3.5 pm

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah)—that was something I would never have said in the previous Parliament, but I can happily say it now—for the thoughtful and welcome debate she has brought to Westminster Hall. This is something that we all care about, because in all of our constituencies we recognise voluntary organisations and charities, some of which are linked to national organisations such as Age UK, and there are also smaller groups that have recognised local need. For example, in my constituency the Debenham Project has come together to support people with dementia and their families. That project is now being used as a pioneer throughout the east of England to show just how communities that have recognised a need can come together and make a real difference for people with dementia.

Before I talk more broadly about the role of businesses in supporting volunteering and the charitable sector, which I do not think has happened to the extent we would like— and I will talk about the legal sector in particular—I want to pick up on some of the points raised in the debate that affect all of our constituencies. Much of the volunteering in Suffolk, and, I am sure, throughout the rest of the country, is freely given. I am sure that no one wants in any way to polarise the debate by saying that the voluntary sector should be a purely funded sector.

I am sure we all recognise the vital contribution in carers’ organisations, village hall committees, scout groups and other groups in the community when time is freely given to support others in need, be they young people needing support with educational causes or the most vulnerable. None of us would want to undermine that ethos in any way. It is important that everyone considers the opportunities in their community to support vital projects and, in particular, to look after the most vulnerable people.

One such example in my constituency is the hour community project in Framlingham for which everyone in the community has given up one hour of their time—whether one hour a week, one hour a month or even less than that—to take an older person who may be living in social isolation shopping, for example, or to provide support to special educational needs children

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or teachers in a school or to provide time to other people in the community with needs. We should value and cherish that.

That does not always require funding. Of course there is an argument for pump-priming some such projects, as outlined earlier, and providing seedcorn whether through local authorities, central Government or lottery funding to kick-start them, but we should never undermine the importance of encouraging people to volunteer in their communities and give up their time to help those in need and good community causes.

These times of economic austerity have, of course, had a clear impact on charities and voluntary organisations. There has been a reduction in central funding—of course that is the case—and there has been a 10% drop in charitable donations, according to figures from three or four years ago. However, voluntary organisations have opportunities they did not have before to find additional funding, and local commissioners now have greater opportunities to commission services from voluntary and charitable organisations, where appropriate. Has that happened, however, to the extent envisaged in the legislation? Perhaps it has not.

Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Gentleman that local charities do very good work. In my constituency, however, small charities have consistently reported problems with public service commissioning, including that contracts are becoming so large that only the largest organisations can bid for them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must take steps to level the playing field so that the charities he is speaking so passionately about, and that I believe so passionately in, can compete?

Dr Poulter: That is an issue, particularly where local authorities look at having block contracts for aspects of social care. That is a real problem, particularly for more—I do not necessarily think this is the correct description—bespoke charities, which provide specialist services. For example, a charity looking after younger people who have had a brain injury may not fall easily within a block contract. The Department for Communities and Local Government could certainly look at providing guidance and support to those who put these contracts out, to make sure that block contracts do not inadvertently get in the way of providing the right services to people with quite specialised needs. That can be a very real problem, which can result from block contracts, because they are inherently larger. The result can be that people with more specialised needs can fall through the gaps. Some of the charities and voluntary organisations providing very good specialist care do not get a look-in on block contracts, because they are not geared up to provide the service required, although they do provide an important service for certain groups in the community. The DCLG may well want to look into what guidance it can offer. Indeed, the Local Government Association also has a role in supporting local authorities to make the right decisions in this area.

The more general point I wanted to get on to relates to the role of big businesses in supporting volunteering. They have done a lot to support links with the armed forces. They have rightly been part of a big drive, with

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the Government, to support people in having time off to serve with the armed forces. There is also often a synergistic relationship with the voluntary sector, and local businesses can benefit and get good will from the community by allowing staff to have time off to contribute to charitable and other good causes. However, one area that needs attention is the legal sector—

Mrs Madeleine Moon (in the Chair): Order. I call Gerald Jones.

3.13 pm

Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on securing such an important debate.

I spent many years working in the voluntary sector and as a volunteer. I wish to state that at the start, although it is not a declarable interest. I am deeply concerned about the situation facing the community and voluntary sector—a situation the Government have created. Volunteers and voluntary groups do a truly outstanding job in many of our communities, and they deserve all our support and that of the Government.

Demand for charitable services is increasing. Given the hardship the Government’s austerity agenda is creating, people in our communities will undoubtedly turn to charities and voluntary groups even more in the future for assistance.

In 2010, we heard much from the Prime Minister and the coalition Government about the big society and the role volunteers play in community life. Here we are just five years later, and the Government are pulling the rug out from under many of the charities, community groups and voluntary organisations that make such a valuable contribution to our country.

Recently, I spoke at the annual general meeting of the county voluntary council in my constituency. Voluntary Action Merthyr Tydfil does an outstanding job of supporting voluntary groups, as do many other county voluntary councils. The mood of many of the community groups I met was one of deep concern and worry. Historically, many voluntary organisations have received support—including, importantly, financial support—from local authorities and, in Wales, from the Welsh Government. Given the Tory Government’s austerity agenda, as well as the huge cuts to local authority budgets and, in Wales, to the Welsh Government budget, devolved and local government are finding it increasingly hard to deliver key services, putting at risk their ability to support voluntary and community groups.

Clearly, it is impractical for many charities and voluntary organisations to make a realistic charge for many of the services they provide, because that would, in many cases, put those services out of the reach of the people who need them most. Charities are well used to fundraising and to looking at all opportunities to bring in extra resources, but many will always need some support.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West said, the indication that the Treasury may look to cut the Big Lottery Fund share of national lottery funding from 40% to 25%—a cut of some £300 million—is hugely worrying, and such a cut would have a catastrophic effect on hundreds of voluntary organisations. The Big Lottery Fund is the biggest single funder of voluntary

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sector organisations, and given that charities are struggling financially, this is not the time for the Government to make matters worse.

Small grants of a few thousand pounds from the Big Lottery Fund are a lifeline to many community groups. Such funding is often the first step for fledgling community groups, such as senior citizens organisations and youth groups. I know of many instances where such grants have given volunteers and community groups a real boost, giving them an incentive to develop their work and to contemplate more ambitious projects, including attracting more volunteers.

Tulip Siddiq: Does my hon. Friend know that half of BLF awards go to organisations with a turnover of less than £25,000? The proposed move would be devastating for community spaces in my constituency, especially youth services, because of their small turnover.

Gerald Jones: I absolutely agree. As I said, that funding is an absolute lifeline for many small community groups that are on the road to developing more ambitious projects. It is unacceptable for the Government to contemplate such a cut to offset Government cuts in other areas. The Minister should confirm that the cut in lottery support will not be used as part of the Government’s deficit reduction plan.

In view of the Government’s apparent attack on the voluntary sector, I am bound to ask what they have against volunteers and voluntary groups. I urge them to acknowledge the role of the voluntary sector and the massive contribution the sector makes to society and to act accordingly. I therefore ask the Minister to advise us whether he will stand up for the sector and stand against this huge cut in the support to the Big Lottery Fund.

3.18 pm

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): May I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah)? May I also say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon?

Charities play a vital role in society, and they make a significant economic contribution. The sector generates gross value added of £12 billion per year. The economic value of UK volunteering is estimated at nearly £24 billion. However, given that approximately half of all charities depend on central or local government funding, they expect to be hit particularly hard by any budget reductions over the next five years. Charities will be looking closely at the spending review for details of where funding may become even more challenging. It goes without saying that public service cuts will have a significant knock-on effect on charities.

We have heard a lot about the Big Lottery Fund. To shed some light on the issue, let me add that it is one of 12 distributors of the national lottery’s good causes funding. However, there is a strong indication that Her Majesty’s Treasury is planning to reduce the Big Lottery Fund’s share of national lottery funding from 40% to about 25%. That, arguably, would mean the redirection of funding towards the arts and sports because of DCMS spending reductions. The reduction in the Big Lottery Fund would be £300 million a year. We all recognise the value of the arts, sport and heritage, but support for those causes should not be at the expense of community groups.

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The move would hit smaller groups hardest, because 90% of BLF grants are smaller than £10,000. It would particularly affect community projects such as village halls, playgrounds and youth clubs, as well as targeted interventions where there are social problems. Examples are isolated older people, domestic violence and vulnerable children—I could go on, but I think I have made my point. As BLF funds are usually committed years in advance, an immediate reduction in the national lottery’s contribution to it could cause it to close its books to new funding applications for several years.

In my constituency a total of 251 projects have been funded, with a total value of nearly £4 million. In the whole of Swansea 993 projects have received funding, with a total value of £20 million. One of those is an organisation called Hands Up For Down’s, a parent-run group for children with Down’s syndrome and their parents and carers. It is based in Swansea and has been running since May 2014. It simply offers a support network to the parents of children with Down’s syndrome, as well as an opportunity for the youngsters to get together to play freely and socialise. Sian is the mum of Iolo, who uses the project, and she said:

“We are facing many challenges but with the support of Hands up for Downs and the Big Lottery Fund we don’t feel we need to do it alone”.

I hope that the Government will think about all the Iolos and Sians in the country, who benefit from the Big Lottery Fund, when they wield their axe and do whatever they intend to do that will affect voluntary sector funding.

3.23 pm

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on securing the debate. We have heard excellent and wide-ranging contributions this afternoon, and I very much welcome the debate. It is important that we discuss the issue, since funding for the community and voluntary sector is at a critical juncture. With the Chancellor’s spending review coming tomorrow, I am sure that everyone involved in the sector will wait with bated breath to see what further cuts he has lined up for local government budgets. The continuous budgetary pressure on local government makes it even harder for the voluntary sector to fund its important work. I have seen in my own constituency the tremendous impact that community organisations have and the growing funding challenge that they face because of cuts to Welsh Government budgets that have to be passed on to local authorities.

I spent some time a couple of weeks ago at Grassroots Cardiff, a small community organisation working with the most vulnerable young people in Cardiff Central. It provides advice, support, creative opportunities and training that help young people between the ages of 16 and 25. In a supportive environment, it promotes self-confidence and development to help vulnerable young people avoid homelessness and drug abuse. It also runs a fantastic weekly Asperger’s support group for young people—the only one that is available in Cardiff and the wider region. I have seen the remarkable work that the organisation does and the positive difference it has made to the lives of young people with Asperger’s.

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Grassroots works very hard to function within its means, but owing to the cuts it is really struggling. It has lost local authority funding because of UK Government cuts and faces the prospect of being able to offer only a part-time service. That successful organisation, which has been serving the community in Cardiff Central for decades, is under threat. It is desperate for funds. If it asks for funds from local people, who are already stretched with low incomes and a lack of work opportunities, they will give what they can, but it is a struggle.

In the previous Parliament, under the coalition Government, there were tax cuts for the wealthiest in the country—a giveaway to the people who needed it the least. At the same time cuts were made to the local authority funding that supports and delivers voluntary and community sector provision in villages, towns and cities across the UK. The expectation was then, as it will be once again in tomorrow’s spending review, that ordinary working people will have to foot the bill.

