Westminster Hall

Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Tuesday 7 May 2024
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Illegal Immigration: Costs

Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

10:20
Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Before I call Andrea Jenkyns, I have a note on the clocks. Most of them are either telling the wrong time or not working, so there will be no timing of the length of speeches. I do not think that there will be any pressure on time, because we do not have that many speakers. I am using the annunciator clock.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the costs associated with illegal immigration.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank Members across the House for their support, including the former Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman); the former Immigration Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick); and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who co-sponsored the debate.

For too long, this House has avoided addressing the issue that, according to YouGov’s latest polling, ranks among the electorate as the second most important issue facing our country, surpassed only by the economy. We are facing an immigration and asylum crisis in the UK, and we as parliamentarians need to find a solution, get a grip of the problem, and win back public trust in our ability to represent the interests of the British people and to legislate and govern on their behalf. Too many of my colleagues across the House have been reluctant to discuss the real consequences of illegal immigration for our society, culture and security, for fear of being denounced as racist by a loud liberal minority in influential positions in the mainstream media, academia and powerful non-governmental organisations, whose progressive agenda dominates public discourse, or even by fellow Members of Parliament. Only this week, the civil service unions mounted a legal challenge to try to stop the Government’s Rwanda policy.

All those people and organisations need to wake up to reality: the British public have had enough, and they demand action from our politicians. Illegal immigration represents an existential threat to our society, culture and security, and cracking down on the issue must be a top priority. This matter should transcend political divides. It is a matter of national importance, and as legislators we have a duty to the British people to address it. It affects every corner of our country. Throughout this debate, I will highlight the astronomical costs of illegal immigration for the economy and wider society, and suggest action that we should take to reduce the total number of illegal immigrants arriving on our shores.

The House of Commons Library report for this debate takes issue with the use of the term “illegal immigrant” to refer to those crossing the channel in small boats. It notes:

“A person might enter the country without permission, but they have the legal right to be here while their claim for asylum or admissibility to the asylum system is being considered.”

The report therefore opts to use the phrase “unauthorised migrants” and, when referencing the cost of illegal immigration, includes only those who are subsequently refused asylum and remain in the UK without permission. If we had a fully functioning asylum system and the public had confidence that the decisions being taken were accurate, that distinction would of course be right and proper, but right now this methodology is deeply flawed. Irregular border crossings have skyrocketed in the past decade, with smugglers now preferring to conduct an amphibious assault on our borders rather than shoving people into the backs of lorries to go via the channel tunnel, which was previously the more common route. Those clandestine groups have caught on to the fact that Britain’s asylum system is on its knees. They know that anyone who arrives in Britain and claims asylum is afforded protections and benefits at the taxpayer’s expense.

There are numerous cases of people with pending asylum applications who have lived in Britain for years, many of whom choose to use loopholes in our human rights laws to bolster their applications. That is something that the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), understands all too well. Let us not forget how, as a human rights barrister, he acted for Islamic cleric Abu Qatada in his bid to avoid deportation. He also helped an Iraqi terrorist suspect sue the Government over breaches of the suspect’s human rights.

We have seen people use loopholes such as a sudden desire to convert to Christianity, knowing full well that their applications will be approved, because their conversion shows they would be persecuted back in their claimed countries of origin. Speaking of countries of origin, we simply have no idea where the vast majority of those who arrive without permission and claim asylum are actually from, making it impossible to determine their application.

A Home Office response to a freedom of information request by Migration Watch UK in 2022 revealed that, of the 16,510 small boat migrants to land in Britain from 2018 up to the second quarter of 2021, just 317 arrived with a passport; that is just 1.92%. The total number of arrivals has since risen to nearly 120,000 people since 2018, with no indication that these people have started to make a concerted effort to provide immigration officials with the necessary documentation to confirm their identity. That is the equivalent of a town the size of Watford, comprising a vast majority of adult males, arriving without documentation, who are not forthcoming with their age or country of origin—leaving immigration officials playing a guessing game on who to believe. Home Office figures show that 94% apply for asylum. Yet, according to the Library research briefing on asylum statistics published on 1 March, our annual refusal rate for asylum applications at initial decision has plummeted from 88% down to an astonishing 24% in 2022; three quarters of those refused at initial decision between 2004 and 2021 lodged an appeal, and a third of those appeals were successful.

Some may qualify such a rapid decrease in asylum refusal rates by claiming that there is more conflict in the world today than there was 20 years ago, but that just does not stand up. There were endless conflicts at the time when we were refusing nearly 90% of all asylum applications, from civil wars in Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Yemen and Niger—to name but a few—to the Iraq war and Russia’s invasion of Georgia. The evidence can only lead us to one conclusion: our asylum system is being gamed by people with the help of ever stronger smuggling gangs. They know what to say, and they know what to do to tick the right boxes and be granted permission to stay in Britain. We are faced with a record asylum backlog.

Home Office figures show that 74,172 initial decisions on asylum applications were made last year alone. That is four times the number made in 2022. The Government will argue that this is due to the increase in decision makers; their own figures show an increase in those reviewing applications from 865 in 2022 to 1,281 in March 2023, which is an increase of 48%. But 62,336 of those 74,000 initial decisions were successful—a record annual figure. That raises huge questions over the handling of those applications and how those decisions have been made.

There is absolutely no doubt that some individuals who arrive in Britain through irregular means and claim asylum are genuine people, fleeing war or persecution. We have a moral responsibility to help those individuals and it is right that we support such people—as we did, for example, when the war broke out in Ukraine—but it is also quite evident that our asylum system has broken down to the point where it is unfit for purpose and exploited on an unprecedented scale. It is therefore simply impossible to discount those granted asylum when conducting a review of the true costs of illegal immigration.

To understand the cost of illegal immigration on our society and our finances, we must first understand the scale of the issue in hand—a task that, by its very nature, is problematic. To again cite the House of Commons Library report prepared for this debate,

“The most recent robust estimates of the size of the unauthorised resident population in the UK put it at around 400,000-600,000 in the early 2000s…More recent but less robust estimates have put the population at between 800,000 and 1.2 million in 2017…It is likely none of these estimates accurately captures the situation in 2024.”

I would be pleased to hear from the Minister on that point. That is equivalent to a city with a population 20% larger than Birmingham, or three times the size of Manchester, living in the UK illegally, utilising the many public-funded services that are available to them, regardless of a person’s immigration status—and it could be far more.

Public services available to illegal migrants include state education, NHS services, including A&E treatment and primary care such as GPs and dentistry appointments, compulsory psychiatric treatment, legal aid, and various local authority support. I receive hundreds of emails a month from constituents telling me that they cannot get a GP appointment, are struggling to find a dentist, and cannot get their first choice school place or a decent roof over their heads. Is there any wonder?

The Government’s impact assessment of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 estimated that the total cost of providing public services to a UK national is around £12,000 per person. Even the most basic calculations put the economic burden on the British taxpayer of an illegal migration population of 1.2 million at £14.4 billion. That is just shy of 10% of NHS England’s budget for this year. Imagine that cash injection on frontline services or to help people who are struggling with the cost of living.

There is not just an economic cost; indirect consequences of illegal migration are inevitable, including wage suppression. Those without permission to work legally in Britain must find a way to support themselves and they end up working in the gig economy for unscrupulous business owners, who offer lower wages that are accepted, because illegal workers will take what they can get—for which we cannot blame them.

In addition, the Home Office expects to spend £482 million on immigration enforcements this year alone, and the costs related to the Rwanda scheme continue to pile up to an eyewatering amount. It is important to note that none of the costs mentioned so far takes into account those associated with our broken asylum system, such as the nearly £8 million a day currently used to house asylum applicants. Home Office figures cited by the Financial Times in August last year showed that the annual asylum cost reached £3.96 billion in the year up to 2023—double that of the previous year and six times higher than 2018. Yet, despite that astronomical cost, we continue to increase handouts to France to stop the boats. I would like to hear what the Minister thinks of our agreement with France; to those on the outside it looks like it is not working, and taxpayers’ money is being wasted.

A House of Commons Library report showed that the UK Government gave a combined £232 million to the French authorities for border control in their own country, between 2014 to the end of the 2022-23 financial year. Under the joint leaders’ declaration agreed in March that year, we have committed to give more than double that—£476 million over the next two financial years. I think we should demand a refund from France. The economic costs are endless. It is simply impossible to quantify the true impact of this issue on the public purse. It is clear to me, and a vast majority of the British public, that this is a totally unacceptable state of affairs.

It is not just about the economic cost; there is also a human cost. Seven-year-old Emily Jones from Bolton was stabbed to death by an Albanian national, Eltiona Skana, while riding her scooter in March 2020. I am a parent of a seven-year-old—imagine what that family must be going through. Her killer was a paranoid schizophrenic who arrived in Britain in the back of a lorry in 2014, and was granted asylum, despite twice admitting to lying in her application about being a victim of sexual exploitation.

Lorraine Cox, aged 32, was murdered in Exeter in September 2020 by Azam Mangori, an Iraqi Kurd who was denied asylum in December 2018 but remained living in the country undetected. David Wails, Joe Ritchie-Bennett and James Furlong were murdered in Reading town centre in June 2020 by Libyan national, Khairi Saadallah, just two weeks after he had been released from prison; he executed the men in an act of jihad. He had been granted refugee status, despite participating in the Libyan civil war in 2012. Terence Carney, who was 70, was stabbed to death in the middle of the street by a Moroccan asylum seeker Ahmed Ali Alid in “revenge” for Gaza. I could go on and on. These names should not be forgotten; they must serve as a reminder of the human cost paid for decades of failure by successive Governments and by us as legislators.

I want to talk briefly about the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024, which became law just a few weeks ago. I completely understand the motive and need for such legislation. However, I was one of the 11 Conservative MPs to rebel, including the former Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fareham, and the former Immigration Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark, who simply could not support it. Like me, they had great reservations that the Bill would not be legally watertight and would be derailed by political opponents, activist lawyers, trade unionists and civil servants, as we saw last week when they mounted a legal challenge.

In principle, though, I am in favour of an offshore processing scheme such as the Rwanda scheme. We need a genuine, robust deterrent to undermine the organised gangs and the abhorrent people smugglers, who sell the dream to migrants that once they have crossed the channel, they will be in a relative utopia with free welfare, healthcare and housing for the rest of their lives. We need to send a clear message that that is not the case.

Those hoping that the current scheme will act as a deterrent will be disappointed to learn that, just last week, 711 migrants landed in Kent in a single day, which is a record daily number for the year so far. So much for that deterrent.

How do we make a scheme like Rwanda work? I am clear that we must leave the European convention on human rights. I have been spearheading the campaign to do just that via the Conservative Post, and I am pleased to say that nearly 50,000 people have now signed the petition. We need, instead, a British Bill of Rights. We also need to stop those leftie lawyers and unionised civil servants from preventing a democratically elected Government from delivering on their manifesto.

I truly believe that having a viable deterrent is a humane, civilised and responsible thing to do and will actually save lives. We must keep at the forefront of our minds that 72 people are believed to have drowned in the English channel since 2018. Each life lost is a tragedy.

Let us remember that Australia faced exactly the same crisis that we have on our hands, and through an effective deterrent reduced the number of illegal migrants on their shores from tens of thousands to zero. It is time we rolled up our sleeves and did the same.

We must also get tougher on the illegal migrants who have already arrived and live here. As the Home Office’s impact assessment makes clear, of the 5,700 illegal immigrants who have been identified for removal, the Home Office is in contact with just 2,000—just 38%. I would like to know from the Minister why that is the case. It is not just not good enough; it is a dereliction of the Government’s primary duty to keep citizens safe. Such a potential security breach and locating those individuals must be an absolute priority for the Home Office, as should be implementing measures to ensure that it can never happen again. We need to think radically about how to keep oversight of these people while they wait for a decision.

For too long, the UK has been seen as a free lunch: study, work, marry and smuggle your way in and soon you are guaranteed a lifelong, all-you-can-eat buffet for you and your extended family, with free healthcare, free education, free housing, free social care, legal protections and access to one of the largest charitable sectors in the world. It is unfair to continue to ask the British taxpayer to pick up this bill. We must take a no-nonsense approach to demonstrate that the British state is no longer a soft touch. Other measures could also be adopted, with legislation and procedures similar to those used by European countries, where approval rates are far lower than in Britain. We approve far too many asylum requests when we compare our acceptance rate to the 25% to 30% common across most of Europe. Our legal system and the Home Office guidance on asylum applications make it far too easy for those seeking to try their luck.

The damage that the issue of illegal migration is doing on our country is untold. It is impossible to quantify. The British public know. They see it and they feel it. It is substantial, and they want it resolved. The ordinary Brit, certainly in my part of the world, is decent and fair-minded. They believe in the value of work and the desire to get on in life. On the whole, they are tolerant of others and show respect for different cultures. However, they are also instilled with the great British principle of fair play, and illegal immigration on this scale is simply at conflict with that principle.

In conclusion, I suggest a five-point plan that we must immediately action to start getting this crisis under control. First, we need to profoundly strengthen our border security. We need to invest in technology, personnel and infrastructure to enhance surveillance and patrol efforts along our coastline, and we must have the political will to use this technology to enforce a stricter border policy.

Secondly, we need to get tough on our so-called international partners to address the underlying drivers of illegal migration and deter the crossings in the first place, as it puts people’s lives at risk when they try these dangerous crossings. We should be clear: no more money to France unless they play ball and work more effectively in stopping departures from their own shores.

Thirdly, we need to streamline and improve our immigration processes. We need to process asylum claims far more efficiently and effectively, and ensure that applicants do not go AWOL while waiting for a decision. We can use a tagging system for that. We also need to introduce measures to dissuade people from attempting illegal crossings. That means imposing stricter penalties for smugglers, which I am sure people across the House would agree with, and implementing public awareness campaigns to educate potential migrants about the risks, dangers and consequences of irregular migration. It may also mean thinking creatively about how to charge migrants for the public services that they use while they are here—we have to stop everything being from the taxpayer’s purse. Finally, we must also strengthen the Rwanda deterrent by leaving the European convention on human rights, which is the only way to ensure it will work in the way that the British public expect. Alternatively, let us as the Conservative party commit to holding a referendum on leaving the ECHR—let the public decide.

The Government need to move quickly. We have just six months to get tough. The Labour party said only last week that if they got into power, they would consider giving automatic asylum to 50,000 of those people waiting for a decision. That is a way to remove them from the books and make the figures look good. They also want to ditch our Rwanda scheme. I would not expect to go to another country illegally, be put up in a hotel and get free healthcare and all the other benefits at no cost to myself. This needs to stop. We also need to stop that pull factor, as that is why people come here. We need to put an end to the soft-touch Britain and toughen up for the future of our great country. I look forward to hearing views from Members of all parties, which no doubt will differ from mine.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members who wish to be called in the debate that they should indicate in the normal way by standing.

11:51
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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As is in order, and rightfully so, I thank the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Dame Andrea Jenkyns) for raising this issue today. I am very happy to be a co-sponsor of this debate, because we cannot ignore the issue of immigration. I will speak, as the hon. Lady has spoken, about the general issues, as well as giving a Northern Ireland perspective.

The issue of immigration is of great concern to many of our constituents, not least to those of us in Northern Ireland who, as we previously highlighted during both protocol and Windsor framework discussions, are at risk of becoming a haven for those who travel to Dublin and then lose themselves in Northern Ireland. If we are to believe the Irish and the Republic of Ireland Government hype, it is the opposite way round, and we are to blame for the immigration rates. No, we are not; Government officials and Ministers have been clear on that. The proclamation, “Come as many as you are and find refuge” rang from the Irish Government up until at least last week. They can make their own decisions on that issue, but they cannot then blame us, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for what goes wrong.

Everyone will know that I am not against immigration, per se. Indeed, I want to see a correct immigration system that invites, helps and encourages those who face persecution and human rights abuses. I believe that we have an obligation to do right by those who need help and assistance, but this cannot be unlimited and done by illegal means. I declare an interest, as chair of both the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities. I speak on behalf of those with Christian faith, those with other faiths, and indeed those with no faith.

With persecution of Christians around the world, they need somewhere to go. In my constituency of Strangford, we have thrown the doors open in the past through the Syrian refugee scheme, as an example, to invite some of those Christian families who have been persecuted. Those who stayed have contributed greatly to our society, culture and relationships. Persecuted Christians across the world need somewhere to go, and the freedom of religion and expression to worship their God as they so wish, free from human rights abuses. We have a system in place for that, which the Government have made available. We thank them for that.

I am a faithful missions giver, and the projects that I support long term are those who seek to make improvements in the local communities to make a life. I understand that that cannot be done in war-torn nations and therefore there are some endeavours, such as the Ukraine scheme, that need a different approach. The Government were very positive and helpful, and I fully supported that scheme. Indeed, all of us in Westminster Hall today, and those in the main Chamber from all parties, recognised that we needed to take a different approach, and we did that. I thank the Minister and the Government for their help for the Ukrainians and their families.

In my constituency, we have helped numerous Ukrainians to gain job opportunities at Willowbrook Foods and in Mash Direct, where accommodation was available for them as well. The Minister and I discussed that a few weeks ago, and I gave him the contact names and phone numbers of some of the companies that are keen to address the issue. The Minister was keen for an opportunity to promote those two firms—Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct—and I was keen on that as well.

I believe that there should be immigration; I am quite clear on that. However, mass immigration is a completely different issue, and this is where Ireland has found herself in difficulty. I absolutely refute that it is a problem of our making, or that we are facilitating. The civil unrest is not due to an unwelcoming people. There are few people more welcoming than the Irish—north and south. The issue lies in not being able to cope with acceptable levels of immigration. I support the Government in their plans to halt illegal immigration while ensuring that we have a fit-for-purpose asylum system.

Those Ukrainians who came brought a work ethic, skill and an ethos, and they have integrated well into our society. I believe we must always make clear the difference between illegal immigration and the necessary immigration that brings knowledge and expertise to our fishing industry and our hospitals, and brings a warmth and culture that only enhances this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I have pursued the Minister a few times on the issue of fishing visas, and we discussed that at our meeting last week. It affects not just us in Strangford in Northern Ireland but those across the South Down constituency, particularly Ardglass and Kilkeel. We need a visa system. In answer to my question in the Chamber last week, the Minister kindly suggested that there was an onus on the fishing organisations to come up with ideas, so I have suggested that to them. I hope to come back with some ideas very soon and convey them to the Minister, so that we can find a workable system.

It is difficult to find a balance. I am aware that this is not a debate on the Rwanda scheme, although the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood mentioned it in her introduction, and we cannot ignore it because it does give opportunity and take some of the pressure off Government. However, this is a debate about how we can fulfil our moral obligations while ensuring that we do not sink further and further into debt. The fact is that the Republic of Ireland and the Irish people are a testament to the frustration that is felt when Government is not getting the right message across, and when people feel that the health and education of their children is at stake and that is at odds with Government objectives. That is why we have seen that discontent in the Republic of Ireland, and why there has been such uproar about what has happened. Whether or not the figures that the Republic of Ireland has suggested are correct is a question to be addressed.

I recently attended a family event in Newtownards with the Indian diaspora. They come from Odisha state in India. There were over 100 people there, and the wonderful thing was that every one of them has a visa—they are here to work, and they have brought their families with them—and every one of those people is involved in the health sector, so we need them because they contribute to our society. They work in the Ulster Hospital, Belfast City Hospital and the Royal Victoria, and every one of them—man and woman—is working in the health sector. We welcome what they do.

It was a wonderful night. Whether they were from a Hindu, Muslim or Christian background, the vast majority were integral workers within the NHS care system. I had a great night of fellowship with them. It was wonderful and fun. It was good to meet them, engage with them, welcome them personally and enjoy some of their food. I am a diabetic but I could still eat and enjoy the food that they presented, apart from the fact that my mouth was on fire afterwards, but that is by the way. I had fellowship with those men, women and children, and they are clearly part of the fabric of Newtownards and Strangford.

The messaging must be made clear. We need to get a handle on illegal immigration and welcome those who enhance, protect and build our nation through their jobs and opportunities. I am keen to work with the Minister and the Government and put forward ideas about the fishing sector in particular. I am also keen to see how we can build on the food sector; clearly, there is a need to ensure that Willowbrook Foods, Mash Direct and other firms in my constituency have the opportunity to gain expertise from other places and find people through the legal immigration system.

We must ensure that the young men who are coming illegally in droves across the channel from France are treated differently from young families seeking asylum and refuge. We must ensure that the message sent is clear: we will help where we can, as much as we can and in the best way we can. We have done that already, but we want to see that building.

Whether on our soil or foreign soil, we must strike a balance between compassion and obligation. We have an obligation to help persecuted families and those who have suffered severe human rights abuses. We are a welcoming country: we have been in the past, and we can be so in the future. I am pleased to participate in this debate, and I will also be very pleased to hear the responses of the Minister and of the two Opposition spokespeople, the hon. Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).

