Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the hon. Lady the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I do not think that we have met in these circumstances before. I am delighted to be here today.
I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). I have known him for many years, long before he was a Member of the House. I know from previous experience that he has long been an advocate for support services for women, not only in his own constituency, but across Scotland. For Members who may not be as aware as I am of my right hon. Friend’s history, he was the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities at one point.
My right hon. Friend has done rather a lot in his life—for a man who is only 45. He was president of COSLA when local authorities in Scotland were trying to come to an understanding of what violence against women—it was mainly, but not exclusively, violence against women—meant for those women, their families and their communities. He was part of the drive in Scottish local authorities to recognise the problem and deliver services. It is fair to say that that was not always easy. Many local authorities turned their face against the provision of such services, and many a battle had to be fought to establish the idea that there should be a discrete service focused on women’s needs as part of mainstream activity. I hope my right hon. Friend does not mind my embarrassing him, but we sometimes forget that people had a life before they came into Parliament, and it is worth putting part of that history on the record.
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From my right hon. Friend’s analysis, we can see the benefit of the experience that he brings to this subject. He is an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament and he keeps in touch in a way many of us might replicate; I am not saying that we are all bad constituency MPs, but I can verify that he is one of those Members who is known to all his constituents and who knows all of them. It is not often that we get the opportunity to pay a little tribute to one of our colleagues, and I hope that his ego can stand it.
My right hon. Friend’s analysis of the situation was telling. He emphasised that it is not only statistics that are important. As politicians, we talk about statistics, but every one of them represents an individual person who is part of a family, a street and a wider community. That was echoed in the contribution by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth and in other Members’ interventions.
There are two themes in the debate, but I want to concentrate more on one of them, although I appreciate that the Minister will wind up on both. One theme is the responsiveness of the benefits system to women—it is mainly women we are talking about. I hope, however, that that is not misunderstood; as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) mentioned, this is not just about women, and there are men who find themselves in this position. However, the overwhelming majority of cases involve women, so, for shorthand purposes, I will talk about them.
Amber Rudd: My point was that welcomed the fact that men are participating in a debate that is primarily about women. I totally support what the right hon. Lady says, but I also welcome the fact that it is not only women who are supporting action on this important issue.
Mrs McGuire: I appreciate that. I may not have explained myself properly. I was saying that there are men who find themselves on the receiving end of domestic violence. However, I fully endorse the hon. Lady’s comment that this is not just a women’s issue; it affects women, but we should all be interested in it. I am more than happy to make that clear.
As I was saying, there is the specific issue of how the benefits system responds. There are then the wider elements that have been highlighted, and there is significant expertise at practitioner and political level on some of them. It is fair to say that some of the issues about the benefits system relate to continuing uncertainty about what the new Welfare Reform Act 2012 will deliver. People who rely on some element of benefit support and who are in or—this is increasingly the case, sadly—out of work face uncertainty, as the Government roll out their welfare reform programme. We have had some pretty robust debates on welfare reform, and I will not go back over them. However, we want to see what can be delivered under the new legislation to make sure people understand what its impact on them will be.
I want, therefore, to deal with some specific points about the impact of the new welfare legislation on women who face domestic abuse or domestic violence. As the Minister will be aware, the benefits system is designed for the many, but it must also show sensitivity to individual circumstances. I hope we all agree that such circumstances are sometimes difficult to anticipate
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and, even when we do anticipate them, difficult to frame provisions for in primary legislation. I hope that she will be able to give Members and, more importantly, those who face the trauma of domestic violence some confidence that what is being put in place can respond to individual circumstances. The test of any benefits system is not the high-level principles or the high-level legislation, but what the system means to an individual when they are at a point of need and how responsive the system is.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The right hon. Lady has come to an important point. Does she agree that one consideration for women who face the threat, or who are victims, of domestic violence in deciding whether to go to Women’s Aid or other such groups is often the impact that that could have on the benefits to which they or their family are entitled? The female at risk often gives more serious consideration to that than to the fact that she is being abused.
Mrs McGuire: I totally agree. That echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown)—he is no longer in his place—who said that, given that uncertainty, women go back go the household where they were abused. If they have never engaged with the benefits system—and even if they have—there is an element of uncertainty about the time frames. It may not be entirely clear what will happen to their child benefit. Who gets the child benefit at the moment? Technically, it goes to women, but that might not be the case in some abusive relationships. As well as having to deal with violence and abuse, women face that financial uncertainty. We should not underestimate how difficult it is for women who are trying to get out of a violent situation not only to have to worry about the impact of the violence on them and their children, but to face uncertainty because they might be stepping off the edge of a cliff and they do not know what will happen. I totally endorse what the hon. Gentleman says.
Will the Minister tell us how organisations that offer hostel and supported accommodation will be treated in the assessment of housing support assistance in the new system? Currently, supported accommodation providers are allowed to breach the local housing allowance cap, because an element in the costs allows them to charge for additional support services, such as those provided by Women’s Aid or similar organisations, although Women’s Aid is obviously the principal provider.
We are seeing a real-terms cut in supported housing costs across the country, and we cannot run away from that. Local organisations that offer accommodation will therefore face a cut in any circumstances. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that women’s aid organisations are receiving a greater funding cut than local authorities—there is a differential of 4% or 5%. There is therefore uncertainty, and if organisations that offer supported accommodation cannot make up the additional costs, there will be a real threat—this is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill was alluding to—to the financial viability and, indeed, the very existence of their hostels.
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but although that voluntary activity is important, it is not the only element of the support that is given. There are services that have a cost attached to them, and we cannot ignore that.
Kate Green: Does my right hon. Friend agree that that might have an impact on providers of specialist services, such as those for minority ethnic women, or very young women? Such organisations cannot take advantage of economies of scale, by providing for large numbers, as some housing associations can; but if we lose that specialist provision, some very vulnerable young women will be reluctant to go anywhere for support.
Mrs McGuire: What my hon. Friend says echoes what I said at the beginning of my speech about how the benefits system relates to specialised individual needs. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on that matter.
I suppose that my direct question to the Minister is whether those in receipt of local housing allowance who go into women’s hostels will receive just the basic housing allowance; or will the hostels be able to charge an additional amount, to be covered by the local housing allowance? My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill made that point starkly when he talked about the pressure on Monklands Women’s Aid. There may be a misunderstanding, and if so I am sure that we would love to receive clarification.
The Minister appreciates that some women and, as I have said, some men are forced to leave their homes as a result of domestic violence and need not just a roof over their head but significant support. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth highlighted that.Like other hon. Members, I hope that the Minister will consider how to finesse the new system of local housing allowance to take account of those additional services. Otherwise, I fear for the long-term viability of women’s aid organisations that provide hostel accommodation.
I am echoing comments that other hon. Members have made when I say that some women who have left home may have little or no experience of budgeting, or may be in such a state that budgeting is the last thing on their minds. The direct payment of rent in those circumstances would benefit some people. I agree with the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye that, in principle, giving people the independence to pay their own rent is good practice. Indeed, we introduced that when in government, because it lessened some of the stigma effects—the “No DHSS here” signs and other such things—but we must be realistic and say that in some specific circumstances people would benefit from having their rent paid directly. I hope that the Minister will consider a range of exemptions, to allow those who want it and who feel that they need it at the time in question to access direct payment. I may be wrong, but I understand that the Minister, or the Department, is currently considering such exemptions. Perhaps she will be able to give us interesting news.
