The Minister of State, Home Office and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
My Lords, I join in the chorus of noble Lords thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, for securing this important debate. We have had a truly insightful and wide-ranging debate, and the contributions from across the Committee have been valuable and reflect our strong collective will to provide opportunity to all those who live in this great country. It has also been an opportunity to float some extremely big ideas, and I thank my noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for calling for a magna carta for localism, the decentralisation of power and responsibility and the ability to be financially independent. I strongly support that direction of travel. I also note the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the inequality of access to power. Unfortunately, I did not go to the school which has yielded so many Prime Ministers.
The pandemic has shone a light on our society. It has shown us where we are strong, where communities have come together and where national and local government have stepped in together to great effect. However, it has also demonstrated areas of concern. There has been an increase in loneliness and isolation among many. Some communities have been more affected than others during this pandemic, and latent inequalities have come to the fore. The Government are aware and are taking action. From this devastating virus we can see that there is an opportunity to forge an even more inclusive society. We are doing this by strengthening our public services and enriching the ties that bind each of us to the other and to our nation. I will use my time to outline a few of the ways in which we are working to do this and, in so doing, will address a number of the points that have been raised.
First, I point to the issue of racial inequality, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and by my noble friend Lord Dobbs, whom I thank for recognising that this country is becoming more inclusive and more tolerant. As a Government, we are committed to ensuring that Britain is a fairer society. We will tackle racial and ethnic inequalities where they exist. That is why we established an independent commission on race and ethnic disparities to explore these issues. As my noble friend Lord Farmer pointed out, its evidence-based report builds on the work of the Race Disparity Unit and previous race-related reviews. It goes further to understand why disparities exist, what works and what does not and has presented 24 recommendations for action across government and other public bodies. It is now time for the Government to consider the commission’s independent recommendations in detail and assess the implications for future government policy, including the future provision of family hubs.
With regard to health inequalities, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, new data is beginning to show the adverse impact that Covid-19 has had on life expectancy figures. It has also shone a light on the differences in health outcomes between communities. We remain committed to levelling up health outcomes so that everyone can enjoy a long, healthy life. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, raised health inequalities as they relate to disability. In June 2020, the Prime Minister and Health Secretary asked the Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, to lead cross-government work on the health disparities seen during the pandemic, and she will continue to work on ensuring that we address this. The Government have invested £4.5 million in research to underpin that work.
With regard to equalities, creating the conditions where people are given equal access to opportunity is a fundamental part of the Government’s vision for an inclusive society. We have therefore created an integrated, joined-up Equality Hub in the Cabinet Office, at the heart of government, which will report to Ministers who have other portfolios outside the Cabinet Office, led by the Minister for Women and Equalities. In response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Fox, I will ensure that the Government listen to the issues raised in this debate. The hub will have a key role in driving government priorities on equality and opportunity. It has a particular focus on improving the quality of evidence and data about disparities and the types of barriers that different people face.
As part of this, the equality data programme will link and analyse government datasets, identifying where individuals have multiple barriers to opportunity and informing policy work in the Equality Hub and across government. This includes statutory protected characteristics but also other aspects of inequality, including socioeconomic and geographic inequality. That gives an opportunity for the Equality Hub to consider the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, on autism and employment and wider issues about access to employment as well as the issues that my noble friend Lady Mobarik raised about widening opportunity and improving the skills agenda and the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, who spoke about the Reset the Debt report—I have not yet read that, but I am sure that the Equality Hub will look into it in great detail. This will also be an opportunity to learn the lessons from the book by the husband of the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, The Dignity of Labour, as well as potentially to invoke some of the Bismarckian solutions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jones.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and many other noble Lords raised the Government’s commitment to levelling up. This approach to inclusivity drives up our levelling-up agenda. The UK Government are committed to levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom, between and within areas, to ensure that no community is left behind, particularly as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. We have therefore established a £4.8 billion funding pot for investments in infrastructure to improve everyday life across the UK. This includes regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in cultural and heritage assets. In addition, we are launching a community ownership fund to help ensure that communities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can support, and continue benefiting from, the local facilities, community assets and amenities most important to them.
