Occasionally, reality breaks out in the Palace of Westminster, and one reality that has broken out in the past couple of weeks is that the welfare budget is not

2 July 2013 : Column 211WH

going to grow exponentially. Members on both sides of the House, including the shadow Chancellor, have acknowledged that, so we will all have to be smarter, cleverer and wiser about how we work within the parameters of the existing welfare budget, which is huge. The House of Commons Library tells me that the total spent on welfare is forecast to be £204.1 billion this financial year. In 2016-17, that will rise to £218.2 billion in cash terms, or £206.9 billion at this year’s prices, so we will go from £204 billion to approximately £207 billion in three years’ time, and we will all have to work within that budget. Given the opportunity, faith groups have the capacity and ability to do much with central and local government.

3.10 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): The “Faith in the Community” report, which was produced by the Christians in Parliament all-party group in conjunction with the Evangelical Alliance, is important in many ways, not least because it has helped to highlight the sheer extent and value of faith groups’ contribution to local communities throughout the country. Many local authorities acknowledged that they were unaware of the extent of the voluntary work that is often quietly done by people of faith.

As Andrew Taylor, a minister at Union street Baptist church in Crewe, said in a report aptly named “Hidden Treasure in Cheshire East: Faith Action Audit”:

“One of the calls of the Christian faith, as other faiths, is that we should love and serve our neighbours, usually quietly and without expectation of recognition and reward. This does not mean that acknowledgement and appreciation are not welcome.”

That work is often done quietly, so it has often gone unnoticed and unappreciated, and we have not been as supportive as we could be in our local communities or as a wider society, so I hope that the “Faith in the Community” report will go a considerable way towards changing that and helping to build the capacity of faith groups that have a desire to make an even greater contribution to our local communities. I therefore want to use the debate to say thank you to faith groups across the country and to send a message of thanks from the House to those groups for their invaluable contribution in our local communities. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate.

I want to say thanks to the more traditionally recognised groups in our communities, such as Mums and Tots. I was interested to note the name of one such group in my local area—the Little Nutters. I also want to say thanks to those who care for our elderly, support the homeless and provide youth clubs. In addition, I want to say thanks to those who provide newer, more contemporary help, such as the debt counselling work done by CAP, Sycamore Trust’s restorative justice work in prisons, and the parenting classes run by the Let’s Stick Together project, which is promoted by Care for the Family, for couples who have had their first child. Such help also includes enterprise coaching, the provision of office space, IT training and free legal advice clinics.

The drug rehab centre in my church—the Church @ The Foundry, in Widnes—is acknowledged by the local authority to be the best in the area. In the church

2 July 2013 : Column 212WH

grounds, there are also more than 20 bungalows that were built many years ago to house and care for elderly people. That remarkable work has been sustained over decades and has been supported by the fellowship in the church.

Faith groups provide organisational skills, mentoring, language classes, bereavement counselling, anger management and emergency disaster relief—the list is endless. We also see franchise-format voluntary work, and we have heard about the street pastors. Best practice is shared among such groups, and there is also good engagement with local authorities.

A small but significant category of respondents to the “Faith in the Community” report said that local authorities have entered into formal contracts for services with faith groups. One example is the library in Grappenhall, in Warrington. I know the library well, because I was a councillor when the cabinet was deciding what to do with it. It was clear the local authority could no longer sustain it, and I have watched with great admiration as local church members have taken over that community facility and maintained it. I pay tribute to Jan and John Ashby for their work.

We have also seen collaborative work between Redeeming Our Communities and the police. The organisation, which works in some of the most troubled areas of our country, also sustains a youth project in a fire station. That and the other projects I have mentioned are excellent examples of partnership working between faith groups and local and statutory authorities.

However, such good engagement does not always happen. How, then, can local and, indeed, national Government better engage with and support faith groups to develop their voluntary work and undertake it in as professional a manner as possible, as the great majority wish to? The “Faith in the Community” report clearly states that the first step is for faith groups and local authorities to talk and to develop closer working relationships to break down barriers, whether perceived or real. Such barriers might relate to the language used, concerns about motives, local authorities’ concerns that faith groups’ beliefs will be expressed in a way they consider inappropriate, or faith groups’ concerns that local authorities will not be interested in them and that resources and support will not be available to them just because they are faith groups.

Let me turn now to the “Hidden Treasure in Cheshire East: Faith Action Audit” report, which was produced by the faith community and the local authority in which my constituency lies. I pay tribute to Carolyn McQuaker, who spearheaded the report. The clue to what it is is in the title: an audit of the voluntary and community work of faith groups. The report is interesting because it takes the overview in the “Faith in the Community” report, which the all-party group on Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance have just produced, and focuses on just one local authority area.

The audit sent out 246 questionnaires to churches and faith communities, of which 154 were returned. Some 150 were from groups that defined themselves as Christian, while one was from a Baha’i group, one was from a Hindu group and two were from Unitarian groups. It is interesting that although there was a connection between those groups and local authority agencies, such as the council for voluntary service, children’s centres and youth services, only 12.5% of the responding faith

2 July 2013 : Column 213WH

groups said they had any such active connection with their local authority. Faith groups do valuable work, but how much more could be delivered with just a little more engagement, advice and practical support?

As statistics from the local authority show, the reach of the various faith groups and the impact that they have on tackling challenges in our society are immense, and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me while I quote some of the statistics. Altogether, the 154 faith communities that responded are responsible for running 536 projects—an average of between three and four regular caring projects per group. Incidentally, those projects exclude any that are established and held for the purpose of teaching religion, which were not counted in the report. More than 16,300 people engage in those weekly projects. Some 2,239 toddlers and their carers attend 79 groups each week, while 5,087 children and young people take part in 207 projects run for them across the area. Some 1,700 elderly people join in 81 activities, while 2,365 people take part in 64 projects to develop life skills and to help with physical, mental and material well-being. Nearly 5,000 people take part in other community projects.

In addition to the projects run directly by faith groups, their members also contribute regularly to the life of schools. Some 254 members of faith groups are school governors, and there are an additional 89 school projects. Many church members also give time regularly to the life of local care facilities for the old and the young.

If all that work had to be carried out by statutory services, it would require the equivalent of 281 full-time jobs. If those figures are representative of the faith groups in Cheshire East as a whole, 862 projects are being run for more than 26,000 people every week, at a value of many millions of pounds. Of course, that is probably still vastly understated, because many hours go unrecorded, and the figures do not take into account the voluntary time given to activities such as overseeing groups, supporting and managing volunteers and managing the buildings in which events take place.

The “Hidden Treasure” report contains several constructive, practical suggestions to help faith groups to build on their already remarkable contribution. To build capacity, realise potential and achieve best practice, faith groups themselves should work at communicating with, and representing themselves to, the rest of the voluntary and public sector, such as by engaging more closely with local authorities by sitting on local boards set up by, or in partnership with, local authorities. That could help to make the work of faith groups strategic, and prevent opportunities from being missed to develop or follow through an overall vision for an area or a locality.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I was struck by what the hon. Lady said about the proportion of faith groups in her area with pre-existing local authority contacts. Does she think that umbrella faith groups, such as Churches Together or equivalent groups in other faiths, might play a useful role in co-ordinating such links?

Fiona Bruce: I agree. Churches Together provides an excellent way of connecting in many towns. In my constituency, Churches Together in Middlewich has recently launched a good neighbours project, especially

2 July 2013 : Column 214WH

to support those who may be lonely at home, in conjunction with the town council and housing association.

It is important for local authorities to encourage church groups to engage with them. As we have heard, the language used by local authorities can be a barrier, and staff need to be aware of that. Councils might consider developing a dedicated faith-based support agency to enable them to understand the challenges faced by faith groups, to form a bridge to the wider voluntary community services and statutory sector, and to provide a resource to enable faith groups to understand what support from local authorities is available to them. It is essential that communication is improved.

As we have heard, the statutory sector is often not aware of the level or range of activity in the faith sector. Equally, the faith sector is unaware of the scope and scale of issues and priorities that the statutory sector must address, or its plans of action. The two should work together on a common vision and direction, pooling resources on several levels—geographically, in localities, and thematically, such as across the youth work of an area—with the aim of facilitating networks and more effective joint action.