The Minister will be aware that on Monday a Delegated Legislation Committee debated the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Domestic Violence) (Amendment) Regulations 2012. The Government’s proposal to ease some of the JSA conditionality on those coping with domestic violence was unanimously accepted. We certainly welcome that decision, which implemented elements of the Welfare
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Reform Act 2009. Although there have been, as I said earlier, some robust Divisions on welfare reform provisions, the regulations in question were welcomed by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).
However, I want to ask for the Minister’s view on an issue on which the views were not unanimous: how welfare reform will affect the capacity of women’s aid organisations to seek housing for women. There are serious concerns about the effect of the change to the shared-room rate of local housing allowance under the Welfare Reform Act 2012 on victims of domestic abuse and the possibility that it will make it difficult for some women to move easily from hostels to independent accommodation. The fact that the age limit is being extended from 25 to 35 makes it difficult, particularly for women who have been used to an element of independence. Is the age of 33, given all the other things happening in the life of such a person, really the time—I should not say “you”, Dr McCrea, but in Scotland “you” is the vernacular for “one”—when you should think about going into shared accommodation, perhaps with strangers? There is concern about that; I have certainly picked it up from women’s aid organisations.
Kate Green: I agree that that is a concern, particularly for women who have had traumatic experiences of violence. They will be reluctant to move into shared accommodation with people—potentially men—they do not know. Is not the likely result therefore that some of them remain in the refuge, reluctant to leave, so that there will be a sort of bed-blocking situation? Then other women who need to flee to the refuge will not be able to do so.
Amber Rudd: It would be interesting to see the evidence for that. I say that in all honesty, because the right hon. Lady’s argument is interesting, but for some women being in shared accommodation with other women in a refuge might be helpful. Shared support is important.
Mrs McGuire: That is a fair point, and it was the argument prosecuted by the Minister on Monday. However, it is one thing to offer women the choice to stay in accommodation with other people; for many women that would not be their choice. Although it is anecdotally-based, the view that that requirement might be an impediment to moving women into their own accommodation has a strong resonance in women’s aid organisations.
The regulations passed on Monday proved that the general can be finessed to the specific, and I hope that the Minister will discuss with her departmental colleagues whether some easement of the relevant aspect is possible, so that women, many of whom have been their own person for a long time, will not be forced into a particular choice, but offered a range of choices. Are we really going to say to those women that the only option for them at 33 or 34 is to share a flat with someone
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else—and not necessarily, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)pointed out—people they know?
Another element on which I wish to question the Minister is the way that the new universal credit regulations will work for those who have had to leave home because of domestic abuse. Universal credit is a household benefit, and a test of its responsiveness to individual circumstances will be how flexibly it enables one allocation to a household to be deconstructed when one partner leaves the household, often in traumatic circumstances. That is a question not just of the speed of response, but of how that will give the confidence that was spoken of earlier. I appreciate that the decision makers dealing with these issues might not deal with them daily, but we need some confidence that they will be able to respond quickly to those who need to establish a second claim for universal credit under the new regulations.
Kate Green: I want to ask about women who flee violence and do not go to a refuge, or who leave a refuge to set up their own home. Does my right hon. Friend agree that another concern about the welfare reforms is the uncertainty about the localising of the social fund? Many women fleeing domestic violence depend entirely on the social fund to set up their new homes. Does she agree that it would be useful if the Minister indicated what guidance will be issued to local authorities under the Welfare Reform Act 2012?
There is a question about how the social fund will be delivered to the devolved Administrations. Will it go directly to them or to local authorities? Will the devolved Administrations be the intermediaries? The reason why I highlight that in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is that he has had bitter experience with an allocation of funding at a UK level for respite care for disabled children. As a proportion under the Barnett formula, it went to the Scottish Government, but then—I shall be generous—we could not quickly identify where the money went. It appeared to be wrapped up in other funding packages; it certainly did not appear to be delivered as my right hon. Friend’s Committee intended.
I will wind up with one or two general points. We have focused to a certain extent on the benefits side, but there are wider issues. Although I appreciate that the Minister does not have direct responsibility for those wider issues, I hope that she will take them on board in her discussions with her colleagues. It is fair to say that women’s support services feel that they are facing a precarious future out there, owing to the uncertainty of funding. It is widely recognised that domestic abuse accounts for between 16% and 25% of violent crime in this country. It is not disappearing. It is there, and our police forces are aware of it.
Cuts are being made to policing. We can debate how many and how much. Street lighting is under pressure, as are women’s support services, including refuges. All those factors affect the wider issue of women’s safety in this country. I hope that the Minister will allay some of our fears and give my right hon. Friend and me confidence
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that she understands the issues and is prepared to see how the Government, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, can respond.
Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I am sure that we would all agree that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke)had a distinguished career before first coming to the House. He will be happy to know that we do not need birth certificates to be produced to agree with those comments by the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire).
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing this debate. We have worked together on numerous issues in recent years, and I know that his tenacity and commitment are second to none. I underline how important it is that we debate this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said that it is an issue for both men and women, and the fact that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill secured this debate underlines that.
On behalf of everybody who has contributed to this debate, I pay tribute to all the organisations involved in supporting women, men and children facing the ordeal of domestic violence. I marvel at the work of the Basingstoke Rape and Sexual Abuse Crisis Centre in my constituency, which employs a dedicated group of people who bring a much-needed service to an important part of my constituency. I am sure that all hon. Members can look to similar organisations in their constituencies.
I am grateful for this timely opportunity to discuss how the welfare system supports and will support those affected by domestic violence. As hon. Members have mentioned, significant changes will take place as a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, particularly the introduction of universal credit. Domestic violence is a dreadful act of abuse, and the Government are absolutely determined to tackle it. There are many matters that I would like to discuss in response to the issues raised by hon. Members. I will try to address each in turn.
It is unacceptable that 7% of women and 5% of men reported having experienced domestic abuse in the past year. That is equivalent to around 1.2 million women and 800,000 men. The violence against women and girls action plan, launched in March 2011, was refreshed earlier this month and sets out numerous commitments that the Government have made across the board: to improve prevention, which my hon. Friends discussed in interventions; to challenge attitudes and behaviours by taking action early to ensure that the perpetrators of violence are brought to justice; to support victims of abuse in all its forms better by working with partners to reach out across communities; and to ensure that Government support is appropriately tailored to victims’ individual needs.
To pick up on the points made by my hon. Friends the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), it is absolutely right that prevention must be at the heart of our approach, as well as breaking the cycle that we as constituency
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MPs all too often see in action. We can do so by working with children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West highlighted in her contribution.
I am mindful of hon. Members’ concerns about future funding for services that support victims of domestic violence. I hope that hon. Members will be content to hear that the Government constantly consider ways to strengthen protection for victims and that we have taken a different approach by ring-fencing nearly £40 million of stable funding up to 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and rape crisis centres in England, as well as funding the national domestic violence and stalking helplines. It is the first time that funding has been ring-fenced on a stable basis for domestic and sexual violence victims, and I am clear that local authorities should view funding for services to support victims of domestic violence as essential.
