Tuesday 10 March 2015
[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—(Mark Lancaster.)
Before we begin, I have a statement to make on behalf of Mr Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means. They have agreed, for the purposes of this debate only, that the public will be allowed to use electronic devices in the Public Gallery, provided that they do so silently and in a way that does not disrupt proceedings. That means that the same rules apply as apply to Members—so we will have no selfie sticks, or the rules of the Louvre museum will be applied. However, it is important that we do this properly. You are pathfinders this morning. You are trailblazers in this Parliament allowing the public to interrelate in the way that has been described: discreetly, with electronic devices.
I call Meg Hillier on behalf of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission to open the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I am delighted to have secured this debate about the future of Parliament, because that is no less than what we were discussing for a year as a commission. As you have outlined, Mr Havard, this is a first for Parliament: the public in the Gallery are allowed to bring in mobile devices. We are encouraging them to tweet, text and share today’s proceedings with the wider public. The fact that that is a breakthrough shows how far behind Parliament is compared with the world outside.
Thomas Friedman said that in 2004
“Facebook didn’t exist, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky…LinkedIn was a prison”
and Skype was a spelling mistake. That does not describe the world that we all operate in today. If we look at the way in which Parliament works, we are some way behind that. The rate of technological change is rapid. We cannot control that, and when Mr Speaker set up the Digital Democracy Commission, he recognised that we need to embrace that. The commission has backed his view and agreed that we need to empower those who want to use digital resources to open up our democracy.
Mr Speaker set up the Digital Democracy Commission in January 2014. Made up of eight commissioners, including myself and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) as the two Members of Parliament on the commission, the Speaker was concerned that the world outside Parliament was leaving Parliament behind. He is absolutely right. Only last week, I was surprised to receive a phone call from Radio 4, who were keen to talk to me about a revolutionary change in Parliament: a new camera angle in the Chamber. Although that may be very exciting for the 650 of us who debate there, and for a few others, it is hardly the revolution that is going on in the world outside.
Mr Speaker set up the commission, bringing together a group of experts from technology, representation and the digital world. We heard evidence over that year, our method being very much our message, using online forums as well as traditional in-person evidence sessions. The commissioners were seeking out those who would not normally get involved. Famously, Helen Milner, the chief executive of the Tinder Foundation and one of my fellow commissioners, had a meeting above a chip shop. The chip shop owner even paid her staff to turn up, feeling that they would not come unless they were paid. By the end of that session, Helen, in her true missionary fashion, had persuaded a young man that voting was probably a rather good idea. That goes to show that, when the Digital Democracy Commission labelled our report “Open Up”, it was about opening up not only Parliament, but democracy as a participatory exercise, rather than just using technology to carry on doing what we already do.
In January we published our report—online, of course. A few rare hard copies are available—I am sure that they will be collectors’ items in future—but again, our method was our message. We made five headline recommendations. First, by 2020, the House should ensure that everyone can understand what it does. Secondly, by 2020, the House of Commons should be fully interactive and digital. Thirdly, the newly elected House of Commons, after the upcoming general election, should immediately create a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons. Fourthly, in 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters. Finally, by next year—2016—all published information and broadcast footage should be freely available in formats suitable for reuse, and Hansard should be available as open data by the end of this year.
Those were our headlines, and I shall touch on two briefly before going into some in more detail. We talked about online voting, which was the headline that many picked up on, because we were all clear that that was the direction of travel. However, we were not set up to investigate in detail the issues of security and the mechanisms for delivering that, although we hope that the Electoral Commission and others will take that on. The hon. Member for Harlow will talk more about that recommendation.
We also called for an experiment, post the next general election, for what has been dubbed a “cyber Chamber”: a third chamber in Parliament allowing the public to debate an issue ahead of MPs having that discussion. As all MPs will have found at different times, often our debates can be best informed by an individual expert in our constituencies who finds us, approaches us and talks to us about an issue. We hope that the cyber Chamber will develop that expert contribution—by “expert”, I do not mean experts with letters after their name. Sometimes members of the public can be more expert about an issue that they have experienced than Members of Parliament. Again, the hon. Gentleman will speak more about that recommendation.
To turn to the rest of the report, overall, we see this as a road map to improve the way in which MPs engage with the public and to allow the public to better engage with Parliament. Within Parliament, we hope that the new director of the parliamentary digital service, Rob Greig, who joined only yesterday, will use the road map as his job description, as he continues the task of modernising Parliament in a digital way. We also adopted the declaration on parliamentary openness. I will not read that out for the record, but it basically talks about making parliamentary information more transparent and providing easier access to the public, which is the very reason why the commission was established.
My hon. Friend talks about the role of the incoming head of our parliamentary information services. That has to be looked at against the background of first, what happened in the past, and secondly, the difficulties relating to this building. Some 20 years ago, when we put the current network into the House, some of us were arguing that blown fibre would have been the answer. Doing the current cabling was a nightmare, because of the state of the building, the asbestos and so on. If we are to do this seriously, Parliament has to resource it, and the public have to understand that it has to be resourced.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a real mission here, but there is a mission and a will. One of the pleasures of being on the commission was engaging very much with the staff of the House of Commons, who share the desire of Members to modernise the way in which this place works. There are physical challenges in this building, and we need do no more than look at the images of those challenges in the Michael Cockerell documentary. That issue was not the core focus of the commission, but it is fair to say that fellow commissioners who were not used to the workings of Parliament were surprised at some of the physical challenges that we face in this building.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on representing us all so ably on the commission. I also congratulate Mr Speaker on setting up the commission in the first place. It was not an easy thing to do. This is not necessarily the most radical and reforming place that one will ever come across, so we are grateful for that. Does my hon. Friend take great heart from the fact that many things covered in her report and in the Speaker’s commission mirror the work that we have been doing in the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, particularly on the digital aspects and getting young people, especially, to vote online? She is not on her own, and one day, all this will come to pass.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we hope this will all come to pass, and I commend him and his Committee for trailblazing on this issue. Other areas of the House have been looking at the issue. However, it is important that we use the launch pad of the new Parliament, after the general election, to say that this should be business as usual for Parliament. We can no longer debate whether to do it, but should instead debate how to encourage it. It has been a challenge for some colleagues, who worry about the work load that digital engagement can create, but the commission felt very strongly about it. In fact, one commissioner proposed that all hon. Members had a digital manifesto. I would recommend that as an idea, but we did not put it in our recommendations for all 650 MPs. The feeling was that we could not control how that would work. However, it is important that we understand that, although we would knock on a door and hear people’s points of view, that is not the modern method for many young people. In fact, smartphone usage among the under-24s is now more than 80%. It is very important that we allow similar engagement through a digital method.
The resourcing issue is touched on in the report. There was a feeling in the commission that this needed to be resourced effectively. We were not drawn on figures and numbers, but for MPs to do their job properly and actively listen to people through digital means, we need to ensure that we have the resources to do that.
Some hon. Members complain about the use of electronic media as a modern version of the postcard campaign: people press a button and send a message to their MP without even bothering to read it. There is some legitimate criticism there, but does my hon. Friend agree that, handled properly, creating proper digital engagement with our constituents will put some of those approaches on the back-burner and replace them with real engagement?
My hon. Friend seems to be able to read my mind, because that is what we were seeking to get across as a commission. We had a number of very interesting discussions, in public and, as a commission, privately, about how we encourage real dialogue. One way to do that—this is an area that I particularly want to cover—is by opening up parliamentary information. Open data are a real resource that could be used to make Parliament much more accessible, so that people out there can follow their issues and lobby effectively their MPs and, over time, the Government on them.
Let me use the example of something that has over time been an issue in my constituency—dangerous dogs. That issue has upset and worried a number of my constituents, but currently, if a member of the public wanted to find out where it was being discussed in Parliament, what laws had been passed and which Members of Parliament were actively interested in the subject, it would take a lot of digging through clunky information to try to find that out. No wonder the lobbying companies become intermediaries between the people and this place. That is because it is a full-time job to find out something as simple as what Parliament is doing to tackle dangerous dogs.
However, if we had open data, which is what we are seeking—the House of Commons is certainly doing this and we are pretty sure that the Lords will follow swiftly—that would allow tech experts, such as the many in Shoreditch in my constituency, to develop, for example, an app that meant that someone could look up a topic that mattered to them and follow through exactly where and when that was being discussed. It would possibly flag things up—this would rely on Government being co-operative about publishing an agenda, which was beyond our reach—and allow influence at the right time. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that we heard was from Clerks of this House, who said that at the point at which legislation is published, it is practically too late to make significant changes. Governments, in our system, determine legislation. We know from debates in this Chamber and from the excellent work of the Backbench Business Committee that debates that happen early on and in which hon. Members can show an interest from their constituencies can and do lead to changes in the law over time, but very often, members of the public write to us just before a vote and do not get the chance really to influence the way we do our business.
Opening up data is just one example. I am sure that we can all think of examples from our own constituencies of major geopolitical decisions on which we might want to have an influence. I say to hon. Members who are sceptical about digital engagement that we might find that we enhance the work that we do by being able to listen to people with strong views, passions, interest and expertise in advance of delivering our thoughts on issues. We would be better informed as Members of Parliament about subjects that matter to our constituents. However, unless they know what is going on in this place, that will not be possible, and it is opaque.
We wanted to see Hansard, for example, in a proper open-data format. Staff in my own office use TheyWorkForYou, which I commend as a website because its algorithms, through its screen scraping—a very old-fashioned approach—give easier access to data about my voting record than I have if I try to look it up in Hansard. We wanted to see that change and we are delighted that the House of Commons is already moving along those lines. We set stiff targets for this year and next year to ensure that things happen as quickly as possible.
Very shortly, we will be able to embed digital clips of what is happening in the House of Commons in tweets, on our websites and so on. That kind of openness is really important. This is the people’s Parliament. That is what Mr Speaker firmly believes, and that is why he set up the Digital Democracy Commission—to ensure that Parliament was reaching out to the people and opening up to the people. We as MPs therefore have a duty to ensure that we are listening to the people.
Perhaps the hon. Lady could expand a little on what the commission proposed on open data, because I think that a lot of the data that she has referred to are available, albeit not very easy to find. Has she identified how that would work, in terms of a member of the public being able to find out about dangerous dogs, and has she been able to make any assessment of what the cost would be of pulling all that information together in one place for the public to access it easily?
I had the pleasure of attending with the hon. Member for Harlow an international conference at which we saw some very technical presentations about exact formats. I know that the House of Commons is embracing that approach. I am not the best technical expert to explain which exact format might be used, but perhaps I should lay out the current approach for the record. Websites such as TheyWorkForYou will screen scrape. They will collect data almost in a manual way from a website and then collate it, with an algorithm picking up things. That will never be perfect. That website does a good job, but it would acknowledge its own imperfections. However, if data are produced in a fully open way, in an open format, then algorithms and other mechanisms can be put in place so that information can be collected in a more intelligent and useful way for a member of the public. In effect, the intermediary stops being the lobby group and becomes the technology, but that intermediary between what is going on in this place and what the public want is much faster, sharper and snappier. Equally, it should also work the other way.
One challenge that hon. Members raised with me and, no doubt, with the hon. Member for Harlow while we were on the commission was this: “Won’t there be too many different platforms for us to use?” We will all have to address that challenge. I, for example, will be crowdsourcing which other social media platform I should be using to engage with my constituents. I hope that, through that mechanism, I will gain an idea of which one is most useful to them, rather than me alighting on a system, a social media platform, that is good for me but is not actually used by many of my constituents. It might make my life easier in some ways if I did not get interaction, but that is not what I am here for. I am here to represent my constituents, as we all are. It is important that that technological approach is taken, and certainly the House of Commons is on that track. The new head of digital has just arrived to take it forward. That that post has been created is a sign of the vision for where the House of Commons needs and wants to go.
As well as the digital side, we touched on the very big issues around improving public understanding of politics and Parliament. I think I have touched on that in what I have said, but one issue is about reducing jargon and making parliamentary language more accessible. This is an extraordinary situation. There is a member of staff in this building, working for an hon. Member, who is doing a major piece of research about the availability of “Erskine May”. Those of us in this place will know about “Erskine May”, but I would hazard a guess that most of us in the Chamber today have not seen or touched a physical copy of “Erskine May”. That is because there are very arcane rules about who has access to it and who owns it. There is a real desire— Mr Speaker has been leading the charge on this—to get it made available online, so that anyone out there who needs to look up any of the terms that we use can do that. That may sound a small step, but it is amazing that the rules of this place are held in bound hard copy, accessible to only a handful of experts. That does not help to create an open Parliament, which is one of the reasons why we wanted that to change.
We wanted to ensure that we are reaching out to under-represented groups. We touched on how to ensure that we do not leave behind those who are digitally excluded, because it is not our intention to do so. Just as with Government services that are going online, we need to be mindful of those who are unable to use that process. We see digital as enhancing and improving what we do, rather than replacing human interaction. We want to expand that human interaction to digital methods.
We wanted to look at elections and voting. A key issue internally is how we vote in Parliament. We had some interesting discussions about whether Members of Parliament should vote remotely online. The two Members of Parliament on the commission felt strongly that there was a big benefit to being in the Lobbies and being able to tackle Ministers such as the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons directly, face to face. If we lost that lobbying opportunity, we would feel that we had lost a large part of what we come to this place to do on behalf of our constituents.
The commission concluded that the current voting system is slow, clunky and manual. The House of Lords has been experimenting with using iPads to record voting. One of the benefits of recording voting digitally is that the results of a vote can be available immediately to the public and the media, whereas currently there is a time lag, because of the paper sheets that we use. I should explain for the benefit of those who are not Members of the House that as we troop through the Lobbies, there are three Clerks sitting in each Lobby with large sheets of paper and black marker pens marking off our names one by one as we go through. In the modern world, it is extraordinary that we still vote in such a way. We all have smart parliamentary passes, and it would not be difficult to install technology that allowed us to swipe through. That would enable the result to be relayed to the public quickly, so we could be held immediately to account for the way in which we had voted. I think that that makes great sense and so did the commission, so that is one of our recommendations.
We set quite stringent time targets. As the Speaker acknowledged, it would be generous to say that the House of Commons is living in the early 20th century; we are way behind in many respects. We wanted to force a drive for change and make Parliament and the House of Commons much more open and accessible. The report provides the foundations, but ultimately the public will make it happen. It requires people to be engaged and interested. When we asked the public which of the recommendations they wanted to see implemented quickly, the results were fairly evenly spread. Interestingly, online voting just pipped the others to the post as the favoured option for slightly more than 20% of those who responded to our survey.
We need tech developers to take the open data that will be available and turn it into something that will enable us to carry out our roles more effectively and enable the public to engage with us. When I am knocking on doors in Hackney on a weekend, I can talk to somebody in their kitchen, and I want to have that sort of interaction with everybody. None of us can reach everyone on the doorstep.
I want those who are passionate about an issue to be able to engage more effectively. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and we get a lot of letters. They often arrive very late in the day, just as we are about to start a hearing or sometimes after a hearing. It is a great sadness to me that we have not got the capacity to absorb that information at a more appropriate stage. With the right digital support, those who are passionate will be able to get involved more effectively.
Many people are keen to get involved. Evidence from a survey carried out by Cambridge university showed that 46% of people would like to get involved if they could, but less than 10% are currently engaged with Parliament. Of course, there is a large gap between those who say they will get involved and those who actually do, but even if half of them did so, there would be a massive increase in the number of people getting involved in what we do. That would ensure that Parliament is the preserve not only of those of us who are elected, but of those who want to influence what we do.
As Members of Parliament, we need to be bold and embrace the change. We need to use social media and the opening up of Parliament as an opportunity to listen better to our constituents, not simply to broadcast what we do. If we embrace the Digital Democracy Commission report, proselytise and tell new Members about it, we will make ourselves more accountable and more relevant, and we will improve the work that we do in the House of Commons. That work is, ultimately, representing the best interests of the public and listening to their views.
Before I call Mr Halfon, I would just like to say that I have a copy of “Erskine May” here. I am not sure whether it is meant to be a weapons system that I can throw at you if you are disorderly. It looks as though it has never been opened, although I can see that it has been, because there are markers at the page dealing with the maintenance of order during a debate—I think that that is probably what it is intended for—and at a page about disorder and the methods of curtailing debate. Mr Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means seem to give me the novelty or unusual discussions to chair. I want to take the opportunity to say that Mr Speaker is in the Gallery, which demonstrates his commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny and to any methodologies that can help with that process, as well as his commitment to engagement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I thank Mr Speaker not only for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate, but for having the wisdom to set up the Digital Democracy Commission, which is a revolutionary initiative to widen interest in our political democracy. It has been a massive pleasure to serve alongside the other commissioners, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—I call her my hon. Friend on purpose—who has just made an important speech. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside her.
