Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Tuesday 21st March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who is a brilliant advocate for the environment. Some of the arguments she has made in this place have weighed with me, and she has helpfully corrected me in the past when I have been in the wrong, but on this occasion I have respectfully to disagree with her. I cannot see how we can have an effective and just transition to a net zero future—not a total zero future, but a net zero future—without oil and gas playing a diminishing but significant and strategic part.

If there are people in this House—and there are on the Front Benches of almost every other party—who believe that we should get rid of oil and gas like that tomorrow or overnight, let them say so. If there are people who think that there should be no further exploration or drilling of our own domestic oil and gas resources, let them go to Aberdeen, Middlesbrough or Grimsby and say so, but I do not think they will receive a warm welcome from the voters there or from the investors. On the point about the coalmine, again I am restricted in what I can say because I have merely followed the advice of the planning inspector. The planning inspector was very clear that both the net zero and downstream emissions as a result of this change would actually contribute to a stronger environmental posture for the UK, not a weaker one.

I want to turn to the area of renewable energy, which the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) mentioned. She, like me, is a fan and an advocate of renewables. Let me take her on a journey—a journey to Teesside. I would invite her to join me in visiting Teesport, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young). I would like her, and indeed everyone in the House, to join me in seeing what Ben Houchen and the Tees Valley Combined Authority have done there; to see the way in which turbines are assembled there; and to see the way in which the investment secured through the freeport there is providing high-quality, high-paying jobs in green technology, at the cutting-edge of the future, alongside hydrogen work.

I am sure the hon. Lady would want to applaud what Ben Houchen has done, because she is an enlightened and thoughtful Member of this House, but I have to tell her that not every member of the Labour party has been supporting Ben Houchen in bringing high-quality green jobs to working class areas in Teesside. Recently, when the Mayor of Teesside was creating a new development corporation to bring new jobs and new investment into renewables, Middlesbrough Labour councillors voted against it. When the freeport was being debated recently, Labour activists sought to undermine the efforts of Ben Houchen in bringing jobs into that area. The economic policies of those on the Opposition Front Bench that would undermine what is being done.

Teesside has been transformed thanks to Conservative leadership, and in the Budget most recently, Eston—which for 20 years Labour had promised it would invest in, but where it never spent a penny—secured £20 million to see that community at last given the money it needs, so that people’s pride in that place can be supported by central Government. For decades, Teesside was neglected and overlooked by Labour, and it is still being undermined and attacked by Labour, but it depends on Conservatives for its future. That is levelling up in action.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I would be delighted if the Secretary of State could demonstrate that his Department knows where the places are that he is talking about. Is he aware of Government advertising boasting about levelling-up funding for the Grainger market in Newcastle that was advertised in Newcastle-upon-Lyme?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I think it is Newcastle-under-Lyme, not Newcastle-upon-Lyme, but as someone who lived in Gosforth for five happy months, I am always happy to talk about Newcastle with the hon. Lady.

--- Later in debate ---
Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), a fellow member of the Petitions Committee. After the chaos of the past few years, the Budget was the Government’s chance to show that they would govern for everyone and end the divisive rhetoric and politics that hold our country back. Sadly, it was an opportunity missed, because although some of the biggest challenges—the need to reform childcare and get Britain working again—were acknowledged, the Government have proved incapable of fixing them.

Across the north-east, 38% of babies, children and young people are growing up in poverty, overwhelmingly in working families. In Newcastle, that figure is 42%. It is only set to get worse, with 1 million more children expected to live in poverty in the next year. That is the reality: more children growing up in households without the very basics, whether that is food in their stomachs, heating in their homes, clothing on their backs or something as fundamental as a bed.

In December, as chair of the Petitions Committee, I led a debate on child bed poverty. I can scarcely believe that bed poverty is a real problem in 21st century Britain, but it is, yet we only saw complacency in the Budget. The squeeze on living standards has left working people £104 a month poorer and wages are set to remain below 2008 levels until 2026. That is not growth. Everyone is running faster but they are slipping backwards. People are still paying more for their mortgages after the kamikaze budget, but, against that backdrop, the Chancellor’s choice was to give a tax cut to the richest 1%. That is the wrong priority at the wrong time.

Since 2019, the Petitions Committee has received many childcare petitions, signed by more than half a million people, on extending free childcare, on the childcare ratios and calling for an independent review of the childcare sector. I am heartened that the Chancellor has started to listen to those concerns, but the solutions will not meet the challenge. Increasing the number of children entitled to free childcare places while continuing to supply inadequate funding will mean that childcare providers will increasingly be forced out of the market. They have made that very clear.

The Government have also neglected to follow the evidence on ratios. It was presented very clearly to us in a powerful petition led by Zoe and Lewis Steeper, who sadly lost their son in a tragic accident at nursery. The Early Years Alliance describes relaxing ratios as a

“ludicrous, pointless and potentially dangerous policy”.

It just will not work. Some 70% of childcare providers have said that the Government consultation will not make them review their provision. Pregnant Then Screwed warn that such a change will be “detrimental to staff retention”, with a survey showing that 75% are likely to leave if ratios are relaxed. We are asking these very low-paid workers to do more with even less, and that will exacerbate existing problems. It is not just about safety. We know that smaller numbers mean better quality childcare, and that matters to our families, our children, our childcare workers and our economy.

I could have talked about so many issues today—our crumbling transport infrastructure, our wavering commitment to international aid, defence spending or the failure of the Government’s so-called levelling-up agenda—but time simply does not allow it. What worries me is that this Budget is an attempt to paper over the cracks of 13 years of failure, and we cannot afford any more precarious growth. The Budget is a deafening wake-up call to the British people that unfortunately this Government are out of ideas, out of road and need to make way for a Government who will take the country forward.

Child Bed Poverty

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Monday 19th December 2022

(1 year, 6 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

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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Welcome to today’s debate. Before we start, I remind colleagues that it is a 90-minute debate. I think it was advertised as being slightly longer.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 604509, relating to child bed poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. The petition asks the Government to bring an end to child bed poverty by creating a national sleep strategy. It states:

“Bed poverty is affecting educational outcomes for children across the UK

A national sleep strategy must resource local authorities to identify, address and ultimately end bed poverty”.

When I was presented with the title of the petition, as part of the Petition Committee’s normal deliberations, I was frankly shocked. I could not help but question how bed poverty could be a thing in our country, but after listening to the petitioner and taking evidence on the issue, it evidently, and shockingly, is. Here we are, just days away from Christmas, and it is utterly depressing that some children will be saying to themselves, “All I want for Christmas is a safe place to sleep.”

I express my admiration for the creator of the petition, Bex Wilson. As well as being a hard-working deputy headteacher, Bex has founded her own charity, Zarach, which provides beds for children living in poverty in the Leeds area. I congratulate Bex on the recent arrival of a healthy baby girl, Viola. I also thank Buttle UK, End Furniture Poverty, the Sleep Charity, Orange Box North East and a number of parents with lived experience of bed poverty for sharing their insights and experience with me ahead of the debate.

It is a distressing and shameful truth that in this country child poverty has become a pervasive issue. More children than at any other point in the last decade are growing up in households that are unable to meet their most basic needs. The latest available figures suggest that in 2021 3.9 million children across the UK were living in poverty. Since then, uplifts to universal credit and local housing allowance have been scrapped, inflation has reached heights not seen in 40 years, and an absence of support has pushed millions more families into desperate circumstances.

To those who work on the frontline of crisis services, it is undeniable that the figure of 3.9 million has been dwarfed by reality, but child poverty is more than just a statistic; it is a painful, grinding experience for each child living through it. It means growing up in stressful households, going without the same educational and development opportunities as their peers, going to school hungry or spending their evenings in a cold and damp home. For many children, it means not having a safe space to sleep at night.

Kim Leadbeater Portrait Kim Leadbeater (Batley and Spen) (Lab)
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In my constituency, the Batley & Birstall Excellence in Schools Together group of 21 schools across Batley and Birstall has identified at least 163 of its pupils who do not sleep in their own bed. They either share with their siblings or sleep on sofas or on the floor, which has a severe impact on their educational attainment, development and family life. Charities such as Zarach are incredible at providing beds for children in need, including in my constituency, but does my hon. Friend agree that those depressing statistics are a sad reflection of the poverty in our communities, and that the Government must step up to help those families and provide local authorities with the funding that they need to eliminate child bed poverty?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. The fact that she has that statistic is progress in itself, because one of the big challenges is that we do not know the level of this form of poverty. It is a hidden truth that many households simply cannot afford to provide each child with a bed of their own. On speaking to families with the lived experience of bed poverty, I heard some utterly heartbreaking stories: children sleeping on infested sofa cushions because the only alternative was a wooden floor, which we know would not provide support for their growing bodies; children sharing a bed with their siblings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said, none of whom have privacy or can expect a night of undisturbed sleep; and children sleeping in a bath because it was the only safe space for them to rest. With all the resources, opportunities and potential that we have in this country, I cannot believe that that is the start in life that the Government think should be given to our children.

