Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our constitution, but it does not mean that people should be able to ride roughshod over the reputations of others. When someone writes to the newspapers these days, the letter is published on the internet and in no time at all there are very insulting comments posted on the website, particularly if the letter is about a politician, and we do not seem to have any legislation to deal with that. Therefore, our defamation laws must strike the right balance between protecting freedom of speech and protecting people’s
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reputations, and that includes those of Members of Parliament. I know that we are No. 1 on some people’s hate list, but the overwhelming majority of Members of Parliament are here for the right reason and do a jolly good job, and I am getting a little fed up with our being continually insulted and considered fair game, which I think is very wrong indeed. I want slander on the internet to be prevented. Her Majesty said that legislation would be laid before us. I know that we already have 14 Bills and four further measures, but I hope that there will be time to introduce legislation to deal with slander on the internet relating to comments on media articles. I think that there should be much tighter controls and more severe punishments.
There is no point in any of us being Members of Parliament unless we have some real power, and over recent years our heads have been down and we have lost so much of our power, so we need to reassert it. I hope that the Government will consider introducing a measure to enable far greater scrutiny of public bodies. I will give the House one example. I have been on a mission in relation to Essex police—two Essex colleagues on the Government Benches are present—because I knew from the outset that the chief constable of Essex was chosen from a shortlist of one, which is absolutely outrageous. It has happened and nothing has been done about it; we just accepted it because we are more concerned about hacking and reform of the House of Lords. How could the Essex police authority allow the chief constable to be chosen from a shortlist of just one? That is unacceptable.
Charlie Elphicke: Is that not why elected police and crime commissioners are such a good idea, because we can get the right chief constables and make police forces much more effective and responsive in cracking down on crime?
Another point about Essex police is that I have had to resort to using the Freedom of Information Act to get confirmation that the chief constable was chosen from a shortlist of one. Why should a Member of Parliament have to use the Freedom of Information Act? Then there is the closure of police stations. When the Leigh-on-Sea police station was closed there was no consultation. The consultation took place in the car park of a large supermarket in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), which is on the other side of town, and received about 20 responses, which meant that they could close the police station. That is not good enough, which is why I think Members of Parliament should get power back from some of these public bodies. I have been trying to find out more information about Essex probation service, the Crown Prosecution Service in Essex and a range of public bodies. Members of Parliament are scrutinised all the time and have to submit themselves to the electorate. Why cannot we have more scrutiny of at least the management of public bodies? I hope that the Government might consider introducing a Bill to deal with that matter.
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Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, who mentioned it earlier, was going to agree with me entirely, but he threw me when he said that it works well in Scotland. As far as I am concerned, once the TV cameras get into our courts it will not end there. Coverage will get wider and soon we will be like America, with coverage for the trial of the basketball player who shot someone, or whatever it was he did, and the cameras panning across to see the jurors. I think that cameras would be a very retrograde step.
Mr Llwyd: I clearly understand the hon. Gentleman’s fears, but if he looks at what has happened in Scotland over the past seven or eight years, he will see that televised coverage is strictly confined to sentencing remarks and possibly the summing up by the judge and there is nothing whatsoever outside that remit. Given that there will be only an experimentation period, his fears might well be allayed. Clearly, I would share his concerns if coverage were to be extended in any way, but it is limited to an experimental period and confined strictly to such use.
Mr Amess: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is right—he obviously knows much more about the proposal and where it came from than I do—but I am puzzled about who thought it was a good idea; has the proposal somehow come from the media? At first, televising this place was going to be static, but all that has gone out the window. Once we let the TV cameras into our courts, it will become an opportunity for voyeurism of the worst possible kind. I cannot understand why we need to see the judge deliver the sentence. Will it be shown on “News at 10”, or will there be a dedicated channel?
Mr Llwyd: The limited televising would help with legal education and it would help practitioners. For example, when we had the awful riots in August, some courts were not sure how to deal with the circumstances, which were exceptional. If anything of that kind happened again—God forbid—televised remarks of sentencing in the courts would be available so that people would know exactly where they are going and what the going rate is. It would be a deterrent to those members of the public who might otherwise get involved and it would also have an educative process. I seem to be defending the Government on this, and I really should not be.
Mr Amess: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is right, but I have grave concerns about the proposal. Will it be like the guillotine, with everyone standing around gathering heads, and will it become gory? We will have to see what happens.
In conclusion, I welcome the measures in the Gracious Speech concerning the energy Bill, the interception of communications Bill—I thought that a co-operative Bill would be included—public sector pensions, individual electronic registration, EU accession treaties and the justice and security Green Paper. I think that this will be a year of real celebrations for our country. We have the diamond jubilee, the Olympic games and the Gracious Speech leading our country back to recovery.
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John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the sane and balanced observations of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess). Given that the hon. Gentleman brought up the issue of the Iraq war and the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, I remind him that I voted against the war—I think seven times, but certainly six. I did not have any particular prescience or a crystal ball, but some of us could very early on see that it was going to be an horrendous mistake. It was entirely wrong, and we opposed it every step of the way.
“What plans he has to visit Southend, West.”
“I have no plans to visit Southend—and I rather think that the hon. Gentleman did not either, until he saw the writing on the wall in Basildon.—[Official Report, 19 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 1061.]
I, like many hon. Members, note that House of Lords reform is not exactly the centre of my universe. I do not lie awake at night fretting about it, but a number of speeches today have prompted me to make a few comments on it. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), at the end of his remarks, seemed to imply that the Government will come along with proposals meaning that the new upper House, whatever it is called, will be 100% elected. I suspect that that is wrong, and that the proportion will be 60%, 70% or perhaps 80%—a range of options, just like the previous Government gave the House some years ago.
I have always voted for 100% elected when the opportunity has come along. I have never sought that opportunity, but when it has come along I have always voted for 100% and against anything less than that, and, if the opportunity arises again, I personally—I do not speak on behalf of my party—will oppose anything less than 100% elected, although I would rather not spend any time on the issue at all.
On a related issue, the Chamber that requires more urgent reform than the House of Lords, which after all is just a revising Chamber, is this one. I agree with the earlier comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), but another problem with this Chamber—to which many references have been made for many years—is that power has flowed from it to Whitehall, Downing street and Brussels for about 40 years or even more.
In conversation a while ago with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I mentioned that power had been flowing from the elected Chamber to unelected institutions for the past 40 years, but he said, “It’s been much longer than that. Power has been taken away from the House of Commons since roughly 1880.” I do not know whether he was around in 1880; I certainly was not! I am sure that if he had been he would have told MPs then that their proposals were an absolute outrage and a betrayal of the parliamentary principle, but prior to that Back Benchers dictated all business on the Floor of the House. It never happened again; it was taken away during that period.
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In the relatively recent past, we have had the Jopling proposals, in 1994 under John Major’s Government, followed by the more rigid measure of timetabling, which was introduced post 1997 and which, by the way, I also voted against. Those two things—particularly the Jopling proposals—have cemented a relationship between this place and Whitehall which is entirely unbalanced and needs to be brought back into balance.
That leads me on to an incident that occurred when I was an MP previously, for Hornchurch, with Eric Forth, the much missed, late Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who was a great parliamentarian and a terrific speaker. He was speaking against everything that had happened since 1994, against timetabling and guillotining, and I pointed out from a sedentary position on the Government Benches that he had actually supported the Jopling proposals. I probably used some fairly Anglo-Saxon language when doing so, but Eric’s response was, “Well, I regret it now and wish I had voted against them.” Funnily enough, he was in opposition at the time.
I shall move on to two issues that do concern my constituents. Like many in the Chamber, I have worn myself out over the past few months knocking on doors, and, as everybody else who has spoken today has said, nobody on the doorstep or at street surgeries mentioned House of Lords reform, but two issues that were mentioned day in, day out were, first, housing and the appalling state of accommodation—certainly in my constituency and many others in England, Scotland and Wales—and, secondly, economic insecurity. Those two things were right at the top of the agenda day in, day out during the campaign.
“My Government will strive to improve the lives of children and families.”
The problem is that the lives of children and families in my constituency are not being improved; they are going in the opposite direction. In Leyton and, to some extent, in Leytonstone, both of which are in my constituency, we are seeing almost Victorian levels of overcrowding, with appalling cowboy private landlords treating people terribly, and the waiting list in Waltham Forest, which makes up most of my constituency, is now more than 20,000.
Meg Hillier: I do not know whether my hon. Friend has the same problem in his constituency as I have in mine, but, with the housing benefit cap, many of my constituents, including working families and those with children, are being forced out of their homes and I am not sure where in London they can go to find accommodation at the right level in the private sector. Surely this too is a concern and rather flies in the face of his generous reading of that one line in the Queen’s Speech.
I completely agree, and I see exactly the same experience. Owing also to the acute shortage of public housing in my constituency, people are being told, “You’ll have to move to Walsall,” “You’ll have to move to Derby,”—here, there, right across the country. One woman who was in emergency accommodation and had suffered a bereavement—her husband had died and her daughter was in a terrible state—came to see
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me, having been told, “You’ve got to move to Walsall, and next Tuesday, by the way.” That was on a Thursday, and she was being told that she had to move to Walsall the following Tuesday. In a civilised society, that is a pretty appalling way to treat somebody.
That brings me on to economic insecurity. Since the general election alone, 70,000 to 80,000 construction jobs have been lost in Britain, and in fact it is probably more than that by now; those are the latest figures I have. The stagnation of the economy is also an enormous worry to an awful lot of my constituents.
On the eurozone, the Government, rather than helping to prop up a currency that is clearly collapsing, should encourage countries such as Greece to leave the euro and get their economies moving again, because that is the best way to stimulate our economy—through exports to eurozone countries, which at the moment do not have the cash or resources to buy goods from this country or others, such as Germany and North America. The idea, which the Prime Minister reiterated this afternoon, that we are not bailing out the eurozone is simply a myth. We are giving increasing amounts of money to the International Monetary Fund, which then hands over increasing amounts of money to the eurozone, so the idea that we are not in one way or another bailing out eurozone countries is an absolute myth. It simply is happening.
“My Government will seek the approval of Parliament relating to the agreed financial stability mechanism within the euro area.”
There must be elements of the fiscal compact within that stability mechanism, and as sure as eggs is eggs the fiscal compact will be included in the Bill that this place and the other place will have to pass. In reality, that too will go in the direction of the eurozone, meaning the centralisation of power in Brussels, increased austerity throughout Europe and increased poverty. I find it extraordinary that Governments in western Europe will do almost anything to prop up the euro.
Charlie Elphicke: The hon. Gentleman has long been known in this place for his passion on the matter of Europe. Does he believe that, with the elections in Greece and France and the problems in Spain, the euro is sustainable however much money is now pumped into it?
John Cryer: My own view is that, no, the euro is not sustainable, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, rather than helping to sustain what is effectively a broken system, should encourage countries such as Greece and Spain to find a way out and a way of exerting power over their own economies, because that is how the eurozone more disparately is going to move forward.
I remember listening to an interview with a European Commissioner on the “Today” programme a few months ago, just as Greece was being plunged into the crisis that it is still in. The questioner said that there was increasing unemployment and poverty in Greece—even then, there were reports of malnutrition among Greek children—and asked whether it was fair that the people involved should pay the price for saving the euro. The Commissioner said, “Well, life’s not fair.” That is extraordinary. She expanded on the comment, because she realised that she had made a mistake and let the cat
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out of the bag, but her initial comment was that life was not fair—in other words, that ordinary people had to pay the price for mistakes made by the wealthy and powerful.