Part of the Conservative party manifesto in 2010 and again 2015 was the creation of the big society. One pillar of that was opening up public services and enabling voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises to compete to offer public services combined with community empowerment, giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their own area. However, under the coalition Government outsourcing took place on an unprecedented scale, and that is continuing under the current Government. The aim was to create a fairer playing field in which charities, social enterprises and private companies could bid for services, but as we have heard in many speeches today, the harsh reality has been private companies’ share growing, while charities and voluntary organisations have lost out completely.

The other pillar of the big society was community empowerment. The idea of that, as I understand it, was for people to be able to select the community projects they wanted to launch. However, because of the swingeing cuts in public sector funding, people are now forced to choose which projects they want to save, rather than the ones they want to launch. I have seen that happen in my constituency. Several voluntary sector organisations, including Carers UK’s Cardiff branch, ABCD Cymru, which works with the disabled black and minority ethnic community, and Cardiff’s Disability Action group, have had to fold altogether, leaving people without the support they desperately needed.

Tulip Siddiq: My hon. Friend has been talking about the notion of the big society. In the more affluent bits of my constituency there is a lot of social capital and invisible capital. The big society has worked there, but does my hon. Friend agree that in the more deprived areas of our constituencies it will not work? We cannot expect people who are choosing between putting the heating on and eating, and whose tax credits are being cut, to volunteer as well and keep up the big society, while the Government crush the roots of local democracy and cut councils’ funding.

Jo Stevens: I agree entirely. It always seems that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who are looked to for giving.

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Several colleagues have mentioned the Big Lottery Fund. Since 2010 it has supported 74 projects in my constituency, including a deaf youth summer theatre school, the Somali Integration Society legal and welfare advice pilot project, and the Adamsdown day centre’s “Young At Heart” project. The day centre provides an essential service for elderly people who would otherwise have little or no daily social interaction. Its lottery fund money made the difference this year between being able to stay open or closing its doors for good. Seventy-four projects in Cardiff Central have received more than £3.3 million in funding from the Big Lottery Fund. Not only is that funding worth discussing here; it is something that all of us need to protect. I am sure that all the hon. Members present share that view, and I hope the Government will take note of what has been said today and take action urgently to protect a fantastic, hard-working, critically important sector.

3.28 pm

Martin John Docherty (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Moon. I want to mention that I am vice-chair of the all-party group on civil society and volunteering, along with the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), whom I am delighted to see here today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on securing the debate, and I am delighted to speak for the Scottish National party, which, for the record, I want to congratulate on its resounding victory at the general election.

The subject of the debate is a critical issue for communities across these islands. As my constituency is in Scotland, I am keen for Members from other parts of the UK to hear briefly about differing approaches to supporting the community and volunteering sector. I believe that the approach in Scotland is based on common values, as the voluntary sector seeks to play its part in the civic life of the communities in which it was founded and that it engages with and serves. The relationship between local government and the voluntary sector in Scotland is also extremely important, given the sector’s role in Scotland’s community planning partnerships and in developing all 32 single outcome agreements. If hon. Members do not know what those are, I advise them to look at those interesting documents, which place the sector in a critical and fundamental role in Scotland’s public life.

The challenge we now face as we approach the comprehensive spending review, which has been put well by many Members, is a decision by the UK Government that will reduce the funding for the most local of organisations—critically, through funds such as the Awards for All programme and Investing in Ideas—through funding reductions to the Big Lottery Fund. That fund enables local volunteer-led organisations to deliver support to communities at the coalface of community cohesion.

In Scotland, the Big Lottery Fund awards more than 2,000 new grants every year to organisations ranging from grassroots volunteer-led community groups to major charities. Its work is funded through an average annual budget in Scotland of £70 million, and it has recently come to the end of a five-year strategy. The fund has existing financial commitments to more than 3,000 projects in Scotland. Last year, more than 116,000

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people in Scotland took part in small grassroots projects funded by the fund. Nearly 2,500 jobs, mainly in registered charities and community organisations, are at least partly funded by grants from the Big Lottery Fund, almost 780 of which are full-time posts solely supported by those grants. As we approach the comprehensive spending review, our grave fear is of a possible reduction in that funding. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to deny the possibility of a reduction of national lottery funding to the Big Lottery Fund from 50% of moneys raised to 25%.

Without doubt, the community and voluntary sector in Scotland and the rest of the UK makes a direct impact on the economy; in Scotland, that impact is worth nearly £2.5 billion. Our Government in Edinburgh are committed to working—I should add, with cross-party support—with sector groups to create a fairer and socially just Scotland. That is why they have created a new third sector forum this year, bringing together representatives to consider ideas about the sector’s future. The Scottish Government are determined to work with the sector to remove the barriers that prevent people from reaching their full potential—critically, with regard to volunteering. The voluntary sector is crucial to achieving social justice, and its organisations are closing the gap in employment and health inequalities and addressing the significant problems of poverty in my own constituency of West Dunbartonshire and across the country. I will mention just a few specifically: the Independent Resource Centre, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary; West Dunbartonshire CAB; the Vale of Leven autism group; and the Ben View centre.

Importantly, in February this year, the Scottish Government announced £1.1 million of investment for a new volunteering support fund, which will, we hope, train and recruit 3,000 volunteers from disadvantaged backgrounds to work at 110 projects across Scotland, seeking to ensure equal access to civic participation. That is on top of an increase in investment in the community and volunteering sector in Scotland, from 2001 to at least 2011, from £2.1 billion to £4.5 billion.

In Scotland, 1.3 million volunteers undertake roles in every community and in all sectors, bringing significant individual and community benefit, as volunteering does across the rest of the UK. Volunteers have a critical role in leading change and empowering our communities. We now have the opportunity, throughout the UK, for growth in volunteering through a renewal that connects with the passions, interests and motivations of individuals and brings about public value.

Volunteering provides enormous value to society in general and significant benefits to the wellbeing of those who participate. In Scotland alone, it is estimated that volunteers contribute £2.6 billion to the economy. More recent findings about the direct impact of volunteering on individual wellbeing indicate exceptional benefits. Any cut to the Big Lottery Fund in the comprehensive spending review will undermine the very source of our community and voluntary sector—the volunteers by whom so much is delivered for so little.

As is the case in the rest of the UK, the majority of these organisations in Scotland are run by volunteers, in service delivery roles as well as management roles, with volunteer committee members and, on occasion, charitable trustees. The sector has considerable experience and understanding of working with individuals and communities in developing solutions, and thus

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mobilising the skills and knowledge of communities. That co-production model for solutions is essential to successful prevention, and I am sure that hon. Members here today would like to see similar models in their own constituencies. While the UK Government are poised to cut funding, the Scottish Government are investing in the enterprise ready fund, which distributed nearly £6 million between 2013 and 2015 to help maintain, develop and grow the sector. I am sure other Members will also want to look at the model of the social entrepreneurs fund.

The Big Lottery Fund in Scotland currently supports more than 2,000 organisations. It uses the good causes funding it receives from national lottery ticket sales to provide £75 million of funding every year to projects that tackle a wide range of issues including poverty, loneliness and ill health. The jobs partly funded by the fund are also a critical issue. There has been speculation that cash will be taken from the lottery fund to mitigate cuts to arts and sports resulting from the departmental budget cuts to be announced in the comprehensive spending review. Similar tactics were used for the Olympics in 2012, with a massive £638 million “borrowed” by the Government, a sum that has yet to be paid back.

The national lottery is independent of the United Kingdom Government, and that Government should not be raiding the Big Lottery Fund to subsidise their departmental spending cuts. The UK Government’s austerity agenda is focused on cutting public services and social security, no matter the cost to people. It is clear that any cuts to the Big Lottery Fund will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable in our society and will exacerbate the impact of other cuts across our communities.

3.35 pm

Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and my privilege to respond as shadow Minister for Civil Society. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) who set out clearly and powerfully the role of the community and voluntary sector in Scottish civil society and its impact on the Scottish economy. He also talked about the Big Lottery Fund, which I will discuss in some detail. I share his deeply held concerns.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for calling this extremely important and timely debate. She set out eloquently and passionately the challenges faced by the community and voluntary sector. She also gave a heartfelt example of how crucial services such as the Blenheim Project in her constituency are to people in need, in particular at times of crisis.

Tomorrow, the Chancellor will set out his departmental spending priorities. It is his chance to set out his vision for the kind of society and economy he wants to build. The question for us today is whether that vision will be one that recognises and values the role that the community and voluntary sector can play in building a safe, healthy, decent and prosperous society. Many Members have set out fantastic examples of great work done by civil society organisations in their local areas, as well as the challenges such organisations face.

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) mentioned Mind. Many of us would want to pay tribute to the great work that Mind does, not least in my own

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constituency, where it has been dealing with some of the repercussions of the huge job losses we have faced. She made a really important point about the preventive role it plays in reducing pressure on our public services. That also made me think of the importance of investment to prevent costs further down the line in public services. She also mentioned gift aid. There is an important message for the Government on that: they should look again at whether they might loosen the eligibility criteria for the small donations scheme, which so far has generated only £21 million, not the £105 million expected. That might be something that they could explore further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who is chair of the all-party group on civil society and volunteering, spoke eloquently about the importance of core funding. Any of us who have had experience of working with the voluntary and community sector will know how important that funding is to enable voluntary organisations to keep the lights on and keep functioning, when often grant money for specific projects is more readily available. She also talked about the importance of new technology. There are some really interesting issues there that we can look to take forward.

The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made some important points about businesses giving up time for people to volunteer. It is important always to look at the contribution that everyone can make, not just the professionals within the community and voluntary sector. We recognise the importance of diversity of funding and of capacity within the sector; to my mind, however, we must not lessen the importance of the role of partnership with public services and the support of local authorities and central Government, as they are often absolutely critical to funding projects that would not necessarily get private sector support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) talked eloquently about the impact of cuts on the devolved Administrations and on local government, and the effect that had on local communities in his area. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) paid tribute to Hands Up For Down’s, which sounds like a really excellent organisation doing great work. She also mentioned the impact of cuts to the Big Lottery Fund.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) talked eloquently about Open Public Services, which ranks alongside the big society as a flawed philosophy, set out by the Government five years ago. It has seen many contracts gobbled up by the private sector and larger charities, to the detriment of smaller charities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) also pointed out. I thank all my colleagues for their important contributions to the debate.

The worry for many of our hard-working community and voluntary sector volunteers and professionals, as well as those who rely on their vital services, is whether the Chancellor will tomorrow hasten his assault on the sector, which has already seen the big society agenda disappear like a mirage, wiped out by a wave of cuts over the past five years. Figures I have received from the NCVO show the sector is already receiving £1.7 billion less of its income from Government than it was in 2010-11, and the number of grants to the sector from Government has halved since 2002. The charity sector

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faces a shortfall of £4.6 billion by 2018-19 on current spending trajectories. Charities and community groups have been hit by a triple whammy of cuts to their grants and income; a reduction in local government support, with partnering public services facing their own drastic cuts, leading many of them to cut preventive services; and having to deal with a large rise in demand.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West mentioned, according to the Charity Finance Group, 70% of charities expect demand for their services to continue to rise in the next 12 months. In 2009, the figure was half that, with only 36% of charities thinking demand would rise. Charities know they are picking up the consequences of this Government’s economic and social policy failures. They are often catching the people who have fallen through the gaps and are too often failed by the state. Charity and community groups are fearful of tomorrow’s statement. They are asking whether tomorrow will see a spending review that puts the final nail in the big society coffin and shows that, like the Tories of the past, this is a Government who believe in neither the state nor society.