True partnerships of trust should respect and honour people’s values and beliefs, and I shall come on to that at the end of my speech with reference to the “Faith in the Community” report. People working with faith groups must connect with them in a way that will enhance, rather than detract from, what they are doing, and protect the ownership of the vision and worth that motivates people of faith. Perhaps the statutory sector needs a little training and guidance to help it to work in partnership with groups that have a faith identity, to help them to maintain that, and perhaps to avoid the heavy bureaucracy that can be so off-putting to the groups.

Local authorities can also help faith groups to improve their research. Faith groups are often very good at measuring activity, but less good at assessing their own impact. Councils could help them to improve that while respecting the fact that it is often church members who have the closest contact at grass-roots level with those in most need in the community. When I was a councillor, a report was done on our youth work—it was not good. One of the problems was that the youth workers worked 9 to 5, and it was the church youth leaders out on the streets, doing the detached work night after night, who understood what young people were coping with and were the most effective. More such joint working and interaction is needed.

A further recommendation of the “Hidden Treasure” report concerns training. Local authorities have huge resources and expertise with which to provide quality training, which could radically help to build capacity among faith groups. I am pleased to note that Cheshire East council has strengthened its offer of training to faith groups because of the report, and that should enable more faith groups to sustain projects. Often they have the passion and vision to start a project, but sustaining one perhaps takes a little more training, support and expertise than many faith groups have.

In addition, often relatively small amounts of money, compared with a local authority budget, can have a significant impact on faith groups’ ability to expand their capacity. However, many do not want to engage in the commissioning process, which they find burdensome,

2 July 2013 : Column 215WH

and nor do they have the capacity to do so. A little more financial support would be appreciated, and it would also be helpful if there was an annual audit and review of the kind of work that faith groups do in every local area so that we may celebrate and highlight the sector’s achievements and ensure that local authorities can fully engage with their plans and actions.

I said that I would touch on the “Faith in the Community” report, and I want to clarify two points. It is important that guidance should be issued

“that expresses a clear understanding that it is legitimate for beliefs to be manifested”

as faith communities go about their work within local communities

“without implying proselytisation.”

It is important not to confuse the two. Finally, local authorities should provide reasonable accommodation of religion and belief whenever possible. The report states:

“An approach should be adopted that allows faith groups to be open about their beliefs and values, and the practices these encourage, rather than emphasise a privatisation of belief”,

and suggests that practical provision should be made

“for substantive freedom of religious expression”

and belief. After all, that is the very thing that motivates people of faith to undertake the remarkable work that they do.

Sir Edward Leigh rose—

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order. Each Front-Bench spokesman will have 10 minutes, so I shall call Chris Williamson no later than 3.40 pm.

3.27 pm

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The trouble with a debate such as this is that it can be as reassuring and pleasant as a Christmas carol service. We all agree with each other. We are about to hear the winding-up speeches, and I have no doubt that both Front-Bench spokesmen will be extremely polite about faith groups and pay tribute to all their sterling work. We will all go away feeling very happy. However, a more serious situation exists, which needs to be addressed.

I followed what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said. I do not blame the current Front Bench, but undoubtedly faith, and particularly action in faith, and faith groups, have suffered during the past century, because the state has become a kind of giant mustard tree—if we are to use biblical references—and all other activity has gradually been drained of irrigation. Faith groups, like other voluntary groups, have suffered from the attitude of mind that it is the state that must always take responsibility. We can have a wide-ranging debate about that, and we all know the arguments on both sides.

However, there is something much more serious going on, and I want to amplify the two points I made earlier. I made an intervention about the Plymouth Brethren. I think that that is an interesting case, because it is almost a throwback to the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries. There is a religious group whose beliefs, frankly, the

2 July 2013 : Column 216WH

state thinks are weird. Most Members of Parliament either have no faith at all or belong to well established faith groups with broad views. We find it difficult to understand the viewpoint of a group such as the Plymouth Brethren, who, frankly, treat life in literal accordance with the Bible.

As a result, they want to have closed services to an extent, which is their right; they also want to mix and work together and to educate their children in their own schools. That sits oddly with the modern ethos of audit—that everything has to subscribe to general notions of the right way to do things—but we should consider the attack on the Plymouth Brethren by the Charity Commission as an attack on freedom of belief and association, and it is therefore very important. It is important not only for that admittedly small group of people, but for those of us who belong to Churches that are far more numerous, because we are also under attack from the same attitudes.

I mentioned the Catholic adoption agencies earlier, in an intervention on the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). I noticed that he did not answer my question—perhaps he did not want to, or the answer was too difficult. The situation, however, is serious: a mainstream Church was indulging in extraordinarily important work with by far the most difficult families in the country, trying to place children from very disturbed backgrounds with foster parents, but all those adoption agencies have now closed. An important faith group was doing important work that we all lauded and thought was marvellous, but the agencies have closed because the state said that the adoption groups had an ethos that did not fit with its equality ethos. That is extremely worrying.

We have heard a lot about covenants, and we will no doubt hear more. Furthermore, in the wind-ups, we will hear a lot about the good work of faith groups and about how we want to encourage local authorities to work with faith groups. If we look at what is happening on the ground, however, we see that serious things are occurring. We have had a big debate about same-sex marriage, and I do not want to repeat all the arguments, but the Government have been loud in their acclamation that they want to protect the position of Churches. I believe that the marriage services carried out by Churches in their own buildings will be protected, for a time anyway, but will freedom of speech in Church schools be protected? Will freedom of action in Church groups be protected? Those are much more difficult questions to answer.

Frankly, I am not so interested in covenants and all the rest; I am interested in the state leaving faith groups alone. Leave them alone! Let them run their voluntary organisations, schools, Churches and adoption agencies in the way that they want to run them. Often, the way that the faith groups want to run such organisations will be counter to modern, secular ideas of equality. The trouble with faith, however, is that it is often demanding. The books of faith in any religion make difficult demands of people. Sometimes, admittedly, they are exclusive in their demands; they proclaim a particular truth, and it is difficult for all people to subscribe to those truths. Some people may be excluded because of their set of beliefs, but that is the nature of faith. We have to recognise that they have those strong beliefs, whether on same-sex marriage or anything else, and they are entitled

2 July 2013 : Column 217WH

to run their own groups how they want to. In spite of all the warm words that we will shortly hear from the Minister and the shadow Minister, that is not happening, and there is now a war of attrition.

Some people say that the faith groups are whinging and whining and that they live in an entirely tolerant and free country—thank God that we do live in a country that still is largely free and tolerant, compared with many others in the world—but I do not believe that our country is as free for and as tolerant of the faith groups’ views, which are often difficult, as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. No one sitting in the Chamber now can gainsay that point of view. No one can deny that the faith groups, although still largely free to carry on their own services in their own churches, mosques, temples or whatever, are not as free as they were, although they are much freer than in many other parts of the world.

The faith groups reach out to the community with their voluntary organisations. The Charity Commission said to the Plymouth Brethren, “The reason why we want to take your charity status away is that you are not reaching out to the community.” The Brethren know, however, that when they reach out to the community, their beliefs immediately run counter to the demands made on their organisations by the local authorities. Paradoxically, that is why the Plymouth Brethren want to retreat into themselves: they feel under threat from the wider world—their ethos is under threat. Therefore, they want to protect their young people, but, having come to the conclusion that the only way in which they can do so is to educate themselves, they find that the Charity Commission says, “That is not good enough. You are not reaching out to the wider world.” They are in an impossible situation.

I ask only one thing of the Minister. Please, ponder the debate and leave faith groups, their organisations and their ethos alone.

3.36 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, I think for the first time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate, which is important and has been a good and interesting one. I share her exhortation to local government to work with faith groups, which do such a wonderful job in our communities.

