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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 15 September 2015

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

London Black Cabs

9.30 am

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of black cabs in London.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. We have an hour and a half for the debate and I know that a number of people want to speak, so I will keep my remarks quite short and to the point.

Black cabs are an iconic part of London and are famous around the world. The first horse-drawn hackney coaches appeared in London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and the first taxi rank was installed in the Strand just over 400 years ago. The famous knowledge was started in 1884. Today there are 25,000 black cabs in London. They remain a vital part of the capital’s transport system and play a key role in keeping London moving.

For me, black cabs are one of the things that make London stand out. Their value is not necessarily quantifiable but is huge and real, all the same. I am reassured, for example, by the fact that taxi drivers have had rigorous background checks. I like the fact that they know every nook and cranny of our capital. For many people visiting our country, our unique taxis are the first thing they see and their drivers are the first people they meet and talk to. I would think nothing, personally, of depositing any one of my children in a black cab at any time, as I would know absolutely that they would be safe. It is hard to put a number on all that, but it is worth something.

The tragedy is that black cabs’ days could soon be numbered. If trends continue, I do not think that there is any doubt that they will be extinct in a matter of years. I will briefly explain why. Transport for London’s rules enforce a two-tier system for taxis in London. London’s black cabs can ply for hire and wait at ranks. Their fares are set by TfL, as are their stringent service standards. The reason they are licensed to pick up anyone from the street is that TfL has confidence that the drivers and vehicles are safe and the price is fair. Private hire vehicles, on the other hand, have to be pre-booked, so cannot legally ply for hire. Their fares are not set by TfL and their drivers do not pass the knowledge or do advanced driver courses. PHVs have less regulation because customers book them in advance and so know what deal they are getting and what service they can expect.

That system largely worked fine until recently, but the emergence of Uber has turned it on its head. The speed of the Uber app means that its cars are effectively hailed by users, and no one can reasonably argue that they do not also ply for hire, picking up people straight from the street. The one key advantage enjoyed by black cabs has simply evaporated.

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I have been told recently by people who think of themselves as free marketeers that we should not intervene—we should let progress have its way and let the market decide. But that is not an honest position to take, for the simple reason that the black cab trade in London is not a free market and never has been. Costs are piled on to the black cab by regulation. They are the most regulated taxis in the world by far. Black cab drivers’ fares are set for them by TfL and they are told which vehicles they are allowed to drive. Their vehicles must have a turning circle of 8.535 metres, a partition separating passenger from driver, an overall length of no more than 5 metres, a flat door in the passenger compartment with a minimum height limit and an approved taxi meter, and must be able to accommodate a person in a wheelchair.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Although I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend is saying, equally, we do have technological change, and Uber is part of that. Given that Uber is now in this highly regulated black cab market, is there not a perfectly good Conservative argument that suggests that the amount of regulations for our black cabs should be reduced to make them more competitive?

Zac Goldsmith: I agree with my right hon. Friend up to a point; I will come to that shortly, but I do not think it will be enough. Deregulating the black cabs to put them on a genuinely level playing field with Uber and the like would logically mean the end of the black cab. That is the decision we need to make, but it is not one I would be happy with.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; if the polls are right, I suspect this will be the first of many debates he and I will be having between now and May. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) referred to technological innovation with regard to Uber. Rather than deregulating the black cab in a race to the bottom, should there not be innovation in regulation for private hire vehicles, and Uber in particular, to make sure that there is a level playing field?

Zac Goldsmith: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I will come on to the steps we need to take as a minimum to maintain the two-tier system and encourage innovation.

I will finish my point about the lack of free market for black cabs. I mentioned some of the specifications and the hoops the black cab drivers have to jump through, but that is not the only factor. We all know about the knowledge, a gruelling exercise that takes on average 50 months—between two and five years—to study. It has a failure rate of 80% and is done entirely at the driver’s expense. Black cabs also have to be wheelchair accessible. London is the only major city in the world that requires that. Given that around 1.2 million Londoners have some form of disability, that requirement is a good thing, but it adds enormously to costs.

Some have suggested that we simply remove the regulations and let the drivers fight it out, but on the whole the regulations have worked for London, and removing them effectively means losing the black cab

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altogether. There was a very good debate on the Floor of the House not long ago on this very issue. In what I thought was a magnificent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said:

“London cannot have it both ways. It can try, but it will end in tears.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 1054.]

He is right. My starting point is that London would be poorer without black cabs and we should ensure that they have a future.

The question is how we do that. Partly it is a question of helping black cabs to compete, which means looking at unnecessary regulations: turning circle technology, for example, is probably not necessary and adds an enormous cost to the car. I know that TfL is keen to build more taxi ranks. I believe that a third of all taxi journeys in London start at the taxi rank and there is a strong case to be made for rolling ranks out all over London, not least to help deal with congestion. We should also help black cabs to switch to contactless payment systems. That is what consumers expect—83% of passengers polled recently want to be able to pay by card—but only half of London’s cabs currently take card payments. There is a case for subsidising that process. If we measure the cost of that subsidy against the costs imposed on black cabs through regulation, it would be a fairly small piece of the equation.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue that I know he cares about passionately. Many black cab drivers live in my constituency of Dartford. If London were to lose its black cabs, that would be a tragedy that had an impact way beyond the capital, into the home counties, where so many black cab drivers live. They tell me that they want equality of arms, so that the right and necessary checks carried out on them are also carried on other drivers.

Zac Goldsmith: I agree with my hon. Friend, and will be coming to that point.

Before I move on to the steps we need to take on regulation, we should acknowledge that black cabs are already adapting and changing fast. From 2018, all new black cabs will be zero-emission capable, helped by £8,000 grants from the Mayor. The cost to drivers will be no greater than that of buying conventional cars, but the cost of managing the cars will be much lower because they will be independent of fuel and will be able to fuel their cars electrically. That change has been very much welcomed by the drivers I have spoken to. Incidentally, the first motor cabs, which arrived in 1897, were electric, so we are seeing a neat ecological full circle—we are experiencing the circle of life right here in London with our black cabs. Many drivers are also using new booking apps, some of which are very innovative. For example, some help passengers to share journeys; others enable serious discounts over longer distances.

I do not believe that on their own those changes will be enough, however. We need to find a way to maintain the two-tier system distinguishing between cabs and taxis that has worked well in London for over 50 years.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I apologise for arriving late and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I was listening carefully

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to what he said about improvements to air quality. Does he acknowledge that the huge influx of minicab drivers and Uber drivers has had a really negative effect not just on air quality but on congestion in central London?

Zac Goldsmith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and will be making a similar point shortly. We need to look at that issue.

The bottom line is that we need to find a way of maintaining the two-tier system. I know that some within the black cab trade are calling for a mandatory five-minute period between booking and pick up to try to maintain the divide. I understand why that would work, and there is a strong case for it, but I worry that it would alienate—even infuriate—customers, who would not understand why it was happening. I understand that a similar mechanism has been brought in in New York, and there has been a considerable customer backlash there, which has been felt by the Mayor, who introduced the scheme, and whose popularity has been collapsing as a consequence.

Mark Field: I want to touch on the issue of choice, which my hon. Friend has raised. One of my concerns about the black cab’s protected position is that we hear voices saying that we should outlaw Uber and ban pedicabs. Could my hon. Friend give some indication of where he stands on both those issues? Would such an approach be detrimental to consumer choice, or would it be the right way to protect the market?

Zac Goldsmith: I absolutely do not want to deny people the choice they clearly want and need in London. There is therefore no question of banning Uber, but there is a need for more clarity in the regulatory system. That is the point I will be making shortly, and I hope my right hon. Friend will intervene as I continue.

I am sceptical of the five-minute rule proposal, but I hope the Government will commit to working with TfL to urgently define what “ply for hire” actually means. For the black cabs, their customers and London generally, that cannot remain the grey area it is today.

More broadly, the Government need to address the issue of the sheer number of cabs in London, which the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned. In August, there were a staggering 86,500 minicab drivers in London—a 46% increase in just five years. That number grows by more than 1,000 every month, with obvious congestion and air quality implications. That needs to be addressed, and we need to take a view on the private hire vehicle trade’s carrying capacity in London.

While few people want to see the end of Uber—I absolutely do not want to, because Uber does innovate and provide choice—there is no doubt that standards need to be raised. That view was shared by the overwhelming majority of respondents to a YouGov poll the other day, 62% of whom said they would like a higher standard applied to private hire vehicles and to Uber in particular.

For instance, the Government should, in my view, require all minicab companies to take out fleet-wide insurance policies to guarantee consumer safety. That does not seem an unreasonable request, and TfL has confirmed to me that it regularly repeat-catches uninsured

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drivers. Drivers should have a basic geographical knowledge—not the knowledge, because that would be unrealistic, but a basic grasp of London. They should also be required to have at least a basic command of the English language. TfL is looking closely at that, too, and we will hear in the next few weeks where it has got with that.

Uber fares are generally low, but in times of need—as we saw during the recent tube strikes—those prices escalate out of all proportion. In some cases, there was a 300% increase. What, if anything, do the Government believe should be put in place to protect consumers against such price surging?

There are also concerns about Uber’s corporate behaviour. For instance, Uber enjoys a significant price advantage by not paying UK corporation tax, because jobs are booked through the Netherlands. Despite Uber being a $50 billion company, its drivers earn far less than the London living wage; in some cases, they earn a lot less than the minimum wage. Drivers are self-employed, as with most minicab services, but the risk is that Uber’s model is depressing fares to unsustainable levels, and that also needs to be looked at.

Sadiq Khan: I particularly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s last comment. Does he support the case brought by the GMB against Uber to protect drivers the company had exploited?

Zac Goldsmith: That is the case I was referring to. As I understand it, a member of the GMB was found to have been paid about £1.50 below the minimum wage, which is clearly not acceptable. However, I would like to redirect the right hon. Gentleman’s question to the Minister, who is better placed than I am to understand the legalities.

I ask the Minister—this is perhaps the most important issue—to provide an undertaking to work with the Competition and Markets Authority to look at the London taxi market as a whole. In particular, will he consider whether the low prices offered by some apps are kept artificially low to drive out competition—a form of predatory pricing? I am not clear how much evidence exists on that, but there is a strong suspicion, which I think I share, that it is happening.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): On that point, the hon. Gentleman will understand that companies such as Uber do not pay tax in this country, so they can, of course, keep prices low. We really need the Treasury to tighten up on that.

Zac Goldsmith: I thank the right hon. Gentleman—I almost said my right hon. Friend—for his intervention. That is actually a point I made earlier. He is exactly right: that does give the company an unfair advantage, and the issue needs to be looked at.

I do not want to remove choice in the market, and nor does any taxi driver I spoke to in the run-up to the debate, but it is an unarguable fact that, without efforts to level the playing field, we will lose the black cab in London, and London will be a lot poorer for it.

Several hon. Members rose

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Sir Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order. Several people wish to take part in the debate, so I am sure hon. Members will keep an eye on the clock. I know that the next speaker’s speech will be a masterclass in making concise and powerful points.

9.45 am

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Thank you, Sir Edward. You have clearly heard me speak before.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who said how well known and iconic the black cab is around the world. Famously, at the closing ceremony of the Olympics, there was much comment about George Michael’s bad choice of song, but Ray Davies of The Kinks made the right choice when he entered the stadium in a black cab. Ray Davies got it right, and George Michael got it wrong.

The hon. Gentleman was right to comment on the positive things about black cabs. They are fully accessible to wheelchair users, providing a service to disabled passengers who may have few other ways of getting about. As the father of two daughters, I also fully understand his comment about how safe we feel putting our children in a black cab, knowing the checks that take place before someone is allowed to drive one.

