Wednesday 24 June 2015
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
Science and Research
I beg to move,
That this House has considered science and research in the UK and regional economies.
I am delighted to do so with you in the Chair, Mr Owen, and I take this opportunity to welcome the new Minister for Universities and Science to his job. I am looking forward to having many engagements with him on issues relating to higher education.
I move this motion as a Member representing a city whose wealth was built on innovation, from Benjamin Huntsman’s invention of crucible steel production in the 1740s to Harry Brearley’s invention of stainless steel in 1912 to the work today of Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. Science, research and innovation have driven our city’s economy, just as they have for the country as a whole.
However, we face a challenge, because a generation ago the UK was one of the most research-intensive economies in the world and now we are one of the least. We have slipped from leading the OECD countries in research and development spend as a percentage of GDP in 1979 to our position now, where we trail behind all our competitors. The US invests 2.8% of its GDP in research; on average, OECD and EU countries invest 2.4% of their GDP in research, but the UK now spends only 1.7% of its GDP on research. That is less than half the 3.9% of its GDP that is invested by South Korea, which, as a result of that investment, remains a major manufacturing nation.
Where have research and innovation been lost? Most strikingly, they have been lost within the private sector. The old world of R and D was dominated by the big companies—the likes of GEC and ICI—and their loss took out big chunks of our innovative capacity. The obsession with short-term returns for shareholders, which distorts our equity markets, has changed the attitudes of investors. The dynamic of long-term investment for long-term reward that drove the industrial revolution and built our economic strength has gone. Today there are just two UK companies among the top 100 companies around the world for R and D investment.
For some time, the impact of the decline in private sector investment in R and D was masked by the continued public sector investment of successive Governments, but that changed under the coalition, despite the best efforts of David Willetts, who occupied the Minister’s job for most of the coalition’s time in office and was a real champion of science and universities. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering highlighted in its “Science is Vital” campaign last year, publicly funded research slipped to less than 0.5% of GDP in 2012.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the situation is all the more perverse given that for the research investment that is made—particularly significantly through universities—we get more bang for our buck than other countries in citations and innovation, and therefore that if we put in more bucks we would get more bangs?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and he makes a point that I will come back to and reflect on shortly.
The drop in our publicly funded research to 0.5% of GDP takes that research to its lowest point for more than 20 years. The latest figures, published by UNESCO in March, put the UK’s publicly funded research at 0.48% of GDP, which is well below the EU average of 0.67%, the OECD average of 0.71% and the G8 average of 0.77%.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has dwelt a lot on the percentages and on where the UK stands in the league table, but is that situation solely down to investment and finance? What does he put it down to? What is the difficulty? He said that the UK now has only two companies that are ranked highly in the world for R and D. What is the fundamental problem?
The fundamental problem in relation to private sector investment in R and D is the dominant culture of short-termism in investment. People are looking for quick gains, but what we need to rebalance our economy is the long-term investment that drove economic growth in this country in the first place.
Echoing the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) made, according to a report produced by CaSE last year, “The Economic Significance of the UK Science Base”, private sector R and D output rises by 20p per year in perpetuity for every £1 spent by the Government on R and D, so there is a real return on public sector investment and it stimulates the private sector investment that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to by raising the UK’s knowledge base.
That is the real challenge, but there are also real opportunities, because as a country we have enormous strengths, above all our universities, which are highly productive. To echo again the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East made, despite representing only 4.1% of the global research community, UK researchers produced 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited papers in 2011, the last year for which I have figures available. That puts us at No. 1 in the world in the sector. Crucially—I make this point as a northern MP—at a time when we all share a concern about the regional imbalance of economic growth, universities are one of the few assets we have that are spread evenly across the country, and they are able to generate economic growth in all regions and all nations of the UK.
Clearly, universities draw their investment widely, from several sources, and not just from public funds. They have grown their own investment in R and D by 40% in the past decade and now generate more than £3.4 billion a year. However, public investment levers in other funding, and academics in receipt of research council grants have been shown to be more outward-facing and more engaged in the commercial application of their research.
The strength of that research in our universities attracts foreign investment to the UK, as well as international students. According to a British Council survey of 5,000 18 to 34-year-olds from China, India, Brazil, Germany and the US, the fact that the UK had world-leading academic research was the primary attraction for them to come here and study in our universities. Those international students bring more than £10 billion of economic benefit to the UK, including to our regional economies. I know that in Sheffield alone the net value of our international students, who are approaching 9,000 in number, is £120 million a year. Thousands of jobs depend on that money, and not just in the university sector.
My hon. Friend is making a profound point about the impact that our first-class universities have on regional economic development. However, is he as concerned as I am that more than 90% of non-university research in the UK takes place within the golden triangle of Cambridge, Oxford and London, which means that, outside universities, the regions are starved of scientific investment?
Indeed—I know that my hon. Friend is proud to be a graduate of Sheffield University. He makes an important point, and we need to be careful that even with the positive developments such as the Francis Crick Institute in London, public investment in research does not get sucked into the golden triangle that he referred to at the expense of universities around the country. As I said a moment ago, the great strength of our university network is its dispersal around the country. We need to ensure that funding for research is spread across the sector and across the country.
York has two excellent universities. The University of York is ranked in the 10 top universities for research, and five of its departments are in the “excellent” category, right at the top of their league. Yet the relationship between jobs and growth in our city and academic achievements in research and development is not being built. Should not the two come together for economic growth across our city?
I was a student in York and am well aware of the strength of the two universities. My hon. Friend is right; linking research with its commercial application is critical. Some progress has been made with the impact approach taken in the sector, although there is more to be done. We considered that issue in the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills during the last Parliament. Although there is more to be done, we should recognise that a huge amount is already being done to link research and its application. I shall mention a few examples from Sheffield.
We would be foolish to lose our advantage in world-leading research, but that could happen if we do not take care. “The Plan for Growth”, published by the Chancellor and the Minister’s predecessor in December 2014, acknowledged the challenge:
“If we fail to move quickly to secure our position in a globalised world, then it is highly likely that other countries....will do so ahead of us. We not only run the risk of missing out on new opportunities, but also of losing the position of strength that we have today”.
The Government acknowledge that we can and must do more.
Innovation policy now needs to focus on developing industrial and private sector research and development capacity, building on the UK’s strong and well connected science base. It will do that by working with universities. For example, to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), the University of Sheffield works closely with Rolls-Royce, Boeing and more than 100 supply chain companies. Also in my constituency, Sheffield Hallam University secured Toshiba as the first technology partner in the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, designing new products to help promote the integration of exercise into people’s daily lives and address common health issues. Hallam’s new National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering is supported by more than 40 companies, including Mars and Nestlé UK, to support growth in the food industry through improved manufacturing technology and staff capability.
Across my city, and across the university sector, science and research are creating jobs, but we could do more.
My hon. Friend talks about research in universities, but it starts earlier than that. On Saturday, I was privileged to visit the excellent Hopwood Hall Further Education College in my constituency, including its excellent animal studies facility. Small amounts of research are being done there, which helps students on their path towards university. However, funding for FE colleges is being cut, and I wonder what impact that is having on the availability of fledgling research for those wanting to go to university.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about acknowledging research taking place outside the university sector. I said earlier that foreign investment is driven significantly by countries with strong research capacity, but it is driven equally by countries that commit to the development of skills. The cuts in the adult skills budget that my hon. Friend mentions, and particularly in further education, will weaken our capacity and our potential for economic growth.
We could do much more than is being done in the examples I have given. We could build partnerships in developing infrastructure for low-carbon energy, which we could then export to the world. If we shrink away from such a challenge, China will pay for the new generation of power stations to be built and we will miss out on the opportunity to help shape our own future. We will have little leverage in insisting that some of the investment is spent on creating jobs in the UK, and we will pay for it through increased electricity bills for decades.
What should we do? I have three suggestions. First, let us stop making things worse. We should recognise the damage done to the UK by the structural shortcomings of our economy. Research and development is a national asset and we must not incentivise companies to do less of it, or make it harder for our universities to transform our economy.
Secondly, we must certainly not threaten the important stream of research funding that comes through our membership of the European Union, because as I am sure the Minister knows—I am sure he will endorse it—the UK does disproportionately well from European Union research funding. In 2013, for example, the last year for which data are available, we won €1.11 billion out of the €9.6 billion allocated under the seventh framework programme, FP7, which was the predecessor of Horizon 2020. Were we to exit the EU, that would clearly be at risk, at enormous cost to our universities and the communities in which they are driving economic growth. Similarly, we must not undermine the flow of talent into our country by the types of measure that we have already seen affecting students or by new restrictions on tier 2 visas. I am sure the Minister agrees with me on that point as well, although whether all his colleagues will is another question.
Thirdly, we should recognise and maintain our strengths. We should build on what we have that is positive and do more of it. The UK catapult centres, where universities and industry work together, are making an important start. At the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in the Sheffield city region, more than 100 companies partner with university research to win jobs and orders for the UK. Some of them are giant companies, such as Rolls-Royce, and others are the high-tech supply companies that support them.
It is not only the companies that benefit. Research demands skills, and more than 600 young people are now training as advanced apprentices at catapult centres. They are fully funded by companies, as recognised by Times Higher Education in its widening participation initiative of the year award. Those people are working in a research environment and have the opportunity to progress to degrees, even MBAs and PhDs, all within a research setting. How was the AMRC in Sheffield built? By universities and industry working together, and through European funding and regional funding under the old regional development areas.
We should invest in other areas too, with a sense of national purpose. Our ageing society will face huge human and social costs as incurable neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s become even more common. Social, technical and medical innovations are urgently needed to deal with this, as the NHS struggles to deliver more with more limited resources. Places such as the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience will make that possible. We know that we need to decarbonise our energy supply, but the existing low-carbon alternatives are just too expensive. Research and innovation will change that.
We also need to build capacity. The Chancellor has talked about our economy needing an “extra gear”. That extra gear is research and innovation. We need more capacity in our industry, but that will not happen if we do not support the research strengths of our universities. Every industry—every city and region—needs transformational research to drive the growth and wealth that we all need. In the last Parliament I served on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and we highlighted that challenge in our report on business-university collaboration, in which we recommended unanimously—in a cross-party Committee dominated by Government Members—that the Government aim for 3% of GDP to be spent on R and D by 2020. Above all, I would welcome the Minister’s response on our Committee’s challenge.
We are at a crossroads. The erosion of the UK’s capacity to innovate technologically was not inevitable; it was the unintended consequence of a series of choices made over decades. But we can reverse it. If we do not, we will be condemned to continue on our trajectory of low growth and poor trade performance and will ultimately lose power over our own economic destiny. I urge the Government to recognise the vital contribution of research innovation to the UK, to ensure that we can thrive in a globally competitive environment.
Order. A number of Members wish to speak, but I will call the Front Benchers, including the Scottish National party spokesperson, from 10.30 am. I will also allow a few minutes for Mr Blomfield to wind up. Mr Byrne had indicated to me that he would be late, and I will allow him to respond from the Front Bench.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate; we have worked together on a number of university and immigration issues. He made slightly disparaging comments about some Government Members’ views on immigration, but I suspect that he was not including me among them. We have worked together in particular on the importance of being an outward-looking nation and attracting the brightest and best people. That applies not only to our universities, but to many other areas that are important to research in the corporate world.
The Government correctly aspire to make the UK the best place in the world to run an innovative business or service. Instinctively, we know that to achieve that requires a strong financial sector, a plentiful supply of highly skilled people from across the globe—ideally, of course, with significant numbers of the indigenous population being trained—and progress in creating intellectual property and a thriving science and research community. All those ingredients can be found in London, the part of the country that I represent in the House. The capital’s universities have put themselves at the heart of innovation and of the drive to bring finance and business together to commercialise that innovation.
My constituency is home to three of the capital’s—indeed, the world’s—top universities: Imperial College, King’s College London and the London School of Economics. Their relentless rise in the university league tables coincides with our city’s seemingly unstoppable growth as a premier destination for global talent, capital and ideas. Just as the metropolis has married financiers with start-ups to create a booming tech sector, our universities have become adept at collaborating with the city’s business, philanthropic, government and research communities, and that is beginning to reap huge dividends. I am not suggesting that we should in any way be complacent; I take on board the statistical concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, who made valid points.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) pointed out that there is a golden triangle, which is sadly some way south of the Pennines. The London-Oxford-Cambridge golden triangle has more science and tech workers and faster industry growth than California. In 2007, Imperial College integrated its medical faculty with St Mary’s and Hammersmith hospitals. Only eight years on, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is a globally respected centre for medical research, with patients benefiting from cutting-edge care and academics able to trial state-of-the-art treatments on London’s uniquely diverse population.
Imperial is similarly collaborating with Aviva Investors on a new White City campus, Imperial West, to support science start-ups and ensure that the UK benefits commercially from breakthroughs made in its university labs. A problem going back to Victorian times is that we have cutting-edge research, but do not glean the commercial benefits once the research makes its way into general products. We clearly have to get that right. I am not suggesting that there are easy solutions, as this problem goes back 120 years. The Minister might have some bright ideas, but I would not blame him if he felt that this is a work in progress.
The plan for Imperial is that the university will soon be virtually independent of public funding. One of the spin-outs based on the campus, DNA Electronics, is already transforming academic discoveries into serious commercial propositions, offering affordable chip devices that can test for genetic diseases and drug intolerances within minutes.
Amid healthy rivalry between London’s top institutions, there are significant partnerships that we should applaud and relish. Imperial, King’s College and University College London, for example, have joined forces with the Government and others to build the groundbreaking Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research in King’s Cross. Once open, it will complement the arrival of Central Saint Martins in nearby Granary Square.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the friendly rivalry between universities in his constituency. We need to encourage such rivalry right across the United Kingdom, so that organisations such as Innovate UK can develop and progress. Does he agree that it is in all our interests for the progress he sees in London to be replicated across the entire nation.
I very much agree. Perhaps understandably, there was a certain amount of cynicism when the Chancellor of the Exchequer first talked about the northern powerhouse two years ago—he represents a northern seat, albeit in leafy Cheshire—but it is none the less important. I have battled with a number of colleagues in London on both sides of the divide on the issue. I think that we should be investing money in High Speed 3 well before we even consider putting money into High Speed 2. There is a strong case for building high-speed rail—indeed, high-speed transport—connections between our regional centres.
We could debate the broader issue of London’s dominance. I understand why there is a lot of hostility towards that dominance, but this country has a single global city of 8 million people and a cluster of cities with populations of about 1 million. In an ideal world, we would build another city from scratch with a population of about 3 million to be a global player, to try to counter London’s dominance within the UK.
A huge amount of the investment that comes into London, however, would not come to the UK if it did not come to London. It is not a zero-sum game between London and the rest of the UK. More importantly, a huge amount of the construction and contracting work that comes in for London-related projects often goes out to the regions, not only to the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world but to Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and many of the country’s second-tier cities—I do not mean that disparagingly—where huge amounts of work can be done.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. London is my capital city, and he is absolutely right that it has technology and transport attractions that nowhere else in the United Kingdom has. However, London and the golden triangle get a disproportionate amount of scientific funding—not the universities—that could just as easily go to the regions and probably have a greater benefit. The Diamond Light Source was moved from Daresbury in the north-west to Oxford. The Francis Crick Institute, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, could just as easily have been placed in Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I am not sure I can necessarily answer. Given his criticisms of Oxford, he might get a kick from directly to his right, from the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).
Amid the great strides in technology and science, London is also an important centre for leading global research in the social sciences sphere, with the London School of Economics at the forefront. The sheer quality of research undertaken by the LSE is regularly attested by peers to be world leading. In the recent research excellence framework, the LSE was ranked as the top institution in the UK for its proportion of four-star, world-leading research. All that means that the LSE and the nation have extensive global reach, in particular within the public policy and governance sphere, to institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD and World Health Organisation. In the social sciences, however, it is harder to commercialise that work. Without mainly public funding, the LSE could not undertake the high-quality research that underpins its impact and provides the UK with considerable soft power globally.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, there was much feverish gossip about the pressing need to rebalance the economy away from an over-reliance on banking and finance. That task has been successfully undertaken here in the capital city, with the creative, tech, research and education sectors drawn together in what I regard as a virtuous circle, which in some cases has helped to spur physical regeneration. I touched on King’s Cross, a classic example of that—the Olympic site will be another. That has served only to entrench the dominance of the capital in the wider UK economy and has not addressed that rather more elusive rebalancing act: boosting the regions and other nations of the UK. As a London MP, I recognise that that is important—not least because of the ever-louder klaxon call of hostility towards London, something worrying for the rest of the UK.
The real challenge is how the rest of the UK’s universities, innovators and start-ups compete with the London and Oxbridge research powerhouse, and I look forward to hearing the views of other Members on that. One fifth of Government research funding is now claimed by our top three universities—that golden triangle—and the capital city has more than 100,000 square metres of new research facilities in the pipeline. Furthermore, the south-east and east of England and London account for some 52% of the research and development carried out in the UK.
If the Chancellor’s northern powerhouse and the broader devolution agenda are to work, he should examine how London’s universities have not just integrated academic excellence into the heart of this global city but provided a compelling educational offering to the world through the relentless building of links with the worlds of industry, commerce, Government and finance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate and on setting out so eloquently the vital role that science plays in his city, across the north of England and in the wider UK economy.
