a huge statement that furthered that agenda considerably?

The hon. Member makes an excellent point. The Department for International Trade has a big part to play: I would like to see a clause in our free trade deals that says that they will not be implemented if the country is involved in these practices. I will come on to a wee bit of that later on.

Early-day motion 929, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), calls for faux fur to be used so that bears are not slaughtered for fur to make ceremonial hats. The Ministry of Defence pays more than £1,700 per bearskin, and in response to a letter it said that 110 caps made from bearskin had been purchased in 2020 at a cost of £145,000 to the taxpayer, and that in 2021 a further 23 bearskin caps were purchased at a total cost of £40,000. The use of bear fur is not only wrong but a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, particularly at a time when so many people out there are struggling to buy basic necessities. The SNP fully supports replacing those ceremonial hats with indistinguishable fake fur. As has been highlighted, there are alternatives that do not involve the suffering of wildlife to meet the fashion requirements of the MOD.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that very good point about the fur caps that the military wear. I am sure he agrees that there are also more cost-effective ways of producing that fur.

It is on the record that there are far more cost-effective ways of doing that, and faux fur caps last a lot longer too, so I am absolutely behind that. Nobody wants to take away the pomp and pageantry. Some people like it, and we respect the fact that it matters to people here, but there is no need for animal suffering.

The early-day motion states that the continued use of bearskin from wild bears impedes the UK Government’s efforts to strengthen animal welfare legislation and improve animal rights. That cruelty and maltreatment must not continue unabated, given that faux fur is a cruelty-free and more cost-effective alternative, as the hon. Gentleman has just outlined.

Despite all that, and despite calls from the length and breadth of the UK to protect animals and choose the humane option, the MOD has not moved. In June, the Government stated:

“The use of faux fur products for future requirements remains under review.”

That is not good enough. The Ministry of Defence uses not only bear for ceremonial caps, but black fox skin, and rabbit, beaver and hare fur, for various other items of uniform. We believe that the Ministry of Defence has serious questions to answer, and so does the Department for International Trade.

As the regulation of international trade remains a reserved matter, this is a decision that the UK Government must take on behalf of all nations of the UK. The SNP urges the Government to make the right decision, listen to the people and to morality, and prohibit the import of any new fur products. Furthermore, we call on the Department for International Trade to introduce a ban before it negotiates and signs any more free trade deals with fur-exporting nations. The challenges we face must not be used to oppose a ban, as is currently happening in some quarters. We also do not want to find ourselves bound by the terms of any trade agreement that makes a fur ban more difficult to introduce, so we must have guarantees that such terms will never be used as a bargaining chip in any negotiations.

I remind those who argue that this issue is insignificant compared with other pressing concerns that our treatment of animals speaks volumes about our society. The way we treat the most vulnerable among us, including animals, reflects our collective character. By banning fur imports, we would reaffirm our commitment to empathy and compassion, and foster a society that values the inherent worth of all sentient beings. The time has come for the United Kingdom to take that bold step and ban the import of animal fur.

I thank the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for securing this important debate, and particularly for his point about the environmental footprint of fur, which, as he rightly points out, involves water and carbon usage far in excess of any other type of clothing.

I will start with a quotation:

“The UK has a world-leading record on animal welfare, and over the last decade the Government has introduced a range of measures to ensure we offer animals the care, respect and protection they deserve.”

Those were the words of the then Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), as he launched his party’s action plan on animal welfare. I wonder how the Conservative party feels about those words now. The Government have dropped the kept animals Bill and abandoned the animals abroad Bill—two pieces of legislation that promised to cement the UK’s reputation as a global leader in animal welfare. It raises questions about whether the Government genuinely care about animal welfare.

As I am sure is the case for everyone here, my office has been inundated with correspondence from concerned constituents expressing their deep distress and disappointment with the Government’s decision to scrap their promises and renege on animal welfare measures. In particular, there is great concern about the importation of fur to our country, effectively outsourcing animal cruelty and suffering overseas—a measure that would have been included in the Bills that I mentioned. It is pertinent to remind the House that in February, DEFRA released a statement confirming:

“Future legislation to ban the imports of fur and foie gras has not been ‘dropped’”.

We now need the Minister to provide us with a straight answer on this and shed some light on why this legislation has not come forward. Has it been abandoned? I think we would all like to know.

We have had some excellent contributions. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) made a moral case, reminding us that the UK is a nation of animal lovers. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) made the point that no constituent has ever asked us to keep the importation of fur and that alternatives are widely available. This is an “unethical”, “outdated”, “cruel” and “out-of-touch” practice—those were the words of 79% of people surveyed by YouGov in a 2020 poll about wearing real animal fur. The survey found that 93% of the British public are opposed to wearing real animal fur.

It is not just the general public. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and the hon. Member for Clacton said, the former CEO of the British Fur Trade Association, Mike Moser, has pledged his support for a ban, stating:

“Over time I realised that whatever soundbites we devised to reassure consumers, retailers and politicians, neither welfare regulations nor any industry certification scheme, would ever change the reality of these animals being stuck in tiny wire cages for their entire lives”.

I have never seen such a flip from a leading exponent of a practice and industry as Mike Moser’s. That shows the need to reflect not just in the UK, but internationally, about the practice of fur farming.

Back in 2018, the Government claimed that advancing a ban on imported fur would be unlikely because of our membership of the EU. They touted Brexit as an opportunity to get the job done and promised us again that they would ban fur imports in their last manifesto in 2019. Regrettably, it seems that the opinions of the British public and experts in the field such as HSI, Four Paws, Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and Cats Protection, as well as leading international experts such as the World Organisation for Animal Health, hold little sway with the Government.

Just last week, we had Conservative MPs blocking Labour’s motion to revive the kept animals Bill, which would have outlawed fur imports. Instead, they chose to disregard animal welfare again, reneging on their own manifesto pledge and dismissing the will of the people who voted for them. Their party is out of touch and, I am afraid, out of time.

Two decades have now passed since fur farming was banned in the UK. I am proud to confirm once again that a Labour Government would take the necessary action on the importation of fur into Britain. We are committed to this. Unlike the current Government, we would base our actions on evidence, advice and morality. The Labour party has a clear plan for protecting animal welfare and looks forward to honouring the will of this nation of animal lovers. A Labour Britain will be a compassionate, fur-free Britain.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. It has been less of a pleasure, in many ways, to listen to colleagues’ accounts, but I thank all Members for raising awareness, which is absolutely necessary, about some of the ways animals have been kept and treated in the production of fur.

I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for his evidence-based, exceptionally well-written and powerful speech, and to ensure that the record remembers his work for decades on the subject of animal welfare, in this place and well before coming to this place. I thank all colleagues for bringing to our attention accounts that are deeply awful but necessary to face. I do feel that ignorance—simply not knowing about the conditions in which some fur-farmed animals are kept and the way they have been so cruelly treated and killed—would lead to the purchase of these products. Of course, this debate has expanded well beyond animal welfare to include biosecurity and environmental impacts.

As I think every speaker said, we are a nation of animal lovers. Animal welfare has been a really significant priority for the Government since 2010. Already, our standards of animal welfare are world-leading: according to the World Animal Protection International animal protection index, they are not just the best in the G7, but the best in the world. I was pleased to hear such a focus by colleagues across the House on this area today.

Since 2010, we have raised animal welfare standards for farm animals, companion animals and wild animals. The most notable legislative measures already taken include the banning of traditional battery cages for laying hens and the raising of standards for chickens to be consumed for meat. We have implemented and upgraded welfare standards at slaughterhouses and introduced CCTV. Further steps include the revamped local authority licensing regime for commercial pet services including selling, dog breeding, boarding and animal displays. We banned third party puppy and kitten sales through Lucy’s law. We introduced protections for service animals through Finn’s law. We introduced offences for horse fly-grazing and abandonment. We also banned wild animals in travelling circuses.

Our manifesto commitments demonstrate the ambition to go further on animal welfare. In 2018, we committed to bringing in new laws on animal sentience; introducing tougher sentences for animal cruelty; implementing the Ivory Act 2018 and extending it to other species; ensuring that animal welfare standards are not compromised in trade deals; cracking down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies; bringing forward cat microchipping; banning the keeping of primates as pets; and banning imports of hunting trophies from endangered species.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) referred to the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith). It is making sterling progress through the House, as are other private Members’ Bills—there is the work that the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) is doing on the banning of shark fins, and the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) is doing through her Bill to improve animal welfare abroad in relation to advertisements.

It is clear from the Minister’s words that she understands the importance of animal welfare and the impact that fur farming has, not just on animal welfare but on the environment and public health. Given that, can she tell us a date by which the Government will introduce an import ban on fur?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. If she can be patient for just a couple more minutes, I will go into more detail about the response to the call for evidence—30,000 people responded—and the next steps in this process, but I would like to continue to explain the Government’s progress so far. We have also banned the cruel shipment of live animals, or rather there has been no shipment of live animals for fattening and slaughtering since 2020. We want this to continue, and that is absolutely why we will be bringing forward legislation in the very near future—certainly before the end of this Parliament—to ensure that it continues. We also want to ensure that, in return for funding, farmers safeguard high standards of animal welfare.

We have already delivered many of the manifesto commitments. The Government have increased penalties for those convicted of animal cruelty. We passed the Animal Welfare Sentience Act 2022 and launched a dedicated Animal Sentience Committee. We made microchipping compulsory for cats as well as dogs. We also announced an extension to the Ivory Act 2018, which came into force last year, covering five more endangered species: hippopotamus, narwhal, killer whale, sperm whale and walrus.

On top of our manifesto commitments, in 2021 we published our ambitious and comprehensive action plan for animal welfare. The plan includes about 40 different actions—steady progress is being made on the vast majority—and sets out the work we are focused on pursuing throughout this parliamentary term and beyond. Our action plan covers farmed animals, wild animals, pets and sporting animals, and it includes legislative and non-legislative reforms relating to activities in this country and abroad. Most recently, the Government supported a private Member’s Bill that paves the way for penalty notices to be applied to animal welfare offences, and we are consulting on how we should do that. We have also banned glue traps and given the police additional powers to tackle hare coursing.

As well as legislating, we have launched the pioneering animal health and welfare pathway, which sets out the way forward for improving farm animal welfare for years to come, building on the work that we have already done to improve conditions for sheep, cattle and chickens. With the pathway, we are working in partnership with industry to transform farm animal welfare, through annual health and welfare reviews with a vet of choice, supported by financial grants.

The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) invited me to provide updates and reassurance on the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. The reason that I went through our impressive track record on animal welfare was to convey confidence to Members across this House that what we set out in our 2019 manifesto will be delivered. It will not be delivered through a single Bill, because we have encountered numerous difficulties in trying to achieve that. As I said last week, the important thing is that we deliver our commitments successfully and swiftly, so we have announced that measures in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will be taken forward individually during the remainder of this term.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that the King’s Speech later this year will be followed by a ballot. Private Members’ Bills will then be supported by officials in DEFRA, along with other single-issue Bills, statutory instruments, legislative programmes, secondary legislation, regulation and reforms with industry.

What will the Minister do if, in the private Member’s ballot, no Member wishes to bring forward a Bill to ban the importation of fur?

I regard that to be an incredibly low risk—nigh on impossible—given the interest that we have already had from Members looking to pursue such private Members’ Bills. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman encourages Opposition Members to apply to take a Bill forward. I can guarantee that officials in DEFRA will work incredibly diligently, as they always do, to support Members with their private Members’ Bills to ensure that they are robust, evidence-based and make the necessary progress across both Houses.

I, like many others across both sides of this House, was disappointed when the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was dropped. I listened very carefully to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries when he made that announcement. My understanding is that parts of that Bill will be going through as legislation. I ask the Minister how many parts will become legislation and will the Bill eventually go through in its entirety?

My hon. Friend allows me to say that there were six measures listed in the manifesto, and all six will be acted on through various legislative means, including primary and secondary legislation, regulation and reforms with the industry. I will be happy to meet with my hon. Friend to provide further detail, and to encourage him to submit an application in the ballot after the King’s Speech later this year. I reiterate that officials across DEFRA will provide support to ensure that Bills are delivered successfully, swiftly and in the best interests of animal welfare.

The Minister is detailing a lot of the legislation that has passed, and we are all thankful for what has been done so far, but surely it should not be up to private Members’ Bills to make the required changes in matters such as importing fur.

I undertook my own private Member’s Bill to ban wild animals in circuses, and I certainly found it was a rewarding way to spend my time in Parliament. The hon. Lady does not do justice to private Members’ Bills by speaking ill of them. The record is there: they are incredibly successful at gaining Royal Assent and transitioning into Acts of Parliament, and making a tremendous difference.

I would like to make some progress on the subject of the debate brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, but I will give way.

I thank the Minister. To clarify, I did not speak ill of any hon. Members bringing Bills forward; my point was that the Government should not be relying on Members to bring them forward. They should be part of the Government’s legislative programme.

As I said, private Members’ Bills will be supported, enabled and progressed by the Government. Their success to date reinforces why I am looking forward to working with hon. Members as they bring their Bills forward. The most important thing is that measures are enacted successfully and swiftly.

As hon. Members know, fur farming has been banned domestically for over 20 years. Our legislation prohibits the keeping and breeding of animals solely or primarily for slaughter for the value of their fur. Consumer protection laws means that information given to consumers must be accurate and not misleading. As a consequence, real fur must not be sold as faux fur. We also have strict restrictions on some skin and fur products that may never be legally imported into the UK. Those include fur and fur products from cats and dogs, whose import, export and placing on the market is prohibited. Seal products, including fur and fur products, may be imported and placed on the UK market for sale only in very limited, strict conditions. They are otherwise prohibited.

We have well-established controls in place on fur from endangered species, which are protected by the convention on international trade in endangered species. We also do not allow imports of fur from wild animals caught using methods that are non-compliant with international humane trapping standards. We recognise that some countries and territories have chosen to impose restrictions on trade in fur. We will watch developments on the European citizens’ initiative “fur free Europe” petition with a keen eye.

Although fur cannot be farmed in this country—quite rightly—and the import and sale of fur from some species is prohibited, it is still possible, as hon. Members have discussed, to import and sell other types of fur from abroad, including products from caged production. It is also possible to re-export fur and fur products that have been imported. It is a complex picture, but we have begun a course of action. In our action plan for animal welfare, the Government committed to exploring potential action in the area. In line with our commitment to improving animal welfare standards, we have sought to build on our evidence. We have sought the perspective of the public, and reached out to both animal welfare organisations and organisations directly involved in the fur trade.

DEFRA published a formal call for evidence on the fur trade in Great Britain in 2021. Launched jointly with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, it asked for views on animal welfare and on the social and economic impacts associated with the trade, both on our shores and overseas. This is a key step in helping us to improve our understanding of the fur sector. In particular, we sought views on the scale and nature of domestic fur sector activity, including trading; the scale and nature of fur sector activities abroad, which are integral to our existing domestic fur sector; and individuals’ attitudes towards the domestic fur sector.

We received around 30,000 responses from businesses, representative bodies and individuals. Officials have been analysing the responses we received and have engaged directly with stakeholders to develop further our understanding of the sector; this includes meeting key representatives and animal welfare groups. We would like to use the evidence gathered to inform future action on the fur trade. A summary of responses to the call for evidence, setting out the results and the next steps in this policy space, will be published very soon.

Members rightly acknowledged the importance of biosecurity, so I will touch on some aspects of that. We note the reference to the report by Humane Society International and will consider it as part of the evidence-building process, along with other sources. As I think has been recognised today, covid-19 and its significant global impact reminds us of the importance of the interaction between humans, animals and the environment at all times and in all places. We all need to work together globally to understand better how our behaviour, our supply chains and our cultures change these interactions and create risks. We are aware of concerns around disease risks associated with the fur trade, and we will continue to gather evidence on that issue.

It is vital that any future policies are developed on the basis of robust evidence. We will continue to build the evidence base on fur, which will inform potential future action on the fur trade. Far from evidence-gathering being abandoned, I can confirm today that this process includes commissioning a report from our experts on the Animal Welfare Committee, who have done tremendous work for a number of years now. They will consider the issue of responsible sourcing in the fur industry, including the animal welfare standards and safeguards that apply to fur imported into this country. Given what we have heard today from Members, in particular the accounts by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton of the ways in which animals are kept and treated, I pay tribute to members of the Animal Welfare Committee, because gathering such evidence will most surely be a harrowing ordeal, albeit an absolutely necessary one to provide us with the evidence we need to take action in the interests of animal welfare.