It is worth reminding ourselves of why black cab drivers—particularly the London ones—are considered some of the most qualified in the world. They undergo extensive criminal checks, including by the Disclosure and Barring Service. Medical checks are also undertaken. People have to pass a Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency assessment. They also have to receive a licence from both TfL, which is run by the Mayor of London, and the Metropolitan Police Service. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, they have to pass the knowledge. Hon. Members may not fully appreciate this, but the test requires drivers to learn more than 300 basic routes, more than 25,000 streets, and approximately 20,000 landmarks and places of public interest. The other requirement is that black cab drivers must have a high-standard vehicle.

It is also worth reminding ourselves of what has happened as a consequence of the failure to regulate the change that is taking place because of innovation and of the failure to adapt. We do not have a level playing field, and the Minister will need to tell us why, over the past five years—indeed, the past seven years—TfL and the Government have failed to enforce existing legislation, or to provide new regulations, to ensure that new entrants to the market operate fairly.

What is the consequence of the failure of TfL and the Government to act? The number of drivers licensed by TfL fell by more than 500 in the last year alone, to about 25,000. Worse, the number of people applying to be taxi drivers and to undertake the knowledge is the lowest in more than 20 years. When we speak to black cab drivers, they confirm that their income has dropped by about 20% during the day and by about 35% during the night shift.

At the same time, the number of private hire vehicles licensed by TfL has grown at the rate of 600 a week. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are now 86,500. He also mentioned that there has been a 46.1% increase since 2010. At those levels, the number of private hire vehicles in London will reach more than 105,000 over the next

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two years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) said, that not only leads to problems with congestion, pollution and illegal parking, but will lead to the death of the black cab as we know it.

Mark Field: The right hon. Gentleman presents a slightly bleak picture of the prospects and concerns of black cab drivers. Can he suggest how consumers feel? It strikes me that many Londoners and many tourists coming to London feel that there is now a vast array of options at relatively cost-effective prices. Does he feel that that is important, and how will he try to marry the two interests, in his mayoralty campaign?

Sadiq Khan: Consumers may think it is great to get cheap meat, until they realise it is horse meat; they may think it is great to get a cheap builder, until the house falls down; they may think private hire vehicles are cheap but, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, they want to feel safe. We need to make sure that drivers speak basic English, have basic geographical knowledge and are properly insured. Choice is important, but the job of parliamentarians, and of those who aspire to be the Mayor of London, is to make sure that there is proper regulation of those who run public transport—and I consider black cabs and private hire vehicles a form of public transport.

The key answers that we need are not platitudes; we need to know what Government and those who run TfL can do. I have several questions for the Minister.

Grahame M. Morris: My right hon. Friend is making important points. We accept that there is a need to balance the interests of consumers with the Rolls-Royce service that we enjoy through the black cab industry, but does he agree on the fundamental need for a legal definition of private hire, to distinguish between that and hackney carriages? There may well be a role for Parliament in that, and it is another example of deregulation being a good thing. We can still innovate—and black cab drivers are indeed doing that in zones 1 and 2, through the introduction of the new app—without the need for the five-minute gap that was tried in New York. There is a balance to be struck, and I wonder if my right hon. Friend agrees.

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend is right. I made that point earlier in an intervention. We have had innovation in technology, but what my hon. Friend has described requires innovation in regulation. I do not mean a race to the bottom; I think that a levelling up rather than levelling down is required.

Does the Minister agree with criticisms of TfL that it failed to carry out proper licensing and enforcement functions in relation to the hire market? Does he agree with the hon. Member for Richmond Park and me that the Government should introduce legislation containing a clear definition to protect the distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles? Is he aware of the concerns raised by the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association that TfL may wrongly have licensed Uber in 2012, not fully understanding its methods of operation, and that it now has concerns about revocation, for fear of paying compensation? If the Minister thinks new legislation is

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required, will he consider whether it should include limits on the number of private hire vehicles in London, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Richmond Park and I have given, to do with congestion, pollution and illegal parking? Does he agree that any legislation should, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) mentioned, require any licensed operators to have a UK tax liability? Also—and this is probably the most important issue for black cab drivers—would the new legislation define plying for hire?

What reforms is the Department for Transport considering to secure a fairer system for London’s cabbies and a better service for passengers—an important consideration at the core of this issue? Would that include a clear distinction between the working practices for black cabs and private hire vehicles? Finally, we understand the temptation for Ministers to meet celebrities and for the Mayor of London to meet Joanna Lumley; but roughly how many times have the Minister, other Transport Ministers or the Mayor had meetings with the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association or black cab drivers’ representatives such as Unite, GMB and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers?

The hon. Member for Richmond Park deserves our thanks for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. He has raised important issues, as I hope I have, and it is important that the Minister and the current Mayor respond. If they do not, the next Mayor will.

9.54 am

Victoria Borwick (Kensington) (Con): I have a long-standing family interest in the subject of the debate. My father ran Carbodies, which some right hon. and hon. Members may know about, from the time when taxis were made in this country. My husband Jamie took over after my father’s death and ran the company for a short while. He led the changeover to the taxis with full disability access that we have today.

As has been said, the black London taxi is as iconic to London as red buses and red post boxes. As we have heard from both sides of the House today, black cabs of London are renowned the world over for their high standards and because of the knowledge—and of course for their full disability access. Londoners can be proud of leading the world in that. Licensed black taxis can take wheelchairs, prams, trolleys and heavy suitcases, and get the passenger safely to their destination using the fastest route. The drivers do not need to check the sat-nav to know the back streets, and if there is a disruption or change in the traffic, as happens frequently in London, they have alternative routes in their head. They do not have to rely on intermittent technology. As we have heard, those taxi drivers are fully vetted, insured, and licensed, and regularly checked; and that applies not just to the drivers, but the vehicles as well.

Licensed taxi drivers have invested heavily in their profession. Very few industries require two to four years’ unpaid training, followed by the purchase or lease of a vehicle. Our black cab drivers are very committed to their trade. However, we have to appreciate that technology has begun to catch up, and TfL, the regulator, has seen an enormous increase in requests for private hire licences, as we have heard; but who are all the applicants, and why are there so many requests for minicab licences? There are now almost 90,000 minicab

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drivers in London, and only 25,000 licensed black cab drivers. The imbalance can be seen immediately; what is the reason for it? I believe that if we want our gold standard licensed taxi drivers, we need a level playing field. The regulations cannot be all on one side. We make the drivers and the vehicles go through hoops, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said, and meet very high standards; and those standards must apply across the board, to other vehicles and to their drivers. Why are minicab drivers signing up at such a rate?

Mark Field: Arguably the opposite case could be made, which is that there have traditionally been huge barriers to entry for black cabs, and that now we are in a modern world, where more and more people want to become taxi drivers and where there is the incentive of Uber technology, so that a high level of regulation is against consumers’ interests and will make it much more expensive to get into London cabs. That is not my personal view, but it is an argument that could readily be made. I have a sense that satisfaction levels among those who use cabs in the capital city—black cabs or others—is pretty high.

Victoria Borwick: I welcome that point. It is right: people want to use a safe vehicle that has been properly assessed, as everyone has said. Technology has moved on, so we must support the gold standard of our taxi drivers. Becoming a licensed taxi driver does not have such an appeal any more. Is that because of the barriers or because the investment and time is entirely on one side? TfL should look at its regulations and how it promotes the licensed taxi trade. It allows the competitors to charge what they want, and use any booking and charging methods they want; but over the years restrictions have been put on our taxi drivers, and they should be reviewed.

London has the advantage of being a friendly city. We have built on the Olympics, and have proved it time and again; we are working together for full disability access for the whole of London, in new homes and transport infrastructure such as Crossrail. It all has full disability access. Every new bus, every new train and every carriage is disabled accessible. All vehicles licensed by TfL for the public should be disabled accessible, take credit cards and alternative methods of payment, and be tracked and trackable to continue to provide the level of safety, as has been mentioned here today, that is unique to our taxi trade and our traditional taxi drivers. In the longer term, when we have proven technology, we should support the trade to move to more environmentally friendly vehicles.

I ask the Minister to re-examine the governance and regulations of the taxi trade and minicab vehicles, so that we can provide our excellent licensed taxis and ensure that this remains a worthwhile profession for those wishing to sign on to the high standards that have been spoken about this morning.

10 am

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing the debate and on his contribution, and I congratulate and commend my right hon. Friend the

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Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) on his speech. He articulated in great detail the issues and substance of what is now required.

I want to say a couple of things that have occurred to me over the last little while. First, I want to thank a knowledge school called the Knowledge 4 You academy, which sits in Bethnal Green. I paid a visit to that school, which is run by a wonderful chap called Courtney, who is a Barbadian Rastafarian. Every evening in a little portakabin behind Bethnal Green station, about 40 Londoners gather to go through the knowledge. I met those 40 people. They are men and women, from all the ethnic backgrounds that we see reflected in the city. It might be said that they are overwhelmingly from a working-class background. One was a firefighter and another was a paramedic. Some were working in retail, and actually, I met a student there. It was a real reflection of London, going there every evening and studying for up to three years to get that knowledge, all coveting the yellow badge that gives them the entitlement to drive a black cab around London.

I came from the kind of background in the ’70s and ’80s where, if I had come into the centre of town, say, as a 19 or 20-year-old, and then got home and told my mother that I had got into a black cab, I would have got a clip around the ear. “Where the hell did you get that kind of money?” she would have said. However, later, as I became a barrister and had a little bit more money, it was quite nice to get into a black cab in the centre of town. It was quite nice to have the odd date and take one’s girlfriend home in a black cab, and it was comforting to be able to put one’s partner into a black cab and send them home in safety. It is great to be able to get into a vehicle where the driver knows where he is going. I have to say that all these years later, having seen the dedication of those who work hard to get that badge, it is something we should preserve. It is an institution.

All of us in this room will have travelled to cities all over the world, and we will have seen in those cities how people prize this institution, which is the first face that someone sees of the city when they arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick. That should be preserved and the business of plying for trade, which we established, is now something that, as my right hon. Friend said, should be in statute. This House could sort that out pretty rapidly and it would give that institution the reassurance it needs, not just in this city, but in other cities in the country. That is really the centrality of what the Minister has to come to.

I am absolutely clear that the Government’s slightly relaxed attitude to international companies that do not pay tax in this country must stop. Of course such a company can undercut established institutions. It is well known across the world that people can arrive in London, get a second-hand vehicle, jump through very few hoops—the bar is so low—go to the Uber office, get the technology, and for very little training, they, too, can be part of the explosion that we are seeing across the city which is now polluting our young people’s lungs. Of course the city is congested; it is all the private hire vehicles that people are picking up. In this economy, where one in four young people in London is still unemployed, we are seeing many young students doing this as well. Is that right? Is that good? It cannot be.

I wrote to the Home Secretary not so long ago to raise the issues of homophobia, assault and rape—really concerning activity on the part of some of these unregulated

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drivers. That is the price of entire deregulation, which is effectively what we are seeing through the back door. My view is that despite Transport for London being a great institution, in this area, it has failed miserably. Many black cab drivers expected the Mayor to intervene and to understand fully the difference between a metred cab plying for trade and actually ringing up a company, but that did not happen in a sufficient way. Will the Minister look again at this and at how this was allowed to happen? Unlike in a city such as Paris, where licensed drivers and new technology are able to exist alongside the long-standing institution of drivers in that capital city, how in London have we got it so badly wrong? The black cab is looked at across the world. It is more iconic than the New York yellow cab, and we are prepared to see it dwindle away on the back of deregulation.

There is the issue of who these drivers are. What is their qualification? What is their background? Why are we hearing of so many incidents of really poor, antisocial, dangerous and sometimes criminal behaviour? Who are they and what is the regulation relating to that?

Why are we so relaxed about a company that is not paying tax? Why are we supporting them? Who are the friends that we are hanging out with? There have been lots of suggestions and there has been lots of contact at different places between the Mayor’s office, the Government and some of these new companies that are entering the market. Are we going to make this a statutory base—plying for trade, the hackney carriage—and move it forward into the 21st century so we protect that institution?

