Oral Answers to Questions

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 5th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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John Glen Portrait John Glen
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I took the precaution of researching my hon. Friend’s interest in this subject, and I note that he was issuing challenges on it 14 years ago. The Government remain—as they were then—fully committed to delivering HS2 and the integrated rail plan. This is a long-term investment that will bring our biggest cities closer to each other. It will boost productivity, and will provide a low-carbon alternative to cars and planes for many decades to come. As my hon. Friend knows, we are also working, through the IRP, on a £96 billion package to improve inter-regional rail connections, which obviously affects his constituents.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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Does the Minister agree that this country’s performance on productivity has been pitiful over the last 10 years? There has been virtually no improvement in productivity, and one reason for that is our lack of investment in national infrastructure. Slowing down HS2 is a bad move when it comes to improving our infrastructure, and it is years since we agreed to a third runway at Heathrow. Does the Minister agree that if we are to improve our productivity, we have to invest in infrastructure?

High Income Child Benefit Charge

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Thursday 2nd February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am covering for my colleague who cannot be here today because of a constituency commitment. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for bringing forward a really important debate today. He spoke compassionately about his constituents, who are clearly struggling, and I applaud him for bringing this matter to the House. He will be pleased to know that Labour always welcomes the opportunity to highlight the significant pressures that families are facing across the United Kingdom, including in my constituency, as the cost of living crisis gets worse.

We have heard how hundreds of thousands more families are being pulled into the high income child benefit charge. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it well when he said that a lot of them are not from wealthy families, yet they are still being pulled into that charge. It is sad that hard-working people are having to pay for the chaos caused in recent months, and for 12 years of economic failure.

I want the Minister to explain the fiscal drag of freezing the threshold for the high income child benefit charge. I am sure she will make the case that maintaining the threshold at £50,000 allows the Government to prioritise the majority of families, particularly the poorest households, and that she will talk about difficult choices that have to be made and how taxpayers’ money is best spent. We all agree with that, but the truth is that the current benefits system is not working for anyone, least of all the poorest. A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week found that the benefit system is fundamentally “not fit for purpose” and has “trapped” millions of children and families in poverty.

Helping more people into good-quality work must be a priority of social security. Over 1 million people are out of work, despite wanting a job, and yet employers are struggling to fill over 1 million vacancies. I looked at the figures. Employment in the UK is lower now than it was before the pandemic, and the employment rate has had the biggest drop out of the major G7 economies.

A shocking 2.5 million of those who have fallen out of the workforce have done so because of ill health. We know that being out of work is bad for health. The longer someone is out of work for sickness reasons, the more difficult it is for them to return to a job. Unfortunately, it feels like nothing is being done to break that dangerous cycle. We cannot simply write people off. Only 4% of people in the employment and support allowance support group return to work each year. That is a huge waste of the potential of British people, who we know can contribute a lot to the economy.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) wanted to know about Labour’s approach. We would take a very different approach to the benefits system. We would modernise jobcentres, turning them into new hubs that focus on work progression. They would be no longer just a conveyer belt to lower-paid work, but an escalator to well-paid, secure jobs.

I looked at the figures again. Only one in 10 older or disabled people who are out of work are receiving any support to find a job. That is because the Government impose programme after programme on local areas, regardless of their local economic needs. A massive £20 billion is being spent across 49 schemes, administered by nine different Government Departments. Even that statistic sounds so confusing.

The fragmented system is wasting taxpayers’ money and failing to get people into work. In contrast, when some limited local design has been allowed in pockets of the country, such as the inspirational “Working Well” initiative in Greater Manchester, there have been real successes in helping people get back into employment. That is why the Labour party will shift resources and power to the local level and guarantee local innovation in the design and delivery of employment support services.

We also want to address the hindrance to work in the social security system by empowering jobcentres to help to broker flexible working opportunities for those who have caring responsibilities. Crucially, we will reform the Access to Work scheme, for which the waiting list for an assessment has trebled. People now wait months for a decision, and overall the work capability assessment regime leaves too many people trapped in unemployment.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. This is not a high-pressure debate and there is plenty of time, but the title is the high income child benefit charge. I am willing to relax and let the hon. Lady go a bit off-piste, but I think she is wandering quite a long way off the subject of the debate.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq
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Apologies, Mr Stringer. You will be pleased to hear that I am on the last bit of my speech.

I ask the Minister to respond to the specific concerns raised today, especially in relation to the growing number of people pulled into the high income child benefit charge. I sincerely believe we need a proper plan to lift families out of poverty. We need to get our economy growing, and we need to offer opportunities for people in every part of the UK. I want to hear what the Minister has to say.

Covid-19: Economic Impact of Lockdowns

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 29th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), both on her speech—the vast majority of which, if not all, I agree with—and on bringing this matter before the House. It was not only during the time of covid that we did not debate covid enough; since the end of lockdown, we have not debated the consequences of the policy decisions taken during covid.

I will just go back to what the Government said at the start of covid; it is always better to go back and examine whether those things actually happened or were honoured. The first thing the Government said at the start of the crisis was that they would follow the science. They did not follow the science. I can give a large number of examples where they did not follow the science, but I will just concentrate on two or three important examples.

One of them has already been mentioned: children losing their education. It was clear from the very beginning of this disease that it was primarily a disease of the elderly and of people with other co-morbidities. It was clear early on that there was essentially no danger to children or anybody else from opening schools, but they were not opened quickly enough. Anyone who goes into schools and knows young children can still see the damage that was done to them both emotionally and educationally because the science was not followed.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) will remember that Greater Manchester, which had a two-tier system of lockdown, was put into lockdown before Merseyside. The Government’s statistics on infection rates and the R number were higher for Merseyside than they were for Greater Manchester, but the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who is better occupied in the antipodes than he was in this House as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, decided that he liked the Mayor of Merseyside rather more than Andy Burnham, so Greater Manchester went into lockdown and Merseyside did not, even though the statistics suggested otherwise.

More trivially but importantly for those who like a drink was the decision to close pubs at 10 pm. When we questioned the Government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer on the Science and Technology Committee, they openly admitted that this was a ministerial decision with no science behind it whatever. So the Government did not follow the science, and I do not think they ever had any intention of doing so.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green
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One concern I had from the very beginning of the pandemic was that we had the Prime Minister, professors, doctors and Ministers saying, “This is the scientific evidence. This compels you to do as we are saying. We have the weight of evidence behind us.” However, not long afterwards—in fact, within days or weeks—it was clear that there was no scientific basis for the 10 pm curfew. That undermines people’s confidence when the scientific and medical establishment tells us to take the necessary precautions.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Most politicians are not scientists—there are very few; I do not think we even have an epidemiologist in the House—or scientifically trained.

Dominic Cummings came to the Science and Technology Committee and made an extremely good point: members of the Government are not experts, so when scientific evidence was being given to them, it should have been challenged, and other scientists should have been brought in to challenge it—so-called red teams. That challenge would have helped the Government to see that there was a debate. Many scientists were frustrated because they had a different view of the evidence presented—sometimes they even had different evidence—and it should have been considered. However, that internal debate did not happen in Government, and the debate in the House of Commons, as the right hon. Member for Tatton said, also did not happen as it should have done.

What did happen was that the Government decided on lockdown. My view is that once Italy, China and a number of countries in south-east Asia had locked down, the Government believed that lockdown was the politically safe thing to do. It was not scientifically the right thing to do; it was not the most effective way of dealing with the covid epidemic.