Sadly, our Government are pursuing a slightly less frenetic version of the “Eurosadist” economic policy practised in Greece, Spain, Portugal and one or two other countries. Yet what we are seeing everywhere across Europe is a rebellion against that austerity. The latest example, obviously, is France, where Hollande has specifically rejected the austerity programme. In Greece, the party that came from nowhere to second in the poll has specifically rejected the programme and is now in the process of trying to form a Government.
What people told me continually on the doorsteps during the recent campaign was that those who caused the crisis and who made the decisions years ago—the bankers, the wealthy and the powerful—are getting away with it and that those paying the price are the most vulnerable and least able to pay during this crisis.
Increasingly, I see home repossessions, economic insecurity and less confidence in spending money because of that economic insecurity. Just to make the situation that bit more insecure, the Government now propose to attack rights at work, make it easier to sack people and reduce health and safety inspections at work. That will make people even less confident, because they will be worrying about losing their jobs. It will be easier to sack people and there will be fewer health and safety controls, particularly in the construction industry and other dangerous industries. The result will be an increasing turn in the downward spiral, further into recession—and perhaps, over the next couple of years, even into depression.
What really worries me, although not so much in respect of this country, is that in many countries across western Europe—particularly Greece, Spain and Portugal —we are starting to see the beginnings of the rise of the far right. Take Golden Dawn in Greece, for example. If we think that the British National party and the English Defence League are a dangerous bunch of fascists, we should see what Golden Dawn is like—it is 10 times worse. For the first time ever, Golden Dawn has representation in the Greek Parliament. That is a direct result of the appalling austerity measures unleashed on the Greek people. Unless there is a change of direction in the eurozone and this country, my fear is that right across Europe we will see the rise of the far right.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a delight to be called to speak in this debate on the Gracious Speech. I want to dwell on one or two of its themes that are of great interest to my constituents and on one that is of absolutely no interest to them. Before I do, I should reflect a little on what has been achieved by the Government and where there is still room for improvement.
Like most Members, I came to the House to do good—not as a do-gooder, but to do good for my constituents. I came here as a Conservative in the belief that I would be able to rebalance how hard-working folk in Brigg and Goole, and beyond, are treated. In some respects, the Government have made progress; some of the changes to the benefit system have made work pay,
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and I support those wholeheartedly, as do my constituents. When they speak to me in the street or I knock on their doors, they generally say that they support the benefit cap and changes to entitlement programmes. Similarly, I am delighted that the Government have been able to freeze council tax, which doubled under the previous Government, for the past two years.
However, there have also been things that I have not felt comfortable with and which I do not think have in any way rebalanced fairness or rewarded those who try hard and want to do the best for themselves and their families. That is why I have voted against a number of measures, although I have voted with the Government on the vast majority of occasions—about 90% of the time. In any other job, I would be a slavish loyalist out for promotion, but in this place if a Government Member votes a couple of per cent. of the time against the Government, they are a serial rebel.
On issues such as the bedroom tax and changes to council house tenancies, I think that the Government got it wrong. Similarly, I do not yet think that the Government have rebalanced things as they should have in favour of hard-working citizens on issues such as immigration and law and order. Some of that, of course, is because we find ourselves in a coalition Government.
The other day, I was asked on Radio Humberside, which I am sure many hon. Members listen to, whether it was right for my colleagues to say that the Government were not Conservative enough. I said that that was right. It is a simple fact. Just as the Government are not Lib Dem enough for Lib Dems, they are not Conservative enough for Conservatives.
I say to Conservative Front Benchers that many of the pitfalls and traps into which we seem to have walked in the past few months—indeed, the past couple of years—have been those that our coalition colleagues have advised us to advance towards. Perhaps the message should be that sometimes we should stick with our gut. I hope that, in so far as anybody in this place listens to speeches from Back Benchers, that message will be taken back to the powers that be in Whitehall and elsewhere.
I welcome much in the Gracious Speech. I mentioned the themes of particular interest to my constituents. I welcome the draft social care Bill. Social care is the biggest challenge facing our country and, like many Members who have spoken, I hope that we will be able to advance on it on a cross-party basis. In my view, there is one opportunity to get the issue right. There are huge pressures, not only on the NHS but on local authorities, and they will only increase. I say to Front Benchers that we must advance in a way that protects those who have tried to make provision for themselves and have worked hard.
Many in my constituency have worked hard, got a private pension and tried incredibly hard during their working lives but now face the prospect of having to sell their homes to pay for care. That absolutely has to be taken into account. Labour Front Benchers have made it clear that the matter should not be kicked into the long grass, and they are right—although I question whether they made any progress on the issue when they were in power. We must not rush, either, because we must get it right.
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I look forward to the reforms on special educational needs and support for disabled people. As I know from my previous employment as a schoolteacher, those issues definitely need to be addressed. We have to improve how the statementing process works and that is why I welcome its replacement with the integrated education, health and care plans. If those simplify the process for families and young people, as I hope a single assessment will, that will be all to the better. I also say to Ministers, who I am sure are listening, that we must ensure that those plans are supported with proper statutory obligations across the various agencies involved, including academies and free schools.
I look forward to the changes to access rights for divorced fathers, and I hope that they will provide another opportunity for us to push forward the issue of grandparents’ rights, which are supported on both sides of the House.
What are the most important issues? I have heard a lot from people on my side about what happened in the local elections last week. We did not have any on my patch, but I have heard a great deal about them. People have talked about House of Lords reform and other issues, but such matters are not why the coalition parties did so badly. The people of Brigg and Goole are not worried about House of Lords reform or other matters; they are worried about the economy and job creation, both of which are struggling at the moment.
As I have watched this debate in my office and in the Chamber, I have been surprised by some of the comments from Labour Members about what they left to this country. I know that they will attempt to gloss over their record, but given the area that I represent—the Humber, east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire; only two or three Members representing that area were born and bred there—I do not recognise the glory days of the previous Administration. During their time in power, the Humber lost manufacturing jobs and the number of private sector jobs was lower in 2010, when they left office, than it was in 1997. We also faced the prospect of Labour’s dreaded ports tax, which would have killed jobs in our successful ports such as Goole, Immingham and Hull. We also saw no action regarding the Humber bridge, which, since its creation, has divided our sub-regional economy. Now this Government have acted to halve the tolls on the Humber bridge.
Ministers are absolutely right to tell us that they want to prioritise jobs and economic growth, and I hope that they will continue do so. I have two warnings for them from my region, one of which they will have heard plenty about recently—the prospect of the caravan tax. Some 90% of manufacturing in this industry is located in east Yorkshire, and thousands of jobs are involved. Many of the people working in that industry are already on three-day weeks. The Government’s own projections for the impact of the tax suggest a further 30% reduction in static caravan sales. This is a successful industry, most of which is deployed in the United Kingdom. The supply chain is almost wholly within the UK, and there are thousands of jobs on caravan parks up and down the country. I hope that the Government will listen to what is being said about this, and I think that they are starting to do so.
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some of whom are probably not too keen to drink with me these days as they see the proposed changes to teachers’ pensions. I defend all those changes, because it is clear that in the past few years the state became too big and the gap between public sector pensions and private sector pensions became too wide. However, the Government need to proceed extremely carefully on regional pay. In the Humber, we have struggled to attract people into teaching. When I was a local councillor in Hull, we had to come up with the so-called Hull offer whereby we had to pay people more to come and teach in local schools. A few weeks ago, when my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and I were at a meeting with our local hospital trust, we were told that the trust was unable to attract doctors to come and work in our NHS trust area and would possibly have to consider paying more as a consequence.
Some people in the public sector understandably feel that they are being targeted at the moment. There is undoubtedly an issue with pay in the south-east of England, but it would be morally wrong to take money from public sector workers in the north of England to solve a problem that exists in the south. Taking money out of the public sector in an area such as Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, which is very reliant on it, can only have a knock-on effect on the private sector. Ministers need to be very careful as they move forward on this issue. I do not rule the policy out completely, but we need to see more detail. When the previous Government introduced academies, they conceded the principle of allowing schools to set their own pay and conditions, and they introduced that in HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
House of Lords reform is one issue in the Gracious Speech that is of absolutely no interest to my constituents. I have not been regularly stopped while doing my shopping in Goole and elsewhere by people saying, “But Andrew, what we really want is for you to get on and reform the House of Lords.” As it happens, I think that the Government are right to raise the issue, as I support reform of the House of Lords. When I came here, I was told that it was packed full of talent and the debates were wonderful. Doubtless there are some very good people in there, but there are also people who have absolutely no legitimacy and no right to sit there, and are perhaps not necessarily as in touch with the country as it is today as they should be. However, by reforming something one can make it a lot worse. The Government’s proposals for 15-year non-renewable terms would do nothing to inject democracy into the House of Lords. I would like a 90% to 100% elected Chamber with those elections taking place at the same time as the general election and people serving five-year terms. I say that as a history teacher and somebody who does not like to see traditions swept aside lightly. Indeed, were it not for the House of Lords in these past few months, the Government might not have seen sense on matters such as the chief coroner and, recently, on mesothelioma.
I understand the important role that the House of Lords plays in our democracy, but the Government’s proposals do not stand up to much scrutiny and would not do much to inject democracy. They should press ahead with having a debate on the issue, but the current proposals would not enjoy my support, especially as
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they involve using a voting system—the single transferable vote—on which the public have had no say. I think that we can safely say after last year’s referendum on the alternative vote that the public have voted against moving to a more proportional system and want to retain first past the post; certainly, that was their choice.
I look forward to many of the proposals in the Queen’s Speech, which has three policy areas of which I am particularly supportive. I commend the Government for prioritising jobs and the economy. I also commend them for taking the action that we have already seen in the Humber, where in many areas they have done an awful lot of good—although there is a risk that that could be undone by the caravan tax and regional pay. Broadly speaking, I welcome this Gracious Speech and look forward to the forthcoming debates.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I was interested to listen to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), whose speech was remarkable for one thing, as has been the case with so many speeches. We are currently seeing a fundamental clash in Europe between democracy and austerity that has been reflected in the polls in France and Greece, and indeed in Britain in the local government elections, with a choice between growth and making cuts to get down the deficit. There seems to be no acknowledgement of the fact that we are hurtling towards a fundamental change that will mean the end of the euro and perhaps the end of Europe as we know it. We need to focus on the need for proactive growth to invest in the capacity for productivity across Europe and to change course while we see the emergence of the far-right-wing parties that have been mentioned by my colleagues. Instead, however, the main preoccupation is still with the House of Lords.
I am sure that people like to talk about the intricacies of the House of Lords—about whether having someone elected for 15 years without re-election is really democracy, whether there will be a clash of democracies between the different Chambers and so on—but I think we all know that this is a very difficult issue, and that this is not the time to confront it when we are facing such severe economic issues on our doorsteps and such fundamental changes in the nature of Europe and our exporting prospects.
Andrew Percy: I am not sure whether my accent was the problem, but I think I made it very clear that House of Lords reform was a completely marginal issue of absolutely no interest to my constituents. As I said time and again, my constituents expect that the economy and growth should be the priority.
I am not talking about whether the hon. Gentleman and others referenced growth, but whether they took any notice at all of the fact that across Europe we are seeing these fundamental changes. The economic orthodoxy wants to ignore the wishes of people who are being downtrodden by these austerity measures, and we are facing a real challenge as regards the future of democracy in parts of Europe, the future of the euro, and the future of the European Community. In this year of her diamond jubilee, the Queen should
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have been given the opportunity to demonstrate that the Government are showing greater leadership by example in developing a proper, coherent strategy for delivering growth instead of cuts to get the deficit down. Instead, we have had the same old medicine with the familiar side effects of less money being spent in the public sector, leading to less money in the private sector and a downward spiral of unemployment and poverty. We have seen that across Europe.