Part of the problem, as I have mentioned, is that there are no official figures that I can share with Members to convey the scale of the problem. In 2018, Buttle UK estimated that around 400,000 children were going to sleep without a bed of their own. That was in 2018, so we know that that figure is wholly unrepresentative of the crisis that many families face today. The ongoing economic tumult has already left households struggling to put food on their plates and heat their homes. When the cost of furniture has increased by 42% since 2010, the prospect of buying a bed for every child is simply out of reach for some parents. Rising financial hardship has combined with a plethora of concerning trends to make the issue of bed poverty, which has come to the attention of schoolteachers, particularly acute.

Sadly, the covid-19 pandemic saw a rise in cases of domestic violence. As the increased number of mainly women fled abusive partners, they were left with nothing but their children, and a suitcase of clothes if they were lucky—no furniture and no money to buy it with. Buttle UK has identified the pandemic as generating a sharp rise in need. Within the first year, demand for its grants increased by 70%, and the amount spent on beds almost tripled.

Our country also faces a housing crisis in which the most disadvantaged are particularly vulnerable. Families are moving to unfurnished homes to try to save some rent just so that they can keep a roof over their heads, but the idea that they can then secure beds—big, bulky items—and new mattresses for each member of the household and get them to an unfurnished property is out of reach. Social housing rarely comes furnished.

End Furniture Poverty found that just 2% of social homes include some form of furnishing compared with 29% of private rented properties. Given that the purpose of social housing is to accommodate the most vulnerable in our society, it seems the crisis of bed poverty, although shocking on the surface, is inevitable.

The scale of bed poverty is really concerning when we consider how corrosive it is to a child’s life. For all of us here, getting into our bed at the end of a long day is utter relief and second nature—something we take completely for granted and that we could not imagine going without. So it will come as no surprise when I say that growing up in bed poverty has lifelong consequences. At the most fundamental level, a bed is a safe space for a child. It offers warmth, independence, privacy and comfort, and it is especially important in high stress households, which we know, when someone experiences poverty, is how it can be.

A bed also provides a social function—a place for children to have sleepovers and build their friendships at school. If that bed is taken away, a child is further exposed to the anguish and solitude that growing up in poverty can bring. Going without a comfortable space to rest also leaves a child unable to sleep properly.

As a mother of three, I know how irritable children can be when they miss a good night’s sleep, but the effect of sleep deprivation on a child’s wellbeing is far more detrimental than just a day of being a bit grouchy. From low moods to persistent feelings of helplessness and isolation, the mental health impact of bed poverty is something that no young person should ever experience. Parents can see that pain in their child. One mum told Buttle UK’s Chances for Children campaign that her children were

“angry and irritable and the two of them would argue all the time because they were so tired. Both are bright and their schoolwork suffered. They were constantly late for school”,

and one

“started to take time off because he was so exhausted. His mood suffered and he started to get depressed.”

I also spoke to one mother who had experienced bed poverty and was so grateful for the help that she received. After she received the bed, sheets and pyjamas from a charity, she described her child as becoming a different person overnight. It was powerful to hear about that experience. Those parents share their experiences, no matter how hard it is or how difficult it is to admit that they found themselves in that situation, because they do not want any child to go through that experience.

The importance of sleep does not stop at emotional regulation. It is important for many physical and neurological processes that allow children to function and grow in everyday life. It is important for brain reorganisation, and it helps children to focus and process thoughts throughout the day. Sleep is when hormones are balanced, blood pressure lowered, the immune system regulated and illnesses fought. It has even been associated with a reduction in the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. All the way down to the very smallest levels, a child’s cells and body systems perform vital jobs during the stages of sleep. Michael Farquhar, an NHS consultant in children’s sleep medicine, stated:

“I describe sleep as like getting an MOT every night for your brain and body…the longer you leave it the more problems it causes.”

With the short-term challenges of sleep deprivation come the lifelong consequences of bed poverty. Research has shown that pupils who get more sleep perform better at maths, science and reading—markers of educational attainment that the Government tell us are vital for securing good jobs in the future. That is because sleep helps children to solve problems, develop their memory and learn effectively. How many times do we go to bed on a problem and wake up with it solved? That is the power of sleep. How can we expect a child to concentrate throughout a day of education if their night was spent on a cold, hard floor, or in a bath? That was a question Bex put to me after explaining the backstory of her charity, Zarach. After discovering that one of her pupils was living in a home without a bed, the difficulties that she encountered in teaching conjugated verbs made more sense.

Education has the power to improve opportunities and give young people the ability to transform their lives, but for children living below the poverty line it is their main hope of escaping a lifetime of deprivation. The Government recognise that; one of the levelling-up missions is for 90% of primary school age children to achieve the expected standard in key stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030. However, the Government stand by while children are deprived of that one shot at education because they do not get a decent night’s sleep. Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged children were already 18 months behind their peers at school, and covid-19 has exacerbated that attainment gap. That distressing trend is continuing. The Sutton Trust recently reported that 74% of the teachers it surveyed saw an increase in pupils too tired and unable to concentrate in class. In what universe can the Government claim to be levelling up when increasing numbers of children are struggling at school because they do not have a bed?

The Government have said that they are acting on the issue, and I am sure that we will hear that from the Minister. In response to the petition, they stated that there are several avenues of support that are available to families affected by bed poverty. One of those is the budgeting advance, which is a loan available to universal credit and legacy benefit claimants—the only source of direct Government support for the cost of essential furniture. However, in evidence sessions, parents told me that the loans condemn them to further poverty; although the loans might allow them to buy a new mattress—at a cost of at least £100, I would say—they are left hopelessly trying to pay them back on already stretched and insufficient incomes. They are trapped in a cycle of deprivation and debt.

Kim Leadbeater Portrait Kim Leadbeater
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Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to think outside the box when it comes to bed poverty? I am fortunate to have a fantastic range of bed manufacturers in my constituency of Batley and Spen. I wonder whether the Government might consider working with them on a scheme to help families who are struggling. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good suggestion?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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The Government definitely need to think outside the box and take responsibility for this issue, and I will come to why. My hon. Friend points to what the charitable sector has been doing, working with local bed manufacturers that are solving the problem in very localised ways, but this is a national issue and it needs a national response. That is the point that the Government really need to listen to.

The anti-poverty charity Turn2us made a similar assessment, identifying the 2013 conversion of the social fund grant into a budgeting loan as the single biggest erosion of help for those living without household appliances. Among those unable to access the social security advances, there is an alarming trend of parents becoming victim to predatory high-interest loan organisations because they just cannot see any alternative to securing a peaceful night’s sleep for their children. Rather than giving a helping hand to families facing unimaginable hardship, the means-tested and loan-based provision of support is pushing families into even more desperate circumstances.

In response to the petition, the Government have said that councils in England have been

“empowered to establish local welfare provision”,

which is another claim that seems detached from the reality. More than a decade of austerity has had catastrophic consequence for local authorities, and chronic underfunding has left them permanently uncertain about their future and unable to deliver the long-term, transformational policies that communities in crisis need. This year’s autumn statement doubled down on the trend, forcing yet another real-terms cut to local authority budgets: needless to say, that has impeded the ability of councils to address bed poverty.

End Furniture Poverty has consistently challenged the alarming diminishment of local welfare assistance schemes across the country. In November, it found that more than one in five local authorities in England had closed their schemes, leaving over 14 million people without access to crisis support. Although the Government are likely to indicate that the deficit has been bridged by the household support fund, that does not offer hope to children sleeping without a bed. With tight spending deadlines and guidance provided at short notice, many local authorities have been unable to develop the infrastructure needed to ensure that they are meeting all areas of need.

Often the fund has been given as direct grants to people on certain benefits, or to third-party organisations such as food banks. Of course, I am not here to suggest that those are ineffective or unsuitable ways for local authorities to distribute the support fund—for a child, being well fed is just as important as being well rested. However, it is indicative of the insidious nature of child bed poverty, which, being largely absent from public awareness, has become impossible to address, despite the very best efforts of charities. I hope people realise that it is a problem, which is why Bex and the supporting petitioners are calling on the Government to create a national sleep strategy.

