It is my view that we must start with the child if we are to tackle child protection. I have a huge amount of respect for the work that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has done on children in the immigration

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1219

detention system over several years. He will know from that experience that some children are at higher risk of harm, including migrant and trafficked children, children with disabilities, child offenders and children in care, to name just a few of the groups that I have worked with over the years. It is important that there is a focus on those children from a Department whose primary focus is the protection and welfare of children. Many of the Departments that come into contact with those children have responsibilities that conflict with children’s welfare and safety. It is therefore essential that the Department for Education takes the lead on child protection. I would be grateful for that assurance from the Ministers who are present.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said so compellingly about the importance of communicating with children, listening to them and believing them. I spoke recently to a group of brave, articulate and inspiring teenage girls in Bradford who had been through the court process. The stories that they told me about what had happened to them and how they had been treated by some, although not all, front-line professionals will stay with me for the rest of my life. It had scarred them deeply.

I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said about support for parents. One young girl told me, in heartbreaking terms, about how she still cannot talk to her mum, who is a single mum, about what happened to her because her mum cannot believe that it happened to her child without her knowledge. We need to do much more to support parents if we are to support children.

I also endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said about the courts. I recently met a group of young boys and girls in Nottingham who had been through the court process. One of them had repeatedly been called a liar on the witness stand. When I asked her what she had said to the barrister who was calling her a liar, she said, “You weren’t there. You can shut up.” I endorse those words. I am proud that she had the courage to say that to him. I could not have put it better myself.

The court process had put those children through hell. They had seen the collapse of their cases. They had been called to court several times not knowing what to expect and had then found that the case would not be heard. They had also been told that they would be able to use separate entrances and exits, only to find that they were next to the entrances and exits the people who had abused them were using, and that they were coming face to face with them and their families on the way in and out of court. We should, and must, do better.

I want to mention briefly the explosion of victim blaming we saw over the summer. A 13-year-old girl was labelled

“predatory in all her actions…sexually experienced”

by the lawyer Robert Colover after she was sexually abused by a 41-year-old man, and the judge took into account that she looked older than her age. A former newspaper owner said that under-age girls were throwing themselves at adult men, and newspaper columnists dismissed a 31-year-old teacher’s sexual abuse of a child

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1220

in his care because she was just a few months away from turning 16. We have to start challenging these attitudes in public.

There are many things we can do. First, we need to support the social work profession better. In a recent survey of 3,000 social workers, a stark picture was painted of intolerable work loads, unqualified staff assessing children, social workers unable to spend time with the children they were tasked with protecting, and thresholds being revised upwards so that, as one social worker said, “Amber is the new green: children who need and ask for our help are being taken away.” We have to take this issue seriously.

I was disappointed that the Government did not take on board our call for sex and relationship education to be made available in every school. We need to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and resilience to withstand pressure, and to understand what constitutes acceptable behaviour, including online. We have to get better at preventing, rather than tackling, child abuse. Only 6% of funding in this area is spent on prevention. That is not a smart use of money—it is also an absolute waste of children’s lives and we need to sort it out.

The role of hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments in the abuse of children has recently come to public attention. Many Members will know this from their own constituency experience. When police and local councils strongly suspect that abuse is happening, they do not always have the tools they need to tackle it. There have been a number of reports of on-street grooming across the country, including in Oxfordshire and Rochdale, in which young people’s accounts of sexual abuse contain repeated references to hotels and B&Bs. In one case, the police came across reports from other guests at a hotel on the website TripAdvisor of young girls being abused by older men. That abuse had not been reported to the police by the hotel or anyone else.

Hotels and B&Bs were also the location for child sexual exploitation in up to one third of sites visited by the deputy Children’s Commissioner, in her inquiry into sexual exploitation which reported last November. I checked with the Library and it seems that hotels have no specific legal responsibility to register guests under the age of 16—only guests over the age of 16. All they have to do is ask for their name and nationality, so it is hard to track who is using them and when. They do not require a licence to operate unless they sell alcohol, and are under no specific obligation to report child abuse, although they do have general health and safety obligations. That is not good enough.

Tackling this issue is essential, but not straightforward. It would make no sense to tie up the hotel industry in a complex system of regulation that may not protect children. We know that those who do not recognise their responsibilities will often find ways to avoid them. However, we cannot continue with a situation where some businesses are turning a blind eye to child abuse without any redress whatever. I would like the Minister to make a commitment today for the Department for Education to establish a cross-departmental working group alongside those who work in the industry—hotels, child protection experts, the police, local councils and others—to explore how the legal regulatory framework can sensibly be strengthened to protect children. We know that we have to do more to protect children, and this is one area where we can and should do more.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1221

2.4 pm

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): We are at greatest risk of dying a violent death when we are less than one year old: in 36% of cases of serious child abuse and death, the victim is less than one year old. Child protection, therefore, stems so much from poor relationships that are set up in the very earliest days of a baby’s life. My serious concern is that while we do so much as a society to try to defend children and young people against the evils perpetrated against them, we are just firefighting. We are seeing an increase in the number of appalling abuses, and Members in all parts of the House have talked about them, but we are not doing something about stopping the causes of the appalling experiences that adults have that make them go on to abuse children. I put it to the Chamber that nobody invents becoming a paedophile, a child abuser or a sociopath—people are not born paedophiles. They become paedophiles as a result of horrifying experiences they have when they are extremely young. This is called the cycle of deprivation. It is absolutely the case that early experiences will go on to determine what sort of person we become.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He and I have worked on children’s issues for a very long time. I recall him holding a children’s summit in Parliament in 2003, at which I talked on the subject of early years intervention on the day the Victoria Climbié report was published. I would like to read out the comments of Peter Beresford, the professor of social policy at Brunel university, which form the introduction to the 2003 parliamentary inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié:

“The inquiry must mark the end of child protection policy built on a hopeless process of child care tragedy, scandal, inquiry, findings, brief media interest and ad hoc political response. There is now a rare chance to take stock and rebuild.”

From that day to this, while neuroscience shows us that all of our later responses to life are set out by our earliest experiences, we in the political world have failed utterly to recognise what we do to a baby in the first two years of life. In that crucial perinatal period—from the moment we are conceived until we are two years old—80% of our brain development takes place. Our infant brain at two years old is 80% of the weight it will be as an adult. If we imagine the correlation with our limbs, we would be walking around at the age of two with great big long arms and legs like a teenager, but with the body of a two-year-old. The brain development of human beings is astonishing—1 million neural connections are made every second in the first year of life.

We cannot separate a baby’s brain development from its earliest experiences, which are a function of the relationship between the baby and the primary care giver, and that relationship is a function of the primary care giver’s own earliest experiences. What we do time and again is to deal with the consequences of what the red top papers call the evil sadistic paedophiles, the abusers, the criminals and the psychopaths. We fail to see that 25 years previously, when the evil, cruel, sadistic paedophile was a baby, they were probably being evilly, cruelly and sadistically treated. That is the cycle of deprivation, and the sooner the Government acknowledge and accept that, the sooner we can take more steps to try to reverse an epidemic that is becoming worse.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1222

We are seeing an increase in levels of basic post-natal depression, where parents who cannot cope and do not get the support they need, do not give their baby the loving attention the baby needs. While such babies do okay, when they grow up they will not be able to cope with life. They might become a bully or a victim at school, or they might just muddle on through, but when life throws something at them—they lose their job, their boyfriend leaves them, or they do not have any friends—they struggle to cope, because they do not have the emotional resilience that comes from healthy development. I am sure everyone in the Chamber has seen the neuro-images of the brain of a child aged three who is securely attached. It looks, to use very technical terms, like a lovely cauliflower. If we then look at the brain of a three-year-old child who has been neglected or abused, it looks, to use another technical term, like a shrivelled prune. The developmental consequences of failure to attach can actually be seen.

What is incredibly important about a baby’s brain development is that when it is born, it does not have a prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the bit that looks like the cauliflower or the shrivelled prune, but it is not there when babies are born. There is a huge growth spurt between six months and 18 months, which is stimulated by the loving care giver saying, “Aren’t you gorgeous; you’re so beautiful; I really love you”—I do not mean you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but please do not take this as a personal rejection; I am merely trying to give you an illustration. That stimulation—saying “peek-a-boo,” singing songs, talking to and mimicking the baby, looking into its eyes—sparks the growth of the baby’s prefrontal cortex. The baby learns that the world is a good place and that things are fine generally. The baby thus learns to be extraordinarily resilient.

Are we not lucky that so many of us in this Chamber have had the benefit of good-enough parenting? It is not about being perfect, but about being good enough. What we do not recognise as a society—and this certainly applies to the Government—is that there is a raft, even an epidemic, of people who, temporarily or permanently, have utterly impaired abilities to form relationships. That is usually the result either of their earliest experiences or of the temporary post-natal depression of their mothers. Between one in seven and one in 10 women suffer from post-natal depression. That means approximately 100,000 babies being born every year whose need for attention to their earliest needs is not altogether met.

The consequences for the mums are terrible. I have known countless parents coming to me to say how utterly guilty and distraught—in some cases, suicidal—they felt about the fact that they did not really love their baby and did not really feel happy to be a parent. We all know that it is supposed to be the most wonderful thing that ever happens to a person, but we do not necessarily all feel that at the time. Feelings of guilt can be absolutely there.

At the moment, we do not do enough to look after that problem. We have a midwife who ensures the safe delivery of the baby and if it is premature, millions might be spent on neonatal intensive care; if necessary, we will fly baby in a helicopter all around the country to make sure that we keep it alive. If, however, a mother has a full-term, perfectly healthy baby but she is severely mentally ill—as a result of hormonal imbalances or for any other reason, such as a disastrous past—a complete

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1223

postcode lottery applies as to whether that mother will get any support or end up killing herself and the baby, as we see all too tragically and all too often.

I shall wrap up my speech. I would like to end with the thought that if we are serious about child protection, we need to have a real revolution in support for the perinatal period.

2.13 pm

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). She is extremely knowledgeable about these matters, as are other hon. Members, perhaps much more than I am. I am brought here as a result of a terrible and harrowing case, which has recently shocked the whole nation—the death in Coventry of Daniel Pelka. His parents, now both serving life sentences, having been convicted of murder, were living in my constituency.

Let me make it clear to all my hon. Friends, two of whom I know are qualified social workers—[Interruption.] Three; I am grateful for the correction. I was impressed by that fact, and I know that these colleagues have been at the sharp end, where things seem to go wrong. What I shall convey today are just my impressions—they are not informed by a depth of study—but I shudder to think what the frontal cortex of Daniel Pelka must have looked like after he was killed by a hammer blow to the head at the age of four and a half. I know that the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire is involved with early intervention—a crucial area—and I think she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) held a press conference about it this morning. We cannot leave matters at that, however, or think that things do not happen thereafter. In this particular case of Daniel Pelka, the young boy was going to school in Coventry.

My first impression, then, is that somebody needs to get a real grip on the serious case review. I looked closely at the baby P case, when the then Secretary of State with responsibility for children and education was presented with what he thought was a very poor serious case review from Haringey council. I feared that the same would apply in Coventry, so I pleaded with the council for some element of public accountability. This is a public issue, and I have been astonished by the wide geographical spread of the letters of support I have received since Daniel’s case became public. I have been sent letters from right across the kingdom on a scale that compares with almost any other topic during my long period in this House. This was a public case; I made the case, and then one saw the resistance building up among officials and politicians about having the issue opened in that way.

