Westminster Hall

Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

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Tuesday 26 March 2024
[Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

RNLI Bicentenary

Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

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

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

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

09:30
Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall (Totnes) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the bicentenary of the RNLI.

It is my honour and privilege to open and close today’s debate on the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and to recognise its history, praise its work, celebrate and thank its volunteers. I want to put on the record the fact that this House understands, appreciates and values that magnificent, long-standing organisation.

Throughout 2024, across the country, communities will come together to mark the extraordinary 200 years of the RNLI. On 4 March, 1,800 crew of the RNLI assembled in Westminster Abbey for a service of thanksgiving. In May the month becomes mayday month, and 18 and 19 May will see a series of community activities, including a lifeboat festival in Poole and 25 July is World Drowning Prevention Day. On 1 August “one moment, one crew” encourages RNLI volunteers to celebrate in their communities. On 10 October, on the anniversary of the first ever street collection held in Manchester, the birth of the most successful fundraising campaign ever seen will be celebrated. There is also the 200 Voices podcast on the RNLI website, where we can listen to 200 people explain how the RNLI has impacted their lives. I strongly recommend it.

From its humble beginnings to the modern-day integrated network of volunteers, fundraisers and supporters criss-crossing the country, the RNLI is not just an emergency service, but a Great British brand that exhibits the very best of our spirit. It was on the Isle of Man in 1824 that Sir William Hillary proposed the concept of an organisation to save lives at sea. With an average 1,800 shipwrecks a year, Sir William proposed the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck. Despite numerous rejections, including being pushed back by the Navy and Ministers of the day, he appealed to the philanthropic organisations of the time, which, with alacrity, took up the cause, and on 4 March 1824 they held a meeting in the City of London Tavern, officially forming and ratifying the institution—possibly the best idea ever to come out of a pub.

With royal patronage granted and the name changed in 1854 to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Sir William’s vision was undoubtedly recognised, although whether he would have imagined that the RNLI would have 238 stations, operate 440 lifeboats, provide lifeguards for 200 beaches and be responsible for rescuing some 146,000 people over its history, it is impossible to know. However, that ambition and determination created an organisation from which we all benefit and whose charter still stands the test of time, declaring that the RNLI

“will assist in saving life from Shipwreck”

and be

“supported by Annual Subscriptions and Donations, and other Contributions to its Funds”.

Today the RNLI holds legendary status. Those of us who have grown up in coastal communities or who are fortunate to represent one have long been moved by the tales of epic heroism in which volunteers—members of the community—have put their lives on the line for others. That includes the sinking of the Mexico in the Ribble estuary in 1886; the White Star Line’s SS Suevic, shipwrecked off the Lizard in Cornwall in 1907, where the RNLI managed to rescue all 456 passengers, including 70 babies, over 16 hours in an oar-powered boat; the RNLI’s support in the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 100,000 soldiers were said to have been saved by RNLI boats; to Henry Freeman and his innovative cork lifejacket; the iconic Henry Blogg; the heroism of Grace Darling in the 1838 crisis in Forfarshire; and Margaret Armstrong, who helped every single launch of the Cresswell lifeboat, saving lives for over 50 years until her death in 1928. The RNLI has without prejudice always come to the aid of those in danger on the sea, such as the enemy during the first and second world wars, merchant sailors in peril, holidaymakers who are caught out, or refugees crossing the channel.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On the diversity of the problems that the RNLI faces, including holidaymakers, Portrush in my constituency has an RNLI boat, and the crew and volunteers do excellent work, sometimes in treacherous waters off the north coast of Northern Ireland and the east coast of Scotland. Will he join me, as I know he will, in commending them and in ensuring that the wider public support is as great as it can be for all our RNLI crews and volunteers to maximise the return and to save even more lives in future?

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
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I thank the hon. Member for making that point. Especially in high-tourism areas and where there has been a dramatic experience post pandemic, the RNLI has seen more shouts—more call-outs to rescue holidaymakers—so it is essential that right across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we support our RNLI crews, volunteers and fundraising efforts, and strengthen their hand in what they do.

The remit of the RNLI is simple: to help anyone in danger on the sea. The tales of events and individuals throughout the RNLI’s history not only inspire the next generation of volunteers, but help to explain why so many families across the country have served the RNLI throughout its existence. In doing so, those volunteers have provided a magnificent, quiet heroism and public service to their communities, country and fellow human beings.

The volunteer power of the RNLI is all the more remarkable when we consider that for almost the first 90 years, the lifeboats of the RNLI were powered by nothing other than the strength of man, and launched by hand and horsepower. The steady evolution of the RNLI has resulted in a modern and up-to-date fleet that has replaced oar power with engine power. The ability to upgrade the fleet and provide new equipment, however, has been brought about only by the generosity of the British public and by businesses.

The RNLI has always been independent of Government and will always remain so. As a result, it relies on the support of donors to meet the costs of lifesaving activities. As we politicians look on in envy, the RNLI has perfected the art of fundraising and has set exacting standards to develop long-standing relationships with supporters and to ensure financial stability. The figures speak for themselves: the RNLI raised £177.4 million in 2022 and £181.7 million in 2021. Along with the public fundraising, generous bequests have included, bizarrely, a set of gold teeth and two vintage Ferraris.

Regardless of what is donated, it all helps to ensure that the RNLI is able to respond to shouts anywhere along our coastline and to help those in danger with the most up-to-date equipment and facilities. We should consider the fact that in 2023, up to July, the RNLI had launched its lifeboats 9,192 times, the equivalent of 16 times a day; saved 269 lives; and assisted 10,734 people at sea—a remarkable number and giving remarkable significance to its work.

It is extraordinary to see businesses playing a role in the fundraising efforts. The Baltic Exchange, for example, has for more than 150 years supported the lifeboat based in Salcombe in South Devon, hence the subtle name of The Baltic Exchange III. Such fundraising efforts have allowed the RNLI to focus on what it does best and, perhaps most importantly, have ensured that the RNLI is immune from political interference and can be truly independent.

Just as the equipment and machinery have modernised so, too, have the provision and scale of what the RNLI offers. Starting originally with lifeboats and lifeboat stations, the RNLI now runs a safety-at-sea initiative with its Float to Live campaign, as well as providing lifeguards on 240 UK beaches. In 2023, those lifeguards carried out almost 3 million preventive actions, as well as attending some 14,000 incidents, helping 19,979 people and saving 86 lives. Its international arm is focused on making drowning prevention a priority worldwide and reducing the staggering 235,000 deaths a year caused by drowning.

The RNLI has been a key supporter of the National Independent Lifeboat Association, which I founded two years ago to represent the 54 independent lifeboat stations of the United Kingdom. Its steady progress to help both at home and abroad is in part why the RNLI is such a well-loved institution and why it carries the support and confidence of the British public and, I hope I can safely say, of this House.

The purpose of this debate is to recognise the RNLI as a national organisation and to celebrate its work across the country, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the RNLI stations in South Devon. Torbay RNLI lifeboat station, based in Brixham, was established in 1866 and has been busily protecting our channel waters ever since. I was pleased to attend a service of thanksgiving organised by the Fishermen’s Mission earlier this year, to reflect on its work protecting those at sea, and salute its volunteers, who have attended thousands of shouts since 1866, rescued thousands of people and saved countless lives.

The Salcombe RNLI lifeboat was established in 1869 and is tragically remembered for one of the worst lifeboat disasters in the RNLI’s history. In 1916, the returning lifeboat capsized on the Salcombe bar and 13 of the 15-man crew drowned, devastating the town and the close-knit community. Memorial headstones either side of the mouth of the estuary recall and mark that tragedy.

The Dart RNLI, established in 1878 but closed shortly after, was reopened in 2007. The reopening was fortuitous, as last year alone it had 46 shouts and aided 51 people in difficulty. It is currently fundraising for a new boathouse, which I expect to be greeted with the same level of generosity as that often received by the RNLI.

Those three lifeboat stations are a necessity to coastal living. Their crews and support staff number well over 100 volunteers, and they have battled against some of the most ferocious storms to save those at sea, as well as dealt with thousands of visitors who flock to our beaches each and every year. The people of south Devon owe them an enormous amount, and we do not for a single second forget their courage and bravery in volunteering for the RNLI.

I would like to thank the crew of RNLI lifeboat stations across the country. They are all part of a rich heritage in which they put others before themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to rescue those in need, and too often friends, families and fellow volunteers pay the price. The 800 names on the RNLI memorial in Poole serve as a reminder of the dangers they face, but also the hope that must be felt by any individual in danger when they see the colours of the RNLI racing towards them. Sir William Hillary said:

“With courage, nothing is impossible.”

I would like to finish by paying tribute to the outgoing chief executive, Mark Dowie, who finishes his five-year term in June. Mark has been an extraordinary leader of the RNLI over the past five years. He has had to deal with covid, channel crossings, rising inflation, increase in demand, and even unfair and inaccurate political comments. He has risen above all those, and leaves the RNLI in an even stronger place, with his name alongside those pioneering, innovative founders and fundraisers who have made the RNLI what it is today.

Today we mark and celebrate in Parliament the 200 years of the RNLI. I pray for calm seas and fair winds, and that it will continue to perform its masterful brave work for the next two centuries.

09:42
Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this important debate.

This year marks the bicentenary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, an extraordinary organisation that could not operate without the outstanding bravery and courage of those involved. RNLI lifeboat crews launched more than 9,000 times in 2022, aiding 16,476 people and saving 389 lives. RNLI crews, the vast majority of whom are volunteers, put their lives at risk to save others. They do so at all hours of the day and night, often setting out on very rough seas. Many families have been involved with the RNLI for decades, with expertise handed down through the generations. As has been said, being involved in a lifeboat station is a way of life.

I am honoured to represent a constituency with two RNLI lifeboat stations: one at Hoylake and one at West Kirby. Crews are prepared to go out in all weathers to rescue people, whether they are in yachts, dinghies, canoes or large commercial vessels or have been caught by the tide when walking out to the Hilbre islands. There is a long tradition of courage in west Wirral, of which local people are rightly proud. The first lifeboat station in Hoylake was founded in 1803, before the RNLI was established in 1824. Those early lifeboats were dragged into the sea by horses, their effectiveness reliant on the strength of the crews at the oars.

Tragedy struck in 1810, when eight men of a crew of 10 were drowned as they tried to assist the ship Traveller. The disaster struck the entire local community. A report cited in Nicholas Leach’s excellent book “Hoylake and West Kirby Lifeboats: An Illustrated History” describes the aftermath:

“The bodies were found the same day, and carried to their respective homes, where a scene of misery was witnessed which defies all power of expression. The deceased were all near neighbours, and lived in a small village called the Hoose, near Hoylake...these brave fellows were the flower of the Hoylake fishermen, and had always displayed the greatest promptitude and alacrity in assisting vessels in distress; nor could England boast a set of braver men...They have left large families totally unprovided for”.

To mark the bicentenary of the disaster, a memorial to those lost was unveiled outside the RNLI lifeboat house in Hoylake in December 2010, and due respect was afforded by today’s lifeboat crews, members of the local community and descendants of those who lost their lives in 1810.

Thankfully, things have come a long way since those perilous days. In 2014, a new 13-metre Shannon lifeboat was stationed at Hoylake, where it remains today. It is a state-of-the-art vessel, with every conceivable safety feature. The smaller West Kirby inshore lifeboats were introduced in the 1960s. The roll call of brave men and women who serve at Hoylake and West Kirby is a source of great pride to the local community. Without them, there would be no rescue service for people who get into difficulty at sea and on the estuary. Fundraising is crucial to the RNLI, and it is unsurprising that local people are so keen to support it. It is vital that that support continues, because less than 1% of RNLI income comes from Government.

The stories of rescues are heroic indeed. I have had the great privilege of hearing at first hand from John Curry, chair of the Hoylake and West Kirby RNLI management group, about some of these rescues. One powerful image stays firmly in my mind: a hand reaching out from the waves. It is an image of a drowning man, woman or child, in the very last moments while rescue is still possible. The intense bravery and dedication of the RNLI volunteers, who will put themselves at risk to reach out and grasp such a hand before it sinks beneath the waves, deserve all our thanks and tributes.

09:47
Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate, and I thank my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it.

It is very apt to be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the RNLI, given the role that it plays for communities in south Devon. The Torbay RNLI has been operating since 1866, serving commercial merchantman traffic and keeping holidaymakers and those visiting the south coast safe. The organisation has been at the heart of the community since then; it is based on volunteering and on funding and support from the community.

It is easy to see why the RNLI is such a loved institution when we hear the stories of its members’ heroism. In Torbay we have Keith Bower, who I think is one of only three living holders of the RNLI gold medal for conspicuous gallantry. Other Members have already referred to those crew members who sadly lost their lives, but there have been many occasions on which volunteers will have absolutely pushed to the limits what they could do to save someone in distress. It is right that we pay tribute and remember them. It was great to see Keith at the heart of the recent service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, in recognition of the role that so many play, in extreme conditions, to try to save the lives of people they will probably never have met. They go out of their way to bring them home safe, for them and their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and I have an interesting debate about the Torbay RNLI, because the station on land is in Brixham, which is part of his constituency, but the boat is moored in the waters of Brixham harbour, which—due to the anomalies in how Torbay runs its harbour authority—is part of mine. But the RNLI is loved across the bay. At the event on 4 March, the fleet was out and being saluted by so many people on land, as well as those on the waters who rely on and are reassured by its constant presence.

It is worth noting that the RNLI Torbay lifeboat fundraising team are the ones helping to sustain the crew at the front. We have a song written by Roger Smith to commemorate and celebrate the 200th anniversary; there is also a whole network that exists throughout the year and raises vital funds to support the team we see out on the water.

It is also worth noting how the RNLI supports the wider work of the community. We think immediately of emergency call-outs when someone is in distress and a lifeboat is called out to identify them and bring them back to safety, but a range of other things can happen. There is always a moment for reflection when I am about to do the Boxing day walk into the sea at Paignton sands and I see the lifeboat pull up beforehand; the RNLI effectively provides a safety boat. It is a slightly thought-provoking moment: I sit there thinking, “Is this the best decision I’ve ever made?” as I am about to walk into freezing cold water, with the lifeboat pulling up to keep us safe. It shows what the RNLI does for the wider community: it is not just about emergencies, but about providing the safety and support that such events need. That allows thousands of pounds to be raised for other charities and for fundraising in the community, as well as being an opportunity to get rather cold on Boxing day, if that helps to shake off anything from the day before.

In its 200-year history, the RNLI has been supported by other institutions that contribute towards its efforts and share its goals. It is well worth mentioning the National Coastwatch Institution Torbay and its station up at Daddyhole plain, which works closely with RNLI Torbay. They are both committed to exactly the same purpose of keeping those who use the waters around our bay safe.

The RNLI is an institution that has been well loved and well supported for 200 years. It shows the best of our communities and ensures that they are safe even in the most perilous of conditions. It has had a successful 200 years in which it has gone from strength to strength. I see no reason why it will not go on to further success over the next 200 years, with many thousands more lives saved.

09:51
Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his excellent and stirring speech about the service of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution across this country. I pay tribute to the RNLI: it is a wonderful service, and today’s speeches have been inspiring.

I am here to say thank you on behalf of an inland community and to raise a related point about water safety. The RNLI has given 200 years of service to this country, and it is a privilege to speak in this debate. I will pick up on some hugely important points that the hon. Member made about the RNLI’s expansion into taking over beach safety and about its international and education work.

The RNLI already covers estuaries of major rivers. I represent a town further upstream, beyond the tidal reach of the Thames: the tidal section goes as far as Teddington, and Reading is some way from there. However, every year we have tragedies when people fall in the river and, in some cases, need to be rescued. The police are the rescuing authority, but I have been approached by a number of residents, particularly boat owners, small business owners and others based by the river, who potentially have access to rescue craft. They want to learn more about the experience of the RNLI and about how inland waterways could be made safer by assisting the police in rescue, with trained personnel who are used to driving boats in river situations.

In fact, one of my residents was awarded a medal by Thames Valley police for doing exactly that last year: at very short notice, he jumped into his boat and rescued somebody who had fallen into the river. The gentleman concerned was quite severely injured; he had struggled and was no longer able to swim. He was floating downstream in the centre of the river, some way from the bank, and if it had not been for that resident the incident could have been much worse.

I address my points to the Minister. Is it possible to look into the RNLI’s experience with inland waterways and see what we can learn as a country? We must not only thank the RNLI for its outstanding work in saving lives at sea, which has been spoken about beautifully today—we all share a great sense of gratitude to this wonderful institution—but see what can be learned from the collective endeavour about which the hon. Member for Totnes spoke so effectively and clearly in his inspiring speech. I pose that question to the Minister to see what might be done to further assist to local police forces: they are the rescuing authority in inland waterways, but they are often under enormous pressure, and police boats may take some time to get to an emergency.

09:54
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing it.

The RNLI has been an important institution in the United Kingdom since it was formed 200 years ago. The Suffolk association of lifeboats was formed in the same year, but it wisely handed over its assets and people to the RNLI in 1853. In 1824, boats were set up in Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Lowestoft, which is outside my constituency; a few years later, they were also set up in Thorpeness and Sizewell.

There is no doubt that the institution has been vital in saving lives, but it has also seen people losing their lives in saving others. The devastation that that can have in a community lives on for generations to come and is rightly recognised around the country. I pay huge tribute to all those who have served in the lifetime of stations around the country.

My constituency currently has two stations, in Southwold and Aldeburgh, and is served by the people of Harwich, just across the river in Essex. There is also a National Independent Lifeboat Association member in Felixstowe, which was set up more recently: just over 25 years ago. I know the dedication of the people, who are principally volunteers; they are on call and ready to move. The lifeguards who operate on some of our beaches have been integral in making sure that people are safe in the water. I also commend the RNLI guilds. Every branch and station has one: Aldeburgh’s was set up in 1962 and has been vital to the station’s ongoing operation.

I praised the operatives at Southwold station in 2013, because on 26 May 2013 a small group of the crew who were out on exercise gathered to deploy the single largest ever piece of peacetime recovery: 85 people, in just one event, where a swimming race had gone horribly wrong. Ben Lock and Lucy Clews were the lifeguards there who saw the issue straight away. The crew was mobilised by lifeguard supervisor Dan Tyler, and helmsmen Simon Callaghan, Paul Barker and Rob Kelvey came into action, later supported by Liam Fayle-Parr. It was absolutely astonishing. To date, I do not believe that there has been any other similar peacetime operation, although there may potentially be situations currently off the Sussex and Kent coast. It is right that we recognise the contribution of all these people in Hansard once more. Lives could have been lost.

I commend Simon Hazelgrove and the team today, who continue to operate the lifeboat station. I look forward to inviting them and the people from Aldeburgh to an event here in Parliament—hopefully in May, and if not, in June. At the Aldeburgh lifeboat station, it is slightly more complicated to launch a boat, because the town has a shingle beach, so the whole operation is even bigger. At the moment, they have a Mersey class boat. There is a significant operation, using a tractor and wooden poles to help the boat on and off; in many ways, it is a much bigger operation.

It is tremendous that a town the size of Aldeburgh can muster that sort of activity at pretty short notice. I am conscious that there has been some turbulence recently, but I want to celebrate the good things, including a service that was led by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich earlier this month to commemorate the 200-year anniversary.

Aldeburgh currently has an all-weather boat, the Freddie Cooper, which started operating in 1993, and an inshore boat, the Susan Scott, which has been operating since 2017. I want to turn to that for a sad moment, because a tale needs to be told of the recent leadership, which has been quite shabby. I am worried about aspects of the culture, and I am sad for the people of Aldeburgh, who themselves are sad about what has happened. We all know that change can be difficult, but one of the things the RNLI needs to understand as it looks ahead to the next 200 years is that it relies on the good will of the local communities, never mind the huge amount of work that goes into supporting it nationally. It needs to reflect on how it should do things differently when dealing with local communities, and I am not the only Member of Parliament affected in that respect.