There are two reasons for locking down. The first is to eliminate the disease very early on to stop it spreading at all. That position had passed a long time before the Government locked down. After that, the reason is to stop the NHS being overwhelmed by too many infections at once. The Government’s other slogan—apart from that they were following the science—was that they were going to protect the NHS. They did that in a very simple sense, because it was not overwhelmed by covid. However, since the start of 2020, there has been effectively no NHS for many people. During covid, hospitals were empty and GPs could not be seen. The fact that deaths are now about 10% higher than normal shows the impact of people not being able to access GPs or get cancer care and of elderly people suffering from dementia not getting any support or human contact.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green
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Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government’s approach appeared to be to use the precautionary principle to protect the Government rather than to protect people, and to say, “If we lock down and do the restrictions, no one can blame us for what comes out from it”? In contrast, the Swedish approach was to give people good advice and take only the necessary measures.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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The hon. Gentleman puts it in an interesting way, although there is another interpretation of the precautionary principle. Some people interpret it as meaning that we should be as cautious we can be, but it actually means that we should not take action until we are certain of the facts. It does not mean that we should not do anything, which is how the Government interpreted it.

The right hon. Member for Tatton made a good point about the Government’s position on lockdown. Gavin Morgan, who was a member of SPI-B, the sub-committee of SAGE, said that behavioural psychology was weaponised and that there was an exaggerated threat. We got into a vicious feedback loop: the Government frightened people, so people demanded more lockdown from the Government. That was bad for health and the economy.

That is the health side of it, and we are suffering from it now, with 6 million-plus people on the waiting lists for elective surgery. However, this debate is primarily about the economy. The Government say that the war in Ukraine is the prime reason why the economy and the Government’s finances are in difficulty.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the IMF’s estimate that £407 billion was spent on covid. Some of that money was spent really well. Some of it was spent on developing the vaccines and on the vaccine taskforce, and that work was brilliant and very effective—I congratulate the vaccine taskforce—but much of it was wasted. The National Audit Office estimated that the bulk of the £37.5 billion spent on Test and Trace was wasted because there was no communication between the centre and the public health teams. That is a huge amount to waste, and that was just the budget.

Money on personal protective equipment was wasted not only because it went to friends of the Government in pretty dodgy contracts, but because it went on pretty dodgy personal protective equipment that did not work. All that has had a disastrous effect on the Government’s finances, and therefore the economy, because it is preventing the Government from spending money where they should.

I will finish on two points. I could go on for much longer, but other Members want to speak. There was no proper debate inside or outside the Government about the science. Just before Parliament went to sleep, it passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. One would have expected that Act to be used, but it was not. The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 was the Act under which the Government mainly enacted the decisions that they had made. That Act allows less scrutiny in Parliament, and we lost many of our civil liberties for no good reason at all. I am still shocked that, when I left the House to go back to Manchester after the House had started sitting again, and I was going into Euston station, a police officer asked me where I was going. This is not Nazi Germany in the late 1930s; this is the United Kingdom of free people. I am not going to tell police officers where I am going. We need to look at that issue.

Finally, there is a great deal of hope that Baroness Hallett’s inquiry will get to the bottom of many of the issues we are discussing all too briefly today. Like other colleagues who have spoken, I have written to Baroness Hallett setting out my worry that she is disproportionately asking for evidence from people who naturally supported lockdown and not from businesses that have gone to the wall because of lockdown or from people who cannot access health services because we are still suffering the impacts of lockdown. I am worried about the way that that inquiry is structured.

I will finish on a figure from Professor Thomas of Bristol University, who has pointed out one of the issues I raised in the debates that took place when I was asking for an economic as opposed to a health analysis: poverty kills—not just covid. Professor Thomas thinks that 2.5 million life years have been lost because of the loss of GDP so far. It is a statistical factor, but it gives an indication of the economic damage and the impact that lockdown has had on people’s lives.

Government Response to Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Thursday 22nd July 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House notes the Fifth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HC 541; and calls on the Government to provide an updated response to that set out in the Committee’s Fourth Special Report of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: Government’s response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, HC 995, setting out how the Government intends to implement the Committee’s recommendations, to ensure that the administrative arrangements necessary to set up the public inquiry committed to by the Prime Minister to the House on 11 May 2021, in particular the appointment of an inquiry chair, take place in a timely manner and no later than the end of this year, and to agree: that the Government’s preferred candidate to chair the inquiry should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing by the relevant select committee for the sponsoring Government department.

It is a privilege to move the motion, in the name of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, into the very important subject of the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic and the promised public inquiry.

We, as a Committee, have taken evidence from some very well informed help, if I may put it that way, and we have brought our deliberations forward in the reports under discussion today. We thank our witnesses who gave evidence—Emma Norris from the Institute for Government, Dr Alastair Stark from the University of Queensland, Jason Beer, QC, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Sir Robert Francis, QC, Dame Una O’Brien and Baroness Prashar of Runnymede—and all those who submitted written evidence to the inquiry. I also thank fellow Committee members for their well-informed deliberation on these matters.

We are all used now, I think, to public inquiries as a routine part of the UK political landscape, and it is clear that the issues with which we have been grappling over the past 18 months, and the very difficult measures that the Government have taken to combat the pandemic, are very much the right subject for a public inquiry. However, although we are used to public inquiries, there is very little guidance about how public inquiries should be established, Chairs appointed and terms of reference agreed, so, in the absence of such guidance, our Committee has happily stepped into that void with a view to taking discussions forward.

The Prime Minister has committed in principle to establishing a public inquiry, and in May 2021 he suggested that it should be established in spring 2022. The first message that the Committee would like to give is that that timetable really ought to be brought forward, for the simple reason that it takes a number of months before an inquiry can get under way in terms of establishing its secretariat and so on. I guess one issue that we were keen to grapple with is that the farther away from events an inquiry is established, the less we can learn in a timely fashion. So we would strongly encourage the Government to think about how they can be setting up that inquiry from now. It really should not get in the way of the fight against the pandemic, especially given where we are with regard to vaccination.

Obviously, we need to be very sure about the purpose of the inquiry. As a Committee, we were very keen to ensure that the inquiry should be about learning lessons, not apportioning blame. The facts of the matter are that the Government, and all our public services, were dealing with unprecedented challenges, and there can be no right or wrong answers when the evidence on which you seek to make decisions is changing before your very eyes from day to day. Ultimately, it will come down to a matter of judgment exercised at the time.

I really hope that we can enter the inquiry very much in that spirit, because although I have not agreed with every aspect of the Government’s decision making on this matter, I absolutely recognise that everyone involved in that process was doing so honourably, with the best of intentions. We are not going to be honest about lessons learned unless we can approach the inquiry on that basis. We in this place need to give some very clear messages that we are doing so in the spirit of learning.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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I commend the Committee for its thoughtful and thorough report.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady just said about one of the recommendations, and I understand about learning lessons; that is often what Committees do. I would challenge any Member, particularly Members who have been in this House for a long time, to remember the lessons learned and recommendations from the mad cow disease inquiry; my guess is that nobody will.

We already know that there have been heroes and villains over the last 18 months, and I would hope that any inquiry would identify those heroes and villains. Mistakes have been made in some cases because mistakes were bound to be made, but some mistakes have been made wilfully and we need to know who was responsible for them.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Clearly, where there is wilful bad behaviour it should be exposed, but we need to set the tone: this inquiry is about how the Government and society have dealt with a very difficult set of issues. The heroes and villains to whom he refers will find a way of being outed, if I can put it in such a way, without it being the entire focus or ethos of the inquiry.

We obviously need to be very clear about the inquiry’s terms of reference, to inform what the focus will be, and about how the various themes that could be looked at will be examined. The chair will obviously be a very important appointment. This is by tradition the choice of the relevant Minister, but, again, respect for and the authority of the inquiry will be very much set by who the chair is. The Committee was very attracted to the idea of a chairman and panel approach, recognising that some of the issues that will be considered by the inquiry are broad ranging so it would be right for the chairman to have access to appropriate expertise in various areas. The Committee also felt that the appointment should be subject to a pre-commencement hearing with the relevant Select Committee, given the very high level of parliamentary interest in this inquiry. That would be an unprecedented step, but, again, in terms of setting the tone of how the inquiry will be progressed, it could be a very important innovation, and I hope the Government will consider that.