Beyond levelling up, we are also committed to integration and ensuring that people across the UK feel a connection to society and one another. We have developed innovative programmes to address the issue, working closely with local authorities and community partners. The United Kingdom is generally regarded as well integrated; 84% of people report belonging strongly to Britain, and 81% say that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. Of course, there is always more work to be done, and we have forged a partnership approach between national and local government on our integration area programmes, testing a localised approach that supports partners in local areas across England to work together to build more united communities and places.
English language teaching is also a crucial part of promoting inclusivity and integration and, indeed, was a core manifesto commitment. We know that a lack of English presents a clear barrier to social and economic mobility. The Government are proud of their record in this space, which includes our ESOL for Integration Fund, supporting highly localised, community-based English language learning in areas of greatest need.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also called for an increase in the welfare safety net, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, invoked the spirit of John Stuart Mill. The Government are committed to delivering a modern, fair and affordable welfare system. This is especially important as we come out of the pandemic, which is why we will spend more than £57 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions in 2021-22. That represents around 2.6% of GDP. This is a significant chunk of total welfare spending in Great Britain, which will be £241 billion in 2021-22. That is 23% of total government spending and around 10.7% of GDP.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, raised and highlighted the importance of digital connectivity. The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also highlighted the digital divide that affects marginalised communities. To tackle the digital divide and support connectivity, the Government have worked closely with providers to ensure that social tariffs that provide low-cost landline and broadband services for those on means-tested state benefits are in place. DCMS has launched a £2.5 million Digital Lifeline Fund that will provide devices, data and support to 5,000 adults with learning disabilities. On 10 March, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced 10 technology priorities to support the digital tech sector and drive digitally-enabled growth, both in the context of Covid-19 and into the future.
My noble friend Lady Eaton, the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, raised adult social care. The Government are committed to sustainable improvement of the adult social care system and will bring forward plans for reform later this year. Our objectives for adult social care reform are to enable an affordable, high-quality adult social care system that meets people’s needs while supporting health and care to join up services around people.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Tyler, and a number of other noble Lords raised the issue of children. As a Government, we are investing £84 million in the strengthening families, protecting children programme and £17 million in the investing in practice programme. Since 2014, our innovation programme has invested almost £200 million in 98 projects that are enabling local authorities to test new approaches to supporting children in the social care system. We have provided an additional £12.4 million in 2021 to support 14 innovation programme projects to continue delivery and extend their evaluations to capture further learning.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin, Lady Massey of Darwen and Lady Lister, and many others called for a Cabinet member for children. As a humble Minister, I am all for Cabinet inflation, and I will do my best to lobby for my friend—a university contemporary of mine—who is the incumbent Minister for Children and Families to see what we can do about ensuring that there is a Minister of Cabinet rank for children.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, raised Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act. In October 2019, the Government announced that they would deliver the objective of protecting children online through the online harms regulatory framework instead of Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. The online safety Bill will be ready later this year and, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I am sure that we will address the issues of cyberbullying within that context.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Whitaker and Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, raised the issue of education. Education is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to inclusivity and represents a significant challenge, with schooling so disrupted during the pandemic. To tackle this, the Department for Education recently announced a £700 million package for the expansion of one-to-one and small-group tutoring programmes, as well as supporting the development of disadvantaged children in early years settings and summer provision for those pupils who need it most.
We also recognise the important role of out-of-school settings such as extracurricular clubs, youth organisations and tuition centres, in providing enriching activities, giving children the opportunity to socialise with others and promoting their well-being. This remains a priority for the Government. Therefore, as of 12 April, in line with the commencement of step 2 of the Government’s roadmap, out-of-school settings can offer provision to all children, without restriction on the reasons for which they may attend.
This is all part of the Government’s recognition that levelling up and pursuing socioeconomic equality is a cross-government endeavour. The Social Mobility Commission plays a major part in this and has recently moved to a team in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that this is led from the heart of government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and other noble Lords raised the issue of homelessness. We know that this continues to be a scourge on our society. In 2020-21, we put in place a total of over £700 million on homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as an unprecedented level of support to tackle these over 2021-22. This includes £676 million in resource funding, a 60% increase compared to the spending review in 2019. The Government will be spending over £750 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year, further demonstrating our commitment to end rough sleeping during this Parliament and to fully enforce the Homelessness Reduction Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, raised the issue of social housing. The Government are committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing and are investing over £12 billion in it over five years. That is the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade. This includes £11.5 billion in the affordable homes programme, which will provide up to 180,000 new homes across the country, should economic conditions allow. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, we are still analysing responses to the consultation on raising accessibility standards for new homes. I am sure that our response will follow imminently.