One of the comments that really brought this issue to mind was made by somebody involved, who talked about an appalling betrayal of a community that has been nothing but supportive, as well as disgraceful management of the situation by RNLI headquarters, which raises concerns about the culture of the charity. By and large, the RNLI has been absolutely amazing, but it does need to learn from this sad situation.

Change was happening and a review was being undertaken. That meant that Aldeburgh would no longer have an all-weather lifeboat; instead, it would have a rigid inflatable craft, or RIB, as they are called. That was of concern to the local community, because it had been used to having an all-weather lifeboat. Unlike in Southwold, its boats had not been deployed as part of the Dunkirk operation, but they had been deployed during peacetime and wartime, and the crews recognised the local seas.

In terms of money, legacies had been left in the RNLI’s accounts to support it. It was indicated that these were restricted funds specifically to replace the all-weather lifeboat. The funds were in the RNLI’s accounts, and then all of a sudden the decision was made—with some internal consultation—that that would not happen. There was upset and uproar and, as a local Member of Parliament, I was asked to raise the issue with the RNLI. To my surprise, it refused to meet. I was somewhat shocked by that. As an elected representative, I am conscious that this issue has nothing to do with Government or with politics. Of course, the RNLI benefits from things such as tax relief in its fundraising, but that was not my reason for wanting to raise this issue. I wanted to do it because I am a member of the community, and the community felt shut out.

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not give way yet, no. Eventually, following correspondence back and forth, it was only because I knew one of the trustees that I was able to get a phone call with the then chief executive. They insisted that the call could take place only if it was private and the details were not shared. I was prepared to take the call under those conditions, because it turned out that the chief executive had already been to the station. I turned up the day after the chief executive’s visit. Not all the volunteers had been informed that the chief executive was visiting. It turns out that that was part of a tour, which was proudly advertised, with photographs and similar in other stations on the tour, including the one at Southwold, but there was radio silence when it came to Aldeburgh.

I kept my part of the bargain; I did record the phone call, because I do not have the best memory, but I too had assumed that the conversation would be private. I was therefore sad to learn just last week that the chief executive in fact recorded the call and played it to another Member of Parliament. I am not going to say who they are—I do not need to embarrass them or the chief executive—but I am telling the story because I am concerned about the culture. Indeed, the chair of the trustees offered to meet me at some point, but then seemed to withdraw the meeting—certainly, we have not been able to find a time to do it.

None of this has been received well in the local community. Not all the volunteers were informed. I attended a subsequent meeting with Aldeburgh Town Council, and a member of the local leadership later complained to the council that I had been there, although I am not sure why—perhaps because I was concerned about the culture there. However, I have chosen not to reveal to the community some of the things that were said at that meeting, because that would embarrass the RNLI, and I do not seek to do that. It would also really upset the volunteers who go out, or are on stand-by to go out, on that boat every day. However, at the same time, people are wondering where the money has gone, and we can see in the RNLI’s accounts that the cost of wages, salaries and similar was £83.3 million in 2020 but is now £102.3 million.

As I say, this is a sad moment for me, and I have gone to the Charity Commission and similar. I really wish the RNLI success in the next 200 years, but it will need the strong support of its communities, and sadly some of those volunteer crew have now stepped away. I wish them and all the stations around the country well, but let us make sure that the RNLI is strengthened, and way to do that going forward is transparency, rather than secrecy.

10:05
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. I commend the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on setting the scene so well and focusing on the bicentenary of the RNLI—[Interruption.]

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (in the Chair)
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Order. Can I ask Members not to have private conversations while others are speaking?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I will focus on the title and subject matter of the debate because that is important—it is why we are all here. Like others, I always want to speak on the tremendous work carried out by the RNLI, and this is an opportunity to highlight that wonderful work right across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—I always say that, because it is important for me to remember the Union and where we all are, and I have used that terminology on every occasion since I came here in 2010.

As we are all aware, the RNLI has reached the inspirational milestone of 200 years of service to the community. Hailing from a constituency with a huge peninsula, with Strangford lough on one side and the Irish sea on the other, I am reminded of a poem I learned when I was very young—“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”—because we are surrounded by seawater on both sides. That perhaps illustrates the importance of this emergency service and what it does not only in Strangford but for all of us who live on the Ards peninsula.

I was amazed to learn this month that volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved an incredible 146,277 lives during the RNLI’s two centuries of lifesaving. If we needed any illustration of the RNLI’s importance, that is it: all those people—146,277 is a significant number.

The lifeboats at the charity’s 10 lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland have launched 9,472 times, with their volunteers saving 1,535 lives and coming to the aid of thousands more. There is so much that they have done and so much more that they can do. Since the introduction of lifeguards to Northern Ireland in 2011, the RNLI’s seasonal teams based along the Causeway coast—represented by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell)—and in County Down have responded to 2,894 incidents and come to the aid of 3,461 people, 47 of whom were lives saved. That is what this about: the lives saved and the commitments given.

The RNLI website states:

“Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity’s lifesavers—from the early oar-powered vessels to today’s technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity; and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with. The RNLI’s lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years…It designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes”—

I think the hon. Member for Totnes referred to that in his introduction.

Today, of the 238 lifeboat stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 10 operate out of Northern Ireland, including one in Portaferry, in my constituency of Strangford. I have visited that station on a number of occasions and I have a very good relationship with volunteers there. One of its stalwarts is Philip Johnston, who is one of the main leaders and organisers of the RNLI in Portaferry—he has just retired, and we thank him for all his service over those years. There are two other stations, on the boundary of Bangor and Donaghadee, in the constituency of North Down, which is, again, an illustration of the RNLI’s importance in the area that we represent.

Although much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same: the charity’s dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public, which have funded the service for the past two centuries. That is another illustration of what the RNLI means.

I was delighted that the local mayor of Ards and North Down in part of my constituency—the very capable Jennifer Gilmour, who just happens to be one of my party colleagues—has selected the RNLI as one of her charities and has carried out various fundraising activities. For many of her constituents and mine, the RNLI is a vital service. Indeed, there are questions as to whether it should be brought into the realms of the emergency services so that it can afford pay and have grants towards equipment. It is sad that the RNLI really is the last emergency service, yet the Government pay less than 1% of its funding. I believe that the service deserves more than that.

That is not a criticism—that is not what I do in debates—but maybe the Minister can give us some idea as to what the Government are able to do for the RNLI financially. I understand the desire to keep the functioning of the RNLI free from Government interference and the red tape that comes with that. However, I do not believe that a round of applause from people in this House is enough, as it seemed to be for the NHS—something we all did every week with real sincerity.

I close by giving my sincerest thanks and appreciation to all the past and present volunteers who have given up their time and who have sacrificed their lives. The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) referred to a lifeboat that went to sea and came back with eight of the 10 crew lost. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned a boat of 15 crew, 13 of whom died and only two of whom came back. That gives an idea of the sacrifice. These volunteers give up time with their loved ones at family events, and give up paid working hours, to use their skills and expertise to save lives and help people to be as safe as possible on an untameable sea. I thank them for all they have done. Their communities could not operate without their valued service.

We celebrate the RNLI as a body and the volunteers as its hands and feet. The RNLI has done much for us, and it will do more. Let us support it and do the best we can for it in this place.

10:11
Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate. First, I will pay my own tribute to the incredible work that the RNLI does. Since its establishment in 1824 its volunteers have consistently demonstrated immense courage, rescuing untold numbers of lives. We honour them today and over the course of the next year for the bicentenary celebrations, and we remember the 144,000 people who have been saved by their work.

The RNLI obviously holds particular importance in my constituency of North Norfolk, given the abundance of coastal communities. I represent 52 miles of glorious coastline. Whether it is the influx of tourists over the summer or the regular beach enthusiasts and dog walkers all year round, I know that my coast in North Norfolk is consistently bustling with activity. As such, the RNLI plays an incredibly important role in ensuring the safety and welfare of everybody who comes to use the North Norfolk coast.

We cannot talk about the RNLI without mentioning the significance of Henry Blogg, the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history. He served on Cromer’s lifeboats and, alongside his crew, saved 873 lives and made 387 rescues over a length of service of 53 years. His ancestors are still living in and well connected to the Cromer community. Henry’s story shines a light on the importance the RNLI holds in our local communities.

I would like the Minister to pay particular attention to what I shall say next, as it has been in the local newspapers a great deal, particularly yesterday. I am sad to say that I wish the story had not broken in the way it did, because it has caused a great deal of concern in the local area. One of the vessels that Blogg served on was the Bailey. The Bailey sits in Cromer, in the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum. There are reports that the building has some water ingress. The Bailey is a priceless artefact in the history of the RNLI and priceless to the people of Cromer. I put it on the record that the Bailey belongs to Cromer; it belongs to the people of Cromer and it must stay in Cromer. I know that behind the scenes the RNLI and the local district council are working together to try and put the building right and get the remedial works salvaged, so that the Bailey can remain in place. I will do everything I can behind the scenes to help that to happen, and I want to reassure the people of Cromer, and more widely around North Norfolk, that we are absolutely driven to achieve that. If I need the Minister’s help and support on that, I know he is a good man and that he will give it.

We have already mentioned the RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie; when I have raised this matter with him, he has picked up the telephone within minutes. He knows how important the Bailey is as one of the most famous vessels in RNLI history, and what it means to the people of Cromer. To reiterate, we will do everything we can to make sure that that priceless artefact is looked after properly in the place where its home should be.

I cannot mention every single lifeboat up and down my coast because that would take far too long, but we are incredibly well served; Wells, Sheringham, Cromer, Mundesley and Happisburgh all have a provision. I know that list seems like a picture postcard of “Book your trip to north Norfolk this summer”.

In the last year, Wells has had a new £2.5 million, 42-foot Duke of Edinburgh delivered, and I was privileged enough to see it brought out of its also brand-new multimillion-pound boathouse just last year. It is phenomenal, and it is now operational. Sheringham needs absolutely no introduction. Already this year we have had the now world-famous Sheringham Shantymen sing to us at a wonderful gala dinner, raising money for the RNLI station there; they do incredible amounts around my community. Furthermore, there is of course Cromer, which I will not mention again. All of those places are synonymous with lifeboat history.

To finish, we have talked a lot about the RNLI crews and the amazing work they do, but I just want to mention the people who are often the unsung heroes—rather gloriously not referred to as the admin staff behind the scenes. They are not necessarily the backbone going out on the vessels, but they are the people who make the whole organisation tick. If we did not have those people rattling buckets on the high streets and running the RNLI shops, the entire organisation would not function. I therefore pay tribute to all of the volunteers; not just those on the vessels, but those behind the scenes as well. They are absolutely just as important as the heroic men and women who risk their lives to save other people’s lives. I would not get away without saying that, because my stepmother works in one of those businesses.

10:17
Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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Bore da, Mrs Harris. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this important debate on the bicentenary of the RNLI.

My island constituency of Yns Môn has seen lives lost at sea for centuries, and many of our lifeboat stations began life as private community initiatives in response to such events. Improvements in technology have now superseded those smaller lifeboat operations in communities like Penmon, Cemlyn, Rhoscolyn, Cemaes, Bull bay and Rhosneigr.

During the 19th and 20th centuries there were 13 RNLI lifeboats on Anglesey. There are now four lifeboat stations—two with all-weather lifeboats at Moelfre and Holyhead, and two with inshore boats at Trearddur and Beaumaris. Between them, those four stations have given over 500 years of service and their brave volunteers have been awarded more than 100 RNLI medals for gallantry. Those volunteers include the late Moelfre coxswain, Richard Evans BEM. Dick served for 50 years and was involved in the saving of over 250 lives. He is only one of five men to be awarded the RNLI gold medal twice—the highest accolade awarded by the institution and the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for bravery at sea.

Most recently in 2022 the crew of the Trearddur bay lifeboat received medals for the rescue of a female surfer during gale-force 9 winds on 20 May 2021. Helmsman Lee Duncan received a silver medal, with Dafydd Griffiths, Leigh McCann and Michael Doran being awarded bronze medals for a rescue in a 50 mph storm, described as

“one of the finest acts of selflessness and courage of recent times”.

Earlier this year in the Holyhead RNLI station, full-time coxswain Tony Price announced his retirement from the role, although he will continue as a volunteer. In his time Tony has dealt with significant incidents, including saving the Christopher Pearce lifeboat when the Holyhead marina was destroyed in Storm Emma. Tony comes from a family with a long history of volunteering for the RNLI.

Just last week, the strong ties between the lifeboats and our community were clearly demonstrated when the demolition of the old Anglesey Aluminium chimney raised more than £10,000 for the Holyhead RNLI. The 120 metre high chimney, which dominated the landscape for 50 years, has been cleared to make way for Stena’s Prosperity Parc, a key part of the new Anglesey freeport. In just seven days, more than 900 tickets were purchased in the prize draw to press the demolition button. All the proceeds have gone to the Holyhead RNLI in memory of local lifeboatman Iwan Williams, who sadly passed away last year. Geraint Williams, who was originally from Aberffraw, won the winning ticket.

Last year, Anglesey singing sensation Ren Gill visited Beaumaris lifeboat station after raising more than £15,000 for the local RNLI in recognition of its work searching for his best friend Joe, to whom he dedicated his album “Freckled Angels”. This year, to celebrate the bicentenary, Holyhead Lifeboat is proud to be handing the 200-year commemorative baton on to Cemaes bay harbourmaster Dafydd Williams aboard the 1907 rowing and sailing lifeboat the Charles Henry Ashley. Dafydd will then hand the baton over to the Moelfre crew. Then, on 20 April, the Beaumaris RNLI will host a celebration black tie event at Canolfan Beaumaris, with music from Seindorf Beaumaris Band and Suspects and food provided by Gate House Catering.

I will close by saying that the RNLI is part of our island’s DNA. From Graham Drinkwater, who laid the foundations for Trearddur bay lifeboat station, to its chairman, Jack Abbott, who was awarded a Royal Humane Society testimonial for using his skills to rescue and resuscitate a drowning man in 2001, just weeks after undergoing open heart surgery, there are too many heroic events to relate and too many past and present RNLI volunteers on Anglesey to name here. To people like Osian Roberts and Arwel Owen, who man the lifeboats, to Phil Hen, with his brilliant photos, and Shirley Rogerson, who tirelessly fundraises, diolch yn fawr to you all and those like you across the United Kingdom for the over 146,000 lives you have saved over the past 200 years.

10:22
Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. It is always good to have some of these debates before recess. I wish all hon. Members, Clerks and everyone else a very good Easter when it comes.

When we mention the emergency services, most people would picture a vehicle used to protect people and save lives—an ambulance, a police car or a fire engine, say. That is what people see on a daily basis in urban communities such as mine. They might not immediately think of that fourth essential vehicle, the lifeboat.

The Glasgow South West constituency is on the south bank of the Clyde. Travelling downstream from there, we have the lifeboat stations of Helensburgh, in the Firth of Clyde, and then others at Largs and Troon on the Clyde coast. People from Glasgow South West have been going “doon the watter” for most of the time that the RNLI has existed, and many will have benefited greatly from its rescue service in that time. For those staying in the city and not making that exotic journey to the Costa Clyde, there has often been the temptation to spend time near the River Clyde itself—an activity that can be quite hazardous. For that reason, the Glasgow Humane Society has long had a base upstream at Glasgow Green from which it performs lifesaving services in the Clyde and other local waterways.

For 40 years, and until only recently, the Glasgow Humane Society was operated by Ben Parsonage, and then by his son, Dr George Parsonage MBE, who pulled thousands from the Clyde, saving many lives. But the society has a much longer history than that: it is the oldest practical lifesaving organisation in the world, having been founded in 1790. Countless Glaswegians have since owed their lives to the officers, volunteers and directors. Admittedly, the society’s remit is local to the Glasgow area, but looking further afield, RNLI lifeboats in Scotland have launched 45,853 times, saving 11,878 lives. That means that over a quarter of all rescues in Scotland have resulted in a life saved.

Looking even further afield across these islands, a term most appropriate in this context, Members will know that the RNLI is reckoned to have saved a total of 146,277 lives. As a proportion of the population, the number of lives saved in Scotland is particularly high. This might not be a great surprise to those who have crossed the Minch or the Pentland Firth during a howling gale, or crossed to any other of Scotland’s 790 islands in weather that we would call, “A good day for a washin’,” or “A good drying day.”

It is easy, as I have done, to make light of the dangers of such journeys, but there is a much more serious edge to it. In defining bravery, a common example is ordinary people running away from burning buildings while firefighters run into them. It is the same with lifeboat crews, who choose to launch and enter the tempest while others would be rushing for safe havens. What makes this behaviour even more remarkable is that those carrying out such feats of bravery are volunteers— all 32,000 of them. They do not expect a high-salary professional career; they do this out of principle and compassion.

That compassion is obvious, but let us look more closely at the principle of who the RNLI seeks to rescue. It is often said, half-jokingly, that in the United States of America, a hospital or ambulance will first check someone’s bank balance before checking their pulse. Fortunately, that is not the current policy in our national health service. In a similar vein, Mark Dowie, the chief executive of RNLI, has said:

“Right from the get-go in 1824, we said that the lifeboat service would rescue whoever needed our help wherever they are.”

“Whoever” and “wherever” therefore includes rescuing migrants in the English channel. Because of that humane work, disappointingly, Nigel Farage and others have described the RNLI as a “taxi service” for illegal migration. Let me make it clear that my colleagues and I utterly disassociate ourselves from such views.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)
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The hon. Gentleman is, I think, principally referring to the RNLI lifeboats at Dungeness and Littlestone, both in my constituency. There is a strong community support for the excellent work they have done, from rescuing British servicemen at Dunkirk in 1940 to the work they do today in the channel, keeping people safe whoever they are.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The hon. Gentleman is quite right to mention Dunkirk, as other hon. Members have. We should agree with Mark Dowie when he says:

“The day that the RNLI turns round to the coastguard and says: ‘I’m awfully sorry, can you tell me where these people are from?’ before they respond, that’s the end as far as I’m concerned.”

We should all associate ourselves with the chief executive’s words. It is therefore very heartening that following these smears and attempts to undermine it, the RNLI found itself on course for the highest annual fundraising total in its near 200-year history.

Much has changed here over the centuries. Both the smaller Glasgow Humane Society and the larger RNLI have added the roles of being advisory and educational bodies. Progressing from its original purpose in 1824 of aiding ships in distress around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, the RNLI now identifies swimmers, paddleboarders, fishing crews, and small boats in the channel as making up the bulk of callouts today. As the RNLI puts it:

“We were all about lifeboats and we’re now about life saving.”

We in Scotland have a strong working relationship with the RNLI, which provides joint safety training alongside the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland. We have a drowning prevention strategy, which aims to reduce accidental drowning fatalities by 50% by 2026. Co-operation between the bodies, including the RNLI, is vital to achieving this. Unsurprisingly, the steering group of Water Safety Scotland consists of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Police Scotland and the RNLI. We in Scotland take this opportunity to thank the RNLI for the vital public service it carries out, and we wish it well for the future and the next 200 years.

10:29
Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Harris, and a happy Easter to everybody. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate, and thank all Members who have spoken about the brilliant work the RNLI and its volunteers do around our coasts. I make a special reference to the stepmother of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) for her volunteering.

I associate myself strongly with the comments from the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) about the importance of rescuing everybody at sea, in particular people on small boats in the English channel. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) reminded us of just how dangerous it was 200 years ago and less, and how many gave their lives to rescue others. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) talked about the importance of water safety on inland waterways. Those are important additions to the debate.

The RNLI mission statement says it all. The RNLI is committed to and focused on the purpose for which it was created 200 years ago: to save lives at sea. Founded in 1824 as the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Lives and Property from Shipwreck, it was 30 years later, in 1854, that it was officially named the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—the RNLI, as we all know it today.