What we need in the UK and Europe is a combination of fiscal stimulus and co-ordinated investment. The party with the best record on growth is of course the Labour party. Between 1997 and 2008 there was unprecedented and continuous growth that we had not seen since the war. In 2008, of course, we faced the financial tsunami, and to the credit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Barack Obama, the introduction of the fiscal stimulus enabled the world to avoid depression and deliver shallow growth into 2010. Then the Conservatives took over a deficit that was two-thirds caused by financial institutions and one-third caused by the Labour party investing beyond earnings to continue growth. Their immediate response was to announce half a million job cuts, which deflated consumer demand and led to negative growth. Indeed, the deficit projection is up by £150 billion.
Geraint Davies: No, of course not. The question is what is the most effective way of reducing the deficit is and what the balance should be between growth and cuts. By way of a simple example, I spoke to a business person in Uplands in Swansea, and he said, “I run a business. If I were to make a loss and I sold my tools and laid off all my workers, I’d have no business. I need to tighten up my costs and focus on developing more products and selling them in the marketplace”. The idea that we can solve the deficit just through making cuts is barmy. The focus should be on balancing the books through jobs and growth.
Let us examine the situation in Greece. Given the draconian cuts to pensions and jobs, it is no surprise that people cannot see any obvious upside. The money that is being put into Greece is being used to pay down the debt rather than to invest in productive infrastructure that can generate growth. I am not saying that there should be extra money for Greece, but we must consider the balance between the two.
The EU could invest in solar forests in Greece to generate energy for the rest of Europe, in connectivity such as railways and roads to boost the holiday industry, in infrastructure in the holiday industry, or in broadband across Greece. At the moment, the £13 billion a year that the EU spends on research and innovation is all spent in the north of Europe. The centres of excellence in Germany, at Oxford and Cambridge and the like get the money, and Greece is regarded as having under-developed academic resources. Such policies need changing, because we are a community, not just a market. The way through for Greece is to negotiate a settlement in which debt reduction is balanced by investment in productive infrastructure that can deliver growth and
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help Greece pay its way. It is not for the EU simply to say, “You are poor, you’ve spent too much, we’ll make you poorer”.
Britain should take a lead and invest in growth in our own backyard and in team GB. We should work together to provide coherence about economic growth. In my area, I am instrumental in bringing together stakeholders from the Swansea bay city region. Swansea council, Neath Port Talbot council, which is next door, and Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire have made a joint submission to the Welsh Government saying that they want to work together within a city region of some 750,000 people rather than operate independently. They want to have joint marketing and inward investment strategies and put more pressure on the Government to provide the infrastructure to deliver growth.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) mentioned that if Wales had the £1.9 billion that is equivalent to what is being spent on High Speed 2, it could invest in, for example, the electrification of the railway to Swansea or reducing the toll on the Severn bridge, as the Government have done on the Humber bridge. That would stimulate trade coming into south Wales and enable a coherent, joined-up approach to economic development, working in tandem with industry and academia to move economic growth forward. Alongside a fiscal stimulus, such joining up of the economic capabilities of councils across Britain, targeting emerging consumer markets, is the basis of a coherent growth plan that can move us forward. That is better than the Conservative party’s preoccupation with savage cuts affecting the most vulnerable, which are also happening in Greece.
I hope that there is a golden future for the Swansea bay city region. Increasingly, people will realise that it is a great location to go to. It has environmental beauty, and the roll-out of broadband means that people can move out there. The costs of setting up a business are much lower than in London, and I hope that Swansea’s premier division status—it has the premier football team in Wales—will help us move forward. I say that with no disrespect to Cardiff, who I know did not get into the premier league, so there is just one premier league team in Wales.
The region is a cultural centre. It was the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, whose centenary will be acclaimed in 2014. It is a centre for tourism and for sport, so there is a package of activity that makes people want to visit the Swansea bay city region, invest in it and move there. The future is bright. We ask the Government for a bit more support for infrastructure, as part of a growth plan, so that we can work together to create jobs and wealth. That is the only real solution to getting the deficit down, rather than simply cutting again and again.
What we need now is to follow the example given in 2008 by Obama and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, who averted a depression. We must have a co-ordinated approach across Europe so that we can move forward together before it is too late. We all know the adage: give a man a fish—I should say give a person a fish, or in this case give Greece a fish—and he can eat for a day, but give him a rod and he can eat for a year. Now, we are cutting the fish in half so that he is hungry by lunchtime. We need to get the balance right between investment in infrastructure and
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cuts. I would have liked at the centre of the Queen’s Speech bold new initiatives for Britain that could provide leadership for Europe and help us move forward in the world.
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): It is a pleasure, as ever, to follow the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who gave a particular view of economic theory and how to get economies growing. He will not be surprised to know that I completely disagree with most of his prescriptions.
We all agree about the key point of the Queen’s Speech and the challenge facing this country. When I talk to my constituents in Dover and Deal and ask, “What is your priority?”, they say, “It’s the economy, stupid”—President Clinton made much of that point in his first election campaign. The economy is the heartland, and it is essential that we have more jobs and money in Britain. We have had a very difficult time for the past four years, and the situation is challenging for many families in my constituency, who are struggling to get by and have not had a pay rise for a very long time. They are struggling to keep hold of a job while we seek to rebuild out of the mess that went before. I therefore particularly welcome the fact that the Government’s first priority is to reduce the deficit and restore economic stability.
The hon. Member for Swansea West has a prescription along the lines of saying that if we did not cut so far and so fast, all would be fine. The difficulty with that is that we would need to borrow more money. If we did that, we would threaten our economic credibility, which would mean rising interest rates on Government debt. If that happened, interest rates would increase for businesses and home owners.
We have been lucky because we have the same level of deficit as Greece, but the markets trust our economic policy and our cracking down on and reducing the deficit. That means that our interest rates are similar to those in Germany, while we still have a deficit the size of Greece’s, albeit one that is falling.
Andrew Percy: There is another point to be made. The Opposition position is almost like telling someone with a £10,000 credit card bill, “Go and get another £5,000 on the credit card because you’ll feel a bit better today.” However, at some time in the future, the credit card company will come knocking. The Labour party wants us to increase the £120 million in debt interest every day by borrowing even more, which would mean that we had even less to invest in the public services that our constituents want and deserve.
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because we would have more debt to service over the long term. It would take us longer to pay it, thereby mortgaging our children’s futures for longer, and interest rates would rise. Under the Government, interest rates have fallen, and that has done much to ensure that we have more money to invest in public services than would have been the case under the previous Government.
Geraint Davies: Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that, because we do not have growth, deficit projections have risen by £150 billion? Secondly, interest rates are the same as those inherited from Labour. Under the previous Tory Government, they were 15%. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are simply factually untrue.
Charlie Elphicke: The hon. Gentleman supposes that if the previous Government’s economic policies had continued, the markets would have played along, and the music would have kept playing. Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy are evidence against that. We are very lucky that we had a change of Government. We had a close shave, but we have managed so far, goodness willing, to escape the position into which we would otherwise have fallen. Without a shadow of a doubt, the previous Government would have taken us the way of Greece and we would have been plunged into serious economic chaos. We would not be talking about a technical double-dip recession, but a minus 5 or minus 6 double-dip recession, of the sort and on the scale that is happening in Greece. I hope that when the Office for National Statistics reviews the figures in a few months, we will see that we skirted recession, but were not in recession. Many of us feel that confidence is already rebuilding. From other surveys, many of us suspect that the ONS figures will be revised upwards, and we will find that we did not go into recession and that we may just be starting to recover.
I hope that that is the case, because our constituents have had and are having a difficult time trying to keep hold of their jobs, get a pay rise and pay their bills, which have been increasing ever faster. The Government’s policies, which focus on the economy like a laser beam, are right. We need a more flexible labour market—not a right-wing, “Let’s have the ability to hire and fire at will” policy. The OECD growth project investigated the matter at length and in detail and concluded that a flexible labour market was a key driver of economic growth. It identified another key driver as lower corporation taxes, which the Government are delivering. It also said that a certain and credible financial services and competition regulation regime, which we are rebuilding, was another key driver.
I think that the House accepts that the Financial Services Authority system—the tripartite regulation system—was an unmitigated disaster. The brainchild of the former Prime Minister and the shadow Chancellor, when it was put to the test, it was found entirely wanting. The Bank of England managed to save the secondary banking system and our general banking system in the 1970s, but this time, we had to have massive state-funded bail-outs, which cost the taxpayer a fortune. That need not and would not have happened had the FSA and the tripartite regulatory regime not been in place.
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The OECD growth project is also clear that increased competition to promote enterprise and fair markets is also important. Promoting competition, free enterprise, fair markets and a level playing field for market entrants is vital. We have pro-growth policies on all those. I make no bones about the fact that I should like the Government to be more pro-growth to get the economy moving even quicker. I should like them to lever in more private investment sooner so that we can grow more quickly. However, I recognise that all government is a negotiation, and it is clearly a challenge in a coalition to have everything that we would like. From a Conservative point of view, I would like a more pro-growth policy so that we grow the economy even more quickly.
I am realistic about what we can do, but I think that we are doing a lot, and as much as we can. I can look my constituents in the eye and say that we are trying to get the economy growing as quickly as possible, that we are focused on it and that nothing matters to us more than jobs and money.
It is real cheek for the Opposition to talk about youth unemployment, for two reasons. First, it rose massively under the previous Government. Although it has increased under this Government, it has done so at a much slower rate than in the previous Parliament. Secondly, when I knock on the doors in Dover and ask people what their key concern is, they reply, “Immigration and I want my kid to have a future.” They are furious that the open borders policy that the previous Government pursued means that their children are finding it harder to get a job.
Andrew Percy: When my hon. Friend talked about youth unemployment figures rising under the previous Government, he failed to mention that they increased when unemployment generally was falling. For youth unemployment to be increasing now is bad enough, but for it to rise when unemployment generally is falling is a national tragedy. We have heard no apology for that.
Charlie Elphicke: My hon. Friend is right. Not only that, but if we examine the figures for job creation since the early 2000s, we see that people from the EU accession eight countries had a massive increase in the number of jobs, that that also applied among foreign nationals—people born overseas—but that employment hardly increased at all for those born in the UK.
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the previous Government’s biggest failures was to address the skills deficit in this country, and that they also failed to tackle apprenticeships? Is it therefore any wonder that, at the time, the jobs were not going to British-born workers?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is the central point, which I was about to address. Employers’ difficulty is finding the right person with the skills for the job. It is incumbent on the Government to create a framework whereby people—particularly our young people—can get the skills so that they qualify and are eligible for a job, and that they have the skills that employers need. Instead of dealing with the skills deficit in our population, the previous Government thought it was easier to put a sticking plaster on it and have an open borders policy to enable employers to take people
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with the skills that they wanted from anywhere, rather than ensuring that our children and young people had the skills for the labour market and therefore a better future.
It is important to have stronger border control in the UK. It is also important to skill up our children because the previous Government sold us a pass on the hopes and aspirations of our young people and people who do not have great skills to get a job, promotion, more money and more skills. The Government’s emphasis on apprenticeships is essential. That is what I hear on the doorsteps in Dover. For many in the House and in the metropolitan elite, that is a difficult message, but the opinion polls show that unemployment and immigration are linked, and we should be honest about that. We should be honest with people, and tell them that we understand their concerns and are acting on them. One of the greatest things about the Government is that we have taken such strong action on apprenticeships to ensure that our people have the skills to have a job and do well in life.