I shall touch on some of the comments made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the need to build the capacity of faith groups. That is an important goal to enable faith groups in the community to provide the support facilities that they might wish to see and from which the community might benefit. She also cited a number of good examples of the excellent work that faith groups are doing in her constituency and in the wider area. We can probably all cite such examples of faith groups doing excellent work. She also referred to the partnership activities in her constituency, such as the work of the fire and rescue service with a faith group. The fire and rescue service is doing a wonderful job throughout the country, so it is good to see a collaboration taking place as she outlined. The hon. Lady mentioned a low level of engagement in

2 July 2013 : Column 218WH

some parts of the country, which we need to be mindful of and to tackle. It is helpful to raise the issue in today’s debate as one that needs to be looked at.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has considerable experience in this area, and he does some excellent work. I am sure hon. Members know of his contribution to the whole agenda. He identified the fact that faith groups not only of Christian denominations, but right across the piece—faith groups of all persuasions—do some excellent work in the community. He also highlighted some of the obstacles to collaboration, which we need to tackle.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said that the state cannot be responsible for delivering everything. I agree, but the state has a role, and the debate is all about how the state can work alongside faith groups. Nevertheless, I take issue with him on his point that the state cannot be responsible for compassion: the national health service is the very embodiment of the state showing compassion to its citizens. Similarly, the establishment of the welfare state is an example of the state showing compassion to its citizens.

While it is true that the welfare budget has grown, and the hon. Gentleman made the point that it cannot continue to grow exponentially, we should not expect faith groups and the wider voluntary sector to pick up the pieces, if the cap is set at such a level. In such circumstances, the state should not put the onus on faith groups, but ensure that any cap is imposed compassionately. That means ensuring that employers do not exploit their work force but pay appropriate wages, so that people are not reliant on the state. It also means ensuring that landlords do not profiteer and charge excessive rents, leading to a ballooning housing benefit bill, and that unemployed people are guaranteed employment. By doing those things, we can ensure that no unreasonable burden is placed on voluntary organisations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that having a cap means that it would fall to faith organisations to fulfil the role that the state, rightly, should be fulfilling.

Andrea Leadsom: I think the hon. Gentleman might be slightly missing the point of this debate, which is about how to support and empower faith groups to do more in the community. It is not some kind of political talk about austerity and how it might affect the state’s need to depend on faith groups. He might be looking at the issue from the other end of the telescope.

Chris Williamson: I was merely responding to the comments made by the hon. Member for Banbury, who mentioned the cap and the argument that welfare spending cannot continue to grow exponentially. I was merely pointing out, as the hon. Lady did, that the debate is about how we can facilitate and enable faith groups to fulfil their full potential and work in collaboration. However, such groups should not be a substitution for the role of the state. I think the issue is about a partnership and a collaborative approach—or at least I hope it is. I was responding to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in case there was any misunderstanding about what he was saying, and I simply wanted to put our views on the record.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred to the impact of equalities legislation on the role of some faith groups. He raised the example of adoption agencies that no longer provide a service

2 July 2013 : Column 219WH

because of the imposition of equalities legislation. It is important that all organisations and all of us are subject to the law. I do not think that it is appropriate to say that one particular interest group should be exempt from the law of the land. Equalities legislation is the law of the land, and all organisations, whether they are faith groups or otherwise, need to be subject to it.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the state should leave faith groups alone and let them get on with what they do. That also potentially misses the point of the debate, which, as we have already touched on, is about how local government can work more closely with faith groups, so it is a question not of leaving them alone but of how they can work more effectively together.

Faith groups are integral to the fabric of many communities, and they do some excellent work. We have heard some examples of that, such as youth work, working alongside and providing support to homeless people, food banks and street pastors. That is excellent work. I know that many local authorities value the input from faith groups.

Sir Edward Leigh: I may have expressed myself badly, and I apologise. The hon. Gentleman has obviously misunderstood what I said. I was trying to say that if faith groups are put in a position where they feel that they must be supported by local authorities and conform to the authorities’ ethos—he who pays the piper calls the tune—there is a real danger that they gradually become impoverished in their belief. It will be a kind of vicious circle: as they can survive only because of the money that is provided, they will have to subscribe to secular beliefs and culture. They will lose their very vitality, which is formed by faith. That was the point I was trying to make, perhaps badly.

Chris Williamson: I am grateful for that clarification. That is a pessimistic view, to be honest. In my experience, local authorities work well with faith groups and try to facilitate their activities. A shared approach is a partnership approach, and sometimes there will be tension. Part of the reason for having this debate is, I hope, to discuss that and look at ways in which some of those obstacles may be overcome.

Some of the difficulties relate to a lack of understanding, and to expectations. Indeed, sometimes there is a lack of awareness or understanding between faith groups. It is important that local authorities try to come up with ways of ensuring that such misunderstanding is overcome. There are some good examples of that happening around the country. In my own constituency, the forum of faith groups, which was established by the local authority, works extremely well. It brings all the faith organisations in the city together and facilitates working between different faith groups and alongside the local authority and other statutory agencies.

The work that faith groups do around the country—certainly where they work closely with the local authority—helps to facilitate community cohesion in their areas, particularly where we have umbrella organisations that bring together the different faith groups and provide an opportunity for discussion. I think that that is valued, and I hope that we will see more of that approach around the country.

2 July 2013 : Column 220WH

To conclude, the key is that the work of faith groups should complement, not replace, the role of local government and public service agencies and the services that they provide.

Jim Shannon: I feel that the thrust of this debate among contributors and those who have made interventions is to underline the good work that faith groups do, particularly where the Government have not been or are not working. Surely the thrust should not be that the Government should restrict faith groups, but work alongside them.

Chris Williamson: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. Certainly the Government should work alongside faith groups, and there are plenty of examples of that. There are some examples of their not working so well together, and I hope that we can overcome that. Rather than faith groups doing their own thing and public service agencies doing theirs, much more can be achieved by working together. Where there can be collaboration, faith groups can add value to the public services that are provided by local and national Government.

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman is saying that the work of faith groups should complement, not replace, that of local authorities, but what about, for example, the hospice movement, which is largely voluntary? That is not complementary to, but instead of, local authorities. Does he not see that on many occasions faith groups provide services instead of local authorities, not alongside them?

Chris Williamson: That is a good example, but it does not undermine the general thrust of my point. I am not saying that faith groups should provide services that are already being provided; they are just adding to them. The hospice movement, which the hon. Lady identified, is a good example of an addition that may be provided.

We are probably on the same page; I do not necessarily think there is any difference between us on that point. It is important not only to understand the significant role of faith groups, but to try to facilitate a better understanding between local government, other public service organisations, and faith groups. Facilitating that joint approach would enable the services that are provided by both the public sector and the faith group sector to be much enhanced—

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman has had 14 minutes. I call Mr Mark Prisk.

3.50 pm

The Minister for Housing (Mr Mark Prisk): Thank you, Mr Walker. In the time available, let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate and on her thoughtful, balanced contribution, which covered an interesting range of issues. I think that that has been the case for the debate as a whole.

In a sense, underlying my hon. Friend’s powerful argument was her question of plurality, although I do not pretend to have an immediate answer to that. I totally understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the danger of a society and Government mindset

2 July 2013 : Column 221WH

that becomes ever narrower, perhaps for the best of intentions, but nevertheless does not take account of the fact that there are different perspectives that we need to respect in society as a whole.

I strongly feel that faith communities play a very important role at the local and national level. It is about helping many people to strengthen their moral outlook, and about the way in which such groups help people and provide a service to others, by being good neighbours. It is also about the way in which we help those in genuine need. As several people have said, it is true that Governments of whatever political persuasion have tended to ignore or misunderstand the role of our faith groups, and today’s debate gives us an opportunity. I am a Minister in a Department with a Secretary of State who takes this issue seriously, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) mentioned, and we not only welcome the report, but applaud its contents and the work that it records. As we have heard, Governments have perhaps been cautious in the past about engaging with such things. They have perhaps been wary of being seen to take too strong a role in the direction of certain faiths in a society in which, as has been rightly described, aggressive secularism has a strong and powerful voice. As a Government, we welcome the report and the work of faith groups.