12:01
Adam Holloway Portrait Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con)
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I apologise for my hoarse voice. I did not want to interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Dame Andrea Jenkyns) by intervening on her, but I want to make the point that, the way that the laws are currently interpreted, virtually the entire populations of many countries would be given asylum if they could only make it to Britain. That is not lost on those making these daily boat crossings.

I think I am the only Member of Parliament to try to get smuggled into this country from Calais, which I did when I made a TV programme some years ago. I lived in the old Sangatte camp. My observation is very much the same as that of my hon. Friend: these were overwhelmingly fit young men seeking a better life. Some of the asylum seekers are fleeing torture, albeit not claiming asylum in the first countries they come to. Many others are economic migrants doing what many of us might try to do if we were in their shoes. This debate is about costs, but I add a point about the costs facing asylum seekers and their families: it is generally the more wealthy people who can pay smugglers for help to get to the United Kingdom. Others face taking out huge loans and becoming bonded. It is not cheap and illegal economic migrants are rarely the poorest or the most needy of the people coming from a given country.

Many costs have been shared in this debate, but some are hidden and I would like to highlight some that indirectly affect people in Gravesham. I mention these costs not begrudgingly—it goes without saying that anyone who comes here should be treated with compassion and dignity—but the debate has been called in the spirit of openness and transparency, and it is very important. So often the harshest critics of the Government’s immigration policy are those who are well insulated from the pressures and costs that immigration places on public services. For example, in Kent, unaccompanied children claiming asylum are looked after by social workers and staff until they can be found homes across the country. Staff are recruited from the same pool of potential recruits.

I understand that children from Albania disappear from local council protection most frequently, and the concern is that this is a result of traffickers and gangs taking them onward to whatever fate awaits them. Obviously, this has reduced, perhaps as a result of the deal the Government struck with the Albanian Government in December 2022—one of the success stories of the Government’s immigration policy. That is obviously good news. However, I am reliably informed that Vietnamese children still go missing, requiring additional protection, searching and police intervention whenever they are missing from their home or transition centre. That undoubtedly brings cost to people relying on the police and social care for support.

We also have to think about housing and healthcare. Immigration has obviously increased our local population, and there is a huge hidden cost felt by people in Gravesham who are searching for a home or medical treatment. The purchasing power of the Home Office is keenly felt by local councils and people. We are also facing a great deal of pressure because of people moving out of London because of higher rents; they move to Kent, where it is a bit cheaper, but that effectively inflates rents and makes it harder for local people. We have both the direct and indirect financial costs, but there is also the cost of the emotional drain on local people as they try to be welcoming while facing the impact on their own lives.

12:05
Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I remember that the last time we had a debate similar to this, it was chaired by the great Sir David Amess, whom we all miss in this House. In that particular debate, I was the voice of reason against many Conservative Back Benchers as they gave a description of the immigration system that, frankly, I do not recognise. While I congratulate the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Dame Andrea Jenkyns) on securing this debate, I am afraid I do not recognise much of what she said at all.

I do not recognise the notion that Immigration Ministers, past and present, are some sort of lily-livered liberals—that has just not been my experience. I certainly did not like the references to Home Office staff being soft touches and the criticisms of them, I am afraid. I am going to defend Home Office staff for the work they do; I have always found them firm and fair. They have a regular weekly telephone call with the constituency office of Glasgow South West, as they do with other Members of Parliament, to discuss cases. Ministers have put in place a system for Members of the House to raise these sorts of cases and to ask which cases should go where, and to raise any concerns we have—I will be mentioning one such case today—directly with Ministers.

I take the view that no human being is illegal, so the discourse of the debate on immigration concerns me on occasion. Last week, I had the great privilege of chairing the annual general meeting of the Showing Racism the Red Card all-party parliamentary group, where a number of children from London, Nottingham and other places described the importance of having antiracism education in our education systems across these islands. I think that Members of this House could learn from some of that education. Perhaps we should have Show Racism the Red Card come into these debates to explain in simple terms the difference between an asylum seeker, a refugee and an economic migrant, because there are occasions in which those who are seeking sanctuary on these islands are referred to as “illegal” or “migrants”, which is a charge that I think is completely and utterly unfair. I do not like the phrase “illegal immigration”. If we close off all the legal and safe routes to arrive in the United Kingdom, we cannot then complain that someone who is genuinely seeking sanctuary has to find another route.

What I find most troubling of all is the fact that the whole discourse of the debate is always focused on the exploited, and not the exploiter. There has to be more of a discussion about how we tackle the gangmasters and the criminal gangs. We spent months discussing the Rwanda policy and the Rwanda Act, but there was nothing in that legislation about tackling gangmasters and criminal gangs. That, I think, is the source of the problem. Indeed, I know that it is the source of the problem, because I have a constituent in Glasgow who was told that he was going to be sent to Canada and thought he was going to arrive there—but he ended up in Glasgow. There are huge, great links between the two great nations of Scotland and Canada, but that case tells us that there are people—gangmasters and criminal gangs—that are at it here. We need to focus on them a lot more in this debate, not on those who are seeking sanctuary to be with their families. Many of those arriving on our shores already have family across these islands.

As the small boats continue, we must question the entire asylum system on both value for money and effectiveness. I want to raise some issues in the debate, some of which I have raised before with the Minister. He could have predicted some of them. One is asylum accommodation.

I have great difficulty with the nonsensical position in which hotels, barges and military sites are used for asylum accommodation. As the Minister knows, I had a meeting with him a couple of weeks ago, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), in which we said that we need to think about these issues a lot more. We also said that we need to think about what happens when the backlog is cleared and thousands of people are given refugee status at the same time, as well as about what that means for local authorities.

We need to encourage local authorities to take more of the people who seek sanctuary in these islands, but the Home Office needs to do more to negotiate with local authorities. The Home Office cannot just tell a local authority to take more on when that authority will reply, “Well, that’s fine. Tell us what money we are getting, because we will need to think through what that means for our health and social care system, our education system, and all of that”.

I am afraid that there is still a legacy backlog; I know that there is. We were told that every person who had submitted a claim before 28 June 2022 had received a decision. I know for a fact that that is not the case and I will raise that point later.

I have another question for the Minister. I do not expect him to have this figure in front of him right now, but perhaps he could send it to us. We know that on occasion taxi companies are transporting asylum seekers all over these islands. Last week, for example, a family based in a Glasgow airport hotel were transported from Glasgow to Bradford. When they arrived for their interview, they were simply told, “You’re being moved to Bradford.” That leads to a taxi cost; they were put in a Glasgow taxi and taken to Bradford. That has to have an effect on the taxpayer, as the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood said.

I would like to know how much the Home Office is paying taxi companies to transport asylum seekers across these islands—from Glasgow to Bradford, from Glasgow to Manchester, or from wherever to wherever—because it is nonsensical. If asylum seekers based in Glasgow are being transported all over the UK, sometimes at a moment’s notice? I would like an answer to that question and I hope that the Minister will commit to writing to all of us who have contributed to this debate today to tell us what that cost actually is.

I want to raise the issue, raised by the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, of the gimmick that is the Rwanda policy. I have to say that if I were a member of a political party that had contested the local elections last week, I would have objected to the PR stunt that we saw last week of that Home Office video of people being transported into detention just days before the polls opened in some parts of the UK. I hope that Labour colleagues and others are checking the purdah rules regarding that publicity stunt.

I have asked the Minister’s Department why a constituent of mine in Glasgow South West was detained last week, because the Home Office’s own guidance says that those who submitted a claim before 28 June 2022 will be dealt with as a legacy claim. That individual should have had a decision on 31 December 2023 under the Government’s own policy. He did not; he has not had a decision at all, negative or positive. He arrived for his standard interview last Tuesday to be met by eight police officers, who bundled him into a police van. He was then bundled into an immigration van—a Home Office van—and taken to Colnbrook, and he was told that he is being detained. He has family here.

I would like to know from the Minister why those with a legacy claim who have been waiting years on a decision are now being told they are being transported to Rwanda, because that is not the guidance that MPs are getting from the Home Office. When I raised this with one of the Parliamentary Private Secretaries, they sent me the guidance, which said that that should not be the case. I have serious questions about the application of the policy. People are waiting years on decisions— I at least agree with the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood on that front—and it is taking too long. I would like to see more staff employed at the Home Office, if that is what it takes.

I object to the hon. Lady’s description of the civil service, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group. The trade unions are absolutely correct and have a duty to their members if they think that a piece of legislation breaks human rights or international law.

Incidentally, I do not share the view that the whole legal profession is somehow left-wing and Marxist; if only that were true, perhaps the legal profession would be in a better place. I completely reject that view on behalf of the legal professional. There are very good lawyers out there and tarring them with the brush that they are somehow Marxist is extraordinary—listening to the debate, anyone would think that when the judge rises, the first two verses of “Bandiera Rossa” are sung in court. I leave that vision with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is perhaps thinking about it.

In all seriousness, trade unions have the right to take an issue to court on behalf of their members. And when the Home Office tells them that it will send civil servants to Rwanda to work, they also have the right to have discussions about the consequences of that for lives and jobs.

We need a sensible immigration policy built on dignity that allows genuine cases to come here to share with their families and gives them the right to work after six months. The Government are, in fairness to them, going some way on that, with their shortage occupation list, and I would want to see that built on. We need fairness and sensible policies on immigration.

12:17
Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for the great Yorkshire seat of Morley and Outwood (Dame Andrea Jenkyns) on securing the debate. She mentioned the Leader of the Opposition in her remarks, so I want to gently point out to her that he oversaw the first prosecution of al-Qaeda terrorists as well as the jailing of the airline liquid bomb plotters and of the racist murderers of Stephen Lawrence. Of course, as a lawyer, he has on occasion had to represent people whose views he does not agree with, but I am sure that any fair-minded person would understand that.

I want to briefly acknowledge the contributions made by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), as well as by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), who soldiered on despite what sounded like quite a sore throat—I would expect nothing else from him. It is good to see the Minister in his place. As he knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) would normally speak for the Opposition on these matters, but on this occasion I have been dragged off the subs’ bench.

Today’s debate comes after the costs of the asylum system have skyrocketed, from £500 million a year under the last Labour Government to an eye-watering £5.4 billion a year under this Conservative Government—an almost tenfold increase over the past 14 years. That is before the £576 million being spent on sending 300 asylum seekers to Rwanda—almost £2 million per deportee—is factored in. What is the taxpayer getting in return for those mind-boggling sums of money? The boats are certainly not being stopped: we are seeing record numbers this year, with 8,100 having crossed since 1 January—up 33% on the same period last year. On 1 May alone, we saw a staggering 711 small boat arrivals, as the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood mentioned. That is the highest single-day number this year to date.

The asylum backlog is certainly not being tackled. When Labour left office in 2010, the backlog stood at just 19,000 cases, but today the number stands at over 100,000. The backlog had already doubled before the small boats started coming, in no small part because back in 2013, Ministers decided to downgrade the pay and seniority of asylum decision makers, supposedly to cut costs. The predictable result? Slow decision-making, poor decisions being overturned on appeal, and a higher rate of staff turnover, all of which led to 56,000 people being stuck in hotels and other forms of contingency accommodation as we entered this year. That cost the taxpayer a mind-boggling £8 million a day.

The dangerous channel crossings run by the criminal smuggler gangs must end; I am sure we all agree on that. To stop that pernicious trade, we need to smash those gangs at source. To do that, we on these Benches have proposed a new cross-border police unit and a new security partnership with Europol based on intelligence sharing. That is part of a practical plan paid for by redirecting funds and focus away from the failing Rwanda scheme.

We also need a detailed plan to clear the backlog by surging caseworker recruitment—a plan that will end asylum hotel use and save the taxpayer up to £4 billion each year. That includes a new 1,000 officer-strong returns and enforcement unit to remove those who have no right to be in the UK. Returns of failed asylum seekers have collapsed by 44% under the Conservatives since 2010, and returns of foreign criminals have collapsed by 27% over the same period. Our plan will make sure that applications are processed quickly so that those with no right to be here are quickly returned.

In contrast, the Government strategy has only exacerbated the chaos and increased the cost. Just recently, the Home Office permanent secretary confirmed at a Public Accounts Committee hearing that the Government have defined 40,000 small boat asylum seekers as “inadmissible” to the asylum system, 99% of whom we know will never be sent to Rwanda. In doing so, the Government have created a perma-backlog of people whom they have prevented from being processed and who are therefore stuck in indefinite limbo. The Government claim that they can send those people to Rwanda, but we know that Rwanda can take only a few hundred asylum seekers—around 1% of that 40,000-person perma-backlog. What happens to everybody else? A 99% chance of staying in Britain is pretty good odds for someone prepared to pay thousands of pounds to a smuggler to risk their life at sea or for a human trafficker determined to bring people into the country for modern-day slavery.

The public have a right to know what underpins the extortionately expensive gimmick that is the Government’s asylum plan. Can the Minister share the annual cost to the taxpayer of keeping 40,000 asylum seekers in indefinite limbo in a permanent backlog? The Home Office Minister in the other place confirmed that the British taxpayer will be paying full board and lodgings for five years for those removed voluntarily to Rwanda. How much is that forecast to cost?

The Prime Minister promised to detain everyone who crossed the channel on a small boat—over 30,000 last year. Given that we have only 2,200 detention spaces, what will happen to the remaining 28,000? Staying on the issue of detention spaces, Home Office sources have told The Times that there are only 400 to 700 detention spaces reserved for migrants due for deportation to Rwanda. Can the Minister confirm that that equates to less than 1% of the current asylum backlog in the UK?

If the Minister plans to bail asylum seekers who are to be sent to Rwanda, can he publish his risk assessment on the possibility of asylum seekers absconding en masse to avoid being put on a flight—if one has been commissioned in the first place? That is particularly timely given that a FOI investigation by the Daily Mail found that the Home Office has been unable to locate or contact at least 21,107 asylum seekers in the five years running up to September 2023.

The asylum system is in chaos and costing the taxpayer many more times what it did under the Labour Government of 2010. The Prime Minister has failed to deliver on his pledge to stop the boats and the numbers are going up, not down. The public’s patience is wearing thin, and they see right through the Government’s rhetoric. It is time that the Government faced up to their failing policies and started to show some transparency. The Minister can start that transition today by answering the questions I have put to him.

12:25
Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border (Tom Pursglove)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Dame Andrea Jenkyns) on securing a debate on this important issue, which matters enormously to her constituents and mine, as well as to people around the country. She is a passionate campaigner on the issue. I would argue that she is strident in her beliefs and in the way she communicates them, always leaving no doubt about where she stands. I am also grateful to colleagues from across the House for their contributions, some elements of which I agree with and many elements of which I do not. I will have an opportunity to respond to those various points during my closing remarks.

There has been much focus on costs, and I will address those specific questions. First, it is important to set the issue in context. A number of factors and forces have coalesced in recent years to create a situation in which vast numbers of people across the globe are displaced and willing—and often able—to migrate in pursuit of improved prospects. I would argue that those challenges are only likely to become more acute in the years ahead. That is why it is right that the Home Secretary is leading the international conversation about what more we can do to tackle migratory flows in a co-ordinated and joined-up way, as he did in his recent speech in New York.

Candidly, the instinct to want to secure a better life is one that we can all understand and appreciate. But while we are a compassionate and sympathetic country, it is incumbent on Governments to be pragmatic about those challenges. Our resources and capacity are not unlimited. Our generosity, as we have seen reflected many times in recent years in response to various international crises, is enormous. The British people have opened their homes. Contrary to the impression that some have given during this debate, we have seen over 500,000 people granted sanctuary in recent years, which is an effort I am enormously proud of. All of us as constituency MPs are enormously proud of the efforts that our respective constituents have played as part of that national effort.

We cannot, however, accommodate everyone who wishes to come here. Saying that is not harsh or inhumane; it is just a matter of objective fact. Illegal immigration is unfair, unsafe and unsustainable. It is not fair to those people who play by the rules and seek to come here through established safe and legal routes—people who, through the various routes that the Government have available, pay the application fee, meet the requirements and come here. It is not right when people try to circumvent those rules to come to the United Kingdom.

Undoubtedly, it is challenging to the bandwidth of Government to deal with all those competing pressures. We want to provide sanctuary through our resettlement schemes, and we are very proud of that work. We want to continue to have a fair and balanced migration system where people who play by the rules and meet the requirements can come to the UK. However, that is made harder by people coming to this country illegally. Often that makes it harder to be able to help some of the most vulnerable people from around the world.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns
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I understand that the Home Office has brought in a lot of new technology to help to identify the illegal migrants who come over. Would the Minister allude to some of that great work? I understand that we are spearheading and quite outward-looking in its use.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I will gladly talk about that.

Several speakers today have set out how expensive this is. Not only is illegal migration unfair, not only is it very dangerous, and not only is it criminal exploitation led by evil criminal gangs, but it is incredibly expensive. It is important to remember that the costs are not purely financial. There is also an intangible, but no less significant, impact on our ability to build a strong and cohesive society. As I have explained, there is also the human cost—lives are tragically lost when people make dangerous and unnecessary journeys. I would argue that the Government have a duty to put the evil criminal gangs responsible for this vile trade in people out of business.

Let us not forget the appalling consequences of the incident in the channel just within the last fortnight, in which a young girl lost her life. That is a tragedy of epic proportions and it is impossible for all of us not to be incredibly troubled by what we saw. The fault for that lies squarely with the evil criminal gangs responsible for putting people in small boats, taking their money, having no regard whatsoever for whether they get to the other side safely, and simply treating human beings as cargo. To take a permissive approach on this issue would be an abdication of our moral obligations; it would also be at odds with the wishes of the constituents whose interests we are sent here to advance. It is upon those constituents that the real-world consequences of illegal migration fall, whether through housing and the associated waiting lists, GP appointments, strained public services, and at times challenges with community cohesion.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister is being typically generous in giving way. He has spent a bit of time in his contribution rightly criticising the human traffickers and criminal gangs, but when are the Government going to produce some legislation to tackle those evil people responsible for human trafficking?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I have enormous respect and admiration for the hon. Gentleman, and he always makes his case passionately. However, at every juncture when we as a Government have brought forward measures to deal with the criminal gangs responsible—the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and its tougher sentences; the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which made the business model more difficult; and the Rwanda legislation, which again tries to make it more difficult for those criminal gangs to operate, with the ultimate aim of putting them out of business—the hon. Gentleman and his party have opposed our efforts and voted against the legislation. We now have at our disposal tougher sentences for those responsible for those heinous crimes, and I am proud that this Government have legislated to do that. It is incumbent upon the courts to make appropriate decisions in individual cases, but we have put in place a suite of measures through that legislation to better bring those individuals to justice and ensure that they feel the full consequences of the law.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I know that the Minister and the Government have tried to work well with the French authorities to ensure that there is more activity to prevent people from crossing the channel. The Government have made a substantial amount of money available to the French authorities to ensure that they do their bit, but according to the papers and some of the correspondence that I have read, it seems that the French authorities do not have enough personnel on the ground to be effective. Has there been any opportunity to discuss with the French authorities better ways of preventing people from crossing the channel? As the Minister says, what has happened and the lives lost to trafficking are completely outrageous and can never be condoned.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The hon. Gentleman often speaks with real authority and takes a close interest in the issues. I will come to the French co-operation, but to answer his question directly, this issue is consistently discussed at official and ministerial level. As he knows, we have consistently deepened our co-operation with the French over time to try to tackle the challenges and make it much more difficult for the evil criminal gangs to operate, with all the catastrophic consequences that flow from that.

As colleagues will be aware, we are taking a multidimensional approach to tackling the issue, and I am pleased to say that we are making strong progress, albeit that there is more still to do. First, we are on track to close 150 hotels, and we aim to go further with that programme. The current situation is unsustainable: we spend £8 million a day accommodating people in the asylum system, and that cannot carry on. To respond to the point that was raised by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), I would argue that we also need to consider the cost of standing back, doing nothing and saying that the issue is too difficult. That is why I maintain that the cost of the Rwanda policy is the right investment to make, because as the policy is operationalised, it will allow us to dramatically bring down that £8 million a day spend in our asylum system.

Alongside that, we also need to ensure that the domestic accommodation picture is in a more sustainable place. We are bringing on stream cheaper, more affordable, sustainable accommodation through large sites and dispersal accommodation, and we have dramatically reduced the accommodated population. We do need accommodation that is fit for purpose and decent, but it must also be appropriate to the circumstances, and that is precisely what we are delivering through the large sites programme and the dispersal programme. Ultimately, the most important thing is to bring down the flow, which will reduce the requirement for bed spaces in the first place.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I am grateful again to the Minister, who is being typically generous. He knows, because we have met to discuss it, that there is also the issue of what happens to those who receive refugee status. What discussions is his Department having with local authorities such as Glasgow, which find that when a backlog is cleared they have thousands of people who have received that status and are looking to be housed in the community?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Again, the point about flow speaks for itself. The current volume of people coming to the United Kingdom, particularly via small boats, is unsustainable. The very best way of tackling the challenge that the hon. Member highlights is to dramatically reduce the numbers of people coming here through those illegal routes. That will help to alleviate the challenges. In the interim, we also need to continue to work constructively with local authorities to try to mitigate the pressures.