We all think of it as the fourth emergency service, after the police, fire and ambulance services, so it is remarkable that 97% of its frontline staff are volunteers and that it is funded by charitable donations. As a charity independent of Government, its volunteer lifesavers give their time for free, but they need training, well-maintained equipment, lifeboats and shore facilities, and part of the donations received fund those things. Almost 6,000 volunteer lifeboat crew members are stationed around the UK and Ireland, and they are ready, when the call is received, to spring into action to save the lives of those in danger at sea.

Since its launch, the RNLI has saved the lives of 4,356 people across the north-west and 146,000 people across the UK and Ireland. It works tirelessly in my constituency: in 2022 alone it saved five lives, responded to nearly 200 incidents and aided 1,000 people across the boroughs of Sefton and Wirral. I am proud to say that Crosby beach, which is in my constituency, is the only British beach that is patrolled by the RNLI all year round.

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson
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It is great.

In Southport cemetery, just outside my constituency, there is a monument to the 27 lives lost in the Mexico disaster, which happened almost 140 years ago. The rescue remains the worst loss of crew in a single incident in the history of the RNLI, and was viewed as a national disaster across Victorian Britain. The Mexico, a huge wooden ship, left Liverpool on 5 December 1866, bound for Ecuador. She was caught in a violent gale, and amid heavy seas she ran aground on the perilous sandbanks of the Ribble estuary. The rescue effort saw the biggest loss of crew in a single incident in the history of the RNLI, leaving 16 widows and 50 children without their fathers in Southport and St Anne’s. It was a stark reminder then of the real risks such brave people undertook, and it is a reminder today of the dangers every time they are called into action.

The RNLI’s work is not just about reacting when things go wrong; it plays a huge part in keeping our communities safe and reducing the need for search and rescue. That is done in a variety of ways, including street stalls and classroom visits to educate and advise on the dangers of water. In 2021, the RNLI’s water safety teams reached more than 27 million people with essential messaging, which undoubtedly saves more lives and keeps families together. Those services are vital. There are 238 lifeboat stations up and down the land and an active fleet of 431 lifeboats, ranging from large, all-weather lifeboats to smaller inshore vessels. We cannot overstate the impact and importance of the RNLI’s work.

The RNLI will go to the aid of anyone in trouble at sea, as the lifesaving charity has for 200 years. It does so without judgment or preference. In south-east England, it is currently engaged in a significant level of work in the channel, as a result of the large number of people crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in small, overcrowded, unsafe boats. All too often, those crossings end with disastrous, fatal consequences. The RNLI launched to rescue 290 times in the English channel in 2022. That was 3% of all RNLI lifeboat launches that year.

The stories of desperate people crossing the English channel to reach the UK often dominate news and social media. Of course, we cannot know the experiences, backgrounds and personal stories of every person trying to arrive in this way, but it is clear that many of them intend to, and do, claim asylum here. Labour will crack down on criminal smuggler gangs by introducing stronger powers for the UK’s National Crime Agency to restrict the movement of those suspected of involvement in people smuggling. We will set up a new cross-border police unit with officers based in the UK and across Europe to tackle gangs, because if we want to reduce the number of people in need of rescue in the channel, it must make sense to cut the supply of boats by the criminal gangs. Our plans will reduce the numbers of people making the desperately dangerous crossing of the channel in small boats.

RNLI crews are asked by His Majesty’s coastguard to assist anyone who is in trouble on or in the water in the UK. They will go to the aid of anyone in danger when asked to do so, as they have been doing for 200 years, without asking who they are or where they come from. They respond in extremely demanding search-and-rescue environments with continued dedication and commitment. In any rescue, their priority is to ensure that casualties are treated with skill, care, dignity and respect and are brought to safety as quickly as possible. RNLI crews then pass over responsibility for those rescued to the most appropriate agency. That might be the ambulance service, the police or Border Force.

It was fantastic to see lifeboats on the River Mersey near my own constituency to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the RNLI. We should be incredibly proud of the crews, who continue to respond selflessly to their pagers day or night simply to help others. I pay tribute to them all here today, and also to everyone who plays a part in fundraising—rattling buckets or making donations—for this vital, life-saving charity.

10:37
Anthony Browne Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Anthony Browne)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris, and I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this very moving and important debate. He spoke very eloquently of the work that the RNLI has done over the centuries. I know he has been a long-term champion of the RNLI and has dedicated a lot of his time in Parliament to supporting and helping it. I enjoyed many elements of his speech, including the gold teeth and the vintage Ferraris that have been donated, but most importantly the tales of tragedy and heroism that he mentioned, particularly the tale of the Salcombe lifeboats in which 13 out of 15 died. That is absolutely devastating.

I am very pleased to see so many contributions from across the entire United Kingdom. I notice that we have contributions from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and from the south coast to the north coast of England. We even had a contribution from inland, which just shows how important the RNLI is to everyone across the UK—I say that as somebody who also represents a landlocked constituency.

I am delighted to be able to offer the Government’s congratulations to the RNLI on the momentous occasion of its 200th anniversary. I am sure that Members from across the House will want to join me in thanking the RNLI, its volunteers, fundraisers and supporters for their amazing contribution to the saving of lives over the past two centuries. Through the courageous and dedicated actions of RNLI volunteers, more than 144,000 lives have been saved over the past 200 years. That works out as 700 lives per year—almost exactly two lives for every single day of the past 200 years. That really is quite a phenomenal achievement.

Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins
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Does the Minister agree that we should also be thankful for the on-land volunteers who support the RNLI, including Judith Richardson in my constituency, who has given more than 50 years’ service? She was one of the last of the “lady launchers” who, until 1977, used to help to drag the boat physically out to the sea.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne
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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work that the RNLI does not just coastally, but inland, as he says. I know that the remit of the RNLI has expanded over time.

The RNLI has launched more than 380,000 times in the past two centuries, showing amazing dedication and commitment. Last year alone, RNLI lifeboats launched more than 9,000 times in one year, aiding more than 10,500 people and saving 269 lives. In addition, RNLI lifeguards carried out almost 3 million preventive actions and attended more than 14,000 incidents, aiding 20,000 people and saving another 86 lives. It is testament to the commitment and skills of the RNLI and our lifeboat volunteers that the UK has one of the finest lifeboat services in the world, which continues to uphold the finest traditions and values of the RNLI as proudly today as it did 200 years ago.

I will briefly remind the House of the history of the RNLI and its contributions to our society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes touched on. The founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary, was so appalled by the loss of life at sea that he set about creating an institution dedicated to the preservation of human life from shipwreck. He initially went to the Government to appeal for support, but the Government of the day, in their wisdom—or lack of it—said no. He was forced to go to other supporters and philanthropists and managed rapidly to get support, which helped to launch the institution we see today. It is notable that all the fundraising over the past 200 years, which reached a record last year, is really a consequence of that initial Government decision to say no. The RNLI might have ended up a very different organisation if the initial Government decision had been different.

It was the drive and dedication of Sir William that led to the institution that we know today. He laid out 12 resolutions that formed the foundation of the RNLI and that still stand firm today, remaining part of the RNLI charter 200 years on. The RNLI has grown extraordinarily over the past 200 years. It now has an income of more than £200 million, more than 2,000 staff and more than 30,000 volunteers. I pay tribute to the visionary founders of the RNLI for their leadership and support over the years. The continuing dedication of the RNLI to saving lives at sea and its volunteer ethos remains a cherished cornerstone of British society.

I put on record our tribute to the brave volunteers of the RNLI who risk their own lives to save others at sea and around our coastline. It is in large part due to their personal commitment and skill that the UK has one of the best records for water safety in the world. I also pay tribute to the families of our search and rescue volunteers. They are often forgotten, but without their never-ending support, our volunteer services would not be able to continue their vital life-saving operations.

I pay particular tribute, as other hon. Members present have, to the brave RNLI volunteers who have lost their lives while trying to save others over the past 200 years: more than 600 volunteers have lost their lives, and 2,500 medals have been awarded for bravery. I know many Members will be aware of the tragic loss of lifeboat volunteers from their constituencies over the past two centuries—we have heard various examples of that this morning. The loss of every RNLI volunteer is keenly felt across a local community, impacting friends and family. Local memorials remain a reminder of the sacrifices of the RNLI crews who have been lost. As part of this bicentenary anniversary, local services and events are planned to commemorate RNLI volunteers throughout its illustrious history.

I will turn to some of the comments that have been made in what has been a very moving debate this morning. We have heard many extraordinary stories of tragedy and heroism, among various other issues that have been raised. I was touched by the story of the Traveller, raised by the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), where eight out of 10 people died. The hon. Lady spoke movingly of the impact on the local community of Hoylake. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) paid tribute to the wider work that the RNLI does, particularly with safety and support in the community. He mentioned that when he goes on his Boxing day walks, it is good to see the boats out there.

The landlocked hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) asked whether the RNLI could help out with inland rescue. While search and rescue is the responsibility of the police, he makes a valid point, and I completely understand the importance of trying to learn lessons from the RNLI to help to improve search and rescue inland. He made a point about local people in boats and boatyards, and whether they can be called on to help, and I will absolutely take that away to see if anything can be done to improve that.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) paid tribute to the work of the RNLI in Northern Ireland, where it has 10 lifeboat stations. He raised a question about Government support, which makes up only 1% of its total funding, and questioned that. The RNLI is obviously independent of Government—very proudly so; if Government funding increased, there might be a risk that it would end up being more Government-controlled.

His Majesty’s Coastguard, some representatives of which are here now, works closely with the RNLI; calls come through to the coastguard and it works out whether it needs a helicopter, which is run by the coastguard, or whether the case should be handed over to the RNLI. I understand that that relationship works very well. The RNLI is very proudly independent of Government: it does not take instructions from Government and it decides its own operations, and I would not want to compromise that.

I pay tribute to the stepmother of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and her work for the RNLI. My hon. Friend also mentioned the extraordinary case of Henry Blogg, who was involved in saving 873 lives over 53 years—a quite extraordinary achievement. I was sad to learn what is happening to his ship, the Bailey. That is fundamentally an issue for the local authorities in my hon. Friend’s area, but if he wants my support in any way I will be happy to do what I can to help save the Bailey.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) talked about the fundraising achievements of the RNLI in her constituency and in particular the Anglesey aluminium chimney demolition, which raised over £10,000 in one go. It must have been fun pressing that button and seeing it go down!

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), paid tribute to the RNLI, but also raised the issue of migrants in the channel. I put on the record that my position and that of the Government is exactly the same: the RNLI cannot ask people whether they have a visa before deciding to rescue them, and it is absolutely right that it rescues everyone who needs rescuing. That is very much the Government’s position.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), whose contribution added a slightly different tone to the conversation, has been in dispute with the RNLI over the allocation of resources and a bequest. I am told by the RNLI that the chief executive and the regional lifeboat manager have responded to my right hon. Friend’s questions directly on a number of occasions, and that the Charity Commission has responded to her complaints about the use of bequests but has advised that it is satisfied with how the RNLI has handled the legacy funding.

My right hon. Friend did recognise that the RNLI is, as I said earlier, independent from Government. This is not a dispute that the Government can get involved in. The RNLI is independent: it decides the distribution of its assets. I am advised that the RNLI generally does a really good job at working out the best allocations of assets to make sure that it is most effective at lifesaving, and it would be inappropriate for me as a Minister or for the Government to intervene to influence the independent decisions of the charity.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have not asked the Government to intervene. I appreciate the extraordinary work that the RNLI does, as I highlighted in my contribution. There was a particular recent incident that I thought needed to be raised. Frankly, before anybody seeks to insult me about representing my constituents, they should remind themselves they are insulting those constituents. I am not asking in any way for the Government to intervene— I never have. It is right that the RNLI continues to be a thriving institution after 200 years; I wish it at least 200 years more.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend has made her point well; we agree about the issue of independence.

In conclusion, as we have heard, the RNLI’s achievements over the past 200 years have been absolutely exceptional. Since its foundation in 1824, not a single year has passed without outstanding rescues and courageous and selfless acts. Advancements in life-saving assets and innovation to support its lifesavers through busy summers, wild winters, wars and pandemics have been at the core of everything that the RNLI has achieved. I invite Members to join me in thanking the RNLI for its support and dedication over the past 200 years. I wish it well as it seeks to inspire and engage a new generation of supporters, volunteers and fundraisers, and as it works towards securing life-saving services for the next 200 years.

10:49
Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If for no other reason, we can all rest easy: by frequently referencing the great work done by the stepmother of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), we have made his Sunday family gatherings that much easier.

In this tremendous debate, we have celebrated the magnificence of the RNLI’s 200 years and the extraordinary work it has done across the country. If you had been speaking in this debate, Mrs Harris, I know that you would have mentioned the fantastic work done by Mumbles lifeboat station in Swansea. I am pleased to put that on the record.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for North Norfolk and for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) and the hon. Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for their extraordinarily kind words about an organisation that deserves far greater recognition and all the support we can give it for the next 200 years.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I add my congratulations to the stepmother of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker).

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the bicentenary of the RNLI.

10:51
Sitting suspended.

People Granted Asylum: Government Support

Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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10:59
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for people recently granted asylum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mrs Harris. I refer everyone to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that I receive support in my office from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project.

When an individual receives a grant of refugee status, it is a moment of unspeakable relief, even of celebration, as they finally have assurance of protection and knowledge that the next part of their life will be in the UK—after great tribulation and tragedy, they have safety and security. Refugees go through monumental struggles to reach that point, but it is only one part of their journey to rebuilding their life here in the United Kingdom.

It is very clear, particularly from what we have seen over the past year, that improvements have to be made to enable refugees to build fulfilling lives here and to use and develop the skills that they bring. To be genuinely welcoming to genuine refugees makes sense economically and for the health of our communities. It fulfils our international obligations as well as being a clear moral obligation.

To welcome refugees is not to give them preferential treatment over others, but to ensure that they do not have to overcome unnecessary barriers as they seek to get on with their lives—indeed, to start a new life—and contribute to our society.

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

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate on a very important subject. I am pleased to the see the Minister in his place; I know he will do his utmost, as he always does, to respond. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who arrive here not illegally in boats, but having gone through a very selective process and been granted asylum, should be given aid and support to begin their new life? The first step must be to help them integrate into British communities and our way of life.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes. I will refer to that later, but we know that the large majority of those who present themselves and seek asylum in this country, however they arrive, whether through regular or irregular means, turn out to be genuine refugees. We seem to be failing them and ourselves as a society if we do not commit to helping them to integrate, even before they receive official status.

Over the past year, we have seen an increase in the number of decisions on asylum applications because of the Prime Minister’s focus on trying to clear the backlog of legacy cases. I welcome that, because people should not be waiting for years for a decision on their asylum case. Accurate and timely decision making should be a hallmark of an effective asylum system. Indeed, it would be the best deterrent against those who are not genuine refugees seeking asylum here. Yet, of course, the backlog is still huge. In excess of 100,000 people are waiting in limbo, which is unfair on them and hugely expensive for the taxpayer.

We should be clear that the increase in newly recognised refugees this year is not because of an increase in people arriving by small boats or any other means, but because the Government are playing catch-up, having inexcusably allowed that backlog of human misery to build up in the first place. With more people being granted refugee status, there has been significantly more pressure on the part of the system dealing with those who move on from asylum support to refugee status, in what is often referred to as the “move-on period”.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. Since April 2023, there has been a 575% increase in the number of people who have presented to Manchester City Council as homeless due to eviction from Serco accommodation. Those people come not just from Greater Manchester, but from as far away as Belfast. Does he agree that we need more funding and support from the Home Office for all local authorities that are supporting people who have recently been granted asylum?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Local authorities end up picking up the tab. I will refer to this later, but, as the Home Office seeks to reduce its expenditure, it ends up passing the buck to another part of the public sector. The same taxpayers are paying the bill, yet we have misery for the people at the wrong end of that.

The period from the point at which someone is given their status—a happy moment—to the point when they lose asylum support, which is referred to as the “move-on period” by those of who us are interested in this area and those who work in the sector, has exposed policy failings that have existed for years. The problem that those working in communities with refugees see is practice not mirroring policy, as well as policy simply not working.

Currently there is a 28-day move-on period from when a person receives their grant of refugee status until their asylum support ceases. Although their asylum support is a miserly £7 a day, which is meant to cover food, clothing, communications and travel, £7 a day is still better than the absolutely nothing at all that they face at the end of the move-on period. The move-on period is supposed to enable transition either into work or, if needed for a while, on to mainstream benefits. However, it takes 35 days to receive the first universal credit payment, so it is obvious that a gap in support is created.

Across the UK, local authorities and charities do what they can to support refugees who have fallen through that predictable gap, where they have zero income and no accommodation, but it is hardly a surprise that many end up sleeping on the streets, homeless and destitute. That was exacerbated over the second half of last year when the Home Office started to calculate the 28 days from the date of the asylum decision letter rather than the date of issuance of the biometric residence permit, which is usually received at a later date and, critically, is needed to apply for universal credit. That reduced the already inadequate 28-day move-on period to fewer than 20 days in practice.

It is quite astounding that the Home Office took that decision at the time it did. Given the Government’s attempts to clear the backlog, we faced a situation where many more refugees than normal were in the move-on period window, so, predictably, that decision created far more hardship for far more people. It appears there was minimal consultation with local authorities and charities, which were inevitably going to have to pick up the pieces.

The reality on the ground has been and continues to be terrible. We have heard some terrifying statistics from Manchester. Data from the Centre for Homelessness Impact indicates that street homelessness among those leaving asylum housing increased by 223% from June to September last year when the backlog clearance programme began. During that period in Leicester, British Red Cross staff and volunteers were giving out between three and five sleeping bags every day to people who were about to become homeless.

Statutory homelessness statistics published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities show an increase of 203.8% in the number of households owed a relief duty after being required to leave asylum accommodation between July and September last year, when compared with the same quarter the year before. Again, that corresponds with the backlog clearance programme.

Data from the British Red Cross refugee support services across the UK show that between the beginning of August last year and 15 March this year—a couple of weeks ago—there was a 202% increase in the number of clients with refugee status experiencing destitution, when compared with the same period a year earlier. At the end of 2023, Home Office operational guidance changed back and the calculation of the move-on period reverted to beginning with the receipt of the biometric residence permit. That was a welcome U-turn, but despite that change, destitution and homelessness among refugees continues to be a huge issue in 2024.

The British Red Cross reports that so far this year there has been a 205% increase in the number of new clients with refugee status in need of its support due to destitution. In that period, it has provided 75 sleeping bags to people who have been granted refugee status following the most traumatic of experiences, which most of us can barely even imagine. A survey organised by a cross-party group in London found that 311 refugees were forced to sleep rough after eviction from Home Office accommodation in January this year alone. That marks an increase of 234% compared with September the previous year. In total, 1,087 refugees approached London homelessness services for help in January following Home Office evictions—a rise of 78% in the four months since September.

This is utterly disgraceful. It is heartbreaking and it is genuinely shameful—shameful in the sense that it makes me ashamed. We are the United Kingdom. We are a country that, by the grace of God, is wealthy, stable, free and peaceful. Like similar countries, we are in a position to help provide sanctuary for those who have fled the horrors of war and persecution.

We take fewer asylum seekers per head in the UK than two thirds of other European countries, but those asylum seekers who make it to Britain, present themselves and claim asylum then hear witless rhetoric demonising them. They are stuck in hostels of one kind or another and face extreme right-wing protestors leafleting and chanting outside their residence. They wait months and months for a decision and then most of them turn out to be genuine refugees, despite the garbage written and spoken by people who should know better. Finally, they are able to move on from the trauma of their past to begin a new life, put down roots and contribute to our economy and our society, only instead, we choose, through malice or incompetence, to visit upon them more hardship. What a wicked thing it is to do to grant refugee status to a traumatised person one day and then dump them on the street with a sleeping bag the next. I am ashamed of that, and I really hope that the Minister is ashamed of that.