Given that storing, transporting and providing beds poses a number of financial and logistical challenges, the petitioners fear that the funding will inevitably continue to be redirected in order to prop up other frontline services. They therefore want the Government to explicitly commit to end child bed poverty and ensure that councils have the resources and capacity to do it. A national sleep strategy also has the potential to address several other related issues. For Orange Box North East, it could mean developing the infrastructure needed to stop good-quality pre-loved furniture going to landfill, and to divert it instead to families in need of an affordable option. For The Sleep Charity, it could provide much-needed education to an increasingly sleep-deprived teenage population, which we know is a big issue. How can we help children to develop healthy behaviours around getting a good night’s rest if they do not even have a bed to sleep in?

There are so many people with expert insight and the drive to create a brighter future for our children, but if they are left filling the void left by a Government who are failing to provide children with a safe space to sleep at night, it is an opportunity wasted. However, despite all the possibilities that a national sleep strategy holds, my discussions with charities have led me to one conclusion: until the Government finally step up and commit to end child poverty with a joined-up and cross-departmental approach, there will always be children growing up without a bed.

It is absurd that our country is facing such desperation that charities are being forced to compete over which symptom of child poverty the Government should pay most attention to. It is not enough to leave an overstretched and under-resourced third sector relieving the physical manifestations of child poverty, nor to repeat tired lines about the importance of getting parents into work when 70% of children living below the poverty line come from working households. Our children need a coherent, cross-departmental anti-child poverty strategy matched with ambition and investment. We need action on the social security system, on insecure, low-paid work, on housing, on education, on our early years sector and so much more. We need more than yet another pot of funding for crisis support. Enough of the sticking plasters, which simply patch over the trauma that is crippling our country.

Despite its seeming normalisation, child poverty is not inevitable. The last Labour Government proved that and turned the figures around. Whether they are going without a bed, food, a warm home or decent clothes, children will continue to be crushed by the pressures of poverty until we see such a commitment from the Government again.

I have a few questions for the Minister. Will he commit to ensuring there is a definition of child bed poverty within Government so that we understand and start to measure the extent of the problem? Will he set out what work the Government have undertaken with third sector organisations to understand the level of child bed poverty in the UK? Will the Government review regulations in the social housing sector to ensure that those without access to furniture have some protection when they move into a new property? Does he recognise the financial challenges that loan-based support poses for families who are in hardship or in crisis? Does he agree that the conversion from a grant was the biggest erosion of help for those living without household appliances, which is what it has been assessed as? Will he consider the petitioners’ request for all local authorities to be provided with dedicated resources to fund local schemes and support families affected by the crisis of bed poverty? Does he agree that child bed poverty is part of a much wider issue—the scandalous level of child poverty in the UK? Will the Government commit to a cross-departmental laser-focused strategy to eradicate it urgently?

I recently visited a school in my constituency and spoke about my preparations for this debate. I can still see the shock on the faces of the pupils when they heard that there are children just like them growing up without the safe space that so many take for granted—a bed. A bed of their own is the bare minimum that we should expect for every child in this country. I still cannot believe that we are even having this debate. Even those pupils knew that bed poverty is nothing short of a crisis, but it is part of a much wider systemic problem under successive Conservative Governments. We have seen child poverty increase in this country. More and more children are growing up in households without the very basics, whether it is food in their stomachs, heating in their home, clothing on their backs or, as this petition highlights, a bed.

It should be a source of immense shame that we have children sleeping in the bath or on the floor, or sharing beds. As a society, we are failing our children and taking away their futures. The cost of living crisis continues to hit households in the UK, which are facing double-digit inflation, so it is clear that the problem is only going to get worse. The Government can and must do much more. They are not a mere bystander to this issue; they are our only hope of tackling it. With a laser focus and a joined-up strategy, they can lift children out of poverty. Only then can we be sure that all children will have a safe space to lay their head at night. I really hope that the Minister hears this call and that the Government finally take action on this issue.

--- Later in debate ---
Lee Rowley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Lee Rowley)
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It is a pleasure to respond to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken. As the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) said, we are small in number, but I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the topic. I am also grateful to the hon. Members for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) for their contributions, and I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate.

As hon. Members already have, I want particularly to thank Bex Wilson, founder of Zarach. The great work her and her colleagues have done in West Yorkshire has been referenced on multiple occasions. She highlights some of the challenges that she has seen on a local level within Leeds and I accept that there are challenges in other parts of the country as well. I pay tribute to her organisation and its brilliant work to provide beds for families who are struggling, especially for those with young children.

As the hon. Member for Luton North said, we all share the same end, which is not to have families or children who need support, do not have access to beds and do not have the ability to have a good night’s sleep, which we all benefit from and often need to be able to make progress in the next day, week and month as we go forwards in our lives. It is down to all the people who work day in, day out to ensure that children can sleep safely and comfortably in their own home that we have, I hope, made progress over recent decades, whether as part of wider work to educate and support or to ensure welfare is in place.

We absolutely agree that sleep is important. The hon. Member for Luton North talked about a number of studies from China and research has also been carried out by the University of Maryland in the United States, which found that pre-teens who slept fewer than nine hours a day had noticeable differences in brain structure, mood and thinking compared with their peers who had sufficient sleep each night. Although science will always be developing in these areas, it is recognised that sleep is a hugely important part of ensuring that people are ready for the next day that they need to face.

We agree on the issue and that it exists—which it does, in certain places. We might take different views on how much it exists, and I accept the point that it is sometimes difficult to understand the level of challenge, but the question is what we do next. We all want to ensure that there is support for those who are in need, and we want to find the best way to ensure that we can cover that need. We want to highlight the amazing work of volunteers from Zarach and wherever else such work is happening in the country. I acknowledge their understandable concerns about why, at times, the system does not work as perfectly or as well as we would ideally like it to.

No system with hundreds of billions of pounds in it will work perfectly. The job of Government is not to claim that the system is perfect but to recognise that there are challenges, and try to structure that system in a way that works while ensuring that we do not change the way in which people work, operate and are incentivised where they can resolve some of the issues themselves—I recognise that not everybody can.

All that brings questions: ultimately, what do we do when we see issues such as this; and secondarily, what is it proportionate for the Government to do, and how should they respond when they see such issues? The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North anticipated some of the points I am likely to make. A substantial amount of work is going on across Government to provide a system of support for vulnerable children and families, which I hope includes the ability to tackle sleep deprivation and the drivers behind it.

I will spend some time explaining how that work is broken down between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in which I serve, and why, given the plethora of initiatives across multiple Departments, we do not think that a national sleep strategy is the way to go at this time. A substantial amount of work is already under way that we hope is helping in this difficult and challenging area.

I will start with the top line, which is about tackling poverty; it is the question with which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North ended her speech. We recognise that there are often multiple, complex reasons why families find themselves in poverty. The hon. Lady suggested that the Government are a mere bystander, which is difficult to evidence given what we are doing. This year, we will spend the best part of a quarter of a trillion pounds—£245 billion—through the welfare system to tackle such causes head on, recognise that there are vulnerable people out there and ensure that people have the support they need. That includes about £110 billion of support for people of working age, who are the most likely to have children.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I want to challenge the Minister on his statement. I did not say that the Government were a bystander; I said that they were not a bystander on this issue and they have the power to do something about it. The concern is that, for everything the Government may be doing, they are also the architect of the problem. That is my view and the view of many in this area. I appreciate all the initiatives the Minister is outlining, but they are clearly not solving the problem.

Lee Rowley Portrait Lee Rowley
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I am grateful for that clarification, and I apologise if I inadvertently suggested something that I did not intend to. I was merely trying to contextualise. The hon. Lady accepted that a substantial amount of work is going on. That needs to be acknowledged and contextualised within the wider discussion. There is such a substantial amount of work going on—I will go into that in a moment—that the challenge is knowing how best to approach things. I will try to address a number of the suggestions outlined by the hon. Lady and her colleagues.

It is important to acknowledge that a substantial amount of money is going into the issue. This has been a relatively well-regarded debate and I do not seek to make it particularly political, but, given the multiple references to austerity, I have to highlight that some of the difficult decisions that we have had to take over the last 12 years have been as a direct result of pre-2010 spending. We need to acknowledge that our decisions have trade-offs and consequences, and we are still living with those consequences a decade or so later, despite the fact that in absolute terms we are spending substantially more money than we were a decade or so ago. [Hon. Members: “Such nonsense!”]

