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As hon. Members have mentioned, Wales does not have as strong a print media sector as Scotland or Northern Ireland. Ofcom, in its recent assessment of public service broadcasting across the UK, highlighted the fact that most daily newspaper readers read newspapers that include little content related specifically to Wales and the National Assembly for Wales—something that was underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy. While the print circulation of dailies in Wales continues to decline, along with the circulation of dailies throughout the United Kingdom, online services go from strength to strength. There has been little coverage of that in the debate so far.

Media Wales is one example, with its Wales Online brand doubling its audience last year, according to the latest ABC—Audit Bureau of Circulations—figures. North and south Wales are specifically targeted by Media Wales through the Western Mail and the Daily Post brand. It is also worth highlighting, however, the fact that Wales’s highest-selling daily newspaper, the South Wales Evening Post, based in Swansea, has also shown a strong performance online.

Other regional groups are important. The Tindle group has an exceptionally strong presence in my constituency, with the Glamorgan GEM series, but also in Monmouth, Pembrokeshire and elsewhere. Newsquest has the Barry & District News and the Penarth Times in my constituency, and the South Wales Argus in south-east Wales, as well as publications elsewhere. Similarly, its focus has shifted to its online output, on top of the weekly sales or distribution of its papers.

Glyn Davies: I thank the Minister for giving me the chance to mention the County Times in Montgomeryshire —probably the only newspaper sold in Wales that has not yet had a mention today. My constituency is close to Shropshire, so it is also worth mentioning the Shropshire Star, a hugely important newspaper in Wales. These media, including internet companies in Welshpool and Newtown, are growing incredibly rapidly and having significant influence. A whole range of providers in eastern Wales might not have featured in the debate until I intervened.

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend has a strong reputation for carrying the front page—and not only of the County Times, in which he regularly features; I remember him even making the front page of the Daily Star, which certainly brought his name to the attention of many, particularly in Wales. He rightly champions the County Times and I know the interest he shows in it, but mid-Wales is an area with a gap in local radio coverage. That is recognised and ties in with the point made by the hon. Member for Clwyd South.

Guto Bebb: I want to focus again on online content. It is important to recognise that the media in Wales, whether south or north, such as the BBC and Golwg 360, is doing a great job in providing content on the internet. However, having spoken to some such organisations, my concern is about their ability to generate an income from online activities; that income is not growing as fast as the decline in income from trade sales. Great work is being done, but that online provision will soon be lost unless that gap can be plugged quickly.

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Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The online market is still new and different newspapers are seeking different approaches to capitalise on the readership they are generating to try to create an income. We all know that News UK’s online news is a paid-for service, which is different from what some of the other UK national newspapers are pursuing. The market will mature in time, but he rightly makes the point about the switch from selling daily newspapers to media online. I do not think that they are mutually exclusive; they are complementary, but a model needs to be developed to suit their individual communities.

Much attention has been given to UK national newspapers and their lack of coverage of Wales. However, there have been some positive steps. I mentioned News UK, and we need to recognise that The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times now have Welsh editions. That is at an early stage and it is a limited adjustment compared with different newspapers, but it is a welcome, positive step. When Wales beats England in the rugby, it will be a Welsh rugby player on the front page celebrating rather than what might be on the front of the English version: commiserations for an English rugby player disappointed at Welsh success.

On a more serious note, the news emphasis is changing. We need to pay tribute to and welcome News UK’s intervention and hope that other newspapers will follow that model and that the readership will increase as a result of reflecting the needs and demands of Wales as a wider community.

In addition, local and hyper-local media projects are of growing importance and have helped plurality in Wales. They are supported by the destination local project, which is supported by Nesta and other partners. In one such project, the papur bro—community newspaper—in Caernarvon is working with television company Cwmni Da and further education college Coleg Menai to create a Welsh-language mobile and digital service to provide hyper-local news and information to the community; the hon. Member for Arfon touched on that briefly.

As we draw to the debate’s close, I want to say a few words about the Government’s overall approach to media plurality.

Susan Elan Jones: The Minister referred to papurau bro—community newspapers. Does he recognise that one of the great features of those hyper-local news outlets is that in many cases they have existed for a very long time? I think of the Nene, the papur bro in Rhosllanerchrugog. What they provide is absolutely unique and, in many cases, that has been one of the reasons for encouraging the Welsh language in many communities across Wales.

Alun Cairns: The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. Any innovation and new technology that can be brought to the papurau bro to allow them to maintain their audiences and reach new ones over time is to be encouraged. It is good to see broadcasting companies such as Cwmni Da working with the papurau bro to try to bring about new technology and allow their economies of scale to be used.

In terms of the overall approach to media plurality, the Government have two roles to play. The first is to see that public service broadcasting is in good shape in

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the nations and regions. The second is to ensure that all parts of the UK continue to be served by an effective range of services that represent a range of media voices, including the Welsh language in Wales.

On television, public service broadcasting in Wales is in pretty good shape. ITV Wales was separated from the Wales and west regional licence in January 2014, which means that Wales has its own commercial, English-language PSB channel. In addition, local news requirements for ITV licences were strengthened, and I pay tribute to ITV Wales for how it has responded and for what it achieves with more limited resources than other public service broadcasters. It offers a genuinely high quality service, which creates much better choice for viewers who can decide which options to pursue.

We have also ensured that S4C continues to make its contribution to Welsh cultural life and to the diversity and variety of TV content across the UK, as many have mentioned, including the hon. Member for Arfon. It is easy to take S4C for granted and not recognise that it is pretty unique—not just in the UK, but in Europe. We should also recognise that the previous comprehensive spending review protected S4C’s financial position.

It would be premature of me to respond to questions on how the current CSR will affect the channel. Discussions are ongoing, but our commitment to Welsh-language programming and the future of S4C stands. That is relevant to the BBC’s charter renewal, which is also ongoing and includes the relationship between the BBC and S4C as well as the BBC’s role in the nations.

Some have expressed concern about the reduction in English-language output in Wales, which I am pleased to see the BBC is looking at, as highlighted in the evidence it has presented for the charter renewal. It has said that it wants to protect the interests of the nations of the UK in charter renewal and I trust that that extends to S4C. We would encourage that.

We have said many times that we will safeguard S4C’s editorial and operational independence. The call for a review, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, will certainly be taken into account. It is interesting and will be considered as part of the BBC’s charter renewal process. He is a steadfast champion of S4C and hosted a similar debate on this subject five years ago. Its outcome led to the current settlement. Many at the time doubted or criticised that outcome, so it is ironic that the same people are now calling for the current position to be maintained. The reality is that we gave a manifesto pledge to secure its future and we will always respect S4C’s editorial and operational independence. That was promised five years ago and has been delivered since then. His call for a review of S4C is interesting and something that we will look at in the context of the BBC’s charter renewal and the CSR.

It is worth highlighting the other side of broadcast media as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North: the emergence of local TV services in Cardiff, which have been on air for nearly 12 months. Services in Mold and Swansea are due to launch shortly, which will give more choice in new and local programming. It is early days for those services, but we hope that they will be able to grow audiences and that, with their clear remits for local news and information, they will help to strengthen local democracy and accountability by giving attention to local issues.

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The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with Ofcom to support Mold’s application to extend services to Wrexham, which I know a number of Welsh Members on both sides have raised with the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey).

With only 10 stations, however, Wales does not appear to have embraced community radio in the same way as Scotland has, with its 26 stations. Community radio is especially important for rural areas that are under-served by radio as a whole. Stations such as Tudno FM in Llandudno, MônFM in Anglesey and Radio Glan Clwyd in Bodelwyddan are well established. They provide a fantastic and valuable resource for their communities, broadening the choice of services, and are examples that can be built on to deal with some of the gaps elsewhere in Wales that I have highlighted. But there are no community stations in mid or west Wales. I want to look at that with DCMS and Ofcom as part of the planning for the next round of community radio licensing. The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy mentioned that when he responded to the debate on community radio held on 8 September, which was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling).

The Government’s second responsibility is for the media market, and has two important aspects: first, to ensure that we have workable rules on media ownership and secondly, to ensure that we have a robust and objective framework for measuring media plurality. On the first aspect, Ofcom reviews the media ownership rules every three years. It will report to the Culture Secretary on its latest review in November, and the Government will consider its findings carefully before deciding whether action is required.