The debate and the report have informed us of the huge range of activities in which such groups are involved. Hon. Members have mentioned food banks, fostering services, the work of CAP debt agencies and street pastors. I have been out with the street pastor group in my constituency. Among the flip-flops and the lollipops, they play an important pastoral role. In my case, that was in Bishop’s Stortford, but the project that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire visited sounds even more exciting. The fact that senior police officers take it seriously and recognise the role of people in the community who give their time to help others is an interesting sign of what can be achieved.

Before I come to the specific questions that have been asked, I will touch on faith groups’ role in homes and homelessness. I have seen marvellous work undertaken, whether that is through the Passage, the Salvation Army, or St George’s Crypt in Leeds. People are making a difference, not only by providing shelter to those who are homeless, but by helping them to change their lives and get back to being able to stand on their own two feet, and that is very much led by faith.

Several hon. Members mentioned the role of Churches Together, and churches and faith groups around them can help new communities as well. In Devon—in Cranbrook, near Exeter—alongside the work that we are doing as a Government with bricks and mortar to establish a lasting community, I was delighted to see the role of the Churches Together, which has ensured that, from the start, there is a minister—not a Government Minister—for Cranbrook, Mark Gilborson, who is helping to bind the community together. Whatever I may do as Minister for Housing, communities will not be defined by bricks and mortar; they will be defined by people and how the community binds together.

Let me turn to hon. Members’ specific points. It is right to say that there has been a perception in national and local government—sometimes falsely, on the basis of misconceptions or fear, but perhaps also due to a lack of understanding—about what faith groups can

2 July 2013 : Column 222WH

be, and of what they do and add. To counter some of the more cautious discussion in the debate, the survey by the Evangelical Alliance, which underpins the report, suggests that things have moved on and that many councils are now positively engaging. There are problems, however. We as a Department are actively involved in ensuring that some problems relating to what is termed overstretch, and to the bureaucracy that can often be overwhelming for small, faith-based groups, can be overcome. It is also important to tackle the problem that even if councils have recognised that faith-based groups are strong, and they are willing to commission services from those groups, we have seen a minority of cases in which they have made it clear to such groups that they need to be quiet about their faith.

The Government do not regard it as reasonable for local authorities to impose such conditions in contracts, even though they may legally be at liberty to do so. We are, of course, not talking about public money paying for specific religious worship—indeed, we all want to ensure that services are open and for a common cause when public money is involved. However, let us face it: the vast majority of church and faith groups are perfectly capable of sticking to those rules. The key point is that people need to be able to be honest about their faith, without necessarily needing to impose it on somebody else. That is the balance that I would encourage councils to consider.

I am not complacent about the challenge, but more can be done to establish a more productive working relationship with some councils, so I want to offer two or three practical points in response to what hon. Members raised. The Evangelical Alliance is planning a series of road shows to bring together church leaders and senior local government officials to work through the report’s findings jointly. The point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) about a covenant might well fit into that dialogue. I am pleased to say that my departmental officials are actively involved in that process, and I strongly encourage councils to take part. In fact, I go further and encourage hon. Members in the Chamber to encourage their councils to ensure that they participate.

There is an issue about the term “religious literacy”. There are ways to improve things, whether that is by starting with those groups who are more actively engaged in the community, or by having, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) suggested, a dedicated officer or councillor who can take the lead, change the culture, open minds, and understand that there is a different perspective, because such a process can start to break down some of the misunderstanding. It is also important that we play a role, which is why we will set up our own seminars that will be deliberately designed to start to look at where there are such gaps and problems, and at what can be done to change that.

Let me turn briefly to the question of the Plymouth Brethren. As hon. Members will know, I need to be cautious, in that the Charity Commission is independent of Ministers and it is not for me to interfere in any individual decision. We should not rush to any judgment about changing the definition of charity. An appeal has been lodged, and I think it will be held in September. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire and others pointed out, the Brethren do good work, as do so many other faith groups. I want the case to reach

2 July 2013 : Column 223WH

a speedy resolution and for both sides to resolve the matter. This needs to be done with open minds, not closed minds.

Several other excellent points have been raised. Inter-faith is an absolutely crucial issue, and the Near Neighbours programme and the £5 million we are investing is important. However, let me conclude by saying that this has been a timely debate. It is right to say that, in the past, some of our faith groups have felt either ignored or misunderstood by both central and local government, and that is why I welcome the report. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who leads on the issue in the Department, will want to take matters further, particularly with regard to how we increase co-operation between councils. Perhaps rather than using my words, however, I may conclude with those of Dr Sentamu, the Archbishop of York:

“Building strong working relationships between local authorities and religious communities should not be based on mere ‘tolerance’. It should be about talking, listening, and growing together. Together, working in unity of spirit, we are stronger than when we try to do things in isolation.”

2 July 2013 : Column 224WH

Digital Exclusion (Glasgow)

4 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

Last week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced further plans to roll out superfast broadband across the UK, so that it will reach 95% of the population by 2017. No one doubts that Government investment in that type of infrastructure is key to promoting further growth; and, in comparison with other parts of Scotland, Glasgow ranks as one of the best for superfast broadband availability and is also benefiting from the Future Cities spending. However, one reason why I have requested this debate is to caution that collectively we may have become too fixated on the rate of installing hardware, compared with the level and depth of usage by our citizens. The two are interconnected, but very often our strategic priorities and procurement policies do not match those needs together. I believe that the Government should do more to link their substantial investment in broadband with investment in citizens’ participation. I hope today, as well as setting out the scale of the challenge, to suggest some practical ways in which the Government could better adapt their policies to provide a more comprehensive strategy.

I have long taken a close interest—I have done so throughout my years in Parliament—in how Government initiatives and policies, whether lottery funds for community groups, the introduction of tax credits or the recent changes in family migration rules, are understood in my local area. Frequently, bureaucracy underestimates or simply fails to understand how, and to what extent, the general public absorb information and application processes. Many Scottish Members will recall the disaster of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, caused in part by officials simply deleting one line of instruction at the top of a ballot form.

During the past year, I have spent more and more time with local groups and community activists, talking about the impact of the digital divide, particularly in relation to those seeking work and the forthcoming introduction of universal credit. Last year, Ofcom reported that Glasgow had the lowest level of broadband take-up of any major UK city. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) is here today. Sadly, it is not a surprise to those of us who represent a Glasgow seat that it is at the bottom or top of a league table for things that are not very good. There are many historical and economic causes of our city’s ingrained poverty, but in the case of digital access, the scale of the gap should result in a call for action, rather than simply a shrugging of shoulders.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The statistics from Glasgow show that up to 60% of people have access to broadband. That means that 40% do not. Given that access to many Government services is online only, particularly with some of the welfare changes, does she recognise that that could pose difficulties for the most vulnerable people in the city of Glasgow?

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend has raised the point that I was going to raise in the next paragraph of my speech—clearly, he must have had advance sight of it.

2 July 2013 : Column 225WH

He has made exactly the right point, because this is a question of social justice, not just access to a certain piece of technology.

Ofcom’s 2012 consumer market report showed, as my hon. Friend mentioned, that only 60% of Glasgow’s households had access to fixed broadband, compared with a UK average of 76%. We know that at-home access is vital to allow our citizens to gain the most value from use of the internet. Against that UK average of 76%, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government, in moving to digital by default from this autumn, are working on the assumption of moving 80% of benefit applications online, but let us dig a little deeper into those figures for Glasgow.

Last month, I was pleased to host a seminar at Westminster with the Carnegie UK Trust, which has recently published a report called “Across the Divide” by Douglas White that is an in-depth review of 200 families in the city and how they are affected by the digital divide. There is much to commend in that excellent report, which is instructive not only for Glasgow but for other areas of the country that suffer from high levels of socio-economic deprivation. It should not surprise the Minister that the author pointed to very similar figures in parts of North Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, which surround the city area, but I particularly draw the Minister’s attention to the charts at the start of chapter 3, which show the gap, in terms of both age and socio-economic groups, between Glasgow and the UK average. For the social group C2—a group that is often affected by our social security systems—the divide is an astonishing 25%. Against a UK average take-up of 72% for that social group, the Glasgow figure is only 47%. What happens when age is added to the equation? In the city’s entire 35-to-64 age group, only 35% have access to broadband in their house.

