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Once the right hon. Lady had recovered sufficiently, she expressed her admiration for the quiet determination shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and
Leamington. She knows a great deal about determination, quiet or otherwise, and she was entirely right in what she said. I wish to add my sincere congratulations to him, not just on his good fortune at the ballot box but on his subsequent tenacity in building a coalition and the way in which he presented his case today. It is a considerable demonstration of his commitment to improving public services and trying to get a better deal for taxpayers.
I also wish to confirm from the start that the Government are happy for the Bill to go into Committee, if that is the will of the House. We will seek to amend it, in ways that I will explain, but we support the core proposition of the Bill that we should place a firmer requirement on commissioners-those who do the very difficult job of shaping and purchasing public services on our behalf-to consider the potential to maximise the social, environmental and economic impact of every pound they spend on behalf of the taxpayer. In doing so, the Bill builds on the principle of the best value duty, as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) said.
The Bill is also consistent with what the Government are trying to achieve with the big society agenda. I genuinely hope that that issue becomes less partisan over time, not least because-as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington and the right hon. Lady, the former Secretary of State, said-the message builds on the aspirations of, and actions taken by, former Governments. Given the problems and challenges that we face as a country, it must be right to challenge all of us to think about our obligations and personal responsibilities beyond just paying taxes and obeying the law. It must be right to work together to try to find better ways to do things and, in that process, to try to tap into the skills, talents, ideas, experience and entrepreneurial energy that exists in our communities, but which too often feels shut out from the system. It must be right to encourage and support people to come together to try to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities.
I am lucky in the job that I do-and the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) will find this, too, as he now shadows me-to visit every week communities and community organisations in which people are coming together to try to make a contribution and to do some good to improve life in their area. It is genuinely inspiring and gives me great confidence that we have a firm foundation on which to build this bigger and stronger society, if we can do more to encourage and support it.
Nadhim Zahawi: My hon. Friend makes precisely the point about which the shadow Minister was confused. The procurement officers will not be compelled to do something from the top down, but will have the same choices before them as they have always had. Rather, they will be asked to look imaginatively at those choices. We are talking about benevolent libertarianism and a nudge forward-not what the shadow Minister was confused about.
I do not think that the Opposition were confused in any way: I think that they knew exactly what they were trying to do. However, my hon. Friend is right. This is not a heavy-handed approach: it is a requirement to consider, where relevant and proportionate. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)
suggested that it was a catalyst-a good word-to try to open more minds to a better and more intelligent way to commission, which considers the opportunity to achieve multiple outcomes through the transaction.
The big society agenda is not a Government programme, but the Government have an enormously important role to play. The Prime Minister has been clear about the three strands of action that people can expect from the Government, one of which-a very important one-is public service reform. Early in the new year we will publish a White Paper on public service reform that will make it clear what we are trying to achieve and how we intend to achieve it. Our desire is that public services will be built on stronger relationships with the communities and citizens they serve, and that they will be, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, more local, more personalised and more responsive. We want to devolve power to people on the front line who know how things can be done better, including extending the right to provide that was initiated by the previous Administration. We want to try to encourage and unlock that energy that sits inside the public services, which we feel has been constrained and stifled by a regime of overly oppressive targets and bureaucracy.
Hazel Blears: I have expressed to several hon. Members my concern about the process of transferring assets, possibly to social enterprises, which then swiftly progress to private, commercial organisations. Does the Minister agree that where public sector assets, purchased by the taxpayer, are to be transferred to other organisations there must be an asset lock to ensure the proper stewardship of the assets and democratic governance within the legal framework of those organisations?
Mr Hurd: I hear the right hon. Lady's concern. She makes a valid point, and she used a very important word-"stewardship". I totally agree that there is a duty of good stewardship. That contains two elements: a requirement to make sure that public assets are used most productively for the public, and a requirement to make sure that they are not misused in any way. In some ways that is a contracting issue. The right hon. Lady will know that social enterprises take many different organisational forms, and that there is a bespoke legal form for social enterprise called the community interest company, which specifically provides for an asset lock. However, that falls outside the immediate scope of the Bill.
I was talking about why we think the Bill is consistent with our ambitions and aspirations for public service reform. One of our aims is to encourage greater diversity of supply and provision. Here there may be some theological differences between us and the Opposition. We have a strong desire to try to incentivise and encourage much greater flexibility at a local level, such as providing opportunities to pool budgets and integrate services. She may be aware of some pilots that we are encouraging through the Cabinet Office on local integrated services, where the onus is much more on getting out there to find out what the community wants. All those aspirations will be backed up by action that will be reflected in the White Paper.
In the context of encouraging greater diversity of supply, on which the Bill touches, we have an explicit commitment in the programme for Government and the coalition agreement to support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and enable those groups to have a much greater involvement in running public services.
Mr Chope: Clause 1 calls on the Secretary of State to prepare a national social enterprise strategy. We do not need to legislate for that if, as my hon. Friend is saying, the Government are already going to do it of their own free will. Are they going to do it and, if so, when?
We are determined to try to open up the public services markets to a broader diversity of suppliers, and we have been specific about wanting to encourage social enterprises, charities and the voluntary sector to have a bigger role. Why? Most constituency MPs have a sense of the reason. Faced with some of the really stubborn and expensive social problems that this country faces-expensive in terms not only of money but of human cost-there is overwhelming evidence in certain cases, such as the hard job of getting people back into work or keeping people out of jail, that a social enterprise or community-based solution is often most effective in doing the really difficult work. We have to respond practically to the challenge-the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, as a former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, knows that it is a challenge-of opening up those public services markets to try to create more space for these organisations to participate and add value. It is not about trying to do things on the cheap, but about trying to deliver better solutions and to "do more with less", to use the cliché of the moment. That requires a radical reform of commissioning and how the state buys, because, as the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, there is a strong feeling out there, represented by the Social Enterprise Coalition and others, that the system is obstructive and gets in the way.
That is why I and the Office for Civil Society are determined to get this right and are on the point of issuing a consultation document setting out what we need to change in state commissioning to fulfil the coalition Government commitment to create more space for social enterprises, charities, co-operatives and mutuals. The consultation document will ask the following main questions: in which public service areas could the Government create new opportunities for civil society organisations to deliver, and why? How can the Government make existing public service markets more accessible? How can commissioners use assessments of full social, environmental and economic value to inform their commissioning decisions? How can civil society organisations support greater citizen and community involvement in all stages of commissioning? And how we can reduce the amount of bureaucracy, form-filling and regulation that gets in the way of and infuriates and frustrates civil society organisations? The whole business of applying for and reporting public money is a bureaucratic nightmare for too many organisations and is often totally disproportionate to the sums of money involved. We are determined to do something about it.
In that context, the Bill's core proposition-a requirement to consider social and environmental value where it is relevant and proportionate-is a useful complement to our own work of reform and commitment to making it easier for voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises to deliver public services. The Bill has the scope to ensure that commissioners consider the full effect of services on the people whom they serve and enable them to maximise the social, environmental and economic value of every penny they spend.
The Bill reinforces our commitment to value for money. In these tight economic times, it is particularly important that we achieve maximum value in our spend, but our observation is that currently some commissioners miss the opportunity to secure the best price and meet the wider social, economic and environmental needs of the community. Under procurement law, a contract must be awarded on the basis of the tender that is most economically advantaged or offers the lowest price. The Bill does not undermine or circumvent this requirement or otherwise undermine the Government's value-for-money agenda and efficiency reform. On the contrary, it is anticipated that by taking full economic, social and environmental value into account, the quality and efficiency of public contracts can be improved.
I think that most hon. Members will see the potential for that just from their observations and visits. In my constituency, Hillingdon borough contracts a good proportion of public landscaping work with a company called Blue Sky. It is the only company in the country where someone has to have a criminal record to work. It does a brilliant job in offering employment opportunities to people coming out of jail-a critical milestone in proving to a future employer that they can be trusted. The people of Hillingdon are delighted with the service and the council are very satisfied with the price, and through this process we are making a huge impact on helping people to turn their lives around. I have spoken to some of the people working there. Some of them travel the length of the Central line every day to be on the course, because they see it as their way out.
That is intelligent commissioning at its best, and we want to encourage more of it. I remember visiting a social firm called Clarity that makes soap and liquids for cleaning hands. What differentiates this business is that, as I walked around the floor, I noticed that every single employee was disabled in some way-often in major ways. Again, this is an opportunity for them to build their own sense of worth and confidence, and to carve a different path that otherwise would have been shut to them. That is another opportunity for intelligent commissioning.
There are lots of other examples. In 2006, the London borough of Camden renewed its schools catering contract. At that point, there had been significant dissatisfaction with the quality and performance under the contract. There was a best-value service review prior to retendering, involving extensive consultation with parents, teachers, pupils and local social enterprise and voluntary and community stakeholders. The remit included consideration of wider social environmental and economic factors, and the new contract was shaped around the results of the review. As a result, the uptake of meals by children in primary and special schools rose by 10%, and teachers reported indirect benefits from the new contract. It has
improved service and food quality without an increase in contractors' margins. Again, that is intelligent commissioning.
Hazel Blears: The Minister will have heard me refer to the innovative construction company, B4Box, which has worked on a legal framework for JCT Contracts. Would the Minster be willing to meet me and Aileen McDonald of B4Box to discuss how that legal framework might be used as a basis for wider scaling up of such innovative construction projects?
Ben Gummer: The Minister has provided some good examples of what he called intelligent commissioning, and I provided an example of a bad commissioning decision. Would he characterise that as unintelligent commissioning? If so, is that not precisely what the Bill is trying to correct?
Mr Hurd: My hon. Friend was good enough to introduce diverse representation from Ipswich, and the anger about the decision was palpable. It might be risky to comment from afar without knowing the details, but what struck me about the commissioning decision was that if 65% of the demand for the contract was based in Ipswich, it seems odd that there was no consultation. The process effectively removed an organisation that was clearly successful in delivering what the contract intended to deliver and had a massive social impact and value in that community. The decision seemed to be taken a long way away from the people who needed the help, and that is a problem.
The spirit of the Bill builds on the Government's commitment to economic growth and the promotion of entrepreneurship. It is appropriate that it should come to the House in global entrepreneurship week, and the day after social enterprise day, which many hon. Members celebrated. We should not forget that social enterprises are, first and foremost, businesses that contribute £24 billion-that seems to be the official figure-to the UK economy and employ more than 800,000 people. As the hon. Member for Hemsworth powerfully said, they make an enormous contribution by creating and stimulating markets, bringing wealth into struggling communities, creating jobs, supporting disadvantaged people into employment, pioneering innovative products in ethical markets, and attracting new people into business, particularly the young, women and people from minority ethnic communities.
I was struck by a recent comment from Steve Jobs, who leads Apple, a brand that is always associated with innovation. He said that innovation is the difference between leaders and followers. The country desperately needs leadership and people who are capable of pointing to better ways of doing things, and it is in the social entrepreneur community that there are genuine leaders.