My hon. Friend demonstrated clearly the need for policy that supports an environment in which research can flourish. His concerns are clearly shared by colleagues across the UK, including in Nottingham and the wider east midlands, where they are felt not just by people working in our universities but by businesses large and small, and our local enterprise partnership, D2N2. Everyone recognises the key role that science—the life sciences, in particular—has to play in the future success of our region.
Our local authorities are also keen to promote regeneration and the creation of good jobs, and have identified the potential for science and technology to be leading sectors driving growth in our economy. But local and regional success requires national support, and the UK cannot meet the economic, health, security and environmental challenges facing our society without a Government who champion science and research.
My hon. Friend has already set out how Government investment in science and research creates a virtuous circle, leveraging investment from industry, raising productivity and creating more high-value jobs. Quite simply, if we want to grow the economy and make the UK globally competitive, investing in science and research is an effective use of public money. Indeed, a failure to commit to future investment will not only break that beneficial cycle, but undermine the UK’s competitive advantage and damage our economic outlook. Any Government who were serious about long-term economic planning would not be cutting the science budget, yet, unfortunately, over the past five years that is exactly what has happened.
As my hon. Friend said, the “Science is Vital” campaign has highlighted the fact that freezing the science budget disbursed annually to universities and research institutes in cash terms means that its real value has fallen by around 15% since 2010—a decline that puts the UK firmly at the bottom of the G8 on Government support for science. In the UK, university research makes up a higher proportion of total R and D compared with our competitors. Far from crowding out other investment, that Government support attracts outside funding in; as my hon. Friend said, UK universities themselves have grown their own R and D investment by 40% in the past decade. We also have a very efficient research base, producing a much higher proportion of highly cited publications than might be expected. We punch above our weight.
A 2014 analysis paper by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognised, however, that the UK’s long-term pattern of under-investment in public and private research and development was holding the UK economy back, and concluded that
“a level of R&D spend consistent with securing future economic success is likely to be closer to the 2.9% average of our comparators. Public sector expenditure may need to rise more sharply in the short-to-medium term, partly to develop the necessary talent and partly to catalyse private sector investment.”
Last December, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee reached a similar conclusion, recommending that the Government aim for a target of 3% of GDP to be spent on R and D by 2020. My first question is, how will the Minister ensure that the UK does not fall further behind or miss out on new opportunities, thereby risking the strengths that we have?
This is not simply an issue of the UK’s place in a global race; it is also a local issue—one that matters directly to my own constituency. Nottingham’s strength, particularly in life sciences, is long standing and well recognised. We have two world class universities, in the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, and one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe. We are proud that BioCity, the largest bio-incubator in the UK, was established there in 2002, as a unique collaboration between our universities and the East Midlands Development Agency. It now sustains more than 650 employees working for around 70 companies on its main site, undertaking innovation and turning science into economic propositions.
Those more recent developments build on our heritage. Nottingham has been home to Boots for more than 150 years. Its Lenton headquarters and manufacturing and logistics centres make it one of the largest private sector employers in the city. The development of the Nottingham enterprise zone, which includes the Boots site, provides huge opportunities for future growth, and MediCity, a collaboration between Boots and BioCity designed to support innovators in consumer healthcare, medical technology, diagnostics and beauty products, is already home to 40 start-up companies. Just last week, the D2N2 local enterprise partnership approved a £6.5 million grant of local growth fund towards a new state-of-the-art life sciences complex being built by Nottingham City Council to expand BioCity and create hundreds of new jobs in the city.
I welcome that and other Government-backed investment in capital infrastructure, but although high-profile announcements sound good and the strategic commitment to new facilities and equipment over the period 2016 to 2021 is welcome, without sufficient resource funding such new facilities will not meet their potential. Nottingham has all the building blocks in place, but adequate Government support for research remains critical. As has already been said, it is a question not only of the total value of research support, but of its regional distribution; my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made that point forcefully.
Glenn Crocker, chief executive officer of BioCity, has also highlighted the fact that London and the south and east of England continue to receive a disproportionate share of investment, both public and private. If the Government are serious about economic rebalancing—that is about not just a northern powerhouse, but the midlands—that needs to change. I hope that the Minister will set out how he intends to address the distortion and ensure that Nottingham, which certainly has the people, facilities and strong and viable business propositions, also gets the financial support it requires to build the thriving technology sector to which we aspire.
As an MP without a background in science, I have been fortunate enough to participate in the Royal Society’s pairing scheme, and the opportunity to build links with practitioners has been very valuable. I approached my former pairs for their views before today’s debate, and one thing that they expressed was that concern about resource funding. As physics professor Philip Moriarty succinctly put it:
“There’s no point funding bright shiny new pieces of kit if there aren’t researchers there to use it”.
I would like to say more about the Medical Research Council Institute of Hearing Research at the University of Nottingham, which I visited last week, its huge contributions and how it operates in a multidisciplinary environment, which is one of the most important aspects of our universities and can be a catalyst for new thinking. People may remember the story that appeared in the press about a 10th-century potion for treating eye infections, which was discovered by an Anglo-Saxon expert from our school of English. It was tested by bio-medics and found to be successful in tackling MRSA, which scientists have been trying to do for some time. The ability to work in a cross-disciplinary way is important.
The importance of blue-skies research should not be forgotten. Peter Mansfield is famous in Nottingham for building the first magnetic resonance imaging scanner, but he started with a physics experiment on solid-liquid interactions and did not anticipate the impact of his work. Often the impact of work is difficult to predict or quantify, and we must not lose blue-skies research in the drive for value for money.
I have three things to say to the Minister in concluding: first, what commitment is he making to knowledge transfer partnerships? They are among the most important long-running Government growth and innovation initiatives. They celebrate 40 years this year and are valued in my city. Secondly, is he willing to discuss with the Home Office the effect of immigration rules—particularly those on post-study work visas, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned? At a time when we are particularly conscious of women’s role in science and research, and when it has been in the press spotlight—yesterday was National Women in Engineering Day—what do the Government intend to do to ensure that we celebrate the talents of everyone who would like to be involved in science research? There is a persistent gender imbalance.
Finally, I invite the Minister to visit both the universities in my constituency, if he comes to Nottingham. Alternatively, if he and his colleagues find themselves in Ningbo in China or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, I invite them to visit the extraordinary campuses of the University of Nottingham. More than 11,000 students are studying there for British degrees, and carrying out cutting-edge research, creating a bridge between the UK and Asia.
I will certainly keep within the time limits. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for bringing this topic to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has left the Chamber, but at one stage my party had the second largest number of Members present, and that shows how important the subject is to us in Northern Ireland.
I want to talk about research on health technologies, and disease prevention and cure. The UK is renowned for its research capabilities. The importance of science and research has been recognised by successive Governments who have sought to protect the science budget from significant cuts. That speaks volumes, but many people in the science and research community have said that our spending is mediocre by international standards. That is a fact of life, so how can we work better with private partnerships to make things happen? The impact of science and research is tangible across the regional economies. In Northern Ireland we are lucky enough to be home to fantastic research universities, which are trailblazers for scientific research across the board.
Queen’s University Belfast is a pioneer and has made breakthroughs in medical treatments and disease. Its work on improving patient care in the treatment of bowel cancer is one example. It uses the latest state-of-the- art techniques to define the genetic make-up of bowel cancer cells and that will no doubt bring significant advances in diagnosis rates and treatment. There is also a company in Portadown, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), that has projects to develop better diagnostic texts for prostate, ovarian and breast cancer. Yesterday’s ovarian cancer figures showed that Northern Ireland has the worst recovery rate and life expectancy rate in the UK; 70% of those who get it die within five years. Advances are needed, and they are happening at Queen’s University.
Terumo BCT—a blood technology company—has made great contributions domestically and globally to the detection and treatment of disease. Terumo is based in Larne, and 280 skilled people are employed there. In my constituency, TG Eakin manufactures high-quality medical supplies and has made significant contributions to the science, health and research community. In 2005 it launched its own research and development department, and is now successful beyond Comber in my constituency. Its 280 employees are in Comber, Cardiff and the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Those companies make real-life contributions for the long term, to people’s lives, wellbeing and health.
I want quickly to talk about schools and the post-16 group, and about the focus on careers advice. What discussions has the Minister had with other Ministers to ensure that such advice encourages young people to look towards science? We need to focus on the science skills necessary to improve the core of a modern British and global economy. Science and research play a significant part in the creation of wealth and jobs, and we need to help prepare young people to exploit the opportunities in the market and to get well paid skilled jobs. That will require us to take into account the role of the secondary sciences, as the Science Council urges us, and not to consider only what are conventionally thought of as the science sectors.
I will try to speak more quickly than the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on obtaining the debate, which gives me the opportunity to praise the stellar success of science in Oxford, and the enormous benefits it brings to our city, our region and the country. The gross value added of the Oxfordshire local enterprise partnership is the highest in the country outside London. The University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University are crucial to its success, providing many of the projects for the local growth fund, as well as driving Oxfordshire’s strategic economic plan, which is entirely innovation-based.
The best thing about science, research and the economy in Oxford, however, is the sheer excitement and ambition of so much of the work being done. I want to give a couple of examples: with the pulling together of big data and advances in molecular biology, and with the work of the Precision Cancer Medicine Institute and the collaboration of 200 interdisciplinary teams from across Oxford University feeding in to that, there is a real chance that Oxford will be in the lead globally in work to personalise cancer treatment properly, and to increase the rate of cure—not just treating cancer, but curing it.
Secondly, the Higher Education Innovation Fund set up the Sustainable Vehicle Engineering Centre at Oxford Brookes. That has been used by BMW and all the major automotive companies in the development of electric vehicles. The university has just launched an innovative new undergraduate degree in business and automotive management, in partnership with BMW. That is university innovation in the lead in a crucial national industry.
That quality and potential in the field of innovation and breakthrough is replicated across the universities, centres and science parks that we are fortunate to have in Oxfordshire. At the annual SET for Britain poster presentations locally and here in Parliament, it is a privilege for me to see that there are always so many stunning and prize-winning entries from young Oxford scientists. Research in Oxford is sustaining thousands of jobs, and is spinning out companies, having been an early pioneer of university spin-outs with Oxford Instruments. That was set up in 1959 and is now a global leader. Many others are treading the same path, and more could do so.
There are three key ways in which Oxford’s potential is being held back by the state, which should be helping us. First, shortage of housing supply is driving the price to earnings ratio and rents to the highest in the country outside London. That risks damaging the ability of the science community locally to recruit the brightest and the best, as well as making life hard for all the technicians and others whose teamwork supports the innovators and entrepreneurs. Please will the Government allow us to relax the green belt in a measured way to let Oxford and its science grow.
Secondly, I make a plea, as others have done, to the Government to change their rhetoric and practice on immigration. Many young scientists, in particular, are not on high earnings, and face a hand-to-mouth existence climbing up the research ladder. There is a danger that the earnings thresholds on settlement will discourage talented young scientists and their partners from coming here. Yet the forefront of scientific research is a global labour market and the Government should remember that. An all-party group on migration report earlier this year on UK post-study work opportunities for international students showed good evidence that the abolition of the old post-study work visa has damaged the access of students from many countries—notably India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—to higher education in the UK. When they do not come here to do science courses, domestic students lose when the courses are closed down. The Government need to change their stance.
The third point is that, as others have said, we need to get the Government to commit to increasing research funding as a proportion of GDP. The previous Government ring-fenced research funding, recognising it as a powerful catalyst for economic competitiveness and recovery. Compared with our global competitors, the UK under-invests in R and D, and we must remember that a much higher proportion is undertaken in universities here than in competing countries. I therefore ask the Government to commit to increasing research funding in general, and in particular in those universities, such as ours in Oxford, that have shown that they can deliver the outcomes that the country needs.
I echo the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to seize the opportunity of the forthcoming Budget to commit to increasing research funding and thereby stimulate economic growth.
I will attempt to speak even faster, Mr Owen.
In the Marx Brothers film “Go West”, the brothers realise that the train that they are embarked on simply does not have enough fuel on board and they spend quite a long time running through the train and smashing up the carriages to get wood to burn in order to get the train to the station. The train gets to the station, but unfortunately it is not a train any more. That is where we are with research and development, particularly higher education R and D, in this country. We are smashing up our own resource to keep the show on the road. It is a very good show. For example, we have 12% of global citations for 1% of the world population. We are home to 29 of the world’s top 200 universities. We are first in the G8 for scientific papers. That is a very good story to tell, but how long will it continue if we continue to invest less than 0.5% of GDP in public R and D, as we have heard is happening? What does the future hold? Will the train get into the station in a clearly recognisable form and be able to get out of the station for future journeys, especially as other countries are stepping up their efforts? China is aiming for 2.5% for public R and D by 2020. Sweden is developing substantially its R and D spending as a percentage of GDP. In South Korea, the amount for R and D was 2.3 trillion won in 2012. Many countries are going in precisely the opposite direction from us.
This is not a debate about the future in abstract terms. Let me take as an example my university, the University of Southampton, which is one of two universities in the city. Southampton University is not only among the top universities in the country, but makes, as was recently enumerated, an enormous contribution to gross value added not just nationally—we are talking about £2 billion gross value added and 26,000 jobs—but regionally and locally. Its research has clear outcomes. For example, the fibre-optic research that Southampton did over years has spawned a photonics industry in the UK—it is worth £10 billion and has 70,000 employees—and a substantial photonics cluster in Southampton.
Southampton’s SETsquared initiative brings together a number of universities to incubate businesses and spin-offs from the research done at universities. That is now regarded as the prime business incubator involving the university sector in Europe. In the science park, there are 86 companies; 29 are start-ups or spin-offs.
The research and development funding that the university obtains has a real impact in the local community, in the region and nationally. The question is what will happen if that funding tap is turned off in the future. I am not saying that there have not been substantial capital innovations recently. The £200 million centre for advanced materials research, which we have talked about, represents a substantial capital improvement. It is the business of just keeping the whole thing going that we are falling down on in this country.
On those threats, does my hon. Friend agree that a further danger is any threat to our position within the European Union? In my university, the University of Cambridge, 12% of the research budget comes from the European Union, but even more important are the collaborative networks with other EU countries, which people tell me are vital. Is that a further threat?
It is a substantial further threat. Indeed, if we shut ourselves away from Europe, we will throw away the advantage that we have in this country from our membership of the EU in terms of our future R and D. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
This is something that we perhaps do not notice happening. It is easy to miss it, and there are not catastrophic consequences from disinvesting in R and D as far as universities and research centres are concerned, but it is potentially catastrophic for the future competitiveness of this country and the future of the sort of arrangements that I have explained exist in Southampton and have an impact in the area, the region and the country as a whole. I urge the Minister to take careful note of this debate and ensure that the investment that should be there for the future is put in place and that commitments are made to ensure that that carries on coming in to support our universities and our research activities, which are so valuable and such a source of potential fuel for this country’s ambitions across the world.
I thank the hon. Members who cut their speeches short, because like me, they probably had a lot to say. I do not want to go through all the benefits of research and development, because those have been well outlined in previous speeches. All I want to say is that the two universities in Northern Ireland—Queen’s University and the University of Ulster—have an excellent record on research. Indeed, Queen’s is ranked eighth in the United Kingdom for research intensity. That research benefits not only the Northern Ireland economy, but almost every individual in the country.
We can look at an example of the benefits here in London. I am talking about the buses, which are cleaner, quieter and more efficient as a result of work that started in the 1990s at Queen’s University and was then transferred to Wrightbus in Ballymena. It has now resulted in new buses running around the streets of London. That has helped Wrightbus become one of the leading technology and engineering companies in Northern Ireland.
Another example concerns food safety. Queen’s University took the lead in that regard. Indeed, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University was asked to set up the taskforce to deal with food safety after the horsemeat scandal, and much of the research that was done at Queen’s now enables laboratories around the world to detect multiple contaminants in food. I could talk about all that extensively.
However, there are challenges that need to be faced. The first has been mentioned already. The Government need to give a commitment on the amount of money available for research and development. I recognise that the previous Government ring-fenced research and development spending, but a commitment to spending 3% of GDP on research and development, even in times of austerity, would help productivity and growth and have long-term consequences, even though the lead-in period is sometimes quite long, as Queen’s University research has shown.
It has been identified that although a lot of research goes on, the link between research in universities and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular has been weak. Some larger companies see the value of devoting resources to research, but some smaller companies do not. That is a big challenge, whether we seek to address it through tax incentives or by encouraging the universities to be more proactive, because productivity and product range need to be increased the most in small and medium-sized enterprises.
Another challenge is EU funding. There are huge opportunities on which we are not capitalising. What can the Government do?
Skills shortages are another issue. Universities are already identifying skills shortages, especially in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, maths and languages, which means that we need to start from primary school and continue through secondary school, and also that we need teacher training. We need to encourage universities to get a cohort with those skills.
The last challenge, which has been mentioned, is immigration. Much of the research at the University of Ulster is undertaken by students from overseas, and some schools would not be viable if we did not have that influx of overseas students. The Government need to think about that when they consider their immigration policy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and it is a particular pleasure to respond to this debate, secured by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). I have heard much about his inspiring leadership in the higher education sector.
