Easter Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:29 pm on 29th March 2018.

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Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee 3:29 pm, 29th March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

I begin, Mr Speaker, by wishing you and your staff, all right hon. and hon. Members and their families and all the staff of this House, who keep us going so well, a happy Easter. I think everyone is truly looking forward to this break, although some of us have local elections to fight during that time.

I want to bring to the House’s attention the perverse nature of the Government’s decision to award the passport printing contract to a Franco-Dutch company that is partly owned by the French Government. It is right that the UK follows both European Union and World Trade Organisation rules when considering any tender process and that we continue to maintain close relationships with our neighbours and allies as we leave the EU, but the Government have serious questions to answer about the assessment or apparent lack of assessment of the economic impact of this decision on the north-east, including my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend Liz Twist, where De La Rue resides.

As hon. Members may well know, De La Rue, which has printed UK passports for the past decade, submitted a bid to continue that service, but the great British blue passport is going to be made in the EU—probably in France. We certainly do not want to shun trade with our continental neighbours, but to suggest that defending jobs at home is to shun trade abroad is simply false. De La Rue provides hard-fought-for, well-paid jobs for some 600 workers at the Gateshead plant alone, about 100 of whom work on printing British passports.

I would not ordinarily promote the Daily Mail, but its online petition opposing this decision now has more than 200,000 signatures. In addition, an e-petition on the Government and Parliament site has over 32,000 signatures from people demanding a Government response to the question at hand.

In a post-Brexit Britain, we must ensure that jobs at home are secured. The Government would be wrong to push forward during the Easter recess with the plan to export the production of British passports. The savings on the contract will surely be offset by the loss of revenue to the Exchequer from employee and employer taxes—income tax, national insurance and corporation tax—not to mention the loss of spending power in the local community on the part of workers who spend their hard-earned money in local businesses. Placing jobs at risk is surely not worth the savings expected from the current plan.

The Government tout the idea of making the passport affordable for all, but the Home Office has increased the fees on passports across the board. Online applications for a new passport have gone up by nearly 4%, while people applying via the post are seeing an even more substantial increase of £12.50 per passport application, which represents a 17% increase. While the Government are making savings on the contract by giving it to Gemalto, they are not actually passing on those savings to the people buying passports. That should be remembered because, after all, we are here to serve those people. Incredibly, there will be a 27% increase in the cost of a child’s passport application, which surely cannot be right.

What a sham it is that the Government claim to be getting a deal for their people, when they are in fact raising costs and exporting British jobs at the same time. The French Government and people, on the grounds of national security, would never countenance printing their passports in Britain, but our Government are more wedded to free market economics than to Britain’s national security, national integrity and national pride. We need a robust debate on a better solution than what is currently planned, and it should occur after the recess.

Apprenticeships and jobs are hot topics in the north-east of England, as they often are in this House, but the current statistics do not reflect the Government’s ambition. As the year progresses, the number of unemployed claimants in my constituency continues to rise. Just last month, there are, since February, nearly 300 more claimants, and 5.5% of the economically active population find themselves unemployed. Under-employment and unemployment continue to plague the north-east region, with youth unemployment up 2%.

Touting the current unemployment figures as a positive for the region is merely a smokescreen. Regionally, unemployment in the north-east is one percentage point higher than in the rest of the country, but this number does not take into account the people who have given up looking for work altogether. In addition, wages continue to be below those pre the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. While fewer people may be out of work, those in work are earning far less than their counterparts a decade ago, as the cost of living has risen.

Data released in February show that the Government are failing to hit their marks on apprenticeship recruitment and apprenticeship opportunities, thus failing our young people and employers. According to figures from the Department for Education, between May and July 2017, 48,000 people began an apprenticeship. That is fewer than half the 117,000 apprenticeships begun in the same period in 2016—a staggering 61% decrease. Such numbers are hardly surprising given the intrinsic flaws in the apprenticeship levy. The lack of flexibility in the value of levy contributions, which large employers can pass down the supply chain to smaller subcontractors who work for them, is key. That is especially true for trades jobs, which larger firms often tend to subcontract down the supply chain.

The apprenticeship levy scheme must be radically reformed to serve better the hardest hit communities and young people looking to join the workforce. Although levels of unemployment for people over 50 may have gone down, youth unemployment has increased in my constituency. Compound that with the troubled roll-out of universal credit and the plan to outsource the production of British passports and it is easy to wonder whether the Government truly care about the economy of the north-east.

There is also a genuine crisis facing the social care sector regarding sleep-in workers, although not many people seem to know about it. The Government provide funding for sleep-in staff who work with people with severe learning difficulties. Sleep-in shifts are an integral part of the public services provided by the Government, but for the past six years, the Government have not funded those services at the national minimum wage, and HMRC is now pursuing providers for six years of back pay. The providers are procured by local government contracts with money directly funded by central Government, and the shortfall is estimated at £400 million in liabilities for providers in that sector. This is a crisis for social care providers and the people who need those services most—those with learning difficulties and the most vulnerable. That unexpected cost on providers is threatening the viability of the care sector, and 69% of local authorities have reported service failure due to this issue. According to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, a provider in Blackpool is reportedly closing and others are handing back contracts that they are now unable to fulfil.

The Government must step in and fund that back pay to prevent the crisis from spiralling out of control. If unfunded, the sector could produce a rash of mini-Carillions. Vulnerable people will suffer; thousands of care workers will lose their jobs; and local authorities and NHS trusts will be unable to cope with the consequences. The social care sector should not, and cannot, afford to fund that service. The Government must face up to their responsibilities, otherwise we risk the care of vulnerable people.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of meeting a group of people—mainly grandparents—who are kinship carers for their grandchildren or extended families. Those kinship carers get very little support from the state and often look after children—sometimes several children—who have a range a personal, health and educational difficulties, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attachment disorders, foetal alcohol syndrome, autism and behavioural difficulties. Those kinship carers diligently care for their children and often suffer in impoverished circumstances because their caring commitments take up so much time that they cannot work. They deserve our support and have been ignored for too long.

Finally—I will rattle through this—let me mention the upcoming Great Exhibition of the North. It begins on 22 June and is a free, summer-long event to celebrate the pioneering spirit of the north of England. Poetry, music, theatre, art galleries, life sciences and urban design will all be on display, highlighting the creative impact of our inventors, artists and designers. My constituency is excited to host such a world-class event, and the exhibition will attract attendees from all over the UK, Europe and beyond. The Great Exhibition of the North will be the largest event in the country to take place this year. Newcastle and Gateshead will become an even more visionary destination that will not only tell the story of the north and its people, but showcase everything that is great about them. Organisers, volunteers, contributors and artists have brought great pride to the community, and I hope hon. Members will join me in commending them on their work. This massive collaboration is sure to change any preconceptions about the north, and I hope that many Members will join me in attending this magnificent exhibition, and get north.