Nowhere is that threat more clearly exposed than in the expected cuts to the Big Lottery Fund, as many of my colleagues have rightly set out. The Big Lottery Fund has been a vital ingredient in helping many community organisations to deliver vital services in the local community and transform lives, particularly in our most deprived areas. The rigour that the Big Lottery Fund applies to its funding process ensures that charities can prove they work to change people’s lives—a rigour that has been sadly lacking from the Government’s own direct distribution of money to charities, as highlighted by the Kids Company saga.

If it is true that the Chancellor intends to take around £320 million from the Big Lottery Fund and redirect it to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to spend on arts and sports, it is a shameful act of misappropriation. The Chancellor should not be raiding the people’s lottery to plug gaps in his departmental spending, to try to compensate for the total failure of his long-term economic plan. The British people donate these funds when they buy lottery tickets in good faith that the money will go to good causes—village halls, youth clubs, playgrounds, domestic violence support, care for older people and those with disabilities, and the many groups we have heard about this afternoon. Ninety per cent. of Big Lottery Fund grants are less than £10,000, and they are a lifeline to small local groups, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West set out, so this act will hit the smallest charities doing the most important work in the most deprived areas.

As the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major recently said, lottery money was to be from the people, for the people. The guiding principle has always been that lottery money adds to, rather than replaces, public funding. Is the Minister going to allow that principle to be shredded to compensate for his Government’s failure to protect and support our public services? Is he aware that some 3,800 charities are still waiting for the repayment of £425 million that was taken from the Big Lottery Fund to help pay for the 2012 Olympics? Depriving vulnerable people and communities of support during this difficult time is outrageous and is contrary to the very nature of what players of the lottery expect will happen with their contributions. I urge the Minister to ask his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to think again.

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In conclusion, I hope the Minister will give some reassurance to the community and voluntary sector ahead of tomorrow that the Government still value the contributions it makes to our society. In 2009, the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition said he wanted to

“set free the voluntary sector and social enterprises to deal with the…problems that blight so many of our communities”.

Far from setting them free, this Government are starving them of funds and forcing many of them, as we have heard today, out of operation. I urge the Minister to fight for the future of a sector that is vital to the strength, health and dignity of our society.

3.44 pm

The Minister without Portfolio (Robert Halfon): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on securing the debate and on her election; there are not many Labour MPs I raise a glass for when they get elected. I know that in her maiden speech she spoke about social action in terms of food banks. Although, of course, I disagree with her on some points, she spoke thoughtfully and with passion, and I will try to answer some of her points.

The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said she was worried about mentioning that she chairs the all-party group on civil society and volunteering; I think that is a badge of pride. She made some thoughtful remarks about gift aid, which she will know was worth £1.2 billion to charities last year. The Government have launched Charities Online, an online system that makes it simpler and faster to claim gift aid. The innovation in giving fund has provided around £10 million to develop ideas that have the potential to create a step change in the giving of time and money, including, as she suggested, crowdfunding platforms and other innovative forms of technology.

The hon. Member for Bradford West spoke about procurement, an issue that has come up not only recently but over many years. I have spoken on the record in the past, when I was on the Back Benches, about the Tesco charities—in other words, the bigger charities that get the bigger slices of the pie. She will know that the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, supported by the Government and passed by Parliament, requires public service commissioners to consider social value whenever considering procurements in their area. The Cabinet Office has led the successful Commissioning Academy to instil best practice across the public sector, as well as delivering special commercial masterclasses to charities to support them to bid. There is also a local sustainability fund of £20 million that supports grassroots charities, to ensure they have a secure future.

The hon. Member for Bradford West is right that charities currently get business rates relief of up to 80% if a property is used for charitable purposes. Many local councils top up certain reliefs, offering 100% relief in order to give businesses and charities extra help, and business rates relief helps charities up and down the country. With the Government’s tax changes, employers, including charities, will have their national insurance bills cut by £1,000 from April next year.

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The Big Lottery Fund has come up on a number of occasions. I have to confess that I have not seen inside the Chancellor’s lunchbox, but I urge hon. Members to wait 24 hours and hold their horses, so that we can see what happens. I cannot comment on funding, particularly because of the spending review, but I want to talk about three things—funding we have provided for civil society, what we have done to improve civil society, and our ongoing work.

It was a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). I cannot get away from her Facebook page, because it has one post after another of her community activism, looking after her local community and doing exactly the kinds of thing we have talked about today. I know that her work is acknowledged by her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) talked about volunteering, which I hope to come on to later.

I am a passionate believer in big society and always have been. I have always believed that social capital is as important as economic capital, that social entrepreneurs are as important as economic entrepreneurs and that people power is as important as state power. That is what big society means to me, and that is what big society means to the Government.

Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab): Does the Minister recognise that people capital and social capital, which he rightly points to, will not provide a rape crisis counselling service for children, no matter how much he wishes they might? The state once provided that. The Big Lottery Fund then went on to provide it, and the Chancellor is potentially about to take it away.

Robert Halfon: As I said, I suggest the hon. Lady holds her horses and waits to see what happens in 24 hours. I will talk about what we have already done to fund civil society and big society in a moment.

The Government recognise that individuals are looking beyond the state and want to help friends, family, their community and their local services. People are becoming far more community-minded and are asking not what their community can do for them, but what they can do for their community. Millions give their time, energy and expertise to help others, and they put service above self. I am wearing a Heart 4 Harlow badge, which is from a social action project created by faith communities in my constituency. They work together to do social action and to help our town. This social action—this people power—is the foundation of the bigger and stronger society that we all desire.

It is no surprise that the Charities Aid Foundation found that the UK is the most generous nation in Europe. That means that the public are giving twice, which it is important to note, both in their taxes and personal donations. With all the talk of funding, it is also worth noting that taxpayers are giving about £13 billion a year to charities up and down our country—remember, that is not Government money, but taxpayers’ money.

We should also note that five years ago, our country was broken. We had experienced the deepest recession in living memory and the deficit between public spending and the Government’s revenue was unsustainable. Unemployment had risen to record levels and household debt was higher than many of us would agree is sensible.

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The societal issues that stemmed from those circumstances meant that public services and civil society both faced an incredible challenge—one of increasing demand, but without the ability easily to invest increased resources to meet it.

Anna Turley: If the Minister is setting out the challenges and saying that there is a consequence for public services and the big society, we are now five years on and the crisis is even greater for the community and voluntary sector. Is that not a consequence of the last five years of economic policy as well?

Robert Halfon: As I said, the taxpayer is spending £13 billion a year, which is a sizeable chunk of money, on charities.

I turn to the Government’s achievement over the last years in pursuit of this vision. There is, for example, the community organisers programme, which is training more than 6,500 organisers to work in hundreds of cities, towns and villages. Community organisers are not about replacing existing jobs or services; they are about people power, giving social entrepreneurs, charity workers and volunteers the real tools to help themselves. One example is the work of community organiser, Tania Swanson, in Clacton in Essex. She works with the Rural Community Council of Essex to assist with projects on affordable housing, energy efficiency and community farming, as well as on many other community initiatives.

The big society has meant the establishment of the Centre for Social Action, too, which has seen an investment of around £70 million of real money from the Cabinet Office, commissioners, local authorities, philanthropists and other partners into 215 social action projects in England, working alongside and helping public services. Just as the Government have liberated business entrepreneurs from red tape and regulation, so the big society has worked to free charities, voluntary groups and social entrepreneurs from red tape. There has been £200 million of investment to help charities transform themselves to be more effective. We have seen the creation of the world’s first social investment bank, Big Society Capital. A prime example of that, and one I know about, is the £825,000 invested into the Essex social impact bond to help vulnerable young people avoid care or custody and stay at home with their families.

To me, perhaps one of the most exciting and forward-looking of the big society projects is the National Citizen Service, which was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham. It gives young people a real chance in life and a real experience of community ethos, social action and important skills that they will have for life. Over 5 million hours of volunteering has been given by NCS participants to their local communities; that is a whole generation for whom social action has become the norm, not the exception. Ensuring that future generations are more socially minded is key to the work of the National Citizen Service. A lot of work has been done to help young people. In my constituency of Harlow, we have the Young Concern Trust, which does an enormous amount to support disadvantaged young people.

I said earlier that the big society was about social capital, social entrepreneurship and people power, and that that is the continued mission of the Government over the next five years.

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Dr Poulter: Will the Minister give way?

Robert Halfon: I will not—I am very sorry, but I have to get on.

So what does this mean in practice? It means a continued investment in our charities, continued support for social action, and continued backing for giving and philanthropy. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich talked about volunteering. We believe that the planned entitlement will help build stronger communities and a stronger economy by creating a more motivated and productive workforce. It has been shown that people who volunteer also have significantly higher levels of life satisfaction. Many businesses across the country already run great volunteering programmes that empower their staff and help build stronger communities. During this Parliament, the Government plan to make that an entitlement for those working in the public sector and large companies.

We are also working to make social investment an integral part of the investment landscape. Earlier this year, Access—the new £100 million social investment foundation—was launched. By helping organisations to become investment-ready, Access will be critical to our continued efforts to ensure social investment is working for more organisations and is accessible by more people. We, as a Government, can use social investment to deliver a more just society.

Alongside social investment, Government are rapidly extending the scope and reach of social impact bonds to tackle youth unemployment, mental health, homelessness and children in care. Through funding for initiatives such as the Centre for Social Impact Bonds and the Social Outcomes Fund, we can help to build a strong, resilient sector.

So what do we plan for this Parliament? What do we want to see over the next five years? We want to see increased levels of social action and volunteering, creating stronger, more resilient and empowered communities, and increased resources going into the civil society sector through more giving and philanthropy, as well as more social investment enabling investors who want to use their money to have a profound social impact. We want more businesses actively building social capital as well as economic capital—helping to build a more compassionate economy—and, of course, better and more responsive public services, ensuring that they work hand in hand with the expertise, humanity, and dignity of the big society of community and volunteers.

Dr Poulter: On volunteering, I wonder whether the Minister may be able to look at—and perhaps do some work with the Law Society on—pro bono work from solicitors. A lot of big law firms do not give their lawyers time off to perform pro bono work. The only way we can change that is not through dealing with firms, but by putting a requirement on lawyers through the Law Society which then, in turn, would put pressure on firms to act. Will he look at working with the Law Society to encourage more pro bono work?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend raises a very interesting point. I am lucky in my constituency, because I have a pro bono lawyer who very kindly helps us with difficult legal cases with my constituents. I am sure that the Minister for Civil Society will look at that issue.