As for the second aspect, in July 2013 the Government carried out a consultation on what the scope of the measurement framework for media plurality should be. From a range of options, we concluded that online media should be included, for some of the reasons that have been highlighted in the debate. We also concluded that news and current affairs are the type and content of media most relevant to media plurality, a point many hon. Members have underlined today.

The scope of the framework should include all organisations that impact on news and current affairs services, including organisations that generate, gather and aggregate news, services that could affect discoverability and accessibility—online news services, for example—and professional and non-professional commentary such as blogs and social media. We also concluded that the BBC should be included within the review. The framework must deliver indicators capable of illustrating the situation at UK level and in each of the nations of the UK, and should examine issues at a regional and local level in some areas. However, full examination of every local area is not anticipated. Following the consultation, in September 2014 we commissioned Ofcom to develop a measurement framework for media plurality. That work is ongoing.

In the couple of minutes remaining, I will return to the issue of the BBC’s dominance in broadcasting in Wales. We are all familiar with the fact that the BBC has responsibility for 10 hours of broadcasting for S4C. The content of that 10 hours is not stipulated and it is of course for the S4C executive to negotiate and decide

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what those 10 hours should consist of—it need not necessarily be news content. I am interested to hear about any discussions that have taken place between the two organisations because, as the Ofcom report highlights and as many contributions from across the Chamber have championed, diversity and plurality in news outlets are exceptionally important.

We have highlighted local, ultra-local, regional and national newspapers as well as online coverage and the commercial output from ITV Wales, but we need to recognise the BBC’s unique role. It can provide greater opportunities for other organisations—competitors, as it were—to develop in the market, which would be welcome. It is for S4C to decide where it will commission its news from. There was an interesting debate on that matter some six or more years ago, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy raised it in his championing of the channel. He has always been a champion of S4C, as have many other Members here.

I thank you for chairing our debate, Mr Chope. I also thank hon. Members for their contributions to a discussion that has been a very effective contribution to the charter renewal discussions and the comprehensive spending review negotiations.

3.54 pm

Guto Bebb: I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for their responses to the debate. I suspected that the Minister would not be in a position to make any promises on the question of finance and I understand why. I appreciate his positive comments and am aware that in the ongoing negotiations within Government we have in him a strong champion for broadcasting in Wales of all types—whether online or on radio, in Welsh or in English. I thank him for his response.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered media plurality in Wales.

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Burton Magistrates Court

3.55 pm

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposed closure of Burton Magistrates’ Court.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope—it is the first time I have done so and is a great honour. I am grateful to the Minister for giving up her time to take part in the debate. My dealings on the subject to date have been with her ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who I must admit has been extremely positive in giving up his time to discuss the issue with me and other Members; I think he realises the importance of getting this right. However, my premise today is that we have got this very badly wrong.

I do not wish to be a deficit denier or to pretend that we do not need to reform our courts; in fact, I absolutely support reforming our court system to make it modern and applicable to the way we live our lives today, taking advantage of modern technology. I also recognise that in times of austerity, when we have to make the best use of taxpayers’ money, we have to look at innovative ways of providing services to our citizens. However, I have to say that in this case the Ministry has got it very badly wrong.

On 16 July, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service published its proposal for reforming the court system. The proposal contained a list of courts that the service believes are not providing

“appropriate value for…public money”

due to either poor facilities or low use. I will argue strongly that neither of those is the case for Burton magistrates court. It was, however, one of the courts on the list, and its inclusion has shocked local residents. The court has a reputation as a thriving, efficient community asset providing access to local justice. In fact, my residents are so upset and concerned about the proposal that there is now a 2,000 signature petition against it. When there is such concern among our constituents that they sign a petition in such large numbers we must address it and consider why it has arisen.

As the Member of Parliament for Burton I was immediately concerned that Burton’s inclusion was a huge mistake. During the past two months I have undertaken a detailed examination of the Tribunals Service’s reasoning and the evidence it has provided, and have found a number of errors that seriously undermine the validity of the Department’s arguments.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I would have spoken in the debate, but it is only a 30-minute one, so I will settle for making an intervention. My hon. Friend is making a powerful point on behalf of Burton. I am here on behalf of Buxton court—there is only an r and an x between Burton and Buxton and when I saw the debate title I thought, “They have picked my court debate.” Does he agree that the consultation document on Buxton court in my constituency of High Peak is riddled with inaccuracies, errors, mistakes and inconsistencies that render it—I am sorry to have to say this—completely and utterly useless?

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Andrew Griffiths: While there might be a letter or two between my hon. Friend and I, there is nothing between us in our view of these consultations and the validity of the evidence they contain. They are riddled with mistakes; he is absolutely right. If the Minister and her colleague are to stick to their word, and if this consultation is to be based on fact and on evidence, they must reconsider the glaring inaccuracies in the proposals.

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Let me move on to the reasons why I think there are mistakes in the proposals for Burton. First, Burton magistrates court’s closure would require court users to make impossible or unreasonably lengthy journeys. The utilisation figures that the Tribunals Service has used to assess Burton magistrates court are incorrect. Burton magistrates court is, I believe, one of the best and most efficient in the country. According to the Tribunals Service’s own statistics, Burton magistrates court is performing better than the local and national average in terms of providing justice swiftly and effectively. The Tribunals Service has mischaracterised the quality of Burton’s facilities, which are much better than Cannock magistrates court, which is set to replace it.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As the people of South Derbyshire also use Burton magistrates court, will he assure me that in his strong defence of keeping the court open, he will bear in mind the importance of South Derbyshire folk’s not having to travel to Cannock, which would be utterly ludicrous?

Andrew Griffiths: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and her strong support for this campaign. She, like me, understands the impact of this court closure on our constituents. It is true that closing Burton magistrates court would leave nowhere in the south-east of Staffordshire that is suitable for, for instance, family work, which I know she is particularly interested in.

Let us get down to the nitty-gritty of the facts that the Ministry of Justice is using to defend this proposed closure. The proposal contains travel times for each court. The Tribunals Service has included a chart detailing what percentage of people will have to travel 30 minutes, 60 minutes and so on. In order to work that information out, it is necessary to know where each individual is travelling to and from. In other words, it is necessary to know what the new local justice areas will be and where the replacement court will be. Of course, the new local justice areas are not established in the proposals. That information is not there, so the Department is sticking its finger in the air and guessing.

It transpires that many of the estimated times are completely inaccurate. The Tribunals Service has included estimated times from Burton magistrates court to each of the replacement courts. As the proposal itself admits, not everybody lives in Burton town centre. For instance, my constituents would have to travel into Burton town centre and then get another bus to the replacement court, which would add a considerable amount of time. For the purposes of today, I have worked out travel times simply from the centre of Burton, where the magistrates court is.

Let us look at the travel times we would be considering for my constituents to reach Cannock magistrates court. By car, it would be 45 to 55 minutes, but of course, only

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52% of my constituents own a car. That means that almost half would be forced to use public transport. The Minister will be shocked to learn that we are talking about a travel time by bus of one hour and 56 minutes to get to Cannock, including two changes, and one hour and 53 minutes to return. That is a total travel time of three hours and 49 minutes. It is hard to see how that is access to local justice. By train, it is little better; it is one hour and 51 minutes to get there, including one change, and one hour and 49 minutes to return—a round trip of three hours and 40 minutes. That includes, importantly, a 60-minute walk time, because there is no other way of accessing the court. Derby, of course, is much quicker, with a total travel time of one hour and 32 minutes. The other proposal is to send court work to north Staffordshire justice centre, which is in Newcastle-under-Lyme. By car, that would be a 45-minute trip each way, but by bus, it would be three hours and eight minutes to get there and two hours and 57 minutes to get back.

Andrew Bingham: This has an eerie ring of familiarity about it, because the document for my court in High Peak shows that 73% of public transport journeys for my constituents will take more than two hours. That is to Chesterfield, which is not practical. This is another example of inaccuracies and a lack of thinking in the consultation.

Andrew Griffiths: I absolutely agree. When we are talking about a travel time to access a court that is as long as it would take me to fly to America, we certainly have a problem. I do not think the Minister has properly understood how she has been let down by the information contained in this document.

The document suggests that the Tribunals Service will use more video conferencing and that there will be new ways of working that will not require people to travel. However, I have spoken to the magistrates at Burton, the solicitors and everyone involved, and it is clear that in Burton only a small proportion of the work dealt with is amenable to video conferencing. It simply will not be possible to do that in the vast majority of the court cases that Burton deals with.