One of the things on which I would appreciate some support—the hon. Member and I have had this conversation—is what more other Scottish local authorities can do to play their part to a greater extent in the national effort to provide dispersed accommodation. I pay tribute to Glasgow for the work that it does in this space; it has very much stepped up to the plate and is supportive around the challenges. We also talked about some of the initiatives that we are introducing around, for example, Home Office liaison officer support, which was successful in supporting people with the move-on process in relation to the Afghan response. Having been piloted in other parts of the country, that is now being rolled out in Glasgow as well, and the early indications are encouraging. I want to work with the hon. Gentleman, colleagues across the House and the local authority to understand what works and how they can help as part of the local response when it comes to moving people on from Home Office accommodation, particularly when people are granted asylum, to ensure that they get the proper support and have the best possible chance to have successful lives, with housing, work and school places for any children.

A lot is said about the co-operation with the French, but it is a fact that roughly 50% of embarkations are stopped—prevented—through those partnership efforts. That is not insignificant. If we consider the counterfactual, we would have many more arrivals on UK shores were it not for that co-operation. It clearly plays an important role in helping to tackle this challenge.

More generally, we all recognise that illegal migration is a global challenge demanding global solutions, and the British people expect us to pull every possible lever in dealing with illegal migration. That is why we have taken steps to significantly ramp up our co-operation internationally. In March 2023, the Prime Minister and President Macron announced a three-year funding deal of £475 million to increase the deployment of personnel in northern France, to procure and deploy new technology and to enhance UK-French co-operation through the improved co-ordination and command of a personnel centre in northern France, and improved information sharing between our services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood asked about that point. She will recognise that I am somewhat limited in what I am able to say, for obvious reasons. We do not want to do anything that helps those criminal gangs to circumvent that work. However, the deal is being implemented at pace. More French personnel than ever before are now deployed in northern France, supported by cutting-edge equipment such as new drones that can be flown over an increased range. In addition, a new French zonal co-ordination centre is being established to co-ordinate French deployments, with UK officers permanently embedded in the new centre.

Our close co-operation, including that new deal, has been crucial in preventing dangerous crossings from being attempted. Last year, the number of crossings fell by 36% compared with 2022. We know that we must go further this year to continue that trend, but tackling the global migration crisis and smashing the evil gangs who drive it are challenges that must be met with a shared response further upstream, as well as at our closest borders.

As such, we recently pledged up to £1 million to tackle illegal migration in Libya, amid record arrivals into Europe from north Africa. This money will support survivors of trafficking and migrants in vulnerable situations, while also helping to prevent journeys to Europe by tackling the root causes of irregular migration, facilitating the voluntary return of migrants to their home countries and providing reintegration assistance for migrants who choose to return to their countries of origin. The funding and support we are providing will mean Libya is better equipped to stop people risking their lives to reach Europe. It also demonstrates our commitment to crack down on people smugglers operating not just in the English channel, but across the whole world.

In addition, the UK is participating in the Rome process, working with the Italian Government on upstream projects on the migration route to address the root causes of migration. In support of that process, the UK is co-funding a project to promote and assist the voluntary return of migrants from Tunisia to their countries of origin. It has also been agreed to deepen UK-Italy co-operation on security and economic development across north Africa.

Again, it is right that we keep a close eye on the costs of our international partnerships and agreements, but I would strongly dispute any suggestion that this work is in any way unproductive or superfluous. On the contrary, it is essential that the United Kingdom plays an active role in the global response to this issue. The more effectively we can intervene at our near borders and, as importantly, upstream in countries such as Libya, the better protected the United Kingdom will be against illegal migration and the gangs that fuel it. I hope that gives a bit of flavour on the work that is going on now.

We have also increased dramatically the number of returns of individuals who have no right to be here, to 26,000 in 2023 compared with 14,623 in 2022. We will sustain that progress.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns
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I have no doubt that the Minister is a passionate advocate and we are on the same page on a lot of this. Has he discussed with his Department coming out of the ECHR?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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That is not a policy conversation that I have had. What I will say is that when it comes to the Rwanda policy, to which I think the question is relevant and pertinent, the Prime Minister has been consistently clear that we will not allow a foreign court to prevent us from operationalising it. I believe that through the legislation we have put in place and the determination of the Government to see it through, we will fulfil the commitments that we have made under the legislation to operationalise the policy, relocate people to Rwanda and put an end to journeys over the channel and the business model underpinning them.

I also make the point that Albanian arrivals are down by 90% in 2023 compared with 2022. Again, that is evidence proving that deterrents work. That partnership focuses on the point of deterrence, and it is yet more evidence that the general approach we are taking, which is developed further through the Rwanda policy, will deliver, with deterrence at its core to help put these criminal gangs out of business and disrupt their work.

Specifically on asylum grant rates, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 changes that she and I voted for are making a difference. I anticipate that colleagues will see grant rates coming down. We are also making decisions much more quickly. Asylum caseworking productivity and the learning that has taken place over the course of the last 12 to 18 months are making a real difference in reaching decisions on individual cases much sooner.

I know that my hon. Friend is also a strong supporter of the changes we have introduced around legal migration. I was pleased that we were able to have the first statistical release on that front last week, which demonstrates the changes and the way in which they are beginning to make a difference. We saw numbers down 24% across key visa routes. We obviously saw a considerable fall in student dependant numbers, having stopped individuals being able to bring student dependants on the route, and we will sustain that progress as well. The objective is to bring inflows down by 300,000 relative to the year prior. Again, that is a credible plan that delivers on the commitment we have made to bring those numbers down to more sustainable levels, and I am grateful for the support shown by my hon. Friend in that regard.

In today’s debate we have touched a little on the Rwanda policy, which is front and centre in allowing us to kick on and make further progress. The changes we have introduced and the progress we have made are not insignificant, but undoubtedly we need to go further in order to achieve our ultimate aim of putting the criminal gangs out of business. I have said that a few times in the course of this debate, but it is what the British people expect and it is the critical challenge that we face. It is not tenable for any party not to have a credible plan about how it would do that. I will not go into the operational specifics of the policy today.

We have consistently seen efforts to thwart the progress of the Rwanda legislation, and I have no doubt that we will see further efforts from certain quarters to make the delivery of the policy as difficult as possible. We have seen incidents in the last week or so of people trying to disrupt perfectly lawful Home Office business to facilitate relocation in the asylum accommodation estate. We cannot have a mob trying to prevent through criminality that lawful Home Office business from taking place. There is always a right to peaceful protest, but it is not acceptable to behave in such a way that is counter to the law and prevents perfectly lawful business from moving forward and taking place in the way that the British people as a whole would reasonably expect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood raised a point about judicial capacity and being able to get on, process claims and ensure that appeals are dealt with as expeditiously as possible. The Government are working particularly hard to ensure that the justice system can meet increases in demand under the Illegal Migration Act. We have reviewed anticipated workloads introduced by the Act and will increase court staff and secure hearing rooms and judicial capacity to meet those projections. To make effective use of the Act’s provision for first-tier tribunal judges to sit in the upper tribunal of the immigration and asylum chamber when requested to do so by the Senior President of Tribunals, the judiciary has identified and trained about 150 experienced first-tier tribunal judges to sit in the upper tribunal to hear Illegal Migration Act appeals. The additional judges, if deployed, could provide more than 5,000 additional sitting days.

The Lord Chancellor also asked the Judicial Appointments Commission to recruit more judges for the first-tier and upper tribunals of the immigration and asylum chamber. The recruitment is now concluding and new judges will be appointed and trained and will start sitting from this summer. This should increase capacity in both the first-tier and upper tribunals to hear routine cases and, in due course, Illegal Migration Act cases. Again, we are taking a root-and-branch approach, increasing resource and capacity and ensuring that we have the infrastructure to deliver not only on the partnership with Rwanda, but on getting through cases more quickly. That will facilitate greater volumes of removals not just of foreign national offenders, but of individuals who are failed asylum seekers and have no right to be here.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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In my contribution, I raised the concern of asylum seekers effectively being taxied around the UK. Could the Minister say something on that, or could he commit to writing to me and others about the costs?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I will gladly pick up that specific point. The hon. Gentleman raised an individual case that would not be appropriate for me to comment on, in the sense that I would never think it appropriate to casework individual cases on the Floor of the House. If the hon. Gentleman wants to share details with me, I will ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration is aware of it.

On the point about accommodation moves, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West will appreciate that we are in the process of scaling back hotels. We are closing hotels around the country. We are on track to fulfil the commitments we have made on that 150 figure, and to go further, but we need to do that in a managed way, which sometimes requires people to be relocated to other parts of the country for the purposes of accommodation. Again, we are trying to move towards a place where, if areas played their part through dispersed accommodation, there would not be a need for hotels. I come back to the point about flow. We need to fundamentally and significantly reduce the flow of people coming into this country, which goes to the very heart of the challenge the hon. Gentleman is talking about. If we had a smaller population of individuals who had come here illegally, we would have a reduced need for accommodation, but in the circumstances, it is very helpful where local authorities work with us to identify dispersed accommodation within communities, which dramatically reduces the reliance on hotels.

Let us just contrast all of that to the policy of the Opposition, who have talked again about increased funding for the National Crime Agency. Well, we have already doubled that. They have talked about an additional team of civil servants. Well, we already have around 5,000 civil servants working on this part of the migration and borders system. The Opposition have no credible plan whatsoever on the issue of flow. They have nothing that disrupts meaningfully the criminal gangs. There is a lot of talk about simply getting on and processing claims more quickly. I would love it if the shadow Minister intervened on me to suggest a third country return route, because without that we would simply be accepting unlimited numbers of people of certain nationalities coming across the channel without a rote of return to the country of origin. That cannot be right. That is not a sustainable position.

That is why the partnership with Rwanda is so important in addressing this challenge. It allows us to relocate individuals to Rwanda with the aim of breaking the business model that is seeing people being brought across and exploited by criminal gangs in the first place. It is just not good enough for the Opposition to say that they are going to do those two very minor things that the Government are already doing, and that suddenly the picture will be dramatically improved overnight. I do not think anybody fair-minded thinks that is a credible answer to this challenge. It is incumbent on any Government or party that aspires to Government to have a multi-faceted approach to this challenge. We do, and it is working; and we will see it through. That stands in very stark contrast to the Opposition party’s approach reflected in the debate today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood set out, the financial stakes are high, but there are also very genuine issues about security and fairness. Most importantly, this is about saving lives. It is about stopping people risking their lives in the channel and all the catastrophic consequences that we have seen play out on far too many occasions, so it is right, not only financially but morally, to get a better grip of illegal migration.

As I said, we have a plan. It is delivering results. We still have some distance to go. I believe that the steps that we propose to take will deliver the results that we intend them to have, and that matters, because people in communities such as Morley and Outwood want to see change. I think they recognise that we have a plan to get there. Their local MP will no doubt hold us to account for delivery against the promises that we have made. There is nothing humane or decent about standing back, doing very little to stop what we are seeing currently or the risk to life that it presents, and just accepting that it is all too difficult and that things cannot change. That is not the position that this Government have taken. It is not the position that this Government will take, moving forward. We are determined to see this through.

12:56
Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank you, Mr Stringer, my hon. Friend the Minister, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and the few MPs who took part. It is a shame for this important debate that more did not turn up.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution. He gave an important insight into how illegal immigration is affecting his constituents in Northern Ireland and the impact on the fishing and food sector. He highlighted the unhappiness felt by the Northern Irish people and how we must strike a balance between compassion and obligation. I thank him for that.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) for participating despite losing his voice—I have been there. He described his own experience for the TV programme that he was in, the dangers of traffickers and gangs, and the plight of the Vietnamese children going missing, which is a very important point. He also described the impact of the current situation on rent inflation, which has a knock-on effect on the British public.

I thank the SNP and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). Despite our having completely different views, I agree with him on a couple of issues, namely, the need to tackle gangmasters and for a better relationship between local government and central Government.

The shadow Minister is well respected across the House, and I thank him for his contribution. However, I did not hear a fully detailed plan on what Labour would do. It has said that it will look at issues. Nor did he touch on my points about Labour giving asylum to 50,000 people. That is really concerning.

I thank the Minister for being here today and contributing to this debate. Knowing him as a friend, I am confident that he is strident in his role and he understands the impact of the current situation on the British people. I again thank you, Mr Stringer, and fellow MPs for their input into today’s debate, but I urge the Minister that it is time to get a grip. The British taxpayers have had enough. Let us show them how serious we are in tackling this. Let us come out of the ECHR and finally get control of our borders, because we know that in six months’ time, if Labour does get into power, this issue will never be addressed.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the costs associated with illegal immigration.

Water Safety Education

Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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1 pm
Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand that there is agreement by John Cryer and the Minister for another hon. Member to participate in the debate. However, as is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate.

John Cryer Portrait John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of water safety education in schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank Mr Speaker for choosing this debate, which I am delighted to have secured. It is on a subject that is of great importance to me as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, and I am sure that it is a matter of interest and concern for Members on both sides of the House. I also want briefly to thank both Philip Brownlie, head of public affairs at Swim England—it used to be the Amateur Swimming Association, in my day—for all his help in securing the debate and with my speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the chair of the all-party group.

Swimming has been a genuine passion of mine for many years. I started to swim at the age of five or six and I have swum with various swimming clubs, such as Leyton ASC, Hornchurch ASC and East Grinstead Tri Club. I want every child to have the kind of opportunity that I and many others had when we were growing up. If we can develop children’s physical literacy through good-quality, positive experiences at school, we can set them up for a lifelong love of being active.

Swimming is obviously a sport, but it is probably the only sport that might save someone’s life at some point. Figures shared with me by the Royal Life Saving Society show that the number of child drownings is increasing at an alarming rate. In my view, that is not unconnected to the net loss of swimming pools in this country of about 400 over the past decade. In 2022, there was a 46% increase in the number of child drownings against the five-year average, and although the 2023 data has not been officially published, early indications suggest that child drownings may have increased significantly again last year.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate on what, for me, is a critical issue. In my constituency, many young people and children in particular have died while swimming. In the figures that he referred to, 35 accidental child fatalities were reported. That is a classroom full of children. That gives us an idea of the magnitude of the issue. Does he agree that consideration should be given to a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland awareness campaign, alongside the education systems in the devolved nations, to ensure that children have an understanding of basic water safety, and how to be safe and keep safe?

John Cryer Portrait John Cryer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will not comment on the devolved nations, but he speaks very eloquently.

When the figures are adjusted for socioeconomic status and ethnicity, there are worrying elements in the child mortality data. The National Child Mortality Database reported that the risk of drowning was twice as high among children from poorer backgrounds as among those from better-off backgrounds, and that the risk of drowning was three and a half times higher for children from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. For me, that is a particular worry, because I represent one of the most diverse constituencies in the country.

The debate is very timely, particularly when we consider that we are fast approaching the summer and that 2024 marks the 30th anniversary of swimming’s inclusion in the national curriculum. For all these reasons, it is important that we have this debate today and that the importance of swimming and water safety is highlighted in this place.

Figures from the latest Sport England Active Lives survey of children show that 71% of children in year 7 are able to swim 25 metres, which represents a fall of 6.3% compared with five years ago. Worryingly, pupils are also being offered fewer swimming lessons at school. That is raised with me just about every time I visit a school in my constituency. Swim England has also seen concerning examples of parents being asked to pay for their children’s school swimming lessons, which risks exacerbating existing inequalities. I represent some of the poorest wards in London, so that is very relevant to my daily work.

I pay tribute to the many hard-working teachers in Leyton and Wanstead and across the country. I recognise that teaching swimming and water safety presents a number of serious challenges, particularly under current circumstances. On top of that, school staff are often underqualified, underprepared and inexperienced when it comes to delivering comprehensive physical education. That is not a criticism of the teachers, but a criticism of the lack of resources. More qualified and prepared school staff would enable smaller ratios and higher-quality teaching to make the most of limited learning time for pupils.

Organisations such as Swim England produce free resources, including the school swimming and water safety charter, to support teachers, as well as running courses such as the national curriculum training programme for primary school teachers, but the Department for Education and Ofsted have been a bit too reluctant to adequately monitor and enforce the curriculum requirements. Although schools are required to publish their swimming and water safety attainment levels in order to receive PE premium funding, evidence suggests that many are not doing so. Could the Minister share the number of schools that the Department has taken action against for not meeting that requirement since its introduction? PE premium funding itself is only guaranteed until the end of the 2024-25 academic year. Could the Minister confirm that the requirement to provide that data directly to the Department will remain, regardless of what might happen to PE premium funding?

PE premium funding has helped schools offer top-up swimming lessons, but I cannot help feeling that providing schools with enough core funding to deliver appropriate school swimming lessons would be a better way to proceed. The Minister may or may not be aware that in Estonia, for example, pupils receive 40 hours of school swimming lessons paid for by the Government.

A 2023 Ofsted report on PE described swimming and water safety attainment as “mixed” and stated that

“evaluation of the swimming and water safety element of the curriculum is limited”.

It recommended that primary school schools should ensure that

“their curriculum matches the breadth and ambition of the national curriculum for all pupils. It should include carefully sequenced and taught swimming and water safety lessons”.

I would like the Department to be much more active in monitoring and enforcing curriculum requirements, a point that members of the Swim Alliance have raised with me. The alliance, which is chaired by Debbie Kaye of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association, is a grouping of organisations from across the sector, including pool operators and groups such as the Black Swimming Association, Unity Swimming and Swim England.

Organisations such as the Youth Sport Trust, the Association for Physical Education and Swim England have proposed that PE should be made a core subject. I wonder whether the Minister might consider that in order to help PE obtain the profile and support in schools that it merits.

The growth in the number of pop-up pools is broadly welcome, but their small size and shallow depth means that it is impossible for them to meet curriculum requirements, and local authorities have raised concerns about the impact that increased use of pop-up pools could have on existing community facilities.

I want to allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green to speak and for the Minister to respond, but we cannot discuss water safety without discussing access to pools for pupils to learn in. Part of my constituency—three wards—is in the London Borough of Redbridge, which, according to Swim England, is the third most deprived local authority in the country with regard to available water space. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that just 20% of children across all ages in Redbridge can swim 25 metres, compared with 75% in Wandsworth. If we are to improve water safety, we must ensure that we have the pools we need for the future.

To summarise my views very briefly, schools need to be adequately resourced and able to provide swimming and water safety opportunities. School leadership groups need to prioritise swimming and water safety in schools. School swimming and water safety need more hands-on monitoring and enforcement from the DFE and Ofsted. As a country, we desperately need to invest in the community pools we need for the future, with both capital funding and revenue funding, so that swimming is an affordable activity. If we do all that, we can start to make the sort of progress that I am sure everyone across the House wants to see.

Finally, I mentioned that my three of my wards are in Redbridge; the other six are in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, where we have seen enormous core funding cuts. As I said at the beginning of my speech, just about every school I visit, in both Waltham Forest and Redbridge, has raised the difficulty of getting access to pool time for swimming. With that, I had better stop speaking and give others a chance to contribute.

13:11
Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is, as ever, a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Minister for allowing me a little time to address some of the concerns that we have been raising since 2015, when the all-party group began. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) is a fantastic swimmer—unlike the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, who pootles up and down the Hampstead Heath ponds on warm days.

The important thing is access and equality of provision for children, because, as the Minister is aware, schools should be the great equaliser. It is important that every child learns to swim, regardless of their parents’ ability to swim. Unfortunately, we are not seeing much consistency. Almost every child goes to school, and it is a national curriculum requirement for them to be able to swim 25 metres, perform a range of strokes and perform safe self-rescue by the end of year 6. Of course, different schools have different priorities, but surely, now that this is an Ofsted priority, there should be much more uniformity. It is particularly worrying, as my hon. Friend said, that we are going backwards. Since the pandemic, a number of swimming pools have closed and the number of children who are confident swimmers has declined.

Why are we seeing such inequality in attainment? Sport England’s Active Lives survey of children and young people shows that while 90% of children from the most affluent families can swim 25 metres by years 7 to 8, that figure falls to just 53% of children with low family affluence, and it is a very similar story when it comes to the ability to self-rescue. Similarly, looking at ethnicity, the figures reveal shocking disparities, with 80% of white children in years 7 to 8 able to swim 25 metres, compared with just 50% of black children and 56% of Asian children.

It should not have to be this way. If we look at the figures for children who want to swim more, or who either like or love swimming, we see that children from poorer backgrounds and those from ethnically diverse communities are just as keen to swim as their friends, so it is not a lack of desire that accounts for the difference. Some good work has been done, including through the Inclusion 2024 programme—my hon. Friend also mentioned the Black Swimming Association—but I am keen to hear from the Minister about the recipe for success, and what assessment his Department has made of the reasons for the stubborn inequalities and what practical steps are planned to address them.