I was in Sheffield last week visiting a social enterprise, Zest, which has incredible leadership. It demonstrates how youth services can be run in such a way that young people turn up. It shows how libraries can be run in a way that involves the community, and how to engage
with the public on public health issues. I sat at a table with people from the local PCT and the local council, hoping that they were learning and reflecting on how much money might have been wasted over the years. Organisations such as Zest are showing the way forward and opening minds to doing things better.
The point was well made, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and, I think, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, that this is not just about social enterprise. Social value is not just about an organisational form called social enterprise, however broad that form might be. I hope that the Bill will also be a catalyst to encourage traditional businesses to speak up more about what they are doing in the community. We all know from our constituencies that many businesses, often family owned businesses with a strong sense of community, do a huge amount, but there is now a challenge, in the context of the big society, to everyone in traditional businesses to think harder about their social responsibility and their commitment to the community. The Government will be saying more about that shortly.
I have set out why we support many of the principles and objectives of the Bill, but we are legislators and we have a duty to ensure that the legislation that passes through the House is robust, is needed and adds value. I suspect that that is one of the themes that we can anticipate hearing from the most distinguished Friday face in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).
I want to get into the detail of the Bill. The primary measure that the Government support is clause 3, which deals with contracts of contracting authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington has already outlined, clause 3 requires contracting authorities to consider how they might promote or improve economic, social or environmental well-being through a contract. In policy terms, we often refer to this well-being as "value", because commissioners who already voluntarily follow this approach tend to attribute a quantifiable worth to it and consider it as part of their wider evaluation of bids to deliver public services. The title of the Bill reflects this commonly used terminology.
The Government are supporting this measure for two main reasons. First, and most importantly, the Bill sends an unequivocal message to those spending public money that it is vital that they maximise the value achieved by every penny. This is particularly important in the current public spending context. We acknowledge that many of the best commissioners already recognise the importance of this and are exemplars to the public sector. Yesterday, I was privileged to sit in on the first meeting between the London Probation Trust and two social enterprises. The conversation covered how the trust could work differently to commission social enterprises to set up community enterprises such as cafés, garden centres and small garages to employ offenders in the community. This is an example of a commissioner thinking outside the traditional box, and that is the kind of progressive commissioning that we want to encourage.
Will the Minister join me in celebrating the brilliance of some of our public sector employees, and confirm that we are reforming not because we are
challenging the individuals but because we are challenging the system? In some places, it is the system that we have inherited; in others, it is the system that has been established over a much longer period. Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the talents of our public sector employees?
Mr Hurd: I certainly will, and it is important to do so. This is largely about freeing people who work in the public sector to express themselves more and to explore their own ideas of how things can be done better. I remember vividly a visit to Merton, where one person working in the mental health field had recognised that the system was failing some people with multiple chaotic problems in their lives. He had shown leadership and pulled people round a table and said, "What we are delivering isn't good enough." Together, they produced a new system of support, and the people receiving that support came into the room to talk to me about it. Two of them burst into tears of gratitude. It is very rare for the public to weep with gratitude for the public services that they receive, and this was a direct consequence of one person's ability to think differently. We want to encourage more of that, but it requires action to create the space and to send the message that, yes, it is okay to think differently and show innovation inside the public services. We need to unlock the potential to do things better.
Mr Chope: Before my hon. Friend moves from clause 3, will he explain why it is mandatory on local authorities? I thought that the Government believed in localism and would trust local authorities to make these judgments themselves without Government interference.
Mr Hurd: It is a requirement to consider, where "relevant" and "proportionate", and it does not compromise local authority autonomy in responding to the requirement. It is simply a requirement to consider. I do not see it as heavy-handed; it is simply designed to be a catalyst to encourage more people to think more intelligently about commissioning.
The need to support commissioners in this process was raised earlier. It is not just about sending a stronger signal on the requirement to consider, as there are also issues about how to measure social value and how to support commissioners. That is why the Cabinet Office has supported the measuring social value project to try to create a methodology and tools to make measures that are realistically capable of implementation. There is a clear need to advance and bring together some more standard and consistent methodologies in this area.
Furthermore, through the national programme for commissioning, we have trained well in excess of 2,000 commissioners across England and across a range of public service areas. All the commissioners have had the opportunity to receive specialist training in measuring wider social, environmental and economic value. I am delighted to say, following the comprehensive spending review, that we are going to continue this training beyond March 2011. I sat in on a session in Birmingham and it struck me that there are many commissioners out there who would like the chance to do things differently and to do more with the voluntary community sector and with social enterprises, but need some help-busting a few myths and getting some practical support. The process
of engagement through the partnership improvement programme for commissioning is, I think, valuable. I am delighted that we can continue with it.
We feel that these policy interventions are important in supporting the objectives stated in our coalition programme, but we also feel that they will be insufficient without some legislative intervention to achieve the goals. That is why we support clause 3. Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, we believe that these provisions are consistent with the Government's wider localism agenda in three main ways.
First, the Bill will support the Government's commitment to community empowerment as a fundamental element of localism. The Bill includes a requirement on commissioners to consider whether to consult the intended beneficiaries of the service in considering how to take account of wider social, environmental and economic value. Although that does not require commissioners to engage with their communities, it sends out a strong message about the importance placed by the Government on involving local citizens and communities in shaping the services they receive. This will inevitably improve community involvement in commissioning and help to ensure that it responds to the full range of communities' priorities.
Secondly, while empowering communities, the Bill also respects the need to ensure the autonomy and flexibility of commissioners in responding to local needs. Commissioners retain the discretion to determine how social, environmental and economic value is taken into account. The Bill does not stipulate the methodology that should be adopted by commissioners, and it is right not to do so. Local autonomy is maintained.
Thirdly, the Bill does not impose an additional burden on contracting authorities. The specification that contracting authorities are required to take wider value into account only where it is relevant and proportionate means that authorities can use their common sense and avoid excessive costs or bureaucracy. It also allows them to use and draw on existing infrastructure and opportunities to consult their beneficiaries and make sensible decisions in the interests of the people they serve. For example, it is highly likely to be "relevant" and "proportionate" to consider the wider social impact of a service and to consult citizens when contracting for a citizen-facing service such as social care as opposed to a contract by councils for use by an authority's employees. The Bill therefore requires a common-sense approach, with the authorities having appropriate discretion.
I have explained where we support the Bill and I would now like to spend a few minutes explaining what conditions we attach to our support. Although we support all the objectives, a number of conditions are attached. If the Bill goes into Committee, with the will of the House, we intend to table amendments. These will include the removal of clauses 1 and 2, which refer to a "national social enterprise strategy" and "local authority strategies".
I am not theological about strategies. Having been in business for 18 years before entering Government, I think that on the whole it is probably a good thing to have a strategy. However, I believe that, particularly in this context, strategies should be governed by the need of the moment, and should be driven by conviction rather than by a requirement to comply with some
bureaucratic process. I do not want the process of drawing up strategies to be bureaucratic. I do not want it to be simply an exercise in producing more glossy brochures that fill up the bookshelves in our offices, which are not read and which do not have real traction. Strategies must be driven by need and by conviction at the time.
Steve Baker: I congratulate the Minister on his wisdom in attaching this condition to the Bill-I find it hugely reassuring-but will he say a little about clause 2(3), which deals with the definition of social enterprises? I should be grateful for the Government's definition of a social enterprise.
The definitions of social enterprise in the Bill are in the context of requiring a social enterprise strategy, which we do not consider necessary, but there is a legitimate point to be made about defining social enterprise, because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a broad spectrum of social enterprise activity. At one end of the spectrum are businesses that are acting in a socially responsible way or making big social contributions to their communities, while at the other end is pure social enterprise.
"A social enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners."
That is a reasonable start, but there is a spectrum of activity, including charities which are tendering for contracts and trying to generate new revenue streams through that process, and which consider themselves to be hybrids in that sense. So there is no straightforward answer to my hon. Friend's question.
As I was saying, the Government are uncomfortable about legislating for strategies at both a national and a local level. Several Members-including the hon. Member for Hemsworth, the Opposition spokesman-have agreed that that goes against the grain of localism. We therefore do not agree with legislating for local social enterprise strategies, however desirable they might be as components of existing sustainable community strategies.
None of that should be taken as reflecting any lack of Government support for social enterprise, or even a lack of desire to communicate a strategy. The Office for Civil Society is working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and others across Government to produce a refreshed national strategy for social enterprise, which we will publish in March 2011.
The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, knows both the value and the difficulty of working across Government, but I think it extremely important that we do so in this context. My colleagues from DBIS have embraced the opportunity, and we look forward to producing the refreshed strategy in March. In particular, we will step up engagement with the social enterprise sector so that we better understand the needs of enterprises and the opportunities that could be unlocked. We want to consider how to maximise our support for social enterprises.
Fiona Bruce: May I invite the Minister to meet representatives of the Eden project and the Message Trust? I believe that they have much to offer local communities: indeed, they aspire to engage with up to 60 local communities across the nation.
Mr Hurd: I should be happy to do that. I have written to all Members of Parliament offering them the opportunity to bring in representatives of voluntary community sector organisations in their constituencies. I understand that there is tremendous enthusiasm out there, and that organisations are anxious to understand the big society agenda better and what it could mean for them. The invitation is open to all Members on both sides of the House.
We consider social enterprises to be valuable in terms of making a social impact and our determination to promote enterprise and private-sector growth. We are making it easier to run a social enterprise by establishing a taskforce to reduce bureaucracy and red tape for social enterprises; reducing the small-profits rate of corporation tax to 20% from April 2011; offering a one-year temporary increase in the level of small business rate relief from October 2011; and taking a different approach to regulation by introducing the one-in, one-out rule, whereby we will not introduce any new regulation without abolishing existing regulations with a net cost to business.
Secondly, we are ensuring the resilience of the social enterprise sector by developing a big society bank to help grow the new market of social investment that is seeking to blend financial return with social impact. It is a real market, but also an embryonic one and we want to accelerate its growth. We think the big society bank can be a catalyst for that, such as by making it easier for social enterprises to access the capital they need. That will come on stream in quarter two or quarter three of next year.
As has been said, we have-at a time when there is very little money around-set up a £100 million transition fund to support voluntary community organisations and social enterprises delivering front-line services that stand to be affected in the short term by reductions in spending. We have also included social enterprises in the offer to access a £1.4 billion regional growth fund to invest in projects and programmes with significant potential for growth and employment.
Finally, we are making it easier to do business with the state by opening up markets for social enterprises, as I have discussed. There will be a fundamental reform of public services with an explicit commitment to try to create more space for social enterprises, charities and voluntary organisations to help us deliver better public services.
With the two conditions of our resistance to legislating for strategies both at national and local authority level, we support the Bill's objectives. We think it is consistent with the big society agenda and our public service reform aims, and with our intention to make it easier for charities, voluntary sector organisations and social enterprises to deliver public services. We think it will help us maximise value for the taxpayer and improve the process of consultation with communities in the shaping of public services. It will support social enterprise, which in itself is a worthy aim. It simply proposes a duty to consider, where relevant and proportionate.