We are going to spend over £245 billion through the welfare system this financial year, and £110 billion to support people of working age. That builds on wider efforts to lift more people out of poverty and to support those who have been highlighted in this debate. There were 1.2 million fewer people living in absolute poverty in 2020-21 than in 2009-10, including 200,000 fewer children, 500,000 fewer working-age adults and 400,000 fewer pensioners. That is not to take away from the challenges we face today, particularly the cost of living, but it is important to contextualise where we are.

In response to the global challenges we are facing, the Government have provided £37 billion of emergency support this year, and we are putting in place more help over the coming months. In the autumn statement, £26 billion of cost of living support was announced as a taxpayer subsidy for 2023-24, meaning that from next year households on eligible means-tested benefits will receive up to a further £900 in cost of living payments. From April next year, we are also uprating benefits for working-age households and disabled people, as well as the basic and new state pensions, by over 10%. Benefit cap rates will be increased by the same amount.

Just today, in the local government finance settlement we have announced a further £100 million of support for people who are deemed to be the most vulnerable, including a discretionary element that gives local authorities around the country where there are challenges—whether they are to do with access to beds or something else—additional funds to be able to close those gaps and ensure people have the things they need.

Crucially, there is also a dedicated household support fund, overseen by the Department for Work and Pensions, that councils in England can use to help families struggling with essential household costs, including the purchase of new beds and mattresses. A further £1 billion is going into that fund over the next financial year. Nearly £850 million will be distributed in England, and the remainder will be distributed in the devolved nations according to the Barnett formula. That will mean we have allocated £2.5 billion of taxpayer subsidies since October 2021.

Crucially, local authorities will have the freedom to allocate funds according to the needs in their communities. Given the acknowledgement by the Opposition that this issue is difficult to assess or even find, which was one of the points made a moment ago, the best way that we can respond to challenges that are hidden or semi-hidden is to provide both funds, which we have done, and the freedom to allocate those funds in the most proportionate and reasonable way in communities, driven by representatives in communities themselves, including the kind of councils that the hon. Member for Luton North highlighted, which are setting an agenda and making important decisions for their local area.

--- Later in debate ---
Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I thank hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate, both from the Labour Front Bench and Back Benches. I would thank the Minister for his response, but I expected more. It is very concerning that the Government do not seem to recognise that there is an issue, nor commit to understanding the extent of that issue. All we have heard is a list of actions that they are apparently undertaking, but that are clearly not solving the problem.

One mother who spoke to me when I was taking evidence for this debate said that, as a child, she had fled with her mother from domestic violence. She remembers how traumatic that was, but when they moved she said she felt cushioned by a state that supported them into a new home. She does not remember not having a bed when she was growing up. She remembers being looked after and supported in what was clearly a traumatic situation. She has faced that again herself—she has fled domestic violence with her children—and she was shocked at how little support there has been; there was nothing for them. They managed to secure a house, but it had no furniture in it. She said they have lived with one lightbulb, which they move from room to room, and no beds for the children.

It is the charity sector that has helped them, not the Government. That is the case up and down the country. Food, clothing, housing and furniture are being provided by the charitable sector, not by the state. People in the most desperate circumstances no longer have a safety net. As much as the Government and the Minister have set out the support they might be giving, it is clearly not working. It is clearly not reaching the right people.

I did not intend to say that at the end of this debate. I have been quite moved by the evidence I have heard, but I am left not angry, but I think a bit despondent, by the Minister’s response. I hoped that the Government, of all things, would want to tackle children without beds—would want to know how many children do not have a bed and discuss how we can solve that. Obviously, whatever the Government are doing is not working, because the number is growing not reducing. But that is anecdotal; we do not actually know, because the Government have not found out or even asked the question.

I would like to see the Government go away and think harder about this issue. It is about not just those individual children but a lifetime cycle of sleep deprivation that results in adult mental health issues, because if someone has not slept well as a child they will have that for the rest of their life. It will affect their education, mental health, development and wellbeing. Surely we want to put a stop to that, and ensure the basics of having a bed and somewhere safe to sleep. I hope the Government go away and think again. I appreciate that it is not all down to the Minister. The fact that we were not quite sure who was going to respond to the debate is telling of the Government’s lack of focus on child poverty as a whole.

The Department for Education has an interest in children. The Department of Health and Social Care should have an interest in children’s health and wellbeing. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and local government, should have an interest in ensuring that support is delivered at a local level. The Department for Work and Pensions looks after those households that need extra support. None of them appears to be talking to each other to develop a holistic strategy to ensure that more children do not fall into poverty, that they have a bed to sleep in and that we finally turn this around. I really hope the Government listen. If they will not, I really hope this country votes in a different Government who will.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank Catherine McKinnell for that impassioned wind-up.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 604509, relating to child bed poverty.

Levelling Up

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Wednesday 2nd February 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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That is an offer too good to resist. I will say two things. First, Leicester and Leicestershire have much to offer, but there are also significant pockets of deprivation not just in the city but in rural Leicestershire that we must tackle. My hon. Friend is right that the county deal that we are proposing will—I hope—help. Secondly, I know that Rutland’s independence is cherished by its people and its Member of Parliament, but on this occasion there can be—how can I put it—a fruitful union between Leicestershire and Rutland, and I would like to see that advance.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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The Secretary of State will know the impact of growing up poor on health, education and life chances, because it is well documented. But, even before the pandemic, two in five children and young people in the north-east were growing up in poverty, so it is hard to understand why the White Paper does not address the lack of cross-Government strategy to tackle child poverty. If levelling up is to mean anything, surely it must address that issue in the north-east.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Indeed, there is a commitment in the White Paper to additional funding for the supporting families programme —previously the troubled families programme—which helps to address many of the drivers of child poverty. Of course, I would be the first to acknowledge that there is more to do, and in communities in Newcastle—in Longbenton and elsewhere—there are real challenges that we need to work with Newcastle City Council to overcome. The council’s Labour leader is someone with whom I think we can do business.

Oral Answers to Questions

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Monday 19th July 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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First, I would not accept that there are cuts for local government spending in the finance settlement; there was a huge increase this year. If the hon. Gentleman felt it was an unacceptable settlement, he had the chance to oppose it. His local council saw a 4.1% increase in funding this year and it has £150 million sat in reserves, so I do not accept that argument at all. On biddable pots of funding, that is exactly why we have provided capacity funding to councils in the top priority status for the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund, to help them with that work to build good business cases and bids, and submit them to central Government—and to build strong relationships with us as well. I do not accept his overall point about funding, but we are absolutely supporting councils with the capacity funding that they need, and helping them to build that through the support we provide through the Local Government Association as well.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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What discussions he has had with the (a) Chancellor of the Exchequer and (b) Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on tackling health inequalities through the levelling-up fund.

Luke Hall Portrait The Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government (Luke Hall) [V]
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The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life in our country. It is a core part of our levelling-up agenda, and I regularly speak to my ministerial colleagues about the fund. These discussions will inform our levelling-up White Paper, which we intend to publish later this year.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell [V]
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Health inequalities are a clear and persistent indicator of the growing gap between and within regions. Swim England forecasts that, because of the impact of the pandemic, by 2026 just 35% of children in the most deprived areas will meet the required national swimming standard when they leave primary school, compared with 77% in the most affluent areas. More than 400 leisure centres—including West Denton swimming pool in my constituency—have already closed and many more are under threat. Will the Minister give assurances that he and the Chancellor will use the levelling-up fund to address such glaring inequalities? They could make a great start by backing Newcastle’s levelling-up fund bid to develop a new swimming and leisure development in the outer west of Newcastle.

Planning Decisions: Local Involvement

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Monday 21st June 2021

(3 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I am regularly contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the scale and pace of housing development across Newcastle’s outer west, and the long-term failure to deliver the infrastructure and amenities that residents of new housing estates were promised. I share their concern that the current planning system does not have people at its heart. Residents will find it incredible that the Government’s preferred solution is to give housing developers even more of a free hand, while imposing an entirely arbitrary cities uplift on Newcastle’s new-build target. Residents on new estates in Newcastle have all too often felt abandoned by developers, who seem eager to move on to the next lucrative round of house building long before new estates have the amenities and infrastructure needed to make sustainable communities.

The Government’s plans would take the planning system further away from where it should be headed. As the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee points out, the Government’s new planning proposals are essentially housebuilding proposals. Important non-housing areas are barely mentioned at all, while development and landowner interests are clearly favoured over those of local communities.