One of the issues that needs to be considered by the inquiry is of course the response by the Department of Health and Social Care in terms of management of risk of transmission and so on, but we need to consider in the round the tools adopted by the Government to deal with that, including the impact on liberties and the impact on our economy. There will be obvious consequences in the longer term for the nation’s wellbeing in the round. We also need to consider the wider behaviour of public services in that regard.

There also needs to be a way of considering the impacts in the devolved nations, including whether this should be a UK-wide inquiry or there should be separate inquiries; quite possibly there should be a combination of both.

Oral Answers to Questions

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 26th January 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I am happy to confirm to my right hon. Friend that there are not financial constraints. The UK Government have guaranteed that the Welsh Government will receive at least £5.2 billion in additional resource to deliver their coronavirus response, including the vaccine deployment activities.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on regional economic disparities.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Kemi Badenoch)
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The Government recognise the significant impact of covid-19 on every region and nation of the UK. I can assure hon. Members across the House that levelling up remains a key priority for the Government. That is why the spending review also announced longer-term measures to support every region and nation, including a new £4 billion levelling-up fund to invest in local infrastructure priorities.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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It is good to hear that the Government are still committed to levelling up, but all the academic studies that have been done have shown that covid has disproportionately affected the regional economies, with Greater Manchester the third most badly affected region in the country. Those regions need more support, but Transport for the North and Northern Powerhouse Rail are being cut; is that not going in exactly the opposite direction?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s claims. We have taken unprecedented steps to support people and businesses around the country. We have supported 19,100 jobs in his constituency through the coronavirus job retention scheme. Greater Manchester Combined Authority has been allocated £54.2 million from the Getting Building fund for a wide-ranging package of projects. We have also provided over £170 million for the Greater Manchester-Preston city region and Liverpool city region to improve public transport. We have also supported the regeneration of 33 towns in the north-west through the towns fund. There is a lot that is happening on levelling up. If he would like me to write to him to explain everything that we have done in his region, I am happy to do so.

Financial Reward for Government Workers and Key Workers

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Monday 14th December 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there have been some changes to the procedure in Westminster Hall, and that even if Members have attended a Westminster Hall debate before under the new rules, there have been changes to the changed rules. In order to respect social distancing, I ask Members to sit at the seats with ticks against them. There are more people on the call list than seats on the horseshoe, so I will call Members to speak only if they were here at the start of the debate. If Members who have spoken wish to leave, or move to the seats at the back, they can; that is the only way to ensure that other Members can speak, because Members are not allowed to speak from the Public Gallery.

I also ask Members to respect the one-way system by coming in through the one door, and going out through the other, and to sanitise the microphones that are in front of them.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 306845 and 328754, relating to financial rewards for government workers and keyworkers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee on this debate.

As we come to the end of any year, we all start to reflect on the events of the past 12 months, but 2020 has been such an unprecedented year for everyone. Throughout the year, the extraordinary contributions made by so many, particularly our key workers, have made our lives so much better throughout the pandemic. I put on record again my sincere thanks to all those who have worked hard and have given what was most needed, when we needed it most. Those people have been invaluable. However, it seems that despite warm words, the Government do not appreciate the work that so many have done for us. We clapped for them on our doorsteps, but it turns out that they are not worth paying properly in recognition of their dedication. As we can see from the number of signatures on these two petitions, and indeed the sheer number of petitions on this issue, there is strong feeling across the country on how we should reward people on the frontline.

During the summer, I had a phone call from my friend Mel’s brother, a local refuse collector and union rep. He wanted to tell me at first hand that his team had turned up throughout the pandemic, and continued to not miss a round. I am so proud of them, and so proud of the efforts that people have made to keep our country going. Swansea Council and local authorities across the United Kingdom can be very proud of their workforce and how they have adapted to the challenges they have faced. Although Rob Stewart, the leader of Swansea Council, is looking at different ways to reward staff, his hands are tied financially.

Former colleagues of mine in the teaching profession, in both England and Wales, who have kept schools open for key workers’ children, described to me their immense fatigue, and the pressure they are under. They are moving classrooms, carrying resources, and increasing their planning and preparation, in a job in which they feel deeply responsible for the learning and progression of our future generations. They are also on their knees. When the Welsh Labour Government tried to reward workers in care homes with a £500 bonus earlier in the year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer taxed them on it, with those claiming universal credit suffering a double whammy. These are the poorest paid people in the public sector, and they took those hits again and again—and it looks like the same will happen if the Scottish Government try to give a thank-you payment to their NHS staff.

In response to my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who I am pleased to see in this debate, the Prime Minister said that he was

“lost in admiration for the efforts of our civil servants, whether in DWP, HMRC or the Treasury. If we think about the furloughing scheme, everybody said it was impossible and far too complicated, and that we would never get that cash into people’s pockets, but they did it within four weeks. That is a fantastic tribute to the work of our civil service, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 38.]

Following the Chancellor’s spending review announcement that there will be a pay freeze for all public sector workers, I suspect that civil servants will not be feeling the Prime Minister’s “admiration” so much as the “lost” bit. This further pay freeze comes after public sector workers have already been punished by a decade of pay freezes and increased workload. I know; I was one of them.

I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about the difference between public and private sector pay, but we know that once workforce characteristics such as experience and educational attainment are taken into account, there is close to 0% difference in pay. Undoubtedly, we will hear about the need for fairness for those working in the private sector, and I wholeheartedly agree that they should be treated with fairness, but this is not, and should not be, a race to the bottom. We should be bringing pay in the private sector up to a standard that makes all “work pay”, as the Conservatives are wont to say.

The Minister will probably talk about value for money for taxpayers, but guess what? Public sector workers pay their taxes, too. If the Government do not think that the work that has been done by civil servants—nurses, the police, the fire service, work coaches, Border Force, refuse collectors, workers in the justice system, our armed forces, teachers and, indeed, all those who have faced the biggest challenge and have put themselves on the frontline in fighting this pandemic—is worthy of a pay rise, they should say so. And I will wait for the Government line to be trotted out about the poorest paid being rewarded. If they were being rewarded in any meaningful way, I would welcome that announcement, but as with all these things, the devil is in the detail. A pay rise of £250 for those earning under £24,000 a year is equivalent to just £4.80 a week, and that is before tax, so in terms of take-home pay, it is about enough for some mince pies, 2 pints of milk and some teabags—what a Christmas bonus for them!

Just one look at the civil service campaign “Here For You” shows what a resilient and adaptive workforce we have in our civil servants, including the defence equipment workers who have been overseeing the staffing of the Nightingale hospitals; the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which has worked to get other key workers their driving test quickly; and those in the Foreign Office who repatriated thousands of British citizens from abroad. We cannot forget this. I personally thank them all, especially the workers in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who got the furlough scheme up and running, and the Department for Work and Pensions staff—friends of mine—who processed thousands of universal credit claims. Some of them are already on low wages.

Public sector workers are not asking a lot; they just want their contribution to be recognised. They were undoubtedly grateful for our applause earlier this year, but that will not put food on the table, buy new school uniforms, keep the car on the road or enable them to get to work on public transport. Claps do not pay the bills. At the end of the day, we are here to represent them, and just from looking round Westminster Hall today, people can see who really cares about this.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople in approximately 40 minutes. I think I have 11 speakers, so I will start with a time limit of four minutes. If some people speak for less, that should just about do it, but if there are many interventions, I will have to reduce the time. I call John McDonnell.

--- Later in debate ---
Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), for opening this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

In the time I have, I will talk about two particular groups of key public sector workers: prison officers and firefighters. Both are key Government workers. Prison officers in particular deserve our praise, recognition and respect for their bravery—as, indeed, do firefighters—not only during the pandemic but year in, year out. As hon. Members may well know, prison officers are banned from taking industrial action; it is a criminal offence even to suggest that they should, for example, start working to rule. In return for the loss of that most basic human right, the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body was established in 2001 to make recommendations on pay, which the Government agreed to follow in all but the most exceptional circumstances. To encourage people to join and stay in the Prison Service, the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body recommended a significant pay rise for band 3 offices on fair and sustainable contracts, with new, modernised terms, ending the effectively two-tier workforce.