The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill will also be aware that in Scotland, decisions on funding applications for projects that focus on tackling violence against women will be announced shortly by the Scottish Government. I am pleased, as are key partners such as Scottish Women’s Aid, that funding for violence against women, including victims of domestic abuse, will be maintained throughout the spending review period. I hope that he will welcome that as a concrete commitment.
The right hon. Gentleman’s main point involved housing benefit, but other Members discussed the broader issue of the benefits system, so I will address that first, hopefully providing some of the reassurance that hon. Members seek in these times of change. We heard from the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who spoke for the Opposition, about this week’s approval for proposed changes to jobseeker’s allowance regulations. That legislative change will now come into force on 23 April and allow victims of actual or threatened domestic violence who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance to be exempted from job-seeking conditions for a period of up to 13 weeks, provided that evidence from an appropriate representative can be produced and that other conditions are met. That will continue with the introduction of universal credit.
It is right that victims of domestic violence who claim JSA or are new to claiming it can spend some time focusing on stabilising their lives. As we have heard from hon. Members today, that is a challenging time for the individuals concerned, and they need time to get their lives and, where applicable, their children’s lives straight. It is also right that they can do so without having to demonstrate that they are actively seeking or available for employment, or face the threat of sanction. I hope that hon. Members will feel that that is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment.
A further sign of how seriously we take the issue is that alternative support remains available via the existing JSA domestic emergency exemption for victims who are either unable or perhaps unwilling to produce evidence. We have a twin-track approach, which is important to note.
While the easements that operate under JSA are, as I have explained, commendable, they are somewhat complex. That is why the Government are already taking steps to clarify them as we move forward with universal credit. That shows our clear commitment in the area, and I hope hon. Members will welcome that.
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On the subject of today’s debate, housing benefit, some victims of domestic violence live in a hostel or a refuge. Currently, many, if not all, refuges have their rents met in full through housing benefit, which is usually paid directly to the hostel. Refuges are exempt from the local housing allowance, and residents have their housing benefit worked out using rules that recognise the additional costs that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about in her intervention.
The Government consulted last year on changes to the way in which housing benefit meets the costs of people living in supported housing, such as refuges. Our consultation paper, “Housing benefit reform—Supported housing”, was published on 19 July 2011, and the consultation period ended on 9 October 2011. We are considering the responses to the consultation and intend to bring forward proposals as soon as possible for implementation in 2013. Let me clarify that we do not intend to change the way in which payments of housing benefit are made to people living in hostels or refuges. All tenants who live in the social rented sector, as well as those living in supported housing, normally have housing benefit paid directly to their landlords. That will continue until housing benefit no longer exists and is replaced by universal credit between 2013 and 2017.
We currently support around 170,000 claimants living in supported accommodation through housing benefit. They receive on average an extra £40 a week in housing benefit in recognition of extra costs. We expect higher payments for that sector to continue. I hope that the right hon. Lady feels that that starts to answer some of her points.
The right hon. Lady also asked several questions about how hostels will be treated under universal credit. Currently, we are considering how we will support housing costs for people in hostels under universal credit. Our consultation is helping to inform that, and we will involve stakeholders in the process before we issue regulations.
The right hon. Lady asked some important questions about people who are subject to the shared accommodation rate. I reassure her that the situation applies to a distinct group of individuals: those who are under 35, on their own, with no children, and moving into private sector accommodation. She is probably already aware that many exemptions are in place for vulnerable groups—for instance, those who receive the severe disability premium.
We have also introduced several further exemptions from this January—for example, for ex-residents of homeless hostels who have received help to resettle in the community. I reassure the right hon. Lady that if there are still individuals who, local authorities feel, require their own space, discretionary housing payments are also available, and they have been increased by some £130 million. That will allow local flexibility and discretion, which can make all the difference in such cases.
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Kate Green: I appreciate the exemptions that have been made. However, housing organisations such as Crisis and Shelter have pointed out that if an exemption for people leaving homeless hostels is enshrined in legislation, there seems to be no objection to having the same exemption for women leaving refuges.
Maria Miller: Our approach is to empower local authorities to have the sort of discretion that can make all the difference in such cases. Each individual case is different, which is why the discretionary housing payments are important and why we are putting so much more taxpayers’ money into that—to give local authorities the flexibility that can make all the difference.
The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said that he felt that there may have been some indication of a reduction in the amount available to pay for refuges. I make this clear to reassure him: the consultation on refuges that we have been through is not intended to be a cost-cutting exercise. We want to make the rules fairer and ensure that help is better targeted on those who need it. It is about ensuring that the money that we have reaches those who need it most. I hope that that reassures the right hon. Gentleman about housing benefit. His debate is timely because we are moving forward at the moment to talk to stakeholders on that issue before we formulate regulations and before they are looked at through the positive procedures of the House.
Hon. Members also talked about universal credit and how that will affect people who are at risk of or have experienced domestic violence. I believe that the system will hold a great deal of good for individuals who find themselves in such a situation. One of the important contributions—as a constituency MP, I can empathise with this—stressed that sometimes the issue is about the timeliness, or the lack of it, of support in place for women who find themselves in a refuge. A delay in receiving financial support at that point can be extremely distressing. The current complexities of the benefits system can do little to help speed that process up. That is why I feel strongly that universal credit will greatly benefit some of the most vulnerable groups in our communities.
Amber Rudd: Sometimes, it is important to pay housing benefit directly to refuges to secure their financial future. Private landlords may get into trouble or have difficulty, but they are supported by the law and can enter into negotiations with their tenants. For refuges, having a secure financial commitment is important to their survival.
Maria Miller: My hon. Friend speaks with great passion on the subject, and I thank her for her intervention. She is pushing me a little further than I am able to go at the moment, but I hear loud and clear what she is saying about the importance of ensuring that there is some certainty there. I would like to make it clear to her and other hon. Members that the work that we are doing is not intended to unsettle or jeopardise the financial futures of the refuges. That is not something we intend to do. We do not want to do anything to damage the sector.
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of payments on account, so that some individuals can get payments made, even if not all the details of their claim can be sorted out straight away. Again, simplification and a fleetness of foot will assist people in these very difficult situations.
Throughout the development of the reform—universal credit—we have worked very hard to ensure that safeguards are put in place to protect vulnerable people, including victims of domestic abuse. That includes those still residing within the household and those who have been forced into a refuge. The right hon. Member for Stirling, who speaks for the Opposition, highlighted the single monthly payment made to households. We have put that in place because we feel that it is important and integral that it is the family’s responsibility to decide how a payment is made and to manage their own finances.
However, as the right hon. Lady said, of course, there will be exceptional cases. It is important that any system can deal with and support those exceptional cases, where a single payment into one account may compromise the safety of household members. We have therefore ensured in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that there is a power to split payments between members of a couple in the case of a joint claim. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also raised that.