There is another point: court cases start at 10 am. It is absolutely impossible to get to Newcastle-under-Lyme for a 10 am court case. We understand that there is a requirement for the accused to attend court, but if there is physically no way for them to get there, what will be the consequence? Even more so, what will be the consequence for the witnesses? We already have a problem with court cases having to be delayed and adjourned because witnesses have not turned up. What will be the situation when we are expecting witnesses to give up six hours of their time just to get to and from court? It is simply unacceptable and unworkable, and the Minister must understand that.

Perhaps the most alarming statistic in the table is the 60 minutes of walking required of train users going to and from Cannock magistrates court. Even if one replaces part of that journey with a bus ride—costing an extra £4.20, I add—one would have to walk for 46 minutes, which is simply unrealistic for people with mobility issues. The significance of that cannot be overestimated. The Government’s proposal would make it impossible for a large section of the community—disabled people—to

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access justice, simply because they are physically incapable of reaching the location of their hearing. Under both domestic and European Union legislation, public authorities, including the Courts and Tribunals Service, are required to accommodate the reasonable needs of the disabled. How are we accommodating those needs if we are preventing these people from accessing the court system?

It is also important to remember that difficulties in reaching courts affect not only those involved in the proceedings but their families and the support that people might expect during the court case. Jane Garner, senior victim service manager at Victim Support Staffordshire, has pointed out that these people, who provide important support to all witnesses, will not have their travel expenses reimbursed and so will not be there.

Lastly, the fact that there are so few travel options between Burton and the replacement courts raises a serious concern in terms of victim and witness safety. It will not be uncommon for a defendant on bail and a victim to have to travel on the same public transport at the same time. As we have heard, no bus can get a person there for 10 o’clock. People will be forced to use the same bus—imagine the distress that would be caused if a victim has to spend an hour and a half on a bus with somebody who has assaulted or intimidated them. What are the implications for witness safety and the safety of the process? Intimidation of witnesses and victims must not be underestimated, and there is no way, under the proposal, that we can guarantee the safety of those victims and witnesses.

The Tribunals Service would require court users to travel for unreasonable lengths of time to arrive at their hearings. Moreover, the closure of Burton magistrates court would actively discriminate against those with mobility issues and raise massive safety questions as a result. That is serious enough, but the Department’s proposal is based on a completely false premise, which is the number of courtrooms that are available at Burton magistrates court. According to the Tribunals Service’s proposal, Burton magistrates court has four courtrooms, but that, I am sorry to say, is incorrect. Burton has three courtrooms and one advocates’ room, which, since the closure of Burton county court in 2013, has very occasionally been used as a spillover room for private proceedings. In fact, there is no sign for court four in the reception, because it is never used.

At 6 metres by 3.5 metres, the advocates’ room is little more than a glorified broom cupboard. It is not fit for purpose. Because of its size, parties are forced to sit uncomfortably close to each other, almost banging knees. That is particularly problematic in the kind of acrimonious family cases for which it is used. To make matters worse, the room has no security staff.

Unsurprisingly, the advocates’ room is only ever used as a last resort. From January to August this year, it was used for a total of 19 days: 15 days for family work, three days for matters relating to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and TV licensing, and one for tribunal services. That means that for 110 days—around 22 weeks—the advocates’ room was not being used for legal proceedings. In fact, the space is used so infrequently that it is not even registered or signposted.

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As a result of that error, the Tribunals Service has made a serious miscalculation about court usage. It says that it is used to 51% of its capacity. I believe that after correcting this mistake, that court usage goes up to 68%, which would make it hugely efficient.

Things get worse, however. Burton court has suffered severe prejudice through the dates used to calculate usage figures. The statistics that the Ministry of Justice has used for its proposal were gathered between 1 April 2014—note the date: I believe that this must be some sort of April fool’s joke—and 31 March 2015. As the Minister knows, between October and December 2014, Burton’s police cells were undergoing refurbishment, meaning that much of the court’s normal custodial work was transferred to Cannock. Obviously, that has resulted in Burton’s usage figures being artificially depressed. When we put those things together, we see that the court is not operating at 51% capacity but at 68%—at least, I suggest.

Let us look at how Burton operates compared with other courts. We have heard that that is important. I raised the issue of the missing courtroom four with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire, who helpfully wrote back to say:

“You raise a concern regarding the size of Courtroom 4 and its inclusion…when calculating the utilisation of Burton Magistrates’ Court. Courtroom 4 has been used for hearings previously and continues to be available for suitable cases should it be required. Workload at Burton Magistrates’ Court is low overall, meaning that Courtroom 4 as the smaller of the four rooms is rarely used.”

As we have demonstrated, that is simply not the case, and I urge the Minister to take her staff who compiled this report into a darkened room and give them a talking to, because the facts do not fit what is being suggested.

Of course, utilisation figures are just one measure of how well a court is performing. To get a complete picture, it is necessary to compare such things as the time it takes to complete a case after it has been listed or the percentage of trials that prove ineffective. Fortunately, the Tribunals Service is already in possession of such data, which are published regularly as judicial oversight of magistrates court performance reports.

Those reports provide data on 10 different performance measures at the national, cluster and local justice area level, thereby offering a comprehensive insight into how well one region is doing. When we examine those data, we find that Burton magistrates court—being the only magistrates court in south-east Staffordshire, and that is, of course, important—ranks above the national average in seven out of 10 of the Tribunals Service’s measures. It is also above average in six out of 10 measures when compared with the Staffordshire and West Mercia cluster, which is, in itself, one of the best clusters in the country.

The primary purpose of any court is to provide justice swiftly and effectively. According to the statistics that I have outlined, Burton magistrates court does that more successfully than the vast majority of courts in England and Wales. Closing Burton magistrates court would therefore deprive the local area and the tribunals service itself of an incredibly valuable community asset.

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Let us consider Burton magistrates court’s facilities. In his response to me on 15 September, the Minister said:

“I must highlight that the consultation proposal for Burton Magistrates’ Court is not based solely on the usage of the court. The court has no separate facilities for defence witnesses and there are a number of access issues for people with disabilities.”

Okay, so let us judge it on the basis of the information that the Minister has been given. First, take the issue of access. I have been to Burton magistrates court and I have spoken to the staff there. I have spoken to the magistrates and the solicitors who work there, and I have even spoken to disability groups in Burton. None of them believes that Burton magistrates court has any access issues whatever. All three courtrooms are entirely disability-friendly, including in the public areas. The proposal is simply wrong. There is even a lift in the court. The only exception is the witness box in court one, but that has never presented any issue in the past. Witnesses are permitted to give evidence under oath from anywhere in the courtroom, meaning that the problem does not exist. This is a straw man put up by the Department, desperately trying to defend its proposal to close the court, but it does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

Let us look at the lack of separate waiting facilities for defence witnesses. It is absolutely true that Burton does not, at the moment, have separate waiting facilities for defence witnesses. However, that could easily be resolved by converting the advocates’ room, or courtroom four—or the broom cupboard, as I like to call it—to make it available for that purpose. In fact, the advocates’ room is ideally situated for that purpose, as its location is away from the main body of the court and would ensure that defence witnesses felt very safe.

The other point that has been made in defence of the closure proposal is the lack of cell accommodation. Although it is true that Burton court does not have its own cell accommodation, it does have access to the state-of-the-art cells in the police station next door. Those cells are directly linked to Burton magistrates court through an underground tunnel, which emerges straight into the high-security dock in court one. Cell accommodation has been unavailable only twice in the past 15 years. The proposal is right to say that during the last closure for refurbishment the custodial work was moved to Cannock, but it is wrong in saying that that was a success. In fact, the move caused serious problems for court users, especially victims, witnesses and advocates, in terms of both unacceptable travel times, as we have heard, and expense.

The court and the police station have worked together for a very long time. Indeed, the tunnel between the courtroom and the police station allows anyone giving evidence—witnesses and the accused—to appear right in the dock. It is safe, it is secure and it works incredibly well. In fact, the police have such a good relationship with the court’s security service, GEOAmey, that they have granted GEOAmey a permanent work station within their facility. There is no reason why that should not continue.

If we look the facilities that Burton offers compared with those that the Ministry is claiming to keep open, they not only stand up to scrutiny, but they are better, safer and more fit for purpose. It is not possible to argue that Burton court should close due to inadequate facilities,

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when the court that is proposed to replace it has much worse facilities. The truth is that Burton court’s facilities are of a very high standard and do not in any way impede access to justice. That is what we are here for: to ensure that our constituents have access to justice.