The Government are nothing if they are not about aspiration, but they are also about understanding the pressures of utility bills and the costs of modern life. One really important policy in that respect is the proposed reform of the electricity market to deliver clean, secure and affordable electricity and ensure that prices are fair. The Leader of the Opposition chooses these days to forget that he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and that he planned, with the renewable heat initiative, to load £193 on to the bills of every household in this country. He chooses to forget that, with the electricity renewable energy obligation to which he signed up, he was going to increase our power prices by 20%, and those of businesses by 30%. He goes on about the costs of living and the pressure on households, and yet chooses to forget that the responsibility for much of the increase in the cost of living lies at his door, because when he was Secretary of State, he loaded bills and balanced our carbon commitments on the backs of the poor, which was a disgusting and disgraceful thing to have done.
We cannot balance our carbon commitments on the backs of the poor, as the Labour Government wanted. We need to ensure that our carbon commitments are executed in the most cost-effective way. That means not that we should back winners or favour this or that technology, but that we should favour technologies that reduce carbon emissions at the most effective and best possible price, regardless of whether we happen to like or dislike them. That is what we owe the least well-off in our communities, and our hard-pressed families and electors.
From the detailed list of Bills in the Queen’s Speech, I want to pick out the children and families Bill, which contains an acceptance of the important principle I proposed in a ten-minute rule Bill last year: that children have the right to know, and have a relationship with, both their parents following separation. I believe that that is right and in the interests of the child and their welfare, but let me explain why. The Bill does not set out with complete clarity reasons for that provision or for the shared parental leave provision, but they are linked, because families have changed. There is a new norm, and we need to accept modern families.
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Let me set out how families have changed. One can have an “olde worlde” image of the family—a bloke goes to work while the mother bounces the child on her knee or does the washing up at home. That is perhaps how it was in the 1950s, but things have not been like that for a very long time. Just about everyone I know from my generation joint works. I looked at the figures, because many of our policies seem to be aimed at people who live that kind of traditional family life, rather than at families who joint work, which is the reality.
Some things jump out from the figures on parental employment rates. Back in 1986, half of partnered mothers were in the workplace; today, 71% of them are. Whereas 25 years ago five out of 10 partnered mothers went to work; seven out of 10 now do so. The overwhelming majority of couples with children under the age of 16 both work, which has led to a wider change in respect of juggling the work-life balance.
It is not just that there are more mothers in the workplace. What about the number of men who work part time? Some people go around saying, “Only women ever look after children,” but that is also old fashioned and archaic. Things have been changing. Notably, the number of all parents in part-time work has changed, which is basically accounted for by the fact that the number of men in part-time work has risen. Official statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that 25 years ago, 696,000 men were in part-time work. That number has risen nearly fourfold to more than 2 million today. To my mind, that indicates that parents are increasingly juggling work and child care, and that there has been something of a seismic shift.
Many think, “Mothers go back to work when the child is a bit older,” but let us look at the figures. When do people go back to work? Do they wait until the child is about five and going to school, or do they go back before that? Twenty-five years ago, 27% of partnered women went back to work when the youngest child was under three years of age. In other words, two thirds of women stayed at home and brought up the child until they were at least three, and then considered going back to work. That position has reversed. Now, 63% of partnered women go back to work when the youngest child is under three.
There has been a massive social change, and we need to understand modern families and how they live. If most women are going back to work when the child is pre-school age, there is a lot of juggling and work-life balancing. Who takes the kid to school or nursery? Who collects the kid? Who looks after the child? Who takes primary responsibility in the workplace and in the home? Increasingly, most people whose children are grown up will know from their children’s lives that there is much more of a juggle and a balance of work and life.
The rate of increase of lone parents has been very great. In 1986, 15% of lone parents went back to work when their child was under three; by 2011, that had doubled to 32%. We can therefore see substantial change in families, which has consequences for family policy. The flexible parental leave provision in the children and families Bill is justified because it is necessary. It is a recognition that families juggle work and child care. It is not just a case of saying, “The mother has a baby, therefore she has maternity leave.” The situation is
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much more complicated, and provision should be balanced so that men and women in a family can balance that equation.
More work needs to be done on child care, for two reasons. First, the number of child care places has been broadly static for years. In 2001, there were more than 300,000 places with child minders and about 300,000 day nursery places—about 600,000 places in total. The number of places with child minders stayed static, but the number of nursery places—full day care—increased to about 600,000. In 2001, there were 600,000 places in total, but in 2008, there were around 900,000 places. The number has remained static since.
What does it mean if there are now 900,000 places? Are we catering for all the children in the country who are in need of child care? I did some back-of-the envelope calculations, and it struck me that there is potentially a shortage of child care places. There are about 13 million children in the UK, of whom roughly 3 million are pre-school age. The numbers indicate that 55% of children at pre-school have parents who both work. In other words, about 2 million children need child care, but there are only 900,000 child care places. What is happening to the other 1 million children? Who is looking after them? Is it grandparents or neighbours? There is a kind of child care apartheid. On the one hand, there is a system of nurseries that are so heavily regulated that most people cannot afford them, and on the other hand there is a system of child care for the other half that is completely unregulated. We know nothing about what is going on in that half. The right balance would be to reduce the regulation on our nurseries, increase the number of places and bring the cost of child care down so that more people can access it, because one of the biggest pressures on modern families is affording the cost of child care for pre-school children. It is an absolute nightmare—
Andrew Percy: My hon. Friend questions whether grandparents are doing the caring and, as I said a few moments ago, they are increasingly involved in families and are the unsung heroes of child care. Does he share my hope that additional rights for grandparents will be introduced in the next Session?
Charlie Elphicke: My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on behalf of grandparents. When grandparents are constructive, they can make a powerful contribution, but a balance inevitably needs to be struck. Some grandparents like to interfere and meddle, and they can be really annoying. All parents know that some grandparents are not quite the saints that my hon. Friend suggests. Nevertheless, if grandparents play a constructive role in a child’s life, there is a lot to be said for them. My hon. Friend has been a passionate and trenchant campaigner in the cause of constructive grandparents—as opposed to destructive grandparents, who we could all do without. We all know people who know them—I hope my hon. Friend understands where I am coming from on that point.
We need more availability of nursery places and deregulation of the system. The figures show that dads are more involved in children’s lives than ever before. Father is no longer sitting behind a newspaper at the
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breakfast table, oblivious to the world: instead, dads are deeply engaged in children’s lives. So when it comes to separation, the question is what is in the interests of the children. What best serves the child’s welfare? I think that it is stability and the continuation of what they have known. So if a parent who has been heavily involved in the child’s life—as they are in the overwhelming majority of families—suddenly disappears off a cliff edge, it makes no sense. That is why the Government are right to enshrine in legislation the principle that children have the right to know and have a relationship with their parents. The way in which modern families live indicates strongly that that is what best serves child welfare.
I recognise that the judiciary and the legal system are, as always, about 30 years out of date and are astonishingly weak-kneed when it comes to ensuring the rights of children to know both their parents. That is wrong, and we need to send a clear legislative message, not just to anti-dad social workers but to the court system, that society has changed. We in Parliament get that society has changed. We get that we need stability for our children and that child welfare is best served by having minimum disturbance to that which they have been used to. If we send that message, real and positive change could be made.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned that in some way the status quo might be maintained. Does he agree that in fact there is evidence that one parent is often excluded from the life of the child by the parent with care, and that therefore the status quo may become a pattern of one-parent family life as opposed to two-parent? Does he therefore agree that the Government should say that children have an absolute right to life with both their parents unless that is unsafe?
Charlie Elphicke: Yes, I do. If I understand her correctly, the hon. Lady refers to the concept of shared parenting. I am personally a fan of that, but it is a difficult argument to advance at the moment because the Norgrove report looked into what happens in Australia and managed to become completely and utterly muddled about the difference between quantity of time and quality of time. Every parent knows that quality of time is what counts. In Australia, it seems to have become an issue of quantity of time and an insistence on 50:50 time, but that misses the point altogether and, therefore, misled the entire Norgrove report. Before the report was published, I spent an hour putting that case passionately to members of the panel, but they published it anyway. It will therefore be difficult to persuade the legislature that shared parenting is the right way to go, but the social changes in modern families will mean that it is almost certain to end up that way in five years’ time.
For now, the best win that can be had is to ensure that children have the right to know, and a right of access to, both their parents. If the parent with care tries to subvert that, they are not having a go at the parent without care but undermining their child and attacking the rights that their child should have. If we frame it that way, parents with care will more quickly understand that they need to think about their children, rather than themselves.
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her other parent, the care can be taken up by the parent who is excluded, and that that is the ultimate sanction and might encourage parents to stick to the rules and ensure that their children have absolute access to both parents?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. May I remind the hon. Lady of Mr Speaker’s announcement at the beginning of the debate about parliamentary convention for this Session and the need for interventions to be brief, not substantive speeches or long points, interesting as they may be?
Charlie Elphicke: I thank the hon. Lady for her interesting intervention. The full tool box needs to be available to the court system, but the legislature also needs to send a strong message to the court system, social workers and everyone involved in child care and child care access about what we expect it to look like, which is that people who stand in the way of their children’s rights should have the book thrown at them and should not be allowed to do so anymore.
I want to make a brief point about the education of children with special educational needs. These children have been badly let down for too long. They find it very hard to access the right school. I chaired a summit recently to which, I am delighted to say, came the leader of Kent county council, a cabinet member for Kent county council and a group of parents of children with severe special educational needs—many of them high on the autistic and Asperger spectrums—who have had a very difficult time. It is wrong in principle that parents facing the significant challenges of looking after a child with special educational needs should, on top of that, have to battle the education system to get the right education for their child. It is wrong in principle that, in many cases, it has taken two or three years for those parents to find the right school for their children.
Several things became clear to me during the summit. The statementing process is too slow and cumbersome. That is wrong. It should be more fast-tracked, efficient and effective in looking at children’s needs and diagnosing them correctly. Once that is done, each county council or education authority needs to maintain a decent database of which schools in their authority area can cater for which needs. Too often, it seems, there is muddle and confusion in the bureaucracy over which schools can cater for which needs. The whole system should be fast-tracked so that parents are offered schools appropriate to their child’s needs, rather than schools that are not appropriate. That happens in many education authorities. Everyone knows that. It is wrong and needs to be dealt with.
Furthermore, on special educational needs, there must not be an apartheid between the state sector and the private sector. We need to put the children first. If a private, independent school caters best for the special needs of children, parents should be offered that school and not just told that a maintained school has to take yet more pupils because the education rules and laws are such that pupils can be shoved into a school, whether the school likes it or not or does not have enough places. In my constituency, there is the perverse situation in which one independent school catering brilliantly for special educational needs has 20 spare places, while another special needs school doing an outstanding job
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in the maintained sector needs a portakabin in the playground to cater for the number of special educational needs children, because it has been told by the education authority to take yet more children. We need to strike the right balance: we need to give parents much greater say and choice, use the places available in the system most appropriately and ensure that the statementing process is as quick as it can be. In education, when it comes to looking after our children, we need to put the parents first. We need to ensure that they can make the decisions that are right for their children, because, broadly, they know best because they know their children best of all.
I am delighted to support the Queen’s Speech. It focuses on the economy, on utility bills, on the cost of living and on helping hard-pressed families. It focuses on families and children, and on helping families to bring forward the next generation.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). I enjoyed his speech very much—even the more provocative parts. I suspect that many of our constituents who have children with special needs will empathise with his comments. I confess that I did not understand his reference to grandparents occasionally being annoying, but perhaps that is Conservative party code for something else. I also empathised with his description of many of his constituents not having had a pay rise for years and struggling to keep their jobs. I therefore say gently to him that I do not understand how he can say with a straight face that the Budget was good for those families. Nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to his speech.
Two years into the coalition, it is striking that the Queen’s Speech has so little to offer to solve the challenges that our country faces. Its measures show that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor did not listen to the anger of Britain’s citizens last week and that they are ignoring the now considerable economic evidence that a new direction is needed. Equally clearly, the confident communities that our constituents want to live in will seem further away than ever, with declining levels of social capital, public services under greater pressure than ever, and the opportunity to have real influence over how key services are run at local level growing ever more distant.