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I firmly believe that we are on the brink of something special in our country: where we continue to create millions of jobs and apprenticeships, where public services offer more choice and are focused on the security that everybody needs, but most importantly, where the big society flourishes like never before, so that even in difficult economic circumstances, with the strong backing of this Government, millions of social entrepreneurs, community-minded individuals, charity workers and others give all they can to make our country a better place to live.

3.58 pm

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered funding for the community and voluntary sector.

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African Lion Numbers

[Fabian Hamilton in the Chair]

3.59 pm

Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the decline in African lion numbers.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hamilton, to serve under your chairmanship. It is good to have the opportunity to draw attention to the continuing and worrying decline in the number of African lions. This is by no means the first such debate in this Chamber. Almost precisely five years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) secured one during which he identified the pressures on the species that have accumulated over several decades.

In his debate, my hon. Friend pointed out that in the 1960s it was estimated that some 200,000 lions roamed the African continent. At the time of his debate, the numbers had declined to some 20,000. However, more recent estimates indicate that the number of lions has now declined to fewer than 15,000—by any standards, that is worrying. In central and western Africa, only a few scattered groups remain. It is estimated that in all Africa only six significant populations are left: in Tanzania, northern Botswana and the Kruger national park in South Africa. Data released in June by the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that the African lion population has undergone a reduction of approximately 43% over the past 21 years. The IUCN has accordingly classified the species overall as vulnerable.

The more detailed picture is mixed. In South Africa, the lion is categorised as of least concern on the IUCN’s red list, although that assessment is a matter of some dispute. In west Africa, the lion meets the criteria for “critically endangered”. The IUCN reports that lions have been extirpated in 12 African countries and it is suspected that there has been recent extirpation in another four.

A recent paper in the proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences comments that the

“rapid disappearance of lions suggests a major trophic downgrading of African ecosystems with the lion no longer playing a pivotal role as apex predator.”

There are various reasons for the decline in African lion numbers. The IUCN reports that the most important is indiscriminate killing in defence of human life and livestock, habitat loss and prey-based depletion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out five years ago, lion habitat is increasingly being given over to agriculture to feed rapidly growing human populations. He said:

“Where lions come into contact with humans, history has long shown that lions must make way.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 315WH.]

The change in land use means that the lion is being progressively excluded from its ancient habitats. A paper published in the proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences suggests that intensively managed locations

“in southern Africa may soon supersede the savannah landscapes in east Africa as the most successful sites for lion conservation”.

Certainly in southern Africa, lion population numbers are under less threat, but that is due in part to the reintroduction of lions not into the wild as we would

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know it, but into small, intensively-managed and funded reserves. I suggest that it is a matter of the utmost sadness that so important a creature as the African lion should be consigned to a future life behind fences.

The word “iconic” is one of the most over-used but it can be justly applied to the lion. It is indeed the noblest of creatures, featuring prominently in the iconography of many nations over many centuries; nowhere is that more the case than here in the Palace of Westminster, where carved stone lions are among the most prominent decorative features of this great building. Indeed, all of us in this Chamber today passed a stone lion seated at the foot of the stairs just outside the Jubilee Room.

In no country on earth is the lion more revered than here in Britain. Indeed, it is our national symbol, featuring everywhere from our royal arms to the door knocker of No. 10 Downing Street. Our national rugby side is named after it. Three lions appear on the English football shirt and, going one better, four lions appear on the standard of the Prince of Wales. The red lion is featured on the Scottish standard and perhaps best known of all are the four Landseer lions that guard the monument to our national hero, Nelson, in Trafalgar Square.

The lion is important to us in Britain and I believe that we as a nation can and should do more to safeguard its future. For example, given the declining trend in lion numbers, it is astonishing that the despicable sport of hunting lions for trophies is still allowed. No other species in such worrying decline has been allowed to suffer additional mortality for commercial purposes. A particular concern is that trophy hunting targets male lions, a very small part of the lion population.

4.5 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.14 pm

On resuming

Mr Jones: I was saying that a particular concern is that trophy hunting targets male lions—a very small part of the lion population. Targeting male lions has had significant consequences for lion populations, because lions are social animals. In addition, new males that take over the pride of a dead lion will resort to infanticide—killing the cubs of the former dominant male. The rapid replacement of male lions in prides, caused by excessive trophy hunting, will therefore result in negative reproductive rates among lion populations, hastening the process of decline.

Of course, the trophy hunting of lions is a practice that continues overseas, beyond the reach even of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, Britain is in a pivotal position internationally. It is an important member of the European Union, the Commonwealth and international conservation bodies such as the convention on international trade in endangered species—CITES. I believe that Britain should be exerting its influence to help to reduce the level of sport hunting that goes on in Africa.

Sport hunting achieved international attention, not to mention notoriety, earlier this year with the shooting in Zimbabwe of Cecil the lion. Cecil was one of the best known lions in Africa. He had been studied by Oxford

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University scientists as part of a project that had run since 1999. He had an ugly and distressing death: he was lured out of the reserve in which he lived, shot with a bow and arrow, stalked for a further 40 hours and then killed by a dentist from Minnesota who was armed with a rifle. Cecil was then skinned and his head was removed as a trophy. The dentist in question has been on the receiving end of much international opprobrium since that incident. I mention it now not to add to his already considerable discomfiture, but to draw attention to what can only be described as a sordid industry that is affecting the viability of the species, while causing huge individual distress to these beautiful creatures.

The Cecil episode illuminated the dark side of trophy hunting. It also gave the lie to the often repeated suggestion that trophy hunting somehow contributes to sustaining the species. If trophy hunting is indeed sustainable, why do the operators of trophy hunts resort to illegal activities such as luring a lion out of a game reserve? If their activities are indeed sustainable, the organisers’ concessions should be brimming with lions, but the fact is that they are not.

The truth is that trophy hunting is a nasty, despicable business that contributes to the depletion of lion numbers. I believe that ideally it should be stopped and that our Government could do much more to help to stop it. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to call on the British representative on CITES to help to end the promotion of the concept of “sustainable” trophy hunting. That concept has been promoted for more than two decades, but there is nothing to show for it in terms of lion conservation.

I also urge the Government to engage more actively in preventing the further decline of African lions and to help to put in place strictly scientifically based conservation programmes. An early step should be the funding of an independent and impartial census that will for the first time establish precisely what lion populations remain, so that we can assess more accurately the true scale of the problem.

Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. The World Wide Fund for Nature predicts that between 30% and 50% of all species will be heading towards extinction by 2050. Does my right hon Friend agree with me and the other members of the all-party group on endangered species that the international community urgently needs to take steps to safeguard wildlife and push for greater co-operation to secure habitats, stop poachers and end the illegal wildlife trade?

Mr Jones: I agree entirely. This is an international issue and it requires international co-ordination. While I am referring to my hon. Friend, I should congratulate him on being the chair of the newly formed all-party group on endangered species. That group was long overdue for establishment, and I am glad to see him as its chair.

Wildlife tourism accounts for more than 10% of GDP in some African lion range states that still allow trophy hunting. The Government should be explaining that a lion can be shot only once with a rifle, but many thousands of times with a camera. In

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the long term, photographic tourism is much more beneficial both to the economies of those African states and to lion numbers.

We should also bear down on the import of lion trophies by banning it. Australia recently imposed such a ban, the first in the world, and I am delighted to say that last week France followed suit. We in Britain should not lag behind.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing our attention to a very serious issue. He has painted a necessarily bleak picture. I agree with him that conservation is very important, and trophy hunting should be banned. Does he agree that organisations such as AfriCat, which has worked for 25 years in Namibia with the local population to sustain and grow the lion population, show us the way we should be going? Does he agree that we need to see more such organisations and fewer attempts to reduce the lion population through hunting?

Mr Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are a number of effective charities, many of them British-based, and I shall refer to another one later.

I would like to mention the loathsome practice of the so-called canned hunting of lions, which is practised mainly in South Africa. Lions are reared from tiny cubs by paying volunteers who are recruited by agencies, some of which are based here in the United Kingdom. The volunteers believe that they are contributing to the conservation of the species.

As the cubs grow, they are made available to be petted by visitors and even rented out as accessories at wedding ceremonies. As they grow further, they are used for lion-walking safaris, which are priced at about $200 per participant. When they become too large and dangerous, they are placed in enclosures to be visited by the paying public as though in a properly managed zoo. When they attain the right size, they are offered to trophy hunters to be shot in enclosures at a price of up to $50,000. Finally in this chain of profitable exploitation, their bones are exported to the far east where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine. That is the most disgraceful and revolting abuse of an important and beautiful creature, and it was extensively revealed in a recent film, “Blood Lions”. British trophy hunters participate in that disgusting practice, and I believe that the Government should at least ensure that they are prevented from returning to this country with the spoils of their activities.

Finally, may I commend the activities of the British charity LionAid, which has done much to help focus international attention on the crisis that threatens to wipe out this important species? Christine MacSween and Dr Pieter Kat of LionAid are both here today, and I thank them both for the help that they have given me in preparing for this debate. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) has been able to attend the debate, and I again wish him well in his new role as chair of the all-party group on endangered species.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what the British Government propose to do to help to conserve this important species, which is so dear to the hearts of the British people.

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4.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) for raising this incredibly important issue. Lions matter to us, both in themselves and as a symbol of natural and ecological challenges throughout Africa. They matter in themselves because they are probably the most dramatic, charismatic, impressive and splendid animals that we have inherited in the world. They matter in terms of conservation more generally because the issues that affect them are very similar to those that affect elephants, rhinos and other wildlife across Africa. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the issue as a way of getting us to think about it, and because, to some extent, lions have been underrated in comparison with other animals in recent studies on conservation and extinction.

The central question regarding lions recently has been about the decline in their numbers. Conducting scientific analyses of lion numbers is challenging and there has been a lot of controversy about how many lions we have, but there is absolutely no doubt among members of the scientific community that the number of lions has declined. Whether we have 37,000 or 23,000 lions, and whether or not the decline has been exactly 43%, there is absolutely no doubt that we had far more lions 20 years ago and 50 years ago than we have today.

The primary reason for the decline in lion numbers, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, is the loss of habitat. Lions’ habitat, above all, has to accommodate the large range that these predators require and the prey on which they feed. The expansion of human activities has had a major impact on lions’ habitat. Since humans emerged in the very centre of lion territory, they have found ways to live alongside lions. Central to Maasai culture is the way in which people think about living alongside lions. Over the past 50 to 60 years, however, communities that plant crops and try to keep stock in those areas have found it increasingly challenging to live alongside lions.

As a result, lions live predominantly in protected areas, where there are severe restrictions on what humans can do. Such areas fall into two categories. The first category is national parks, which are the ideal place to locate lions. The Serengeti contains incredible examples of the combination of an ideal habitat for lions with one of the great migratory spectacles of the world—with, of course, a serious income from eco-tourism and photography. The second category is protected hunting areas, which account for about 650,000 sq km of territory. In other words, an area about three times the size of England is devoted to hunting areas for lions.