A final implication relates to the family court. We recognise that it deals with people who are incredibly vulnerable. No other facilities in south-east Staffordshire could deal with family court work. It would be forced to go to Stoke and the facilities there are also not fit for purpose.

I have spoken for a long time and I am grateful, Sir David, for your leniency. I think you can understand that my constituents want me to defend Burton court and their right to justice. We have established the facts of the case, which are that Burton court should stay open. Its facilities are right, it has served the people and it is good value for money. All I ask is that the Minister looks at the facts, and bases her judgement on them. I am sure that that will lead her to the same conclusion as me: that Burton court must stay open.

4.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice (Caroline Dinenage): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) on securing this important debate. I will ensure that his kind words about my colleague, the Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid, are passed on. He has asked me to emphasise again today that the consultation is genuine and that although it has now closed, no decision will be made until the responses to it have been carefully considered.

In the meantime, I very much welcome the opportunity to explore this important issue. I commend my hon. Friend on the diligent way in which he has represented the interests of his constituents in this matter. I understand many of his concerns about the proposal and the accuracy of the published document, and appreciate the hard work he has put into the matter. I know that he has corresponded with my ministerial colleagues and I assure him that where corrections are required, they will be made in the response document. We will of course consider all the points he has made today, alongside those he has already made, and all the other responses we have received, when we make a decision about the future of the court.

I would like to address directly a couple of issues, including the accuracy of the consultation document regarding courtroom four’s size and suitability for hearings. The courtroom is of a modest size, but it is suitable for a variety of judicial work and has been used for hearings in the past year. That it has not been used more often is more a reflection of the low workload at Burton magistrates court. Although courtroom three is larger than courtroom four, it is also used irregularly due to the low workload.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of access to justice for his constituents with particular reference to travel time. I agree that this is really important, but we would expect Burton court users’ cases to be heard at Derby, a journey time of 45 minutes by bus. However, we will analyse any information we receive relating to travel times in the consultation and ensure that the response reflects that analysis.

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Andrew Griffiths: I am sorry that the Minister’s officials are again giving her the wrong information. Her proposal says that my cases will go three ways: to Cannock, to Newcastle-under-Lyme and to Derby. Two thirds of cases will not go to Derby.

Caroline Dinenage: I am sure that everything my hon. Friend says will be taken into consideration. We know that the world outside the courts is changing rapidly. We expect to be able to transact all our business online, quickly and efficiently, and at a time that suits. Justice must be accessible, with court users able to transact their court business efficiently at a time that suits them. We have a great opportunity to invest in our courts and to modernise them to meet the challenges of present and future requirements of court users and improve delivery.

In the consultation, we asked for suggestions about providing court services from an alternative local building and all those will be fully evaluated. We also want to change the way in which the public can access the courts. That does not have to take place by attending a conventional court building so we are exploring whether there are opportunities to hold hearings in local buildings. In addition, we have welcomed views on whether to establish video conferencing facilities and whether that would improve access to justice for victims, witnesses and court users. The proposals on the court estate in England and Wales must also be considered in the wider context of our ambitious plans to transform the way in which courts and tribunals operate and deliver services to the public.

As the Justice Secretary has said, reform of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient service. Many people encounter our justice system when they are at their most vulnerable, be they victim or witness. We must make better use of technology to provide easier access and a more responsive system with swifter processes and a more proportionate service.

As we know, front-line staff in the courts work very hard to provide a high quality service, but they often work against a backdrop of poor infrastructure and IT

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systems that are often inefficient, disjointed and based on old technology. We must respect the traditions of our court system, but recognise that court attendance is time consuming and often an inefficient process for everyone involved. A more proportionate approach to court attendance would eliminate wasted time and enhance confidence in the administration of justice. We have a duty to offer more convenient and less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system, which is what we intend to do while maintaining the authority of the court for serious cases.

We need to invest to deliver those improvements and we will do so with care to ensure that taxpayers are funding investment in a sustainable and efficient system. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that the Government are facing tough decisions about how we spend limited public funds and we do not shy away from making these tough decisions, but the programme of reform on which the courts and tribunals are embarking is a remarkable opportunity to transform essential public services. It will result in delivery of quicker and fairer access to justice and a courts and tribunals system that better reflects the way the public access and use services today. It is important that we make the right decisions about investment and operate from a court estate that is sustainable and represents value for money.

As my hon. Friend said, the consultation has now closed and we will analyse the responses. He referred to the 2,000 signatures that have been collected in the local area and they will be taken into consideration. The Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid and the Lord Chancellor will consider all the difficult decisions about whether a court should close. As they do so, they will consider all the responses and the points that my hon. Friend has made in the debate today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the proposed closure of Burton Magistrates’ Court.

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Funeral Poverty

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

4.29 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered funeral poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir David. Whenever I come to this Chamber, you seem to be in the Chair, so it is nice to see the tradition maintained. It is also a pleasure to speak on this issue, which perhaps does not always get the attention that it deserves. Everyone will die at some point, unfortunately. It is an issue that we do not discuss often as a community or even within families, so it is worth bringing it to the Chamber today.

I am grateful to the many industry bodies, charities and campaign groups that have helped in drawing together the information for the debate. It has become clear in recent weeks that this is an issue of growing public interest and it is worth dwelling on why that might be. The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) had her ten-minute rule Bill just before the election. We have seen the National Association of Funeral Directors campaigning on this issue and Quaker Social Action innovating in how it is seeking to drive down the cost of funerals. I have discussed the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on numerous occasions over the past five years and with Steve Webb, my hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor in the Department. We have also seen Royal London and SunLife—two of the major insurers—issuing regular reports over the past decade indicating the extent to which funeral costs have gone up over the years.

I never thought that I would find myself saying this, but the Scottish National party may have shown us the way forward: just last Friday it published the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill, which looks at many of these issues. Most interestingly of all, it includes a commitment to review funeral poverty in Scotland. I welcome that and would welcome a commitment from the Minister to look carefully at that Bill—the funeral poverty issues in particular—to see whether anything can be learned. Some of the issues would be a Ministry of Justice responsibility here in England.

When I do one of these debates, I meet all the relevant bodies, read all the relevant reports and gather far more information than I can possibly deploy in the hour at my disposal—not that I have the full hour at my disposal. I will do my best to enable everyone to speak. I recognise that the hour at the end of the day is a new format for this Chamber and I hope that we can accommodate everyone.

It is worth being quite specific. There is a full debate to be had about the rising cost of funerals, but that is not the topic of my debate today. I want to focus specifically on that group of people for whom the cost of a funeral is over and above what they can afford. Many of the trends, I agree, do overlap. Scarcity of burial space drives up costs, for example, but I want to focus in particular on those in financial need.

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in places such as Redditch county, funeral poverty is a massive problem for people? Having lost

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both my parents, I know that the stress of needing to organise a funeral is bad enough without having to worry about the cost of it.

Paul Maynard: My hon. Friend is right. None of us really wants to think about what we will do when the reality presents itself to us and we have a funeral to organise. Not only do we have to process the emotions that we inevitably feel, but there is an entire series of practical steps that have to be gone through that we are probably not best placed to go through at that time. We are not acting as the informed consumer that we might be if we were going down the supermarket to make a normal purchase. This cannot be the normal purchase that we might like it to be.

The experience can be overwhelming at times and many people require a degree of practical help in trying to navigate the process. For some, yes, the need to organise might be a welcome distraction from the process of grieving, but I do not think it can ever be accepted that these things will just happen of their own accord. As Marie Curie points out, there can be quite an adverse consequence for the grieving process if the result is not the right one in the end. Above all else, the cost of a funeral can be a massive shock to the budgets of families who perhaps do not start off with a significant amount of resilience in the first place.

The fact that I organised today’s debate seems to have provoked a number of insurance companies into rushing out annual reports a few weeks early. Both Royal London and SunLife had to get a move on down the printers, and Royal London’s report, which came out on 5 October, showed once again that funeral costs continue to rise. It now estimates that about one in 10 people are struggling to meet the cost of a funeral. The other provider, SunLife, in its “Cost of Dying” report, which came out even more recently—this weekend—found that the cost of a basic funeral had risen to £3,693, with a further £2,000 spent on discretionary items such as extra limousines, venue hire and catering. That is a sizeable sum, which, if not met out of the deceased’s estate, will place a substantial burden on the family if they have few savings yet need to find the money for a deposit even to start the process. No wonder research shows that credit cards and funerals are two of the items that we most commonly find together.