Finally, if someone lives in London locally, they want to be able to ring up a minicab office, where there are local drivers who know their local area. That is usually to do regular routes. Lots of old people make short visits to hospitals, GP surgeries and that sort of thing. It is really worrying to see the collapse of minicab offices in London because of the failure to regulate appropriately in this area.

Sadiq Khan: My right hon. Friend has touched a nerve with me and with regard to what my constituents have been saying to me, which is that some private hire vehicles are being driven out of the market by the pricing model of Uber. It is trying to gain a huge share of the private hire vehicle market and the worry is what will happen tomorrow when all these private vehicles that he knows about—the minicabs in Tooting and Tottenham—are run out of business.

Mr Lammy: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Basically, do we want the high street to have a place not only for the supermarket somewhere, but for small independent shops? Very soon in London, those small independent minicab offices will all be gone. There will be no sense of locality. It will all be one big M25 fudge called Uber. That is what we must stand up to. There is room for everyone, but unfairness must be grappled with over the coming weeks and months.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): As a London MP myself, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on everything that he is saying. He is speaking the utmost sense and I support everything that he has said.

Mr Lammy: But!

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Andrew Rosindell: No, not at all. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the real issue is that we need a level playing field? We need equal access to the market for everyone in this trade, but those in the black cab industry have had to go through many hoops to get where they are and it is absolutely wrong that a company can just undercut people who have worked all their lives to establish their trade. I therefore commend the right hon. Gentleman for everything that he is saying. I hope that this can be an issue of cross-party consensus in order to take action to resolve this very serious problem, which could destroy our black cab industry in London.

Mr Lammy: The hon. Gentleman has put his points very well and I entirely agree with him. I think that there is consensus in the Chamber today, but there is also concern about those who have the power. The Mayor, the Minister and the Government have the power and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting says, this issue requires action, not just platitudes. I know that he is forensic in his quest for action and will be over the coming weeks and months—I have felt that myself. The point is absolutely right that a level playing field is what is required. There must be fairness to those who put the effort in—those who do the knowledge and go through those hoops. There must be regulation, not a completely deregulated market. That does not work and cannot work in this sector, particularly in relation to safety. And we do need to get a grip on companies that are not paying their tax properly in this country.

10.11 am

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Some hon. Members may be questioning the relevance of the London black taxi service to my constituents in Glasgow South. However, it is clear to me from the debate so far that there are lessons that we can learn in Scotland so that we do not end up in the position that people in London find themselves in today. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on initiating this important debate on one of London’s and, indeed, Britain’s most iconic symbols—the black taxi.

It has also been a pleasure to sit through—I had not expected this—what may be the first London mayoral hustings, here in Westminster Hall this morning. If the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) can have debates that are this consensual, they have a good election ahead of them.

The Uber phenomenon has yet to hit Glasgow and, indeed, Scotland, but I do not doubt that it may well do so in the future, so I genuinely approach this debate in the spirit of trying to learn something. I hope that we can use it to inform ourselves in Scotland, as we have entirely separate licensing of taxis and minicabs that in many ways is not dissimilar to the licensing here in England and Wales.

Taxis are a vital part of our city infrastructure and national life. The hon. Member for Kensington (Victoria Borwick) gave the example of the London Olympics, when black taxis came into their own. We had the same experience during the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. Along with our public transport services, black taxis

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and their drivers were there not just to ship people around, but to welcome people to the great city of Glasgow.

If I may, I will make one comment on taxi drivers in my home city. Glasgow taxi drivers are the most knowledgeable and most friendly people—aside from one or two Members of Parliament perhaps—who visitors to the city of Glasgow can meet. They have great humour and great local knowledge. Based on the colour of the football top that someone is wearing when they enter the taxi, they will even know which routes to avoid when they are there. I have always found that taxi drivers are great for providing that wonderful thing that the metropolitan media and the pollsters always get wrong—political analysis. Speak to any taxi driver, whether in Glasgow or London, and believe me, they will give their views on Scottish independence and, indeed, any other political matter of the day. These people have put their entire working life into being not just a car service, but a welcoming service to whoever comes through those doors. I think that Parliament owes it to taxi drivers not just here in London but across the UK to get this right.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who unfortunately has left the Chamber, suggested that less regulation of black taxis could be an option. My experience suggests that that is not what black taxi drivers themselves want. Indeed, they enjoy the gold standard that comes with being a black taxi driver. The right hon. Member for Tooting mentioned the importance of someone knowing that they can safely put their daughter into one of these vehicles. Indeed, my own mother would never travel in any kind of vehicle other than a black taxi, although she usually prefers it if her son is picking up the bill!

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about choice; indeed, consumer choice was mentioned by a few speakers. Choice cannot come at the expense of knowledge, safety, proper insurance and proper training. In fact, there is a whole argument to consider in terms of the investment put into Uber’s drivers. What it should have is a well regulated and unionised workforce. The answer, of course, is not to ban Uber, or any other private hire vehicle service, but to bring it in line with what the public expect from any other transport provider, whether that is black taxis, the underground or buses.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) mentioned recent allegations of homophobic or racist abuse in Uber cars. We would not expect that or put up with that if it happened on a bus, on the London underground or, indeed, in any other public service, and these minicab companies cannot expect to operate outside that expectation.

Victoria Borwick: Another important thing to talk about when we are considering the difference between the two kinds of vehicle is that there have also been incidences of guide dogs not being taken in minicabs. For the record, I think it is important that we ensure that any taxi driver of any taxi that we license should take such assistance dogs.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald: The hon. Lady’s point is absolutely correct and I thank her for making it.

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To return to my point on what we do about Uber, which appears to be the bogeyman in this debate, we need to look at ensuring that the wages of its drivers are properly regulated and properly enforced and that the training on health and safety and local knowledge is there. It is obvious that Uber is not going to go away, so this could be a turning point for transport in London depending on how we respond to it.

We must create a proper choice to ensure that there is not a cowboy operator not just operating in London but, potentially, coming to my home city. The technological challenge that is presented to us with the rise of minicab apps is something that Parliament and Government, local authorities and devolved Administrations must get right and must catch up with. The risk of not doing so is great and there for all to see. As I mentioned earlier, the ancient tradition of black taxi driving and all the service that those drivers provide us with means that we owe it to them to get this right; and we in Scotland look forward to learning something from London’s experience.

10.18 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing the debate and on the contributions that he and many other hon. Members, on both sides of the Chamber, have made. I mention in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). Like him, I suspect that this is the first of many debates that he will have with the hon. Member for Richmond Park. They were in agreement on the matter, and the consensus across the Chamber has been remarkable. I hope that the Minister bears that in mind when he replies to the debate.

Today’s debate concerns something fundamental for London, as many hon. Members have said, namely the future of black cabs in the capital. It is clear that existing regulation is insufficient to deal with the changes. That point has been made by the hon. Member for Kensington (Victoria Borwick) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Tooting and for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—he made an excellent speech—and it has been recognised north of the border by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). Although black cabs are regarded as having some of the highest safety and accessibility standards for taxis anywhere in the world, the phenomenon of ride-sharing schemes and taxi apps has made it clear that regulation has simply not kept pace with the changes. That gives us a choice about how we cope with those changes and regulatory challenges.

Grahame M. Morris: Although I acknowledge that the subject of the debate is black cabs in London, I attended, along with other hon. Members, a national lobby of Parliament expressing the concerns about the matter across the midlands and in a number of the great cities in the north. This is a problem that we will all face, even if we do not face it immediately. Is it not a good time, as a Parliament, to look at the legal definition of plying for hire and to resolve the matter not only in London, but across the whole United Kingdom?

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Richard Burden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and without wanting to stray from the focus of the debate, I hope to say one or two words about that in a while. He was also right in his earlier intervention about the need for consistency in regulation across the piece, which has to be founded on principles.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting made the point, quite correctly, that we have a choice. We can look towards a future based on a race to the bottom, with all that that implies, or we can look to generalise the best standards for drivers and for passengers. I have referred to black cabs, but rising to the challenge of dealing with these changes is also important for the private hire industry. Properly regulated private hire has a role in the capital and elsewhere in getting people to the airport early in the morning, for example, and getting them home from nightclubs late at night or perhaps very early in the morning. Whether they use private hire or black cabs, passengers—across the country, not simply in London—need to know that services will be reliable and that they will be safe.

In London, about 3.5 billion passenger journeys a year are being recorded on the underground and the bus network combined, and London’s population is set to grow from 8.6 million today to around 10 million by 2030. As companies such as Uber recognise, that will have a profound effect on the nature of our transport system. With their emergence and success, Uber and other apps have made important headway in London, notably in the late-night market and the recreational market. They have been particularly successful in London’s suburbs, where the black cab network is sometimes at its thinnest. The promotions and public relations of such companies are something of a masterclass, it has to be said. Despite serious reservations about Uber, which I will say something about in a minute, it is not surprising that a recent YouGov poll found that a majority of Londoners thought that Uber was a good thing.

I want to recognise a good thing that Uber has done. It recently launched the UberGiving campaign to help to raise money for the global refugee crisis, in partnership with Save the Children. That is an innovative and worthy fundraising campaign. I suppose that the company would say that that is part of social responsibility, and I welcome that. Social responsibility goes beyond that, however, as my right hon. Friends the Members for Tottenham and for Tooting have said. If the company wants to be part of the fabric of the public transport system in its widest sense in London—I consider taxis and private hire vehicles to be part of that—and in the rest of the country, responsibilities must go with rights. Surely, an absolutely fundamental responsibility for a company is to pay its dues in taxes, which provide services in the country in which it operates.

Some of Uber’s actions give cause for genuine concern. There are regulatory disparities and issues about the use of taximeters. It is also important to ensure that the welfare of passengers is made paramount. Passengers have a right to know that when they book a journey through any operator, the service will be reliable, traceable and fairly priced. They should also know who is driving and be able to trace the vehicle’s registration and licensing details quickly and easily.

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Such strengthening of safety regulation must extend to drivers as well. There are real concerns about the kind of culture encouraged by Uber and, I have to say, some private hire operators. To recruit new drivers, Uber’s website states:

“Make money on your own terms. Full-time and part-time driving opportunities for independent contractors in London give you the flexibility to access the platform as much or as little as you want. You can focus on driving your car when it works for you.”

That all sounds fine, in one way, but is it encouraging a culture—particularly as we have already heard from right hon. and hon. Members about the pay rates that Uber drivers often end up earning—of long hours, with drivers working 50 to 70 hours a week without any checks? The impact of tiredness on drivers and their passengers can be quite simply deadly. What assessment has the Minister made of the long hours that are being encouraged by not only Uber but the private hire industry more generally?

Beyond passenger and driver welfare, Labour recognises the genuine concerns of unions and private hire trade associations that Uber’s growth may be benefiting from a loose interpretation of the regulation on taximeters that I have mentioned. That is why I welcomed Transport for London’s decision to seek a High Court ruling on taximeters in May 2014. Apps such as Uber that involve a contract for vehicle hire must conform to the same standards of safety, licensing and insurance as the rest of the industry. They are neither black cab nor minicab, so it is vital that we understand and get a ruling on where they fit in the regulatory framework.

The delay in obtaining that ruling has gone on for some time, so the discrepancies persist. Does the Minister have any information about when that is likely to be resolved? Although it is clearly not for anybody here to speculate on the outcome, can the Minister confirm whether his Department has consulted with TfL to draw up contingency plans for all the possible scenarios that may result, and will he confirm what those plans are? Many hon. Members agree that any High Court ruling will address only one regulatory issue, but the kinds of problems that we are experiencing in London are being experienced not only in other parts of the country but internationally. They have come up in other European cities, in north America and even, in quite serious ways, in Mexico City.