My constituents tell me that they are now seeing fewer police officers than for a long time. The fact that the Government are announcing legislation to set up the new National Crime Agency when police numbers are dropping, and that the Metropolitan police want to close all the cells at Harrow police station with little notice and even less discussion, suggests that Ministers are out of touch with what is happening at the grass roots to the services that our constituents depend on.
Given the present Home Secretary’s now notorious description of the Conservative party, it is perhaps appropriate to wonder, in the light of the Queen’s Speech and the Budget, whether the “nasty party” is very much back in evidence. Over the next 12 months, we will see more cuts that will once again hit the most vulnerable and those least able to help themselves. If the measure in the Queen’s Speech goes through, it will become easier to sack the strivers, the hard workers,
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those who speak out, those who blow the whistle on bad practice and those who, for just one period in their lives, are at their most vulnerable through illness, if their face does not fit.
There has also been a tax cut for millionaires, which hard-working families and pensioners are being made to pay for. To cap it all, the Conservative party is agonising once again about all things foreign. It is again anti-European in tone, and predominantly anti-aid, too. Above all, it is on the economy that the Prime Minister needs to tell the Chancellor to change course. Bank lending continues to fall as businesses continue to struggle. Year on year, net lending to businesses has now fallen in every single month since the coalition came to power. How many times have we heard the Prime Minister promise to get the banks lending? Despite all the hype that Project Merlin and, then, banking reform were the answer, bank lending continues to fall; it was down 3.5% last year alone.
My right hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench have consistently warned that the Government’s austerity plan was self-defeating, and that cutting spending too far and too fast at the same time as putting up taxes such as VAT would backfire. America, and indeed a series of countries in Europe, have taken a far more balanced approach to reducing their deficits, with strong plans to produce jobs and deliver economic growth. Why could the Chancellor and Prime Minister not have listened to and looked at what is happening in those countries? As a result of their mistakes, my constituents are suffering. Their bills are up because Ministers will not really challenge the big energy companies. There is certainly a Bill to introduce electricity market reform, but it will come far too late in this Parliament to make a real difference to the size of the bills my constituents will have to pay.
In many cases, mortgage rates are rising, while tube fares have never been so expensive. In Harrow town centre in the heart of my constituency, I have never seen as many empty shops as there are now—a daily demonstration of a recession that has been made in Downing street. Harrow council, told by the Mayor of London to plan for a huge increase in housing units over the next decade or so—half in Wealdstone and Harrow-on-the Hill—is seeking to use this open door policy for developers to try to redesign, reinvigorate and redevelop the heart of our borough, despite the recession. It is, however, striking how difficult it is at the moment to persuade developers to put affordable housing at the centre of their plans—for example, on the Kodak site, set to be home to a potential 3,000 housing units. For those in Harrow who want to get on the housing ladder, the prospect of being able to buy their first home in the Harrow community where they grew up seems ever further away.
The next generation, hammered by the high cost of tuition fees from October this year, will wonder why there is so little to help them in this Queen’s Speech. There is nothing to make the cost of going to university easier—just cuts in the funding that their university is receiving. They face higher living costs while they are at university, and now there is the possibility, as announced in the Budget, of a tax give-away for private universities, many of which are run by hedge funds.
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Equally striking is the recent absence of “big society” language from the rhetoric of the Prime Minister’s speeches. Community groups that were championed when the Conservatives were in opposition are now left very much on the sidelines. Huge cuts in funding that began to hit hard last year will hit even harder this year. Last week, the head of Volunteering England warned that the network of volunteer centres across the country is beginning to fragment, with a number set to close this year. Why, at a time when we need national renewal, are we set to make it harder for people to give something back through volunteering? The National Children’s Bureau has warned that 25% of the charities it contacted that help young people and children believed that they might have to close next year. Charities that were promised Government contracts will now know that they were hollow words when Ministers spoke them.
The Work programme, run by the Department for Work and Pensions, has seen the private sector winning 90% of the prime contracts. Charities that were told that they would get 35% to 40% of the referrals under the Work programme are seeing at best half that—fewer than under the future jobs fund. More than 100 charities have lost confidence and walked away, yet there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to seek to address those problems. Indeed, an independent audit published by Civil Exchange and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust at the weekend argued that there is
“an implicit bias towards the private sector in tendering”
“it is particularly hard for small, local voluntary organisations to compete for contracts.”
Arguably, the most fundamental challenge identified by the audit is how to extend social action to a younger population and across socio-economic groups. The core, it says, of those who provide the majority of volunteering are more likely to be middle-aged, to have higher educational qualifications, to practise their religion actively and to have lived in the same neighbourhood. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to suggest that the Government understand how to get more people enrolled in their communities or even the desire to do so.
Where, indeed, is the co-ops Bill that the Prime Minister once promised? This comes on the back of no serious effort to remutualise Northern Rock over the past 12 months, no serious interest in encouraging more energy co-ops to emerge, no sustained effort to encourage real involvement in the running of football clubs by football fans through football supporters’ co-operatives, and no requirement to promote a diverse market in financial services for the Financial Services Authority or its replacement to help financial mutuals. Sadly, the Queen’s Speech confirms that once again the Government have walked away from the real practical measures that could have helped the co-op and mutual movement to grow.
One of the Bills that will be before the House during this Session will be a crime and courts Bill, the details of which I shall examine especially carefully. As I made clear earlier, my constituents will be sceptical about the benefits of such a top-down change when they are seeing fewer police officers on the ground. I recently
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organised meetings between constituents who are experiencing challenging antisocial behaviour problems near the Racecourse estate in Northolt, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) will know particularly well—
Mr Thomas: It also occurs in south Harrow. What frustrated those residents was the lack of visibility, at key times, of police officers who could have moved on local troublemakers, and, indeed, could have deterred them from gathering in the first place. Constables are routinely deployed away from their wards, and are rarely available for standard safer neighbourhood team duties in those areas.
What is most worrying, however, is the threat to close the custody suite at Harrow police station. With no consultation, the Metropolitan police have decided to shut the custody suite, which consists of 13 cells, in mid-September. There will then be no more cell capacity in Harrow. All those who are arrested will have to be transported to out-of borough police stations—to Kilburn and Wembley—by a minimum of two officers, more if there is a possibility that the prisoners could turn violent. Given the number of annual visits to Harrow’s cells by alleged criminals—an average of 5,000, I believe—and given the time that it takes to travel from my constituency to Kilburn and Wembley, that represents a loss of between 10,000 and 20,000 police officer hours. Officers will be wasting time by acting as transport couriers for alleged criminals when they could be investigating, detecting and, better still, preventing crime in Harrow.
Stephen Pound: I do not want to hijack the Queen’s Speech into matters of custody accommodation in west London, but is my hon. Friend as surprised as I was to learn that a place called Polar Point has opened at Heathrow airport to receive those who used to be in custody in Harrow and Ealing, and that the decision was made by a company called Emerald, which is apparently the privatised cell provider and which doubtless refers to the prisoners as “customers”?
Mr Thomas: I am indeed very surprised by that information. One is always grateful when additional cell capacity is provided elsewhere in London, but it is hugely disappointing that there is still a threat of closure of the custody suite in Harrow.
I have not received any formal explanation from the Metropolitan police of why they think that the closure is necessary, let alone been consulted. Given that CID officers tend to be based where custody suites are housed, and given that space is to be set aside at Wembley police station for Harrow CID officers, it does not look good for the future of borough-based policing in Harrow, and it certainly does not look good for the long-term future of the 110 CID officers who are currently based there. Almost a third of our own police officers will have to spend some of their time out of the borough if the cells shut. Let me ask this question of the Metropolitan police, and indeed of Ministers: why should my constituents have any confidence that those 110 CID officers will continue to be based in Harrow in the long term? I hope that, even at this late stage, the Home Secretary will encourage the Metropolitan police to think again.
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This Gracious Speech is striking in that it does not include a Bill to fulfil the commitment that 0.7% of our national income should be spent on development assistance. The three major parties all committed to legislating on that. Indeed, before the last general election, I had the honour of taking such a Bill through the pre-legislative scrutiny process. There is a strong case for Britain continuing to set an example on the provision of international aid for people in less well-off countries. We should think of the current west Africa food crisis and the huge numbers of people at risk of dying of hunger there, and of the considerable remaining health challenges in respect of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
The lack of action by the Government parties in respect of the ancient, yet still very important, United Nations commitment that every rich country should give 0.7% of its income to help the world’s poorest is a huge missed opportunity. In the forthcoming debate on the Gracious Speech, I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State for International Development give a clear and detailed explanation as to why he has failed to convince his colleagues to introduce legislation to that effect.
I shall focus on three specific sets of proposals in the Queen’s Speech that build on many of the strong reforms the Government introduced in the previous Session: the measures on children and families—which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) has already touched on—crime and the courts, and enterprise and regulatory reform.
As a Conservative, I believe in stronger families forming the foundation of a stronger society, so I welcome the measures to support families. As my hon. Friend said, arranging child care is one of the biggest challenges working parents face. Those of us who daily do the school run know all about the pressures of juggling child care commitments with work. For households in which both parents are working, that can be a great struggle. Whether in respect of babysitting toddlers, looking after unwell children, doing the school run or attending school assembly, it can be very difficult for working mums and dads, especially those in traditional working arrangements, to support their children fully and meet their needs. We must not forget that young children—whether attending nursery, pre-school or school—have active lives and social lives, too, and that there are therefore also other commitments such as taking kids to after-school activities
Many households now need two parents to be working and bringing in full-time incomes in order to pay the bills because—let us face it—life is tough at the moment and the cost of living is high and is rising. Many Members have spoken about the rising utilities and fuel bills.
Suitable child care provision in this country is incredibly costly. Many of us could give examples of the average bill for sending a child to nursery in normal working hours exceeding £800 a month. That is equivalent to a monthly mortgage repayment in some households, so is it any wonder that two parents have to go out to work to cover child care costs in addition to the cost of living?
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The Government are to be congratulated on recognising the challenges families face and the barriers to family life in this country, but more needs to be done across government and all the political parties. We must take a pragmatic and rational approach and introduce some positive, proactive measures to alleviate the struggles and challenges families face and to remove the barriers that are often in place in respect of child care and employment.
I know that many households across the country, and certainly in my constituency, will welcome the proposals outlined today. We need to give parents more flexibility over working time and over maternity and paternity leave, too. I can only speak from my own personal experience, but I was one of those parents who went back to work three weeks after having my son and, quite frankly, had I had the opportunity to swap with my husband, that really would have been great.
The Government should be commended for considering relationships between children and both parents. Fathers should absolutely have equal, fair and the right kind of access to their children when the family relationship has broken down. In my time as a Member of Parliament thus far, brief though it has been, many fathers have come to me who feel that their children are being used in the court system as an emotional and financial weapon, which is unacceptable. We need to bring some sanity back to the situation. Shared parenting is absolutely the right thing and, if nothing else, we have to start putting the rights of children first, not the rights of warring parents or warring mothers against warring fathers. Children come first and children’s rights are key.
That brings me on to adoption. In my view, the Government should be congratulated on their commitment to supporting the adoption process. I personally feel that it is nothing short of scandalous that the number of adoptions last year totalled just 60 when thousands of children are going through the care system in local authorities up and down the country. That is simply wrong. They deserve loving families and loving homes and hundreds of loving families want to provide good, stable homes for children. It is a shame on our society and on the system that red tape and bureaucracy get in the way and prevent children from being put into loving families. I welcome the change and hope that the Government will ensure that we can start to address the scandal and start to put children into proper loving homes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover talked about bureaucracy and red tape and I welcome the steps being taken to support children with special educational needs. As a local MP I have met dozens of families who have been let down by the system. Those mums and dads naturally want the best for their children but all too often bureaucracy, officialdom and, sometimes, bad practice in schools and local authorities let them down and damage the prospects of their children. They are left fighting hard, going through assessment after assessment, just to get the extra help that their children need. More often than not, in many cases, the needs of their children are recorded or summarised through some sort of tick-box process. The real understanding of the emotional or physical needs of the child is often ignored.