I was reassured because the new leader of the council, a long-standing friend of mine, issued a very good statement following this case, making her position clear. She said:

“I promise we will not absolve ourselves of responsibility. We’ll not shirk any difficult decisions we will have to make as a result of the review, and we will deliver any changes needed. We will be honest and transparent in the way we do this.”

I am sure she means that and that she will do that. The problem is, though, how good will the report be? Can it

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1224

really be brutally honest and transparent about what happened in this case? At the crucial period—aged between three and a half and four and a half years old—a young boy was going to school while his parents were inflicting cruel physical abuse on him. It is difficult to come to terms with the sheer evil involved in starving this poor child and then literally hammering him to death. There was not even a motive for it, unlike in some cases where psychological factors might be at play or previous unfortunate personal experiences might be responsible. The motive in this case seems to be sheer evil; that is what appears to have driven these parents.

In circumstances such as this, it is natural for those responsible to recoil and not to want an outside independent view on their performance in the case. The council did not accept the case for that; it went for a standard SCR. I do not know how Amy Weir will perform as the chair of the Coventry local safeguarding children board. Let us wait for the review; I do not want to prejudge it. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that we will have it. It has not taken long; it has not been one of those protracted reviews that lose all topicality by the time they are published. Unfortunately, public interest issues tend to go in waves. That said, we should get the result on Tuesday next week. I might then have further occasion to comment on it here.

We do not expect answers today, but I would like the Minister to say whether he is entirely satisfied with the present system of serious case reviews. Is there not a need for a more independent element to be built into the process right from the beginning? The importance of independence inevitably arises when one sees the nervous, cautionary reaction—aimed at self-preservation—of those involved in such cases. I know that a teacher of Daniel who reported aspects of this case subsequently had a nervous breakdown. The issues and effects are not purely one-sided.

My second thought for the Minister is that although co-ordination between the different departments is obviously necessary—all the departments have to be educated—if we adopt the principle that everybody is responsible, what happens in reality is that nobody takes responsibility. This is where things became unstuck in Coventry. Nobody seems to have felt, “Gosh, this is my case. I have got to look after this. I am responsible.”

We heard the Chairman of the Education Select Committee say that the lead organisation was the Department for Education, which I understand still includes responsibility for children, but that was not clear in Coventry. The first thing several councillors said was that they needed to find out who was responsible—social services or education? In the end, it seems to have been education. I understand that the report has already been sent to London education departments. I hope that it was not for vetting, but as a courtesy—we shall see. It seems odd that those most involved do not see the report, but that the Department for Education sees it in its finished state before it is made public or before it is even shown on a confidential basis to MPs and others in the area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said that Members of Parliament should take an interest. We should and we do, but although we can take initiatives, it is no good expecting us to be effective. I raised the issue of Daniel Pelka with the department, and was assured that it was in hand. The

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1225

next thing we knew, the boy was dead. MPs do not have a locus. We can highlight, push and prod, but we must recognise the limitations of our own abilities and responsibilities. So the second thought that I want to leave with the Minister is whether we can ensure that the lead responsibility is much more clearly established where it matters, which is within local authorities. We must of course co-ordinate the police, social services departments and education departments, and all other interested departments, but unless the lead department is clearly identified, we shall not secure the positive reaction and the intensity of interest that such cases clearly demand.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Robinson: I am sorry, but I will not, because I think I have only three minutes left. On another occasion, I shall be delighted to do so.

May I leave the Minister with one last thought? Since I have become involved, through the Daniel Pelka case, in an issue on which I must confess that I had not been active in the House before, I have been lobbied—I do not know whether we are still allowed to use that word, but I have certainly been contacted and briefed very heavily—about mandatory reporting by various good organisations, including the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, which I believe is well respected. I do not know whether the Department has considered the issue, but, because time is short, I will send the Minister a fuller brief on it, along with some background notes which I hope his officials will look at and at least reply to.

I realise that this is replete with all sorts of dangers, particularly on the legislative front—unintended consequences and all that—but those organisations deserve at least an answer. They have been campaigning long and hard, and I should be grateful if the Department would examine the issue and think about whether anything can be done. I presume that some sort of amendment to the Childcare Act 2006 would be required, although I am not sure what it would involve.

Can we have an answer? Can those organisations have an answer? I have raised this matter on their behalf, and I hope that the Government will consider it seriously. Let us see what they really think about it.

2.22 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting a debate on this important issue. In my speech, I shall concentrate on the issue of sexual abuse of children in religious institutions. I have met survivors of abuse and their advocates on a number of occasions. They endured terrible suffering, and they seek justice. They have called for an independent commission of inquiry into the sexual abuse of children by clergy in religious institutions, not just in schools.

A public inquiry or similar process would undoubtedly bring the systematic abuse of children into the open, and would outline the lessons of their experiences. An inquiry would highlight the betrayal and abuse of trust by religious institutions—institutions that are meant to look after the spiritual and moral welfare of children.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1226

Time and again, children and vulnerable adults were betrayed by those whom they trusted. Even today, victims struggle to be heard. Known abusers are defended by senior clergy. Some parents prefer to believe the priest rather than their own child. There are cover-ups, witnesses are fearful of coming forward, and members of some faiths are reluctant to go to the authorities because they do not belong to the same faith.

I have looked into the issue in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on child protection, and have concluded that, while it is essential for us to find some way of ensuring that victims are heard and believed, a public inquiry may not be the best way of ensuring that we do what we need to do to protect children today. I support other Members’ call for an overall inquiry, and indeed I have written to Ministers about the issue, but now we can do better. The Government can show that they are listening and understanding by addressing current failings.

Reasons for sexual abuse are found not in the teachings of any faith or religion, but in individuals who take advantage of the power, position, trust and authority vested in them by an institution. There is evidence that faith leaders are taking some steps to ensure that cases are not covered up, and that they are establishing robust safeguarding policies that includes support for victims. There have been changes in the way in which the Catholic Church and the Church of England deal with sex abuse cases, especially following the Nolan report and the more recent Butler-Sloss review. The Bradford Council for Mosques and the Bradford safeguarding children board have worked together to produce a paper entitled “Children do matter”. The Methodist Church has a safeguarding policy, and has issued a joint statement with the Church of England on guiding principles. The Methodists are undertaking a systematic review of sexual abuse cases dating back to 1950, in order to establish exactly what happened and what the response was. That is an excellent move, which I would like other faiths to emulate. Lessons can be learnt, and our children can be better protected.

However, there is also evidence of continuing denial. Recent reports have suggested that a year ago, Cardinal Keith O’Brien blocked a similar review of abuse in the Catholic Church in Scotland. We need to look at the behaviour of faith institutions, and to ask whether the proposals for change are sufficient and the pace of change fast and widespread enough. We need to understand that part of the abuse by people who represent faiths stems from the fact that we expect more of them when they are looking after our children. This is not just the abuse of trust that we see elsewhere; it is a fundamental betrayal of the beliefs held by members of those faiths.

Organisations, including religious organisations, can and must do all that they can to protect children, deter paedophiles, and ensure that perpetrators are stopped and face justice. They must change a culture that minimises both the prevalence of abuse of children and its effects. I was disturbed to discover from the internet that an organisation called Catholic Voices, which seeks to portray the Catholic Church positively in the media, is minimising the issue of abuse by Catholic priests. Its argument is that it is much more prevalent in society in general than it is in the Church. Does it not understand that organisations which are in regular contact with children must ensure that those who work with children in their name are

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1227

their responsibility? Those are astonishing statements from a religious organisation that should be doing all it can to prevent abuse. Contrition and action are what is needed, not denial and deflection.

It is not just the Catholic Church that needs to do more. The Church of England has only just apologised for the scandal of the abuse that took place in Chichester, and there are worrying reports from other faiths. A new book by a Muslim woman describes abuse that she suffered at the hands of her imam, and there has been a Channel 4 documentary about alleged cover-ups by rabbis in some Jewish communities. However, this is not just the responsibility of religious organisations. We must ask whether the law and the guidance are sufficient to protect children in religious institutions today. Are we being complacent, and therefore complicit, when we say, as the children’s Minister said in a letter to me,

“we encourage organisations to continue to improve their practices to ensure that today’s children are kept as safe as possible”?

The duties of all schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of children are made clear in the Education Act 2002, which—along with additional guidance—places a statutory duty on all schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and states that all schools should have a child protection policy and child protection procedures in place. The re-launched guidance entitled “Working together to safeguard children” states that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, which is welcome. Safeguarding is clearly the responsibility of everyone, particularly those who work with children. However, the list in paragraph 8 of the introduction makes no specific mention of anyone who holds religious office. The only mention of faith organisations appears at the end of chapter 2, which deals with organisational responsibilities. Faith institutions must be in the mainstream throughout documents on safeguarding.

Two other documents, “Safeguarding children and safer recruitment in education” and “Dealing with Allegations of Abuse against Teachers and other Staff”, specify a duty to report abuse that is proven, but the institution concerned can make a judgment on whether there is not a case. Clearly judgments must be made, but we also need to have better oversight of the systems in schools and a mechanism to check that cases are being reported appropriately.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Given the tragedies that have occurred in the Catholic environment, I hope the hon. Lady has not overlooked the fact that the hierarchy of England and Wales, through the Archbishop of Westminster in particular, has set up a safeguard arrangement, which is being followed through effectively.

Meg Munn: What I am saying is that it is the role of organisations to do precisely that, but I am coming on to question whether faith organisations are taking that seriously. When an organisation within the Catholic Church puts on a website the other side of the coin on abuse and talks about minimising it, surely we can expect our faith organisations to say, “Not in my Church, not by my priests,” and to do everything they can to ensure that, rather than saying, “Well, it’s not as bad as it is elsewhere.” That is not an acceptable attitude and speaks of denial and deflection. That is what I am saying.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1228

I know that the Department says that it does not specify in relation to faith schools because they can be of different types, but I worry that this is not clearly understood by those who run faith organisations. The make-up of local safeguarding children boards as set out in section 13 of the Children Act makes no mention of religious organisations and “Working Together” is silent on the issue. The Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation action plan contains no specific action to work with religious institutions to address the issue. We treat religious institutions differently when we do not name them.

I believe there is more we need to do. The children’s Minister in correspondence with me has said he believes that mandatory reporting—the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) —is already in place. He states that any organisation must refer cases to the Disclosure and Barring Service and failure to do so is a criminal offence, but this relates only to issues about staff. Is it really clear, particularly for religious organisations and voluntary organisations, that they must report suspected instances of abuse to the relevant agencies?

Some countries have mandatory reporting, and I know that that is not the answer to all the problems, but I understand that those campaigning for mandatory reporting are outraged, as we all should be, that a perceived gap in legislation means that a more senior member of a religious organisation believes that it is all right to move the person on, or ignores concerns, or makes up their mind to deal with the matter in house. This is not acceptable.

Child abuse is the scandal that we must tackle. I fear that the Department for Education is complacent and must urgently review law and guidance to ensure that it is an explicit requirement on religious organisations. Specific reference to all religious and faith institutions and their duty to safeguard children and vulnerable adults must be made in all appropriate legislation and guidance to leave no room for ambiguity. We cannot be reluctant to deal with the problem for fear of accusations of discrimination and prejudice. We owe it to children to take action.

2.32 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on setting the scene and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on her contribution. They told us what this is all about.