I believe that our democracy will never be complete unless it makes an effort to reach out to those who do not participate in it, and in considering access to it, we cannot overlook the impact of the digital world. The workings of Parliament are analogous to the workings of the code cracked by Bletchley Park expert Alan Turing. Parliament is an incredibly well engineered machine, but it can be deciphered only by a genius who has the experience and knowledge required to navigate its many enigmas. While we are still using the Enigma computer of Parliament, the public have moved on to getting information via smartphones and open source computers. Another way of looking at that is to consider Parliament as an old IBM mainframe system in an age where system diversity is the rule, not the exception. Parliament is restricting itself, and we need to ensure that it uses all the available options.
The purpose of the report is simple: encourage the public to engage more with Parliament and ensure that Parliament engages more with the people it represents. I believe that three steps are needed to ensure that that happens. First, we need to make sure that there is a free market of information from Parliament. Not only must that be accessible and understandable, but it must provide a forum for exchange and ideas. Therefore, the first step must be, as the report stresses, to overcome barriers through the simplification and digitisation of parliamentary data so that they genuinely become open. Secondly, the creation of a cyber Chamber will enable all to participate in the daily life of the Chamber. Finally, online voting would ensure that the most important part of the interaction between Parliament and citizens was accessible.
We do not need to build everything from scratch. The digital age has seen a lot of companies—Amazon, eBay and many others—developing ways to engage with customers, and we can use existing expertise to develop parliamentary engagement. If representation is to mean anything, rather than simply implementing a new, fancy web design, we should ask people what they want and directly engage with their opinions. The report has started the crowdsourcing of democracy to make it truly inclusive. In an era that is dominated by the digital sphere, it seems almost absurd to have such limited means of accessing House of Commons literature in a digital format and in language that is accessible to everyone.
The barrier to people educating themselves about Parliament and its features is dual: on the one hand, information is hardly accessible in the format used by the new generations; on the other, the language used in parliamentary proceedings is so obscure that, just like the Bletchley Park codes, it takes an accustomed genius to understand it. That is why, as my hon. Friend stated, the first step towards democratising access to parliamentary literature must be a simplification of the language to make it more accessible, which means clarifying the jargon, but also developing tools, accessible digitally, to demystify all the processes so that everyone feels they can get genuinely involved in the parliamentary system.
That participation cannot constrain itself to the traditional roles allocated to citizens. The policy that I find most important, and which is outlined in our report, is the creation of a cyber Chamber that would allow the general public to weigh in on debates that concern them. Throughout this debate, we have discussed ways to increase participation in parliamentary affairs. We can do that only by allowing those for whom the laws are made to intervene in debates, in an informative style, to ensure that every voice is heard.
Our surveys show that people feel disconnected from political parties, but not from the issues that we discuss. People are very interested in what goes on in the world and at home, but not in Westminster politics, which means that we have to focus our efforts on the substance of Parliament, the debates and the laws it creates to allow citizens to feel that they are an integral part of British democracy in action. That should include not only the cyber Chamber, but a new way of directly questioning the Prime Minister and MPs. The focus on direct representation must extend to ways of holding those who lead our country to account, and the report therefore outlines a need for an additional structure for Prime Minister’s questions that would directly involve the public.
If we are to crowdsource our democracy, we must make certain that the public feel they have real involvement in the way Parliament works. The report suggests the creation of a cyber Chamber, or “Open House”, which would be
“regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall.”
That is the right direction of travel, but I am a revolutionary in that matter—we need to go further.
In the long term, we need a separate Chamber of the public where individuals are able to vote on key issues of the day that are being debated, which would give a voice to public opinion. Although the House of Commons would always have the ultimate say, each citizen would be given a personal identification number and could vote online on major debates. The result would be an advisory opinion as to what the public feel about key issues as they happen. The third, virtual Chamber would always be advisory, but it would be a great way to ensure that MPs were made aware of their constituents’ concerns before we walked into a debate. That would be a real way to re-engage the public in our democracy.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech closely, and he knows that he will not find a greater advocate for the ideas that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) are proposing, but I underline my hon. Friend’s point that many people do not have the access that more educated or wealthier people may have. We have to be very careful not to skew the political system just so that those who are social media-literate and have access to the various devices that can get them into the House of Commons can start to orient policy at the expense of people who are probably more in need of excellent policy from this place.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: roughly a third of people do not have access to the internet, but that also means that a huge number of people do. Many people have no access to Parliament and do not engage with their MP. The proposed system would not be perfect, but, as the internet and social media slowly spread, it would allow millions of people who otherwise would not engage with Parliament to do so. As the years go by, more and more people will have access to the internet.
The third essential part of the triangle is online voting. When considering the digitalisation of the political system, we must always bear in mind the ever-diversifying ways to use the internet. One of those is the ability to accomplish high-security tasks without having to move. Banks have set up transfer systems that require nothing but a click, so why would it not be possible for constituents to vote online if they wanted to do so?
The voting system is incredibly romantic. We have the old-fashioned pencil and the beautiful, black, dented, old-fashioned ballot box. We mark a cross on a piece of paper and stick it in the ballot box, which is anachronistic and stuck in the previous century. The public have moved on from such behaviour, which is why we have seen such a drop in voter participation and a huge increase in people who want to vote by post. Our surveys show that the majority of people would support an online voting platform, and 15.3% of the electorate chose to vote by post at the last general election, in 2010.
People want new options, and it is up to us to provide them with some. We must not fool ourselves: the decline in voter participation is strongly linked to the fact that new generations interact in different ways and therefore require different ways of appealing to them.
The digital divide is a fading reality, with more and more people being included in the digital age, and we cannot afford to keep Parliament out of it. We have heard the real concerns linked to such a policy, and the entirely valid fear of security breaches is probably the most important threat to the system we have imagined. I was amazed, after the first public meeting of the Digital Democracy Commission, to receive abusive e-mails from people saying that I was completely ignorant and out of touch with the security of online voting, but that is a farcical argument.
There are a huge number of abuses in the current system, but no one says, “Why don’t we look at the flaws in the system?” There are still many small “c” conservative advocates of that system, even though it has enormous problems. When we go to a polling station, we do not even have to show our identification, yet if any suggestion of online voting is made—we have security for online banking and shopping—everyone starts worrying about security.
As highlighted in the report, Estonia shows that online voting does not differ from the security requirements of other online proceedings. The system obviously needs to be protected, but we will not be able to proceed with digital democracy if we retain an attitude of stunned inaction towards progress. By looking away from online voting, Parliament would exclude itself from participative democracy and let the rest of the world move far ahead digitally and democratically. We have to engage the public in the way that they want to vote, and we have to move towards some system of online voting. I hope we can have some pilot schemes so that, by the 2020 election, we may see how online voting can work in certain parts of the country.
This year, we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta, which is perhaps one of the most important documents in modern history—it might be rivalled only by the ten commandments. For the first time ever, a major country said that the king was not above the rule of law and did not have divine right. It took hundreds of years for the system to evolve into what we know as parliamentary democracy, but in that same way we need to mark this anniversary and to make digital democracy the new internet Bill of Rights between the people and Parliament. The report is a step in that direction.
Democracy does nothing if it does not evolve with the times. Freedom survives only when it is a living organism, not when it is stuck like a pickle in a jar in a laboratory. We must strive to enliven our democracy through the digital world. We would do well to remember that the Bletchley Park codebreakers who saved our country did so thanks to IBM. Democracy is nothing if it does not recognise others.
I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I am particularly interested in the report. Back in 1992, when I was first elected to this place, I complained to the powers that be in the building about the inadequacies of my office. I said that I wanted another telephone line, and the person I spoke to said, “You can’t have another telephone line; you’re only entitled to two.” I said, “Well, I’m a bit old-fashioned. I need a third one.” “Why does that mean you need a third one?” I said, “I need one for voice, one for my old-fashioned fax machine and one for the computer.” The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Do computers use telephones?”
We have come rather a long way since then. That was one of the early mistakes of my career, because when I complained about it to the wonderful Don Dixon, now in the other place, he said, “Ah, son, you’re exactly the person we want. You’re on the Information Committee.” Never volunteer.
The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) referred to Enigma at the beginning and end of his speech. I had the great pleasure a few weeks ago of sending a message using an Enigma machine, at an event with 200 or 300 young female students. It was an extraordinary opportunity and incredibly thrilling, and it was made even more so by the fact that one of the women from Bletchley Park participated in the event. Her speech was far more enjoyable than mine. The hon. Gentleman is right to reflect back on that technology, but we must remember that that was 1935 technology. Here we are in 2015, talking about bringing this place into the current century.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) discussed how modern systems can more effectively gather information about us and individual subjects and make them available in accessible form. That is achievable, and it is a goal that we ought to set ourselves, but there are significant obstacles, because we start from an environment that is not conducive. By the way, we should not simply digitise everything here. First, we need a root-and-branch examination of what needs digitising and how we should do it.
To give a current example, just recently the Government produced a smart system—to be fair, it could have been done 10 years ago, but this Government drove it through—whereby we no longer need a physical tax disc on our vehicles. They did so by recognising that modern number plate recognition can easily tie in with insurance records, so that we know that a vehicle is insured. That is a very good idea; it was just about digitising the process.
However, the Government have wasted some public money in making that change. Those of us who represent areas with significant rural hinterlands will know that there are rather a lot of tractors on the road. For a considerable number of years tractors have been zero-rated for tax, and now we have a system that still requires farmers to go through all the bureaucratic nonsense of applying for a non-existent tax disc, wasting a huge amount of time in the digital infrastructure of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for absolutely zero purpose.
As that example illustrates, we need a root-and-branch examination of why we do things in such a way. The hon. Member for Harlow referred to the language of this place; goodness me, he is absolutely right. It infuriates me what arcane language we use. “Erskine May” is not exactly a comfortable bedtime read; you are smiling, Mr Havard, because you have just had a glance at it. It is a horrendous document that is impossible to read. We first need a root-and-branch examination of the business process so we do not fall into the same trap as the DVLA and waste resource.
Secondly, we must examine the rules that govern us, such as those on voting, and the philosophy behind them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch referred to that, as did the hon. Member for Harlow. It seems to me that philosophically, we should stick to the physical voting principle that we must be here in the building. The idea of saying, “Well, I’m not going to bother coming down from Ellesmere Port this week; I’m going to sit in my garden and vote digitally on my iPad” is not exactly engaging. The person must be physically present, but using intelligent systems to swipe through a vote would be a positive step. I am thinking of a system akin to the one used in the US Congress.
My hon. Friend is right; not only the US Congress but many countries use digital approaches to voting. One of our recommendations, though, involved the arcane but useful process of nodding through, by which people who are on the premises but unwell or physically unable to go through the Lobby for whatever reason can be verified and nodded through by a Whip. We recommended that the handful of people so affected at any time might vote remotely online, without having to be physically nodded through.
That is a good point, and we need to examine in parallel whether we would take the same view if, for example, a Select Committee were away from the Palace on official business. That needs exploring. I am not drawing any conclusions; I am saying simply that we need to examine those rules and get the principles right before we embark on phase 2, which will involve bringing the technology into the 21st century.
We should insist, following this debate, that part of the necessary reconstruction of this building involves installing the most advanced fibre networks. We need the tools to do the job properly. My Select Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, piloted the use of iPads in our work, and I must say that although there was a certain amount of resistance from some of my colleagues, it has massively changed for the better how we do things. It has improved the efficiency of our work, and we do not fell a forest by producing ridiculous amounts of paper every time we have a meeting. We need to drive forward with such technologies, but the infrastructure of the House must be considered.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said, we must also explore the available technologies to ensure that we produce data in a form that is easy for us and members of the public to access. Frankly, I see no boundary between our needs and those of members of the public. There is very little currently on the intranet that should not be immediately available on the internet; the opening times of the coffee shop might be a different matter, but most of that material ought to be instantly available.
Finally, I come on to voting systems. I have been looking at them for some time, because there have been flaws in the existing system. I have seen with my own eyes the effects of people manipulating the current system. Way back in the 1970s, when I lived in Portsmouth, I saw mathematical evidence that in a row of houses that had all been bought up for compulsory purchase, every one of the tenants had cast their vote. If the result of that election had gone against my political views, I am sure that there would have been an election petition about that situation, because we knew that the landlord had manipulated that block of votes. So there are fiddles in the existing system that we need to clamp down on—the hon. Member for Harlow is absolutely right about that.
On the other hand, I had a constituent who complained to me on one occasion, “You know why we vote with pencil?” I said, “Actually, I don’t know why we vote with pencil.” He said, “Ah! It’s so they can rub out the results and produce the results they want.” I said, “Well, that’s a bit interesting, because they’ve produced a result that led to my being elected. So I am clearly part of the establishment now.” There are people who do not trust the existing system, although those are minority concerns.
However, when it comes to electronic systems, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The modern security systems that can be built in will never remove 100% the possibility of somebody standing over someone else at a computer and saying, “I’ll beat you if you don’t give me your password,” in the same way that they cannot solve potential abuse in banking systems. Nevertheless, as we have said, there are corrupt practices in the existing manual system, so we must work with security specialists to minimise those risks. In some banking systems, there is such personalised information that only the specified individual could enter the required data. We all have accounts with systems like that. Yes, they can be abused, but they also help to minimise abuse.
We are now at a stage where we ought to contemplate a number of possible moves. One is to properly pilot a modern system, and not the systems that were adopted a few years ago. A number of constituencies could be chosen as pilot areas to develop such a system, and we could examine anomalies in the voting system compared with other constituencies that we benchmark against.
Another possible move might simply be to use a model that is used in some countries whereby the voting system is not electronic but the counting process is automatic and done instantly. Today, the idea of all those town hall folk sitting around in the early hours of the morning manually going through our voting papers is an absurdity in the extreme. There is absolutely no reason why most of our counts could not be declared very shortly after the ballot boxes come in, even within the existing system. I have no idea what the cost of such an automatic counting system to local authorities would be, but I would guess that it would have an extraordinarily large number of noughts on the end of it. Nevertheless, even just taking a gentle step on the way towards digitising the system could be beneficial.
We ought to welcome the commission’s report and focus on the structure and rule changes that we need to adopt in this place, so that we do not end up digitising things just for the sake of it. Digitisation must have a purpose that focuses on our needs and those of the general public simultaneously. We ought to explore all the issues around voting systems.
In what is possibly one of my last speeches in this place before I step down as an MP in a few days’ time, I wish the commission’s successors in the next Parliament every success in getting some of these changes driven through, to turn this place into a Parliament that can engage more effectively with the people we seek to represent.
I will be very brief. I had not intended to make a speech today, but I was prompted to do so by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), as is often the case, but in a very positive way. He talked about Magna Carta, which leads me immediately to mentally flip to a written constitution.
In a sense, we have seen the future and it works—the remarkable report produced by the Speaker’s commission. I never miss a chance to boast about the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and I hope that we have shown, in a small way, how this could happen as a regular practice.
I have two examples in mind. We have done a report on voter engagement, why people are disengaging and what we can do about it. There are lots of reasons for that: the media; MPs’ behaviour; registration; and not being able to vote easily, for example. We were determined to consult as many people as possible. We thought that engagement of voters would be very important.
I think we received what was, at the time, a world record of responses: we received some 16,000 responses, in one form or another. We used every possible type of social media. Also, and this is an interesting facet of what the commission is talking about, we used other organisations. This does not have to be almost nationalised by Parliament, as it were. Bite the Ballot, the Hansard Society and the British Youth Council all got involved and did their own online survey of all their members. The results then came back to us and were fed into our final report. Our report was very influenced by the majorities that stacked up, particularly on online voting.
In addition, we have produced a door-stopper of a report on a written constitution, which gives all the possible options. We have consulted widely on that. I think that there were some 6,000 responses to that. We have now distilled that into a 10-pager—what one might call a “mini-Magna”—a UK written constitution that tells us what we have now, written down for the first time ever, with some possible options for change on the margins.
Individuals can use that resource online. There is now a further consultation, until the end of the year, until we have had an election and until the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta has passed, and in the run-up to what may well be a constitutional convention. We have that resource open online, so that people can say what their view is on the distillation of a written constitution.
Rather than people saying that traditionally constitutions were written by 30 white guys in a hall in Philadelphia, we would like to have many millions of founding fathers and mothers, who will make their contribution towards what a final constitution might look like. Of course, that will be available to those who wish to set up a constitutional convention.
I want to make two points quickly. I am not trying to spoil the party, but we absolutely need to take them into account if this is to be successful. First, there is the point I have already mentioned to the hon. Member for Harlow about the information haves and the information have-nots. We need a strategy to consider how we can involve the have-nots. I represent the 10th poorest constituency out of 650; it is rated the 10th poorest by many different measures. It may be that two thirds of my constituents have access to social media and the online world, but I suspect not. I also suspect they are not fluent in it. What we need to do is to take these recommendations further to ensure that, as the hon. Gentleman said, everyone has at least the prospect of being involved, if they are not involved now, so that they can be part of this family.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He makes a valid point. We discussed digital exclusion a great deal in the commission. It brings to mind a constituent of mine who said, “Remember that my online access is one hour a day at the library.” He is online, but does not have a smartphone in his hand and has no broadband at home. There are layers of digital exclusion, even for those who are able to use the technology.