This is an appalling breakdown in policy. It cannot be right that street homelessness is a necessary part of the transition for newly recognised refugees. Yes, there will be more people in the move-on period at this time because of the ambition to clear the legacy backlog, but that does not make it right. Outrageously, it suggests that an acceptance of street homelessness is built into this policy.

Local authorities need 56 days to work with households at risk of homelessness—that is not merely my opinion, but the official and considered view of Parliament and Government, recognised through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—so why do refugees get only 28 days? Why is there a discrepancy in how we treat different kinds of people facing homelessness in the UK? I am aware that there will be a desire to reduce asylum support costs, but costs need to be considered from a cross-departmental perspective.

Making people destitute does not save the taxpayer a penny; it quite clearly costs them a lot more—as well as, of course, being utterly and totally shameful. Local authorities and emergency services will end up picking up the tab and it obviously causes distress and hardship for those refugees affected. These are not conditions conducive to looking for work, to education and training, or to people rebuilding their lives in the UK and becoming part of and contributing towards our society.

Will the Minister commit to reviewing whether the refugee move-on period should be extended to 56 days to ensure compatibility with the Homelessness Reduction Act, to allow people time to apply and receive their first universal credit payment, and to give local authorities a reasonable shot at trying to accommodate those in priority need? It is particularly important for refugees who have fewer connections and therefore less ability to lean on any family and friends. Will he also confirm that the 28 days will continue to be calculated from the issuing of the biometric residence permit, rather than from the date of the asylum decision letter?

Given the challenges experienced this year with refugee homelessness, will there be a review of the local impact of the asylum backlog clearance, including on DLUHC’s priorities around homelessness? When will the lessons learned from the Home Office liaison officers pilot in three council areas be rolled out more widely? Will there be a review of the support that Migrant Help is required to offer refugees during the move-on period? Will there be consideration of face-to-face support for refugees as they navigate that period?

Many refugees will not qualify for local authority housing and they face a range of barriers in accessing private rented accommodation, including the difficulty of providing a guarantor with the lack of established social networks, and the cost of rental deposits and advanced rent payments even if an individual can afford the monthly rent. What are the Government doing to improve access to the private rented sector for refugees? How is best practice being shared?

A refugee’s ability to thrive in the UK alongside existing communities is deeply connected to their experience and treatment while they are in the asylum process. The most obvious example is finding work. If an asylum seeker is able to work, they will be in a much stronger position to find work as a refugee. They will have maintained skills, built local connections and gained confidence from being able to work. Living in a period of limbo for months or years in substandard accommodation, separated from local communities, makes it much harder for them to rebuild their lives and integrate once they get refugee status.

We are an outlier among comparable countries in not permitting asylum seekers to work. There is no evidence that it creates a pull factor in those countries and, significantly, it does not make sense to keep people idle against their will and then suddenly expect them to have everything they need to thrive once they get legal status.

I refer the Minister to the report recently published by the Commission on the Integration of Refugees, which draws on wide-ranging evidence from civil society, local government and refugees themselves to form recommendations supported by commissioners from across the political spectrum. The recommendations include extending the move-on period to 56 days and giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months. I ask the Minister to consider those practical solutions for the refugee move-on period, which reflect the wider need for a cross-departmental national strategy for refugee integration incorporating input from local authorities, the voluntary sector and those with lived experience.

Shall we just imagine what it must be like to have to come to the UK as a refugee? Maybe you fled Eritrea rather than be conscripted to butcher your own people, or you fled Iran because you were persecuted for being a Christian, or you fled Syria because of the barbarous Putin-puppet Assad. Your journey might have been through the lawlessness of Libya and over terrifying bodies of water. You might have been living through appalling hardship in terror, barely existing, losing loved ones on the journey to seek sanctuary.

Ninety-nine per cent of people like you will be heading somewhere else—Lebanon, Turkey, Germany—but you are heading for Britian because of family, because you speak English, because of the legacy of empire, or because you have heard that it is a decent, civilised and safe place. You make it there and you sit and rot for months because of the backlog. You get the growing sense that you are not welcome and that you are disbelieved, because you can read the headlines and the online abuse. But then you get your status. Britian accepts you. It believes your story—your true story. You are now ready to dedicate to your new home in Britain, having finally made it here, the skills and tenacity you demonstrated as you fled your horror. But then you are sat huddled in a shop doorway, freezing, wet, hungry and scared, with nothing—no home, no money. And you came here because Britain is better than that.

Minister, I challenge you to make the changes that I have set out today, and make Britain better than that.

11:17
Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Minister for Countering Illegal Migration (Michael Tomlinson)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris, and to respond to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron); I congratulate him on securing this debate. I also welcome the interventions by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and the ever-present hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He always makes meaningful contributions to these debates, as did the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton.

I will start by challenging the tone of the remarks from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. He started well, by rightly acknowledging that this is a welcoming country, and I agree: it is welcoming and generous. He will know that one of the challenges of my job relates to illegal migration. One reason why I am passionate about this role is that to ensure that we remain generous as a country and to ensure that all our constituents recognise the need for us to continue to be welcoming, we must crack down on illegal migration. However, that is not the subject of today’s debate.

Let me make it clear that when someone is granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, they are not simply left to fend for themselves. In the hon. Gentleman’s words, that would not be in keeping with the values of our country—the values that we share—and it would be at odds with our long tradition of welcoming and helping people who have fled tyranny, oppression or persecution.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the asylum backlog, and I join him in welcoming the Prime Minister’s commitment to clearing the legacy asylum backlog. That has been delivered, with 74,000 initial decisions made. I know that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that and recognises it as important, as do I. At the time, however, the Prime Minister made sure that the backlog cannot be cleared at the expense of our security and necessary detailed background checks, as I know the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge. We have taken steps to speed up asylum processing while maintaining the important integrity of our security at the border.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the move-on period, and it is important to understand the context when we look at that. He is right that following the service of an asylum decision, an individual continues to be an asylum seeker for the purpose of asylum support until the end of the prescribed period. That period is 28 calendar days from when an individual is notified of a decision to accept their asylum claim and grant them leave.

Let me tackle directly the hon. Gentleman’s challenge about extending the prescribed period to 56 days. There are no current plans to do that, but I hope to reassure him in my next few sentences about what is happening, some of which he has already touched on. Although 28 days is the legislative period, in practice, support extends beyond that time. Measures are in place to ensure that an individual granted asylum can remain on asylum support and in accommodation, so individuals already have longer than 28 days.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the point at which the 28 days begin. He is right that the process was temporarily amended in August to use the date of service, in line with secondary legislation. As he knows, a decision was made to pause that in September, and consideration of that practice is ongoing. I take his points on board and I will consider them alongside that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned homelessness and move-on support. Of course, the Home Office is aware of the potential challenges that newly recognised refugees can face. He was right to highlight homelessness, as was the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. There is support available. For example, move-on support is granted through Migrant Help and its partner organisations. That includes providing advice on accessing the labour market—I will come back to the point from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about accessing the labour market more widely—and applying for universal credit, as well as signposting to local authorities for assistance with housing.

On housing, it is recognised that the number of individuals moving on from asylum support is placing pressure on local authorities, as was implicit in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He noted that the clearance of the backlog may have something to do with that, but it is right that the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are working closely together on that and regularly engaging with local authorities to ensure that they are supported. Following the notification of an asylum decision being made, we expect accommodation providers to notify local authorities within two working days, and we are working with providers to ensure that that practice is applied consistently across all areas.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister touched on the difficulties with moving on. The difficulty seems to be that there is no proper co-ordination when people are actually granted asylum, and then they move. I gave the figure of the more than 500% increase in Manchester. Considering the difficulties that we already have with housing shortages, perhaps better co-ordination and asking those who have been granted asylum where they would like to move to would help local authorities.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive point. He is right that co-ordination in this area is important, as it is in any area of Government business. That is why my point about the Home Office working closely with DLUHC is so important. Also, I just made a point about notifying local authorities within two working days, and that is part of the better working relationship that is needed. That is happening on the ground, but I take on board his point that that there need to be good working relationships between Departments.

I will briefly mention biometric residence permits, because they are important in obtaining onward support and allowing newly recognised refugees to integrate and establish themselves. It is right that there have been concerns about this, but a dedicated support function is in place, which will help to address any issues with the BRP process at speed and ensure that there are improvements right across the system. That perhaps also addresses the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale closed with the important subject of the right to work. I disagree with him on the pull factors. Unrestricted access to employment could act as an incentive for more migrants to choose to come here illegally. Only last week, there was an exchange in the Chamber on this subject when we debated the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. The provision about asylum seekers’ right to work was also debated during the Committee stage of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, when an amendment was tabled to that effect. We do not want to encourage the pull factor of employment.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate the Minister’s response, and I am not surprised by it. He will know that many of his Conservative colleagues agree with me. To put it bluntly, there is a very good right-wing and left-wing argument for this to happen. First of all, there is absolutely no evidence from any comparable country that employment creates a pull factor. As well as the moral argument that allowing people to work in order to integrate is good for them when they remain as refugees, as most of them will, it also saves the taxpayer a fortune to allow people to earn a living—and my goodness, we have a massive workforce crisis in our neck of the woods, with massively too small a workforce to be able to sustain our economy—because they then have the opportunity to contribute to the cost of the system and to pay for their own. Surely the fiscal Conservative within the Minister should want to say yes to that.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

These debates have happened, including recently, during the passage of the 2022 Act, where a specific amendment was tabled to that effect. The hon. Member is right that we disagree on this issue. There is no permission to work unless—this is the caveat—someone’s asylum claim has been outstanding for 12 months or more through no fault of their own. He knows that about the system, but on his point, we do encourage asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their claim to undertake volunteering activities, for example, so long as it does not amount to unpaid work or a job substitution.

I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for securing this debate; he is right that this is an important issue. We have debated many of these subjects either directly, in relation to the 2022 Act, or tangentially, in relation to the more recent Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. None the less, they are important, and this short debate has given us the opportunity to exchange ideas and differing views. Perhaps ultimately, we can all agree that the aim should be for people who have been granted sanctuary in the United Kingdom to be led on a path to a happy and rewarding life here, because that is not only in their interests, but in all of our interests as well.

Question put and agreed to.

11:29
Sitting suspended.

Cavity Wall Insulation

Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]
14:30
Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of cavity wall insulation under Government grants.

I start by thanking you, Mrs Latham, for chairing this important debate. What a pleasure it is to see you.

The problem I am going to outline starts with Government grants for cavity wall insulation schemes, but I wish it ended there. Sadly, it doesn’t. I am grateful to the Minister for her time last week: I had the opportunity to brief her on the scale and nature of the problem, which I can only describe as a scandal upon a scandal. I also want to thank The Yorkshire Post, God’s own newspaper; its editor, James Mitchinson; and the deputy business editor, Greg Wright. They recognised the agony of ordinary people in what is a complicated legal mess and have worked hard to unravel it and tell those stories, and I am truly grateful to them for their diligence and painstaking work in shining a spotlight on this situation.

I am working with 20 constituents in my Halifax constituency who have all been affected. However, figures quoted by the BBC indicate that up to 1,400 people may have been impacted. More and more MPs are taking to the Chamber and writing to Government Ministers with their concerns and their local cases. Most of the cases I am working on follow a similar pattern. People had a knock on the door in around 2015 or 2016 and were asked whether they would like cavity wall insulation. They were assured that it would not cost them a penny because it was a Government-funded scheme. They were told it would be better for the environment, help them to reduce their energy bills and save them money. Most of the people who had the knock on the door were eligible for the scheme on the basis that they were in receipt of some form of welfare support, so the prospect of saving money on energy bills was an attractive one.

Yet months and years later, mould and damp started to affect properties where it had never been an issue before. In some cases, I have seen families become really quite unwell living in these conditions, and they could not understand what had changed so drastically in their homes. Years later, people had a second knock on the door from representatives of law firms, who often told them that they should not have had cavity wall insulation in the first place; that it has done damage to their homes that would cost thousands to fix; and, if they wanted the situation resolved, they should allow the law firm to take the insulators, many of which have since disappeared, to court on a no win, no fee basis. These cases were taken on by SSB Law, which corresponded with my constituents for some time until, just before Christmas of last year, these families and individuals received enforcement notices telling them they owed thousands of pounds in legal fees and that, if they did not pay them, bailiffs would be coming to their homes. One bill was for £18,000, one was for £32,000, and there were a range of amounts in between and beyond.

Bearing in mind that people were usually eligible for the Government-funded schemes on the basis that they were in receipt of some form of welfare support, these bills have devastated people who simply have no means of paying them. It is hard to overstate the impact that this has had on people’s lives. One of my constituents, Mr Zafar, is featured in the extensive coverage by The Yorkshire Post. His home was visited by a representative from a law firm in 2019. His wife was told that cavity wall insulation which had been installed a few years earlier was unlawful and potentially harmful to their children’s health. This representative persuaded Mr Zafar that they should take on the case on a no win, no fee basis. The case was subsequently transferred to SSB Law solicitors, who handled the case for nearly two years. Then, on 30 January 2023, Mr Zafar received a first enforcement letter demanding £2,973. He contacted SSB Law Solicitors and was assured via email that the payment had been made to the High Court bailiff. Despite this assurance, on 28 November 2023, he received another enforcement letter, this time for nearly £19,000. Distressed by this demand, he made inquiries and learned that SSB Law solicitors had gone into administration. He contacted Leeds High Court, requesting the suspension of the enforcement order. However, just a few days before Christmas last year, an enforcement agent visited his home while he was at work, leaving his wife terrified.

Mr Zafar said:

“I can’t work properly and me and my wife can’t sleep. The amount in the enforcement notice is always on my mind. Wherever I go, I have on my mind the fact that I must pay £19,000…My kids asked me, ‘Dad, have you done anything wrong? Why are you paying this amount? Are we going to end up homeless?’…I just want to release my family from this stressful and horrible situation.”

Another Halifax constituent, Mrs Battye, was told that cavity wall insulation would make her home more energy efficient, more environmentally friendly and would improve heating costs—as we all know, if it is done properly, that is all correct. However, in the following months, she started to notice damp and mould appearing in her front and back bedrooms—that was not a problem she had ever had before. Then in 2020, someone knocked on Mrs Battye’s door and asked whether there was any damp in the property. This man told her that the cavity wall insulation should never have been installed in the first place, and this had now caused extensive issues at her property. He stressed that it would be difficult and expensive for her to rectify, which she could not afford.

She said:

“He advised me to submit a claim for damage done to the property through a no-win, no-fee claim. I was assured I would not have to pay anything and this was the best way of rectifying the problem.”

Over the next four years, Mrs Battye received correspondence from SSB Law in relation to her case, but like the others, just before Christmas last year, she received a letter from High Court enforcement, informing her that she was liable to pay £32,000 to the defendant’s solicitor.

Mrs Battye lives alone and works for the NHS on what she describes as a modest salary. She said:

“I have no means to pay this money and I am worried about bailiffs coming to my house and getting a CCJ or a charging order on my property.”

Another constituent, who does not want to be named, said she had cavity wall insulation fitted—work in which she had confidence, on the basis that it was funded under a Government scheme. In the months that followed, she and her young son contracted pneumonia, living in a house with mould and damp—again, that was not a problem they had ever had before.

She said:

“I kept changing my wallpaper and house decorations to try to cover the mould…Because SSB Law was a big company, I believed they were definitely going to help us.”

On 5 December 2023, my constituent came home to find an enforcement letter at the back of the door. It said that she must pay more than £17,000, otherwise bailiffs would be dispatched to her home.

She said:

“It was just so shocking. My entire credit history had been damaged. My credit card has been suspended. For 10 days, I couldn’t sleep. I’d borrowed some money, I thought about selling my jewellery…It’s really hard for me. Every day, I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to be able to pay this money back?’ It’s affected my mortgage and affected my credit history. It’s affected my daily life.”

This lady was so terrified that she managed to borrow money to pay the debt she had no idea she was liable for, just to alleviate her fear of bailiffs coming to her home. However, she now worries every day how she will pay back that loan.

Mr Goodey, a constituent with a similar story, said:

“The amount of stress this has put myself and my family through is grossly unfair. I’ve since learnt that the construction and age of my property means it is unsuitable for expanding foam cavity filling and should never have been used in the first place. I’m a widowed 65-year-old who is due to retire this year with an 18-year-old son who will inherit the house eventually. I do not want him to inherit this problem.”

The Minister will see what a profound, life-changing impact this scandal has had, and is continuing to have, on people. The Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating SSB Law, which is welcome. In a letter to me, from 23 February, it confirmed:

“We are currently investigating to see if the SSB Group acted in accordance with our Standards and Regulations. This will include whether the firm properly assessed the merits of claims, whether your constituents were properly advised at the outset on potential liabilities arising from initiating litigation, even if this was on the basis of a ‘No Win, No Fee’ agreement.”

It said:

“We will also be looking at the handling of the files and the arrangements for after the event insurance, the failure of which appears to be the main reason why your constituents are facing the prospect of demands for costs.”

Crucially—and I really welcome this—the letter from the chief exec of the SRA states:

“After the event insurance has been around for several years and is frequently used in ‘No Win, No fee’ agreements. We are not aware of similar circumstances to those your constituents now face, being experienced on this scale before. As such, we will also be speaking to a number of organisations to explore whether the numbers of cases where the failure of after the event insurance is increasing, or whether there are any wider gaps in protection to consumers that need to be addressed, given the importance of such products to individuals pursuing civil redress.”

I really welcome this investigation, which I hope will be comprehensive in assessing what has gone so horribly wrong for so many people, but the SRA advises that it is expected to report in the autumn. While we have had some success in managing to get some of the enforcement notices paused, they hang over constituents like the sword of Damocles. I therefore ask the Minister to help move this to a permanent resolution.

As I acknowledged at the beginning of my contribution, this all starts with cavity wall insulation, but I am acutely aware that the scandal has grown tentacles into a number of Government Departments and policy areas. My first ask of the Minister is that she makes representations to her colleagues to see what else can be done to hold the insurers and law firms involved to account. I am afraid to say that the responses so far from Ministers at the Ministry of Justice have been less than useless. The SRA investigation is significant, and I am hopeful that it will expose what has failed so badly. I would urge the SRA to consider making recommendations to Government and the other relevant agencies, with a view to fixing whatever its findings deem so broken that it has had an impact on 1,400 people. I would ask the Minister to liaise with the SRA to provide any support that she can, so that if there is any way to accelerate the investigation that is made a reality. Given that the SRA might not be the right body to investigate why after-the- event insurers have failed in this scenario, I hope the Minister will also consider ways in which any further regulators or agencies could be instructed to investigate and made to understand the scale, seriousness and urgency of this situation.

Returning to the Minister’s brief, I have been reassured to some extent that oversight and regulation of cavity wall insulation—which is such a good thing when done well—has improved since the energy company obligation 1 and energy company obligation 2 schemes, having discussed this in some detail with experts. However, there are still many people out there who do not know where to turn with cavity wall insulation problems dating back to that period. That problem has been exploited by some of those agencies, leading to the problems we now have.

CIGA—the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency—issues guarantees for cavity wall insulation and has issued almost 6.2 million since 1995. It operates a scheme that puts right failures in materials or workmanship for a period of 25 years from the date of installation, and many of my affected constituents could have explored this as a first step in seeking advice and redress. CIGA, in its correspondence with me, stresses that often homeowners were actively told not to lodge a claim with the guarantee provider, who could take action to correct the problem under guarantee, but who instead made, in these cases, false promises of a pay-out in court.