In some of the most deprived areas of the city, housing associations and other community groups estimate that only 20% of their tenants at most have direct broadband access. However, as the figures reveal, this issue affects all sections of the community and all demographics. There are a multitude of reasons for the gap, and the report goes into them in some depth, but cost is the primary one. For people on a low income, a fixed phone line is now a luxury that many drop in favour of pay-as-you-go mobile phones. As the Carnegie report showed, the monthly communications budget for the city’s lowest socio-economic groups is about £30, compared with a UK average spend of about £100.

The Government’s aim to move to digital by default is certainly doing more to raise the importance of the issue, but there is a real fear that we simply do not have the scale of resources required, not only for hardware access but for appropriate software and access to training and support. This is not a problem for which a one-size-fits-all approach will work. It needs a comprehensive and segmented strategy, with political commitment over the long term.

Citizens Advice Scotland, in a report issued in May called “Offline and left behind”, which included interviews with 1,200 clients, found that nearly 72% would struggle to apply for a job online and that almost half those who said that they would be completely unable to complete a benefits application online said that the main barrier was that they had never used a computer. Research conducted this year by the Prince’s Trust with young

2 July 2013 : Column 226WH

people who fall into the NEETs category—not in education, employment or training—found that one quarter dreaded filling in job application forms online, while one in 10 admitted avoiding computers altogether. As the Minister will be aware, literacy and numeracy levels play a very big part in that.

Having spoken to my local citizens advice bureau, to welfare rights officers and to my own casework staff, who recently attended a demonstration at the local Department for Work and Pensions office, I understand that the anticipated time to complete a new universal credit application is one and a half hours. Moreover, there is no provision to save information if someone wishes to pause the application process. We all have busy lives. There will be times when we are on the computer and we want to pause it, go away and look for some other bit of information and come back to it, but this is the classic “The machine won’t let us do it” approach. Frankly, it is a completely useless IT approach that by now the Government should have banned from any front-of-house application. Even those experienced in these systems are aghast at the complexity of the process.

In addition, as the Minister will be aware, jobseeker’s allowance applicants are regularly instructed to spend multiple hours each week searching online for work, but little assessment has been carried out of the actual availability of free-to-use computers in local areas. Last year, I started to carry out a survey in my own constituency of where free-to-use computers were available and what training or lessons might be appropriate and accessible if people wanted to go online and complete CVs. I then began to realise that I was the only person trying to collate that information and I was eventually contacted by a Scottish Government agency, which agreed to fund the publication of the list, so that we could distribute it to a whole host of community groups and public offices.

Absolutely no mapping has been done of where computer access is available. I know that the DWP is now trying to establish local job clubs in my constituency and many other areas, where people can access computers on an informal basis. That is all well and good, but it has only just begun that process and it takes time for community groups to find the finance, to get organised and to get the equipment—yet we are facing that radical change in a few months’ time. That is why I urge the Minister to scrap the Government’s aim of starting with a target of 80% of benefit applications being made online. It is unrealistic, grossly unfair and runs the risk of vulnerable people losing essential financial support.

What is the alternative target? I am sure the Minister will respond by saying that there has to be a target. We should all want greater online access for our constituents, because it means not only the ability to apply for benefits and search for jobs, but the opportunity to benefit from cheaper utility costs, new sources of information and knowledge and greater connectivity with the wider community. Such targets are useful to measure and drive success, but they need to be based on evidence, with a clear strategy to improve take-up. There are good examples to follow, and I point to the programme that introduced digital TV switchover as an excellent example: it adapted messages for different segments of the public; it worked with all tiers of government and local community organisations to ensure efficient delivery; and it constantly analysed evidence throughout the

2 July 2013 : Column 227WH

project and adjusted its work to suit, to ensure that it became one of the most successful Government programmes of recent years delivering information and change to the entire public.

The question that is always asked in these difficult economic times is, can we find the finance for such work? The answer is yes: to return to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, we need to integrate funding solutions with the provision of the hardware that delivers the service. I suggest that we take a small slice of the funds that we set aside for mass broadband coverage and use it to finance a public community access programme that is fit for purpose.

How do we tackle the depth of the problems faced in my home city? I was struck by the success of a community project that began in Liverpool a couple of years ago, and which has witnessed a substantial increase in usage by the population. There are certainly lessons from its success that we in Glasgow need to learn. Glasgow city council launched a digital participation group earlier this year as part of its new digital strategy, which is good, but we need the UK and Scottish Governments to respond positively to that initiative. Both Governments should look at using Glasgow as a pilot for the wider task of tackling digital exclusion wherever it occurs in the country. We need a comprehensive and segmented approach based on good-quality evidence and clear messaging. We need clear branding, which everyone in the community understands at all levels. The Carnegie UK Trust recommended creating local role models or digital champions.

Government also have a role in assisting local authorities and communities with procurement. Some of our larger registered social landlords, such as Glasgow Housing Association, are piloting special deals for their tenants that directly address the issue of cost, which is good, but given that more and more people are finding themselves in private residential properties or renting from much smaller landlords, we need to extend such schemes to everyone on low incomes. The Government can disseminate best practice, co-ordinate action and ensure that services are delivered to the public we serve. I hope that both Governments and agencies such as Ofcom will assist with a thorough mapping exercise and bring in the expertise and support of the private sector.

I mentioned software and the question of how people with few skills or qualifications can access information on computers if they do not have experience of doing so. We need simplified software that will work for them and to offer support to build their knowledge and experience, rather than just using a couple of apps. Some of the experience has been that those in the lower socio-economic groups, if they have a mobile phone, may use only eight apps in total, so we need to create a deeper and more valuable experience for them.

I appreciate that the Minister has been called in at very short notice to respond to this debate. His colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has advised me that he has a previous and long-arranged engagement with Her Majesty at Holyroodhouse. I well understand why he is otherwise detained, but I should like formally to request a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State in the near future so we can discuss these issues in further detail. I want to be practical today and offer

2 July 2013 : Column 228WH

suggestions to the Government that are achievable and will assist everyone. We do not want people or communities to have a digital divide, but to see a new digital era in which everyone can take part.

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate, speaking in large part to the findings of the Carnegie UK Trust report, on the challenge of digital exclusion in Glasgow. In presenting its findings and some of the difficult and challenging issues raised, she did huge justice to the report. I commend her for the typically practical and constructive approach she has taken this afternoon.

How we involve more people in the digital community is an important subject, which we take seriously across Government. My right hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Scotland are mindful of the issues the hon. Lady raised this afternoon and are aware of the report. Without wishing to make diary commitments on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State, I am sure that he will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the topic in greater detail. I will let him arrange that with her. Much of the agenda we have talked about is devolved, and it is in large part the responsibility of the Scottish Government to address the issues, but I assure hon. Members that the UK Government are working hard to raise the level of digital inclusion across the whole of Britain.

The Carnegie UK Trust report says that Glasgow has one of the lowest broadband take-up rates in the UK, which is true, but we should not allow that to overshadow the progress that has been made in the city. Take-up in the greater Glasgow area increased by 20% between the start of 2011 and 2012, exceeding the Scotland-wide rate of increase, which is closing the historic gap between Scotland’s broadband take-up and the UK average. Catch-up is taking place in Scotland and in Glasgow itself, so we can point to a relatively positive picture, but that does not detract from the gap that the hon. Lady spoke about.

The concept of digital inclusion lies at the heart of the Government’s digital strategy. “Digital by default” is our ambition for Government services, but it is not and will not be mandatory for everyone. It is important to stress to all hon. and right hon. Members that we all need to do our bit to dispel any scare stories or myths that suggest that people will not be able to access the services they are entitled to or claim the benefits they need if they do not have access to the internet at home. I was interested to hear the hon. Lady’s point about not being able to pause in the middle of an online application for benefits. That is the first time I have heard about it. I will certainly look into it, and not only from a Scottish perspective.