One contributing factor could be access to water facilities, as my hon. Friend said. We have lost hundreds of pools up and down the country since 2010, particularly due to the high cost of running them, given the energy bills. Does the Minister agree that, in such a situation, it is unsurprising that attainment levels across London are below the national average? My constituency is covered by the London Borough of Haringey, which is one of the local authorities with the biggest shortages of publicly available water space; there is quite a lot in the private school sector, but not enough that is publicly available. Just 35% of children of all ages across the borough can swim 25 metres. Even within London, though, the discrepancies are huge. In Hammersmith and Fulham, an area just 10 miles to the west of Haringey with no shortage of water, 88% of children are able to swim 25 metres.

In recent years, there has been some welcome national funding through the national leisure recovery fund and the swimming pool support fund, for which I give the Government credit, but that needs to be seen in the context of falling swimming ability rates. The national leisure recovery fund was much needed, but was only ever a short-term sticking plaster, and the swimming pool support fund was massively oversubscribed, showing the huge level of need in the leisure sector. There is no substitute for long-term, sustainable funding to deliver the network of community pools we need to provide school swimming opportunities for all children.

A recent survey from the Local Government Association shows that sport and leisure services remain under huge pressure, with more than half of local authorities needing to make cost savings in 2024-25. That follows the huge pressure that council budgets have been under over a number of years, as well as the increases in the costs of operating swimming pools as a result of factors such as massively increased energy prices and staffing costs, which have combined to create a real death knell for some of our swimming centres.

With schools already stating that accessing a pool is often one of the challenges in delivering their school swimming programmes, it is absolutely imperative that we make sure that all communities have access to pools. The Government previously committed to publishing a national vision for swimming facilities by the end of 2023. Could the Minister update us on where we are at, given that we are halfway through 2024 and have still not seen that national vision?

My second point—I will make it very briefly; I know Mr Stringer is getting very impatient in the Chair, but as a former council leader, he will be sympathetic on the point about council funding—is that for years it has been felt from the outside a bit like the Department had put school swimming and water safety on the “too hard to tackle” pile. Would the Minister please refresh the vision for swimming for every single child?

I hope the new online reporting tool being introduced by the Department will be a big step forward. Online tools are all very well, but what we need is more children in the pool doing their 25 metres unaided and learning to swim, so that we know that they will be safe in the coming summer, and we do not see any children drowning needlessly.

13:17
Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) on securing this important debate. I commend him and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for their contributions and for their wider work in the all-party parliamentary group. I also welcome, as ever, the contribution from our mutual friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

All children should know how to swim and keep themselves safe in and around water. Schools can play a really important role in ensuring that they are taught vital skills and knowledge, such as the water safety code. Some 91% of primary schools surveyed in 2023 reported that they were providing swimming and/or water safety lessons to their pupils, but we recognise that there is more to do to increase from the current level the number of children who are able to swim.

Data from the last academic year, as has been mentioned, show that 70.5% of year 7 children—the first year of secondary school—reported that they can swim 25 metres unaided. The national curriculum for physical education states that by the time they leave primary school, children should be able to

“perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations”.

That is in addition to swimming a minimum of 25 metres unaided and performing a range of strokes.

Water safety guidance for schools published by Swim England recommends that primary age pupils should be taught about the water safety code, beach flags and cold water shock. It also recommends pupils be taught about survival skills, such as floatation, treading water, energy conservation and how to signal for help.

Secondary schools are free to organise and deliver a diverse and challenging PE curriculum that suits the needs of all their pupils. While there is no statutory requirement on secondary schools to provide swimming and water safety lessons, the secondary PE curriculum provides clear guidance. It sets out that:

“Pupils should build on and embed the physical development and skills learned in key stages 1 and 2, become more competent, confident and expert in their techniques”.

Swimming and water safety lessons are one way of doing that, and resources are available for all key stages. Swim England recommends that children in key stages 3 and 4—secondary school—have the opportunity to extend their knowledge, including through the practical experience of different outdoor water environments, and annual campaign events such as World Drowning Prevention Day can be useful ways to refresh and build pupils’ knowledge across their time at school.

In July 2023, we published an update to the school sport and activity action plan. The plan encourages schools to teach pupils practical swimming and water safety techniques in a pool and to complement that with classroom lessons. In this area, as in others, schools welcome case studies from other schools and guidance on how to bring to life and embed swimming and water safety in their overall offer. In March, we published non-statutory guidance to support schools to enhance their PE provision and improve access to sport and physical activity. The guidance highlights the wide range of support available from Swim England, including, as has been mentioned, the free school swimming and water safety charter, which provides teachers with pupil awards, lesson plans, videos and water safety presentations. Swim England reports that more than 1,700 schools and lesson providers have registered with the charter.

We recognise the importance of getting water safety education right at an early age, so primary schools can use their PE and sport premium funding for teacher training and top-up swimming and water safety lessons. Those are additional lessons for pupils who may not have met the national curriculum expectations after their core PE lessons. As part of the PE and sport premium conditions of grant, schools must publish the percentage of year 6 pupils who meet the national curriculum expectations. The Department announced last year that we will be introducing a new digital PE and sport premium reporting tool, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green just mentioned. It will capture detail on how schools have used their funding. The form will also require schools to input their swimming and water safety attainment data. We are piloting the digital tool this summer, when schools will have the option of completing it prior to it becoming mandatory for schools to complete in academic year 2024-25.

Swimming and being near water can bring benefits for all children, which is why we are supporting pupils with special educational needs and disabilities to learn to swim and learn about water safety. The inclusion 2024 programme works with a network of lead inclusion schools across England, and has developed new resources that are available to all schools on the Swim England website’s inclusion hub. They include an awards programme, audit tools to facilitate discussions with pool operators, and advice on how to deliver inclusive swimming festivals.

Identifying risk and managing personal safety are central to personal, social, health and economic—PSHE—education, and schools can use PSHE to equip pupils with the knowledge necessary to make safe and informed decisions, which are a vital part of water safety. The PSHE Association is one of many providers to have developed resources in this area that schools can choose from. We will shortly be consulting on revised relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance, and those who are interested will have an opportunity to contribute their thoughts through that process.

A pool can be a valuable asset for a school and help to ensure access for all pupils regardless of background. The Department’s opening school facilities programme is spending up to £57 million to help schools to open their sport facilities outside the core school day, including on weekends and holidays. As of April 2024, the programme has supported more than 220 schools to open their pools to more users for longer. The programme is targeted towards the least active children and young people.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister very much for his words so far, but he has not quite addressed the point about inequality and topping up areas that are so far behind, where below 50% of children are able to swim 25 metres unaided.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes a very important point about equality of access. We are very conscious of that when we talk about safety in particular; this is about not just sporting participation, but children’s safety. It is important that we seek to present that opportunity to everybody. It is our ambition to make swimming up to a certain standard available to everybody in primary school, and that is what we will continue to do.

On a related point, we welcome the efforts to find new ways to overcome barriers to providing high-quality swimming and water safety lessons, particularly for children who may have less access to swimming than others. It is important that pools are safe and appropriate for the activities they provide. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead talked about the trend of pop-up pools. My Department would be interested in hearing more about the work of his all-party parliamentary group and their discussions, and indeed those with Swim England, in that regard.

I welcome the opportunity for the Department to work alongside members of the National Water Safety Forum, in particular the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and Swim England. The Department contributes to the education sub-group by supporting the forum to understand the needs of teachers and improve the dissemination of resources and messages to schools.

The education sub-group recognises the important role of water safety messaging that is age and stage-appropriate for children. The group has recently published a new framework to provide a set of consistent core messages, which will help practitioners and organisations working at local and national levels that wish to develop, deliver and evaluate water safety resources and campaigns. The water safety code is the headline message of the framework and includes key learning outcomes from early years through to key stage 4.

Raising awareness of water safety and key messages is an important part of people understanding the dangers of water. The Department for Education is pleased to have supported the Royal Life Saving Society UK’s Drowning Prevention Week in recent years. Last year, over half a million children took part in schools. In June, we will support this year’s activity, which will focus on the water safety code.

I know how important swimming and water safety are for all children. Swimming can be one of many activities that foster positive wellbeing and can be a habit children take into adult life. We remain committed to working in partnership with sector organisations to support schools to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn to swim and know how to be safe in and around water.

Question put and agreed to.

13:27
Sitting suspended.

Free School Meals

Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
14:49
Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of free school meals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Betts.

A child pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox because they do not qualify for free school meals and do not want their friends to know that there is no food at home; a child coming into school having not eaten anything since lunch the day before, so hungry that they are eating rubbers at school; and a child hiding in the playground because they do not think they can get a meal—all stories from schools in England today. This has to stop.

I want every child at school to be happy, healthy and ready to learn, and I doubt that anybody here would disagree on that point. That is why it was the Liberal Democrats in government who introduced free school meals for every infant schoolchild—something of which I am incredibly proud. Since the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, it has been required by law that free lunches are provided to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2. That universal offering for all infants has paid real dividends. A free school meal can be life changing; its benefits are enormous.

Extending free school meals offers a triple whammy of benefits. Free school meals save parents time and money, as parents save an average of £10 a week on food and 50 minutes a week preparing it. They improve educational outcomes; when free school meals for children aged five to seven were piloted in east London and Durham, pupils made around two months more progress in their SATs results compared with those in the rest of the country. They help children to eat more healthily: packed lunches are much more likely than school meals to provide more calories from fat, sodium and sugar. When free infant school meals were rolled out, two in five headteachers told the Education Policy Institute that healthy eating across the school had improved. Free school meals are incredible, and we should give one to every child living in poverty, whether in primary or secondary school, because hunger and poverty do not stop at the age of 11.

Not only does a free school meal make sense for the reasons I have already outlined; it also makes financial sense. An analysis by PwC found that every £1 spent on free school meals for the poorest children generates £1.38 in core benefits, including a boost to the lifetime earnings of those children by almost £3 billion. Free school meals are a simple, unintrusive way of ensuring that all children from low-income families have at least one well-balanced, healthy, nutritious meal a day. The Government know this, having already extended free school meals to children without recourse to public funds during the pandemic, before making that extension permanent. Even the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), told a Conservative party conference fringe event that he supported extending free school meals to all children in poverty. Doing nothing is economically, morally and politically unsustainable.

There has been some progress. My party and I welcomed the extension of free school meals to every primary school child in London by the Mayor of London in 2023. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that a proper analysis of that scheme and its outcomes will be critical, and I look forward to seeing the Education Endowment Foundation’s report in due course. I hope that that work will inform both this Government’s and any future Government’s policymaking on free school meals.

The Mayor’s commitment to free school meals is admirable, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that earlier in this Parliament the Labour party chose not to support extending free school meals to all children in poverty. When the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment to the Schools Bill in the other place to that effect, Labour peers sadly chose to abstain. Although there was much in the Bill I disliked, I was disappointed that we were not able to press the same amendment to a vote in the Commons. I hope and expect that many hon. Members here would have felt able to support it had we secured that opportunity.

Regarding the Conservative record, I am sure that many hon. Members will recall that Marcus Rashford had to drag this Government kicking and screaming to provide free school meals in the school holidays during covid. They may also recall some of the comments that were expressed from the Government Benches in debates at the time, such as:

“Where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children? I do not believe in nationalising children. Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility”—[Official Report, 21 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1155.]

or,

“‘it’s a parent’s job to feed their children’”. —[Official Report, 21 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1160.]

Frankly, that is an insult to every parent who cannot afford to feed their child. Of course, we all agree that it is a parent’s job to feed their children; that is exactly what almost every parent is desperately trying to do.

Indeed, I met a mother at one of my constituency surgeries who had fled an abusive partner. She was skipping her mental health medication because she needed to use the money that she would have spent on prescriptions to ensure that her daughter could eat lunch at college. That is a mother taking her responsibility to feed her child seriously, and she is paying the price with her health and wellbeing. I am afraid that the Conservative Government are forcing parents to make impossible choices such as that. It is a scandal that a free school meal may be the only hot meal that a child eats in a day in this country. In a country such as England, families are struggling with this basic human need, and it is appalling. The Government should hang their head in shame.

Children are going hungry. In January 2024, the Food Foundation’s latest tracking found that 20% of households with children reported experiencing food insecurity. Given those statistics, it is not surprising that the use of food banks has skyrocketed. Three per cent of all individuals in the UK used a food bank in the financial year ending 2022, and there are over 2,500 food banks operating in the UK.

Giving children in poverty a free school meal gives them the energy to learn in the afternoon and it saves parents money. When children go hungry, they make less progress, and have poorer behaviour and worse health outcomes. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, more than 4 million children in the UK are living in poverty. That means that in an average classroom of 30, nine children will be living in poverty. It also calculates that 900,000 children—a third of school-age children living in poverty in England—miss out on free school meals. The £7,400 earnings threshold has not increased since it was introduced in 2018, but if it had risen in line with inflation it should be around £9,300.

Parents are trapped in poverty by a system that punishes them for working more hours. When universal credit was introduced in 2010, the Government promised that people would be better off for each hour they worked and for every pound they earned, but under the Conservatives that is no longer true. If someone is earning just under the £7,400 limit, taking on extra hours or getting a pay rise could make them worse off, as their children would lose free school meals, and if someone is earning just over the limit, they could be better off taking a pay cut. Surely that is nonsense.

Not only must we feed more children in poverty who are currently not eligible for free school meals; we must also make changes to ensure that every single child who is entitled to a free school meal takes one up. In 2013, the Department for Education estimated that around 14% of pupils entitled to free school meals were not claiming them. The DFE does not routinely collect information on the number of pupils who are entitled to free school meals but do not make a claim. It is therefore largely unknown how many children are not currently receiving the benefit, but it is estimated that around one in 10 pupils eligible for free school meals in England are not registered, so are missing out. The kicker is that as well as these children missing out on their meal, schools are unable to claim the pupil premium and other important disadvantage funding that goes with it. I commend the work of the FixOurFood programme, led by the University of York together with the Food Foundation, which has set out to test and evaluate the Sheffield model of opt-out automatic enrolment with at least 20 local authorities. Auto-enrolment is an important step on which I would welcome movement from the Government.

Free school meals cannot and should not be produced from cheap, substandard ingredients. We have all seen pictures of frankly disgusting-looking school meals in some of our national papers. Although Jamie Oliver has pushed the Government to improve the nutritional quality of our school meals, there is still more work to be done, but I am afraid that the root of these problems is money. I appreciate that there are some hon. Members in this place who think it is possible to provide a meal for an entire family for just 30p a day, but those of us living in the real world are aware that food inflation has been particularly pernicious. We all know that funding for free school meals has not kept up with inflation. The national funding formula value for free school meals in the 2023-24 financial year is £480 per pupil—up just £10 from the previous year—yet food prices have risen by 15%.

Funding increases for universal infant free school meals would have been laughable had the matter not been so serious. The increases have been pitiful. In 2020, the funding rate for universal infant free school meals was increased by just 7p per pupil, and that increase was only the second since the policy was first introduced in 2014. The first increase was just 4p; overall, that is an increase of just 11p in universal infant free school meals since 2014. The economy has taken a hammering and inflation has been sky high, but infant free school meals have got just 11p—not even enough for a lettuce. The resulting shortfalls and cuts to other parts of the school budget mean that children are losing out, or higher prices are being paid by parents of junior pupils who pay for their meals.

Finally, I pay tribute to the successful campaign led by my constituent Natalie Hay on changing free school meal guidance for disabled children, who have been let down. They have often been excluded from free school meal provision because they cannot physically attend school. They may be waiting for a placement at a specialist school or may not be able to eat the school meal provided due to dietary requirements or sensory processing difficulties. Instead of getting a supermarket voucher so that an alternative meal can be provided, these children are often forgotten. Thanks to Natalie’s tenacity in fighting the system, with the support of the charity Contact and CrowdJustice, the legal guidance in this area has gone from just three pages to 19, including food vouchers as an acceptable adjustment. I hope that other families will not face the same prejudice and discrimination that Natalie and her son did.

In conclusion, the Government’s adviser on the national food strategy, Henry Dimbleby, said:

“Hungry children cannot learn and cannot thrive. It is unconscionable in 2022 that this situation has not yet been addressed.”

We are now in 2024 and nothing has changed. Teachers are increasingly having to act as a fourth emergency service, consuming so much time, energy and resources dealing with these issues beyond the school gates, including hunger. Extending free school meals is one way that we can restore the support network around our young people by ensuring that they have at least one hot, cooked meal a day, giving them the energy to learn in the afternoon. No child should go hungry at school. The Liberal Democrats would extend free school meals, beginning with every child in poverty, to save parents money, encourage healthy eating and give children the energy to learn. It is a no-brainer.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair)
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As quite a lot of Members wish to speak, the Front Benchers have kindly agreed to keep their contributions to eight minutes, which means that I can allow six minutes to Back-Bench Members. That is advisory, but please do not go over; if Members go over that limit, I will start to intervene to keep us to it.

16:43
Beth Winter Portrait Beth Winter (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
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Diolch yn fawr, Mr Betts, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate.

I believe that access to sufficient, nutritious food is a basic right. It is essential to the development and growth of our children—our future generations—and the provision of free school meals is fundamentally important to that. Guaranteeing children at least one hot, healthy meal a day is a vital way of enabling young people to develop, and there is strong evidence that it improves their health and wellbeing, their academic performance and our economic prosperity as a country. The Government like to say that they have increased free school meal provision, but the low household income threshold of £7,400 means that close to 1 million children living in poverty in England are not eligible for the Government’s free school meals scheme. Furthermore, as the National Education Union highlights, the divisions inherent in a means-tested system mean that stigma remains a barrier to accessing free school meals, even for parents who are aware of their children’s entitlement. It has been estimated that as many as 215,000 eligible children missed out in 2020. As well as being in the interests of children and their families, expanding free school meal provision makes sense economically. Research conducted by PwC has found that expanding free school meal eligibility in line with universal credit has economic benefits.

I am proud to say that in Wales we are leading the way in many regards—alongside the other devolved nations, I hasten to add. I have been fortunate to be involved in a grassroots campaign that has led to free school meals being provided in all primary schools in Wales. That is part of the co-operation agreement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru. As of last month, all primary school children in Wales, including in my constituency of Cynon Valley, are receiving free school meals.

It is time for England to catch up. I commend the campaign work that the Food Foundation has done through its Nourishing the Nation campaign. I also commend the NEU’s Free School Meals for All campaign. I thank them for their briefings ahead of the debate today. England can start to catch up with Wales by ensuring that at least the 900,000 children living in poverty who do not have access to free school meals can have that.

We can do a lot more, including in Wales, and I want to mention the excellent work that the Bevan Foundation has recently been doing on provision for those currently subject to no recourse to public funds. Eligibility assessments for children rely on receipt of benefits that parents subject to no recourse conditions cannot access, so Welsh Government guidance encourages local authorities to exercise their discretion where children are affected by no recourse. However, many children from low-income households are not entitled to free school meals, so the Bevan Foundation recommends that the Welsh Government introduce automatic eligibility for free school meals for those children, and England should be doing that as well.

To go further, I passionately believe that free school meals should be an entitlement for all children and young people. I started by saying that access to sufficient nutritious food is a basic right, so ensuring that every woman, man and child has a right to nutritious food should be enshrined in law.

I want to finish by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and thanking him for the sterling work that he is doing. My colleague and friend is working tirelessly in demanding that the right to food be enshrined in law, and I am pleased that I am able to support that. We can afford it. We are the fifth—the fifth—richest nation in the world and we could introduce a wealth tax and end tax evasion and avoidance by the rich.

There is another way, and we have to start getting our priorities right as a country. I am determined to continue to work in collaboration with colleagues in this House but also, crucially, with grassroots organisations and individuals to end the scourge of child poverty.

16:48
Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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I, too, am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this very welcome debate.

In 2022-23, 30% of children were in poverty after housing costs. That is 4.3 million children, the highest number since 1998-99, reversing all the progress that had been made in the years following that time. The Government’s family resources survey found that one 10th of all households and 15% of households with children were food insecure; that is the Government’s own data. The Food Foundation has been mentioned by both previous speakers. Using a different methodology, taken from the USA’s food security survey model, it found that 17% of all households and 23.4% of households with children were either moderately or severely food insecure in June 2023. Those figures make it absolutely clear that child poverty in the UK is much too high. We are limiting our future potential by keeping it at this high level. The most immediate benefit of free school meals is tackling the scourge of child poverty.

As we have heard, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, a third of school-age children in poverty are missing out on free school meals at the moment. Free school meals are provided to children with parents in receipt of a number of benefits, most importantly universal credit, but only if their household income is less than £7,400 a year. That threshold has not been uprated in six years. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on that, because it ought to be uprated annually, along with other benefits. The Government estimate that, once other social security income is considered, the threshold equates to a total household income for those families of around £18,000 to £24,000, but that is below what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that a single person needs for a minimum acceptable living standard, let alone a couple with children.

