3.27 pm


Chi Onwurah: As I think I was saying before democracy interrupted me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter explained that the BBC’s decision is not the end for the Met Office—far from it: it does much more than weather forecasts. However, the decision raises questions about the strategic relationship of the BBC and the weather forecaster. Has the Minister discussed that with the BBC, and does he have concerns about it?

I am intrigued by the timing of the decision. Is it right to award a 10-year contract when the charter renewal process is about to decide on the entire future of the BBC and its purpose? Should not such important decisions be made after we know the outcome of the process? I understand that the contract does not expire until next year. Is it too late to review the decision and the process? Will there be increased transparency about the criteria for the decision that has been made?

What if, as part of the open consultation the Minister is running with the British public, we decide that the purpose of the BBC is indeed to provide integrated weather warnings at critical times? In its briefings to Members, the BBC has said that the decision to go to open tender was a legal one—something that it had to do. I support open tendering, of course. We need competitive procurement to prevent contracts from being handed out to the same old cronies and to enable new and innovative companies to have access to the £242 billion of public procurement cash available from the public sector, but what discussions have the Government had with the BBC regarding other aspects of the contract, such as social value?

I am sure the Minister is aware that recent European Union law exempts some services from procurement laws, and other laws allow organisations to make allowances in certain circumstances—for instance, where there is a question of social value. The Public Contracts Regulations 2015 came into force in February and expand on exemptions for co-operation between entities in the public sector, which I would have thought was exactly the case here. What is the Minister’s interpretation of that exemption? Has he taken any advice on the rules in this case? If so, can he share it with the House today or deposit it in the Library, or ideally both?

One charge often levelled by Members of this House and others is that we are too strict on ourselves in this country when interpreting and obeying EU laws and

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can err on the side of extreme caution, so will the Minister bring his considerable resources to bear and see whether this 93-year-old relationship does not have to be sacrificed? We have yet to decide what the BBC is for or what outcomes we want. The BBC is a great British institution. It is public sector, it is successful and it is loved. Of course it needs to evolve with the times and with technology, but it also needs the support and championing of this Government.

I could say exactly the same about the Met Office. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and the hon. Member for Torbay described in detail how successful and appreciated the Met Office is, and it, too, needs to evolve with the times and with technology. The Met Office also deserves the support and championing of this Government. I will listen with interest to the Minister, as always, but it seems strange that these two great British institutions should not be natural allies and partners.

3.32 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Streeter. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing this important debate. He and I have a close mutual interest in the weather on the weekend of 7 and 8 November. As he may be aware, I am lucky enough to be president of Didcot Town football club, who for the first time in their history have reached round 1 of the FA cup. I am delighted that their first opponents, because they are bound to win, will be Exeter City on that weekend. I hope he will join me in the lavish corporate box at Didcot Town, having cycled from his Exeter constituency on what I hope will be a fine and sunny day, but who can tell? Maybe the Met Office can.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) spoke about her and me appearing together for the third time, but she left out the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is also part of the group. Looking at the three of us, I call to mind the great words of the bard:

“When shall we three meet again

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

I cannot answer the first part of that question, but when I do know I will ask the Met Office to answer the second part.

We are lucky to have the Met Office, but it does not provide the weather for every television channel. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, MeteoServices provides the weather for Channel 4, and it has a distinctive approach. The weatherman for Channel 4, Mr Liam Dutton, achieved notoriety for faultlessly pronouncing the longest place name in Wales, which, as I do not need to remind hon. Members, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyll- gogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—I have almost certainly mispronounced it, but I may be the first hon. Member to read it into Hansard.

The right hon. Member for Exeter made it clear that he is proud of the Met Office, as we all are of the UK’s national meteorological service. The Met Office is an internationally renowned organisation based in his constituency, and it provides highly skilled jobs and international connections. It is a massive asset for the

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south-west, which is why I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) here. No doubt you have your own interest as a south-west Member of Parliament, Mr Streeter. Everyone in this House knows how committed the Chancellor is to science and a knowledge-driven economy. The Met Office is a fantastic example of that, which is why we have invested a significant sum in its new supercomputer; I will return to that towards the end of my remarks.

The right hon. Member for Exeter has corresponded with me, tabled parliamentary questions and secured this debate because he is interested in the BBC’s decision not to shortlist the Met Office in its procurement process for weather forecasting services. That procurement process is still under way, but it has come to light that the Met Office is not on the shortlist. The current contract with the Met Office is therefore due to end in autumn 2016. That is a commercial decision for the BBC to take, and it is interesting that when we disagree with decisions made by the BBC—not me personally or as a Minister—we feel free to comment. I live in a world in which people are constantly telling me to keep my hands off the BBC, but I have no intention of interfering with its commercial decisions. It is true, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned, that the BBC is undergoing a charter review, and we are obviously considering a range of options for its future, but it is important that we keep in mind its editorial independence and its freedom to make sensible commercial decisions. The BBC has a duty, and has always had a duty, to conduct its business in a way that delivers value for money for licence fee payers.

On the wider question of what kind of weather service the BBC will provide in the future, it is of course crucial that consistent information is available, particularly on severe weather, and that those warnings reach the people most likely to be affected. I reassure the right hon. Member for Exeter that in the next few months all parties concerned will continue to work with the BBC to ensure that Met Office severe weather warnings are clearly and consistently communicated to the public, because the Met Office will continue to provide the official UK forecast, official guidance and warnings as the single authoritative voice during high-impact weather events, such as storms, gales and flooding. We expect the BBC to continue carrying the Met Office’s national severe weather warnings—that applies to all broadcasters, regardless of who provides their day-to-day weather forecasting—and to ensure that those severe weather warnings are consistent with any wider forecast issued at the same time. Indeed, the BBC has made it clear that it will continue to use the Met Office severe weather warnings.

As part of that new approach, the Met Office is developing a new public weather media service, which will be made freely available to all broadcasters and will ensure that Met Office severe weather warnings reach the maximum audience effectively and efficiently. The public weather media service is due to be ready by July 2016, before the current contract expires, so that it can be incorporated into whatever new service the BBC chooses to contract.

The Met Office public weather service is a critical component of the UK’s resilience infrastructure. It provides the public with the information that they need to make decisions and protect themselves and their property from high-impact weather. An important part

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of the service is public weather advisers—Met Office experts who provide advice and guidance to local emergency planners and responders and who are greatly valued by all who work in that area.

The public will continue to benefit from Met Office expertise through a wide range of other channels, including other national and regional TV, radio and print media outlets and the Met Office’s website, mobile app and social media channels. It is important to clarify that the civil contingencies secretariat, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Met Office are working together on the public weather media service.

Mr Bradshaw: I am pleased to hear that the civil contingencies secretariat, BIS and others are working with the Met Office on that. I do not know whether the Minister slightly misunderstood my point about consistency. It is not about the consistency of severe weather warnings, which the BBC has agreed to continue broadcasting from the Met Office; it is about consistency between those and the general weather forecasting that the BBC might purchase from a different provider.

TV viewers and radio listeners could receive different information in general weather forecasts from the information issued by the Met Office, or the information provided by the Met Office to Government. The Minister says that such inconsistency will be addressed. We have heard the BBC give that assurance before, but it has not explained how it will resolve that potential inconsistency.

Mr Vaizey: As I thought I was explaining but will try to make clearer, my understanding was that the public weather service will be freely available to all media outlets. The work that the civil contingencies secretariat, BIS and the Met Office are undertaking now will ensure that when that service goes live in the summer of next year, it will be able to be incorporated into the BBC’s more general weather. In effect, the public weather service is about severe weather warnings—gales, storms and flooding, as I said earlier—and it must be incorporated within the routine weather forecast: for example, whether it will rain tomorrow in East Dunbartonshire, or be cloudy or sunny. I am confident that that work will ensure that those two effectively separate parts of weather forecasting will be consistent and incorporated, not only by the BBC but by other broadcasters.

I will take this opportunity to address some of the other points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. It is not the case that Ministers were informed by the BBC of its decision. The Met Office informed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills after learning that it was not on the shortlist for procurement, but I do not take any umbrage at the BBC’s not having informed us. As I said, it is a commercial decision for the BBC.

Are we getting value for money? Are we effectively paying twice for the service? It is important to understand that the Met Office was not giving general weather service free of charge to the BBC; the BBC was paying for it. Procurement is under way for the weather service that the BBC will use in future. That is commercially confidential, but I do not see how it can be argued that we are paying twice, given that the BBC is currently paying for a weather service from the Met Office and will pay for a weather service from another provider next year.

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I know that there will be concerns, particularly from a constituency perspective, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. As far as I understand it, the Met Office contract with the BBC is a small fraction of its total turnover, and I am not aware of any knock-on effect in terms of redundancies or job losses.

Chi Onwurah: To clarify, the point about not paying twice is that the British public pay the Met Office to produce a weather service, and now it will pay the BBC to pay somebody else to produce a weather service. The British public might be paying for two different weather forecasts, for the same weather.

Mr Vaizey: Clarity is clearly not my strong point this afternoon. As I said earlier, the BBC’s contract with the Met Office is a commercial contract, paid for out of the licence fee. The BBC will continue to pay for a commercial contract, whether or not we agree with whoever eventually wins that procurement—whether or not we morally agree, as it were, that it is the right company. It may well be a foreign company, although it could well be a British company. That is one thing, but the fact is that we are not paying twice for the service. The licence fee pays for a weather service provided by the BBC that happens to be provided by the Met Office. It is not provided for free. As far as I am aware—again, it is a commercial procurement process—at no point did the Met Office offer to provide that service free to the BBC.

Kevin Foster: I thank the Minister for the response that he has given so far. On the comment that he just made about the BBC being a small percentage of the overall Met Office contract, will he confirm, to help deal with perceptions in south Devon, that he is satisfied that the Met Office will still be a viable and effective organisation going forward?

Mr Vaizey: My hon. Friend’s question is helpful, because it allows me to segue into the wider part of my speech. I want to talk about the wider work of the Met Office, because it is a more than viable organisation. As I said in my opening remarks, it is a widely respected international organisation with a turnover of around £200 million, and it is highly successful. For example, regardless of whether the BBC continues to use the Met Office, its website is one of the most used websites in the UK Government family. It delivers weather information and critical weather warnings via a huge range of digital channels. The mobile app has been downloaded more than 12 million times, and there are 430 million user sessions every year. Some 900,000 people follow Met Office social media accounts.