I can well remember my boys as children watching Jimmy Savile in “Jim’ll Fix It” and wanting to have their dreams come true by meeting him. I am glad they never had their dreams come true. I cringe every time I think about that loathsome person. His name is a reminder of the fact that we have lessons to learn, and a year on the question, through this debate, is whether we have learned those lessons. As MPs we all have constituents coming to us with issues of children who have been abused, or who have a partner who has abused them. Sometimes the allegations are true; sometimes perhaps they are not, but we have to advise on the correct way to handle those situations and the right people to see, and we do that.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1229

We read the horror stories in the NSPCC report, which stated that more than half a million children and young people are estimated to have been a victim of maltreatment by a parent or guardian last year and, indeed, every year. All of a sudden the magnitude of the problem becomes very real. There is still a part of me that thinks that that figure cannot be right. How could it be? How could half a million children and young people be maltreated every year? We are a civilised country. We have a high moral code. Can that happen? The problem is that the figure is all too accurate for known cases, and I am shocked at how many children do not get a real childhood. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) underlined the importance of the early years of childhood and the bond between mother and child. Too often in those half a million cases the bond between mother and child or father and child has not been real. Had it been, perhaps we would not have had such cases.

When we think of our own childhood, we remember the scrapes we got into with our brothers and other children and the tellings-off that we got, but underpinning everything that happened to us was a mum and a dad who loved us and were prepared to try to guide us. The thought that so many children in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole do not have that understanding saddens me greatly, and it makes me more determined as a Member of Parliament to ensure that adequate protections are in place for our children.

As I read the report I became more shocked to understand that for every child who is known to the authorities as being abused and on the register, there are another estimated eight children who have suffered maltreatment. Fifty-six children were killed last year, which is still more than one a week. Other Members have outlined those cases. More than one in five children experience serious physical abuse, sexual abuse or severe physical or emotional neglect. Things must change and we must move on.

Since the recent Savile case and the other child exploitation cases that have been mentioned, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood has had a 60% rise in referrals, cases and phone calls. The NSPCC reports that calls to the helpline have increased from 44,500 in 2011-12 to 51,000 in 2012-13, and more recently it has reported an 84% rise in sexual abuse referrals during June and July 2013 compared with the same period in the previous year. People are more aware and they are coming forward. So what are we going to do to help? I know that there are stringent rules for working with children. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) referred to the need for Churches to respond positively, and I agree wholeheartedly.

I want to describe what we are doing in Northern Ireland, because it is important that a marker is put down. Churches have introduced a code of conduct and are specifically addressing the issues. I give the example of my own Church, where we took a stand on the need to do those things. In my Church anyone who works with children in any shape or form must attend a yearly child protection seminar and be police-checked every few years, but is that enough? Is there enough understanding? When I listen to some of the women who have worked with children voluntarily for years, they say they are saddened that they can no longer pick up a crying child and put them on their knee to comfort

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1230

them. They must get down to the child’s level, pat their arm and speak soothingly. The bus driver must be very aware of these issues and cannot be alone with a child. If he is hugged, he must step away quickly, ensuring that someone else has noted his physical reaction. These rules may seem extreme to some people, but they are what the Churches and other bodies that work with children feel they must do to ensure protection from those who in the past have abused their positions or abused children.

The more reports I read concerning abuse, the more wary I see we must become. One of the NSPCC’s recommendations is something which I know many Churches and youth clubs are having their leaders trained in—that is, detection and quick action. The NSPCC report says:

“We need to look at the behaviour of institutions, public services and professionals where failure to report concerns has prevented action from being taken either to protect or intervene at an earlier stage. We need to encourage them to discuss and report their concerns about child abuse to ensure no more children slip through the net.”

How true that is and what an onus it places on each of us in this place and on every person who works with a child. We have to be aware of such things and there must be measures in place to help with raising this awareness. There must also be support for victims, which is sometimes forgotten, but it is underlined by reported cases. We see that in our constituency work as MPs. People should be trained not only to spot the signs of abuse, but to help to deal with it.

I recently arranged a seminar in my constituency. I brought people from Barnardo’s down to the local town hall and invited all youth leaders, Churches, teachers and community workers in my area. They were given an insight into what signs to look for and what to do once they had suspicions. More than one teacher told me that they had learned something new. It gave them an awareness of what happens and also taught them what to do next.

Perhaps the Minister could suggest what additional funding will be made available to the regions of the United Kingdom so that people who work with children can be given the opportunity to receive training on how to deal with child abuse issues, because they do not always know what to do, when to do it and how to do it, and we need to be aware of that.

Child protection seminars tell us who to report to if we have suspicions that a child is being abused, but we are not trained in how to deal with the situation afterwards. That must be offered to people who give up their time to teach children or who give them a safe place to play or hang out with their friends. Will the Minister give us an assurance that additional help will be made available so that people can receive that training, which could make all the difference to the life of a child?

Time has beaten me, Mr Deputy Speaker, and there is so much more to say. Although steps have been taken to address child protection, I believe that a lot more can and should be done. People should be aware of the signs, know when to flag something up and, more importantly, know who to flag it up to. We need the involvement of the community groups, the youth clubs, the homework clubs, and the Church organisations such as the Boys Brigade and the Campaigners, which are run by unpaid volunteers who have a love for their

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1231

children. We cannot afford to have voluntary sector organisations become so frightened about what they can and cannot do and so unsure about how to raise suspicions that they pack it all in. A little bit of knowledge can made a difference to the life of a child. Rather than merely saying that each organisation should have a child protection officer in place, we should be making available the training to ensure that all those who work with children know the signs and the next steps to take.

I see my constituents who lovingly give up their time to work with children, and that little bit of attention can make all the difference to a shy child. It can help with their education and make them feel loved. We should ensure that the voluntary sector has all the help and support it needs to help and support children. This House shines better when we agree on issues. Today we all agree on this, and we will agree on a strategy. I urge everyone to put their shoulders to the plough and see that we get the work done for the safety and protection of child and adult alike.

2.41 pm

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): I start by echoing everything my colleagues on both sides of the House have said and hope that the Government will listen to our recommendations, because there is so much agreement on the themes that have been discussed and the changes that need to be made.

I am hugely proud to be the MP for Rotherham. The town has an esteemed industrial history, a strong sense of community and many reasons to proclaim its civic pride. We have a multitude of success stories in manufacturing and small business, as well as three leading further education colleges. However, for some time a shadow has been cast across the town in the form of persistent allegations of failures by key institutions to protect our children. The allegations have been coupled with prosecutions for child sexual exploitation in the town.

The term “child sexual exploitation” is used to cover a broad range of illegal activity, from seemingly consensual relationships or informal exchanges of sex for attention, gifts or cigarettes through to very serious organised crime. Young people can be subject to physical and sexual violence and can be put at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Their families can suffer threats, violence and significant psychological distress, disruption and even fragmentation.

Peer-on-peer child sexual exploitation happens too and can take various forms. For example, young people are sometimes used to “recruit” others by inviting them to parties where they will then be introduced to adults or forced to perform sexual acts on adults. Technology can also play a significant role, with young people being cajoled into using mobile technology as a way of distributing images of abuse.

It is vital to understand that both perpetrators and victims can come from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Child sexual exploitation is not a crime restricted to British Pakistani males or white British girls, despite the media coverage of high-profile cases. Indeed, recent findings have highlighted the fact that girls of Asian origin are frequently the subjects of this heinous crime themselves.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1232

There is also a perception that child sexual exploitation only affects children in care. Looked-after children do account for a disproportionate number of the victims of sexual exploitation and can be particularly vulnerable. An estimated 20% to 25% of victims are looked-after children, with only 1% of the child population being in care. However, the majority of children who are exploited are still living at home when it happens.

Another false perception is that it only affects young women. In truth, boys and young men are also targeted. The full extent is not known as boys, in particular, are highly reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, one in 10 of the young people receiving support from Barnardo’s for this crime are boys, and in some services the proportion is significantly higher.

It is also important to acknowledge that women can be perpetrators of this crime. For example, in a case currently being tried in Sheffield the alleged gang leader is a woman. Although such examples are rare, it is more common that female involvement is in facilitating the abuse. The inquiry led by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that when women and girls were identified as perpetrators, their role was primarily, although not exclusively, to procure victims. The sad and hidden truth behind such activity is that there is often a cycle of abuse at work, with many of those women and girls having been sexually exploited themselves.

There are no reliable figures for the total number of children experiencing sexual exploitation. The collection of data is a huge issue and there is no standardised system for data collection, something on which the Home Affairs Committee has made several recommendations. However, child sexual exploitation is being unearthed wherever it is being investigated. Further work by the Government is required to determine the full extent of the problem. In addition, the importance of all agencies sharing information in the interests of child safeguarding must be addressed. Currently, children are vulnerable because information is not always shared between them. We must move away from the excuse of confidentiality when it comes to protecting children. A child’s safety must be the priority.

Much has been written in the press about how Rotherham is not doing enough to protect its young people from this horrendous crime. I can assure the House that since being elected I have worked closely with South Yorkshire police and Rotherham metropolitan borough council to find out whether our young people are getting the protection they deserve. It is totally inaccurate to say that Rotherham is doing nothing to prevent this crime and prosecute abusers. Although more can always be done, and by the council’s own admission it has not handled historical cases well, I now believe that there is a commitment and drive by the services in Rotherham to protect every child, and I welcome the fact that the council has commissioned an independent inquiry.

Lisa Nandy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way despite the short time available. I just want to reflect on the fact that sometimes it is the areas that have experienced these horrific crimes that are getting to grips with the problem and becoming leaders in dealing with it. Perhaps a lesson for the House and for Ministers is that we need to look closely at those areas

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1233

where such awful cases have not come to light and ensure that they are doing the same things that my hon. Friend talks about in relation to her constituency.

Sarah Champion: I appreciate my hon. Friend making that case. As I have mentioned, wherever we look we find such crimes, but a lot of people are not looking, and that is my worry.

It is important that services are open to external scrutiny and are accountable to the people they serve. From my research, it seems clear that the only way to tackle child sexual exploitation is by services working collaboratively. The key focus must be on preventing, protecting and pursuing: preventing young people from becoming a victim; protecting those who show signs of being at risk of becoming a victim; and pursuing those who commit such horrific crimes. Realistically, local authorities, the police, the voluntary sector and health and education services all need to share their experience, data and resources if they are effectively to tackle and prevent this crime.

Rotherham works collaboratively. Its child sexual exploitation service includes specialist child abuse police officers, social workers, specialist health workers, parents, youth workers and voluntary sector representatives. Its aim is to reduce sexual exploitation through deterrence and prosecution, and it significantly enhances the effectiveness of all agencies through joint information sharing, planning of assessments and investigations. I am pleased that Rotherham has adopted that working method but extremely concerned that it is not a requirement across the country. The current situation means that whether a local area has a good support team is genuinely a postcode lottery. That is not good enough, because it means that children are being put at risk unnecessarily. I urge the Government to make multi-agency safeguarding hubs a requirement in every area.

I have spoken about data collection, collaborative working and statutory requirements, but what this debate is really about is children and young people being abused. The effect of sexual exploitation on a child or young person can be long term and highly damaging. It can lead to difficulties in making and sustaining relationships with others, feelings of worthlessness and shame, loss of confidence and low self-esteem. It is essential that we always remember the victims of these crimes and do all that we can to support them. These are young people whose childhood has been stolen from them, and their future, if handled incorrectly, could be damaged too.

We need to ensure that the process of addressing the crime does not become another form of abuse. I was horrified to find out that a Rotherham victim had been on the stand for seven weeks during the court process. That is unimaginable to me, and it should never be allowed to happen. The victims should automatically be given counselling and as much support as they require. Indeed, I would extend that to ensure that the whole family received support, as the damage caused by this crime can spread widely.