Animal welfare is an absolute priority for this Government. Our track record thus far speaks for itself. We recognise the valuable contribution that animals of all kinds can make to our lives and our planet, and it was lovely to hear the accounts of two Members about their pets. I think that all of us have had incredibly positive interactions with animals, including pets, and it is certainly part of my role to ensure that people are more connected to nature through the work of our environmental improvement plan and our commitment that everyone should live within 15 minutes of a blue or green space, all of which contribute to people’s enjoyment of nature and animals in their own environment.

That is the way that we should enjoy animals—not by having a piece of fur attached to a jacket, but by being in the great outdoors and experiencing animals in their own environment. So we will continue to prioritise caring for, respecting and protecting animals in the future.

I will leave a couple of minutes, Dame Maria, to hear a final few words from my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, who has done a sterling job, not only in raising our awareness today but in working in this area over many decades, both in this House and before he came here.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her very positive words. At the end of her remarks, she mentioned the animals we all know and love, and share our lives with. I have been a lifelong animal owner of one sort or another. Humphrey and Herbie are my current companions, and I say that just so that I can get them into Hansard. They have wonderful fur that is much better on them than anywhere else. I have had many dogs.

I think it is worth touching on a couple of points before the debate ends. On a positive note, it is good to remember that the UK fur trade, once prolific, is now almost dead as far as the high street is concerned. We have come an awfully long way, but there is much further to go. I think all Members agree that banning the import and sale of fur is a low-hanging fruit for the Government, and I therefore implore the Government to move on it. A survey found that 70% of British people would like to see a fur ban, and 1.1 million people signed a petition. The Government should listen. This is an easy win that will be appreciated by all sides and all constituents across all our four nations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the import and sale of fur.

Sitting suspended.

Asylum Applicants: Mental Health and Wellbeing

I will call Gareth Bacon to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered asylum applications and asylum seekers’ mental health and wellbeing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I did not want to bring forward this debate. Indeed, I did everything I could to avoid tabling it, and I would like to explain why. At the outset, I would like to talk about the challenging immigration situation faced by this country. Britain is one of the most tolerant and welcoming communities in the world. A recent King’s College study found, among other things, that only 5% of the population would not want immigrants as neighbours. Similarly, it was reported that, by last year, 75% of ethnic minority people living in Britain either felt very strongly or strongly British. Those are very positive statistics.

But we must also recognise the need to strike a balance between welcoming people and having reasonable immigration policies. Uncontrolled immigration and unchecked illegal immigration can have very serious consequences. That is why I believe the Home Secretary is right to be working to stop people putting their lives at risk by crossing the English channel in small boats to come to this country illegally. We must ensure that those coming to this country seeking asylum do so through legal routes.

It is right that we respond appropriately to the plight of asylum seekers escaping violent, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that systematically persecute and even execute their own people. It is our duty to take in genuine asylum seekers, just as it is our duty to remove economic migrants who have entered our country illegally. It is our duty to process asylum claims quickly and efficiently for the good of all concerned.

It cannot be denied that pressures in our asylum system have dramatically increased in recent years, to unprecedented levels. Indeed, the number of people waiting for longer than six months for an initial decision went up from around 18,000 in 2019 to 60,000 in the space of two years leading up to 2021. That is a serious matter that requires our urgent attention. In saying that, I make no criticism of Ministers, who I sincerely believe are battling to fix the system. I am afraid that in some instances, the lack of application and apparent disinterest on the part of some officials, exacerbated by the high-handed arrogance and disdain of some individuals who work closely with Ministers, have had terrible consequences on the lives of real people, in particular their mental health and wellbeing.

That brings me to a case I want to draw attention to, which caused me to table this debate. The case relates to an asylum claimant who until recently resided in my constituency of Orpington. In recent weeks, he has been moved to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who has given me full permission to continue processing this case. I will refer to this man as Mr A. He is a 31-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in the UK on 3 November 2020. He initially claimed asylum on 7 April 2021, but by March 2022 had not received any updates at all on the progress of his application. At that point, charitable Orpington constituents started to contact me to raise Mr A’s case.

I will quote from a letter I received from a neighbour of Mr A, who has been attempting to assist him. I received this letter in January this year, after I met Mr A and my constituent at my advice surgery. I believe it summarises Mr A’s situation very clearly:

“Mr A is an asylum seeker from Syria. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 3rd November 2020 on a Chilean passport as his Grandmother was from Chile. He has never visited Chile and has no relatives living in that country. Chile has mutual diplomatic relations with Syria and if he were sent to Chile they would return him to Syria.

Mr A was detained in Syria for 5 years for protesting against the government. Whilst in detention he was beaten, tortured and shot with lead pellets, the photos of which I gave to you. He still has over 150 pellets in his body.

Mr A escaped from prison after his father borrowed money and bribed one of the guards and is therefore classed as an escaped prisoner in Syria and his life would be in danger if he were to return to that country. The debt still is outstanding and also added to Mr A’s worries as he is unable to work and doesn’t know when he is going to be able to start repaying this debt.

Mr A is married and has three stepchildren. His ultimate goal is to be granted asylum in this country and bring his family here for a safe and better life. He wants to be able to work and settle in this country which he has called home for over two years.

Mr A had his final interview with the Home Office on 26th October 2021 and should have been informed of the decision shortly thereafter. It is now January 2023 and he is still awaiting a decision. This has affected Mr A’s mental health and in August 2022 he climbed 50 feet up Tower Bridge and threatened to kill himself as he was so psychologically tired.

When I met Mr A about a year ago he had no support and was really lonely and struggling to get help from anyone. I took it upon myself to arrange deliveries from the food bank, contact the mosque for support and arrange English lessons for him, his spoken English now is much improved and he is able to communicate in a basic way.

Mr A’s life whilst in Great Britain has been one of loneliness, fear of deportation and worry for his family which I find heart-breaking. I feel that we as a country have really let Mr A down and it needs to be resolved with a final positive decision of asylum as soon as possible.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a hugely important issue. Obviously, there are tens of thousands of Mr As in all sorts of temporary accommodation, and they are sometimes demonised for being in hotels. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not their choice to be there, that we need to establish whether people are asylum seekers or not, that we can do that only if we process cases quickly, and that the best way to ensure that people do not get into this awful situation and that their mental health is protected is to process them swiftly and fairly?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the point of my bringing this case to the House is to highlight the fact that Home Office officials simply are not approaching the issue with anything like sufficient urgency to sort it out. I reiterate the point I made earlier: I make no criticism of Ministers in this regard, because I do not doubt for one second that every Home Office Minister is straining every sinew to make this a reality. My criticism, such as it is, is aimed squarely at the officials, who do not seem to see these people as people; they see them as problems they will get to when they have time.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward an issue that is important to him, and congratulate him on being so assiduous. Does he not agree that our obligations—and, I believe, our moral duty—must mean that, as well as feeding and sheltering asylum seekers, we ensure they are supported to survive in this land, which is foreign to them, and are given help to assimilate, rather than being left voiceless and frightened in a hotel room with their children, wondering for weeks what is going to happen next?

I have a lot of sympathy with that point. It is critical that we process asylum claims much more quickly because while those claims are in abeyance, the asylum seekers are living in stasis. It might be that people who come to claim asylum are not asylum seekers, but economic migrants. That does not make them bad people, but it does mean that they are illegal immigrants, and they should be returned. What should not happen, as in the case of my constituent, is that they live in a state of limbo for years. That should not be acceptable in any way, shape or form.

I became aware of Mr A’s case on 14 March 2022, when a constituent made contact to request that I engage with the Home Office. Back then, my constituent had already noted Mr A’s deteriorating mental health. However, despite my office’s regular efforts to obtain updates, it was not until August 2022—five months later—that the Home Office responded, and only to say that Mr A would have to wait a further six months for an update.

I am sure the House can imagine the effect that that message had on Mr A. Indeed, only a few days after receiving that news, he climbed up Tower Bridge with the intention of attempting to kill himself. Fortunately, he was talked down. He was taken to hospital and later returned to the accommodation with which he had been provided in Biggin Hill. Given the elevated risk of harm displayed by Mr A, my office contacted the Home Office to alert it, in the hope that a sense of urgency would be felt by those in charge of processing the case. However, several more months went by without a resolution of any kind.

In January, therefore, I met with Mr A and another of my constituents, who had been helping him. During our meeting, Mr A presented me with evidence for his asylum claim. That included X-ray images of his body. Disturbingly, the images showed a large amount of metal shrapnel lodged in his torso and limbs as a result of being shot at by the Syrian regime. The evidence also included photographs of him after he had been beaten with an iron bar. Faced with this disturbing evidence and having no success at all in persuading Home Office officials to progress Mr A’s case, my office informed officials that if no progress had been made in two weeks—that is, by 3 February—I would seek a meeting with the Home Secretary to personally brief her on the situation, place the entire file in her hands and ask her to intervene. I hoped that that might lift the all-pervading sense of disinterest and inertia.

No such luck: on 31 January, I received an email from Home Office officials that gave no additional information and no indication as to when a decision would be made, and that claimed to have sent a response to Mr A on 16 January. Neither Mr A nor my other constituent who attended the meeting with me on 20 January—four days after the Home Office letter was allegedly sent—had mentioned that letter. On 1 February, my office called the Home Office hotline to request a copy of it. The response we received was that the Home Office was unable to locate the letter, and the officials stated that it had not been uploaded to the system. When they asked my staff member if he would like to request that they find the letter and send it to him, and he said he would indeed like them to do that, he was told that that would be treated as a new query and it would be sent to my office within 20 working days. You could not make this stuff up.

Later that day, I informed my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), who is a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Office, of my intention to seek a meeting with the Home Secretary. He chased my request diligently, and three weeks later, on the morning of 22 February, he informed me that he had made progress on securing the meeting and asked me for Mr A’s date of birth and case reference number, which I passed to him a short while later. At 6 pm, he informed me that he had secured a meeting with the Home Secretary in her office in the House, scheduled for 6.45 pm that evening.

When I turned up for the meeting, I was brusquely turned away by a Home Office special adviser called Jake Ryan, who refused to allow me in. When my hon. Friend told him that that was unacceptable, the special adviser swore in his face. The high-handed arrogance of this unelected political appointee was staggering. I gather that my hon. Friend escalated the situation to higher authorities because at last there was movement on Mr A’s case. When I finally attended a meeting with the Home Secretary on 1 March, she informed me that officials had determined Mr A’s case. He would be granted 30 months to remain in the country and his application for asylum was refused on account of him being a Chilean national. The House will recall that I had been informed that, while Mr A had a Chilean grandmother, he is not a Chilean national, has no living Chilean relatives and, indeed, has never visited Chile.

Giving Mr A limited leave to remain means that he cannot regularise his life here or bring his family. Furthermore, giving him limited leave to remain, after which he will presumably be returned to Syria or sent to Chile, which apparently has a returns arrangement with Syria, is terrible news for Mr A because it significantly increases the likelihood of him being returned to a country where there is a direct threat to his life. The fact that the special adviser refused to allow me to see the Home Secretary on 1 March is extraordinarily frustrating, because had he not done so, I would have been able to alert her to those facts and it is possible that a different outcome to Mr A’s case would have been achieved.

In the meeting on 1 March, I asked the Home Secretary for the case to be looked at again by officials, and she assured me that it would be. Two weeks later, on 15 March, I received formal notification from the Home Office of the decision it had taken. The relevant sections of the letter read:

“On 3rd November 2020, Mr A submitted a claim for asylum; I apologise for the delay in progressing this case and any distress this may have caused.”

For the avoidance of doubt, that letter was written in March 2023. The delay referred to amounted to two years and four months. The letter continued:

“Mr A had a series of significant safeguarding issues (suicide attempts); We take the mental health and wellbeing of asylum seekers very seriously. We discussed Mr A’s case with officials and there were a number of delays due to the sensitivities and complexities of the case.”

The claim that Home Office officials take these issues seriously is one that I treat with a great deal of scepticism, certainly in the context of this particular case. Again, for the avoidance of doubt, it was the disinterest and protracted institutional inertia of Home Office officials that caused the safeguarding issues that they referred to.

The letter then stated:

“Mr A’s application was fully considered and the asylum and Humanitarian Protection aspect of the claim has been refused as Mr A does not have any individual protection needs in Chile.

However, we will be granting Mr A a period of leave of 30 months on the basis of his private life as, given his vulnerabilities, there would be insurmountable obstacles to him establishing himself in Chile.”

So on the one hand the Home Office accepts that Mr A would be unable to establish himself in Chile, but on the other it is refusing him asylum here, thereby condemning him to suffer another two and a half years of the purgatory.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of hard work and dedication that he has put in for what is now my constituent; it is absolutely right that he continues to deal with this case.

I am deeply concerned about the information that my hon. Friend has set out to the House. We have an excellent Minister here; I hope that she is listening carefully to what he is informing the House about, that she will go back to the Department later today, and that firm and immediate action will be taken on this matter for my constituent.

I agree with my hon. Friend.

For Mr A, two and a half more years of loneliness, worry and fears for his family, as well as fear of deportation back to a country where his life is under threat, has inevitably had further detrimental impacts on his mental health. On 13 April this year, I received a further email from the constituent who attended the advice surgery with Mr A in January. She wrote:

“All of the above matters are causing Mr A great frustration and his mental health has seriously deteriorated. We have an appointment with the mental health team at the hospital in May but I personally am extremely concerned that he may harm himself if these matters are not resolved soon. Anything that you can do would be greatly appreciated. I personally cannot understand why our immigration system seems to be so complicated.”

Since I met the Home Secretary on 1 March, my office has been chasing Home Office officials, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West has been asking for updates on my behalf, but absolutely nothing has been forthcoming. We seem to be back in the cycle of disinterest and total inertia. In the meantime, Mr A continues to spiral downwards.

Dame Maria, I realise that I have talked at length about a single case, but that is precisely to highlight the wider implications of the approach of officials to processing asylum applications—an approach that is simply not delivering acceptable outcomes. The consequence is deeply damaging to people such as Mr A. I realise that Ministers cannot fix the system overnight, and I have absolutely no doubt that they are straining every sinew to improve the situation. However, they can make a significant difference in cases such as this. Small steps can lead to long strides.

I know my hon. Friend the Minister to be a woman of high integrity and compassion, so I thank her for listening to me and call on her to do the right thing in cases such as this one. Please take them back to the Home Office and fix them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) for raising this important case. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is supporting him in this endeavour and is now also involved in the case.

As would be expected, the Home Office is aware of Mr A’s case, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington continues to receive regular updates. I am not able to comment on the details of this case, because of convention; I am sure that the House will understand that. However, I can of course ensure a suitable meeting with the Minister for Immigration, in whose place I stand today; I am pleased to respond in his absence.

We are committed to ensuring that asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay, and that those who need protection are granted it as soon as possible, so that they can start to integrate and to rebuild their life. Of course, that includes those involved in cases that are granted on appeal. Asylum casework teams are dealing with high levels of new applications, including those from small boat arrivals, and we have been clear about the pressures that the situation in the channel has created. It is a significant and complex challenge, but we are doing everything in our power to balance the overall needs of the system and to ensure that cases are appropriately prioritised.

Colleagues will recall that in December, the Prime Minister pledged to clear the backlog of initial asylum legacy claims, which are claims made before 28 June 2022. We are taking immediate action to speed up asylum processing, while maintaining the integrity of the system. For example, we are simplifying the guidance, reducing interview length and streamlining processes. Streamlining the process will play an important role in our achieving our aims. The streamlined asylum policy guidance was published on 23 February; on the same day, questionnaires began to be sent to legacy claimants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen at their most recently recorded correspondence address. Those countries were included in the streamlined asylum process on the basis of their high grant rate, which is 95% or higher, and the fact that over 100 grants in the year ending September 2022 were grants of protection status—refugee status or humanitarian protection.

We are making good progress. According to provisional data, between the end of November 2022 and the end of May 2023, the legacy backlog was reduced by 17,000 cases. During April, streamlined asylum processing was further rolled out to legacy claims from nationals of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam. That means that where a positive decision can be taken, the claimant will have not a substantive interview, but a preliminary interview meeting.

The Minister mentioned people with legacy claims from Libya and Eritrea. Under the Government’s new proposals, there is no safe route for those people to get here at all, even though, as she said, over 90% of claimants turn out to have a claim. Would she think again about ensuring that we do not dismiss people as bogus asylum seekers before we have even considered their claims?

I beg to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Of course there are safe routes. By international agreement, we take people from Syria, and we do fulfil our international obligations. [Interruption.] May I continue? Streamlined asylum processing for accompanied and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will enable cases to be progressed more quickly, and enable us to clear the backlog of outstanding initial asylum decisions.

We are also working hard to significantly increase the number of asylum decision makers above intake levels, so that we can reduce the time taken to reach decisions and the number of claimants awaiting decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington who called for this debate, and I am grateful to him for doing so, was quite right to raise this issue: speed is of the essence, and we need to reduce the time taken to reach decision significantly. That is why finance and effort is being put into increasing the numbers of those who determine claims.