For those whose financial resilience is low to begin with, the phenomenon of funeral poverty almost has a sad inevitability about it. It leaves people facing a scale of debt and a suddenness that they simply cannot be expected to prepare for, so I think that it is right and proper that we look today in particular at what the Government’s tools are for trying to deal with the problem.

The main one is the social fund funeral payment, which has been in existence since 1988. It combines an uncapped commitment to “necessary” costs such as burial and cremation fees, along with a capped amount of £700 to cover such items as the coffin, the memorial and funeral directors’ fee. With an average award of £1,347, it undoubtedly makes an important contribution to the costs of a funeral for those who receive a qualifying benefit and where no other family member can meet the bill.

It should be made clear that the benefit is designed not to pay the full amount of the funeral costs, but to make a contribution. That is the policy objective. It is

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worth assessing whether the benefit functions as it should against that policy objective. I am sure that we could all express views on whether it should achieve other objectives, and there might well be a debate to be had on that matter, but I want to assess the benefit against that particular objective to start with.

It is worth noting that within the average figures, there is a broad discrepancy. The discrepancy between the cost of a burial versus a cremation leads to some perverse outcomes. The amount that an individual gets will depend on which they opt for and where they are in the country. There is no inherent, internal logic in the amount that an individual will get when they are faced with meeting these bills.

The capping of additional costs at £700 has been controversial for quite a while. I first got involved with this topic when the NAFD came to see me about it. I understand why it is a complex issue. Some suggest that over time the value of the £700 has been eroded. Mathematically, that cannot be argued against. Inflation means that if we were paying that £700 now, based on the amount that it started out at when capping first took place in 2003, it would be slightly over £1,000. Perhaps the best way to think about this is not to argue whether it is too high or too low, but to look at the costs that it is designed to meet.

We have a very poor understanding of where the money from the social fund funeral payment is actually going. We understand where the capped amount—the £700—goes. It does not meet all the additional costs, many of which are discretionary and at the choice of the consumer, but the Government—rightly, in my view—seek to meet all the necessary costs, which relate to the legal requirement regarding the disposal of someone’s remains. It is right and proper that the Government should meet all those costs, and they recognise that. There can be no model in which all the necessary costs are not met.

However, despite five years of trying to achieve that—without any luck—it is very hard to track through the Department for Work and Pensions where those necessary costs are going. Different local authorities charge different fees for cremation and burial. There is no consistency across the country. There are some perverse factors, such as the growth of private crematoriums driving up local authority crematorium costs as well. I have asked on a number of occasions, as other hon. Members have, for more information on what the money is going on. It makes it very difficult, I think, for both the Department and interested observers to make an accurate assessment of whether the benefit is performing adequately and reaching its policy objective. We need to understand what the cost drivers are, and it is important that the Government try to work out what more they can do to improve the data collection. I would be interested to know what steps the Minister thinks that he can take to improve the data collection to allow that analysis to take place.

There are various anecdotal reports that not every council runs its crematoria on a cost-recovery basis. If some are seeking to cross-subsidise, that ought to be at least transparent to the Government; that might help them to understand how the overall amount spent remains roughly the same at some £46 million each

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succeeding year, while the proportion spent on necessary costs continues to fluctuate. The Government need a better understanding of what is going on.

Many have argued that a relatively straightforward step in the right direction would be to index-link the capped payment—the £700—to inflation. When I put that to the Minister’s predecessor, Mr Webb, he replied:

“One risk of index-linking these payments is that prices would rise and recipients would be no better off”.

I have interrogated that statement from as many logical positions as I possibly can, and I still cannot make head or tail of it. I do not think it relates to the reality faced by funeral directors or consumers. Although I recognise that there is a need for much greater transparency on the part of funeral directors when it comes to offering itemised estimates without having been asked to do so, to my mind a £700 cap leads to some perverse outcomes. Increasing numbers of funeral directors carry a substantial amount of debt because they have to act as debt managers, and that leads some of the larger chains to turn people away when it becomes clear that they may require some social fund payments to pay for the funeral.

I ask the Government once again to look at index-linking—not merely as a spending commitment, but to help them better understand the cost drivers from local Government and to use whatever savings they achieve to pay for the index-linking that would allow funeral directors to cover more of their costs. That would also give the Government an opportunity to look at saying to funeral directors, “Right. We have index-linked, so now let us look at how the industry can improve its delivery of services and act in consumers’ interests to get a fair outcome.”

I ask the Government to consider balancing the need to fund necessary costs with the need to ensure that those costs are constrained on the part of local councils—there can be no blank cheques—and that additional costs are not squeezed merely to ensure the funding of necessary costs, of which we do not have a full and proper understanding. There is a danger that, as debate on and public interest in the subject grow, we may get some perverse demands for change that will not lead to any improvement in the experience of the bereaved. We need robust, coherent data to judge the right way forward, and at the moment we do not have that information. Many observers in the sector strongly believe that to be true.

We also need to look at how the benefit works. From my time on the Work and Pensions Committee, I know that it is important to be quite forensic on each individual benefit. What is its policy objective? Is it delivering that objective? How is it being managed? With some 51,000 applications for the social fund funeral payment, some 41% of which were rejected, I wonder what scope there is to improve the pre-eligibility scrutiny of those applications, because 41% is quite a large number. I suspect that many will be quite transparently not eligible at an early stage.

There have been numerous meetings about how to improve the process, but we still seem to get roughly the same number of rejections. I would welcome the Minister’s view on what more could be done to improve that. The bereaved should not be left disappointed by going through the process of arranging the funeral, only to be rejected later. That can be quite devastating, and it causes many

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of the financial problems that I have mentioned. In turn, it leaves the funeral directors out of pocket, and they have to chase the debt.

Will the Minister address the situation of people who are awaiting a decision on a qualifying benefit? They are trapped in two DWP holding circles: a decision on their own benefit, which will have consequences for their entitlement to the social fund funeral payment. The form is very complex. Virtually every Work and Pensions Committee report that I have been involved with asks the Department to improve the layout of the form and to subject it to the test of the behavioural insights team. No DWP form can ever not be improved, and I think that this particular form would defeat even me if I tried to fill it in.

The timeliness of decision making matters. The Department’s performance on that is quite good; its target is 16 days, and it seems to fluctuate between 17 and 18 days, so it is not that far off—I can think of many other examples of where it is nowhere near its targets. Although that represents quite good performance, the target of 16 days is actually three days longer than the average time between a death and a funeral. Timeliness of decision making is still an issue, and it might be improved by a pre-application eligibility procedure, if such a thing could be introduced.

I would welcome the opportunity for relatives to know before they commission a funeral the scale of resources that they are likely to have at their disposal. Some relatives may feel that the measure of their grief and loss can somehow be proportionate to the complexity of the funeral that they commission, and although I understand why that is the case, it would be helpful for people to have a clear understanding from funeral directors at a very early stage about what the items on the bill will cost. It would help for them to know how much will be spent on each element and which elements were required, which were discretionary and which were optional. At the moment, people are not acting as informed consumers. Affordability works both ways, because if a funeral director offers a more affordable plan to the customer, they are more likely to get their money in the end. Both parties can benefit from that, and it would alleviate the levels of debt.

One interesting element of the debate is budgeting loans. Steve Webb participated in a debate on this subject a few years ago, in which he talked about budgeting loans being a solution to much of the problem. Despite repeated efforts by the NAFD to get more information out of the Department through freedom of information requests, no one seems to have evidence of any budgeting loan being taken out for the purpose of paying for a funeral. I would be interested to know whether there is any evidence that that is actually happening, because we do not have any data on it.

I will try to wrap up rapidly, because I am running out of time. I have been struck by the calls for regulation of the industry. I recognise that it is tempting to say that there should be a much greater state role, but I do not think that we have exhausted the good will of the industry. Quaker Social Action runs its fair funerals pledge, and many funeral directors are signing up to it, particularly from the younger end of the industry—the insurgents. That disruptive influence on the industry, focusing on what the consumers actually need, can only be a good thing. I am not entirely clear that the industry

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needs to be castigated. I know many of my local funeral directors, and they are compassionate, caring people who want to do the best on behalf of their community. I am sure that that is true in all our constituencies.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that no one goes into the process with a clear understanding of what costs they should reasonably expect. No one knows what a cheap funeral looks like versus an expensive funeral; one is merely presented with a bill at the end. It is difficult to understand how the component parts of that bill have been assembled, and, emotionally, one is probably not in a position to interrogate it. That can make it difficult to be an informed consumer, and it suggests to me that the market is not fully formed. It is hard to regulate a market that is not acting like one, and in which consumers are not making informed decisions at the point of purchase.