Kate Green: The Minister is right that there is the option for universal credit to be split between members of the household. However, does she not agree that it will be difficult for a woman to seek that in a situation where there is financial abuse, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod)? I realise that it is well beyond the opportunity to get the legislation changed, but will the Minister at least assure me that the Government will keep a careful eye on the impact on those women of a single payment to one member of the household in relation to the financial abuse that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth rightly raised?
I absolutely assure the hon. Lady that, in all aspects of the reform that we are undertaking—whether it is this or another aspect of the Welfare Reform Act—we will keep a very close eye on how things are working in practice. She is absolutely right:
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we have to do that to ensure that those who are particularly vulnerable and in difficult situations are getting the support that they need.
Under universal credit, there will continue to be a 13-week exemption to conditionality where there is evidence of threatened or actual domestic violence. In addition, the application of conditionality overall will be more responsive to the needs and circumstances of individuals. Importantly, advisers will be able to have crucial discretion to vary or temporarily lift requirements where a claimant is subject to a change in circumstances such that they cannot reasonably be expected to take even limited steps into work. That discretion can help individualise the support that we give people in those difficult circumstances.
The situations faced by victims of domestic violence are very varied and therefore, beyond a three-month exemption, we believe that it is right to take a case-by-case approach and give advisers such discretion. As part of the move towards self-sufficiency, in the cases we have talked about, universal credit will be paid directly to tenants rather than to landlords. There are elements around direct payments that are still being considered, and the role of hostels and refuges are part of that. However, let me assure hon. Members that we will do that in a way that protects the income of social landlords. The Government have absolutely no intention of doing anything that will damage the sector. I hope that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill will find that commitment a reassurance at this time.
The debate is extremely timely. My colleagues in the Department and I will consider very carefully all the comments made by hon. Members from both sides of the House. We need to examine carefully the circumstances in which alternative arrangements for payment of universal credit will need to be made. We will start a process of working with key stakeholders over the next few months on what should be included in regulations, with a view to publishing a draft set of regulations in due course. I assure hon. Members that I am committed to ensuring that the right safeguards are in place, particularly in the case of victims of domestic violence. Again, I underline my thanks to hon. Members for sharing their thoughts on this matter. I assure them that they will help inform our discussions as we move forward.
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Freedom of Information Act
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I requested this debate to seek clarification about a specific piece of Cabinet Office guidance that was apparently issued to the Department for Education last year to clarify its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act.
Ministers from both Departments—the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education—have refused to answer any of my parliamentary questions about the guidance, except to confirm that it was issued. However, this is a matter of pressing public importance about which I have sought answers for nearly eight months. There is evidence now in the public domain that the Secretary of State for Education and his advisers used personal e-mail accounts to discuss matters relating to the award of public money and the Building Schools for the Future programme.
Disclosure of those e-mails was refused because Ministers wrongly appeared to believe that the e-mails were not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. The Secretary of State has since told me, at a recent hearing of the Education Committee, that he believed that to be the case because of the specific Cabinet Office guidance that is the subject of today’s debate.
I will briefly summarise the background and say why the matter is of such pressing public importance that the guidance should be published without delay. In August and September last year, in the leaked e-mail obtained by The Guardian, the Secretary of State’s adviser told officials that he would no longer respond to inquiries on his official departmental e-mail address and urged them to do the same. At the time, Ministers in the Department appeared to believe that private e-mail addresses were not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
Further e-mails were then revealed by the Financial Times that had been leaked to them by officials in the Department for Education. Those e-mails revealed that personal e-mail accounts had been used by the Secretary of State and by his advisers in relation to Government business. Requests were made for some of the leaked e-mails in question but those requests were refused. The Secretary of State told me in January at the Education Committee hearing that the decisions were taken clearly on the basis of guidance issued by the Cabinet Office. That guidance remains unpublished, may or may not have been written down and has since been discredited, hence my keenness to shine a spotlight on that mysterious guidance today. It apparently contradicts earlier guidance given to the Secretary of State for Education by his Department’s chief freedom of information officer, stating that personal e-mails were covered by the Act. The Information Commissioner also clarified that in December last year, but the Secretary of State confirmed to me that he had ignored both those pieces of guidance and preferred instead to rely on the mysterious piece of guidance apparently issued by the Cabinet Office.
I would like to know why the Cabinet Office is still refusing to publish the guidance given the Secretary of State’s constant references to it, its apparent centrality to decisions taken and the seriousness of the allegations that have arisen against the Department for Education. Will the Minister publish the guidance now, so that we
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can assess whether any attempt was made to evade the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act? The Minister for the Cabinet Office told me that he would not publish it due to a long-standing convention, but can the Minister tell me why he and his colleagues cannot even tell me in what form it was communicated? Surely there is no convention around that? Freedom of information requests suggest that the DFE holds a copy of the advice, but according to press and FOI queries to the Cabinet Office, it says that its guidance was, variously, not written down, or not held. Can the Minister explain this contradiction for me today?
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She will be aware of the controversy about the whole aspect of freedom of information requests in recent months. Does she agree that the matter is not only about the case she is outlining, which is very interesting, but the whole aspect of the abuse of freedom of information, and its cost?
I would also like to understand how the situation could arise. That understanding is important if the commitment to transparency, which was made very clearly in the coalition agreement, is to have any meaning. Why was the guidance written by the Cabinet Office in the first place, given that the Department for Education’s chief freedom of information officer had already clearly communicated his view? Who requested the guidance? When was it communicated by the Cabinet Office? Was it sent only to the Department for Education? If not, has it now been revoked for every Department, given the extreme criticism of it by the Information Commissioner? In his recent ruling, he said:
“The DfE contends that the information is not held because the email in question is ‘political’. However, almost all the work of a special adviser, by definition, has a political dimension to one extent or another. Equally, the Secretary of State is a political figure…There is therefore an inevitable overlap between matters of party policy and government policy. To accept the DfE’s interpretation would be to, in effect, create a blanket exemption for communications between ministers and special advisers. In the Commissioner’s view the DfE has created an artificial distinction between ‘official’ information which is subject to the Act and ‘political’ information which is not.”
Did this interpretation, or description, of a blanket exemption from the Act arise directly from the guidance issued by the Cabinet Office? If so, can the Minister tell me how he, or officials in his Department, came to interpret the guidance in that way? Will he tell me who wrote it? Was that person aware that the DFE’s chief FOI officer had already issued contradictory advice? Did the person who wrote it have any discussions with the Information Commissioner, or indeed the Ministry of Justice, which holds overall responsibility for the Freedom of Information Act, before issuing it? Who was it sent to in the DFE? Did the Minister personally sign it off? If not, will he tell me who did?
I am seeking to understand how a situation can arise where the Cabinet Office’s guidance explicitly contradicts that of the DFE’s own chief FOI officer and the Information Commissioner, yet the Department is able to choose which guidance it wishes to follow. Does that not cause the Minister concern? Is it how the Government
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operate? Can Departments pick and choose different policy advice and guidance depending on which they prefer to follow? Does the Minister think it is acceptable that the Government are in the farcical situation where the DFE is apparently relying on guidance that the Information Commissioner has discredited, which is contradictory to the guidance issued by the Department itself, and which the Government still refuse to publish?