We have recruitment strategies in place that will help to increase staffing, and to maintain it at the level required for better management of the asylum intake. As was mentioned, the sheer weight of numbers is significant; we will need to improve management of the system if we are to make the changes that my hon. Friend is desperate to see, not only for his constituent but for others in similar positions. We have already doubled the number of decision makers over the last two years, and we are continuing to increase them further. A large recruitment campaign is under way; it will take the expected headcount of decision makers to 2,500 by September this year, which will make a significant difference.

Asylum Operations continues to mitigate the effects of the high attrition rates. That can hinder productivity, as experienced decision makers are used to upskill new colleagues. Although we are increasing the number of decision makers and expect the number of decisions to increase, it can take up to 12 months for a decision maker to become fully proficient in their work. We are putting a place a range of interventions—for example, we are looking at job design, reward and management capability—to reduce churn and increase the rate of productivity.

We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously. At every stage in the process, our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and shared with health partners. To facilitate that, the Home Office and its contractors work closely with the NHS, local authorities and non-governmental organisations to ensure that people can access the healthcare and support that they need. Asylum seekers have access to health and social services from the point of their arrival in the UK. All asylum seekers, regardless of the type of accommodation that they are in, have the same access to free NHS services as British citizens and other permanent residents. The Home Office operates a safeguarding hub to support vulnerable individuals in quickly accessing the healthcare services.

I am particularly interested in the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington raised about the delays he has experienced, which are in no small part due to the dramatic rise in cases. We have the highest number of applications for two decades; that is why he is quite right to support the Government on reforming the system. I remind hon. Members that there were 75,492 asylum applications, relating in total to 91,047 people, in the UK in the year ending March 2023. That is a third more applications than in the year ending March 2022, and the highest number for 20 years or so. It is also higher than at the peak of the European migration crisis; the figure was 36,446 in the year ending June 2016.

Many of the top nationalities applying for asylum in the UK in the year ending March 2023 are also the most common nationalities of those arriving in small boats. Those nationalities include Albanians, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians. The significant increase in dangerous journeys across the channel is placing unprecedented strain on our asylum system. Those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, rather than risking their life and paying people smugglers to take them on the dangerous journey across the channel.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the UK has a proud history of supporting refugees. Since 2015, we have offered a place to just under half a million men, women and children seeking safety, including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees. Our focus will remain on directly helping people who are from regions of conflict or instability. The best way to help the most vulnerable people, which of course includes Syrians, is to bring them into the country through safe and legal routes. That will bypass the evil criminal gangs and protect vulnerable people, including children.

The Government are committed to reform. The Illegal Migration Bill is essential to ensure that we can better marshal appropriate applications, and to ensure that people who should not be seeking asylum do not jump the queue by paying money to an illegal smuggler.

Let me turn to the issue of wellbeing. My hon. Friend mentioned that his constituent, who was based in Orpington and is now based in the Dartford area, is suffering from ill health and mental illness, in part as a result, it is said, of his treatment abroad, but also of his living and waiting here. The Government take the safety and wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously. We are working closely with health partners, accommodation providers in the UK and the UK Health Security Agency to ensure their safety and wellbeing. Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services, and those who deal with asylum seekers at any point of the process, including first responders, are under a duty to assist in ensuring that safety and wellbeing.

Significant effort goes into ensuring that people have the appropriate health and wellbeing services. We provide funding, via a therapeutic support grant, to Barnardo’s, so that it can operate its Boloh helpline. That service provides mental health and wellbeing support to adult asylum seekers; it aims to prevent the escalation of any mental ill-health among those navigating the asylum system, and to facilitate joined-up working in the community, on mental health provision in general. My hon. Friend mentioned that he has concerns on this issue in relation to his case, and I am sure that he will continue to raise it. The service offers UK-wide virtual therapeutic support, practical support from helpline advisers and intensive one-to-one treatment where needed. There is extensive work with a team of psychotherapists who speak 15 languages, and extra help will be brought in where it is needed.

In closing, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington for securing the debate. He works extremely hard on this issue and will continue to do so, and I am sure that he will hold the Home Office to account. I reassure him—as much as I can; I am standing in for the Immigration Minister—that I will seek to secure a meeting for him with that Minister, so that he can assist him in representing an important former constituent. This is an important topic that we take seriously, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay. Where there has been historical delay, we are doing our best to reduce it. We are mindful of our responsibilities to those in our care, and are ensuring that their needs are met. That will remain an integral part of our approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Energy Company Obligation Schemes

[Ian Paisleyin the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the implementation of ECO4 and ECO+.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Paisley. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the importance of energy efficiency schemes for domestic properties in general, and more specifically the implementation of the energy company obligation 4 and energy company obligation plus schemes.

As everybody will be aware, households have had to endure wave after wave of challenges to budgets in recent months, with each adding to the financial burden on families and eroding living standards. Although we have recently received welcome news that falling wholesale energy prices will begin to feed through to households, it is unlikely that energy bills will return to pre-crisis levels any time soon.

A frequently cited statistic that bears repeating, lest we allow current prices to be normalised, is that in April 2022 the Welsh Government estimated that energy bills of £1,971 would push 45% of Welsh households into fuel poverty. Next month, when Ofgem’s price cap kicks back in, it will still be marginally higher, at £2,074. The New Economics Foundation suggests that that pressure will continue into next year, with energy bills in April 2024 estimated to be as high as 70% above pre-crisis of 2021 levels. To put it simply, for too many households energy prices will continue to be a significant pressure on their budgets for some time to come. Households will also be more vulnerable this coming winter, after being forced to use savings or take out debt to make it through last winter.

Citizen Advice Cymru has seen an increase in the number of people seeking debt advice, and reports that more people are falling into arrears on essential household bills. The number of people seeking advice on debt relating to energy bills, for example, has more than doubled between May 2021 and May of this year. Although that is not the purpose of today’s debate, it demonstrates why short-term relief with energy bills is still required, including another round of the alternative fuel payment for off-grid households next winter.

In the long term, the energy crisis has thrown into very sharp relief the urgent need to implement measures to bring down energy bills permanently for households and businesses. One solution is to transition to renewable energy sources, another—the focus of today’s debate—is to introduce comprehensive policies to enhance the energy efficiency of the UK’s housing stock.

That issue is particularly acute in Wales, given that we have some of the oldest and least efficient housing stock in western Europe. Data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities shows the percentage of dwellings within each local authority with energy performance certificates rated level C or above. The data shows that five out of the 15 local authorities with the smallest percentage of dwellings with EPCs rated level C or above are in Wales, with Gwynedd third from bottom at 23% and my constituency of Ceredigion only slightly better at 25%.

It is perhaps not surprising that Ceredigion does so badly, when we consider that 35% of our homes were constructed in the 19th century. It is sobering to reflect on the fact that the vast majority of the county’s 2050 housing stock has already been built, more than a third of it in the Victorian age. The case for action is, therefore, quite clear and simple. We need to upgrade the energy efficiency of our housing to reduce people’s exposure to increased energy costs. Almost a quarter of tenants in the private rented sector live in fuel poverty, with those living in the least efficient homes spending as much as £950 more per year on their energy bills, compared with homes rated EPC level C.

The UK Government have made the case that it is unsustainable to maintain support indefinitely for households with energy bills. By retrofitting, we can mitigate the need for ongoing and future support packages. Indeed, the New Economics Foundation estimated that had all homes in England and Wales been upgraded to EPC level C by October last year, the energy price guarantee would have cost £3.5 billion less over its first six months and households would have saved an average of £530 over the year.

Of course, retrofitting would also have significant beneficial outcomes for health. We know that living in a cold home can worsen asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and increases the risk of heart disease and cardiac events. It can also worsen musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, as well as having a detrimental impact on mental health. Wales’s Future Generations Commissioner estimated that a comprehensive home retrofitting programme could save the Welsh NHS as much as £4.4 billion by 2040 by tackling some of those health issues.

Finally, reducing household energy demand is of course vital for us to improve energy security, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and, of course, realise our climate targets. A coalition of charities, including Fuel Poverty Action and Green Alliance, have warned that without action on housing and buildings, there is no plausible path to achieving the fifth carbon budget or meeting the 2030 statutory fuel poverty target.

It is clear that home retrofitting is vital and that action taken now will place the UK in a good position in the future. The UK Government’s flagship fuel poverty reduction scheme, the energy company obligation or ECO, has a key role to play in upgrading our homes to permanently reduce the cost of heating for households and to address fuel poverty. ECO has operated since 2013 in several iterations and up to March of this year it had delivered a total of 3.6 million energy efficiency measures in Great Britain. The energy performance improvements that have been delivered have saved low-income customers as much as £17.5 billion in lifetime energy bills and saved the average home some £290.

ECO4 is, of course, the fourth iteration of the scheme. It began in April last year and is planned to run until March 2026. In the past year, however, installations have dropped quite significantly. All versions of ECO have experienced difficulties in some form or other, but ECO4 has undoubtedly been delivering at a slower rate than previous iterations. Energy suppliers and installers are now warning that structural issues are preventing the scheme from fulfilling its potential and I want to dwell on those issues today.

Between April last year, when ECO4 commenced, and March this year, approximately 45,000 households had received support under the scheme. Given that that is around 10% of the 450,000 households that the scheme is supposed to support over its four-year lifetime, there is concern about the pace of the roll-out so far. One reason might be that the number of measures installed per property during the roll-out of ECO4 to date has been much higher than expected, with an average of nearly 3.5 measures per property since April 2022 compared with the average of 1.8 measures expected in the scheme’s final impact assessment. In the first quarter of 2023, the figure increased to an average of 4.93 measures per household.

E.ON Energy estimates that, as result, industry could achieve its overall national bill saving target by delivering ECO4 to only 215,000 properties of the 450,000 targeted. Of course, it is not a bad thing that energy efficiency is being significantly improved for those households supported by ECO4, but it raises a question about the adequacy of the funding in place if ECO4 is to achieve its target of supporting 450,000 households, as I am sure that Members will agree.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, as I am sure that many would, that this is primarily a question of funding. We should take a step back and realise that Shell has directed £5 billion in windfall profits towards its shareholders in the first quarter of this year, so there is surely a good case to be made for an emergency windfall tax to enable additional work for the other households that would benefit so much from it.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that important intervention and you will be unsurprised, Mr Paisley, to hear that I agree with her that there is an important opportunity to introduce emergency measures. At the end of the day, energy companies are making eye-watering amounts of profit at a time when households across the country are struggling. I think it is very appropriate for us to consider ways of recouping some of that potential income to put against this important measure.

Adjustments are required to get the scheme back on track so it can achieve its full potential. The first adjustment requires the UK Government to look again at ECO4’s cost assumptions. They were finalised in April 2022 and do not reflect current market conditions, including the escalation in costs caused by labour shortages and manufacturing prices. More recent cost assumptions, such as those included in the Great British insulation scheme’s impact assessment, reflect those price increases.

For example, the fixed assumed costs of installing external solid wall insulation, which comprises 12% of measures installed under ECO4 to date, increased from £4,200 in 2021 to about £5,000 in 2022—by almost 20%. Meanwhile, the UK Government estimate that the cost of installing cavity wall insulation for bungalows, as well as detached, semi-detached and end-of-terrace houses, has increased by 50% to 63%. That is all without factoring in the inflationary pressures we have seen in 2023 so far. At the start of 2023, insulation and associated material prices increased significantly, many by close to 10% and some by as much as 35%, compounding similar increases seen last year.

Another aspect of the scheme that requires attention is the minimum requirements threshold, which means that a household’s energy performance certificate must be improved to a particular level. For example, if band D and E homes are to be eligible for the scheme, they have to be upgraded to at least band C, and band F and G homes must be upgraded to at least band D. We should welcome the intent of that requirement. Providing support to the poorest households in the least efficient homes by bringing them up to a significantly higher energy performance rating is an important objective. Nevertheless, the requirement is proving to be a limiting factor on the scheme’s delivery. I have spoken to installers and energy suppliers who say that the minimum requirements are too inflexible compared with previous schemes.

It is suggested that the requirements are making it difficult to find eligible properties, and installers are reporting difficulties in proving how properties in higher EPC bands, such as those in band D, as well as on-gas properties, can meet the requirements. E.ON Energy estimates that around 90% of qualifying fuel-poor households cannot have works delivered to their properties, as either they fail to meet the minimum requirements threshold or it would be economically unviable to upgrade them to the levels required to meet it.

The hon. Gentleman is giving one of the best speeches I have heard in Westminster Hall in a long time, and he has some good evidence to back up his comments. I congratulate him on securing the debate. My constituency, like his, has a high number of rural homes. Many are reliant on oil-fired central heating and also struggle to fit into the qualifying criteria for the type of scheme that he has outlined. What advice does he have for the Government on how we can improve the flexibility of the schemes to ensure that oil-fired homes can qualify?

The reality is that a very high proportion, if not the majority, of homes in rural constituencies find it difficult to access the scheme because they are not on the mains gas network. In my constituency, some 72% of properties are not connected to mains gas and they are struggling uphill to get on to the scheme. The Government would do well to look again at whether we can change the ECO Flex pathways to allow local authorities greater flexibility to support off-grid properties in particular. That might be a way forward. We certainly need to address the issue. If we do not, I worry that rural areas, which often have an older, less efficient housing stock, will be left behind. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point.

As greater investment is required per property to meet the minimum improvement threshold requirements, the current iteration of the scheme appears to be more exposed, and therefore more vulnerable, to the inflationary pressures that I mentioned earlier, so we need to look again at how it is funded. I ask the UK Government to look at that very carefully.

Another aspect of ECO4 that is welcome in principle, but which is putting pressure on those delivering the scheme, is the Flex pathway. The pathway is important, because it enables local councils to identify low-income households that are in need of support, but that are unlikely to be eligible under the scheme’s standard approach. It also provides an opportunity for local councils to better tailor energy efficiency schemes to their respective areas, and I refer back to the remark from the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) about rural properties. The issue, however, is that local councils feel that the Flex pathway is too onerous and that the information required of them for each application takes up significant staff time and resources. Indeed, I am told that the level of detail required can make the Flex pathway inflexible when considering different local factors.

One of those factors is the nature of the housing stock in an area, and I have already mentioned that Wales has some of the oldest and least efficient housing stock in western Europe. I spoke to representatives of Gwynedd Council, who expressed concerns that the products available via ECO do not always work well with the design of older houses.

On that point, I would like to mention Meilyr Tomos at Gwynedd Council, who supplied me and others with advice on this debate. In relation to the ECO Flex programme, another issue in Gwynedd is second homes. Younger people are now priced out of staying in their own homes, and more non-dependant children are remaining with their parents—between 2011 and the 2021 census, in Gwynedd the figure increased by 6.8%. Given that non-dependant children artificially inflate household incomes, that has a knock-on effect on ECO Flex. The Government would be wise to give due attention to such rural issues.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The Flex pathway offers a real opportunity to allow the policy to be tailored to the specific needs of local areas, so as to accelerate the delivery without impacting on the broader scheme that the Government have implemented.

The consequence of rising costs and a perceived inflexibility in the structure of the scheme has been that supply chains are starting to stutter, and I am told that many installers are leaving the market. The Installation Assurance Authority warns that there are now fewer than 10,000 people involved in the industry and public-funded schemes, whereas there were 54,000 in 2012. Those who have moved away from ECO4 are reluctant to return. If installers continue to leave the market at this rate, it will make it very difficult not just to deliver ECO4, but to achieve the level of home retrofitting required to meet our future climate and fuel poverty targets.

If those issues are not addressed, thousands of eligible households will miss out on crucial energy-saving measures, meaning that they will face higher energy bills this winter and beyond. I believe that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is consulting on the deliverability of elements of ECO4. If it intends to do so, I ask that they publish the consultation before the summer recess in order to allow sufficient time ahead of April 2024 for industry to adjust accordingly. A failure to do so may mean that even more installers drop out of delivering the scheme due to continued uncertainty.

It is not too late to get ECO4 back on track, and I would argue that a consultation could play a key part in doing so, but I would appreciate it if the Minister could explain what consideration has been or will be given in a consultation to the following points. Could ECO4’s cost assumptions be revised in line with current supply costs to reflect current market conditions? Could the eligibility of homes be widened to ensure that more people can benefit from the scheme? That could include increasing the number of fuel-poor households eligible in the private and social rental sector, or it could mean enabling the Flex channel to be more responsive to local needs in order to be able to capture more fuel-poor households, such as those in receipt of means-tested benefits or with health conditions.