Five months ago, the Government promised to consider that recommendation and to consult the recognised trade union, the Prison Officers Association, on its implementation. However, on Thursday last, the Government rejected the recommendation, claiming it was unaffordable, without having had any discussion with the Prison Officers Association. Prison officers are understandably angry and have accused the Government of nothing less than pay betrayal. I understand that the Prison Officers Association intends to launch legal action against this decision, and I hope it will receive the full backing of all hon. Members in this place today.

The Prison Service is clearly experiencing a crisis in recruitment and retention, especially of band 3 officers, the main operational entry grade into the service. The review body calculates the cost of new recruits leaving after less than two years’ service at around £30 million per annum, a wasteful and inefficient use of public money. That is why the pay review body recommended an immediate £3,000 uplift in pensionable pay, to try to stem the rising tide of resignations. The Government claim that is unaffordable. However, no exceptional circumstances have been cited to justify their decision, as is required. The Government have earmarked around £4 billion for a new generation of private prisons yet claim to have no money to pay prison officers. This is an abuse of power and an insult to people’s intelligence.

The situation is unfair and unsustainable, and our prisons suffer as officers vote with their feet and leave the service, taking with them valuable skills, knowledge and experience at a time when we need it most. The Government must think again, treat our prison officers with the respect they deserve, get round the negotiating table with the POA, and make a fair and sustainable offer.

I also want to mention firefighters. I chaired a meeting of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group this afternoon. Firefighters had a pay freeze in 2010 and 2011, followed by a 1% public sector pay cap imposed for six years from 2012 to 2017—

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

Order. I call Lilian Greenwood.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on her powerful and eloquent opening speech. I am not sure that I will add anything unique to the debate, but some points bear repetition.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people who have been delivering our public services during the coronavirus pandemic. Some of them are in public-facing roles that simply cannot be done from home, including social care workers, refuse collectors, firefighters and border control staff. They have been working hard, day in, day out. They have exposed themselves and their families to additional risks to help to keep us safe, secure and well.

Others who have been working just as hard are often invisible. They are among the unsung heroes of the crisis. I am thinking of the staff working at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to administer the job retention scheme, or those in the Department for Work and Pensions coping with a huge influx of new universal credit claims. Their work has been just as essential in helping to protect jobs and livelihoods. They were often unprepared and under-resourced to deal with that new sudden demand, but they stepped up. Of course, there are many others. Their reward for that work is to be handed a real-terms pay cut. The Chancellor might try to use softer language, with talk of a pay pause rather than a freeze, but soft language does not pay the bills. Prices are set to rise by 1.4% next year, and many people will be even more shocked when they realise that their council tax bill will go up by 5%. Thousands of public sector workers will be worse off, including every single police officer, every single teacher and 90% of armed forces personnel based in England. As many hon. Members have said, for many of those workers, that is just the latest kick in the teeth, because public sector staff have already endured a decade of cuts in the value of their wages, with many seeing their buying power cut by almost a fifth between 2010 and 2020.

Government Ministers want to pit public sector workers against private sector workers, but it is all smoke and mirrors. Private sector wage growth has fallen behind this year primarily as a result of furlough, having previously run ahead. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, once we adjust for the different profile of public sector workers in terms of experience, education and other factors, there is no difference in hourly pay rates compared with the private sector. The truth is that such divisive language helps no one. We all lose as a result of the proposals. It is noticeable that not a single Back-Bench Conservative MP has dared to turn up and defend them.

In Nottingham, 23% of all employees work in the public sector, which is significantly higher than the average for the east midlands or Britain, although of course there are parts of the country where it is far higher still. When the pay of those workers is cut, they have less to spend in local shops and with local businesses. Freezing their pay harms the local economy and risks the jobs of the private sector workers employed in those shops and businesses. At a time when our local high streets are suffering real damage and small businesses do not know whether they will survive the pandemic, this pay policy delivers a further blow to confidence and risks further weakening a weak recovery.

The Minister should think again. We need action to save jobs, rebuild businesses and get the economy back on its feet. Instead of cutting real wages, the Government should be boosting them, particularly for the lowest paid. That is the right thing to do ethically and economically.

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

Unusually, there have been no interventions and some Members have not turned up, so I will increase the time limit for Back-Bench speakers to five minutes.

--- Later in debate ---
Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my hon. Friend give way?

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

Order. If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the beginning of the debate, he would have heard me explain that hon. Members can take part only if they are present at the beginning, regardless of whether it is to make an intervention or give a speech.

Abena Oppong-Asare Portrait Abena Oppong-Asare
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Young people in my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead have been submitting portraits of key workers as part of my Christmas card competition. I asked them to write why the key worker they have drawn means so much to them, and one young person said to me:

“I have chosen to draw many different key workers…They have been pushing themselves every day so they can help us. They have put us first and we should be indebted to them.”

Does the Minister agree that we are indebted to key workers, given their hard work and sacrifice during this pandemic?

Freezing pay for public sector workers is not only insulting, but irresponsible. I am curious to know whether the Minister has given due regard to the impacts that the pay freeze will have. Has the Minister read the report by the TUC, which found that public sector pay increases could boost GDP significantly? That has been echoed by a number of Members in the debate. Does the Minister recognise that imposing a real-terms pay cut, when 1.8 million key workers already earn less than the real living wage, risks driving thousands into poverty? Can the Minister explain how she plans to tackle the shortage of over 80,000 NHS and care sector jobs at the same time as freezing public sector pay?

Over 1 million key workers face a real-terms pay cut next year. That includes 125,000 police officers, 500,000 teachers, 300,000 civil service staff and 125,000 armed forces personnel. By failing to reaffirm the Government’s manifesto commitment to ensure that teachers’ starting salaries reach £30,000 by 2022, the Chancellor has made it clear that he has no intention to back our public sector workers. Cutting universal credit, and giving the go-ahead for council tax rises in the middle of a pandemic, is pushing more people into poverty. The Government are making poor spending decisions that threaten to push our economy and public services to breaking point.

I want to conclude by quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. Public sector workers are not asking for a lot. They just want their contributions to be recognised, and claps do not pay the bills.

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

I ask the Minister to leave enough time at the end—we have plenty of time—for the proposer of the debate to wind up.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not giving way. I have already said I am not; please stop asking.

As the Chancellor pointed out in his statement on the spending review, in the six months to September, private sector wages fell by nearly 1% compared with last year. Over the same period, public sector wages rose by nearly 4%. Workers in the private sector have lost jobs, been furloughed, and seen their wages cut and their hours reduced, while those in the public sector have not. [Interruption.]

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Stringer. For that reason, the Chancellor announced a temporary pause to pay awards for some public sector workers for the year 2021-22. Disappointing though I know this will be, this approach allows us to protect public sector jobs at this time of crisis and ensure fairness between the private and public sectors. Crucially, as I have said, we are targeting our resources at those who need them most. First, taking account of the NHS Pay Review Body’s advice, we are providing a pay rise to over 1 million nurses, doctors and others working in the NHS. Secondly, we are protecting those on lower incomes. The 2.1 million public sector workers who earn below the median wage of £24,000 will be guaranteed a pay rise of at least—and I emphasise “at least”—£250.

In the spending review, we also accepted in full the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission—to increase the national living wage by 2.2% to £8.91 an hour, to extend that rate to those aged 23 and over, and to increase the national minimum wage. According to the commission, those rates will give low-paid workers a real-terms pay rise and protect their standards of living without significant risks to their job prospects. A full-time worker on the national living wage will also see their annual earnings increase by £345 next year. That is a pay rise of over £4,000 compared with 2016, the year in which the policy was first introduced. Taken together, these minimum wage increases will likely benefit around 2 million people and help make real progress towards ending low pay in the UK.