That is not where we should be taking our planning system. Local shops, employment, transport links, leisure and climate change are all key elements that should form a fundamental part of any cohesive planning system that shapes the communities our constituents live in.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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I cannot profess knowledge of the situation in England, but Wales is very much pro development biased toward developers. Essentially, the first part of the process is the local development plan, and once the land is on that document, the planning application is a done deal. Is that the situation in England?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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The problem is further compounded by the revised housing formula. After the application of the Government’s arbitrary cities uplift, the requirement of 1,400 new dwellings per year in Newcastle is 30% higher than the Newcastle and Gateshead core strategy and urban core plan’s average target for 2020-30, so I worry that the over-allocation of land for housing, particularly in a local authority such as Newcastle, where the boundary is tightly drawn, will further affect the availability of land for other commercial and community uses. Newcastle could be looking at a perfect storm emerging from the proposals, with accelerated house building alongside a radically reformed planning system that both reduces local say and lacks focus on the non-housing elements of the planning system, which are essential to creating sustainable joined-up communities. That is not the direction our planning system should be taking.

So many residents in my constituency have been left for years without the kind of amenities that most people take for granted, such as GPs, dentists, proper transport links, schools, or even a local shop. We cannot see the failure to deliver on infrastructure and local facilities, which has been problematic for many thousands of residents in Newcastle Great Park, replicated across Newcastle’s outer west, where thousands of homes are already being built and 1,000 more are in the pipeline. Ministers cannot pretend that housing can be built in isolation from much needed support structures, for both business and leisure. Such structures are key to ensuring that any planning system seeks to shape not just houses, but good communities and places for our constituents to live.

Affordable and Safe Housing for All

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Tuesday 18th May 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris). My deepest condolences go out to all those affected by the tragic events in Heysham.

There is a real sense that the current planning system and the Government’s new proposals do not have people at their heart. Newcastle Great Park in my constituency, which already has 2,000 homes, will see more than 4,500 homes once it is complete. Some of those estates have stood for more than a decade now without the kind of amenities that most people take for granted, such as GPs, dentists, public transport links, schools or even local shops. The current system is clearly flawed, with residents feeling that their rights come a firm second to those of developers who seem to increase the size of developments and miss targets for delivery of services and infrastructure with few consequences, and residents pay the price.

The Government’s new proposals will only make the situation worse, reducing local input and giving developers even more of a free hand. I am deeply concerned about the long-term failure to deliver on infrastructure and local facilities, which has been so problematic in Newcastle Great Park; it could be replicated across swathes of Newcastle’s Outer West where many thousands of homes are already being built and thousands more are in the pipeline.

The scale and pace of housing development across the Outer West of Newcastle feel overwhelming for constituents who are contacting me. The Government’s decision to impose a 35% increase on the housing supply in our city is, understandably, causing considerable alarm. I therefore urge the Government not to go down the path of further deregulation, but to look at ways of incentivising more genuinely affordable homes and supporting the installation of infrastructure and community facilities at an early stage of development. New developments must be more than a collection of houses: they must build communities.

Speaking of communities, one of the Government’s ambitions in the Gracious Speech is for us to emerge from the pandemic a healthier, more resilient country, but the reality is that our gyms and leisure centres are under threat of closure after taking heavy losses over the past 14 months. In Newcastle, we are concerned about the future of West Denton pool, which closed when the first national lockdown began and has yet to reopen. There is no lifeline for such facilities in the Government’s legislative programme. The communities that the pool serves already suffer from health inequalities and I worry that we are seeing an emerging perverse pattern, whereby sports and leisure facilities in the areas with the biggest existing health inequalities are the ones at greatest risk of closure. We have seen this pattern emerge up and down the country. The nation’s health is far too important to be left to a postcode lottery. If we want to emerge from this crisis a healthier country, the Government need to invest now in health and fitness for all communities.

So much is missing from the Government’s agenda. There is no meaningful progress on social care reform, despite the Prime Minister’s clear promises. There is a failure to grasp the educational inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and a real lack of urgency in addressing them. There is nothing in the leasehold reform Bill to support existing leaseholders who have been misled about the property that they bought. The promised employment Bill to extend and protect workers’ rights is absent. This is a Government who neglect social care, education recovery and employment rights, yet they have no problem finding space in their legislative programme for laws that make it harder for low-income and minority groups to vote. That tells us everything we need to know about the values and priorities of this Government.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Thursday 28th January 2021

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V]
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The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “Be the light in the darkness”, encouraging us to focus on those who, over the years, have found the courage and the conviction to take a stand against hatred and division, and to remind us of our duty to confront racism, division and misinformation wherever we see it. We should not underestimate the great courage that it can take to do so, or see it as a challenge confined to the history books.

Just three weeks ago, a group of thugs stormed the heart of US democracy. Among their number was a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt, and others wearing shirts emblazoned with deeply offensive and disturbing messages. This did not come out of nowhere. Too many politicians have failed to take a stand for freedom, tolerance and the rule of law over the last few years. When President Trump refused to accept electoral defeat in November, one Republican party official was quoted as saying,

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?”.

History has repeatedly confirmed that appeasement in the face of prejudice and hatred only emboldens those who perpetrate it.

One of the reasons why the rise of the Nazis is so difficult for us to come to terms with is that it is not something that happened centuries ago or in a failed state on the other side of the world; it happened in western Europe in the mid-20th century. It stands as a grave warning of where hatred and misinformation can lead, if we allow it to, even in the wealthiest and best-educated societies.

Today, the worrying reality is that many British Jews see antisemitism creeping back into everyday life. So what do we do? First, we educate. I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust, which have helped me to understand the true horror of the holocaust, and my duty to ensure that we teach future generations what is right and how to build a better future.

Secondly, we legislate, through the online safety Bill, and by adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. We work, on a cross-party basis, through the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, which I co-chair, and which I invite all Members to join. Most of all, we set the tone in public discourse, with no pandering to racist, divisive narratives, and no standing by when we see antisemitism in or outside politics. Sadly, we still have work to do in my party to repair the damage of the past five years.

Through active remembrance, which we continue to do through this annual debate and events, I hope that Holocaust Memorial Day will serve as a marker for future generations that we have listened, we have learnt, we have acted, and never again.

Council Tax: Government’s Proposed Increase

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Monday 25th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V]
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Even before the covid-19 pandemic, millions were struggling to pay their council tax and other essential bills. Research in 2019 showed that 1.6 million people have fallen behind on council tax payments, and the pandemic has only worsened the situation. The financial pressures have put a spotlight on how local government has been forced to rely more and more on increases in council tax over recent years, despite it being a regressive tax that squeezes those least able to afford it. The staggering level of cuts in central Government funding to local authorities since 2010, as Conservative Governments have tried to put the blame for their choices on councils, combined with the failure to deal with the crisis in adult social care as our population ages, has left councils with no choice but to increase council tax and the social precept every year if they want to continue to provide essential child, adult and elderly social care services.

Ten years ago, about 40% of local government revenue came from council tax. Today, it is more than 60%. Let us be clear what that means. Conservative Governments have overseen a shift to a far more aggressive way of paying for local government, squeezing struggling families more and more and putting the pressure on communities that can bear it least, while failing to address the real financial challenges that local authorities face. Those challenges are huge. Following the latest local government financial settlement, revenue spending will be about 20% to 25% below what it was in 2010. Over the last 10 years, Newcastle City Council has had to make savings of £305 million, more than £2,000 per household, to balance its budget. Coronavirus has cost councils across the country more than £11 billion in 2020 alone.

We are all eager to get back to the way things were before last March, but as Unison’s No Going Back to Normal campaign has highlighted, there can be no going back to the pre-covid status quo. That normal, with deep cuts to local services that support children, the elderly, the disabled, people with mental health conditions and many more, has made the human impact of the pandemic so much worse.

This is not just about local government arguing for what was promised. It is about a system that is quite obviously broken and unsustainable, and has been for some time, which is putting far too much pressure on those who can least afford to pay, and a Government who prefer to pass the buck to local authorities in the hope that voters blame them, instead of tackling the real issues and ensuring sustainable, life-changing local services can be provided. Short-term sticking plasters are not going to solve the vital issues created by years of neglect, and we need to see urgent action and serious engagement on those real solutions now.

Hospitality Industry: Government Support

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Monday 11th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 552201 and 329985 relating to Government support for the hospitality industry.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, in a debate on support for the UK hospitality industry and the creation of a Minister for hospitality. Before I begin my comments proper, I want to say a couple of words about participation in this debate.