Indeed. Dare I mention hon. Members who, like me, do not have the staff available at a particular time or who do not have relatives to help them? I have a young daughter to help me through difficulties when things seem to go wrong. I think many of us are excluded by our own incompetence, more than anything else.
Technology is often neutral. We need to use technology to give us a broader-based democracy and to involve more people. We should never, ever think it is a panacea. The problems with this place are about its relationship with the Executive and its inability to stand as an independent institution separate from the Executive. We must always consider how technology can help us as parliamentarians to build a stronger Parliament. That is what the Speaker’s commission has done. Once again, I congratulate my two colleagues on representing all of us in the House so effectively. More power to your elbow.
The two Front Benchers will speak next. Could I ask you to share the time, please, so that Ms Hillier can have a couple of minutes at the end to summarise and talk about what might come through in future? Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate both my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the other members of the Speaker’s commission and Mr Speaker himself on an important initiative that I welcome warmly. I will address some issues raised in the report and will, with your permission, Mr Havard, touch briefly on broader issues that are relevant to it.
As other hon. Members have said, it is worth reminding ourselves of the political context. When we were in this Chamber debating the report on voter engagement produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), we dealt with some of these issues, so I will mention context briefly.
We all know that voter turnout in elections has been in decline in recent years and that our political settlement is a lot more fragile than it was 30 or 40 years ago. There have always been turnout gaps in elections, including a social class and an age gap, and those gaps have widened significantly in recent years. Of course, we know that trust in politics and politicians, and in the traditional political parties, is at a very low ebb.
The hon. Member for Harlow made an important point: there is a disconnect with the political parties, but not a disconnect with the political issues. The report seeks to address some ways in which we can harness that interest in the issues, to make more of a connection with Parliament and how we do business in this place.
Of course, as other hon. Members have said, over the last 40 years the way that people interact with politics and current affairs has changed dramatically, with the rise of social media, a more diverse and mobile country and massive technological advancements. The success of online platforms, which hon. Members have mentioned, such as 38 Degrees and Change.org, has fundamentally altered the way that people raise issues with their Members of Parliament and, therefore, the nature of political debate and discourse. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North is right to remind us of a continued digital divide. That is why I think—all hon. Members have said much the same thing during the debate—that the measures proposed in the report are necessary, but are not sufficient to address the challenge that we face in terms of political disengagement. I will return to that in a moment.
The hon. Member for Harlow spoke about the important issue of online voting. When people can shop, watch television, communicate, bank and organise other aspects of their lives online, it is only right that we explore fully the extent to which democracy itself can be undertaken differently using online methods. Of course, as all hon. Members said, we need to ensure that there is adequate security, so that the security of our democracy is not compromised, and that any initiative is cost-effective.
However, as the hon. Member for Harlow and as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) both said, in any method of voting there is a risk of abuse and fraud and there is always a debate about how we strike the balance between ease of access to voting and protecting the voting system from fraud and abuse. We debated that matter in respect of postal votes and traditional voting—turning up at the polling station—and, of course, we should have that debate in respect of online voting. However, such a debate should not be a veto to its consideration. I agree that we need pilot schemes to look at online voting and those need to be undertaken soon. Labour will commit to that. If we demonstrate that concerns about security and cost can be met, we will be in a position to consider wider implementation at an early stage.
These issues are not just about young people. Digital engagement crosses age divides. I have mentioned the big age gap now in terms of turnout in elections and wider public engagement. Addressing these issues, along with other measures—we have committed to votes at 16, for example—we can build much better youth engagement in our politics.
Technology can be used to register more people to vote. Although other hon. Members did not mention that, it is important. This is a big issue that we debated recently in an Opposition-day debate in the main Chamber, and we have debated it here in Westminster Hall. I welcome the Government’s initiative allowing online registration. An extraordinary number of people have registered to vote online. I met the electoral registration officer in Liverpool recently, who told me that now more than 80% of people registering to vote there are doing so online. That is exciting, but we need to consider other ways that we can use technology to allow people to register to vote, using Facebook, as the Government have, local authority websites and other local authority services, and looking at other options as well.
We can learn some interesting lessons from the Scottish referendum, where 97% of eligible voters were registered and turnout was well over 80%. That shows what can be achieved, but we must not forget the scale of the challenge that we face. The Electoral Commission estimates that 7.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register.
Some interesting recommendations were made relating to open data and to a cyber Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the shadow Leader of the House, announced recently a proposal to launch a new online democracy portal, which would seek to draw together all the things that people need to know before voting, including basic information about an MP, such as how they vote, and who the political parties are and what they stand for. That links well to the proposal for open data in this excellent report.
The commission’s first recommendation is that,
“By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.”
That sounds basic, but it is important. It took my mind back to 1997, when we set up the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons and undertook some basic reforms. In particular, it reminded me of when I did the job that the Minister now does, as deputy to Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons after the 2001 general election. Robin was determined to drag this place into the 21st century—and certainly, at that time, to drag it into the latter part of the 20th century, even though it was already 2001.
All the time we need to look at what measures we can undertake to better engage the public. My hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House has talked about engaging people more as legislation is going through Parliament. She proposed a new public evidence stage for Bills, where citizens, as well as experts in the field, can submit their views on proposed new laws, freeing up more time in the Chamber for a whole-House scrutiny stage, so that Back-Bench Members have more of an opportunity to question Ministers about proposed legislation.
The Leader of the Opposition has committed to the introduction of a public question time, where citizens will be able to question the Prime Minister once a week or once a fortnight. That will allow the public unprecedented opportunity to scrutinise the Prime Minister and hold the Government to account. I have been taking forward that proposal and looking at different ways in which it could be implemented. The idea of a cyber Chamber, which the hon. Member for Harlow talked about, gives an interesting dimension to that, and we will certainly consider it as we put more meat on the bones of the proposal.
A long-time passion of mine is citizenship education in our schools and communities. I praise the brilliant work of the education service in Parliament. It has moved on massively in recent years. Whenever I have school parties down from my constituency in Liverpool, I am always very impressed by its work, but we need to do far more to ensure that young people and children are being equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be active citizens in their childhood, their youth and when they grow up.
The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, spoke about his recent report on voter engagement. He mentioned the constitutional convention, which has increasing cross-party support and support in civil society. It is an opportunity for us to engage with the public on some of these fundamental questions on the nature of democracy and to do so in ways that reach those members of the public who are traditionally not engaged in these sorts of discussions. If we can make that work, I do not see why we cannot explore the idea that the hon. Member for Harlow talked about, of having citizens panels that can meet regularly, not just on issues of political and constitutional reform, but on health, education, the economy and jobs of the future. Why can we not engage with citizens in a much more structured way and ensure that their voices are heard?
There is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, no single or simple panacea for these fundamental and political challenges. They are not new, but they have grown in recent years. They are not exclusive to this country, but are shared by many other advanced democracies. The proposals in the report are necessary and welcome, but they are not sufficient if we are to address the massive democratic divide in our country. I finish where I started by praising my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the hon. Member for Harlow and the other members of the Digital Democracy Commission for an important piece of work. Whatever the outcome of the general election, I hope that the House will take forward the report’s excellent proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for kicking off the debate. I also thank Mr Speaker for establishing the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission. The majority of its report’s recommendations are for Members of the House to consider and respond to, but everyone has a shared interest in many of the aims and objectives. Increasing public participation and public awareness of the role of Parliament and of MPs is a worthy aim. Of course, we are not starting at point zero. Much has been achieved in recent years as a result of the efforts of many, including the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I reassure the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) that he never misses an opportunity to boast about the success of his Committee.
It is well deserved.
The report contains 34 specific recommendations. I do not have time to comment on all of them individually, so I will highlight key areas, particularly those in which the Government have a lead responsibility. I will also try to address the points that Members have made on which the Government have a view.
The Speaker’s commission makes some useful recommendations about engaging the public, some of which are aimed at improving understanding of Parliament and the work of MPs. One example is simplifying language, which is something I think we would all support. I was interested in the idea that by 2020, Parliament should be understood by everybody. As an interim milestone, perhaps by 2015 Parliament could be understood by all Members of Parliament, and then we could progress to public understanding by 2020. Some clarity on precisely what “Parliament should be understood by the public by 2020” means would be helpful, because it could mean an awful lot of things to different people.
Other recommendations include clarifying online publications and improving the website, including for those with disabilities or sensory impairments. Much has been achieved in those areas already, but I am sure there is further to go. Making it easier for people to track specific areas of interest is one example of how we could improve our interaction with those who want to engage. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch set out how technology could be used to pull together the issues that people are interested in so that they could see in one place the range of contributions being made by different Members in both Houses, by Select Committees and so on. Through that, they could get a real feel for what is happening.
I am glad that the commission looked specifically at engaging the young. If we are to engage better with the public and in particular with young people, it is vital that we exploit the full range of communications channels. Although the web and social media are key mechanisms for reaching young people—I welcome the approach taken during Parliament week to focus on engaging the young in innovative and dynamic ways—there is clear evidence that taking the opportunity to visit Parliament can have a powerful impact on perceptions of our work and role. The shadow Minister outlined that when he talked about the visits enjoyed by schools from Liverpool. A visit can bring a reality to the theory that students learn.
More than 45,000 seven to 18-year-olds from across the UK visit Parliament each year via our education programmes, but such visits are heavily over-subscribed. I therefore welcome the decision by the House of Commons Commission to press forward with the creation of a dedicated education centre. That will increase capacity, giving more than 100,000 young people a year the opportunity to visit Parliament and learn about their democracy. Members will, I am sure, be aware that construction at the north end of Victoria Tower gardens commenced in September 2014. We expect to welcome the first groups to the centre in summer 2015. Votes at 16 can also help engage young people at an earlier stage in the political process and hopefully engage them thereafter when they become adults. That has been Liberal Democrat policy for many years, albeit that it is clearly not Government policy.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North referred to digital exclusion, which is a significant point. I spoke at the Wallington Evening Townswomen’s Guild, and I asked its members, “How many of you would welcome the idea of a cyber-forum where you could all go online and express your views about what the Government are doing or intend to do, or put forward your own views?” Of the 50 or so people present, one hand went up. That woman is involved in a forum that is interested in greyhounds. While we can talk about the importance of online democracy and online engagement, there is still a digital divide. I agree that the divide will probably shrink as people become more used to technology, but I still think there might be a drop-off in the number of people involved. Those of us who started off being familiar with technology—some of us might have grown up more recently, with Facebook and Twitter—will find that our children are using other things that we are not so familiar with. Even people who grew up in a technological world may reach a point where the most modern devices, apps and software exclude them.
We take digital exclusion seriously. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is leading on the provision of superfast broadband to at least 95% of UK premises by 2017, and on providing universal access to standard broadband, through Broadband Delivery UK. The Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office is conducting research to provide a better understanding of the support requirements of the digitally excluded and assisted digital users. As part of the commitment to reducing the number of people and organisations offline, the GDS undertakes ongoing user research to understand what prevents people from going online. It has brought together 40 organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors to sign up to a UK digital inclusion charter. Work is therefore going on.
On the report’s recommendations regarding the legislative process, the Government are committed to ensuring that the legislation they put before Parliament is of a high standard, and to ensuring that Parliament has the necessary means by which to perform its scrutiny function. In April 2013, the Government launched the good law initiative, which was designed to promote law that is effective, clear and accessible. One of the best examples of that that I have seen, which I would encourage to happen more often, is the idea of a Keeling schedule, which takes a series of interlinked Acts and creates a document with all the relevant excerpts from the predecessor Acts in one place. That way, rather than trying to read across a number of different Acts, everything can be read in one document. I would like to see that idea used more effectively, because it provides clear and accessible law.
During this Parliament, various initiatives have been introduced that are designed to improve the legislative process, including the use of explanatory statements on amendments, improved explanatory notes and the piloting of public reading stages for Bills. The issue of public consultation during the Committee stage of a Bill was raised in the debate. That was used for the Health and Social Care Bill in 2011, so there are precedents for the Government providing such opportunities for the public to be engaged. The Government have also provided more time to allow proper scrutiny in Public Bill Committees and, where necessary, provided additional days on Report. There are several recommendations in the report on ideas to change the legislative process further, which will clearly be of interest to Members.
On electronic voting, the Speaker’s commission recommended that secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Making online voting available for UK elections could be attractive in the light of current advances in IT, but there remain concerns that e-voting is not sufficiently transparent or secure. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said that banking can nowadays be done by a simple click; the security measures that are in place are significantly more complex than that. There would need to be elaborate protection and security around online voting.
I conducted my own non-scientific online poll about online voting. Admittedly, it did not have a sample size comparable to those mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, but, interestingly, of the 11 people who responded out of the 232 people reached by the Facebook post—this was an online survey—seven, or 64%, said that they favoured online voting, and four said that they did not. Given that that was a sample of people who were online, and thereby excluded everyone who was not online, we must take on board the fact that a significant minority did not favour online voting. One person said,
“not in a million years, anything digital and online can be easily manipulated by cheats. Trust is the issue”.
“How will you make it secure, given the well documented issues that prevent that?”
Of course, there were people on the other side who were very much in favour. Some did not trust postal votes as an alternative, and Andy was
“inclined to trust the security of asymmetric cryptographic protocols”.
I trust Andy implicitly, so if he trusts them, I am sure that I should also trust them to provide the security needed for online voting. Clearly, we must address the issue of trust in the security of online voting. Public support for such measures is still far from universal, and traditional means of voting, such as polling stations and postal voting, remain popular with the electorate. Online voting would have to be an extra voting channel.
Speaking as a Liberal Democrat rather than as a Minister, I would be very happy for trials to take place in future, now that we have individual electoral registration in place. That was one of the building blocks that needed to be in place to enable trials to go ahead. I hope that that will be considered in future.
The debate has been interesting. All Members will have their own opinions on which ideas merit further effort to bring them into being. The report from the Speaker’s commission is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate. I have highlighted many of the successes of recent years, but I am sure that many Members will be keen to continue the pace of reform, particularly in taking the maximum advantage of the opportunities offered by advances in technology.
The Chamber is becoming more relevant to the lives of our constituents, whether through topical questions or Back-Bench debates on issues such as Hillsborough or contaminated blood, or through Mr Speaker’s greater use of urgent questions. It is important that our constituents see the relevance of what we debate to their everyday lives, and, importantly, that they feel able to engage in the political process. Technology is one way in which we can enable better participation in the parliamentary process and in politics more generally.
New technology has provided the means to move from our existing representative democracy to a participatory democracy, which could represent a fundamental constitutional change, affecting the role of MPs and their constituents, as well as the processes by which we govern. That bring its own challenges—for example, being clear about what is on offer, being genuinely open to ideas, and considering suitable accountability for participative mechanisms of engagement. It is in that context that we need to consider further the purpose and parameters of the reforms we have discussed today. I look forward to the debate being resumed in the next Parliament.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, as well as others who were unable to attend but are nevertheless very interested in the work of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission. I also thank many others who contributed to the commission’s deliberations. I thank the commissioners, who gave up their time freely to make the report what it is, and, of course, Mr Speaker, who had the initial vision and chose a mechanism that was not over-bureaucratic to ensure that we could start this century, rather than wait for another 20 years. Thanks to him, we have made more progress over the past year than we would have done had we waited for Members to come round to the idea of discussing digital democracy.
I want to pick up on a couple of points that were made by both Front Benchers. The first was about citizenship education, which put me in mind of a visit I made on behalf of the commission to an international event in Montenegro to look at issues of digital engagement. Montenegro is a very small country that was part of the former Yugoslavia. Because most of the adults there grew up under communism, they were keen to teach their children about democracy. In very good English that in many ways put us to shame, the children explained to the delegates a workshop that they underwent to explain democracy to them and help them to understand it. That underlines the fact that although the commission looked at digital, we were really focused on how to use it to make engagement better. Digital alone is not going to solve the problem, as many have said.
The Deputy Leader of the House spoke about broadband. It is worth drawing the House’s attention to the House of Lords report that was most recently mentioned in this Chamber about a week ago. The House of Lords concluded that broadband should be seen as an essential utility. If we are really to tackle the digital divide, that must be a mission for whoever is in government after the election. I hope that we have cross-party engagement on that.
The Deputy Leader of the House also spoke about engagement, and rightly highlighted some of the progress that has been made, such as opportunities for the public to influence the early discussions on Bills, open evidence sessions and so on. The commission was really clear about one important reason why open data is so important: unless someone knows that such opportunities exist, they cannot get engaged. There is a danger that, because of how the House works, we tend to go to the same few lobby groups and people who have an expressed interest in a subject. We all know that there are silent, quiet experts in our constituencies who, given the opportunity, could really contribute to the work of this place. I cannot do my job without those people, and I am sure that the same can be said for other Members, so it is important that we give them the chance to get involved at the right moment. That is where open data can make a difference.