We recognise that it will not be possible or appropriate for everyone to receive and manage future payments of universal credit online. The Department for Work and Pensions is working closely with local authorities, to provide access to the benefits system in a variety of ways. As part of that, the Department is sponsoring local authority-led pilots around Britain, including in Dumfries and Galloway and in North Lanarkshire. For

2 July 2013 : Column 229WH

those able to use the internet, but without their own computer, all the Government’s digital services are available through the free internet access provided at libraries, and in this Glasgow is particularly well served, with 33 local libraries in the Glasgow city area offering free internet access. I completely take her point that internet access at home is particularly important for a jobseeker.

Ann McKechin: I am grateful to the Minister for replying in such a positive manner, particularly about the online application form for universal credit—my caseworkers were horrified when they came back from a presentation on it. In some parts of the city of Glasgow, where broadband access is at only 20% and there may be only one small library, there are physical issues with the sheer lack of computers, and that is even if all the libraries in the city provided them. There are queues of people trying to book appointments at the library. They are competing not only with other job applicants, but with other users of library services.

Stephen Crabb: I hear what the hon. Lady says. All I can say in response is that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State meet regularly with Scottish Government officials and Ministers, and with city council leaders as well, and if there is a physical capacity issue, in that there is not enough digital infrastructure for the demand, meaning that people who do not have internet access at home cannot benefit from the publicly available services, they can certainly discuss that with them.

As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) has previously said in the House, all jobseekers claiming benefits have a personal adviser whose role it is to support them back into work. If an adviser identifies that someone does not have the knowledge and skills needed to access online services, they can discuss those needs with the jobseeker and arrange for suitable IT training to be provided. In fact, the Department for Work and Pensions is currently piloting a digital skills assessment tool in four jobcentres in the east of Scotland, which will be used by advisers to assess claimants’ digital ability. I hope that what I have said goes some way in addressing the hon. Lady’s point about jobseekers’ lack of skills in relation to making job applications or accessing benefits online.

The hon. Lady slightly humorously talked about Glasgow being at the top or the bottom of the league table of things that were “not very good”—I think that was her phrase. We should remember, however, that some really positive and encouraging things are happening in the city. I am sure that she and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) will be only too aware of those initiatives, and will have done their bit to champion and support them in recent months and years.

2 July 2013 : Column 230WH

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few of Glasgow’s recent successes. The UK Government are supporting the city of Glasgow to lead the way in using modern technology to support growth and increase sustainability. Glasgow beat off bids from a number of other cities around the UK to be awarded £24 million as the host city for the Technology Strategy Board’s future cities demonstrator project. The university of Strathclyde recently secured funding for two of the UK Government’s catapult centres, looking at offshore renewable energy and high-value manufacturing, which are important sectors for future growth. In 2013, Glasgow overtook Edinburgh in the global financial centres index for the first time, making it the highest-ranking financial centre in the UK behind London, and Glasgow is to host the Commonwealth games next year, which will be a highlight for the whole of our country.

Anas Sarwar: I thank the Minister for listing all those fantastic Labour achievements in the city of Glasgow. May I add another? Glasgow city council has made a commitment to there being free universal broadband right across the city by the end of this council term, and to every single Commonwealth games venue having broadband by the time of the games next year.

Stephen Crabb: The hon. Gentleman must have had previous sight of my speech, because that is the very next sentence. Glasgow city council is planning for a free open-air wi-fi network to be available in Glasgow city centre in time for the 2014 games, and I think we all recognise that that will mark another major step in Glasgow’s progress towards full digital inclusion.

I point to the fact that the recent spending round announcements include significant extra resources to support infrastructure investment and growth in Scotland. That is good news for Scotland, because an increase in capital spending means better infrastructure, greater competitiveness and more jobs, which clearly shows how Scotland continues to benefit from being part of the United Kingdom.

I conclude by saying that we will make a point not only of ensuring that my colleagues at the Scotland Office see what was discussed this afternoon, but of feeding the comments made and the questions asked through to my noble Friend Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform at the Department for Work and Pensions. Some of the issues raised deserve a full response, and we will ensure that the hon. Lady receives that response in due course. I commend the hon. Lady on how she has addressed the issues this afternoon, and the Carnegie UK Trust on its excellent report into digital exclusion in Glasgow, entitled “Across the Divide”.

4.24 pm

Sitting suspended.

2 July 2013 : Column 231WH

Recession (Standards of Living)

4.28 pm

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I think this is the first time you have chaired an Adjournment debate that I have secured, Mr Walker. I am pleased to have been able to do so. As politicians, it is easy to find ourselves speaking about statistics and general trends, but it is important that we take stock and reflect on what it is like to live in our country. What sort of lives are people living? What sort of hardships are they suffering? We have to put ourselves in the position of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society to remind ourselves how much more work needs to be done. We should judge our society on how we treat the worst-off, not on how we treat our millionaires, and we are failing that test.

A key issue that I am keen to stress is that monthly expenses have been bloated by debt repayments and rising transport and fuel costs, leaving families with less spending power. For the fourth consecutive quarter, monthly expenditure by UK families has grown, with current typical outgoings up by 3% since August 2012 and by 22% since November 2011. The rise in living costs has been clearly visible over the past 12 months. Since 2008, the consumer prices index has risen by 17%, but other measures suggest that inflation over that period has been much greater. The minimum income standard used by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that the cost of a standard basket of goods and services has increased by 25%.

Based on those figures, the minimum earnings required to secure an adequate standard of living would be £16,850 for a single person, £19,400 for a working couple and £25,600 for a lone parent. All those are well above the salary of a job that pays the national minimum wage, and they are dangerously close to the average income level in the UK. Although it is true that the average income in the UK has increased in recent years, those figures show that the increase has been accompanied by a disproportionate rise in the cost of crucial commodities. The obvious effect is that standards of living are falling, as people cannot purchase as much of a commodity as previously, meaning that less is spent on luxury items, personal items and leisure goods. The biggest declines in the percentage of people spending on a certain items between November 2011 and January 2013 involve furniture, appliances, clothing, sports equipment, make-up and the motor industry. I am concerned about the broader impact on the economy, as British industry finds that demand in the consumer base is low.

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that pressures on families result not only from the rising cost of food and fuel, but from the fact that most families up and down the country are taking an average £1,200 reduction in their salaries?

Mr Cunningham: I am outlining the consequences of the reduction to which my hon. Friend refers, and I want to look more closely at some of the rising living costs.

The most basic expenditure to affect living standards is surely food. Despite the growth in the popularity of own-brand food labels and budget supermarkets

2 July 2013 : Column 232WH

during the recession, outgoings on food shopping are still rising. Inflation of 3.13% means that a typical family now spends £234 more on annual food bills than they did in November 2011, which puts significantly more pressure on the earnings required to secure an adequate standard of living for the whole family.

An inability to respond to that pressure has left families with an unacceptable standard of living. There is evidence of that across the country, including in my constituency and surrounding areas. Research has shown that about one in five people in the west midlands have to skip meals and go without food to feed their family. Some 70% of families who are suffering from food poverty have to rely on food supplied by schools in the form of free school meals, breakfast clubs and other school clubs. As a result, more than a quarter of families suffering from food poverty are unable to provide all the meals for their children during school holidays. I am sure that we all agree that that situation is unacceptable. If we judge our society on the basis of the situation faced by the worst-off, it is clear that something needs to be done to improve the ability of families to provide meals for their children without having to go without food themselves.

Another significant section of expenditure is on travel. Average rail fares increased by 5.9% in January 2013, combined with inflation of 4.96%. Expenditure on everyday travel has grown more than any other costs since November 2011. The typical UK traveller spends £341 more every year, and the fact that there was a further average price rise in January 2013 means that such rises are likely to continue.

I have raised my objections to high-speed rail elsewhere, so I will not get into that today. After a previous Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), described high-speed rail as “a rich man’s toy”, I have not been assured that we will not see transport costs rise even further to pay for high-speed rail. Travel costs do not appear to be a real concern for the Government.

The increasing prices applied by utility providers are putting significant pressure on households. The resulting energy bills have drained an extra £221 from their budgets every year since this Government came to power. Such increases have caused the cost of living crisis that afflicts millions of families across this country, reducing their ability to secure an adequate standard of living. Those issues are compounded by the fact that, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5 million homes are overcharged by energy suppliers. Yet the Government have backed “business as usual” in the energy market, with energy companies having paid out £7 billion to shareholders, which is a clear refusal to challenge the practices, pricing and structures in the energy market that are causing such difficulties for families and individuals alike.

I believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that energy bills are kept at a manageable level for families. When Labour left office, there were 1.75 million fewer households living in fuel poverty, including 500,000 fewer vulnerable households, because our policies—such as winter fuel allowances, cold weather payments and improvements in energy efficiency through the Warm Front scheme and tough requirements on energy companies —ensured that they could spend the amounts of money required to secure an adequate standard of living, rather than having to overspend on energy bills.

2 July 2013 : Column 233WH

Housing expenditure, and specifically rent, makes up a considerable portion of families’ overall expenditure. As a result, the cost of rent can have a huge impact on a family’s standard of living. The greater the proportion of total expenditure taken by rent, the less the family’s ability to spend in areas that would secure it an adequate standard of living.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this massively important debate. May I point him to a comment made by Donald Hirsch, the author of the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on living standards, who stated that

“the next election is likely to be the first since 1931 when living standards are lower than at the last one”?

Does that not represent a failure of the current UK Government?

Mr Cunningham: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have just outlined the consequences of that.

If the issue about rent is taken as a reflection of the overall situation across society, there is serious cause for concern. On top of that, the Prime Minister promised 100,000 new homes under the NewBuy scheme, but there were just 2,000 by May 2013. Indeed, home ownership has fallen from 64% in November 2011 to 59% in January 2013, which is the result of families increasingly shifting to rented properties. The increasing trend towards renting means that 25% of UK families are now in rented accommodation, which is a significant rise from 19% in November 2011. Meanwhile, rent in the social housing sector has gone up by 26%, and the number of families using social housing, including council housing, has increased from 11% to 15% in January 2013.

According to the debt charity StepChange, the combination of those factors has caused the proportion of its clients with rent arrears to increase significantly— from 5.6% in 2010 to 8.6% by the end of 2012. I would describe rent prices as one of the most pressing problems affecting living standards today, and I believe that it needs to be urgently addressed.

StepChange’s findings about rent arrears bring me to another key element of expenditure that is rising—debt. Between November 2011 and January 2013, average debt repayments increased by almost £20 a month or £240 a year. That is accompanied by a dramatic rise in the number of families seeking help for utility bills and with council tax and rent arrears.

Although overall debt levels have decreased, households are now struggling with priority debts that many were previously able to meet. More than a third of those seeking help from StepChange are in arrears on at least one household bill. I find it particularly striking that clients over 60 have the highest overall levels of arrears and single parents have the highest levels of rent, council tax and water arrears. The sad result is that 78% of StepChange’s clients felt that debt problems had undermined their self-confidence and their ability to support both themselves and their family.

There are plenty of other examples. According to research by Consumer Focus, the number of households in debt to their electricity supplier has increased by more than 25% to 850,000, and the number in debt to their gas supplier has risen by 20% to more than 700,000. We all know how debt can be extremely destructive:

2 July 2013 : Column 234WH

being in debt can affect someone’s quality of life and financial stability. That matter requires urgent Government attention.

That leads me to the related issue of payday loans, which, thankfully, has been debated a good deal recently, so I will speak only briefly on it. Last year, there was a staggering rise in the number of people seeking help with payday loans. More than twice as many people—360,413—contacted StepChange for help with payday loan problems in 2012 than during the previous year. The data show that, on average, a client’s payday loan debt is up more than £400 on last year, and now exceeds their monthly income.

Mr McKenzie: My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. Like me, does he have an increasing number of constituents coming to his surgery who have got into debt? Does he also see an increasing number of shops on his high street offering payday loans?

Mr Cunningham: Like every other MP, I have increasing numbers of people coming to see me about debt. My hon. Friend is right to say that we are seeing more and more of those shops opening up on our high streets but, more importantly, nothing is being done about the television advertising that is leading people up the garden path. Payday loans can have a profoundly negative impact on people’s finances, but the problem is wide as well as deep. In March 2013, a compliance review by the Office of Fair Trading estimated that up to 8.2 million payday loans were made in 2011-12, and that a third either could not be paid back on time or could not be paid back at all. We are talking about some 2.7 million loans that could not be paid back on time, which demonstrates the difficulty and the strain felt by the public with regard to payday loans, and that pressure affects people’s standard of living. I fully support any action the Government take to tackle that problem.

Let me comment now on the backdrop of public sector pay freezes. In the spending review last week, the Chancellor announced yet another cap on public sector pay. He said wage rises would be limited to an average of up to 1% in 2015-16, thereby extending the clampdown by a further year. He also announced plans to seek savings by reforming the system of pay progression in the public sector. The incomes of millions of teachers, nurses, firefighters, council workers and civil servants will be squeezed even further in future.

Furthermore, the long-established and simple principle of pay progression based on experience looks to be the next target. That will be far more complex and potentially damaging to services. I am particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact that the measure will have on equality. Those who will suffer the most from such a freeze in increments will be low-paid women, who tend to have shorter service and not to have reached the full rate for the job. Given the sheer numbers of public sector workers affected by the pay squeeze, the effect on the economy cannot be ignored. Each public sector worker who suffers a continued pay freeze, combined with the rising cost of living, will have a much squeezed budget indeed. If we limit the spending power of such a large sector of the country’s work force that will be sorely felt in other industries.

2 July 2013 : Column 235WH

The Government’s cuts are being felt in many other areas. However, they are perhaps most keenly felt in local government. Local authority services can have a significant impact on people’s lives, and they are being hit very hard by the cuts. In the spending review last week, the Chancellor confirmed that a further 10% in local government funding will be cut. Coventry city council has already lost £24 million of Government grant funding in the last three years and will lose a further £19 million next year. Last week’s announcement made it clear that councils will lose a further £18 million in resources. This year’s budget means that the council can spend £200 less on each resident than it could three years ago. I know that the council is working hard to minimise the impact of such cuts on front-line services, but however hard it works, the cuts will be felt by those who need help the most, and that is the case up and down the country.

No discussion of current living standards would be complete without reference to the bedroom tax. It has been discussed at length in the House, so I do not wish to dwell on the matter now. The Government estimated that 660,000 claimants will be affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy in the social rented sector, and the average loss in benefit is £14 per week. Those affected include 60,000 working-age housing benefit claimants living in the social rented sector in the west midlands at the time of its introduction in 2013-14.

The Government say that if people do not want to face the housing benefit cut, they can simply move into a smaller property, but where are those properties? There are simply not enough smaller homes available in the housing market. Tens of thousands of people throughout England are being forced to suffer a cut in housing benefit because they are unable to downsize. Like many other MPs, I have heard greatly distressing stories from constituents about how they are being hurt by the bedroom tax. I want to make it clear that I am extremely saddened by the tax and very much hope that the Government will review it in future. We should take every opportunity to make the Government aware of the hardship that they are putting many people through as a result of the under-occupancy penalty.

With children spending almost seven hours a day at school, the quality of the school environment has, without doubt, a key impact on their standard of living. In May 2012, the Government announced that work would begin immediately on the priority school building programme, which was welcome. However, of the 261 schools promised, only one has been started. Although the completion of that programme would undoubtedly improve the quality of the school environment for children, delays stand as a considerable barrier to progress on securing a better standard of living for children in our society. Perhaps children’s standard of living could be better secured and enhanced by investing more realistically, and in other ways, in schools.

Finally, let us consider for a moment what should happen to people who come into contact with the law. Unfortunately, that is something that happens to many people during the course of their life and, often they are totally unprepared. Equality before the law is fundamental to our society. Quite simply, we do not want to live in a society in which the rich can win legal disputes by

2 July 2013 : Column 236WH

hiring lawyers, and poor people lose because they have to represent themselves. The Government’s cuts to legal aid threaten that basic equality. Funding has been removed for private family law such as divorce and custody battles; personal injury and some clinical negligence cases; some employment and education law; immigration where the person is not detained; and some debt, housing and benefit issues.