Another suggestion is that we investigate the possibility of extending the buy-out mechanism, so that others besides energy suppliers can take on obligations, and enable local councils to deliver ECO. Other suggestions are: making long-term funding available for training, so that we can boost the supply chain, and considering measures to boost recruitment and careers in the retrofitting energy efficiency industry; ensuring continuous and open engagement with installers, energy suppliers and other industry and fuel poverty experts, to guarantee that the scheme remains on the right track and to ensure that the UK Government can respond effectively to any future issues that arise; and finally, exploring the possibility of expanding the range of technologies that will be considered in scope in future iterations of ECO4 to, for example, water control technologies, which can help bring down the cost of energy used to heat water.

I will briefly touch on ECO+ or, as it is now known, the Great British insulation scheme. I of course welcome the scheme, which is designed to support households in installing single energy efficiency measures in their homes, but again possible adjustments could vastly improve delivery. Can the Minister say what consideration has been given to refining the scheme’s targeting, so that it better helps fuel-poor households? For the majority of the scheme, households are expected to make a financial contribution to the cost of the measures. That will effectively make a large proportion of the scheme inaccessible to the lowest-income households, which cannot afford to make those contributions. In a cost of living crisis, when disposable income is diminishing across the UK, surely the requirement for contributions should be taken out of the scheme, or the percentage of participants who are expected to make contributions should to be lowered.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that I have heard from constituents who were unfortunately let down by contractors delivering measures under the ECO4 scheme. Of course, any measures installed are now covered by the UK Government-endorsed quality scheme, TrustMark. I appreciate that incidents of poor delivery may be isolated examples, but in those worst-case scenarios where delivery goes horribly wrong, the protection and security for households is still inadequate.

I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the issue of providers who place solar panels on agricultural land, but do not guarantee against damage caused by animals. Obviously, placing panels on agricultural land is very convenient, and it makes access cheaper, although attention is not always paid to planning requirements. However, the convenience may be outweighed by the risk for the householder of damage caused by animals that is not covered by a guarantee. I very much wish the Government to address that rural issue.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising another important point. It perhaps illustrates the need to strengthen the accountability of the scheme. In Ceredigion, households have had measures installed that were of substandard quality, and they find it almost impossible to get information about redress and holding the installers to account for the sub-par work. Her concerns would be captured by a broader effort to improve the scrutiny and accountability of the scheme. Will the UK Government consider ways of improving oversight of installations? We need a stronger mechanism by which installers can be held to account.

Before closing, I will touch on the need to incentivise those who are ineligible for the ECO scheme to invest in retrofitting—those who might have the means to do so. A few measures come to mind. First, could we look again at removing VAT from insulation products, and not just from the installation of these products, as well as from storage batteries? I appreciate that that might be a Treasury matter. What work might the Government undertake on providing interest-free loans to those who wish to install energy efficiency and low-carbon heating measures? Providing access to such support will be even more important in the face of steep interest rate hikes.

Finally, I come to another area that deserves a brief mention in a discussion on how we can help households to bring down energy bills and expand our renewable capacity: incentivising households to invest in smaller-scale renewables. I have been contacted by several constituents who are concerned that the reduction in support from the feed-in tariffs—and now their replacement, the smart export guarantee—has vastly reduced the incentive to invest. I urge the Government to consider increasing the tariffs that the energy suppliers are required to offer to homeowners who generate renewable energy. I draw my remarks to a close, and very much look forward to the comments of my colleagues.

I thank hon. Members for bobbing. If anyone else wishes to bob, feel free. I intend to call the Front Benchers at approximately half-past the hour.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on bringing this important debate to this place.

We are in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Bills are soaring, wages are not keeping pace with inflation, and people are struggling to make ends meet. We must not forget how harsh last winter was. The energy price cap rose by 54% and many people were trapped in cold, leaky homes. We cannot allow that to happen again.

Households in poorly insulated homes will pay an estimated £13 billion a year more in energy bills. That is because the Government have failed to bring those homes up to at least band C of the energy performance certificate rating. Some 43,000 homes in Bath have a poor efficiency rating, and the Government’s inaction has meant that some of my constituents are more than £1,300 poorer each year.

We are also in the middle of a climate emergency. The UK has some of the leakiest homes in Europe. Insulating our homes would push down energy demand and cut our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. For the past decade, the energy company obligation schemes have delivered warmer homes, cheaper bills and greener buildings for millions of vulnerable households. The ECO4 scheme is the latest iteration. It provides grants to fund energy-efficient upgrades to homes, and pays for loft or cavity wall insulation, new heating systems such as boilers, and other measures designed to increase energy efficiency, as we have already heard.

However, ECO4 installations are not keeping up with the target to improve 450,000 homes by March 2026. The Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group has shown that, by March 2023, only 15,000 homes had been treated. That is just 3% of the overall delivery target. That is very poor, and an example of the Government’s inaction on delivering what has been promised.

The cost assumptions made in the ECO4 assessment are outdated and unrealistic. The modelling used to set ECO4 targets was based on estimated costs in 2021 prices, with an allowance for general inflation over time. Since that assessment was made, inflation has soared. December 2022 saw inflation having risen by 9.2% in the previous 12 months. That is more than three times what Ofgem projected it to be.

The costs of delivery far exceed what Ofgem has accounted for. Loft insulation is, on average, 430% more expensive, cavity wall insulation is 372% more expensive, and external wall insulation is 147% more expensive. The Government should ensure that those costs are taken into account and must match the cost of measures in ECO4 with inflation. That is the main point that I wanted to make; the 2021 estimates do not take into account the soaring inflation that we have seen over the past year.

The ECO4 criteria restrict the number of homes that can be improved. The eligibility requirements set out that the homes must be improved by at least two EPC bands, which makes it hard to find suitable homes. Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group members estimate that 90% of qualifying homes miss out because they are unable to meet the minimum requirements of the scheme. To illustrate my point, E.ON attempted to deliver energy-efficiency measures to a three-bed mid-terrace property in Dagenham. The owners of the property qualified for ECO4 as their home was rated EPC band E and they were living in fuel poverty. The package of measures that E.ON proposed would have saved the family about £600 a year on their energy bill, but the installation was rejected because the measures would not improve the house enough to make it jump two EPC bands.

When it comes to tackling the climate and cost of living crises, every little helps, so why is the ECO4 scheme making perfection the enemy of the good? The Government should relax the minimum requirements when all reasonable measures have been installed in an eligible household. That would ensure that vulnerable households could still receive much-needed support. To tackle the cost of living and climate crises, we must improve the energy efficiency of our homes. We must do all that we can to ensure that the ECO scheme benefits as many people as possible, as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. I am sure that in her constituency, as in mine, there are many older properties that are very difficult to convert. Does she agree that more needs to be done to ensure that those households can access the scheme, because it is harder for them to convert their house?

Absolutely; I could not agree more. In Bath, we have a lot of old, leaky homes. They are very beautiful, but they are not particularly energy efficient. People really want to do something, but ECO4 does not work for a very large number of households. If we really want to help vulnerable people and tackle the climate emergency, we must look at how the scheme has been designed and make some improvements to it. The two-jump requirement is particularly difficult in old properties.

The Government must take urgent action and improve ECO4, in order to protect the most vulnerable from cold winters and tackle the climate emergency as soon and as effectively as possible.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley; I have done so in the past, and hopefully I will do so again in the future. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on his passion for this issue. His dulcet Welsh tones seem to flow, unlike my Ulster Scots accent, which does not come anywhere near his. Like him, I have a number of park homes in my constituency that have lacked support during this great energy crisis. He has spoken about this issue in the Chamber, including in an Adjournment debate; he has been very much at the forefront of raising it, and I thank him for that.

I read with interest that Ofgem stated at the end of March that the Great British insulation scheme, which was previously referred to and consulted on by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero under the name ECO+, will allow early delivery from 30 March 2023, and will run until 31 March 2026. On 5 April, Ofgem published a consultation, through which it sought stakeholder views on its proposed administration of the policies set out by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and included in the Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) Order 2023. The consultation covered areas where Ofgem exercised its discretion in administering the new legislative provisions for ECO4, and proposed further improvements to current policies.

That is where we are. That is why the hon. Gentleman raised this issue, and why it is important that we understand it better. We look to the Minister for a positive response, and I look forward to the contributions from the two shadow spokespeople. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has a deep understanding of these issues and brings her knowledge and interest to the debate.

We have seen the havoc wreaked by protesters, who have destroyed pieces of art, and caused disruption on motorways, to the extent that ambulances have been stuck, and people have missed operations and work. The discussion about insulation and necessary improvements has been lost in the wanton disruption caused by people who have a sound message—that is not in doubt—but whose methods do not encourage debate. Instead, they encourage righteous indignation and, in some cases, anger. That is why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion for bringing the discussion back to where it needs to be—in this House, in Westminster Hall. Here, we can do our jobs and advocate for the change that the protesters want, but in the right way. I commend the hon. Member for that.

I read the hon. Member’s piece in Politico last year. His words are worth repeating, so I will quote them. I am not trying to embarrass him, but his words were very salient:

“We know that households in the least efficient properties have energy bills that are twice the cost of the most efficient homes. There is a statutory target to upgrade the energy efficiency of all fuel-poor households to EPC C by 2030 and all households to EPC C by 2035. Government needs to ensure that it follows through with its existing commitments. Ensuring the ECO 4 legislation is prioritised in Parliament to maintain installation rates, making swift decisions on minimum energy efficiency standards in the rented sectors and meeting its manifesto commitment to spend £2.5 billion on the Home Upgrade Grant this Parliament.”

Those words are even more relevant today, and I commend him for that. Each of us fully supports him. It also shows that we read the magazine—some people wonder whether we do. I look through it to see whether I know any of the authors, and I always catch up on it.

I support the hon. Member’s efforts to hold the Government to account on this issue, to the betterment of all. I always like to give an example from back home. My parliamentary aide bought a property that had been lying vacant for years. It had no heating and needed a total refurb, which was reflected in the price. When she looked into insulating that property, she could not afford to do it as well as all the other work—the new flooring, new kitchen, and new bathroom, and the work on the heating, the garden, and the front. There was lots of work to do. She is a clever girl—she writes all my speeches and interventions, so people must know that she is exceptionally clever and busy. She knows that in the long run the insulation will save money, but given the demands on the joint wages of her and her husband, and given that she is raising two children, with only child benefit to help, I understand why she made that choice. It would have been better to do the insulation, but people’s money does not stretch that far. That is why this debate is so important. The scheme gives a wee bit of a helping hand, and nudges and assists people.

We need to help more people like my parliamentary aide to do the right thing—people who get little or no help from the system as a rule, and who work extremely hard. We are talking about people who are environmentally conscious; she washes out her yoghurt pots at 11 pm at night after writing a speech for me. People want to do the right thing by the environment. I support them. We must do the same. I look to the Government and the Minister here; they can start by fulfilling their obligations, and can move on from there.

I know that the Minister is listening. I hope that we can have a positive answer, and that she will reinforce the fact that I do not need to throw orange powder around the streets, or over the Minister or my colleagues, to make my point. Orange is a good colour, Mr Paisley—you know that—but I still would not do that. My point is that insulation makes sense. We all agree that those who highlight the issues may use different methods—in this House, we use dialogue and communication—but they are trying to make change. Let us get buy-in from the average person, who his making sacrifices, and prove that we are in it with them. I am here on behalf of my constituents. The hon. Member for Ceredigion, and everyone who has spoken and will speak, is here to do the same thing. We can do it, but we need the Minister’s help to get over the line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing the debate and making an excellent and detailed opening speech. I also pay tribute to the other contributors, who have spoken well on a really important subject. I am indebted to Cumbria Action for Sustainability for its work in helping to bring homes up to an adequate standard to ensure energy efficiency and lower heating prices, as well as to tackle the climate emergency.

It is estimated that our homes—the ones that we live in—contribute something like 19% of the greenhouse gases emitted by the United Kingdom. In the last two years especially, there have been crushing increases in fuel poverty. Families who may have considered themselves comfortable a couple of years ago now find themselves in dire straits. Mortgage payments and rents are rising, as is the cost of living in general, but the huge increase in fuel and energy costs in the last couple of years has rendered many in a situation where they cannot see where to turn.

The need for a scheme that delivers warmer, greener and cheaper-to-run homes has never been greater, yet the number of UK energy efficiency installations peaked at 2.3 million in 2012. In the decade that followed, we got down to a miserable 100,000 a year. The Government’s much-vaunted green homes grant, which was meant to deliver energy efficiency for 1 million homes, in the end did so for only 60,000. ECO4 can and must do much better.

In Cumbria, we face specific problems that make our challenge much greater. We have a much larger proportion of solid-wall properties, of off-grid homes and of homes that are listed or in conservation areas. There are lots of positive things to say about ECO4, including, fundamentally, about its ambition of raising energy performance certificate points and its fabric-first policy—the aim to ensure that insulation happens before the installation of new and hopefully better heat sources. Those things are positive in principle, but in practice they are not entirely being followed. Households in Cumbria—especially those that can least afford it—are suffering because the detail is not being got right.

The funds provided to those installing insulation do not meet the costs, especially for single-wall properties. As we have heard, on average there has been a 77% increase in the cost of materials. Insulation is not happening because companies simply cannot afford to do it, and it is much more expensive to do the work on single-wall properties, which need it most. Insulating a single-wall property entails the further risk that moisture will build up between the wall and the insulating layer. That can lead to the build-up of mould and have a huge impact on human health and building quality in the months and years that follow.

I am told by the people who advise me on such matters that there are answers to that. Cork board or timber fibreboard can be used, as can insulating lime render, which is especially suitable for Lakeland properties in terms of its aesthetics as well as its efficacy. Frustratingly, however, none of those materials are available through the ECO4 scheme, which goes to explain why a relatively small number of people will take advantage of it.

ECO4 is a more complex scheme, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly pointed out. There are many good reasons why, but one of the consequences is that the energy companies and local authorities have been reluctant to engage as providers. That means that the only people providing work through ECO4 will be independent and private providers, some of whom will be very good but some of whom will not. Private householders, almost certainly including the likes of me, are not always the best judge of which is which. That will have an impact on the quality of the work, and on whether taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. For that reason, while Cumbrian contractors have been used to deliver some of the work, Cumbria Action for Sustainability tells us that there have been no Cumbria-based companies offering ECO4 measures.

I mentioned listed properties and those in conservation areas. Residents of Westmorland living in such properties tell us that, when they explain that their home is listed or in a conservation area, suppliers almost instantly—and very politely, I hope—tell them that they are not interested, because there is no way they can make it add up and make the scheme pay.

Fuel poverty among residents of private rented properties, as has already been mentioned, is the worst of all in a community like mine. The average income in my constituency is about one twelfth of the average house price. We have a council house waiting list of 5,000 or 6,000. We have an inadequate quantity of affordable housing. The only way there is any workforce of a working age available in my constituency is because of the private rented sector, and let us say that there is a mix in its quality. Cumbria Action for Sustainability is unaware of a single private landlord in Cumbria who has pursued ECO4, as things stand.

Insulation, and the warmth and energy efficiency of any property, stands and falls on the property’s windows. Of course, ECO4 allows for funds to replace single glazing, but it will not allow funds to replace double glazing, even if it is 50 years old, past its use-by date, cracked and faulty. That appears to be a blind spot, which I hope we will act on quickly.

We have heard that ECO4 does not cover the real costs of insulation, especially in single-wall properties. That is especially so for floor insulation above garages, where there are rightly fire safety requirements, making the work more expensive. Where the scheme does not cover costs, measures are not taken, and the people who suffer are those who are left with a home that is too expensive to heat.

Cumbria Action for Sustainability and providers point out that a major reason that the green homes grant failed was the lack of skilled workers to carry out, in particular, the work needed for solid-wall housing. The situation is no better now. Retrofitting, for example, still does not feature in most relevant training schemes.

ECO4 is, in principle, better than its predecessors but, if it does not work in practice, people in Cumbria and elsewhere in our country will suffer. I will argue that ours is the most beautiful bit of the country, though it is often the coldest and the wettest, too. There are extremes of wealth and poverty, and it is hard for many of my constituents to cope with the financial costs and deprivations that go with that. More than a third of our housing stock is single-wall properties. Cumbria needs the Government to get ECO4 right. I hope they will hear the practical and constructive suggestions made by colleagues on all sides in this debate, and act accordingly.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I commend the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) for securing and leading the debate.

There are two issues that require immediate attention and decisive action: the soaring cost of living crisis and the importance of energy efficiency support. In the light of that, it is deeply concerning that, while we face those crises, the Government choose to cut taxes on bankers. Such a decision is abhorrent, especially when it is ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of an escalating cost of living crisis, much of that due to rising energy costs.