Less than two weeks ago, the Information Commissioner issued a ruling that the information withheld by the DFE amounted to departmental business and must be disclosed. The Secretary of State is currently considering whether to exercise his right to issue a refusal notice giving valid reasons for withholding it, as I understand. In the meantime, he still does not appear to have accepted the guidance of the Information Commissioner and his own Department that states clearly that those e-mails are covered by the FOI Act.
In January, I asked the Secretary of State a series of questions at a hearing of the Education Committee to clarify whether he or his advisers had ever used private e-mail accounts to conceal information from civil servants or the public that related to departmental business; whether he had ever directed civil servants not to answer FOI requests on specific issues; and what steps he was taking to prevent the deletion of private e-mails relating to Government business and deemed by the Information Commissioner to be covered by the FOI Act. It has since transpired that officials in the DFE repeatedly destroyed official Government records—130 e-mails, according to reports by the Financial Times. I have the transcript of the Secretary of State’s appearance before the Education Committee. I repeat that it is not clear, from his answers, whether he or his advisers sought to use, conceal, or delete those personal e-mails to evade the Act. What is clear is that the Secretary of State says that he was following Cabinet Office guidance in his actions.
There is an urgency to this matter, as it is unclear whether private e-mails relating to Government business are still being deleted. I asked the Secretary of State about that at the end of January at the Select Committee hearing, and he would not confirm whether that was or was not the case. Will the Minister please clarify whether that revised, updated guidance has been issued, and that, in light of the Information Commissioner’s ruling, the guidance has changed? Has revised guidance gone to every Department? If not, what is the delay? Given the clarity of the Information Commissioner’s statement, it seems extraordinary that that would not have happened. If it has not happened, does it mean that the Government are currently without guidance on the use of private e-mails and the FOI Act?
Does the Minister know whether the DFE has decided to fight the decision notice, and if so, on what grounds? Perhaps the Minister cannot answer that, but can he answer this: if the Secretary of State for Education decides to fight the decision notice from the Information Commissioner, will the Cabinet Office defer publishing new advice until the case is finalised? If so, that could mean that the FOI Act is effectively inactive and subject to a blanket exemption for a year. That is surely a broken commitment, given the prominent commitment to transparency in the coalition agreement. What is being done to ensure that this situation cannot happen again?
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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the beginning of her remarks—the debate started earlier than expected. Would it not be a ludicrous situation if the Government tried to uphold the position that private e-mails are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, since that would, in effect, allow the Government to create a government in parallel using private e-mail accounts to evade their responsibilities under the Act?
There is another thing that does not, so far, stand up to scrutiny. The Department for Education’s initial response to the press reports was to say that only political e-mails were sent through private accounts. The Secretary of State subsequently repeated that claim to the Education Committee. If the Department genuinely believed the e-mails were not governmental, why did it ever seek advice on the applicability of the law to private e-mail accounts? Can the Minister shed any light on that? Did he or his officials have any conversations with the Department, the Secretary of State or his advisers about it? That is why it matters so much to so many of us in the Opposition. Not only do the e-mails relate to decisions of crucial public importance to young people and their families—not least about Building Schools for the Future—but they have created a situation that looks distinctly murky. That affects and discredits us all, and must be clarified urgently.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): As a member of the Education Committee, I attended the hearing. Has my hon. Friend reflected on the fact that in attempting to answer, or not answer, her questions at that Committee hearing, and by evading a real answer to her questions, the Secretary of State, I am sorry to say, seemed to find some amusement in the whole matter? That is a very sad thing, given the time and effort that my hon. Friend has put just into trying to uncover the truth.
I have been seeking answers for seven months and have not been able to get any. In that time, it has been alleged that Ministers repeatedly destroyed official Government correspondence and deliberately used private e-mail accounts to avoid the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. They may still be doing so. The failure to answer questions about this matter makes a mockery of Parliament, the Freedom of Information Act and the commitment to open government.
I realise that Governments are reluctant to share information, sometimes for understandable reasons, but I share the Government’s view that transparency is crucial. In the words of the coalition agreement, they should
“throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. We also recognise that this will help to deliver better value for money in public spending.”
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If that commitment is to have any meaning, frankly, Ministers must up their game. I should be grateful if the Minister would give a commitment today that the original guidance will be published, that in light of the Information Commissioner’s ruling, clear renewed guidance will be issued urgently across the Government regarding the application of the FOI Act to private e-mails, and that if he cannot answer all my questions, he makes a decent attempt to answer those he can, writes to me about the rest and no longer seeks to hide behind the much overused phrase, “long-standing convention.”
I follow convention in congratulating the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) not just on securing the debate, but for the way that she presented her case. We served together quite happily, I think, when considering the Public Bodies Bill. I am not surprised that she has been pursuing this matter forensically for many months, through the Education Committee and this debate.
I will do my best to answer the questions that I can. The hon. Lady will know that I cannot answer them all; in fact, I cannot answer the majority and I cannot speak for the Secretary of State for Education. I am certainly not going to respond to allegations about any destruction of information or materials, because they remain just that.
Lisa Nandy: I am sorry to ask the Minister to give way so quickly. I have just handed him a list of questions for the Cabinet Office, to which I should be grateful for answers. If he cannot answer them today, I should be grateful if he looked into them and got back to me.
In some ways, the hon. Lady was challenging the Government on their important commitment to transparency and, because I feel proud of the Government’s direction of travel, it is important to put this debate in context by mentioning some things that we are doing to improve transparency, including in the Department for Education. The Secretary of State mentioned, in evidence to the Select Committee, increased transparency about schools performance.
Information is power and we are giving people more power. For example, the Government are now publishing details of ministerial, special adviser and permanent secretary meetings with external organisations; details of hospitality and gifts received by Ministers and special advisers; senior officials’ salaries; and detail on Government procurement card spend. We are also publishing information on many other items of public interest, such as hospital infection rates, crime maps—which have been an enormous success with the public, with more than 430 million hits since their launch—and data on general practitioners’ performance. More than 7,500 data sets have so far been published through the combined online information
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system on data.gov.uk, more than any other comparable transparency service in the world.
The information published enables people to see all Government expenditure, browsing by date, spender, recipient and amount. All Government contracts over £10,000 are to be published to ensure openness and fairness.
The whole Government accounts were published in November 2011 and each Department has published a business plan, setting out how it will achieve its reforms, how much money is being spent and what it is being spent on. Reports against these deliverables are published monthly on the No. 10 website.
Transparency does not just extend to central Government. For local authorities, there is increased local accountability and transparency of councils. We can see, down to the last £500, what is being spent in our name by our local authorities, including salaries, names, budgets and responsibilities of staff paid more than £58,200. There is detail on councillor allowances and expenses and we can see organisational charts, pay multiples, copies of contracts and tenders to businesses, which are important to the voluntary and community sector.
Mr Hurd: The point that I am trying to make—I will give way after doing so—is that this level of transparency is unprecedented and today’s debate, which challenges the Government and questions our commitment to transparency in some ways, needs to be seen against this background. So much of the long list that I read is self-evidently good and in the public interest. Why did it not happen before? The hon. Lady and other Opposition Members may have an answer, since they were in power for 13 years.