The Met Office provides a huge range of services, not just to Government but to business. Its day-to-day forecasts and weather warnings are the most high-profile, but it also works with, for example, the Environment Agency on flood forecasting. It will continue to provide shipping forecasts, mountain weather forecasts and services to the aviation industry. It provides air quality and volcanic ash monitoring, which is not such an esoteric service when we remember what happened with the ash cloud a few years ago. The Met Office’s work touches almost every aspect of our lives, in many ways of which we are unaware. It may interest hon. Members to know

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that just last week, the Met Office won the most prestigious award at the “top 50 companies for customer services” awards.

The Met Office is not only known for weather forecasting; it is home to the Hadley centre for climate science and services, one of the most famous research institutes in the world. It remains an important part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy; she was the Prime Minister who opened the centre in 1990, and this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. As we head towards the crucial negotiations at the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris in November, the UK, thanks to the Met Office’s brilliant work, is in a much stronger position to influence and secure the outcome we need as a result of that expertise and world-leading knowledge.

While I am discussing the international climate change conference in Paris, I should say that it is important to stress the global role played by the Met Office. It is one of only two world area forecast centres delivering forecasts globally, and it is recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation as the national meteorological service with the most accurate prediction model in the world. It is internationally respected for its unified weather and climate model, the accuracy of its weather prediction, its research, and its support for developing countries. It helps to save lives and it delivers improvements, such as helping to establish local meteorological services.

I will give just one example of the Met Office’s work. During Hurricane Patricia, which has recently battered Mexico, the Met Office has been, and it will continue to be, the source that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office uses to provide weather advice to citizens in the affected area. So we as a Government are immensely proud of the Met Office, its international standing and the international recognition it brings, but most importantly we are proud of the difference that it makes to people’s lives every day.

That is why, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Chancellor is backing the Met Office through investment in a new high-performance computing facility. Last year, he announced plans to invest £97 million in a new supercomputer, which will cement the UK’s position as a world leader in weather and climate prediction. The supercomputer’s sophisticated forecasts are anticipated to deliver £2 billion worth of socioeconomic benefits to the UK by enabling better advance preparation and contingency plans to protect people’s homes and businesses. I am told that the installation programme is progressing very well; indeed, it is five weeks ahead of schedule. Also, the Met Office recently released its new five-year science strategy, which aims to deliver science with impact, maximising the benefit to society of its weather and climate expertise, and making the most of the UK Government’s investment in its high-performance computing.

It is a credit to the Met Office and to all the highly skilled staff who work there, obviously including those who work in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Exeter, that it is recognised as a world-class institution that all of us are rightly proud of. Having protected the country for more than 150 years, the Met Office is a trusted voice for the British public, businesses and emergency responders when it is needed most.

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Mr Bradshaw: I am very gratified that the Minister is extolling the virtues of the Met Office; indeed, he almost seems to be making a better case than I did for the BBC continuing its relationship with the Met Office. Before he closes, may I invite him at least to assure hon. Members and I that he will go away from this debate and just talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office group responsible for civil contingencies, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that they are aware—if they are not already aware—of some of their officials’ concerns, so that Ministers can help to encourage the process that he referred to earlier, of addressing and resolving some of these genuine concerns about resilience and national security?

Mr Vaizey: I absolutely give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance; I will ensure that the points he has made in this debate are taken seriously and that we absolutely clarify for him exactly what the public weather media service will provide, although the answer may not completely satisfy him. I will also seek assurances from the civil contingencies secretariat and BIS officials that they are content with the arrangements, as it were, whereby the BBC is in effect contracting with another provider for what I would call its commercial weather service, which provides the day-to-day weather service that we all watch at the end of a news bulletin, whether that is a national or local news bulletin, as opposed to the more important severe weather warning work that the Met Office does.

Chi Onwurah: As the Minister is so successfully clarifying points, may I point out that my question to him was about the legal basis that is necessary for there to be an open tender, given that EU procurement regulations now exempt collaborations between two public sector entities?

Mr Vaizey: I will certainly consider the point that the hon. Lady makes. It may well be that the contract was de minimis anyway in terms of those procurement rules, and it may well be that the savings the BBC thinks it can make by procuring weather services from another supplier mean that even the social aspects were not of the utmost concern to them. Nevertheless, I, or perhaps even the BBC itself, will write to the hon. Lady to address her point.

This has been a very useful debate. Although it has been disappointing in some respects, in that I was unable to pull a rabbit out of the hat and put the Met Office back in play with the BBC, it is right that we respect the BBC’s independence in this area. We cannot always say whether the BBC’s decisions are right or wrong, and it must be a particular frustration for someone working at the BBC or even leading it to be constantly second-guessed. I second-guessed the BBC on the closure of 6 Music and with hindsight I think I have been proved right; that was a service to save. Many people are now second-guessing the BBC on its moving BBC3 from terrestrial television to the internet. Equally, it is perhaps a testament to the standing of both the Met Office and the BBC that a parliamentary debate should be called to consider the BBC’s decision not to procure its weather services from the Met Office.

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In a sense, I will conclude in the way that I started, by saying that my final congratulations must go to the Met Office on accurately predicting the weather for all the Rugby World cup matches. Unfortunately, that did not help the northern hemisphere teams, but I look forward to an accurate prediction of the weather for Didcot Town versus Exeter, and I put on the record now my own prediction that Didcot will win 2-0.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Would the right hon. Member for Exeter like to say a few words by way of winding up?

Mr Bradshaw indicated dissent.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the BBC’s relationship with the Met Office.

3.55 pm

Sitting suspended.

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British Property Owners (Cyprus)

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

3.56 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of British property owners in Cyprus.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray.

I am grateful for the chance to raise this issue in Westminster Hall. I am not the first Member to take it up on behalf of their constituents and I begin by praising the work of the all-party group on the defence of the interests of British property owners in Cyprus. Under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the group has done great work in raising the concerns of people caught up in property and banking problems in Cyprus. It has also provided a framework through which they can pursue justice and fairness in relation to their properties.

I have been contacted by a number of people in my constituency about the mis-selling of Swiss franc mortgages by Alpha Bank in Cyprus, and about the poor advice they had received from solicitors purporting to act on their behalf. Briefly, the background to this issue is that between 2003 and 2010 Cypriot banks advised buyers to take out a mortgage in Swiss francs, because the interest rates were lower and the currency was considered stable. However, when the value of the Swiss franc soared against the euro in the aftermath of the financial crisis, buyers found that their mortgage repayments had doubled.

Buyers have complained that banks often failed to explain the potential risks or that currency fluctuations could cause repayments to rise, which has resulted in property owners being left with unfinished and unsaleable apartments, huge loan obligations and negative equity following the collapse of the Cypriot property market, which saw property values in some areas plummet by as much as 70%.

In one case brought to me by a constituent, the developer went into liquidation before the property being built for my constituent and his wife had been completed, taking 85% of their mortgage fund and leaving them insufficient money to finish the remaining work. My constituent says that his solicitor and Alpha Bank allowed that to happen by permitting the developer himself to sign written confirmation that the various stages of work had been completed.

My constituent and his wife had to begin making mortgage repayments at a time when they did not have the land in their name and the property was not finished. Effectively, therefore, they were paying a mortgage on a property and land that was not legally theirs. When they explained to Alpha Bank that they were in a desperate situation, they were simply told that if they did not make their mortgage payments the bank would seek possession of their home here in the United Kingdom. Similarly, another constituent with the same Swiss franc mortgage with Alpha Bank spoke of what he believed to be collusion between the bank, the solicitor and the developer, leaving him threatened with bankruptcy.

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I am sure that those examples will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has had dealings with people caught up in the fiasco.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am chairman of the all-party group on the defence of the interests of British property owners in Cyprus. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the group. Is he aware that we will have a meeting of those affected at 11 am on 12 November, at which the high commissioner for Cyprus, Mr Euripides Evriviades, will be present? There is also a Bill before the Cyprus Parliament, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will deal with that shortly, so I will not go into any more detail.

Andrew Gwynne: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is absolutely right, and I commend him for his work in leading the all-party group. It is my intention to be at that meeting but, if parliamentary duties do not permit me, a representative from my office will attend. I am aware of the situation in Cyprus to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

There have also been allegations of Cypriot solicitors using invalid powers of attorney. The case I want to focus on, on behalf of one of my constituents, is an example of that, and it also highlights that constituent’s concern about his legal representation while seeking to obtain redress.

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Before he moves on to that specific case, I want to say that I have had conversations with a number of leading politicians in Cyprus and have found them to be sympathetic, and understanding of some of the problems he refers to. When the Minister responds, will he let us know whether he has had conversations on the matter with members of the Parliament in Cyprus?

Andrew Gwynne: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question, and I expect and hope that the Minister in his concluding remarks will be able to answer it. It is important that whatever pressure can be brought on the Cypriot authorities by Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, is brought, and that Ministers do all they can to raise the issue with their Cypriot counterparts.

Sir William Cash: May I quickly add that the Minister for Europe has been immensely helpful? He has been to two, or perhaps even three, of the meetings I have convened for the purpose. I pay tribute to him for his active interest in the matter.

Andrew Gwynne: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the work that the Minister has done, and will continue to do, in respect of the injustices that many of our constituents face. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My constituent does not want to be publicly named, so I will refer to him as Mr T. C. In 2007, Mr T. C. and his brother-in-law wanted to purchase a retirement property in Cyprus through a UK company called ROPUK. They met with the company’s representatives, who showed

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them impressive brochures and projections, and they decided to go ahead with the purchase. They paid a £25,000 deposit and understood that when the property was built they would go to Cyprus to have an inspection and then sign a mortgage agreement. They were advised by ROPUK’s representative that a Swiss franc mortgage would be best, but they did not sign up to any agreement except to give a Cypriot solicitor power of attorney in any transactions to which they agreed.

In 2010, when the property was due for completion, Mr T. C. visited Cyprus to monitor the progress of the build. He found that it was not even half finished; it is still in the same state today. He believes that the power of attorney was not executed in accordance with common or Cypriot law, rendering it illegal and anything signed using the power of attorney invalid.

My constituent and his brother-in-law first heard of Alpha Bank when it started to pursue them for payments. They had not signed a mortgage agreement themselves, but one was signed by a third party without their knowledge or consent, and they have never even seen the agreement with the bank, despite repeated requests. They believe that the bank released all the money from their fraudulently obtained mortgage to fund something that is simply not there.

The payments from the mythical mortgage should have been gradually disbursed as the build progressed, according to the progress certificates issued by the project’s architect. The bank’s surveyor should have been inspecting the development and issuing a report back to the bank, a copy of which should have been passed to the Cypriot solicitor, who was supposed to be acting in my constituent’s best interests, to verify build stage against the drawdown of moneys.