I start by making a declaration of interest. I am still an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, and in recent times I have undertaken a number of ethical reviews of research proposals on matters such as tobacco. One great strength of UK universities that has not been mentioned in this debate is their approach to ethical research, of which universities throughout the UK can be tremendously proud. Our universities’ strength of ambition to conduct high-quality, leading ethical research is increasingly becoming a selling point. In a few days’ time I will give advice at the request of the University of Dundee and the University of St Andrews, for which I will be paid the princely sum of nothing—I think that is a fair reflection of the quality of my comments to come.
In another context—it is not exactly a declaration of interest—I wanted to say this at some stage in my parliamentary career and now is an appropriate time: my late brother, Jim, who died not all that long ago, graduated from Glasgow University before emigrating to Canada, where he became a leading scientist and, after a number of years, was chairman of the OECD science and technology committee. I hope he would be pleased that I am speaking in this debate.
Scotland has a remarkable tradition in higher education and research. Even today, 77% of all research by Scottish universities submitted to the research excellence framework is classified as “world-leading” or “internationally excellent,” which is ahead of the UK average. Some 86% of Scottish research is judged as being “outstanding” or having “very considerable” impact, which compares with the UK average of 83.9%. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) talked about impact brilliantly in his three minutes and 57 seconds.
Scottish universities also excel, and have a great tradition, in science. Hon. Members gave many examples from their constituencies, but I will give just one example not from my constituency but from Glasgow University, which ties in to the importance of considering these matters not merely in the context of a constituency, of Scotland or of the UK, but internationally, too. South Glasgow University Hospital, as well as catering for more than 1,000 patients, hosts a campus of Glasgow University and its world-leading Stratified Medicine Scotland innovation centre, a state-of-the-art clinical research facility for clinical trials. The hospital will also be the site of the university’s Europe-leading imaging centre of excellence. A number of hon. Members have pointed out the fundamental importance of European connections to our universities. I would say that it goes beyond Europe: our global connections in the UK, and in Scotland, are of fundamental importance and are to be treasured.
Scotland’s universities are proud of their Scottish roots, but they are equally proud of being outward-looking and highly collaborative within the UK, within Europe and internationally. What might be described as the best of our universities are in a worldwide research ecosystem. Such interchange is important to everyone. Engagement is important to Scottish universities, and they also have something to offer when they engage with others.
In practical terms, we want to see the continuation of the dual support system for research funding in the UK. We want to see more UK-wide and Europe-wide collaboration that underpins excellence in research. Some hon. Members talked about the value of localised competition in small places such as London, but, looking more widely, I am pretty sure that many London universities benefit from how they relate with universities in, for example, California, South Africa, Germany and many other parts of the world. The same is true for Scotland and every constituency with a university.
I am slightly surprised that nobody has made significant mention of the Nurse review of UK research councils. The consultation phase closed in April, and Sir Paul Nurse is considering the evidence. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government have already arranged to have further consultations with Sir Paul in the coming weeks, as has Universities Scotland. From that review we hope to develop more imaginative approaches to research funding that recognise, for example, the connection to innovation, which others have talked about so eloquently in this debate.
On European research partnerships, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned the importance of the seventh framework programme for research. It indicates the importance of that European connection to Scottish universities that, by the time the programme ended in 2013, Scotland had been awarded €636 million in funding. Scotland has received 11.2% of the UK’s European Research Council funding, which is well above our population share. For Scottish universities it is fundamentally important that we have strong and continuing links with the European Union, as well as with others across the globe.
I will conclude with a couple of questions for the Minister, one of which I have not mentioned thus far. The immigration policy pursued by this Government is a barrier to attracting leading research talent from across the world, as some Opposition Members have already mentioned. That is critical. We are particularly concerned in Scotland, and we call for the return of the post-study work visa to enable people who are here to study for higher research-end degrees to continue contributing. It is completely and utterly insane that the Government are discriminating against such people when they have so much to contribute to this country. We ask the Government, in the coming Budget, to address the fears of some of our universities about what may occur. They fear that there will be a squeeze on research funding at a time when, as many Opposition Members have said, we need increased investment in R and D for the benefit of productivity and innovation.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate. I add my congratulations to the Minister; it is good to see him in his place. I am obviously sad that I am not sitting there. None the less, if there has to be a Conservative Minister, I am glad that it is him. He is a fully signed up member of the thinking classes, despite what his father has to say, and I am sure he will distinguish himself in his new office.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). It is good to see him back with such an increased majority, which is testament to his extraordinary work in his constituency and in the House over the last Parliament. It is with characteristic speed that he has secured this debate.
We have managed to achieve a degree of consensus on science policy over the past 20 years that has served this country well. We need to preserve and enhance that consensus during this Parliament. However, now is the time to begin making progress on a number of substantial policy issues. In this morning’s debate, some of those issues have become clear. As we set about that task, it is important that we keep our eyes on the prize that is there for the taking with science policy over the next decade or two.
Last year was a bumper year for British science, with extraordinary achievements from landing probes on comets to advances in medical science, but, as Sir Paul Nurse said—it is important that we pay tribute to Sir Paul’s leadership of the Royal Society—the progress last year represented the fruits of years and years of patient chipping away at the coalface. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and others have said this morning, we are in jeopardy of destroying the foundations of the progress that we saw last year unless important policy changes are made.
Over the next 10 years, we could seize the fruits of the very different world taking shape around us. The majority of the world’s people now live in cities; the majority will soon be interconnected with the cloud, and the internet of things will bring new networks to bear. We are now able to work together in a completely different way, and of course there is a new premium on us as a world making the right decisions. The decisions that are made over the next five to 10 years will have a critical bearing on whether we succeed in keeping global temperature rises below 2° C. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South spelled out, there is the potential for great progress in medical science and beyond if we make the right decisions over the next few years.
We in this country have a parochial interest in some of those decisions being taken in a correct way, not least because of the impact of science and innovation policy on our lamentable productivity performance. I am glad the Chancellor has now woken up to the crisis in British productivity growth, which is worse today than it was at the end of the 1970s when we used to call it the British disease. What the rest of the G7 now finishes making on a Thursday night takes us until the end of Friday to get done. We will not raise living standards in our country unless we close that yawning 20% productivity gap with the rest of the G7.
I will in a minute.
We have heard three clear policy priorities that I hope the Minister will attend to. The first relates to money. As we have heard this morning, Britain is seeing not growth but substantial decline in its science budget, yet we are at a crossover moment in global science spending. China will probably spend more on science this year than the EU28 put together. By 2019, China will spend more on science than the United States of America. Four of the 10 biggest tech firms in the world are now Asian. Shanghai’s results in the programme for international student assessment are well in advance of our PISA results here in the UK. We are now at a crossover point that we perhaps last saw in 1455, when the good jobs in the world were created in the east and the cheap labour jobs were created here in the west. If we are to guard against that, we must make more progress on funding.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee was absolutely right to say that the right target for science spending in this country is 3% of GDP. There is a cross-party consensus about that figure in Germany, Korea has already exceeded it and it is the norm in parts of Scandinavia. What we need to see in the Budget in a couple of weeks’ time is the launch of a consultation by the Chancellor on the measures that would most effectively bring in private sector money. Some of those measures would be national policy, but, as we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and for Nottingham South, some would ensure that science began to regenerate our cities and towns. This is about not just crowding global spending into the UK, but making sure that we unlock the regenerative power in science throughout the country. I hope that one of the ideas put on the table as part of the consultation will be a radical expansion of university enterprise zones, which are a good idea that is confined to only four towns and cities in the UK. We should use university enterprise zones far more radically in the years to come.
Secondly, we need a new consensus on technical education. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Skills, has said that he is interested in agreeing high-level principles that would guide a technical education system for the future. We go through this crisis decade in, decade out in this country, and we have got to begin making progress. I suggest that the right place to start is by putting a serious submission to the Treasury that calls for the Chancellor to save our further education system. We will not be able to build a world-class technical education system if we kick out its spine, and as Alison Wolf made very clear this morning, that is precisely what is coming. We cannot build a world-class technical education system if we are shutting down further education colleges all over England and closing down adult education. That is a good place to start rebooting our technical education system for the 21st century.
Thirdly, we need changes to our immigration system, which we have heard a lot about this morning. We in Parliament should be calling for the free movement of scientists and students. That is the only way we will be able to make sure that this country is connected to the best brainpower, wherever it happens to be born. I was the author of the first post-study work visa when I was the Minister responsible for immigration. It was not perfect, but it was a lot better than the system that we have today. If we are to ensure that we train and educate the best students for the years to come, we have to look again at how we put in place a much better post-study work visa, and I would be happy to work with the Minister on getting that right.
Finally, I underline the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central made for a new consensus in Parliament. Some 350 years ago, two groups of men from different sides of the political spectrum came together at Gresham College, on the site where Tower 42 now stands, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). On one side of the divide were the royalists and on the other side were the parliamentarians. At that moment in November 1660 they decided to put aside historic divisions and work together in the interests of science. The Royal Society was born on that afternoon after an astronomy lecture delivered by Sir Christopher Wren. We need such consensus again. If the royalists and parliamentarians could do it in 1660, the Labour party, Conservative party, Scottish National party and others could perhaps make the same move. I hope the Minister will work with us constructively and creatively, and I hope he will take to heart the points that he has heard this morning. Over the days and weeks to come, in the run-up to the Budget, he would do well to read again the excellent opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, on this important subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on prompting discussion on a key aspect of Government policy.
The UK regions are at the heart of the Government’s economic strategy. The Government are mindful to ensure that investment should not get sucked into hyper-concentrated areas, such as the golden triangle, at the expense of the excellence that can be found in many other parts of the country. That is a matter to which I have been paying close attention in my first few weeks in my role.
We believe that science and research has a central role in the regions and the Government want the national economic recovery, which has been under way for a number of years, to continue to benefit all parts of our country. Investment in research based in the regions is an absolutely key part to that. The extra gear our economy needs is to be found in R and D capabilities in the universities in our regions as well as in the golden triangle.
UK science is an international success story and a major driver of growth and attractor of inward investment, as hon. Members have mentioned. It is not always recognised that it can make a huge contribution to local and regional economies and to rebalancing the economy, a goal to which the Government are strongly committed.
By way of illustration, I will take a quick regional tour of the investments we have made in recent months, starting from Land’s End and going all the way up to John O’Groats, many of which will contribute to our goal of rebalancing the economy. In the south-west, synthetic biology has been assisted by a £14 million investment in a centre for synthetic biology in Bristol. I will detour via London, which, as Members have already mentioned, has well-known strengths and new investments in institutions such as the Francis Crick Institute and the Alan Turing Institute. Just north of London, we have recently invested £12 million in a centre for agricultural informatics and sustainability metrics near Harpenden and work will start there this summer on modelling more efficient food systems.
Further east, we have just invested £44 million in Babraham and £26 million in Norwich in research agri-tech. In the west midlands, not far from the constituency of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), we have an example of what will help our ambition to make the midlands an engine of growth. As part of the Government’s £270 million investment in new quantum technologies, Birmingham University has just secured £35 million towards developing an internationally leading centre of excellence and a quantum technology hub. That is in addition to plans for a new national college for high-speed rail, which the right hon. Gentleman described as a
“once in a generation opportunity to transform our local economy.”
The manifesto we published before the general election had a strong commitment to building the northern powerhouse. That is becoming a reality and our investments in centres such as the Hartree Centre and the square kilometre array, the largest scientific experiment in the world, will support that objective. I could add to that list our various investments in graphene such as those at the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central will be impatient for me to cross the Pennines. He will know that, in the Sheffield city region, £10 million has just been invested in a new facility for aerospace and other sectors at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. In York, we have invested £27 million in a quantum communications hub as part of our national programme.
As we head further north to Scotland, we continue to support Scotland’s fine scientific tradition. Just last year, the Chancellor announced a £16 million contribution to a new stratified medicine imaging centre of excellence in Glasgow, which will unite world-leading clinical academic expertise in stroke, cardiovascular disease and brain imaging to aid our understanding and treatment of a range of human diseases. Other examples in Scotland include Edinburgh University’s national computing centre, which has benefited from funding for ARCHER, the UK’s top supercomputer, which is now being used by 1,000 academics and people in industry.
I turn to issues raised by Members, and by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill in particular. I thank him for his generous welcome; it is a pleasure to be in this relationship to him. I have always enjoyed talking with him and I hope that we can have a productive and cordial relationship in the months ahead.
There is strong cross-party agreement about the role that investment in science and research can play in solving our productivity challenge and the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are truly committed to that. Our manifesto is evidence of it: investment in science and research runs through it like words through a stick of rock and it is a personal passion of the Chancellor. Science and research therefore is front and centre of our solution to the productivity puzzle and such investment in our regions will be one of the key ways in which we will try to plug the productivity gap that holds us back.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the 3% target, which has been an ongoing question in public policy debate for some time. As he will know, previous Governments attempted to introduce R and D-related targets without success. An isolated target does not lead to behavioural change in and of itself; it needs to be complemented by additional policy measures. It is not clear that 3% is the optimal target and there is no evidence that it would lead to optimal investment for the UK. Evidence suggests that the UK under-invests compared with other major research economies and that there would be economic benefits from increased investment, but the aim of achieving 3% GDP spend on R and D is set out at EU level and is not a UK target. The investments we make as a country are recognised as being particularly fruitful. We are recognised as being an excellent place in which to innovate and get very high returns on scientific R and D investment.
Without pre-empting the battles that the Minister will no doubt have with the Home Office, the immigration question is close to our hearts. He will appreciate fully that if the brightest and best from across the world come here, they will go back to their countries as ambassadors for this country for the rest of their lives and often build up businesses with links to us. We lose that at our peril: such links will then go to Canada, the USA and Australia, and the point has been made that, without significant numbers of overseas students, leading postgraduate courses will simply close down, which will be to the detriment of our own indigenous population.
That is an important area, and indeed my first speech as Minister was on that subject at the Going Global conference a few weeks ago. I was clear about the positive contribution that international students make. Our postgraduate study options aim to attract the brightest and best, and we welcome any student who can secure a gradate-level job with a graduate salary. We need to clear up misconceptions that have arisen in important countries—India in particular—about our openness; we offer a warm welcome to international students. I note my right hon. Friend’s important points.
May I quickly turn to a couple of other points made by Members?
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) kindly invited me to go to the various universities in Nottingham and I look forward to doing so. I note her points about women in engineering and yesterday I had the great pleasure of being at the Parliamentary Links Day, where I was delighted to see a packed room with so much consensus behind the need for greater diversity. In support of Government investment in Nottingham, I point to recent investment in the synthetic biology research centre. I am sorry that I do not have time to come to other Members’ contributions.
The number of Members present and the quality of the debate reflects the importance the House places on this issue, as well as the need for the Government to get it right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) made a powerful case about the impact of research in Oxford. That is important, because while Oxford is often seen as one of the classic ivory towers, he demonstrated how such research works with business to develop economic growth. Oxford is utterly engaged in driving the local economy, just as other universities are around the country.
I appreciated working on migration with the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) in the previous Parliament and I recognise that he is not alone in his thinking on the Government Benches. Indeed, I think it was three or four years ago that the Minister wrote a powerful piece in the Financial Times that explained where the Government were getting their policy wrong on international students and I hope that he will continue to make that case within Government.
The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) underlined the importance of research across the regions and nations of the UK.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Leaseholders and Housing Association Ballots
I beg to move,
That this House has considered leaseholders and housing association ballots.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding over this debate, Mr Owen, and to see the Minister in his place. I and others have had an ongoing, constructive dialogue with him on these matters—on some of them, at least—as will become clear in due course. The title of the debate may be slightly misleading, as I intend to cover leasehold reform as a separate but connected matter to housing association ballots. I have advised the Minister’s office of that, and I am sure the Minister has been forewarned about the shape that my contribution will take.
I raised these matters on 6 March, in the dying days of the previous Parliament, and I welcome the opportunity to put them on the ministerial radar early in this Parliament, although I know the Minister is already aware of them—of the leaseholder issues, in particular. I and others are grateful to the Minister and his officials for arranging a meeting on 8 June about leaseholder matters with the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), me and representatives of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. The hon. Gentleman has led on these issues for some time, and I am pleased to be assisting his significant efforts. Mr Martin Boyd and Mr Sebastian O’Kelly, campaigning as the LKP, have made much progress in engaging with the Government, securing charitable status and ensuring that millions of leaseholders have a voice and access to an organisation dedicated to advising and assisting them.
I do not want to labour this point, as I know the Minister’s officials are examining many of the anomalies and weaknesses that we have identified in the existing legislation on leaseholders, but the matters that concern us include the problems with retirement homes and the issues of commonhold versus leasehold and property ownership. Tribunal procedures are supposed to be relatively informal, but can become expensive if the defending freeholder brings high-powered barristers against local residents who are trying to get redress against problems they have identified.
There is also the issue of unscrupulous freeholders and predatory property management companies. The sector is doing a lot to improve its image and the professionalism of property management services, but there are some predatory organisations that prey on vulnerable people and take a lot of money unfairly. There is the issue of forfeiture, which we have discussed in depth with the Minister. There are also recognition issues. Leaseholders often find it difficult to get their association recognised by their property management company or freeholder because of difficulties in securing numbers, identifying the owners of properties and the like.