On Friday, the Mayor of London declared a major incident in the capital, and it is abundantly clear that the rates of covid-19 here are incredibly worrying. In my view, that underlines why we must urgently allow virtual or hybrid proceedings in Westminster Hall debates. I know that many colleagues from across the House share the petitioners’ concerns about the future of bars, restaurants, hotels, night clubs and other hospitality businesses, but are unable to be with us today. I assure hon. Members and the petitioners that, in conjunction with cross-party colleagues, we will continue to press the Government and the House authorities urgently to allow and enable remote participation in these important debates.

We are debating a petition with more than 200,000 signatures, started by Claire Bosi, editor of Chef & Restaurant magazine, alongside a petition on general support for the hospitality industry, created by Chrissie McLaren, which has about 45,000 signatures.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful for an early intervention. I absolutely support the hon. Lady’s call for a hospitality Minister. I was the shadow Minister for tourism when I first came into Parliament. I wanted that job to continue when we went into government, but the size of Government restricts the number of Ministers it is possible to have, as we will no doubt hear later. In the event that we are not successful in getting a Minister for hospitality, would she support an envoy for hospitality so that we can at least have a voice for this important sector, which has been battered so hard because of covid-19, not least in my Bournemouth constituency?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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The right hon. Gentleman makes an important argument. More than 200,000 petitioners are calling for a Minister for hospitality, and I am sure they will be pleased that there are alternative suggestions if the Minister does not agree to that today.

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

I mentioned wedding venues to the hon. Lady before the debate. Orange Tree House in Greyabbey in my constituency employs 60-odd people and generates turnover for the whole community with not just bed and breakfast but many other things. When we call upon the Minister to look after the hospitality sector, does the hon. Lady agree that it is important for all regions of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, to be part of that strategy so that we can work together and help one another?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I absolutely agree with and endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said, which adds weight to the argument for a voice at the heart of Government who can represent the interests of not only all aspects of hospitality, but all areas of the UK.

I want to put on record that my husband works in hospitality, so I live with its daily ups and downs, not to mention the huge challenges of covid-19. It is not just an interest or concern here in Parliament. The petition speaks to a concern that many hon. Members will have heard time and again from local businesses in their constituencies: that the Government lack a deep understanding of the nature of the hospitality industry and its diversity. The petitioners argue that that is why we need a Minister with responsibility for hospitality to be a voice for the sector at the heart of Government.

The hospitality industry is the third-largest UK employer. It is responsible for about 3 million jobs, generates £130 billion in activity and results in £38 billion of Government revenue through taxation. For levelling up, it is one of the few industries to reach every part of the country, and it will be crucial in our recovery from the present crisis. Unlike the arts or sport, however, it does not have a dedicated Minister.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I support the hon. Lady’s call for a stronger voice for hospitality in Government. I do not know whether she is a coffee drinker, but I am sure that she is aware in her constituency, as I am in mine, of the clusters of caffeine seekers outside kiosks and, even worse, inside waiting for a takeaway—they are a pretty common sight. Does she agree that, although those sales are not breaking any rules, they are not essential? We might need to put our coffee culture on hold for the time being.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point; perhaps the Minister will comment on that in his response.

This is a timely debate, because although many businesses have taken a significant hit since March, hospitality, which thrives on social mixing and travel, has been crippled by repeated lockdowns and the risks posed by the virus. Local economies with a higher proportion of workers employed in such sectors have been disproportionately hit.

Many restaurants have pivoted to providing cook-at-home and takeaway offers with contact-free delivery or kerbside collection. In these strange times, Geordies can enjoy takeaways from all manner of venues across our city, from the Thyme Square café on Station Road, with its carry-out Sunday lunches, to the cook-at-home offerings from 21 and the Michelin-starred House of Tides on the quayside. None the less, the situation remains incredibly challenging for all. A recent UKHospitality study found that 41% of businesses in the sector thought that they would fail by mid-2021, and one in five thought that they would have enough cash flow to survive beyond February.

Even when restrictions were relaxed over the summer, most people could still go to restaurants or pubs only with the people they lived or bubbled with. The simultaneous closure of sports stadiums, cinemas, music venues and theatres has a knock-on impact. If the business of people catching up with family and friends over drinks, going on dates, or having a bite to eat after a match or film is lost, that is a huge chunk of revenue. Hospitality also lost out badly from the drop in tourist spend this winter. Other parts of the hospitality sector, such as nightclubs, have remained closed since the first lockdown in March. From the reaction to the recent debate on the night-time economy, I know that Newcastle’s iconic nightlife is sorely missed by visitors and locals alike.

On Friday, when I met the petition’s creator, Claire Bosi, and some of its leading supporters, including the founder and CEO of Home Grown Hotels, Robin Hutson, and chefs Tom Kerridge and Angela Hartnett, I heard powerful examples that demonstrate the Government’s lack of deep understanding of the sector. To be clear, there is enormous gratitude for the considerable support that the Government have provided through the billions spent on measures such as the job retention scheme, the business rates holiday and various grants, including those announced by the Chancellor last week. The Government would do a lot better, however, if they stopped seeing the sector as being amenable to a one-size-fits-all approach. Ministers’ main lever for controlling the virus over the last nine months has been to switch the entire sector on or off at a moment’s notice, with little consideration given to its complexity and diversity.

When restrictions were eased over the summer, we saw the reopening of large chain pubs—with customers often bunched together at outside tables—at the same time as small restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, where social distancing is easier to maintain. The curfew policy suffered from the same one-size-fits-all mindset. It was evidently drawn up with bars in mind, but unlike restaurants they do not have to turn over tables. The curfew might have been appropriate for a city centre bar—although there were many issues with large groups of customers all leaving at the same time—but it made no sense for small restaurants or rural hotels, which might have been unable to safely spread out the accommodation of all their guests for dinner as a consequence.

August’s eat out to help out scheme, although clearly popular at the time, was seemingly designed with little regard to whom it would help and the incentives that it would create. Rather than supporting those who are struggling the most, it potentially ended up being an untargeted giveaway to customers and businesses. It also made eating out much cheaper relative to takeaways and, in retrospect, helping restaurants by targeting subsidies at takeaways might have been more effective at boosting sales while maintaining the social distancing that is so required.

I understand that there are reasons why the Government have made lockdown announcements very shortly before their introduction, but that has caused some real issues for the sector. I was told of a chef in London who had two tonnes of oysters delivered just two hours after London entered tier 3, with no customers to serve them to. Yesterday, we heard reports of chickens possibly being culled due to a fall in bulk egg orders. When hotels were closed by national lockdown or entering tiers 3 and 4, hoteliers were left guessing whether they were even allowed to serve their guests breakfast in the morning. I know that these are not decisions that any Minister takes lightly, but if it is genuinely not possible to give more notice of such changes, what more can the Government do to support businesses that are caught off guard?

The repeated shutdowns of the hospitality sector have also meant that the businesses that supply it have been forced into hibernation for much of the past year. There is a whole other set of issues there that the current support measures—which are largely designed around jobs and rent, not around businesses holding large amounts of stock, often perishable—just do not reach. Little financial support has been available throughout the pandemic. With severe restrictions in place across the country since the autumn, demand for their stock has diminished seriously.

I also worry about the impact of that on-off cycle on the mental health of the staff who work in the sector. They have had to return suddenly to public-facing roles, turning on the charm and smiling at customers, when they do not know whether they will be able to hold on to their jobs for much longer. It has been great to see the widespread recognition of the strains that lockdown has put on the nation’s mental health, but we need to pay particular attention to the sectors most affected.

Thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of scientists in the UK and across the world, there is now a clear way out of this crisis. We know that the economic disruption will not be permanent. We will, no doubt, expect hospitality to play a significant part in the hoped-for bounce back of economic activity and employment, in particular among young people. We have good reason to believe that for at least the businesses that manage to survive.

The pandemic has concentrated a tremendous amount of economic pain on workers in certain sectors, predominantly insecure workers, and they deserve our utmost support. However, there has also been a build-up of savings among those more fortunate, who have been able to maintain a steady income. Many have saved the money that they used to spend on bars, hotels and restaurants, rather than splurging it on more parcels from Amazon, but there are limits to how much of that will ultimately be spent on hospitality in due course. In all likelihood, people are likely to go out to the pub two or three times a week, eventually, but that will not happen soon.