My right hon. Friend is pushing, quite rightly, for what seems to be the ideal solution, which is to convert those hunting areas into national parks. If that happened, the income in those areas would come from tourism and they would not experience the significant problems of conservation and animal welfare that have been associated with hunting. That would seem to be the ideal situation.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tanzania. I pay

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tribute to the Tanzanian Government for categorising and gazetting so many additional thousands of square kilometres as national parks over many years.

Rory Stewart: I will pick up on that issue, because it relates exactly to our current position. The Tanzanian Government are a good example. Just under half the lions in the world live in Tanzania, in areas that are many times the size of Wales. The Tanzanian Government face a series of serious challenges. Approximately 15% of the population have access to any form of electricity, fewer than that have access to sewerage, and many are living on incomes of $1.50 a day. During my lifetime, the population of Tanzania is likely to increase from 10 million when I was born to 160 million by the time I am 70, if I am lucky enough to live that long. Such an increase imposes huge pressures on the protected areas that we depend on for lion habitats.

To return to my argument, the main challenge is not what will happen to the national parks, although there are challenges facing the national parks, such as fragmentation, incursion, poaching and disease—particularly canine-born disease, which has been mapped by Craig Packer in the Serengeti. The question we need to ask is what should be done with the hunting areas. The ideal solution would be to convert them into national parks, and there have been experiments in that direction—a famous ecologist recently took over a hunting licence, established a lodge and tried to run it as an eco-tourism area. The question is whether that is what African Governments would be likely to do with those areas if hunting were removed.

We have two case studies to look at. The first, which has been much discussed, is Kenya, where hunting was banned in the 1970s. It is very difficult to get a good scientific base on Kenya, because the Kenyan population and the pressure on land are so high that is difficult to get reliable indications. The big case study that we need to look at is Botswana. Botswana has now banned lion hunting and will be the litmus test of whether the previous hunting areas will now be protected—indeed, the President and the Minister for Environment, Wildlife and Tourism are heavily committed to protecting those areas—or whether, with a change in Government, the pressure, particularly from the cattle industry, will mean that in three, five, seven or ten years’ time, that land is given over to farmland instead of being protected as national parks. That is relevant because it is predominantly because of farming practices and human population pressure that lions are now largely constrained to areas such as Tanzania and southern Kenya, and have been lost across a great deal of west Africa. That has been the major reason for the decline in African lion populations across the continent. Botswana will be a key litmus test.

Andy Slaughter: The Minister mentions the obvious conflict between farming and lion habitats. The AfriCat project, to which I referred, is about indigenous populations accommodating lions—learning to live alongside them and learning which livestock can be protected—so that the two can live together in one world. The project, which I recommend, is called “Conservation Through Education”. I also say, as a plug, that AfriCat is being sponsored as part of “Giving Tuesday”, which the Government support very much.

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Rory Stewart: That is an important point. This is not a black and white issue, nor an either/or. There are very good projects of exactly that sort. In addition to the project to which the hon. Gentlemanrefers, DEFRA has worked with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit—WildCRU. It has recently done an extraordinary project, which has seen a decline of nearly 50% in predation of lions by communities using some of the measures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Such measures include radio collaring of lions so that communities can be alerted to the proximity of lions; the use of donkeys and dogs to alert people; better stock management techniques; and compensation for the loss of stock to lions. All those need to be part of the panoply of measures taken to ensure that human populations and lion populations continue to live happily together. They must absolutely be taken on board, and that will be one of the challenges. It is one of the things that people have been looking closely at in Kenya, and on which we can make more improvements across the board.

In the end, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) implied, and indeed as my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West stated, these are issues predominantly for African countries. The challenge for the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States is, above all, to conserve lion populations. What we should be doing—the end for all of us to bear in mind—is trying to ensure that we end up with a stable, serious, resilient lion population in 25, 50, 100 and 500 years’ time. The question of the means to that end is a massive scientific controversy. George Schaller and Craig Packer have weighed in, and Andrew Loveridge and David Macdonald from Oxford University have contributed a great deal on the subject.

For DEFRA, trophy hunting is a serious issue. We have to ensure that when hunting takes place, at the very least it does not involve the kind of activities that my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West mentioned. Therefore, I use this opportunity to state that the Government will ban the importation of trophies into Britain unless we see very significant improvements in what is happening in Africa. We will look closely at key indicators, including the age of the lions involved—the latest scientific research pushes for that to be over six. As an interim measure, we will look closely at quotas and at international verification.

The Government have already moved to take Benin and Ethiopia off the list of countries from which we are prepared to import lion trophies, and we will be moving against Zambia and Mozambique. We are working with our European Union and American partners to make it very clear that, unless there is a significant improvement in the performance of the hunting industry and of those countries, this Government will move to ban lion trophies.

Mr David Jones: I am pleased to hear that announcement. Will the Minister go a little further and give some indication as to over how long a period this assessment will take place?

Rory Stewart: As the Minister, I would like this to happen in a short timeframe. I am looking at something in the order of two years, but we need to pin that down. I want to ensure that we work closely with the academic experts and the African countries. The only way in

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which conservation will work is by bringing African countries with us. It will not work by me pontificating, or by alienating populations including a Tanzanian population that has many problems. However, I am talking about something of that level. We need to set a deadline, have clear indicators and to say, “If we haven’t achieved our objectives by that date, we will ban the importation of trophies.” The key is not only the United Kingdom and Europe but the United States. We have to bring the United States with us. The number of licensed trophies that came into Britain last year was two. The difference will happen at an international level, and we have to work with Europe and the United States.

In the meantime, I am proud that DEFRA continues to fund serious projects through the Darwin initiative and the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund in order to provide for the protection of lions. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West for securing the debate, and I thank LionAid for its work in raising the issue in our consciousness. I look forward to continuing this serious, scientific discussion to achieve what we all want—the preservation of lions.

Question put and agreed to.

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Fuel Poverty

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): Before we start the debate, I have a brief announcement. A digital debate has taken place ahead of today’s debate on fuel poverty. Mr Speaker has granted a derogation to allow the use of electronic devices in the Public Gallery for the duration of the debate—although there do not seem to be many people in the Public Gallery. Devices should be silent and photos must not be taken.

4.38 pm

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered fuel poverty.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. The independent charity National Energy Action estimates that two thirds of working parents will not meet their energy costs. Alarmingly, it has discovered that 67% of people with disabilities are already signalling struggles. Tomorrow, the Chancellor will set out Government proposals for spending and there is an opportunity to take action on poverty. There are large opportunities—big things that can be done—and other straightforward measures that the UK Government can take forward to support those under pressure and to reduce costs.

Fuel poverty is a thief. It creeps into homes virtually unnoticed. It steals into people’s lives, begins taking people’s health, starts stripping them of their dignity and forces them to make choices that none of us would want to face. It makes its mark over years and months, often with the victim unaware of its progress in the first instance until the bills start hitting the mat.

People expect to be able to switch on the lights. If we find our house is getting cold, we want that cold vanquished. People should not be living in uncomfortable houses but, at first, they try to get by. They see whether they can cope. They make do. They make changes to the way they run things, and they make choices. They might turn the heating down or use it a little less; they might put on some more clothes. They will do more with their household budget to try to do what they can. They basically try to manage the impossible, but that becomes harder as next month rolls around and they have to go again, so they make choices about what groceries they buy, what they get for their children and what clothes they wear. Another bill hits the mat, and the worry starts to bed in and the sleepless nights take effect, and then the dreaded red bills start arriving and dignity starts to be stripped away.

The cycle of mental and physical deterioration caused by fuel poverty starts to work on people’s health. Children in the cold have issues with concentration; it affects their homework and, of course, their future chances in life. Children are also at risk of respiratory problems. Many hon. Members present will have knocked on doors during the election campaign to speak to people who are fighting fuel poverty in damp houses and who complain about their children being unwell, but it affects adolescents, too. Many mental health problems, once the contributing factors are stripped out, can be accounted for by fuel poverty. I was surprised by a statistic from National Energy Action that fuel poverty is a bigger killer than road accidents, alcohol and drug misuse combined.

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The nations of the UK are split into 14 electricity regions, but in the highlands in my constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, and across other nearby constituencies, our consumers are having to face electricity tariff charges of 2p to 6p a unit more than people elsewhere. There are parts of the highlands where fuel poverty has hit 70%. Electricity is charged at a premium in the coldest and darkest places. We are told that the cost of transmitting power makes electricity more expensive for people in the highlands, which is a terrible irony in a place with great renewable energy resource and a history of energy expertise. Of course, there is enormous renewable energy potential not only throughout Scotland but throughout the UK and Europe.

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): My hon. Friend is making a valid point. Would it not be better to address fuel poverty by having a strategic overview of the electricity system? That would mean a fairer transmission charging system in the national grid that allows further renewable energy in the area about which he is talking. Does he share my concern that electricity poverty can only get worse following the deal to sign the Hinkley Point C agreement with a £92.50 per megawatt-hour strike rate, which is twice the market rate, with Government plans for more nuclear power stations to come?

Drew Hendry: I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a clear problem. Later, I will outline more measures that I believe could be taken in addition to the ones he rightly points out.

The highlands and islands pay more to produce electricity because of the way in which the system is currently set up, and residents pay more to use electricity, which is hardly a great story; it is definitely not a plan for people. The UK Government have spoken warm words about fuel poverty, yet families still sit freezing at home. The inaction is cold comfort to those facing such difficulties. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we need a new national pricing structure that is fair to people across those areas where the hardest conditions are faced. That solution must be based not on robbing Peter to pay Paul but on something that is fair across the piece. We need to consider something that does not just shift the problem from one place to another. The issue should be addressed.

Fuel poverty is not unique to the highlands and islands, and the constituents of many hon. Members in Scotland and across the rest of the UK face similar issues. National Energy Action, which I quoted earlier, estimates that 4.5 million people are facing fuel poverty. The austerity agenda being pushed forward by the UK Government will further hit people on low incomes, which will have the combined effect of ensuring that those struggling the most with poverty and fuel poverty face the coldest cuts. The proposed cuts to tax credits and the changes to social security have the potential to drive fuel poverty to catastrophic levels. Of the people who are already struggling, and nearly half have been struggling for more than a year, only 12%—there is a big communication job to be done—have told their energy supplier and only 5% have sought advice from a supporting organisation.

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Stuart Blair Donaldson (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s policy of encouraging customers to switch is completely useless for many of my constituents, as it is for many of his constituents? In some parts of my constituency 80% of local tenants are on dynamically teleswitched all-electric systems, which can be provided by only one fuel supplier. That, coupled with the 2p per kilowatt-hour surcharge, demonstrates that we need a real and practical solution for those in fuel poverty in rural areas of Scotland.

Drew Hendry: I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need a more equitable solution that takes people out of situations in which they have limited choice, or no choice at all. Later, I hope to propose at least a partial solution for the future, but we need action now, too. That must be taken on board. As I said, fuel poverty is not unique to people in the highlands and islands. In the past year, a third of those who are already struggling have skipped a meal to try to afford their bills; 20% are suffering from stress or mental health issues because of fuel poverty; and 40% are struggling with other essential bills.