One of the questions I asked on behalf of people with cavity wall insulation who received a knock on the door from someone representing a law firm, was where did that person get their intelligence so they knew where to knock? CIGA suggests that the claims solicitor model relied on farming a large number of potential claims using data accessed either through freedom of information requests from Ofgem, or under the guise of the Data Protection Act, in an attempt to access their own guarantee records. Having gained information on properties where insulation had been installed, unqualified assessors were sent out to encourage the homeowner to pursue a claim. In most cases, they inflated any potential damage or indeed alleged damage that simply did not exist, with the subsequent report signed off by unscrupulous chartered surveyors registered with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The Minister can see just how much all of this stinks.

I ask the Minister to undertake a review into the whole sorry mess. It is a scandal upon a scandal, which has affected these vulnerable people, up to 1,400 of them, who in some cases have chronic problems with damp and mould in their homes as a consequence of a Government-funded scheme. They were then preyed on by unscrupulous assessors and lawyers, falling through the cracks of regulation and mismanagement, and we find that the people who could least afford or least deserve it were picking up the bill, driving them into debt and despair. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

14:45
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for leading the debate. Things are different in Northern Ireland, and it is not the Minister’s responsibility to reply for Northern Ireland, but I wanted to come along to support the hon. Lady in her request for justice. Ultimately, that is what she is looking for: justice for her constituent. Hon. Members who speak after me will be seeking justice, too. The scheme was for England, Scotland and Wales—the Northern Ireland scheme is different—but I support the hon. Lady.

In my research for this speech, I read the background information, and today I have listened to the hon. Lady’s comments about the despair that some people feel. She referred to one lady who was unable to sleep for 10 nights, such was her trauma and concern. That level of concern was financial, ultimately, and she was presented with a huge bill. We have heard about figures of £17,000, £25,000 or £35,000, which indicate just how worrying the issue can be. People do not understand why they are in that position, because that was not what they signed up for.

The hon. Member for Halifax was right to set the scene. She described the financial ruin that her constituents have faced, with unexpected legal bills running to tens of thousands of pounds. Without doubt, more needs to be done to support those families and protect people from such schemes in future. It is not only about helping people with the problems that they have today, but about ensuring that such things do not happen again. [Interruption.] I think there must be something wrong with the plumbing, Mrs Latham: there is definitely a background noise. Whatever it might be, I am sure that it will not silence me or anyone else.

It is important that all constituents have good access to thermal insulation to prevent heat loss in their home. I will give some examples about our heat loss and cavity wall insulation schemes in Northern Ireland. We were able to sort the problems out, by the way, and we did not have individual companies soliciting round the doors for no-win, no-fee representation. There is no doubt that the insulation process is expensive, and many will struggle to pay for it. The Government need to be commended for what they do: it is incredible that we have schemes to enable people to upgrade their homes and ensure that they have the levels of insulation and heating that we all need.

Schemes are offered across the United Kingdom to ensure that those on a low income can avail themselves of cavity wall insulation. The schemes are different across the United Kingdom, as I have intimated. Beginning in 2013, the Government’s energy company obligation has required large energy suppliers to pay for energy-saving measures in British households that meet certain conditions, covering wall and loft insulation. We have different schemes back home: a cavity wall insulation scheme and a roof insulation scheme. The new schemes are offered through the Housing Executive and sometimes through local councils. The ECO scheme covers England, Scotland and Wales, and it is no surprise that we have differing circumstances in Northern Ireland; we often do. We have a scheme that seems to be working well, and whenever there are indiscretions or things do not fall into place, we have been quite able—so far, anyway—to come up with solutions.

Northern Ireland has a sustainable energy programme, which was set up by the utility regulator. Some 80% of the funding has been targeted at vulnerable customers and at those who are older or on a low income. It is important that we enable those people to bring their houses up to a standard such that they can avail themselves of the same energy savings and efficiencies, as well as helpful cavity wall and roof insulation. It is great that those most in need of assistance are getting it.

In my office, I deal every week with people applying for the cavity wall insulation scheme that we have in Northern Ireland, the sustainable energy programme. We have been successful in enabling people to get on it; we just wish there were a wee bit more financial aid available. Now that the Northern Ireland Assembly is back, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the Assembly and of the Department that looks after these matters. In my constituency of Strangford and in my main town of Newtownards, many of the homes are of a certain age and standard, so they need the cavity wall insulation schemes. The Housing Executive is the major provider of homes, although the Housing Association provides homes now, some of which are old as well.

With some cavity wall insulation schemes, we have seen examples of insulation not even being put into the walls, although people said it was. We have also seen cavity wall insulation having a detrimental effect, as the hon. Member for Halifax noted. I am not quite sure of the reasons for that, but ultimately we have been able to sort those things out because the companies involved have an obligation to deliver what is right and what is proper.

The priority is to ensure that the Government properly back those schemes to ensure that they are being done legitimately, and that constituencies like Halifax are not being lumped with thousands of pounds of fees to pay back. There certainly must be justice for those who were victims of the scheme. I am pleased that many of them have already contacted the legal ombudsman and the financial services ombudsman to question the level of service that was provided. When it gets to the stage of contacting an ombudsman, we hope for recourse, justice, restitution and ultimately compensation for the people who have been part of that process.

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax again for leading the debate. She should know that she has my full support in this matter; she has the support of all of us in this room, and that is why we are here today. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), will be in a position to offer some support and answer some of the questions that the hon. Lady posed. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government must now step in to right the wrongs and ensure that people are protected financially. I believe that that is their obligation. That is why we are here: I am here to support the hon. Lady and support her constituent. Other Members who will speak in this Chamber want the same justice.

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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I am sorry for the buzzing noise that we can hear in the background. The Doorkeepers have contacted the engineers, and they are going to address the issue. Meanwhile, it is quite difficult to hear—I cannot hear from the Chair what is being said—so can people speak up so everybody can hear?

14:53
Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this very important debate. I am pleased that it has cross-party support, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, and that there are shared concerns about this shocking situation.

This is a real opportunity to seek clarity and pursue justice for all our constituents who have been affected by this shocking affair. The human toll of the SSB Law crisis is significant and has undoubtedly caused considerable shock, anger and distress to those affected. I have met multiple constituents over the past few weeks to discuss the impact of the collapse of SSB Law. I have heard at first hand how the devastating situation has had a severe impact on them, their loved ones and their lives. I have seen the damage to their homes, which is shocking, considering that the Government spent millions of pounds on the scheme. It is leaving families in a terrible situation.

The situation goes on. People are receiving letters threatening court action. Several of my constituents are in real fear of losing their home. It is shameful and outrageous that people have been misled. We need to demand justice for those who have been targeted. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax mentioned the data on who was affected by the scheme; it must have been shared. That must be investigated.

I am one of 20 MPs who have signed early-day motion 423, which calls on the Government

“to ensure that all demands for payment and court orders resulting from the collapse of SSB Law are dropped immediately”.

We need to take pressure off these families.

It is significant that the situation has arisen from the poor implementation of a Government-backed decarbonisation scheme. The Government must therefore be held accountable for the crisis that ensued. The failure on the Government’s part to ensure the proper implementation of the insulation scheme means that we must now firmly commit to upholding the rights and protecting the wellbeing of citizens. People are living in unsafe homes, with damp and mould threatening their physical and mental health.

If we are not forceful and succinct in our approach to solving the crisis, we could see serious or potentially life-threatening health issues developing. One mother told me the story of her little boy who suffers severely with asthma; she is really concerned about him. It is vital that we work across the parties to ascertain the true scale of the crisis and find a solution for affected constituents as the scope of the problem comes to light. I am sure it will continue to grow.

We must urgently work with those affected to put right the failings of SSB Law and address this extraordinary scandal. I implore Government Ministers to meet victims of the crisis and hear their stories, as I have done, so that they can fully comprehend the urgency of the situation. It is incumbent on the Government to address the unacceptable and desperate situation in which so many people find themselves through no fault of their own. I will continue to do whatever I can in this House to pursue justice. I am pleased to learn that the Minister has the same ambitions as my colleagues and me, because the situation cannot continue. Measures need to be put in place to ensure that it never happens again.

14:58
Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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It is a privilege to see you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate and for telling us about the experiences of her constituents as well as the problems that they have had after having cavity wall insulation fitted to their homes. Some of the problems might have arisen from very poor ventilation as a consequence, and it is troubling to hear about that.

On the doorstep, I have come across constituents who have suffered from mould and damp. I have also talked to an employee of East Devon District Council who is responsible for the maintenance of social homes and who has said to me that some of the issues with damp and mould are linked to cavity wall insulation. Done properly, cavity wall insulation is a positive thing. It keeps people warm and saves money for the Government, taxpayers and individuals. It is one of those rare policy areas that is not just a win-win, but a win-win-win.

On the subject of heating, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition estimated that 4,950 people in this country died in the winter between 2022 and 2023 because they were living in cold conditions. Clearly, worries all of us. I know that the Government were also concerned, because they introduced the energy price guarantee. On the face of it, the energy price guarantee was a very popular policy because it reduced people’s energy bills by a very significant amount, although many of my constituents will not have felt it because their energy bills were still staggeringly high in that winter of 2022-23. The energy price guarantee was a subsidy from the Government—from the taxpayer—of £37 billion. The really sad thing is that had the Government continued to invest in home insulation measures at the rate they had been in 2012, a large proportion of the funding spent on heating people’s homes and subsidising their heating would not have been necessary.

The third win is, of course, in the reduction of emissions. Given the concerns that the Government might not reach their net zero target by 2050 and that the world might not meet the target of reducing temperature rises by 1.5°, we absolutely have to be concerned about reducing emissions, too. Heating homes, saving money and reducing emissions are all things that can be achieved with cavity wall insulation done properly.

I want to look back at the last decade or so and at how much cavity wall insulation has helped some of our constituents. One million cavity wall insulations were carried out in Great Britain through the energy company obligation scheme between 2013 and 2023, 27% of all measures carried out under the scheme. The annual number of cavity wall insulations provided through ECO has fallen over time, from a peak of over 316,000 when the Liberal Democrats were in government in 2014 to a low of little more than 11,000 last year. The number of ECO measures installed overall peaked at three quarters of a million in 2014, but fell to just 159,700 in 2022—a fall of almost 80% and a figure 59% lower than in 2021.

There is no evidence that the UK is near the saturation point for cavity wall insulation. The Government have estimated that 71% of homes with cavity walls had insulation installed at the end of 2022. Some 3.8 million homes with uninsulated cavity walls were thought to be “easy to treat”, and the remaining 1.3 million were “hard to treat”. There is still much low-hanging fruit to progress with now that we know how cavity wall insulation can be done, and done well. If we think about not just Great Britain as a whole, but England, England has a lower percentage of cavity wall insulation: just 69% of homes have it, compared with 76% in Wales and 80% in Scotland. As for my region, the west country, the south-west got just 6% of all ECO spending, compared with 18% for the north-west. Clearly, the west country is dipping out again.

Again, the Liberal Democrats in government made sure that home insulation was a real priority, given the savings on heating, money and emissions. In 2012, we made sure that 2.3 million homes benefited in a single year. If the Conservatives had carried on insulating at that level, the average household would have saved hundreds of pounds per year on their energy bills and the taxpayer would have saved money, too, during the crisis that followed the invasion of Ukraine. It is reckoned that the failure to continue insulating at that level cost taxpayers around £9 billion under the energy price guarantee, because of the lack of insulated homes.

To finish on a cheerier note, some really good work is happening, including in my local area. In my constituency, the Blackdown Hills parish network has invested in an infra-red camera—a thermal imaging camera—that it offers to residents to use so that they can identify where their homes are leaking heat. The camera has also been lent to Sidmouth Town Council and the chair of the council, Chris Lockyear, is offering to help residents to save not just heat but money.

15:04
Imran Hussain Portrait Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)
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It is of course a pleasure, Mrs Latham, to serve with you in the Chair. I join colleagues in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this very important debate.

My hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out the importance of this debate, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and other hon. Members. Indeed, it is very important to many of our constituents, who are suffering the results of some of the scandalous actions that we have heard about. Many of them are having sleepless nights and are threatened with financial ruin, which I will say more about a little later.

As other hon. Members have said, with the promise of reducing energy bills and with the Government’s stamp of approval, cavity wall insulation schemes were an attractive proposition that were readily signed up to by many people, including many of my constituents in Bradford East. However, the reality was a far cry from the promise of warmer homes and lower bills. Cavity wall insulation has now left many of them facing financial ruin, because, after it was installed, they began to notice, as many other hon. Members have said already, damp and black mould was growing on walls, ceilings, window ledges and floors in their homes, and their electrical systems were compromised. Their homes became harder to heat and in some cases skin conditions increased. Also, many experienced mental stress, because they constantly had to deal with the problem. It is important to mention the real-life consequences for our constituents.

The cavity wall insulation that was supposed to keep their homes warm instead acted as a bridge to draw in the moisture from the external walls and transfer it inside their homes. Although cavity wall insulation was an excellent way to improve energy efficiency in many homes, which it is if it is correctly installed, in those cases it was discovered tragically that those homes were never suitable for cavity wall insulation or that the work that had been carried out was defective.

Like other hon. Members, I have tens of cases now of people being forced to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds. That is the total accumulated amount, including legal fees, which I will come on to. What is alarming is that in every one of these cases the companies that initially installed the cavity wall insulation disappeared, and my constituents had nobody to go back to to ask for help. They were literally left on their own.

That is where the next serious issue arose, because legal firms were going around, door to door, and promising no win, no fee. Sometimes, that was the only option for people who had very limited means and who had already gone through so much stress. One such law company was SSB Law, which has already been mentioned today; actually, it has now been highlighted by a documentary. I and other colleagues have raised the issue in Parliament. SSB Law took on £200 million in debts in trying to deal with these cases. Actually, the company probably knew that many of these cases never had any chance of success, but they were taken on and there were many victims in Bradford, as we have heard.

My constituents were pursuing financial reparations for damage caused by defective insulation. There was no fault on their part for the situation they found themselves in, but they are now facing demands for payments that stretch into tens of thousands of pounds and are simply unaffordable. Despite the situation, with many of my constituents in Bradford growing more and more desperate, it is clear that no one in the current system has any inclination to deliver them justice. It is therefore equally clear that the Government need to step in and intervene.

There is cross-party support for this issue, and it is not an issue that has never been raised before. According to my research, the reviews go back as far back as 2015, when it was acknowledged by at least one report, if not more, that there was an issue with some of the work on cavity wall insulation and the level at which it was being carried out. Certainly, the matter has been raised a number of times in parliamentary questions and debates, including in 2016 and 2017.

Our constituents are now begging us. I cannot emphasise enough the strength of feeling in some of the conversations that I and my colleagues have had. If it were not for the one-line Whip and the last minute nature of the debate, which only my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) could have pulled off as quickly and miraculously as she did, many more colleagues would have been here. We are here to plead that this issue is causing anxiety, stress and depression. I have had people who have not slept for days, worrying. If someone is a pensioner and the only thing they have is their house, and they are already living through one of the biggest cost of living crises and making ends meet, and they suddenly get a demand for £28,000 through the door, that is going to cause untold misery—of course it is.

As was said earlier, the SRA knew about this. A complaint went in about SSB Law way before many of these cases had advanced to the stage where people are now being asked to repay. The insurance company responsible is now not agreeing to pay any of the indemnity insurance that is the legal protection—I will not go into further detail as I suspect the matter will be subject to much legal debate when the time comes.

I respectfully ask the Minister to step in, in the spirit of the cross-party agreement on this issue. I wrote to the Justice Minister about the issue in that spirit more than a month ago, and I have yet to receive a response. All I request is a meeting for MPs to sit down and discuss this issue, because we have a duty to protect those constituents who have been wronged.

I have just three asks of the Minister. First, the Government must ensure that the legal proceedings, costs and demands for payment that our constituents are mired in, along with the charging orders, interest charges and threats of home repossession are dropped immediately. I think the Government can step in to address these issues and to take some action, although I appreciate the legal technicalities. Secondly, the Government must conduct a full review of all Government-funded insulation schemes to identify the total number of homes affected by defective cavity wall insulation, as well as a full investigation into the collapse of SSB Law and the role of regulators in guarding against risks. Thirdly, the Government must convene a meeting between Ministers, energy providers, insulation companies, legal firms and anyone else involved in this scandal to agree steps toward a compensation fund such as the one developed for the Fishwick insulation scandal. That involved insulation of a different type, but there was compensation there. It set a precedent where defective cavity wall insulation was removed from the homes, the structural damage was addressed, and good quality suitable insulation was retrofitted with a 25-year warranty. That is what happened in that case.

I thank again my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. Thousands of our constituents up and down the country will be very grateful to her for securing this important debate. I cannot emphasise enough how important this area is to our constituents. If we can save further misery, we have an absolute duty to do so. I look forward to working with Ministers to address and end this scandal for our constituents.

15:16
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) not only on securing this important debate but on making the detailed case that needs to be made about his scandal. The contributions of hon. Members from across the Chamber have added to her exemplary presentation, and have underlined the urgent need to do something about the issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) all made first-class contributions to the debate.

Cavity wall insulation has played, and will continue to play, a tremendous role in keeping people’s homes warm, reducing bills, fighting fuel poverty and uprating homes so that they are fit for a low-carbon future. Indeed, the vast majority of cavity wall insulations work perfectly well and do a good job for the homes where they are fitted. Of course, cavity wall insulations need to be done with the right materials, by the right people, in the right places and according to the right standards. I regret to say that there are circumstances—rather more in the early days than now—where those criteria were not adhered to, and problems arose with properties in which cavity wall insulation had been placed.

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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Order. Could you face this way?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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I am sorry, Mrs Latham. One would think that, in a reasonable world, there should be speedy recognition that the problem has arisen and an equally speedy arrangement whereby the person in whose home the problem has arisen can get restitution for what has happened, in terms of both compensation and putting right what has gone wrong with the cavity wall insulation.

The Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency came into being in 1995. As hon. Members have mentioned, it provides guarantees for cavity wall insulation. There have been 6 million since it was set up, over a 25-year period. The agency has a good record of ensuring that redress is carried out speedily and properly, where problems have arisen.

Unfortunately, not everybody knows about the agency or has had their wall insulations guaranteed through CIGA. Indeed, they might have had cavity wall insulation installed before guarantees came into place. The picture today is quite good regarding guarantees, but that does not remotely address the problem before us this afternoon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, this is essentially a scandal on a scandal. It is the problem of cavity wall insulation going wrong in a certain area. When it does go wrong, several cases often appear in certain areas because the installer—

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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Order. Could the Opposition spokesperson address the Chair?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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Yes, I am sorry; I keep doing that. The appearance of a number of problems in a particular area might relate to a particular company carrying out faulty insulations or using the wrong material, whereas in other areas no such events will occur.

Scandal one is that a relatively high number of deficient cavity wall insulation arrangements came to light in a particular part of the country. Scandal two is that a parasitic law firm decided to make a good living by zealously pursuing people it thought might conceivably have a claim for failed cavity wall insulation, and tried to push those people down a path to restitution in a wholly cynical and unacceptable manner. I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that the Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating that company, SSB Law, but that does not address the fact that other firms also pursued that practice. Ironically, SSB Law took over a number of claims from a company that had pursued this model and gone bust in the process. One might say, therefore, that it is a scandal, upon a scandal, upon a scandal.

The way this worked is set out in a letter from CIGA to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, which describes how the model operated.

“Claims lead generator often unqualified promises large payouts if homeowner signs up to pursue a claim for failed cavity wall insulation.

Details passed to a RICS surveyor who does not visit the property but prepares a claim schedule based on detail provided by the lead generator.

Claim is handed to a claims solicitor”.

SSB Law, as mentioned, was a claims solicitor that took on a number of these cases, including those of another company operating this model, Pure Legal, having apparently been offered the opportunity to do so by the Solicitors Regulation Authority itself.

The claims solicitor then sends a letter to the installer and

“informs them to put their insurer on notice and that the claim will be in the order of 60k for damages caused by poorly installed insulation—schedule of costs does not reflect the property and damage is often not evident.