Lisa Nandy: The Minister has read a long, impressive list of things that have been published under the Freedom of Information Act. Does he agree that it is extraordinary that guidance of such central importance to decisions made across the Government is not on that list? Will he commit to publishing it immediately?
Mr Hurd: The hon. Gentleman says it is waffle, but I am proud, because in less than two years we have achieved all that I mentioned—which is more than his party did in 13 years in power—in giving people information about what the state is doing in their name. I do not describe it as waffle; it is hard information that is in the public domain now.
This debate is about the use of private e-mails and their relation to the Freedom of Information Act. We have to recognise that this complex issue has been the subject, as the hon. Lady says, of a recent decision by the Information Commissioner, published on 2 March. In his decision notice, the Information Commissioner makes it clear that at the time the Department for
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Education received the FOI request, there was no guidance in existence. This was a new area that had, perhaps, not been anticipated. The commissioner acknowledges that the full implications of the FOI Act in relation to this issue may not have been well understood at the time. He states in his decision notice that he
“would say first of all that he acknowledges that this is a novel issue and one which may not have been anticipated when the Freedom of information Act was passed…Given the unique role played by special advisers it is not always easy to draw a clear line between official information held by a public authority and party political information.”
For reasons that I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, a time period is set out in the FOI legislation within which the Government will consider whether to appeal or release the information. I cannot answer the hon. Lady’s question about whether any decision has been taken. The Government have 28 days from the date of the decision notice to decide whether to appeal. If there is no appeal, the Government have a further seven days to release the information or assert a relevant exemption. Therefore, I am sure that hon. Members will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment on the decision while such consideration is under way.
The hon. Lady has asked me to make public the advice given by the Cabinet Office to the Department for Education on FOI and private e-mails. She asserted at the start of her speech that she had not received any answers on this, but in fact she has, although it is not necessarily the answer that she wants. In a written answer from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, she was informed that the Department will not publish any guidance on private e-mails and the Freedom of Information Act given to the Department for Education, because
“Information relating to internal discussion and advice is not normally disclosed.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 63W.]
That has been so for a long time and we will stick to that line, because the Government do not disclose what is effectively internal advice. Doing so would prejudice the conditions under which such advice was given. That is a long-standing convention, and it is entirely respectable for the Government to stand by it. Today’s debate has not changed my view and, I am sure, will not change the view of the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster
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General. We both believe, as Ministers before us have believed, that advice between officials and Ministers should remain confidential.
Mr Hurd: The hon. Lady intervenes from a sedentary position. The answer to that question is that we will not disclose the advice or the manner in which it was communicated—we would not normally disclose that, and we will not do so now.
The more substantive issue is what happens now, in that the Information Commissioner has given a view and the Government must respond. The hon. Lady asked when the Cabinet Office will publish its guidance. I have made it clear that the Government are considering the Information Commissioner’s recent decision notice and his guidance, published in December, and will publish their guidance as soon as it is ready, but the issues are complex and require detailed consideration. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Lady laughs, but we must get it right: the question is new, it is complex and it was not anticipated at the start—it needs to be got right. The Cabinet Office is doing that work, which is well under way. When our guidance is ready, it will be issued.
The debate is valid and raises important issues that the Government are considering and taking extremely seriously. I do not recognise what the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said about the Secretary of State’s apparent flippancy in Committee—I read the transcript; I was not there—but, given that in that part of the inquiry he was being interviewed under Paxman-like conditions by the hon. Member for Wigan, his replies were serious and to the point. However, important issues, which we are taking seriously, have been raised and I ask hon. Members to allow consideration to take place in the appropriate way. Within the time frame set in tribunal rules, the Government will decide whether to appeal or to release the information originally requested, in response to the Information Commissioner’s decision notice of 2 March. The Government are also considering the guidance issued by the Information Commissioner in December on freedom of information and private e-mails, and the Cabinet Office will issue further guidance to Departments in due course.
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Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful that the Minister is here to respond to the debate. He and I usually discuss high-technology issues, but today we will talk about low technology and local newspapers in print form. I am pleased to be able to talk about the importance of local media to small towns and cities.
Stevenage has a number of media outlets, including The Comet, the Stevenage Advertiser and Jack FM—a good local radio station on which I will be holding a phone-in surgery on Saturday, because it has a wide impact in the local community and reaches many people. The importance of local newspapers to small towns and cities lies in community cohesion. They are valuable assets to local communities. In my area, they report everything from Stevenage football club’s meteoric rise from non-league football two seasons ago to league one and its furthest ever placement last week against Tottenham in the fifth round of the FA cup at White Hart Lane, where it unfortunately lost, to stories about the Rainbows, the Guides, grass-roots football and other small local charitable organisations that have no opportunity to put forward their message elsewhere. I am pleased to be able to support local newspapers and media outlets.
I want to talk about some facts. We know that 33 million people in this country read a local newspaper every year. We also know that there are thousands of titles—well over 6,000—that 71% of adults read a local newspaper and that 14 million more people read a local newspaper than read a national newspaper. Local newspapers have a huge spread in local communities.
Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I thank my hon. Friend on obtaining this important debate. Does he agree that papers such as the Redditch Advertiser and the Redditch Standard, which are local free sheets and the only newspapers that we have in Redditch, are vital to local people, especially the elderly who would otherwise be cut off from local news?
Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the valuable titles in Redditch. Local newspapers reach some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and push forward a positive message on everything: Government news, local authority news, planning permissions, charitable events and what is going on in the local community. The Prime Minister said that
“local papers are hugely important in helping to build a bigger, stronger society. There is a massive gap between the state on the one hand, and the individual on the other, and local papers help fill the space in between, galvanising readers into action.”
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that local media are vital to small towns such as Dartford and Stevenage, because they are often too large to have parish magazines dedicated to their area, but too small to have, for example, regional television covering just their area?
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Stephen McPartland: Before the Division, we were discussing what the Prime Minister said about local newspapers being a great vehicle for social change, and I want to refer to a couple of campaigns that I have run with local newspapers in my area. One campaign sought to bring the carnival back to Stevenage, and that had great success last year. We are currently running a campaign with a different newspaper to have a satellite radiotherapy unit based at the Lister hospital in Stevenage. Patients from Stevenage who undergo radiotherapy currently have to travel nearly 4,000 miles during the course of their treatment. We think that that is a little too far, and that treatment should be available somewhere closer.
Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): That issue also affects my constituents in the neighbouring constituency of North East Hertfordshire. Does my hon. Friend agree that the local media have been extremely helpful in supporting that campaign and fighting to help cancer sufferers, who currently have a difficult journey, to receive treatment?
Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes a good point; he has been a great advocate and supporter of the campaign and has led the way in North East Hertfordshire. As he rightly says, without the support of local newspapers, the campaign would not have achieved such massive community penetration or have been mobilised into a big, cross-party issue locally. The campaign is going well.
We are also running a campaign to stop the expansion of Luton airport because, although Luton would get all the jobs, Stevenage and particularly North East Hertfordshire would get all the aircraft noise. If there are to be quieter aircraft, we are keen for them to turn up, and we would be interested in getting the truth about those figures. Local newspapers are a great vehicle for change and something that I support.