It does not compromise autonomy or add additional burdens. It is about trying to turn best practice into standard practice and to deliver the best possible value to taxpayers, and it is on that basis that we are prepared to support the Bill.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am very grateful to the Minister for the compliments he paid me earlier-I took them as compliments anyway. I congratulate him on having looked at this Bill in some detail, and on having reached not dissimilar conclusions to those that a number of my hon. Friends had already reached, and which were articulated earlier in the debate. There is no need for me to go over those concerns again as I presume that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White)-whom I congratulate on having introduced the Bill-will be happy to accept the conditions laid down by the Minister. If my hon. Friend does not accept them, his Bill is obviously unlikely to make much more progress.
If my hon. Friend does accept the conditions, we will have a Bill that is far removed from the long title it had when it was first presented to the House on 30 June this year. It will effectively be a Bill about procurement for local authorities and public bodies. That covers a specific area, and what pleases me is that clause 3(2) states:
"The authority must consider how it might promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of the relevant area by means of such a contract."
"that promotes or improves the social or environmental well-being".
Economic well-being is vital to our communities up and down the land, and that is why I am pleased by the distinction drawn by clauses 1 and 2 on the one hand and clause 3 on the other. I understand why my hon. Friend the Minister is more enthusiastic about clause 3, because of the insertion of that element.
Earlier, I mentioned the exchanges that I have had with the Federation of Small Businesses, which I am sure will be equally pleased by the development, which will be surprising to some, in my hon. Friend's announcement. The FSB is keen to point out that there are 4.6 million micro-businesses in this country, but only 16% of the value of public sector contracts currently goes to small and micro-businesses. The federation was worried that such businesses would be squeezed out by social enterprises.
Mr Hurd: Perhaps my hon. Friend will be reassured if I draw to his attention the Cabinet Office announcement in November of a series of measures designed to make it easier for small firms and organisations to do business with Government. They include measures to progress the Government's aspiration to award 25% of Government contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises.
Mr Chope: I am sure that that will be greeted with great enthusiasm by small businesses throughout the country. To achieve that, we do not need legislation; all that is required is positive will on the part of the Government. There are many examples across the public sector of small-scale enterprises being squeezed out by larger organisations in the procurement process.
Richard Fuller: One of the objectives we hope to achieve through the Bill will result from its focus on local social enterprises. By its very nature, that will weaken the default position whereby contracts go to large, national organisations, with their inbuilt advantages in procurement. Does my hon. Friend agree with that point?
Mr Chope: I do. One of the amendments to clause 2 that I would have suggested is that social enterprises should be defined as small businesses with those objectives, because of the danger of ending up with some very large social enterprises that are, in many respects, not dissimilar from large public limited companies.
Ben Gummer: Often, the problem for procurement officials is that the lowest-risk option for them is to choose a large, established organisation, because that protects their position. One can understand why they would do that. The Bill would empower procurement officials to consider the whole range of possibilities and to take a slightly more risky approach sometimes, which would be to the benefit of local communities.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is right to emphasise the riskier approach, because sometimes there is a risk. For example, in my constituency, the local council decided to let the contract for the running of the local leisure centre to a charitable trust based in Poole. It became apparent that the trust was not delivering on what was set out in the contract, and after several years the contract had to be taken back in-house. Subsequently, a couple of other projects that the trust was running were found to be financially unsustainable, and that was the end of that, I think. We must not get into a frame of mind in which we think that anything that calls itself a social enterprise is, by definition, a good thing. Such bodies have to be run along business lines.
To take another example, people in Verwood-a town that is no longer in my constituency, sadly, but was until the time of the last general election-have set up a community enterprise called the Verwood Hub, which is a community centre. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that they have not been applying business principles to the running of that centre, so they are having to go back to the local authority and say, "Please give us some more money." The local authority is making it clear that it can go only so far in doing that, because there is a limit to how much it can be expected to use local taxpayers' money to make up for the deficiencies in the business plan of what might otherwise be described as a laudable community enterprise.
Fiona Bruce: We must not let the example of one or two less successful projects restrict the opportunity for the public sector to enter into entrepreneurial projects with local groups. The spirit of enterprise does, of necessity, involve risk. We have seen that spirit in this nation over many decades, if not centuries, and it is the seed of the fruit of phenomenally successful community and commercial organisations. We can look back in the history of this nation at some tremendous businesses that have done social good, so it would be dangerous for us almost to sanitise public procurement, as we have done to a large extent,. It can never be risk-free. Without an element of risk, we will reduce the opportunity for those great potential benefits that have flourished in this nation in years gone by.
People going into public procurement often say, "We've got to do it for the long term, with a five-year, a seven-year, or an even longer contract period." If a relatively small and untested organisation is bidding, it will be a very big risk for it to sign up to a seven-year contract. Procuring on the basis of a one-year contract gives new organisations on the block much more of an opportunity to show their worth, and if they make a Horlicks of it after a year, they will not expect to be invited to re-tender. Some long contracts have been particularly damaging to the interests of small and social enterprises. Minimising risk for the procurer has made it much more difficult for new entrants to take on such contracts.
I hope that the FSB will be encouraged by the attitude of the Government. We are all proud when we have businesses in our local communities that flourish, no more so than those which start up with only half a dozen people, or even one or two, and then become national enterprises, perhaps ultimately getting a listing on the stock exchange.
I was worried that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington suggested that businesses that are in it for profit are at odds with those that are in it to produce good for society. In my constituency, some of the businesses that have been the most successful in the marketplace have made profits that they have been able to use to help to support local activities in the community. For example, one of the most successful companies in this country, Tesco, puts a lot of money back into the community every year by enabling people to get vouchers that are then used to buy IT equipment, and other equipment, for schools. Every year for the past 10 years, I have had the privilege of presenting some of that equipment to the schools in my constituency because parents, teachers and supporters of those schools have been able to get those vouchers and then convert them into important and useful goods.
Richard Fuller: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I have shared his experience of Tesco at one of the two branches in my constituency. He mentioned profit, which is often put in the same vein as people being rich. Actually, profit is what people reinvest in their business so that they can provide better services in their community. For social enterprises and charities, the ability to earn a surplus is important. Often, they find that they do not have enough of an earnings margin from local contracts to be able to reinvest in local projects, so that they can continue to provide services for five or seven years. Does he recognise that we need to go beyond the crass definitions of profit being bad and social enterprise good, and instead concentrate on the services that local businesses and social enterprises provide?
"The Bill describes social enterprises as businesses 'carried on primarily for a purpose that promotes or improves social or environmental well-being'. While such organisations are undeniably valuable, micro businesses also serve such a function. What sets them apart from social enterprises however is that their primary purpose will be to make a profit and remain in business."
That is the important part-remaining in business. They cannot do that unless they make a profit, as they are often unable to raise capital. That was the problem with the charitable trust that I mentioned earlier. It was not able to reinvest in the leisure centre, which as a result became rather dowdy and did not meet the needs of the customers.
Fiona Bruce: Staying in business may be the immediate aim of a micro-business, but there is often a greater end to that. The aspiration is that in time, it will be able to become an established small business and make a difference to its community and environment. We have to support and nurture micro-businesses in order for them to make that difference.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we all have examples from our constituencies of businesses that started very small and have become quite large. One such business in my constituency makes organic baby food, and now supplies it to major national retailers. It was based on the idea of an entrepreneur who asked, "Why are we not ensuring that people can guarantee that their children are being fed wholesome baby food at the most nutritionally important time of their life?" That enterprise struck a chord with the consumer, hence its great success. There are a lot of other examples that I will not trouble the House with at the moment.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is encouraging me to trouble the House with more examples. In that case, I will choose an example on the other side of the argument. There are publicly funded organisations that, over a period of time, have shown themselves to be hostile in the extreme to small and local businesses. I say quite openly that I believe that Eaga is one such organisation.
Eaga receives a large amount of money from the taxpayer to help provide insulation and subsidies so that people can increase the energy efficiency of their homes and the appliances within them. A lot of work has been done showing that its contractors-often firms that are subsidiaries of Eaga itself-provide services at a much higher cost than local contractors would, and less efficiently. I have had public arguments with Eaga about that and been told, "Well, none of these small companies will be able to give us long-term guarantees that if anything goes wrong with their work, they will be able to put it right."
Mr Chope: As my hon. Friend says, that is ridiculous. The previous Government were too obsessed with the fact that this organisation was based in the north-east of England and had grown significantly as a result of all the money that it had received from the public purse. I hope that the new coalition Government will introduce a bit more sanity and proportion into the way in which that money is spent so that we can ensure that relatively small local contractors can participate.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con):
Does my hon. Friend agree that what he suggests is a good way of moving towards the localism agenda? If something
is local, it can be smaller and involve smaller, more community-sized businesses much more easily than it can if it takes a central, Big Brother, top-down approach.
Localism is of great importance. When we talk about its importance, we should not be too fussed about whether we are talking about a local small business, a local social enterprise or a local charity. We must not create artificial distinctions.
Fiona Bruce: We must also not differentiate between a business being local and being big. It would be dangerous if we equated local with small. As a member of the all-party group on small business, I was a guest yesterday evening at an event at which one of the "Dragons", Theo Paphitis, spoke powerfully about the impact of his chain of shops, Ryman. He took the group on when there were about 80 shops, and there are now about 260. He encourages local staff at each store to raise money for local community projects and he then matches it. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be dangerous if we started defining too narrowly the scope of even the businesses with which we want to engage? Local does not necessarily mean small, although as someone who has run a small local business, I fully emphasise the importance of what small businesses bring to local community life.
Mr Chope: I agree absolutely. There are so many examples. The local community may be dependent on the local post office, but the Post Office is a national organisation with a national network. None the less, it is ever so important that the local branch of that national network in a particular village is maintained and viable. The same is true of the local pub. It does not have to be owned as a freehold by somebody local; it may be part of a national pub chain. That makes no difference to the important role that it will play in helping to maintain the local community. We could go on with lots of other examples.
I turn now to the "residue" of the Bill, and I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington that I do not mean that disparagingly-perhaps "a distillation of the Bill" would be a better expression. When we get to clause 3, we are left with a duty on local authorities not to do anything, but to consider something. My hon. Friend said that that does not offend against the principles of localism and that it is legitimate for the Government to require local authorities, and thereby councillors, to consider particular things.
Mr Hurd: Just to clarify, my hon. Friend is narrowing his remarks down to the local authorities, but clause 3 actually applies to public authorities that are contracting authorities as defined by the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. That is, the clause applies to bodies that are already subject to procurement law, which include Government Departments, local authorities and many other bodies.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that correction and I am sorry that I was concentrating just on the local authority side. Local authorities are independently accountable through their councillors to
their electors for what they think and do, and that is localism, but I can understand that there is a stronger case for saying that unelected public authorities, such as hospital trusts or ambulance trusts, must consider something before they do it because there is a democratic deficit between the people and those organisations.