We have also talked to the Minister about the different roles and responsibilities of the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Justice. This policy area has implications for both Departments, so we must look at how well those arrangements are working. I know the Minister is well aware of all those issues, as they were reinforced in our previous meeting. I acknowledge that he has tasked his officials to examine them and to report back. We look forward to continuing our discussions on those issues in due course. If, however, the Minister has anything new he wishes to add, his comments would be welcomed by all who take an interest in leaseholding. I fully accept that his officials have done a lot of work on this matter, and, given that we have had a recent meeting, there is probably not a lot to report back.
The hon. Member for Worthing West, ably assisted by Ms Katherine O’Riordan, has organised another roundtable discussion on leasehold reform on 9 July, to which the Minister and his officials have been invited. They will be very welcome. Such successful forums, which have been taking place in recent years, allow people to share information and experience on these issues.
On the issue of housing association ballots, the Minister may be less informed about the concerns I raised on 6 March; the Deputy Leader of the House responded to that debate, although I am sure he reported back to the Minister. The Minister’s officials will have read Hansard and will be aware of the questions I was asking.
As the Minister knows, hundreds of thousands of tenants in recent decades voted in stock transfer ballots to leave local authority control—i.e. to move the management of their properties from the council to a housing association. Thousands—probably tens of thousands—of my constituents are among those who agreed to do that. The driver was that housing associations are able to modernise and refurbish run-down council properties and raise them above the decency threshold for homes because they can raise the finance, while the rules prevent councils and council housing organisations from doing the same. New kitchens, bathrooms, windows, central heating and security measures were installed. Many of the schemes, including a number in my constituency, were very successful, although not all were.
A number of issues arose. Some are ongoing, such as the quality of work and the materials used, the fact that some people have been overcharged for the work, and transparency. There were recently two contradictory reports on the schemes: the Evening Standard reported on bribery and corruption at a housing association in Hackney, while Inside Housing reported on a positive contract in Brighton that created hundreds of apprenticeships and new jobs. There are different experiences of schemes in different parts of the country. A number of other issues were raised, including the costs and service charges and the appeals procedures. Many tenants were able to resolve such issues with the assistance of their registered social landlord. The Government changed the regulations to level the playing field, in terms of transparency, accounting and information, but not all the concerns were addressed.
In a few cases, the offer promised by some housing associations to entice council tenants to vote for the stock transfer were never fulfilled. In such cases, tenants were powerless to have their complaints resolved. After they have voted to hand over their property to the new landlords, there was and is no mechanism to vote to sack the housing association for poor performance.
Such a sanction exists for the regulators—the Homes and Communities Agency and the housing ombudsman, following complaints of failures, can order mergers and takeovers of failing housing associations, but residents are powerless. Incidentally, leaseholders who exercised their right to buy their council property are powerless and voiceless, as they have no vote when the estates in which they live are transferred unless the local housing associations included them in the consultations, as good registered social landlords did. The Government have introduced a welcome cap on charges, which is a positive change.
My main question to the Minister is about the rights of housing association tenants and whether they should be empowered to sack poorly performing housing associations. Leaseholders in the private sector, despite the anomalies in the recognition procedure, are entitled to a ballot if their property management company lets them down, and they can vote to award their contract to a new company. If it is good enough for the private sector, why cannot it work in the public sector? It is an essential element of consumer protection that customers who are disappointed with a purchase are able to ask for redress, return the goods, seek compensation or purchase alternative products elsewhere, but those who live in housing association properties cannot. I was going to say “social housing”, but of course council tenants can switch initially by stock transfer ballot, which I mentioned. They have an initial choice, but then are locked in; having transferred, they have no further rights.
Obviously, the Minister will publish his housing Bill in this Session; I am not sure when, but he might be able to indicate the timing, even generally. Just as an aside, but an important aside for many of us, I should say that there are real concerns, which have been expressed publicly, about aspects of the Bill, such as the sale of housing association properties under the Government proposals and the economics of whether there will be like-for-like replacement. That issue has been raised by a number of people.
The second anomaly, for me and others in Tower Hamlets, is that of requiring higher-value council properties to be sold. Both those elements will have a huge negative impact on Tower Hamlets; as an inner London borough, all our property is very expensive. However, the three, four and five-bedroom properties, which are absolutely essential for the kind of community we have, are particularly expensive properties. If they go from the social housing stock, that will create major difficulties for local people.
In conclusion, and to go back to my main question about tenants getting control of their estates, may I ask the Minister whether he would be prepared to consider an amendment to his Bill to allow housing association tenants, with all the appropriate safeguards that would be required, to vote to transfer the management of their properties from one housing association to another, or to return to arm’s-length management organisation or council housing control?
This is a big issue for many thousands of my constituents. As I say, I have raised it before and it has got quite a bit of interest, because it would be a brand new right for housing association tenants. Clearly, the Government have housing associations in their sight for reforms, and I am eager to hear whether the Minister is interested in this one. I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise these matters and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Thank you, Mr Owen, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for my first appearance in Westminster Hall in this Parliament. I appreciate your comments.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) work very hard to raise issues for leaseholders and tenants generally; the hon. Gentleman’s particular interest is issues that affect the residents of Tower Hamlets. It is to the credit of them both that they continue to represent their constituents’ and the wider interests of people across the leaseholder sector. I am keen for us to find some common ground and a way forward, and I appreciated the chance to meet them both a couple of weeks ago; the hon. Gentleman referred to that meeting.
I know that the hon. Gentleman in particular has looked to explore the possibility of creating a new power that, as he outlined, would allow tenants of an underperforming housing association effectively to sack their association. I will express my specific views on that matter in a few moments, but I will say now that we would like to find a solution to the concerns that have been raised within the current framework of powers. That is achievable.
It is, of course, important that tenants are protected and sufficient safeguards are in place. The Localism Act 2011 gave tenants and their representatives the power to hold landlords to account. It enabled recognised tenant panels to play an important role in resolving complaints at a local level, and that was an important development. As the hon. Gentleman outlined, some of the changes have recently led to a big step forward, and we feel that that is right.
Landlord and tenant issues are often local issues. Clearly, the range and seriousness of those issues can vary, and it is right—absolutely right—that tenants are offered a level of protection at the national level as well. However, I am firmly of the view that, where possible, the issues themselves should be sorted out locally using the framework that we have put in place.
If it is clear that complaints cannot be resolved locally, obviously they can be referred by tenants to the housing ombudsman. When the ombudsman finds in favour of a complainant, they can order the landlord to pay compensation or take other steps to provide redress. Furthermore, it is open to the ombudsman or tenants to raise concerns directly with the regulator.
We would not want tenants to jump directly to the ombudsman; as I said, our view is that the vast majority of these issues can and should be resolved locally. The Homes and Communities Agency has a regulatory function, but it does not have the responsibility or power to mediate in or resolve individual cases. However, it will investigate where there is evidence of a breach of regulatory standards, and—in relation to landlord and tenant issues—serious harm. In extreme cases, it has far-reaching powers to intervene where there is evidence of serious mismanagement.
It may be helpful to give the House examples and outline the kinds of approaches that the regulator takes when issues are raised that it judges to be serious. I provide them to demonstrate how seriously the regulator takes its role. In February this year, it was found that a provider broke consumer standards owing to the poor quality of emergency repairs for many tenants over a very long period. A regulatory notice was published, representing the first time that such a finding had been made for widespread service failure. In April, the case took a further step forward when it was found that the underlying cause of the emergency repairs issues was a failure of corporate governance. As a result, the provider in question is now focusing on addressing the issues, and rightly so.
If non-compliance is not addressed, the regulator has statutory duties to intervene formally, which could lead to interventions in the management structure of a particular provider. It is right that the powers available to the regulator should be used only as a last resort. I provide that information to reassure the hon. Gentleman, and others who may read the debate in Hansard, that where issues are serious the regulator can and will take appropriate action.
Having outlined the current approach and the potential impact on housing associations, I want to spend a moment outlining some of the wider options available to housing association tenants themselves. Although it would not be legally possible for tenants to be given the right to sack their housing association, they have other routes to explore that would hand them a much greater degree of control.
Housing association leaseholders in blocks of flats have the right to manage. That enables a group of leaseholders to take over the management functions of their properties. The hon. Gentleman may draw a parallel with his proposals for tenants to have the power to sack their association. One area on which we might slightly disagree is my view that the power of right to manage is enough. The substantial, important difference between the approaches is that under right to manage the properties would still be owned by the housing association, which is different from the ability to manage them and ensure that repairs are done properly. I do not think it possible to draw a complete comparison in the way he outlined today and in previous debates. Leaseholders can also buy the freehold of their blocks of flats—known as enfranchisement—subject to certain criteria. Doing so would give them even greater financial and legal interest.
We have set out a clear policy ambition, which the hon. Gentleman outlined, to give housing association tenants the right to buy their homes to match the social housing opportunities in council housing at the moment and to ensure that everyone in social housing has the same right to buy. Tempting as his invitation to outline the details of the Bill this morning is, he will appreciate that I must ask him to bear with me until we publish the Bill and outline the details behind it in due course. I am hopeful that after the Bill receives Royal Assent, housing association tenants will be able to take the opportunity to move into home ownership.
I will touch on a couple of other points that the hon. Gentleman raised. He asked how the policy would be implemented, as did other hon. Members in an Opposition day debate in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago. I will be very clear: as we have said all along, there must be one-for-one replacement. I am pleased that the reinvigorated scheme has one-for-one replacement; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me for highlighting that we have seen the numbers move from one in 170 under the previous Labour Government to one for one under the reinvigorated scheme. Councils have three years to provide the replacement. If they have not done so by the end of those three years—although the indications at the moment make me confident that they will—the money, with interest, comes back to the HCA, which will provide the homes. It will be one for one.
I must stress our view that a new power to allow tenants of an underperforming housing association to sack their housing association is, with the framework already in place plus what we are looking at with the housing Bill, unnecessary and unworkable. A solution to the concerns raised must be achieved within the current framework. The hon. Gentleman has tempted me to accept an early amendment to a Bill that we have not yet published; I am sure we will discuss his idea later in the year when the Bill is introduced. My officials and I will happily liaise with him on that, but as tempting as his pitch was—and it is probably the first I have had so far—I suspect that we are on a slightly different page.
I hope that the outline I have given has been useful. I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to the attention of the House so early in the Parliament; he has made sure that the concerns and thoughts of leaseholders have been aired. I am keen to ensure that tenants know how to resolve their local concerns and that they fully understand and appreciate the powers and opportunities they have. I have to make it clear—the hon. Gentleman will already know this—that I cannot intervene in such matters personally, but I recommend that hon. Members and residents involved in such situations write directly to the regulator if they feel that any regulatory standards are, unfortunately, not being met.
I thank the Minister for the information he has given, which I am sure we will look at very closely. I know that my local authority, Tower Hamlets Council, is closely engaged in this process. I am not sure whether local councils have a role to play, but because the affected tenants are residents in the borough the council has a moral, if not legal, obligation to engage, and I know it is looking to speak directly to certain housing associations.
I note what the Minister had to say about the Bill. We will look at tabling an amendment in due course and would be grateful if he would consider it at the appropriate time. As he said, we are having ongoing discussions, which will continue, and I look forward to future meetings in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2013-14, Rural Communities, HC 602, and the Government response, HC 764; Seventh Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2014-15, Rural broadband and digital-only services, HC 834, and the Government response, HC 1149.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered superfast broadband roll-out.
Members who had the pleasure of being at Prime Minister’s questions earlier today will no doubt think that we have already considered superfast broadband roll-out, because it was by far the most popular subject for Members to ask the Prime Minister questions about.
What we are discussing today is by far the most important infrastructure programme that we will consider in our lifetime. There has been much discussion of new train lines. In fact, during the past five years the progress we have made on superfast broadband roll-out has been immense, and I will begin by covering some of the progress that we have made in the last few years.
I intentionally asked for this House to consider superfast broadband roll-out rather than simply the rural broadband programme, because we must acknowledge that there are serious problems in cities as well as in rural areas. Geographically, the rural broadband programme remains an enormous task, because it covers about 40% of the country, but I ask that we also consider today the huge numbers of people in cities who often have very slow connections.
Back in 2010, shortly after the formation of the coalition Government, the then Culture Secretary announced that we would have the best broadband in Europe by 2015. As a journalist covering that, I remember being convinced that, if we were to have that, we would have it only by fiddling the figures. In fact, it turns out that, measured against comparable nations such as Germany and France, Britain has indeed made incredible progress. More to the point, we have by far the most competitive marketplace in broadband, so our constituents pay a good price for the service that they get receive.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Public Accounts Committee has looked at this issue in detail, and I warn the Minister that we will no doubt look at it again. The hon. Gentleman talked about there being good competition, but does he agree that there are technology companies based in my constituency and around the country that would like to break into this market but find that there are barriers, partly because of how the rural broadband programme was rolled out? Does he also agree that the Minister needs to look seriously at the issue again?
I am delighted to hear that the PAC is interested in considering the issue again; I know that the Minister will agree with me on that. Of course, it is important that we are genuinely technology-neutral when it comes to establishing the best way of getting from 90% coverage to 95% and 100%.
That brings me to my second point, which is about where we are now and where we will be within the next five years or so, so that we can get from 95% coverage to 99%, and then perhaps up to 100%. I should begin by saying that in my own county of Lincolnshire, BT’s roll-out is not only ahead of schedule but £7 million under budget. I may not be the only person who expresses a view on BT in this debate, but I should say that there are some examples of areas where it has delivered the programme that it was asked to deliver. However, I suggest that where we have a challenge is when it comes to delivering the next stage of that roll-out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, but I am concerned that what we are talking about is “up to 95%” and not “past 95%”. In other words, we are asking for something that will possibly be delivered, but it will probably not be delivered in quite a lot of constituencies.
I agree, and it is interesting to note that the target that we will have in Lincolnshire is 86%, which is obviously some way below 95%. In Herefordshire, I believe that the target that people will end up with is about 40% superfast coverage, so various rural counties have big issues.
My hon. Friend and I have the pleasure of representing the east of Lincolnshire, which stretches from the sweeping coastline across to the rich agricultural fens and the rolling hills of the wolds. The only cloud in the sky is the fact that BT tells me—with some pride, it seems—that overall coverage in Louth and Horncastle is 22%. Can we please remember that when we talk about 95% coverage, that figure is very much an aspiration in Louth and Horncastle?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend reminds me of the variation in BT’s performance even within Lincolnshire, and it is crucial that we discuss that variation today.
The next point to consider is that when we are talking about moving from 95% coverage to 99%, BT is by no means the only game in town. In other parts of the country, contracts have already been signed with companies such as Gigaclear, and I hope that Members who ask themselves how their own counties can get the best out of BT will look at those other contractors, which have been able to remind BT that there are other options available, because their existence sometimes seems to produce a marked improvement in BT’s performance.
The other issue affecting our move from 95% to 99% coverage remains the provision of 4G and subsequently 5G; I think that is the first time that they have been mentioned in this debate. Many Members have applied to speak in the debate, and the two questions that I would like them to ask themselves are, “How do we get the best out of the contracts that we have already?” and “How do we apply maximum pressure to best fund the roll-out, which will be expensive but more than worth while, to go from 95% to 99%?” I contend that a big part of that movement from 95% coverage to 99% should be not only fibre broadband but 4G and 5G, and there is also a place for satellite broadband.
I have a final point to make, which is that BT’s relationship with BT Openreach is currently being considered. I know that there is a range of views in the House about BT and Openreach. I urge only that the competition authorities seriously consider whether the best interests of the consumer are being served by BT’s current relationship with Openreach. I look forward to other people expressing different views during the debate.
I will close by saying that when we talk endlessly about the vital importance of infrastructure, it is often roads and railways that we emphasise, but when I talk to constituents it is almost always broadband that comes up as the most important infrastructure project for them, and they would like to see faster speeds, including in their own houses.
At the risk of turning this into a Lincolnshire-only debate—important and desirable as that would be—I must say that my hon. Friend is making a great case for the fact that, as we all know and as is shown by the number of attendees in this debate, broadband is now absolutely essential. At a parish council meeting last night, a parish councillor who is a constituent of mine told one of my district councillors that her children want to move from Wilsford to Sleaford, because there is better broadband in Sleaford. They have to link to the school computer for their homework, and they cannot get that link.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is so important now because we simply cannot conduct our lives, and everything that we have to do to interact with Government and everybody else, without access to good broadband? That is why it is so important, not only in urban constituencies but in rural constituencies; indeed, it is particularly important for rural Britain.
My hon. and learned Friend pre-empts my final point. Superfast broadband is important not simply because it allows our constituents to watch all the stuff that is associated with broadband—all the entertainment from the BBC and all the gaming that we hear so much about—but because it allows the business of government to become so much more efficient, whether telehealth or rural farm payments.
I should like to fire a non-Lincolnshire shot. My hon. Friend has talked about the infrastructure. As one gets to London and Surrey, where there have been enormous efforts, it is other infrastructure—railways, roads and so on—that causes the difficulty. Has he noted that the BT contracts seem to be selective or blind-eyed, so that when it becomes difficult the company works around such infrastructure and we are left with islands and pockets, which should have been prevented in the contracts?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We must, when we consider how state aid works, go to the areas that need the help, rather than subsidise a commercial roll-out that would take place none the less. The construction of such contracts is crucial, as is councils having the expertise to ensure that they get the best out of those contracts. I know that a number of colleagues want to mention that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I should like to press him on urban “not spots”. Often, the most isolated areas have good broadband coverage where the commercial contracts have worked, but little bits are left, often in residential areas, and we cannot even get the commercial firms to be transparent about where those areas are, let alone do what is necessary. Does he agree that a lot more transparency and co-ordination is needed between operators, and often with local authorities?