Local newspapers face great competition from new media, although many of them are embracing that competition and in many ways turning themselves into embryonic versions of the local multi-media companies that the Minister and I support so well. Local newspapers are trying hard to move forward by doing a lot of work on the internet, accessing a variety of other platforms and starting to move into radio and so on. However, they face a great deal of competition, and although they are tackling that head-on, there is concern over the behaviour of some local authorities.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on whether local authorities should spend taxpayers’ money on advertising in local newspapers, as opposed to producing propaganda that a large number of local residents are not particularly interested in reading, so it quickly ends up in the bin. For example, the Stevenage Chronicle is not particularly well supported. The problem with such
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propaganda is that taxpayers have no interest in it, and given the choice they would scrap it right away rather than see other services reduced. The local media market is distorted because local newspapers come under severe financial pressure when local authorities—whether county or district authorities—produce their own material.
What are the Minister’s thoughts about the current Department for Transport consultation on removing the mandatory advertisement of things such as road closures and planning applications in local newspapers? It is very important that that is reviewed. I am interested in his views, simply because I think that such a move will undermine further the financial viability of local newspapers.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Just this morning, the editor of the Ipswich Star, Nigel Pickover—there is also the Felixstowe Star—raised that point with me. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me that local papers are very important for democracy and holding representatives to account and for conducting campaigns, which he has mentioned. Taking away some of their regular revenue puts more papers at risk.
Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes a very important point much more eloquently than I managed to. She got to the heart of the issue, which is that that revenue will be taken away from local newspapers and instead of our having the disinfectant of transparency and local communities being able to understand what is going on, much of that information will be hidden away on local authority websites and will not get the attention that it so richly deserves.
This is very important. It comes down to a simple point. I accept that we are not in the business of subsidising local newspapers and that taxpayers should not pay for advertising in that sense. However, we should not be in the business of encouraging local authorities to compete against newspapers by taking that advertising revenue away from those newspapers and putting things on their own websites, because as hon. Members know, very little of those savings will go to front-line services. Local authorities will probably spend the money on developing a newer and better local authority website or newer and better local authority propaganda. The local community does not want that. It wants access to transparent information. The key message is that if public funds are used, the money should be spent on advertising in local newspapers, not on simply producing propaganda.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Would it not be necessary to prove that the advertising that the taxpayer was paying for was actually being read by the taxpayer and was valued by the taxpayer?
That is a very good point. Many people will wonder how many residents read the traffic planning information on road closures in the back of a local newspaper. That is a key issue and no doubt the reason why the consultation is taking place, but I am
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concerned about the consultation’s adverse effects. I believe that most laws are made with the best of intentions across all parties and all Governments, but there is always the law of unintended consequences. My concern today is that the unintended consequences will simply be that more and more local newspapers end up going out of business. That will continue the removal of a vital community resource from our local communities.
I have tried to show, in the few minutes of my speech, how effective those local newspapers have been as a vehicle for change. As I mentioned, the Prime Minster supports local newspapers. We have to put our money where our mouth is on some occasions and actually invest in local newspapers.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a superb point regarding local newspapers. In my constituency, we have the Buxton Advertiser and the Glossop Chronicle. People always read the notices in the back. There is also local radio. My local station, High Peak Radio, is widely listened to and, as my hon. Friend says, gets the message out better than many of the free sheets produced by local authorities.
Stephen McPartland: I agree that radio is a very effective medium. As I mentioned, I will be doing a radio phone-in surgery on Saturday morning with my local radio station, Jack FM, to get that great penetration into my local community.
Andrew Bingham: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being very generous. Not long after I was elected to the House, my local radio station, High Peak Radio, came down and broadcast from the Lobby of the House for a morning. That went down extremely well and increased the perception and knowledge of Parliament throughout the constituency. I would recommend that to any colleague.
The key points for me are clear. We do not want to distort the media market. The number of hon. Members who have intervened on me and are present for the debate shows the interest in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is keen to speak, so I will finish my speech shortly. The reason why I wanted the debate was simply that we have to understand the law of unintended consequences. I am very concerned that local authorities are using taxpayer funds—
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con):
I am very lucky in my part of the world—Colne Valley. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner is a fantastic daily newspaper six days a week, running community and business awards, which are very well followed. I have to mention BarryGibson’s coverage of the local development framework controversy on our patch. He was in the council chamber for 10 hours and was tweeting. The newspaper also led an important community campaign to get people signed up to the Anthony Nolan Trust bone marrow register after one of its journalists died of leukaemia. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of councils
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using their local newspapers for advertising. Does he agree that at a time when money is tight, that can also be very cost-effective?
Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have experience of The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, as my wife went to university in Huddersfield and I have read the newspaper on one or two occasions. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has contributed many articles to it in the past, but it is an excellent newspaper. We come back to the point that local newspapers are fantastic vehicles for social change, and we need to be very careful about ensuring that they have the ability to campaign. On that point, I shall finish my speech, so that other hon. Members have a chance to speak.
John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on initiating the debate. Its importance is shown by the number of hon. Members present. It could have been a longer debate had we had more time. It raises an issue that is extremely relevant to such localities as Stevenage, Carlisle and many other parts of the country—towns and small cities up and down the United Kingdom.
The national media are clearly vibrant and diverse. There are national newspapers, appealing to different sections of society; there is a plethora of TV channels and a large number of radio stations, both independent and through the BBC; and now we have the wonderful world of the blogosphere.
On the face of it, local media are also still quite vibrant. There are 1,200 regional and local newspapers. That is the most popular print medium; 33 million people read a local newspaper every week. Local media employ about 30,000 people and about 10,000 journalists. Local radio is also quite vibrant. Between independent radio and the BBC, it covers most parts of the country. In some cases, there is also local television.
However, there are clearly increasing financial difficulties for local media, particularly for local newspapers, which have experienced a triple whammy. They have lost revenue from adverts relating to housing, car sales and, probably most importantly, job vacancies. They also now have competition from the internet, which makes it far more difficult for them to be financially viable. Even radio is experiencing difficulties. It has less advertising revenue, and the BBC, as we know, has made severe cuts in local radio output in recent times.
I want to highlight what I see as the two most important aspects of local media. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage touched on the first one—the basic local news that is provided, information on events, simple local adverts, information on births, marriages and deaths—everything to do with normal everyday life. Quite often, they also cover the bigger stories, such as the success or otherwise of football clubs—I just note that Carlisle is above Stevenage at present in division 1.
Most importantly, local media hold institutions and individuals to account. I can give the best example of all. When I was a councillor, there were 52 of us, but probably the most important person in the council
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chamber of a night was the local journalist who reported the council’s proceedings to the wider public. Had he not been there, who would have known what was decided on that evening?
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises the importance of local media. In my city, the Belfast Telegraph plays a very important role in the way that he has outlined. Does he accept that one of the challenges in terms of costs is that many local newspapers are moving their printing works out of local towns and cities to somewhere else, so that they can do it more cheaply? That is happening with the Belfast Telegraph now. It is obviously a concern that these local institutions, which have been going for 100 years and more, are now moving their work forces out of the cities that they serve.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I commend those who arranged the debate, which is on a subject of cross-party concern. The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about investigative journalism. Does he agree that under the pressures that local media—local papers in particular—face, especially the pressure of profitability or its loss, it is often the important investigative journalism that is hollowed out and lost? That is a real loss to local democracy. Happily, that is not yet the case for the Oxford Mail and the Oxford Times and the family of papers that serves my constituency and that of the Minister to an excellent standard, but it is a worry. Does he agree?