It would be fair to say that we are on the cusp of a revolution. The report discusses digital engagement, but we know that it is not a panacea. Nevertheless, it is a tool for better accountability for this place and for us individually. We must not let this opportunity pass. Mr Speaker had the vision, and the commission has done its work. We have agreed to meet formally in a year’s time to see how we are doing, and the House of Commons staff are doing their bit, with the new digital leader, who started work only this week, leading the way. Members and the people of this country must now embrace and deliver digital democracy. The report will only live if the public engage. We must say to them, “We open up this place and its proceedings to you. Please contribute. Take on our recommendations and make them live.”
Thank you very much. Thank you also to those in the Public Gallery. This is the last time that I will chair Westminster Hall, so it is appropriate that we have discussed the future. The Panel of Chairs has been helping with related matters, so I thank those present for helping us to establish a netiquette—I think that is the word—for the future, in which the public can be involved.
The next scheduled debate will not take place, because the hon. Member who secured it is unwell. We wish him well in his recovery.
First Aid Techniques: National Curriculum
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
There is wide interest in the debate. From the Chair’s point of view, it would be helpful if colleagues quietly let the Clerk know who wishes to make a speech and who intends merely to intervene. Aside from the main speakers, it looks as though there will be about five minutes each for the rest.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful for the opportunity to have one last go in this Parliament to persuade the Government and my Front Benchers that there is a chance simply, easily, cheaply and immediately to save lives and to transform society.
Teaching emergency life support skills in schools and the community is
“a no brainer, it’s just common sense”.
Those words are not mine, but those of Dr Andy Lockey at the Resuscitation Council. There are 150,000 people a year who die in situations in which, if only someone had known what to do, their lives might have been saved. There are 30,000 people who have out-of-hospital cardiac arrests, but fewer than one in 10 survives. If only someone knew how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, and if a defibrillator was available, survival rates could increase to 50%.
Emergency life support skills are a set of actions needed to keep somebody alive until professional help arrives. They include performing CPR, putting an unconscious person into the recovery position, dealing with choking and serious bleeding, and helping someone who might be having a heart attack. Such skills are particularly crucial at the time of a cardiac arrest, when every second counts. For every minute that passes in cardiac arrest, the chance of survival falls by 10%. If CPR is started immediately, the time that the person remains in a shockable, and hence reversible, condition will be prolonged. It also means that there will be more of the person’s brain function left—more of them left—if they are resuscitated. At the moment, it is down to luck.
Three years ago, Fabrice Muamba had a cardiac arrest when he was playing for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham. Fabrice was lucky because he had his cardiac arrest where there were people who were trained in what to do. He was lucky because the club medics and the paramedics gave him immediate CPR on the pitch, so his brain was saved. He was lucky because medics did not give up on him and worked on him for 78 minutes until his heart restarted. Because he was with people who knew what to do, we still have the charming, intelligent Fabrice in this world with us.
My sister’s friend, Malcolm McCormick, was also lucky. Just a month after Fabrice’s cardiac arrest, Malcolm went to school to pick up his grandchildren and he keeled over, effectively dead, not breathing, heart not beating. Malcolm was lucky because one of the people waiting to collect children was a retained firefighter who started to give CPR. He was very lucky because once a month another firefighter volunteers in the school tuck shop, and it was his Friday to be working, so he came and took control of the situation.
Malcolm was also lucky because a defibrillator was available, and he was rushed to a specialist hospital. Three days later he left hospital with very sore ribs, but alive and with his brain intact. Four months later, he was a Games maker at the Paralympics.
A mother and daughter were at the launch of the campaign in Parliament square. The daughter had saved her mother’s life by recognising that she was not breathing, and she was able to do CPR until the ambulance came. Seeing mother at the launch, chirpy and with it, was a heart-warming thing.
The hon. and learned Gentleman clearly caught sight of my speech before he raised his point. I was about to go on to say that Mandy Hobbs was really lucky, too. Her 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, woke up to hear her father on the phone saying that he thought her mum was dead. Samantha had learnt CPR at her swimming life-saving club, and she says that she went on to autopilot and started chest compressions. When she got too tired to carry on, she taught her father what to do. Mandy survived and now Samantha has become the pin-up girl of the British Heart Foundation. Mandy, dad Nick and Samantha are regular visitors to Parliament, trying to persuade the Government to make first aid compulsory in schools.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and I take the point that she is making as a fundamental premise, but does she agree that there is a role for local community campaigns, such as Heart of Gold and the Stephen Carey fund in Northumberland, which are trying to institute and organise more public access defibrillators around the county of Northumberland so that rural dwellers have that access, which saves lives?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. For me, it starts in schools. If only we could have—I will go on to talk about this more—a generation of life savers coming out of school. We have millions of people in the community who will not have had the benefit of being trained in schools. I applaud his organisations and the organisations in my constituency and across the country that do amazing work to raise money for defibrillators and for training individuals in how to do CPR.
Survival should not be down to luck. There are far too many other examples of people who suffer cardiac arrest and are not saved because the people around them do not know what to do: children such as Ciaran Geddes, who died aged 7; 12-year-old Oliver King; 16-year-old Daniel Young; or 17-year-old Guy Evans. Their mums are campaigning for defibrillators and emergency life-saving skills to be taught in schools.
Before I became an MP in 2005, I taught in a school where every single pupil in year 8 did a 12-week first aid course as part of their personal and social education. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the type of programme that should be implemented so that every single child coming out of school would have those skills?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Absolutely, every school leaver a life saver is what we should be aiming for.
This Government—it may be my Government in two months’ time—have a chance to make a real difference. We want the national curriculum to reflect the essential knowledge and understanding that pupils should be expected to have to enable them to take their place as an educated member of society. Knowing how to save a life would be absolutely in keeping with that aspiration. Knowing how to save the life of a family member or a member of the public would enable children to have an impact on the health of society. Ensuring that life-saving skills were taught in schools would provide the chance to instil in all children how valuable life is and how important it is to be a good citizen.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is making a passionate case for something she clearly believes in deeply. Does she accept that this is part of a wider awareness that is needed among the community at large to raise the profile of first aid issues, not only in schools and in the workplace, but across the spectrum, because there are still not enough people who know what to do in an emergency of the kind that she has talked about? If I may, I will acknowledge the support she gave to my campaign for Millie’s Trust, which wants trained paediatric first aid nurses in nursery schools to be a statutory requirement.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I congratulate him on Millie’s campaign, because it is absolutely crucial that people do not die when they could be saved. Currently, 7% of the population know how to save a life. Surely we could do much better.
We could join other countries such as France, Denmark and Norway, where emergency life support skills are already part of the curriculum, as they are in various states in Australia and in 36 states in America. In Seattle, children have to learn first aid skills before they can graduate from school, and it is also part of the driving licence requirement. More than half of the population in Seattle is now trained in emergency life support, so people are rarely more than 12 feet away from somebody who could save their life.
However, it is not enough to learn CPR. Michelle, a staff member at Rivington and Blackrod high school in my constituency, knew what to do when her dad had a cardiac arrest. She and others did CPR for a long time before the ambulance arrived far too late to make any difference. Had there been an automatic external defibrillator, they might have been able to shock his heart back into rhythm, but there was not. That is why I applaud the work of the Bolton implantable cardiac defibrillator support group, who work so hard to raise funds and have just donated their 67th defibrillator.
The chain of survival is just that—a chain of action that needs to be undertaken for a person to survive a cardiac arrest. It needs someone to call for help, someone to do CPR, a defibrillator and someone confident enough to use it, and an ambulance to take the person to hospital for treatment. That is why children need to learn how to do CPR and how to use a defibrillator.
The British Heart Foundation is giving Resusci Annies—the resuscitation dolls—to high schools and has produced a CD that teaches those skills in just half an hour, but we should be more ambitious. It is essential that we also teach children to deal with choking and bleeding and to put somebody in the recovery position. Nine out of ten 11 to 16-year-olds have been confronted with a medical emergency, often when no adults are around. Even when there are adults, it is often the child or young person who takes control and, for instance, delivers back blows to stop someone choking or deals with a serious bleed.
According to research by St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross, only 7% of the UK population have the skills and the confidence to carry out basic first aid in an emergency, but 91% of pupils want to learn first aid at school; 98% of parents want first aid on the curriculum; and 96% of teachers think it is important for students to learn first aid. Ninety-five per cent of teachers agree that first aid teaching develops the general confidence and optimism of young people, yet only 21% of our schools equip young people with first aid skills.
I am enjoying the hon. Lady’s speech immensely; she is making a very powerful case. An argument against having CPR training in schools is that it would take up too much time, but surely what she is saying is that it would not require that much teaching time to get across to young people the skills that they need.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will go on to say more about that in a moment, but let me reiterate the point now: if someone goes for half an hour’s training a year over their time in secondary school, we are talking about two and half hours. If they stay on, it is three and a half hours. If they go for an hour’s training, we are talking about five, six or seven hours. In terms of a school day, it is quicker than going on a cross-country run. We are talking about schools being able to take this skill into the national curriculum and to train people in it.
St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross believe that CPR and public access defibrillator training are important, but that other skills, such as the ability to deal with choking, bleeding and burns, and the ability to place somebody in the recovery position, must also be taught in schools. They believe that that could be done for just one hour a year, some of which could be delivered during an assembly. They, too, have provided free resources online for schools to use.
We still have Heartstart schools, where that range of skills is taught for two hours a year. It would take a tiny amount of the time that children are in school utterly to transform our society and have a nation of life savers. First aid provision also helps to meet Ofsted’s requirement on school safety and on the promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.
We need to end the scenario in which, when somebody collapses or has a road traffic accident, we all stand around in a circle waiting for someone to act because we are too frightened to intervene. We need to end the fear of companies and organisations that are worried about the consequences of having a defibrillator. No one has ever been successfully sued for attempting to save someone’s life, and as one of my local firefighters said, “If someone’s heart has stopped, they are dead. You cannot make them any deader.”
Schools, companies, businesses and community groups should be far more worried about how they would feel if someone died when, if only they had invested in an AED and someone had known what to do, they could have saved them. Indeed, I believe that we should make AEDs compulsory, like fire extinguishers.
I cannot imagine anything worse than watching a loved one die and finding out that if only I had known what to do, they could have survived, so I have put my money where my mouth is. I have trained as a Heartstart tutor, so that I can teach people to do CPR and deal with choking and bleeding. My staff are Heartstart-trained and all the secondary schools in Bolton West have committed to or have become Heartstart schools.
I have worked closely with Sara Harris and the North West ambulance service to encourage the teaching of emergency life support skills and the roll-out of defibrillators. Sara works closely with the British Heart Foundation on its programmes. I have worked with Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, many of whose firefighters go into schools to teach life-saving skills. I have worked with Bolton Wanderers community trust, which is doing a great job in teaching life support skills and promoting defibrillators. I am working with Bolton implantable cardiac defibrillator support group, who are doing such an amazing job in raising money for defibrillators.
Recently, I have started to work with Lagan’s Foundation, which is a foundation that supports parents of children with heart disease and is also doing CPR training. I have campaigned with The Bolton News for every school leaver to be a life saver, and I have met with Ministers and shadow Ministers, and spoken on the subject many times in this place, including introducing a ten-minute rule Bill.
However, that is not enough, because every time there is a change of head teacher or the staff member responsible for emergency life support skills leaves, we have to start again. The only way to ensure that all children learn how to save a life is to put life-saving skills into the national curriculum. The only way to ensure that a defibrillator is available in our schools and other public buildings is to legislate for them to be a requirement. Since I started campaigning for that four years ago, I have heard some tragic and inspirational stories. I appeal to the Minister and to the shadow Minister to commit to introducing emergency life-saving skills to the national curriculum and, as a bare minimum, to ensuring that pupils know how to do CPR and how to use a defibrillator.
It is a pleasure both to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to follow the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). I am getting déjà vu; I think this is our fourth debate on this issue—it would be easy just to dust off our previous speeches. I have been supporting this campaign passionately, and I am delighted that next Wednesday, I will be turning up at the Minister’s office to have yet another push. It is a relentless campaign from us, and like “The Shawshank Redemption”, surely it would just be easier to agree with us.
As the hon. Lady said in her excellent speech, 30,000 people a year will have a serious cardiac arrest outside hospital, and disgracefully, only one in 12 can expect to survive. Ambulances take six to 12 minutes to arrive, and for every minute that passes in which immediate CPR is not given, the survival chance falls by 10%. If immediate CPR action is taken, the survival chance rises threefold. It is a great, crying shame that most people are simply not able to help or will walk by, not having the confidence to step in. In previous debates, we have heard horror stories of groups of people standing around and taking photographs, with nobody being willing to step forward. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that we have such a disgraceful survival rate of just one in 12.
We are all committed to trying to empower people with the skills and confidence to step in. As the hon. Lady so eloquently put it, frankly, anything is better than doing nothing. Someone cannot be deader than dead.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate and on her stirring words, and I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on the speech that he is making. I have learned a lot not only from this debate and the campaigns that they have put forward, but from St John Ambulance and British Red Cross locally. They have taught me what more I need to do. Will he join me in congratulating them on their work across countless constituencies? Is there more that we can do to support their efforts in helping this important campaign?
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent intervention. I think we would all join together in congratulating St John Ambulance on their brilliant work, not just in his constituency, but right across the country, and a number of organisations are desperate to step in and support the activities that we are pushing for in schools. This is a win-win for so many different people.
One reason why I am so passionate about this issue and have worked so closely with the hon. Member for Bolton West, a number of other MPs, and particularly, the British Heart Foundation—it has been fantastic in providing statistics and doing work that I will come back to—is that I found my father after a critical cardiac arrest. I was aged 12. I came into the shop where he had been collecting the money, and I kicked into autopilot. I probably was not particularly good, but it was better than nothing until passers-by came by. When we see the statistics, we are often blinded by the numbers, but I can personally vouch for just what happens when someone is in that situation.
Our aims are simple: we want people to recognise an emergency, to know that they should contact an ambulance immediately, and to administer CPR. Things have changed—it is not the kiss of life now. Simply by doing compressions in the right place, we can potentially keep people going for 15 minutes or even longer and give them a good chance of survival. We want people to use an automated defibrillator, and of course I support the campaigns to put them into as many public places as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has been tireless in raising that issue in debates and parliamentary questions.
We have pushed on this matter time and again. We had the e-petition with 100,000 signatures. We have had visits to Downing street. This is, I believe, our fourth debate. We have had parliamentary questions. We have had meetings and, as I said, there is another one in a week’s time. And we have responded; we have listened. The challenge is that people do not like to be prescriptive in the national curriculum. I understand that. I also understand that at one point there were 150 campaigns pushing for things to be in the national curriculum, and that when we asked for two hours in the curriculum, that was too much. We have gone away and turned that two hours into 30 minutes—the British Heart Foundation in particular has been fantastic on that point. A one-off 30-minute session can equip people with the skills to be life savers.
We are flexible. We are not proud. We do not mind whether the training takes place in biology or physical education lessons. It could take place during a school assembly. It could happen at the beginning or end of term. It could be given at any age. It could be part of citizenship education. We do not care, as long as there is a 30-minute window at some point during the school cycle. Even more impressively—this is for the Treasury—the British Heart Foundation has already purchased all the packs, so there would be no cost to the Exchequer, and each pack includes a DVD, so staff would not need extensive training. As long as they can put a DVD in, we will be well on the way.
The hon. Member for Bolton West reeled off statistics that showed how supportive of the idea teachers, children and parents are. Her statistics were even more favourable than mine, so I have put a big red line through mine in my notes. Importantly, we as politicians are not used to being popular, and this is an opportunity for us to garner huge support from teachers, children and parents.
We have to make this training compulsory. It needs to fit somewhere in a child’s education. We can create a generation of life savers. We have seen that, in countries such as Norway, survival rates reach as high as 50%. In this country, that would mean something like 5,000 more people surviving every year, because of a simple 30-minute gesture. We have a duty to create the next generation of life savers, and I hope that we seize that opportunity.
It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing this very important debate. She has spoken on this issue tirelessly during the past five years, and I am sure that she will continue to do so.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is currently no mandatory requirement of teaching about CPR—first aid—or public access defibrillators in the national curriculum in England. That is denying generations of young people the opportunity to develop life-saving skills that would benefit everyone. Today, however, I want to speak specifically about how the lack of CPR training and readily available defibrillators in schools and public places is preventing sufferers of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, known as SADS, from having the best chance of survival. SADS is the term used to describe heart conditions that can suddenly affect seemingly healthy young people. It affects people between the ages of 12 and 35, and Government statistics show that it causes the deaths of about 12 young people a week. However, the true figure is believed to be higher, because the condition is often misdiagnosed. Each of those deaths is a personal tragedy. In my own constituency, in February 2013, Philip Lamin suffered a fatal cardiac arrest while playing football after school with his friends. He was 16. It was following that terrible event that I first met Juliet Lamin, Philip’s mother, who despite her terrible loss—Philip was her only child—has campaigned tirelessly to raise funds so that there are defibrillators in every local school. Although we cannot say for certain that the presence of a defibrillator would have saved Philip’s life, statistics suggest that it would have hugely increased his chances of survival. I want to take this opportunity to commend Ms Lamin, who is listening to the debate, and the young people she works with for keeping this issue at the front of people’s minds and raising awareness. Her relentless commitment and dedication are amazing. She is an inspiration.