Sir William Cash: If the Bill to which I referred becomes law, it will give the Republic of Cyprus land registry the authority to exempt, eliminate, transfer and cancel mortgages and encumbrances depending on the case and under certain conditions. I do not have time to go into all the details, but I want to get that into Hansard.

Andrew Gwynne: I am grateful for that intervention. It is important that that is placed on the record.

I return to the case. None of what I just mentioned was ever done, which is why, years after the supposed completion, Mr T. C. and his brother-in-law still have absolutely nothing. They now owe the bank in the region of £257,000 plus interest—the original price they were quoted was about £140,000 minus their deposit—and they were issued a writ informing them that their case would be heard in the courts of justice in London in June 2014. They received the writ less than a week before the case was due to be heard and had no time to appoint a solicitor.

The case was heard at the courts of justice in front of Master Easton. He asked Alpha Bank’s solicitors, Stephenson Harwood, to shelve the European enforcement order pending ongoing legal discussions in Cyprus, but they refused. A European enforcement order was rubber-stamped subject to a second hearing in September. By that time, Mr T. C. and his brother-in-law had appointed Cubism Law to represent them and their case was led by Duncan McNair, who they understood to be an expert in the field.

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His representation in the UK forms the second part of the concerns that Mr T. C. raised with me. He and his brother-in-law paid Cubism Law £2,000 up front to represent them. A barrister attended court, but they say that they were simply told that the European enforcement order had been ratified and that a charge had been placed on their UK properties. They then had to defend the European enforcement order in Cyprus, where they believed they would get less justice than they would here.

Prior to the first hearing and before becoming subject to the European enforcement order, Mr T. C. transferred the house he and his wife owned into her name, to protect her share of their UK property, which was their only substantial asset. His wife was not party to the property purchase in Cyprus. Following the second hearing, Mr McNair commented that the judge had not been impressed by the action Mr T. C. had taken. My constituent says that he asked for advice on whether he should change the title deeds back into his name and that all he was told by his solicitor was that he should let them work for their money, by which he understood him to mean Alpha Bank’s British solicitors, Stephenson Harwood. Mr T. C. says that they always made it clear to their solicitor that their priority was to get the European enforcement order overturned and for no further action to be taken until that was achieved.

Mr T. C. says that over the next few weeks much correspondence was exchanged between the two firms, but that that did not prevent Stephenson Harwood from continuing to threaten seizure of the properties. However, it did result in Cubism Law making regular demands for funds, which my constituents deemed unnecessary. At that stage, they became concerned about the costs that were racking up, and the date for the Cyprus hearing was still weeks away. Through Cubism Law, they had paid for solicitors in Cyprus to represent them at the hearing, which was subsequently postponed three times.

Mr T.C. asked his solicitor what the strategy was for their situation, as the costs were spiralling and all they had asked at that stage was for him to defend the European enforcement order in Cyprus. Mr T.C. says that they also informed Cubism Law on 28 October 2014 that they did not wish to incur any further costs, but that specific request was ignored and the costs continued to mount. Most of the costs related to correspondence between Stephenson Harwood and Cubism Law over the transfer of the title deeds. Mr T.C. states that if his solicitor had advised him immediately to transfer the title deeds back to his name, he would have done so. He was eventually advised to do that and for him the question remains as to why he was not asked to do that earlier.

During the time leading up to the hearing dates, Mr T.C. says that he and his brother-in-law were constantly subjected to requests from their solicitor—usually late at night by email—giving them deadlines for payments with what they perceived to be veiled threats of them “prejudicing their case”, or inferring that they would not be represented in this country or in Cyprus in the future. By that stage, their costs had increased to more than £12,000, which was approaching the 5% settlement offer Alpha Bank had alluded to for incomplete properties such as theirs. On 10 November 2014 they sent an email to their solicitor again instructing him not to incur any

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further costs and mentioning the 5% settlement offer. That request was again ignored and their solicitor entered into discussions with a barrister, for which they were charged.

Mr T.C. says that they have yet to be informed what the basis of those costs were and what the discussions were trying to achieve. He adds that at no point had they indicated that they wished to start proceedings against the bank, as Mr McNair had advised that they could not sue the bank if the European enforcement order was not overturned.

Sir William Cash: Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I wonder whether his constituents have taken the matter up with the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Andrew Gwynne: Not only have my constituents done that, but I have done so as their MP. The response we got back was less than satisfactory. I am still taking that up with the various authorities, but my constituents feel that one form of redress is to place on public record the real injustice that they feel they have endured over the past few years.

Mr T.C. said that when he pointed out that the solicitor had stated it was not possible to sue the bank without the European enforcement order having been overturned, the solicitor changed his statement and said it would be possible, but with difficulty. The new date for the hearing in Cyprus was set for early January 2015, but that was postponed until late January, and the case was finally heard in February 2015.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): People from my constituency have had problems similar to those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents; the problems do not relate just to Cyprus, but to Turkey, too. The majority of them are law-abiding citizens who want to get some property to use, in most cases as a holiday home, but they find the legal system difficult. The hon. Gentleman is outlining the problems of his constituents. Does he feel, as I do, that the British consulate could have given better or more advice on what was best to do in a foreign country where they do not speak the language and are unaware of the legalities?

Andrew Gwynne: There is a lot that could have been done differently, and I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. That is based on my experience not only with this case, but with several cases that my constituency office has been dealing with. No doubt other Members’ offices are dealing with similar cases, too. I again commend the work of the all-party group and the Minister in trying to bring some kind of resolution to these matters. We are where we are, and it is a far from ideal situation for many of our constituents.

As I said, the case was finally heard in February 2015. In January, Mr T.C.’s brother-in-law was out of the country dealing with a family matter and he told Cubism Law that he had insufficient funds at that time to settle up his latest bill, but would settle at the end of January or early February when Mr T.C. returned to the UK and after the European enforcement order court case in Cyprus was settled. Mr T.C. says Mr McNair replied saying he no longer represented them and again implied

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that they may not be represented in Cyprus. However, the Cypriot solicitors later assured them that they would be represented.

The European enforcement order was overturned with reservation at the hearing. Mr T.C. feels incredibly let down by the representation he received and believes a lot of the costs were avoidable and totally unnecessary. He has complained through the firm’s complaints procedures and received what he and his brother-in-law considered to be a derisory offer of redress, which they refused, as they did a subsequent offer.

As I said in response to the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the matter has been referred to the authorities, including the Law Society and the ombudsman. Mr T.C. feels that he has suffered real injustice in respect of both the property purchase and how his case has subsequently been handled. I appreciate that the Minister can do little to answer my constituent’s specific concerns, but I would be grateful if he could update Members on the progress being made in general on the matter and on what the Government are doing to support Mr T.C. and all constituents caught up in this sorry situation.

4.16 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate and paying tribute to the work of the all-party group under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).

From the large number of items of correspondence that I get from Members from all parts of the House on property disputes, I am certainly aware of the kind of problems that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish described and of the traumatic impact that property disputes often have not only on the finances, but on the mental wellbeing of the people we represent. Officials in our consular directorate in London are in regular contact with our high commission in Nicosia. Together they brief me and the Foreign Secretary on the scale of the property problems in Cyprus and the impact they are having on individuals.

While today’s debate has focused on the difficulties in Cyprus and the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent in particular, it is a sad reality that property disputes are common in other parts of the world. I have to be frank with the House: the ability of our consular staff overseas to help in individual cases is very limited. That is partly because millions of British citizens live overseas and many thousands of others visit foreign countries every year. It is simply not possible for the Foreign Office to become involved in private legal disputes to which British citizens overseas are party, whether they are related to property, commercial interests or family disputes.

Another issue is that property laws are the competence of individual sovereign states. We have no more authority to intervene in matters concerning Cypriot domestic legislation than the Governments of Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria—or any other nation where there are numerous property disputes—do to intervene in United Kingdom domestic legislation. Our position

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on property disputes is consistent with the approach taken by the US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand diplomatic services. We will, however, do two things. We will continue to try to provide as accurate and up-to-date information as we can to our citizens about the risks involved in buying property overseas and about what they might do to manage those risks, and we will continue to lobby hard the Cypriot and other Governments to try to persuade them to address some of the generic problems that these distressing individual cases highlight.

Sir William Cash: Again, I just want to put something on the record. The Bill to which I referred, which was passed on 3 September in the Parliament of the Republic of Cyprus, is not yet available in English. I know the high commissioner has requested it, but it is taking some time. We are now almost in November. I am told that until it is provided, the general information—for the sake of those who read transcripts—can be found on the website of Nigel Howarth of Cyprus Property News. However, the Bill does not apply to mortgages that were dealt with in Swiss francs.

Mr Lidington: What my hon. Friend says is right. I want to refer to that Bill later, but we continue to urge the Cypriot authorities to publish an English-language version of the new law as soon as possible and to make available any guidance that might need to be issued in association with the statute itself. I am sure that the forthcoming meeting of the all-party group with the high commissioner for Cyprus to the United Kingdom will provide a further opportunity for such persuasion to be offered.

We publish information on the high commission’s gov.uk website and, more generally, the FCO publishes a guide entitled “Support for British Nationals Abroad”, which also provides general advice for British citizens who are thinking about buying a property in another country. Last month our consular officials attended “A Place in the Sun”, an exhibition in Birmingham, to talk directly to people considering going to live abroad. The purpose of these initiatives is to help to ensure that our citizens are better informed of the risks and challenges before they take the plunge. For example, we always urge people to take proper professional advice, including legal advice, before buying property.

In some cases, such as the one that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has described, part of the problem seems to derive from an alleged failure of the legal adviser to provide advice of a sufficiently high standard. In other cases, sadly, we have come across British citizens who have simply not taken adequate legal advice in the first place. Of course, there are others who, on the face of things, would seem to have been the victims of deliberate misrepresentation. Every case is different, which is why it is difficult to provide a template that will apply equally to every individual case.

Jim Shannon: I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate. Those who take legal advice perhaps anticipate that it will be correct, but sometimes it turns out not to be. Is it possible for the British consulate, in whatever country they are in, to have a list of legal minds—solicitors and barristers—who would have enough knowledge to be able to give advice to people?

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Mr Lidington: We do keep and make available lists of solicitors and other legal advisers in all the countries where we have posts, and we usually know whether the practices have people who speak English. What we cannot do is give an assurance about the quality of the legal advice. We can say that somebody has been duly qualified to practise law in a particular jurisdiction, but it would simply not be possible for our consular staff to grade the relative performance of solicitors in a foreign country.