I agree. I hope that the House will look forward a couple of months, when more detailed maps of phase 2 roll-outs will allow us to look into phase 3. That will give constituents some clarity, which we so urgently need, so that we can say to people, “We know that superfast broadband is finally coming to your area, but it won’t be here for another two or three years,” or however long. That will at least allow some communities to make up their own minds about whether they would like to put their own money into helping to jump the queue, or whether they are content with the wait.
The lack of clarity has been damaging. Our postbags are full because people often tell us that an update on a website saying, for example, “Your cabinet will be upgraded within the next three months,” has remained the same for the past six months or longer. That is deeply unhelpful to us, to councils that are trying to oversee the process and to BT itself. We should acknowledge that sometimes the companies have been their own worst enemies.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is always interesting when a journalist comes into the House and speaks with authority on a subject, which does not always happen.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned state aid, and there is an important point to be made in that regard. A big concern expressed by many of BT’s competitors is that, given that every contract was won by one player, there is no clear, transparent evidence that state aid was not used to advance BT’s original intentions rather than meet the real needs of the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for transparency, which is a key point. Many hon. Members have questioned, outside this debate, whether the process that we undertook with Broadband Delivery UK would necessarily be the way we went if we ran it again, or indeed if it is the way we should go when we think about further phases. That is also an important part of the debate, but the most important factor is that we should not allow our foot to be taken off the gas. We should not allow anyone to think for a moment that we are not all committed, on a cross-party basis, to getting Britain from 95% coverage to 99% and beyond, in the best possible way for both the taxpayer and our constituents.
Finally, before I allow many other hon. Members to speak, I add that what we have achieved over the past five years is remarkable. The risk is that in looking at the final 5% we will not only fail to close the gap between 95% and 99% but leave tiny “not spots” that will effectively be ruled out of serious coverage forever because they are not part of a co-ordinated, serious national programme. I hope that a serious case is made in this debate for acknowledging all that BT has done in trying to make its best practice standard practice across the country, and for its continued ongoing investment in the programme. I also hope that a serious case is made for no community being left behind.
Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, I have some guidance. There are 26 Members who have put in to speak today and just over 70 minutes to allocate to them. I know that Members will be mindful of each other, given that three Front-Bench spokesmen will speak later, in the final 30 minutes.
In addition, interventions should be short. Be mindful of the fact that, if you intervene more than once, you may slip down the list. I am not sure, but you may. I thank Mr Phillips, who has withdrawn his name having made an intervention, allowing other Members a little more time—notwithstanding his Lincolnshire roots.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman). He talked about rural issues not being the main issue, and I accept that. However, there is a double whammy for people on the periphery of a rural area. It is a great place to live, but businesses complain that it is not a great place to do business. I speak on behalf of businesses, including tourism, and on behalf of many others.
We are not a semi-detached area. I believe Ynys Môn is the heart of the British Isles. It is very close to Ireland and to England, and south of Scotland, so it is the centre of the British Isles. Business is in many ways London-centric, and Cardiff-centric in Wales, so we do feel left out.
I welcome the Government’s making progress, which has been mentioned, but I am afraid it is not sufficient in areas on the periphery of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned peripheral areas. The Faroe Islands, between Scotland and Iceland, are a peripheral area in Europe. Each and every house in the Faroe Islands has wired broadband: that is a choice their Government made and it has happened. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if we made such choices, we too could achieve that. In the meantime, 4G surely has a huge part to play in the inevitable “not spots” continuing to exist in the UK, although not in the Faroe Islands.
The hon. Gentleman makes the case well. The Faroe Islands is a great example. I have learnt something today. Where there is the political will, there is a way. In the 21st century, this should be a necessity for rural areas, not a luxury.
The Minister highlighted some good working practices in previous debates. The Welsh Assembly has a good working relationship with the UK Government and the European Union in delivering superfast broadband in Wales. That has been working well, to an extent.
Given how the relationship between the Welsh Government and BT has worked in Wales, is the hon. Gentleman proud that Wales has nine of the 20 worst performing constituencies in the country? Those constituencies have no broadband connectivity whatever, despite the fact that the Welsh Government levered in more than 50% of additional funding from Europe.
If I have the opportunity, I will come to some of the figures comparing the nations and areas within Wales, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are some poor performing areas in Wales, as there are in the rest of the United Kingdom. He is a close neighbour of mine and there are issues with the roll-out in his constituency, but I want to concentrate on the second-class service in peripheral areas, not only in broadband, but in mobile connectivity.
Broadband connectivity is essential for competition, enterprise and accessing public services. Limited and slow access to broadband in peripheral areas is against the Government’s policy of increasing online public service resources. They say we need that, but farmers in my area are always complaining that they have difficulty submitting their tax returns online, for example. The Government are encouraging them to do their tax online, but there are connectivity problems and I am sure that people are getting fined as a consequence of being late.
We have a great example. We heard about the Faroe Islands, but in the 20th century throughout the United Kingdom, in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, the Post Office was able to deliver the same quality of phone line to every house, regardless of its location. The Minister will be pleased to hear that I am not advocating full renationalisation of all telecoms systems, but I am boldly making the point—[Interruption.] I know that the Minister is laughing at the first part of that, but he should not laugh at this: the market is letting areas of the United Kingdom down. That is why the debate is so important. We want to see the one nation that we all hear about—we are all agreed on it and we all use that terminology—but the United Kingdom is becoming two nations when it comes to telecommunications. The market is not working for parts of Britain.
The Minister has been in his post for some time, and I welcome him back to it, so he has heard the arguments, but I want to hear something different in his reply—I want to hear some answers. I do not want to hear him blame the devolved Administrations or local authority partnerships. I want to hear what the Government will do to close down black spots, which are not “not spots”; they are black spots, because they have little or no fast mobile or broadband coverage. Let us remember that peripheral areas pay more for their petrol, diesel, utilities, gas and electricity. They pay more for goods in many ways, and the wages are often lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I was on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and, when talking about smart meters, I questioned the companies that have been delivering them on behalf of the Government. We have been discussing 95% coverage and, similarly, I can guess where the 5% of “not spots” will be from day one; they will be in peripheral areas. Smart meters are not in the Minister’s brief, but generally we should be starting pilot schemes in some of the rural and peripheral areas, then rolling out from there, rather than doing what the companies want and basing schemes on the number of people living in an area.
These are not left-wing or liberal views; they are the views of many ordinary constituents of mine, as well as of the Countryside Alliance, which has lobbied me, the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales. The Minister should take note of not only what we are saying here on behalf of our constituents, but what such groups are saying collectively. They are making the case to improve commerce in their area.
The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), talked tough with the mobile and broadband companies but failed to deliver. To be frank, he let them off the hook in the previous Parliament, and I do not see much improvement in speed and access. Goalposts are being moved by the Government. The former Economic Secretary was good at giving us updates in the House, but all he did was delay and push 2015 back to 2016 and then 2017. The mobile phone companies in particular are now repeating that mantra.
I realise that we are short of time, but slow speeds need to be improved quickly. To help the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) with some of the figures, parts of Wales are behind, with an average of 60% superfast broadband, including the large conurbations. Northern Ireland does exceptionally well, with 94% superfast broadband, so it can be delivered to peripheral areas where there is political will, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has proved that. England has 80% superfast broadband and Scotland has some 64%. We need to ensure superfast broadband throughout the UK quickly. I want to see BT and the Welsh Government working with the UK Government and the European Union to ensure that we have the funds to make that happen.
Many of the cabinets and exchanges in my constituency have the facility and the infrastructure, but we are talking about the last mile—although when it comes to rural areas, it is not one mile but many, and that is the problem. Many commercial companies do not see the value in rolling out from the cabinets and exchanges to households and businesses in my constituency. I speak for many people in peripheral and rural areas when I say that we need superfast broadband as a matter of urgency. We want the 21st-century access to goods that everyone else in the large towns and cities of the United Kingdom has.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing the debate.
Lincolnshire is a hilly part of the world, but it is probably not quite as hilly as Devon. In the Blackdown hills, which are part of my constituency, we have huge problems in getting broadband. We talk about 95% broadband being delivered to the country, but we are bordering on 50% in my constituency and most of the Blackdown hills are not getting any broadband at all, with many villages being left out.
There is also a lack of transparency. The confidentiality clause in the last contract let by Devon and Somerset has led to huge problems. In the new contract that Devon and Somerset are being asked to sign, BT is asking for an extra £35 million and three more years to deliver the broadband, most of which should have been delivered by 2016. What sort of deal is that, I ask the Minister? It is no sort of deal whatever. We are being held to ransom for the simple reason that the waiving of the state aid rules lasts only to the end of this month, in a few days’ time. BT is holding a gun to the head of Devon and Somerset and saying, “If you don’t sign, you’ll be outside the state aid rules. What will happen then?” That is wrong.
BT is a very good company, but it is dominant in the marketplace. It is delivering good broadband in many parts of the country, but in others it is simply not delivering. What are we doing as a Government—what is the Minister doing—to stop that happening? I have every confidence in the Minister, who I have had many meetings with, but I want action—not warm words—to ensure that BT delivers.
All our constituents are being put at a disadvantage, and many farms and businesses will probably not get broadband until 2020 or beyond. In the 2020 election campaign, do hon. Members from any party in the House want to go around the villages that do not have any broadband and face the consequences? That is the reality, because all the time BT is rolling the programme further back—not further forward—and that is the real issue. I want a clear indication from the Minister that, if we are to have a dominant BT in the marketplace, which I have no problem with, I expect the Government and Ministers to ensure that a deal that can be signed is brought to Devon and Somerset.
The other issue for the Government is that Devon and Somerset have had some £100 million of taxpayers’ money from council and Government taxes for this; if BT does not deliver, the Government cannot deliver the 95% target by 2020, because of the size of the scheme—it is as simple as that. If Devon and Somerset are prepared to sign another contract with BT, I ask again that BT honour its commitments, deliver the broadband it has already said it will and put in the contributions it said it would make—we have yet to see the colour of BT’s money, which does not bode well.
My final point is that Dartmoor and Exmoor have a new arrangement with a company that is delivering the scheme by wi-fi; that seems to be getting under way very quickly. BT has said it has looked at new technologies, but is still rolling out fibre-optic cables and cabinets. If a place is a long way from the cabinet, broadband costs a fortune and may not even be put in. Why is BT not using new technologies? I would like the Minister to answer that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate.
I will be brief, as the main themes have been well aired already. I want to raise specifically with the Minister the issue of two areas in my constituency that are being appallingly served by BT, Askham and Kirkby-in-Furness. I have been deluged by complaints from constituents who have just about managed to get internet access to email me in advance of the debate, because they knew I intended to speak today.
The situation in Askham concerns a particular cabinet. It is the sort of case that will be familiar to many hon. Members present—indeed, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness gave a good account of how BT seems to shift the goalposts. People in Askham were promised a cabinet. They were then given the excuse that the road around the cabinet site was eroded; if the Minister wants to come and look at the cabinet—I am sure that will be high up on his to-do list at the start of the new Parliament—he will see that that excuse is a nonsense. They were then given a second excuse, namely that there was no land on which the new cabinet could be sited that was not private. But anyone looking at the site would see that those excuses do not hold water. Hundreds of people in Askham are tearing their hair out.
The situation is similar in Kirkby. The service is going significantly backwards and BT has not given a date by which it will be fixed. I do not like having to name and shame a company for poor service, but I am afraid that is what we have to do in Parliament, given BT’s intransigence on this.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion and one that the Minister may want to consider, but as far as I am concerned—and as far as my constituents are concerned—a promise was made by Government to deliver superfast broadband and another was made by BT to facilitate that, and we should hold both to account, whether or not a separate fund for cabinets is created.
I do not like having to raise this issue in Parliament, but we are going to keep banging on about this to BT until it fixes the issue. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance that the Government will intervene, if necessary, to sort the problem out.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. I suspect he will not speak to such a full Chamber for much of his first term in Parliament. The attendance today reflects the importance attached to this issue by all hon. Members.
It may not have escaped my hon. Friend’s notice that I do not have the most rural of constituencies, but there are also significant issues with superfast broadband in urban areas. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is well aware of that, as it is something we addressed in the last Parliament.
I believe that I know what the right hon. Gentleman is going to say. In advance of his speech, may I say that, despite the fact that he sits on the Government side of the Chamber, I am likely to agree with everything he says on behalf of my constituents in Islington South and, in particular, Tech City?
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman continues, I will just remind the hon. Lady that she has only just arrived in the Chamber, so did not hear my earlier comments about the number of interventions and their brevity. I hope next time she will arrive a little earlier in order to hear the Chair’s remarks.
London councils will have a chance to have their say as well. I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. She tempts me to start a different speech—there are various things I should love to say today if she is going to be agreeing with every word.
One of the most significant delays in connecting a business or resident to broadband infrastructure, even in the heart of London, is the time taken to negotiate the legal permissions that are needed to allow that infrastructure to cross the public highway or to take it into a building. That is particularly the case in built-up areas. It can take some 18 months for the parties to conclude those negotiations; the usual period is about eight months. During that time, of course, a broadband provider will not be able to supply the building.
To speed up the process, the City of London corporation is leading a group of central London boroughs—including Islington and Hackney—known as Central London Forward in a project to produce a standardised agreement for permission to install broadband infrastructure. I am pleased to say that Westminster City Council, my other local authority, is also a main leader on the project. The City and Westminster councils have invited all the key players to participate, from broadband providers through the great estates in the west end to major developers across London.
The product of all that activity will be a standardised agreement known as a wayleave, which all parties will be able to use as a template for their negotiations. I have no doubt that such a standardised agreement will speed up connections to broadband infrastructure, because parties will not have to start their negotiations from scratch. The Minister has played a leading role in the process, and I thank him for helping to contact the key parties and for championing activities to improve broadband connectivity.
Although the Minister can happily say that Greater London compares favourably with other world cities, with 88% coverage, that figure is not reflected in what is the economic heart of the capital, and indeed the country. It is not just my constituents who are missing out but the entire UK economy, and he will appreciate just how important it is that digital infrastructure in central London does not fall behind that of rival global cities.
Locally, BT’s approach seems to be based on a belief that there is insufficient demand to invest further. I share some of the concerns that have already been raised about that. As well as the more distant rural parts of this United Kingdom, large swathes of urban areas—with important small and medium-sized enterprises—are poorly served, and are restricted to woefully outdated copper broadband. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, the European Commission is preventing the Government from subsidising the roll-out of superfast broadband in inner cities and beyond. Perversely, that means that remote villages sometimes have better broadband connections than those available in my constituency, which contains the political, business, cultural and technological heart of the UK.
There has been a significant market failure. I may not express this quite as robustly as it was put earlier, but I will be interested to learn what the Minister is doing to address the problem. I accept that it requires co-operation with internet service providers, Ofcom and the European Commission, but it is time we stepped up to the plate. Although I hope we will not have such a well-attended debate in future, simply because I hope many of the problems will have been solved, I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. Members from both sides of the House today. It is beholden on the Minister to recognise that this is a very real problem, not just for outlying rural areas but for the heart of our cities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I am here today—I am sure it is the same for many other hon. Members—because access to decent broadband is extremely important to individuals and to businesses in my constituency. More and more business transactions are now taking place online. In rural areas such as my constituency in Cumbria, banks are closing branches, making broadband more important as a way for people to be able access banking. Children and students are also encouraged to use online learning resources, which can be difficult. There is talk about getting access to doctors through Skype in Cumbria, but of course we cannot do that without decent broadband. I could go on.
Connecting Cumbria is managing the roll-out of superfast broadband in Cumbria. It has delivered phase 1 successfully, but we are moving on to phase 2 and, I hope, phase 3. The difficult geography of Cumbria makes that extremely challenging. I hope that the Government will continue to treat roll-out in rural areas as a priority for funding. The mere fact that outlying areas are considered hard to reach should not mean that they are left behind.
I declare a personal interest, as I live in a rural part of Cumbria with a diabolical broadband speed. I often struggle to open emails, and give up. The problem is not just speed but consistency. It is hugely frustrating when a broadband connection keeps dropping in and out. I avoid doing my banking online at home, because I worry about the security issues if the connection drops out when I am logged in at my bank. Most days I have to jog up and down the stairs a few times, because the router is upstairs and I have to switch it on and off to try to get connected. It drives me mad.
I fully understand the frustrations of constituents with similar problems who have got in touch with me about broadband—very many of them, despite the fact that I have not been an MP very long. A particular bugbear is the fact that many services and companies are switching to online access only. Will the Minister consider whether rural communities’ access to reliable broadband can be assessed before the decision is made to switch a service to online access only?
I have some recent relevant personal experience with the Rural Payments Agency. Last year we completed our forms on paper, but this year my husband and I were told we had to do it online. We had the most ridiculous Saturday afternoon trying to do that. Not only did that mean battling with the poor internet speed but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) mentioned, our mobile signal is not good, and we were told to input a text code to the system. I was running around the garden with the phone trying to get the code, so I could shout it to my husband before the five minutes were up and he could input it. That is absurd. It is a ridiculous way to carry on.