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One school in my constituency has a very poor record on special educational needs provision and is the source of many complaints from parents to me. Rather than helping an autistic child, the school has classified him as having average communication skills. It is completely failing that poor child and failing to understand his needs because the school does not want to be seen to have too many children with special educational needs on its books, which is wrong and appalling. I would like more to be done to empower parents and I welcome the proposals to do that and to simplify the assessment process with the introduction of the single assessment process and education, health and care plans.
We also need to encourage the spread of best practice to get good results in the running of special educational needs services in other schools. A very positive example of that in my constituency is set by the inspirational head teacher, Jane Bass, at Powers Hall junior school in Witham. She sets a good leadership example and works tirelessly to help children with learning difficulties and special educational needs. I think she should be commended for her work. She has a strong track record of supporting children who have come to her school with very challenging problems and seeing them through their time there so that they leave with more skills and greater independence. That is good for the children and is genuine relief for their parents. Importantly, the parents know that their children’s needs are being met. In taking through the relevant Bill that will be introduced this Session, we should learn from schools that have a good track record of working with children and their parents to understand how to meet a child’s needs and relate that to the legislation. We need more head teachers like Jane Bass and I am optimistic that the legislative programme can deliver positive changes to special educational needs provision.
I welcome the Government’s tough stance on drug drivers, which I hope will lead to robust legislation. It is shameful that our criminal justice system sentences perpetrators for these offences—people who have taken away lives and ruined the lives of victims’ families—to just a few weeks behind prison bars instead of the lengthy spells in prison totalling many years that they should receive. I know that Ministers have listened closely to people’s concerns about this issue. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister today spoke about the many representations from families that he has listened to and the campaigns fought by victims’ families. Clearly, the Government have responded positively to those representations, but many more victims of other crimes have been excluded by the criminal justice system. Ministers need to listen to their concerns and introduce positive changes.
Victims and the public are being put in danger by a criminal justice system that, from the top down, sets free far too many offenders so that they end up roaming our streets and committing more crimes. There are more than 250 offenders with more than 100 convictions, more than 3,500 with 50 or more convictions and more than 2,000 offenders who have served 25 or more separate spells in prison. In addition, there are rapists and sex offenders who are never sentenced to serve a day behind bars. That should change. Some 20,000 offenders who are let off with community orders are out on the streets committing 50 crimes a day, including offences against children. The Government’s reforms to community sentences are a positive step forward, but there are tens
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of thousands of offenders on our streets for whom prison is the best place. Importantly, if they are in prison the public will know that they are being kept safe. Keeping the public safe should be fundamental to any criminal justice reforms we make in this Session.
We should also do more to support the victims of crime. I have seen from the work I have done with victims—let me refer hon. Members to my private Member’s Bill in the previous Session on championing victims’ rights—that victims are fed up with seeing policy makers and the courts focusing their efforts on appeasing offenders instead of helping victims to get through the horrific experiences they have faced. The former victims commissioner, Louise Casey, did a good job of highlighting this issue alongside charities such as Victim Support, the National Victims Association and Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad. The Government’s response to the consultation on its “Getting it right for victims and witnesses” strategy is due later this year, and I very much hope that they will recognise where the proposals need beefing up and that they will show some flexibility and deliver the new and improved services that victims of crime need. At the moment, my constituent Marie Heath and her family are being subjected to the horrendous ordeal of travelling to Germany every week for the ongoing trial of the defendants alleged to have brutally murdered her son. The family face huge logistical challenges and thousands of pounds in costs. The Government are aware of that case and I hope that in the Bill they will learn from the experience of the Heaths and many other victims of crime.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about people’s need to feel secure, to feel that sentencing is appropriate and to feel that those who should be behind bars are behind bars. Does she, like me, want the Government to take steps to ensure that sentences mean that if someone is sentenced to four years, for example, they serve those four years as opposed to perhaps just two?
Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are talking about public confidence in the criminal justice system, which should do what it says on the tin. If an offender is sentenced to four years, the public do not want them released within 18 months or a shorter time. They want to know that the full sentence will be served. This is a good opportunity for the Government to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system.
I welcome the proposals the Government have outlined to free up businesses and scrap costly and unnecessary burdens on them. I refer to regulation. As the daughter of a small shopkeeper, I have recognised throughout my adult and teenage working life how important small businesses are for jobs and economic growth. I have also become very aware of regulation. As shopkeepers, my parents have owned a range of small shops—post offices, supermarkets and newsagents. We have been through many iterations of health and safety legislation, business and small shop regulation, Sunday trading, opening hours and particularly employment legislation. You name it, Madam Deputy Speaker, and we have been there, seen it and done it.
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small and independent retailers are decimated in our high streets. More needs to be done. SMEs support two thirds of jobs throughout the country. In my constituency, the figure rises to 83%, which is high and I should like it to be higher. With greater economic liberalisation and less regulation I am sure that will happen.
The ability of business owners and entrepreneurs to create even more jobs has been compromised by the unrelenting growth of regulation from both Whitehall and Brussels. In 2011, 84% of businesses reported that they spent more time dealing with legislation than in 2009. The annual cost to SMEs of that compliance is about £17 billion, which is equivalent to the cost of Crossrail, and 12 times the Government’s budget for apprenticeships.
The Government are committed to the red tape challenge; they have already identified more than 600 regulations to be scrapped or overhauled. The sooner the process begins, the better. Freeing business from the costs imposed by regulation will allow them, importantly, to invest in more jobs and economic growth.
I urge the Government to take more robust action on EU red tape. For me as a new Member of Parliament, one of the most disappointing aspects of EU regulation was the enforcement in the previous Session of the agency workers regulations, which unfortunately the Government could do nothing about because the previous Government had done the deal. That has cost business £1.5 billion. Such regulations do far more to create unemployment and block job creation than they do to support workers’ rights.
In my constituency and throughout Essex, more people are prepared to take risks and set up their own business. As many Members may have seen in the news over the past 24 hours, there has been a great deal of political focus on Essex; one might argue that the only way is up in Essex. It is indeed a county of dynamic entrepreneurs. Many of my constituents are prepared to go out on a limb and do the right thing, which is to take risks and set up a business. In the county of entrepreneurs, there are 6,000 new enterprise births a year. The figure is high, and I hope that it will grow higher.
As the Prime Minister saw on his visit yesterday, those wealth creators will be key to the future economic success not just of the county of Essex but of our country. By taking steps to empower them to create more wealth, jobs and prosperity, we can once again restore dynamism and strength in the British economy, and as a country we shall start to regain our rightful place in the world economic league tables. That is why I support the Queen’s Speech and everything the Government are doing on economic and regulatory reform.
Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): It is an honour, although a daunting one, to follow that excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who speaks with a wealth of expertise as both a parent of young children, a job she juggles very well with her other abilities, and an excellent parliamentarian. She spoke about businesses in Essex, again with a wealth of expertise as the daughter of shopkeepers, and gave a thorough going over of the Queen’s Speech.
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I wanted to make it as soon as possible so that I could get into the cut and thrust of debate, so I put in and waited to make it on several occasions. I will never forget my first moment in Parliament. I was sitting in the corner of the Chamber and waiting, and new Members on both sides bobbed up and down to say how beautiful their constituencies were—it was funny how that theme kept coming up. I waited from half-past 2, without having a drink of water or going to the toilet, until half-past 10. I sat there for eight hours, so afterwards I went over to the Chairman of Ways and Means and explained that I had hoped to be called that day. “Oh no”, he replied, “You weren’t going to be called at all. You should have come and seen me and I could have told you that you were never going to make it today.” That was the first lesson I learnt here.
To continue with my anecdote for a moment, I remember still wanting to make my maiden speech as soon as possible, and sitting in the Tea Room looking through the draft of what I hoped to say when a more senior Conservative Member came over and asked, “Oh boy, you’re looking to make your maiden speech, are you?” I replied that I was and explained that I had waited to be called for eight hours the day before. “Oh well, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you about making your maiden speech,” he said. I was a young newbie and so asked what it was. “Well, just don’t muck it up,” he said, before wandering off laughing. He actually used stronger language, but I will not use it in the Chamber—[ Interruption. ] Yes, indeed, it rhymes with muck.
The first line of the Queen’s Speech refers to the importance of growth in the economy, but one of the sectors in which we know there will certainly be growth is social care, because we have an ageing population. We used to say that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. We now know that our population is getting ever older; by 2030 the number of 85-year-olds will double and 11% of the population living today will reach 100. Therefore, we have an enormous cost—not a burden—that society will face as a result of the population getting older, which is inevitably a good thing. The Queen’s Speech recognises this, importantly, by proposing a draft Bill that will seek to modernise adult social care
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and support, which I absolutely welcome, but it is worth reflecting on the word “modernise” and on what we need to do to modernise adult social care and support.
The Government recognise that tackling social care is not just an issue of tackling the funding of social care, important though that is. The Health Committee, of which I am a member, has already produced a report on the Dilnot commission and recommended it to the Government, and I hope that the Government will look at it in the forthcoming White Paper and that we will have proposals on the table. I know that there is cross-party support for looking at the Dilnot commission proposals and that we had a Backbench Business debate on that in the previous Session. Members from across the House, regardless of their party colours, are passionate about tackling this issue and the impending crisis.
Dr Coffey: My hon. Friend makes a really important point, but is he concerned that the Dilnot commission and the risk of open liabilities could make the process unaffordable, or are Members being misinformed on that?
Chris Skidmore: The Dilnot issue, which is one of presentation, is that the Government commissioned a report that addressed the specific question, “How do we fund social care as it currently stands?” That is why I want to turn to the issue of modernisation, but we have to remember the important tenet that Dilnot does not cover all forms of social care. It does not cover domiciliary care or living costs, so it is not a panacea, and we as parliamentarians must ensure that we work together and at the same time—Dilnot was very strict on this—come up with a proper system by which we can inform not only elderly people now but the elderly people of tomorrow that they need to begin to save. Only by developing a savings culture and a culture of contribution, which I shall turn to also in my speech, will Dilnot work and will we ensure that the social care system works tomorrow as well as today—although today it is beginning to fail, as I shall explain.
In modernising social care, we need to recognise that the current system is not working on several levels. Personally, I feel that local authorities are becoming not the best places in which to deliver social care. Last week I published a report on local authorities and their delivery of social care, demonstrating from a series of freedom of information requests to every local authority in the country that local authorities have already written off £400 million of debts owed to them by families—and are still owed more than £1 billion.
Put simply, we have a system in which local authorities are not only struggling to provide care, but for financial reasons have lowered the bar and reduced their eligibility criteria. They have done so principally because they have to juggle social care with the services on which people really want to focus when they pay their council tax. For instance, people want their bins emptied or potholes filled, and that, for democratically elected local authorities, can take priority over those citizens who are most vulnerable but who, unfortunately for them, form a small minority. So roads and bins take precedence over social care. That should not be the case, but at the same time local authorities are deeply mired in debt because of their services, and we desperately need them to break out of that.