On a personal level, I am interested in determining whether existing legislation is appropriate for tackling the crime, and I will be working with Barnardo’s on this topic in the coming months. I am also supporting the campaign led by Paula Barrow and assisted by the @Mandatenow coalition calling for a “Daniel’s law”, which would make it mandatory for professionals working

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1234

with children to report signs of possible abuse. As my colleagues have mentioned, four-year-old Daniel Pelka was starved and beaten over a period of months before his death. Staff, teaching assistants and others at his school observed his desperate attempts to forage for food, his severe weight loss and the numerous bruises and injuries he suffered. There is currently no legal requirement for anyone working with children in the UK to report suspected or known abuse either to the appropriate local authority officer or to the police. Without such a law in place to support staff and protect children, effective safeguarding will never be achieved. However, this is not only the responsibility of professionals. Local communities play an essential part in identifying not only those at risk but those who have the potential to commit these crimes. We all have a duty of care to be diligent and to report suspicious behaviour to the police. Unless we do so, this vile crime will continue unchecked.

2.50 pm

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak today and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing the debate to the Chamber.

I am aware that much of today’s debate has focused on the protection of children from sexual abuse, but I would like to highlight some of the generic failures in our child protection system, as it is those failures that often lead to the poor detection of such abuse. The question of how to protect our children from significant harm has troubled successive Governments since the abhorrent murder of Maria Colwell. Sadly, the fact that her murder was followed by that of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and more recently Daniel Pelka indicates that, despite the best intentions, the system can never be infallible; nor can it account for the horrors of human action.

Children have a wealth of professionals involved in their lives, and child protection is very much in the public psyche, yet opportunities for intervention and successful safeguarding are often missed because social workers, police, teachers and health professionals are operating in highly bureaucratic, constantly restructured and underfunded services to such a degree that they inherently retreat into their own cultures and service demands, instead of fostering good, robust multi-agency practices.

The constant scapegoating and poor image of the social work profession has also permeated the minds of the public and the wider agencies to such a degree that social work knowledge and expertise are often undermined. Each decision a social worker takes as a lead professional has to be ratified and agreed by a number of other professionals, some of whom have not even met the child concerned. It is easy to see how children go unnoticed in such an adult-led agenda. All too often, the result is that social workers have to placate courts and other professionals, and meet management targets, to such a degree that children are not seen as frequently as they should be, and as a result are hurt, injured or, in extreme cases, murdered. The lack of communication between agencies was cited as a contributory factor in the deaths of Maria Colwell, Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and Daniel Pelka. Maria was murdered in

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1235

1973, and Daniel in 2013. The tragedy is that, despite 40 years having passed, the reasons cited for their untimely deaths are still the same.

Lord Laming’s inquiries into the deaths of Victoria and Peter resulted in the Labour Government introducing the Children Act 2004, the “Working together to safeguard children” document and the “Every Child Matters” White Paper. In early 2010, Professor Eileen Munro was asked to review child protection procedures. The recommendations in all those reports are largely sound, and are ones that most professionals would subscribe to. The difficulty each time has been that the implementation has not matched the vision, and the progress on the recommendations has been incredibly slow.

The inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on social work published this year states that

“the social work picture is one of deteriorating, not improving, children’s services departments, excessive bureaucracy working against, not in support of practitioners, IT systems that are not fit for purpose, dangerously high caseloads for too many social workers, low morale and concerns about a disconnect between the reform agenda and those on the frontline”.

Since 2010, the system has been further weakened by Government cuts to a number of organisations that would have been able to alert services to potential abuse and offer another layer of monitoring for the high-level cases in which children are at extreme risk. The Munro review recommended more preventive services, yet those services are disappearing under the same Government who asked for the review.

In a time of unprecedented local authority cuts, the reality is that of shifting thresholds. For some children who are deemed at risk, cheaper options are being touted—options that would maintain them in the home in a risky environment, as opposed to the high-cost option of placing them in foster care, where they would be safe.

What worries me further is the uncertainty over probation services. Multi-agency public protection arrangements are forums that manage high-level offenders, including child-sex offenders and those who pose a risk to our children. The Government’s plans for probation are unclear. Concern has been expressed to me that, among other changes, multi-agency public protection arrangements might be outsourced to different areas of the country. That would mean a child-sex offender, perhaps in my constituency, being monitored from Leeds. That would be unacceptable and would place children at high risk of harm.

Child protection is about early intervention. The first three years of any child’s life are the most vital to cognitive and motor development, yet Sure Starts that specialise in that area are being closed across the country. Studies completed by Professor Harriet Ward of Loughborough university highlighted the incongruence between the rights of the child and those of their parents and carers, and the lengthy court processes that can delay pertinent decisions regarding a child’s welfare in those early years.

The principle in the Children Act 1989—maintaining a child at home or in the family unit—is well meaning, but has often in practice resulted in chronic and long-term neglect being overlooked. I have witnessed first hand the devastating effects of children being maintained at

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1236

home for too long, being in limbo in foster care and awaiting adoption. Sadly, at times, the window for adoption, if that is deemed the best outcome for a child, has closed while their case has been locked in care proceedings for too long. I therefore welcome the news of proposed changes to the public law outline, which will ensure swifter conclusion of care proceedings, although I am concerned that the Government do not grasp what is happening on the ground.

Most local authorities and courts, in anticipation of the change, have been working towards swifter conclusions within the impending proposed 26-week time limit, but I suggest that the majority of authorities will struggle to do that. The average time given by the courts for a parenting assessment is 12 weeks, and assessments for wider family members can take just as long. I wonder whether that rushed decision making has worsened the situation of the children in those authorities that have achieved those time scales. I would be interested to see the repeat cases that come back into the court arena.

A 26-week time scale might be achievable in isolation, but when most social workers are operating with difficult IT systems in bureaucratic, target-led, underfunded environments with case loads beyond safe levels and reduced legal support, all these changes are doing is increasing pressure and leaving social workers with less time to do what they are trained to do—work effectively with children and their families.

Simple, clear systems and less paperwork, backed up by sound legislation that accounts for the fluidity and reality of working in an environment that is not static and recognises that not all children fit one box, as well as a halt to the onslaught of cuts, would go some way to easing the pressures in our child protection system and minimise the risk of further tragic harm being done to our children.

I would like to leave this thought with the Chamber: how many times as Members of Parliament do we truly see the results of the child protection legislation we pass? This is a closed and specialised area. I have seen it at its best and at its worst. Now I am in this place, I hope to contribute to making our child protection system the best it can be, so that we can minimise the chances of further harm being done to our children.

2.59 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), both of whom have done a great deal to ensure that the matter is on the agenda. I congratulate them on securing this important debate.

I have had a long-standing interest in child protection, through my time as an Islington councillor—I chaired the neighbourhood services committee, which dealt with some of the worst outcomes of the child abuse scandals in Islington council—and my three years as Home Office Minister responsible for the protection of vulnerable adults and children. This is an ongoing issue.

Following my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), I rise to speak particularly about issues of witchcraft and possession, and how they affect child abuse in this country. I pay tribute to AFRUCA—Africans Unite Against Child Abuse—and particularly

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1237

to Debbie Ariyo, who set up that charity and does a great deal to ensure that families affected by the issue, and professionals, get support. AFRUCA raises awareness, and provides information, education, and advocacy for victims and families, as well as other services for families. I know the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is aware of its work and has supported it.

The 2001 census suggested there were 587,000 Africans living in the UK. That was surely an underestimate, and the number has definitely increased in size, due partly to birth rate. However, among Africans of all nations, who contribute so much to our country and particularly my constituency, we have also seen a belief in witches come with that migration. Whether it is “ndoki” in Congolese, “jinn” in Tanzania, or the “aje” or “awozi” of Nigeria, the concept of witchcraft has taken root in some churches in my constituency and elsewhere.

I do not have time to go into all the details of this horrific crime, but once a child has been identified as a witch, they may be subject to psychological and emotional abuse, physical abuse to “beat” the devil out physically, and in some cases families send their children back home to be dealt with—teachers sometimes discover that through bruises on the body. There is often neglect and isolation from others, sexual abuse as a result of that neglect, and lack of protection. Often, violent exorcism is carried out by a faith leader. Some of the bogus pastors identified by AFRUCA charge families money to exorcise, and sometimes use violence to do that. There can be real shame, which often leads to domestic abuse. For example, a father might be told that his child is possessed and that the mother is responsible or is also possessed. The shame on the family is such that domestic violence can result in the home.

There are many aspects to the issue that I do not have time to cover in total. Some research has discussed ritual abuse, but estimates for the extent of that are sketchy and it is not what I intend to focus on today.

The suspicion of witchcraft is not exclusive to African communities, but it has come to my notice partly through my African constituents. Traditional beliefs and some Christian beliefs often include belief in a spirit possession, and factors that can increase suspicion, such as poverty due to a lack of jobs and success, lead to increased accusations of children being involved in witchcraft. The main issues identified by AFRUCA involve the far-reaching devastation caused by accusations of witchcraft, some of which I have touched on. They include the vulnerability of communities to rogue pastors—I mentioned charging for exorcism—and the belief that the issue can be dealt with within the community is powerful and difficult for the Government, or anyone, to penetrate. I will ask the Minister some questions on that in my concluding remarks. There is also a lack of protection for vulnerable families.

AFRUCA has been trying to work out the extent of the problem, and estimates there are about a dozen serious cases a year. From January 2011 to February 2012, 11 cases were identified, including one of a child with cri du chat syndrome who was accused of possession and physically abused. I know that in Nigeria there is a book that explains to pastors and others how to identify children who are possessed, including children over six months who are crying too much. The book would be illegal in the UK, but it exists and, given travel backwards and forwards, it clearly influences some people.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1238

I am pleased that the Education Committee report of late 2012 touches on witchcraft, but it is only one small section of the report. I do not criticise the Committee for that, but it is perhaps a reflection of how the issue is still not widely understood or reflected in society. Too often, perhaps, it is seen as an issue affecting one or two small communities, when its effect is wider than that. I also welcome the fact that the Government have a national plan to tackle abuse linked to faith or belief, although I hope that the Minister would acknowledge there is still a long way to go and that we cannot solve this from Whitehall. However many edicts come from Whitehall or changes are made to the law, they will not solve the problem in those communities where the shame of admitting the problem is very great.

The Government’s plans do not penetrate into the Churches in my constituency where such abuse might be occurring, and it is also difficult for me to do so as the Member of Parliament. I have talked a lot to religious leaders and intend to do so more, especially with some of the smaller, individual Churches set up by individuals, without a hierarchy. I have also talked to the religious leaders of hierarchical Churches in my constituency, including the Church of England, because they are often the first to meet and talk to victims after their own pastor has suggested a price for exorcism or diagnosed possession. The Church of England’s own diocesan exorcist is based in Hackney and she will carry out an official exorcism if other priests in the area have not had success through conversation and prayer with the people who have come to them for help. I stress to the Minister that it is at this very local level that these issues come out and, in all the work that he and his colleague with responsibility in this area do, they will not have direct links to this activity—how could they?

It is really important that in any action we find ways to get down to the most local level so that problems can be identified and immediate and swift support made available, whether that is a small amount of finance, access to expertise or knowing when to refer, so that it is not put in a box marked too difficult to deal with or—worse still—“Culturally sensitive, so we can’t go there.” Nothing can trump the need to tackle child abuse, and nothing is culturally sensitive when it comes to the protection of our children.

The Government need to work out how to reach those small Churches, and we all have a role to play in that as elected Members. The previous Home Office Minister with responsibility for child protection issues did not believe that faith leaders should be vetted or, if necessary, barred. I would like the Minister to clarify today whether that is still the view of the Home Office, or whether faith leaders should be vetted like others who work regularly with children.