A number of organisations, including the British Heart Foundation, the British Red Cross, St John Ambulance and SADS UK, have highlighted how defibrillation, along with CPR, forms a crucial part of the chain of survival following a SADS attack or out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Last year I, like many of us, met the Oliver King Foundation, which is calling for the introduction of legislation to make it compulsory for defibrillators to be placed in all public buildings, including schools and sports centres, to help prevent the deaths of many young people from SADS. At that time, the Oliver King Foundation had done excellent work in placing more than 450 defibrillators in public places across the country. Reportedly, those defibrillators have already started saving lives.
It is important to have defibrillators available, but it is clear that their presence alone is not enough. Evidence suggests that a defibrillator is less likely to be effective if CPR has not been carried out before it arrives. However, the lack of training and uncertainty about what to do mean that, as we have heard, bystanders are reluctant to get involved even if there is a defibrillator at the scene. Many people say that even if it was for a loved one, they would be reluctant to get involved because they would not know what to do. Teaching people CPR and defibrillator awareness in secondary schools would alleviate that fear. Young people would leave school with knowledge that could save a friend, a loved one or a stranger.
The Government’s cardiovascular disease outcomes strategy, published in March 2013, recognised the need to improve out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survival rates and sought to increase the number of people trained in CPR and defibrillator use. In April 2014, the Department for Education published guidance for schools on supporting pupils with medical conditions. It encouraged schools to consider purchasing a defibrillator and stated that staff members trained in CPR
“may wish to promote these techniques more widely”.
It also recognised the importance of training to the confidence of bystanders. However, those were suggestions, not mandatory requirements.
Helping schools to purchase defibrillators is not enough when teachers and students are not confident enough to use them. At present, although some schools may choose to cover basic first aid as part of their wider curriculum, others are free to ignore it completely. There is a lack of consistency in the provision of that teaching, because if a member of staff who champions first aid leaves the school, there is no obligation to continue their good work. That means that first aid may be taught one year and not the next, which implies that it is not a serious subject. Surely the Government’s next logical step should be to make CPR and defibrillator awareness a mandatory part of the national curriculum, because every week people are dying when simple CPR training, combined with the ready availability of defibrillators, could help them to survive. Both need to be offered to ensure the maximum chance of survival.
Making CPR and defibrillator awareness part of the school curriculum is widely supported by organisations, and polling of parents and teachers has shown that they support it, too. It cannot be right that people such as Juliet Lamin and Philip’s young friends have to go from school to school and youth club to youth club to raise awareness when it is us, the legislators, here in this place who can change the law to make it happen. I urge the Minister to take on board all the comments that have been made today and to take affirmative action to ensure that CPR and defibrillator awareness are a mandatory part of the national curriculum for the benefit of us all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to be here today. We have followed this debate and issue for quite some time. Defibrillators have been popping up around village halls, swimming pools, leisure centres and gyms across the whole of the South Derbyshire constituency very much as a charitable, volunteer arrangement. Similarly, when the British Heart Foundation really kicked on with this campaign and made the offer of kit to schools, I, as a good constituency MP, wrote to all my local schools and colleges about having the equipment put in, and I am delighted to say that the William Allitt school, High Grange school, the Pingle school, Foremarke school and Granville sports college took up that offer. I have been into the Pingle school and been with the children as they were having one of their lessons, pumping up and down on the dummy. Obviously, people can imagine which face I was imagining as I was doing that—there are people we want to keep and people we perhaps do not want to keep—but it was a pleasure to be there with those children. Would the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) like to intervene?
The hon. Gentleman was just wondering who I was thinking of. That is fine.
What I find fascinating is that there is no pushback—no pun intended—from the children. The children want to do this training.
Again, as an MP campaigning about issues that are important to people in South Derbyshire, I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister and we have spoken about this issue. Our local St John Ambulance is keen on it, the children are keen on it and the schools are proud of what they are doing. Village hall committees are helping to organise the defibrillators in their areas. There is support from county councillors, such as Linda Chilton in the Melbourne area, which helped to pay for one of the defibrillators. There is a huge groundswell of support. I genuinely believe that the time is right for Ministers to accept that it is a good idea, and to accept that there is an opportunity, perhaps after May, to put such skills on the curriculum. We are rolling out citizenship classes and making sure that older children understand the importance of politics and democracy. Only one thing is more important than politics and democracy, and that is living and breathing. I hope that the Minister takes on board all the comments from everybody in the Chamber, and I again congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West on ensuring that the debate is alive and kicking today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), who secured the debate, and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). The numbers that have been outlined during the debate speak for themselves. More than 30,000 cardiac arrests occur out of hospital each year, and less than one in 10 people survive. That statistic should worry us all as MPs with constituents, and as members of families and communities where such deaths regularly occur year in, year out. Those statistics mean that, if I were to have a cardiac arrest outside hospital now, my chances of being able to go home and see my family tonight would be minimal.
That does not have to be the case. In places around the world such as Seattle, parts of Holland and parts of Norway, survival rates can reach 25%, which means that a quarter of people who have out-of-hospital cardiac arrests make it home to see their loved ones. If we matched the survival rates achieved in parts of Norway, we would save 5,000 lives a year. That is 5,000 families still together; 5,000 mothers, fathers and children together would see the benefits of such changes.
I am proud to be the chair of the all-party group on heart disease, and I have worked with the British Heart Foundation and colleagues in Parliament to push the case that life-saving skills are essential for young people and society, and that they should not be optional. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the British Heart Foundation, which provides the secretariat to our all-party group: chief executive Simon Gillespie, policy director Mike Hobday, Maura Gillespie, Rachel Almeida, John Howard and Susannah Kerr. The BHF has done great work on genetics, on the impact of sugars, salts and fats on heart disease, on plain packaging, on exercise and on defibrillators. The CPR campaign is one of its most important campaigns because it is, quite literally, life saving.
I will provide two examples from right here in Parliament. Bob Sheldon, an ex-MP who is now Lord Sheldon, died outside Parliament about 15 years ago. Duncan Goodhew, the swimmer, was walking past and saw it happen, and he brought Bob back to life. Paul Keetch, a former Liberal Democrat MP, was flying from England to New York, and he died over Northern Ireland. He was lucky—I have to make sure I get this the right way around—to be flying on a Virgin Atlantic plane, which had a defibrillator. The defibrillator was used and he was saved. If he had been in a British Airways aeroplane, he would not have been brought back and would not have survived. I apologise if I have got that the wrong way around.
The incident involving young Samantha Hobbs has already been relayed. I met Samantha and her mother in Portcullis House when Samantha gave us a lesson about how she saved her mum. It was absolutely lovely to see mother and daughter still bonded with each other because of Samantha’s skills. The BHF campaign is a great way to get the message across to the public: it tells us to pump the heart to the rhythm of “Stayin’ Alive”:
“Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive”.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, as long as my hon. Friend does not ask me to sing a duet with her.
Those of us who are more musically challenged can do it to “Nellie the Elephant”.
For those who are not impressed by the examples I have given of people being saved—the mother and daughter, Bob Sheldon and Paul Keetch—in cold-hearted actuarial terms, the insurance industry reckons that every person who dies prematurely costs the country £1 million in lost taxes, lost education and lost life. If we prevent 5,000 people from dying prematurely from heart disease every year, the country will save £5 billion. Over the next 10 years, the saving would be £50 billion. It makes economic sense, but most of all, it makes health sense to introduce lessons about CPR.
Charities such as the British Heart Foundation are doing their part. To date, 930 secondary schools across the country, plus two community groups in my constituency, have signed up to help build a nation of life savers. As has been mentioned, the BHF is providing kits free of charge to schools and clubs. The charity is doing its bit, and it is time for the Government to meet it halfway and help to deliver CPR and public access defibrillator awareness across the four nations. The BHF’s innovative “Call Push Rescue” training scheme teaches CPR and PAD awareness in less than 30 minutes. It takes just 30 minutes to save a life.
Will CPR awareness sessions affect our children’s maths and English? Will they reduce our children’s skills? Will they adversely affect our children’s standard assessment tests, their GCSEs or their A-levels? Such training can be slotted into the curriculum in many different ways, as has been said. For example, it could be taught in biology lessons or—my favourite option—in PE lessons. The good thing about CPR is that it can be taught anywhere in the school curriculum, and it must be possible to find 30 minutes somewhere in that curriculum.
Since the meeting that my hon. Friend and I attended last week, I have made inquiries about what is being done in Scotland. The curriculum in Scotland contains carers modules, and I am led to believe, although I still need confirmation on this, that CPR could well form part of such modules. That should not simply happen in one place; it should be rolled out across the whole of the UK.
I totally concur with my hon. Friend, and I am glad that he has made investigations about the scene in Scotland. Nineteen MPs have attended this debate, and dozens of others have signed early-day motions, spoken in other debates and tabled parliamentary questions. Heart disease is the biggest killer in the country, and any political party that gets on top of the matter will be given political credit for it. It is a non-party political issue, however, and it is great to see hon. Members from across the House and across the United Kingdom here supporting the call for CPR and PAD. I hope that we will use our position in Parliament to influence our Front-Bench team, our Back-Bench team and our manifestos. I also hope that we will use our position as local leaders in our constituencies to influence schools and health authorities to ensure that the important issue of CPR and PAD is raised locally in our communities and nationally.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing this incredibly important debate.
I start my speech with a confession. When I first encountered the idea of putting CPR and life-saving skills on the curriculum in the early days of this Parliament, I was sceptical about it. Unfortunately, I did as the Whips keep telling me not to do and looked a little further into the matter. I dug a little further and looked at some information, and two things convinced me: the statistics and the evidence from abroad. I was also influenced by the fact that I have the pleasure of occupying an office that is two doors away from that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), and it was unlikely that I would get away with holding a view contrary to his for long.
The statistics speak for themselves, and we have heard some of them this afternoon. There are some 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the UK each year. Survival across the UK is poor and highly variable, with survival rates of between 2% and 12%. Where ventricular defibrillation takes place, survival rates are slightly higher, but fewer than one in five people survive. Half of cardiac arrests are witnessed by bystanders, but too few people have the knowledge of CPR to make the difference between life and death.
One of the most shocking statistics, and one that prompted my interest in this issue, is that 12 children under the age of 18, and many more adults, die in the UK each week from cardiac arrest. As somebody involved in youth sport, I felt passionate about making sure I got a better understanding of how this issue affects our youngsters. We automatically think they are healthy because they are young, but as we have seen from examples such as that of Fabrice Muamba, the fittest person can suffer a cardiac arrest.
For every minute that passes without defibrillation, a victim’s chances of survival decrease by between 10% and 12%. A simple calculation shows that a victim is likely to have the maximum chance of survival up to between eight and 10 minutes after the cardiac arrest occurs. With a current ambulance target response time of eight minutes, time is of the essence, so acting quickly and using the appropriate therapy are essential.
If the statistics do not speak for themselves, let us look at the international evidence. This country lags quite far behind on teaching youngsters and adults CPR and life-saving skills. In the US, 36 states have passed legislation to make sure youngsters learn emergency skills. If an emergency ambulance is called, and immediate bystander CPR is used, followed by early defibrillation, survival rates following cardiac arrest in those 36 states can exceed 50%. In Seattle, CPR has been taught in school PE lessons for more than 30 years, and survival rates have increased by 52%. It is also on the curriculum in France, Denmark and Norway, where survival rates have also increased.
In stark contrast, the UK has incredibly poor rates. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon made clear, however, the British Heart Foundation’s campaign to teach these skills has been well thought through, and it is now being rolled out in many guises, using DVDs and other equipment. We can no longer simply say there is too much pressure on the timetable.
After the hon. Member for Bolton West mentioned some statistics, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon crossed his out, but they are the ones I want to use. Some 86% of teachers think emergency life support should be part of the curriculum, 78% of children want to be taught how to save someone’s life in an emergency and 70% of parents think children should be taught ELS at school. That would take as little as 0.2% of the school year, so by taking just two hours from their entire school life, children can learn to save a life.
The teaching does not have to be prescriptive, contrary to what I originally thought—hence my early scepticism. It can be really flexible; as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, we can teach essential life-saving skills in PE, biology or assembly. There are so many different ways we can teach them to children.
I want briefly to mention the campaign I have been running in my constituency. Inspired by a better knowledge of the statistics, and taking a lead from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), I have been trying to ensure there is as much access as possible to defibrillators across my constituency. The campaign has been incredibly good in terms of not only ensuring that we have this life-saving equipment, but bringing people in communities together.
We now have five defibs in schools across my constituency. At one secondary school, the opening ceremony was done by the mum of a boy who goes to the school. He has a heart defect, and she came up to me afterwards and said, “Every day, I said goodbye to my son when he went to school, and I wasn’t sure whether he would come home that evening. I have no idea what is going to happen, but I feel a little safer now, knowing that this equipment is on site.”
We have defibs at Aylesford rugby club and Snodland football club and in two of the three remote villages in my constituency. The defib coming to Larkfield is being supported—finally—by Tesco. To start with, the company had misplaced concerns about liability, but we managed to reassure it that the defib will cause no liability issues. Other defibs are coming to other parts of the constituency.
The campaign has been assisted by Georgina, my assistant in the constituency. She ran a marathon to raise funds for defibs in her town—Snodland—and the village of Burham. I want to use this opportunity to thank all the fundraisers from the schools, the scouts and the guides, as well as councillors, Georgina and the businesses that have supported us. Last but not least, I want to mention the people at Cardiac Science, who have supported us every step of the way. They were kind enough to tell Georgina that if she passed the finish line—no matter what her time or how much she raised—they would give her another defib. She managed to raise enough money for two defibs, and Cardiac Science gave her the third for free. That has been absolutely fantastic.
The campaign has been incredibly popular across the area, but I have also learned some lessons from it, and those have come later in the campaign. I targeted schools—they are all secondary schools—with big sports communities. They open their facilities at the weekends, and they are also often open in the evenings for adult learning, so we naturally put the defibs there—the only problem is that there is no access to the defibrillators when they are closed. As we have progressed with the campaign, therefore, we have made sure that the latest defibs are in locked, secure boxes and that people can now ring the ambulance, get the code and get access to the community defib.
If I am re-elected in May, I will carry on trying to get as many defibs as possible across the constituency, because there are simply not enough. I also want to raise enough funds to move the defibs from the inside to the outside of schools so that they are available to the whole community.
It is wonderful to hear about the number of defibrillators around my hon. Friend’s constituency and about people’s access to them. My constituent Sean Doyle collapsed with a heart attack at Greenhead park on the edge of my constituency. He was fortunate that three doctors were running by that morning and saved his life. He has raised funds for a defibrillator, which is now in the park. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the nub of the debate is making sure that people know how to use defibrillators and have the confidence to make a quick decision to save someone’s life? I hope we will get a response from the Minister about people getting training in schools.
People do not actually need training to use the modern defibs, which “talk” to people and tell them exactly what to do. They will not administer a shock if it is not required. They walk people through the entire process, which is why I feel comfortable about the number of defibs we are getting across my constituency.
To conclude, I would like to think that every child leaving primary school had the basic skills to put someone—whether an adult or a child—in the recovery position and to call for help. That is not asking too much of our teachers or of children’s time in primary school. I would also like to think that, by the time children left secondary school, they had the confidence to use a defib and to do CPR. That is down to basic training, but that training could save a life. That is all that we, as legislators, should focus on. These proposals are not opposed by educationalists or teachers, and parents and children want them. They would be a real asset to our wider community.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) for her passionate introduction and for setting the scene.
I doubt whether there is anyone present who has not heard me talking about the beauty, character and innovation to be found in Northern Ireland. We have much to offer the world, and it is a Northern Ireland innovation that has made it possible for us to be having today’s debate. The modern defibrillator was created by a man called Dr Frank Pantridge, who has aptly been called the father of emergency medication. Frank was an Ulster Scot, hailing from just outside my constituency at Hillsborough, within the county that I serve—yet more proof that the best always hails from Ulster. It is always a pleasure to come and say that.
I think most hon. Members will have caught sight of medical dramas on television where a patient goes into V-tach and the doctor shouts for the crash cart and jumps the heart into action. One small box has the ability to completely change a patient’s life and that of the people around them; that is how vital it is. Whenever someone suffers a cardiac arrest, early intervention and resuscitation are essential to improve the outcome, as other Members have said. That is why it is crucial that defibrillators should be available, and that people should be trained to use them. Training need not be terribly intensive, but it must help people who are unsure. There is a way of talking people through the process.