The risk with broader-brush measures, including income tax or national insurance policies—this particular point was not made today, but it is an important one to reiterate—is that it is difficult to define and limit who should benefit. The result could merely be to reward the better paid, at a time when the Government have already been forecast to be borrowing at record peacetime levels.

As a Government, we are committed to keeping taxes low in order that working people, including key workers, are able to keep more of what they earn. In April 2019, the Government increased the personal tax allowance to £12,500, meaning that the personal allowance is up by more than 90% in less than a decade, ensuring that more of the lowest earners do not pay any income tax at all. In April this year, we also increased the national insurance contributions primary threshold and lower profits limit to £9,500—a move that will benefit 31 million people. Add all that together, and changes to income tax and national insurance contributions between 2010-11 and 2020-21 mean that a typical basic rate employee in England, Wales or Northern Ireland is more than £1,600 better off a year.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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On a point of order, Mr Stringer. If I heard the Minister correctly, it was suggested that there were to be no job losses in the public sector, yet a number of us in the debate mentioned that there were 2,000 redundancies in HMRC. Mr Stringer, can you tell me how the record can be corrected—or has the Minister just cancelled the redundancy notices of 2,000 workers in HMRC?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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That is not a point of order; it is a matter of fact and for debate.

Exploitation of Missing Looked-after Children

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd October 2019

(4 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ann Coffey Portrait Ann Coffey (Stockport) (IGC)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of sexual and criminal exploitation of missing looked after children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. In 2012, an expert working group was set up by the then children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), at the Department for Education, to look at—among other issues—out-of-area placements of children. That was because of the high number of looked-after children in children’s homes going missing, and concerns about their vulnerability to sexual exploitation. That group was set up partly in response to the 2012 inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, supported by The Children’s Society and Missing People. One of the objectives of that expert group was to make recommendations that would improve the care system, so that

“children are safer and better cared for in residential care—not disproportionately at risk of…exploitation”

because of their vulnerability. The group stated that placements should be

“close to home unless it is in the best interests of the child to be placed out of area”.

An analysis of the children’s home market was commissioned. At that time, more than 50% of homes were concentrated in three regions: the north-west, the west midlands, and the south-east. Some 25% of all children’s homes were in the north-west, and just 6% were in London. That meant there was an under-supply of places in some areas and an over-supply in others, resulting in an unnecessary level of out-of-area placements. One of the issues identified with children being placed out of area was the difficulty for social workers in being able to provide the necessary levels of support. In short, children with high needs were left isolated in children’s homes, miles away from family, friends and social workers, and they were targets for paedophiles.

In 2012, 26% of the children’s homes registered with Ofsted were run by local authorities, and 65% were run by private companies. The report expressed concern about the market being taken over by larger providers. It said that if the under-supply and over-supply in the market was not addressed, children would continue to be placed at a distance from their home communities. The report recommended a reduction in the number of out-of-area placements, and added that those that result in children being placed at very long distances should be exceptional and always explicitly justified in terms of the child’s best interests. The expert group recommended that national and regional information on the structure of the children’s residential care market be improved, and that such information should be used to determine a medium-term market strategy at regional and national levels.

That report is now seven years old. Over the intervening years, successive Ministers have committed to reducing the number of out-of-area placements, yet that figure continues to soar. Last month, the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults published our most recent report, “No Place at Home”. We found a 77% increase in the number of children placed in out-of-area placements since 2012; that figure is now at an all-time high. The majority of the 42 police forces that gave evidence to our inquiry were adamant that placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation and very often resulted in their going missing.

Some 75% of all children’s homes are run by private companies, representing a 23% increase since 2012, and local authorities now run 19% of children’s homes, representing a decrease of 26% since the same year. According to Ofsted, 47 local authorities—one third—did not run any children’s homes at all in 2019. Given the increasing dominance of the private sector, the APPG recommended that Ofsted should have the same powers in relation to children’s homes as the Care Quality Commission has for nursing and care homes.

The north-west, west midlands and south-east remain the three regions with the highest concentration of children’s homes, accounting for 55% of all homes, and there continue to be issues with over-supply and under-supply. Some 80% of local authorities now place children outside their area. There has been an increase in the number of children coming into care, and an increase in the number of children’s homes. However, it is not clear whether, in practice, that means there are more places to meet the needs of children. Many of the children being placed in homes would previously have been placed in mental health provision or secure accommodation if it had been available. Homes may manage children with increasingly complex needs by reducing their bed occupancy.

The increase in the number of children coming into care also means that providers can pick and choose. In our “No Place at Home” inquiry, we heard evidence that one local authority had to try 150 providers to find suitable accommodation for a vulnerable 15-year-old boy. We have also heard that up to 25 children can be competing for a place at any one time. Those children go on a waiting list, and often end up in crisis and short-term placements because none of the registered children’s homes is willing or able to offer places. These can be the children with the greatest needs. In future, more children are likely to be placed in unregulated and unregistered short-term accommodation because of the pressure on children’s home places. Let us be clear: that means those children’s care needs will not be met.

I entirely accept that some children need to be placed outside of their area because it is in their best interests, but evidence to our inquiry suggested that the overwhelming reason why children are placed out of area is that it is the only place that can be found for them. When I announced that I had secured this debate, I received many comments on Twitter from practitioners who said that the system was broken. One, from the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, said:

“It’ll need money Ann, more importantly a wholesale rethink of the care ‘system’. Trying to find residential placements for young people is often ‘any port in a Storm’.”

The fact that distribution has not changed, together with pressure on places, explains the inevitable rise in out-of-area placements.

Our “No Place at Home” report focused on the risks faced by children who go missing from care. There has been a 97% rise in the number of reported incidents of children missing from children’s homes since 2015. The number of children missing from out-of-area placements has more than doubled since 2015, and about a third of children in unregulated provision went missing in 2018. We heard that record numbers of out-of-area children are repeatedly going missing. The inquiry heard evidence about the trauma and emotional impact that being sent away can have on children who have already suffered neglect and trauma.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about a very serious subject. Does she agree that since the Greater Manchester Police introduced the iOPS computer system, children in Greater Manchester are at even more risk than before? Children who go missing overnight are not being registered, and the information is not getting through to police officers when they come on duty the next morning. The reassurances of the chief constable that everything is all right are at odds with the evidence. The iOPS system is putting more children at risk, and when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary goes into Greater Manchester, I hope he will look seriously at these problems.

Ann Coffey Portrait Ann Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the new computer system. A system that cannot manage information in a way that keeps children safe is not fit for purpose, so I am pleased he has raised that point.

Moving children to unknown and unfamiliar placements, particularly at short notice, causes anxiety, distress, fear and anger, as well as causing further trauma to children with both short-term and long-term impacts. The reaction of many is to go missing, enticed by those who have targeted them for exploitation. In June, research by Missing People that looked at nearly 600 episodes involving more than 200 missing children found that one in seven of the children had been sexually exploited, and one in 10 had been a victim of criminal or other forms of exploitation while missing.

There is an issue about the take-up of return-home interviews, which can be an invaluable source of information about further risks to that child and other children when they go missing. Research by The Children’s Society found that, on average, just 50% of missing episodes resulted in return-home interviews taking place, despite its being a statutory requirement on local authorities to offer them each time a child goes missing. That means that opportunities to safeguard children are being missed.

The Howard League told our inquiry that children are sometimes placed out of area to protect them from exploiters. Although that is often done with the best intentions, and sometimes successfully, there are considerable concerns about the practice. The Howard League said, for example, that criminals increasingly control children using social media, the reach of which extends wherever children go, and through threats to family members and siblings, which means that removing the child from a location does not resolve the problem and could make it worse.