Inflation continues to hit those on the lowest incomes most severely, exacerbating their ongoing struggle to make ends meet. The Prime Minister pledged to cut inflation by half. However, it is evident that the Government are struggling to meet that pledge, and now aim to reduce public sector pay to compensate. We learned today that the leader of the Labour party, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), also refused to back public sector pay rises. That is a misguided approach, in our opinion, that will only further burden those who are already struggling.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation paints a distressing picture, revealing that 7 million households have gone without essentials, such as food, heating or basic toiletries, due to the cost of living crisis. It is our responsibility to provide support and relief to those individuals and families who are enduring such hardships. Considering all those other parts that play into the crisis, it is vital that we do not withdraw or cancel energy efficiency support for those in need.

Energy efficiency measures such as ECO4 and ECO+ play a crucial role in achieving our net zero targets and combating climate change. In 2019, a report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee praised the Scottish Government for being leagues ahead of the UK Government on energy efficiency, and we continue to deliver on that front. Our planet is facing unprecedented challenges, with soaring sea temperatures, and action is urgent. It was disheartening that a previous BEIS Secretary and disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson blocked plans for a public information campaign on energy efficiency. How much could consumers have saved if they had received the necessary information and support? Many of our constituents do not know that help and support is out there in the form of these schemes.

The Scottish Government have taken proactive steps towards energy efficiency and are committed to investing at least £1.8 billion in heat and energy efficiency over the course of this Scottish Parliament. Through existing programmes, we have already supported over 150,000 households in or at risk of fuel poverty, including those in rural and island communities. Our Home Energy Scotland grant and loan scheme offers grant funding of up to £7,500 for heat pumps, with an additional £7,500 made available as an optional interest-free loan. Moreover, we have provided an uplift of £1,500 to both the heat pump and energy efficiency grants for rural and island homes, recognising the specific challenges faced by those communities.

Beyond immediate measures, we must recognise the urgent need to change the way we use our energy. As oil and gas production naturally declines, there is a tremendous opportunity for growth in low-carbon energy production. It is projected that low-carbon energy jobs could increase to 77,000 by 2050, delivering an increase of 7,000 jobs across the energy production sector. The Scottish Government’s draft energy strategy and just transition plan outlines the actions necessary for the UK Government to collaborate with us to achieve Scotland’s full energy potential. To facilitate that transition, the Scottish Government, led by the SNP, are already investing in the sector’s net zero transformation.

Our expanded £75 million energy transition fund and £100 million green jobs fund, alongside the £500 million just transition fund, will support regions such as the north-east and Moray in becoming centres of excellence for a just transition to a net zero economy. That stands in stark contrast to other parties, which have historically bled the north-east of Scotland dry and left the region on the proverbial scrap heap.

Renewable energy presents a significant economic opportunity for Scotland. The just energy transition will deliver a net gain in jobs across the energy production sector. The Scottish Government have taken decisive action, but we are constrained by the limitations imposed by Westminster’s grip on the purse strings. It is time for the UK Government to recognise that and the importance of energy efficiency, collaborate with us and our colleagues in the Scottish Government, and provide the necessary support to achieve our shared goals.

It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing the debate.

We have heard from all Members who have spoken how important it is for the Government to look at the complexities of this issue. I represent a predominately urban constituency and, by and large, the other Members we have heard from represent rural constituencies. Each area will have different problems depending on its housing stock, the availability of skills and so on, but it is the Government’s job to try to iron those problems out. That is why it is important that we are having this debate so that people can put on the record some of the issues they have found.

Let me start with the broadbrush issues with retrofitting. Members have set out well that the crisis of rising energy bills has brought home to people how much energy they lose through having poorly insulated homes—energy is literally going through the roof—and how we could reduce not only bills, but our emissions if we had homes that met the EPC C standard.

I would say that this is about retrofitting existing homes, but the Government had a pledge to introduce zero-carbon new homes and then dropped it. Estimates suggest that well over a million homes have been built since then that do not meet the EPC C standard. Given that we face such a massive task in retrofitting existing housing stock, it seems ludicrous that we do not insist that new builds meet a certain standard, because we will need to retrofit them not too far down the line.

I have just come from the Energy Bill Committee, where we were talking about how we ensure that we have the skills for a just transition. This work tends to be carried out by small and medium-sized enterprises and sole traders—it is not as though there is one big company that will deliver it—and they need certainty that this is a line of work in which there will be jobs for the foreseeable future. With schemes stopping and starting as they have in the past—there was lack of consumer confidence because of the way some earlier schemes floundered—people will not move into those jobs, particularly given the shortages of construction workers, plumbers and electricians. It can be difficult to get people to do even the traditional jobs, let alone move into this area. We must address that to create stability.

The need for consumer advice was mentioned, and I just mentioned consumer confidence. Previous experience shows us that that is really important. This is about going into people’s homes, uprooting their domestic lives and putting them at risk of having to pay a lot of money. Under earlier schemes, cowboy operators did not do work to the expected standard and people were suddenly told that they needed extra—

It seems evident to me that, since many of the people who will qualify for support through these schemes will be vulnerable, unless protections are built in for them, they may not be able to deal with it when work is not done to the expected standard, which is what we will hear about as MPs. I would have expected the Government to build that into the schemes in the first instance because of the nature of the people they are trying to support.

That is very much the case. I have been in this place for 18 years. Earlier in my career, I saw in my casework people who had been ripped off really struggling to deal with the bureaucracy of whether they would be able to get public funding and whether they had to pay the people who were literally on their doorstep asking for money.

Turning to where we are now, the ECO scheme was well intentioned and welcome, but it is not working. At the moment, the UK has the least energy-efficient housing in Europe and home insulation rates have plummeted. Many statistics have been bandied around. My numbers are slightly different and relate to a different time period. In 2013, the coalition cut energy efficiency programmes; in the same year, insulation rates fell by 92%. That is what I go back to—the period when the market crashed, setting us back about a decade to where we are now. Last year, only 159,699 ECO measures were installed in low-income and fuel-poor homes, a reduction of 59% from the 393,706 in 2021.

There is a substantial gap between Government insulation targets and delivery where ECO4 is concerned. Analysis from E.ON Energy suggests that, as of December 2022, the industry had completed around 11% of the obligation, compared with an expected 19%. We estimate that at the same point during the ECO3 scheme, the industry had completed 29%. That delay will have consequences. A report from the World Wide Fund for Nature and ScottishPower warns that the Government are on track to insulate just one sixth of the homes needed to meet their target of reducing energy consumption by 15% by 2030.

I have spoken to people from various businesses in the retrofit industry, and they fear that the same mistakes are being made. Nigel Donohue, chief executive of the Installation Assurance Authority, said the transition to ECO4 was

“really poorly managed…despite conversations with the Government about not allowing this to happen to the industry again”.

There is no getting away from the fact that the scheme is really struggling.

There are two major issues delaying delivery. The first is limitations on scoring. Aeon estimates that up to 90% of the properties eligible for ECO4 will not receive the support they desperately need because those homes do not meet the minimum improvement requirements. The goalposts that must be cleared for properties to meet the SAP score are being moved, so vulnerable, fuel-poor households have been ruled ineligible and are missing out.

The second issue is costs. Funding assumptions under ECO4 are significantly lower than actual installation costs, and rising inflation has led to costs in the supply chain escalating even further. With current inflation rates and the skill shortages, those costs are likely to be increasing incrementally, almost by the week. I am not convinced that the Government have taken that into account. Delivering loft insulation, for example, is currently 430% more expensive than the Government estimate, while cavity wall insulation is 372% more expensive. These are clearly not small discrepancies, and they have to be recognised in the ECO4 scheme.

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero acknowledged the increased costs when consulting on the ECO+ scheme back in December, but ECO4 has not been aligned. There is also the problem I mentioned of the gaps between schemes causing confusion and a drop in uptake. There was a four-month gap before ECO4, and I think at one point prior to that there was an 18-month gap between schemes, which I am told had a major impact on the skills front. We cannot allow the same to happen with ECO+. Continuity is needed.

I have also spoken to a housing association boss who says that he thinks the schemes are working okay generally, but that timescales and bureaucracy are a big problem. Low levels of contribution to band D homes means that installers and energy companies are less likely to take them on. He would like a focus on ensuring that installers are compliant with publicly available specifications, PAS, in the long term, so that people trust retrofitting more, but at the moment the process is very bureaucratic. He cites a case where a 115-page form was needed to fit loft insulation that took only an hour to install. I do not know how long it takes to fill out a 115-page form, but I would imagine that it was considerably longer than one hour. He also said that with schemes such as the home upgrade grant, the focus on specific measures, rather than letting retrofitting co-ordinators decide what is best, sometimes means that they cannot offer support for some houses.

It would be remiss of me not to mention how well Bristol is doing at retrofitting homes through its City Leap programme. The 3Ci website has a really good account of what we are doing. One of our ambitions, for example, is to get all social housing up to EPC C by 2030, which involves an innovative arrangement with private sector finance. Under our green prosperity plan, Labour is committed to spending £6 billion a year to retrofit 19 million homes to EPC C within a decade, saving families an average of £1,000 a year on their energy bills, creating over 206,000 new full-time equivalent jobs, and cutting national gas imports by up to 15%. I hope that we will be ready to start work on that in just over a year’s time, or whenever the election is called, but it would be good if the current Government addressed some of the underlying issues, particularly the skills gap, ensured continuity of supply, and listened to what Members have said today, so that we are ready to hit the ground running. Even if we do not win the next election, I am sure the Minister would hope to get things in a better place so that we can steam ahead with this programme.

It is a great pleasure to be serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing this incredibly important debate and thank all those who have contributed. As you may know, Mr Paisley, this issue is not in my portfolio; however, I am here to represent the Government and to take away any questions that I am unable to answer today.

I welcome all Members’ contributions; they really have been incredibly helpful. I thank everyone, particularly the hon. Member for Ceredigion, for the suggestions they made throughout the debate. One of the things that we really need to apply within all of this activity is common sense, and a lot of the suggestions that I have heard today have been based on common sense.

Although they are not relevant to this debate, I will also talk about the energy costs that really play on my mind as the Minister with responsibility for consumers and affordability. Clearly, there are many schemes that I could go into, although, as I say, they are not relevant. I will just say what many hon. Members have already said, which is that we must encourage all consumers to make sure that they get all of their benefits. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue; as Members of Parliament, we should always encourage people to do that.

The energy company obligation is the Government’s most successful domestic energy efficiency scheme in Great Britain. It obliges larger energy suppliers to deliver bill savings for households by installing energy efficiency measures. Since it began in 2013, it has delivered 3.6 million measures in more than 2.4 million properties, which means that over 9% of British households have had an ECO measure installed. Low-income and vulnerable households will save over £19 billion on their bills over the lifetime of the measures that have been installed. As the hon. Gentleman may know, over 17% of households in his constituency have received ECO measures over the last decade.

ECO4 was introduced last year and runs until March 2026. It has continued to support low-income and vulnerable households while also increasing the focus on the least energy-efficient properties and on fuel poverty. To be eligible for it, households either have to be in receipt of means-tested benefits, live in social housing or be referred by their local authority or energy supplier. For the first time, part of the overall target has been met by upgrading the equivalent of 150,000 of the worst-performing homes, with those living in homes with energy performance certificate ratings of E, F or G the most likely to be in the deepest fuel poverty. Also for the first time, we set a minimum requirement for energy efficiency improvements, depending on a home’s energy efficiency rating. This means that more of the households receiving help will be brought out of fuel poverty permanently. We estimate that at current energy prices, households benefiting from ECO4 will reduce their annual energy bills by over £600 on average.

Delivery under ECO4 commenced last April, with around 130,000 measures delivered to over 43,000 low-income households. The scheme data shows a gradual increase in delivery, and recent reporting from the supply chain indicates that delivery has continued to increase through May and June.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion will be delighted to hear that Ceredigion continues to benefit disproportionately from ECO4; over 1% of all measures installed under ECO4 have been in his constituency. This success is partly due to the explicit incentive within the scheme to treat off-grid rural homes in Wales and Scotland, and it is also thanks to the ECO Flex provision, which allows up to 50% of the overall obligation to be met by treating homes that have been referred by a local authority or a devolved Administration. Ceredigion is one of the leaders in that part of the scheme.

Nevertheless, I assure the House that we are not complacent. We continue to monitor delivery closely, working with local authorities, energy suppliers and devolved Administrations to share best practice about ECO Flex and to remove administrative barriers where possible. Ofgem has recently republished guidance that should make the ECO Flex process easier, and, as has been mentioned, we are considering how the whole scheme can be amended. We recognise that costs have increased since we developed ECO4 and that, as the hon. Gentleman explained, meeting the minimum improvement requirement in certain homes is challenging. We are considering whether changes to the policy are desirable and analysing the potential impact of such changes. For example, we will need to examine the consequences of relaxing the minimum requirement for our fuel poverty targets, given the imperative of proofing homes to band C. Making changes to ECO4 will require a public consultation and amendments to affirmative regulations, so any changes we decide to make will be well informed by external stakeholders.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about expanding the list of technologies, the primary legislation that enables ECO4 and GBIS limits technologies to those that reduce space heating costs. While we are open to expanding the eligible technologies in the future, that would require a change in primary powers. Beyond ECO4, and in response to persistently high energy prices, we have extended the help available through a new eco energy efficiency scheme: the Great British insulation scheme, which many Members mentioned. Previously consulted on as ECO+, it will boost support for those on the lowest incomes and the most vulnerable, and extend help to a wider pool of households who are also challenged by high energy bills.

ECO4 and the Great British insulation scheme are a major expansion of the Government’s action on energy efficiency. The predecessor ECO3 scheme was worth £640 million annually, and total ECO funding has now reached £1.3 billion per year to March 2026. We estimate that by April 2026, the GB insulation scheme will have delivered about 376,000 measures to about 300,000 households, helping households to cut heating bills by an average of £300 to £400 per year.

These schemes also create continuity for the supply chain. To further facilitate supply chain growth, the Government have increased funding for training schemes, as many Members mentioned. The Department’s £9.2 million home decarbonisation skills training competition, launched in September 2022, has awarded grant funding to 19 training providers in England to deliver subsidised training in the energy efficiency, building retrofit and low-carbon heating sectors. That training will deliver an estimated 9,000 training opportunities to the building retrofit, energy efficiency and heat pump sectors through to summer 2023. That includes accredited training to qualify standard installers and retrofit co-ordinators.

Alongside the energy efficiency upgrades we are making through the Great British insulation scheme and ECO4, the Government are investing £6.6 billion over this Parliament in clean heat and energy efficiency, reducing our reliance on fossil fuel heating. In addition, £6 billion of new Government funding will be made available from 2025 to 2028. We have heard it said that consumers are at the heart of everything we do, and I give my assurance that one of the things we are doing is reaching out to stakeholders. Hon. Members have also mentioned places such as citizens advice bureaux. Clearly it is important that we talk to people about the cost of living but also what we are doing in our ongoing support.

The Government investment I have listed, as well as specific investment in building a market for green finance, means that a range of green financing options are already available from high street lenders to owner-occupiers and private landlords. They include things such as green mortgages and additional borrowing facilities, or cashback offers to homeowners undertaking energy retrofit. Some energy suppliers also offer 0% finance for certain energy efficiency products. Improving the energy efficiency of our homes is the best long-term solution to reducing energy bills and tackling fuel poverty. ECO4 and the GB insulation scheme will support that, while also helping to protect our nation’s energy and support our net zero target.

A comparative assessment of cost assumptions for the ECO4 scheme and those set out in the Great British insulation scheme consultation has also been talked about. We are monitoring ECO4 delivery against the current cost assumptions, and we will consider changes if necessary. Changing the cost assumptions may require a change to the overall energy bill reduction target, to the estimated funding, to policy details of the scheme, or a combination of all three. Such changes will require public consultation and regulatory change.

There are many more areas that I could discuss, but I will end by thanking the hon. Member for Ceredigion again for securing this important debate. I look forward to continuing to engage with him and all ECO stakeholders to ensure that the schemes continue to help fuel-poor households, support jobs and deliver value for consumers.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate; it has been very detailed and useful. As well as some of the practical concerns and challenges, we have discussed some of the broader and deeper tensions within various aspects of the policy, and how changes to one aspect might have a detrimental or unintended impact on another.

I am grateful to all colleagues. I thank the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who made speeches. I also thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the Minister, as well as those who made interventions. It has been a good debate with a consensus that this objective is very important, and the policy will deliver a great deal of good for households as they face ever-increasing pressures on their finances.

I have the last word, as it were. I will use it to say that I am pleased that the Government are monitoring the situation, particularly the cost assumptions. That will be broadly welcomed by those who are responsible for installing some of these measures.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the implementation of ECO4 and ECO+.

Sitting suspended.