In July I visited Nigeria—I chair the all-party group on Nigeria—and met the federal human trafficking agency. Nigeria is the largest source country of trafficked people and many of these children, but it is often difficult to prove a case because of the witchcraft issue. People are frightened of reporting things. The issues of witchcraft extend beyond our borders, but because children and women are trafficked into this country we need to make sure that we have robust strategies for dealing with that, as well as for working with the Nigerian Government. I shall say no more about trafficking because today’s debate is about the more specific issue

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1239

of child abuse, but I have some questions for the Minister. He may not be able to answer all of them today, but I hope that he will write to me and other hon. Members with the answers.

How many individuals on the boards of our various child protection bodies—I do not need to spell out which they are—have direct experience and understanding of ritual abuse, witchcraft and such matters? In my experience as a Minister, those individuals were very inexperienced in those issues. What is the Government’s position on the vetting and barring of ministers? Will the Minister update the House on the workings of Operation Paladin and whether he has any plans to extend it? Who on the national body that he chairs on the sexual abuse of children has a real understanding of witchcraft? If this is to make any difference to many of my constituents, we need some understanding built into the system. What work are the Government doing with Churches, both mainstream and smaller—and especially those run by individuals—to promote best practice and collaboration, and to offer help if a church comes to a council or another body for support? That is key to getting to the nub of the issue. When people want help they should get it, and if they are doing the wrong thing they need to be challenged by law and prosecuted if necessary.

3.9 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate, in which we have heard excellent and well-informed contributions from both sides of the House. It has been one of the best debates in which I have had the privilege to take part in the House of Commons.

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is leading on the issue of child protection for the Government today, and I am pleased that the children’s Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—has sat through the debate as well. In the previous Government, the Department for Children, Schools and Families took the role of co-ordinating a cross-Government approach to children and tackling child abuse, and it took that very seriously. It was interesting to hear the Chair of the Education Committee question which Department is now in the lead on the issue. I hope the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will reassure us about that in his response.

I am concerned that if the Home Office is the lead Department, it is falling a little short in providing the necessary co-ordination between Departments at national level and between different organisations at local level. For example, the Department for Education has only just appointed a chief social worker, has disbanded its expert working group on sexual exploitation, and no longer has a lead person on violence against women and girls. The Department for Communities and Local Government is failing to provide the support or resources needed for effective operation of local safeguarding boards. The Department of Health is failing to intervene to stop the confusion about where child protection responsibilities lie in the reformed NHS structures.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1240

Mr Graham Stuart: I am unaware of the point that the hon. Lady makes about the Department for Communities and Local Government failing to provide properly for local safeguarding boards. Will she expand a little on that?

Diana Johnson: I will say something about the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has produced a report in which it says that local safeguarding boards are not fully able to perform the duties they have been given. Part of the problem with that is around funding. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point.

I pay tribute to the excellent contributions made by hon. Members this afternoon. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke with enormous knowledge and expertise as a former children’s Minister, and gave a long, grim list of what has happened over the past 12 months. He called for an overarching inquiry into child protection to pull together the recommendations in the plethora of reports and inquiries that have taken or are taking place. He also referred to a model in Australia that is well worth looking at.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport—such a doughty advocate for children—raised the importance of communicating properly and effectively with children, especially in relation to issues affecting child witnesses. She gave very good examples of how that can be done.

The Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), spoke about some of his Committee’s findings, including on the issue of neglect and the challenges it presents to local authorities, the issues facing older children and young people, and the thresholds for intervention—all important issues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) spoke incredibly powerfully about Operation Bullfinch and the horrific crimes in Oxford against children and young people, and the need for progress to be delivered for real change in child protection. He called on all Members of the House to find out what is going on in our constituencies.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) spoke about his long-standing interest in care proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) spoke with great knowledge and made a passionate case for a clear lead in Government for child protection, as well as raising the important issue of the use of hotels and bed and breakfasts in cases of sexual exploitation.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) spoke about the need for early years intervention, and gave a memorable, graphic description of a child’s brain—a lovely cauliflower if the child was nurtured, and a shrivelled prune if the child was being abused. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) spoke about the appalling case of Daniel Pelka and made a plea for clear lines of responsibility to be identified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who has great experience of child protection issues, spoke about abuse within churches and religious faiths and the need for such organisations to face up to what they need to do to put their houses in order.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1241

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the need to provide awareness training, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke knowledgably about issues in her constituency and the need to share good practice. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) talked about the role of social workers with a great deal of experience and knowledge, and raised important questions about probation and how public protection from sex offenders could be compromised by some of the Government’s probation proposals. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who has vast experience at local authority and ministerial level, raised the important issue of witchcraft and what our response to it should be.

I want to go through a few of the other issues that are pertinent to this debate, and to start with the question of an overarching inquiry, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised at the beginning of the debate. There are the investigations into Jimmy Savile’s conduct and why no action was taken by various institutions. There has been an inquiry into the Waterhouse abuse scandal; the deputy Children’s Commissioner is conducting an inquiry into the culture of grooming; the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society have all produced important reports. There have been a number of serious case reviews, and the Munro and Kennedy reviews. The House has benefited from the excellent reports compiled by Members. The Home Affairs Committee has produced a report on localised grooming, and the Education Committee has completed an inquiry into child protection. In addition, there have been excellent reports from a number of all-party parliamentary groups.

All these reports have given rise to many recommendations, and each makes recommendations to different bodies and at different levels. We all want to see these recommendations translated into action. Like many other Members, I think it would be ideal if one report was complied—similar to a serious case review—that brings together the various inquiries mentioned in the debate and makes clear recommendations, to be implemented at a local and national level, with clear lines of accountability.

The operation of the Disclosure and Barring Service, whose job it is to prevent people who pose a danger to children from getting work with children, has been dramatically changed by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The changes mean that the DBS seems to be barring fewer people. More than 17,000 people were placed on the barred list in 2009, but so far this year, the figure is 1,400. Perhaps most importantly, the Act dramatically reduced the number of agencies that the DBS can share information with. Indeed, in many cases sharing intelligence with a school or youth club is forbidden, even after a Criminal Records Bureau check is requested. Would the Minister like to comment on those figures?

The role of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is vital. It has the expertise to profile offenders and to understand the processes of abuse. We need to monitor carefully how it gets on as part of the National Crime Agency. At present, the police are aware of 60,000 cases of peer-to-peer shares of child abuse images a year, but as figures obtained by my hon. Friend the

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1242

Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) show, there were only 1,570 convictions last year. Of course, that may also reflect staffing shortages in regional police forces, who support CEOP’s work but unfortunately are losing thousands of front-line officers.

I raised in a previous debate the issue of confusion in the NHS as to where responsibility for child protection actually lies. I was told that a Minister would write to me, but I have not had that response. It is disappointing to learn that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is reporting widespread confusion, lack of proper training and a lack of understanding of child protection responsibilities within the NHS.

It is important that we maintain pressure on the Government to bring in sex and relationship education, because we know that it is an important way to enable children to understand what a proper and loving relationship is. Finally, can the Minister explain what additional resources are being made available to keep children safe when they use the internet?

3.19 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) not just on starting the debate in such a knowledgeable way, but on their long-standing contributions on this hugely critical issue. I apologise in advance: I will try to deal with as many issues as possible that have come up, but in 10 minutes I suspect that I will not get to the bottom of what is a very large pile.

It goes without saying that child protection is an absolute priority for this Government and we are committed to ensuring that children receive the protection they need. Child sexual exploitation is an abhorrent form of child abuse, no matter how, when or where it occurs. It is good that these important issues are centre stage because where child abuse takes place the effects on the victim can be lifelong and devastating. It is vital, therefore, that victims feel empowered to come forward to report abuse and that when they do, they receive the support they need to recover from the trauma of this hateful crime.

Many Members on both sides of the House have rightly highlighted the responsibility we all have to ensure that we learn the lessons from the terrible cases that have happened in the past few years and that are still emerging. People need to have confidence that we are getting to the truth. Again it goes without saying that anyone who has any information about child abuse or anyone who has suffered abuse, whether now or in the past, should report it to the police.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) raised the issue of the various responsibilities in central Government. The Department for Education is the lead Department for child safeguarding as a whole. That remains so and my hon. Friend the children’s Minister is here for this debate. Given the recent surge in cases of child sexual abuse, the Prime Minister has asked me to lead the national group tackling sexual violence against children and vulnerable people across Government. Therefore, although the cross-Government

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1243

co-ordination function on child sexual exploitation has transferred to the Home Office, the DFE is, as I say, the lead Department for child safeguarding as a whole.

I will come on to the national group’s work in a moment but I want to deal with the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about whether we need an overarching public inquiry. I am happy to keep an open mind on that, but my main priority is that in any of the agencies that are tackling child sexual exploitation no one’s energy and attention should be diverted from the urgent work and changes that need to be taking place now. We need to be learning lessons from the inquiries and investigations that have concluded and that are still going on. The deputy Children’s Commissioner has done valuable work and an extension of her report will come out in the next couple of months.

Andrea Leadsom: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as many hon. Members have pointed out, we have been through this so many times—my first experience of speaking in this place was in 2003 on the day that the Victoria Climbié report came out—but nothing changes?

Damian Green: I hope that I will be able to explain to my hon. Friend and the House that a lot is changing and in particular a lot has changed as a result of the setting up of the national group, which is made up not just of various Government Departments but the delivery agencies, the inspectorates, the police and the voluntary and community sectors, which are particularly valuable. It has a core focus on reducing the vulnerability of victims, reducing the risks from abuse of authority and power and improving our systems in dealing with these crimes, as well as strengthening local accountability. Helped by members of the group such as the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis, the group is taking the lessons learnt from recent inquiries and police investigations. It has identified nine areas for action, four of which I have said should receive particularly urgent attention. Since the group was established last April, we have already made progress in these priority areas.

In July this year I launched the progress report and action plan for the national group, together with our early findings on multi-agency safeguarding approaches. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and others that the multi-agency safeguarding hubs are doing good work to help local areas put in place effective arrangements. I agree with those who said that what happens in local areas will make a difference to children. The MASH that I visited in Staffordshire is certainly doing excellent work in ensuring that there are no cracks through which children can fall.

Mr Robinson: Will the Minister give way?

Damian Green: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. If I keep giving way, I will not get through any of the responses that I want to make to points that have been made.

It is reasonable to ask what the national group has achieved. We have issued new guidance for consultation on protecting children who go missing or run away from

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1244

home or care. On the policing side, the College of Policing and the Director of Public Prosecutions have launched a public consultation on revised guidance for sexual violence victims. It was launched in June and runs until September. Although we are still consulting, the new guidance is already in effect, which is critical if we are to move the focus of investigations away from testing the credibility of victims to testing the credibility of the allegation and ensuring that the police listen to victims.

In the criminal justice system, we have improved the experience of victims by launching the new criminal justice strategy, which includes significant measures to improve the court process for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. As the hon. Member for Stockport acknowledged, later this year we shall be piloting measures for recorded pre-trial cross-examination of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. I agree with her that it is important that victims do not have terrible experiences in court.

On the online front, leading companies have pledged £1 million to the Internet Watch Foundation, which will strengthen the work that it is doing in tandem with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to identify child abuse images.

On wider child protection reform, on 21 March this year we published statutory guidance entitled “Working together to safeguard children”, and we have strengthened the role of local safeguarding children boards in holding the local agencies to account, providing funding to the association of independent LSCB chairs to drive forward that improvement and share good practice across the network. We are also continuing to drive improvements in the quality of serious case reviews so that the system learns from past mistakes.