There will be a catch-up on spending in that social consumption—or we very much hope so—when things eventually return to normal. As the nation is vaccinated, the economy reopens and the rules we apply in hospitality inevitably become more nuanced and complex, it is important that we have input from the hospitality sector as to how we can design policy not to repeat the mistakes that were made in the summer of 2020 when the sector reopened.

We need to get ahead of the problems, and the petitioners have argued that splitting that representation between two crowded Departments—the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—is not working. One of the leading supporters of the petition, Robin Hutson, put it succinctly:

“I’ve long held the view that the hospitality sector requires really focused representation in government. This is about the future of our industry and the campaign and petition showcases the strength of feeling across the country on this issue. Hospitality is a sector that deserves a seat at the top table.”

That responsibility sits across two Departments, which is not a problem. Hospitality sector businesses are businesses, but they are also a creative art—in fact, much of the arts sector relies on hospitality as a source of revenue to underpin its activities. We used to have more Ministers with cross-Department briefs, out of recognition that some issues unavoidably straddle Government Departments, but that seems to be out of fashion at the moment. I worry that it creates an incentive for passing the buck between Departments, which reinforces the case for a Minister for hospitality.

It is hard to believe some of more farcical debates that we have had, such as the controversy about whether a Scotch egg constitutes a meal. If we had a dedicated hospitality Minister, we might not have ended up with that mess. If a new ministerial role is not something that the Government are open to, we must at least recognise that the sector needs a strong voice in Government, with a genuine recognition of its diversity, greater engagement with businesses and a much deeper understanding of the different ways that they are affected by lockdown measures.

The hospitality sector is an industry that has always been driven by passion and soul. It is not an industry in which businesses generally have huge amounts of cash reserves, and we know that many businesses operate at just above break-even point. The industry knows it needs to encourage more home-grown talent, now that it cannot rely on people coming over from Europe. There is a levelling-up piece here, as I have mentioned. Hospitality is one of the few industries that is represented in almost every part of the country. It is an industry that is a gateway for so many people who do not particularly enjoy the academic side of school but who have creativity and graft and can be successful, if just given the chance. If the Government understood and took the industry seriously, it could be a route to transformation in every community right across the country. We need to raise the profile of hospitality and encourage young people from the UK to do apprenticeships and to see entering the industry as a “Sky’s the limit” career. As we set out our stall on the world stage in the post-Brexit era, one of the key things that will attract people to our country—with their investment—is our culture and its offerings, and a big part of that will be the richness and quality of our hospitality.

Newcastle’s hospitality sector has something for everyone: restaurants offering everything from hearty traditional Geordie pub grub to innovative fine dining, hipster-style hang-outs for craft beer and gourmet burgers, and a thriving street food scene. Our nightlife is famous in its own right and is regularly featured in guides and magazines—Newcastle is often one of the top places for an unforgettable night out. However, my fear in the current situation is that the larger, more standardised chains will have the resources to survive into the post-pandemic era, but the smaller, heart-and-soul operations might not. We will see a hollowing out of the sector. I do not want to see my city lose any part of what makes it unique, and I am sure colleagues feel the same way about their areas.

I know there is a limit to how much heart and soul people can give when they have been hammered month after month. Even in the best-case scenario, there are several months of closure ahead. Countless smaller owner-operators are now worse off than they were when the pandemic began. Some took out personally secured loans in March. Having spent the last nine months in difficulty, they are now looking at losing not only their businesses, but their homes. It is a real tragedy, because they were good and viable businesses before this unseen crisis came along.

What does the sector need? The one-off grants announced by the Chancellor last week will of course be strongly welcomed, and they should help more businesses to stay afloat. The resource that the Government have put in through the job retention scheme has been a lifeline to sector employees, but industry representatives have made it clear that the current support is not enough to cover the costs of many businesses and will not secure their long-term viability. We need a longer-term plan to help businesses to plan their survival while the vaccine is rolled out, starting with clarity on how long the new support payments will be available. UKHospitality and others have called for an extension of the business rates holiday and a 5% VAT rate, to provide certainty in the longer term. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on whether that is under consideration.

I also urge the Government to commit to examine urgently the inadequacies of their support measures as they relate to hospitality suppliers and, as I said in our previous debate on the night-time economy, to consider introducing some flexibility to the local restrictions support grants, to give local authorities the freedom to grant and target support towards the businesses that need it and can use it best.

The petitioners do not expect to go back to dining out, dancing in nightclubs and checking into hotels straightaway; the public health situation is at a critical point, and saving lives must take precedence. However, they want there to be a greater understanding of the diverse nature of their sector and a strong voice for them in Government. Above all, and like us, they want this country’s mix of pubs, hotels, restaurants and clubs, which does so much to enrich our lives, to still be standing when this crisis is over.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it would be appropriate to impose a time limit of three minutes.

--- Later in debate ---
Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - -

I thank everyone who contributed to this debate. We have done justice to the petitioners who raised this issue. There is nothing that we disagree on. In fact, there was nothing in what the Minister said for us to disagree with, other than the fact that he has not accepted the proposal to have a specific Minister for hospitality.

We agree that this industry is vital, but we all have concerns that the Government are not maximising the knowledge within the hospitality industry to ensure that they and the country get it right for the industry. If we put the two together, we can use all that creativity, energy and innovation to ensure not only that the Government’s response is right, but that it is absolutely right for the hospitality industry.

According to the well-known saying, we do not know what we have got until it has gone, but I would say that we do know what we have got; we all know that these businesses are absolutely essential in our communities. They are essential for jobs and opportunities. They are essential for the sense of community. They are essential because they are unique and special and will attract to this country the people we will need in our post-Brexit world. They are also essential because they are a major tax generator for the Government.

The Government should want to get this right and should want the maximum possible engagement with the hospitality industry. A seat at the table and a strong voice for the hospitality industry would be in the Government’s interest. I thank the Minister for his response today but urge him to take the idea away and put it to the Prime Minister as something that it is in the Government’s interest to create.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 552201 and 329985 relating to Government support for the hospitality industry.

Worker Exploitation: Leicester Textile Industry

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Wednesday 18th November 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling worker exploitation in the textile industry in Leicester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Leicester has a proud heritage of textile manufacturing. By the middle of the 20th century, the success of our hosiery and footwear industries, including companies such as Corah, Wolsey and Byford, led to Leicester being called the place that clothed the world and the second richest city in Europe. Although no longer on that scale, the textile sector still employs around 10,000 workers in 1,500 firms in Leicester and Leicestershire, the second largest concentration of textile firms in the country outside of Manchester. I want my constituents and people across Leicester to have the highest possible standards of employment. I want them to be paid well and trained well, and to work in a safe and welcoming environment. I want our local businesses to be the very best and to have the support that they need to expand and thrive, and I want a sustainable and productive economy for our city and country as a whole. That is why I am so concerned about poor and exploitative working practices in some parts of the textile industry in Leicester and why I believe more effective action must be taken.

I want to focus my comments today on the fashion retailer Boohoo, which is a major part of the problem experienced in the city. I want to talk about the company’s shareholders, who, with one notable exception, have failed to fulfil their responsibilities, and I want to talk about the Government, who have a crucial role to play in ensuring an effective system of regulation and enforcement, backed with sufficient resources.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I wish to put on record that, although I admire the fact that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, which is very pertinent to Leicester, the issue very much affects all of the consumers who purchase items from these retailers. The items are manufactured often in Leicester and procured in Leicester, and it is vital for everybody to know that these goods are being produced in the right way and that the workers are being treated properly when we make those purchases.

Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. This issue does not just affect the workers in this industry. It does not just affect those of us who have pensions that are invested in these companies. It also affects us as consumers, which is why it is so important that we get this right.

There have been long-standing and serious problems with workers being exploited in some textile factories in Leicester. In the last five years alone, they have been highlighted by the University of Leicester, the BBC’s “Dispatches” programme, the Financial Times and the Environmental Audit Committee. Many, although not all, of these appalling cases had been in the supply chain of fashion retailer Boohoo. The latest issues were exposed by The Sunday Times in July. Following those revelations, Boohoo finally commissioned a review into the supply chain, carried out by Alison Levitt, QC. The findings of this review, published in September, were utterly damning.

Ms Levitt found that repeated allegations of unacceptable working conditions and illegal underpayment of workers were

“not only well-founded, but substantially true”—

something that Boohoo had denied or downplayed for many years, which I know personally from my meetings with the chief executive and director of sustainability. The review found that a significant number of Boohoo’s suppliers and subcontractors had been paying their employees less than the national minimum wage and had serious health and safety violations, including the risk of fire that could lead to loss of life, and that employees’ rights had been ignored and neglected on a wide scale. The review concludes that these problems are endemic and

“exist across the best part, if not the entirety, of Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain.”