The Howard League also said that children who are being exploited may be used to groom and exploit other children in their new location, and that children who are in out-of-area placements are separated from their families and support workers, and therefore more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We received evidence that county lines gangs had been sent to areas where young people were predominantly placed out of area to scout new opportunities where they could develop business and recruit new members.

The individual experiences recounted by children to the inquiry were a salutary reminder of the misery experienced by some children in care. One girl told the inquiry that she had run away 100 times since being moved out of her home area. Another boy tried to hang himself on Christmas day. Another girl walked 10 miles home to see her mum. That is the reality behind the statistics. The increasing number of children going missing is a protest by those children, who feel that the social care system does not care about them. It is the only protest they can make.

One area of increasing concern, which we raised in our report, is the rise in the number of older children, aged 16-plus, being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation—a shady twilight world. Some 80% of the police forces that gave evidence to our inquiry expressed concern about the increasing numbers in those unregulated establishments, which are off radar, because, unlike children’s homes, they are not registered or inspected. More than 5,000 looked-after children in England live in unregulated accommodation, which is up 70% on 10 years ago. Such accommodation is not registered by Ofsted because it does not provide care, although it is difficult to imagine under what circumstances a vulnerable 16 or 17-year-old would not require care as well as support.

The police gave us many examples of inappropriate and dangerous placements in unregulated homes, including a young person bailed for murder being placed in the same semi-independent accommodation as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs in a county lines gang. Another boy was sent to live more than 50 miles from his home area where he began drug-running and committing crimes. When he was returned to his home area, he took children from his new area back home to involve them in county lines because they were unknown to the police. Other examples included a girl who had been sexually exploited being housed alongside a perpetrator of sexual exploitation, and another young girl victim of sexual exploitation who was moved some distance from home and then targeted by a local organised crime group.

We should not forget the impact that unregulated accommodation, in which young people are not properly supervised and become involved in criminal activity, can have on the surrounding neighbourhood. After our report was published, I was contacted by a mother in Greater Manchester who described her “devastating experience” of the consequences of unregulated accommodation. Her two daughters were seriously attacked as they walked home by a group of older boys who were living in an unregulated home in their neighbourhood. Local residents had been reporting incidents of antisocial behaviour, sexual harassment, criminal activity and drugtaking in and around the accommodation for about six months. If the home had been regulated, there would have been a process by which it could have been closed down, but it continues to operate.

There are some good providers but, equally, there are some poor providers that should not be let anywhere near a vulnerable young person. One police force told us:

“Where there are areas of high deprivation, these will always present opportunities for potential unscrupulous organisations to set up ‘pop up’ children’s homes with little or no regulation, where the housing market is much cheaper, heightening the risk of the most vulnerable of children being exploited.”

I was recently made aware that there may be connections between organised crime gangs and providers of unregulated accommodation. It would be a logical extension of their business model to gain profit from providing accommodation at high cost to local authorities and, at the same time, have access to young people whom they can exploit to sell drugs.

Our report called for a regulatory framework that would ensure national standards, including checks on the suitability of providers and the qualifications of staff supporting young people. That is becoming urgent, as children under 16 are being placed in unregulated accommodation. As I have said, there are extremely good providers and very diligent social workers, but unregulated care is wide open to abuse. All the evidence shows that that abuse is happening.

Over the years, there have been many improvements in data sharing, guidance, notifications, multi-agency partnership work and understanding child sexual and criminal exploitation and the grooming process. Attitudes to children have changed and the term “child prostitute” has been replaced in law with “sexually exploited child”. There is an increasing understanding that young people can be groomed into criminal activity and county lines gangs. That understanding is reflected in the increasing number of children accepted on to the national referral mechanism as victims of criminal exploitation.

There is some excellent provision in the private and voluntary sectors and in local authority children’s homes. I pay tribute to the people who work in residential care homes with the most challenging young people. Government cuts have had a devastating effect on children’s social care; we are often asking social workers to safeguard children in the most difficult circumstances without the resources they need. An important part of providing resources is ensuring that there is sufficient residential provision to meet the needs of the children we take into our care. That is not happening.

We talk a lot about the voice of the child and how that should be at the heart of what we do, but it cannot be at the heart of decisions when we have no options to offer that child. The children’s homes market is failing and broken. There is widespread agreement and evidence that it is not providing a sufficiency of placements to meet the needs of the children we take into care. Until that is sorted out, we will continue to have care provision that is unsafe for some children and we will continue to fail in our responsibilities to the children who need us most. Urgent action is now needed.

The main recommendation of our APPG report echoes the recommendation made by the expert working group in 2012. We recommend that the Department for Education develops an emergency action plan to significantly reduce the number of out-of-area placements. The Government must take responsibility for ensuring that there are sufficient local placements to meet the needs of looked- after children. The plan should address the supply and distribution of children’s homes nationally and the use of unregulated semi-independent provision, and it should be backed by funding.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure a sufficiency of school places to meet the needs of children in their area. The Department for Education provides capital funding and investment so that they can meet that statutory responsibility. It could equally provide the investment and capital funding to ensure a sufficiency of local places to meet children’s needs, working with local authorities and private and voluntary providers.

Section 22G of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to take strategic action by requiring them to secure sufficient accommodation in their area that meets the needs of their looked-after children,

“so far as reasonably practicable”.

When private providers are unwilling, as they have been in the past, to run children’s homes in certain regions of the country, local authorities should be encouraged to develop their own direct provision. There is no way forward without the Department for Education taking leadership and responsibility for this. We do not need any more working parties or reports. There is widespread consensus among practitioners, professionals and children with experience of the care system that the children’s home market is failing children, and that urgent action is needed. Warm words are not enough, better data sharing is not enough, and more awareness is not enough. None of this is enough, if we cannot provide sufficient good care placements to meet the needs of children who have been failed by close adults in their life, and who are now being failed by a care system that cannot keep them safe and that leaves them wide open to criminal and sexual exploitation.

High Speed 2

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Wednesday 10th July 2019

(4 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Andrea Leadsom Portrait Andrea Leadsom
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue a number of times, and it is true to say that many think the costs will overrun. I will come back to that.

For me, both as a concerned constituency MP and as someone with 25 years of experience in finance, including project finance, I am alarmed at just how much the business case for HS2 has changed since the project was initially proposed. The business case that HS2 relies on now bears little resemblance to what Parliament was told at the start of the process—if I cast my mind back to when I first became an MP in 2010—nor to what we voted on when the enabling legislation was passed, which I voted against, or when the subsequent main legislation was enacted.

First, we were told that HS2 was about reducing journey times and improving the economy by bringing businesses and workers from the south to the north to spread economic prosperity around the country. Then we were told it was about capacity constraints on the west coast main line, and managing the continual growth in annual passenger numbers. Both arguments no longer stack up.

On improved journey times and associated productivity gains, the underlying assumption built into the business case for HS2 was that any time spent travelling for business purposes was wasted time, and that business travellers undertake no productive work while travelling. In the 21st century, technological advances such as mobile devices and improved wireless internet connections clearly mean that work and leisure activities are increasingly mobile, and increasingly affordable and accessible for rail passengers. Such advances are expected to continue.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

I have great respect for the right hon. Lady, but she is fundamentally wrong on this issue, although she is right to criticise the way in which the Department for Transport uses travel times. In the assessment of all transport infrastructure, the Department fails to take into account the economic investment that always follows investment in transport. The case is the opposite of what she is saying: it underestimates the benefits from HS2.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Andrea Leadsom
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me: the business case needs to be reassessed with accurate underlying factors taken into account. It is the case that the more productivity on trains increases, in particular as faster fifth generation—5G—mobile internet is rolled out across the country, the less valuable the journey time savings are, and therefore the smaller the estimated benefits of HS2 become on those measures.