Access to justice through judicial review will be restricted, as lawyers will be more reluctant to take on such cases due to the threat of not receiving payment should the case not get past the permission stage. That also restricts consumer choice for the public. The focus on the quantity of cases, rather than the quality, will lead to more miscarriages of justice, as providers will become motivated by case volume and efficiency, rather than the right to see justice served correctly. There is a good chance that the quality of legal service provided will deteriorate, as the lower fixed fees paid to lawyers under the new proposals cause them to focus on the quantity of cases that they take on, rather than the quality of each case. I am raising the issue of legal aid in the context of living standards because I see treatment before the law and access to justice as an integral part of our quality of life.

4.48 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.3 pm

On resuming

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Through you, Mr Walker, may I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on his comprehensive reply to the impact of the rise in costs of living, particularly on those on minimum wage and below-average wage, whom it has bitten hardest?

I am pleased that the Economic Secretary is responding to the debate. I am conscious of the fact that he was, as a Back Bencher, vociferous in his support of Government policies and he is eloquent in his defence of them, now that he has earned his much-justified elevation to the Front Bench, but I do not think that we will have much by way of change in his reply or, indeed, in Government economic policy, which lies at the heart of the problem of the cost of living.

The three central objectives of any economic policy for a country as a whole have to be, first, to secure growth—without economic growth we cannot achieve any of the objectives—secondly, to secure sound public finances and, thirdly, to ensure that our whole population has a rising standard of living. Those are the three basic social and economic objectives of economic policy. I regret to say that the Government have failed on all those and today we are debating the direct consequence of that.

Denis Healey, a distinguished former Chancellor—I am sure that the Economic Secretary will be aware of this—used to say, “When you are in a hole, the first golden rule is to stop digging,” but all we do is dig deeper. We were promised 6% growth and we have achieved 1%, and we have promises that, by the austerity policies adopted throughout Europe, we will see the deficit eliminated in 2015, but we now face not a small

2 July 2013 : Column 237WH

deficit in that year, but one of approaching £100 billion, and the prospect of eliminating the deficit put off almost indefinitely, but certainly for another three years and, with it, a further three-year squeeze on the standard of living of the ordinary people of this country. It need not happen. Even now, the Government could change course and alter the inevitable further erosion of standards of living in the country.

The Minister will try to blame it all on the previous Government, but that is wearing terribly thin now. The Government have been in office for three years. They own this policy; it is their creation and its failure is their failure. We plead now that the Minister takes note of the harm that this policy is imposing on the country as a whole and on individuals, as my hon. Friend so comprehensively detailed. I hope that we hear some change of tone, if nothing else, from the Minister.

5.5 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate and presenting his case so eloquently. I also thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) for his contribution. I will try to respond to the points raised by both hon. Gentleman.

It is fair to say that we all want to see the UK economy performing strongly. It is also fair to say, probably, that although the hon. Member for Coventry South and I agree on that objective, we differ in our views on how best to achieve those goals. I will do my best to respond to the points raised, but it is only right to point out that when the hon. Gentleman came up with the title for the debate, on the effects of the recession on the cost of living, he must have been referring to the most recent recession, which was the one that took place under the previous Government. As we saw last week, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that not only was that the most recent recession, but it was far deeper than originally thought. Originally, it was thought to be a 6.3% contraction in GDP, which would in itself have been the deepest peacetime contraction in GDP in this country, but it turns out to be even deeper, at 7.2%. No doubt it would have hurt many families throughout the country. This Government are trying to help those families with the cost of living and other issues, and trying to repair the damage done by the previous Government.

Let me talk about some actions that we have taken and the results of those. First, there is a lot to discuss about overall economic policy, but the main point is the deficit—the hon. Member for Coventry North West mentioned it—which is down by a third. We still have a long way to go, but our policies on the deficit have brought economic credibility, which has lowered interest rates to a near record level. In fact, interest rates on Government debt are almost half what they were when this Government first came to office. That has a direct impact on the cost of living for families, most notably through their mortgage bills. If interest rates rose by just 1%, the average mortgage bill for a family would rise by almost £1,000 a year.

It is right to mention the impact on employment of our economic policies. As we heard in a statement from the Chancellor last week, we were told by the shadow

2 July 2013 : Column 238WH

Chancellor and many others that our policies would lead to record rates of unemployment. Some left-wing economists were even predicting that unemployment could reach the record level of 5 million. In fact, the opposite has happened. The private sector has created more than 1.3 million net new jobs in the last three years and employment reached the highest level in history.

We will continue to build on the measures that we have taken, such as, for example, our cuts in corporation tax, which will from next year make ours the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20. Our employment allowance scheme will make it even cheaper for companies to hire employees. I think that we can all agree that more paid employment is one of the best ways to deal with cost-of-living challenges. Of course, we have to do more. We have to do things that put money in people’s pockets and we have focused on that.

I do not have enough time to mention all the measures, but I will focus on three or four key measures that will, I hope, reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are helping families across the country.

Our changes to the tax-free personal allowance, which will rise to a record £10,000 a year by April 2014, are putting almost £700 per annum into the pockets of the basic rate taxpayer. Anyone who enjoyed the 10% tax rate under the previous Government is now effectively paying a 0% tax rate. Anyone working full time on the national minimum wage will find that their tax bill has more than halved because of that single measure.

We have also frozen council tax for up to five years—the term of this Parliament—which will save the typical household some £600 over the period. We have frozen fuel duty, which the previous Government planned to raise year-on-year by inflation plus the escalator. As a result, fuel prices today are 13p a litre lower than they would have been had we continued with the plans that we inherited.

Mr Robinson: The Government have done, or are going to do, a number of interesting things, but is not the bottom line that living standards have fallen? Perhaps the Minister will tell us when living standards are scheduled to improve, rather than another empty, completely impossible Treasury promise. If living standards do not improve, we shall face the first occasion since 1931—that was the last real recession—when a Government have sought a new mandate with living standards lower than they were at the beginning of their term.

Sajid Javid: I would take the hon. Gentleman a bit more seriously if he respected the fact that the policies of the Government whom he supported are the reason that so many people face such challenging conditions on the cost of living. We are doing everything we can to address the damage that was done: the deepest recession in post-war history, the biggest budget deficit of any major industrialised country and the largest banking bail-out the world has ever seen. That was our inheritance, and he would get a lot more respect if he accepted that the policies of the previous Government were damaging and are the single most important reason why people are facing such challenges in relation to the cost of living.

In the time remaining, I will address a few points raised by the hon. Member for Coventry South. He was right to mention payday loans. There is evidence that

2 July 2013 : Column 239WH

some families, despite the action we have taken, are turning to payday lenders to meet their monthly bills, but he also rightly recognises that the Government are taking a lot of action, both on their own and with the regulators. As he knows, the Office of Fair Trading has been responsible for regulation in the sector until now. We have introduced a step change to that regulation, which will now be under the Financial Conduct Authority. The FCA will be a lot more pervasive, and it is a regulator with teeth. Payday lenders will feel the hand of the regulator on their shoulder. Yesterday, I attended a summit set up by the Government with lenders, charities and other interested groups, and the head of the FCA made it clear that he will not hesitate to take action. He has broad powers if he sees further evidence of consumer detriment.

Finally, distribution and fairness have also been mentioned. Before 2010, the richest 20% of society contributed about three and a half times as much in tax as they received in public spending; that has now increased to about four times as much. In fact, in every year of

2 July 2013 : Column 240WH

this Parliament, the rich will pay a greater proportion of income tax revenues than they did in any one of the 13 years under the last Labour Government. We have taken steps to ensure that the most vulnerable groups on low incomes are protected against the effects of the economic circumstances. For example, pensioners have seen above-inflation increases to their state pension, and the introduction of universal credit will make 3 million households better off, the majority of which will come from the bottom two fifths of the income scale.

I once again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He obviously and quite rightly feels strongly about the issue, which I respect. As I said at the start, we might have different views on how to address the issue, but I fully respect that it is very important to him and his constituents. I assure him that we understand the financial pressures that hard-working families are facing, and I also assure him that we are taking what we believe are the right steps to help.

5.15 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).