Homeowners are actively discouraged from notifying the guarantee provider”

—in this instance, CIGA—

“and instead promised a large pay out.

Just before the claim goes to court, the Claims solicitor drops the compensation amount to just over 10k (They do this to encourage the installer or insurer to pay out and also so that they can still claim costs through the fast track legal route). Costs are typically around 70k at this point”.

That is the model, and it is a scandalous model. No one should be allowed to operate that kind of arrangement in this country, in this age. Solicitors’ companies are supposed to be protecting the interests of their clients and not just trying to make a living parasiting on the distress of homeowners dealing with cavity wall insulation problems. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has a substantial job to do in not just investigating this particular company, but hopefully broadening this out to investigate how solicitors are able to get away with this kind of arrangement, in this kind of way. As we have heard this afternoon, when that arrangement does not work out very well, they go bust and leave all those householders facing those huge bills.

Are the Government able to pursue any form of intervention to assist householders protecting themselves from the claims coming back against them? In a number of instances, those claims are from the installers that have basically been attacked by these particular law firms. The installers have defended themselves, but then the law firms went bust. They have put in a lot of money, and naturally they want some of it back. It is an almighty mess as to who is really responsible for all this, although we know that overwhelmingly the responsibility lies with the dodgy law firms that have pursued this kind of practice and given false guarantees and false promises to householders. Perhaps the Ministry of Justice could look at what sort of practices make this sort of arrangement possible.

We all want to see confidence in cavity wall insulation for future programmes, although we differ among ourselves on the extent of those programmes. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton suggested that it was the Liberal Democrats, in alliance with the Government, that really pursued cavity wall insulation. That was true, but it was based on the programmes of the previous Labour Government, under the cert and assess programmes that carried on until about 2012 and 2013. That produced an enormous number of generally very good cavity wall insulation programmes, but it has crashed since that date. Certainly, the Opposition hope to revive those publicly funded and sorted-out retrofit measures under a future Labour Government.

I think there is agreement on all sides that we want the general public to see that cavity wall insulation is a good thing for their homes and for them, and indeed will be a good service for the nation in making our homes warmer and more liveable. It is important that everybody has confidence that that system is going to work as well as it should and, if it does not work as well as it should, that there is proper redress. I ask the Minister to pursue seriously whatever can be done to seek additional redress for the householders who find themselves in this difficult situation. I also ask the Minister —perhaps working in conjunction with the existing guarantee agencies—to ensure that, for the future, the public have the best level of protection they can get when cavity wall insulation goes wrong: a guarantee that, under most circumstances, people undertaking cavity wall insulation can rest easy that their cavity wall insulation should work rightly for them, but that they need not worry if it does not because help will be at hand to put it right.

15:30
Amanda Solloway Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero (Amanda Solloway)
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It is the greatest of pleasures to be here under your Chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for raising this incredibly important debate, and all hon. Members who have partaken in it and shared some heart-moving stories. It is dreadful for consumers to be in the situation described in those stories and I have every sympathy for the people affected. All Members who have spoken have made their points incredibly well. We need to remember the impact this situation has on people’s lives, which has been portrayed very clearly.

As the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) have stated, insulating homes properly is one of the most impactful and cost-effective things we can do, which is why we have a number of schemes ongoing to install cavity wall insulation.

As the hon. Member for Halifax has said, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is already working with the Financial Conduct Authority and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to look into the conduct of the firm in question, but these bodies are independent of Government and it would be inappropriate for my Department or the Ministry of Justice to intervene.

The Ministry of Justice, as the Department responsible for legal services regulation, will continue to closely engage with the SRA and Legal Services Board to understand the action being taken and the timeframes for investigation. However, I am concerned to hear from the hon. Member for Halifax and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) about how companies such as SSB Law may have targeted people. We will ask the SRA, as part of their ongoing investigation, to consider how SSB Law were able to do that. I also acknowledge the points raised by the hon. Members for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) and for Southampton, Test on this subject.

I do not want to see this issue passed around like a football, because this is an urgent matter for the households impacted. I therefore guarantee that I will be writing to the Ministry of Justice, asking them to encourage the SRA to accelerate the investigation for affected homeowners, as they deserve to have this matter addressed swiftly.

Imran Hussain Portrait Imran Hussain
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While the Minister is writing to the Ministry of Justice, can she please kindly request that her colleagues there respond to the letters from MPs and organise an urgent meeting?

Amanda Solloway Portrait Amanda Solloway
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for the intervention. Of course, I will pass on those remarks.

I encourage Members to write to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero about specific cases. If there is a guarantee in place, my officials will engage with the guarantee agency to see if there is anything that we can do about that particular situation.

The range of Government-backed schemes to install cavity wall insulation are ongoing and lessons have been learned from the complaints that we are discussing today. These complaints, thankfully, are not representative of the experiences of thousands who have used our existing schemes. As I said earlier, in certain circumstances in suitable properties, cavity wall insulation is one of the most cost-effective measures for energy saving. For a relatively small outlay in costs, we know that cavity wall insulation, which costs between £1,000 and £3,000, can save homeowners up to £300 a year.

The hon. Member for Halifax is aware that the Government have made improvements to installation standards as a result of earlier findings. I will summarise the changes we have made, because any response to the problem must include preventing it from happening again. That is why the energy efficiency measures installed under all current Government schemes must be in line with industry best standards established by the British Standards Institution. All installers must be certified to the publicly available specification 2030 standards for any energy efficiency measure that they carry out, including cavity wall insulation, and must demonstrate a high level of competence. The latest revision to the standards was published at the end of September 2023, so I can assure hon. Members that this is a live issue for us and that we continue to refine and improve.

The Department published guidance in October 2019 for consumers who suspect they may have had faulty cavity wall insulation installed in their homes. We urge consumers to follow the guidance to help them avoid becoming victims of fraudulent cavity wall insulation claims.

Outside of Government-funded schemes, I urge all consumers to check the certifications claimed by their installer and what protections or warranties installers can offer before going ahead with work. TrustMark is the Government-endorsed quality mark for retrofit, so its “find an installer” web search will be a good place to start for any consumer, whether the work is Government-funded or not.

As the Minister for Affordability and Skills, I am glad we are discussing this matter today because I think there is a double injustice. People who did the right thing by wanting to install insulation to lower their energy use have suffered from insulation that has failed. That emphasises why we are now required to use the PAS certificate and TrustMark-registered businesses in Government schemes.

A legal firm that was recovering the costs has now collapsed, leaving affected households wondering how this will finally be resolved. That is why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Halifax for bringing the cases in her constituency to my attention, as have other hon. Members. I encourage Members who were unable to attend today to write to the Department about specific cases. My officials will follow up with the relevant guarantee agency to ensure that all due process has been followed.

15:37
Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch
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I thank you once again, Mrs Latham, for chairing this important debate so ably. I thank those hon. Members who have contributed. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in his diligent and dedicated fashion, is a voice and advocate for his constituents. He is always incredibly supportive of me and so many across this House, and we all appreciate his contributions. I thank him for what he said.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), who spoke so eloquently on behalf of her constituents, including the young boy struggling with asthma and his parents, who are battling that and the debts to resolve the problems in their home, as well as taking on the giants they are up against that have boxed them in to an incredibly desperate financial position.

Like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) set out the strong case for cavity wall insulation. When it is done well, it can have a positive impact on homes’ energy efficiency and can reduce energy costs. He described it as a win-win-win. We can see from hon. Members who have outlined the impact of the scenario we have been discussing on our constituents that it has ended up being a lose-lose-lose. I said it was a scandal upon a scandal; the shadow Minister said it was a scandal upon a scandal upon a scandal, and he is absolutely right. This has to be done well. We need to find a solution that gets us through this mess and gives people confidence in cavity wall insulation again.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who characteristically explained the emotional impact on his constituents and mine, and gave a detailed assessment of how cavity wall installation not only has failed, but has shockingly led to an increase in skin conditions, including in some of the cases he has been involved in. I thank him for his contribution.

I am grateful to the Minister, who I think has understood, from the cases that have been shared, the seriousness and the urgency for the constituents we are representing today. She has encouraged Members to write to her Department. I am sure we will take her up on that offer; however, I ask her again to make representations in the strongest possible terms to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. As I said, I have not really been left with any confidence that it understood the seriousness of the issue. Its response to me on 22 February just gave definitions of some of the bodies involved and ended by saying:

“At this stage, given that legal services regulators are independent of government and the SRA has ongoing investigations into this issue, it would not be appropriate for MoJ to seek to intervene further.”

That really underlines the point. I absolutely am sensitive to the separation of Government and the legal system, but where there has been such a catastrophic failure, as the shadow Minister so articulately outlined—he described these law firms as operating in a parasitic way—I look to the Ministry of Justice to explore all the ways in which it could appropriately intervene.

Some legal bills that constituents are facing have been paused. I do not know how for long, and am I not absolutely clear why, but expecting people to live with this until the autumn—even if, in the best-case scenario, there is then a solution that resolves it—is asking them to live in pretty desperate, distressing conditions, which I know will drive them further into despair, debt and poverty.

I thank the Minister for her time and finish with a final plea: please can she convey in the strongest possible terms to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and other Departments why we really need Government help on this?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the provision of cavity wall insulation under Government grants.

15:42
Sitting suspended.

Cross-Solent Ferries

Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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16:00
Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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I will call Bob Seely to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for cross-Solent ferry transport.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham.

I will come straight to the point: the relationship between the ferry firms and the people of the Isle of Wight is breaking down. The ferries are a genuine lifeline; we have no choice but to use them. There is no public service obligation. We need to get a better deal. I have produced a study of the ferries, which I think is the first major work on the ferries that has come out of the Island for 40 years. In it, I highlight how we can get a better deal for the ferries, some of the options for the firms and how we can get there.

Time is tight, so I will make as much progress as I can. The Island depends on three private ferry operators: Wightlink, Red Funnel and Hovertravel. Hovertravel is not really part of the picture, but Wightlink and Red Funnel are. Wightlink was privatised in 1984, and Red Funnel has always been in private hands. The firms’ services initially improved throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but they are now worsening, in part because of the private equity-style ownership model. I will return to that, because it is a constant theme.

In 2009, under new Labour, the ferries were given a clean bill of health, and we were told there was open competition between them. That was not true. For passenger services, there are two local monopolies in the west: between Yarmouth and Lymington and between Cowes and Southampton. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister here, as ever. The idea that people will travel 25 miles from Yarmouth to Ryde to cross four miles of water into Portsmouth in order to travel 35 or 40 miles around to Lymington again is nonsense. In Ryde, there is competition of sorts between Hovertravel and Wightlink, although not to the same destination—one goes to Southsea, and one goes to Portsmouth harbour. On the car ferries, there is an effective monopoly in the West Wight, again on the Yarmouth to Lymington route, and a duopoly for the rest of the Island, with Red Funnel pitched slightly below Wightlink’s extortionate prices—but it is not true that there is a free market among Isle of Wight ferries.

Barriers to entry are very high. I am trying to support two potential competitors into the market—a passenger ferry and a potential car ferry—but that is difficult, because the ferry firms also own the ports.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing the debate forward. There is a similar issue back home, except for one difference. We have a ferry that connects Portaferry, in my constituency of Strangford, with the constituency of South Down—with the boundary changes, that will all be mine next time around, if everything goes according to plan. We never privatised the ferries back home; we retained them under the Department for Infrastructure, because we thought that that was the best idea. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that perhaps Government retention would be a better way forward?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Gentleman. That is absolutely one of the ideas that I will discuss later; I thank him.

What are the problems? First, as I have said, the ferry firms have no legal obligation to meet timetables or standards of service above the minimum levels of safety required in law. The Island’s connectivity is entirely at the discretion of the firms, which are answerable to—and overwhelmingly driven by—the needs of their shareholders. They have no public service obligation and no regulator, and they set their own service standards. The Minister should know that I am having a Bill on a ferries regulator for the United Kingdom written. The ferry firms change their speeds and timetables whenever they want, and they judge their own punctuality rates depending on the service that they want to run, not on the service that we agree they should run.

Secondly, the firm’s corporate structures and incredibly inflated valuations are becoming a critical issue for the Island. I also believe they are bad for the United Kingdom. What do I mean by that? The Solent market has an established model of private-equity style ownership that has several generations of acquisition and sales, and in all that time, debt has gone up. The Island is a captured market: we have no choice but to use the firms. They have reliable high incomes, there are high barriers to market entry and they are highly profitable. That makes them ideal for private equity investment.

Typically, owners purchase the ferry firms with borrowed money. The firms are subsequently restructured to pay interest on that debt. They effectively avoid tax perfectly legally because they pay back their shareholders through loans. We, the users, pay for the owners’ purchase of the firms, and then pay through the nose to pay back interest on those purchases. Returns to shareholders are via loans on the debt. Such private-equity style structures may be common elsewhere, and are sadly used by the water utilities, which are not a great example of them, but those firms have a utilities regulator, whereas the ferry firms that use such structures do not have any regulator to control them or to put limits on debt or limits or demands on service.

The firms have been increasingly overvalued by bankers with a vested interest in ramping up their value. The higher the value of the initial purchase, the greater the debt loaded on to the firm and the greater the need to repay that interest, so the more the Islanders—to put it bluntly—get stuffed by the ferry firms, and the more we have to pay through the nose to pay back the interest on buying the firms in the first place. Manchester United had a similar form of ownership, as do the water utilities, as I said, but the water utilities have a regulator that makes demands on the firms.

For example, for the year ending 2023, Wightlink had tangible assets of £85 million and an operating profit of £15 million. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has distinguished expertise in matters of transport and will know the operating margins for the rail firms. If we look at the operating margins for the ferries in the last 30 years, we see that in 1990 the margin was 28%; in 1995 it was 19%; in 2000 it was 32%; in 2004 it was 29%; in 2010 it was 20%; and in 2019 it was 25%. Red Funnel’s operating margins over the years went from 15% in 1990, to 21% in 1995 and 24% in 2019. These companies have vast profit margins. Compare that with the operating profit for rail firms, which is perhaps 2%—is it 5% maximum? There is a real ethical problem with the amount of profit that these people are making and the amount of tax they pay on that, which is very low.

Effectively, since the early 2000s—I do not know why we have allowed them to get away with it—the Isle of Wight ferries have been treated as collateral for loans for private equity and for pension funds. Not only that, but there is a web of offshore companies that own both the firms. Wightlink’s parent company, Arca Topco, had borrowings—I find this amount unbelievable—of £261,593,000. A small ferry firm has borrowings or loans outstanding of more than a quarter of a billion. That is a phenomenal amount. Some of that is in terms of investment, but most is debt that has been loaded on to those firms over the years by pension funds and private equity in order to buy the firms.

Arca Topco paid interest totalling £16,825,000. Various bodies that have owned the company or been paid back those loans include Basalt Infrastructure, Fiera Infrastructure and, amazingly, the People’s Bank of China. The People’s Bank of China, an arm of the Chinese Communist party, has owned the company that owned the company that owned Isle of Wight ferry.

I will say one more thing about Wightlink. Wightlink argues that it makes no profit because it uses loans to invest in the company. Although that is not wholly untrue, because it does use some of the loans to buy new things and make investments, it is nothing like enough, on both counts. It is also largely dishonest because those loans are used not to invest in the company but to pay back the massive amounts of debt that are loaded on to the firms, which is why Islanders are being screwed—to put it in the vernacular; I apologise for my bad language—every time they use the firms. That is the problem here.

I personally feel that I have been lied to by both firms about the debt and the ownership structure for too long. Frankly, my tolerance of them is reaching a low point. The firms have become overvalued cash cows. Red Funnel was worth £200 million in 2007; 10 years later, the most recent time it was sold, it was worth £370 million. It is phenomenally overvalued and I suspect it was always going to have trouble paying back the loans based on that overvaluation.

Since covid-19, the passenger market has dropped 30%. So what are the firms doing? They are cutting back their services. I will come back to that in a moment. Effectively, they are overvalued cash cows, and because these cash cows are not delivering, we—the passengers—are being squeezed more. To deliver the returns they need on their inflated valuations, they have cut back services. For any given Monday in February, if we compare 2004 with now, we see that Wightlink reduced the 36 daily sailings from Fishbourne to 18, the 24 daily sailings from Yarmouth to 16, and the 32 daily sailings from Ryde to 18. Wightlink is cutting back significantly on services in order to increase profits. Since 1998, Red Funnel has reduced 33 daily sailings from West Cowes to 22. Although Red Funnel says it has increased daily car ferry sailings from 13 to 14, the number of unrestricted sailings has stayed the same.

Services are also slower. Red Jet used to take 22 minutes; it now takes 28 minutes. That means—the Minister should know this—that it is now a slipped service. Instead of departing every half an hour during peak periods, there is a delay of 10 minutes each time, and that is messing up people’s connectivity with the mainland when they want to get trains or buses to different places. Before 2009, Wightlink FastCat reported a maximum speed of 34 knots; today, it is 26 knots. Late-night services are also being cut. Red Funnel has just cut the late-night service between Cowes and Southampton. To its credit, Wightlink has put one back on, but it was painful to get it to do so.

Next is yield-management pricing, which the Minister will know about, being very expert on these things. We go online, we look for flights to Cairo, Ibiza or Paris, and we get different pricing because that is the way that yield-management pricing schemes work. If we do it in advance, it becomes cheaper, and so on. For air travel that works, but with monopolies it does not. Although the firms say, “We still have starting prices for a family of four with a car for £29,” because of their surge pricing, the amount of tickets in that bracket are tiny, if not non-existent.

There are somewhere between 13 and 15 price brackets. The fact that someone can go online to book a ferry on a bank holiday or in the summer at a weeks’ notice and pay £250 for a return ticket means that there are huge numbers of tickets available at the most expensive, rip-off prices, and virtually none at the cheaper rates. My concern is that this form of surge pricing is hiding significant inflation in the cost of travelling, and it is having a significant effect on our economy.

I will wrap up in the next five to six minutes, so I will really rattle through. Why change now? First, because the firms have old car ferries because they have spent too long paying back shareholders and not enough time investing. If they want green money from the Government, that should come at a price. Secondly, because I and the Scottish councils lobbied for the Islands Forum initiative, and the Government are now looking into connectivity between the mainland and the UK islands.

Thirdly, because during the covid pandemic the ferry companies took money from the Government, because they recognised that the firms ran a lifeline service. Fourthly, because Red Funnel is probably up for sale again, and I am worried that eventually one of these firms will be so overloaded with debt that it falls over.

Fifthly, because there may be an attempt by a local entrepreneur, Nick Wakefield, to introduce a public-service ferry service, which I believe the Government should support because it would help to break the duopoly of Red Funnel and Wightlink and break the monopoly of this corrupted private equity-style investment system.

There are many questions that I want the Department to answer, and I will follow up with letters if I do not get all the answers today. Does the Department for Transport have an opinion on supporting new ferry firms? Does it really believe, given the state of the private equity-style investment, that this is a healthy market and a healthy structure, or one with duopolies and monopolies? There is a rail Bill coming up, which I am sure the Minister knows about. Can we add the Isle of Wight ferries to it as well?

On the sale of Red Funnel, what powers do the Government have to block a sale? What powers do we have to prevent it from selling its third passenger ferry? Red Funnel is running a “comprehensive” service with just two passenger ferries and is even slowing them down to save money. If one or both of those ferries falls over, there will be no service. How do the Government feel about that?

Next, what is my answer? There should be easy multi-link tickets for poorer Islanders; a greater discount for journeys that start on the Island; electronic through-ticketing, which, ridiculously, is something we still do not have; and the ability to book places for passengers, including the elderly or those going for medical treatment. There should also be independent assessment of punctuality and reliability; permanent improvements in late and early passenger services, so that the ferry companies understand that they have a public service obligation; regular services, and not the unacceptable slip service that Red Funnel is running to save money; and a duty to ensure best connectivity with national rail services—I am bored of having to lecture the firms to ensure such connectivity.