John Stevenson: I could not agree more. The danger is that local papers just start to reproduce the press releases that everyone sends out rather than challenging what has been said. What can the Government do? Obviously, they should encourage and support a diverse local media industry, and I am sure that they will. We should restrict councils’ ability to issue free newspapers, which is often just political opportunism. We also need to ensure that statutory notices remain compulsory, and that it remains compulsory for them to be produced in the local media. Undoubtedly, that helps local newspapers financially and ensures that local people know where to go if they want to see notices about certain things, such as planning applications.
We must ensure that the BBC is also properly financed, so that we have high-quality local media. Where possible, I should like to see local TV stations reporting local news rather than national and regional news. If we can ensure that we have a vibrant local media, it will enhance our democracy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this important debate. The subject of local media is one that is dear to all hon.
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Members’ hearts. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) mentioned the cuts to BBC local radio, as part of the BBC’s plan to deliver quality first. A debate on that subject in Westminster Hall attracted some 50 hon. Members. We also had a debate in the main Chamber. I was pleased that the BBC Trust asked the BBC to think again about the proposals for local radio. We will all have experienced the ways in which it plays an important role in our communities.
Local newspapers play a vital role in supporting local democracy. All of us know and love our local newspapers, no matter how badly they behave towards us, because we recognise their constitutional importance. I was hoping to make the point that only Conservative Members had turned up to the debate today and to send a signal to all local newspapers that they should therefore skew their editorial policies in that fashion. It grieves me, therefore, to have to acknowledge the presence of the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), who is displaying the customary diligence for which he is well known, thus skewering my opportunity to make that particular point.
We take local newspapers seriously. One of the first things that the Government did after the election was to deregulate cross-media ownership rules at the local level to give individual local newspapers and local newspaper groups the opportunity to own radio stations and vice versa. It was recognised by the Government that consumers use a variety of platforms, whether the local newspaper, the radio or the internet. By allowing these different platforms to unite, there is more opportunity to create a critical mass to ensure that newspapers can be well financed in the future.
There is no doubt that newspapers will have to adapt to a changing world of technology. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle pointed out, it has been a triple whammy; I sometimes refer to it as a perfect storm. What has hit newspapers the hardest is the move of classified advertising to the internet. Such advertising was a source of guaranteed revenue for them. That was the most important first move that we made.
I am also pleased to say that a second move, which was made by the Department for Communities and Local Government, was to consult urgently on council news sheets. That consultation took place in 2010, and a new publicity code was issued on 31 March 2011, which makes it clear that councils have to think very carefully about how they use council tax payers’ money to fund what is known colloquially as propaganda on the rates. Those council free sheets should now be published quarterly and be accountable to local council tax payers. I am pleased to say that many local councils have now taken the view that they should publish their free sheets within their local newspapers. Therefore, as well as limiting the amount of money that they spend on those information documents, they are also ensuring that the money effectively gets channelled through the local newspaper by being part of the local newspaper. In the House, we have the opportunity to publish information about our activities. I hope that all hon. Members will think carefully about using their local newspapers to that end.
The second issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage was the current consultation on traffic regulation. Having already spoken on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government,
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let me now speak on behalf of the Department for Transport. Local councils spend around £20 million a year on advertising traffic regulation orders in local newspapers. I should add the caveat that local newspaper groups, such as the Newspaper Society, do not necessarily agree that that is the sum that is spent. I am sure that everyone in the House agrees with the efficient use of council tax payers’ money. Saving money by reducing advertising costs would be a good thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, might say that the money would be better spent on libraries—I was giving evidence to her on libraries yesterday. Incidentally, I was pleased that Desmond Clarke, to whom I referred yesterday, is now sending my hon. Friend regular e-mails, updating her on library policy, but I digress.
A consultation was issued at the end of January 2012 by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). It has already generated 100 letters from Members. I am pleased that those letters went to the Department for Transport and not to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I am also pleased to say that my hon. Friend will be meeting the Newspaper Society next week to discuss the issues. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck in achieving value for money for the council tax payer, but I am pleased that the Department for Transport has recognised, through the consultation process, the importance of statutory notices to a free and thriving local newspaper press. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the outcome of that consultation, but I know that hon. Members will be pleased that many of their colleagues have made representations on behalf of their local newspapers to the Department for Transport and that the Department is actively engaged in consultation.
I have covered both the Government’s action on the deregulation of cross-media ownership and our action to reduce the impact of council newspapers on local newspapers, and I have acknowledged the importance of statutory notices to local newspapers. Let me turn to a number of other issues that will provide opportunities for local media.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred to local television; he hoped that it would start to cover genuinely local news rather than regional and national news. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport shares that view; he has a vision to implement local television, which he feels is a media platform that has been neglected in this country. We often cite America as a country with a plethora of local television news stations, but many of our European counterparts also have very local television stations, so there is no reason why we cannot have a thriving and effective local television sector, despite the small size of this island compared with, say, the US.
To the end of promoting local television, Ofcom has conducted extensive consultation. Spectrum has been identified that will allow local television to broadcast. The most effective sites for a local television station to get up and running in the short to medium term have been identified. A licensing process is under way, and money has been secured through a partnership with the BBC to secure the establishment of local television stations and to guarantee the purchase of BBC content.
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Mr Andrew Smith: As there is only so much advertising revenue out there, how far does the Minister see that there is a danger that the growth of local TV will put more pressure on the resources, income and profitability of local newspapers and therefore put more of them at risk?
Mr Vaizey: One of the reasons why we wanted to take forward local television in partnership with the BBC is that we recognise that it could potentially take a while for some local stations to attract the element of advertising that they need. It is important to stress that although we would not refer to local television stations as a shoe-string operation, it will be a pared-down operation; local television stations will not have the kind of bells and whistles that right hon. and hon. Members may be used to when they go into a television studio in Millbank. We estimate that the cost of running a local television station will be about £600,000 a year, so we are confident that advertising can support local television in the short to medium term.
It is important to stress that many local newspaper groups are looking at partnering with local television groups to create a local multi-media network. We hope that those partnerships will emerge. However, it is also possible that some quasi-national advertising will support local television; for example, a large supermarket group could still push out a national advertising campaign
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with a local flavour through local television. We do not anticipate that there will be an impact on local newspapers from local television, and indeed we hope that local television will support not only local news in general but local newspapers specifically.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage for securing the debate. He opened it by referring to Stevenage’s successful run in the cup and their sad defeat at White Hart Lane. When I became a Member of Parliament, my local football team—Didcot Town FC —actually won at White Hart Lane, although they were not actually playing Spurs at the time. They won the FA Vase, were promoted and then relegated. However, my hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the importance of local newspapers, and I hope that I have reassured him that the Government are not only listening when there is a perceived threat to local newspapers, but providing important opportunities for local newspapers to thrive and grow in a complicated 21st-century technology landscape.