I was asked whether there would be a review of what went wrong in Oxford and Operation Bullfinch. The LSCB in Oxford has commissioned a serious case review to learn the lessons and will ask precisely what went wrong and make sure that it does not happen again.

I was asked about hotels and bed and breakfasts. Earlier this week, I attended the launch by the National Working Group Network charity and the Children’s Society of a new toolkit for local practitioners, which I think will be useful.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) raised the Daniel Pelka case. We have strengthened arrangements for serious case reviews and we will see what the case review has to say next week. On the issue of child protection at a local level, everyone who works with children obviously has responsibility. The hon. Gentleman asked whether, if everyone has responsibility, no one has responsibility. That is why the local safeguarding children boards have the key and central role and why we have sought to strengthen them.

Various hon. Members have called for mandatory reporting of concerns. There is already a clear framework in place for all who work with children to report concerns. The statutory guidance is clear that immediate referral should be made to a children’s social worker if there is concern about a child. So I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) that already in a few months many changes have been made.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1245

Points have been made about culture in the context of Christian Churches and of groups of often predominantly Pakistani heritage men grooming and abusing white British girls. It is worth saying that political or religious sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing and uncovering child abuse. The same laws apply to all of us in this country whatever our background, religion or ethnic origin. There are no excuses for anyone committing this disgusting crime. The vetting and barring arrangements apply to those who are working in a faith context as much as anyone else; I can assure hon. Members of that.

I thank the many Members who have contributed to a serious and very good debate.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Can I sit the Minister down? It is now 3.30 pm and we should have started the next debate. I am sorry that there are not two more minutes for winding up.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered child protection in the UK.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1246

Employment Rights

3.30 pm

Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered employment rights.

Hitherto, discussion of the impact of austerity has focused largely on public services being cut, benefits being slashed, jobs being lost, insecurity becoming rampant, and wages falling—they are now, in real terms, 9% below the 2007 level. However, another process has been going on during this time which is equally relentless and callous but which has not been accorded the attention it deserves. Remedying that is part of the purpose of today’s debate. I refer, of course, to the continuing vicious attack on employment rights.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Meacher: No, I do not have time because of the two ministerial statements and the overrunning of the previous debate. A lot of other people wish to speak, and I want to be fair to them.

Because this attack has been pursued piecemeal and gradually across a wide spectrum of employment law, its cumulative impact has been concealed, but collectively it amounts to something very substantial. Workers with less than two years’ service in their current job have already lost the right to go to a tribunal over unfair dismissal. Very recently, fees of up to £1,200 have been introduced for anyone who wants to make an application to an employment tribunal. Then there are the heartless cuts—drastic cuts of £1,500 to £2,000—in compensation for the innocent victims of crime in occupations that deal directly with the public.

Now the Government have plans for a further range of attacks on employment rights. Proposals for reducing consultation rights over redundancies are well advanced. The Government want to introduce so-called settlement agreements to make it easier for employers to pressure or bully workers they want to get rid of into resigning. Compensation for unfair dismissal is to be limited. Even though there has been widespread opposition, and only lukewarm support even from business, the Government have still pushed ahead with introducing a new employment status of employee shareholder so that employers can buy out the rights to unfair dismissal, statutory redundancy pay, time to train, and the right to request to work flexibly. The Government want to reduce the protection that TUPE offers to workers who have their job transferred to another business. In addition, leading Tories, including the Mayor of London, are making noises about attacking trade union facility time, increasing thresholds for strike ballots—to levels, I might say, that no politician would dream of allowing with regard to their own election—and making statutory trade union recognition even more difficult.

This sledgehammer—I do not think that is an exaggerated word, because cumulatively it amounts to that—attack delivered piece by piece to weaken the whole range of employment rights is clearly designed to overturn the social settlement after 1945 and return Britain to workplace conditions similar to those operating in the 1920s and ’30s when employers flaunted

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1247

overwhelming market power. The attack on the Agricultural Wages Board has already removed the last vestige of the wages safety net, which was originally erected by Winston Churchill, and the removal of strict liability from health and safety law means that in future injury victims will have to prove negligence even when their employers have brazenly broken the law.

The one area of employment law that the Tories have not been able to touch has been those rights provided for by the European Union: paid holidays, health and safety, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, protection when a business is sold off and a voice at work. They are all valuable rights. By repatriating those rights—I think this is a big part of the motive of current Tory Euroscepticism—the Government will make it easier for bad employers to undercut good ones, which was, of course, the reason why Winston Churchill favoured wages boards in the first place; to drive down wages; and to make people who already work some of the longest hours in Europe work even longer hours.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Meacher: I am extremely reluctant to give way. I will give way to the hon. Lady, because I respect her, but I will not give way again so as to be fair to everyone who wants to speak.

Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I just want to make the point that repatriating powers from Brussels is not a back-route attempt to do down the rights of workers; it merely reflects the fact that this Chamber is more than capable of deciding the right rights for workers, and they may be more, not less generous than those determined in Brussels.

Mr Meacher: I think the hon. Lady is being a little disingenuous. The truth is that Conservative Governments in the past have continually whittled away at employment rights. I am not very proud of some of the record of previous Labour Governments, either, but the one body that has ensured that the rights that are so important to so many people are put in place is the much abused EU.

The policies I have mentioned are unjust and harsh, but the point is that if we want to bring about a dynamic and successful economy—as I think everyone does—this is the last way to do it. A low-wage, low-skill, low-morale, low-productivity economy is not the right way to proceed.

This litany of measures—I will not call them reforms, because they are anti-reforms—have several other dimensions. One of the most glaring is the class basis of all this: grinding down the pay and terms and conditions of the most vulnerable and poorest people at the bottom, while at the same time endlessly amplifying the excessive remuneration and bonuses at the top—greed at the pinnacle, repression at the base.

Bankers who wrecked the economy are seeing their bonuses increase this year to, I think, more than £6 billion, while ordinary workers are experiencing the longest fall in real wages in this country since the 1870s, with four out of every five new jobs created since 2008 being low paid and often insecure and short term. Such is the state

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1248

of inequality today that the directors of the biggest companies are now paid—or, rather, pay themselves—more than £60,000 a week, while the national minimum wage is just £200 a week. The Resolution Foundation estimates that 4.8 million workers—one in six of the total work force—are not even paid that: they are paid, illicitly, below the national minimum wage.

On top of that, we now have a blizzard of zero-hours contracts. A very large number of people—at least 1 million, although I do not know what the truth is and I do not think that anyone else does, either; some put the figure as high as 5 million—have no fixed income or fixed hours by which to plan their lives. The epidemic of agency work, which was used to increase the casualisation of labour and to undermine security, may have largely been quelled as the result of a lot of pressure, particularly from the unions, but we now have a situation in which rogue employers—there are many good employers—have alighted on bogus self-employment and the mandatory Work programme, alongside increasing the normalisation of zero-hours contracts, as the latest artifice to pay workers less and to weaken their terms and conditions.

Let me describe the situation for Members, because we in this House do not experience it. The abuse of zero hours and agency work is devastating. It means that people run out of money during the month and that borrowing from payday lenders is routine. It means that people have to look for additional employment, if that is allowed by their first employer. It means high levels of anxiety. People have no savings or contingency money and no access to credit. There are penalties for workers who try to rent accommodation, sanctions if a worker tries to speak out and contracts that imprison workers on zero hours with the same employer, often for more than three years.

Zero-hours contracts are not a small matter; they have spread right across the economy into police services, social care, manufacturing, hospitality, the charitable sector and elsewhere. When profits have never been so high and when the ultra-rich and corporate elite in this country have never had it so good, this is a despicable demeaning of the working conditions of a large section of the work force, which some people—I am not saying that I would use this phrase—understandably describe as a modern form of wage slavery.

Another alarming and dangerous aspect of weakened employment conditions that is becoming more widespread is the impact on health and safety. In the building industry, false self-employment through the device of payroll companies not only costs taxpayers £1.9 billion a year in lost revenue, of which £1.2 billion comes from employers avoiding national insurance contributions, but has serious implications for site safety. Sites that use false self-employment often have a higher accident rate because they usually do not have independent safety representatives. They also have a higher turnover of staff, meaning that safety measures are often lost, are not heard or are fragmented. The fact that falsely self-employed workers can be fired without warning means that they are far less likely to raise safety concerns. That explains why, over the past eight years, more than 55 construction workers a year on average have been killed just doing their ordinary work.

Similar conditions apply on the railways. Network Rail uses more than 500 contractors and labour-only suppliers. Less than 10% of its workers are engaged on

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1249

permanent contracts. The Office of Rail Regulation has stated, rather delicately, that it is

“mindful of the considerable risks that can arise from safety critical staff working for more than one employer”.

That is a hopeless understatement. The practice is clearly dangerous. We should not tolerate such fragmentation of employment being used to cut corners when it puts human lives at risk.

In conclusion, Britain will not be a civilised place to work until all workers are paid at least the living wage; free access to justice for aggrieved workers is fully restored; bogus self-employment is ended; health and safety regulations are independently enforced in all dangerous occupations; zero-hours contracts and agency work are strictly regulated, if not eliminated, to ensure that important and necessary working rights are not sacrificed; all workers who have been blacklisted—a practice which recently came to light—are fully compensated and a public inquiry held to ensure that it never happens again; wages councils are reintroduced because, as Winston Churchill understood, they are the only effective way to protect the very poorest; and, finally—because I do not just want to eliminate the negatives—a positive platform is established for employment rights through a partnership between management and the unions in the running of companies. That concept, which this House should encourage, has long been the mark of some of the most successful companies abroad, including in Germany. This Government, like other Governments of the past, have an appalling record on employment rights. Until that is fully reversed, we will not earn our right to be called a civilised nation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. There is a seven-minute time limit on Back Bench contributions. It may be necessary to revise that time limit down, depending on how we proceed.

Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con) rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: When the occupant of the Chair stands, Members are supposed to sit. Now that I have finished speaking I will sit down, the hon. Gentleman can stand up and I will call him.

3.45 pm

Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): I must apologise for my lack of co-ordination in sitting down and standing up, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will endeavour to correct that in future.

I listened carefully to the speech by the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and wondered if he was living in the Britain of Benjamin Disraeli’s book “Sybil”, or the United States of “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It is not the Britain I recognise today. Historically, I agree and accept that in the industrial revolution and beyond—I include his point about the 1920s—there was large-scale exploitation of workers by organised capital and its management. I know that that sounds a bit Marxist for Conservative Member, but I accept that that happened. Today, however, thanks very much to trade unions and, I might say, the endeavours of the Labour party in the past, there is now a situation where the rights of organised labour, and

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1250

labour that is not organised, have reached an equilibrium with the rights of capital and management. I accept that right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will disagree with that.

I am very pleased to say that the days of images of employers sitting in their brown leather chairs in gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall sacking workers at will, and the images of people driving up and hiring those who are desperate for employment for a day or two days, have long gone. Workers have won their rights the hard way and I would oppose any attempt to take them away. However, it is my contention that while low pay is a significant problem and I would never make light of it, and while poverty is a significant problem and I would never make light of it, the balance today is very different.

The argument that private sector employment spends its time trying to get around the labour laws by coming up with devices, such as zero-hours contracts and casual labour, is not only misleading but insulting to the many businesses, small and large, in my constituency that are expanding. They are taking on labour and apprentices—whoever they can—because they have confidence in the economy and in their employees. Employees are a very expensive commodity for employers, because of training and the time it takes for recruitment, and employing people is not done lightly. It is not something that employers do just because they think, “Well, I’ll try it for a few weeks and then if it doesn’t work I’ll fire them and make them get on with something else.” Life today is not like that. I can say that, having been an employer most of my life. In our current position we are all employers, albeit on a small scale.