Turning to arts and culture, the Government are committed to equal rights for all, and firmly believe that everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to build a successful career in the creative industries. To this end, we have invested over £2 million in the creative careers programme in partnership with industry, leading to over 113,000 student interactions with over 1,000 creative sector employers. We also recognise the value that apprenticeships play in enabling people of all backgrounds to progress in work, earning as they learn, and the Government are committed to further levy reform.
Last year’s £1.57 billion support package for the culture sector by the Government was unprecedented. To date, £1.2 billion has been allocated from the Culture Recovery Fund, reaching over 5,000 individual organisations and sites. These range from world famous heritage sites such as Canterbury Cathedral to the great Glastonbury festival, and from West End theatres to the Wolverhampton Grand. Museums will continue to play a key community role as places that bring people of all backgrounds together for learning, enjoyment and inspiration, as well as providing a space for civic activities and reflection.
Beyond the important work being undertaken by the Government, I would like to take a few minutes to focus my final remarks on what my department is doing, and what I am doing within my portfolio, to build an inclusive society. We have discussed the many impacts of Covid—not least the disproportionate impacts felt by some groups, which has been a constant theme of the pandemic. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for asking me specifically what steps the Government have taken to listen to marginalised groups who have suffered most during the pandemic.
Through the community champions scheme, the Government are providing almost £24 million for local authorities and voluntary groups to support those who are most at risk from the virus. This includes providing people with targeted public health messaging as well as information on the vaccination programme to allay the fears of those who might be unsure about getting a jab. The communities involved in the community champions scheme are varied and include: black and minority ethnic communities; at-risk young people; Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; groups with disabilities; the elderly; the homeless; asylum seekers; and refugees. We are rightly very proud of this scheme because it represents the best of national and local partnerships.
I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on the importance of our faith communities. We cannot expect to make progress on fostering an inclusive society without them. They represent fundamental pillars of civil society engagement. Throughout the pandemic, faith communities and places of worship have provided solace to many people, not only for spiritual well-being but also by offering a multitude of support services, often in partnership with local authorities. These are collaborative efforts that I want to see continue in the post-pandemic landscape.
We are working closely with the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, highlighted some of the issues faced by Traveller communities in particular. We know that they face challenges in terms of educational, social and health outcomes, which can lead to greater societal exclusion. We have been working to improve these outcomes, but we recognise that we need to go further. We will soon publish a cross-government GRT strategy.
Unfortunately, we know that hate crime continues to undermine efforts across the United Kingdom to make our country a prosperous and inclusive place to live. The latest figures show that hate crimes are increasing. There is an upward trend in these figures, partly fuelled by people’s confidence to step forward to report these crimes. I am appalled at the attacks that Chinese and east and south-east Asian communities have endured during the pandemic. I convey my sympathies to all those who have suffered discrimination and abuse. I could not be more adamant that all forms of hatred, including that based on race, are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We have one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to protect communities from hostility, violence and bigotry and deal with the perpetrators of hate crime.
Finally, I want to take this opportunity to put on record formally that we wholeheartedly welcome Hong Kong British nationals (overseas) into this country. We are delighted that Hong Kongers are choosing to come to this country. Facing restrictions on their freedoms, they have taken up the British Government’s generous offer of providing a pathway to live in the United Kingdom. I am delighted that Hong Kong families coming here on the basis of the Hong Kong BNO visa route will benefit from a dedicated £43-million package of support to help them settle successfully into life in this country. As my right honourable friend the Communities Secretary said recently:
“We are a champion of freedom and democracy and will live up to our responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong, so that these families will come to find the UK a place they can call home.”
I could talk for far longer on the need to build an inclusive society following the pandemic and what the Government will continue to do to ensure that we build on the work already taking place. By ensuring that communities have every opportunity to succeed, there is a clear route to an inclusive society where all citizens can achieve their aspirations, no matter their background. We do not underestimate the scale of the task. Indeed, it is one of the biggest long-term challenges that we will continue to face, but we stand ready to tackle it and we will do all we can to continue to make the United Kingdom an inclusive place to live.