We have heard about the cost-benefit analysis produced by PwC on extending free school meals to all those who claim universal credit. The analysis took account of research from Sweden to the Department for Education, and from the Association for Young People’s Health to Ofsted, showing that free school meals reduce obesity and absenteeism, improve academic attainment and raise lifetime earnings. Those are all advantages that we need to capture.

The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the 2009 pilot in the London Borough of Newham. I am pleased to be one of the Members of Parliament who represent that borough, and I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) in her place today. The assessment of the pilot showed that it led to improvements in classroom behaviour, concentration and attainment. Parents also reported that their children were more willing to eat healthily at home. I am pleased to say that Newham has continued to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils ever since, defying waves of Government austerity in the last 15 years. I want to pay tribute to the impressive commitment of my colleagues on Newham Council to maintaining that very important provision. I also pay tribute to Juniper, the council-owned company that provides the meals and is very well-known to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who works with it each year at a free school meals event.

Last year the Mayor of London provided funding to help all London boroughs follow suit, and I very much applaud that decision. It is a very popular policy and no doubt one of the reasons for his welcome re-election last week. Now that he has been re-elected, provision across London is thankfully secure for the next four years. Richard Parker and Kim McGuinness, the new Mayors in the West Midlands and the North East, have committed to moving in that direction too.

Free school meals help alleviate poverty and improve children’s health and educational attainment. Let us use this lever much more widely to tackle the scourge of child poverty.

16:53
Lyn Brown Portrait Ms Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for the work they do in this area.

Newham has been a pioneer in universal free school meals for over a decade now, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) has described. As has been mentioned, 900,000 children in England live in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals. Many of those children may well live in Newham, but thankfully at primary schools in our area they receive that important hot and healthy meal, even though the Government’s criteria seems to suggest that they do not deserve it. I continue to believe that our local universal free school meal offer is so important for child welfare because so many families in our communities are enduring hardship, thanks to incomes that simply do not pay the bills and a massive shortage of decent affordable homes.

We have the second highest child poverty rate in the country and the highest homelessness rate. More than 8,500 children in Newham are growing up in temporary accommodation, which is often damp, cold and mouldy—awful conditions. Last week, we learned that across the country that statistic has risen by 15%. Our families, whether they are technically in poverty or not, and whether they can pay their rent or are struggling to do so, have been massively impacted by the cost of living crisis over the past years. That has increased child hunger and stress caused by financial worries to simply appalling levels. The rise in child hardship and child homelessness makes that one free school meal a day all the more essential—sometimes it is that child’s only meal.

Teachers I speak to locally tell me ever-worse stories of how children are coming in hungry day after day and the strategies the children use to hide it. A hot decent lunch is a lifeline that helps children concentrate. It makes school the haven it should be, away from the stress and worry that often awaits them at home. But rising homelessness costs to the council create risk for Newham’s new universal free school meal programme. Without support, it could become less and less affordable, even as the need for it grows higher and higher. That is because just a fraction of free school meals in Newham are paid for by this Government, who have done so much to increase need by driving down council funding, eroding our stock of social homes and cutting family incomes from social security.

Our Newham programme has always been paid for by local people through our council budget and, in recent years, by our Mayor of London. Thankfully, that should continue following Sadiq Khan’s victory at the weekend, which ended the financial threat posed by the Conservative candidate. For Newham, widening national eligibility for free school meals would have a double impact on child poverty: it would free up resources to meet the wider needs, including those that have been caused by homelessness. The council and now the Mayor of London would save £6 million a year, which could be reinvested in other services if the free school meals programme was fully funded by the Government.

Healthy free school meals impact on many aspects of our children’s lives and on their opportunities. A University of Essex study, which included Newham, found that families receiving free school meals were saving £37 a month per child and that childhood obesity was reduced by 9.3% for children of reception age. That is obviously important for protecting children’s lifelong health and for reducing costs to the NHS for decades to come, particularly in Newham where almost 30% of year 6 children are affected by obesity.

Even small expansions in eligibility for free school meals are estimated to have economic, social and health benefits. A £1 investment has been found to recoup £1.38 in returns from higher educational achievement, savings to school budgets and reduced NHS costs from obesity. Ultimately, this is a debate about whether we have a Government that are willing to take a long-term view and make an investment in our children that would more than pay for itself in the coming years. Surely that is the kind of investment we need to build a fairer, healthier and more prosperous future for Newham and all our communities.

16:59
Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I am delighted to participate in the debate as a former recipient of free school meals. I know how important they are to support learning and attainment for children. I am extremely proud that in Scotland we have the most generous free school meal provision anywhere in the UK by some significant distance, with universal provision for all pupils in primary 1 to 5 and eligible pupils who are older. Last year, free school meal provision helped feed 231,967 children. With 29% of children in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran living in poverty, free school meals could not matter more.

Despite our progress, however, we in Scotland are not content. We are going to expand free school meals to all primary children, and that is actively in the works. The Scottish Government is working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to prepare primary schools and their infrastructure for a full, universal roll-out of free school meals for all primary children, which should be completed in 2026. That is supported by £43 million in capital from the Scottish Government in 2024-25 and an additional £6 million in resource spending, with local authorities benefiting from £21.7 million allocated to support eligible children during the school holidays. This support saves families £400 per year and far outstrips the free school meal offers in any other part of the UK. That matters, because hungry children do not learn. Ensuring that children receive a nutritious free school meal is therefore a fundamental part of supporting attainment. How could it not be?

By contrast, the incoming Labour Government have ruled out universal free school meals despite previous commitments to that, just as so many of Labour’s commitments have been dropped the more certain it becomes of forming the next Government. You would not know this from the comments made today, but in a matter of months we can be pretty sure that there will be a Labour Government with a significant majority, and we know, because we have been told, that there will be no movement on free school meals.

The arguments that Labour Members have made today to the Minister would be better directed to their own leadership, which refuses to deliver on free school meals. Indeed, that reminds me of the debate we had after the UK Government’s Budget, when Labour MP after Labour MP condemned the Budget and then refused to vote against it. I think that may be what some people call gaslighting.

We cannot leave the matter there because, in a somewhat grotesque development, we have the incoming Labour Government committing to leaving bankers’ bonuses uncapped. That appears to be sacrosanct. So, we appear to be balancing children’s hunger against rich bankers’ bonuses, and that, for the new Labour Government, which we can be pretty sure will be arriving, seems to be the way things are going to be. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we have a Scottish child payment of £26.70 per week per child for the poorest children. The cumulative impact of that, alongside other policies such as free school meals, seems to have reduced child poverty by 10% from what it would otherwise be. In other words, 10% of those children have not fallen into relative poverty as a direct result of those policies. Indeed, the Child Poverty Action Group referred to the Scottish child payment as “a game changer” when it comes to tackling child poverty.

One of the basic tasks of the state is to ensure that every child has access to opportunity, regardless of their family circumstances. Tackling child poverty and child hunger is a fundamental of that. We know that Labour speak with forked tongue on this issue, and frequently so in Scotland. The reality is that when it comes to supporting redistributive policies designed to create a fairer, more equal Scotland, the Labour party in Scotland continues to ape and mimic the lines from Labour in Westminster and fulfil its role as a branch office.

Austerity hits children hardest. People do not like to talk about this, but we suffered austerity under the previous Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and that has only been continued under the Tory Government. We know that it will be embraced yet again by the incoming UK Labour Government. There is no respite from austerity when Westminster is a parcel that is passed between two parties devoid of any so-called vision beyond austerity.

Scotland’s children are faring better because the SNP Scottish Government choose to use their power to support them, and to govern is to choose. Sadly, neither of the Westminster parties today will choose universal free school meals for children. I am proud that in Scotland we are making a different choice for children in Scotland. I fear for the children in England.

17:05
Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I want to thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing today’s debate and for her excellent opening speech setting the scene. The topic of school food—and specifically free school meals—has been an incredibly important one for me throughout my parliamentary career. In fact, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, which I set up in 2010, and I am pleased to say that a number of colleagues here today are also very important members.

As we have heard, in the UK our devolved nations each have their own individual free school meal offers. In Scotland, all primary school children, regardless of family income, are eligible for free school meals and all secondary school students are subject to a means-tested offer. In Wales, all children who attend mainstream primary schools are eligible for a free school meal. In Northern Ireland there is no universal offer; however, the eligibility criteria for the means-tested offer includes families with an annual taxable income of up to £16,190 or net earnings of under £14,000 a year, which is almost twice as high as the same offer in England, and means that around 30% of the entire school population are eligible. The levels of poverty across the north-east, and indeed in other parts of England, are the same as in Northern Ireland, and yet such different levels of means-testing are used. That is just unfair.

In England, all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 currently receive a hot, healthy meal each day. Universal infant free school meals is a policy I am very proud of, having worked with Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent on the school food plan that helped convince them to put universal primary free school meals as one of their recommendations, which, as we heard, the former Deputy Prime Minister then enacted when they were in the coalition Government, which I think we are all very happy still exists to this day—the free school meals, not the coalition Government! However, from year 3 onwards, provision of free school meals is means-tested. Only children in households in England who receive universal credit and earn less than £7,400—excluding benefit payments—are eligible for free school meals. On that note, in today’s short speech I will focus on how we must change the policy in England. For too long, England has been the poor relation. It is just not good enough. We have the least generous offers around school food, and the highest rates of children in poverty who are ineligible for free school meals.

We must also think about the quality of the food that we are providing to our students. The school food standards are a fantastic set of regulations that provide guidance on the nutritional quality and variety of food that children should have access to at school. When they are followed correctly, the school meal offers are some of the best in the world, and I work with parliamentarians around the world, so I speak with some authority on this. However, sadly some schools struggle to do so, and they need support. In England there is no consistent assessment, monitoring or reporting of whether schools are meeting the standards for school food. There is no ring-fencing of funding, either. This means that the quality is very variable, with some children benefiting from nutritious, delicious food while others receive lower-quality meals.

We must discuss the structural issues surrounding provision that make delivering school meals unsustainable. For example, as has been talked about already, the funding per meal for universal infant free school meals is far too low. It is just £2.53 across most of England, despite the average meal cost exceeding this. The funding must be raised to £3 per meal to adequately cover the cost of the ingredients and the labour costs for school food. We all eat in restaurants; we know the prices have gone up. Schools are being asked to do an impossible thing at the moment. The rising cost of these meals and the dwindling funding means that, inevitably, quality is going to slip.

We need to revolutionise eligibility. I truly believe that the best school meal offer is a universal free school meal offer, as we have seen with the triumph of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s universal free school meal offer for primary school children in London. It seems popular as well—I think he won, didn’t he? But I understand that the road to a universal offer is a journey. That is why I am calling on the Government to, without delay, expand eligibility to all children whose parents and carers receive universal credit, so that we can begin to tackle the horrifying reality that, as we have heard, 900,000 children living in poverty are currently ineligible, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

The next step on this road is to implement automatic enrolment as soon as possible. Local authorities like Sheffield are leading the way on this already, and prove it works. Every eligible child should be eligible from day one. This is not an expensive change. The Government already know exactly who is eligible and who is not, so families should not need to apply. It needs to be automatic from when the child is enrolled in school, or when their circumstances change. That will help schools too because they will get extra pupil premium, and that can then unlock access to resources and support as well as a hot meal for these children.

Free school meals are foundational to a fair and equal school experience. When we provide them, they leave inequality at the school gate and liberate children from the injustice of the haves and the have-nots.

17:11
Ian Byrne Portrait Ian Byrne (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
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It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. Thank you to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. I echo her praise for the fantastic campaign victory of Natalie Hay and Contact, for disabled children, their parents and guardians.

I start by sharing the words of the children of Monksdown Primary School in West Derby, who wrote to the Prime Minister last year to ask him to offer free school meals for all pupils. One pupil wrote:

I am writing to you because I believe all children deserve free school meals. The inflation over the past few months means some people have been starving at school because of the cost of living…so some parents have not had enough to get school meals.”

Another pupil wrote:

“Parents might not have the money to pay for food for you. If your brain is hungry, you will feel unhappy and tired.”

Another pupil wrote:

“We don’t have a choice to go to school because it’s the law but we have to pay for lunch.”

Adam Gidwitz once wrote:

“There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have.”

It has been almost a year since the children wrote to the Prime Minister, who unfortunately does not have that wisdom. Imagine the difference that would have made for families with their children’s education, health and happiness if he had listened to the children at our primary and introduced free school meals like they asked.

Last year, over 4 million children experienced food insecurity, not having access to nutritious and balanced meals or having to skip meals. That includes many thousands in my constituency, where the relative child poverty rate is significantly higher than national averages and where, as a city, one in three people are in food poverty. This is devastating for children and families in West Derby and Liverpool, including the many who are hungry and do not fall beneath the Government’s restrictively-low household income threshold of £7,400 to be eligible for free school meals. They are among the 900,000 children nationally who are below the poverty line yet still do not qualify.

It is imperative that the Government and politicians understand that children are going to school hungry as a result of the political choices made in this place. The evidence is clear. We do need universal provision: a nutritious free school breakfast and lunch provided to all primary and secondary school children as a necessity, as an investment in the future of our children, who are the future of our country. That is what it is—an investment. It should not be seen as a cost.

The right political choices cannot wait a moment longer. Universal free school meals would improve attainment and reduce pressure on teachers, parents and the NHS, and evidence has shown they could help drive local economies. Findings from the Government’s own pilot noted improved academic attainment, with children making between four and eight weeks’ more progress in maths and English. The statistics are astounding. Crucially, universal provision removes all stigma from school food and ensures that all children, regardless of their economic circumstances, have an equal opportunity to thrive and be healthy. Surely that is what we all want in this place.

The Government’s own former adviser, Henry Dimbleby, wrote:

“When children sit down to eat with friends and teachers in a civilised environment, it cements relationships, helps them to develop social skills and reinforces positive behaviour throughout the day.”

Backing that up, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs heard powerful evidence, including from the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, about the benefits, and that such investment would more than pay for itself in the long run. This has been touched on, but it is important to reinforce that it would pay for itself.

PwC’s cost-benefit analysis of universal free school meals showed the undeniable societal and economic benefits. It calculated that if this Government or future Governments made the investment, the “core benefits” over 20 years of providing universal free school meals would be worth £41.3 billion, compared with a total cost of £24.1 billion. It is an absolute no-brainer, regardless of where anyone sits ideologically.

We need political leadership to guarantee and realise all our children’s right to healthy food. Well done to Sadiq Khan for showing us an example of that leadership in London—it is interesting what popularity it produced. We all knew that—we have been saying it for a long time—and it is great to see the new Mayors who have been elected taking it up. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 must be in school, why do we break the principle of universal care, nurturing and protection in relation to meals during the school day? We would think it absurd for children not to be provided with adequate shelter, heating, drinking water or sanitary provision while in school, so why do we take a different approach to the equally essential element of food?

I pay tribute to all the parents, educators and pupils in West Derby—and MPs—who have been fighting this good fight for a long time. Those good friends, and campaigners and trade unions right across the country, have been campaigning tirelessly for the expansion of free school meals, which is a fundamental part of our Right to Food campaign. Political choices define our time in this place, and I implore the Minister to listen and to make the right political choice by investing in universal free school meals for every child in this country.

17:16
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.

We have heard how 900,000 children from low-income families are not in receipt of free school meals and about the adequacy of what many children are receiving, not least if they take a packed lunch—they are not being nutritiously fed throughout the day. In fact, only 1% of packed lunches reach nutritional standards. In York, that is very much the case. We have about 4,000 children who are entitled to be in receipt of free school meals, but only about 3,000—about 75%—actually receiving them, because we do not have auto-enrolment. I urge the Government to join up the data so that we see eligibility following through to receipt of free school meals. It can be done, it must be done, and it will ensure that those families are well served.

I want to talk in particular about York Hungry Minds. York has the lowest-funded upper-tier local authority in the country, yet, as a Right to Food city, it prioritised feeding hungry children when Labour came to power in the council last May. City of York Council put the first £100,000 into Two Ridings Community Foundation as a vehicle for sourcing and independently funding the programme. It then called for city partners, including in industry and business, as well as individuals from the community, to boost that fund.

The pilot that York is engaged in is based in two schools: Westfield, where there are already far better healthy lunch choices for the children at key stage 2; and Burton Green, which is investing in breakfast for children. The results are already incredible. Starting in January this year, the research piece by the University of York will follow the pilot through to the end of the year. Researchers are already seeing an improvement in attendance—an issue that the Government are wrestling with at the moment—and far better engagement in learning. These are the early seeds of what it means to have a full stomach and to be able to work in such an environment.

I really do congratulate those involved in the project, but we need to ensure that the funding continues and is available for roll-out across our city. That is certainly the ambition of the Labour council, but we need the support of Government. I am delighted that Labour is so committed to ensuring that children start the day with a full stomach. We know the difference that will make for them.

This is not just about what happens for a child in school; it is about resetting the life course inequality that we see across our society. We want to address that by ensuring that children are well fed. That inequality results in differentiations in exam results, in where children move on to, and ultimately in the career choices that they can make and in their incomes. If we are to break intergenerational inequality, that small measure of having high-value, highly nutritious meals at the start of the day—and, I trust, rolling into the middle of the day too—is so important. That can be the game changer that families need.

However, we need to evaluate as we go, and that is why I congratulate the University of York on its investment in not only the project that I described but in looking at child hunger. It is evaluating the difference that the project will make to the lives of those children by looking at how much healthy food is going to them as a result of the menu choices; by looking at the amount of food waste, which is another important factor; and by looking at any changes in readiness to learn, in absence due to ill health or in school attendance. Looking at the data, which I trust the Minister will do, will strengthen the opportunity to roll out these programmes.

It is also important that the programme looks at the stigma around the provision of free school meals. We must remember that no child wants to be differentiated because of the income level or socioeconomic disadvantage their family experiences.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the reasons that John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, who authored the school food plan, said that they included recommendation 17 on universal free primary school meals is that, when they looked at the evidence, the children who improved the most when all the boats rose were those who were already entitled to free school meals. The only thing that had been removed was the stigma. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is very important?

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend knows so much about this subject and could not make a more powerful point. We need all young people who have hungry stomachs to be able to engage, and taking away the stigma not only gives those children confidence but ensures that the issue of hunger is addressed.

I would like to quickly reinforce some of the points that colleagues have made. It is important that we make sure that thresholds rise and are appropriate, and it is important that people can enrol in the holiday activities fund if their eligibility changes over the holiday period, rather than having to wait until the beginning of the new year. It is possible to do that, and I trust that the Minister will.

17:23
Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for bringing this important debate to the House.

I want to declare an interest from the very beginning: I was on free school meals for quite some time as a young lad. With my four brothers, that was five of us all on free school meals for quite some time. We had a very difficult experience. As most speakers have mentioned, there is a stigma attached to free school meals, and we suffered that stigma. However, we lived in a very socially deprived area where the vast majority of people were on free school meals.

It was a terrible situation, but it is not until we grow older and get wiser that we begin to understand what actually happened when we were in that sort of position. We did not argue about what was relative poverty, what was abject poverty and what was absolute poverty. We knew we were hungry, but we did not argue about how hungry we were, and we did not quote politicians and say, “Well, it’s not as bad as it was last year under this Government. It’s not as bad as what it could be, and it’s not absolute poverty.” We were hungry.

If parents who are working have to use a food bank to put food on the table, what does that say for a nation like the UK? The top 1% of people in this country own as much as the bottom 50%. That is the problem: where the wealth of this nation is. Food poverty, child poverty, pensioner poverty—whatever we want to call these issues— are political choices. There is no doubt about that—they are political choices. If we want to feed the kids, we can feed the kids. If it means something else has got to stop, let it stop, and let us feed the kids.

I went to a school in my constituency a while ago—I have mentioned it before. The headteacher was slightly late. He came in and said, “I’m sorry, Mr Lavery. I’ve just had to send a little boy home. I’ve had to exclude him.” This was a child at a first school. I said, “Oh, what’s the problem?” He said, “Well, he went missing. He said, ‘I’m away to the toilet’—he put his hand up, went to the toilet—and didn’t come back.” So they went looking for this little lad. They found him in the cloakroom. He had been in people’s satchels. He had a sandwich in his hand that he had stolen from somebody’s bag. This was a four-year-old kid, who was that hungry he had to steal sandwiches from somebody else. This is 2024, in one of the richest countries in the world—one of the richest countries on this planet—and we have situations like that occurring in schools not just in my constituency but up and down the country.

We have choices to make. Do we want to feed the kids? Are we going to keep debating across this Chamber how many people are in this type of poverty or that type of poverty, and what improvements have been made? If one kid in this country has not got the opportunity for a hot, nutritious meal every day, there is something sadly wrong with this country. It is a simple as that.

We can say what we want, but everyone in here, every MP in this House of Commons and every Member of the Lords—we can all afford as much food as we can eat. That does not mean that we should ignore what is happening out there. Universal free school meals would be very important to kids and very important to the nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) said, it is an investment in the nation rather than anything else.

I conclude simply by saying that if we, every Member of the House of Commons, cannot agree on that, then you know what? We should bolt the doors of this place, give out 650 redundancy notices and bulldoze this building into the Thames.