I support Quaker Social Action’s call for some sort of non-governmental third-party ombudsman role. When Steve Webb discussed the matter a few years ago, he talked about “Tell us once” being a possible mechanism for achieving that, but I do not think that it has lived up to its expectations in that regard. It has done a good job of reducing some of the bureaucracy, but it is not acting as a signpost to the best advice on how to navigate this complicated process. I would welcome the Government’s looking at signposting people to groups such as Quaker Social Action, and considering whether such a group could perform an ombudsman role. Yes, that would need to be funded—advice always needs to be funded—but I suspect that sufficient savings could be made in the administration of the benefit to fund Quaker Social Action to play that role.

Many would argue for some linkage between the social fund funeral payment and a defined “simple” funeral, and that suggestion perhaps causes the greatest concern. It is very hard culturally to define what a simple funeral would look like. Quaker Social Action has been cautious not to require those funeral directors signing its fair funeral pledge to guarantee to provide a simple funeral. Instead, it says that the funeral director should clearly advertise their cheapest available funeral.

We need to be careful not to go down the route of the state defining what type of funeral it is prepared to pay for. A lot of cultural elements circle around how we decide what is appropriate for our loved one. It is difficult to try to define what that simple funeral ought to look like.

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Maynard: I am happy to, although I was just about to finish.

Mrs Lewell-Buck: I thank the hon. Gentleman; I appreciate that I will be speaking in a second. I have spoken to a lot of funeral directors who have said that they already offer a simple funeral. That was something that I proposed in my Bill, and the industry was split down the middle—some were for it and some were against it. I just wanted to clarify the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Paul Maynard: I suspect that we are closer to agreement than the hon. Lady might realise. I know what a simple funeral would look like and I know what its pricing

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structure would be; I just get a little nervous about tying the social fund funeral payment to that precise model. There may be cultural or religious reasons why people need optional extras.

In summary—if I have left any time for the Minister and anybody else—I would welcome a bit more information on how we can get the basic data to make the right decision about whether this benefit is delivering on its policy intent. I think it can, I hope it will and I look forward to hearing what everybody else has to say.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order. The wind-ups will start at 10 minutes past 5. I want to include everyone, but I am afraid that colleagues will have to make very short speeches or interventions. With the leave of the House, Mrs Lewell-Buck will be making her speech while seated as she is temporarily incapacitated.

4.51 pm

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David; I thank you for allowing me to sit through the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing the debate. Funeral debt affects a growing number of people, but the private nature of grief and the social pressure to provide a decent send-off means that those people do not always have a voice. One of the things that we should always do in this place is speak up for the voiceless so the hon. Gentleman has done those people a great service by calling this debate today.

Perhaps like other hon. Members, the issue first came to my attention through a constituent who had got into serious debt paying for their brother’s funeral. At the time, I assumed that such cases were relatively rare but, sadly, that is not the case. More than 100,000 people are living with funeral debt, while others struggle to meet the costs, end up selling their possessions, or turn to friends or family to cover the cost. These debts are significant. Royal London’s national funeral cost index shows that the average debt is £1,318.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend know that since 2004 there has been an 80% increase in the price of funerals, but wages and benefits have increased only fractionally in line with inflation—if not, they are struggling to keep up with inflation? The average social fund funeral payment was £1,225, which means that there is a huge gap in what is affordable. Would she congratulate Quaker Social Action on its excellent work in this regard?

Mrs Lewell-Buck: I would definitely like to thank Quaker Social Action, which I have done a lot of work with over the past 12 months. I am aware of some of the quite startling stats about this growing problem mentioned by my hon. Friend. I really do not think it is going to go away; it is going to get worse. Worryingly, as she said, the cost of a funeral service continues to rise well above the rate of inflation and the average debt is rising.

Losing a loved one, as most of us will sadly know, is one of the most difficult experiences we face in our lives. It shakes us and changes our world forever. In the

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middle of that personal turmoil, the last thing that people need is money worries. People will always feel a strong duty to do right by others when they depart, which makes it especially painful for those who are not able to provide what they see as a fitting service for their loved ones. That is why we need to have a really serious conversation about funeral affordability.

Hon. Members may be aware that in the previous Parliament I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. The aim of my Funeral Services Bill was to approach some of the issues around funeral affordability. At the centre of the Bill was a call for the Government to carry out an overarching review of funeral affordability. When researching the issue, it quickly became clear how many factors affect the price of a funeral and how many Departments have a stake in it. Making funerals more affordable is not simple and requires co-operation between the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Ministry of Justice; only a cross-departmental approach can work. I hope that the Minister can give us a commitment that the Government will begin to look strategically at funeral poverty.

I am aware that there is not enough time to cover everything, so I will focus on one thing that should be reformed urgently: the way in which social fund payments operate. Funeral payments give people much-needed support, but the system has some major flaws. A funeral payment covers all of an applicant’s necessary costs plus up to £700 of other costs. That might sound reasonable enough, but, in fact, those other costs include things such as funeral directors’ fees and ministers’ fees—things that we can agree most applicants would consider necessary. The £700 cap was set in 2003 and has not kept pace with the rising cost of funerals, so funeral payment awards are increasingly inadequate. The average award is just over £1,300 at a time when the average funeral costs £3,700. If the cap on other costs had risen with inflation, it would stand at just under £1,000 today. As we have heard, funeral costs rise even faster than inflation. Although I appreciate the comment by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys that the social fund is a contribution, the reality is that if we want funeral payments to be fit for purpose, that cap needs to rise.

The other issue is the way applications are administered. At the moment, the DWP requires an invoice from the funeral organiser before it can process a claim, which means that people have to commit to a service before they know the value of the funeral payment they will receive. Inevitably, that means that some people commit to a funeral service they cannot afford and end up in severe debt. The process is completely backwards. The DWP urgently needs to look at how it can give applicants a clearer idea of the support they will receive, which will help people to make a more informed decision about the kind of service that is right for them.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I add my support for Quaker Social Action and the work it has done on the matter. My hon. Friend is making a point about the people’s ability to plan funerals. Does she agree that we have to be very sensitive to communities when the speed at which someone is buried comes into play in being able to plan and cost accordingly, and to some of the risks that creates for those communities?

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Mrs Lewell-Buck: My hon. Friend is correct; this does not only affect people who have the time to plan a funeral, which is short in itself. Some communities cannot plan—full stop—so that debt will be incurred by everybody across the board.

The decisions by the DWP are far too slow. Most funeral services, as we have said, are decided very quickly after a person’s death, but the average claim can take up to three weeks to process, which means that most people only find out whether they are entitled to support long after committing to costs. My Bill, among other things, called on the DWP to introduce an eligibility check to help applicants understand whether they are likely to receive support before they make any commitments to funeral costs. I hope that the Minister can update hon. Members on social fund funeral payments, and accept what his predecessors would not—that there are serious flaws in the current system. I would like him to tell us what he will do to improve the process.

When I introduced my Bill last year, I hoped to start a national conversation about funeral affordability. The Government and the wider public have become increasingly aware of the issue. This debate is a welcome continuation of that conversation, but it is about time that some of that talk is turned into action. I hope the Minister will tell us about some of that action today.

4.59 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on her speech and on her work on this issue. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who very effectively set out the problem that we face. He is a regular attender of the all-party group on funerals and bereavement, and this issue sits regularly on our agenda.

The existing system is not working, the £700 grant is inadequate and only 53% of those applying for a grant are successful. The consequence is that many people are getting into substantial debt. Funeral costs are often unplanned expenditure, and people mostly put it on their credit card. They may go to a mainstream lender, but in some instances they are forced to use backstreet lenders or build up debt elsewhere by borrowing to pay for goods. In some instances, people incur a debt with the funeral director. Of course, one of the funeral director’s roles is to offer a range of prices to families so that they can select a funeral that is appropriate and right for them. Cost is a factor, and the National Association of Funeral Directors has a strict code of practice for adapting funerals to people’s needs and constraints. It is not in a funeral director’s interests to sell a funeral that a family is unable to afford, but funerals are a sensitive time for families and it is not always possible for a funeral director to gather full information about a family’s circumstances and ability to pay. When the bill is finally received by a family, it often comes as a shock. Some funeral directors have put in place their own payment plan to enable bills to be settled over a lengthy period of time, which, in certain instances, leads to debts that the funeral director has simply not been able to recover. The impact on the funeral director, and on the possible costs of other funerals, should be borne in mind.