I want to provide a Northern Ireland perspective, because I think the Minister and other hon. Members will be pleased to hear about some of the things that we have done across the water. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who has just left the Chamber, mentioned that 19 Members from around the United Kingdom were in the Chamber. My local council, Ards borough council—soon to be North Down and Ards district council—has informed me that the life of a gentleman who was swimming at the pool was saved, after the call went out and someone came running with a defibrillator and used it appropriately. The outcome would have been very different had the machine not been available, but it was, and it saved his life. Indeed, that has happened on many occasions. Such events are not limited to TV medical dramas. They happen in real life, and defibrillators, used correctly, save lives.
In Northern Ireland, we have a campaign called Defibs4Kids, with the aim of putting defibrillators into schools. At the start, about 30 schools in Northern Ireland had defibrillators, but as of June last year the number had risen to 170, and it is still rising. There is a map online showing the schools that have defibrillators, and my colleague the Health Minister in Northern Ireland is overseeing that initiative. I know that the matter is devolved, but perhaps other Departments may need to be involved to enable the initiative to progress. The next phase of Defibs4Kids concerns the mapping of defibrillators in local and central Government Departments and agencies, to be followed by businesses and community defibrillators, including first responder schemes.
About a month ago in my constituency, a new first responders scheme was launched in the Ards peninsula and Kircubbin. It took nearly three years to get that scheme going, because it was a Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety issue, but it happened through working with the community. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch)—I hope I can call her a friend as well—visited my constituency to attend that event. She has seen what the scheme does, the people who were trained, and the enthusiasm and energy that made the project happen. That is good news.
I am informed that each year in Northern Ireland, approximately 1,400 cardiac arrests occur outside a hospital environment. Fewer than 10% of people who suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survive to be discharged from hospital. Indeed, each year in the UK about 30,000 people have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. For every minute that passes in cardiac arrest before defibrillation, outside a hospital setting, the chances of survival are reduced by 10%.
The Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke Association has stated that it supports the provision of lifesaving equipment in the community, but it does not itself provide emergency aid training or equipment. However, it encourages sporting organisations to raise funds to buy equipment such as defibrillators, and can suggest suppliers of the equipment and associated training services. Just two weeks ago, Rosemount Rec football club in Greyabbey took delivery of a defibrillator, and members have been trained to use it. It is available for every football match—home and away, wherever they may be. It was good to see how the club did that. The NICHSA also encourages clubs to set aside money to give staff initial and recurring training in using the equipment. It is simple to use, and individuals who have not been trained can still use it, but it is sensible to provide training.
I have been contacted by many community groups in my area that had saved for a defibrillator and needed training. I have had inquiries about defibrillators from churches, and I have even liaised with Asda—I am not trying to promote it above any other supermarket, but there is an Asda at the shopping centre. It has a defibrillator in every one of its locations in Northern Ireland. That is all part of the work that has been done to make defibrillators available.
There was another event the week before last, along with that at Rosemount Rec football club, at Greyabbey Presbyterian church, which had raised money for a defibrillator. The congregation, along with the community association, want to make another first responders defibrillator available in Greyabbey, in the Ards peninsula. Those people are volunteers. Thankfully, defibrillators are becoming more available; the issue now is to see that people are trained in their use. Of course, the best place to start is in school, so we are pursuing that strategy.
It is clear that groups, clubs and organisations take the issue seriously. The question is whether the Department of Health takes it seriously enough. The Minister replying to the debate is in the Department for Education, but in Northern Ireland it is a Department of Health issue. When we hear of young footballers and rugby players dropping dead on the pitch, or active, healthy people having a heart attack at the swimming pool, it brings home what we need to do. Is it really fair to put the onus entirely on a group or organisation to have the equipment and training on hand, or could and should the Government help?
I believe that aid and training can and should be provided, and I await the Minister’s response, bearing in mind that the matter is devolved to Northern Ireland. I fully support what other hon. Members have said today, and the outline strategy is for defibrillators to be available in schools and other community places, and for help to be provided for those who want to be prepared if the unimaginable happens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing this important debate.
We have heard an awful lot of statistics and numbers this afternoon, and I do not intend to dwell on those. I will focus more on a personal case from my constituency—the story of young Sam Mangoro, who was a 16-year-old pupil at Mountbatten school in Romsey. Almost exactly a year ago he suffered a heart attack and collapsed. His heart stopped beating during a PE lesson. We heard the stat that fewer than one in 10 who have a heart attack outside hospital are likely to survive, but Sam was one of the lucky ones. His PE lesson was being led by a teacher who was there for an interview—she was not even on the full-time staff. He collapsed, and she had had training.
Enormous credit is due to Mountbatten school, because it was one of the few schools in my constituency that had a defibrillator, which it had purchased some months previously. I will not say that that happened by chance; the chair of the governors had had a conversation with her son-in-law, who was a doctor for the air ambulance. He had explained to her in great detail why it was so important to have defibrillators in public places where young people might play sport—because every minute counted. As a result of that conversation the school purchased its first defibrillator, and on 6 March 2014 Sam Mangoro’s life was saved because the school had staff trained in CPR and a defibrillator on the premises.
The excellent news is that the whole Mountbatten school community has now embraced the need for CPR training, and two more defibrillators have been purchased. As might be expected in a large rural constituency, the school is on quite a large site, and the view was taken that three defibrillators were needed to provide sufficient coverage and make one of them easily reachable anywhere on the campus should a child collapse. Mountbatten school has led the way in Romsey, and Sam’s story was a wake-up call for many other schools in the area. I do not say that it is commonplace, but it is not uncommon for schools in the constituency to have defibrillators. There is a great deal of awareness of the issue. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that first responders and similar groups are now more likely to have defibrillators. Defibrillators can be seen outside village pubs and community halls around my constituency. Mountbatten school has become one of the British Heart Foundation’s “nation of life savers” schools.
Alongside access to defibrillators, there has to be training. Modern defibrillators talk people through the process, and I have used a defibrillator that the Oliver King Foundation demonstrated to us in this place. I know how straightforward it is, but the issue of confidence still remains. It is easiest to imbue confidence into people when they are young. We have heard that school pupils wish to learn CPR and, unlike those of us who could be described as middle-aged, they have no hesitation or trepidation; they get stuck straight in. We therefore have an important opportunity.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Education, and on 17 February we published a report calling for personal, social, health and economic education to be a statutory part of the curriculum. Many hon. Members have pitched to the Minister this afternoon the idea that CPR should be taught as part of physical education, biology or, perhaps, citizenship, but I will of course make the pitch that CPR should be part of PSHE. I cannot think of a more obvious place in the curriculum for CPR. Of course, PSHE is not currently mandatory or statutory, and I have consistently called for it to be a statutory part of our curriculum, as I firmly believe it should be. If we take that step, CPR should be a mandatory element of PSHE.
Last year, I spent a mere half an hour with St John Ambulance in Romsey, and it reminded me of some basic CPR training that I received a very long time ago when I was a member of the Brownies. I am proud to have gained my Brownie first aid badge when I was about nine or 10, and CPR has not changed radically. Way back in the 1980s we were not doing CPR to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive,” but St John Ambulance is keen to emphasise that that is the rhythm that people have to deploy—it is really straightforward. St John Ambulance also showed me again how to use the automatic defibrillators. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is correct that CPR can be taught very quickly—30 minutes is all it takes—and I urge the Minister, first, to consider the Education Committee’s plea that PSHE is made a statutory part of the curriculum and, secondly, that PSHE is the right place for CPR.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate. She has been assiduous in ensuring that the rest of us are held to account on the issue, about which she feels very strongly.
It is surprising that, after the debate in the Chamber on 22 November 2012, the issue remains unresolved and that we find ourselves back here discussing largely the same matters. On that occasion, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), then children’s Minister, was positively effusive in her support for this idea, yet here we are in the dying days of the Parliament and we do not appear to be much further forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) has said, there is no requirement to teach life-saving skills in our schools. In some schools, children learn about automatic external defibrillators or CPR, but the Government, as far as I am aware, have no settled policy on the issue. The Minister might be able to help us on that point.
In December 2014, the Minister for Schools was almost as effusive as the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk, and perhaps even more so. He became the first Education Minister to back adding first aid to the curriculum when he said that it should be a compulsory part of personal, social, health and economic education, or PSHE, lessons. I understand that the Government’s cardiovascular disease outcomes strategy recognises the need to improve out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survival rates and promotes an increase in the number of people trained in CPR and in the number of public access defibrillators. What steps are the Government taking to increase the number of people with such training, as part of their strategy? Schools seem an obvious place to start if we want to increase the numbers, and teacher training courses are another place where it might make sense to try to increase training. I would be grateful if the Minister shed light on how the strategy is being implemented, because that might go some way to addressing some of the issues raised today.
When the Secretary of State for Education was last asked about the issue in a parliamentary question, the best she could offer was that the Department of Health was
“helping schools to procure defibrillators at a reduced price.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2015; Vol. 593, c. 672.]
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that there is often difficulty between Departments, and I take that point, but what we are doing in schools requires more than the Secretary of State to tell us that the Department of Health has a policy to help to get some cut-price defibrillators.
The first responders organisation on the Ards peninsula, where I live and which I represent, has managed to buy half a dozen defibrillators at a reduced price. The organisation has obviously negotiated that price and made defibrillators more financially available.
Most people would agree with anything that could be done to make the equipment available at reduced cost.
As I understand it, the Department for Education non-statutory guidance encourages schools to consider purchasing a defibrillator as part of their first aid stock, and the guidance also suggests that staff members who are already appointed as first aiders might wish to promote first aid techniques more widely in the school among teachers and pupils. That is the end of my pre-election knockabout, because I recognise that the bulk of the debate has been relatively consensual. I will not pursue the Minister any further.
Like others, I recognise that every year some 150,000 people die in situations in which first aid could have made a difference. According to the British Heart Foundation, more than 30,000 people suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the UK each year. Some hon. Members said that fewer than one in 12 survive, but my researcher told me that the figure is fewer than one in 10—we know that not enough people survive. As the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) reminded us, this is not about statistics; it is about real-life experiences that people may or may not survive. It is important to bear that in mind, and we are clearly behind other countries in teaching CPR to young people.
According to the Red Cross, only about 20% of our secondary school students learn first aid skills in the classroom, and it is estimated that less than 13% of pupils access some sort of CPR training at school. If we ensured that school leavers were capable and confident in performing CPR, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West said, an estimated 5,000 lives could be saved each year.
Arguably, we are behind many of our European counterparts; countries such as France, Denmark and Norway all make life-saving skills such as CPR a mandatory part of their school curriculums. For many years, they have used strategies ranging from self-learning with DVDs and mannequins to structured teaching, which is exactly the model that Members have discussed today.
Further afield, a recent statement by the American Heart Association concluded that CPR training should be required for graduation from secondary school. I was told that 20 states have introduced such a requirement, but I note that two Members have said that the number is 36, so I bow to their superior research. I understand that most US schools use a CPR training kit that trains 10 to 20 students at a time and takes 30 minutes, which is not dissimilar from the approach recommended by the British Heart Foundation and mentioned in the debate by several hon. Members.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, international evidence suggests a substantial decrease in deaths associated with cardiac problems in countries where CPR training is mandatory in schools. In Norway, for example, survival rates are 25% better than our own for individual cases of cardiac arrest. To compare the international story to our own, as I have said and others have repeated, only 20% of our students leave school having learned first aid, so we can see the scale of the problem facing us.
As was mentioned earlier, when asked in a recent survey, almost all secondary school students stated that they would want to help a friend or family member needing emergency first aid, but 94% said that they needed further training before they would feel capable of doing so. A further half of secondary school students admitted to feeling nervous and panicking in such situations. The issue is further exacerbated; a British Heart Foundation survey found that barely a third of respondents would know how to perform CPR on a friend or family member. That is worrying when we consider the number of people at risk.
As I understand it—other Members here may be better informed than me—it is likely that CPR training would be confined to the secondary sector, as young primary-aged children frequently lack the physical strength to carry out CPR on adults. In their case, training would probably involve general awareness, maybe about the appropriateness of dialling 999 or putting someone into the recovery position, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) said. It seems to me that it would not exactly be a daunting task to teach that to primary school children; the British Heart Foundation claims that its training takes about 30 minutes. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) reminded us that the Select Committee on Education recommended in its recent report “Life Lessons” that PHSE should be compulsory in schools.
I will conclude by summarising the Labour position. We are committed to ensuring that life-saving skills are taught in all our schools, and we are happy to talk to schools and teachers about the best way to ensure that that happens. As we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North, some people think that this should be part of PSHE while others suggest that it should be included in the physical education curriculum. There is some debate. The PSHE Association wants a programme of study that includes emergency life-saving skills.
Schools might also use organisations such as the Red Cross, St John Ambulance, the Royal Life Saving Society or others to provide relevant resources and training. As we have heard in the debate from a variety of Members, several local organisations and campaigns could be utilised to that end. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford described the arrangements in her area to supply equipment, which showed what a community effort it can be. The hon. Member for Strangford told an encouraging story about what progress can be made, but he also served to remind us that, at times, Departments can be good at getting in the way. If ever there were a case for joined-up government, it is on issues such as this.
What matters more than anything is that we stop discussing and start doing. Under Labour, life-saving skills, including CPR where age-appropriate, will be taught in all schools.
That is the third education policy announced by the Opposition during this Parliament; I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). It is a pity that he does not have a few more to put to the electorate in two months’ time. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David; it is the parliamentary assessment board all over again. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate.
There is nothing more important than keeping children, and indeed the staff who teach them, safe in our schools. This Government have already done a great deal to ensure that defibrillators are more widely available in schools. In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, we have encouraged all schools to consider purchasing automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, as part of their first aid equipment. We refer to that in the new statutory guidance on supporting pupils with medical conditions at school.
In November last year, we launched new arrangements to help schools to purchase high-quality AEDs at a significantly reduced price. To make that as easy as possible, we also produced a guide, “Automated external defibrillators (AEDs): A guide for maintained schools and academies”, covering the issues that schools might wish to consider when purchasing an AED, including location, maintenance and access to training. It was developed in collaboration with NHS ambulance services and other specialists, including Dr Andy Lockey of the Resuscitation Council, who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bolton West. I am pleased to confirm that as of 6 March, 227 confirmed orders under the scheme had been placed, for a total of 291 AEDs.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) touched on the important role that AEDs can play in communities. Many schools view a community-access AED as a tangible contribution that they can make to their community. The AED guide suggests that schools might wish to consider community access where such a solution also meets the needs of staff members.
Access to an AED is only part of the story. Every second is important when someone suffers a cardiac arrest, and first aid skills are vital to ensuring that help is available when it is most needed, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) pointed out from his own experience when his father had a cardiac arrest. I see why he is so passionate about the issue; he is an indefatigable campaigner on it, as he is on other life skills in the curriculum.
Therefore, the guide is clear about the importance of defibrillation and of CPR in the chain of survival. Schools will already have first aiders trained in CPR, but there is no reason they cannot use the purchase of an AED as an impetus to promote knowledge of those skills more widely within the school community; indeed, the Department for Education’s guide suggests that schools do that, and we hope that many of them will choose to do so.
The hon. Member for Bolton West made a powerful case that we should go further, persuasively arguing for CPR and life-saving skills to be included in the national curriculum. Similarly powerful speeches were made by my hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon, for South Derbyshire, for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I listened carefully to the story of the PE teacher attending an interview at Mountbatten school and all I can say is that I hope to goodness that they were given the job of PE teacher at that school.
If not, I am sure that he or she has been snapped up elsewhere.
We heard powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane); I am sure the latter will receive a letter from either Willie Walsh or Richard Branson, depending on which airline did not have a defibrillator. There was also a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I recognise that the intention of the hon. Member for Bolton West is to ensure that more people have the knowledge and skills that could prove so valuable in assisting a child, teacher or someone visiting a school who suffers a cardiac arrest. However, whether teaching such knowledge and skills should be an addition to the national curriculum is another question.
The new national curriculum, which came into force in September 2014, represents a clear step forward for schools. It will ensure that all children have the opportunity to acquire the essential knowledge in key academic and non-academic subjects. However, I am afraid that it has now become somewhat routine for Education Ministers to come to such debates to make the case against the inclusion of a particular new requirement in the national curriculum. Proposals such as this are often supported by a persuasive argument, but their sheer number means that we need to start from a position of caution when addressing them.
The national curriculum creates a minimum expectation for the content of curriculums in maintained schools. Quite deliberately, it does not represent everything that a school should teach. Also, schools do not have a monopoly on the provision of education to children; parents and voluntary groups outside school also play an important role.
Many schools choose to include CPR and defibrillator awareness as part of their PSHE teaching. In the introduction to the new national curriculum, we have highlighted the expectation that PSHE should be taught, and improving the quality of PSHE teaching is a priority of this Government. However, we do not want to prescribe exactly which issues schools should have to cover in PSHE or other related parts of what we would call the school curriculum, as opposed to the national curriculum.
Prescribing a long list of specific content to be covered could be unproductive, leading to a tick-box approach that did not properly address the most important issues. Nor would it ensure that schools addressed those matters that were most relevant to their pupils. Indeed, we should trust schools to provide the right education for their pupils, within the overall framework of the national curriculum.