17:29
Zarah Sultana Portrait Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and always an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this very important debate.

After 14 years of Conservative Government, a record number of children in Coventry South and across the country are growing up in poverty, arriving at school hungry in the morning and going to bed hungry at night. In the west midlands, 11 children in every class of 30 are living in poverty. Due to the strict eligibility criteria for free school meals, by which families have to earn less than £7,400 a year to qualify, across the country nearly 1 million children in poverty are missing out.

We have all heard horror stories like the one we just heard—pupils turning up to school with just mouldy bread or a packet of crisps for lunch, or sometimes with nothing at all; kids bursting into tears because they are worried that there is no food at home, or stealing bagels from breakfast club or from their friends’ satchels just to get by. That is why, along with trade unions and other anti-poverty groups, I have long campaigned for universal free school meals for primary school children, so that every child in primary school throughout the country is given a warm, healthy lunch each day, and no-one is left learning on an empty stomach.

The benefits of this policy are clear. Research shows that free school meals boost children’s concentration, behaviour and attainment. They also have health benefits, improving nutrition and reducing obesity. It is also a great help to families, saving parents’ time and relieving financial pressure. As has been highlighted in this debate, it is important that free school meals are universal, giving all children the opportunity to eat, learn and grow together. Means-tested policies create stigma and they allow children to slip through the net. Too often, means-tested services are lower quality services, and services for the poor do indeed become poor services.

We see consensus growing on this issue, which is very welcome. In Wales and Scotland, all primary school children are set to receive a free, warm, healthy lunch each day. It is about time England did the same.

In last week’s elections, mayoral candidates up and down the country campaigned and were elected on a platform of supporting free school meals for all primary school kids. In London, Sadiq Khan has already made this a reality and now pledges to make it permanent with funding from his mayoral budget. Mayors including Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, newly elected Richard Parker in the West Midlands and Kim McGuinness in the North East are calling on the Government to give them the funding they need to deliver it too. They know that this policy makes common sense and they know it is popular too, with 75% of parents supporting universal free school meals for primary school kids. That is why they have won their elections. Is it not time that this Government took a leaf out of the book of Khan, Burnham, Parker and McGuinness, and instead of ignoring children in poverty and resorting to desperate attacks on minorities to distract from their own failings, they start to deliver the popular, unifying, anti-poverty policies our communities need, starting off with universal free school meals for primary school children?

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank all colleagues for being so co-operative in terms of the time. I will call the Front Benchers now, starting with the Scottish National party spokesperson.

17:32
Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham on bringing this debate forward. I think everybody here understands the importance of children being well fed in order to learn well. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I was a teacher for over 20 years. We understood the difference it made to have children in front of us who actually had food in their stomachs.

Child Poverty Action Group figures show that child poverty is at a record high in the UK, with 30% of all children living in poverty. Significantly, 69% of these children are from working families. The issue around universal credit and eligibility has been brought up by a number of Members, notably the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). Families on universal credit are eligible only if their after-tax income is less than £7,400 a year. I wonder if any of us could get by on such a small amount. The problem with a borderline like that is that those who are just on the wrong side of it tend to be impacted the most harshly. The harsh means-testing in England, which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) referred to, means that many children are struggling to learn and to get by, even though their parents are in work.

The problem of stigma was brought up by the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter). Stigma is always associated with means-testing for free school meals. In Scotland, it was important to us to have a universal policy for all children in primary school. At the moment it has been rolled out from P1 to P5, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, it will be rolled out further over the next two years.

Scotland has the most generous free school meals offer of any UK nation. It saves parents and families around £400 per child per year, but it is not just about the money. It is about the value and importance that we place on children. In Scotland, children are seen as an asset, not an inconvenience. That starts from the very moment that parents are expecting a child. They get a baby box with books and various lovely things to give them a great start. Then we have the Scottish child payment of £26.70 for every eligible child in Scotland, which has been described by the Trussell Trust as game-changing and has seen food bank use reduced dramatically. That is how we make a difference to child poverty.

Of course, those policies can go only a small way towards tackling the cost of living crisis, but they are part of the big picture. I was moved by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talking about his personal experience. He also talked about political choices, and this is indeed about political choices. I found myself nodding along and agreeing with Labour colleagues, but they need to take that to their leadership, because the party cannot have the policy in its manifesto in 2019 and then drop it for the next election. If the Labour party is in government after the election, I hope that Labour colleagues keep up the pressure on their own leadership.

The benefits of free school meals were highlighted when we heard about increased attainment, increased pupil scores and increased cognitive ability. Free school meals also increase school attendance, because it encourages parents to get their children to school if they know that they will get a meal. The hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) talked about the benefits of that. I was pleased to read that free school meals also reduce obesity. We know that childhood obesity carries health problems on into adulthood, which has economic problems for us down the road, so it is worthwhile investing at this point.

Some 80% of the public support free school meals for children in households receiving universal credit. At its annual conference this month, The National Association of Head Teachers called for children to get free school meals automatically if their families are eligible for universal credit. James Bowen, the assistant general secretary, said:

“I think it’s an absolute no brainer.”

I agree.

17:38
Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate on an issue that affects so many of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our country.

We have heard powerful speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), and my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). They all touched on the impact of the cost of living crisis on families in their areas, the shocking levels of child poverty, which is a scourge on our society, and the rampant inequality in our communities, which is holding our country back.

The cost of living crisis is making more and more families worry about how to make ends meet. Energy bills, rent, and the cost of clothes and basic essentials are leaving far too many children going hungry. School leaders, teachers and support staff are increasingly bringing food and supplies into schools and even washing uniforms to ensure that children have what they need and are ready to learn. In 2024 it is a national scandal.

Currently around 2 million pupils are known to be eligible for free school meals. The eligibility rate has increased sharply in the last few years—an indication not of the Government’s generosity but of appalling economic failure—and now represents around a quarter of children attending state schools. There are significant regional variations: in my local authority of Newcastle, 39.6% of children are eligible; in Wokingham, fewer than one in 10 are. Labour in government will focus on lifting those children and their families out of poverty, making sure that families have the dignity and peace of mind to be able to provide for their families.

An important first step towards that will be Labour’s plan to fund free breakfast clubs in every primary school, paid for by clamping down on tax avoidance and closing the tax loopholes in the Tories’ non-dom plan. It will give all primary school children not only a healthy start to the morning, but additional time in school to play, socialise and be ready for the school day, because it really is as much about the club as it is about the breakfast. Crucially, it will also help parents to save money on childcare. It will put money back in parents’ pockets directly and give parents greater flexibility at work so they can earn more for their families.

With clear evidence that our breakfast clubs would also improve children’s attendance and attainment, they will be central to our determined drive to narrow the attainment gap as well as tackle child poverty. We are prioritising breakfast clubs and have a plan to fund them at a cost of £365 million a year, which includes Barnett funding to the devolved Administrations.

In a report last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies argued that making free school meals universal for all primary school pupils would cost £1 billion a year; offering them to all children from reception through to year 11 would cost £2.5 billion a year. In the current economic environment, we must focus on more targeted measures.

The Conservative Government have done precious little for children from the poorest families. The failure to develop a good childcare and early years support system means that children eligible for free school meals are already five months behind their peers by the time they start school. Once in school, the attainment gap between children on free schools meals and their peers is the widest it has been for a decade. That is why Labour has committed to ensuring that inclusivity is a new focus for Ofsted, ensuring that inspections look at how schools support the attainment and inclusion of pupils eligible for free school meals, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, to ensure that they do what they can to break down the barriers to opportunity.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Lady agree with me that one aspect of inclusivity is universalism when it comes to free school meals? She is quite rightly talking up the benefits of breakfast clubs and the importance of children starting the day not feeling hungry, but does she share my view that feeling hungry after lunchtime, if they have not had a lunch, is also a problem, and some children will miss out unless free school meals are universal?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes. I have focused on the role that Ofsted should have in ensuring inclusivity for children who are eligible for free school meals, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, but the focus of Labour’s policies is to put money back into parents’ and families’ pockets, so that we can break down the barriers to opportunity that far too many people in this country face.

I also want to comment on the quality and, in some cases, quantity of school food, as I know that concern is also expressed up and down the country. The Government produce guidance on school food that looks at issues such as foods high in fat, sugar and salt, healthy drinks and starchy foods. However, there are still concerns around schools and the quality of school food, and there is an evident need to ensure that all schools and food suppliers are ensuring that the highest standards of school food are in place. Especially considering our breakfast clubs policy, Labour would look at the guidance for school food again to ensure that they truly deliver the healthy start to the school day that we know children need.

I thank every Member who has contributed to today’s debate and assure them that the next Labour Government will be committed to reducing child poverty, which is a blight on our society that must be urgently addressed.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Breakfast clubs are a lovely idea, but does the hon. Lady recognise that, as a number of colleagues have said, many children live in temporary accommodation, have an extremely long journey to school and often miss breakfast, and will therefore lose out altogether? She talked about targeted intervention, so why would her colleagues in the other place not support the Liberal Democrat amendment to make sure that every child on universal credit got access to a free school meal, or, at the very least, Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation of raising the threshold to £20,000?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The breakfast club offer, which we have fully costed and will deliver, is a first step on the road to making sure that we put money back into people’s pockets, break down the barriers to opportunity and deliver a cross-Government strategy to tackle child poverty. Free breakfast clubs are the first step on that road.

However, we also want to see the costs of uniforms come down for all families. We want to give children the best start in life to set them up for life and set them up to learn. As the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out herself, after 14 years of Conservative Government we have a situation where an average of nine children in a classroom of 30 are growing up in poverty. That is why we will introduce a cross-Government taskforce aimed at breaking down the barriers to opportunity for every child in every community. We will focus the limited resources we are set to inherit where we believe they can impact the most.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be very brief; I think my hon. Friend is just coming to her big wind-up moment. I know she is in an invidious position—an impossible position. I am sure that, like the rest of us, she would like to stand here and announce universal free school meals, and obviously she cannot, because that is not in her gift today.

One thing that I notice has not been raised at all today—I know she will be concerned about it and could take this back to the Front Bench when they are developing policy—is the issue of dinner money debt. She talked about putting money back into parents’ pockets, and there are so many families who struggle with dinner money debt. Universal free school meals would obviously solve that. When the policy is being developed and talked about, I hope she will feed that in.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is such a passionate campaigner for children in her area, and indeed the country. I did not want to let this moment pass without her getting the chance to add in that final additional measure that she would like to see.

I am conscious that the Government need to respond to this debate, so I do not want to take up any more time. I want to finish by emphasising that child poverty in this country is pernicious, but does not demand a simple fix. It needs hard work, focus and prioritisation across Government Departments. It needs a targeted approach to tackle the root causes of poverty and break down the barriers that are holding far too many people back. The next Labour Government will take on that mission, and like previous Labour Governments, we are determined to deliver on it.

17:49
Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this important debate. I thank everybody who has taken part alongside her: the hon. Members for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms). I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who spoke for the SNP, and the spokesperson for the official Opposition, whose speech contained a short section on free school meals. This is an important subject on which we have heard striking and compelling speeches from Members, and the debate has been important and useful.

The Government are determined to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, has the best start in life, and nutrition and school meals are important in that. Not only do they support the development of healthy eating habits that can pave the way to lifelong wellbeing, but they help pupils to concentrate, to learn and to get the most from their education in the immediate term. For those reasons, the Department for Education spends more than £1.5 billion annually on policies to deliver free and nutritious food to children and young people; that is on food provision alone. On top of that, we allocate money to schools to support the education and opportunity of disadvantaged children that is driven by their free-school-meal status, such as through the pupil premium and the deprivation factor in the national funding formula.

I am proud that this Government have extended eligibility for free school meals more than any other. We spend over £1 billion per annum delivering free lunches to the greatest ever proportion of school children: over a third. That is in contrast to the one in six who were receiving a free school meal in 2010. This change is despite unemployment being down by a million, more than 600,000 fewer children being in workless households since 2010 and the proportion of people in low hourly pay having halved since 2015.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just want to point out that that is, of course, because of the introduction of universal infant free school meals, which, it has to be said, was a coalition Government policy; the Conservatives cannot really take full credit for that because I doubt it would have happened without the coalition Government.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

When the hon. Member for Twickenham was on her feet, she claimed that the 2014 Act was entirely due to the Liberal Democrats. Of course, it was not; it was a coalition Government at the time. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is partly right. There have been multiple extensions to free school meal eligibility, including the provision of free school meals to disadvantaged children in further education colleges. The big factor has been the extension of protections under universal credit, which of course has happened since the coalition Government.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great authority on these matters. I am worried about the time; if he is quick, I will be quick in response.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Has the Minister thought about the prospect of uprating that £7,400-a-year income threshold for eligibility for free school meals?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman has been in these positions himself, so he knows that, of course, we keep that under review. However, I gently point out that it has been under the current system that this much greater proportion of children and young people are eligible for free school meals than was the case when other Governments, including one of whom he was a very distinguished member, were in office.

Overall, more than 2 million pupils are eligible for benefits-related free school meals. In addition, as we have just been discussing, 1.3 million infants in reception, year 1 and year 2 get a free meal under the universal infant free school meals policy, which was introduced in 2014. Further to that, more than 90,000 disadvantaged students in further education receive a free meal at lunchtime. Together, this helps to improve the education of children and young people; it boosts their health and saves their parents considerable sums of money.

We have also introduced extensive protections, which have been in effect since 2018. They ensure that, while universal credit is being fully rolled out, any child eligible for free school meals will retain their entitlement and keep getting free meals until the end of the phase—in other words, until the end of primary or secondary—even if their family’s income rises above the income threshold such that this would otherwise have stopped.

We all know the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the evidence does back that up. It shows that children who do not have breakfast are more likely to have issues with behaviour, wellbeing and learning. That is why we continue to support the provision of breakfast, by investing up to £40 million in the national school breakfast programme. The funding supports up to 2,700 schools in disadvantaged areas, and means that thousands of children from low-income families are offered a free, nutritious breakfast, to better support their attainment, wellbeing and readiness to learn. I say gently to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that we think it is important to target that breakfast investment where it is most needed, which does not mean only in primary schools.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am going to ask the hon. Lady to forgive me, because we have less than five minutes to go, and I must reach the conclusion.

Further to that, we recognise that nutrition does not cease to be an issue outside of term time, and that holiday periods can be particularly difficult for disadvantaged and low-income families. That is one reason why we continue to support the delivery of enriching activities and provision of nutritious food through the holiday activities and food programme. It has been backed by more than £200 million in funding, and now sees all 153 local authorities in England taking part.

The success of the programme is plain to see. Since 2022, it has provided 11.3 million HAF—holiday activities and food—days to children and young people in this country. Across 2023, more than 5 million HAF days were provided during Easter, summer and winter delivery. Based on reporting from local authorities, over winter 2023 more than 290,000 children attended the programme, of whom more than 263,000 were funded directly by the HAF programme and more than 229,000 received benefits-related free school meals. In response to the hon. Member for York Central, there is a degree of flexibility for individual school provision for eligibility for that facility.

The HAF programme brings me to this point, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made in a different way. Of course, we have to see everything in the round—the full support given to families. In that context, the wider package of support, particularly for the cost of living difficulties the country has been through, is very relevant. That has been worth more than £100 billion over 2022-23 to 2024-25. It remains the case that pursuing policies that facilitate work and create jobs is the single most important poverty-tackling policy that a Government can have.

Colleagues, including the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Washington and Sunderland West, brought up the important question of auto-enrolment. We do want to make it as simple as possible for schools and local authorities to determine eligibility and for families to apply. That is why we have the eligibility checking service. I am also aware of some of the innovative things local authorities are doing to look at auto-enrolment. We think there is merit in those projects, which we will look at closely. We know that historically it has not been straightforward to achieve auto-enrolment, but it is definitely something we want to study further and learn from.

I am running short of time, but the hon. Member for Twickenham asked about disability. We debated that subject in this Chamber a few weeks ago, with some of the colleagues here today, and that included reference to children receiving EOTAS: education otherwise than at school. I am pleased to reiterate that we have done what we committed to do: update guidance in that area, particularly regarding children with disabilities, to make clear the duty to make reasonable adjustments under relevant legislation.

I hope I have conveyed the extent of free-meal support currently in place under this Government, and how vital a role it plays, ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive the nutrition they need to thrive. I again thank the hon. Member for Twickenham for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall today and all colleagues for taking part.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the provision of free school meals.

A226 Galley Hill Road

Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[David Mundell in the Chair]
18:00
David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for repairs to the A226 Galley Hill Road.

This debate relates to the road named Galley Hill in my constituency of Dartford. It is part of the A226 route, often referred to as London Road, which runs from Dartford, through Gravesend—represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), who would also like to contribute to the debate—to the A2 in Rochester. It is a vital thoroughfare that is relied on by local residents, businesses and haulage serving the local community and beyond. On 10 April last year, a stretch of the road that sits on a chalk spine collapsed, taking the road, footpath and utilities down on to business premises, and rendering the road completely impassable. To understand what may have caused the collapse, it is necessary to look at the road’s recent history.

In the September prior to the collapse, I met Kent County Council and Thames Water to discuss the road. A significant number of water leaks were taking place in London Road at the time, which was causing mayhem for people living in the area. At that meeting, I discovered that there had been no fewer than 47 serious water leaks in the previous four years, which is possibly the highest number of leaks on any stretch of road in the whole county of Kent. I do not know for certain whether the leaks caused the collapse of the road or whether the road itself was responsible for damaging the water pipes; that is an area of contention between Thames Water and KCC, and an issue that must be resolved to establish liability. I had hoped that they would resolve the issue of liability quickly; alas, they have not.

What we do know is that the road being closed for over a year has caused misery for people just trying to go about their daily business. Heavy goods vehicles have been using the narrow Swanscombe High Street; KCC has put in a temporary traffic order to stop them doing so, but that has not entirely solved the problems. A significant number of businesses in the area, on either side of Galley Hill, have seen their takings reduced because of the lengthy diversion to circumvent the collapsed road.

I met the previous Roads Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), to ask for his assistance and show him the road. He agreed, and came down to Galley Hill to have a look at the road and see the problem for himself. At that stage, it was hoped that liability could be established and that a contractor could get on with repairing or replacing the road. The current Minister, who is in his place, has met with me numerous times and with Kent County Council. I pay tribute to him for the keen interest he has shown in this issue and for trying to find a solution, which is typical of his attitude to such issues, and I am grateful to him for that. What we cannot have is for nothing to happen while Kent County Council and Thames Water resolve their dispute. It is highly likely that one of them will have to pick up the bill, but the residents of Swanscombe, Greenhithe and Northfleet should not be held to ransom while that is decided.

Adding to the complication is the fact that, in order to survey the road to establish the cause of the collapse, Kent County Council has to enter private land. The road is adjacent to three separate plots of land, each with its own owner. Two of the owners have agreed to allow Kent County Council access, but one is refusing, making surveys almost impossible to carry out. I am pleased that Kent County Council has now agreed to take legal action to gain access, but I plead with it to hasten its approach to this issue. In short, Kent County Council needs to find out as quickly as possible what caused the collapse. Local Kent County councillor Peter Harman, from a residents’ group, has been trying extremely hard to persuade the landowner to allow access but so far, unfortunately, to no avail.

I have secured this debate to formally ask the Government to step in to pay for the repair or replacement of the road while Kent County Council and Thames Water are arguing about liability. Whichever of them is liable can compensate the Government at a later date but, crucially, local residents would be able to see the prospect of an end to the misery they are suffering. I accept that the Government need to know what that liability is, so those surveys need to be carried out as soon as possible. The Government also need Kent County Council and Thames Water to agree to this course of action. My understanding—I will be corrected by the Minister during his speech if I have got this wrong—is that only Kent County Council has given its consent and that Thames Water has not responded to the Government. Just last week, I asked Thames Water for a meeting prior to this debate so that we could discuss the issues around liability and the way forward. I have had no response either from Thames Water, which is just not fair on local people, who are—we should not forget—its customers.

This is a very frustrating situation, and it has gone on for far too long. Kent County Council needs to carry out these surveys by legal action or otherwise. Thames Water needs to actually engage with people, and it cannot be surprised when people point the finger at it, given the history of leaks in the local area. I ask the Minister to do what he can to find a solution, and most importantly, for this road to be repaired or replaced so that local people can at last get their lives back.

18:08
Adam Holloway Portrait Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for getting this debate. This thing has been something of a nightmare for quite a few of my constituents, and it is ongoing as we have heard. I really apologise for my voice, and I will cut my speech slightly shorter.

I have received multiple complaints about the situation. This road is a very important part of our road network, and its closure puts a massive strain on the A2. Whenever there is a problem on the A2 or at the Dartford crossing, the absence of Galley Hill makes it impossible for local people to travel easily to and from Dartford. Bus users are particularly affected, and people travelling by bus from my constituency to the local acute hospital now have their bus route split into two separate routes to cope with the congestion. Sometimes it also takes constituents up to half an hour to get out of Ebbsfleet International railway station car park, which more than doubles their journey time to London. The diversion for pedestrians and cyclists is also huge.