I welcome the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is incredibly important to my constituency. Rural areas, as well as the more urban ones that have been described today, must not be disadvantaged. The Government must not assume that there is decent access when they make services online only. As the roll-out continues, will they please take connectivity into account?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. It is pretty clear from the large attendance that the issue features strongly in our mailbags and inboxes—when people can email us at all.
It would be incredibly easy to knock BT as effectively a monopoly supplier, but that would be too easy a goal. I represent a rural seat, and I am very grateful for the way senior BT executives have made themselves available to come here for meetings to discuss the future and the service. Only 43% of North Dorset is covered by superfast broadband. That might seem to be the Elysian fields to some hon. Members, but in my judgment 43% is not particularly good. I would like the Minister to consider three key points. One is the huge amount of irritation caused by descoping, which is totally bogus in my opinion. I do not think that the contractor—in this case BT—should be allowed to descope areas that it has previously included in its submissions. I am thinking of Durweston and Stourpaine, which are the Blandford 8 cabinet box number in my constituency, and Motcombe and Bourton, which are served by Shaftesbury 15 and 16. Those have suddenly been dropped out, because they appeared either too difficult or too expensive. The rules should not have allowed the possibility for such areas, and indeed many others, to be dropped out of the scope of the contract.
Third parties are also, as I understand it, holding up delivery. I understand that some problems have arisen with regard to wayleaves from the Forestry Commission and in particular, in my constituency, the Crown Estate. If the Minister used his good offices to bring pressure on to those and other executive agencies of the Crown that would be enormously helpful.
We also know, I think, that BT was incredibly heavy-handed in the bidding process. I know from my previous experience as a councillor in Oxfordshire that there was quite a lot of arm twisting by BT at the county council to go totally with BT—otherwise it would not play ball—even though others were trying to come in and fill the gaps. I am sad to say that was also the experience in North Dorset where a community-led initiative, Trailway, wanted to fill the gap, but BT told Dorset County Council clearly that if it supported the group or gave it any cause for hope, BT would walk away from delivery for the whole county. In what, to use the old term, we might call the big society, such community and rural groups, which are well known for their self-sufficiency, resource and ingenuity, are exactly the people we should champion.
That is done and we are where we are, but I ask the Minister to consider putting on pressure in any further discussions and negotiations with BT, so that where it has decided not to fill in the gap, black hole or whatever we care to call it, it must be able to provide all the relevant data and information to community groups and other providers, such as Wessex Internet in my constituency, who want to fill the gap.
Does my hon. Friend and neighbour agree that the issue is one of the most important for Dorset infrastructure, along with road and rail? It relates to the whole of Dorset—east Dorset, Purbeck and Poole, and we are making the argument for businesses, tourists and residents alike.
Prescience about what we might say in our speeches is not restricted to the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), because my hon. Friend takes me neatly on to my next point. It is worth while reminding a large company such as BT— I have little or no doubt that it will be listening to the debate with keen interest—that such macrobusinesses have the future of microbusinesses in their hands.
However, it is not just a question of business. Other hon. Members have talked about the importance of broadband connection to schools and colleges. There is a primary school in my constituency, Spetisbury, that has no access to broadband at all, and none in sight. Other hon. Members have spoken about the problems for agriculture. Farmers are increasingly asked to make submissions online, but there are swathes of the Blackmore vale where people might as well try to write on vellum with a quill, for the speed they can manage on the internet. In North Dorset we often call it the superfast bridle path.
Businesses such as Goldhill Organics, an online business in my constituency, and an award-winning maze designer in Durweston, are all significantly held back from growth and the creation of jobs—from bringing people back to paying tax and getting them off the dole queue. That is all fundamentally constrained by an inability to get access in a rapid and reliable way to what I think we would all now agree is effectively a basic utility.
Tourism and events in a rural area are absolutely key. I am thinking of pubs with letting rooms, such as the Talbot in my own village of Iwerne Minster. Again, they are held back from growing their business and seeing a return on their investment. BT has done much and is to be congratulated. We are leading the European league table, but please let us not sacrifice the 5%; please let us not forget the rural areas. In closing, I press again the three key points that I made to the Minister in opening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on initiating this very important debate. You will be relieved to hear, Mr Pritchard, that my carefully crafted, 10-minute speech will be jettisoned and my comments compacted into two or three minutes, I hope.
First, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the great progress that has been made. An additional 2.5 million homes and businesses were linked up to superfast broadband as of May. However, there has been much talk of the last 5% and peripheral areas, and I want to talk about the peripheral area that I represent. My comments will be very much in the spirit of those from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who talked about his experiences there.
Ceredigion ranks 646th out of the 650 constituencies for internet speed. Superfast broadband is available to 12% of my constituency, ranking it 639th out of the 650. When we reflect on phase 3 of the roll-out, I would like to know from the Minister what timetable we are now operating, because, like other hon. Members, I have many impatient businesses and householders in my constituency. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I have to say after the great speech earlier is now in the incredibly safe hands of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—I say that as a former coalition Member, but I genuinely mean it—said in February that it wanted a timescale for the final roll-out of phase 3, and we anticipate a response from the Minister on that. I would also be interested to find out the outcome of the research and trials that have been taking place as part of phase 3. This is about the necessity of those new technologies to get to the scattered communities that make up the bulk of my constituency.
The critical issue for me is businesses and the development of a rural economy. Reliable internet access has been identified by 94% of small businesses as essential. Ofcom recently called for lower prices for high-speed business lines, which will be welcome news to many of my constituents —at least, the few who can access high speed—but of course the technology needs to be available in the first place. Many of my local businesses genuinely struggle. Two weeks ago, the Gomer Press, a historic printing firm and a growing business in Llandysul in the south of Ceredigion, approached me with its genuine concerns that the speeds that it is receiving with BT are harming its business, as it struggles to receive the files that are necessary to undertake the printing work required of it.
The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) talked about tourism. That is a growing sector in west Wales. I commend to the Minister the Conrah hotel in my constituency, which is a good, four-star hotel. If he comes to west Wales, he should come to that hotel. Its owner, Mr Hughes, tells me that although his broadband is provided by BT, the service is so shockingly bad that most of his clientele are reluctant to come back because of the inadequate broadband. We are letting down key businesses in rural, peripheral areas—key businesses that have a huge impact.
Let me reflect on some other issues. Our constituents are increasingly required to undertake business online. A constituent wrote to me last week about the new Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency regulations for a digital counterpart driving licence. How can that be possible in an area where people will not be able to access the digital component? Other hon. Members have mentioned the members of the farming community who come to us with genuine concerns that they cannot undertake what is required of them, such as the reporting of cattle movements to the British Cattle Movement Service, online completion of single farm payment forms and the checking of market prices. Those are just some of the problems that farmers face. In addition, small businesses have to undertake electronic verification of VAT returns. One constituent was required to register his tax returns and he was fined because he was unable to do so. We managed to get the money back for him. He was told that he could register a paper submission, but when the note came back, the farmer was also told that next time he should go down to the local library, where there would be a broadband connection, to register his tax returns. I would challenge any Member of the House to go to one of the marts in my constituency and tell a farmer to go and register his tax returns online—they would get a spirited response.
This is a matter of necessity and of urgency. I am following your stipulation about time, Mr Pritchard, but we need some immediate action on the matter.
Before making my remarks, I must declare an interest. My husband is director of policy at the broadband provider Sky.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate so soon after becoming a Member. Broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. For my local small businesses, for my farming community and for local families at home, access to the internet and all that it has to offer is a core requirement of day-to-day life. However, in many places—particularly in rural areas, such as my constituency of Wealden—people have to contend with a limited choice of service providers, slow speeds, regular service blackouts and general unreliability. My Wealden constituents should not have to put up with that in 2015.
I have received a number of complaints from constituents about their broadband services, and they demonstrate how lives can be blighted by broadband difficulties. I will share just two examples. A local mum who runs her own business contacted me about a service blackout that left her without an internet connection for 19 days. Can you imagine, Mr Pritchard, trying to run a business without the internet for 19 days?
However, the problem will not be solved by a roll-out of superfast broadband in the short term, because the problem is with the access network—something that is taken for granted by those pining for an upgrade to the superfast network, but that some of my constituents can only dream of. Any superfast roll-out cannot be at the expense of investment in the access network.
Another constituent, whose house is connected to the Ripe exchange, which is not enabled for fibre service, is in the dark over any possible upgrade. BT’s website shows that his area is in line for one within six months, but that notice has been on the website for 12 months already. My constituent has not been given a provisional timetable by BT, BDUK or the local council detailing when the negotiations will be brought to a conclusion, never mind when any upgrade might finally happen. BT and BDUK must become much more transparent.
I commend to my hon. Friend North Lincolnshire Council, which has done an amazing job of ensuring that at every step of the way residents know what happens. As a result, take-up is way in excess of what was expected. That is in stark contrast to my other local council, East Riding of Yorkshire, where communication with the public has been woeful at times. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This can be done, if local authorities and BT have the desire to do it—and it should be done, so that residents know when they will get their upgrade.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that example.
Beyond the impact on businesses, there is an impact on older people. I am pleased to be the new co-chair of the all-party group for ageing and older people. Addressing ageing and loneliness is a priority of mine. The speed at which technology is changing is frightening for the best of us, but for older people it can be truly isolating. Ensuring that they have access to the internet is not just an economic or technological issue, but a social care issue. We cannot let anyone be left behind or left out.
This and the previous Government have taken encouraging steps with respect to broadband provision. The £1.7 billion being invested is welcome, as is the fact that, according to the Countryside Alliance, 90% of premises will be connected by early 2016. My concern is that the other 10% should not be left behind and that during the roll-out of superfast broadband, the responsibility to deliver basic broadband to those who fall beyond the limits of the BDUK project should not be overlooked.
My hon. Friend and I are constituency neighbours, sharing a border as we do. Given that 15% of our local residents are self-employed and more than half of them work for small firms, does she agree that this is even more of an issue for us in East Sussex and that it is important that the Government get it right?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most—90%—of my local businesses employ fewer than 10 people, and they tend to be run out of people’s own homes, so having rural broadband, whether the speed is slow or fast, is absolutely imperative. I thank my hon. Friend.
The Government predict that, by 2017, 95% of premises will benefit from speeds of more than 24 megabits; some of my constituents are asking for just 2 megabits, and they are not even getting that. The broadband connection voucher scheme, which allows businesses a grant of up to £3,000 for better and faster broadband, is also welcome, but it does not help my constituents one little bit; it is, for the moment, limited to businesses located within a certain distance of the 50 cities benefiting from the scheme. I hope the Government will consider expanding the scheme’s horizons and work to support other businesses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing this fascinating debate on an issue that affects everyone in this Chamber—we must ensure that we have effective broadband. I am particularly drawn to the comments of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) about the difficulties he faces in his rural constituency, which I share in Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) spoke about 4G and 5G filling the gaps where we cannot get fibre broadband, which is one of the big problems in rural areas. We do not even get a 2G signal in large parts of my Eddisbury constituency. That option is simply not available because of the failure of the mobile companies to act in concert.
I agree with the hon. Lady. When we talk about the kinds of solution that we need to deliver in rural areas, we cannot consider broadband in isolation. We also need to consider the opportunities that mobile telephony would provide. She is right that it is not only the failure of broadband; it is also the failure of mobile connectivity. I met members of my business community in Lochaber and Fort William last week, and they add weight to that. There are four significant employers. Marine Harvest, for example, is a fish farming business that has great difficulty in connecting at any level with its fish farms around the constituency, which adds costs to the business. The same is true of Ferguson, a transport company, which has the additional cost of having to buy satellite phones so that it can connect with its drivers. That is the kind of cost of being in more disadvantaged parts of the country that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn was talking about. We need cross-party work. There will be opportunities when 5G is introduced in 2016, and we need to ensure that there is a competitive advantage for rural areas by ensuring that rural communities are at the front of the queue, not at the back.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about other methods and technologies, and many villages have asked me whether BT will consider fibre to the remote node options, which can join small groups of, say, 30 properties to a smaller cabinet. That method is being trialled, but BT will not put it into practice. I ask the Minister whether we can try some other methods.
I was going to come on to that, because there is clearly an issue, particularly in rural areas, with the distances from cabinets, which result in the degradation of broadband speeds. We talk about the delivery of superfast broadband, but the reality is that it is not superfast, so nodes, satellites and other such things must be considered in rural areas if we are determined to get it right.
Time is marching on, so I will omit many of the remarks that I was going to make. John Swinney, a colleague of mine in the Scottish Parliament, wrote to the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy in March 2015 calling for the introduction of a universal service obligation for broadband that would ensure that everyone in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK, could access affordable high-speed broadband. The UK has a telecoms universal service obligation, which entitles every property in the UK to a telephone line, but it contains no meaningful provision for broadband, which it should. A broadband universal service obligation, working alongside significant Scottish Government investment, would help to address the digital divide and ensure that everyone in Scotland could access broadband services, regardless of where they lived.
All, regardless of location, deserve to benefit from the opportunities of connectivity. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group stated that internet-related activity in the UK accounted for 8.3% of GDP in 2010, and it forecasts that that will increase to 12.4% by 2016. Data traffic is exploding worldwide, growing at a compound rate of 23%. To be able to compete, it is clear that our connectivity infrastructure has to be fit for purpose. Many UK cities such as Peterborough, York and Coventry, and Aberdeen and Edinburgh in Scotland, are seeing the development of fibre rings that will deliver speeds of up to 1 gigabit. The leader of Peterborough City Council stated that the development is the most important event in Peterborough since the arrival of the railway. I tend to agree, and I welcome the opportunity of superfast broadband from which businesses and consumers will benefit in those cities, but it raises the challenge of ensuring that we deliver appropriate connectivity in rural areas.
My SNP colleagues from rural constituencies and I are looking forward to working with hon. Members from other parties who face the same challenges as we do. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on rural broadband and digital-only services, which was published in January 2015, graphically pointed to the challenges and opportunities to be met. The last sentence of the summary states:
“It is vital that the last premises in the UK to have access to basic and superfast broadband are treated just as well as the first premises and are not left behind or forgotten.”
There are particular challenges with the incumbent technology of fibre to the cabinet, in which the ultimate connection is by copper wire, and consequently we have the degradation of broadband speeds. As the report states:
“The fact that Fibre to the Cabinet is not a suitable solution in every circumstance or every community means that alternative solutions, such as wider satellite coverage or Fibre to the Remote Node, are necessary. Alternative solutions are required not only to ensure that the current commitments of basic and superfast broadband are met but also to ensure that the infrastructure being deployed is future proof and able to meet demands for increasing broadband speeds.”
It is in that context that the plans for next-generation capabilities, particularly 5G, are critical. We need to debate how effective mobile coverage in rural areas, and technologies such as 5G, could allow us to deliver efficient and effective broadband capabilities. The opportunities that the connected cities will have mean that the Government have to consider how we create competitive opportunities in rural areas. My party and I welcome many of the improvements.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that inviting in other technology providers is an option, albeit one that could prejudice access to Government money by showing that there is no market failure? That would leave a legacy of high costs for individuals in the provision of broadband.
That is a reasonable point. In the context of what we did in highland, rural and urban areas of Scotland, we suffered from the fact that there was no potential provider other than BT. We need to ensure that there are people who can provide such services at the right cost, whether in Scotland or in the rest of the UK.
My party and I welcome many of the improvements that are being delivered today in both urban and rural areas of the UK. However, more has to be done so that everyone can share in the opportunities that superfast broadband can deliver.
Fortunately, Mr Pritchard, you cannot call a Division in this Chamber, so we cannot put that to the test.
It is a great delight to take part in this debate, and it is also a great delight to see the Chamber so full, which is unusual. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) has chosen the right subject, on which I congratulate him. I look forward to hearing a great deal more from him. I hope he will be a little less opaque about BT and Openreach in future. He is no longer a journalist, and he is allowed to say what he thinks, even if Whips are listening in. An awful lot of Members now have significant concerns and will be carefully watching Ofcom’s inquiry into the roll-out and the relationship between BT and Openreach. We want to ensure fair and open competition, but we do not want to dismantle a company for the sake of some kind of prejudice.
The hon. Gentleman referred to this being the most important infrastructure roll-out in his lifetime. I hope he will have a long and fruitful life, and who knows what the future may bring? In my constituency, the roll-out of mobile has been complicated and difficult. I know that because when I wrote a letter demanding that Tony Blair stand down as Prime Minister, fortunately I had no mobile coverage in my house, so no journalists were able to get me for at least four days.
The point has been well made by many hon. Members that peripheral economies come in many different shapes and sizes. All too often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has said, the infrastructure problems with broadband also relate to physical access, roads, buses, transport and everything else. [Interruption.] I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) is saying.
I am not sure what devolution has to do with this particular issue. [Interruption.] If the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy wants to make a contribution, I am sure he might catch your eye later, Mr Pritchard, if I sit down. [Laughter.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made several points and said that the market is not working— many hon. Members have rightly expressed concern about how we have assessed state aid and market failure—and I am not sure that it has really delivered the significant outcomes that we would all like to have been achieved for the significant amount of money that the Government have put in.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) gave what I can only describe as a Julius Caesar speech, as its basic tenor was, “I come to bury Vaizey, not to praise him.” He made his points better than I can, so I will not make them again.
Throughout the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) consistently made points about how his constituents are affected, and he was absolutely right to do so. It is good that he can now get emails on the matter, even if many in his constituency still find it difficult to get superfast broadband.