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The current system also does not work because the failure of social care ends up rebounding in only one place: the NHS. We need to make the point strongly that the NHS and social care are two sides of the same coin, and that if there is a crisis in social care there will soon be a crisis in the NHS. Even the IMF has produced figures on how the NHS will look by 2050 if we do not manage our ageing population and work out ways of prevention. We must also look not only at how elderly people can be given the life and dignity that they deserve, but at early intervention. If any problems that they may have, such as diabetes or a disability, are dealt with soon enough, it costs the NHS less. The IMF predicts that the NHS will end up costing £230 billion by 2050, and that is completely unaffordable. It means that the NHS will go broke unless we solve the social care crisis now.
Dr Coffey: Does my hon. Friend agree that cross-party consensus on the draft social care Bill is critical? That is why a draft Bill is appropriate. Does he agree also that, as long as somebody is in hospital the NHS pays for them, so the draft Bill needs to tackle the key issue whereby local authorities sometimes delay a person’s exit from hospital so that they do not have to pick up the bill in the interim?
Chris Skidmore: That is an interesting point. Obviously, one of the first moves that the Government made when they came into office was to create an output measure of 30 days’ discharge from hospital. Although that was created in August 2011, it is already controversial because we are seeing the scale of the problem. The problem is not new; it has always been there, but the Government are for the first time providing the figures on how many people are leaving hospital and rebounding back into hospital. We should have solved that problem sooner.
My hon. Friend argued for a cross-party approach, and I entirely agree. We must achieve cross-party support on social care. We are talking about a settlement that must last decades, so it cannot be a patchwork solution or a plaster over a wound that might open up in several years’ time. We need to come up with a binding compact on social care. I hope that the draft Bill will aspire to that.
I have talked about the relationship between the NHS and social care. The Government have recognised that the future of saving the NHS will come through a consideration of social care. We focus very much on the NHS, and the Health and Social Care Bill of the previous Session tried to address the matter. Funds were placed in the hands of GPs; for the first time, GPs are taking responsibility for patients. Rather than sending patients directly to hospital, GPs have to look at what preventive measures they must take to cure illness or disability. Over the past three years, the number of over-80-year-olds who have been admitted into A and E has risen by about 40%. We know that 65% of unplanned NHS bed admission stays involve the elderly. If we can solve that, we will solve a huge issue within the NHS.
I am a member of the Health Committee, which recently wrote a report on social care. We visited Torbay, which was instructive. The authorities there have ensured complete integration between social care and health care services. They have done that by pooling budgets; when they have team meetings, there is no empire
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building in which people say, “This is my budget for the primary care trust, this is mine for the GPs and this is mine for the hospital.” People sit down and consider their overall budget. They have in mind an 85-year-old lady called Mrs Smith, and they ask what treatment pathway they could create to ensure that Mrs Smith gets the best possible care.
The authorities in Torbay recognise that social and community care is the best way to prevent unplanned admissions to NHS hospitals. The result is that Torbay has the fastest-decreasing and lowest number of unplanned hospital bed day admissions in the country. The approach there clearly works, so the modernisation of social care must also be about proper, true integration between social care and health care.
We also need to recognise that to modernise social care is not to speak of the elderly as some homogenous group. Above all, senior citizens are individuals with individual needs. Each will have their own particular pathway through the later years in life. As a Government, we must recognise that to ensure that the individual has the best possible life in old age, we must give them a chance to lead their life as they would like to.
To do that, the Government have built on the work of the previous Government in introducing personalised services. Above all, we have seen the rise of personal budgets. In England, their uptake doubled, from April 2010 to March 2011, to almost 340,000 service users. That is still only about 35% of eligible users and carers. Although the increase in personal budgets is welcome, it has come in the form of local authority managed budgets, rather than individual direct payments, which make up only 26% of that 340,000—that is, 26% of the 35% of eligible users.
Although there has been an increase in personalisation, there has not been a proper increase in individuals being given freedom in how they would like to use their budgets. In other words, councils are offering a menu to choose from but they are not offering a choice of restaurants.
Key to the modernisation of social care will be the introduction of direct cash payments. At present, individual budgets cannot be paid to a spouse or partner to provide care, and that limits uptake and entrenches the difficulty that millions of people have in wanting to care for a loved one in their old age. If we look across to the continent, we see that places such as Germany have a far more liberalised social care system. In Germany, people are assessed as needing care at one of three levels, and they are then offered a choice between an individual budget cash payment with services in kind, including residential care, and a tailored combination of the two. Interestingly, the individual budget cash payment is of significantly lower value than the social care package. In 2007, people who needed considerable care, or care level 1, received €384 per month; those in need of intensive care, or level 2, received €921 per month; and those in need of highly intensive care, or level 3, received €1,432 per month. They were also offered the choice of claiming direct individual budget cash payments that were about two thirds lower than the payments in the social care package, which meant that people at care level 1 received €205 per month, those at care level 2 received €410 per month and those at care level 3 received €665 per month.
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One might have expected the population to opt for the higher payment, given that the social care package seems to be more sophisticated and pays more in euros, but in fact 49% of Germans decided instead to opt for the direct cash payment, which gave them greater choice and freedom in how they spent the money, or spent it for their relative. That control is every bit as valuable to individuals as money. It gives them the opportunity to stay in their own home and receive informal care from relatives. They can purchase the service they need without an additional layer of bureaucracy getting in the way. We can learn from what Germany did in modernising social care. Local authorities have traditionally focused on a one-size-fits-all response, in effect acting as a single, inflexible state supplier that cannot hope to offer the choice that people approaching their old age nowadays—baby boomers who have lived their lives having choice—will want equally as they get older.
What would happen if we introduced such a system in this country? In 2009-10, local authorities spent £3.4 billion on residential elderly care. On that basis, if the same thing happened here as in Germany, with half this group opting instead for cash payments and staying at home, we would save £1.14 billion a year, with people receiving £566 million instead of £1.7 billion. We could free up £1.1 billion or £1.2 billion a year, which could go a significant way towards producing the money that might then implement Dilnot.
Above all, the way in which people contribute to their care must be something that they can control rather than something that is done to them. We need to ensure that in modernising social care we make the best possible services available. People will not put up with paying for the current levels of services if they do not think that they are good enough. If we are going to expect people to pay more for their social care in old age, knowing, as we do, that it has never been free of charge—it is a bit of a nasty shock for some people when they find out that it is not provided free—then they need to have the best possible services for their money, and that, essentially, means choice.
With choice comes competition. We must ensure that there is thriving competition between social care providers. We must not only introduce direct cash budget payments but ensure that agencies are available to guarantee a level playing field. The Good Care Guide website is a fantastic resource, but we should be looking to introduce a TripAdvisor-type service into social care so that people can analyse which are the best care homes and write about their own experiences of what they are like. We should trust the people to make those judgments.
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published the Beveridge report on 1 December 1942. On that day, there were queues at the shops to purchase the report, and in the first week 600,000 people did so. The report set out what the welfare state would look like for most of the 20th century.
In many ways, Beveridge still casts a shadow over us. The NHS and pensions were established, but when Beveridge wrote his report the average life expectancy was 69. When people received their pension at 65, their pensionable age was only meant to last an average of four years. Beveridge never gave any thought to how we should care for the elderly. It was assumed that families would look after their elderly loved ones. Somewhere along the line, we have gone wrong. I am not blaming any one political party, but why is it that in many countries it is a mark of honour for people to look after those who have brought them into this world? Why do we pay people child benefit in recognition of being parents but not focus on rewarding carers who look after their parents? There is an imbalance, and I hope that by focusing on social care, as all parties must in this Parliament, we can try to redress the balance.
I wish to end with a quote from Beveridge. The odd thing is, the Beveridge report cannot be found online, but I managed to dig out from the Library a copy of the original 1942 report. Everyone remembers the five giants—Idleness, Squalor, Want, Ignorance and Disease—but in the passage after that famous part Beveridge stated that
“social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual. The State should offer security for service and contribution. The State in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”
Beveridge understood 70 years ago that we needed a contributory principle in our public services. Somewhere along the line, that has been lost. Only through individuals making contributions towards their elderly care will we achieve the best social care services. I hope that as we consider how to modernise social care, the draft Bill that will be published as a result of the Queen’s Speech will focus on all the matters that I have mentioned.
Much of the media’s focus has been on the other place, which we might call a retirement home for rather successful eminent politicians, but what we actually need to focus on, and what our constituents want to focus on, is retirement homes for the elderly population as a whole and what is happening to them. We would do well to remember that. I recognise that I have spoken only about one specific point in the Queen’s Speech, but I believe it was possibly the most important one.
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In October 2013, we will see one of the biggest changes to the welfare benefits system since the second world war with the introduction of the new universal credit. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 has gone through, and there was a lot of focus on the fairness and unfairness of various benefit changes, but there was not much focus on the administrative changes involved in the move to universal credit—the changes to the process of applying for benefits and being assessed for them. We should all welcome to some extent the rationalisation of a series of disparate benefits that have grown up over the decade. The administrative components of universal credit will include the tax credit system, housing benefit, income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and so on.
Tonight, we are not debating the principle of universal credit, but considering the roll-out of the administration for the new arrangement and, of course, the massive consequences for our constituents. If it goes well—hopefully, it will—they may not notice anything untoward, but there are massive risks if the administrative transition is not handled competently and carefully. That is essentially the purpose of my set of questions for the Under-Secretary in the short time available today. I sent a list of the issues that I broadly wanted to raise to her private office earlier today because some of the questions are technical. I hope that we can get a little more on the record because there has not been that much opportunity to debate those issues so far, and we are talking about a change that will affect a million people in the first six months of the roll-out of universal credit from October 2013.
One of the most interesting facets of universal credit is the Government’s decision that it should be digital by default: in other words, they are working on the assumption that the vast majority of claimants will access their claims online. I think that the Government’s assessment is that 80% of those claims will be made online. My first question therefore is whether the Under-Secretary can reaffirm that that figure still represents the Government’s assumption. Could she perhaps also give us a logical explanation of how that beautifully neat and round figure of 80% was reached?
Many people who apply for universal credit are not exactly frequent internet users: 15% of council tenants have no access to the internet; one in six adults generally have never used it—that figure is as high as one in four in Northern Ireland, and one in five in the north-east and in Wales—and 4 million disabled people have never used it. Consumer Focus research shows that 69% of people want the ability to have face-to-face transactions for benefit claims at post offices and so on. I therefore want to get a sense from the Under-Secretary of her contingency plan if the 80% target is missed. How will we move towards such a major shift in the way in which people apply for their benefits? We are considering the livelihoods of many people.
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Universal credit will be a household, not an individual benefit. It will be assessed on a whole household, so a vast amount of supporting documentation will have to be processed when individuals change their entitlements. Again, how can that supporting documentation be assessed online? How will it be assessed centrally, given that we will move away from the localisation of many applications? That online assumption must be tested significantly.
As a corollary, the next issue is the extent to which the Government commit resources for the minority, who they accept will struggle with applying online. What resources will be available for face-to-face advice and support for claimants who cannot go down the digital route? I understand that the Department is planning some sort of 0845 hotline numbers, but they are expensive, especially for people with mobile phones. However, I am particularly interested in knowing how much money has been put aside for the face-to-face service.
A recent survey of the many district councils in England and Wales suggests that they believe that 50% of people coming through their doors and applying, for example, for housing benefit, need to do that face to face. Obviously, that is at odds with the Government assessment of presumably only 20% needing some sort of support other than the online arrangement. Investing so much in the online arrangement is clearly a dangerous ambition. I understand the logic of wanting greater take-up of digital applications, but I am anxious that the target is so high, and I want to get a sense of the scenario planning and the arrangements that the Government have considered if it is simply not deliverable.
We should cast our minds back to the difficulties with online tax credit arrangements. There was significant fraud, which had to be addressed and meant the arrangements had to be changed. Will the Minister say on the record that she is happy with the anti-fraud measures and the robustness and security of the new online universal credit system? Clearly, it would be a tragedy if so many people were directed to an online system that had to be scaled back at the last minute because individuals found a way of fraudulently fleecing it because it was not secure or robust.