Getting the road open again is an absolute priority, and I am really grateful to the Minister and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), for being so proactive on that. I know that his Department devolves transport matters to the local authorities, but it is vital that the Government step in when a local authority cannot reopen a road in a reasonable timeframe, as is the case here.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford suggested, the Government can and should act to get the road open again in a situation such as this, where there is a lack of clarity about liability and an impasse is created. The Government underwriting the works without waiting for legal disputes to be resolved would make a huge difference to businesses and residents in Dartford and Gravesham who rely on the road. It would be an excellent use of taxpayers’ money, and the taxpayer would of course eventually get the money back through the water company or Kent County Council. I was going to speak about leaks, but to save hon. Members from having to listen to my awful voice, and because my hon. Friend has already mentioned them, I shall not.

I conclude by adding one more frustrating thing. Some of the problems that we have identified with traffic will remain even when Galley Hill Road reopens. That is because the Minister and his predecessors ignored my solution for the Dartford crossing, which was to have a long tunnel at Dartford for M25 long-term traffic and to use the infrastructure, bridge and tunnels that are already there for local traffic. The proposal from the Minister’s Department for the lower Thames crossing will not solve the problem of the traffic in Dartford. My constituents and, more so, those living in Dartford will continue to be plagued by traffic problems because of that mistake.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford to pass on my thanks and my constituents’ thanks to Councillor Harman for his efforts. I also thank the Minister, who has taken so seriously what is a relatively small thing in the scheme of things, given his huge portfolio, for so kindly engaging with us.

18:12
Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Guy Opperman)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) on securing the debate and speaking, notwithstanding what is clearly a pretty bad sore throat.

Let me start with one key point. At the end of his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said that this is a small matter inside the vast portfolio of the Department for Transport. It is not a small matter to the people of Swanscombe and the surrounding area; it is a massive issue. I accept that, I acknowledge it, and I appreciate it. All of us comprehend the scale of the problem. It is a bad day when Government in all their glory—or not glory—start thinking, “Oh, this is too small for us to get involved.” I promise my hon. Friend, all colleagues and anybody who is watching or reading this debate that we take this seriously. We are here to help, and we believe that there are things we can do to facilitate a resolution. The Government’s acceptance of this issue as significant—I put that on the record—is utterly vital. I give credit to both of my colleagues today and to Councillor Harman, who embodies the rich tradition of councillors who really get involved and go above and beyond to try to resolve local issues. Full credit to him.

I accept and acknowledge that Kent County Council has a difficult job. In the time that I have, I will try to both assess and analyse the extent of the difficulty and explain some of the causation of the ongoing problems and show some sort of light at the end of the tunnel we all face. In the first instance, what can the Department for Transport do? The first key point that must be accepted is that this is a significant road failure, which is not a standard thing that local authorities deal with. That is evidenced, bluntly, by the degree and number of surveys that are required to be completed before, first and foremost, the cause of the problem can be identified. Then, sadly, there will have to be an attribution of blame.

So how is the problem to be fixed? While it is the desire of everyone in this room or watching or reading the debate to fix the problem, solidifying a road on the base we are dealing with is clearly very technical and difficult, and there is no simple solution. To pretend otherwise is naive. However, I am very keen to ensure—it is already happening—that the technical experts at the Department for Transport, who build major roads and highways, are available to Kent County Council to work hand in hand with it.

Without getting too much into the nuts and bolts, the core funding for Kent has gone up considerably. It has received £181 million in funding for highway maintenance since 2019. It has also been a beneficiary of the Network North funding, following the Prime Minister’s decision in October last year on the second leg of HS2. Kent will receive £135 million in total between 2023 and 2034, and that funding comes in addition to local transport funding from the last funding review.

I acknowledge and accept that this will be a very expensive process. The tricky part is that until we identify the cause, which requires the surveys that Kent is trying to do, we will struggle. I echo and endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford: it is vital that Kent progresses this matter. If it is required to take legal action, then so be it—legal action should be taken and it should be expedited. I will also put in a plea to the owner of the third property to consider the situation. While two of the properties have given their consent, the third property has not. This can be challenged and overcome through a legal process, but it will cost the taxpayer money and it will take time. I urge the third owner to reconsider and to be aware of the responsibilities we all need to discharge. I ask them to avoid the legal process that sadly will be necessary, but in which unquestionably—I cannot commit courts to this in the future, but I am confident, having been a lawyer for 20 years—Kent will be successful, although it will take time.

Once one has identified the cause of the problem—as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford set out, there are huge amounts of leaks and water egress relating to the demise of the road—the question thereafter remains: was that caused by the collapse of the road or did it cause that collapse? None of us are structural engineers or water engineers who can assess that, so I am more interested in the long-term solution: how does one reconstruct a road on such friable land? That is not simple, but DFT is on hand to assist in whatever way it can.

The basic principle, which we cannot get around, is that under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980, which was passed by this House, all local authorities are liable for the maintenance and repair of their local roads. That obligation continues to this day, and it is in no way the norm for the Department for Transport to step in and say, “Do not worry about the statutory obligations that are set out under the Highways Act and have been acknowledged under repeated Governments; we will step in and fix this particular problem.” So that is not, with respect, what I would propose. Kent Council is unquestionably the organisation on the ground best able to ascertain the problem and find a solution to it.

However, it is unacceptable that not all the parties in the room are talking on an ongoing basis. I do not want to get into a “he said, she said” situation with Thames Water or its respective legal teams or the lawyers who represent everybody. What I want to do is to talk about the art of the possible and the art of the possible, surely, is this. I, as a Minister, can declare at the Dispatch Box that my door is open to convene a meeting with Thames Water and with Kent County Council. To follow up, I will write a letter tomorrow to the Thames Water chief executive, inviting him in the next few weeks to come in, if necessary with legal teams, to discuss the way ahead.

It is complicated, because self-evidently everybody would like the road to be fixed just like that. However, it is impossible to do anything until we can identify causation and what a structural engineer says good repair looks like. However, there is a clear middle ground, whereby if, and this is an “if”, one can enter a legal agreement with the respective parties, Kent County Council and Thames Water, such that all parties put aside any issue of blame for the present and allow any mediation to go ahead on a blame basis, in either a court of law or a standard tribunal, which is regularly done with these sorts of things, as there is a standard tribunal that can be entered into for the collapse of roads, either in a court or in mediation—if that process is allowed to go ahead, the Government will step in and assist in whatever way they can to try and resolve the issue as fast as possible. That, it seems to me, is the best way ahead.

It is not the case that Government can fund this unilaterally. There is no specific pot that exists that the Department for Transport can dip into to bail out individual local authorities in these circumstances. However, I can definitely see the potential, whereby, provided we have a legal agreement that party A or party B will meet the end costs at the end of the day, so that the taxpayer is not out of pocket, particularly—this is the key point—if Thames Water is liable for this, we would then be in a position where the Government can step in and assist.

Clearly, there are a lot of ifs and buts in all that, but I want to assure my hon. Friends for Dartford and for Gravesham that we will try our hardest to resolve this issue in that way. That would be going above and beyond anything that has ever been done before, frankly, and I think there is nothing more that one could do, over and above that.

I must also be very conscious, first, that I have the funds within my portfolio at the Department for Transport to pay for what could be a very significant project, because any project that the Department proceeds with is taking up the project money of something else that is not proceeded with. Secondly, because I am liable for taxpayers’ money, clearly I must ensure that that money is spent in an appropriate way, when the normal course of events is that a local authority and a transgressor—whether a water company or any other landlord, or whatever—have to thrash things out between the two of them.

That is what I propose to try and do. It is unquestionably the case that the local authority will assist on an ongoing basis. I will certainly write to Thames Water to back up the email that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has sent, and will make sure, as I have publicly stated, that our door is open to try and resolve this situation. Clearly, Thames Water has its own issues, which we are all acutely aware of. However, at the same time it is a water company serving all our constituents and it has obligations, just as much as anybody else; and, if it is a matter of law, then the law can be paused whilst we resolve this between ourselves. That is what I propose; that is what I hope we will be able to do.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has set out, my predecessor—the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden)—visited the site. My hon. Friend knows that he was in his constituency today, although I did not go to Galley Hill, to be fair. I am acutely aware of the wider impact, not only on his local businesses but on the daily lives of his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham. We will do what we can, going forward. That is my solemn pledge to this House. I genuinely hope—

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is, of course, responsible for National Highways. If the A226 was any bigger, it would come under the responsibility of National Highways. Does he therefore have any objections, when we come to construction or rebuilding, to Kent County Council’s highways department contacting National Highways in order to seek some of its expertise?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No. In fact, I would go further than that and say that that is what I would expect to happen on an ongoing basis. It is in the interests of National Highways that one of the key roads leading into the Dartford Crossing and the A2 is functioning properly. There is no doubt whatsoever that the breakdown of this particular road and the consequences of that impact upon lots of other things in the surrounding area. I want to make clear—if I have not done so, I will try again—that when I say DFT officials will give full co-operation, as far as I am concerned, that includes National Highways. It is in the interests of National Highways that this road is up and running as soon as possible, which is in the wider national interest, not just the interest of the good people of Swanscombe and the surrounding areas. We are very keen for this to happen, because there are clearly consequences if the matter is not resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

18:25
Sitting suspended.

Cyber-security

Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
16:30
Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered cyber security laws and tackling crime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am delighted to lead this debate on the important issue of cyber-security, particularly in relation to cyber-crime and the need to enhance the UK’s national cyber-resilience.

Cyber-security has a significant impact on society, the economy and individuals, as well as on both national and global security. The UK faces cyber-threats from a number of hostile actors, whether they are states, state-sponsored groups or criminal organisations motivated by money. Cyber-crime itself ranges from complex ransomware attacks to less sophisticated cyber-threats such as hacking and phishing, which many in their everyday lives. In today’s world, virtually every business, charity and public sector organisation is in some way digital, but, as high-profile incidents have shown, cyber-attacks exploiting that digitalisation can quickly undermine trust in our private and public sector institutions.

With a burgeoning cyber ecosystem, the UK is well placed to be a global leader on cyber-security, and I will come back to that point later. Often, however, we struggle to get the basics right, leaving citizens and businesses exposed as they move more and more of their lives and operations online. Last year, UK businesses experienced approximately 7.78 million cyber-crimes. Half of businesses and around a third of charities report having experienced some form of cyber-breach or attack in the last 12 months and such attacks have had a real impact on business and consumers.

A recent report by the think-tank the Royal United Services Institute brought to light some of the stark implications of cyber-crime, particularly in relation to ransomware, which is malware designed to deny a user or organisation access to their own data unless a ransom is paid to the attacker. RUSI’s report revealed the extent to which ransomware can ruin lives, with the harm going beyond financial and reputational costs for organisations. Victims and incident responders have revealed that ransomware creates both physical and psychological harms for individuals and groups, which have caused individuals to lose their jobs, evoked feelings of shame and self-blame, seeped into private and family life and contributed to serious health issues. Furthermore:

“The harm and cumulative effects caused by ransomware attacks have implications for wider society and national security, including supply chain disruption, a loss of trust in law enforcement, reduced faith in public services, and the normalisation of cybercrime. Ransomware also creates a strategic advantage for the hostile states harbouring the cyber-criminals who conduct such operations.”

Meanwhile, the threat landscape is changing and becoming more complex.

UK cyber firm NCC Group’s latest insights show that ransomware attacks increased by 84% last year, with the UK the second most targeted country for such attacks, only behind the US. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence have the potential to enable cyber-attackers to mount ever more sophisticated campaigns against organisations. AI is effectively lowering the barrier of entry into cyber-crime, making it easier for cyber-attackers to successfully target victims and widening the availability of voice cloning, deepfakes and social engineering bots. We are likely to see that manifest in a higher volume of cyber-attacks, an enhanced ability of cyber-criminals to generate malware and an improved success rate of social engineering and phishing attacks. With AI as an emerging threat, hacking as a service is being thought of as a growing market, whereby malware developers sell or lease cyber-attack tools and services to other cyber-criminals. Worryingly, such a business model extends cyber-attack capabilities to organisations and individuals that would not otherwise have known how to carry out attacks themselves.

Artificial intelligence is also advancing tactics that have been around for decades and, in its own way, evolving threats in line with technology. Deepfake phishing is just one example of a fast-growing threat that manipulates or confuses users in order to exploit their trust and gain access to their data. That can be done through emails or messages, video calls or voice messages, where personalisation and synthetic content can make the attack more credible.

Cyber-threats should be seen in the wider context of nation-state threats, too. The conflict in Ukraine has shown how cyber and kinetic attacks are increasingly interconnected in modern hybrid warfare. As thousands of lines of complex code control new and evolving physical functions and systems, such as in smart cities, cyber-security vulnerabilities can be exploited to effect change in the real world. Although we have not seen the so-called cybergeddon that some were expecting from the next big conflict on our globe, one thing is clear: cyber-warfare has proven itself to be a critical element in hybrid cyber-kinetic battlefields.

There is an opportunity here for the UK. To tackle cyber-crime, a close partnership between the public and private sectors is a critical part of the UK’s whole-society approach. In particular, the UK’s cyber industry is working closely with law enforcement, the public sector, academia and other private firms to ensure that the UK remains confident, capable and resilient in this fast-moving digital world. That includes vulnerability researchers, also known as ethical hackers, who identify security vulnerabilities in products, software and the UK Government. They rely on such researchers to identify bugs before they can be exploited by malicious actors for their nefarious purposes.

Meanwhile, threat intelligence researchers detect cyber-attacks and gain insight into attackers and victims. Researchers work with and pass on that important information to law enforcement and the intelligence agencies, enabling them to defend the UK against rising cyber-crime and geopolitical threat actors. Many of the recent takedown operations we have heard about, where law enforcement disrupted the servers or digital infrastructure that cyber-criminals used to conduct their illegal activities, were possible only because intelligence and insights about those cyber-criminals were shared across the public and private sectors. I firmly believe that there is an opportunity for the UK to play a significant leadership role in conducting the UK’s response, with the north-west cyber corridor at its heart.

We are already seeing that public-private partnership in action in wider Lancashire and in my own constituency of Preston through the National Cyber Force, which will open its new home in Samlesbury, Lancashire, in 2025. It is a partnership between defence and intelligence, and already carries out cyber operations daily to counter and contest the actions of those who would harm the UK or our allies, to keep the country safe and to protect and promote the UK’s interests at home and abroad. Furthermore, the Lancashire Cyber Partnership, or LCP, is a strategic collaboration between Lancashire County Council, the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership, the University of Central Lancashire, Lancashire University and BAE Systems. In addition, the National Cyber Force has its own role in shaping, supporting and promoting the county’s world-class cyber strengths and fast-growing cyber ecosystem, becoming a destination for cyber businesses, investors, careers training, academia and, indeed, innovation. With a strong cyber industry, Lancashire and the wider north-west are fostering the growth of the technology, digital and defence sectors, as well as harnessing the investment, jobs and benefits that come with a thriving cyber economy.

We should be proud of the UK’s role as a responsible global cyber power, and we should also remember that there is widespread cross-party and cross-societal consensus on the importance of cyber-security as fundamental for thriving and prosperous digital societies and economies. However, we cannot be complacent. Research from the NCC Group has shown that citizens—our constituents—expect us, as political decision-makers, to do what we can to keep them safe and secure in cyber-space. We have strong foundations to build on, but we must continue to do more to take our cyber-security to the next level. Indeed, much more can be done to ensure that regional cyber clusters, such as the north-west, can play their part in making us all safer online, while also enhancing national cyber-resilience.

I would like to move on to the issue of the UK’s Computer Misuse Act 1990. First and foremost, that Act, which is the main cyber-security Act that regulates the UK’s digital relationship between individuals and malicious parties, needs bringing into the 21st century. The Act was written more than 30 years ago when just over 0.5% of the world’s population had access to the internet, and before the cyber industry—as we know it today—even existed. As a result, the UK’s cyber-defenders, such as the vulnerability and threat intelligence researchers mentioned earlier, are held back by that outdated law from doing all they can to protect the UK. That is because the Act, which was written over 30 years ago, has a blanket prohibition on all forms of unauthorised access to computer material, irrespective of intent or motive. In this day and age, where an individual desktop PC is but a distant memory, where technologies are hyperconnected and where cyber-crime is rampant, that approach simply does not reflect the reality we live in. The legislation is no longer fit for purpose, and, worse, it might be detrimental.

There have been calls from industry, led by the CyberUp Campaign, to reform the law to include a defence for legitimate cyber-security work. Sir Patrick Vallance called for such a defence in the “The Pro-innovation Regulation of Technologies Review”, and he recommended amending the 1990 Act to include a statutory public interest defence that would provide stronger legal protections for cyber-security researchers and professionals. That would have a catalytic effect on innovation in a sector with considerable growth potential. Countries such as France, Israel and the United States have already updated their regulations to provide that defence. I join Sir Patrick by agreeing that if the UK cyber industry is to compete on a level playing field, the UK Government should do the same. However, one year since Sir Patrick published his recommendation, and three years since the UK Government first launched their review into the Act, the Government are yet to set out how they will address the legal barriers that it presents to the UK cyber-security industry.

A second area where the Government must prioritise reform is in updating the network and information systems regulations, which set out the cyber rules for our critical infrastructure. Back in 2022, the Government announced their intention to legislate to enable new sectors to be brought within the scope of the NIS regulations, responding to the inevitable evolution of what constitutes the UK’s critical infrastructure, but those reforms were not included in the most recent King’s Speech. It is critical that there are no further delays in bringing forward the reforms, and that a Bill is prioritised. Failure to legislate would leave a core part of the UK’s critical infrastructure exposed when others globally are already moving forward with new laws to ensure that all relevant entities are appropriately and proportionately regulated.

Outside the UK’s critical infrastructure, we must look at how we protect small businesses and charities, the backbone of the UK’s economy. Despite six in 10 small businesses being victims of a cyber-attack last year, many lack the skills and budgets to implement proportionate cyber-protections, leaving them exposed. They can also be disproportionately affected, with cyber-attacks sometimes posing an existential threat. A survey found that 90% of European small and medium-sized enterprises believed that cyber-security issues would have serious negative impacts on their business within a week of the issues happening; 57% said that they would most likely become bankrupt or go out of business.

It is unrealistic to expect small firms to adhere to and invest in the same cyber-resilience standards as larger firms such as critical infrastructure firms. However, that leaves a significant part of the economy vulnerable to cyber-attacks. To tackle that problem, the Government should work with technology providers to embed cyber-security in their products, particularly those most relied on by small organisations. The Government should also look at how they can support smaller firms’ response to and recovery from cyber-attacks. That could include establishing a “first responder” service that provides proportionate—that is, free-at-the-point-of-use—support to small businesses that have been victims of cyber-attacks. That could include incident response services and the triaging of further steps, such as where victims could get the most effective help. Such a scheme could learn lessons from our counterparts in Australia, who recently announced a small business cyber-security resilience service.

Finally, the Government must look at how they enhance the UK’s cyber skills. The issue of cyber skills is not just about addressing the cyber industry’s significant skills shortage, although that is a critical part of it. It is also about equipping individuals—across organisations of all sizes and at all levels of seniority—with the cyber literacy that they need to make decisions about their personal, organisational and even national cyber-resilience. A national programme of cyber literacy is needed to ensure that everyone, from preschoolers right through to pensioners, is cyber-literate, no matter where they are on their learning, career or retirement journeys. That could include commissioning “Cyber Beebies”—keeping with the concept of CBeebies, which

“helps pre-schoolers learn whilst they play fun games, watch clips, sing songs and make things”—

in order to start cyber education and awareness in the earliest years.

We could also look at including cyber-competence—covering safe and secure online behaviours, privacy and use of technology alongside broader technology and computing lessons—as a mandatory part of the school curriculum. That should be reviewed and tested with an industry advisory board regularly to ensure that it keeps pace with technological developments and industry requirements. Teachers must also be regularly supported to understand new developments and how they should be reflected in the school curriculum.

STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—programmes throughout the country have had a critical role in creating opportunities for today’s youth as they advance their education and skillset. In my own constituency of Preston, I am very proud of the work of Cardinal Newman College. One of the highest-performing sixth form colleges nationally, it has partnered with Lancaster University to harness the skills of young people with a passion and aptitude for the study of maths and science. In doing so, they have further developed the young people’s interest and education while providing them with opportunities for their future, including—especially—in the field of cyber at the new cyber defence centre.

I welcome the Minister, who is about to take his place in the hall. I should like to ask him four questions. Will he join me in praising and expressing pride in our UK cyber industry? Will he acknowledge, as we all do, the role that our industry plays in keeping us all safe and secure in cyber-space? Will he set out the Government’s further ambitions to take our cyber-security to the next level and beyond what has been announced as part of the national cyber strategy? Will he provide more information in particular on the Government’s plans to finally make progress on introducing legal protections for legitimate cyber-security activities as part of ongoing efforts to reform the Computer Misuse Act? Will he set out the Government’s views on following the Australian example of introducing a cyber first responders service for all our small businesses and charities, and set out the Government’s ongoing commitment to invest in our national cyber-resilience?