There are cases—if I may address one of the points raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish—where the British courts have declined to enforce a European enforcement order because they have found, after scrutiny, that the documents had not been satisfactorily completed. Again, looking at the detail of a particular case is of key importance. Other options—this is all on the website—include contacting the various property action groups to share experience, contacting the Competition and Consumer Protection Service, the CCPS, in Cyprus, or considering financial arbitration, which has worked in some cases, although it is not suitable for all.

Although we have not been able to intervene in individual disputes, our high commission continues to be active. In March 2014, we organised a familiarisation visit to London for members of the Cypriot land registry to share our experience in e-applications, insolvency, alternative dispute resolution and complaint handling. The purpose of that is to try to make it possible for the Cypriot land registry to modernise and speed up its procedures, because one of the chief complaints is that it takes people a very long time to obtain the relevant deeds and documents.

The Cypriot land registry has now computerised its land information system in relation to the existence of encumbrances, and the Foreign Ministry in Nicosia has confirmed that land officers must now inform buyers in writing of any outstanding encumbrances on the property. Our high commission part-sponsored an alternative dispute resolution forum conference in October last year, and it organised two visits for the Cypriot financial ombudsman to this country to learn best practice from his UK counterpart. We continue to be active in helping with public sector reform, particularly with the Ministry of Justice and local government, which we believe will ultimately have a beneficial impact on the way in which property issues are dealt with.

We also lobby the politicians. During the past year—in 2014 and 2015—our high commissioner, Ric Todd, has raised the issue of non-performing loans with the Cypriot

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Finance Minister and property-related issues with the Attorney General. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have raised property issues experienced by British nationals with the Cypriot Government. I did so with Foreign Minister Kasoulides on 12 March this year, and the Foreign Secretary raised property issues again with him when he visited Cyprus on 17 July.

We have seen an effect. There is now a definite will on the part of the Cypriot Government to try to find ways to tackle property issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, on 3 September this year the Cypriot Parliament passed a Bill that will help many British nationals and others affected by these issues. The impact of the Bill will be that purchasers who have met their contractual obligations should now be able to obtain their title deeds, although purchasers who have failed to comply with their contractual obligations will not be able to make use of the new law. Our high commission will of course continue to work with the authorities, and they and Ministers will continue to raise property issues whenever the opportunity arises.

The new legislation does not cover the issue of Swiss franc mortgages, which is an entirely separate issue and one that we advise is a private legal matter. We know that some purchasers have managed to renegotiate their mortgage terms. Some have taken legal action in the UK and other claims have been made to the Central Bank of Cyprus and to the Competition and Consumer Protection Service in Cyprus. Last month, Cypriot MPs asked their central bank to review how Swiss franc mortgages were sold, but it is not yet clear how the central bank proposes to take this forward. Our high commission will monitor developments.

Although there has been progress, we recognise the impact that property disputes have had on many families in Cyprus and the United Kingdom, and that many of the families risk losing their life savings. Those affected should continue to pursue their cases through the Cypriot and, if appropriate, UK courts, although we accept that this can be challenging and that good legal advice does not come cheap. In parallel, we remain committed to lobbying at high level to encourage the Cypriot Government to take effective action to resolve existing problems and to reform the property sector to prevent such problems from occurring in future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of British property owners in Cyprus.

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Young Jobseekers

4.30 pm

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered young jobseekers and the Department for Work and Pensions.

I want to lead a positive and constructive debate using recent research into the role of the Department for Work and Pensions, specifically jobcentres, in supporting young people to find long-term employment. I will draw on my own experience of working closely with the Norwich jobcentre in a regional project and also direct Members’ attention to the work of the all-party group on youth employment, which I chair. I will welcome interventions and, as we have plenty of time, speeches from other Members; I ask only that others join me in focusing constructively on young people’s employment and looking in a positive way at how the hard-working officials in the jobcentre can best support those who need help.

You will be pleased to learn, Mr Gray, that this debate has allowed for the trial of a digital debate. The idea for digital debates linked to debates in Westminster Hall came from the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which argued:

“We believe the public want the opportunity to have their say in House of Commons debates; we also believe that this will provide a useful resource for MPs and help to enhance those debates. We therefore recommend a unique experiment: the use of regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall.”

It gave me great pleasure last night to take 97 questions and comments from the public over Twitter to inform this debate and raise its profile. I place on record my thanks to everyone who got involved. Between us, we reached nearly a million Twitter accounts, which is an achievement in itself.

I note a few comments made in that debate. A theme that ran through many of the points made was that everyone should not be treated the same: there should be personalised treatment for young jobseekers at the jobcentre. A second theme was that if we expect commitment from jobseekers, we should also demand it from staff, who should be punctual and treat jobseekers with respect. Someone asked whether the Government have plans for jobcentre resources specifically for young people. I have mentioned that early in the debate so that the Minister can prepare his answer. The theme of mentoring also came up. I took the opportunity in last night’s debate to place on record the resources available through the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Steps Ahead programme, which in East Anglia alone has more than 90 mentors ready to help young people at no cost to them.

Having given a flavour of the digital debate, I will lay out the problem: more young people are in need of work than older people, as shown clearly by the official employment rates. The Office for National Statistics concludes:

“The unemployment rate for those aged from 16 to 24 has been consistently higher than that for older age groups.”

For the past three months on record—covering this summer, June to August—the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds was 14.8%. That is lower than it was in spring and lower than at the same time last year,

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which is to be welcomed, but it is far higher than the rate among over-25s, which is 3.9%. To be clear, that is the ONS rate, which is different from the claimant count.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is giving some very interesting figures. Perhaps South Derbyshire is bucking the trend, because in May 2010 our youth unemployment figure was 565, and in September it was 100, which is less than 1% of the national total. Perhaps people might like to come to South Derbyshire and see what we do to get young people employed.

Chloe Smith: I welcome my hon. Friend’s positive example. South Derbyshire certainly has a very assiduous MP to go with those figures. It is indeed the case that youth unemployment is coming down. We should celebrate and look at the examples of what has worked locally. That is one of the themes I want to establish in this debate.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Will she comment on the quality of jobs young people get, and their training and salary levels?

Chloe Smith: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will hold me too far to account if I leave it to the Minister to cover some of those points that are, after all, national. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that they ought to be a matter for Government. The great majority of the private sector jobs created over the past few years have been full-time. Myths abound as to the extent of zero-hours contracts. We gave that argument a good going-over in the general election campaign—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did as much as I did. There are myths around about the quality of jobs that young people can look forward to as they leave education and look for opportunities. It is deeply disrespectful to young people to set up a negative argument that they can look forward only to a zero- hours contract. It is deeply negative and we ought to avoid it.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on chairing the all-party group, of which I have the pleasure of being a member. A key complaint from employers is about the work-readiness of young people. Does my hon. Friend concur that the National Citizen Service is one of the best initiatives we have, particularly in the east of England, in helping young people to grow in confidence and work-readiness?

Chloe Smith: Yes, I do. Indeed, I note that the NCS is holding an event in Parliament today at which its leaders are on hand to explain an important point that we ought to celebrate in this debate: young people can lead young people to face these challenges. We should look for examples of that and give praise where it has worked, and we should seek more ways for young people to be in a position to lead their peers. I want to put that proposition forward, because it came over strongly in last night’s digital debate. It is another way of looking constructively at what has worked up and down the country.

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Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I join others in congratulating the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that the quality of information and advice available to young people still leaves a great deal to be desired? Indeed, schools having the prime responsibility to provide careers advice has not been an unqualified success. The statutory guidance to schools says that they should work with Jobcentre Plus to provide a smooth pathway from school into employment. In the hon. Lady’s experience of working with Jobcentre Plus, is that happening?

Chloe Smith: It is happening in parts of the country. One of the points I want to make today is that we see good practice in some parts of the country. I hold up the jobcentre with which I work in Norwich as an example of that. I also note forthcoming initiatives, which I am sure the Minister will cover in his response, whereby jobcentres will be asked to work more closely with young people in schools. That is to be welcomed.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chloe Smith: One moment. First, I refer the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) to the work of the all-party group, because at our next meeting, on 18 November, we will be looking at careers education. I now give way to one of the officers of said group.

Michael Tomlinson: I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In Mid Dorset and North Poole, the figures are still too high. Of the claimant count of 314, 67 are aged 18 to 24. That is better than it has been, but it is still too high. On the point made by the right hon. Member for Oxford East, does my hon. Friend agree that we can start careers advice from an earlier age—even as young as primary school—as we heard in the all-party group’s evidence session?

Chloe Smith: Indeed, I do agree with that—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—and it need not be onerous. It can be as simple as asking role models to explain to young people what they do and why a young person might want to aspire to do the same. I am sure Members will now allow me to make a little more progress in setting out my argument.

It is worth putting the national figures into context and looking at our European neighbours. It is a matter for celebration that Britain has more young people in work than the nations around us in Europe. Across Europe, one in five young people are out of work. In Spain and Greece, one in two young people are lacking work. We also see the countries leading the field, Germany and Austria, with rates of 7% and 10% respectively.

One young jobseeker in last night’s digital debate made the point that young jobseekers are people, not statistics, so, in Britain, what do all the large numbers mean in terms of real people? They mean that 3.92 million 16 to 24-year-old people are in work, including some 900,000 full-time students with part-time jobs. There are, in contrast, 683,000 unemployed young people, including about 200,000 full-time students looking for part-time work. I am including the student figures not to begin a debate about the classification of the figures—

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I suspect that would take more than an hour—but because I want to draw out the key figure of 683,000: between 600,000 and 700,000 young people are looking for a chance in Britain today. If that is the problem, the question is, how best can we help them find that opportunity?

Victoria Borwick (Kensington) (Con): I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. On that point, do you believe that jobcentres, which do good work in my constituency and others, should be encouraged to promote apprenticeships as a way of tackling the issues and figures that you have raised?

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has raised them; I have not.

Victoria Borwick: You are quite right, Mr Gray. I am sorry.

In London, we have created 220,000 apprenticeships since 2010, which have introduced people into a world of work. Perhaps in due course the Minister will comment on apprenticeships.

Chloe Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving that example. Apprenticeships provide many opportunities for young people.