"the economic, social or environmental well-being"
of my constituency before deciding on the procurement process for the hospital car service. If ever there was an activity that is best kept local, where it is most flexible and offers the best value for money, it is the hospital car service. It was run by the ambulance trust, which stopped doing that. However, instead of being given to a range of local providers, it was given to one particular taxi firm, thereby squeezing out organisations with volunteer drivers and imposing significant extra costs on many of the people being taken to and from hospital. That is only one example. If that particular organisation had thought a bit more, perhaps in accordance with clause 3, things would have been different.
Mr Gyimah: Does my hon. Friend think that the new version of the Bill should cover the qualifications to do with contracting? It is all well and good having a strategy that states that small businesses and social enterprises need to be considered, but the lengthy forms that they have to fill in and the qualification criteria are just as difficult a hurdle for them as being recognised in the first place.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. When Members make interventions, could they please face the Chair because it is sometimes difficult for me to hear what is being said? It is not a private conversation between two Members; it needs to be recorded for Hansard.
Mr Chope: I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. As a result of where some hon. Members are sitting, it may sometimes seem as though we are a cosy cabal, but we are not. We are trying to address our remarks to the wider world, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) made an excellent point, which he also raised in his speech.
"The authority must consider how it might promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of the relevant area".
"The authority must consider whether to consult the persons (if any) for whom the authority is making provision in the exercise of that function."
One matter that has not been drawn out in this debate-my hon. Friend is an expert on this and may wish to comment-is the interaction between the Bill and European tendering legislation. Such legislation is often thrown up like chaff by procurement officials,
especially when they have got something wrong. They say, "Oh, it's all because of European rules," when most of the time it is nothing of the sort. Officials must consider a range of variables when making buying decisions, but that is completely in accordance with current European tendering legislation.
I hesitate to give credit to the previous Government, who left our national finances in such a dire mess, but they were quite helpful in setting out clear advice to local authorities on what they could do under the public procurement requirements laid down in EU legislation. Contrary to what some suppose, that legislation allowed local authorities and other public procurement bodies to take into account social considerations-both in pre-procurement, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey referred, and in the specification, selection and award stages-provided that the economic advantages for the contracting authority were linked to the product or service that was the subject of the contract.
That was quite helpfully set out in detailed advice by the previous Government, and it will be replicated and slightly amended in the forthcoming White Paper that the Minister has promised. I was involved in procurement as a local councillor. One of the most frustrating things is to be told by the solicitor or officer responsible, "You can't do this because it's not allowed." Councillors, who often have a strong feeling for common sense, reply by asking, "Why can't we do it?" As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) said, when we look at the small print, we find that applying wider common-sense considerations to procurement is not prohibited by EU directives.
The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who spoke for the Opposition, criticised Government Members on the basis that a large number of their speeches and interventions were slightly at odds with each other, but we should be congratulated on that, because it shows that we are engaged in a healthy political debate. In a brilliant intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) undermined the case for the Bill very effectively, and underlined the importance of keeping the state out of social enterprise as much as possible and trusting people to come up with the right results.
I hesitated to say anything at that time, but I know of a good example of the state getting it all wrong. We were assured by the previous Government that, as a result of changes in European law, only 16,000 new migrants from the newly admitted eastern European countries would come to participate in our buoyant UK economy. I forget whether that estimate was out by 100% or 1,000%, but why was it so significantly wrong? It was wrong because no Government can second-guess what ordinary individuals will do in a given set of circumstances. My hon. Friend therefore told the House an important cautionary tale.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington makes his winding-up speech, which I hope will be shortly, he can rest on his laurels having brought to the House an important topic for discussion. Indeed, he put so much work into the drafting of his Bill that it
could only be provided three days ago. For historians, it will be interesting to look back and compare the final version of his Bill-if it gets to Third Reading-with what was set out in the helpful research paper from the Library. It set out in 11 pages what it was thought the Bill would contain. Although it is now a much shorter and more focused Bill-and there is a case for saying that the title of the Bill should now be changed-it will be an important first for my hon. Friend if he gets it on to the statute book. Some of us have been in the House for more than 20 years and have never been successful in the private Members' ballot. Even if I had been successful, I am not sure that I would ever have been able to emulate the success that my hon. Friend will soon enjoy of steering a Bill through to a successful Second Reading.
I thank all those hon. Members who have attended this debate on a Friday, who have contributed so well to it and who have made interventions-some helpful, some very helpful and some less so. I especially thank the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), for Bedford (Richard Fuller), for Wycombe (Steve Baker), for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah).
We can all agree on some things. There are nuances of ideology, but I am sure that we agree that we all enter politics for the same reason-to help our constituents and the communities that we serve and in which we live. Even if the Bill falls at this stage, this debate has given us the opportunity to discuss some of these very real issues about how we procure and commission services. At the very least, our commissioners will be provoked
into thinking about a different way to do things and the need to include our social enterprises, small businesses and charities-we have all given examples of their work. We all agree that these are difficult financial times, and we need to look at new models and new directions to make our communities more successful and bind our neighbourhoods together. That is a very important task for this House.
It has been pointed out-and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch-that I would be foolish not to agree with some of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Minister. I take his suggestions on board, but it is important for this Bill to reach the next stage, because we need to have those discussions in Committee. We can all put our ideas on the table and help to move forward. I thank everyone for their time today and I hope that their contributions to the next phase will be equally helpful, supportive and useful.
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Pursuant to the point of order made earlier today by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who, the House will recall, requested that a Minister be brought to the Dispatch Box immediately to explain the outrageous comments by the Prime Minister's enterprise adviser, I understand that the adviser has been forced to resign or may even have been sacked. Can you ensure that a Minister appears at the Dispatch Box this afternoon to explain what has happened to the shambles of the Government's enterprise policy, given what has happened today?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have no power to compel a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box; nor have I received any notice of a statement. His point has been placed on the record. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench have heard his comments. There is nothing further that I can do on that point.
I wish to declare an interest as the part-owner of two properties, one of which is currently rented out. I want to thank many groups and individuals who have assisted in the creation of the Bill. Chief among them has been the sterling contribution of the Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service-both the officers and the chairman of the authority, Conservative Councillor Mark Healey. There have been contributions from fire officers around the country, landlord and tenant groups, the fire safety industry and many others. Also, I want to thank the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), both from Devon, who have given their support to the Bill.
Today, over 80% of homes have smoke alarms, compared with 9% in 1987, and between 1988 and 2008 fire deaths halved. There are, though, far too many deaths and injuries from fire. In the last year for which figures are available, 331 people died as a result of residential fires. Of these, 222-two thirds-occurred when there was no working smoke alarm. In 137 cases there was no detection system at all. Is it not possible to argue that a working smoke alarm could have saved one of those 222 lives or helped prevent one of the 9,066 non-fatal casualties from that year?
Although substantial progress has been made in recent years, we are in danger of retrenchment. The spending review has brought substantial cuts to the Government's awareness campaigns, and fire authorities across the country are contemplating bringing an end to programmes such as providing free battery-operated smoke alarms, as budget cuts take hold. Many fire authorities have carried out sterling work, not only increasing public awareness of the need to have working alarms, but through a range of other fire safety measures. I pay tribute to the hard work of Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service on a range of prevention activities. Indeed, following a serious fire in my constituency, the authority installed more than 1,200 new smoke alarms in just two months.
Building regulations currently dictate that new build, extensions and alterations should be equipped with hard-wired smoke alarms. Furniture regulations also play their part in reducing avoidable domestic fires or lessening their impact. Figures show that as awareness of fire safety increases, deaths and injuries decrease. Yet casualties are preventable, and fires, sadly, continue. We have seen a number of tragic fire deaths in recent months, quite often involving rented properties. There are gaps in the regulations governing fire prevention. Outside of houses in multiple occupation it is only guidance or good practice that governs the provision of smoke and fire detection.
The majority of landlords in the private and social sectors ensure that smoke alarms are available. They not only provide safety and reassurance for tenants, but are in the interests of landlords. Many landlords to whom I have spoken have been under the false impression that fitting smoke alarms is already a statutory duty. However, a minority of rented homes do not have
smoke alarms, and they may well hold some of the most vulnerable members of our society. There is a correlation between the propensity for fire and the lack of fire safety devices. In 2001, the Association of British Insurers highlighted the fact that 81% of homes in total had smoke alarms, but less than 60% of homes suffering fires had alarms.
Promoting voluntary good practice among landlords has been very positive. The number of landlords becoming accredited is increasing, which offers tenants reassurance not only that their property will be relatively safer, but that the landlord appreciates the duty of care they have towards tenants. However, in my constituency, only an estimated 5% of landlords have become accredited, and only an estimated 15% are members of the excellent and highly professional landlords association in south Devon, of which I am a member. Sadly, the majority of private sector landlords do not join landlords associations, where best practice can be shared and standards raised. The good landlords pay a heavy price in reputation for the actions of the bad.
Social housing providers also need to ensure that they are working to best practice. When a recent house fire in my constituency highlighted the issue of fire safety, it was found that about one quarter of the houses belonging to the largest social housing provider, Riviera Housing Trust, had no smoke alarm. Much to its credit, the trust has now pledged to ensure that all properties have working smoke alarms. However, if a housing association can provide a service to vulnerable people without needing to ensure safety from fire, Government guidelines are clearly lacking.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman's comments. Will he tell the House exactly what conversations he has had with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, either on the housing or the fire side, about the nature of his Bill?
Mr Sanders: Since the Bill was published-four and a half months ago-I have made repeated attempts to arrange a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who has responsibility for fire, but I have met another junior Minister, who kindly allowed me to talk things through with civil servants. However, I was shocked this morning when the Under-Secretary said to me that if I withdrew my Bill, I could have a meeting with him. That was an insult to the people who have died in fires and their relatives.
The key word is "guidelines". The housing health and safety rating system highlights 29 factors that may be taken into consideration by local authorities when assessing risk to all residential properties. If fire is seen as a category 1 hazard, enforcement action can be taken. Other guidance documents over recent years have stressed the importance of smoke alarms, but still local authorities are free to do as little about it as they wish. A number of cases have highlighted the need for better regulation. At an inquest into a fatal fire in Yarcombe near Honiton in Devon in May 2008, the coroner resolved to contact DCLG Ministers urging them to review whether smoke detection could be made mandatory in rented domestic dwellings. To date, DCLG has not responded positively.
Earlier this year, there were fire deaths in two incidents in Northumberland, at Ashington and Bedlington. Three people died in total and in neither fire were there any working alarms. In September, an elderly woman died in a fire in Porlock, Somerset. Again the fire authority found no smoke alarms. Indeed, fire officers have told me that they have never attended a fatal fire where working smoke alarms have been present, and the number of cases reported in the local press of smoke alarms saving families from death and/or injury is significant. There should be a straightforward solution to this problem.
"We believe that functioning smoke alarms save lives and reduce injuries. The Committee congratulates those Fire Services which operate initiatives to fit free smoke alarms for the vulnerable. We welcome the requirement for alarms to be hard-wired in alterations, extensions and new buildings. We recommend this requirement be extended to include all existing tenanted properties, housing of multiple occupation and housing for vulnerable members of society. If the design of such buildings makes installation of hard-wired alarms impossible, we recommend use of alarms fitted with 10 year batteries."