The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—I note that most constituencies have two names in them; few are as concise as Rhondda, unlike the Member for Rhondda—made the important point that the issue is not only about rural constituencies. Some of the most intractable problems relate to cities. For instance, all the cabling on the south bank of the Thames runs in and out of the side of the river, which makes for very difficult contention ratios along long copper wires. That has still not been resolved in many cases, so he is absolutely right.
The hon. Gentleman is characteristically generous and courteous in giving way. Some hon. Members have rightly ensured that urban broadband has not been neglected in this debate. Nevertheless, does he agree that it is vital to retain a focus and determination to prioritise coverage in villages such as Seagrave and Thrussington in my constituency and in rural “not spots”?
Since the Rhondda is often described as semi-rural or semi-urban, I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman and—sitting next to him—the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, which is having one’s cake and eating it. However, the points are well made. In the end, universality is what we are trying to achieve, which is what we are not achieving as yet.
The hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made a worrying point about BT’s aggressive bidding process. I hope that BT will have heard it. I am sure it will: there is probably someone from BT sitting in the Public Gallery, or watching on TV or via broadband. Who knows—perhaps they have superfast. But the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to talk about filling in the gap.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) has one of the worst sets of problems of all 646 constituencies. His points are well made and I hope the Minister will be able to answer them. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) is a new colleague who, like many others, is already raising matters of significant concern to her constituents. I am sure she will continue to do so, and we hope to hear from the Minister on them. The hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) made important points about the access network. Since we politicians are not necessarily experts in every aspect of technology, we sometimes get focused on broadband speeds to the detriment of other aspects of competition that also affect the subject.
I was slightly nervous about an SNP Member sitting behind me—at my back, as it were: the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). I kept thinking of Andrew Marvell and “always at my back I hear the SNP horribly near”. However, the hon. Gentleman made some important points. If he can act as my PPS, that will be very helpful in these debates.
We all agree on the centrality of superfast broadband. That is absolutely clear. For home entertainment, many people now watch television via broadband, including—ironically enough, since much of this is being funded out of the licence fee—the BBC iPlayer. Also, children might be upstairs watching television programmes, playing audio-visual games on tablets, using Spotify and so on. The NHS relies on broadband not only for the booking of appointments, but for passing notes from doctors to hospitals and for the examination of X-rays, often in other parts of the world. Schools and children being able to do their homework have already been referred to. Of course, increasingly, the Department for Work and Pensions wants to move to a model where everything is done on the internet, which will require superfast broadband and reliable connections.
The creative industries now represent one in 12 jobs in this country. We can add value and guarantee our economic future by supporting our creative industries. Superfast broadband with speeds of at least 24 megabits per second, and I suspect considerably more in future, is going to be important to our economic future. It is in a sense a utility as important and as essential as electricity.
We all agree that some significant progress has been made, but the symbolic fact that so many Members from all political parties are here on behalf of our constituents is an indication to the Minister that not enough progress has been made. Phase one and phase two of the project aim to get to 95% of all premises by 2017. I originally thought that it would be the beginning of 2017. Since the Government had originally said it would be by May 2015, that was a legitimate expectation, but the Government are now talking about the end of 2017 for that target to be met.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury referred to the fact that some people still cannot even get the 2 megabits per second. That is a dramatic problem for people running the most basic of businesses that have to relate to the wider world, because everybody has at least a website and some means of getting in touch with a business online.
Our original target of 2012 has not been met, and the Government bear a measure of responsibility for that. I notice that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness referred to Prime Minister’s questions. I have heard the Prime Minister referring to the mobile infrastructure project many times. Some £150 million is devoted to it. It is meant to get to 60,000 properties, but, so far, it has got to just 1% of those in three years. so I think that the hands-off approach has not been suitable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I say that to all the Chairmen, but in your case I really mean it. You have your own experience of the broadband roll-out programme, because your Labour council refused to take part in the phase 1 programme; having seen how successful phase 1 has been, it has now, I gather, set up to take part in phase 2. That is down explicitly to the actions of the brilliant Conservative MPs in the area, who persuaded the Labour council to come on board the programme and connect 8,000 premises that otherwise would not have been connected.
I do not know whether to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate, but I should thank him for bringing so many hon. Friends and colleagues here to support me this afternoon on a complex and difficult programme. I certainly thank him for the email he circulated earlier today:
“You may be interested to know that in my own county of Lincolnshire, BT’s rollout is ahead of schedule and well under budget.”
I think that that is true in many areas.
I shall give a brief history of time on behalf of my hon. Friends. Everyone knows that when we came into government, we found that the previous Labour Government did not have a plan to help get broadband out. They talked about a 2 megabit commitment for the end of 2012, but they had not put anything in place for that. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), when he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, rightly decided that we had to push further and go for superfast broadband from the get-go. He knew full well that, if we had rolled out 2 megabits, I might have been able to stand up in this Chamber and say that we had achieved that, but all hon. Members would be screaming for superfast broadband. He made the right decision.
We set it out that phase 1 would cover 90% of UK premises and on many occasions I had to appear in front of the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, following various National Audit Office reports, and hear that we would not make that target. Indeed, I recall that some journalists in the sector thought that the target was too stretching and could not be achieved. However, lo and behold, by the end of 2015—or early-2016 at the latest—we will have reached it. In fact, we will shortly announce that we have exceeded 3 million premises, as the figures are increasing by 40,000 premises a week.
This is a complex engineering job that does not involve simply turning up at a doorstep and flicking a switch. An expensive cabinet, which needs power, needs to be put in and then it needs fibre run from it back to the exchange. All that requires highways, planning and power.
If someone goes to gosuperfast, a website provided by the Government, they can type in their postcode and find out whether they have access to BT Openreach, which gives access to Sky, TalkTalk and other over-the-top providers—or, indeed, access to Virgin Media. It is important to remember that this is an engineering project and some of the tasks achieved, such as getting fibre to the Scilly Isles, rank among the most complex engineering phases.
I will not go through every single speech—they were all brilliant, but there were a lot of them. Let me take two quick examples. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) talked about the need for rural areas to come first, but his area is a classic example for why the scheme matters. Precisely no premises in his constituency were due to get commercial superfast broadband from BT or any of the rivals that often say that they could do the job better because such investment is not economic. However, 93% of his constituents will get superfast broadband under the scheme, including those—[Interruption.] That is what is being delivered under the scheme. This is what we are up against: when superfast broadband is delivered to Opposition Members, they do not want to give us any credit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke with great passion and asked what I was doing to help him. This morning, I had another meeting with BDUK to discuss getting the contract signed for connecting Devon and Somerset and I have such meetings all the time to get local authorities together with BT. We have already provided £110 million for Devon and Somerset. We have passed 143,000 premises and we are due to pass 300,000.
I recognise the huge improvements that have been made and the manifesto commitment to roll out ultrafast broadband to premises as soon as possible. However, are we being ambitious enough? Australia will be delivering 100 megabit broadband to 93% of premises by 2021, Finland will deliver that by 2015 and South Korea will deliver 1 gigabit by 2017. According to a London School of Economics report, the Government’s investment—
I have got my hon. Friend’s point; I am running out of time. We are being ambitious enough for him because we support him. That is why 100% of Torbay will get superfast broadband under our scheme—[Interruption.] Sorry, I got the wrong name—I heard the Chairman give the wrong name!
Before the Minister completes his comments, I should say that there has been a lot of talk about roll-out but not so much about take-up. Will he refer to the fact that, in parts of Wales, take-up of this fantastic scheme is still in the low-20s? Everyone seems to think that that is someone else’s problem, so will he clear that up?
I will. Take-up is extremely important and the good thing is that take-up brings money back into the scheme. For example, the money set aside to get superfast broadband to Cornwall was due to get coverage to 80%, but because of high take-up we have reached 95%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake)—I got his constituency spectacularly wrong; I hope he will forgive me—mentioned other jurisdictions. He will be pleased to know that the previous Australian Government lost the election because their broadband plan was so poor. If he believes that those Australian plans will happen, he will have to think again. They are busily trying to revise their programme because it was far too expensive and due to deliver far too late.
All my hon. Friends will have the note from the Library that puts us first in almost every category in the big five in the EU. Analysis published today by Enders Analysis again puts us top on access to speeds of 30 megabits. We are beating the Germans, the French, the Italians and the Spanish on that as well as on average internet connection speed. Because that scheme has been so successful, we have gone on to phase 2, which is 95% coverage. That is also why we have signed almost every single contract apart from Devon and Somerset, which I hope we will sign on Friday. We can then get on to start planning how we will get to 95%.
The Minister said that the cabinets are expensive. The European Commission’s report by Oxera, which evaluates the UK scheme, has a chart on page 4.5 that should say how expensive the cabinets are, but unfortunately that page is blank—it has been edited out. I happen to have got hold of that chart and it looks like cabinets are a lot cheaper than BT said. In particular, when Olivia Garfield, the former head of BT Openreach, said in “Strike Up Broadband” on 13 December 2013 that cabinets cost £100,000, she was, to use a technical term, talking crap, was she not?
I do not know whether that is a technical term. I do know, however, that in my hon. Friend’s constituency some 33,000 premises will be delivered superfast broadband thanks to the plan. He will also know that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have validated the scheme for value for money. No contractor pays BT until the work is done and BT presents invoices, and the scheme is audited regularly.
Phase 2 is going ahead. Phase 3 is about no one being left behind, which is the theme of the debate. The key point about that last 5% is that we do not know how much it will cost. Back of an envelope costings can run into billions, but we need a proper figure. That is why we have launched the pilots, some of which are already delivering broadband connections to people all over the country. Better still, they give us an idea of the kinds of technology we can use to get to that 5%. That will include suppliers other than BT and other technologies that BT and others are using, such as wireless and satellite.
Hon. Members have talked about businesses. We do not want to leave businesses behind. That is why we have launched our successful business voucher superfast broadband scheme. This morning, we announced that that scheme has delivered vouchers to 25,000 small businesses in cities up and down the country. Better still, there is now more competition in the market. Virgin Media announced £3 billion of investment because of the success of our scheme. TalkTalk announced a 1 gigabit offer in York and it will roll that out to other cities. BT has invested £3 billion of its own money and let us not forget that we have the fastest 4G roll-out and take-up anywhere in the world.
We hope to set out our proposals on phase 3 later this year. We are working on a series of proposals that we will look at in some detail and hopefully we will present those and take them forward. However, this is obviously a complex issue. Let us not forget that we are talking about the most difficult and expensive-to-reach premises. However, we do want to reach them; that is why we will carry out the scheme.
This is an unequivocal success story. I look forward to coming together again with all my hon. Friends and other hon. Members when we announce that we have reached the 3 million milestone. That may be in the summer recess, so I will invite them all to join me at a suitable seaside resort to make that announcement and release some balloons. Otherwise, they may want to put out press releases in their constituencies that tell their constituents how hugely successful the scheme is.
However, I do not want to be flippant or facetious. We have not forgotten those who need broadband. The tone of the debate was absolutely right. We are at a critical point where the engineering scheme we are rolling out is meeting the almost universal demand from our constituents for broadband. As a constituency MP, I know that those who get broadband under the scheme do not always say “thank you”—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Free Childcare and Nursery Providers
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Bone, and to have secured this debate.
As was made clear in the Queen’s Speech, the Government are introducing measures to help working people by increasing the provision of free childcare. The announcement was welcomed by many people up and down the country and in my constituency, and it provides us with a great opportunity to launch a full review of childcare funding.
I secured a debate in this Chamber on nursery funding back in 2013, in which I explained that one of the main reasons for the continuing rise in childcare costs is the fact that nursery providers have to cross-subsidise the free entitlement funding provided by the Government. I stated that although the Government are the biggest procurer of nursery places, they are the worst culprits when it comes to paying for the places they procure. I am sorry to say that little has changed since then. For years, free provision has been subsidised by providers and parents due to a lack of adequate funding.
Doubling provision should benefit parents in my constituency and across the country. However, there is a danger that not implementing the change properly will lead to a more expensive system and more expensive childcare from the outset. The free hours could ultimately harm the very people the policy is supposed to help.
The Government have promised to include in the Childcare Bill a proposal to double free provision for three and four-year-olds in England. The current allowance is 570 hours of free early education or childcare a year, which works out at 15 hours a week for 38 weeks. It is thought that up to 600,000 families could benefit from the doubling of the provision and save as much as £5,000 a year. The change is due to come into force in September 2017, although there will be pilots in September 2016.
I have two children of my own, so I am fully aware of how expensive childcare can be. The cost of childcare is one of the biggest barriers that the UK’s 2 million single parents face to finding and staying in work. I therefore want to make it clear that I welcome and support the policy. At the same time, however, I want to offer a word of caution about the policy’s implementation and the impact it could have on nursery providers.
Since the announcement in the Queen’s Speech, I have been approached by several owners of nurseries in my constituency, who have all been keen to get clarity about exactly what the policy will mean for their businesses. Among them were the owners of Station House children’s day nursery in Dunnington and of Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby. Both providers see the benefits of such a policy, but they agree that providers will be able to offer the increased number of hours only if the funding covers the cost of provision. In many areas, it does not.
Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of visiting a number of nurseries in my constituency—Little Green Rascals near Elvington, Sunshine day nursery in Huntington, Tiddlywinks in Osbaldwick, Quackers in Copmanthorpe and Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby, to name but a few. Having met the owners of those nurseries and kept in contact with them over various funding issues, it is clear to me that they do a tremendous job. Nurseries carry out an essential service for parents and families, not just in my constituency but across the country. However, that essential service is increasingly under threat as a direct result of the funding issues.
As we all know, parents in the UK receive help with their childcare through free early education. In England, central Government allocate money to local authorities through the early years block of the dedicated school grant, with an estimated total spend of £2.2 million a year. However, there is a great disparity across the country in how much is spent on childcare by individual local authorities. Therein lies the problem. The National Audit Office found that free entitlement varied from £2.78 to £5.18 an hour, and that the national average was £3.95. My constituency receives only £3.38 an hour from City of York Council. The sad truth is that funding for the 15 hours a week of free provision falls well short of the cost. To be precise, the shortfall is about £800 a child, which results in nurseries running at a loss for those 15 hours. They therefore have to subsidise that loss through the price of childcare outside the free entitlement hours.
Following my previous debate, which centred on those issues, I secured a meeting with the former Minister to raise my concerns face to face, alongside a group of local nursery providers from York. The Government have been aware of the problem for some time. The Minister has been proactive in his discussions with nursery providers, and has met providers from my constituency. Some positive news is starting to come out, including the announcement that the Minister will oversee a funding review of the entitlement, which is due to start in the next few weeks.
I warmly welcome the Minister’s commitment to raising the hourly funding rates paid to providers for places. However, the review is being undertaken at a time when costs to nursery providers are set to increase further, with pension auto-enrolment responsibilities coming in for many small and medium-sized nurseries. The pressure increases when the payment for funded hours is delayed. More than 40% of local authorities are paying more than a month after the start of term, although, as we all know, the law requires them to pay within 30 days.
I am acutely aware that the burden of business rates and VAT is continuing to push up the cost of childcare, which constrains the ability of nurseries to offer more places. The average annual business rate paid by nurseries is almost £16,000, which is why I welcomed the intervention of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In January, it wrote to all English local authorities to ask them to consider granting business rate relief to childcare providers. Local authorities have had that power since the Localism Act 2011 came into force, and the Government will fund 50% of any discretionary relief schemes that councils introduce.
Following the DCLG’s announcement, I wrote to my local authority, City of York Council, to ask it to consider granting business rate relief to childcare providers in the area. Sadly, it refused. Interestingly, when the chief executive addressed the National Day Nurseries Association conference earlier this month, she reported that she had written to every local authority in England on the issue, but had been told that none would be implementing business rate relief for nurseries, which I find extremely disappointing.
Although there are political differences over childcare policy, there is broad support for the current approach of both supply-side and demand-side subsidies. However, compared with many other developed countries, the public funding of childcare in the UK is complicated to say the least. It is complex and expensive to administer for Governments and complex for providers and parents. I therefore believe that the policy to double free provision for three and four-year-olds provides a perfect opportunity to launch a full review of childcare funding and set in place the changes that will ensure simplicity, progressive levels of support, quality—that is absolutely key in this field—and accessibility.
Take-up of the current 15 hours of free provision for three to four-year-olds is at 96%, but it is much lower for two-year-olds. That is because some providers have opted out because they believe that the hourly funding rate is not financially sustainable. Many nurseries operate complex cross-subsidy mechanisms, and they rely on working parents of three and four-year-old children to purchase extra hours on top of their existing 15 hours of free provision. As I have made clear throughout the debate, I have sympathy with providers regarding underfunding. I hope that the upcoming funding review led by the Minister will bring meaningful reform.
Only quality provision helps narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. The owner of Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby in my constituency told me that when he opened his nursery in the early 1990s, only doctors and accountants could use it; it was unusual for women to go back to work. Now we have flexible working, and free childcare has opened up day care to a range of families. Doubling free provision will only add to that trend, but it can be successful only if it goes hand in hand with a full review of childcare funding.