I had some optimism at the start of the Minister’s speech, but I have come back to a state of depression after listening to what he has had to say. He is talking about a list of issues that come to him, but how many of them could save 150,000 lives a year and how many would combine a range of issues including citizenship and boosting confidence? I ask him to consider the fact that this subject potentially has a special, indeed unique, position in our national curriculum.
I am not arguing against the inclusion of CPR in a school’s teaching curriculum; I am arguing about whether teaching these things should be statutory. There is more than one way to achieve an objective.
Also, if we look at the list of issues that people argue should be included for consideration in the national curriculum, we see that many of them would save a significant number of lives each year: relationships; drugs and alcohol; emotional and mental health, and well-being; emergency life support skills; homelessness; forced marriage; violence; transgender issues; tobacco; animal welfare; bullying; gambling; gender equality; cancer; symptoms of brain tumours in young people; fire and road safety; body image; the UN declaration on the rights of the child; environment; the dangers of carbon monoxide; cooking; media literacy; knife crime; parenting; chess; and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Those are all specific cases where Governments, including the previous Government, have been lobbied over the years for things to be included in the national curriculum. It would be easy for any Minister—Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat—to say yes to those issues, only to find that there was little time in the national curriculum for the core academic subjects that we want children to learn. However, that does not mean that we do not think those other things should be taught in schools.
CPR is included in the non-statutory PSHE programme of study produced by the PSHE Association, which should please my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North. That suggested programme of study, which was produced by some of the leading experts in PSHE teaching, includes teaching young people how to recognise and follow health and safety procedures and ways to reduce risk and minimise harm in risky situations, and how to use emergency and basic first aid. Many schools also make use of organisations such as the Red Cross and St John Ambulance to provide information to young people about first aid and dealing with emergencies.
The British Heart Foundation has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. It has offered to provide free CPR training kits to every secondary school in the country, allowing young people to gain first-hand experience of that important life-saving skill. The training kit covers how and when to perform CPR on an adult or child; how and when to put someone in the recovery position, which was referred to in the debate; and how and when to use a public access defibrillator. It contains an educational DVD demonstrating how to carry out CPR while trainees join in by using mannequins, so that no instructor is needed. The kit includes 35 mannequins, enabling every pupil in a class to learn CPR together.
We will work with the British Heart Foundation to promote that kit to schools. Indeed, the DFE is notifying all schools of the foundation’s “Call, Push, Rescue” kit in the next all-school termly e-mail, and we will continue to work with the foundation to promote its resources, as well as those provided by St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross, to all schools.
Many schools are already making good use of the resources and opportunities that are available to teach CPR, and to raise awareness of public access defibrillators. At Fulford school in York, for example, CPR training is managed by the deputy head teacher as part of his responsibility for pastoral care and character. One day each year is set aside to train all year 7 students; CPR training is part of their personal development lessons. At the last training session, around 30 teachers stayed behind to help and to learn the skills themselves. Feedback from the parent council has been favourable, as has been the response from students.
Other schools approach the training in a different way. For example, at Devonport high school for boys, CPR training sessions using the “Call, Push, Rescue” kit have been run in PSHE classes on Friday mornings. Since the school received the kit, year 10 students from three of the school’s six houses have undertaken the training.
I again thank the hon. Member for Bolton West and other hon. Members for their thoughtful and constructive contributions to the debate. I reassure them that I agree with them about the value and importance of first aid skills, and I also support access to defibrillators in schools. Although we do not believe that adding teaching on those issues to the national curriculum would advance the cause most effectively, we will always remain open to further discussions about the best way to promote those issues to schools and to ensure that schools have the resources they need to keep their staff and pupils safe.
Lake Lothing: Crossings
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to raise the issue of a third crossing over Lake Lothing in Lowestoft. This is a matter of great importance to those living and working in the Lowestoft area. There has been a need for such a crossing for many years.
Lake Lothing, around which the port of Lowestoft is based, splits the town into two parts. At present there are two crossings: the bascule bridge at the eastern end, close to the town centre and the outer harbour, and a crossing at Mutford lock to the west, at Oulton Broad. The two crossings are inadequate, and congestion frequently builds up, particularly when the bascule bridge opens to allow vessels into and out of the inner harbour. A poor road network has blighted the town for a long time. It is a disincentive to people to go into the town and is preventing businesses from moving there or expanding there.
The challenge of building the third crossing has been considered many times over the years. It is not a straightforward task, although I believe that in the past five years the building blocks have been put in place that will enable the bridge to be built at last. I propose to explain why that is the case and what now needs to be done to take the scheme forward. The bridge will bring benefits not only to north Suffolk but to East Anglia and the United Kingdom, by developing the regional economy.
I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), will be responding to this debate. Last summer, he started his fact-finding drive along the A47 from the centre of Lowestoft. He arrived early on the train. I drove him around Lake Lothing and he saw for himself both the problem of the bridge and the great potential that can be unlocked by building the third crossing.
I want to provide some historical context. There have been two crossings of Lake Lothing, approximately in their current positions, since 1830 when the first swing bridge was installed, linking the town centre to Kirkley and Pakefield. That bridge was replaced in 1897 with another swing bridge, the Jubilee bridge, which lasted until 1969, when it broke down. It was replaced in 1972 with the current bascule bridge. Two bridges over Lake Lothing were adequate while the main transport routes to Lowestoft were by sea and rail, but it was apparent even before world war two, with more reliance on road transport, that there was a need for a third bridge and that its absence was hampering plans to bring new employment opportunities to the town. The problem was compounded by the decision to construct a three-lane bascule bridge, which was illogical when one takes into account that there are four, and now sometimes five, lanes of traffic approaching it.
In the past 35 years, much of Lowestoft’s rich and proud industrial heritage has gone. The fishing industry is a pale shadow of its former self, the canning factory and the coachworks have long since closed, and there has been a move away from traditional home-based tourism. It would be wrong to blame the lack of a third crossing for their demise, but poor infrastructure to and around the town has hampered attempts to attract new businesses to the area.
The problems faced by coastal communities such as Lowestoft, which include inadequate infrastructure, are deep-rooted and will not be addressed in five years. However, since 2010 policies and initiatives have been put in place, and projects have been carried out, that will reverse the decline and enable the necessary road infrastructure to be built that can bring sustained economic growth back to Lowestoft.
First, the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone has been a great success, with 40 new buildings now completed and £19 million of private sector investment secured, including the developments on the Riverside business park, which adjoins Lake Lothing. On his recent visit to Lowestoft, the Prime Minister announced plans for the future expansion of the enterprise zone, which could include land in the surrounding area. To realise the full potential of the enterprise zone and the assisted area designation, good road infrastructure is required, including a third crossing.
Secondly, a major constraint on realising the full economic potential of the Lake Lothing area has been the lack of adequate flood defences. That was all too apparent during the storm surge of 5 December 2013, which hit the area particularly hard. It is vital for businesses investing in their premises that flood defences are in place. Thus it is welcome that funding has been secured for a £25 million flood protection scheme. This major engineering project will be constructed over the next few years, during which time temporary arrangements will be put in place to provide the necessary protection. Addressing that problem means that developments can proceed, which in turn focuses attention on providing better road infrastructure.
Thirdly, Lake Lothing is not the only pinch point in the Lowestoft road network, and work is taking place to sort the others out. The Oulton Broad North level crossing is a major cause of congestion, but a solution to improve the situation has been found. When the railway line to Norwich is re-signalled, the platform will be extended and the signal board repositioned, so that trains can run into the platform while the crossing remains open to traffic. That work should be completed in 2016 and will result in a considerable reduction in the time for which the barriers are down, during which congestion builds up along Bridge road, Normanston drive and Gorleston road.
The long-awaited final phase of the northern spine road, which removes traffic from the Bentley drive area to the north of the town, will be completed in the next few weeks. The scheme is taking place as a result of a £4.63 million pinch point fund grant from the Government. A relief road for Lowestoft has in effect been built in phases over the past 30 years, and the new section of the northern spine road is the penultimate item of work. The final piece in the jigsaw, which will link them all together and join the north of the town to the south, is the third crossing. It is thus right that we now focus our attention on its delivery.
Fourthly, for too long during the past 40 to 45 years we have built roads in a piecemeal, scattergun way, rather than by pursuing a strategic planned approach. That explains why the gestation period for many projects is elephantine and why some schemes are woefully inadequate almost from the day they open, as was the case with the new bascule bridge in 1972.
In the past year there have been encouraging signs that a strategic approach will be pursued in future, as the Government have carried out feasibility studies on six trunk roads as part of their road investment strategy. One of those roads was the A47, which links north Suffolk and Norfolk to the A1 at Peterborough. The A47 is at present of poor quality along much of its 119-mile length, and its unreliability has meant that it has not functioned properly as the gateway to growth that it should have been. In December, the Government announced an initial investment of £300 million for upgrading the A47, to include some dualling, junction improvements and extending the road to Lowestoft. This is good news, but it is not the endgame. It is only the beginning of a campaign for a full dual carriageway link from Lowestoft to the A1. That would enable the road to function properly as a gateway to growth and ensure that the whole area along the length of the road realised its full potential. It would create an estimated additional 17,000 jobs and an increase of £706 million per annum in economic output across the region. The new, upgraded A47 now starts on the south bank of Lake Lothing, which provides the context within which we can now plan for the third crossing.
A start has been made, with Suffolk county council commissioning WSP consulting engineers to provide an overview of options both to the east, close to the bascule bridge, and in the centre of Lake Lothing. The study considered the engineering feasibility, the budget costs and the likely effect on traffic movements of the options, and concluded that bridge crossings both in the centre of Lake Lothing and to the east are technically feasible. From analysis of the report, it is clear that more detailed work is required to produce a robust scheme that everyone can get behind and that can be promoted to secure funding for the bridge’s construction.
There are further issues that need to be addressed. First, there is the bridge’s location. It needs to be in a position that both enables traffic to flow smoothly around the town and enables the port and the businesses located there to realise their full potential and make the most of the exciting job opportunities emerging in the offshore energy sector. When one looks at how the various phases of what is in effect the Lowestoft relief road have been built over the past three decades, one sees that the obvious location for the crossing, to enable traffic to flow smoothly, is at the centre of Lake Lothing. During that time, port operations have changed and vessels have got bigger. If the crossing is to be in that location, it must be a high-level bridge that does not have a negative effect on the potential to bring jobs to Lowestoft and that serves the emerging offshore renewables sector. Lowestoft is well placed to benefit from those opportunities, due to its geographic position close to wind farms, the skills built up in the oil and gas sector over the past 40 years and the town’s growing reputation for expertise in offshore renewables technology.
Secondly, the report identifies further work that needs to be carried out to arrive at the optimum solution. That includes further traffic monitoring, taking into account not only existing traffic flows but changes that are likely to result from the completion of the northern spine road, new housing and new business development; full ground condition surveys and environmental investigations; an assessment of the impact of any scheme on existing buildings, including those that might have to be demolished; and the likely cost of necessary land acquisitions.
Thirdly, the business case for the third crossing needs to be worked up. Lowestoft has three economic assets: the port, the town centre and the south beach. At present, all three fail to realise their full potential due to the dysfunctional road system that serves them. The third crossing can solve that problem, thereby creating hundreds of new jobs. We must demonstrate how that will be achieved.
I am seeking Government support and assistance to take the scheme forward. The necessary background and preparatory work has been carried out, but we now need to move forward on two fronts. First, a full, credible and robust scheme needs to be prepared. The New Anglia local enterprise partnership and Suffolk county council have indicated that they will carry out that work if the Department for Transport confirms that it will give the scheme full and serious consideration and there is a reasonable expectation that funding for the bridge’s construction will be forthcoming. Will the Minister provide that confirmation?
Secondly, the work is detailed and will take some time to complete. While it is ongoing, it is important that short-term improvements are carried out to ensure that traffic flows more smoothly and to relieve congestion. Later this year, tidal flow arrangements over the bascule bridge, which are necessary as a result of the bridge having only three lanes, are due to be improved. The old signs and signalling equipment will be replaced. It is important that that work takes place on time. The Highways Agency is working with Suffolk county council on proposals to improve key junctions around the town, including the nearby Pier terrace, the Asda roundabout, Tom Crisp way and its junction with Blackheath road, and the junction by the Flying Dutchman. Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that those works take place as soon as possible?
For nearly 80 years, there has been a need for a third crossing over Lake Lothing, but requests to Governments of all colours have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, many people in Lowestoft feel let down by and alienated from those in Westminster. To get the third crossing built will not be easy. Plenty of challenges lie ahead, but there are reasons to be optimistic. First, the Government recognise the need for a strategic approach to building such large local infrastructure projects. It is helpful that the crossing is now on a strategic route, the A47, which has been identified as a growth corridor. Secondly, the acceptance of the need for such projects to be driven by local people and local businesses who know their area best, rather than by the man from Whitehall, is encouraging. Those people are better placed to understand what a scheme such as the third crossing can do for the Lowestoft and East Anglian economy. Finally, the success of the enterprise zone illustrates and confirms Lowestoft’s great potential, but that can be fully realised only by first-class infrastructure. In summary, there is a real opportunity to build the third crossing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply on how the Government will work with local people to turn that dream into a reality.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate on the third crossing over Lake Lothing in Lowestoft. I know that the subject is of great importance to him and his constituents, including businesses within the area, and he spoke eloquently. I visited Lake Lothing and Lowestoft on 4 July as a prelude to my epic road trip along the A12/A47 that culminated at Peterborough. I know that the road is very important for a number of Members whose constituencies lie along it, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who I note is in her place.
Lowestoft is an important centre in Suffolk and the east of England. While its traditional industries, such as fishing and tourism, have declined over the years, the town has begun to develop as a key centre of the renewable energy industry in the UK. As with any key centre, having good transport links is vital for continued economic growth. With its particular geography—indeed, I believe it is the most easterly point of the British mainland—Lowestoft needs good connectivity to compete effectively. That goes for the country as a whole, and the Government certainly recognise the importance of an effective transport infrastructure to the economy and to delivering improvements targeted at supporting economic growth. That is why just before Christmas the Government announced the road investment strategy—the biggest upgrade to our motorways and key trunk roads in a generation. It is a £15 billion programme to triple annual investment by the end of the decade. It represents an enormous opportunity to transform the roads that traverse our nation and includes an unprecedented £3 billion of investment for the east of England, of which some £1.5 billion is new investment.
The key artery of the A47/A12 will see a £300 million package of improvements that includes dualling of three sections of the route and improvements to the Acle Straight and junctions around Norwich and along the A12 in and around Great Yarmouth. The aim is to address challenges and reduce congestion, delays and accidents on that key corridor. As part of the improvement package, we also plan to renumber the section of the A12 between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft as the A47. The renaming will better reflect the route’s nature as a continuous corridor. Time scales for the next stages of work are due to be published in the Highways Agency’s delivery plan, which is expected to be published later this month.
Improving our national networks is about not just roads, but railways. They are all part of the picture of improving connectivity, of which the proposed third crossing is a vital part. The Government support the key recommendations put forward by the Great Eastern main line taskforce. The group wants to see better rail journey times to East Anglia, with the journey to Norwich reduced to 90 minutes—the “Norwich in 90” campaign. We want to see bidders for the new Greater Anglia franchise incentivised to submit plans for achieving these recommendations for services and other associated benefits along the Great Eastern main line. In addition, east-to-west rail connectivity is important. We understand that good progress is being made on the ambitious east-west rail project, which aims to link Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford by rail. Those are some of the fastest-growing urban centres in the country.
The local road networks in Lowestoft are vital for the local economy and for the journeys that residents make day in, day out. As Members will know, local roads are the responsibility of the local highway authority, which for Lowestoft is Suffolk county council. From 2011 to 2015, Suffolk county council received £74 million from Government for the maintenance of its local road network, with a further £18.5 million for local transport improvements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned, we have also invested in addressing known areas of local congestion through the Department’s local pinch point fund. In May 2013, Suffolk county council secured £4.6m of Department for Transport funding towards the £6.6 million cost of completing the Lowestoft northern spine road. That work is due to be completed shortly and will allow better traffic flows and a quicker route to the northern part of the A12. Members will be aware that we have made some substantial changes to how we fund local transport schemes. As part of the growth deal process, we have a more decentralised and devolved system through the local growth fund. That gives real decision-making power to local areas, allowing them to develop and prioritise key projects to best help to realise economic growth in their areas.
Transport projects play an important part in the process. The initial round of the local growth fund allocated about £6 billion to areas around the country, about £3 billion of which went to proposed new transport schemes. The local enterprise partnership for the east of England benefited, with £173 million allocated in the July growth deal announcement. A considerable amount of that allocation is for transport projects. In addition, a further £48.5 million was made available to the LEP through the second stage announced in January.
Many local transport schemes, such as the third crossing over Lake Lothing, will look for funding to further rounds of the local growth fund. However, the process is competitive and the funding is not a bottomless pit. Only the projects that produce the most compelling business case will be successful in securing funding, and they will also need to be top priorities for the LEP, as it determines which schemes are needed to deliver economic growth in the LEP area.