This Bill seeks to implement the Select Committee's recommendations, which are still on the table, six years later. It will ensure that all landlords provide a working hard-wired fire detection system at the start of any tenancy agreement. That will be a legal requirement, in the same way that a landlord must have the gas system certified annually, an electrical safety check, and an energy performance certificate. From commencement of the tenancy, responsibility shifts to the tenant, who should refrain from causing damage to the system, and report any problems punctually, in the same way that the vast majority of tenants already do with all aspects of their home. As one of the Devon and Somerset fire officers said, when someone buys a car, it has to come with a seat belt. After that, it is the responsibility of the driver to use it properly. The same applies to smoke alarms. It seems eminently sensible that rented properties should be safe at the start of a tenancy, but it is equally sensible that the tenant should take responsibility for their safety after that.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman's speech, and commend him for bringing the Bill to the House. Is he aware that, before and subsequent to the Select Committee's report, even when smoke detectors without extended-life batteries or hard wiring were given away by registered social landlords and fire brigades, that did not work because batteries were taken out or they were sold at the local pub? Hard-wired detectors and 10-year batteries have been proven to work, and have saved lives. I wish the hon. Gentleman every success with his Bill.
Mr Sanders: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Indeed, the figures are startling, both for failure rates and the number of properties where batteries were removed. That is why all building regulations today, and the Bill, require the hard-wired solution where it can be implemented.
My aim is to ensure that all rented properties, not just those covered by the latest regulations, have a good deal of fire safety. Tenants would not have only 20 seconds' warning, and that could be the difference between life and death. It would save dozens of lives every year, and could prevent thousands of injuries. It would save millions of pounds of taxpayers' money which is otherwise spent on preventable death and injury, health and social care costs, welfare and support. There are issues that need resolving in Committee, including the applicability to long-term tenants, a suitable process to allow landlords to hold their tenants to account without protracted civil court proceedings, and so on.
Making smoke detectors compulsory in all rented properties has broad support, including from the former Select Committee. Early-day motion 31 endorses mandatory detectors and has cross-party support. Indeed, immediately before the general election, the then shadow Home Secretary visited my constituency and was quoted in the local press as saying that he wholeheartedly supported the campaign. I only hope that his Front-Bench colleagues share that diligent attitude to saving lives.
Fire authorities have done a great deal in promoting fire safety, but there is a gap in protection that needs filling, and the fire service on the ground tells me that legislation is the only way to achieve that. I am aware of ideological objections that the Minister may have to regulation, but I hope that I can persuade him that not all regulation is pernicious and malevolent. In fact, much of it has been designed to protect and to save lives. The current regulations on fire protection in houses in multiple occupation, furniture regulations, and regulations on new build have all contributed to a decline in death and injury from fire.
Where there are market solutions, they need to be deployed, but it is clear from my discussions with the insurance industry that it does not accept that compulsory fire alarms are a priority. It simply adjusts its premiums and allows bad landlords to continue to put tenants at risk.
If the Minister is unable to set aside his ideological objections to regulation, there are many suitable candidates for removal that could serve the Administration's one- in, one-out rule. One solution would be to consolidate or bundle the current safety regulations applying to landlords. They are already mandated to check gas and electrical equipment and to provide an energy performance certificate, so why not streamline all the relevant regulations that affect landlords?
The energy performance certificate, for example, often proves of no practical use to tenants, and it certainly will not save any lives. Perhaps the Minister could look at exempting landlords from having to produce energy performance certificates, and give them the same status that life-saving alarms have under the current guidelines. The one in, one out principle: sorted; simple. The bottom line is that regulation saves lives and ideological objections take lives. This is an interesting test for the coalition, because that difference goes to the heart of what divides most Liberal Democrats from most Conservatives. Is the Minister big enough to bridge that divide?
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab):
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on introducing this important piece of legislation. I will
not detain the House for long with my own comments, but I want to offer my party's support for this measure. I am pleased to see two former firefighters in the Chamber today. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) were entirely apt. Sadly, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is no longer in his place, but he is unable to contribute to the debate anyway as he now sits on the Front Bench. Otherwise, I am sure that he would have some very strong views on the Bill.
In yesterday's debate in Westminster Hall initiated by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), we heard about the tragic death of two people in a house in multiple occupation in the constituency of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) who, in an emotional speech, highlighted the figures that we have heard again today, which confirm the very high number of deaths in HMOs. We know that there is some protection for those living in HMOs, but it is clearly inadequate. The hon. Gentleman confirmed that the problem existed across the whole private sector. That sector has raised its standards and the quality of its accommodation in recent years, but I am afraid that there are still rogue landlords.
I have met representatives of Devon and Somerset fire service and had a very useful conversation with them. They flagged up the number of very serious incidents in their area, and it is quite frightening and wholly unacceptable that we should simply stand by and allow this to continue, particularly when the number of deaths caused by fires where there is no hard-wired smoke alarm exceeds the number caused by electrocution and gas malfunction by a ratio of more than 5:1.
Why are the Government not supporting this measure? How can the Minister justify rigidly sticking to the one- in, one-out regulation restriction, which I believe is the block on this wholly laudable attempt to improve fire safety, given that more than 200 lives have been lost as a direct result of the lack of a secure smoke alarm? I urge him to allow the Bill to progress into Committee, so that the hon. Member for Torbay can continue to explore options for some kind of joint safety certificate, perhaps bringing existing regulations into one simple duty, linking energy, gas, electricity and fire safety checks. Even on its own, the provision of hard-wired smoke alarms would not be an enormous burden for landlords, not least because I would expect insurance companies to view more kindly a property with such alarms with regard not only to buildings insurance but to tenants' contents insurance. The hon. Gentleman has set out some of the costs involved. Why is it right that new build properties that are rented offer this safe standard, yet it is not appropriate for people in older properties? Apparently, it is okay for those people to live in unsafe conditions.
"I imagine that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the change in legislation in October led to some of those terrible fires".-[ Official Report, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee, 16 November 2010; c. 12.]
Well, actually, yes I am, in relation to the further deregulation of HMOs. We have the evidence, and we know that more than one third of the fires where there
was no smoke alarm were in HMOs. That is why we continue to oppose the move further to deregulate that type of property and to oppose the increase in that type of property. If the Government want to put right that wrong, at least in part, they will not talk out the Bill today but allow it to go into Committee.
Let me touch on the anticipated growth in the private rented sector and houses in multiple occupation as a result of loosening HMO regulation and of changes to housing benefit. The figures from the Department for Work and Pensions suggest a requirement of at least an additional 88,000 bedsit accommodations. I fear that some landlords-admittedly, a minority-will subdivide homes with plywood to cram people in and fail in their duty to protect their tenants with a perfectly sensible and easy-to-install hard-wired fire alarm. When we have had the first fire death in such properties, will the Minister come back to the House to justify his position of talking out the Bill, or will he allow it to proceed? It is in his hands, and we will listen closely to his response.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on this Bill. My Totnes constituency shares half of Torbay-an area in which people know only too well what the consequences of tragic fire deaths mean both for families and for the wider community.
Thirty-one people died in the Paddington rail disaster; we quite rightly held a public inquiry and no expense was spared to make the railway safe. The fact is, however, that in the year running up to March of this year, 328 people died in fires, but they did not all die on the same day or even in the same week; otherwise we certainly would have held a public inquiry into those deaths.
Most people in the outside world would assume that smoke detectors are already compulsory, but they are not. They would also assume that for the most vulnerable households in our country-houses in multiple occupation or homes where vulnerable children are living with adults who are not in a position to care for them properly-protection already exists. After the incident in Torbay, to which my hon. Friend referred, people assumed that corporate manslaughter charges would be brought; in fact, there was no possibility of that because there was no compulsion in the law for smoke detectors to be fitted, even though this was a vulnerable household.
Smoke detectors save lives, and nobody disputes that. Nor does anyone dispute that hard-wired smoke detectors are far preferable to battery-operated smoke detectors. This amounts to a law of diminishing returns. If the Minister will not accept the expense of installing hard-wired systems, there must surely be a case for insisting at least on extended-life batteries that provide 10-year protection. Again, that really would save lives, so I put the same question to the Minister as was put previously: if there is another fire death, or particularly if there are large-scale fire deaths, will he come back to the House to explain why this very simple measure, which would save so many lives and be so simple to introduce, was not introduced?
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay: if we have annual gas safety checks and if it is possible to insist at the beginning of an occupancy on an energy-saving certificate and an electrical safety certificate, why is it not possible to insist on a system that, as a bare
minimum, will have a 10-year battery life? My preference is for hard-wired systems, but if that is not possible, what is wrong with simply requiring a technician at the beginning of a tenancy to press a test meter, especially if it could save lives? I urge the Minister to consider those issues; I will not detain the House further.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who made a robust case in support of her hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), the proposer of the Bill. I shall not speak for long, mainly because running down the clock will make a trifle easier the Minister's opportunity to talk this Bill out. I have a high regard for him, but I understand that the Government will not support the Bill, which I find very disappointing.
I support the Bill because, as the hon. Members for Totnes and for Torbay and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) have said, everyone knows that smoke detectors save lives.
When I was fire Minister in 2005, I used to travel around the country. One chief fire officer introduced me to a fire crew who had only recently started installing smoke detectors on a council estate on their fireground. He took some pleasure in introducing me to the officer in charge of the crew. Asked by the chief fire officer to explain their experience the previous week, the crew told me rather sheepishly that they had fitted a smoke detector in a home and had been called out some six hours later to find the mum and three children on the pavement. They had been alerted to the fact that there was a fire in the dwelling by the smoke detector. Although that was not an exciting incident for the crew to attend, because they did not have to carry out any live rescues, the people in the building could easily have died had it not been for the smoke detector. The installation of the detector had been far more effective in saving lives than a fire engine a mile down the road responding to a 999 call would have been.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): Let me start by declaring an interest, which can be found in the Register of Members' Financial Interests, as the owner of a residential property from which rental income is received.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on his Bill, which raises important issues. I am the last person to denigrate or minimise the risks involved or the importance of fire prevention, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to suggest otherwise by anything that he said. The Government are committed to recognising the importance of fire prevention, and continuing prevention work. We could debate the ways and means of achieving our aim and whether primary legislation is ideal for the purpose, but I trust that Members in all parts of the House are committed to protecting people from the risk of fire.
Let me give some background to the debate and, in doing so, refer to Members' helpful contributions. I have listened carefully to what has been said, but let me say something about the work that has been done so far, some of which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I am delighted to see him in the House today, and I welcome him to the debate. He has a high reputation in the fire community as someone who served bravely as a firefighter and was also an excellent fire Minister. I weigh his words with considerable respect, and take note of them. On his watch and that of other Ministers, real progress has been made in improving fire safety.
Beside me on the Front Bench is the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). When he was in a position to speak on these matters, he was himself a doughty campaigner for fire safety, and, like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, he has served as a firefighter on the front line. I pay due heed to those who really understand these matters.