Julian Smith: Will my hon. Friend clarify how many people he has created employment for in his long career?

Richard Harrington: In one business, I started with two employees, of which I was one. When I left, the business was responsible for 2,000 employees in seven countries, but I cannot claim full credit for that since the purchase of the company, when there were 600 employees. I therefore have some experience of being an employer, and of seeing different regimes in different countries. I am absolutely appalled by the exploitation of labour, in whatever country it may be, by those who employ people on wages that are not living wages. Whatever the law is, I believe that a morality applies: employers should not employ the labour if they cannot afford it.

In the limited time available, I would like to say a few words about zero-hours contracts. It is very easy to criticise them, without really understanding what they are. The general public might think, from reading newspapers, that these contracts are like the casual labour of old. Actually, they are not. This may sound like a GCSE question, but are they about modern employment flexibility or old-fashioned exploitation? It is clear from his speech that the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton feels that these contracts are very much like industrial revolution-type exploitation of labour.

It is certainly true that there are some abuses of these zero-hours contracts, and that should not be tolerated. I am delighted that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—I am pleased to see in her place the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills,

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1251

the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—is conducting a full inquiry into zero-hours contracts, and we all very much look forward to hearing its findings.

My proposal is that many companies in all types of industry use zero-hours contracts responsibly. They provide work, for example, to parents who have different needs for child care and to students, and they provide opportunities for people to join the work force in a flexible manner, perhaps while they study or carry out other commitments. Companies that use these contracts responsibly offer full training, paid holiday and all the other things that people in normal employment receive—and so they should, both legally and morally. They do not ask people simply to be on call at all times or prevent them from knowing how much they are going to earn.

Let me cite McDonald’s as an example. Here I must disclose an interest in that my younger son has been working for the company over the summer. Interestingly, McDonald’s employs 92,000 people in 1,200 restaurants. Many Opposition Members sneer at this kind of work; they call it “McD work” and there are many other clichés that go with it. McDonald’s, however, takes a pride in the employment it offers and in the training it gives people. During the application procedure, it asks how many hours people want to work, and it organises its shift systems accordingly. I ask all hon. Members not to view zero-hours contracts in completely black-and-white terms; I think there is a place for them.

To finish, let me explain that during my employment career, I did a lot of business in Spain and a lot in the UK. I regret to have to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in Spain, where youth unemployment stands at more than 53%, much of the problem stems from the fear of employers knowing that if they recruit people but things do not work out, they will be left with a terrible liability. They are not employing people and not giving people a chance because of the type of laws that certain Opposition Members would have us embrace in this country.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The latest unemployment statistics in Beverley and Holderness are 3.3%—considerably down from the general election—and we have one of the highest apprenticeship rates in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way we will be able to get the living wage and above as the norm for everyone is by improving our skills? Is that not what the Government are trying to do by strengthening the quality of apprenticeships, some of which lasted for just six weeks when the Labour party was in power?

Richard Harrington: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good point.

To conclude, the future for labour and recruitment will, in my opinion, come about by making labour as flexible as possible. Employers do not want to hire and fire people; they want to invest in people and train them. I commend the Government for putting in resources to help them do that. This old idea of a perpetual battle between labour and capital, and between management and working people, makes me wonder which century some people are living in. It is not like that in the real world. The last thing that the 1,400 businesses that

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1252

employ between two and nine people in my Watford constituency are thinking about is how to recruit people as cheaply as possible in order to exploit them. Taking people on is a huge thing; businesses want to give them good and well-paid jobs. They do not want to take away any moral rights, let alone legal rights, that they have.

It is time for us politicians to give credit to those who employ people. They are not the enemy. Being able to employ people is a great privilege in life, while waking up in the morning and thinking how responsible we are for so many people’s livings is a big responsibility and burden. It is even more of a burden than the one that we politicians bear. I do not think that the situation is black and white. I do not take these matters lightly, but the fact is that, in the modern age, there must be a balance that enables workers to choose where to be employed and enables employers to plan their businesses with good, well-qualified labour. Employees should not have to pretend that they are stuck there for life, or that their employers are stuck with them for life if things do not work out.

3.55 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I do not disagree with the views of the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) about the need for an element of balance in relationships at work, and the need to secure long-term employment. I think that those are our overall objectives: we want to create a productive industrial relations climate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) was right to end his speech by referring to the need to engage with workers and involve them in their firms’ plans.

Let me give four brief examples of abuses in parts of industry that we need to address in the House. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union is currently involved in a dispute at the Hovis company in Wigan. Hovis has been taken over by Premier Foods, and there have been a great many layoffs. The union has negotiated as best it can in order to secure the long-term future of the company, as well as what is best for its members who are being laid off, but there have been abuses, one of which seems to be occurring in other parts of industry as well.

Hovis in Wigan started to take on workers who were paid less and had less favourable conditions than the existing workers, and also to use zero-hours contracts. That led to a strike. A negotiation took place and the union thought that the dispute had been resolved, but the company then started to employ agency workers. It used what is referred to as the “Swedish derogation”, which means that an agency can employ staff directly, and those staff can then work alongside others while being paid less and experiencing less favourable conditions. Members may recall that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) raised the issue in the House only a month ago, in connection with Tesco. Such practices cannot be acceptable according to anyone’s standards of decency or justice, and we need to look into the Swedish derogation and how it is being abused by some employers.

The Hovis dispute is still going on, and is becoming bitter as a result of the Government’s intransigence and its use of various different devices. The union has taken every possible opportunity to try to secure a negotiated settlement.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1253

Let me give another example. For a number of years, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents the majority of seafarers in this country, has lobbied Government—the last one and this one—in an attempt to ensure that the national minimum wage applies to all seafarers working on ships operating out of UK ports. What has been happening is that the minimum wage has not been applied to those who are not European economic area nationals. On some ships, people working alongside British seafarers and doing the same job as them are being paid £2.25 or £2.35 an hour, which is not acceptable.

The last Government introduced some legislation and undertook a consultation, and a working party was set up. The current Government have retained that working party and have made recommendations, but companies are still paying ridiculously, appallingly low wages. We have just discovered that Condor Ferries, which sends ferries to the Channel Islands, is paying people £2.35 an hour, completely ignoring the national minimum wage legislation. No one finds that acceptable.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned railway track workers. Network Rail is now using hundreds of sub-contractors. Members may recall that track maintenance was brought in-house because of health and safety problems that resulted in some tragic accidents, including two near my constituency, one at Paddington and one at Southall. I attended the funeral of a driver who died in one of those accidents. We discovered that track workers were being employed by contractors and sub-contractors, and there was no supervision of safety whatsoever. That is the case again now, because, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, fewer than 10% of track workers are now employed directly by Network Rail.

We are finding that a new device is being used, as has been mentioned. Track workers are urged—almost browbeaten—to sign on to payroll companies, which the sub-contractors then use. Workers have to pay the payroll companies just to be paid themselves, but it is a device used by those companies to avoid tax. We need to examine the practice, both as a tax avoidance issue, which is a scandal, and because some track workers are contracted at the same time by up to 20 different contractors. They are given bits of work by each of those employers, and they are sometimes pressurised into zero-hours contracts as well. I believe that Network Rail’s overall supervision from the contractor to the sub-contractor to the worker is breaking down, posing a real risk to health and safety.

We discussed blacklisting at length during the debate on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, and also a few months ago. The blacklisting of workers continues. We have just had an example of Crossrail blacklisting a worker. There was a campaign which resulted in mass demonstrations, with hundreds of workers turning up on the site and blocking the roads around it. There was a great deal of coverage in the press, which Members may have seen. Crossrail has now settled and that worker has gone back to work.

The case demonstrates that that still happens and that blacklisted workers still find it difficult to secure compensation. Legal cases are taking place. We need to come back to the proposal of having a compensation

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1254

scheme. We know from the Consulting Association, which was mentioned the other day, which companies were participants. They should be brought together to set up a voluntary compensation scheme. If they do not, we should introduce a statutory compensation scheme.

Finally, exploitation takes place nearer home as well. The Members Tea Room staff are having their contracts torn up. Some of them have been on those contracts for 20 years or so. They are told that the new contract is a re-interpretation of existing contracts. It means that their terms and conditions are being cut. We need to ensure that we protect our colleagues who work alongside us in this building, as well as others for whom we want to secure employment rights.

4.2 pm

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing the debate.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I know that employment rights are an issue for which he has fought for a long time and I appreciate some of the information that he discussed, especially in relation to Network Rail and the maritime industry. I want to explore those topics further because I support his comments.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). It is not the first time I have tended to agree with him when he has spoken in the House. Although employment rights are very important—crucial in many ways—and I will discuss them as my speech progresses, to me the most important thing that the coalition Government have achieved in the past three years is a remarkable success on the jobs front. I have only to look across the sea to see what has been happening in Europe, where France, Spain and Italy have been devastated by the numbers of people who have become unemployed, and compare that with what we have achieved in the UK through considerable effort by employers in the private sector, by Government in the public sector and by our fellow citizens.

We have employed almost 1.5 million people in the toughest recession I have ever been through. I am 56 years old. I was in business for many years before I went into politics. This is my fourth downturn and it is far and away the toughest one that the country has been through in my experience. Despite that, by working together to give so many people jobs in comparison with the rest of Europe is testimony to the enormous effort and work that so many people have done in this country. It is brilliant.

In Eastbourne, following close working between the chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the council and the training colleges, the latest figures for August show that unemployment is down to 3.9%, the lowest rate since 2009. We have seen more than 2,500 apprenticeships since I launched the 100 apprentices in 100 days campaign two and a half years ago.

My point is that this has been an appalling recession. I know so many business owners and staff who have worked so hard over the past few years to keep jobs and get through the recession. I know employers who have said to their staff that no one would get a pay rise for the next 12 months, or 24 months, including directors,

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1255

so that they can get through. Other employers have said that they will take a 20% pay cut to get through. I have never known anything like it.

I compare that with previous recessions, when unemployment shot up and there was tremendous animosity between employers and employees. This time, despite what some Opposition Members say, that has not been the case. There has been an understanding, particularly in the private sector, that, “My God, if we are going to get through this we have to roll up our sleeves.” It has really worked, because we have 1.4 million new employees after such a shocking recession, and we are not out of the woods yet. I think that should be lauded to the skies. It is absolutely magnificent. I think that it has worked only because both parties have worked together.

Mr Graham Stuart: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Stephen Lloyd: Where?

Mr Stuart: Behind you.

Stephen Lloyd: Yes, of course.

Mr Stuart: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the 1.4 million new private sector jobs. The credit for that should go to the people who displayed solidarity, because they put their immediate, personal interests behind the group interest. That is one of the reasons that so many people have stayed out of the dole queues, contrary to what all the experts and economists predicted. It is a success, and it is enormously to the credit of those people. What we need to do now is improve our skills and earn more money so that everybody can have a decent wage.

Stephen Lloyd: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is precisely my point. It has been an exceptional example of community work between employees and employers. I should also explain that unfortunately I have hearing only in my right ear, which is why I was not sure where the intervention was coming from.

From the Liberal Democrat perspective in the coalition, the issue of employment rights is important issue because it is about fairness. Although it is incredibly important to me, as a Lib Dem, that employees have as many sensible rights as possible, I want flexibility. I recognise that the vast majority of employers are good employers, and that the vast majority of employees are hard working and dedicated. The challenge with regulation is how to make it flexible while at the same time preventing grotesque employers.