TfL’s involvement and its announcement over the summer of a consultation on regulations have been timely. I will not go into too much detail about that at the moment, other than to ask the Minister to comment on two relevant matters: capping and off-duty driving. On capping, the transport network has to respond to the challenge of population growth, but there is real concern about where the unprecedented rise in the number of minicabs, which many hon. Members have mentioned today, is heading.

In an Adjournment debate before the summer recess, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), to say whether the Government will consider a cap on numbers and what their view is on such a cap. That Minister would not be drawn, but I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), will tell us today whether a cap on numbers could be appropriate.

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My other question on the TfL review is about the rules on who can drive off-duty taxis and private hire vehicles and when they can be driven. The Minister will recall that, when the coalition Government tried to introduce such a measure in the Deregulation Act 2015, they were forced to withdraw part of that proposal in the House of Lords simply because too many people noticed that it opened up the possibility of illegal pick-ups and malpractice, and made things such as sexual assault far more, not less, likely. Although I recognise that the review is primarily TfL’s responsibility, will the Government say anything in response to that review given the response when the Deregulation Act was debated in the previous Parliament?

That draws me to my final point, which picks up on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). A long time ago, the Law Commission was charged with looking in detail at regulatory disparities. It was recognised a long time ago that proper consideration is needed, and we have all known for years that a proper, thorough review of taxi and private hire regulations is needed to ensure safety and consistency and to recognise changing customer demands and expectations. That is why the Government asked the Law Commission to consider such matters but, after delay after delay and coyness from the Government about when anything would happen, Ministers jumped the gun just before the Law Commission published its findings and made last-minute additions to the Deregulation Act on PHV and taxi licensing outside London that, to put it charitably, were half-baked and ill thought out.

The Government got themselves into a mess on that, as we know, so where will they go from here? Will they respond to the points that have been consistently raised in this debate on the need to have proper consolidated legislation, a Bill, that can sort out the matter, that can update centuries-old regulations, that can address the challenges facing black cabs in London and that can incorporate long-overlooked taxis of sorts, rickshaws and ride sharing, and other such things? When will they set out their response to the Law Commission’s proposals and recommendations in general? If the Minister is not able to give that response now, will he let us know when he feels he might be able to do so? How does he expect that to fit with the likely timetable for High Court rulings on Uber and TfL’s regulatory review for London?

London’s black cabs are revered as having the highest safety and accessibility standards in the world. Last month, the Local Government Association called for its taxi operators to be put in line with the high standards enforced in London. Can we have a proper Bill to regulate taxis and private hire vehicles? Will the Government take the initiative, and when will they introduce such a Bill?

My final, final point is on emissions. A number of hon. Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, have spoken about pollution. If black cabs and the private hire industry are to help address the challenge of air quality in the capital, they need to be future-proofed. The Government’s commitment of £25 million through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles to help drivers upgrade to greener vehicles is a good step, but the Government are sending mixed messages. The Chancellor has tagged increased vehicle excise duty rates on all vehicles, including low emission vehicles.

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Outside of transport, we have seen the mothballing of a number of green policies since the election. May we see a bit more consistency? On taxis and private hire vehicles specifically, has the Minister received any representations from the taxi trade on the phasing in of emissions requirements? What is he doing to alleviate such concerns? Will he listen not only to the consensus in this debate on the future of taxis and private hire vehicles in the capital but to the people at the sharp end—the drivers, the trade associations and so on—who are telling him what is coming down the tracks? Something needs to be done. As well as answering the specific questions asked by hon. Members, will he confirm that he agrees that the time has come for comprehensive, thought-through legislation to get a proper taxi and private hire Bill on the statute book?

10.35 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Andrew Jones): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate on London’s famous and wonderful black cabs. This topic has been the subject of a previous debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), so I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park for continuing to highlight the contribution of London taxis to the economy and transport network of this great city and the issues that the industry faces.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, although the Government are responsible for creating the legislative framework within which local licensing authorities license taxis and private hire vehicles, responsibility for licensing in London rests with TfL. It is TfL’s responsibility to decide who is a suitable person to hold a taxi or private hire vehicle driver’s licence, or a private hire operator’s licence, and for ensuring that all its licensees comply with the rules and regulations that govern the industry. I understand his desire to raise his concerns in the House but, as licensing is TfL’s responsibility, some of the points raised today are TfL’s responsibility, so I might not be able to address all those points.

Grahame M. Morris: Will the Minister acknowledge the contributions made by Members on both sides of the Chamber? We have highlighted problems that are likely to manifest in other parts of the country and, in fact, are already manifesting in the midlands and in some northern cities. Similar problems are likely to arise in Scotland. Do the Government not have a responsibility to legislate in anticipation of those problems to introduce appropriate redress?

Andrew Jones: I recognise the excellent contributions made by Members on both sides of the Chamber. Some of those points will apply across our country, but this debate is about the future of London’s black cabs. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I will address the Law Commission later in my speech.

Zac Goldsmith: I thank the Minister for his remarks. I have one question on the Government’s role. My understanding is that if TfL was minded to cap the number of new licences at some 2,000 a month, it would require legislative support from the Government. Will he clarify whether that is the case?

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Andrew Jones: Indeed, I can. A few Members have mentioned the number of licences, and there is currently no legislation in London, or anywhere else in England and Wales, to allow the number of private hire vehicles to be limited. Equally, officials are working closely with TfL on whether legislation needs to change—we need to consider that issue and develop the required evidence. The situation is changing rapidly due to the numbers, as Members have highlighted today, and I will return to that later. As things stand, there is no legislation in place.

The traditional London taxi or black cab is, as hon. Members have said, an icon of this city. For many years the taxi industry has played a key role in keeping London moving, and the industry has a history and reputation of which drivers are rightly proud. The black cab is the gold standard across the world, and its quality is internationally recognised. All the vehicles are of a high standard, fully wheelchair-accessible and driven by skilled and knowledgeable drivers. I admire the time and dedication that prospective drivers put into learning the world-famous knowledge of London. It is an enormous commitment, involving up to four years of work on top of a day-to-day job. The drop-out rate is high, between 70% and 80%, meaning that those who complete training in the knowledge are the most committed. From a customer’s perspective, their knowledge brings a sense of utter reliability and security. As a visitor to London—my home is 200-plus miles away—I rely on it. Learning the knowledge rewards taxi drivers with the unique right to ply for hire on the streets of our capital.

In the 1960s, minicabs began to appear in London, and the private hire vehicle industry, as it came to be known, was finally regulated following the introduction of legislation in 1998. Licensing and regulation have ensured that the public have the same assurance of safety as when using a taxi and have raised standards throughout the private hire sector. Transport for London now licenses more than 22,000 taxis and 69,000 private hire vehicles. Between them, those vehicles make 300,000 trips every day, making a vital contribution to London’s economy and helping to keep the city moving 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The availability of both taxis and private hire vehicles offers the travelling public choice. They can instantly hire a taxi in the street or at a taxi rank; alternatively, they can pre-book a taxi or a private hire vehicle. When pre-booking, passengers can make an informed choice based on factors such as price, availability and quality. The combination of taxi and private hire ensures that the needs of as many Londoners as possible can be met.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park recognises and as Members from different parties have highlighted, the market is changing. New technology is providing new ways of engaging taxis and private hire vehicles. Smartphone booking apps are now available for both taxis and private hire vehicles, offering passengers easy access to services, more choices, faster pick-ups and options for sharing that can reduce the cost for travellers.

It is encouraging that the London taxi trade has been at the forefront of those technological changes. There are now numerous apps through which one can book a taxi, and more and more drivers are embracing cashless payment options, a customer benefit highlighted earlier in this debate. However, such new technology is challenging

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traditional operating boundaries between the taxi and private hire trades. I understand that it is straining the relationship between Transport for London and the industry, but I hope that by working in partnership, they can deliver a modern industry that continues to provide both choice and high standards.

The evolution of the private hire sector has helped to ensure that that form of transport is available to all in a cost-effective manner, particularly supporting those who cannot rely on other public transport services. The importance of local minicab firms, often small local businesses, was well outlined by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). Such companies are often established in their communities and have served them well for many years, providing a valuable service that needs to be maintained. That point was clear.

Uber and other new entrants to the market present major challenges to established business models, and I can understand the concern of London’s taxi drivers. Uber London Ltd has been licensed by TFL as a private hire vehicle operator in London since 2012. The company has now applied for and been granted licences in 25 other licensing authority areas in England. In order to be granted a licence, Uber must meet the same standards as any other private hire vehicle operator in the local authority area. Therefore, 26 different authorities have decided that Uber is a fit and proper company, that its operating model meets the requirements of private hire legislation and that it keeps such records as the law requires.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I apologise to colleagues for being late to this debate. There is something slightly sinister about Uber’s business practices. My hon. Friend might be aware that in America, the board of Uber met to discuss how to discredit and destroy the career of an IT journalist concerned about its business practices. I hope that he is aware of such conduct by Uber and will take it into consideration when developing his thoughts on the company.

Andrew Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have absolutely no sympathy for any company that behaves in such a way as to discredit others. Other colleagues in the House have highlighted poor practice, such as on taxes. I have no sympathy for any company that dodges its responsibilities, including on taxes.

Mr Walker: Basically, the company bullies local authorities and national Governments. It will not and should not be allowed to bully the Government of the United Kingdom.

Andrew Jones: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. This Government will not be bullied by any individual company. We must keep in mind the qualities of the taxi and private hire sectors and what they have delivered over many years—in some cases, over centuries—for our city. Both are strong, important players and need a protected future.

I know that the London taxi trade fundamentally disagrees with TfL’s views on how Uber calculates a fare. Many members of the taxi trade consider Uber’s smartphone app to be essentially a taximeter. Taximeters are, of course, forbidden in London’s private hire vehicles.

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Transport for London has recognised that the law in respect of the issue is unclear and has applied to the High Court for a declaration. Members have asked when that case will be determined. It is due to be heard in the High Court next month, so we should let the court make its decision.

Transport for London’s vision and strategy for the taxi industry is designed to maintain and enhance the high standard of service on which customers have come to rely. It will include development of the next generation of taxis, which will be environmentally clean and modern and suitable for passenger needs, particularly those of disabled people, a point consistently made by Members in this debate. The taxis will retain or enhance accessibility features to ensure a safe, smooth and comfortable ride.

The Mayor of London has announced plans to improve air quality in London, including by increasing the number of ultra-low-emission taxis. In April this year, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles announced the launch of a £45 million fund to support the roll-out of ultra-low-emission taxis across the United Kingdom. It includes £25 million set aside specifically for the Greater London area to help taxi drivers cover the costs of upgrading to a greener vehicle. The Mayor of London has pledged an additional £40 million, creating a £65 million fund to encourage the cleanest and greenest taxi fleet in the world.

At the same time, Geely, which owns the iconic London Taxi Company, announced plans for a new £250 million state-of-the-art facility to produce the next generation of low-emission London taxis in Ansty, near Coventry. Geely was awarded £17 million from the Government’s regional growth fund to build the facility, which will create 1,000 new jobs and ensure that the London taxi continues to be designed, developed and made in the United Kingdom. This shows the Government’s support for the taxi trade throughout the country and will mean that the London taxi trade will play a leading role in improving the capital’s air quality and meeting our climate change obligations.

Hon. Members may be aware that last year, the London Assembly’s transport committee began an investigation into taxi and private hire services in London. As a result of that scrutiny, the committee made a number of recommendations to the Mayor and Transport for London on steps that they could take to improve taxi and private hire services in the city. In some cases, the committee was critical of the role of the taxi and private hire section of TfL, and I understand that members of both London’s taxi and private hire vehicle trades gave evidence to the committee as to their dissatisfaction with TfL’s actions as the licensing authority. The committee is responsible for questioning and scrutinising the actions of the Mayor, so it is not for the Government to comment on local licensing matters or the committee’s actions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park will be aware that the Department for Transport asked the Law Commission in 2012 to conduct a review of taxi and private hire vehicle legislation throughout England and Wales, including London. That was against the backdrop of the Government’s red tape challenge and legislation that dates back to the first half of the 19th century and the age of the horse-drawn hackney carriage. Despite more recent legislation to allow for the regulation of private hire vehicles, the recent innovations

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that I and colleagues have described this morning have demonstrated that the legislation used to regulate both the taxi and private hire trades is becoming increasingly outdated. Licensing authorities throughout England and Wales are now faced with the challenge of accommodating 21st century technology in 19th century legislation.