Co-ordinated fire safety strategies have been in place for some years, and they have been very successful. The number of fire deaths in the home in England has halved since the 1980s, and the long-term trend is downwards. In 2008-the last year for which we have fully published figures-213 people sadly perished in accidental fires in the home, compared with 363 in 1995. That is a reduction of some 40%, which is clearly welcome. The long-term trend for non-fatal fire casualties is also downwards: in 2008 there were 9,200 such casualties, compared with 13,844 in 1995. Those are significant and worthwhile reductions. I hope it goes without saying that one fire death is one too many, but that is worth restating none the less. The tragic events at the fatal house fire in Bridlington last week, where three children died, brings into sharp relief the importance of fire safety and fire prevention. I am sure the thoughts of all Members go out to the relatives and friends of the family.
When I was leader of the London fire and civil defence authority, as part of my duties I met people who had lost relatives in fires. One fire death is a tragedy and a disaster for everybody involved. Although we should recognise that some good work has been done, recent statistics suggest that the long-term downward trend, to which I referred, may be beginning to plateau, and therefore it is right that the hon. Member for Torbay raises this subject. We are all interested to see whether those statistics are correct, and if so, how we can find steps to drive down the number of fire deaths still further. The question is the means by which we do so.
I have had a raft of meetings with organisations across the fire sector. I will not pretend off the top of my head that I recall those particular ones, but I regularly meet representatives of, for example, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the fire prevention industries and the Fire Brigades Union, and I continue to keep in touch with them. I am aware that these
issues are often discussed with Housing Ministers as responsibilities overlap here. Under this Administration, the door of our Department is always open to professional and voluntary organisations that want to raise issues with us.
Robert Neill: I have in fact met the Local Government Association's fire forum on more than one occasion. I have attended its meetings and have had meetings with its chairman, Councillor Brian Coleman, and other leading members. I have already made it clear that I have a regular series of debates, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I am sure that if the fire commission wishes to raise a specific issue, it will ask for a further meeting and I will happily oblige, as I hope I have always tried to do.
Although there has been success, we can never be complacent; we wish to drive the number of deaths down further. The Government's key strategy is to drive down the number of preventable fire deaths through community fire safety activity. I say "drive down" the number because, tragically, there will be some instances where, despite everything being done, it is not possible to save someone. We want to get the numbers down to the irreducible minimum, of course. The strategy is to drive down the number of preventable fire deaths through community fire safety activities, in which the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse took a leading part when he was a Minister. The strategy involves efforts to reduce the number of fires through education, information and publicity. The installation of properly maintained smoke alarms in every household is at the centre of efforts to reduce fire death in the home, as they provide important and vital early warning of fire and can help people to escape. The Fire Kills campaign has for some time conducted high profile campaigns promoting smoke alarms and maintenance messages, which have proved very successful.
The English housing survey 2008, published last month, shows ownership of smoke alarms in all dwellings in England standing at 91%. It is a significant achievement for the Department for Communities and Local Government and the fire and rescue service that nine out of every 10 homes have a smoke alarm installed. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Torbay mentioned the excellent work of Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service, its firefighters and chief officers and the chairman of the authority. He is absolutely right: all of them do fine work. There has been great consistency of application by fire and rescue authorities. Circumstances vary, but much work is being done and Devon and Somerset is a good example.
Although that is a significant achievement, we aim to raise that percentage even further because, as the hon. Gentleman said and I accept, there is evidence that
those without fire alarms-the remaining 10%-are often in the groups who are at the most risk from fire. Furthermore, there is concern arising from some statistics that show the importance of not only fitting alarms, but making sure that they are properly maintained. In some cases, sadly, there is evidence that a smoke alarm failed to operate-the battery had gone flat or had even been removed. There are also instances-one of the recent fires reported to this House among them-showing that even the provision of a properly working smoke alarm cannot guarantee that lives will be saved. In one of the fires I mentioned, the smoke alarm operated properly, waking and alerting those in the neighbouring house, but, for reasons that are not yet apparent, not enabling the occupants of the house to make their escape.
When we look at changes in technology-we have heard about 10-year life batteries or hardwired alarms, which I am happy to discuss further with hon. Members on both sides of the House-it is also worth considering the fact that, in many cases, death is caused not by smoke inhalation, but by carbon monoxide poisoning. We should consider seriously whether dual-sensor arrangements should be brought much more to the fore, moving the position on yet further. I hope that we can discuss that. By no means am I closing the door to potentially better ways of improving safety.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister is held in high regard by the fire community because of his leadership of the London fire and civil defence authority, and he speaks with considerable authority on these matters, but the key question to which Members are keen to learn the answer is: do the Government support the Bill? If not, why not? If the reason is the one to which the Bill's sponsor and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) alluded-regulation-will the Minister not take the opportunity to consolidate existing regulations to accommodate the one-in, one-out rule, as the coalition wishes?
Robert Neill: The situation is a little more complex than the hon. Gentleman puts it, although I acknowledge the sincerity with which he does so. Let me set out the difficulties. First, it is not only a question of regulation. When an obligation and a duty are imposed under any legislation, it is important to ensure that the obligation and the duty-especially if they are backed up by a criminal sanction, as is normal in these sorts of regulatory instances-are properly and practicably enforceable. For reasons that I shall explain, I have concerns about whether the measures in the Bill would be practicably enforceable.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about his and the Government's concern for fire safety. Is he worried about how much it might cost to implement these measures, as opposed to alternative measures that the Government might be considering?
The cost to the sector of going entirely down the route of hard-wired alarms, which are probably the best systems-they can be disabled by a determined person, but are much less capable of being so disabled-would be very significant. Figures in the range of £540 million to £1.2 billion have been suggested, and "Fire Research News" has quoted some significant figures
that I can make available to the House. I should therefore like to have further discussions about the appropriate and sensible way of taking this forward. There is a cost element, but there is also the element of practicality. If we are putting a burden on a sector, as inevitably we sometimes do, we must ensure that it will ultimately be enforceable in any event. That is one of my concerns, as I said to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse.
The fact that we are committed to continuing the education campaign is important in this regard. Education about the use and maintenance of fire alarms is pretty key to ensuring that whatever system is installed is effective and useful. The Cabinet Office's Efficiency and Reform Group has recognised that the Fire Kills media campaign delivers measurable public safety benefits. The Fire Kills campaign is therefore exempt from the freeze that was otherwise imposed on Government advertising campaigns and will continue in the coming year. It is an important and effective programme, which this year will focus very much on helping fire and rescue services, and their partners, to deliver key messages locally within their communities. It will again be a national campaign, supported and developed by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It will be underpinned by a radio advertising campaign, and we will be working with commercial and voluntary sector partners on new opportunities to get across the messages about smoke alarm maintenance. The radio advertising campaign will commence on 27 September and run each weekend until the end of March 2011. A key message will be to promote the importance of regular smoke alarm testing.
Adam Afriyie: My hon. Friend is setting out some sensible ideas on the way forward in terms of advertising and awareness campaigns. I am sure that everyone here empathises with those ideas and supports the expenditure. I am certain that he sympathises with the Bill, but does he acknowledge that it potentially embeds an older technology into legislation, which we are trying to get away from? Does he agree that legislating for a particular technology might not be wise when internet and wireless devices, and all sorts of similar things, are being developed?
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I regard the Bill as being entirely well intentioned. However, apart from my concern about enforceability, I am worried that a piece of primary legislation that commits us to a particular technology may create a needless rigidity in the arrangements, because things change. As he says, there is already quite a bit of work coming through in the fire research community about the use of wireless devices. A good deal of work is also being done on dual sensor devices which combine a carbon monoxide alarm and a traditional smoke alarm. Ironically, the Bill could entrench one technology when a better one has come along. Certainly the hon. Member for Torbay never intended that, but it is another reason for taking steps, whether legislative or non-legislative, after significant discussion across the sector. I am more than happy to undertake to continue that discussion.
I have referred to our awareness campaigns, and it is important that I also mention the regulatory arrangements that are currently in place, particularly in relation to
vulnerable properties. We must consider fire safety across the piece. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 defined landlords as responsible persons, which imposes obligations on them to risk-assess fire safety in the common parts of a building, to take adequate precautions and to manage any remaining risk. Although the order applies only to the common parts of premises, in many residential premises the responsible person will in practice need to take account of fire safety measures in place in individual dwellings.
Mr Sanders: I am intrigued about all these wonderful new technologies, which presumably must be cheaper given that one of the objections to the Bill is the cost of the old technology. Will the Minister now amend all the existing fire legislation relating to smoke alarms, so that alarms are upgraded to the new super-duper systems, which must be much cheaper if the objection is finance?
Robert Neill: With every respect, I think my hon. Friend is being a little disingenuous in assuming that the sole objection is finance, but it is a significant matter to take on board. I have also mentioned the practicality of enforcing his proposals. I am sure he will agree that where there is an existing regulation based on a particular type of technology, we should not necessarily repeal it until a new one comes along, but nor should we necessarily introduce new legislation based on a premise that has been overtaken by events. I very much hope that, whatever the outcome today, he and I will be able to have significant discussions with officials and others in the sector about how to get a regime that can cope with the changes in technology.
Fire and rescue authorities have a legal duty to enforce the provisions of the 2005 order in the common areas of residential accommodation. It is well known that sometimes fire can spread up through the common parts of a building, including in blocks of flats and houses in multiple occupation.
The Housing Act 2004 introduced the housing health and safety rating system, which is the principal tool for assessing fire safety risk and regulating standards in all types and tenures of residential accommodation, both individual dwellings and housing blocks. There is no regulatory requirement for landlords to install smoke alarms, other than in higher-risk HMOs, which are subject to statutory licensing. There are enforcement abilities in respect of those properties. That system has been accepted by all parties, and was introduced by the previous Government not as a blanket regulatory requirement but as a proportionate, risk-based approach. They were right to do that, and the current Government are minded to continue the same approach.
The HHSRS is about the whole property, not just one feature. It involves an assessment of the likelihood of a fire starting, the chance of its detection, the speed of its spread and the ease and means of escape. That last part is important, because although a working smoke alarm is usually valuable in alerting occupants to a fire, it must go hand in glove with an effective means of escape from a dwelling.
There is a great virtue in the Bill, irrespective of whether it is tied to a particular technology or method of securing safety. As the former shadow Minister with responsibility for science and innovation,
it is important to me that, before supporting any measure, we have not just anecdotal evidence, but clear, systematic studies to determine whether the cost per life saved, for example, would be better under the Bill or under existing methods. I urge the Minister to go back to his Department to look at ways of conducting research to determine the most cost-effective way that will save the maximum number of lives.
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes an entirely fair and interesting point. Of course, we cannot put a price on saving life, and I would not like to think that anyone thought we could do that. Inevitably with a private Member's Bill, we do not have an impact assessment, as we might with a Government proposal. However, if he is saying that we should keep the door open to considering the most effective technology, he is right. As I made clear to the hon. Member for Torbay, however, price is not the sole consideration. I also want something that is genuinely enforceable and will genuinely work on the ground. That is why it is important to look at up-to-date technology and not inadvertently to create a lack of flexibility.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): One thing that concerns me about the Bill is the requirement that every tenant should have to test the smoke alarm once a month. There is no sanction, so I cannot understand how that provision would be enforced. Does my hon. Friend understand how it could be enforced?