Will the Minister give an assurance—her noble Friend Lord Freud was unable to do so during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012—that the Government’s intention to move to a monthly payment arrangement will have a degree of flexibility? In theory, it is desirable for everybody to plan their budgets and household expenditure on a monthly basis, to mimic in-work salary arrangements, but the trouble is that it is not the experience to date of many people. Many of my constituents in Nottingham, who have suffered a great deal of deprivation or who are not on significant amounts of money take the parcels of money that come in housing benefit or other benefits and hypothecate them for rent, bills or other things. We are asking a great deal of people, sometimes later on in their lives, to change their habits and take payments at the beginning of the month and ensure that they budget so that their rent is fully paid for the rest of the period and beyond.
The danger that people will accumulate increasing arrears to pay for the roof over their head worries me significantly, never mind local authorities, which already say that they have concerns about the collection of rent payments. Currently, housing benefit can be paid directly to the landlord, the local authority or the
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housing association, but that is ending, so there is a great deal of anxiety about the continuity of housing entitlement.
As I have said, 15% of council tenants do not have access to the internet. In fact, 15% have no access to a bank account and a further 15% have only a basic post office account with limited functionality. Therefore, nearly a third of social tenants might not have mainstream banking capabilities available to them, yet we expect them to move in fairly short order to that monthly budgeting arrangement. Hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country, particularly those who do not have bank accounts, are massively mistrustful of the banking system—they are fearful of the overdraft charges that can hit them if they are unable to plan or manage their cash flow over that monthly period.
It is with those points in mind that I ask the Minister this: is there any flexibility in the roll-out of universal credit to allow weekly or fortnightly payments for those who absolutely need them, or is she absolutely firmly sticking to monthly payments for everybody? That is a crucial question and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed it.
It would also help if the Minister could give us a better sense of the dates for transition to the central system as we move away from local authority administration. There are currently 380 localised IT systems in local authorities up and down the country, largely to deal with housing benefit. They will be phased out as we move towards a central system, with one IT system at the Department for Work and Pensions and one at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. What resources have been available for the transition for councils that have a residual responsibility for some activities over the period—it will be 2017 before full roll-out?
We are starting the process of passing over responsibility to the DWP in October 2013, but some councils will process housing benefit until April 2014, and full migration will not happen until 2017. How will councils be able to do this? It will remain a significant burden for local government, and local council tax payers need to know whether Ministers will meet those costs. It is not necessarily as big an issue in my area as Nottingham city council is a unitary metropolitan authority that has several different functions, but for some district councils housing benefit is 25% of their turnover, so it is a somewhat mission-critical activity. They need to know to what extent they will still be in the business of such administration. What really is the commitment of the Government to a local roll-out of universal credit? Will it still be a local service or will they shift in short order to that central arrangement?
As I read through the documentation, several secondary issues arose. What about pensioners? Many are still reliant on housing benefit, but universal credit is an in-work benefit, so who will be responsible for the administration of housing benefit to pensioners? That is a specific question and I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification. Obviously, if local authorities are no longer involved in the administration of housing benefit, how will pensioners continue to receive it?
There will be two vast centralised computer systems, and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office are already voicing anxieties about these arrangements. The DWP is moving to the
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“Agile” methodology, and
had a report recently in which it said that a leaked report from the Cabinet Office major projects authority suggested that the
“Agile methodology remains unproven at this scale”.
An amber risk rating was attached. Is that the case? What is the Government’s assessment of the risks of the change to this system by the DWP? The HMRC computer system will take a real-time approach to the PAYE process, but again reports suggest that the time scale has slipped beyond the April 2013 target. Can the Minister say whether that is true?
If we are to contract out much of this activity, will it be sent offshore? Will the work under these new arrangements be done in the UK, or will much of the IT or contact centre work be done in India or other countries? That would be another helpful clarification.
Another important issue has to be the many thousands of staff who currently work on housing benefit in local authorities up and down the country. Unison and other representatives of the work force have also asked about this. I gather that the Government have decided that TUPE will not apply to those who work in housing benefit administration in local authorities. So there will be a massive redundancy programme in local authorities and no take-up of those staff in the new, centralised arrangements. If that is the case, how will the Government respond to the massive redundancy costs involved? Will the Government compensate local authorities for those costs? Can the Minister say how much that will cost and how many staff will be affected? A lump of money was set aside at the beginning of the spending review period for the transition to universal credit. Have the assumptions behind that sum stayed the same or have they changed?
As the Minister will know, the Opposition have spotted that she and many of her colleagues are under the shadow of the omnishambles and that the Government’s record on competence has already been questioned. When it comes to universal credit, their reputation for competence is definitely on the line, and it has to be proven that they can fulfil their promises. This is a major risk not only to the Government’s reputation but to all our constituents, especially the most needy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) on securing this debate. He is fortunate to have secured such an important debate.
It is fitting that the first Adjournment debate of the Session is on universal credit, because the Gracious Speech today underlined the Government’s commitment to building a fairer, more responsible society, to supporting families to do the right thing, to making work pay and to ending the something-for-nothing culture that gained a foothold in this country for too long under the previous Administration. Universal credit is at the heart of delivering on that commitment.
Universal credit will deliver a simpler and fairer system, and our reforms will put work, whether full time, part time or for just a few hours a week, at the centre of the welfare system. As such, it will extend a ladder of opportunity to those previously excluded or marginalised from the world of work. The current
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system has an array of 30 different benefits, each with its own rules and criteria and characterised by overlaps, duplication and complication. We all know from our constituency surgeries how bewildering that can be for many individuals.
Claimants need to submit several claims to different agencies to get the support they need and are required to communicate changes in their personal and financial circumstances time and time again. Universal credit will create a much simpler system, by reducing the number of benefits and agencies people have to work with, smoothing their transition into work and making it easier to understand the available support. From 2013, universal credit will provide a new single system of means-tested support for working-age people, whether in or out of work, and will include housing, children, child care costs and additions for disabled people and carers.
As I set out, the main purpose is to help people into work. The new system will remove the distinction between in-work support for those working 16 hours a week or more and out-of-work support for those working fewer than 16 hours a week, eliminating some of those problems we have seen in our constituencies and the need to claim a different set of benefits when starting or ending a job, or when changing working hours.
How a benefit is paid to claimants is important because it will encourage people to manage their budgets in the same way as households. Claimants should be treated as they would if they were experiencing working life. The greater the difference between being out of work and in work, the greater the barrier to returning to work. Universal credit will therefore be administered in one single monthly payment, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We will be able to administer the payment on a more frequent basis, where necessary, but we will work closely with the people advising claimants to ensure that the support is there to keep this sort of atypical payment to a minimum. I think he would accept that that is important.
The greater simplicity of universal credit will result in a substantial increase in the take-up of currently unclaimed benefits, with the greatest impact being on poorer families. As I am sure Members know, the combined impact of this increased take-up will lift 900,000 individuals out of poverty, including more than 350,000 children and about 550,000 working-age adults.
The hon. Gentleman did not touch on one child care issue that I would like to bring to the attention of the House. I am sure he will know that child care costs can often be a significant issue for people trying to remain close to the workplace. Universal credit will introduce a new way of supporting families. An extra 80,000 extra families will be eligible to receive support for the first time, because people who are working shorter hours will be able to claim child care support.
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Maria Miller: As I was saying, the hon. Gentleman rightly picked up on the importance of the online aspect of universal credit. It is designed to be an online service, providing access and support to claimants 24 hours a day. Importantly, it will also provide the service where constituents are, as opposed to where jobcentres are.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for not being here for the beginning of the debate. I was at another engagement down below, and I did not realise that the Adjournment debate had started.
I feel that certain people in the middle class are going to fall into the child poverty bracket as a result of the introduction of universal credit. What assurance can the Minister give me that such people will not be adversely affected by the changes that the Government are proposing?
Maria Miller: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. At the point of transition to universal credit, we want to ensure that people will continue to receive the support that they were receiving before, if there have been no changes to their circumstances. It is important for everyone to understand that, as a result of universal credit, we will be making work pay. We will ensure that more people can stay close to the labour market, which will help them not only to get out of poverty but to stay out of it. We all know that families can cycle in and out of poverty; it does not affect a static group of people. It is therefore important that we have that support in place.
I want to get back to the digital nature of universal credit. We make no apology for the fact that this is designed to be an online service. It is designed to be available 24 hours a day, and to be available where claimants are and when it is most convenient for them to use it. The hon. Member for Nottingham East is right to say that that will not be the right approach for absolutely everyone, but let me stay with the group for which it will be the right approach. Estimates show that about 80% of individuals are already accessing services in an online scenario. We are not assuming that 80% will use the online service at the outset; we have always recognised that not everyone will be able to claim online. However, we expect that the proportion who do so will grow over time. We will supplement all of that with a face-to-face and telephone service that will always be available, for just the kinds of groups of people whom the hon. Gentleman referred to.
To ensure that we resolve any issues in advance of the system going live, and that we have the right kind of support in place, we are already working with local authorities on a number of pilot schemes. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the work that we are doing with the Local Government Association. We have also recently issued a joint prospectus calling on local authorities to deliver pilots to support residents in preparation for the introduction of universal credit in 2013. The pilots are expected to start in the autumn of this year and to end by September 2013. We will focus on delivering the kind of face-to-face support that individuals might need when claiming universal credit. I hope that he will agree that we will have a wide range of support available. It will be available online, as well as face to face and on the telephone.
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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important to get the IT right for this, and we are well under way in our designs and in testing the system to ensure that universal credit is introduced in 2013. Our ambition will, of course, always be to move the majority of people on to use of the online system, and we are working closely with other Government Departments and beyond to ensure that the best possible support is there to enable access to the internet for many people, supporting claimants to get even more value from being online.
The hon. Gentleman expressed an interest in the issue of fraud and the work being done to ensure that safeguards are in place. It will come as no surprise to him to hear that we take the issue of fraud very seriously indeed. Its prevention has been built into the heart of all policy and service design development. Universal credit will be protected by comprehensive and sophisticated cyber-defence and counter-fraud systems, which are currently under development with leading suppliers. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to stay close to the sorts of issues that we are dealing with, but he will understand if I do not go into the details of those systems, as they are sensitive and not for open discussion.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of monthly payments, which I have touched on a little already. To be absolutely clear, we believe it important for universal credit to reflect what people experience in the workplace when they are working full time. For the most part, that means being able to budget around a monthly payment, a monthly salary or a monthly amount of money coming in. We will ensure that there is flexibility in the system for those who find that exceptionally difficult, but we believe that this will be an exception and not the rule.
Jim Shannon: I can see the logic behind the change to monthly payments, but it is clear that some who get weekly payments are not knowledgeable enough to know how to manage their moneys. Will the Government give any help to those who will depend on single weekly payments to start with, who will then have to manage on monthly payments, on how best to manage their money?
Maria Miller: The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that my noble Friend Lord Freud is looking at exactly those issues. We know that changing people’s behaviour cannot happen overnight. People need support and we will make sure that we understand the sort of support that will prove the most effective, as the hon. Gentleman would expect us to do.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East talked about the importance of banking in this process. Direct payments to bank accounts are an important part of helping people to prepare for work. We will encourage claimants to use bank accounts, and we are discussing this very issue with the British Bankers Association. We recognise, however, that it will not be suitable for everybody, so we expect to continue to pay rent directly to landlords in some cases and we will continue to ensure that suitable payment arrangements are in place for everybody. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need that nuanced approach for some individuals. The bulk of individuals, we believe, should be able to cope with the sort of monthly payments that I mentioned earlier.