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It is entirely right that the social fund exists, but it needs to be considered. I will take a short moment or two to mention the uncertain nature of the bills that families face. We should have a broader discussion and more openness about the cost of funerals, and greater thought should be given to the options available to people at a much earlier stage in their life. We speak a great deal about planning for people’s old age, and we know that the earlier people start to make such provision, the better. Perhaps people should start thinking about the time that comes post-old age. Instead of funerals being purchased in a very short space of time, perhaps they could build up and plan their funeral for some time.

When I looked into this subject, I was shocked to discover that many schemes are available, but they are not widely promoted, which might be because such promotion is inappropriate. I visited the website of a large national funeral director and discovered that for someone of my age—I was born on 16 January 1957— a basic funeral would involve expenditure of £27.75 a month. It may be that, in the same way as pension provision, if people gave some thought to their funeral at an earlier stage, a big, unexpected bill might be avoided.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some pre-paid funeral plans are not protected? My constituent thought they were protected. Their father had died, and they thought, “Fine, there is a pre-paid plan,” but the funeral director had gone out of business and their money had gone. There needs to be protection.

Mark Pawsey: The hon. Lady draws attention to the need for some form of regulation in the management of such plans. I am suggesting that we consider greater promotion to raise awareness of such plans so that families avoid receiving a big bill at what is always a very difficult time. This is an important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys deserves credit for securing this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

5.4 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I understand that there are five minutes left, Sir David. If that is correct, I will divide them with the hon. Member who follows me.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): There are two more speakers, and the winding-up speeches start at 5.10 pm.

Jim Shannon: I will take two and a half minutes. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this debate. I am conscious that, at a time when people have been forced to tighten their purse strings, funeral poverty has risen sharply. Unfortunately, as with other things, wages have not increased enough, which means that the poorest in society are often faced with the very real prospect of not being able to afford to bury their loved ones.

A gentleman came to my constituency office last week regarding a funeral grant. He had lost his brother a few months previously, and the brothers who were left had borrowed money from here and there to pay the funeral costs. They applied for a funeral grant and were

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turned down despite three of them being in receipt of benefits. The brother who paid the majority of the costs was in employment, and for that reason, despite the fact that one brother was on the minimum wage and borrowed money to pay the costs, the brothers were ineligible for the grant. That is a common problem, and it becomes worse for staff on casual or zero-hours contracts. Such people cannot receive the financial assistance they need because they are classed as working, regardless of whether or not their income is regular.

Is it not time to have a means test for those who apply for a funeral grant? The gentleman who came to my constituency office was left with a burden. He is on the minimum wage, which means that he was not able to take the full cost himself. Prices have risen by 3.9% in the last year alone, which is £140 in real money. One in 10 people struggle to pay for a funeral, to the tune of £1,318. Over the past five years, the price of cremations has gone up by almost a third from £470 to £640. I welcome the work of the charities and organisations, but will the Minister indicate what help we can give? Will the rules be changed to include a means test? We need to help the most vulnerable in our society, and we need to ensure that people on zero-hours contracts, casual contracts or the minimum wage can get some financial assistance.

I commend the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on her hard work. I am impressed by her contribution, and I look forward to the contribution of the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) on behalf of the Scottish National party because the Scottish Parliament has shown us the best way forward.

5.7 pm

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): I will be brief, given the impending time limit. I support this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for putting across the arguments so thoughtfully. I also thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for raising this issue in the national consciousness in the way it deserves.

I will make a couple of brief points. The first is obvious, but it deserves to be said again that we have a cultural problem in this country, even more so than in many other countries, because we do not talk about death and, as a result, do not plan for it. That is part of the reason for the problems that we all get into. Death is a certainty, yet we do not talk about it and too few of us plan for it, even those who have the income to do so if they only thought about it at an earlier time.

As we have heard, it is possible to plan ahead and take a fixed-cost, pre-need funeral plan. I have also had constituents whose funeral director had gone out of business and, as we have just heard, their family only discovered it at the point of death, which is an awful tragedy. I have had two constituents in that position. Such schemes are important and should be promoted by the Government and by funeral directors because, in their defence, they fix the cost at the point at which the scheme is taken out. As we have heard, the cost of a funeral has risen so much in recent years that, in all likelihood, a funeral will be significantly cheaper if a scheme is taken out several years in advance.

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Lastly—I know that we need to move on—we must, without bashing funeral directors, make the point that the cost of a funeral has risen enormously in recent years, by seven times the rate of inflation. That is too much. Many funeral directors have quite high margins; some basic products, such as coffins, can be provided for as little as £60 or £100. I do not want people to be pushed into undignified funerals, but funeral directors could do more to reduce the cost of funerals and enable members of the public to have dignified funerals at a sensible price.

Members might not be aware that there is a growing trend in this country of DIY funerals. That has both good and bad sides, but we need to be aware of it, because hundreds of thousands are happening now: members of the public do a lot of the work themselves rather than going through funeral directors. They take control of the paperwork, arrange and even conduct the service and make transport arrangements. That is a difficult process, but we need to be aware of it. If we do not sort out the problem, we will see far more DIY funerals in years to come.

5.10 pm

Philip Boswell (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for holding this debate on such an important matter, as he clearly highlighted in his worthy contribution. I also thank all Members who have spoken. After a serious piece of slash-and-burn, let me say that recent reports have found that not only are many people unable to pay for the cost of a funeral, 47% of individuals are forced to take out high-interest credit card debt or short-term loans to cover the shortfall.

According to findings published in The Guardian on 20 October, jobcentre staff actively encourage individuals to take on debt in order to pay for funeral costs. The fact that they have done so when individuals have approached them at a time of desperation and emotional turmoil after the loss of a loved one is morally reprehensible and frankly unacceptable. Although the reports do not specify whether encouraging individuals to incur high-interest debt to cover the costs of a funeral is an official Department for Work and Pensions internal policy, I hope that this debate will encourage the DWP to tackle that emerging pattern, and I would appreciate a ministerial response on that particular concern.

According to the 2015 Citizens Advice Scotland report, “The cost of saying goodbye”, which has been mentioned by many Members who have spoken, North Lanarkshire council ranks in the top 40% of the most expensive councils for funeral costs in Scotland. According to Citizens Advice, the total cost of a funeral for people living in our constituency falls somewhere between £2,500 and £8,000. As more than half the households in Lanarkshire have an annual household income of less than £20,000, the cost of a funeral in our constituency can represent more than one third of household income for many.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he is now eating into the time of his colleague who is about to speak.

Philip Boswell: Then I will end my speech.

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5.13 pm

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for introducing this important debate, which has inspired uncharacteristic consensus around the Chamber. Everybody in this room agrees that there is a problem and that funeral poverty is a huge issue affecting every constituency and every part of the United Kingdom, a trend shown by the 80% rise in funeral costs over the past 10 years—or higher in some parts of the UK. In the past year, the cost of a funeral has risen by more than 7%. Household incomes are simply not keeping pace.

As many Members have said, at an already difficult and stressful time, families are being forced into credit card debt and unwise access to money. They do so in desperation, to cover funeral expenses. Everybody understands that when a loved one dies, we want to give them the dignity and respect of a fitting send-off. What families are left with at the end, as well as their grief, is debt anxiety, which does not allow people to grieve properly as they ought to be allowed to do. There is also wide disparity in pricing. People can find out that in another part of the country, the funeral might not have cost quite as much as they paid for it.

Far too many families on low incomes face the brutal reality that they simply cannot afford the sudden death of a loved one. Of course, there is the option of life insurance, but to people struggling to put food on the table for their family, it too often seems like an unnecessary luxury. In certain circumstances, local authorities step in to provide a public health funeral, but recent research shows that the demand for such funerals is rising and many local authorities are struggling to cope. Funeral plans have been mentioned, but we have evidence that some companies offer over-50s plans to provide for their funeral, which can lead people on low incomes to pay thousands upon thousands of pounds without their families ever recovering the full amount paid in, because they paid in more than the funeral costs.