Robert Neill: With every respect to the hon. Member for Torbay, I am afraid that that is one of the most significant problems with the Bill. As I said, it is difficult in principle to create an obligation without some means of enforcing it.
Two specific difficulties arise in relation to the obligations in the Bill. First, it works on the premise that its requirements must be included in a written contract of tenancy. As a matter of practice, most contracts of tenancy are in writing, but there is no legal requirement for them to be. I would not want to create a perverse incentive for people not to have written contracts so that they could get around these provisions.
The second point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) rightly said, is that there is an obligation not only on the landlord to ensure that the system is in place-that might be straightforward enough, subject to certain cost considerations and the right technology-but on the tenant to test all smoke alarms
"at least once a month"
"notify the landlord of any defect".
I find it difficult to see how that could ever be policed in any proportionate or practical manner. If the provision is intended to raise the awareness of landlords and tenants of the desirability of such measures, that is well and good, and I would welcome it. However, primary legislation is not the right route to deal with that laudable objective.
When a criminal sanction attaches to the tenant who fails to test the fire alarm once a month-the Bill refers to tenants failing to do that-there are real risks involved. That aside, although the landlord faces a criminal sanction under clause 2(1), it is not clear what the sanction on
the tenant is, so how do we enforce it? An obligation that is not enforceable will not actually help anyone. Furthermore, there is no means of coming back at the landlord, even if the tenant did notify him, and he did not act. If such a case ever came to proceedings, how would we prove whether it was the tenant who had not tested the system or, having tested it, had not notified the landlord of the problem-there could be two errors-or the landlord, who, having been notified, had failed to act? There are so many variables and possibilities that the Bill does not make for good primary legislation. That is why, with every respect to the hon. Member for Torbay, I do not believe that it is the right way forward, but I am more than happy to have discussions with him.
Officials have met the hon. Gentleman before today. He met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who has responsibility for housing, on 13 October, and he has had discussions with officials. We have not shut the hon. Gentleman out of the Department, and I greatly hope that he will take up the opportunity to meet me and discuss the matter further. He has a good reputation for campaigning on the subject, and I hope that he will act as an advocate for people, both as a Member of Parliament-
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): In view of the lead story in The Daily Telegrap h today, I thought that perhaps I should cancel the debate, which in many respects relates to child poverty. The headline says, "Recession? You've never had it so good". However, I will not cancel it because, for millions of children, what is in the headline is manifestly not the case. The Prime Minister's enterprise adviser, Lord Young of Graffham, is quoted-no doubt raising his voice above the clink of champagne glasses-as saying that
"people will wonder what all the fuss was about"
However, back in the real world, things are different, as I shall explain. The timing of the debate could not be better because today is the BBC's annual Children in Need day. With memories of the summer holidays still hopefully fresh in people's minds, and with holidays in the UK or abroad doubtless the norm for Members of Parliament and their families, I invite the House to reflect on the following disturbing statistic: for almost one in three families, there was no holiday away from home-not even a single day trip to the seaside for a third of the nation's children. That is the reality in the UK, one of the world's richest countries, where the divide between rich and poor widened over the past decade.
When answering a question in the House of Lords on 8 February this year, on the then Government's attitude to social tourism, the Minister, Lord Davies of Oldham, was interrupted and asked to explain what exactly was meant by social tourism. He replied:
"The concept behind social tourism is to ensure that those in society who are less well off get the opportunity to go on holiday...That is the concept...and the Government are of course sympathetic to it."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 8 February 2010; Vol. 717, c. 478.]
Today, I would like to talk about social tourism and why we need to pay more attention to it in the interests of those who would get the most direct benefit, particularly children, and the economic benefit it would generate. In the UK, social tourism is a concept that is little heard of and even less well understood.
I am therefore grateful to the charity, the Family Holiday Association, and its director Mr John McDonald, whom I met recently. I was so impressed with what he told me that I decided that I would bring its excellent work and objectives to the attention of the House, in the hope that perhaps someone in Government will listen and conclude that it should be supported and encouraged. As Mr McDonald told me, movingly and powerfully:
"Holidays help to make stronger, healthier, happier families, which in turn contributes to a healthier, happier, caring society that benefits everyone."
Of course, I am not talking about holidays that some people-I exclude myself- have, sipping cocktails by the pool under the Caribbean sun, but relatively simple
off-peak breaks here at home-more Skegness or Sheringham than Spain or the Seychelles, more train than plane. Many of us manage to take a decent holiday at least once every year. We consider it a necessary part of life to ensure that we stay healthy-physically, emotionally and mentally.
The Government already use the lack of a one-week break away from home as a measure of poverty, and the Office for National Statistics provides the shocking figures that tell us that more than 2 million families with dependent children-almost one in three families-cannot afford a simple holiday. Sadly, that is likely to get worse as austerity measures gather pace. Official Government statistics reveal that 3.9 million children already live below the official poverty line.
"charity that gives families a break"
show that 21% of children from households with either married parents or a cohabiting couple cannot afford a one-week break. For single mothers or fathers, the figure is 57%. The number of children, therefore, who do not have a holiday is 3,770,000. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics 2004 social inequalities report, 7 million people do not have a holiday-that figure includes children and parents. I am not sure whether there has been a report since, so perhaps it is time the ONS undertook a fresh one to reflect the current situation. I doubt that things have improved, or that they will improve without Government intervention, which I am calling for today. The 2004 report also gave depressing statistics on how many children did not enjoy even a single day trip-a total of 2,570,000.
Not only the lack of finance prevents children from having a holiday. Families often face complex issues such as long-term illness, chronic depression, disability-both physical and learning difficulties-family break-up and domestic violence. Sadly, more often than not, the families struggling in the most difficult situations cannot get away but would most benefit from a break.
Children especially suffer if their family can never have a break away from home. Not only do they miss out on quality family time, they have few opportunities to broaden their horizons, and have no special memories or stories to share with friends. They can feel excluded and isolated, which may eventually contribute to even more serious problems. A worker at a Women's Aid refuge has told me this:
"I see some of the terrible difficulties families must deal with. A simple holiday helps families forget for a short time all the horrible things that are happening in their lives. After their break, I see mums and their children smile again. But more importantly, they seem much better able to cope with the everyday pressures they face."
There is a growing body of scientific research-both British and international-that supports the contention that a break away from home can improve well-being and reduce stress, increase self-esteem and confidence, strengthen family communication and bonding, and provide new skills, widen perspectives and even enhance employability. A study from the university of Westminster published in April last year in the highly rated Annals of Tourism Research
"examined the value of social tourism for low-income groups, in terms of the benefits it can bring to the participants both in the short term and in the medium term...It has shown that for a
modest investment in terms of time and money, holidays can facilitate significant benefits in the personal and family development of the participants. It has also highlighted new aspects of the social impacts of tourism, and has shown the potential of tourism as a part of social policy: not only because of the inherent benefits of the holiday, but also as a support for the success of other, existing interventions."
However, the UK has a long way to go before access to holidays for disadvantaged families is an integral part of social welfare policy. Is social tourism a new-fangled idea with little or no real track record? The truth is that the concept of social tourism has deep and historic roots in the social welfare policies of many European countries.
In France, the "Chèque-Vacances" scheme, which is administered by the state-sponsored ANCV, last year helped more than 7.5 million people with a break. The mechanics of the scheme mirror those of our child care voucher system. Employees save money from their pre-tax salary to purchase their holiday vouchers, which can then be used to pay for accommodation, travel and restaurant costs. Some 135,000 establishments in France accept the vouchers, which come in €10 and €20 denominations.
In addition to the social welfare benefits that the scheme delivers to the millions of French citizens who participate, it is also recognised as a significant economic driver for French domestic tourism by pumping more than €3 billion into the tourism economy. The dual impact of social welfare and economic benefit is repeated in the multitude of schemes to be found across Europe, including the state-sponsored IMSERSO scheme in Spain. Last year, that holiday-subsidy project helped more than 1.2 million Spanish senior citizens to access an off-peak break at the Spanish seaside. A PricewaterhouseCoopers evaluation of the scheme for the Spanish Government found that for every €1 of subsidy, an additional €1.5 of tax receipts was generated for the Spanish Treasury.
One million-plus pensioners heading towards the coast during the quieter off-peak periods generates a great deal of economic activity, helping to extend the season and to generate and extend employment. PWC was at pains to point out that it had not even looked at the cost savings accruing to the Spanish health care system from animating so many senior citizens. Similar schemes are to be found throughout Europe from hard-up Greece, through to Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia.
Not all social tourism schemes are huge like the French and Spanish examples. In Belgium, the Flanders tourist office has made it a condition of registering with the tourist board that holiday establishments provide free or discounted holiday nights. These offers are then aggregated into a brochure that is made available to social organisations throughout Flanders to help disadvantaged families access that much-needed break away from home. This year the Flanders Government expect to help more than 90,000 people with a Flanders-based break.
Perhaps the Government could undertake a trial scheme, based on what is achieved across the North sea in Flanders, to see how it could operate here-and I nominate the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk with their long coastline and seaside towns, large and small, whose economy would get a welcome boost while at the same time providing much-needed holidays for so many of the nation's children who do not experience
even a day trip to the seaside. From Hunstanton in north Norfolk to Southend in Essex, taking in such wonderful destinations as Cromer and Great Yarmouth, Felixstowe, Clacton and Walton, the East Anglian coastal towns would get a fantastic boost through the economic tourism that I propose today. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) told me only yesterday that he is doing research into economic tourism for his constituency, so I hope that the coalition Government will take forward what we are both seeking to achieve.
Linked with this, I draw the House's attention to early-day motion 982 tabled last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), which is headed "Impact of Spending Cuts on Seaside Resort Economies". Clearly any reduction in the spending capacity of already low-income families is likely to increase the number of children who will not have a holiday in future years. The motion calls on the Government
"to review urgently the impact of welfare reforms on coastal economies, and seaside resorts in particular, so that such areas do not suffer disproportionately from public spending cuts."
In blunt economic terms, social tourism delivers economic benefits as well as huge benefits to disadvantaged and low-income families, not just children but parents, and to senior citizens with little disposable income. It seems that in many other parts of Europe, social tourism is intuitively understood to deliver benefits to individuals and families that makes it a very cost-effective prescription for improved health and family strength. There is also a clear understanding of the huge economic benefits that can follow if those people not currently able to participate in tourism can be supported to do so.
"a miracle in that all the practitioners and users obtain all kinds of benefits: economic, social, health, employment, European citizenship...no one is harmed by this activity...and the bottom line is that it would be difficult to find a human economic activity that is so universally recognised and supported".
Following the Lisbon treaty, the European Commission has taken an ever-greater interest in tourism and has recently established the €3 million Calypso programme to promote social tourism and the social and economic benefits it can deliver. Some 21 EU and candidate countries have signed up to the programme. I report with profound regret that, according to the Family Holiday Association, the UK has yet to express an interest. As a result of today's debate, I hope that this omission will be corrected, and our coalition Government will take seriously the importance of introducing measures- established in other countries and with a proven track record of success-to assist low-income British families and disadvantaged pensioners to have holidays.