As the Chair mentioned, I took part in an openDemocracy forum yesterday with MoneySavingExpert.com. The issues raised in that forum, and in subsequent emails to me, were common with those of my constituents in many cases. Highlanders are mostly off the gas grid, which they have in common with some 4 million households across the UK. If people are unable to gain access to the grid, they have to rely on alternative energy sources, including heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, electricity and solid fuels. The average cost of heating a three-bedroom house with heating oil is circa 50% higher than the UK average; those using LPG pay 100% more on average than those with mains gas. There is limited opportunity to switch to other alternatives. In Scotland, people living off the gas grid are more than twice as likely to be living in fuel poverty as those with mains gas.

The Scottish Government have put in £0.5 billion since 2009 to introduce a raft of fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes. Uniquely, they have brought into being the Scottish rural taskforce, with which I recently had the pleasure to interact, to find ways of making it easier and more affordable for people in rural and remote areas of Scotland to heat their homes. In 2015-16, an unprecedented £119 million has been allocated to fuel poverty and energy efficiency measures, split between advice and support services for householders through the “home energy Scotland” network and a variety of home energy efficiency programmes—HEEPs. Since 2008, nearly one in three of all households has had energy efficiency measures put in place. The Scottish Government have done more to help than the UK Government and other devolved Administrations, with Energy Action Scotland’s report from 2013-14 showing that the average energy savings are £36.48 in Scotland, £31.31 in Wales, £27.55 in Northern Ireland, and £3.52 in England.

There are some issues that could be addressed. For a start, the off-grid energy sector is not covered by Ofgem or the energy ombudsman, which is a deficit that could very easily be rectified. As my hon. Friends have mentioned, there should be a fairer pricing structure across the UK that removes the inequality and prevents people from being charged more in the coldest and darkest areas.

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Measures could be taken on prepayment meters, which routinely charge people more than other billing methods. The forthcoming roll-out of smart meters offers an opportunity to give homeowners and constituents meaningful advice about how to use them, and the UK Government should also consider ensuring people can switch seamlessly from one supplier to another through the smart meter, without having to make an application. It should happen automatically to give people the lowest possible tariff. Wholesale prices should be passed on immediately by the energy companies to consumers as fuel savings. There should not be a delay.

A ComRes poll to be published tomorrow for the No Cold Homes campaign showed that 81% of people think that the UK Government should do more on fuel poverty, and 82% of people surveyed believe that the energy sector should do more. Tomorrow, the Chancellor will have an opportunity to take measures to increase household incomes by abandoning tax credit cuts. Austerity is not working for people. The cost of poverty through austerity is more misery. The solution to poverty is not to push those closest to the edge into further crisis. It is time to dump the failed dogma of austerity and turn to a path that focuses on the outcome of a fairer and healthier society.

4.51 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) on securing it. He has four places to represent; I just have the one.

I apologise for having to leave. I have something else to go to, so I will not be here to hear the Minister, the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), reply. She and I have a strong relationship in the House; she spoke at a party meeting and dinner of mine back home when she was a lowly Back Bencher. We have participated in many debates in this House, and it is always good to come along to another. I would love to hear her reply, but I will read it in Hansard tomorrow. I know that it will be positive and responsive to what we are saying and asking for.

I am concerned that in this day and age, people across our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the fifth largest economy in the world, are unable to heat their homes, as the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said in his introduction. I hope that all hon. Members present—and those who wanted to attend but could not, or have had to go and could not share their concerns—look forward to identifying the best way forward. The hon. Gentleman concluded his introduction with some ideas about how we can do that better. It is important that we have not just complaints but solutions; it is always good, and much more constructive, to have a solution when bringing forward a problem.

Despite the fact that it has been an issue for a number of years now, fuel poverty continues to grow across our nation. The population in my constituency, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom, is ageing. Inaction on this issue will only allow the negative trend to continue. The time for action is now. We can all talk about protecting the most vulnerable in our society—and we should, because it is important—but we need action as well as words. The proof of any pudding is in

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the eating. Clearly, given that fuel poverty is rising across this country, it has been all talk and not enough action.

The time for action is now, and I hope that it starts today. Average electricity costs in Northern Ireland are 15% higher than on the mainland, so we know only too well the consequences of fuel poverty. We have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom; the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister estimates that up to 42% of Northern Irish households—believe it or not, those are the figures—experience fuel poverty. It is a massive issue. No matter how hard we try, this debate will not adequately reflect that 42%, a rate 13% higher than in Wales and a further 27% than in England.

Of course, regional circumstances go some way towards explaining the disparity, such as the electricity prices that I mentioned earlier and a higher dependence on oil for heating due to an underdeveloped natural gas network. There have been some good steps forward on the natural gas network. I supported the announcement in the summertime by one of the gas companies that there would be gas in Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch in my constituency. That is good news. It has not been for want of asking—people have been asking for it for five, six and even seven years—but it is good that the gas network is at least advancing through my constituency, to give people another option. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said in his speech, options are not available, because there is no competition. We need that as well.

As I have said, regional circumstances across the country will dictate people’s fuel situation. That is just one. Measures such as the winter fuel allowance and payments to alleviate fuel poverty are well and good—we have used such methods in Northern Ireland to help those in need, and it has been a positive factor—but the fact remains that although they might help people get through the winter, they do not address the problem. We must address it in the long term.

Competition in electricity supplies has brought the price down for some who are able to switch, but for some people it is not as simple as having an alternative. Changing sometimes involves a cost factor that many cannot make. They cannot absorb that financial cost to move over to a different rate. I would be interested to hear, if not directly then by reading it tomorrow, what the Minister thinks can be done to enable those on low incomes to transfer from one energy source to another.

We need investment in the appropriate infrastructure so that regional disparities are reduced and the costs for those in more expensive regions are reduced. Action in Northern Ireland on fuel poverty has focused primarily on improving energy efficiency in homes and enhancing the quality of insulation and heating systems. Just last Thursday, I had the opportunity to ask the Minister during questions what was being done to help those in park homes, for instance, who need help on efficiency. She answered my question, and was helpful in her response, but many people in park homes are in the 55 to 80 age bracket. They are people who need heat more.

Maybe something could be targeted specifically at those in park homes, so they could take advantage of it to improve their energy efficiency. Quality insulation could be installed in many homes, and heating systems upgraded. Boiler systems have been done in Northern

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Ireland, and I am sure they could be done elsewhere. I know that similar approaches have been used here on the mainland. We should continue to pursue such approaches where they work, but fuel poverty is still increasing across the country, even after the drop in oil prices, and the population is ageing. Those are the factors that we must consider.

We need to step up more than we have in the past. I am not being critical of anyone, Mr Hamilton; you know that that is not my way of doing things. However, I am keen to hear how the Minister and her Department can help the people who most need it right now. I thank the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for giving me the chance to participate this debate and to highlight the issues in Northern Ireland.

Several hon. Members rose

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me repeat an announcement that I made before those in the Public Gallery arrived; it is directed towards them. A digital debate has taken place ahead of this debate, and Mr Speaker has granted a derogation to allow the use of electronic devices in the Public Gallery for the duration of this debate. Devices should be silent, and photos must not be taken.

4.58 pm

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton, and to take part in this debate. I commend the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—I think that I have pronounced his constituency correctly—on securing it and on bringing a human element to the discussion. That is what we are all interested in: making a positive difference and improving the human condition. That is, I hope, the primary objective of Members on all sides of this Chamber. It is also very much at the heart, and in the spirit, of what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said in his opening remarks. It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who picked up on that theme and focused the debate firmly on the need to look after our most vulnerable constituents.

In the last Parliament, we had debates on fuel poverty but we often got bogged down in definitions, which was sometimes helpful but sometimes unhelpful. There has been some difference historically across the United Kingdom, between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government, on how fuel poverty is defined. Generally, it is when more than 10% of someone’s income is spent on an adequate heating regime, but there has been some concern about how to define a “heating regime”. I believe that has led to a more complex formula, based on the Hills review, which will now be put in place generally to define what is meant by fuel poverty.

So far in this debate, we have not got bogged down in the exact definition of fuel poverty—if we had been, it would have detracted from the point because we are talking about the living conditions and the social circumstances of some of our most vulnerable constituents: people with mental illness, pensioners on fixed incomes

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and, very often, people who are unemployed. We are also talking about people who live in what is often some of the most challenging housing, in that it lacks good insulation and good home energy efficiency measures. Much of that is in the private rented sector; the housing of many people living in fuel poverty is from the private rented sector. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address that issue in her remarks.

However, it is worth highlighting that we have made some progress in addressing fuel poverty. The figures that I will cite are for England. As of 2013, the huge number of 2.35 million households in England were regarded as being in fuel poverty. Nevertheless, that is a fall from the number for 2010, which was 2.49 million. So progress has been made in reducing the number of households in fuel poverty, and that progress is welcome.

Commendable improvements have been put in place thanks to Government initiatives to improve energy efficiency across the country, with 3.8 million lofts and 2.1 million cavities being insulated through Government schemes since March 2010. The Government have a right to be proud of that record, but clearly there is still a lot more to do. In that context, we should recognise that there are 6 million households with a low income that have an energy efficiency of band D or lower, but as of July 2015 only 1.6 million energy efficiency measures had been installed in about 1.3 million of those homes. There are still many more homes in fuel poverty that we need to help, and many more people in those homes who need help to reduce their energy bills and to ensure that they can make ends meet.

I will touch briefly on the green deal, because the concept was a good one. However, the green deal was difficult to understand and often difficult to communicate. In helping people to tackle high energy bills, perhaps one of the issues—there may be lessons to be learned from Scotland in this regard—was that local authorities were not as proactively engaged in the process of delivering the green deal as they were in the delivery of more successful schemes, nor as proactive as local authorities in Scotland were in the delivery of the green deal. Perhaps we should reflect on that when we consider how we can support measures for households in fuel poverty in the future. Nevertheless, the concept behind the green deal was good.

Where are we now? A commendable initiative has been put in place. I believe that by 2018 rented homes will need to have energy performance certificates of band E or better, which will place a strong requirement on landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties and help to improve some of the least well insulated homes. Of course, that will also help the people living in those homes to reduce their home energy bills.

There is clearly a requirement on Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government to work collaboratively with the Minister who is here today and support her in ensuring that this important initiative, which will help to better insulate some of the worst insulated homes, is enforced, and so that DCLG puts pressure on local councils, which I believe can keep the income from any fines imposed as a result of the initiative, to enforce fines on landlords who do not comply with this requirement. This initiative can make a real difference to some of the most fuel-poor homes in the country.

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We also have to encourage a more active engagement, perhaps through citizens advice bureaux and other organisations, from energy consumers who live in poorer homes. Notwithstanding the good point of information made about some of the challenges in highland and island homes, we know that the consumers who are more engaged with energy switching on the internet, often more affluent than other consumers, have often benefited from the energy market. However, there has been a challenge in ensuring that market competition reaches and benefits some of the people in fuel-poor homes and some of the most vulnerable consumers.