Protection of Seals

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the protection of seals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am delighted to have secured this debate. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for all her hard work on the subject of seal welfare. I was proud to sponsor her Seals (Protection) Bill last year. I hope this debate might offer a chance to discuss this vital topic.

Ensuring the protection and welfare of seals is a dual process of education and legislation. Seals are rare enough that their presence is a novelty to many communities, making information and guidance essential. However, there will always be individuals who, for whatever reason, do not mind disturbing wildlife and do not care about the impact of their actions on the ecosystem. In the light of that, I urge the Government to amend the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to make the intentional or reckless disturbance of seals an offence. This would give seals the same protections as whales and dolphins, and would bring England and Wales in line with existing seal protection legislation in Northern Ireland and Scotland, creating a consistent framework across the UK.

The issue of seal welfare first came to my attention two years ago, when the riverside near Hammersmith bridge in the north of my constituency became home to a curious and excitable seal pup. Nicknamed Freddie Mercury for his love of the spotlight, he quickly became a treasured feature of the local community. The return of seals to the River Thames was a joy, not just to local people, who loved to watch Freddie sunbathe and play, but to campaign groups, who saw their presence as a sign that the Thames was finally recovering from decades of pollution. While seals are rare in my constituency of Richmond Park, whenever they are sighted they always capture the public’s attention.

Sadly, just a few weeks after arriving on our shores on 21 March 2021, Freddie was attacked by a passing dog. Although onlookers intervened to try to save him, he had already had his flipper broken and suffered horrific wounds. Two days later, Freddie died. The owner of the dog that killed Freddie was not a callous person. Had she been aware of Freddie’s presence and the need to keep her dog on a lead, she would have done so. Unfortunately, Freddie’s story is not uncommon. Almost every day seals are injured or killed by our negligence. In many cases, these incidents are entirely preventable. I have been encouraged to see that, since Freddie’s death, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has provided support and funding for a number of initiatives to educate the public about seal welfare. I also welcome the introduction of the marine and coastal wildlife code last month and hope that the Department will continue its work to spread best practice and behaviour to communities.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. As he is here, I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was incredibly supportive of the Seals (Protection) Bill, which I introduced in February 2022. Although the code she has referenced is welcome, it is still only advisory, so does she agree that we need legislation such as the Seals (Protection) Bill, which would amend the existing legislation, to protect seals from intentional or reckless disturbance?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention; that was the point I was about to make. As well as the education initiatives, which have been so welcome, we need more progress on the legislative side of this issue.

Just a few weeks after Freddie’s death, a BASE jumper performed a jump directly above a group of seals in north Wales. Despite being warned of the threat he posed to local wildlife, he went ahead with the jump, causing a mass stampede of seals into the sea. That kind of disturbance may seem relatively harmless, but it can be catastrophic for the animals involved. It disrupts the pups’ feeding, reduces their chances of surviving the cold winter months and leaves adults stressed and tired. Extreme cases can result in injury or death. When startled, some seals will do anything to hide from suspected predators, throwing themselves off rocky ledges towards the oceans, breaking jaws and flippers. Unable to swim or eat, seals injured in this way will die soon after.

Freddie’s death and the stampede in north Wales reinforce the need for a dual approach whereby education and legislation are implemented hand in hand to ensure the safety of seals in Britain’s waterways.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for the way she is setting it out. Angel Bay, in my north Wales constituency, is well known for its seal population. In fact, this debate is extraordinarily timely, as today I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned because a film crew are out there. I happen to know that they are supported by the North Wales Wildlife Trust. Will she join me in thanking groups such as the North Wales Wildlife Trust and the many volunteers who look after these colonies and help to balance the important demand for education of the public with the protection of these remarkable creatures?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. We have a fantastic group of voluntary organisations in this country that are really dedicated to protecting the interests of seals and ensuring their welfare. It is great news to hear that the film crew in his constituency are working closely with the North Wales Wildlife Trust, but we also have organisations such as the Seal Research Trust, Seal Watch and the Seal Alliance. There is a whole group of organisations doing really valuable work in this area.

We have a special responsibility on behalf of the rest of the world to ensure that we protect these rare creatures. The United Kingdom is home to more than a third of the global grey seal population. We are a sanctuary for seals in Europe, and we should have legal protections in place to ensure that they are not harmed by our actions. Beyond our global responsibility, introducing a ban on seal disturbance would safeguard the current economic benefits brought by these creatures and encourage further responsible, sustainable seal-based tourism.

I support what the hon. Lady is trying to do. On the point about numbers, I represent North Norfolk, which has some of the largest seal colonies in the whole of Europe. Off Blakeney Point, we have 3,000 pups born every single year. In the east of my constituency, the Friends of Horsey Seals does an incredible job at looking after seals all year round. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to bring in more protections. The Marine Management Organisation can quite often create byelaws. If the Minister is unable to create legislation to deal with this issue, I wonder whether the MMO could introduce byelaws in certain locations to help to stop seal disturbances.

The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am quite certain that more can be done at every level of government, but he is absolutely right to make the point about certain sensitive locations in his constituency. If we are not able to progress with legislation on a national level, local opportunities should be pursued. Perhaps that is something the Minister might like to address in his remarks.

Coastal tourism in Great Britain is estimated to generate £17.1 billion in spending and support 285,000 jobs in seaside towns. Those jobs are a vital source of employment in many coastal towns, which often suffer from high levels of deprivation and unemployment. Seal watching has already become a mainstay of the tourist industry in Scotland and, with the right protections in place, could bring huge value to struggling coastal communities across England and Wales. In 2015, the National Trust found that 39% of visitors to the UK coastline came with the intention of getting close to nature and wildlife. In Norfolk, nearly 80,000 people a year are estimated to visit the seal colony at Horsey, while certain seals in Devon have developed a cult following among tourists, with their own social media pages and supporter groups.

Seals are uniquely well suited as tourist attractions. Unlike other marine megafauna, they are found in predictable locations, reside in an open habitat and can be seen in all seasons. If managed correctly, seal watching could boost tourism across the UK coastline and increasingly become a valuable source of revenue for British tourism.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I want to highlight the work of the Seal Research Trust in Cornwall. At Mutton Cove, we have a fantastic number of seals and some great work is done. Further to the point made earlier, does she think that, as well as the MMO potentially having powers to introduce byelaws, the inshore fisheries and conservation agencies could also do so; and that, rather than having an offence for disturbance, it might be better to create an obligation on certain marine agencies to give consideration to seals when designating byelaws?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which demonstrates that there are many routes to achieving the goal that we all want. Perhaps the Minister will address that point in his closing remarks.

Unfortunately, badly managed tourism and inappropriate individual behaviour can threaten this industry. According to data gathered by the Seal Research Trust, 68% of the time that humans are present near seals, the animals have been disturbed. Continued disturbances and a persistent human presence in close proximity to seal habitats can mean the permanent abandonment of formerly well-used habitats, behaviour alterations and reduced survivorship for the whole local population. For that reason, it is crucial that public and private businesses are issued with more than simple voluntary guidance. They must be bound by law to uphold certain standards; otherwise, we may see fewer seals in our seas in years to come.

The damage caused by human disturbance may not be immediate or obvious, but it is very real. Without protection, some seal colonies will be abandoned, costing communities money and throwing the local ecosystem into chaos. Like most British marine life, seal populations are under intense pressure. Although their numbers have boomed in recent years, they must increasingly contend with litter in the ocean, changing prey patterns and extreme weather. However, unlike addressing most environmental issues, improving conditions for seals would be extremely simple for the Government. Reduced rates of disturbance would allow more seal pups to survive until maturity, and would leave adults to properly rest and recuperate between trips to the ocean.

In 2021, the Government committed to becoming a global leader in animal welfare, and to setting high standards for others across the world to follow. Although those are commendable aims, many of my constituents were heartbroken when the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and the Animals Abroad Bill were set aside. They were hoping to see a genuine commitment to the protection of animals, but so far they have unfortunately been let down. Given that two of the Government’s three flagship animal welfare Bills have now been scrapped, I hope that the Department has time to revise its current guidance and create some small pieces of legislation that will show that the Government have not entirely abandoned their commitment to animal rights.

Charities such as the Seal Research Trust, Seal Watch and the Seal Alliance are already doing fantastic work to educate the public. A huge amount of effort goes into their work of spreading good practice. I want to recognise the dedication of my constituent Mary Tester, who is in the Public Gallery, and Sue Sayer from the Seal Research Trust. Their commitment to seal welfare is commendable, and they have done so much to inform and educate people visiting or living near seal habitats. Unfortunately, despite their tireless work, it takes only one bad tour operator or persistently uncaring person in each area frequented by seals to cause serious damage to the local population.

In the coming decades, marine life will be stressed by warming seas, plastics in our oceans and the effects of decades of over-fishing. By creating stronger protections for seals now, we can give them the best chance of surviving the difficult years ahead and ensure that future generations have the opportunity to see these wonderful creatures in the wild for years to come.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing the debate. We have a rich wealth of marine life in the UK, and it is important that we continue to raise such issues and champion the protection of those species.

The UK Government have a strong track record in ensuring that protection and management measures are in place for marine species. As the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, I fully acknowledge the fishing industry’s expertise and stewardship of the marine environment. I recognise its concerns about the potential impact of environmental protections on livelihoods.

The British coastline is home to two globally important populations of seals: a significant 38% of the world’s population of grey seals, and 30% of European harbour seals. Seals play an important role in the marine ecosystem, but they face a list of threats, including pollution, entanglement, marine plastic and debris, climate change and, as the hon. Lady said, disturbance from human interaction.

None the less, we have a comprehensive suite of protections in place for seals, including the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 and the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which make it an offence to capture or kill a seal. Seal shooting licences and the shooting of seals, which were previously allowed under the “netsman’s defence” provision in the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, have been banned since 2021. The Act is equally applicable in inland waters, rivers, coastal areas and territorial waters.

It is also an offence to take, injure or kill a seal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Act makes it an offence for anyone to disturb any animal that is recognised as a designated feature in a site of special scientific interest. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) said, in Norfolk there are two SSSIs designated for harbour seals: the Wash and the north Norfolk coast. Seals uniquely occupy both marine and terrestrial spaces. Seal spotting at beaches and estuaries is a popular pastime for coastal visitors.

Together with the Seal Alliance, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched the “Give Seals Space” campaign in 2021, to help to raise awareness of the impact of disturbance on seals, and the importance of keeping dogs under close control. Earlier this year, we also published England’s first national marine and coastal wildlife code. The code provides further targeted guidance for coastal visitors on marine species and activities.

The Government recognise that seals interacting with fishing gear and eating fish can be a problem for some sections of the fishing industry. I have also heard concerns directly from the industry that seals can stress aquaculture species in pens, such as salmon. That is why we work closely with the seafood industry, as we develop non-lethal deterrents and implement protections.

In 2022, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations published the marine wildlife bycatch mitigation initiative, setting out how we will work collaboratively with the fishing industry and stakeholders to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the bycatch of sensitive marine species. DEFRA also worked alongside the Marine Management Organisation to fund the development of non-lethal methods to help prevent negative seal-fishery interactions and costly damage to fishing gear. The MMO has been working with the fishing industry to test the use of targeted acoustic startle technology as a seal deterrent. I am pleased to say that it is yielding promising results for limiting seal interactions for specific fisheries. A full report on that is due to be published shortly, and we are considering the next steps that we can take to address the issue under the Clean Catch UK programme.

The UK marine strategy provides a framework for assessing and taking measures to achieve and maintain good environmental status in our seas. It covers a range of biodiversity and marine environment indicators, which include a seal abundance and distribution indicator. Overall, GES for seals has been partially achieved. We will also continue to be at the forefront of marine protection. We are developing a well-managed network of marine protected areas. We have recently designated the first three highly protected marine areas in English waters. Sites protecting seals include Berwickshire and north Northumberland, which have MPAs protecting grey seals, and the Wash and north Norfolk coast, where the MPA also protects harbour seals, as I mentioned earlier.

As a final point, we can only protect and manage the marine environment effectively when we do so in collaboration with the countries with which we share the ocean. I am proud that the UK is a leading voice for the protection of marine mammals internationally.

I am listening to the Minister with great interest. It is undeniable that the Minister and the Department are doing what they can to enhance the protection of seals, particularly through measures in the fishing industry, as he has spoken about at length. However, my Bill—the foundation of today’s debate—is about humans and their interaction with seals, and the disturbance and harassment they cause. There are still many campaigners, including those in the Public Gallery and those who have made representations in the past, who feel that not enough is being done to stop the intentional harassment of seals. Although the things the Minister is outlining in his speech are wonderful, he has not addressed the point that a great number of people are still disturbing seals, causing them great harm.

That is something that the Government recognise. We clearly do not want to see that disturbance by members of the public. That is why, as I said earlier, together with the Seal Alliance, in spring 2021 we launched the new Government-backed “Give Seals Space” campaign to help to raise awareness of the impact that human disturbance can have on seals, and to try to reduce it. To help to address rising numbers of summer visitors to coastlines and minimise the disturbance, in May 2023, DEFRA published England’s first national marine and coastal wildlife code. It is about educating members of the public to ensure that they are aware that their interactions with seals can disturb and have a negative impact.

I am conscious that we are potentially close to a Division, so the Minister will want to wind up soon. He is right that there is a comprehensive set of legislation dealing with the injuring, killing or taking of a seal. On the issue of disturbance, however, there is potentially a gap. We can do awareness raising campaigns —I was responsible for introducing those at the time—but sometimes there may be recreational tourist boats, for instance, that cause a disturbance. Allowing inshore fisheries and conservation authorities the power to introduce certain byelaws to manage that activity could make a big difference.

I pay tribute to all the work my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State to move us forward in this area. Our ears are always open to new ideas, and this debate has played a significant part in ensuring that the Government are tuned into some of the thoughts of colleagues across the House.

We are seeing increasing public awareness, and we are carrying out industry engagement. Innovation is also going to help, and we have a range of legislative, licensing and spatial conservation measures in place. I am sure there is still more to do, but I am proud of what the UK has done to deliver in this space. I thank Members from across the House for engaging in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Population Growth: Impact of Immigration

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of immigration on population growth.

It is a delight to speak in this Chamber on a subject which is not a delight; it everything but a delight, as I shall articulate briefly in this important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.

The greatest Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli—of course, a Conservative, but I suppose that is implicit—said that

“change is inevitable…change…is constant.”

I want to speak about the course, character and consequences of change.

Each of us encounters change in our lives. The ultimate change is death, the first change we enjoy is birth, and those between can be either joys or sorrows, but our capacity to adapt to change is not limitless. The enduring touchstones of familiarity help to give our lives certainty and assurance, and it is vital that we understand that that applies communally and collectively as well as personally. Yet the changes that this country has seen in population growth have been dramatic.

So much of the political debate that we cherish and thrive upon in this place is about change, and yet the Government have made no real measure of the effect of a rapidly growing population and have no mechanism across Government to deal with its consequences. When I first ran for Parliament in 1987—I know there are people in this Chamber thinking, “How can that be possible?” and it is true that I was all but a boy in those days—net migration was just 2,000. Up until the mid-1990s, migration was essentially balanced. We had people leaving the country and people coming, and that is what all advanced countries enjoy, for it is the inevitable consequence of being an advanced economy.

When I was first elected to this House in 1997, 10 years later, net migration was 47,000. Ten years later—10 difficult, and some would say tragic, years under the stewardship of Mr Blair—net migration was 233,000. Under the previous Labour Government, total migration was 3.6 million, and nearly 1 million British citizens emigrated, so net migration topped 2.7 million. The rate of inflow between 1997 and 2010 equated to one migrant arriving every minute. Every year since 1997 bar one—when the world was locked down—net migration was in excess of 100,000, and often by a much bigger margin than that. Indeed, net migration has averaged about 250,000 a year over the past two decades.

The most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics last month are truly shocking: they heralded record net migration of 606,000.

Does my right hon. Friend find it even more, frankly, antidemocratic that at no point in that whole process since the 1980s have the electorate been asked whether that outcome is what they want?

That is entirely true. Indeed, there is a huge gulf between the expectations and the sentiments of the vast bulk of the British population on this subject and those of that awful marriage of greedy plutocrats and doubt-fuelled liberals, who seem to think that endless migration is acceptable. My hon. Friend is right: this has been done without consent—indeed, without as much as consultation, let alone consent.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. I understand the direction he is going in, but my understanding is that 1.2 million people migrated to the UK and 557,000 left to go elsewhere. That leaves a balance, as the right hon. Gentleman said, of 606,000 at the end of June ’22. Does the right hon. Member accept that many of the people who are coming here have a contribution to make to society and can build society alongside us? I understand that economic migrants are outside of this system, but there are many who want to make a contribution. Does he accept that fact, and does he think that the contributions they make to the NHS and to families are important?