Ms Levitt says that Boohoo’s monitoring of its supply chain has been “inadequate” for many years, and that is down to “weak corporate governance”. She says:

“Commercial concerns such as growth and profit were prioritised in a way which made substantial areas of risk all but invisible at the most senior level.”

From March 2019, Boohoo knew there were problems in their supply chain, and,

“By December 2019, at the latest, senior members of the Boohoo Board knew for a fact that there were some serious examples of unacceptable working conditions and poor treatment of workers (including illegally low pay).”

Despite all that, in late June 2020, astonishingly, Boohoo unveiled a plan to pay bonuses of up to £100 million to its two co-founders, Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane, and £50 million to its other senior executives.

Ms Levitt says that when the covid-19 pandemic struck,

“Boohoo was quick to take advantage of the commercial opportunities afforded by the increase in demand during the pandemic”,

but that

“at no point was any assessment made as to how the Leicester workforce was to cope with the increased volume of orders.”

She rightly concludes that that was “inexcusable” and that,

“in truth Boohoo has not felt any real sense of responsibility for the factory workers in Leicester…because they are largely invisible to them.”

An under-reported part of the review relates to the behaviour of Boohoo’s chief executive, John Lyttle, and the executive chairman and co-founder Mahmud Kamani. Ms Levitt questions why John Lyttle failed on three occasions to tell her about an email that identified extremely serious health and safety concerns in Leicester supply chain. She says:

“It was my view that, given that John Lyttle could not possibly have forgotten this, his failure to tell me about it was significant.”

Ms Levitt highlights Mr Kamani’s “lack of knowledge” or even “interest” in reports by Boohoo’s internal auditor about problems in the Leicester supply chain or the checks carried out by their independent auditor, Verisio. Significantly, she says that

“the Board has found it difficult to stand up to the current Chairman and to ensure that the best interests of all the shareholders are acted upon.”

She concludes that

“for too long, Mr Kamani’s priorities have been allowed to dictate company policy.”

Perhaps Ms Levitt’s most striking finding is that:

“No member of the Board I interviewed mentioned that the responsibility for what is happening in the supply chain derived from the duty of the company’s officers to act in the best interests of all the shareholders.”

She also highlights

“the failure of the company to grasp that their responsibility for the factory workers does not derive from a nebulous ‘moral’ duty but from their obligations as officers of the company.”

I am going through this in so much detail because it beggars belief that the very people who denied and brushed aside this appalling exploitation are still in place and, far from suffering any penalties as a result of their failures, have instead given themselves a huge pay cheque. Hiring independent directors, however good they may be, will not solve fundamental governance weaknesses where boards are still in the power of an all-powerful founder chairman, as others have rightly said today.

Boohoo is still failing to take sufficient action and fobbing people off with warm words. It promised to implement all the recommendations of the Levitt review, but to take just one example, I have repeatedly asked Boohoo to send me its emergency plan for a second national lockdown and to spell out exactly how many people are now physically inspecting the factories in its supply chain—a key recommendation of the Levitt review—but I cannot get any clear answers. This is a serious question for the chief executive, the executive chair and other members of the Boohoo board. It is a serious question for Boohoo shareholders, too, because shareholders have a responsibility for the companies that they own, and fund managers should be held to account for their promises to champion responsible investing and environmental, social and governance—so-called ESG—issues.

Following publication of the Levitt review, I wrote to all of Boohoo’s major shareholders to ask what action they were taking as a result of what I think is one of the worst ESG scandals in modern UK history. I said that I did not think that those who had turned a blind eye to these problems over many years were the right people to take the company forward. To be clear, the executive chairman and the chief executive officer should be removed.

The response has so far been extremely disappointing, to say the least, save for the notable exception of that from Standard Life Aberdeen. Of those shareholders that have replied, Jupiter Fund Management has told me that it is in “close dialogue” with Boohoo. Fidelity Investments claims that it has had “positive engagement”. Invesco also says that it is “engaging”. And BlackRock says that it is

“following the situation with the company closely”.

None, however, has changed any of its actual investment decisions. That makes a total mockery of their promises and claims to champion responsible investment. This matters, because these are the companies that manage the retirement savings of millions of ordinary Britons.

In contrast, Standard Life Aberdeen has sold all the shares that it owned in Boohoo, because of the company’s failure to take proper action. It told me that it had over time made specific demands of the company to improve its supply chain practices and management. It met regularly with the company to monitor progress. It demanded an extension of the audits carried out on the company’s UK supply base and said that Boohoo should engage with industry-led supply chain initiatives. It said that its patience with the company’s response on these issues had been diminishing during all of last year, that that patience finally evaporated in the summer, when the allegations by The Sunday Times were published, and that that was why it took the decision to sell its remaining shares. Standard Life Aberdeen also told me that it voted against the appallingly hubristic pay package for the co-founders and senior executives when it was introduced at Boohoo’s 2019 annual general meeting.

Standard Life Aberdeen is to be applauded for its decisions, because fund managers need to champion responsible investing—not as the latest marketing gimmick, but because they intend to drive real change. Otherwise it is all just warm words and not worth the paper, or website, it is written on.

Let me turn finally to the role of Government. Although most of Ms Levitt’s review focuses on Boohoo, she makes it clear that inaction by Government has also contributed significantly to the problems of worker exploitation in the textile industry in Leicester. She concludes:

“Legislation is not merely a system for regulating society but also the mechanism by which society’s values and priorities are communicated. If the law is not enforced, this sends a clear message that the violations are not important and the people affected do not matter.”

I think Ms Levitt is right, yet over the last decade the very bodies responsible for tackling worker exploitation and enforcing workers’ rights have faced considerable budget cuts from this Government, which has significantly reduced their capacity for inspection and enforcement. For example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, responsible for enforcing the national minimum wage, has seen its budget cut by 17%, and the Health and Safety Executive has seen its budget cut by a staggering 46%. The HSE was also explicitly told by the Government to reduce its proactive inspections in the textile industry by a third, because Ministers wrongly considered this sector low risk. On top of this, Ministers have refused to implement recommendations from key reports such as the Environmental Audit Committee’s “Fixing fashion” report, which made some really important proposals, especially about improving supply chain transparency. The Government have also been far too slow in sorting out the mess of different regulatory bodies involved in this area.

Ministers proposed a new single enforcement body almost two years ago, but we have yet to see a response to the consultation on that important change, let alone the Government’s actual proposals. There are lots of important questions about this body that need to be answered: how much of a local presence it will have, how much it will engage with the local community and trade unions, what kind of sectoral expertise it will have, and what its enforcement powers will be. The Minister will know, as I met him to discuss this yesterday, that I think there is much that could be learned from the work being done by Leicester City Council as the Government develop their proposals for the single enforcement body.

Although local authorities have no powers to check on working conditions inside a building, enforce the minimum wage, or monitor the legality of the workforce, Leicester City Council has nevertheless been working hard to do what it can within the current framework and legislation. It has appointed a co-ordinator to bring the various national enforcement agencies together to improve intelligence sharing and enforcement—the very first post of its kind in the country. The city council is working closely with trade unions, local community and voluntary groups, the citizens advice bureau and Crimestoppers to raise awareness about the problems, better engage with employees, and give exploited workers the courage to speak out, because we know the fundamental problem is that many people are too scared to say what is really happening.

The council is also proactively helping the textile industry modernise by providing bespoke business advice, holding training sessions with factories and supporting businesses with nearly £600,000 of grant financing, for new equipment in particular. It is also investing £200,000 into setting up a new skills and training centre for the textile sector, and seeking investment and support from the industry and others.

Before I finish, I particularly want to emphasise to the Minister the importance of working with trade unions to support the positive changes we need. If we want greater openness and transparency, if we want a partnership between employers and employees to improve workplace safety and standards, and if we want all workers to have the courage and confidence to speak out, we must increase union representation in the textile industry. I hope that when the Minister speaks he will commit to working on these issues with trade unions such as Community and the GMB, because this is a critical issue for the future.

In conclusion, the responsibility for tackling worker exploitation in the textile industry—not just in Leicester but across the country—lies with the boards of textile companies and fashion retailers, with the shareholders of those companies and with the Government. Action is required by all three to end exploitation and ensure that not only Leicester’s but the entire country’s textile industry improves its standards and has an ethical, productive and sustainable future. I hope the Minister agrees, and look forward to hearing his response.