I wonder what the Minister’s thoughts are about addressing that issue, and whether there may be some initiatives that her Department is considering to support and work with the CAB or other organisations to take this process forward. The energy market can work and deliver lower bills for consumers, but we know that it has not worked effectively and efficiently for the most vulnerable consumers. I am sure that we would all like to see that situation change and that there are mechanisms to achieve that change. Partnership with local authorities, as well as with the CAB and other voluntary organisations, may well be a way of better engaging consumers and helping to deliver the benefits of the energy market to the most vulnerable in our society.

Finally, I will speak briefly on the issue of rural communities, which was outlined very articulately in earlier contributions about highland and island communities—some of the most rural communities in the United Kingdom. However, there are also many constituencies from Cornwall to Suffolk to Lincolnshire—indeed, throughout the United Kingdom—that have remote rural energy consumers. Those consumers are often off the gas grid and reliant on other mechanisms to heat their homes.

In particular, there is a challenge for those consumers who rely on oil; I believe that 8% of consumers in rural areas use oil to heat their homes. The price of kerosene has dropped recently, which has been beneficial for those consumers, but we know that there are huge fluctuations in the cost of heating homes through oil and kerosene. I would be grateful to hear my hon. Friend the Minister’s comments about how we can support those consumers who rely on oil and off-grid consumers in general. Perhaps we could examine the issue of biofuels and consider how its use can be better supported in the years ahead.

There are some positive things: fewer households in England were suffering fuel poverty in 2013 compared with 2010. However, there are still a number of issues to consider, which are related to how we can better engage and better support vulnerable consumers, particularly in rural and remote areas. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s response to the debate.

5.8 pm

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), which is the neighbouring constituency to mine, for securing this important debate. It is important, as other hon. Members have said, with millions of households around the United Kingdom being affected by fuel poverty. As I look around Westminster Hall on the day when the

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Scottish National party has its Supply day and a number of SNP Members are heavily engaged in the main Chamber, I am glad to say that there are seven SNP MPs here out of a total of 12 MPs. One has to ask the question, “Where is the Labour party?” It is missing from the debate in Scotland, having let the people of Scotland down, and its MPs cannot even be bothered to discuss this important subject, which affects constituents throughout the rest of the UK. It is no wonder that the people of Scotland have fallen out of love with the Labour party in our country.

I will deal specifically with fuel poverty in the highlands and islands. I am grateful to Changeworks, which has estimated the percentage of households in fuel poverty in that region. It bands each locality in the highlands into groups, and by its calculations there is no district in my constituency that has less than 47.9% of households in fuel poverty. In a number of districts, fuel poverty is evident in at least 73.5% of households. The Highland Council states that the context is that

“the Highlands and Islands of Scotland experience the harshest climatic conditions in the UK and record levels of fuel poverty”—

levels that are unprecedented. It goes on to say that

“there is far greater, area-wide dependence on the use of electricity for heating as well as lighting but the standard unit price charged is 2p a kw/hr more than in most other parts of the UK and 6p and more for the various ‘economy’ tariffs on offer”—

a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey made earlier. The council continues:

“On top of all this there is also a far greater reliance in off-gas areas on using domestic heating oil and solid fuel which pushes up household heating costs further still.”

As someone who lives in a rural area, I can say that it is one thing to rely on electricity coming through the grid, but having to check the oil tank frequently and ensure that there are adequate supplies of solid fuel is a different matter. According to the council:

“As a result, domestic energy bills in off-gas areas are, on average, around £1000 more per annum than the £1369 pa dual fuel national average (2014)”—

that is the cost of living in many of our rural areas, and wage levels in rural areas are often considerably lower than in more affluent parts of the country. It continues:

“To cap it all, customers on prepayment meters (often the least well off) not only have to pay additional standing charges but also discover that their notional right to change to a cheaper electricity supplier has become impracticable.”

Those statistics should shame us all.

Let us put the highlands and islands in context with the rest of Scotland. The fuel poverty level in Scotland in 2013 was 39% of households. A key driver for the rate of fuel poverty has been the rise in fuel prices. The fuel poverty rate for 2013 would have been only about 11% if fuel prices had risen in line with inflation between 2002 and 2013.

One of the most fundamental questions that we must ask the Minister is: why do we have to accept that there are 14 regional energy markets in the UK, with consumers in the highlands and islands, who are some of the greatest users of energy in this country, paying that premium of 2p per kilowatt-hour? We must have a universal market throughout the UK. If it is good enough for postage stamps, we should have one for electricity distribution too, and that is in the gift of the current Government. I asked the Secretary of State a

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written question to that effect not so long ago, and I was amazed that the response was that consumers in other parts of the country would have to pay more. The point that that answer seems to ignore is that such a market would introduce fairness, and no more would consumers in the highlands and islands be discriminated against by a Government who want to penalise them for living there.

That is not acceptable, and it must end—it should end tomorrow. Why do folk in my constituency have to accept higher rates of fuel poverty? The Government can act, must act and should act, and they should do it now. Why do the Government not invest in greater measures to deliver effective insulation and ensure that we can cut energy bills and fuel poverty? We can find the money for Trident, but not to allow folk to live in properly insulated, warm, fuel-efficient homes.

Alan Brown: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We all came out of the Trident debate this afternoon disappointed by the vote. Home efficiency is a serious matter. Home efficiency measures bring people out of fuel poverty, but they have the added effect of wider benefits, because less energy usage drives down the market cost. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should rethink their strategy regarding the £12 billion subsidy they are creating for the right to buy? That money would be better invested directly in new build housing and home efficiency schemes for existing owners, which would also help our constituents by driving down market costs, and the Barnet consequential would allow the Scottish Government to continue their excellent work.

Ian Blackford: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I must contrast the Government’s performance and behaviour with that of the Scottish Government on house building and home insulation over the past few years. It really is about time that the Government in Westminster stepped up to the plate. In light of the upcoming climate change talks, we have a responsibility to cut our energy consumption as far as possible, and we can do that if we invest more in insulation.

Research by Turn2us graphically shows the kind of challenges that those in fuel poverty face. The research found that one in two low-income households struggle to afford their energy costs, despite being in work. Those are people who will be disadvantaged by the cuts to tax credits that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey mentioned. Turn2us states:

“Amongst the hardest hit are people with disabilities, with over two in three (67%) reporting their struggles, and families, with almost two-thirds of working parents (65%) unable to meet these costs. Worryingly, of those households who are struggling with energy costs, nearly half (48%) have done so for more than a year”—

this is a long-term, not a short-term, problem. Turn2us continues:

“The knock-on effect is severe, with a third (33%) forced to skip meals and over a fifth (21%) experiencing stress and other mental health problems.”

Is it a price that we as a civilised society are prepared to pay, that people in this country have to make the choice between food and fuel? There is something wrong with our country if that is the case.

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Some of the comments made by people who participated in the Turn2us survey are stark. They include, “The bills are killing me, sometimes I have to contemplate paying all the rent or heating my home”; “There are many pensioners like myself who don’t qualify for any help but still have to decide whether to eat or heat”; “We have stress, debt, arguments and a low mood at home”; “Starve or freeze? Either way you get ill and can’t work, eat or pay any bills”; “No lights, only candles, only hoover once a week, only use washing machine once a week, no heating, meals that cook quickly.” Those are the consequences of the high levels of fuel poverty we suffer from in this country.

The Scottish Government have used their powers to intervene to mitigate some of the effects of rising energy costs, but it has been the failure of Westminster, and of the regulator, to properly protect consumers that has led to marked deterioration in the level of fuel poverty. The Scottish Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty head on and ensuring that everyone in Scotland lives in a home that is warm and affordable to heat. However, those measures are undermined by austerity made in Westminster and delivered by a Conservative Government who are having such a huge impact on low and medium-income earners. That goes to the heart of the issue. There is evidence that families have to make the choice between heating and feeding.

There is not just a moral and ethical impact of that but a cost to society, with increased health costs as a consequence of the mental health issues that arise. Also, children are being sent to school in less than ideal circumstances because of family pressures, and our young people are not flourishing to the extent they should, which increases the burden to close the attainment gap. That is the social cost of fuel poverty, and the Government in Westminster have to accept responsibility for it. The proposed cuts to tax credits and other welfare cuts have caused concern that low-income, hard-working households’ finances could be harder hit. The Government must change tack in the autumn statement tomorrow.

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): I am afraid that we have no time for other contributions from Back Benchers. May I ask the Scottish National party spokesperson and the Opposition spokesperson to keep their remarks to about five minutes, so that the Minister can have the remaining 10 minutes?

5.18 pm

Philip Boswell (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP): On behalf of all the speakers, I thank you, Mr Hamilton, for your excellent chairmanship.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) for securing this debate on such a critical issue. I also thank other hon. Members for their excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) reminded us about the long-term high strike price of nuclear for Hinkley Point—twice the current price of electricity—and its impact on those in and on the cusp of fuel poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) highlighted particular issues for rural communities.

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The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, talked about finding fuel poverty solutions. I completely agree with his call for less talk and more action on this critical issue, especially in relation to competition. I thank the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), particularly for his reminder of our humanitarian obligations to address the issue. He urged us not to get bogged down in the associated definitions and technicalities. He focused on England and the green deal, which is an excellent initiative. He reminded us that high rural charges apply in England as well as in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for his excellent contribution. He reminded us of the importance of this debate and commended the attendance of all, especially the high number of SNP Members who are here. Shockingly, there is no community in his constituency where fewer than 50% of people are affected by fuel poverty. I pause to let that point strike home. He also made key points about the smaller supplier choice in the remotest areas of Britain, on the blatant discrimination that exists and on the stark choice between eating and heat.

As I have stated in other debates, recent stats show that about 40% of households in Scotland are considered to be living in fuel poverty. I am sure all Members agree that that is unacceptable. The statistics for the highlands are shocking, and I thank my hon. Friend for bringing them to my attention. The statistics for Lochaber in particular are dreadful. We have also seen the impact of fuel poverty across the rest of the UK. That is nothing to be proud of, and in this decade of austerity, it will only get worse.

Fuel poverty means more than simply not being able to keep the heating on. Adolescents living in cold homes are five times more likely to have multiple mental health problems than adolescents living in warm homes. In addition, children living in cold homes are more than twice as likely to have respiratory problems as those living in warm homes. Critically, fuel poverty has a negative impact on the educational attainment and emotional wellbeing of children. It means that household income, which could otherwise be used to purchase healthy, nutritious food, goes on energy bills. The combination of mental and physical health problems, poor diet, emotional turmoil and diminished educational attainment caused by fuel poverty is a recipe for condemning people to the dreadful cycle of poverty. In essence, they are poor and paying for it. Some 40% of households in Scotland face the consequences of fuel poverty every winter, and winters are particularly harsh in Scotland.