Yes, of course I accept that and I will say a bit more on that later on. Of course it is true that people come here and make remarkable contributions to our communities and to our society. This is not about a failure to acknowledge that contribution; it is about dealing with the unprecedented scale and pace of it. It is impossible to sustain this level of migration for reasons I will set out.

To be clear about the relationship to population, migration alone accounts for 57.5% of population growth in England and Wales. Since 2001, the UK population has increased by 8 million, of which nearly 7 million was due to immigration. Just imagine that figure for a moment. To put it in context, that equates to the combined populations of Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Peterborough, Ipswich, Norwich, Luton and Bradford. A much higher population increase can be expected in future years unless we do something radical to address this problem.

My point relates to the ratio of numbers of individuals who have come to certain regions of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we have a fairly small population—maybe even in comparison with some of the cities that have just been mentioned—and yet we have received a large percentage of the people coming in. I am talking about illegal immigrants, of which we took 3,356 in Northern Ireland. We were told that we would take 1,000. Those people are in 21 hotels, which are part of one of our growth industries in Northern Ireland, and are taking up more than 1,100 rooms. That is a big problem. Unfortunately, Scotland has taken a lot fewer. People will ask what is going on there. It is not fair.

Of course, when people arrive in the country, there is no accounting for where they choose to go. They will typically go to places where there is work, understandably; we would, too, after all. When I speak of these general numbers, the impact in certain parts of the country, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, has been much more profound than in others.

To go back to my point about change. The ability to cope with that level of change economically, socially and culturally has placed immense burdens on those communities that have enjoyed the greatest levels of migration. The population of this country grew by 606,000 last year. The fact that that is unprecedented is a matter of fact. The fact that it is unacceptable is obvious. The scale of growth will put unbearable pressure on already stretched—

I will be happy to do so in a second, but I just want to illustrate my point.

My hon. Friend may have been about to intervene to tell us this, but last year, we built around 180,000 houses. Bear in mind that the population increased by 600,000. We did not, and could not, build enough surgeries, clinics and hospitals to cope with more than 600,000 additional people. We cannot build enough new railways and roads to deal with the extra demand. We are simply adding 600,000 people to an infrastructure already in desperate need of being upgraded. The pressure on the NHS, which my hon. Friend will know a great deal about, is immense. There were 700,000 new GP registrations last year by people entering the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I wonder whether he might reflect that last year was slightly unusual in that this country rightly took in approximately 130,000 Ukrainian refugees. There was also a net inflow of about 90,000 British citizens returning. There were other refugees from Afghanistan and Hong Kong to whom we rightly held out our hand as a country to give refuge.

On a wider point, my right hon. Friend is at slight risk of suggesting that immigration per se is bad, when we recognise that people who come here and work hard for the NHS can make a great contribution to our country. Frankly, a number of our public services could not operate without them.

People come with an economic need as well as providing an economic benefit. There are costs and benefits to every individual in this room and every person who arrives in the country. The degree of cost they bring will depend on their circumstances. If someone comes who is sick, elderly or infirm, their demand on the NHS will be much greater. If someone comes who is young and fit, economically active and skilled, their contribution to the economy will be much greater.

My hon. Friend is right that last year was exceptional, for the reasons he gave. When I spoke of a typical figure over the period of 250,000, he will understand that that is the size of several substantial cities. Just housing those people alone is proving impossible. The biggest single driver of housing demand is migration, and has been for a very long time indeed.

My hon. Friend is also right that our health service benefits immensely from people born overseas. Both of my sons were delivered by people born overseas. I have been treated by all kinds of specialist doctors, nurses and others born overseas, as have members of my family. I thank them for that service, and fully recognise and appreciate the contribution they have made.

It is important to say, in respect of that, that the reason why that contribution is required is that we have palpably failed to train home-grown people, who could take the same jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we fall into a lazy argument if we simply talk in platitudes, rather than look at the lives and opportunities of our citizens?

My hon. Friend encourages me to digress, though within the scope of the matter before us. There is a macroeconomic lesson that needs to be taught to the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility. There is a lazy assumption that increasing population is an automatic good for the economy. It is certainly true that an economy can be grown by those means, but that does not mean per capita growth. It means growth of an altogether cruder kind.

Moreover, the macroeconomic fact is that doing so displaces investment in recruitment, skills and modernising the economy. The economy is stultified in a high-labour mode. Britain’s chance to succeed and prosper in future is as a high-tech, high-skilled economy. Rather than displacing our attention, and subsequently policy and investment, in those skills, by recruiting labour from abroad, we should indeed look closely at the kind of economic future we want to build, and drive policy forward towards that future. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the myth that pervades the economic debate about migration.

I want to make two more points. One is on the likely future population. Experts estimate that the UK population could grow from 67 million to between 83 million and 87 million by 2046 if current immigration trends continue. Growth to 80 million-plus will result in the need to build between 6 million and 8 million more homes. That is equal to between 15 and 18 more cities the size of Birmingham by 2046. I do not say it lightly or blithely, but this is by far the greatest challenge facing the Government.

I would like to expand on that very point and return to the issue of housing. My right hon. Friend might be interested to know of a visit I made to a housing development site in the midlands, where the vast majority of sales were to British national overseas people from Hong Kong, who were buying homes en masse on a development. When the development had been planned, it was not known that this migration route would be open, so the planners did not have that population level in mind. Does that not illustrate the challenges of long-term planning—how long it takes to build the homes we need—and show that the very quick changes in migration patterns have the impact he has described?

I agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her work in her constituency and more widely to highlight these issues.

To put this in perspective, if the UK continues to welcome the number of people we are admitting now, we would need to build 6.5 million more homes solely to cope with population growth over that period. Current immigration numbers require a home to be built in England every five minutes to meet skyrocketing demand. By contrast, even modest changes such as cutting net migration levels back to about 100,000 would help young people to get on the property ladder and prevent more of our countryside from being lost forever to house building.

Given the dramatically increased numbers of people coming here, driving immigration to levels never seen before in British history, urgent action must be taken. I look forward to hearing what action my right hon. Friend the Minister has in mind, but let me make some suggestions. Some work has been done already, due to the exceptional Home Secretary and Minister for Immigration that we are proud to have as members of the Government. The measures to limit master’s degree students bringing their dependants is welcome but insufficient. As I said at the time, it is odd—I will put it no more strongly—that those who are studying a taught master’s can no longer bring their dependants, but those who are studying a research master’s can.

Frankly, we need to be more bold altogether. We should raise the wage threshold for those entering the country on employment visas. We must look closely at the health service and the charges for accessing it—after all, it is a national, not international, health service. We need to focus on building domestic skills, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), which would reduce the need to bring in people with skills that should be home-grown. We certainly need to look at the number of spouse visas issued and the criteria for issuing visas of that kind.

More than all of that, we need to recognise that people coming here can do an important job for us and welcome them accordingly, but they must know that they too will be disadvantaged if the infrastructure creaks to the point of breaking due to this unprecedented level of population growth.

The best way forward would be for the Government to take a holistic look at this challenge. My good friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in excellent paper he published through the think-tank Civitas, wrote of the need for an office for demographic change along the lines of the Office for Budget Responsibility. It would be missioned to establish proper evidence, provide expert advice and recommend actions for the Government and other agencies to deal with population change. It would set out long-term strategies to meet the needs that are inevitably the product of population growth. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that very sensible idea.

We need to reduce the period that graduates can stay after completing their degrees from two years to about six months, and we must look again at the shortage occupations and skilled workers routes to ensure we are bringing people into the country only when strictly necessary and not allowing businesses to simply hire cheap labour. There is real evidence of declining working conditions. That point has been made very well by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock): working conditions, salaries and so on have been detrimentally affected because some of the people I described as greedy plutocrats—that was an understatement, by the way—would rather employ people on the cheap than do the right thing by their workers. I thought he made a strong case about that when he spoke about it recently in the House.

Disraeli also said:

“Man is not the creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creatures of men.”

The prevailing circumstances this country faces in respect of population growth cannot be ignored any longer. We need leadership—I know my right hon. Friend the Minister is well placed to offer it—across the whole of Government because this affects every aspect of government. I have spoken about health, housing and infrastructure; I could have spoken about transport. Every time someone complains about roads and potholes —as they often do—they should know that every extra 10,000 or 100,000 people using the roads puts extra pressure on the infrastructure. I could pick almost every aspect of government—every Department. We need urgent action; otherwise, we will fragment our society, undermine our sense of shared belonging and alter our communities forever. More than that: we will not be able to sustain the good quality of life that British people rightly expect and want the Government to help them enjoy.

Order. This debate has a hard stop at 5.55 pm. I intend to call Alison Thewliss at 5.32 pm or thereabouts, so Members, monitor yourselves.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on securing this debate. It is good to see him leading the debate on this issue, as he does on so many others.

In any advanced, modern economy and free society, people come and leave. That has always been the case in this country, and for the vast majority of our history the numbers of those coming and going have more or less been broadly in balance, as my right hon. Friend said. Sadly, for much of the past 25 years, that has not been the case. The Blair Government famously admitted to sending out search parties in an effort to bring immigrants here, and they deliberately engineered mass immigration to change the fabric of our society. Sadly, for all the promises over the past 13 years, that trend has broadly continued.

Last year, a staggering 1.2 million people came to the UK—equivalent to the population of Birmingham, or 10 times the population of Blackpool. Net migration totalled 606,000—a colossal number, simply unprecedented in modern times. Although last year’s figure was something of an anomaly, the general trend over much of the past two decades has been net migration in excess of 250,000 annually. That is simply not sustainable in any way, shape or form, and it is the British people—those who placed their trust in us to control immigration—who are suffering the consequences of this failure.

There is much talk at present of the housing crisis. Supply side issues, such as lack of planning reform, comparatively low numbers of new builds and the Government’s ill-advised interventions in the private rented sector, have all contributed to that crisis, but it is clear that immigration is the elephant in the room. We cannot allow the population to grow by the equivalent the population of Glasgow, as we did last year, and then wonder why on earth there is a housing shortage that is causing misery for so many people.

It is not just housing that is at breaking point. Our public services are also creaking under the strain of mass immigration. Take the NHS, for example: waiting lists are at a record high—yes, partly as a consequence of the pandemic, but the trend was long in evidence long before then—and I know as a former primary school teacher that in some of our schools much of the additional investment and funding put in over the last decade has been directed at specialist tuition and support for children who arrived here without having mastered the basics of the English language.

There have also been profound impacts on our labour market, with reduced investment in technological innovation due to over-reliance on cheap foreign labour. This has hurt productivity and suppressed wages for working people in all sorts of sectors, as I see in my local economy in Blackpool. We have to wean ourselves off this dependency on low-skilled foreign labour and an economic model that is, sadly, broken.

The immense demands that such high levels of immigration place on housing and our public services are recognised by the British people, who, frankly, are fed up with the situation. Time after time, they have stated that they want less immigration, and time after time they have been left disappointed. The Brexit referendum in 2016 was perhaps the clearest illustration of that, with many people, myself included, voting to leave the EU precisely on the basis of a promise to control immigration. Although we have ended free movement of people, which is to our credit, it is no good swapping high levels of EU immigration for high levels of immigration from the rest of the world.

Many of those who voted to leave the EU, and indeed many of those who supported our party in 2019, many of them for the first time, did so partly on the basis of our manifesto pledge to control immigration. Understandably, they now feel bitterly disappointed by our inability to control net migration, and who can blame them? Sustained high levels of immigration have changed the nature of some of our communities forever, and when new arrivals have not integrated into those communities, it has on occasion created significant problems.

The frustration that so many ordinary people feel is exacerbated by the fact that too few people in the liberal, metropolitan political establishment, across all political parties, are prepared to face up to the consequences of high immigration. People have been far too squeamish to confront its realities out of a misguided sense of political correctness. Sadly, some of those who have recognised the impact that it has had have further eroded public trust with their failed promises to tackle the issue.

Our failure to stop the small boats is the most obvious focus of people’s anger and frustration. We have rightly made stopping the small boats a key priority, and I commend the Minister for leading the way on that. However, we will be judged not only on that aim but on our promises to reduce net migration. Time, and the patience of the British people, is, sadly, running out.

Thank you very much indeed for calling me to speak, Mr Paisley.

I did not come here to Westminster Hall to talk about figures. I came here to talk about what I believe is the important factor that has dominated the debate on immigration in Parliament for the last 20 to 30 years: the complete ignoring of vast sections of the population by the people who sit in this House.

The people who sit in this House have often refined their attitude to immigration. Mr Paisley, please forgive me for reading this, but in 1774 Edmund Burke, with whom I normally agree, said:

“Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In that speech, Burke also used a phrase that I think should be a flashing red light for all politicians: “his enlightened conscience”. What we have seen in Parliament for the last 20 to 30 years is people who believe they have enlightened consciences and who have made decisions on the basis of their own ideological views, at the expense of their constituents. I have repeated that point continually, and I cannot be the only MP who feels that way.

When I first became involved in politics in Bury in 2010, as all people do who get involved with political parties I travelled around the north of England. Without a shadow of a doubt, at nearly every single door that I knocked on, immigration was the issue raised. It was not a nuanced debate; it was not, “Let’s talk about how many people use the NHS.” It was essentially, “There are too many people coming into this country and we are extremely concerned about it.” That is going back over a decade.

When I was growing up, immigration was something that could not be discussed. “You can’t mention things to do with immigration or race, because you’re almost certainly racist.” There was a chorus of people only too willing to challenge you on that basis.

This Government face a real decision on where they want to go in terms of representing the opinion of the British people and representing constituents such as mine in Bury, as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and others. We could decide to take the perfectly intellectually coherent view, which I am sure will be articulated by the Scottish National party and the Labour party, that immigration is a matter of conscience and morality. When morality comes into any debate in this place, I shrink away from it; my morality may well be very different from yours, Mr Paisley, or anybody else’s. Anyone who decides policy on the basis of their own prejudices is to be questioned and thought of as a politician who is not serving their people.

A politician who looks at immigration in the correct way is a politician who takes account not only of the views of their constituents and people in the country but of the practical consequences. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) has set out the practical consequences. In today’s debate in this Chamber, however, especially by Members of other parties, those two things have been ignored.

I often wonder what the Labour party thinks when it looks at why Brexit happened and why the Conservatives had such a majority in 2019. I can tell the Opposition that it is because, especially in the north of England, Labour politicians for 40 years ignored their own constituents’ views—not only ignored them but considered them to be racist. That is the basis of the Labour party’s downfall and it is what made Brexit happen. It would be a great tragedy if the Government, under the excellent Minister—I genuinely mean that; he is a great man and a great Minister—do not respond to the issue that people trusted us on.

Going back briefly to the issue of Brexit, I often hear in this House from colleagues who fought titanic battles, and talk about regaining our sovereignty. Brexit was about immigration. We can kid ourselves it was about anything else, but in Blackpool and Bury it was about immigration. That is what shifted the votes in their millions. We never hear about it in this place. We talk in nuanced terms that completely exclude voters from the debate, and then we wonder why the voters look at this place like they do.

The people in this place do not represent the views of the people on the issue of immigration. As Burke said back in 1774, they are people who consider themselves to have an enlightened conscience; they ignore the views of their constituents and would prefer to judge policy by their own perceived morality and judgment—and to hell with the consequences for housing, opportunity and skills. Who are the people who are sacrificed because of the ideology that has gone on in this country for 40 to 50 years? It is the poorest. That is the true shame of the policy, and it must change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is great to be able to participate in this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on introducing it.

I will concentrate on the issue of the population, because that is the core issue we have got to address. In 1990, which is the base date for all our policies relating to net zero and so-called climate change, the population then was about 20% less than it is now. There has been a 20% increase in population since then, yet all our net zero targets are related to absolute figures, rather than to carbon dioxide emissions per head of population. That is a dimension to the debate that I do not think we have sufficiently addressed.

When the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I have the privilege of serving, was asking an environment Minister the other day what is being taken into account in determining the impact of rising population on the ability of the Government to deliver on their net zero targets, there was a big gasp—“Oh, well, there is no briefing on that.” He did not have a clue. All that happened was that the Minister resorted to talking about heat pumps. He seemed to think that that was the answer to the question, which I raised. Yet we know that heat pumps are a subsidiary issue.

The Government keep setting targets for almost everything under the sun. Yesterday, I visited a garden centre and found that the Government are prescribing the amount of peat that we can have in a grow bag. They are prescribing that, but they have no policy whatever on the number of people we think it is right to have in our country.

I visited Hungary with some colleagues a few weeks back. Hungary does have a strong population policy. The Prime Minister there, who recently got re-elected with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, has the support of his people in recognising that one can limit immigration and at the same time grow one’s population and grow one’s economy.