I thank the Minister for engaging with me on this important issue. It is good that there is cross-party consensus on a matter of such importance, but it is clear that much more needs to be done when it comes to cyber-crime and ensuring that Government policy keeps pace with technology in the ever-changing cyber landscape. The public need to be better educated and trained from an early age in the use of computers. That will add to the resilience the country needs to overcome the challenges of cyber-crime for the purposes of cyber-security.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I want to note that the Minister was not in his place, which is disappointing given the importance of the issue and the effort put in by the Member in charge. We have been grateful to Minister Opperman for sitting in, who is fortified with the relevant information. I am sure he will let his colleague copy his homework, so he is able to respond, if the Member in charge is happy with that.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On that basis, we will proceed. I call SNP spokesperson Owen Thompson.

18:51
Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP)
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It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I commend the hon. Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) for securing this debate on such an important issue. The past few years have challenged us like no other time in recent history, but they have also served to highlight how critical digital technologies are to all our lives and to the functioning of society and the economy. Whether working or learning from home, running a business or keeping in touch with friends and family, digital technologies underpin and continue to support our critical national infrastructure. Nowadays digital appliances and smart tech are everywhere, and it is more and more common to find that a lack of an internet connection or a charger is becoming a major issue. When we consider the attacks, as outlined by the hon. Member, be they personal or on a national level, it is critical that we consider the resilience that each of us has individually in how we manage to protect ourselves from those who wish to do harm, but also collectively as we look to protect our society.

As the hon. Member has outlined, digital technologies cut across everything we do. The secure and resilient ways we use them cannot be an afterthought. Cyber-resilience cannot be viewed simply as an IT issue; it is the very backbone of every public service, business and community. It is also a critical part of our economic and societal recovery and renewal, especially in Scotland as we embrace new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, smart cities and 5G wireless networks. Those can all be positives, albeit there are clearly those out there who wish to use them to do harm.

Digital technologies are now at a stage where it is not simply enough to turn them off and on again to fix problems that arise. Cyber-resilience is key to operational resilience and business continuity, as well as our capacity to grow and flourish as we adapt to the demands of operating online. Our ability to deter, respond and recover from national cyber-attacks has to be a top priority, and we need a plan exercised and to reflect continually and collaboratively to ensure that we are prepared to withstand any such cyber-threats.

In Scotland, the strategic framework for our cyber-resilience sets out what we need to do to make us a digitally secured and resilient nation. It builds on the work of Scotland’s first cyber-resilience strategy published in 2015, and it expands on its achievements and addresses ongoing and new challenges because, as the hon. Member has outlined, the challenges are forever changing. This is an ever-changing landscape that we are dealing with.

The cyber-threats we face cannot be met by Government alone, and we have a role to play in protecting ourselves, our families and our communities. Our public sector, third sector and private sector organisations need to work together, with Government, to minimise the harm and disruption that can result from cyber-incidents. As Members of Parliament, some of our colleagues have been targeted and directly impacted by cyber-attacks, and we have seen what that has meant for them, as well as what it means for the rest of us collectively. We need to make the very most of technological advances and use them to protect ourselves as those who wish to do harm look to exploit loopholes in the system.

The recent pandemic reminded us of the importance of resilience and agility. The Scottish Government pledged to review the implementation of the framework regularly, monitoring indicators against the four outcomes and the action plans that will guide delivery. Scotland’s four key cyber-resilience outcomes are ensuring that our citizens have access to basic and specialist learning and skills to help keep safe and secure online; working with partners in the public, private and third sectors to enhance all our cyber-resilience; raising awareness of the importance of cyber-resilience and how to achieve it by providing easier access to advice and support; and taking advantage of the economic opportunities resulting from greater cyber-resilience. It is great if people have the knowledge and understanding to grasp those opportunities, but we have also to recognise that there are so many in our communities who want the massive benefits of taking advantage of our digital infrastructure but do not know where to turn. There is a massive job for all of us in making sure that that information is as widely available as it possibly can be.

On this issue perhaps more than many others, it is critical that any work is done in collaboration with other Governments. The problem is not unique to Westminster, Scotland or any of the devolved Parliaments; it affects us all, and it is only by working together that we can truly tackle it. The UK Government published the national cyber strategy in 2022. It describes the UK’s overarching cyber policy and, as noted, takes a whole of society approach, arguing that Government must work in partnership with private sector organisations and cyber-security professionals to improve cyber-security. Between 2017 and 2021, the Scottish and the UK Governments allocated £10.28 million under the UK national cyber security programme to support a programme of action on cyber-resilience.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Preston that there is an urgent need to seriously look at the Computer Misuse Act; that is long overdue. With that in mind, what plans do the Government have to review the Act, and what steps does the Minister feel are most urgent? Certainly, there are many.

Cyber, digital infrastructure and technology are not there just for the specialist few; they are there in the day-to-day lives of everyone in our communities, all our families and all our friends. More than ever, it is critical that we take whatever steps we can as legislators to ensure that protections are in place and information is there for everyone, so that we can protect ourselves from those who would look to use them for ill ends. On that note, I again thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. I am sure that it will not be the last we hear of it.

18:58
Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. May I say how good it is to see the Minister in his place? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) on securing this important debate. He is a long-standing and dedicated servant to his constituents and Lancashire more widely; any compliment about Lancashire does not come particularly easily from my side of the Pennines, but that is certainly one that my hon. Friend deserves for his very long-standing service for his constituents.

I pay tribute to the men and women who serve in the National Cyber Force, soon to be based in Samlesbury, and to those who serve across the security and intelligence services and in the cyber-security sector. They fight on the digital frontline day in and day out to detect, disrupt and deter individual and state-sponsored adversaries that threaten our cyber-security.

The cyber threat is constantly mutating and spreading. The latest crime survey for England and Wales shows a staggering 29% increase in computer misuse between 2022 and 2023. Computer misuse disrupts services, obtains information illegally and extorts individuals, meaning that personal information can be published online without consent, entire life savings can be lost due to fraud, and individuals, including children, can be blackmailed. The Government need to be increasingly ruthless in their approach to countering those threats and legislate for the challenges of today, not those of yesterday. Doing so will give cyber-security professionals the means to retain the advantage over those who seek to harm us and protect more people and organisations from cyber-crime.

Therefore, as the right hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) rightly said, the Computer Misuse Act needs updating to reflect the challenges of the cyber age, not those of the Ceefax age. Accelerating technological change means that outdated legislation is struggling to catch up with cyber-threats posed by the likes of artificial intelligence. That is why, on this side of the House, we have already proposed criminalising the programming of chatbots that radicalise and spread terrorist material. We also welcome the Government’s announcement last month of the criminalisation, through the Criminal Justice Bill, of the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes. Outdated legislation is at best restrictive and at worst punitive for cyber-security professionals in the UK who conduct ethical hacking to expose system vulnerabilities and protect us from harmful cyber-attacks.

The National Cyber Security Centre, which is home to exceptional men and women fighting cyber-crime, has said that ethical hacking reports by individual researchers provide valuable information that organisations can use to improve the security of their systems. That is why the Opposition tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would reform the CMA by introducing a statutory defence for cyber-security researchers and professionals involved in ethical hacking.

Our amendment comes after the Chancellor’s commitment to implement all of Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendations on the regulation of emerging digital technologies published alongside last spring’s Budget, which included the introduction of a statutory defence. If this Government do not deliver, the next one should. Until that happens, the legislative lag will have consequences. Half of UK businesses and 32% of charities suffered a cyber-breach or attack in the last year alone. Breaches due to vulnerabilities in cyber-security drive some of the most pernicious types of criminality. According to the accounting firm BDO, fraud doubled in 2023.

Furthermore, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy warned in December that the Government could face a catastrophic ransomware attack at any moment. The sobering reality is that such attacks are already happening on the UK’s critical national infrastructure. Just today, it was reported that in response to a ransom not being paid, personal information illegally obtained by a ransomware attack on NHS Dumfries and Galloway has been published on the dark web—a truly despicable act that accompanies another deeply concerning development today: a hack into the Ministry of Defence’s payroll records by a malign actor.

Those are only two of the most recent examples, and they show that the threat landscape has never been more dangerous. However, progress on reforming the CMA has been buffering for three years since the Government first announced their review of the legislation. Despite two public consultations, a Home Office industry working group and several public commitments, the Government have not yet made progress and, as the Minister will know, we are fast running out of parliamentary time. Though time is in short supply, there is consensus on acting in the national interest to update the CMA, and the Opposition are keen to play our part.

I would be grateful if the Minister would answer the following questions. He will know that they are meant in the constructive spirit in which we always seek to engage on these important matters. First, will he give an assurance that the proposed legislation, as outlined in the Government’s response to the CMA consultation, will be introduced in this Parliament?

Progress on legislation requires political leadership. However, the JCNSS report on ransomware said that the leadership by a former Home Secretary did not treat it as a priority. The Minister will remember that I wrote to him in January about this matter and others identified in the JCNSS report. Can he give a further assurance that his Department and other Departments are now prioritising ransomware by confirming that they will finally respond to the consultation on unauthorised access to online accounts and personal data, which was published in September 2022?

On public sector payments to ransomware, the Deputy Prime Minister responded to me at Cabinet Office questions on 25 April by saying that that “is not something” that he would “rule out totally”. However, the Security Minister’s written answer to me on the same question on the same day was much more resolute about the policy not to pay ransoms.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis
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I am listening to the Minister. I do not know whether the Deputy Prime Minister is; that is possibly the problem.

It would be really helpful if the Minister would say whether a new approach to the public sector paying ransoms will be included in any update to the CMA. These assurances and clarifications matter, as the Home Office is part of a cross-Government response to countering cyber-threats, joining the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the MOD, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Cabinet Office in driving policy to detect, disrupt and deter cyber-criminality.

As the Minister will know, the fulcrum of such activity is the National Security Council, but he will also know that, while it has a sub-committee for economic security, there is not a dedicated equivalent for cyber-security. Has consideration been given to the creation of a dedicated sub-committee of the NSC for policy responses to intermediate and long-term cyber challenges?

Another long-term challenge, which the Minister will be familiar with, is the retention of our best and brightest in fighting cyber-crime, both in the security and intelligence services and in the cyber-security sector. Do our modern-day Alan Turings, who play a vital role in keeping our country safe, feel that the most innovative and effective work can happen in the UK under current cyber-security legislation? The answer, sadly, is likely to be no: 60% of respondents to a recent cyber-ops survey said that the CMA is a barrier to their work in threat intelligence and vulnerability research, and 16,850 cyber-defenders—the equivalent of two GCHQs—are estimated to have been lost due to outdated cyber-security laws. The Minister knows that criminals profit the most from poor retention and recruitment, so has he considered how changes to the CMA could unlock the cyber-security sector’s huge potential to protect our country’s cyber-space better?

This debate has not just been about protecting our cyber-space through effective legislation; it has been about the principle of legislation retaining the advantage over malign actors intent on harming us. I said at the start of my speech that there are exceptional men and women working to defend our cyber-security, who are very much at the cutting edge of efforts to detect, disrupt and deter myriad threats. As legislators providing the legal framework for that crucial work, we must now all play our part.

19:09
Tom Tugendhat Portrait The Minister for Security (Tom Tugendhat)
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It is a great pleasure to see you this evening, Ms Bardell—as ever, the surprise only adds to the joy—and to respond to the hon. Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick), who is quite right to have secured this debate. The challenge that he talked about and the ways of addressing it are fundamental not just to his constituents and the National Cyber Force, which he rightly paid tribute to and will be hosting in his constituency, but to the very nature of our country.

It is interesting to note that over the last 200 years, the British economy has been based on many things: the ingenuity and brilliance of our people; the rule of law and the ability to predict the future based on prior agreement; the genius of economic reforms innovated out of Edinburgh and Glasgow; and the ability to keep trade moving. For most of our existence, that trade has been maritime trade of various descriptions. It has been guaranteed not just by an extraordinary industry of sailors and shipwrights who have created the vehicles of commerce, but by the Royal Navy, which has kept the sea lanes open, the sailors safe and the goods moving.

The truth is that over the last few years, the nature of that commerce—that commercial gain and exchange—has changed. We have gone from sea lanes to e-lanes. We have gone from looking at the red ensign as a guarantee of security at sea, to looking at GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre as a guarantee of security on the internet and in cyber-space. Those changes have been fundamental. They have enabled us to do things that are frankly quite remarkable. Look at the change in the way communication works that our country has been through in the four years since covid struck us. With so many of our lives going online—even this place went online briefly, although we seem to have forgotten how convenient that was—many of us have been able to transform the businesses that we were working in from local or national to global.

That change has been a phenomenal blessing, but none of it would have been possible without the dedication and brilliance of some remarkable individuals who have kept us safe. Those individuals started off being headquartered solely in Cheltenham. Those of who have had the privilege to visit Cheltenham know that the extraordinary brilliance and genius of those remarkable people has been fantastic not just for our country but for many partners and allies around the world.

What we see today is that it is not just the Government who need to be kept safe. The reality is that companies and individuals guarantee that security in many different ways. What we are talking about this evening is how the wider economy is defended. That is where the Government have made some important changes, which I hope will be built on in coming years. The cyber-security force that we have created is an essential part of keeping the UK’s commercial interests safe. It is a fundamental building block of our economy not just today but for the future.

The way that has worked with the National Cyber Security Centre is essential, because the reality is that the economy of Britian is not guarded simply by the Government, and national security is not limited to the arms of the state. It is fundamentally true that many suppliers to Government and many different institutions that connect to Government are also important. More than that, every single aspect of our lives is a part of keeping our country safe. Although it is true that the Government do not provide the food, the supermarkets that feed us every day are part of our national security. Although it is true that the Government do not move the money, the banks that keep us fluid in that sense are absolutely part of our national security. It is therefore true that all those capabilities—all the cyber-defence that goes into the wider economy and into our lives—keep us all safe. Sadly, one of the things that has distressed me most in this job is discovering the level of abuse that I am afraid is now prevalent online. Hon. Members will not require me to tell them this, but we see an explosion in online bullying and abuse, and sadly we have seen an explosion in online harm that has taken not just many young people, but many people from across every walk of life, to dark places—and in some cases, very sadly, cost lives.

The cyber work that we do is about protecting not just the state, the Government or even the economy, but homes and families across the United Kingdom. That is why the work that we are doing in the reform of the Computer Misuse Act is so important, because, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and particularly as the hon. Member for Preston put it, the changes we have seen online in the last 20 or 30 years since the Act was passed are phenomenal. The Act was passed before the internet, the iPhone and social media. It is, in a modern sense, historical; it is dated and based on an era when to hold data was to hold it on a solid drive in a computer, not in the ether or on the cloud. The nature of intervention to keep cyber-defences alive and test them was very different, and the Act was drafted for that era. That is why the work of Sir Patrick Vallance and the way in which he has approached it have been so important, and it is why we have been looking so carefully at what he recommends and at how to get the best answer out.

The truth is that any decision we make is going to be difficult. It is going to raise questions about the ways in which businesses work and partner with others around the world. The right hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) asked about ransomware and the way in which it is changing. That is where the direction that we take it so important—for example, the counter-ransomware initiative that the United Kingdom led and changed in various ways, and the approaches we have taken to ensure that we are properly structured to get its benefits. The reason I am confident that we are going in the right direction is that we are setting the agenda.

In the 18 months since I had the privilege of becoming the Security Minister, we have launched at least two actions. Forgive me as I try to remember how many were public and how many were private; hon. Members will appreciate that in this job it is probably best to get that distinction right. I will say that we have launched at least two public actions alongside partners on counter-ransomware actions. Noticeably, one from about a year ago was against various Russian targets who had decided that it was to their advantage to try to extort and exploit organisations in the United Kingdom and United States. Our reactions—the ways in which we have partnered with allies and friends—have ensured that we are able not just to defend ourselves, but to make the punishment fit the crime. We are putting in place sanctions, closing down accounts and ensuring that we have those resources in partnership with organisations like the FBI to resist those different areas.

This subject also raises some questions about the state, which were hinted at. I will go a little further into it, because this is not just about individual actors, those in the so-called troll farms or the Internet Research Agency, which was so famously used by Russia recently; it is also about states themselves. Sadly, we are seeing states trying to use these forms of exploitation as means of profit. We have seen one state in particular, North Korea, seeking to quite literally use them as a cash cow—as a way of paying for its nuclear weapons programme, extorting money out of individuals around the world to advance its own hostile interests.

This is where some of the changes we have been able to make—alongside the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, to whom I pay tribute, and with support from parties on all sides—will, I think, make a substantial difference in the years to come. Those changes include the National Security Act 2023, which, through the various different elements of co-operation with foreign states, makes criminal actions that formerly would have merely been assisting or would have been hard to define; they may not necessarily have been breaches of the Official Secrets Act, or empowering or profiting a foreign state in a direct sense and in a way that would have been criminal. The National Security Act has been essential in making sure that espionage is properly punished and that the support of hostile states is now criminalised. I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and others, because that legislation has been an important change that has enabled us to make a difference.

We have seen various different ways in which states have used these sorts of powers. For example, I am afraid that we have seen the various different ways in which Beijing has been ordering different threats against us. I will not comment on things that are being gossiped about in different places—in main Chambers rather than in Westminster Hall—but I will say that the state-affiliated cyber group APT31 has been, and consistently remains, a threat targeted against the UK. I am afraid that we have seen that again and again, and we have had to take action to ensure that we are able to protect ourselves. This is one of those areas where the work of the National Cyber Security Centre has been so incredibly important in protecting not just the state but our wider economy—and that is where we have a wider mission, because the truth is that protecting the wider economy is about protecting not just all those areas, but families and individuals across our country.

I am proud of some of the work we have done alongside businesses, some of which are from the UK and some of which are international, which has enabled us to change some of the incentives and pressures on them. We have brought down fraud in the last year; 16% is not as far as I would like it to go, and I am sure that others in the House will recognise that there is further to go, but that is a hell of an achievement by some fantastically dedicated law enforcement professionals and their cyber partners to make sure that homes and families across the United Kingdom are safer.

We are moving further online. For instance, one can look at the national health service today, and see the amazing investment in technology and in the changing way in which we communicate with our doctors. As many of us know, the NHS app—which, I think I am right in saying, has been downloaded by about three quarters of all adults in the United Kingdom, although I will have to check that—is a fantastic way in which we can communicate across the medical professions. However, all of this means that we have wider vectors of attack, which means that it is enormously important to ensure that we are working together. That is why—I correct the hon. Member for Barnsley Central—although the National Security Council may not have a cyber element in that sense, there is a ministerial cyber board, which meets on a similar basis except that it is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and brings together Departments from all across Whitehall. That is an extraordinarily important place where we set the policy and make sure that it works together, because the UK Government are already doing a huge amount.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central asked about the policy of paying ransomware. We have set out that no public body should be using state money to pay ransomware. We have set out this agenda with the national health service and have been very clear to organisations, including the British Library, that it should not be happening. That policy has been made clear. It is also clear that some ransomwares that are being used for profit are being closed down. I do not know if Members are aware of the LockBit sanctions, but they have been incredibly important; in the last few days we have not just taken over the LockBit site—a brilliant piece of work by the National Crime Agency and others, including the FBI—but exposed the people behind it. That is an extremely important way in which we are taking the fight directly to the criminals who are challenging us and making sure that the National Cyber Force, which is soon to be wonderfully homed in Preston—

Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick
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Just next door.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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Many of its people will be homed around there, I am sure, though they may work in other parts. That force is a fantastically important element in our national defence. While once we flew the white ensign to protect sea lanes, today we fly a different sign —a national cyber-security sign; and with wider British Government protection, we can protect our e-lanes of communication that keep us not just safe but free.

19:26
Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick
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I thank those who have taken part in the debate, principally from the Front Benches, for their contributions and thoughts on the way forward with legislation in this area. We did not get a direct response from the Minister on whether there would be any attempt to amend the Computer Misuse Act 1990 this side of the election, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) said, we look forward to that at some stage. I cannot remember all the questions I posed—Hansard may now have disposed of them—but they are still pending with the Minister, so I hope he can write to me with answers. I look forward to hearing from him again.

I do feel very strongly about this issue, because apart from British Aerospace—BAE Systems, as it is now—and the new cyber centre that people are working away at, many of the important educational, technological and industrial developments taking place in and around my constituency in Lancashire are very important for local jobs and the economy, and in the national context. As all the Front-Bench contributors have said, the industry is a key part of keeping Britain and our constituents safe, and making sure that we continue to thrive in economic, political and democratic terms.

Thank you for chairing this debate, Ms Bardell. I am pleased that it has taken place, and hope it is a seed for further action in the coming weeks and months.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered cyber security laws and tackling crime.

19:29
Sitting adjourned.