It is unacceptable for a bereaved family coming to terms with the loss of a loved one to have to go through the turmoil of worrying how to afford a funeral. Many Members have spoken about Scotland. The power to deal with funeral payments is due to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. Currently, the social fund is the mechanism that can, where conditions are met, help individuals in such circumstances with certain one-off payments, but as we know, the social fund has become another victim of the Government’s austerity cuts, and more pressure is being placed on families. The fund has failed to keep pace with the true cost of funerals, leaving some families with substantial debts. To illustrate further, the social fund reported a 35% increase in the number of clients facing funeral debt in the year 2013-14.

Tribute has been rightly paid to the social fund in this debate, but the issues I have raised have led some groups to take a more direct approach. I hope that we can all pay tribute to the Quaker Social Action group which, along with a network of not-for-profit organisations, has established the Funeral Poverty Alliance, dedicated both to raising the profile of funeral poverty as a social justice issue requiring the attention of Government decision makers and to ensuring that the public and the funeral

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industry alike are aware of the options available and the wider challenges. Such developments further elucidate the seriousness of the issue of funeral poverty.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I hate to interrupt the hon. Lady’s speech, but there are two more speakers waiting, and the debate finishes at half-past 5.

Patricia Gibson: I will wind up. I have not had time to say all that I wanted to say, but I shall end by saying that we know that many people in our country struggle to make ends meet. They can barely afford to live; now it would seem that they cannot afford to die either. We have spoken about the distress and the lack of dignity into which funeral poverty plunges families and the deceased. Let us hope that the Government are listening.

5.18 pm

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to appear opposite the Minister. We have crossed swords before, and I look forward to doing so again. I commend the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on raising such an important issue: the chance to hold a dignified funeral in our society. I also commend the speakers who have contributed to this debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in the last Parliament and has campaigned tenaciously on the issue. I thank the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for his contribution, particularly for the way in which he spoke about debt; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his words on funeral poverty; the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick); and the hon. Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), all of whom contributed significantly to the quality of this debate.

It was that famous Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who said:

“After the first death, there is no other.”

It illustrates that people always react to death very differently. Each funeral is different and unique, a point made powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) in her earlier intervention.

None the less, funerals serve common purposes. They are not only a celebration of a life lived; they offer symbolism, the public expression of farewell and the marking of loss. That is why it is absolutely right that support is available to bereaved families to provide dignified funerals and why the rise in funeral costs, described very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) in her intervention, is so worrying.

I impress on the Minister today the need for a strategic approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made that point in her contribution. Central to that is the availability of information to inform a strategic approach. In a parliamentary answer on 29 June, the Minister stated that, of the 52,500 applications to the social fund for funeral payments, only 32,000 were approved. An explanation of why nearly 20,000 were rejected would be useful. It would also be useful if the Department for Work and Pensions published other specific data. What, for example, is the total number of

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people who cannot afford a low-cost funeral? What is the average cost of a funeral? How many bereaved families fall into debt? I could go further and say that it would be useful if the Minister committed today to seeking and consulting on a definition of funeral poverty that could be used in future.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys spoke powerfully about budgeting loan applications in his contribution. Budgeting loans have been available since May 2012. An indication of the likely award would be useful, because ex post facto awards create an extra complication for the family at a time of bereavement. It would be useful, when looking at this policy area, if the Government distinguished between maternity and funeral expense applications in the statistics.

Those elements taken together would provide a more strategic approach. I urge the Minister today to turn his attention to this issue and focus on it. It is difficult to think of a more noble cause than providing people with a dignified funeral, regardless of their income.

5.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds). I have enjoyed debating with him on previous occasions, and I thought that his suggestions and his decision to focus on a strategic approach were sensible and practical. It was a helpful contribution.

The debate was secured by my excellent colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), whose proactive, thoughtful and knowledgeable work in this area highlights what an important issue funeral poverty is. The debate has raised important questions today. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and her work on the ten-minute rule Bill. I am interested in her point about a national conversation, and I will come back to that. I will have to whizz through some of my points, but I will do my best to cover as much as I can in the limited time available.

Before I focus particularly on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, I want to say to my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who both raised constructive ideas about overall costs and planning for costs in the future, that we will need to look carefully at those points. The question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has left the debate, is relatively easy for me to answer because the powers have already been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly; he will need to relay his questions there. In answer to the hon. Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), the powers will be devolved. I will take a particular interest in what new innovative ideas Scotland will try. If there are areas that work well, we will have to look closely at them. I wish them the best of luck. As policies are developed, my teams will continue to be supportive through sharing information on what we have learnt in the past.

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Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things that any of us will experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys is right to highlight the fact that, in addition to the significant emotional cost, dealing with a bereavement brings practical challenges. Although the Government have never taken responsibility for meeting the full cost of funeral arrangements, they provide support to help the most vulnerable people with funeral costs, and rightly so.

For people in receipt of universal credit, income-related benefits and tax credits, the social fund funeral expenses payments provide a significant contribution towards the cost of a simple, respectful, low-cost funeral. The scheme meets the full costs of a cremation or burial, including: the purchase of a grave; necessary burial or cremation fees; for cremations, the cost of any medical references or removal of active implanted medical devices, such as pacemakers; reasonable costs if the body has to be moved more than 50 miles; and the cost of a journey for the applicant to arrange or go to the funeral. A funeral payment is paid in about 7% of deaths in Great Britain.

In 2014-15, 32,000 funeral payments were awarded, worth about £44 million. Other costs, such as the coffin, church and funeral director fees, are limited to a maximum payment of £700. Members questioned whether that is the appropriate level. The majority of claims exceed the £700 limit, which is why in May 2012 we made interest-free social fund budgeting loans available for funeral costs, in addition to the funeral payment. The average budgeting loan award in 2014-15, for all purposes, was £413. Applicants can claim up to a maximum of £348 to £812, depending on their circumstances. Crucially, the introduction of budgeting loans is a vital part of removing the need for bereaved families to turn to high-cost lenders or credit cards, and removes the worry of meeting the funeral director’s bill. The National Association of Funeral Directors welcomed that move, and we need to promote it further.

I will try to answer as many points as I can in the remaining time. What steps can the Government take to improve Department for Work and Pensions data collection to help improve transparency? What figures on the use of budgeting loans for funerals can the Department share? The shadow Minister also raised that point. The Department collects and publishes, via the social fund annual report, comprehensive data on applicants, application and award volumes, expenditure and processing times. That allows the Department to monitor the operation of the scheme. Extra data beyond that could be collected, but we must consider the costs of doing so; the scheme costs about £2.6 million to administer for a £44 million benefit to the most vulnerable, so we must strike a balance. We will continue to look at the situation. The Department does not currently collect data on the take-up of budgeting loans for funeral costs, but we are exploring options to produce those data, so I welcome hon. Members’ comments.

Will the Government look again at index-linking the cap? It is a balancing act. It is important that the scheme does not influence or inflate the prices charged by the funeral industry for a simple funeral. I know my hon. Friend said that he struggled to get his head round that point. The cap for funeral director fees means that we can continue to ensure that the system remains both sustainable and fair to the taxpayer, and to help

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a large number of benefit recipients with funeral expenses. Although the £700 cap is not index-linked, there is no cap on the necessary costs category. On the points about inflation and funeral costs exceeding people’s rise in wages, the year-on-year rise in average payment amounts reflected that. The average award increased by 27% between 2006 and 2014-15. We will continue to work on that. I am conscious that I do not have much time left in the debate, so I will whizz through the points.

Ensuring better understanding of eligibility pre-application is probably the most important point. When I looked at the figures, I was concerned about the number of people applying, because of the time that it takes to go through the applications, and the people who do not get an award. I have asked whether there can be pre-eligibility checks. It is complex. We are looking at it, but at the moment, we do not feel confident that we can do it because we do not want to give somebody a 100% assurance and then not approve the application. There is a lot more work to do, but we have made progress. The proportion of successful applications has increased from 55% to 63% over the past five years.

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Baroness Altmann is the Minister responsible for the policy. I will suggest a round table discussion with me and Baroness Altmann for hon. Members who have spoken today to explore the issue further, because it is crucial. We are committed to getting to 16 days. We have made progress and want to go further. The round table discussion will explore that as well.

The “tell us once” scheme was promoted in the coalition Government by the former Minister. We want to ensure that the service communicates well. If Members have specific examples of where it has not worked, please raise them.

The debate has been practical, proactive and constructive. I am conscious of the time constraints. I look forward to the round table discussion with those who are interested.

5.30 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).