I have a good example that I have addressed to the Minister. As she knows, one of the campaigns I have been working hard on, both personally and as chair of the all-party group on Citizens Advice, relates to something I discovered in my constituency and later discovered was true nationally. Many employees, some of them very vulnerable people, go to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal or non-payment of wages. The employer might lose, but the vulnerable employee never gets any money because the employer either does not pay or deliberately forces themselves into bankruptcy

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1256

so that they can start again under a different guise. I know that the Minister is looking into that, and I would be keen to have an update today on how we can strengthen the law so that the small proportion of disreputable employers are not allowed just to ignore civil cases.

Zero-hours contracts are an important issue that I have been studying. I regret to say this in a Back-Bench business debate, but I sometimes get frustrated by the element of humbug from the Labour party. The Labour Government had 13 years to address zero-hours contracts but did nothing, so I find it tiresome when vitriol is poured on us and the coalition is accused of ignoring the issue, as if the previous Government had a good record. They did not. Furthermore, more than 20,000 members of staff working for Labour councils are on zero-hours contracts. This is a challenge for both sides. My personal view is that we need much more robust research to identify the scale of the problem. I can see how unscrupulous employers are abusing zero-hours contracts, but I know from my own experience of talking to people who work in the university sector and the NHS that some of them like those contracts.

I have had meetings with the Secretary of State about this, and my personal request to the Minister is that we conduct some really robust research involving consultation with all sides, including the trade unions and employers, so that we can make an informed decision. A much more robust code of practice would certainly be helpful. However, the most important thing is that this is about jobs, and on that the coalition is delivering.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am going to reduce the time limit for Back-Bench contributions again, to six minutes. We are not making quite enough progress, and the debate will lapse at 5 o’clock.

4.11 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this long overdue debate. Parliamentary protocol is such that I could not participate in the debate over the past three days, but I have observed the unedifying spectacle of the coalition Government acting out of sheer arrogance in forcing through legislation that will impinge on millions of workers. That was somewhat disappointing. It was equally unedifying to observe the pigeon carriers for the coalition Government forcing through the legislation, and refusing to answer questions about its impact on workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) asked perfectly honest questions of the pigeon carriers of the coalition Government, but it was extremely difficult to get any answers. I do not think that I have much influence with the Labour leadership, but in the unlikely event of Labour not gaining an overall majority at the next election, I sincerely hope that we can resist any temptation to go into a coalition with the Liberals, having seen what they have done this week.

Earlier this year, several colleagues and I visited Azerbaijan to talk to trade unionists there. Azerbaijan is not exactly the most democratic place in the world,

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1257

but to our horror we discovered that the trade unions there enjoyed better relationships and more employment rights than we do here in the UK. Azerbaijan is a young democracy and we are the oldest, yet we are still fighting for employment rights. That, too, was somewhat disappointing.

Richard Harrington: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Sheridan: No, I am sorry, there is not enough time.

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, and I see the legislation that is being proposed as somewhat disappointing. Every week at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition quite rightly give recognition to our armed forces personnel, but let us put this in perspective. Last year, there were 44 tragic fatalities among our armed forces personnel in Afghanistan, but there were 49 fatalities in the UK construction industry. We rightly place an emphasis on our armed forces, but we do not pay enough attention to those people who lose their lives in the construction industry, because their deaths do not create sexy headlines.

Fatalities are not the only issue in the construction industry that we should be concerned about. There are 5,000 cases of occupational cancer every year. Mesothelioma is still a terrible issue. Asbestos is still a danger in our schools, with more than 140 teachers dying from mesothelioma in the past 10 years—not to mention the number of janitors, administrative staff and cleaners. Despite this, employment rights are still being trampled on by this coalition Government.

Much has been said about zero-hours contracts and about blacklisting—the arguments have all been rehearsed—but I want to take colleagues back to the tragic Piper Alpha incident, which happened because of the lack of safety on the oil rigs. The major oil companies had made it clear that they were not going to invite trade unions on to the oil rigs, and it was not until after Piper Alpha that the trade unions won the recognition on the oil rigs that they had fought for. It is no coincidence, notwithstanding the tragic Puma accident a couple of weeks ago, that safety standards went up when the unions got recognition on the oil rigs.

I am a great believer in manufacturing, which we need, as we cannot survive by cutting each other’s hair. This country’s manufacturing base—I am talking about this Government and the previous Government—is in such a state because manufacturing companies could decide on a whim to close a factory, or whatever it may be, and there was nothing the workers could do.

For me, there is nothing more frustrating than people coming to my surgery and saying, “I worked for a company for 25 years and I’ve just been told I’m being sacked. They are transferring my job to the Czech Republic to exploit cheap labour.” My hon. Friends and I get frustrated and angry about not being able to do anything to help those workers. The free marketeers, as they call themselves, believe that the market will deliver the jobs. It is delivering the jobs—jobs with zero-hours contracts, part-time jobs and jobs for the self-employed. It is important that we try to get a grip of the issue.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1258

In my early days—before I came into this place and when I worked for a living—I was with Thales, a well-respected company. Last week, I was at its 125th anniversary and the Thales management went out of their way to tell people of the positive role that trade unions have played in that company, which has survived for 125 years. I suggest to those who try to paint the trade unions as demons to listen to the Thaleses of this world, because trade unions are a positive force for good.

4.17 pm

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I pay tribute to Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who highlighted examples of employer malpractice. They raise powerful issues that we need to address.

The points that I shall make will not belittle those issues, nor shall I suggest that we should not take better enforcement action on such malpractice, but I want to make the case for the Government, who for the whole of this Parliament are reviewing employment law. They are considering that framework for two big reasons, the first of which is jobs. The Government have been proven right that consideration of employment law, and they are considering other parts of the legal system as well, can lead to the creation of jobs—1.4 million, as we heard earlier. The second reason is that when we poll employers in Britain or talk to them about what is causing them issues in their business, they say that it is employment law.

Generally, employers do not want to take away workers’ rights, and often problems arise because of bureaucracy, perhaps when they want to make people redundant when the work relationship has broken down. The Government have rightly decided to consider employment law from the perspective of employers in much more detail.

Some initiatives have been referred to, such as that to make things easier if the relationship between employee and employer breaks down. It is a modest proposal on settlement agreements, which are a simplified form of compromise agreements, which developed under Labour. Employers will have two years to make a decision on a worker, which will give them the confidence to take somebody on and allow them to end a relationship if it is not working out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) said, an employer would not bring a relationship to an end unless there was a real problem. Employers want good workers and will look after them.

Stephen Lloyd: Does my hon. Friend agree that one challenge in countries such as Italy, or even France, is the fact that it is so expensive to hire new people that the economy is locked down and sclerotic? That means that it is almost impossible for young people to get a job.

Julian Smith: My hon. Friend is right: we are the envy of most countries in terms of our employment law. The shareholder initiative has received a lot of criticism but it is just another attempt to make it easier for new, smaller, principally technical companies to take people on, give them a shareholding, maintain their fundamental rights but provide a bit of flexibility. It is not just about making things easier for employers, however, as the Government have a good track record on employees.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1259

We have introduced the commitment to flexible working and are bringing forward shared maternity and paternity leave. Labour Members talk about a high level of pay, but the Government have introduced shareholder votes for executive pay, and we are pushing forward with numbers of women on boards. We are reviewing zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage has risen under this Government. I think we can be proud.

Mr Graham Stuart: May I take issue with my hon. Friend because he missed out the fact that we have also raised the threshold at which someone pays tax? By rising to £10,000, that threshold will make a huge difference to people on low earnings, creating an incentive to work.

Julian Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a long list, and I think we can be proud. These are modest changes but they are intended to help both employer and employee.

I do not agree that unions cannot be helpful in relationships between employers and employees, and I think they play an important role, particularly in bigger companies. I believe, however, that the current tactic of the unions on the relationship between employee and employer is barking mad, and I will give two examples of that. First, a gentleman in a village in my constituency runs a big company. He outsourced some of his work, and that outsource company laid off some staff. That gentleman and his family have been harassed by a particular union for months, with people coming on coaches to invade the village and demonstrate against a decision for which he was not responsible, using a tactic that the union has imported from America.

The second example is a piece of information sent to, I think, Unite members over the past few weeks, suggesting that they see the employer as an opponent and someone with whom they should be deliberately having a fight. That is what upsets me most about the way that the unions are looking at the issue. I have attended most debates on employment law since becoming a Member of Parliament, and the fact that so many Labour Members take the view of the unions, as in the examples I have given, means that they are not taking an objective view of the importance of employment law. The shadow Minister has employed people and knows full well that these reforms are the right way forward, but for whatever reason, he is blinkered by other constraints.

In conclusion, the employment law world is changing, and changing fast. This debate on zero-hours contracts will be writ large in years to come, and there will be more part-time working, more multiple employment and working from home, and probably much more self-employment and entrepreneurship. It will be a wholly different way, and if Labour Members do not look at that trend and look five or 10 years ahead, they will fail to represent workers and those people they have often represented so well through the unions, as in the cases we heard earlier. I urge them to consider the Government’s reforms, support them and see them in the light of incremental change, rather than as a radical return to a past that possibly never existed.

12 Sep 2013 : Column 1260

4.23 pm

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling time for this important debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), who set out many important issues, as well as other colleagues who highlighted some of the issues that I want to speak about.

The living standards crisis that people are facing is not only an issue of pay and the rising cost of goods, but of security. People now feel less secure and more pressured at work than at any time in the past 20 years, according to the latest UK skills and employment survey. Our country already has the third most liberal labour market in the OECD, but since taking office the coalition has shown real determination to undermine people’s protections at work, making it easier to fire people but not easier to hire people. In effect, they have heaped further insecurity on working people. I shall speak today about two aspects of that insecure working that I have campaigned on before and since my election to the House—the rise in the use of zero-hours contracts and the use of employment agencies.

Zero-hours employment is now widespread in many sectors of the economy, and it is especially prevalent in areas of higher unemployment, where the lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers in Britain exist without knowing when the next payday might come. That is certainly the case in my constituency. People on zero-hours contracts tell me about waiting for a call or turning up to the workplace day after day, only to find there is no work, but their contracts make it difficult to find alternative employment or to claim jobseeker’s allowance. I have heard examples of people making child care arrangements or paying for transport to work and then waiting for hours before being told that they are not needed. Other people have told me that because of zero-hours contracts they are unable to get a bank overdraft, a mortgage or car finance. For those people who are getting regular work on a zero-hours contract, they know that it could end at a moment’s notice and they could be left without sick or holiday pay.

In an exchange with me over the summer, the Office for National Statistics has confirmed that later this year it will start asking about zero-hours employment in its regular surveys. Everyone recognises that its estimate of 250,000 people on such contracts is well wide of the mark. We know that people working in McDonald’s, Burger King, JD Wetherspoon, Sports Direct, Cineworld and Boots are on such contracts, as well as 307,000 workers in the care system, according to the Government’s own figures. We know that the NHS has almost 100,000 workers on zero-hours contracts, which the BMA has described as a real risk to patient safety.

I fully accept that for some people casual contracts can work, such as the students who work as lifeguards at my local swimming pool, or the retained firefighter who also works occasionally for the Co-operative Funeral Service. If casual contracts are fair, reciprocal and appropriate, they can have a place in the labour market. But there is a clear distinction between such employment and the way in which millions are now being exploited on zero-hours contracts. It is important that we draw the distinction, and there are three main practices that must stop.