There should be stronger sanctions for failures to deliver an agreed standard of service. A couple of weeks ago, the ferry firm did not run the last service, so someone living on the Isle of Wight coming back with his family would have been stuck in a hotel, which would have cost him three hundred quid. Does the Minister think that he should pay, or does he think he should be able to claim the money back from Wightlink or Red Funnel the next time it happens? It is completely unacceptable.

There should also be an accurate understanding of investment levels in recent years; a better deal for young people; better wheelchair and disabled access; more transparency about corporate structures; and some thought given to whether the Isle of Wight should take a seat on the board of the major ferry firms. I am happy to discuss nationalisation, although I cannot see it being on the cards—it has not been under any Government, including Labour Governments, in the past—but what happens when these firms have debts that become unmanageable?

What are the options for getting there? I am having an independent regulator Bill written. Would the Government consider supporting it and installing a regulator, not only for the Solent ferries but for all the national ferry firms? I have had to do a national Bill—I say that for Islanders watching this debate—because if I bring in a Solent Bill alone, I as an MP cannot present it. The parliamentary etiquette is that I can present only a national Bill; therefore, I am presenting a UK ferries regulator Bill, rather than a Bill just for the Solent. That is the first point.

Secondly, would the Government demand the rights to sign off on the firms’ timetables, as they do for rail services? Is there more money for central Government funding for healthcare-related visits to the Island? Might we persuade the companies to enter into voluntary regulation, so that there is a formal process and they have to listen to us more seriously, perhaps with beefed-up powers—maybe legal powers—for our transport infrastructure board to demand better things? I will be writing to the Competition and Markets Authority to see what scope there is, and whether I can request an inquiry into the ferries and, if so, how that could be initiated. Will the Department of Transport support my request?

We cannot go on as we are. Despite some incremental gains over the last two years, we are now reaching a crunch point, where these firms are so overvalued and their shareholders’ demands for returns are so loud, that we simply do not get listened to. It is harming our future, whether it is our tourist bookings, which are down, or the fact that young Islanders cannot go to Southampton in the evening because there is no way back—yes, they can get the car ferry from Portsmouth, but it goes from a different place from where they left.

I thank the Minister for bearing with me. I know that this is not his responsibility per se—the relevant Minister is in the House of Lords, so I am sorry to be unloading on him today—but to sum up, the ferry companies are failing the Island. The private equity model is now breaking down. The disparity between the power of the shareholders and the needs of the Island is becoming too great. The situation is becoming acute. Shareholders are relentlessly prioritised over the needs of the Island. Sailings are fewer, slower and more expensive than they were 20 years ago.

The firms have no obligation to run a service. One of the things that really grips me is that when I say to them, “Shouldn’t you be raising your game?”, their attitude is: “If you complain too loudly, we won’t invest.” It is literally a form of blackmail on a genuine lifeline service—if we dare to criticise them, they might rethink their investment plans. If we criticise them and they say, “Oh, we don’t know if we’re going to invest,” that is reason enough for the Government to give them an enormous kick up the backside. The Government should say, “If that’s the way you play it, we’ll force regulation on you to make sure that you are considerate and thoughtful, and that if you say you’re running a service, then you damn well run a service and don’t just change your timetable when you fancy slowing down your boats to save some money, to pay your shareholders over the needs of the Isle of Wight.”

As you can see, Mrs Latham, this is an issue grips me, because it is harming the people of the Island, and we need change. I am really hoping that the Minister will now work with me, because there is a window of opportunity for change when it comes to green funding for the ferries, to Island connectivity, because of the Islands Forum, and, potentially, to ferries clause in the rail Bill, whether that is voluntary change from the ferries firms or change that we encourage or force on them. It is now time to look again at this issue, because we cannot have another 20 years of this.

16:21
Huw Merriman Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Huw Merriman)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Let me begin by saying that it is my pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I am delighted to be standing in for the maritime Minister today; he cannot attend because he sits in the other House, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) has pointed out. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know that this is an incredibly important topic to both him and the community he represents. The ferry service is essential for the Island, the Islanders and its visitors. He has been championing this important link for many years, campaigning for a more resilient and reliable service for his constituents.

I know that my hon. Friend’s recent plan for the future of cross-Solent ferries, which I have in my hand, is the culmination of all his hard work. It offers a route map towards better services, better prices and ticketing, and greater transparency over the ownership structures of ferry operators. I can assure him that the Department for Transport will take time to digest the report thoroughly, and we will respond to all the questions he has asked me this afternoon. For now, I will simply say that we welcome this work, and we look forward to seeing the final report once both his constituents and the Isle of Wight Council have had the opportunity to comment, which he is of course giving them in the consultation. The consultation is important because, as we have always made clear, the solutions to these issues are better resolved at a local level, where all stakeholders—Islanders, the operators and the council—can get around the table and, if possible, agree the best way forward.

The Government have a history of backing reliable and accessible ferry services for the Isle of Wight. During the pandemic, cross-Solent ferry services were safeguarded, and significant funds were made available to the Isle of Wight Council to ensure that they were preserved—an excellent example of the council and operators coming together to tackle the challenges faced at that time. However, as my hon. Friend is aware, although that intervention highlighted the Government’s high regard for lifeline ferry links, it was made under those exceptional circumstances, and as the country moves from recovery to renewal, we must acknowledge that the current operators of cross-Solent services do so in a fully commercial market. The bar for central Government intervention in such a commercial market is rightly extremely high, although I am aware that my hon. Friend is asking us to meet that height. The economic growth that we are striving for relies on a healthy private sector that brings jobs, investment and opportunities to communities up and down the country. We must acknowledge that these ferry operators are part of that ecosystem.

The Government pride themselves on recognising the benefits of private investment, and we have worked hard to make sure that UK plc is an attractive place to do business. That means that when local issues arise around local services, locally led solutions are the best way to resolve them. That is, again, why I commend my hon. Friend for the report he has produced.

The Isle of Wight transport infrastructure board could well be the perfect vehicle for these discussions, and I hope my hon. Friend reaches out to the board as part of his consultation. We should not forget that the investigation into the Isle of Wight ferry market by the then Office of Fair Trading back in 2009 was instigated by the then local MP, working with his constituents, which is yet another example of the community coming together to drive action.

Of course, as my hon. Friend set out today, the services are not perfect, and we can all acknowledge that there is work to be done. That was highlighted by the disruption to Red Funnel services last week, when many passengers endured frustrating delays. I think we can all agree that the situation was not acceptable and, while we thank Red Funnel for the mitigations put in place, they do not take away from the impact of those cancellations on the Islanders. The Government welcome the independent review that Red Funnel is conducting and I know that, once it is complete, the maritime Minister will be meeting with the company to discuss the recommendations.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He has expertly pressed home his concerns and those of his constituents, and he has taken time to put them together in a report, and to put that report out to consultation. I thank him for his engagement on these important issues. I underline that he has the Government’s full support in striving for the quality of service that his community deserves.

Question put and agreed to.

16:26
Sitting suspended.

Disability Benefits

Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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16:30
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Personal Independence Payment and other disability benefits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham.

I am grateful to the House authorities for allowing me to secure this important debate on an issue of huge concern to many across our country, including in my constituency. Often, constituents have come to my advice surgeries with tears streaming from their eyes, in absolute despair at the predicament they face, especially when they are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of a cost of living crisis.

This evening, I stand before the House to draw attention to the state of disability benefits in our nation. Those in our society with disabilities and other health conditions that often prevent them from working are valuable members of our society. They cannot be summarised by statistics, nor by how much they cost the public purse. Behind every such figure is a disabled person.

Successive Conservative Governments have again and again undermined social security in our country, whether through cutting support, a punitive culture towards disabled applicants, or—perhaps most disappointingly—divisive rhetoric about the most vulnerable in our society from none other than senior Government Ministers. My belief is that how we treat the most vulnerable is a benchmark of how healthy our society is.

I am proud to say that under a Labour Government, every stage of the social security system will be supportive and accessible. Labour understands the importance of every person with disabilities being treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. Unfortunately, that is not a view shared by everyone in our society. Under the Conservatives, many disabled people feel that the Department for Work and Pensions is failing them, with an assessment process that does not understand their needs.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on a very important subject. Elinor, one of my constituents, got in touch with me recently. She had a young child and was pregnant; she was reassessed, her money was dropped—she found out just before she had her second child—and then the money was reinstated on appeal. Does my hon. Friend agree that the assessment process is mad at the moment? It is crazy. It is not sensible. We need to change it, and fast.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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I thank my hon. Friend for making the case for Elinor in her constituency. Indeed, my hon. Friend is a strong champion of her constituents, and no doubt she and other hon. Members in this place will have helped constituents to regain thousands of pounds in support that they are due. I agree that the assessment process is something that needs to be looked at, and I hope the Minister will give us some good news at the end of this debate.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We have unfortunately had some tragic cases in recent years, including people who have gone through the transition from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. One person in particular sticks in my mind: Philippa Day, who took her own life because of the appalling transition process and all the mistakes that were made. We need to ensure that we have policies and systems in place, for health assessments and elsewhere, that protect vulnerable people and do not make things worse. I am sure he agrees.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience, having served previously as a shadow Secretary of State. The word to use is indeed tragedy. There have been countless tragedies. That is why the likes of me have been calling on the Government to deal with issues with compassion and empathy. These are real people that we are talking about and often, unfortunately, they have lost their lives or been put in a state of such despair that they do not know how to get out of their predicament.

My Slough constituent, Monika, told me about her struggles being assessed for PIP. Monika was informed that she was required to have a health assessment to extend her PIP. After appealing against 27 pages of discrepancies and outright untruths in the report from her previous assessment, she was predictably very worried about how she would get through the process again. Her assessment ended up being delayed for a month and taking place when she was suffering particularly ill health. Monika was again left in the lurch by the DWP and faces another appeal, which she is dreading.

Unfortunately stories like Monika’s are, as my hon. Friends have already eloquently explained, not news to any of us. We all have constituents who are failed by the system and by the DWP. Labour has a plan to replace the Government’s current flawed system of work capability assessments with a system that can support people to live with security.

Many benefit claimants are aspirational, but fearful that if they go back into work and find themselves unable to cope, they will be left high and dry—assessed as being able to work, but finding themselves unable to work full-time. Labour’s plan was born out of a desire to deliver for disabled people, helping those who can work back into work.

Too many disabled people say the current system does not work for them. Labour has pledged to introduce the “into work guarantee”, which I hope the shadow Minister will explain at length. That will allow claimants to agree with their benefits adviser that, if they try paid work and it does not work out, within a period of a year, they can go back to the exact benefits that they were on without fresh health assessments. With 288,000 PIP claims outstanding in October 2023, does the Minister agree that Labour’s plan will help to reduce the number of disabled people who want to work, but do not want to risk having their benefits reassessed?

This January, the latest statistics from the House of Commons Library found that the most common main disabling conditions among claimants of PIP were psychiatric disorders. Nationwide, 37.7% of PIP claims were due to those. With mental health waiting lists ballooning under the Conservatives, it is unfortunately not a surprising statistic. When the Government leave suffering people for far too long—people often see their condition worsen before being able to access treatment—it is no wonder that the number is so unacceptably high. I believe that begs a question: will the Minister admit that her party’s policies on mental health over the past 14 years have significantly contributed to the PIP backlog?

The latest numbers from Macmillan Cancer Support show that claimants are still waiting 15 weeks on average for their PIP claim to be processed. Unacceptably, that is higher than it was at the same time last year. Four in five people living with cancer are facing an increased financial impact from their diagnosis, even before the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. It is unacceptable that the Government have failed to fix those issues, which affect our constituents at some of the most difficult periods in their lives. The Government announced extra funding for processing disability claims in the Budget, but can the Minister clarify how exactly that will be used to reduce delays?

Among PIP claimants in my Slough constituency, 16.3% of claims are due to musculoskeletal disorders. MS Society research found that the current disability assessment system is not fit for purpose for those living with multiple sclerosis, a condition that significantly varies in its impact from day to day. A staggering three in five people with MS have reported being unable to explain adequately the effects of their condition on the standard application form. That figure highlights a systemic failure to capture the true extent of disabilities that are not constant, but fluctuate, and underscores the Government’s failure to create a nuanced system that understands the lived realities of those with MS and other conditions.

Furthermore, based on its findings, the MS Society urges the Government to consider the elimination of the 20-metre rule used in mobility assessments, and to seek a more flexible approach that accurately reflects the variable nature of MS. Current criteria fail to accommodate the day-to-day changes in symptoms that people with MS experience. On one day, walking 20 metres is achievable; on others, it is downright impossible. That clearly leads to assessments that do not reflect disabled people’s actual needs.

Incorporating those changes into our approach to disability benefits would not only make the system fairer, but ensure that individuals with MS and similar fluctuating conditions receive the support that they truly need. I am proud that Labour is committed to delivering a system that works for disabled people, ensuring that every person with a disability receives the respect, support and dignity that they deserve.

In conclusion, I thank the constituents who have asked me to share their stories. I am also grateful to various voluntary organisations that make such an enormous impact to help those in dire need. As we conclude this debate on personal independence payments and other disability benefits, let us remember the essence of what we are discussing: the lives and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

The accounts we have heard serve as a stark reminder of the critical work that lies ahead. It is evident that our current system, in its rigidity and lack of understanding, falls short of providing the necessary support to those living with conditions such as MS. The call to reform, to dismantle barriers such as the 20-metre rule and to embrace a more nuanced approach to disability assessment is more than just policy revision; it is a moral imperative.

We stand at a crossroads where the choices we make can significantly enhance the lives of thousands. By advocating for a system that truly understands the variable and complex nature of disabilities, we advocate for a society that places dignity, empathy and support at its heart. This is not just about adjusting guidelines or streamlining processes; it is about ensuring that every individual feels seen, heard and valued. Our commitment to reforming PIP and other disability benefits is a testament to our dedication to justice and equity for all citizens, regardless of their physical or mental health challenges.

Let us leave this room with a renewed dedication to serving those within our constituencies and beyond, ready to enact the changes necessary for a fairer, more compassionate benefits system. Together we have the power to transform lives. Let that be our guiding principle in the days ahead.

16:44
John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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I will try to be as brief as possible, so that others can contribute. Before I come to the general topic, I want to make one specific point to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said.

I am a champion for Action for ME, the myalgic encephalomyelitis campaign. The organisation has written to a number of us to emphasise its concerns about how narrow PIP assessments are. ME sufferers are losing the ability to access the relevant benefits themselves as a result. They are simply asking the Minister to commit to what the previous Minister committed to, which was to meet them so that they can work to co-produce a system that enables them to have full access. I dealt with my first ME case about 25 years ago, when ME was not recognised and there was a lot of stigma attached to it. These people have suffered on the quiet. It behoves the Government to sit down with that group and work through the process.

I want to take the debate up where my hon. Friend left off: on the impact of the system on individuals. Those who were at the Select Committee might recall the evidence that was provided with regard to Michael O’Sullivan. I dealt with his case 10 years ago; I met his family, the lovely Anne-Marie and Declan. He had suffered mental health difficulties and had attempted suicide already. He was then assessed; he was declared fit for work, and he could not cope with it. He committed suicide. That was 10 years ago.

Some Members will know John Pring from the Disability News Service, who performs an excellent role monitoring cases and providing information to many of us. He has particularly monitored recent cases that relate to people coming under pressure when seeking to apply for universal credit. He gave three examples from the past couple of years. I will give brief details; I will not use any names.

A disabled woman who was left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life. Days earlier, she had been told that she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach. She would shake and cry every time she had to log on to her universal credit journal, which she had to do every weekday to check whether she had received instructions and to avoid a sanction. She had already had a six-month sick note from her doctor explaining that she was not fit to work, but she was expected to go through the whole process, and she could not cope with it. The DWP was told about her mental distress, her suicidal thoughts and her fear of the Department. She took her own life.

There was another suicide months later. Someone had a long history of depression and anxiety and had been engaging with mental health services. He had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983; he was then discharged. A psychiatrist who saw him two days before he took his own life told the inquest that he believed that the anxiety had been exacerbated by the whole process of the universal credit application.

Another person died a month after taking an overdose that caused irreversible damage to her liver. The coroner did not believe that she intended to take her own life, but nevertheless the coroner wrote a prevention of future deaths report to the DWP highlighting how the DWP had failed in its duty to maintain protection.

I raise those cases because John Pring and others had to put in a freedom-of-information request to get a report that was produced by the Prime Minister’s implementation unit on the harm caused by the process and the suicides that were taking place. It was four years before that report was produced. It had been covered up in the PMIU, and publication was prevented. Some of us have been calling for that report on the Floor of the House of Commons, but we have been denied access. We were calling for it because there were recommendations in it about the duty of care that the Department owed to people identified as vulnerable, and specific actions needed to be put in place. There is a further report that should be produced with full openness and transparency. I commend Disabled People Against Cuts, which has run a campaign year in, year out about the issue.

When it comes to disability benefits for PIP, the work capability assessment, the application process for universal credit and the pressures that people are put under, the system is putting lives at risk. What Anne-Marie called for, which I think is right, is a statutory duty of care to be placed upon the Department, with particular regard to vulnerable people. I also agree with Anne-Marie and others that there should be an independent public inquiry into the harm the Department has done over the last 14 years through the brutal way benefits have been administered, particularly for those who are vulnerable with mental health problems.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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Order. I must impose a time limit of five minutes on each speech.

16:50
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for his persistent and thorough questioning of the DWP on matters pertaining to disability benefits. I support him in these debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. This word is often used, but it is good to have a champion on this side of the House. His work has been excellent.

There will not be one engaged Member of the House who does not have an awful story of someone being turned down for help when they are so much in need of it. I have a constituent who is a plasterer. I will not mention his name; I will just tell the story. At 50 years of age, he had many years of work ahead of him. He had never been out of work, because he had done a good job all his life. That was his plan, but he has had a number of strokes and has been in the intensive care unit. He has been told that he will never regain enough strength to work and that he will struggle with daily life. His wife is a care assistant in a special needs school, and she has been able to help him in many ways; he never dreamed that he would need that sort of help.

He has been turned down for the personal independence payment. For the life of me, I cannot understand how someone who needs help or daily care from his wife, mother-in-law and daughter has been given no points in that assessment. The system has clearly let him down. I can see the difference, because I know the guy. I have known him all his life. My staff will assist him in his appeal, of course, but I always thought that the idea of the benefits system was to help those in need; the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to people who need help.

Looking at this issue really depresses me. The recent Supreme Court judgment has shown that assessments have not been carried out in the correct way, meaning that 250,000 cases are to be reopened to ascertain whether the correct assessment criteria were used. I am not boasting, but I fill in benefits forms regularly for people and I know the system very well. I have a staff member who does nothing but look after benefit queries, so we are on the frontline. She is incredibly overworked.

It is clear that the criteria have never followed the spirit of the law. The spirit is to ensure that those who need help with daily life can get it, but the reality is that incredibly ill people are being made to feel like liars, spongers or fakers. They are made to feel that they have no right to help and that the world is judging them. From grown men with cancer who require their wives to catheterise them multiple times during the day to those who are severely affected by lifelong learning difficulties and are forced to have their awards renewed and their routines disrupted with assessments, the system lets people down regularly. It needs to be changed. It needs to understand, with compassion, the issues that our constituents face. Yes, I understand that we need to ensure that those who claim are entitled to the system, but the way in which that is assessed needs to change now.

We say this to the Minister beseechingly and with honesty, on behalf of our constituents. We want to ascertain how quickly these changes can be made so that men like my constituent, who feel worthless and embarrassed to claim only to be told that they are not deserving of help, will actually be assessed on the needs that they have now. It is not about the needs that my constituent had five or 10 years ago, but about the needs of the man he is today—the man who needs care for life. He has worked for 34 years of his life in a physically demanding job. When he needs help, he should have a social welfare system that does the job. It should deliver for him when he has a dire need, with changes to his health and personal life.