Fuel poverty is the result of a combination of low household income, fuel costs and the poor energy efficiency of homes. Several of my colleagues and other Members have mentioned that. The contributing factors can be addressed in a number of practical ways, and that in turn will help to prevent fuel poverty. Low household income can be tackled through a number of measures. A living wage for everyone in work, not those just over the age of 25, would allow young individuals and families to afford the rising costs of fuel. Unfortunately, the cuts to working tax credit and child tax credit recently announced by the Conservative Government—so many households rely upon those credits to be able to pay for basic necessities—will only further punish lower-income households and put even more at risk of fuel poverty.

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We must provide a fair deal for hard-working individuals and families and not force them to bear the cost of letting large corporations and the financial sector skip taxes. Notably, the tariffs for pay-as-you-go phones, which are used most by those in fuel poverty, are some of the highest on the market. We need to address that, because the market certainly is not and has no intention of doing so.

The energy market is dominated by the big six, and the days of standing by while they address their needs over those of consumers and make massive profits while so many suffer from fuel poverty must be brought to an end. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, it is about less talk and more action. The Competition and Markets Authority recently found that energy consumers were collectively being overcharged by £1.2 billion a year. Following that finding, I asked the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change what steps would be taken to amend policy in response to the overpayment. The Government’s response was that no action would be taken until December 2015, well into winter and months after the finding was published. Meanwhile, ScottishPower quadrupled its profits last year—

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we have only 15 minutes left for two more contributions.

Philip Boswell: I thank you for the reminder, Mr Hamilton. I will bring my remarks swiftly to a close.

Finally, there is huge scope for the Government to assist in making homes more energy-efficient, but we have yet to see that come to fruition. The green deal has already been stopped, and the reduction in the budget of the Department of Energy and Climate Change means that programmes such as the green deal home improvement fund, solar power subsidies and feed-in tariffs will be cut.

I welcome all the contributions made in today’s debate. The need to tackle fuel poverty robustly is self-evident and compelling to everyone in the Chamber. I am delighted to hear Members from all parts of the House agreeing with that. There are real people behind the fuel poverty statistics, and that must not be forgotten. They have to make the difficult decision between buying food and heating their homes, and in a modern, developed society, the fact that 40% of Scots face that dilemma every winter is a disgrace. Swift, meaningful action must be taken.

5.26 pm

Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to make my debut appearance as a Front Bencher in a Westminster Hall debate under your enlightened chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) on securing this important debate. I am sure this will be the first of many such debates with the Minister, and I look forward to the many more to come.

Today’s discussion has been detailed, impassioned and generally of an excellent standard. Going through some of the points made by Members, someone—I cannot remember who—mentioned that fuel poverty is like a thief in the night, which is dramatic, but spot on. Another Member mentioned that fuel poverty is a bigger killer than all road traffic accidents and drug abuse combined, which is a startling fact. The hon. Member

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for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) talked about the human component, which is something I want to come on to in my brief speech. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, spoke of how his constituents are struggling in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) made some good points. He spoke about how 73% of households in some communities are experiencing some form of fuel poverty. He also touched on some things that I will not have a chance to talk about in my speech, such as the impact that energy companies across the UK are having on fuel poverty and how we begin to tackle that. I will press on, because time is brief.

In preparing for today’s debate and listening to the detail of Members’ contributions, I have been struck by just how easy it is to get sucked into the statistics and detail of fuel poverty. Other Members have touched on that. The detail is an essential component of understanding not only the scale of the problem, and ultimately the sheer depth of Government failure on the issue, but critically the resources required to turn the problem around. Before we get into the stats, however, I remind the Chamber that behind every percentile, every missed target figure and every set of depressingly high numbers, there is a fellow human being. Perhaps they are one of the 25,000 people expected to die this winter as a result of living in a cold home. Perhaps they are one of the over-65s, an age group from which one person is expected to die every seven minutes this winter because of fuel poverty. Perhaps they are someone who is disabled and unable to get out of the house, reduced to living in one or perhaps two rooms for the duration of the winter because of the fear of racking up excessively high heating bills. Perhaps they are one of the 1.5 million children across the UK living in fuel poverty. Maybe they are one of David Cameron’s strivers, working as hard as they can but still struggling to heat their home. We know that more than half of the 2 million households living in fuel poverty have someone in work. This is the reality behind the statistics, and they are the people who this winter will pay a heavy price for the Government’s failure to tackle the issue in any meaningful way.

Let us look at these statistics that are a badge of shame for any Government who claim to look out for the interests of all our citizens, poor or affluent. We know that up to a third of excess winter mortality, the figures for which come out tomorrow, are the result of people living in fuel poverty. Last year’s rates saw excess winter mortality at 31,000 in England and Wales, up 29% from the previous year. We should absorb that figure—up 29%. Figures for Scotland are up by 4.1% to 19,908. In Northern Ireland the raw numbers were low, but the increase was large: a rise of 12.7%. That equates to 559 people who are no longer here with us because of fuel poverty.

Yet after five years of being in government, can the Minister tell us, hand on heart, that tomorrow’s figures will go down and not up, and that their fuel poverty strategy is at last beginning to make progress? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response when she addresses the debate shortly. However, I am afraid that, whatever is said, the statistics and the facts will speak for themselves.

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In the Department of Energy and Climate Change annual statistics report, the number of households in fuel poverty in England was estimated in 2013 at 2.35 million, or—in other words—one in 10 homes where there was a choice between heating or eating. And it is not set to improve any time soon. In fact, by DECC’s own measure, the next set of figures is expected to show an increase in fuel-poor households. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the abject failure to get to grips with the plight of those in private sector rented accommodation. Compared with other housing sectors, the private rented sector has the highest proportion, at 9.1%, of the most energy inefficient homes—those in bands F and G.

We know the Government’s stated goal in tackling this was that as many private rented homes as is “reasonably practicable” will be rated band C for energy efficiency by 2030. But between 2010 and 2013, this was achieved for only 70,000 fuel-poor households, leaving 95% still to be improved. It does not take a genius to work out that, at that rate of progress, the Department will miss its target by some 100 years.

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we need the Minister to have enough time to respond to all the points that have been made, so I would be grateful if he could curtail his remarks.

Clive Lewis: I will. You have just destroyed my punchline, but it is fine, Mr Hamilton.

The Department will miss its target by some 100 years, which is not quite in the territory of Buck Rogers, who I believe woke up in the 23rd century, but, alas, not that far off either—sometime in the 22nd century.

So why such dramatic Government failure? Why the lack of vision and ambition in tacking this critical issue? Why are 6 million low-income families still living in badly insulated homes? Why has funding for energy efficiency for the fuel poor been cut in real terms by 20% and the installation of energy efficiency measures dropped by 65%? Perhaps some of those answers can be found in the debris and wreckage of the Government’s sorry excuse for a fuel poverty strategy: one that has shifted, chopped, changed and staggered on like a weary foot soldier in Napoleon’s winter retreat from Moscow.

First, there was the Warm Front—or, as it later became known, hot air—a Government-funded scheme that ended in 2013. Then came the green deal, hailed as “transformational”, but which was scrapped with nothing to replace it. The zero-carbon homes plan, introduced by the previous Labour Government in 2006, was scrapped with nothing to replace it. The warm home discount, providing automatic electricity bill support to low-income households, is due to expire next year with no sign of renewal. The energy company obligation or ECO—a Government scheme to encourage and obligate larger suppliers to deliver energy efficiency measures—will finish next year with nothing to replace it.

Here is the irony: not content with scrapping any semblance of a coherent fuel poverty policy, the Government have also lowered the bar and reduced the ambition of their schemes. Dithering, inconsistency, U-turns and failure are the trademarks of this Government. I look forward to hearing the Minister tackle this issue.

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5.34 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) on securing a debate on such an important topic. I can absolutely assure him that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) explained, we are all here to try to make a positive difference, and my heart is absolutely in this debate.

As we all appreciate in this Chamber, the fight against fuel poverty is a significant challenge. Some 2.35 million households in England were fuel poor according to the latest statistics. In Scotland, as so many Members have mentioned, fuel poverty affects nearly 40% of the population. In Wales, 400,000 households are affected. In Northern Ireland, the figure is nearly 300,000. We all use different measures of poverty, but it is a very serious issue, and the Government are determined to make sure that the price people pay for energy is as low as possible, which is why we have been acting to ensure that the impact on bills of paying for clean energy is controlled, limited and, where we can, lowered. We are also committed to making sure the market works effectively for consumers, including through our commitment to implementing as fast as possible the final recommendations of the Competition and Markets Authority, once those are achieved.

As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey knows, action on fuel poverty is devolved. I am sure he and his hon. Friends will be raising their suggestions for action on fuel poverty with the SNP Government in Scotland, as well as with me. I am absolutely committed to the responsibility that we have in the UK to tackle fuel poverty, but I note that alongside different measures of fuel poverty, different approaches are being taken by our nations to tackling the issue.

So there are GB-wide schemes that are designed to tackle the underlying causes of fuel poverty: inefficient housing through the energy companies obligation, and low household income through the warm home discount. We are working with both the Scottish and Welsh Governments on how these policies can be effectively amended to tackle the root causes of fuel poverty in all nations.

The devolved nature of fuel poverty enables different nations to take the action that is appropriate for them. Each of our nations has policies tailored to address fuel poverty at the local level, such as Nest and Arbed in Wales, the central heating fund in England or the home energy efficiency programmes for Scotland.

Ian Blackford: Will the Minister give way?

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Andrea Leadsom: I am sorry; I cannot give way.

I can assure hon. Members that we are working closely with the Scottish Government to set up a process and methodology for evaluating the impacts of schemes implemented in Scotland, on their own and in conjunction with schemes implemented in England and Wales, on the GB energy market, alongside other relevant UK obligations.

Hon. Members have mentioned energy prices for their constituents, particularly in Scotland. Our top priority is to keep bills down. This year, £57 million has been spent to protect bill payers in the north of Scotland from the high costs of distributing electricity. This represents a benefit of around £40 a year for each household in the north of Scotland.

Any move towards a single national network charge would produce winners and losers, a point highlighted in Ofgem’s recent report. For Scotland specifically, 1.8 million households would face higher bills and 700,000 would see reductions. It is not a simple question, but I can assure hon. Members that I am committed to launching a public consultation around the end of the year to review the most appropriate level of support for electricity distribution charges in the north of the country.

I want to turn briefly to the action this Government have taken to tackle fuel poverty. More than 1.2 million households are seeing lower bills due to energy efficiency improvements through the ECO. We are committed to ensuring that a million more get the same benefits by the end of this Parliament. But as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), said last week, we are determined that the support available will be focused on those who need it most.

Our policies are having an impact. Since April 2010, Government policies have supported the insulation of 3.8 million lofts and 2.1 million cavities, and in 2013 we saw a fall in both the absolute number of households in fuel poverty, and in the fuel poverty gap. We are also determined to help households that, as hon. Members have mentioned, are off the mains gas grid and more likely to face higher energy costs, as well as more than twice as likely to be in fuel poverty. Off-gas-grid homes will have a focus in the central heating fund, specifically on dealing with the off-gas grid.

Finally, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich—

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair); Order

5.39 pm

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