The Law Commission undertook a comprehensive review, its final report containing recommendations for a modern and simplified structure. The report not only provided crucial analysis of the problems posed by the current law, but provided solutions designed to make a difference to both the travelling public and people in the industry. Updated and simplified legislation will provide a modern and simple framework, ensuring public safety and providing the trade with certainty, making growth and competition easier. I cannot yet give the House a date for the Government response to the review, but the Law Commission’s work has been powerful and important.

Richard Burden: It is good news that the Government are looking at the legislation, but it is not enough for the Minister to say that he does not know when the Government will respond. TfL is doing a review, the London Assembly is considering such matters, and Uber is growing. If the Law Commission has been meeting since 2012, when on earth will the Government make a decision about whether they are going to do something?

Andrew Jones: I completely recognise the importance of this case. We are seeing technological changes that require a legislative change, but getting this right is critical. The Government are still considering the matter, and I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any more detail at this moment.

Sadiq Khan: I thank the Minister for giving way again. I have been listening patiently to his speech, in which he has run through a range of issues. He has heard from the hon. Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and me. He has heard that black cab drivers are going out of business every week. He has heard that private hire minicabs in areas such as Tottenham, Poplar and Canning Town, and Tooting are going out of business every week. He has confirmed that the legislation and regulations are “outdated”—made in the 19th century and not fit for purpose in the 21st century. Yet there is no sense of urgency from the Government. It beggars belief that the Minister can come to the second debate on this issue in the space of a number of months, and speak for 18 minutes without telling us what action the Government will take.

Andrew Jones: That smacks of a mayoral hustings debate rather than a Westminster Hall debate. The legislative framework is complicated and technology is changing. The Government took action by commissioning this complicated work from the Law Commission. That work is currently being digested and the Government will respond shortly. I cannot provide a date for the response, but the work is important and will provide security and clarity not only for TfL, but right across

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the country. That has been understood, and voices from across the House have made that clear this morning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park may be aware that TfL recently completed its own consultation on the regulations that govern private hire vehicles in the capital. That came in response to developments in the industry that I have described, including advances in technology and changes in how people engage and use private hire services. The proposed revisions to the regulations will be known later this year, and some of TfL’s proposals may address concerns raised this morning.

I was asked several specific questions, which I will try to address now, although I have already answered some of them. On whether plying for hire has been defined, the Law Commission addressed creating such a statutory definition, but it came to the view, after careful consideration, that a statutory definition would not be a practical improvement on the current position. As for Ministers meeting celebrities, the Minister responsible for transport in London is in a Delegated Legislation Committee this morning, which is why I am covering this debate—

Grahame M. Morris: Will the Minister take a brief intervention on his previous point?

Andrew Jones: I am slightly running out of time, but I will give way.

Grahame M. Morris: Regarding the Minister’s remark about the Law Commission and the statutory definition of plying for hire, given rapid technological advancements such as the Uber app and the complications that they are causing, does he recognise that the Law Commission advice is perhaps out of date? Is it not worth the Government considering the matter again?

Andrew Jones: There may be ways of addressing some of those issues, such as providing a definition of a lawful pre-booking, which will perhaps achieve the same

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objective. The Government’s response to the Law Commission is still a work in progress. We recognise its importance, and I am happy to commit to maintaining the Department’s energy in delivering it.

I cannot comment on Ministers meeting celebrities— I have not met any—so I cannot really add to that. Do I agree with the comments about TfL’s actions as a licensing authority? That is up to TfL and the scrutiny of Assembly Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned price surging, and I will certainly write to TfL to highlight that point and to ask it to investigate. The same applies to the points made about predatory pricing. The key thing will be to start collecting evidence—if, indeed, this practice is taking place—so that we can make insightful comments. I have already commented on capping numbers.

On the regulation of fares, TfL is the licensing authority and has the power to set fares for London taxis. That regulation is an important element of consumer protection in the hail-and-rank market. TfL has no power to set private hire fares, which are set by the licensed operators. When booking a private hire vehicle, customers can shop around in advance and obtain a quote or estimate for a journey, which is why the regulatory authority sets no price constraint.

In conclusion, the Government are fully aware of the changes and challenges affecting the taxi and private hire vehicle industry in London and elsewhere in the country. The challenges include not only new technology and increased competition, but the need to ensure that vehicles play their part in improving air quality. The London taxi trade has rightly recognised such challenges, and I have recently been advised of a new campaign launched by trade bodies to promote London’s taxis. I believe the reputation of the London taxi trade and its high-quality service mean that it is well placed to continue to compete in this changing market and have a strong and healthy future. That is what I want, and that is clearly the view of the House this morning.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of black cabs in London.

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FOI Requests: Scotland Office

10.59 am

Sir Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order. We now come to an Adjournment debate, to be moved by Mr Peter Grant, on the Scotland Office response to freedom of information requests.

To set the guidelines for this debate, I will just make a short opening statement, which is being made after consultation with the Clerks of the House of Commons. I should advise Mr Grant that he should not make direct reference to the proceedings of the case before the Election Court concerning Alistair Carmichael, nor should Mr Grant state what he thinks the judgment should be—[Interruption.] Could hon. Members and members of the public leaving Westminster Hall do so quietly, please? Mr Goldsmith, I am reading out a very important statement concerning the sub judice rules. Nor should Mr Grant state what he thinks the judgment should be in a case before the Election Court. He should focus his remarks on the Scotland Office’s failure to comply with FOI requests and not upon current legal proceedings.

As it is a matter of public record that before 22 May Mr Carmichael denied all knowledge of the leak and after 22 May admitted full responsibility for it, it is hard to insist that references to this fact should not be referred to in debate, as they are not a matter of legal argument. However, what is a matter of legal argument is whether Mr Carmichael’s character and conduct in this matter fall under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and should result in his election being declared null and void. Also, Mr Grant should of course not use the occasion of the debate to impugn the character of Mr Carmichael.

I call Mr Grant to speak.

11 am

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of FOI Requests: Scotland Office.

Thanks very much, Sir Edward, for putting on the public record the advice that I have had previously when I have discussed my request for this debate with the Table Office, and of course I will comply entirely with that advice, as was always my intention.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate this morning, but I suspect that, as with most people who secure debates in Westminster Hall, I really rather wish that it had not been necessary to do so, because I wish that not only the Scotland Office but other Ministers up to and including the Prime Minister had been a bit more open about what Ministers knew and when they knew it.

My intention in securing this debate and in raising matters related to this issue in the House on numerous occasions has nothing whatsoever to do with the former Secretary of State and the continuing right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). My intention is to find out what else has been going on that was completely beyond the remit of either of the two inquiries that have been set up, because I understand that a standards inquiry may still be conducted into the matter.

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To put things into a bit of context, I have always had a very keen interest in freedom of information legislation. As a serving councillor in the 1990s, I was on the record as saying that a proper Freedom of Information Act and proper proportional representation would make between them the single biggest improving difference to the way that local government operates, and the experience in Scotland to date certainly suggests that that is the case.

I have previous experience of working in the NHS, in the days when Michael Forsyth was Secretary of State for everything, including health, and I saw at first hand the catastrophic impact that secrecy in the NHS in Scotland had, because major financial difficulties were covered up time and time and time again, until eventually the health board in the area that I lived in and that I had previously worked for nearly went bust, as did several other health boards in Scotland.

Freedom of information has been described as a snooper’s charter, but it is not; it is a way of giving the public a chance to hold all of us properly to account. My view on FOI has always been that if someone does not want to be held to account, they should not be here. The single golden rule about freedom of information is not the Sir Humphrey Appleby line, “You never try to conceal from the public that which they would be able to find out in any case”; the rule about freedom of information should always be, “If it would damage your career for the public to find out what you were doing, then you shouldn’t have done it in the first place”. That is the acid test that should always be applied.

I found it interesting that shortly before the summer recess the Government announced that responsibility for freedom of information legislation was moving from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office. When I saw a statement a few days ago that the Information Commissioner has put the Ministry of Justice on special measures because the Ministry is so bad at answering its own FOI requests, I wondered whether that had something to do with this change, because the MOJ is managing to respond to only 75% of FOI requests within the statutory time. Then I realised that the Cabinet Office is also achieving exactly 75%.

However, I will concentrate on the Scotland Office. Between 2012 and 2014, it received 280 resolvable FOI requests; in other words, requests about information that it actually held and that it was capable of responding to. Only 25 of those FOI requests were fully withheld, which is less than 10% of the total number received; in only 11 cases during that period did the Scotland Office claim any form of exemption from responses; and in only one case out of the 280 requests over a three-year period did the Scotland Office ever claim that somebody’s physical or mental health or safety would be endangered if information was released.

However, when somebody asked for a copy of a memo that had already been released to the press, the Scotland Office response was, first of all, to withhold that information fully, which immediately makes it an unusual response. The Scotland Office claimed that that request was exempt, but in 2014 it never claimed that anything was exempt, so again that shows that its response to that request was somewhat unusual.

Initially, when the Scotland Office responded to that request it claimed that releasing the memo might damage our relations with the French Government. That is an

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exemption that may well have merit; I would not like to comment on that in full. I could understand that there might be concerns that disclosing the contents of the memo might harm diplomatic relations with the French Government, but it is a pity that nobody thought about that when the memo was put in

The Daily Telegraph

in the first place. It is also a pity that the senior civil servant who phoned the French embassy to ask about a private conversation between French diplomats and the elected Head of the Scottish Government did not stop to wonder whether that was being disrespectful to the Scottish Government.

So, one of the things that I would like to have answered today, and one of the reasons why I am continuing to push this matter, is this question: is it common practice for Whitehall civil servants to go behind the back of Scottish Government Ministers and to follow up every private meeting those Ministers have with overseas diplomats in order to find out what was said? I would suggest to civil servants in the Scotland Office or in any other office of Government that if they want to find out what the First Minister of Scotland has said to foreign diplomats they should ask the First Minister of Scotland. Apart from anything else, that way there is less danger of things getting “lost in translation”, which I believe is the quote being used now.

I go back to the original FOI request. Following its being refused on the grounds that it might damage relations with the French and then on the grounds that it contained personal information, the question is this: whose personal details were in the memo? If there were the names of senior civil servants, and certainly if there were the names of Government Ministers, it cannot possibly be claimed that that is exempt information. The Data Protection Act is not there to protect Ministers from being held accountable for what they did, or even for what they knew.

The applicant asked for an internal review, which is supposed to be a chance for the answering Department to get the matter right second time around. However, rather than accepting that some of the exemptions no longer applied, the Department discovered that releasing the memo would in fact cause a danger to somebody’s physical or mental health and safety. The Department, having explicitly said in a letter of 15 June that it had considered that exemption and found that it did not apply, then discovered by 28 July that releasing the memo would put somebody’s health or safety in danger. I do not know what had happened in the meantime; I do not know whether one of these children from Syria who are actually Daesh operatives in disguise and who we keep hearing about had somehow got in under the radar.

The Information Commissioner is very clear about what the health and safety exemption means. It does not mean that it might be upsetting or stressful for somebody if a document is released. The Information Commissioner cited examples. For instance, disclosing information about a highly contentious research facility—one that is, for example, conducting research on animals—could threaten the safety of those working there and their families. So, that is a valid ground for withholding information. Equally, if someone is asking for information

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about a murder investigation, it might be that releasing that information would be extremely stressful or distressing for the family of the murder victim. Again, that is a legitimate case for using the health and safety exemption. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine what could have been in that memo that could possibly endanger anyone’s physical or mental health or safety if it had been disclosed. I look forward to the Information Commissioner’s response on that point, because I understand that in the particular case that we are discussing today the applicant has referred it to the commissioner for a ruling.