This was the subject of the debate last night. One young person, whom I will faithfully report, said the rate paid is too low. Perhaps that is a topic for a long debate another day. None the less, there are many opportunities out there for earning while learning, and that package can be very attractive to young people who are looking to take their first steps and find their first opportunities.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a leading light in helping young people to find worthwhile employment. She is right to focus on apprenticeships. The increase in the level of apprenticeships in Gloucester almost directly mirrors the drop in youth unemployment from 1,000 to 250 over the past five years. I suspect—my hon. Friend might want to comment on this—that the employment figures for Europe will show a similar correlation in the countries that encourage apprenticeships, such as Germany and us, and those that do not. Will my hon. Friend say something about the fact that, although there are minimum rates for employing apprentices, there is no maximum rate? Many of us who have our own apprentices pay significantly over the minimum rate.

Chloe Smith: I am grateful for that point, which stands by itself so I shall welcome it and move on to the need for a strong economy.

The single best way to get young people into opportunities is for there to be lots of opportunities to start with. The Government have overseen significant private sector job growth, and the economy continues to grow. More jobs have been created in Britain recently than in the rest of Europe put together, and that is undeniably good news for a generation of young jobseekers who can look to a brighter future.

We need to connect young people to those opportunities—here comes the meat of the debate. A local example illustrates my point. I founded and run a

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project called Norwich for Jobs. In 2013, I looked at our local unemployment figures for those aged 18 to 24, and I knew that 2,000 unemployed young people was too many. Drawing together a team that could do something about it, we set about halving that number. In fact, we smashed the target we set ourselves in less than two years. So far, we have helped nearly 2,000 young people into work. About 600 still claim jobseeker’s allowance, and we want to encourage employers to give them opportunities now.

We did that by encouraging local employers to create opportunities; connecting young people with those jobs, with the jobcentre at the heart of the process; and focusing the community on a common goal. We are taking on a new challenge after having met our first target, and we are now using the power of that local network to help those claiming employment and support allowance—in other words, young people who want work but have a health condition or a disability. I strongly support the Government’s clarion call to be disability confident, and I call today on Norwich employers to consider what more they can do.

We are turning that one city project into a regional movement. The Norfolk and Suffolk youth pledge, led by the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, is a further strong example of the kind of collaboration that stands the best chance of helping young jobseekers. The pledge is that every young person in Norfolk and Suffolk will get the personal support they need to get an apprenticeship, training, work experience or a job within three months of leaving education or employment. The New Anglia skills board and Jobcentre Plus have been working closely with the two county councils, and indeed with me and others—I am on the board of the project—to develop the project. We are building on the successful roll-out of the MyGo service—the first of its kind in the UK—which was launched in Ipswich in 2014 and the project I outlined in Norwich. I am proud of that project, and hope it stands as an example to other hon. Members of what they can convene in their areas. Research by the Found Generation holds up MyGo, a youth employment centre that was the starting point of the Ipswich project, as a very powerful project.

How best can we help young people? I said that we should grow the economy and make connections. We should also share good ideas, which is why I have talked about those examples. I mentioned the all-party group on youth employment, and I welcome the members who are here today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) and for Bolton West (Chris Green). I welcome their presence, because we aim to share good practice. Our primary objectives are to promote youth employment in all its forms and the role of young people in the economy, to ensure that young people’s voices are heard, to highlight the need for good-quality opportunities and to share best practice.

We should value good-quality research and learn from it what we can do better. I will draw on two reports. YMCA England, of which I am a parliamentary patron—I am also patron of the Norfolk organisation—produced a constructive and practical research report, which I have in front of me, entitled “Safety Net or Springboard?” Its purpose

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“was to examine how the social security systems could be transformed to better enable young people to find employment and fulfil their potential.

High levels of youth unemployment are not a new problem in the UK. While the global recession saw a significant jump in the number of young people facing unemployment, in reality, the upward trend started long before the financial crisis, as far back as 2004.

Given that numerous governments have tried a range of schemes to battle this problem with only mixed success, this research sought to give young people a voice in shaping any new approach offered, including the introduction of a Youth Obligation, a back-to-work scheme announced by the Government as part of the Summer Budget 2015.

Through a series of focus groups, young people from YMCA identified six areas they believed job centres could improve to increase their prospects of finding employment:…Understanding young people’s circumstances…Listening to young people’s aspirations…Supporting young people to look for work…Getting young people the right skills and qualifications…Securing young people with meaningful work experience”


“Retaining support for young people transitioning into employment.”

The evidence in the report is based on a series of focus groups that took place this summer across England in areas that many hon. Members here come from: north Tyneside, Birkenhead, Grimsby, Derby, Birmingham, Bedford, Dartford, Westminster, Horsham, Exeter and my own constituency of Norwich. The YMCA found that:

“The overwhelming feelings expressed by the young people participating in the research were ones of frustration and dismay towards job centres and the support they currently provide in helping to find employment. More than nine in 10 of individuals taking part in the focus groups believed the support they were currently or previously receiving from their job centre was not helping them find employment. Through the research, YMCA sought to understand why this alienation exists between young people and job centres and to identify what measures they felt were necessary to transform the job centre and the wider social security system from a safety net to a springboard into employment.”

I want to be absolutely clear that I have the highest respect for Jobcentre Plus staff. As my local examples demonstrate, I work closely with the team in Norwich and East Anglia, which is led by the excellent district manager Julia Nix. I see their dedication, innovation and hard work day in and day out.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I have read the report that my hon. Friend is talking about. She rightly said that it referred to some work in Dartford, but there were a number of things that surprised me about it. First, it said that Dartford is in London; it is not. It was also somewhat critical of some of its experiences there. That has never been my experience of the jobcentre in Dartford; I have always found the staff to be incredibly professional. I would argue in their defence that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that since 2010 youth unemployment in Dartford has fallen by some 71%.

Chloe Smith: I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution. He makes the same point as I do. The best officials in the jobcentre are highly respected and are known for their work in the community. Their passion shines out and they embody the values of public service at every opportunity. They also take a hands-on approach, which is perhaps over and above the duties of a civil servant. They could well be expected to do their work from

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behind a desk, but the best officials do not do that. They go out and work hard in the community to get results. I welcome hearing my hon. Friend’s local example.

It is in that spirit that I mention the YMCA research today, because civil servants of the calibre of which we speak will want to do even better. The report states that

“many young people are continuing to be prescribed the same generic support, regardless of their circumstances and aspirations. This is creating a significant discordance between how young people view the service being provided and what governments believe they offer. While examples of good practice do exist, the research illustrates that these are few and far between”.

Let’s share the good ideas and let’s do better. The YMCA research proposes that the new youth obligation be matched with an obligation on jobcentres. It argues that the obligation should commit jobcentres to providing each young person accessing its services with a more detailed initial assessment with a closer focus on their personal circumstances and aspirations, a specialist youth work coach, more comprehensive sign-on sessions, more regular opportunities, better training and work experience, and options to discuss how available funding may be used to let them participate in training. The report also suggests that people should be able to participate in training for more than 16 hours a week without their benefit claims being affected.

I want to quote some of the young people in the research. Charlotte of Norwich says:

“I want the job centre to be a bit more understanding.”

Jordan of north Tyneside says:

“The job centre needs to stop treating everyone the same.”

Marcio of Bedford says:

“The job centre needs to really listen to young people to see what we want.”

Other voices in the report tell us why we must collaborate locally to bring about the chances that young people need. Another young person from Norwich says:

“Everyone is looking for experienced workers, but how are we going to be experienced workers when no one is giving out experience?”

Another from Norwich seeks more “volunteering placements”. I suspect that organisations listening to today’s debate may want to continue the digital debate and explain exactly what they can offer in terms of volunteering opportunities for young people up and down the country.

I would also recommend that Members take a look at the work of the Found Generation, as mentioned earlier. It is another extremely practical group that asks young people for their own solutions to the problem of young unemployment. In July 2014, it published “Practical Solutions to UK Youth Unemployment”, a report asking for four things. First, it asks that we expand

“the use of public sector procurement to create jobs for young people”,

which I note that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is now doing. Secondly, we are asked to back

“a national ‘kitemark’ to recognise ‘youth friendly’ employers”

and I note that at least one organisation, Youth Employment UK—the secretariat of the all-party parliamentary group that I chair—is already doing so. Indeed, hon. Members can qualify for the award, as I have. I am a recognised youth-friendly MP.

Richard Graham: Hear, hear.

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Chloe Smith: Thank you. Thirdly, the report argues for

“the creation of more local partnerships—including representation for young people—to co-ordinate”

the work that needs to be done. I hope that my examples make that clear. Finally, the report argues for the creation of

“a cross-government youth employment unit or agency in the UK Government, headed by a Minister for Youth Employment”.

I am aware that such a scheme exists in the Scottish Government, so perhaps Scottish Members can outline a few points around that. Will the Minister give an update on what the Government’s earn-or-learn taskforce is doing? The Found Generation’s manifesto for youth employment at the 2015 general election echoed many of the themes that I drew out from the earlier research. We are looking for a more specialist, personalised, sustainable and empowered approach that puts young people at its heart.

In conclusion, I hope that I have highlighted some valuable research and that I have taken the opportunity to put young people’s experiences at the heart of the debate. It gives them a chance to be heard in Parliament. I have argued at every step of my parliamentary career that more young people should be able to take their rightful place in this House. I ask the Minister to respond by giving us an update on the Government’s taskforce, explaining his intentions for the youth obligation, and outlining what he will do to help hard-working jobcentre staff do their best to help young people into work.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the first of the three wind-ups at 5.25 pm. I have about six people trying to catch my eye, so, while there is no official time limit, it would be helpful if Members could keep their speeches to five minutes or less.

4.55 pm

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing such an important debate.

For any young person who is able to work to be out of a job is tragic. It is tragic for the individual who finds themselves unable to get on in life. It is tragic for their family who have to support and motivate them. It is tragic for the country, which misses out on young people’s huge talent and potential. Young people across this country are incredibly talented, hard-working and ambitious. Above all, as I said, they have great potential. They are our future. Youth unemployment is not a new problem. The economic crisis has certainly made life harder for young people starting out, but we parliamentarians must not make excuses. It is our duty to tackle unemployment across these islands. Our constituents would expect no less.

I want to be clear that we will not reduce youth unemployment by sending jobseekers to boot camp, by sanctioning young jobseekers’ benefits and certainly not by forcing young people to knock on the doors of food banks. Imagine a young person under 25 who is

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unable to remain in their family home or to access housing benefit and has few opportunities. What is to become of them? Who will give that young person a chance? I would love to believe that every young person who walks into a jobcentre has the best experience, is listened to and appreciated, but they are not. That is a fact. I urge the Minister to consider the other options. A different approach is available. We must believe in our young people and their ability to learn and support them through their studies to provide them with real opportunities and real life chances. We must not burden them with huge debts.