--- Later in debate ---
Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The former Secretary of State is right to make that point, because a number of significant businesses are now relocating to what is the worst unemployment hotspot in the country; the worst unemployment and youth unemployment in the country is in and around east Birmingham. We have a chance ahead of us to wipe out that youth unemployment, but only if we grasp the nettle and drive through HS2.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
- Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend makes a brilliant case. If anything, he underestimates the result. When the Transport Committee went to France to look at the impact of the TGV, it found that the go-ahead cities that used the high-speed lines got huge extra investment that had not been calculated in the original assessment. Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are all go-ahead cities, so I expect more jobs than my right hon. Friend says.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Precisely. If we measure what we treasure, and if we treasure jobs, HS2 is, frankly, a project that we need.

However, that is not all I treasure; I also treasure tangible action to decarbonise our economy and our region. I want the west midlands to lead the first zero carbon revolution. Back in 1712, when the Newcomen engine was demonstrated up at Dudley castle, we sparked the carbon revolution the first time around. We need a radical plan that allows us to move trucks off the road and on to rail. Only with the capacity that comes with HS2 can we reopen 36 new freight lines that can take a million lorries off the road each year. We cannot de-clog the M6, the M5 or the M42 unless we get that freight off the road. It is impossible to see how we can drive forward the decarbonisation of a sector that contributes 40% of our carbon emissions each year if we do not drive ahead with HS2.

Santander Closures and Local Communities

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Thursday 14th February 2019

(5 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Absolutely. That is one reason why I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) here for the debate. His private Member’s Bill looks specifically at the impact of such closures, particularly on rural communities. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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The hon. Gentleman is being extraordinarily generous in taking interventions. Does he agree that if local impact assessments are done, they are ignored, and not just by Santander? Banks want to force people into online banking, and the real threat of that is that they will move towards allowing algorithms, not human beings, to take decisions. It is not just the high street that goes, but the personal interaction and the ability to appeal to a human being if things go wrong.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Absolutely. That fits nicely with the next point I want to make, which is about impact assessments. The bank concedes that only half of the customers who use the Parkhead branch use online, mobile or telephone banking services. The data concerning digital exclusion in the east end is widely available, so it beggars belief that Santander has overlooked it and still plans to pull down the shutters on a branch that serves some of the most vulnerable and isolated people in the country.

I want to turn now to the issue of reliance on the post office network to deliver banking services. Having asked the Minister about it during Treasury questions a couple of weeks ago, I can almost anticipate his response: that Santander customers can just do their banking at the post office. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) felt frustration about that during her Adjournment debate last week.

UK as a Financial Services Hub

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Wednesday 6th February 2019

(5 years, 3 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

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. I intend to call the Opposition Front-Bench speakers at 10.30 am; hon. Members who wish to speak can do the arithmetic themselves.

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Robert Neill Portrait Robert Neill
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That is perfectly true, and the need for the deal and for a time to thrash out our future relationships is all the more important because of it. There is not a simple scenario in which the sector works on a one-size-fits-all basis. The same thing applies to the legal services sector, which is a critical underpinning. It is worth remembering that with respect to financial flows, EU financial services trade with the UK between 2016-17 and the current time increased from £29 billion to £33 billion. That dwarfs the figure for trade with our next largest partner, the United States; it is only half, at £16 billion. The seven largest financial services markets added together—the US, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, China, India and Australia—come to only £26 billion, which is less than our financial services trade with the EU. That is why, at the same time as we look at the opportunities for opening out elsewhere, it is critical to maintain EU access, which has also been important to foreign inward investment into UK financial services as a gateway into EU markets.

It is worth bearing in mind that across measures of competitiveness London ranks as the top city and has the highest volume of financial services foreign direct investment globally. However, that is because of our current advantageous position, which we need to maintain. An important part of that advantageous position is the underpinning that legal services and the legal system give to the financial sector. I am concerned that although the Government have uttered warm words and issued advice to practitioners in the sector, real uncertainties would remain, should we leave the EU without a proper deal.

Some of the areas in question are similar to areas of concern in direct financial services, such as the loss of passporting rights, and the need to operate with a form of equivalence. However, the situation for legal services is even more stark, in some respects, because the establishment directive would go, as would mutual recognition of professional qualifications. That would not enable us to use the fly in, fly out arrangements that are so critical to enabling international law firms to advise their clients in real time while deals are going through. That needs to be dealt with, which is why, again, a transitional arrangement is critical.

The other critical point in that context is that unless we have a deal—if we leave without one—we will lose the existing arrangements for the mutual recognition and enforcement of UK court judgments in EU countries and vice versa. That is vital for contractual certainty and continuity. A contract is worthless if it cannot be enforced, and if it cannot be enforced through the judgment of a court there are no other means to do so. It is vital to find means to maintain that. TheCityUK has pointed out that losing it would mean profound difficulties in relation, for example, to insurance contracts—which would not be of value if we were to leave without the ability to enforce them in the event of default—and, significantly, uncleared derivatives. The derivatives market is particularly important to the UK. It is an area of expertise where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, financial services are not just about figures, but are relevant to real business. Most business work is now underpinned in one way or another by a form of financial instrument being traded, particularly in any significant commercial deal. That has been described as the plumbing of the business system, so anything that threatens the derivatives trade operating out of the City, and what relies on it, would be extremely dangerous.

There have been some areas of progress. I was pleased when the European Securities and Markets Authority agreed a memorandum of understanding with the Bank of England in relation to central counterparties and the central securities depository, which enables that issue of central clearing to continue. However, that is one part of a much more complex structure. There are other areas on which I hope for assurances that the Government are determined to see the issue as central to our negotiations. Those things are largely part of the future state negotiations, but we have to have a deal to get into those future state negotiations to begin with. That cannot be emphasised too strongly.

I also want to emphasise the fact that financial services and many aspects of legal services depend on the free flow of data to underpin them. At the moment that is available to us, in relation to our EU counterparties. However, unless—at least until a future state agreement is achieved—there is regulatory alignment on data sharing, we risk disruption to those data flows. That will severely disrupt the circumstances in which we could guarantee that trades could be carried out and completed. Again, insurance and uncleared derivatives are particularly vulnerable to disruption of data flows.

The City believes that an EU-level solution is the optimal one, and I hope the Government will reassure us that it is their intention to press for that, for the same reason as we spoke of before—the complexities of dealing with the 27 on bilateral agreements would be daunting to say the least, and would cause more delay, which would deter people from writing contracts while that period of uncertainty persisted. I know that a temporary solution to protect data flows is currently under discussion, relating to a non-enforcement period between regulators under what is known as a “safe harbour” precedent, but that is not guaranteed. I hope the Minister will be able to update us on progress and assure us that this, too, remains a very high priority for the UK Government.

Getting global regulation right and making it business-friendly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, is critical. Of course, the City of London Corporation provides the secretariat for the International Regulatory Strategy Group, which is a practitioner-led body comprising the leading UK financial and professional services figures. The key test of global regulation is not necessarily its quantity, but its quality and effectiveness. Thus far, the UK has been a world leader in that, and it is important that we continue to make that central to our policy.

My hon. Friend mentioned FinTech, and I am very pleased that he did, because I have constituents, including one of my councillors, working in the FinTech sector and there are real opportunities there. The ability to retain young talent in the UK is critical here; that applies also to young lawyers and to young professionals right across the board, so it is vital that we have a regime for immigration that not only does that in practice, but sets the right tone.

That is why I am pleased that we have scrapped the £65 fee for the settled status scheme; I rather regret that we ever had it to start with. I have in my constituency many EU-national professionals, working in the City of London, the west end and other sectors. They have been settled with their families in places such as Chislehurst and Bromley—commuter land—for many years, and the suggestion that they were going to have to pay to remain somewhere where they had already put down their roots and that they regarded as home sent the wrong signals. I am pleased that the Government thought twice about that, and I hope that can be reflected in the tone of our approach to our EU friends and neighbours hereafter.