In that regard, it is perhaps worth noting that although most of these FOI requests were made a few years ago, the Scotland Office has an 80% failure rate on appeals that are referred to the Information Commissioner. In 80% of those cases, the commissioner said that the Scotland Office got matters either completely wrong or partly wrong. As I say, some of those FOI requests were from a few years back, when everybody was learning the ropes, but the Scotland Office’s record is still not a particularly clever one that it should try to defend.

It is not only in response to FOI requests that we are seeing this refusal to co-operate. I have put any number of questions to Government Ministers, up to and including the Prime Minister himself. Interestingly, when I asked the Prime Minister directly which Ministers knew the memo existed, which of them had seen it or had had access to it before the unauthorised leak—not who had leaked it—he did not answer on behalf of all the other Ministers; he declined to answer, on their behalf. All he did was refer me to the press release that the Scotland Office and the Cabinet Office had issued on 22 May, with the results of their inquiry, which does not say anything about who else had access to the memo. It refers to those who did have access but does not identify which Ministers may or may not have had that access. That, therefore, is another question I would like to have answered just now: which other Ministers and senior civil servants had access to the memo before the unauthorised disclosure?

That question is important because it starts to get to the nub of why the memo was written. We know it was written by a senior civil servant in the Scotland Office but, interestingly, we do not know who it was written for, who instructed the civil servant to go behind the back of our First Minister and ask the French embassy for its account of a private conversation involving the First Minister.

I would like to know—well, first I would like to know where the Secretary of State for Scotland is, but we might get an answer to that later—whether it is common practice for UK Government Departments to follow up private meetings between Scottish Government Ministers, or indeed Ministers from the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assemblies, and overseas diplomats, and for Whitehall to go behind Ministers’ backs and ask overseas Governments for their account of those meetings without bothering to check it for accuracy, in this case with the First Minister of Scotland. If they had bothered to do that before the memo was written it would have become clear that a lot had indeed been lost in translation.

The most important question I want answered—and I will continue until I get answers—is: which Ministers were aware of the memo? Which Ministers were sent copies of it before it was leaked? I do not know why the Government are so determined to withhold that information

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from us, but I am an awkward person—that goes with the badge—and the more a public body tries to deny me access to information that my people want the more convinced I become that there might be something in it that it really does not want us to see and the more determined I become, therefore, to find it.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend feel that the Government are reneging on the Freedom of Information Act? The Government explained in a 1997 White Paper that their aim was to be more open, to be a Government based on mutual trust:

“Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. This White Paper marks a watershed in the relationship between the government and people of the United Kingdom. At last there is a government ready to trust the people with a legal right to information.”

Is that information being withheld?

Peter Grant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. It is not for me to say whether in this instance the Scotland Office complied with the Act; that question is now with the Information Commissioner. From my experience, primarily of the equivalent legislation in Scotland and my couple of significant successes against big public bodies—I have taken appeals to the commissioner and won—I cannot see how the physical or mental health or safety exemption can apply to a piece of paper. Similarly, I cannot see how the same exemption can apply to the Cabinet Office telling us when the inquiry was finished. Lord Chilcot was able to tell us that he had finished taking evidence in an inquiry about an illegal war in the middle east. No one would have been endangered because of that, yet it endangers someone’s health or safety if the Cabinet Office tells us the day on which the Cabinet Secretary finished speaking to witnesses about the inquiry. There is a clear question in people’s minds about why the results were not announced until after the general election, and there may well be legitimate reasons for that, but until the Cabinet Office is prepared to come clean on that particular aspect people will always wonder what is happening.

My concern is that something does not smell right. If there is absolutely nothing to hide, why are the Government going to such extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden? Can we be told today, on the record, which Ministers were aware of the contents of the memo before it was leaked? Why was the memo written and was it part of a routine process of going behind the backs of Ministers of the devolved Governments to find out what has happened in their private and confidential conversations with friendly Governments?

11.14 am

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Rob Wilson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing the debate. I am aware that the Scotland Office received a number of freedom of information requests about the leak of a memorandum produced within the Department, and also about the investigation into the leak conducted by the Cabinet Office. I am also aware of the hon. Gentleman’s efforts in Parliament to obtain information about the matter. I hope it will help him, and others here today, if I respond to the points made by first saying—as he did—something about the

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Government’s general approach to freedom of information and the Freedom of Information Act and, secondly, about the operation of leak inquiries, and of this case in particular.

It is important to state clearly that the Government are committed to openness, and recognise the contribution that the Freedom of Information Act has made to greater transparency. But for any freedom of information regime to operate effectively, it is also important that it provides appropriate safeguards against the disclosure of sensitive information. The Freedom of Information Act contains a range of exemptions designed to protect sensitive material from inappropriate disclosure. Some, such as those relating to personal data and court records, are absolute, but others, such as those relating to investigation and health and safety, are qualified. Before such qualified exemptions can be applied, it is necessary to consider the public interest for and against disclosure, and only when the balance of the public interest favours withholding information can an exemption be applied.

The Scotland Office has a strong record on answering freedom of information requests. In 2014, the Department received 154 requests, 92% of which were answered within 20 working days—the equivalent figure for the Scottish Government was 77%. Of those 154 requests, 69 were granted in full and nine were declined in their entirety. In other words, the Department granted 85% of the requests received in 2014 and entirely declined just 11%. Figures for 2015 have so far been published for only the first quarter, but they are broadly consistent with those for 2014. From January to March this year, 90% of Scotland Office requests were answered within 20 working days and 82% resulted in full disclosure. That record demonstrates the seriousness with which the Scotland Office, like the rest of the Government, takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, and clearly shows that when it is in the public interest to release information, that material is provided.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes raised concerns about the handling of specific cases. He is doubtless aware of the appeals route that exists under the Freedom of Information Act but it might, none-the-less, help if I said something about it now. An applicant who is dissatisfied with the response he or she receives to a freedom of information request has the right of appeal, and I understand that a number of applicants have chosen to exercise that right in relation to requests about this particular matter. An applicant may first ask the public authority to conduct an internal review of its original decision to decline a request. Should the applicant remain dissatisfied, he or she may submit a complaint to the Information Commissioner under section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner's Office, which is independent of Government, has the power to issue a binding decision notice ordering disclosure if it concludes that information has been wrongly withheld. It is then possible for applicants and public authorities to appeal further to the first tier tribunal and, on a point of law, beyond that to the upper tribunal or courts. Freedom of information requests received about the leak and resultant investigation were answered based on an assessment of the requested information’s sensitivity. I recommend those dissatisfied with the responses they have received to appeal those decisions through the channels I have described.

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I conclude my comments on freedom of information by re-emphasising that for the Freedom of Information Act to function effectively, it is important that it strikes an appropriate balance between transparency and the protection of sensitive information.

Peter Grant: Given that the Minister has indicated that he is coming to the end of his comments, does he intend to answer any of the questions that I asked? Are the Government prepared to answer them at any time? If not, perhaps the Minister can just say that they are not going to answer them.

Mr Wilson: I intend to answer all the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised. We have 10 minutes more to debate this matter, and if he gives me the time and has some patience, I will be perfectly happy to deal with the questions he asked.

The Freedom of Information Act has now been in operation for more than 10 years, and it is therefore right that we review its operation. That is why we have recently established an independent commission on freedom of information, which is looking at the protection the Act provides for sensitive information and its costs to public authorities. The commission will report by the end of November.

Against the backdrop I have described, I will address the particular concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Glenrothes on the leak of the Scotland Office memorandum. It is important to underline that the Cabinet Office completed a full and detailed inquiry into the leak, and we have been transparent about the purpose and findings of the inquiry at every stage. In response to concerns expressed by the First Minister, on 4 April 2015 the Cabinet Secretary instigated a Cabinet Office-led leak inquiry to establish how extracts from the document may have got into the public domain. The leak inquiry followed thorough and well-established procedures for dealing with such matters. In investigating the source of the leak, the investigation team searched all relevant official phone records, emails and print logs. Those who had access to the memo were asked to complete a questionnaire on what they did with the memo when they received it. They were then interviewed about that.

The Cabinet Office issued a statement on 22 May 2015 confirming the conclusions of the investigation. That statement is available on Gov.uk. It is a well-established convention that the Government do not comment on the process or conclusions of leak inquiries. However, in recognition of the particular sensitivities of this matter, the Cabinet Secretary felt it was necessary and appropriate to set out details of the approach taken during the investigation and the conclusions reached. In that respect, we have gone further than ever before in providing information on the investigation.

Members will recognise that an important balance has to be struck in handling such inquiries. It is essential that we ensure that the public have full confidence and trust in the operation of leak inquiries and are assured that appropriate action is taken where conclusions are reached. Alongside that, however, is a wider public interest in ensuring that leak inquiries take place in an environment where individuals feel able to contribute fully and frankly and have complete confidence that any

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evidence provided will be handled with confidentiality. Maintaining the confidentiality of the detailed operation of such inquiries is critical in ensuring that future inquiries and broader whistleblowing processes are trusted and effective, receiving the full co-operation of all.

Alongside that, the Government do not release investigation reports, which may reveal techniques used by Departments and insight into how to avoid detection. The Cabinet Office and the Scotland Office received a number of FOI requests relating to this matter. They were handled in the usual way, with full consideration given to the weight of public interest in each case. Any decisions to withhold information reflected the important need to maintain a safe space around the operation of leak inquiries and were balanced against the unprecedented amount of information already in the public domain. As I have already set out, clear routes of redress are open to any individual who feels their particular request has not been handled fairly or appropriately, either through an internal review or referral to the Information Commissioner’s Office. We will continue to handle any such cases on their individual merits.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes asked specific questions about why the Government have not released the memo in question. As the Leader of the House made clear in response to the hon. Gentleman’s questions, it is important that the Government can operate in the interests of the country, and by that I mean the UK. In considering the hon. Gentleman’s specific request for sight of the memo, the Scotland Office concluded that releasing the memo would be detrimental to international relations. Anything that would hinder the United Kingdom’s ability to work with its international partners would damage the United Kingdom’s ability to protect and promote its interests abroad, which would not be in the public interest.

As the Cabinet Office statement of 22 May made clear, the investigation team interviewed the civil servant in the Scotland Office who produced the memorandum. He confirmed under questioning that he believed that the memo was an accurate record of the conversation that took place between him and the French consul general. He highlighted that the memo had stated that part of the conversation between the French ambassador and the First Minister might well have been “lost in translation”. Senior officials who have worked with the individual say that he is reliable and has no history of inaccurate reporting, impropriety or security lapses. The Cabinet Secretary concluded that there is no reason to doubt that he recorded accurately what he thought he had heard and that there was no evidence of any political motivation or dirty tricks.

I want to see whether I can deal specifically with some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. He asked who saw the memorandum. The Cabinet Office statement on the leak inquiry made it clear that the former special adviser, Mr Roddin, and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who gave his assent, were responsible for the leak, and that no one else had any involvement in leaking the memo. The Scotland Office operates within the civil service code, and the inquiry did not find any issues of propriety with Scotland Office officials. We would not normally comment on internal communications.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the common practice for civil servants to go “behind the back” of Ministers—I think that was his phrase—and speak to foreign diplomats.