Picture a young person in Scotland who is considering college or university. The cost of her education is not a barrier. The fact that she will be entitled to a bursary enables her to access her studies, and her parents can worry less about the debt. Her prospects are better. Her horizons are broadened. Her employment chances are increased. That is how we should approach the higher education system. It should be based on a person’s ability to learn, not their ability to pay, opening the door for young people to create real chances and real opportunities for themselves. Educational aspirations should be determined not by wealth, but by ability to learn and to achieve real and meaningful employment. That is why I am delighted to be part of the Scottish National party and a Scottish Government that put education at the centre of young people’s learning and life chances, something which I hope all parties across these islands would consider more seriously.

Contrast that with a young person in England who will be faced with £9,000 of debt each year to achieve their potential, to achieve their education and to achieve a chance to move on in life. Their prospects will be decreased, their access to education limited and their ability to learn essentially removed.

Michael Tomlinson: Do the figures not show that more people from poorer backgrounds have gone to university and further education despite what the hon. Lady has been saying about the increase in fees? Our measures have increased opportunities, not decreased them. What does she say about that?

Angela Crawley: I agree, but when considering whether economic development throughout Scotland is crippling the life chances of young people, we should contrast some of the constituencies represented in this Chamber with some of the constituencies in Scotland, where young people’s life chances are far more limited. I invite the hon. Gentleman to my constituency to see for himself that many young people do not achieve the same potential as some of their counterparts in his constituency. That is a simple fact.

Higher education, however, is not for everyone, and education is not the only answer—I accept that—but the minimum wage for an apprentice is now £2.73 per hour. How can we seriously expect a young person to take on an apprenticeship when that is a pitiful amount to pay any intern or apprentice? Giving young people the opportunity to achieve their potential requires serious amounts of money and serious amounts of potential investment in their futures, so that amount is paltry; it does not give young people a chance to move on in their lives.

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Inequality in apprenticeships is present throughout the UK, in particular when it comes to gender. The Scottish Government are therefore taking gender seriously and ensuring that more young women enter modern apprenticeships. Young people must see the full range of options available to them, not only in traditional jobs, which have been seen as jobs for men, but in other jobs available to women. We must broaden the horizons of our young people and ensure that all young people can achieve their full potential. I ask the Minister to consider all the options available. Let us create real opportunities for young people to learn, to grow, to flourish and to achieve their full potential. That is the best way to ensure that they get off jobseeker’s allowance and achieve employment.

5.1 pm

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I recognise that time is short, so I will confine my remarks to one or two things about my constituency.

In 2010 in my constituency youth unemployment stood at 6.1%; the total number of young people unemployed was 350. According to the most recent figures, released in September, that number is down to 70, which is just 1% of 18 to 24-year-olds in my constituency—so 280 young people have found work and are enjoying the benefits that come with it.

Good though the jobcentres are, other people are helping the effort in Mid Derbyshire and, in constituencies such as mine, the big society is working. I will highlight the work of one organisation in particular, the Drop Inn, which does a lot of work with young people. It offers accredited training, skills workshops, and support and mentoring for the many hurdles that young people are faced with as they grow up. It was set up by a woman who realised many years ago that many young people have nothing to do in the area, or they feel that, and she wanted to get them off the streets and to give them some sort of training.

The Drop Inn helps young people feel part of the community through volunteer schemes and outreach programmes, linking young people with others in the area and keeping them creative through music and multi-media sessions. It does all that for free, relying on volunteers and trainers to put on the sessions. A testament to the organisation is that many volunteers have been through the Drop Inn programmes themselves. Only last week I heard about two young people who had put on a successful music night, raising awareness and funds for the Drop Inn.

Organisations such as the Drop Inn directly tackle youth unemployment. They give young people the confidence needed to pursue the interests and skills that make them attractive to employers. I am lucky to have such a good organisation in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will join me in recognising the work of such community initiatives in tackling unemployment among young people. Without them, the success in Mid Derbyshire would not be as good as it is.

5.4 pm

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate.

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Youth, the state of being young that is between childhood and adulthood, used to be relatively carefree. In some senses it is now extending—something I say as a mum, as well as an MP—with more and more pressures on us, and people of middle age such as me seem to be on an eternal quest for youth.

In my constituency the good news is that 226 young people are now claiming JSA, which is 49 fewer than last year. The figure seems to be going down—that is a reduction of 18%—although, as we have been cautioned, we do not know how many of the jobs are zero hours or casual and the like. Those “young people” are 18 to 24-year-olds, but there are often different measures of what we mean by young.

We have two Jobcentre Pluses, one in Acton and one in Ealing Broadway, but what I wanted to flag up is the fact of conditional welfare arrangements, or ones that require people to behave in a certain way and involve the application of sanctions or penalties if they cannot. From the figures that I have seen, such benefit sanctions are disproportionately affecting young people under 25—another different measure of youth—although that might include the homeless and the vulnerable. In the past year two reports have come out, one from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and one from Crisis, with everything pointing in the same direction.

Young people account for the largest proportion of JSA claimants who are sanctioned, with two thirds of all sanctions applied to claimants under the age of 35—another different measure. We do not know the precise reasons—perhaps young people have more erratic lifestyles—but they need to be looked into and I will be interested in the Minister’s comments, because such a situation might lead to a vicious cycle. Those sanctioned might stop seeking support, hardship might result, people might fall out of the system altogether and, if they have dependent children, the sanctions might affect those third parties as well. It may be a case of unintended consequences, who knows, but it needs looking at, in case that group is suffering some kind of direct or indirect discrimination in the benefit system, leaving them more vulnerable to sanctioning, even if they are equally as compliant as others. That work needs to be done, because there is a concern, especially when the group faces challenges such as high rents and so on in a constituency such as mine.

According to the same YMCA report that the hon. Member for Norwich North cited, “Safety Net or Springboard?”, more and more conditions and expectations are being placed on young people applying for benefits. She also mentioned that young people want more personalised and meaningful support; they do not want to be simply a number. There seems to be a disconnect between people’s daily lives and the way in which jobcentres operate.

In my constituency we have an organisation called MyBigCareer, run by the energetic Deborah Streatfield. She is also campaigning for more mandatory careers advice at school, which I know exists, but it is sometimes only a link to a website, whereas her campaign is specifically for more one-to-one, personalised, sit-down advice. Will the Minister comment on that? My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) raised similar issues.

Everything needs to be put into a context. Since the previous Administration, employment and support allowance has gone, student grants have been abolished

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and housing benefit is no longer available to 18 to 21-year-olds. We have also heard that the so-called national living wage will not apply to the youngest workers. We do not want some sort of inter-generational conflict as a result. I found a blog that stated:

“UK Boomers slash benefits to young & force them to load up on debt while guaranteeing pensioners ever rising incomes.”

We do not want mistrust between generations, because young people are our future. I worry that some of the logical consequences of Government policy might lead there.

Richard Graham: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Huq: I am about to finish, so I would rather not, if that is okay.

The Prince’s Trust—we are talking about Prince Charles, the heir to the throne—youth index uses a measure of 16 to 25, another different definition of what counts as young. One fifth of the respondents for the index said that they regularly fall apart emotionally and that they suffer from anxiety. It found all those mental health issues, so we do not want to be stoking things up.

There is much to agree with in the YMCA report. If we pick up any modern humorous dictionary of quotations, we will find many phrases about young people and youthful folly, such as, “You are only young once.” One such quote is from Oscar Wilde, who said:

“Youth is wasted on the young.”

We do not want to be in a situation where youth is wasted.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. Can I say that if hon. Members want to be called to speak, it is quite helpful if they stand up?

Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con) rose

Amanda Solloway (Derby North) (Con) rose

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Victoria Borwick, I was planning to call you because you wrote to the Speaker to indicate that you wished to speak.

Victoria Borwick: No, I made my point in an intervention. Thank you, Mr Gray.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): I see. You need to let me know that.

Victoria Borwick: I am sorry.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Mr Green and Ms Solloway, neither of you wrote to the Speaker; nor, indeed, had you been standing up. However, in a spirit of openness and cheerfulness, I call Chris Green.

5.10 pm

Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con): Thank you, Mr Gray. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate on this important issue and on her work as chair of the all-party group on youth employment.

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As the House will be aware, between June and August the employment rate was 73.6%, which is the highest since records began in 1971. In that same period, 3.92 million 16 to 24-year-olds were in work. That figure is up 66,000 in the past year.

There are many ways to get that all-important first job and gain the vital experience that can lead on to an exciting and rewarding career. While many young people find work through word of mouth, online adverts or speculative applications, we must recognise the important role of the local jobcentre, which is often the vital link between someone seeking their first job and potential employers.

The jobcentre’s role is especially important for those who do not have the necessary support from family or friends that so many of us rely on. However, we do have to acknowledge that, in some cases, jobcentres are not sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of people who rely on their services. We must recognise that the support some people need extends beyond the point of getting and starting a job. Those initial few days and weeks in that first job can be incredibly daunting and that is when support from the jobcentre can be needed most. We need to ensure that the support jobcentres offer is more flexible to enable ongoing support from a work coach outside of normal working hours to reflect the needs of new employees.

I am pleased with the Government’s youth obligation plans to require unemployed 18 to 21-year-olds to take an apprenticeship or do daily community work if they have not been in employment, education or training for six months. The proposals place emphasis on work and other experience, encouraging young people to develop in the discipline and routine of work and to add as many activities as possible to their CVs to improve their future prospects.

Looking back at my work history—I have not had the typical route into politics—I remember an early piece of advice that certainly served me well, though I am sure others here may not quite agree with it. It was, “Just get a job—any job. It doesn’t matter what, because you just need the experience.” I followed that advice and took a variety of low-paid temporary jobs that led to me working as a vehicle mechanic, in a picture frame factory and a bookies, then doing bar work and on to a career as an engineer in the mass spectrometry industry for nearly 20 years.

Each job I had provided a stepping stone and that much needed employer reference for the next job. Without that early experience, I would never have had an enjoyable career in industry and I would not be where I am now. It is vital that, regardless of circumstances and aspiration, young jobseekers receive good guidance from careers advisors in schools and jobcentres so that they are not excluded from today’s competitive labour market.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): Has the hon. Gentleman considered the importance of support and guidance at school and mentoring afterwards not just for young people looking for jobs, but for those who want to start small businesses but may not have had that encouragement in the past?