However, we must bear in mind that it goes beyond that. International workers make up 40% of the City’s workforce and 35% of London’s finance and insurance jobs. Many of those are EU nationals; others will come from elsewhere, but having that welcoming and open approach is critical. Successful market economies are only successful if they have that open and broadminded approach, and it is important that we as the UK Parliament recognise and articulate that as strongly as we can.

Finally, sometimes people think that financial services are purely about profit; they see the City purely in terms of big financial institutions. The City of London does a great deal to encourage responsible business practice as well, and the two do not need to be separate. The financial services sector is one of the most active and engaged in corporate community investment across the country, as I see in some of the firms based in my constituency or where constituents of mine work.

New research that the City of London Corporation has published indicates that financial and professional services firms gave £535 million in cash and in-kind donations to various forms of community investment in 2017. It is worth saying that although a flourishing financial services sector is important to the economy, its leaders and the practitioners I know from my constituency also want to ensure that they pay their fair share not only to the Exchequer, but in kind to the communities that they serve. That is not separate from the day-to-day workings of our economy and our lives, but central to it, and I hope that this debate helps to bring that home.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Just before I call Lee Rowley, I will say that I intend to call the Scottish National party spokesperson at 10.30 am.

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Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) on securing it. It has been an interesting debate, particularly when it comes to hearing about how Members’ professional experience has informed their approach to these matters in Parliament.

As many Members have said, financial and related professional services are an important area of the UK economy, and they contribute just over a twentieth of the UK’s overall economic output. There are interesting developments in the sector, which has traditionally not reflected the diversity of UK society. With the Women in Finance charter, changes are being made to reduce the pay gap. In relation to other characteristics, action is being taken to increase the number of people in the sector who have disabilities or are from black and minority ethnic or working class backgrounds.

We have discussed the fact that many people in the sector are not based in London or the south-east. I will add one statistic: there are more than 100,000 people employed in banking and finance in the north-west, which makes it the area with the third-largest number of people working in the sector, outside London and the south-east.

We have had an interesting discussion this morning about the sector’s tax contribution. Reference has been made to research undertaken by PwC that suggested that about 1p in every 10p of Government revenue comes from the sector. Let us be clear that that is counting the tax contributions of everybody who works in the sector, so it is not just looking at corporate taxation. As we all know, the corporation tax rate has been reduced. That has meant that the amount of corporation tax, in relative terms, has reduced. In absolute terms, it has gone up, but that is because these banks and so on have returned to profitability after the financial crash, so actually the burden has gone down in that area. Of course, it has also gone down when it comes to the bank levy, which has been scaled back. A surcharge has been applied as well, but when we look at both of them over time, we see that that burden is also going down.

Reference was made to stamp duty on shares. That stamp duty brings in about £3 billion of Government revenue a year. It is one of the most efficient and least avoided taxes, and for that reason Labour is considering extending it as part of a financial transactions tax. I would be very happy to talk to the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about how that would work.

As many hon. Members have said, financial services contribute significantly to Britain’s exports. In 2016, they were worth about £61 billion, with a surplus of £51 billion over imports of—yes, obviously—£11 billion. Of course, that is very significant in a situation in which other areas that traditionally were important for Britain’s export strength face tremendous headwinds, not least in relation to manufacturing, given the current uncertainty about Brexit.

As the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden rightly mentioned, the UK is increasingly integrated into global markets. I would argue that the UK is already a very important hub when it comes to the Chinese financial markets, for example. About two thirds of renminbi payments outside mainland China and Hong Kong flow through London, so we are already catching quite a lot of that business. In addition, a number of Chinese firms have established themselves here. However, we need to be clear: yes, that activity is increasing, but, as others have said, we have to be sanguine about its current size. TheCityUK, in its report entitled “Key Facts about the UK as an international financial centre”, says that only about 0.4% of UK financial services exports currently go to China. That may of course increase in the future, but if we compare that with the 44% of our exports that go to the EU, there is a massive difference. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has intimated many times, it must continue to be possible for our financial services companies to win business across Europe and, reciprocally, for European companies to win business here.

As I have said many times during delegated legislation Committees on no-deal legislation, the UK Government have failed to prioritise sufficiently our financial services. I absolutely agree with the comments in that regard by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). We appear to have accepted an outcome whereby equivalence, rather than passporting, is the likely eventuating circumstance, and of course that equivalence will operate on virtually exactly the same basis as it currently does for nations such as the US and Japan, which are far less dependent on access to the EU27’s markets than the UK is. On the question of how equivalence would work in the future, the point is that it would work the same for all third countries. If there were to be a stricter regime generally, that would apply to us in just the same way as it would to Japan and the US—the point is that it can also be removed at any point, from the perspective of the EU Commission—rather than there somehow being a more onerous regime for the UK, which I think would not be the case.

I very much associate myself with the remarks by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) concerning the current legal services conundrums and how they can have some kind of certainty on many regulatory issues.

Only very late in the day did our Government start to stress the shared interest of the UK and the EU27 in maintaining access to UK financial services. That was an enormous shame, because we have a mutual interest both in financial stability and resilience and in ensuring that the EU27 can continue to access the deep pool of capital that is available via our financial services. That recognition came only after a much longer period, sadly, in which a very damaging zero-sum narrative had developed, with the cut in corporation tax suggesting an intention to race to the bottom on tax and regulatory standards. That was immensely frustrating. What the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) described in relation to the insurance industry is actually what I am finding right across the financial services sector. There is no appetite anywhere, from what I can see, for a bonfire of regulations. Actually, the concern is to try to prevent regulatory turbulence and ensure that there is co-ordination into the future, and yet a picture has developed of a zero-sum approach whereby the UK would seek to reduce those regulations. I think that that has been very damaging.

On that issue, although I agreed with much that the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, I did not agree with his comments about EU regulation. Actually, one root of the financial crisis was the misalignment of risk with reward. That was targeted by the cap on bankers’ bonuses, and rightly so. A second root of the financial crisis was the lack of transparency in financial markets—dark pool trading and so on. That was targeted by MiFID, which encouraged many other countries to adopt the kind of transparency standards that existed in the UK before. I therefore think that we need to be very careful about mounting any kind of wholesale assault on those regulatory systems. When it comes to having robust regulation of systemic providers of market infrastructure, I think that that is a very sensible approach and, indeed, it is one that has been supported a lot of the time by UK actors.

Co-ordination of regulation will become ever more important with more innovation in delivery models of financial services. I strongly agree with the comments by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who is no longer in his place, about the need for regulations to keep in step with new developments—for example, in relation to digital currencies. I also agree with the comments made about the workforce, who are incredibly important. We need to ensure that we still have access to people from other countries who can contribute so much to our financial services.

I am a little surprised that we have not talked much in this debate about the contribution of financial services to investment, particularly in business. We need to be clear about what has happened over time. In 1988, almost a third of banks’ UK lending went to businesses. It is now less than a tenth, so there has been an incredible change over time. The Labour party thinks that we need to do something to deal with that. We need to learn from what other countries have done in relation to national investment banks—KfW in Germany, in particular. We need to look at the RBS branch network. I share the anger of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) about the closure of some of that network.

Of course, we need to focus on vulnerable consumers as well. Although we have seen many positive innovations in that space, that often has not been the case for consumers on low incomes. I will add one statistic to this debate, which is that about one in three families in the UK do not have the financial wherewithal to pay for a new cooker if their current one stops working. That quite extreme lack of financial resilience is now very present in our communities. Consumer credit debt is still far too high, not least for people with overdrafts, credit card debt and/or hire purchase debt. We need to see much more strenuous activity on that. I was very pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about credit unions in that regard. Yet again, I urge the Government to focus on better integrating credit unions into the Help to Save programme. I also ask the Government to look again at having a proper tribunal process for the businesses that were dealt with so badly during the RBS Global Restructuring Group scandal, so that there is some redress for small firms that may have been impacted on by banks’ practices.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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May I request that the Minister leaves a small space of time at the end of the debate for the mover of the motion to wind up?