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It is common practice for UK Government Departments to engage with diplomatic and consular corps across the United Kingdom and to share factual information about our respective activities on a wide range of issues, including Scotland. The UK Government and the Scottish Government regularly share information on engagement in international activities in a manner that is consistent with a memorandum of understanding and supplementary agreements between the UK Government, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and the Northern Ireland Executive. Officials at the Scotland Office work within the guidelines set out in the civil service code and the inquiry did not find any issues of propriety with Scotland Office officials.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the Cabinet Office has taken FOI policy from the Ministry of Justice. That is presumably because it is logical for FOI policy to sit within the Cabinet Office, given that it is the lead in transparency policy in general across Government. He also asked why the Scotland Office used an exemption relating to physical and mental health. The Scotland Office applies freedom of information exemptions to requests on a case-by-case basis. If an individual is unhappy with the handling of a case, they can go to the Information Commission or tribunal.

I think that directly handles the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked me. As I have previously set out, it was a thorough investigation and I am clear that the statement issued by the Cabinet Office in May deals robustly with the concerns that he and others have expressed.

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Child Poverty

[Mr Gerald Howarth in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered child poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am delighted to have secured a debate on this vital topic. Child poverty unfortunately blights the lives of so many children throughout the UK, and should surely be a concern of absolute priority for the Government. I note, however, that in July’s Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched the Tory Government’s latest plans to attack the poor, the vulnerable and the helpless in society.

The most recent target of the Government’s austerity crusade is our children. I have to wonder what that says about their priorities. They have often been heard to give much less than reassuring explanations for their dismantling of the welfare system, saying they are building a better, fairer society, where work pays. How do the proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill truly build a better, fairer society? It is my contention that the Government are simply not concerned about fairness. In fact, it could be considered spineless to attack the people in our communities who most need our assistance: the working poor, the ill and the unemployed. Ultimately, the weakening of the welfare system has and will continue to hit low-income families and children the worst. Is that really the way forward?

Currently, 3.7 million children in the UK are living in relative poverty—that in itself is just not good enough. Shockingly, however, rather than actively stepping up to address the challenges facing children today, the Tory Government have hit out with further assaults on the poorest in the UK. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that, as a result of the Government’s most recent policies, child poverty could increase by more than a million from 2010, reaching highs of 4.7 million by 2020-21. Those are astonishing figures. It is frankly deplorable that, in a region as rich as the UK, such shameful, regressive and unacceptable policies should be even considered by the Government, never mind being pushed through this House.

Today, in another Chamber, right as we speak, the Government will move to reduce the amount people can earn—from £6,420 to £3,850—before tax credits begin to be withdrawn. The same measures seek to reduce the threshold from £16,105 to £12,125, as well as to increase the taper rate, which will mean that families reliant on those benefits lose out faster. That is simply illogical. It is incomprehensible and immoral to focus cost-cutting exercises on children.

Tax credits were introduced in 1998 in response to rising child poverty. Since their introduction, the number of children living in poverty in the UK has fallen from 26% to 17%. Surely the policy was working. Although we know that more needs to be done to lift all children fully out of poverty, at least tax credits have been keeping food on the table for children, and their parents’ heads above water. Today, the Tory Government move to take us backwards, to intensify the difficulties facing the working poor and our children.

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In Scotland, 346,000 children will be affected by the tax credit changes—that is more than 197,000 families. In my own constituency of East Renfrewshire, nearly 15% of children are living in poverty, after housing costs. That is of great concern. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that the overall child poverty rate in Scotland could increase by a colossal 100,000 by 2020. Surely it is not good enough for us simply to vote against these measures; surely we have also to question the Government’s motivation. What sense is there in their actions, taking food from children’s mouths? I find it difficult to see how members of the Conservative party are not deeply concerned about the measures and proposals on child poverty, which is why I have brought this issue to the House today. I would like to force the Government to re-examine their proposals before it is too late.

As an elected representative, it is sickening to me to think of even one child in poverty, never mind such incredible numbers. I despair for the children in my area who will be affected by the Government’s actions. I despair for children around the world, so I urge the Government to do what they can in the UK and to heed the warnings given by the charity and voluntary sector, which has said that the proposed policies will plunge more children into poverty rather than pulling them out.

The Government have given us no plausible evidence base to demonstrate how cutting tax credits will incentivise work; I challenge Government Members present to address that point. Before they do, I remind them that the Government’s own evidence review of drivers of child poverty last year noted that the most important barriers to children exiting poverty were those arising from a lack of sufficient income from parental employment, not just worklessness.

It has been confirmed by the House of Commons Library that 99,600 out-of-work families in Scotland are receiving tax credits, compared with 250,300 families who are in work and receiving tax credits. The Government therefore contradicted their own testimony that cuts to the welfare system will make work pay: it is clear that working families and their children will suffer most from the tax credit changes.

It is clear that the UK Government were planning to give with one hand and take with the other when the Chancellor announced his golden ticket increase of the minimum wage. As ever, the devil is in the detail. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the higher minimum wage rate will increase earnings by £4 billion in total by 2020; however, there will be welfare cuts of £12 billion. That simply does not add up. In any case, the policies target different groups, with those hit by cuts to tax credit unlikely to benefit from the minimum wage rise.

It is extremely worrying that the Tory Government have gone one step further in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill by enforcing a two-child cap on families who will be eligible for receiving child tax credit from 2017. Currently, 872,000 families in the UK—548,000 of whom are in work—receive an average of £3,670 a year for supporting a third child or subsequent children. The

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policy is deeply unfair, and threatens to undermine the financial stability of thousands of families who are at a higher risk of poverty.

The Government’s own national poverty strategy recognises that the risk of child poverty is already significantly higher among larger families. In fact, a third of children living in poverty are in families with three or more children. The Government’s rationale is still unclear. There is no evidence base to show how the measures would somehow bring about some kind of behavioural change, should that be their plan. To deny assistance to families—most of them working—who fall on hard times or into a low income but have three or more children, is completely condemnable. The policy seems to be based on the assumption that a third child is now a luxury commodity, reserved for the most affluent, but the right to a family life should surely be protected and encouraged by the Government.

The Government’s welfare reform measures have already hit some of those most at risk of poverty, and the new proposals will undoubtedly thrust more children into poverty, but one of the Government’s most troubling moves is to remove the requirement in the Child Poverty Act 2010 to report on income targets. They have renamed the Child Poverty Commission the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which represents a stark shift in focus from tackling poverty to promoting social mobility and equality of opportunity rather than of outcome.

The removal of income targets means the fundamental driver of poverty is de-prioritised. Do the Government no longer care how much money people have in their pockets to feed their families? Instead, by focusing on targets that are not necessarily related to poverty, the Government are taking worrying steps towards characterising poverty as a lifestyle choice, rather than addressing the social and economic drivers that cause people to fall into poverty. I wonder whether there is a link between their attacks on the welfare system and their rationale for watering down commitments to protecting children.

It is worth noting the Scottish Government’s approach to tackling child poverty. Under the Scottish National party, the Scottish Government will look at a Scottish approach that builds on the innovative child poverty measurement framework, with a view to introducing a new approach to reporting on measures to tackle poverty. Scotland has shown its commitment to tackling inequalities and lifting children out of poverty, and I am pleased to note that the Scottish Government’s Social Justice Secretary, Alex Neil, has requested that the UK Government repeal all parts of the Child Poverty Act relevant to Scotland and confirmed that the Scottish Government will remove themselves from the new social mobility commission. Instead, they will develop a distinct Scottish approach that does not ignore the increasing problems of in-work poverty.

Coupled with the squeezing of the benefit cap and work-related conditions imposed on families with younger children, the UK Government’s austerity campaign is on course not only to hit hard-working and low-income families, but to sink more children further into poverty. It is beyond reason and moral thinking for the Government to identify the poorest children in the UK as the target for shouldering the bulk of their cuts. To protect children, to ensure that they have full access to a real childhood

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and opportunities to grow and flourish in education, as well as socially, the Government must withdraw the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, halt the changes to tax credits and continue to build on the good work of the child poverty commission, rather than getting rid of it.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I do not propose to impose a time limit at the moment, but seven Members have indicated that they want to speak, excluding the SNP and Opposition spokespeople and the Minister. If those who are called can emulate the great self-discipline exercised by the mover of the motion and keep to a time limit of seven minutes, we should be able to get everybody in.

2.41 pm

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to raise the concerns of many of my constituents.

Let me say first that this Government’s approach to child poverty goes against everything for which I stand. Plans to repeal the majority of the provisions of the Child Poverty Act 2010 demonstrates a blatant lack of understanding of what it actually means to be in poverty and highlights the ever-growing gulf in politics across these islands. The SNP were sent here in such substantial numbers to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard and to provide a real opposition to the most right-wing Government since Thatcher’s. Make no mistake: this Government do not have the mandate to inflict such brutal measures on my constituents and others in Scotland.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 21% of children in my constituency grow up in poverty. That may just sound like a number, but it represents the lives of the children whom I represent. The figure is echoed across, but not limited to, Scotland, with more than one in five of our nation’s children living in poverty—210,000 children. The same statistics exist across the UK and are being disregarded by the Government’s welfare reform programme and ignored by the Government, who have chosen to overlook the importance of the future lives of children across these islands. These children need support, not savage cuts to their security and that of their families.

We came to the House to use what power we have to help lift people out of poverty and to help those we represent out of deprivation, not to kick them while they are down. We have to consider the bigger, long-term picture of what austerity means for our young people. One million additional children across the UK are expected to grow up in poverty by 2020, meaning 5 million children in poverty in one of the world’s richest nations. In Scotland, that would mean an additional 100,000 children growing up in poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the benefit cuts already made at Westminster have saved the public purse a mere £2.5 billion. Yet, the cuts have cost society more than £20 billion. How can the Government justify and balance those figures? If the obsession with austerity failed in the last Parliament, why will it work now?

Growing up in an area of multiple deprivation, I know only too well the negative impact that that can have on a child’s health, life expectancy, academic outcomes and future success in the workplace. I witnessed young

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people’s life chances diminish. I witnessed my peers not go on to achieve their full potential simply because they grew up in poverty.

Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP): Tax credits were mentioned earlier. They were introduced in 1998 as a response to rising child poverty, and that met with some success. Does my hon. Friend agree that any negative changes to the tax credit regime will lead to increasing child poverty in future?

Angela Crawley: Cuts to tax credits for families with more than two children will make some of the poorest families even poorer. Some 21% of UK families in receipt of tax credits have three or more children. Who are this Government to tell any family how many children it can have and say what price should be put on a child’s head? Furthermore, the proposal to eliminate the term “child poverty” is semantics over substance. Instead of tackling the real issues, this Government focus on playing politics with people’s lives.

The proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would see the removal of targets on absolute, relative and persistent poverty, as set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010. There has also been an increase in the proportion of children in poverty living in working families: now a staggering 63%. The impact of limiting child tax credits to the first two children will mean a huge negative impact on a minority of families. This Government cannot possibly justify such arbitrary and incomprehensible measures. We are talking about the poorest people in our society, the most vulnerable and the people who need our help the most. If this Government will not represent them, I certainly will. I am concerned that pushing the poorest into even deeper poverty will lead to statistics plummeting dangerously—statistics that are thrown around like weapons that do not relate to the lives of individuals.

We must ensure that the cuts are not allowed to go ahead, because the results will be disastrous, with no benefit whatsoever to working families across the country. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill fails to take into account the lasting damage to future generations of young people. I urge the Minister to rethink these arbitrary measures and consider the role that poverty plays in our society.

2.47 pm

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing such a vital debate. My constituency is perhaps not the first to come to mind when thinking of areas where poverty strikes, but our enduring challenge is the low-wage economy. Unemployment is low in comparison with many other areas, but low wages are the biggest threat to children growing up there. Indeed, low wages, coupled with the increased cost of living, have certainly played a part in 210,000 children in Scotland living in relative poverty, many of whom come from families in which at least one parent is working. That should quite simply be considered an outrage.