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Chris Green: I agree. I think most people in the Chamber would agree that further development is required in schools and in other ways to get young people that first experience so that they can develop the business that they have always dreamt about starting.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend has given a striking example of a can-do spirit and attitude. In a sense, I think that divides the House between those on the Government side who want to see employers providing those opportunities for young people to show that they can succeed as he has and those on the Opposition side who often lean towards giving the young more benefits, because they are not capable of working or whatever. Does he agree that the key to getting more young people into work is seeing opportunities provided in precisely the way the Government have done with apprenticeships?

Chris Green: Apprenticeships are a key way to get experience and it is really important that there is a whole range of ways to get into apprenticeships and guidance for that.

I am delighted that the Government are continuing to support young people moving into work, allocating £1 billion to the youth contract and ensuring that apprenticeships for under-25s incur no national insurance costs for employers. In my constituency, youth unemployment was at 8% in May 2010. Fast-forward five years and it was at 3.9%. Further, since 2010, Bolton West has had an increase of more than 4,000 apprenticeships.

This week, I am interviewing for an apprentice for my own constituency office. Apprenticeships are a vital way to give young people a chance to earn a salary while getting real work experience. A great deal has been done, but there is still much more to do in the future.

5.16 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on presenting her case in such a full and confident way. For the record, those of us on the Opposition side of the House are equally confident in our young people and we want to see them do well. That is a fact: the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) should be careful with his comments, because many of us feel quite aggrieved by them.

Many of the innocent victims of unemployment are young people, who are feeling the pinch just as much as anyone else. These austere times are difficult for our young people, so we have to help them. That is what we are about. We are all committed to that—on the Opposition side as well as on the Government side of the House. Young people need sustained help.

While the economy continues to recover, some of our young people are not yet feeling the benefits. The debate is about young jobseekers and the Department for Work and Pensions, so we are highlighting the issues of those not currently getting the help that they need.

I am conscious that the Minister has responsibility for England and Wales—not for Northern Ireland, because this is a devolved matter—but I want to make a few comments. In Northern Ireland, the unemployment rate for April to June was estimated at 6.5%, yet 20% of

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young people were unemployed. Those are the facts for us in many parts of Northern Ireland. We have seen a decrease in the number of unemployed young people, but a large proportion of them are long-term unemployed, if I can say that about young people—if that is not an Irishism—and need an extra bit of help and assistance. I think the hon. Member for Norwich North made that point as well.

I am concerned about young people growing up in a nation where a fifth of them are out of work. We are trying to address that through further education courses that will prepare them for work. Of course, we can blame the economic conditions and say that the economy is rebalancing, but a fifth of young people are unemployed compared with just over 6% of people nationally. In Strangford, I have seen a decrease in unemployment, with the figure at about 4% now. The economy and other things are changing, so let us help those who need it.

We can point to examples in Europe and beyond of similar statistics. We can and do struggle with the global economy; there are some things that even the Minister cannot do, no matter how talented he may be, because of things that happen outside Great Britain that affect us at home. In my constituency, some of the growth industries include agrifood, construction, which is starting to turn again with houses being built, pharmaceuticals, insurance and light engineering. We have to address the issues affecting young people, however. Just the other day, I was given figures showing that a large number of young people are looking to leave Northern Ireland because the jobs there do not have the wage structure and prospects they would wish for. Opportunities further away are more attractive.

I am also concerned about young Protestant males—this was mentioned in a debate in another forum that I was at today—and those who do not achieve the educational standards they need; we must help them to get jobs. I suspect that that is a problem not just in Northern Ireland but in other parts of the United Kingdom—other Members will speak to that when appropriate. However, 20 years on from the first ceasefires we are still behind.

Today’s news about the deceleration of the British economy, led by a downturn in the manufacturing sector, is causing concern. We seem to be losing our manufacturing sector across the whole United Kingdom. That concerns both those of us on the Opposition Benches and Government Members, as it should. Output in the manufacturing sector has fallen by some 0.9%, meaning fewer quality careers in that sector and consequently diminishing opportunities for our young jobseekers. I am not sure how the Minister can address that issue, but I would like to hear some ideas. The Government are going to roll out their new earn or learn scheme. Will he comment on that new initiative?

The Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland has announced some 300 new places in education to prepare for jobs in engineering. We need good partnership between business, manufacturing and so on; those partnerships can lead to a strong economy—that is the change we are seeing. We need new apprenticeships as well, and we need those jobs for young men and young girls on an equal basis. Things are changing, but there is still much to be done. Let us continue to encourage our young people—that is what this debate has done—to strive for better. In turn, they will be able to have confidence in a safe future.

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5.22 pm

Amanda Solloway (Derby North) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this important debate. I also thank the YMCA for putting together this interesting and informative report. For many years, I have had close ties with the YMCA in my home city of Derby, and acted as a mentor in its initial pilot scheme. I know the value that that has added. I know from first-hand experience what fantastic work the YMCA does, as well as the challenges it faces when helping young people—not just in Derby, but across the country.

The YMCA report has highlighted concerns about levels of youth unemployment when compared to unemployment in other age groups, as well as issues young people face in finding work. Some of the cases in the report show that people have experienced disappointment and frustration. That is concerning, and we need to make sure that all young individuals are aware of the various ways in which they can be helped in finding work. I was particularly touched when reading about Beth in Derby, who said:

“Job centres look down on you and belittle you”.

That should not be the case. I am sure it is not always so, but her comment is worth mentioning.

I am, however, encouraged that the Government have introduced several new schemes aimed at improving job opportunities for young people. It is vital to give young people the skills and experience they require to meet the demands of a particular position, and those schemes provide them with the support they need to achieve their goals, often before they even get to the jobcentre.

In Derby, a scheme introduced by Enterprise for Education, or E4E, links local employers to local schools and helps young people to find careers that are suitable for them, through providing mock interviews and help with CV writing. The scheme ensures that there are work-ready young people entering the job market. Apprenticeships have also proven successful in Derby, with partnerships between local colleges and schools. Companies such as Rolls-Royce and Bombardier are leading the way locally. I am happy to report that the number of young people taking up apprenticeships continues to rise.

The recent announcement of the creation of 40 new apprenticeship places at a construction training academy in Derby is a perfect example, and is testimony to the Government’s commitment to helping young people and addressing long-term youth unemployment. Through such schemes we are providing help and support to ensure that jobcentres are not the only option available.

Education and experience are two key considerations if we are going to improve job opportunities for our younger generation. People gain confidence from knowing that they have the required skills and qualifications and from having a clear picture of the work they want to find, meaning that young people entering their local jobcentre or applying online know that they are ready to work. However, we must take into account the recommendations from the YMCA to ensure that solutions are realistic, applicable and achievable, and that jobcentres focus on the needs and aspirations of those young people.

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5.25 pm

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to have the opportunity to sum up on behalf of my party. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate and on what I thought was a fair and balanced speech. I admire her positivity, although her experiences and those of her constituents are not necessarily shared elsewhere.

I share the hon. Lady’s respect for jobcentre staff. I will quote some of the findings of the YMCA that perhaps point to the idea that some of the issues being experienced arise from policy rather than staffing. The YMCA report points out that although hardship payments are available to sanctioned claimants, in practice

“YMCA know that in many cases claimants are not being made aware of the availability of such schemes”.

The YMCA found that young people were not being given adequate information about sanctions, including support on how to avoid being sanctioned, explanations of why they have been sanctioned and practical advice on what to do once they have been. YMCA research on the effects of sanctions on vulnerable young people found that 84% had cut back on food as a result of being sanctioned. That is a troubling statistic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made an excellent contribution. Youth unemployment is indeed a tragedy, and we must recognise young people’s potential to contribute to our society and economy. She pointed out the narrow-mindedness of pushing young people towards work through sanctions. We should believe in our young people. She drew on the example of free higher education in Scotland, which provides real opportunities for young people, and made it clear that higher education should be about ability to learn, not ability to pay. I completely agree with that sentiment.

As for the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), I laud the fact that youth unemployment is dropping in some areas, but I am not sure that all those jobs will be in full-time, secure and well-paid work. So many new jobs in recent years have been insecure, low-paid zero-hours contracts. The Government must report on the quality of new jobs. I agree completely with the remarks of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on sanctions; I will say more on that shortly.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) pointed out that jobcentres are not sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of those relying on them for support, which I agree with absolutely. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made, as ever, a thoughtful contribution. I agree that young people are not feeling the benefit of economic recovery as yet and are not feeling supported. Perhaps that is being worsened by the Welfare Reform and Work Bill being debated on the Floor of the House at the moment. The hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) said that jobcentres are not the only route to work, pointing to education and apprenticeships. On that point I again echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East.

The debate has been useful and worth while, and in general very positive, but we must point to the facts as they are. The DWP is failing workers and jobseekers with its dangerous welfare reforms and sanctions regimes.

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The reforms are already going to have a devastating effect on young people in general and will have the combined effect of hitting young jobseekers very hard. An increasing number of young homeless people are being sanctioned. Those who are vulnerable are being asked to comply with unrealistic conditions, resulting in sanctions that only deepen their disadvantage. I draw on the evidence already presented by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on the Trussell Trust report on food poverty from June 2014 and on the March 2015 Crisis report on homelessness, which says that the number of JSA sanctions has almost tripled from 2.5 sanctions per hundred claimants per month in the year ending 2001 to seven per hundred per month in the year ending 2014.

In conclusion, it is clear that something is going fundamentally wrong with how the DWP deals with young people seeking work. In my view and in the view of my colleagues, it is time to devolve to Scotland all social security functions and the resources to support that, so that we can plot a different path from the punitive and marginalising approach currently deployed by this Government.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): It may be helpful for colleagues to know that the official time for the end of the debate, owing to injury time in a previous debate, is 5.53 pm, although I am told there will probably be a Division in the main Chamber at 5.45 pm.

5.31 pm

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate and on her work as chair of the all-party group on youth employment. I particularly congratulate her on the digitally inclusive way in which she has approached the debate, which is to be welcomed. I agree with her comments about the personalisation of services needed at jobcentres and join her in commending Jobcentre Plus staff.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who spoke powerfully about the potential of our young people. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) spoke very well about the benefits that come from having work. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) spoke extremely well about the problems of zero-hours contracts and, indeed, of benefit sanctions. I suppose we must all hope that Oscar Wilde is wrong and that youth is not wasted on the young. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), who spoke very well about the need for flexible support, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a thoughtful contribution on the position of the long-term unemployed, and the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), who drew well on her local knowledge.

I make one comment about the final intervention from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I reassure him that I stand here as the son of a steelworker, and I totally understand what the can-do spirit is. The former mining community in my constituency, which I grew up in, also totally understands the can-do spirit. I know he is usually constructive, but that last contribution was slightly out of kilter with the usual quality of his contributions.