On the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings made about growth in the economy, I think that is one of the most destructive policies that this Government are adopting. They are talking about GDP growth as being a good thing, but what should really count is GDP growth per person—per capita—and if you look at the figures, Mr Paisley, you will see that, in effect, over the last 10 years GDP per head of population has been static. We have not had that growth, so when people feel that they have not shared in the growth, the answer is no, they have not, because to a large extent the growth is actually being generated just by having more people in the country. The Government can brag about the fact that we have higher growth than Germany, but actually that growth is a mirage in terms of the economy, because it is not growth per head of population; it is the overall growth created by just bringing more people into the country, so this is an overdue but very timely debate.

The contribution that net migration makes to population growth is important, but let us first of all get a policy on our population. We have not had a population policy in this country. Why do not Ministers go off and see what is being done in Hungary, which is addressing this problem in a really constructive way? It is incentivising the home-grown population to grow their families, while at the same time having tight control over migration from outside, and encouraging people to develop their skills instead of allowing employers to take the easy shortcut of bringing in people who are already trained from overseas, thereby denuding those economies of their skillsets. There is a lot to be done, and I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to this debate, will be able to promise that we will introduce a population policy. I hope he will.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. Oh my goodness, where to start with this debate? Well, I will start with my own constituency of Glasgow Central, in which 24.7% of the population were born outside the UK. In the constituency of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who brought forward this debate, 8.9% of the population were born outside the UK; in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), 5.7%; in Bury North, 8.4%; in Christchurch, 5.5%; and in the Minister’s constituency, 5.7% of the population were born outside the UK. Before we get started on any of this, Mr Paisley, let me say that I will not take any criticism from anybody about immigration or attitudes towards it in Scotland, because I am in a far stronger position to talk about these issues than any of them are, given the demographics of my own constituency.

The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings approached the debate by talking about the lack of housing, healthcare capacity and schools. Those infrastructure problems were caused, in huge part, by a lack of investment from the party that has been in government in the UK for the past 13 years. Investment has not kept pace with population growth in this country. The right hon. Gentleman should be addressing those concerns to this Government, because that infrastructure investment has not taken place. That is why there is not enough housing: he and his colleagues stand up and go, “Oh, we don’t want any housing in our constituencies; we don’t want housing in this place, that place or other places,” then they wonder why there are not enough houses. An absolute mystery, I must say, Mr Paisley.

No, I will not. I listened with patience to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, and he can listen with patience to mine.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about issues with skills and labour. I agree that there needs to be more investment in skills in the population. Again, the Government have cut back on education infrastructure over all these years at the cost of education, so people have not been able to go into it. For example, the UK Government removed nursing bursaries. We kept them in Scotland, and people are going through that system and becoming the nurses who we so need.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the fact that people here are perhaps not having children. Gosh, is that because there are no nursery places for them because this Government have failed to invest in those places? The lack of childcare is preventing women from having children, and that is a significant problem that this Government have caused—[Interruption.] He did talk about the issue of families here not having children and those demographic challenges. Other Members talked about it too.

On a point of order, Mr Paisley. Hyperbole is one thing; calumnies are another. I did not mention people in this country not having children. I did not mention families. I do not know whether that was an invention or a misunderstanding, but it was one or the other.

Order. That is not a point of order, as you know. Throughout this debate, people have been listened to quietly and all their points have been made. Allow the SNP representative to make her points quietly and with dignity.

Thank you kindly, Mr Paisley. I will accept that the right hon. Gentleman did not make that point about demographics, but one of his colleagues did. Perhaps that is happening because in this country, people have been demonised for having children by the two-child limit, which has reduced family size. It has had an impact on the number of people in poorer demographics having children, because there is no support through the social security system. There is a cost of living crisis—perhaps Government Members have not quite noticed that—which means that families are holding off from having children because they do not feel that they can afford them.

We have talked about housing policy in the UK, and issues with measures chopping and changing, as well as with targets moving and shifting and disappearing. In Scotland, we have built lots of social housing. We have invested in that sector and we have stopped things such as the right to buy, which removed affordable housing from many communities in England.

In Scotland, our issues are about emigration, not immigration. The depopulation of areas such as our islands has been a problem for generations. For that reason, I am sure the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) will be pleased to hear that Scotland has a national action plan and population strategy. We started that because we are losing people, not because we want to close the door and prevent them from coming in. We want devolution of immigration law to allow us to tackle issues such as the depopulation of our island communities and to put further investment into them.

Brexit is the elephant in the room in many ways, but not in the way Government Members seem to think. Brexit has meant a loss of skills. It has meant people feeling unwelcome. It has meant that qualified staff in universities have gone elsewhere because they cannot further their research in the UK. Government Members mentioned graduates. They seem to want to take international students for their fees and then kick them out. That is no way to welcome people or to thank them for choosing to be in this country.

On the issue of students and dependants, in a written parliamentary question I asked the Minister how the Government calculates the amount brought into this country through immigration health surcharges and dependant visas. They could not draw out that number from their immigration figures. There is no evidence to suggest that dependants of students are any kind of burden, because the Government cannot produce that information when asked.

It is a fact that we are more likely to be treated by an immigrant in hospital than find one in the bed next to us. They come here and help out our health service to a ridiculous degree, if indeed they are allowed to work. I have constituents who are waiting for Home Office permission to be allowed to work in the NHS. They would dearly love to be able to be using their skills to help people in Scotland, but are not permitted to do so at a time when health and social work has its highest number of vacancies. In September to November 2022, there were 3.9 vacancies for every 100 employee jobs.

The skills gaps go right across the other sectors in our society. We have huge shortages. We need people to come in and work because there are vacancies, and the vacancy rates significantly impact both the UK’s productivity and its GDP growth, as other Members have mentioned. We are refusing to take those skills—refusing to let people come in, and closing the door on them—and that makes me incredibly sad because that is not what Scotland chooses.

People talked about hearing about immigration on the doorsteps. I go around the doorsteps in my constituency just the same, listening to people’s concerns, and they accept that immigration is important—that people come to Scotland to contribute skills and jobs. People in Pollokshields love the joy of being able to go and buy fresh mangoes and pakora on their doorstep. They welcome all of those things that immigrants bring to enrich our culture, and it makes me incredibly sad that the Conservative Members do not think that immigrants have anything to bring.

I will close with some words from The Proclaimers:

“All through the story the immigrants came

The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane

From Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine

We’re all Scotland’s story and we’re all worth the same

Your Scotland’s story is worth just the same”.

It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on securing this vital debate, and thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

That net migration is currently at its highest level on record is beyond question. Historically, the number averaged around 200,000 per year—of course I am not going back as far as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings did, but instead looking across recent years—while, of course, the figures this year came out at 606,000. It is therefore entirely fair to ask questions about why the number has grown by so much and whether continued growth at such numbers would be sustainable over time.

Debates on this issue can always be contentious, as I think we have just seen, but I hope that we can all agree on the need to have a well-informed discussion based on facts and evidence and driven by an honest assessment of the trade-offs that lie at the heart of this issue. Unfortunately, though, our national conversation on immigration is too often characterised by oversimplification and false binaries. For example, it is clear that a substantial proportion of the public are concerned about the current level of migration overall, and their worries are entirely legitimate given the amount of pressure on our social infrastructure following 13 years of successive Conservative Governments hollowing out our public services and utterly failing to build enough affordable housing. However, it is equally true that we are confronted by a demographic challenge when we consider that the replacement rate—the ratio of births to deaths—has been below 1:1 for the past 50 years. Meanwhile, the dependency ratio—or the number of working people per retiree—has fallen from roughly 15:1 at the time that Lloyd George introduced the first state pension, over 100 years ago, to around 4:1 by the time that this Government came into office in 2010.

Rather than taking a narrow, blinkered, partisan position that dismisses one of those factors in favour of the other, we should see the immigration question through the prism of competing priorities that must be well managed so that we get the balance right and deliver the best possible outcomes for our country. It is also vital that we avoid the temptation to see immigration policy as something that operates in isolation from other policy challenges. Rebuilding our public services and housing infrastructure after 13 years of Tory neglect will be a top priority for the next Labour Government, and we are clear that doing so will also help to build more cohesive community relations.

The competing priorities that underpin immigration policy are perfectly illustrated by the points-based system for skilled workers. Labour supports the points-based system—indeed, we created it in 2008 for non-EU citizens—but it is clear to us that the way in which this Government are managing the system is simply not working, because Ministers have failed to engage with employers and trade unions such that our economy gets the overseas labour it needs while ensuring that those key stakeholders bring forward workforce plans and skills and training strategies that maximise opportunities for our home-grown talent. As a result, for too long employers have seen immigrant labour as a substitute for investing in local workers.

It is also clear that with 7 million people on the NHS waiting list and more than 2 million people on long-term sick leave, we urgently need a Labour Government so that we can implement our new deal for working people, as set out by the Leader of the Opposition along with the shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), and the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth).

I turn now to our broken asylum system. It was this Government who gave us new legislation—the Nationality and Borders Act 2022—that we were told would increase the fairness and efficacy of the asylum system, break the business model of the people-smuggling gangs and remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Well, it is almost one year to the day since that legislation came into force, yet here we are again with new legislation and the same old promises from Ministers, as if none of it had ever happened.

Whereas those on the Conservative Benches offer nothing but platitudes and more broken promises, a Labour Government will act decisively to deliver an immigration system that is fair, affordable, sustainable and, above all, fit for purpose. We will reform the points-based system by ending the disparity between wage rates paid to migrant and non-migrant workers in order to prevent undercutting and abuse, and we will engage with employers and trade unions to deliver workforce plans that strike the right balance between inflows and homegrown talent. Equally, if not more importantly, we will deliver a comprehensive workforce plan to upskill our homegrown workforce and equip the next generation with the skills and knowledge to meet the long-term demands of an ever more interconnected global economy, in which specialist knowledge and skills are at a premium.

As I said earlier, public concern about immigration is focused on a range of issues, including both economy-driven immigration and asylum. However, far from stopping the boats, as is so often promised, the Conservatives “bigger backlog” Bill will deliver nothing more than chaos, inefficiency, unfairness and further costs to taxpayers. We need Labour’s five-point plan to stop the dangerous channel crossings by delivering on tasks based on common sense and quiet diplomacy, rather than chasing headlines and the government-by-gimmick that the Immigration Minister is so fond of.

Under the five-point plan, we will scrap the unworkable, unethical and unaffordable Rwanda plan, and channel the funding into the National Crime Agency. We will triage the backlog so that there is much faster processing of high grant-rate and low grant-rate countries, and reverse the catastrophic decision made in 2013 to downgrade caseworkers and decision makers’ seniority, which led to a collapse in productivity and to poorer decisions being made. We will make the resettlement schemes work—the Afghanistan scheme has completely collapsed, which is frankly shameful, given that we owe a debt of gratitude to people in Afghanistan. We will get a returns deal with the European Union, which we know has to be based on having safe and controlled legal pathways, and we will get our aid programme working so that we are focused particularly on countries that are generating a large number of refugees rather than plundering the aid budget, which is being used to fund hotels in this country.

Order. I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I have to call the Minister at this point. Minister, you have about 11 minutes.

Thank you, Mr Paisley. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for securing the debate and for his kind words—flattery, of course, will get you everywhere.

There are few more important decisions for this Parliament to make than who gets to come to our country, which is why the debate is so critical. My right hon. Friend is right to say that, over the decades, immigration has generally occurred in this country in an ad hoc manner, without the careful thought and planning that it warrants. Sometimes it has been successful, and sometimes less so, but it has rarely been planned in the way that it should be. As has been said, the levels of immigration that we are currently seeing, and have seen for most of my adult lifetime, are significantly higher than throughout the history of this country. The level of net migration that we have seen in the past 25 years is not normal by historical standards, and it is right that we consider the consequences of that and whether we should take action to change it.

My right hon. Friend said that Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts proposed to create an organisation to consider more deeply the demographic changes that the country is experiencing. In fact, I met Lord Hodgson to discuss just that. I know him well, having grown up not far from Astley Abbotts, where his mother created the most northerly lavender farm in Europe in her 80s—that is by the by. His proposal is very important and worthy of consideration. The issue is something that the Migration Advisory Committee could play a greater part in considering when it advises the Government on changes to our immigration system, but, if not, I think there is a good argument for having a separate organisation. I committed to Lord Hodgson to give further thought to the topic.

My right hon. Friend and a number of others raised the profound consequences that large quantities of migration have on the population of this country as regards housing, access to public services and integration, cohesion and unity. We should consider each of those points very seriously. I have paid particular interest to housing throughout my time as a Minister. It is undoubtedly true that if 600,000 additional people come to this country every year, that has profound consequences for house prices and, in particular, for the poorest in society, who want either to get on to the housing ladder or to access social housing. We have to take that seriously.

I made a speech recently at Policy Exchange about the impact of illegal migration. Although that is a different subject, many of the same arguments apply. We have to make sure we are representing our constituents’ true opinions correctly, as my right hon. Friend said, and we must be cognisant of the consequences, including the pressure on public services, housing and integration.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend argued—again, the Government would agree—that companies should not reach in the first instance for the easy lever of foreign labour. That is not the route to productivity enhancement and prosperity. If it was, this country would be even more prosperous than it is today, given the large amounts of legal migration that we have seen in the past 25 years. We have to encourage companies to embrace technology and automation, train their staff and invest in their skills.

The Government are doing that in a number of ways through our skills reforms, such as those for apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend started that process when he was the apprentices Minister many years ago. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has made it one of the central missions of his tenure to ensure we get more of the economically inactive in our country back into the workplace, and to ensure businesses support them in the first instance rather than reach for those overseas.

The Government’s most crucial reform in this Parliament was taking back control. It is as a result of leaving the European Union that, for the first time in my lifetime, Governments of this country can control the levers that dictate the numbers of people coming into our country. That is an absolutely essential change. It is now in our hands, but there has been a lazy assumption that control alone was sufficient and that people were not concerned about numbers. I disagree with that, and the Government do too. We believe that net migration is far too high, and we need to take action to bring it down over the medium term.

It is correct that, as others have said, the levels of net migration we have seen in the past two years have included some exceptional factors. The kaleidoscope was shaken as a result of covid, and we have subsequently seen very large numbers of people return to the UK, such as students. We have made important commitments, such as creating the Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan schemes—all of which we should be proud of and which should command high levels of public support. In fact, the UK, contrary to the view we sometimes hear expressed on the left, is one of the world’s leading countries for humanitarian protection schemes. Since 2015, under a Conservative Government, we have enabled half a million people to come into this country for humanitarian purposes. But we need to do more.

We have recently taken a significant step, which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned, to ensure that dependants of students cannot come with a student unless they are coming for longer research degrees, such as PhDs. That will make a tangible difference to numbers in the years ahead. Most importantly, it reaffirms the principle that universities should be in the education business, not the migration business. No one should be coming to this country to study merely as a back door to a life in the UK. They are entirely separate things.

If there are further steps we need to take, we can and should do so. My right hon. Friend raised a number of important points to which I will give further consideration. He knows that I have sympathy about the salary threshold. There is a question as to whether the immigration health surcharge is at a fair place or whether there is more that can be done. There is also a question about whether family visas and such are being issued appropriately. Those are all things that the Home Office keeps under review. If we need to take further action there, we obviously will do.

I am conscious that my right hon. Friend is keen to speak at the end of the debate, so I will—

I only have a few seconds. I don’t want to deprive my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings—

Can the Minister set out what the Government believe the right target is for the population of this country?

That is a big question to answer in 30 seconds. What we have said is that we remain true to our manifesto commitment that we will seek to bring down net migration in the medium term. My hon. Friend can see from the first step that the Home Secretary and I have made on student dependants the seriousness with which we take this challenge. I hope I have said in my remarks that I am very alive to the issue. I take seriously the profound consequences of net migration on community cohesion and access to public services and housing. If there are further things we can do, such as some of the ideas raised by Conservative Members today, the Home Secretary and I will do everything we can to implement them.

Huge, vast population growth may be seen by out-of-touch bourgeois liberals as a quick fix for our economy, but what the vast majority of the public know is that it fuels a dependence on low-skilled labour, stultifying our economy over time. The ease of employing workers from overseas displaces investment in domestic skills, including the upskilling of the existing workforce, automation, better working practices and fair pay. The consequence is to inhibit productivity and damage British competitiveness.

More than that, it changes the places we call home beyond recognition. Unless the Government act quickly and decisively, we face the grim future of a weakened, uncompetitive economy and a fragmented disparate society robbed of any sense of shared belonging. The bulk of the public, regardless of their origins, know this. The Minister, gauged by his articulation of his excellent case today, clearly knows it. We know that the Home Secretary understands this too. It is time the whole of Government took back control.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the impact of immigration on population growth.

Sitting adjourned.