A third crossing at Lowestoft has been under consideration for some time now. I am aware that the Highways Agency commissioned a feasibility report into the options for a crossing at Lake Lothing a number of years ago, and I note the recent report commissioned by Suffolk county council to look at options for a new crossing. There have also been a number of public-facing events to gauge local opinion on the location and design of the options. The prospect of a third crossing appears to generate considerable local support, and I appreciate that my hon. Friend welcomes the momentum behind the project.
The Government would look to support well-evidenced local major transport schemes that are prioritised by the local enterprise partnership, would help to deliver local growth, and offer good value for money. We know that local residents are frustrated by the town’s long-standing traffic problems and want a solution, which is why, in July last year, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership secured £100,000 through the local growth fund towards development work to look at the options for a third river crossing in Lowestoft. That funding will enable the LEP to develop a more detailed technical feasibility study for the project. It is now for the LEP and its key partners to take that work forward.
As part of the next steps, I urge my hon. Friend and all the interested local partners to continue to help to take the project forward; to help to build an effective and convincing evidence base; to continue to gather strong local support; and to continue to develop that support through the LEP. We want to see local areas creating the best local infrastructure solutions for growth.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important topic, which I know has generated considerable local interest. I also thank him for highlighting the issues in Lowestoft. It is now for the LEP and local partners to take forward the assessment work and to consider the outcomes and the best way to take the proposal forward.
The Hague Abduction Convention
It is a pleasure to meet under your chairmanship at this stage of the afternoon, Sir David.
The subject of the debate is The Hague abduction convention, which is more fully known as The Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction. It dates back to 1980 and has force in UK law under the Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985. Many of us, as MPs, will have come across the convention, perhaps from a number of different angles depending on constituents’ experiences. Such experiences can be brought to us either directly or by families whose members want to use the convention to try to ensure the restoration of a parent’s due and wanted relationship with a child, or by constituents or their families who feel that their family has been affected by a case taken under the convention in which their circumstances, or how events unfolded, have not been fully understood or appreciated.
The purpose of the debate is not to pretend that any of us in such cases, or in the general balance or mix of cases that we get, should look at the subject from the perspective of one interest or another, whether that of the parent who has custody of a child or that of the parent who is seeking custody under the convention. The real reason for proposing the topic for debate occurred to me in the light of experience. Some of that experience relates to a particular case; some relates to a few other cases in recent years in my constituency and in the wider area of north-west Northern Ireland.
Siting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying before the Division, I was prompted to introduce the debate by a number of issues and observations that have arisen from cases that have been shared with me by Foyle Women’s Aid—not all relate directly to people in my constituency, but all those involved have been using the support of Foyle Women’s Aid—and from some other cases.
I stress that at no point will I be questioning specific decisions in specific cases, nor will I be naming any of the people involved in the cases. That is partly because of the sensitivity of a current case, which I suppose has most prompted me to raise the issue. Just this week, a woman has had to return to Australia with her child, who was born in my constituency, on the basis of decisions that have been made following a case taken under The Hague convention.
I stress that I am not trying to involve the Minister in anything that would rightfully be within the purview of the devolved Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. Perhaps more importantly, I assure Ministers not just here, but in Northern Ireland, that in no way am I trying to second-guess any decision by any judge of the Northern Ireland courts. I want to be very clear that the Lord Chief Justice should have no concern with any of the aspects of the debate that I will raise here today. I do not believe that Members should use any forum of the House to try to second-guess or overturn decisions of judges or the courts.
Rather, the issues I want to raise today are about whether we as legislators need to give more consideration to The Hague convention as it stands, whether the 1985 Act is sufficient and whether additional light needs to be shed on the issue, given all the experience and understanding we now have in relation to the changes to family life and our understanding of it. There is also greater internationalisation of life now and far more complicated trans-jurisdictional arrangements are in place. Also, a more acute understanding has arisen as to the limited regard that different aspects of the law have had for key principles such as the best interests of the child. There is also the question whether the law is duly responsive to any evidence or allegations that arise about conditions of abuse that might have affected a child or that might affect a partner.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. A parent whose child has been abducted will be aware that their access to legal aid is restricted. Given the vulnerability of all the parties involved, does he agree that it is vital to ensure that they all have the assurance that they will be represented fairly?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Legal aid is a key issue for anyone involved at either end of cases such as these, whether they want to bring a case to have their child restored to their custody or they find themselves accused and become a defendant in such a case. The question of legal aid, and the restrictions on it, is particularly acute. Although Ministers have, perhaps understandably, changed position on some elements of legal aid because of more specious cases or cases in which people were testing any sort of claim culture connected to accidents, the fact is that, for a parent, a case about their child is a matter not of calculated choice, but of the emotional imperatives that come with being a parent.
It is important that people should have as much recourse to legal aid as possible, and the decisions around legal aid should be duly sensitised to such situations. Certainly, in a recent case that I know of, a woman has found herself facing a case of child abduction, and on being told to take a child who was born in Northern Ireland back to Australia she found herself in precisely the position whereby she was weakened, so I know this can come on either side of such cases. I am sure that the Minister would be sensitive in all such situations, although we are talking in this case not particularly about one side or another, but about the balance of justice, which goes to the heart of the legal aid questions.
I want to return to the points that particularly concern me, which arise from decisions made recently. I am not concerned because the court made those decisions, but a question arises for legislators and for the Government as the transposing signatory to The Hague convention as to whether we are perhaps leaving courts in a position where they have to take decisions on fairly narrow grounds in fairly shady light, sometimes having to disregard evidence that people try to bring forward in relation to either abuse against them that they allege took place at the hands of the other parent or where they say they have evidence of ill treatment or questionable treatment by the other parent of the child.
It seems that the courts tend to set a very high threshold in relation to consideration of any such evidence, and also then say that it would not be for them to determine anyway, but would be for the court in another jurisdiction if the child was to be returned to that other jurisdiction. It seems that in child abduction cases the courts and the legal profession find themselves almost adopting a standard akin to the rules of the road. For instance, in car accident cases it is automatically presumed that if a person has driven into the back of another car, the liability lies with that person. It does not matter about any other circumstances or conditions; the court does not want to know. It is straightforward.
I hear such a message from people who have handled a number of cases, and the woman who has this week had to return to Australia felt that she was in such a situation. The evidence that she had been raising and pursuing was essentially set aside. That is not because the court did not want to know or because judges wanted to be insensitive to that, but that is not how the law stands and it is not how the law tests such things. Essentially, for the court, the real issue was to decide where the jurisdiction on the matter should rest, and the court has basically said that any of the other issues would be for a court in Australia to decide. That point does not stand alone.
The mother obviously appealed the decision that was made in respect of her and her two and a half-year-old child, but she had to give undertakings. On losing the appeal, she had to sign the following:
“The Appellant agrees not to institute, encourage or pursue any criminal proceedings whether in Northern Ireland or Australia, against the Respondent in respect of any of the allegations made against the Respondent in the course of the Hague Convention proceedings.”
Here we have The Hague convention being operated and brokered via the courts on the basis that, even if there is evidence that could give rise to possible criminal proceedings, as part of the discharge of a case under The Hague convention such evidence is not to be pursued.
As a legislator, I believe that that goes against the grain and the spirit of much of what we have heard from the Government in recent times about more responsive and alert reactions to evidence that arises in different family circumstances.
In this particular case, issues did arise around whether the child was exposed to risk. I do not want to go into any of the particulars of that, but the determination seemed to be that that was not a matter on which the courts would or could hear anything. Again, to my mind, that is inconsistent with the very clear standards that we hear ringing right across all the political institutions in recent times: in relation to the position of children, every effort will be made to ensure that the best interests of the child are fully considered and addressed.
In relation to how such cases are addressed, it seems to be very hard for anyone to find out whether anybody has the role of advocating the best interests of the child. It is not clear that the court is in a position to hear or take the evidence. Perhaps we need to apply some of the yardsticks developed under the Modern Slavery Bill, which states that in some instances there will be a child advocacy service whose responsibilities will be particularly to speak to and address everything on the basis of the best interests of the child. Perhaps that should be applied here.
I hope that the Minister and his Department, and his colleagues in other Departments, because I know this cuts across various Departments, will take the spirit of what has been said on so many other fronts and make sure that it also informs how we go forward with The Hague convention, in terms of how we address it as legislators, how the Government address their role as a signatory and how they take forward their discussion with other Governments in modernising The Hague convention and the various memorandums of understanding that go with that, so that none of what we are saying in relation to child abuse and domestic violence—violence against women or anything else—runs out when it comes to the very important and vexed issue of The Hague convention.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on obtaining this important debate. I thank him for allowing me to make an extremely brief contribution to add to what he has said about the importance of looking at the issues from the point of view of the child. Like him, I have a particularly difficult constituency case at the moment. I know that the Minister is aware of it. I will not refer specifically to it, but I want to raise the issues that concern me, which add to what the hon. Gentleman has already outlined.
There are issues about the content and operation of the convention, which mean that the best interests of the child are clearly not always served. I understand the importance of the issues of jurisdiction and freezing the situation where it is, but, in the constituency case that I have, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be in the interests of the child for the decision-making process to take so long. A very young child has not had contact with one of their parents for two years. The likelihood of a relationship developing as one would want between a parent and the child—whether they live with them or simply have contact—is almost impossible. It is extremely heartbreaking and very difficult to deal with.
I am grateful to the Minister for the time that he has given to me and my constituent on this issue, but I do think that, in the circumstances—the hon. Member for Foyle is raising fundamental questions—this is a good time for the Government to say, “Could we be doing more? Should we be raising this in international forums? Should we be looking at how we can have the best interests of the child—as our legislation, the Children Act 1989, puts it—clearly at the centre of what happens?” I look forward to what the Minister will perhaps commit a future Government to doing.
I am very happy to be serving under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for raising this really important issue. I am conscious that I can only deal with his constituency case by factual commentary, as it were, and not by intervention. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) has also spoken. I was very happy to accommodate her and her constituent when she raised an issue to do with Ukraine. Clearly that case has dragged on for a long time and I hope that we have been able to at least suggest the best ways forward in a difficult situation.
This issue is really important, as all colleagues know. Child abduction can have a devastating effect on the child, let alone on the other parent, who is left feeling that their rights have been violated. It can hugely damage the relationship between the child and both parents, actually—not just one parent—and the happiness of the family, the extended family and the like.
I would like to respond briefly to the general issue that the hon. Member for Foyle raised and then, because there is a lot of information that I would like to be shared more widely about where people can go for advice and help, I propose to write to him and put a copy of that letter in the Library for public record. I will copy that to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley as well, because I do not think everybody understands what the opportunities are, even though those may not be as extensive as people wish.
The hon. Member for Foyle specifically raised the 1980 Hague convention on child abduction, which is the key document. The purpose of the convention, although it has been there for a long time, is to set up obligations between contracting states aimed at seeking the return of a child, wrongfully taken or wrongfully retained away from the place where the parent believes they should be, to their country of habitual residence. However, it does not provide a legal court that can adjudicate, nor does it determine the parental rights. It provides a mechanism of communication between one country and another, if they are both participating countries in the convention.
The hon. Gentleman raised a case in Northern Ireland that relates to Australia, and the hon. Lady’s case relates to Ukraine. We have accepted the accession of the following countries and work the convention with them: Argentina, Australia, the Bahamas, Belarus, Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Honduras, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Macau, Mauritius, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, St Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Turkmenistan, the USA, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. For those countries, there is an arrangement, but that means that all the other countries do not have an arrangement. Therefore, for families whose child is taken somewhere else, we cannot even avail ourselves of the system that we have at the moment.
The 1980 convention provides a civil law mechanism to allow one parent to seek the return of a child wrongfully removed or retained. It is a summary procedure with the aim of getting the child back as soon as possible, so the court in the country of the child’s habitual residence can make its long-term decisions.
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the test has to be about the welfare of the child and what is in the child’s best interests. That is what our court applies in England and Wales and what the courts in Northern Ireland and Scotland similarly apply. The test is the best interests of the child, always. The court that is seized with the responsibility will have to make that decision. Sometimes, as in the Ukraine case that the hon. Lady brought to me, in which that decision is going through the Ukraine courts, we have to watch—the parent has to participate if they can—as they make their decision, but we cannot exercise sovereignty over the courts of Ukraine or Australia, because they have their own jurisdiction.
The decision on whether or not to return the child is made by the court, applying the convention, in the country in which the child has been taken or retained. There are defined and limited grounds for non-return under article 13 of the convention. Under article 13(b), if
“there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation”
the child does not have to be returned. That is the test under the convention for the foreign court dealing with the case.
The Hague conference, which is the body that oversees that, has no enforcement powers, so we cannot take any country to court if they are not complying. Every four to six years, the Hague conference holds a special commission that allows countries to feed back on the operation of the convention. There have been two supplementary sets of decisions since then to try to make the system more effective internationally.
First, there was Council Regulation 2201/2003—the EU Regulation Brussels IIA—which has provisions to enhance the operation of the convention among EU member states. One such provision is that the court in one member state of the European Union should not refuse to return the child to another member state if protective measures have been put in place to protect the child in the member state of the child’s habitual residence. There is an additional obligation that helps in the EU but does not apply in the two countries that colleagues have specifically raised.
Subsequently, there has been a further development in terms of international agreement: the 1996 Hague convention on jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition, enforcement and co-operation in respect of parental responsibility and measures for the protection of children. That was ratified by the UK in 2012 and it provides for greater co-operation between the central authorities in each contracting state, so that information on vulnerable children can be exchanged and measures to protect the child considered at an early stage.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, three different authorities in the UK act as the relevant post box and implementation authority. There is one for England and Wales, one for Scotland and one for Northern Ireland, so he would address, as I am sure he has, his engagement to the authority in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady addressed hers and that of her constituents to the authority in England and Wales. They act as the agency, and in my experience, having looked at the Ukraine case, they do so very efficiently, but it falls short of what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we might need to do, which is beef up the system and decide whether we ought to have additional penalties or actions.
I have just some comments on how frequently this happens, and I have answered a couple of questions recently on the matter from the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). The central authorities in the UK have shown that, in the years 2009 to 2013, across the UK, the following number of parents have applied for the return of their child from another country under the convention: in 2009, there were 236; in 2010, there were 167; in 2011, there were 214; in 2012, there were 246; and in 2013, there were 243. There were some in each year from England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, so there is a fairly consistent number of applications.
The courts in this country have prompted a consideration of whether we ought to do more. The previous Lord Chief Justice, I think—rather than the present one—has suggested that the matter ought to be looked at again, so it has been referred to the Law Commission. It reported recently, at the end of last year, and I refer both colleagues to its report, which was called “Simplification of Criminal Law: Kidnapping and Related Offences”. It recommended that kidnapping and false imprisonment, which are currently common-law offences, be made statutory offences, and that the kidnapping offence should be simplified, with some of the current elements of the offence removed and the offence of false imprisonment renamed “unlawful detention” but otherwise remaining unchanged. It recommended that the maximum penalty for child abduction be increased from seven years to 14 years and that the child abduction offence covering parents abducting children out of the UK be extended so that detaining children outside the UK without consent would also be an offence. That is a very important issue, because at the moment it is an offence to take a child illegally; it is not an offence to take the child legally and then not bring them back. That issue has been raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and other colleagues.
Following the report’s publication, the co-chairs of the all-party group on child abduction wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in January to ask what action was planned, particularly on the new offences. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, who is a Minister in both the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, indicated that we would need to consider fully our response. The Law Commission published its impact assessment in February 2015. We, like any Government, have an obligation to respond within six months. We will do that, but self-evidently we will not get the response delivered before the general election. The issue will be on the desk of whoever is in the Ministry. I hope that I will still be the person responsible. I would be very happy to be that person, but that is a matter for a greater decision-making body—namely, the great British public. Let me reassure the hon. Member for Foyle, however, that the question whether we need to do more in the criminal law is very much alive. There is a problem of course, because if, for example, we added extradition to the ability to bring back someone who had taken a child away but was acting illegally and committing an offence, that still would not necessarily get the child back, so the answers are not as easy as we might wish.
I will mention a couple of other things if I may. There is a charity called reunite—the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady may have heard of it—which deals with a wide variety of queries on child abduction and operates a 24-hour helpline, funded by the Ministry of Justice. That charity’s statistics for 2014 suggest that domestic abuse is not present in many of the cases that it is involved in; the majority of its cases have to do with the breakdown of a relationship and one parent wanting to return to their home country with the children.
The other thing I should say is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regularly intervenes on these issues, is very willing to do so and, on an annual basis, takes up many cases with the authorities in other countries. I assure the House that we do not think that the present system can just be left to work. We do not have an international enforcement system; we have an international communication system, but on the agenda are propositions as to how we might make it stronger. I am open to all ideas and I hope that all those reading the record of this debate, as well as those participating in it, will feel free to send their ideas to us at the Ministry of Justice.
Question put and agreed to.