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Richard Graham: I am absolutely delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is so committed to a can-do spirit that is focused more on providing opportunities than on regretting reductions in benefits to young people. I hope he will join me in recognising the extraordinary achievements across constituencies in most of the country in reducing youth unemployment. In my constituency, it has gone from 1,000 people, when the Labour party left power, to 250 today. I hope he will recognise that that is the result of a can-do spirit by Government, constituents, businesses and others working together.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: We will always welcome reductions in unemployment. This week, we are talking about the changes to tax credits that are affecting 3.3 million working families and taking away £1,300 a year from them on average. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is certainly not a can-do spirit—that is clobbering people who are in work. I certainly do not commend that, and I hope he will join me in condemning it.

Richard Graham: The hon. Gentleman should listen—

Nick Thomas-Symonds: The hon. Gentleman should perhaps listen to his own constituents and the families who are losing out.

The statistics make for sobering reading: 683,000 people between the age of 16 and 24 are still unemployed, and 138,000 of those have been unemployed for more than 12 months. As a percentage, it does not get any better: 14.8% of the economically active population is unemployed. Even if we take into account those in full-time education, the figure is still 13.2%.

Nobody should underestimate the potential problems of youth unemployment for a person’s employability throughout their life. One of the contributors to the speech by the hon. Member for Norwich North made the point that young people want to get experience in order to get a job, but they cannot get a job and so cannot actually get the experience. If someone cannot get a job, there are also issues of not getting into the habit of working, not being able to develop skills and of feeling socially excluded from mainstream society. We have to tackle these issues. To do that, we need quality apprenticeships and quality work placements; in that sense, I commend to the Minister the approach taken by the Government in Wales.

Over the next three years, the Jobs Growth Wales programme will produce nearly 9,000 placements, each of which will be an initial six-month placement paid at or above the national minimum wage. I commend that strong, activist approach to the UK Government, because we really must not fail our generation of young people. If we do, it will be an intergenerational injustice.

5.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): It is an absolute pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of my near neighbour. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to the fantastic work she has done through her Norwich for Jobs project and as chair of the APPG on youth employment. In fact, it would be an undersell to say she is a real champion of young people on a whole

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range of issues. The number of Members from both sides of the House who have come to support this constructive and proactive debate is a good recognition of that. I am sure her APPG will be packed on 18 November with a whole host of new, eager Members of Parliament wishing to support her. I also congratulate her on the digital debate last night, which I cast my eye over during the multiple votes. Ninety seven engagements and more than 1 million people reached is fantastic. The core messages about a personalised approach, commitment both ways, resources and mentoring are important points that I will pick up on. It is a credit to her that those people chose to engage.

I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), for taking the time to pay credit to the hard work in their respective jobcentre networks. Jobcentre Plus staff right across the country do a huge amount of good work and are often not recognised for it. I was impressed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said about the Drop Inn centre. I want to put on record the appreciation of all Members here for the fantastic work that volunteers at that centre are doing. I am sure many of us have similar organisations in our constituencies, and they all make a big difference to people.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), particularly for his point about careers advice, which I recognised. I remember saying at school that I fancied being a Member of Parliament in the future. They laughed and said, “You have no chance.” He also mentioned speculative applications. When I ran my own business for 10 years, the majority of the jobs I offered—predominantly to young people—were on the back of speculative applications, because I was impressed that people had taken the time to do that. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made an important point about Young Enterprise, which I have been a huge supporter of. I was proud to lead the campaign to get financial education into the national curriculum in the previous Parliament. It is one of the key building blocks for young people who want to start up a business and is something I certainly support.

We have made big progress on youth employment. We know that youth unemployment can have significant and long-lasting negative impacts on young people’s life chances. The Government are committed to tackling youth unemployment, and we have a strong record so far. Over the past year, of all the EU countries, only the Netherlands has seen a larger rise than the UK in the number of young people in work. That is something we should celebrate. OECD figures show that 71% of non-students aged 20 to 24 in the UK are in work—the second highest number of the big EU economies, just behind Germany, and above the US and the EU average. Excluding those in full-time education, youth unemployment has fallen by over 200,000 since 2010 and is lower than before the recession, and 85% of all 16 to 24-year-olds are in work or full-time education. The employment rate of young people who have left full-time education has risen to its highest in over 10 years at 73.9%—hon. Members will be pleased to know that that is it for the stats for the remainder of the speech.

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We want to go further—we can celebrate where we have got to, but all the speeches have highlighted the need to go further—and I am delighted with the announcement of the youth obligation, which is a positive step that builds on what we have done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North has said, we have made positive steps but we should go further. From April 2017, we are introducing the new youth obligation to support young people aged 18 to 21 on universal credit who find themselves out of work. Those young people will be given the support, skills and experience to motivate them into work, fulfil their potential and make a contribution to their community by getting on in work without slipping into a life on benefits. I think everybody across the House would support that.

Crucially, that will be from day one. Young people will participate in an intensive period of support, learning job search and interview techniques and doing structured work preparation. It is important for them to have that support from day one, while they still have that enthusiasm —it is about not allowing them to slip further away from securing meaningful work. After six months, they will be expected to apply for an apprenticeship or a traineeship, to gain work-based skills that employers value, or to go on a work placement to give them the skills they need to get on in work. Once fully implemented, we expect 400,000 young people a year to participate in the youth obligation, which will make a considerable difference to increasing youth employment further.

Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Kensington (Victoria Borwick) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) in particular, have highlighted the importance of apprenticeships. Again, we would all echo that: they are a valuable route into the world of work, providing experience and vital skills, and are an important part of our approach to youth employment. We have pledged to create a further 3 million new apprenticeships in England in this new Parliament. The jobcentres network will be an important part of helping to signpost, promote and encourage young people to take advantage of that, building on the 2.3 million starts in the last Parliament.

In addition to apprenticeships, we provide a range of employment programmes for young people to support them into work, including traineeships for young people who have not achieved a GCSE grade C or equivalent—so, a pre-apprenticeship—work experience for eligible unemployed young people or sector-based work academies, so each local community, as part of our devolution, can identify opportunities and look to match those as they come forward. On average, around 2,000 young benefit claimants are starting government work experience or the training element of a sector-based work academy every week. The evidence shows that that is making a difference.

The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) spoke about careers advice, which is an important point. We know that key to tackling youth unemployment is early intervention to ensure that young people get the help they need before they leave school, so that they can make a good transition between school and further learning or employment. That is why we are introducing Jobcentre Plus employment adviser support for schools and colleges. Working in partnership with the new Careers & Enterprise Company to build on the support

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that is already available, Jobcentre Plus employment advisers will provide 12 to 17-year-olds at risk of not being in education, employment or training with the advice they need on the local labour market, employment opportunities and routes into work experience, traineeships and apprenticeships. It is about providing that career path. Those who are heading off to higher education have the UCAS process—they choose their course and there is a clear path. This change is about stepping in for those who will not go down that route. It provides a real focus, and I am delighted to see it being brought forward.

Last month, the Careers & Enterprise Company launched its enterprise adviser network programme to connect employees from firms of all sizes to schools, through a network of enterprise advisers drawn from business volunteers. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) specifically mentioned a point about inspiring women into different roles. I went to see an organisation called Lady Geek in a school in London. It was looking to incentivise girls in particular to take up courses in information and communications technology, where women have only about 11% of the roles. Unsurprisingly, after a really interactive, fantastic demonstration, about 30 signed up do the GCSE straight away, so they will then go off to have brilliant careers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) talked about the need to target primary schools. That is the whole point of mentors. Most young people will be inspired at some point, and getting those mentors into all schools across the country to provide that inspiration is vital.

I also echo the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) made in praise the National Citizen Service. Of the things that the last Government introduced, I am probably proudest of that. It was introduced personally by the Prime Minister. Every summer, I spend many happy visits joining in and seeing children’s complete transformation into young adults, in terms of their confidence, team skills and public speaking. They are eminently employable at the end of that process, and I am delighted that we have extended its reach further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North rightly highlighted the work of the YMCA report, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) for her long-standing work with the YMCA. The YMCA has made some important recommendations, including, first, that each young person should be provided with a specialist youth work coach that remains consistent throughout the length of their claim. We have made changes so that they will have one work coach. That is incredibly important and it will make a difference.

Secondly, the YMCA recommended that each young person should be provided with the ability to participate in education or training lasting for more than 16 hours a week without their claim being affected. In certain circumstances, jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit claimants can participate in training and still keep their benefit—for example, when they are on a sector-based work academy or traineeship. For those on JSA for six months, when their jobcentre adviser or work coach identifies a skills gap that is a barrier to their moving into work, they can attend full-time training for up to eight more weeks. A claimant can also be in training for up to 30 hours a week on universal credit. Again, that will make a huge difference.

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Finally, the YMCA recommended that each young person should be provided with the opportunity to receive in-work support from their work coach or a designated mentor when they transition into employment. That is key. As a lot of Members have highlighted, these are often entry-level jobs that do not have the highest pay in some cases. I remember when I was young, my parents would push me—many of us would have been pushed when we were younger—but not everybody has that, so providing support once young people enter work is incredibly important. It is about identifying how they are doing and the challenges they may need to address, or reminding them just how well they are doing and talking to their supervisors and employers and saying, “Look, are there further opportunities to progress?” I think that is really key. We are testing how this will work, but I take a particular interest in it because—as I know from my background, the school I went to and things like that—this is probably the single thing that will make a big difference.

I also pay tribute to the Norwich for Jobs project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North talked about. It is an exemplary way of building partnerships. I had a Disability Confident event in my constituency last Friday, with hundreds of businesses coming along. Those do not have to be done by an MP; it can be local authorities, local enterprise partnerships or community groups. Businesses are willing to engage; we just need to make sure they know there are opportunities to do so.

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In conclusion, this debate has been constructive and positive on all sides. There is a clear commitment to tackling youth unemployment, not only in our Department but across all Departments. To ensure that support for young people is joined-up, the cross-Government Earn or Learn taskforce has been set up, involving seven Departments and chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. The taskforce is determined to provide a coherent and joined-up landscape of intensive support from all Departments to tackle youth unemployment effectively and ensure that everyone can achieve their potential. I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North for her ongoing work, and I very much hope she will engage in that taskforce. We can learn a huge amount not only from her personal work, but through that direct democracy—the ideas that have been fed in—and together we can make a real difference to young people, which we would all support.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered young jobseekers and the Department for Work and Pensions.

5.48 pm

Sitting adjourned.