This debate is so important and necessary. We need an assessment that takes people’s health conditions into account and that understands with compassion why they need help. It should understand the evidential base from their doctor, medical expert, wife, carer, mother-in-law or daughter. That is all the evidential base we need. I cannot for the life of me understand why it is not taken on board.

16:55
Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate. There are two points that emerge from the recent work of the Work and Pensions Committee. First, PIP assessments should routinely be recorded. We know that the assessments very often go wrong—we have heard lots of examples of that already—but we do not know why. They should routinely be recorded, with an opt-out available for claimants who do not want a recording to be taken. All the providers agree with that proposal, but for some reason the Government will not accept it. The Minister’s predecessor gave a number of reasons, which were all valid but all surmountable. Because we do not record the assessments, we do not know what is going on, so the problems just carry on and will not be fixed.

Secondly, the cash provided by PIP is designed to cover the extra costs arising from people’s disabilities. Of course, the amounts will vary from one person to another, but during the Select Committee’s recent inquiry on benefit levels, the New Economics Foundation told us that on average PIP covers only just over a third of the additional income that a disabled person requires to afford a decent standard of living. I welcome the Government’s commitment, in last month’s disability action plan, to set up an extra costs taskforce that will assess those extra costs. Can the Minister tell us when that taskforce will start its work? One practical proposition is to increase the number of levels in PIP—there were more in DLA—so that a better proxy for people’s extra costs could be provided.

16:56
Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to take part in this debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing it. All speakers have made some important points, although, as is often the case, many different strands get mixed up because there is a confusion between WCA, PIP and Access to Work support. That is not a criticism: it is a very complicated system. Before universal credit was rolled out, people—often some of the most vulnerable people in society—typically missed out on £2.7 billion-worth of benefits to which they were entitled, because the system was far too complex. Frankly, someone would have needed a nuclear physics degree to understand it. About 700,000 families were missing out on the support that we all agreed they should get.

I recognise that there are real challenges, which is why this debate is important. That is why the Minister is here and why she was at the Select Committee this morning—a busy day! I welcome the fact that in real terms we have increased by £11.3 billion the support to people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. We must not lose sight of the fact that both PIP and WCA, which are predominantly what we are talking about, were introduced by the former Labour Government.

I pay tribute to all the stakeholders and to all the independent reviews that have taken place. They have delivered hundreds and hundreds of improvements, which have made a difference, but there is still a considerable way to go. Under the old system, just 16% of claimants got the highest level of support; that figure was 32% a couple of years ago, and I imagine it has continued to increase. On mental health in particular, people are now six times more likely to get the highest level of support under PIP than they were under DLA, which often under-recognised the issue. We can also all celebrate record disability employment.

When it comes to making improvements, I have a few asks of the Minister. I apologise, because I asked this at oral questions, but I do not think I was very clear, because I got a different answer. First, when somebody has been assessed for PIP, they get a level of financial support—we can debate whether that is enough—but we do nothing else. If we identify somebody who has a primary health condition, we never signpost them to formal or informal support in their local area. We all know of different groups in our constituencies that support people, but often those who would benefit most are unaware of them.

Secondly, has there been any progress on mandatory reconsiderations? We did a pilot where we proactively reached out to the claimants and asked them to tell us, in their own words, why they were challenging the decision. More often than not, it was because they were unable to get the supportive evidence from their GP or whomever, which we would then assist in securing. Has that progressed? Is it still double? Is it higher? That was certainly an area that we thought would make a significant difference.

Covid fast-tracked our use of telephone and video assessments. We were looking at piloting, testing and introducing them over a decade; instead, we had to introduce them over days. Stakeholders warmly welcomed them, because people did not necessarily have to travel long distances to, in some cases, inappropriate assessment centres. The other advantage is that because the person is no longer tied to a geographical location, they can in theory have their assessment with somebody who has specialist knowledge of their primary condition. Is that what is happening, and are stakeholders involved in training and updating the skillsets of the specialists who would recognise those?

I was delighted when finally we got the special rules for terminal illness over the line; that nearly broke me when I was a Minister. Is there an update on how that is working? By matching the definition in the NHS, we took the period from six months to one year, so we removed the double assessment that was happening. Is there any progress on convincing Scotland that, although it likes to be different—often for the sake of being different—in this area it should have mirrored our view, which was the one shaped by the stakeholders?

I pay tribute to the work the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has done regarding vulnerable claimants. Have we made any progress on asking the person at the beginning of their application to provide the name of a trusted colleague, so that if they drop out or stop responding for whatever reason, we have a trusted point of contact to whom we can say, “The claimant is no longer responding. Are you aware of an issue?” In most cases, it is because their circumstances have changed, but in the absolute worst cases, it would allow us then to chase up support for them rather than them being left behind.

17:02
Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this crucial debate. To boil the debate down to its essence, the situation that disabled people in our constituencies and across the country are facing can be summed up like this: too often, disabled people are scapegoated. Too often, they are treated like dirt. The social security system does not give disabled people the financial support that they not only deserve but so fundamentally need, and that needs to change. Benefits are simply too low.

As we have heard, last week the Work and Pensions Committee published its report considering benefit levels for working-age people and whether they are meeting the needs of claimants. We need to look very closely at three issues arising from that report. First, shortfalls in the support provided through health and disability benefits are found to have a negative physical and mental health impact on claimants, which could in turn affect their ability to work. Secondly, the Committee recommends that the DWP set out a new benchmark for benefits that actually considers living costs. Thirdly, it suggests using the methodology in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust essentials guarantee. Those charities estimate that, even after benefits are increased in April, universal credit will fall short of the money needed to survive by £30 each week.

In relation to the situation facing disabled people in our country, in our society, we need to look very closely at the breaches of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. During the hearing on 18 March, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities accused the UK Government of demonising disabled people and treating them as “undeserving citizens” by preparing to fund tax cuts through slashing disability benefits.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)
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The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. I have a constituent who until 2016 was in receipt of disability living allowance. She was then told to apply for PIP and was rejected. She then went to tribunal and had the decision overturned, and her payment was increased on review. Now, however, in 2024, she has been told that she was never entitled to it and is being pursued by the Department for Work and Pensions for £49,000.

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member has eloquently set out an excellent example of how the system puts disabled people into an appalling situation, as we see in our constituency surgeries.

The United Nations special rapporteurs described the UK’s current policy and practice as

“a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people”,

which tells disabled people that they are “undeserving citizens” and makes them “feel like criminals”, particularly those who are trying to access the social security system. The committee members also cited examples of how the Government had continued to breach their obligations under the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, and pointed to a benefits system that traumatised claimants, leading to some even taking their own lives, increasing rates of institutionalisation, and a disproportionate number of disabled people who are now too poor to heat their homes or buy food.

A survey by the disability charity Euan’s Guide found that 50% of respondents in this country—one of the richest on Earth—were concerned about their energy bills, while 51% were worried about grocery bills. The Government reported in the autumn statement that there would be a consultation on a social tariff on energy, but that was quietly shelved. A social tariff would have helped financially vulnerable consumers and disabled people with higher energy usage. We need to go back to that.

We should all be shamed by the way that disabled people are treated in our country. A real change in direction is needed. We must move completely against the scapegoating and demonisation of disabled people that we see in much of the right-wing media. Disabled people deserve respect, support and a social security system that works for them. We need to move forward in a way that is inclusive, empathetic and supports everyone in our society. After all, we are all equal.

17:07
Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Latham. I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for bringing forward this important debate.

The rationale for PIP and other disability benefits is to create parity between disabled people and their non-disabled counterparts, but we all know that that is not the case. Sense has called on the UK Government to increase PIP so that it truly reflects the extra costs that disabled people feel and face, and to increase universal credit and the employment and support allowance so that disabled people can reach a minimum living standard.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) referenced the social tariff on energy and I hope he will support my private Member’s Bill to that end, because I am not giving up on that either. The UK Government continue to short change the disabled community. I think he was reading my speech because I was going to use the same quotes from the UN rapporteur, but I will not for the sake of brevity. It is shaming for the UK that the rapporteur thinks that is how disabled people are treated by the Government.

In my casework and my engagement with disabled people and organisations, I hear all the time that disabled people feel disrespected, devalued and demonised by the Government and the UK media, which is utterly shameful. One in five people in the UK have a disability and we could all be disabled tomorrow—a point worth remembering. It is time that disabled people had the recognition and support they deserve. We do not even have a disabilities Minister, as has been raised many times; I mean no disrespect to the Minister, but we need a disabilities Minister to focus on this part of the portfolio.

With good reason, there is little trust between the disabled community and the DWP. According to Z2K, since the introduction of PIP in 2013, 76% of claimants have ended up with a better outcome following an appeal, either via lapse or in an independent tribunal. That compares with just 28% at mandatory reconsideration, where the DWP marks its own homework.

This lack of trust in the DWP is why there is so much worry about the health and disability White Paper proposals. The abolition of the work capability assessment is welcome, but it comes with grave risks; it means that there are much higher stakes for people. Half a million people who are not well enough to work but are not receiving PIP are at risk of losing out altogether. It is imperative that the White Paper proposals are halted until PIP can be trusted to deliver reliably the correct decisions. Since 2018, more than 200,000 people have been awarded no PIP at the initial decision, only to be awarded some at the mandatory reconsideration or tribunal. In more than 70,000 of those cases, the individual subsequently received at least one higher or enhanced element. The system does not work.

This is indicative of a system that is not fit for purpose—it forces disabled people to endure gruelling assessments that have huge mental health impacts. It is about time the Government started treating those with disabilities better. I had a constituent who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and who put herself through gruelling trials. When she was reassessed for PIP, they more or less said to her, “Oh, you are still alive. You are supposed to have died.” The mental health impact on all disabled people undergoing this cannot be underestimated.

The hon. Member for—I am so sorry.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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North Swindon.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) referred to the Scottish Government. This is why they started a system different from the one in Westminster—a system that is based on fairness, dignity and respect. They collect the information from doctors and others about the case of the individual who is claiming the adult disability payment. Is that not a better way of doing things? They have VoiceAbility, which helps people to fill in the forms correctly so that, more often than not, they get the right decision at the first point of contact. It really defies belief. I have said this and I keep repeating it: look at what is happening in Scotland. People who have worked for Social Security Scotland that came from the DWP say the difference in how they have to treat clients, how they have to treat people, and how the system works, is like night and day.

The Scottish Government have made a difference with interventions such as the adult disability payment, the child disability payment and the carer support payment. They ensure that both disabled people and carers get all the financial support they are entitled to, which allows them to live with dignity.

I hold quarterly poverty action network meetings. I held the last one on Friday, at which there was a representative from the Scottish social security system. They come every quarter and they are there to help local organisations who work in Motherwell and Wishaw to improve people’s lives—

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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Order. You are only supposed to speak for five minutes.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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Will the Minister please look at what is happening in Scotland and reform this outdated and unworkable system?

17:13
Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate. When he was a member of the shadow Transport team, he joined me in meeting disabled people to discuss accessibility, and he continues to champion their rights in his constituency and beyond. He spoke passionately about stories of his constituents in tears. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) spoke of the challenges that her constituent, Elinor, faced when finding that her benefit had been cut, before being reinstated; this causes multiple problems all the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) spoke about the consequences of an inhumane transfer from DLA to PIP and how Philippa Day sadly took her own life because of it.

I am shadow Minister for disabled people, so it is no surprise for Members to hear me say that PIP and other disability benefits are a regular feature of the conversations that I have with disabled people, and disabled people’s organisations and charities. I can assure the House that even a brief mention of the phrases “PIP assessment” and “work capability assessment” is enough to strike genuine fear into the hearts of many. Disabled people tell me they feel demonised and humiliated by having to explain their conditions over and over again.Quite simply, as many have said, they do not trust the DWP to make the right decisions.

It is not difficult to see how we got to this point. Welfare reforms brought in during the coalition years, coupled with austerity, seemed to have been based on the premise that disabled people are undeserving and out to defraud the system. These moves, coupled with the fact that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, have led to a regression in disabled people’s rights over the last 14 years. That is not just my opinion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) so passionately put it, the UN agrees. I am ashamed to say that eight years ago, the UK became the first country ever to be found to have breached the UN convention on the rights of disabled people.

As has been referenced, Rosemary Kayess, the chair of the UN committee said:

“We find a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people and undermines their human dignity. Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving and skiving off and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people.”

Put simply, the current system is flawed. It is little wonder then that we see so many desperate constituents in our advice surgeries who are afraid that the DWP will take away their income. Quite frankly, we should all be ashamed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) asked the Minister to meet the ME community to look at how we can reform the system. I really hope that she remembers to respond to that point. I know that issues with the benefits system cannot be fixed overnight, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) said—I have heard him say this many times—why do we not just make sure that assessments are recorded as standard? That is a simple thing that can be done straightaway.

A future Labour Government will provide a reliable safety net for people who lose their job or cannot work due to ill health or disability. Where appropriate, we will help people on their journey back into work by allowing them to try paid work without the need for reassessments if it does not work out. We will also replace the current system of work capability assessments with a system that supports people to live with dignity and security. In doing so, Labour will work with employers, trade unions and other stakeholders to support the wellbeing of workers and their long-term physical and mental health. Most importantly, a future Labour Government are committed to working with disabled people to break down the barriers they face in everyday life. We know they are the experts by experience.

17:18
Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank all hon. Members for their invaluable and insightful contributions this afternoon, and in particular the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for bringing this timely debate to the Chamber.

Collaboration remains vital as we address the critical matters that we have discussed today, essential for supporting many in our communities. I appreciate that people are passionate, but the perception of a punitive, divisive culture, and the rhetoric used this afternoon, does not reflect an approach that I or my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) have ever taken or would ever take in our time and commitment doing this job. I want anybody watching this debate this afternoon to feel reassured that whether they come to us through a complaints procedure, or into an MPs’ surgery, or work with one of the charities in this area, they will get the support they need. We at the DWP, as much as anyone else, strive to give the most vulnerable the right support. We have the right policies and the right system in place so that we can be fair to those in need and be fair to the taxpayer, but always listen to disabled people’s voices. I have absolutely been striving to do that in the full-time role that I hold. I am not going to disagree that I have not looked at housing and youth alongside that, but many of the transitions and challenges apply to disabled people as well.

I am very happy to meet the gentleman from the ME community who the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) says needs to meet me. I am also keen to look at Monika’s case, at the case raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), and at other cases that have been raised this afternoon. I say to hon. Members, “Please share these cases with me. It’s no good you only having them in your constituency. It’s really important that we look at them and learn from them at the DWP, so we can get beyond the perception and the feeling that people have.”

I am determined to ensure that I work with disabled people and listen to them speaking about their everyday lives. I was recently in Hastings to discuss our new trauma-informed approach. I will be at the new health model office in Gosport on Thursday to make sure that compassion, empathy and understanding are at the heart of what we do.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
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I am grateful that the Minister has offered us all the chance to share our cases with her, but I hope she realises how many there are. Some of us have raised one or two cases today, but I have literally hundreds and hundreds of examples of things going wrong.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I am very happy to look at specific cases. Only recently, I met one of hon. Lady’s colleagues, with members of the blind community and people with a visual impairment, to discuss how we can learn directly from their experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon made exactly that point.

I have a speech to make, but first I want to respond to some points that Members have raised. On vulnerable people and vulnerable groups who need specific support, will they please look at this morning’s Work and Pensions Committee sitting, at which the Lords Minister and I covered the topic of safeguarding? We have a vulnerable claimant champion; safeguarding concerns are rightly referred to social services.

I am happy to write to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon on the point about end of life. The point that he made about appointees was covered this morning, in recognition of the work that we need to do to ensure that people have the suitable voice that they need and that there is progress in this area. As we speak, we are growing our visiting officers team to 700 to go out and support people in the way that my hon. Friend described, and we are making sure that we go to the people we need to hear from. On the mandatory reconsideration trial, it is too early for definitive results, but there was a very pertinent reminder for me to be dialled into it.

The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), asked about audio recording. We have taken an opt-in approach, but I am happy to go away and look at the specific point that he raised.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The Minister talks about compassion. The medical evidence that has been presented is very clear in what it says. May I ask respectfully whether the staff looking at these matters are trained to understand the medical evidence?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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We have a new chief medical adviser and 4,000 clinicians in this area, with a statutory duty and an understanding that is very much among the learnings that we have gained. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, but if there is more to say, I will write to him. Questions have been raised about how the evidence is looked at and how it works; I am asking those questions myself, individually, and am happy to continue to do so.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
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I am grateful to the Minister for picking up my point about default recording and for her offer to look into it. When she does so, will she bear it in mind that all the companies that provide these assessments favour default recordings?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The companies want to get it right and they are keen to do what is right. I am very happy to look at that, feed back to him my thoughts and pick that issue up in the Department under my tenure.

Of course we aim to make the right decision as early as possible. We recognise that the numbers are high. By the very nature of things, anybody who comes to an MP’s constituency surgery has invariably had a very poor experience; they would not come to us otherwise. That is why I want to take away the particular cases that have been raised today. However, those cases must be seen in the context of overall decisions—

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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Will the Minister give way?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I will give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

With PIP, there were three million decisions from October 2018 to September 2023; 8% were appealed, with 5% cleared at tribunal and 3% overturned. However, I appreciate that the hon. Member for Slough made the point, of which I am very mindful, that none of these statistics are just statistics; they are individual people with individual needs, and we should be very mindful of that.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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I thank the Minister for giving way. Given the time, I would like an answer to one of my various questions. The Government announced extra funding in the Budget for processing disability claims. Can she clarify exactly how that will be used to reduce the huge delays?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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Yes—I am keen to try to come on to that. There were many questions this afternoon and I am trying to get through as many of them as I can.

The chance to work guarantee was mentioned, which will effectively remove the work capability assessment for most claimants; they are already assessed without work-related requirements. That will remove the fear of reassessment and give the group the confidence to try work within the existing permitted work rules in employment support allowance and work allowance rules in universal credit. I am absolutely delighted about what we have done around disability employment. I am keen to do and say more around it, which should feed in again to the process of trying to allay some of the concerns that have been expressed this afternoon.

The proportion of those people in receipt of PIP with a mental health condition who are getting top rates is actually six times higher compared with DLA—PIP is at 41% and DLA is at 7%. I will just point out that customer satisfaction for PIP customers was 77%, with different scores according to different providers; again, I will go away and have a look at that. People being treated with dignity and satisfaction with how they are treated is extremely important to me. Indeed, this morning I raised the issue of disability services complaints. The number has decreased from 2,690 in 2021-22 to 2,330 in 2022-23. I am very mindful again that all of this is about individual experience.

Let me quickly try to canter through a couple of other questions before I close. The hon. Member for Slough talked about PIP clearance times. We have increased the number of case managers—health professional assessment providers—to deal with the increased demand and we have addressed the blend of phone, video and face-to-face meetings, to ensure that it is more centred on service users and is suitable. We have also empowered case managers, where they have robust evidence, to make decisions on award reviews, without referral to an assessment provider, so that decisions are quicker and we can avoid claims going out of payment. I am very much looking at that myself, and the end-to-end claim process for new claims has been reduced from 26 weeks in August 2021 to a current wait of 15 weeks. We are in a better position than we were before the pandemic. That is an achievement that I am proud of. Is there more to do? Absolutely, yes, but again I want those who are watching or listening to this debate to see that this is a big focus.

We are fully committed to delivering on the issues that matter to the British people. This is delivering for disabled people. It is an absolute mission for me in this role to make sure that the most vulnerable members of our society lead decent, fulfilling lives and I will use my time in this role to make sure that I can make the changes that everybody would wish to see.

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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The question is, That this House has considered personal independence payment and other disability benefits.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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On a point of order, Mrs Latham.

Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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There is not time—there is no time.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered personal independence payment and other disability benefits.

17:30
Sitting adjourned.