Whatever our views on Europe, we need to pay attention to what is happening there. Spain has recently launched a scheme-Europe Senior Tourism-that has started to attract senior tourists to Spain on heavily discounted and state-subsidised low-season breaks. In its first season, some 40,000 people from elsewhere in Europe arrived in Spain to enjoy a break in which the Spanish had contributed €100 to the cost of each person's holiday. When one considers the profit for the Spanish tourism economy, and the way in which its domestic IMSERSO scheme has developed, this scheme can be
expected to grow substantially. My understanding is that the French ANCV is developing a similar scheme to attract EU visitors to France. Of course, only the hardened cynic would refuse to accept that this was all being done to promote anything other than European citizenship. I cannot imagine that already hard-pressed Blackpool and Great Yarmouth landladies, or their counterparts struggling to make a living on the sunshine Essex coast, will relish the thought of their low-season customers being attracted by heavily subsidised breaks to the continent when their Government do not seem to know what social tourism is.
People in Britain value their holidays as much as our European cousins, but the concept of social tourism has never been picked up by the British Government. Amazingly, I have been told about a report published in 1976 called "Holidays: the social need", which was jointly sponsored by the English Tourist Board and the Trades Union Congress. Authored by the Social Tourism Study Group, it spoke about social tourism and its benefits just as you might expect to hear an exponent of the benefits of holidays speak today. It has been ignored by successive Governments for 34 years. Britain could have been the leaders but, sadly, the concept, in British terms, has lain forgotten and dormant.
Yet, of course, helping disadvantaged people get a break has been done by charities, trade unions and good employers for generations. Charities such as the Family Holiday Association helped some 2,000 families with a UK holiday this year, the trade union Unison has its own holiday park in Croyde Bay in north Devon, and there are good employers such as John Lewis plc, which owns five holiday centres that it runs for the benefit of its employees.
All Governments profess to want to lift people out of poverty by putting more cash in their pockets. With more cash, people would have access to more choices, and one choice that people could make would be to take a holiday, so the argument goes. But that is to imply that a holiday is merely a purchasing choice and to ignore the benefits to individuals, the family and hence to the community that a break can deliver. That argument has been comprehensively undermined by recent research.
Going back to the question in the Lords, Lord Davies indicated in his answer that the Government were sympathetic to social tourism and acknowledged the benefits that it can deliver. He went on to say that the Government even gave £10,000 to Tourism for All, a charity that supports holidays for people with disabilities. But he and his advisers seemed unaware that the long-established Family Fund, a charity fully funded by Government and set up to help families with children affected by long-term disability, spends almost half its £30 million budget providing short holidays for these families.
In this country, we already use the lack of a break away from home as a measure of poverty, we count the numbers of people who cannot afford to enjoy even a day trip and we spend lots of money, both private and public, addressing this issue, albeit in an ad hoc and unrecognised fashion. We need to take the issue of social tourism more seriously. We need to understand the significant benefits that it can deliver both from a social and from an economic point of view. I would
have liked social tourism to have featured in the Marmot review, "Fair Society, Healthy Lives", which was published in February. It will be recalled that Professor Sir Michael Marmot, at the invitation of the then Secretary of State for Health, chaired a year-long independent review into health inequalities in England, producing proposals to introduce evidence-based strategies for reducing health inequalities. I believe that he is supportive of the work of the Family Holiday Association.
I strongly believe that the new independent review on poverty and life chances being led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) should take note of what can be learned from successful social tourism models elsewhere. I also believe that the domestic tourism industry needs to wake up to what is happening in the rest of Europe and to grasp the opportunities that social tourism can deliver here in the UK. Imagine what a French-type programme could do to support our seaside resorts.
Let me repeat my call to the Government to fund a pilot scheme for the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, not just for the seaside towns, but for other tourist destinations inland, of which I nominate Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town and home of Colchester zoo, as a prime example of how to boost the local economy through economic tourism. With children in mind, I point out that the world's favourite nursery rhyme, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", was written in Colchester, so that is another reason to promote my home town as a place for children to visit, where they can see the house where the rhyme was written by the Taylor sisters in 1805.
Over the past few years a growing number of organisations have begun to join together to discuss how best to get social tourism on to the political agenda. The Family Holiday Association has led the effort, bringing together organisations as diverse as the Youth Hostel Association and Unison in a social tourism consortium. Social tourism seminars have been held in London and Edinburgh. Scotland, of course, has devolved responsibility for tourism. Joint programmes have been established both among the UK groups and with European partner organisations. Joint presentations have been made to the European Commission directorate-general of enterprise and industry meetings, and a staff member from the Family Holiday Association has been co-opted as a private sector stakeholder of the Commission's Calypso programme.
A few weeks ago, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) hosted a reception at the House on behalf of the Family Holiday Association, at which those attending heard about social tourism and proposals for a cross-party group of MPs and Members of the Lords to establish an all-party group on social tourism. The anticipated all-party group will establish an inquiry into social tourism and aims to publish a report as quickly as is feasible. A wide range of potential witnesses have already indicated a willingness to participate in the inquiry, including representatives from Spain, France, Belgium and the European Commission. It is also expected to have input from local government and various tourist authorities together with members of the social tourism consortium.
I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members had an enjoyable holiday this summer. Millions of our fellow citizens, particularly children, did not. Even in these
difficult economic times, putting that right should not be too much to ask. It would make both economic and social well-being common sense to do so.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate. I am glad that he did not cancel it, as he said he nearly did, and instead, in his inimitable manner, gave a twinkling delivery at high speed about this important subject. I fear that the Hansard reporters might have to revisit his notes on the IMSERSO Spanish scheme, the ANCV in France and assorted other names. He did not miss the opportunity to take us blatantly and unashamedly on a Cook's tour of the east of England, and not least of his own constituency-and why not?-and the sunshine Essex coast; I am sure he would like me to repeat that phrase. The Essex coast is almost as sunshiney as the Sussex coast, where my constituency is based.
This is an important subject, and it is perhaps appropriate, as the hon. Gentleman said, that it falls on Children in Need day. One of my most important duties this morning was judging the cake competition in aid of Children in Need in the Department for Education-and a fearsome competition it was! I thought it safer than the cycling marathon on the ground floor. However, I am glad to say that the most innovative cake was the "cruffin", which is a combination of an apple crumble and a muffin, made by somebody in my private office. But I digress, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman is a redoubtable and tireless campaigner on behalf of all children and young people, as well as pensioners, whom he mentioned, and many other specialist categories of people. It is no surprise to me that we are here on a sitting Friday-although not in a packed Chamber, alas-discussing one way to improve those people's lives. I echo his comments about the Family Holiday Association. He is right to praise the excellent work that it does with families who would otherwise be unable to benefit from a holiday, and it deserves our fullest praise and deepest thanks. I am also glad that he mentioned the important Family Fund, which provides much needed breaks for particularly needy families who have children with long-term disabilities. That has proved very effective in the past.
The hon. Gentleman is also right that there is a growing body of research indicating that holidays can greatly benefit families. They allow them time to spend together outside their normal circumstances, relaxing in different places, and they can make for happier and healthier families, as he rightly stated. When holidays are taken in England, as I would always recommend, they provide a boost to local tourism as well-especially in Colchester and Worthing. However, the people who benefit the most from the chance to get away from the trials and tribulations of their daily lives are naturally also those for whom it can be most difficult.
I am fully aware that, in some European countries, such as France and Spain, which he flagged up, family holidays are regarded as a right. Sadly, that is not the Government's view in this country. Many people who are not in poverty choose not to go on holiday for many different reasons, and we would not want to force them to do so. It is surely up to families how they spend their time and money, and at this time when resources are
tight and there are many competing priorities for taxpayers' money, it is, I am afraid, unaffordable for the Government to subsidise holidays.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's calculations for minimum income standards estimate that the cost of one week's self-catering holiday in the United Kingdom for a family of two adults and two children is about £620, with associated travel costs of about £130. The Family Holiday Association figures from 2004, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, suggest that each break costs £1,500. However, the Government are determined to focus their limited resources on reducing the deficit, putting public services on a sustainable footing and tackling the underlying causes of poverty, thereby putting everyone's finances back on an even keel, so that families in the future can decide how they want to use their discretionary spending money.
Living in poverty, particularly at a young age, is a deeply distressing experience that can have long-term consequences. We want to end poverty and to do so not by treating the symptoms, but by eliminating the root causes, hence our commitment to the elimination of child poverty in particular. It is because nothing is more important than overcoming barriers to social mobility that we are investing more in getting early-years education right, for example. We recently announced that the entitlement to 15 hours per week of free education that the Government introduced for all three and four-year-olds will be extended to disadvantaged two-year-olds. We have also protected funding for Sure Start children's centres and will refocus them on their original purposes, so that families who most need support get it.
It is because we are committed to improving education for the poorest families, so that they can go on to get the good job to which they have always aspired, that we are radically reforming education, including through the introduction of a new pupil premium that will attach extra money to the poorest pupils. It is because we believe that work is the best possible route out of poverty that we are introducing reforms to the welfare system to ensure that those who can work do so, while those who cannot receive the support that they need. We think that the right approach is to give families the power and resources to be able to take advantage of some of the things that the hon. Gentleman rightly flagged up.
With a good education and a job comes choice, and it will then be for families to decide whether they go on holiday and what sort of holiday they may want to take. But such is our determination to tackle poverty and inequality that we have asked Alan Milburn to assist us in our work to reinvigorate the social mobility agenda so that deprivation is not destiny.
Bob Russell: Will the Minister ask Mr Milburn to look at how the French and Spanish Governments in particular regard their holiday schemes? Not only do they benefit the children of low-income families, but they boost the economy of seaside resorts and other locations in those countries. They generate income.
I heard the hon. Gentleman's point about a double benefit. Social tourism is good for families who need a break, and for the industry and the resorts where they choose to go. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to forward his comments-the Hansard
report of today's debate-to Alan Milburn so that he can take them into consideration. I am happy to support him in doing that.
In addition to the work that we have asked Alan Milburn to do, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is leading a review of poverty and life chances. Again, the hon. Gentleman's comments are relevant to that review, and I encourage him to send further details to the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) was also enjoying the cakes in the Department for Education when I was having a conversation with him this morning. He is leading a separate review into how we can support local councils in early intervention because, as we all know, prevention is always better than cure. All that is relevant to what the hon. Member for Colchester alluded to this afternoon.
We announced as part of the spending review that we will bring together funding for services for the most
vulnerable children, young people and families through a new early intervention grant, which will be worth around £2 billion a year at the end of the comprehensive spending review period. It will allow local councils to decide how they can best deliver their local priorities. Again, that may focus on leisure opportunities for deprived families.
We fully support the Family Holiday Association, and all organisations that provide support to families who cannot otherwise afford holidays. Their work is admirable, and improves the quality of life of thousands of families every year. We cannot promise large sums of financial assistance to support them at this stage, but I hope that they will continue their work.
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