We often hear the UK Government talk of making work pay, yet policy decisions achieve quite the opposite. In my constituency, that means one in five children growing up in poverty, with the figure as high as one in

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three in some parts. Changes to the tax credit regime will, without question, further worsen the living conditions of over 7,000 children in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, as up to £1,000 a year is taken out of family budgets. The measures announced in the Budget are regressive, and it is children in families with the lowest incomes who continue to be hit hardest. It should be borne in mind that the proposals will affect life chances in areas of high deprivation, and families who are on the radar of financial distress. They will also be part of daily life for those who are afraid to admit to their situation, through fear of unwanted service disruption or sheer embarrassment at the stripping away of layers of personal pride that the removal of support leads to.

I want to share how, in the highlands, in-work families will lose out as a result of the tax credit regime changes. Limiting tax credits to two children results in the removal of £7.2 million from welfare payments in Highland—simply put, that is £7.2 million from low-wage, low-income families. Removing the family element of tax credits takes £4.02 million from welfare payments in Highland, which is £4.02 million from low-wage families. Increasing the tax credit taper from 41% to 48% means the removal of £7.77 million from welfare payments in Highland. The reduction in income thresholds in tax credits equates to a removal of £33.33 million from welfare payments in Highland, which is a further £33.33 million from low-wage families. I will stop with the numbers, but everyone in the Chamber knows that they go on and on.

I want to ask the Government this: in our low-wage but low-unemployment economy, how do such cuts ever help make work pay? They do not. Families are already struggling with housing costs, heating bills and food prices, and parents face a harrowing choice between heating their home or putting food on the table, with some even wondering if they will still qualify for the food banks because of the number of their visits. In a growing number of cases, due to the oppressive sanctioning regime faced by my constituents and many others, there is the phenomenon of no-income poverty.

Thank goodness the Scottish Government have, by paying, done what they can across the piece to mitigate the outrageous bedroom tax imposed on Scotland. In the highlands there are virtually no one or two-bedroom social housing units, which has been a real problem. Through no fault of their own, people have been scared and intimidated. Again, they have had to be compensated by the Scottish Government.

Poverty robs children of their childhood. Children and young people growing up in poverty face limited life chances. We surely should not accept any child growing up without a fair start in life. The charity Barnardo’s Scotland says that its caseworkers have recorded numerous cases of having visited homes where there was literally no food in the cupboards. The UK Government need to take action to reverse, not increase, child poverty. As others have said, these children are more likely to live in poor housing, to suffer chronic illness in childhood, and to die at birth or in infancy.

2.52 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on bringing the subject to Westminster Hall for

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consideration. It is a pleasure to speak and to add my thoughts from a Northern Ireland perspective. I am happy to be involved. I will outline the case in Northern Ireland and how we are being affected. I will probably reflect the point of view of the two others who have spoken, the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).

The issue is clearly important. When we hear about poverty, as we do every day, and in particular child poverty, our minds instinctively conjure up images of children living in parts of Africa, or in war-torn countries such as Syria. Given the media attention and the charities involved in trying to end poverty throughout the world, that is unsurprising. In no way do I intend to lessen the horrendous difficulties to which children living in those countries are subject. Unimaginably, they have no clean water, little food and little clothing; unfortunately that is the reality for many.

Poverty, however, means more than that. It is perhaps shocking to learn that here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland poverty is a reality for many families. The most recent projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, produced before the 2015 summer Budget, suggested that by 2021, in the United Kingdom, 3 million children would be in relative poverty, not taking account of housing costs, and some 4.3 million taking account of housing costs.

Low income affects direct measures of children’s wellbeing and development, including cognitive ability, achievement and engagement in school, anxiety levels and behaviour. Life is difficult enough, but as the years go on, I become more convinced that, certainly in some ways, times are getting harder for our children—clearly, they are. It seems commonplace to see pressures thrust on children and young people from a young age. Getting good results, going to university and getting the best jobs are admirable objectives, but they are much harder for children to achieve when they face increased anxiety and feel less engaged with school.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey mentioned low income, and I will, too. This debate is timely, particularly because the tax credit changes are being discussed today—we will shortly have a chance to vote on them. My party will certainly oppose the changes. The cuts will have a substantial impact on child poverty. The IFS examined the impact of different cuts to benefits in its February 2015 “Green Budget” and estimated that the £5.1 billion of proposed cuts to child tax credit would increase child poverty by 300,000. My goodness! If we are not shocked by those figures, we should be—and embarrassed. The Treasury estimates the impact to be even greater. As well as increasing child poverty, the changes will significantly weaken incentives to work, because the impact of the cuts will fall disproportionately on low-income working families. That is obviously the reverse effect from the one that we want. Our aim in government is, or should be, to assist more people into work—it must be more financially beneficial to go to work than to remain on benefits. There is also pride in having a job and going to work every day, and it brings someone a routine.

We must ensure that wages reflect the cost of living, which is the problem in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that back home in Northern Ireland one in four children

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will be living in poverty by 2020, and more than half of children growing up in poverty live in working households. That is the main problem in Northern Ireland, much as the hon. Gentleman said it was in his constituency. We are not alone in that, as the issues stretch right across the whole United Kingdom. The Government’s January 2014 “Evidence review of the drivers of child poverty” found that the most important factors standing in the way of children exiting poverty were those contributing to a lack of sufficient income from parental employment—not only worklessness, but low income from work. That is what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said—I had to write down his constituency name beforehand, which makes for a long sentence—and I thank him for his contribution, because he made exactly the point that I wanted to hit on.

A Save the Children report published last May claimed that youngsters had paid the highest price in the recession. Their plight is exacerbated in Northern Ireland because wages lag behind the rest of the United Kingdom, while the cost of necessities, such as food, fuel and childcare, is higher than in other regions. I am sure I am not alone among Members in saying that the increase in families coming to my constituency office to ask for food bank vouchers is truly heartbreaking. I am a big supporter of the food banks; I recognise their good work and that they have a part to play in our society.

Many families tell me that several nights each week they have to decide whether to feed their family or heat their home. The reality, however, is that people make the decision to feed their family, because they have to fill their children’s stomachs, even though they have to be sent to bed with an extra jumper or coat on and do not get into their jammies. That is what happens. If a decision is to be made between feeding and heating, feeding always wins, and heating falls by the wayside.

In Northern Ireland 110,000 children are affected by poverty, going without essentials or living in homes that are cold or damp. Save the Children’s report claims that the 2014 so-called “poverty premium”, which represents how much more low-income families pay for goods and services than middle-income families, now stands at £1,639 per year in Northern Ireland. That poverty premium includes, for example, the extra money needed to pay for items, such as a cooker or house insurance, in instalments rather than all at once. All that comes at a high cost to the children involved. They are always the ones at the end of the line who seems to suffer. Poverty robs children of the childhood that they deserve. They often miss out on events that most of us took for granted when we were children and at school, such as going on school trips or going out with friends.

What I am saying only scrapes the surface of the issues. Children in poverty are more likely to live in bad housing, more likely to die at birth or in infancy, and more likely to suffer chronic illness in childhood, or to have a disability. Those are the facts, the statistics. Poverty damages children’s life chances. Children from poor backgrounds lag behind at all stages of education. By the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be, on average, nine months behind children from more wealthy backgrounds. That is a terrible statistic that we need to address. By the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are estimated to be almost three terms behind their more affluent peers—a gap that grows to over five terms by the age of 14 and leads

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them to achieve the equivalent of 1.7 grades lower on average at GCSE. The figures show a real trend; children from low-income families are really affected.

In addition, families on low incomes are less likely to be able to afford organic and free-range foods, or even fresh foods. Often their only choice is to buy convenience foods, which often have a high fat and salt content. We cannot ignore that. During the previous Parliament, the Minister was very interested in sport and often talked about diet and sport. I hope that today he will make similar comments. Unsurprisingly, in 2011, the poorest households had more than twice as many obese children as those from wealthier backgrounds.

I am conscious of the time, and will bring my remarks to an end. The statistics are startling and worrying. The sad reality is that hundreds of families live below the poverty line in the United Kingdom. It is vital that we raise awareness of that. The rise in the use of food banks across the UK is a stark indicator of the problem. According to the Trussell Trust, almost 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food in the first six months of the 2014-2015 financial year, an increase of 38% on the same period in the previous year. Just as Save the Children and End Child Poverty have firmly pointed the finger at low incomes and changes to welfare, so too has the Trussell Trust. All that being the case, more must be done to eradicate child poverty.

3.1 pm

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a measured, reasoned and impressive contribution.

At the outset I must declare an interest. It is not financial and therefore does not appear in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but it is certainly relevant to the debate and without doubt influences what I have to say. My constituency of Airdrie and Shotts has a child poverty rate of 27% after housing costs have been considered; in some wards, one third of children are living in poverty. That is truly depressing and heartbreaking. I will briefly point out how that figure compares with that for the constituencies of other Members. Witney has a child poverty rate of 13%; in Witham, the rate is 17% and in Tatton it is 16%. Those rates are all far too high and require much work; nevertheless, they are among the lowest in the UK.

The causes of child poverty are without doubt complex. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has been much quoted in this debate, has made it clear that the projected rise in the rate of child poverty is largely down to UK welfare cuts. Indeed, the conclusion to a 2014 IFS report states:

“Real cuts to working-age benefits are a key reason behind rising child poverty.”

Little wonder that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is so determined to withdraw the criteria for measuring child poverty. His Government’s welfare cuts will plunge countless more families and children into poverty. A very large chunk of those who will find themselves desperately struggling to make ends meet—and who will be forced to choose between heating and eating, as the hon. Member for Strangford said—will be households where at least one adult is in work.

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Douglas Chapman: My hon. Friend will perhaps be aware of the report by the Educational Institute of Scotland called “Face up to Child Poverty”, the stand-out quote from which was:

“Not only is the incidence of poverty increasing, the nature of poverty is changing. Low wages mean that more than half (59%) of children living in poverty are within families in which at least one adult is employed…Scotland has seen a 400% increase in the use of food-banks…and organisers report that a significant proportion of their clients are in work”.

Will he comment on that view of how the nature of child poverty is changing? What should the UK Government do to change that situation?

Neil Gray: I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that important report. It is a very sad state of affairs when our teachers have to deal with children who are hungry when they come to school. That is shocking and depressing.

Wholescale cuts to tax credits will reduce the allowance before tax credits start to be withdrawn from £6,420 to £3,850 and increase the taper rate at which tax credits are withdrawn from 41% to 48%. Those cuts will slash household incomes for 197,200 families in Scotland with nearly 350,000 children. Nearly 250,000 families in Scotland will be worse off by an average of £1,000 per year as a result of changes to tax credits alone. As they qualify for tax credits, those families by definition have the lowest incomes in the country. They are least able to deal with those cuts to their income and, as they are in low-income work, will have little opportunity to increase their wages to a degree that would make up the shortfall. They are also far more likely to live week to week and simply cannot cut their cloth to suit.

All that completely flies in the face of Government rhetoric about making work pay. Indeed, when the Budget measures are taken in the round, the IFS has said that people in the four lowest income deciles will see their net income cut by between £600 and £1,300; compare that with people in the ninth decile—the second richest decile in society—who are to receive a net income rise. Levels of income without question have an absolute bearing on levels of poverty, yet as a result of scrapping the Child Poverty Act 2010, this Government will no longer have to account for income levels in the UK.

Poverty robs children of their childhood. Children living in poverty are more likely to live in poor housing, and to have poorer education outcomes and greater health issues. Poverty is the greatest barrier to children achieving better life outcomes—the aim at the heart of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Given that it has been demonstrated that their measures will push more children into poverty, it is time for this Government to think again and take a different path.

For their part, with their limited influence over these matters, the Scottish Government are providing over £300 million between last year and next to help mitigate the worst of the Westminster welfare cuts for families in Scotland. That means the people of Scotland are paying twice for the Tory cuts—the Scottish Government have their budget slashed and they have to set aside extra cash to ease the burden for hard-pressed families.