Money is allocated to local authorities through the dedicated schools grant. For three and four-year-olds, the rate per pupil is largely determined by historical precedent; it is not based on the characteristics and needs of the children. Early years funding should be brought more closely in line with schools funding, whereby money is allocated on the basis of a larger number of criteria, which include pupil numbers, deprivation and attainment to name a few. That would ensure that funding matched children’s needs and the cost to providers of providing early education. In addition, we could consider a national formula with two rates—one for London and one for the rest of England—similar to the funding formula for two-year-olds, which is fairer and more transparent. Local authorities receive a flat hourly rate per child of £4.85, supplemented by an area cost adjustment in places where wages are higher. That would be a much clearer funding system and would help to streamline the number of complex formulas in place.
Overall, although childcare represents a significant outlay to parents, it is important to remember that by its very nature it will always be expensive. It is not fair to suggest that high childcare costs are simply the result of providers charging high fees to hard-pressed parents. The reality is more complex. Childcare should never be provided on the cheap, and we must ensure that measures to make it more affordable do not compromise its quality. For me, that is crucial. Although successive Governments have increased help with childcare costs, parents in Britain still spend a higher proportion of their income on childcare than parents in most other developed countries. On top of that, some childcare providers struggle to break even. All that is indicative of a childcare system that is not working.
I view the proposals to double free childcare provision as an opportunity to fix these long-standing problems once and for all. We have a chance to make a real change to help not only nursery providers but parents who use such facilities, and I hope the Government will grasp it with both hands. I am encouraged by what I have heard from the Minister in our previous conversations on the issue.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for the opportunity to have this debate. It is timely in the light of the Government’s commitment to double the free childcare available for working families. Like him, I am a father; I have a 14-month-old who goes to nursery, so I experience the childcare market from the point of view of a parent, not just a politician sitting in Westminster making decisions about the sector.
My hon. Friend dwelt on the challenges that the nursery sector faces, but I would like to counter that: the childcare market is much broader than the nursery sector. The vast majority of places are provided by private, voluntary and independent providers. We also have childminders and school nurseries, but the bulk of the formal childcare that the Department is concerned with is provided by those three sectors. When we talk about the market and the challenges it faces, it is important to recognise how broad the market is and the different types of service offered. For example, childminders offer childcare in a domestic setting, whereas nurseries are more of an organisation and children are taken to them. Each provides slightly different challenges to and opportunities for parents.
For many families with young children, childcare is not an issue, but the issue. Many parents want to go back to work or work more hours, but find that the cost of childcare makes doing so unaffordable. The Government want to reward hard-working families by reducing their childcare bill. That said, policies are not just about the parents; we also recognise that childcare is about the child. A lot of development happens in the early years, so the quality of childcare provision is as important as making childcare available. That brings me to the key challenge we face in the sector: how do we make childcare affordable, ensure sufficient quality and ensure that it is available in the form that parents want? Every parent knows that the childcare needs of parents are not consistently the same across the board.
In responding to my hon. Friend, I will take the opportunity to make general points about our childcare policy. I am proud of our record to date. We are the first to fund 15 hours of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds as well as 40% of two-year-olds. We legislated to introduce tax-free childcare; the 1.8 million families who want to buy additional hours can get up to £2,000 off per child per year. It is important that the policy applies to children from age nought to 17, in the case of children with disabilities. Tax-free childcare can help parents not only with childcare in the early years, but with wrap-around care, whether that is breakfast or after-school clubs. We have also increased the child element of tax credits and introduced shared parental leave.
We need to do more to ensure that we are enabling families to make the choices that are best for their circumstances. In doing so, it is worth recognising, as my hon. Friend implied throughout his speech, that in many cases it is businesses that are delivering these services for parents, so we need to ensure that the funding is sustainable. That is why we have talked about implementing the funding rate for the new 15 hours in a way that is not only fair but sustainable, to ensure—crucially—that children have the best start in life, with affordable, safe and high-quality childcare.
More broadly, our businesses and economy depend on working parents, who themselves depend on access to high-quality childcare. However, what the childcare and early years survey tells us is that 22% of working parents have found it difficult or very difficult to pay for childcare; for lone working parents, the figure rises to 38%, so there is a lot more that can be done.
The conundrum is that the Government already invest £5 billion per annum to support parents with childcare. How can we be in a situation where we are spending that money yet some parents still say that they find the cost of childcare to be too high? The Childcare Bill will take further the support that parents can get, delivering on our manifesto commitment to support children at every stage of their life.
We will extend the entitlement of 570 hours for all three and four-year-olds, and I am happy to report that take-up of the existing entitlement in York is already higher than the average. With the new entitlement, working families will receive more childcare support than ever. It will guarantee them about 1,140 hours of free childcare, worth more than £5,000 a year per child.
I will make a comment about the funding rate, which was a key part of my hon. Friend’s speech. Yes, we need to look at the funding rate for the first 15 hours as well as for the second 15 hours, and I hear the complaints that nursery providers have made. However, it is worth making it very clear that the impact of the funding rate on a business is as a result of a number of factors and not just the rate itself, although it is important. For example, whether or not the local authority top-slices the funding that goes from central Government to providers determines whether providers receive more or less than the rate that central Government determine. Also, the flexibility that local authorities allow providers to deliver their 15 hours is important, because if local authorities are quite inflexible in the scope for providers to allocate the 15 hours in a way that works best for their business, that will invariably impact on the profitability of providers. Thirdly, the business model decisions that operators make impact on how far that money can go. When we consider the sustainability of this model, we need to look at all those things in the round, as well as obviously focusing on the funding rate available.
To support the market beyond the funding rate, I worked with the Department for Communities and Local Government in the last Parliament, urging local authorities to work with childcare providers and to ensure that charitable and non-profit providers benefit from the business rate relief that they are entitled to. Any nurseries that are registered charities will already benefit from rate relief. The smallest providers, including childminders, benefit from small business rate relief, although any further relief would require local authority discretionary relief.
I heard what my hon. Friend said about local authorities granting or not granting that relief. I intend to continue to work with the National Day Nurseries Association to find ways to ensure that the necessary action is taken to help reduce the cost of provision for childcare providers. I understand where he is coming from and I will take action, as he suggests.
Having said that, I counter the idea that somehow the childcare day market is not thriving; in fact, I would say that the opposite is true. The childcare day market for children aged from zero to five is vibrant and thriving. In 2013-14, it was estimated at £4.9 billion, which means it is about a third larger than it was a decade ago. The number of places in the sector has gone up by 12%, and roughly 230,000 places were created between 2009 and 2015. We recognise the challenges, but those are signs of a sector that is rising to those challenges.
To help the sector meet those challenges we are listening to its input. I have announced a review on the cost of providing childcare and it is now under way, with more than 300 responses in the first 24 hours or so. Clearly, the sector is aware of and engaging with the call for evidence. The review will report in the autumn and I encourage providers in York and throughout the country to respond.
As my hon. Friend pointed out and as I touched on earlier, the issue is not only about the funding rate, but about payment practices. I have heard that from all sorts of providers, including some of the largest ones in the sector, so we will be looking at that. The average paid to local authorities by central Government is about £4.51 per hour for three and four-year-olds; that is in excess of what he said providers in his York constituency are receiving. In fact, that rate is higher than the one in the Family and Childcare Trust survey, which showed that an average nursery is charged £4.47 per hour for children aged two and over. That is an indication of why we need to look at what is happening between the rate set by central Government and the rate received by providers. Why does it differ so much between local authorities and between types of provider? That is not to say that we do not accept the need to look at the overall rate, but we need to look at the other aspects as well.
My hon. Friend touched on the funding formula, but the funding system for three and four-year-olds includes historical inconsistencies that result in large variations in funding distribution between local authorities. There are also variations in the funding passed on by local authorities to providers. In the previous Parliament, we started to look seriously at such problems to create greater transparency for parents and providers. We now publish an annual benchmarking tool that lists every council’s funding and how much it passes on to different providers. That should help parents and providers to have informed conversations with councils, but should also hold them to account. I am confident that if we look at all such things seriously, the extended entitlement will provide an opportunity for existing providers to expand and for new providers to enter the market, giving parents choice and helping to build our economy.
The market is healthy and growing. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that in York 4Children has developed a fantastic childcare hub with a blended childcare offer, where schools and private, voluntary and independent providers are working together to provide high-quality childcare. That is one example of innovation in the sector that can be used to boost capacity, higher quality and flexibility for parents. Generally, to be able to deliver for parents in a cost-effective way we need more of such innovation, rather than having a sector that operates in silos.
My hon. Friend talked about nursery provision. Many maintained nursery schools deliver the highest quality early education, often in disadvantaged areas where it can make the greatest difference. I fully support such schools, because they are delivering high quality. We will ensure that they, as well as private and voluntary providers, can continue to thrive.
I am also proud to say that the quality of providers continues to improve. In York, 91% of early years settings are rated as good or outstanding, compared with 80% nationally. That is an encouraging statistic. Additionally, 64% of children in York achieved a good level of development in the early years foundation stage profile, compared with 60% nationally in 2014. The Government’s childcare policy will have a direct and significant impact on the lives of children and families throughout the country. It is right that it should be subject to the most thorough scrutiny, such as that from my hon. Friend this afternoon.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
National Breastfeeding Week
I beg to move,
That this House has considered National Breastfeeding Week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to be lucky enough to have secured this debate during National Breastfeeding Week. I welcome Members in the Chamber and those who are breastfeeding as they watch our proceedings online.
Members well versed in social media might have noted that some great breastfeeding stories are circulating on Twitter under #celebratebreastfeeding—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying before the Division, celebrating breastfeeding is the theme of this National Breastfeeding Week, and there is much to celebrate about that remarkable human act. Although completely natural, breastfeeding is also a skill that mothers and babies must learn together, and is not without its difficulties. I acknowledge that some women cannot breastfeed and others choose not to, and in holding this debate I do not seek in any way to judge them—those bottle feeding also require assistance and advice.
I will talk briefly about my experience of breastfeeding and why I am so committed to promoting it, before touching on its health and societal benefits. The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and lags far behind comparable nations in the OECD. There is a lot we can do to improve the experience of families in our constituencies.
I have breastfed both of my children, and despite being in this place from Monday to Thursday have managed to persevere in feeding my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Kirsty. She is not here today as a visual aid but in fact is in nursery in Glasgow, so my determination has been at some personal discomfort. When I had my son I was a local councillor in Glasgow and took the view that I could not take the time off work for maternity leave, so I combined my role with being a mum. During the past five years I have fed my children while fully participating in meetings of Glasgow City Council, and have been made very welcome in doing so by my colleagues. That the right to feed is enshrined in law in Scotland has been a real reassurance to me, and whether I have been feeding in a café, waiting for a bus, or in the stand at Hampden—I have been lucky in securing the backing of the tartan army for giving the wee man his tea at the game—I have been made welcome.
My colleague and good friend Aileen Campbell MSP, Scotland’s Minister for Children and Young People, has taken her own children, Angus and Crawford, into the Scottish Parliament Chamber; her youngest was with her during a stage 3 debate just the other week. Aileen and I are lucky, as not many mothers can do that at their work. I understand from speaking to colleagues that doing something similar in this place would be frowned upon. I seek to gently challenge that. We should take a lead and seek to be creative in how we support women to continue breastfeeding in all workplaces once they return from maternity leave.
It is 10 years since the historic Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 put on the statute book the right to breastfeed in public places in Scotland. It is:
“An Act of the Scottish Parliament to make it an offence to prevent or stop a person in charge of a child who is otherwise permitted to be in a public place or licensed premises from feeding milk to that child in that place or on those premises; to make provision in relation to the promotion of breastfeeding; and for connected purposes.”
That important piece of legislation was a Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MSP Elaine Smith. I pay tribute to her today for the work she did to make it possible for so many women in Scotland to breastfeed secure in the knowledge that no one has the right to stop them.
There are now greater rights in England and Wales, afforded by the Equality Act 2010, under which discriminating against a woman because she was feeding a child became unlawful. That is significant, and I commend all who made it happen. We far too often see tabloid tales of mothers being shamed for the simple act of feeding a hungry child. That is completely unacceptable, and every such story destroys women’s confidence; they need to hear from their elected representatives that breastfeeding is welcomed and that they are supported.
Getting the right support is absolutely crucial. Without that and without information, establishing breastfeeding can be incredibly difficult. As I said, breastfeeding is natural, but it is not easy. Without the assistance of the breastfeeding counsellors at the Princess Royal maternity hospital in Glasgow, who sat with me through the tears and the pain, I may have given up myself. Not all women will have experience of breastfeeding within their families or peer groups. Good public health information must be there to counter the ever-present adverts for bottles and formula milk, as well as perceptions and prejudices.
I recall that, at an event in Glasgow, Councillor Jim Coleman told me how women in some parts of the city were made to feel that breastfeeding was evidence that someone could not afford to buy formula. We know that runs absolutely counter to all wisdom on the benefits of breastfeeding, but those kinds of old wives’ tales persist and must be challenged by people in those communities.
Since this debate was announced, I have been contacted by various individuals and by organisations including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Midwives, the Breastfeeding Network, the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative, the UNICEF “Baby Friendly” initiative and the National Infant Feeding Network. I am grateful for the extensive briefings they have provided.
The organisations all reinforced the need for support. Their evidence demonstrates that women start breastfeeding, and initiation rates have risen from 62% in 1990 to 81% in 2010. But the drop-off rates are staggering: only 17% are still exclusively breastfeeding at three months, 12% at four months and 1% at six months. There are also huge variations across social class; other factors include deprivation, maternal education, age and ethnicity.
Scotland is lagging behind, and the Scottish Government are putting strategies in place to tackle that; they also held a summit on breastfeeding in February. Recent figures from the “Growing Up in Scotland” cohort survey found that breastfeeding was strongly associated with multiple socioeconomic factors. For example, 60% of degree-educated mothers exclusively breastfed to six weeks or more, compared with 18% of those with standard grades; 53% of mothers living in the least deprived areas breastfed exclusively to six weeks, compared with only 21% in the most deprived areas; and 45% of mothers in their 30s and 41% of those aged 40 or older at their child’s birth exclusively breastfed to six weeks or more, compared with 35% of mothers in their 20s and only 12% of teenage mothers.
Members will be aware that breastfeeding is good for maternal and infant health. Benefits to children from breastfeeding include reduced gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinary tract and ear infections, lower incidence of allergies and a reduced likelihood of developing obesity. For women who choose to breastfeed there are lower risks associated with breast and ovarian cancer, less chance of hip fractures and osteoporosis in later life, and the added benefit that it helps with getting back to their pre-baby weight.
UNICEF has done excellent work in documenting the savings that could be made to public health services through breastfeeding and its benefits, and I commend its document “Preventing disease and saving resources” to the House. “The 1001 Critical Days” is a manifesto that is also well worth a read.
Increasing breastfeeding rates in areas of multiple deprivation has a clear multiplier effect. James P. Grant, who was executive director of UNICEF from 1980 to 1995, said:
“Breastfeeding is a natural safety net against the worst effects of poverty…exclusive breastfeeding goes a long way towards cancelling out the health difference between being born into poverty or being born into affluence. It is almost as if breastfeeding takes the infant out of poverty for those few vital months in order to give the child a fairer start in life and compensate for the injustices of the world into which it was born.”
Those are striking words, and it is to areas of multiple deprivation that I believe resources should be targeted, but most certainly not in a heavy-handed way. Instead, local networks, existing organisations and women themselves need to be given the skills and knowledge to spread the word among their peers and to challenge the old wives’ tales I spoke about. They must work across the whole experience of pregnancy and parenthood. Public Health England found in March 2015 that the most effective strategies for promoting breastfeeding were among smaller local peer support groups. There is a lot of excellent information online, from KellyMom to Mumsnet, but there remains a digital divide, and at times of crisis having a local network to fall back on is hugely valuable.
That kind of work is often facilitated by the voluntary sector, and we need to ensure that that is maintained even in these straitened financial times. I understand that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) will refer to a local case, and I have I have been contacted by mothers in Lambeth and Southwark who discovered that funding for their work would be cut. They have been hugely successful in increasing breastfeeding rates in their area. Such projects should be treated as exemplars, and their good practice should be taken on board.
In my contact with several organisations, there have been a couple of broader asks that it would be neglectful of me not to mention. The first is that there should be financial support for the National Infant Feeding Network, which I understand had its funding cut in 2014. The funding that was cut was a meagre £30,000, which went a very long way to organising and supporting a network of 600 infant feeding specialists. They are responsible in turn for the education and support of some 70,000 health professionals across England who reach 650,000 mothers and babies every year. That is crucial, for the reasons I mentioned. Breastfeeding mothers really need support, especially in the early days.
Secondly, the Department of Health should continue to strive for the implementation of UNICEF Baby Friendly standards in maternity, community and neonatal services. In the UK the percentage of services with full Baby Friendly accreditation are 49% of maternity services; 51% of health visiting services; 37% of university midwifery courses; and 9% of health visiting courses. It is important that those professionals should all have the skills to enable them to pass on information to the women they help.
The percentage of births taking place in fully Baby Friendly-accredited hospitals stands at 44% in England, a wonderful 84% in Scotland, an even better 92% in Northern Ireland, and 60% in Wales. The impact of services being Baby Friendly-accredited is that mothers get consistent advice and support throughout their pregnancy and in the early months after the birth. It is not just about hospitals, but about embedding good practice across the range of provision. That means that there should not be any kind of postcode lottery, so that women and families can feel confident about breastfeeding.
Thirdly, I implore the UK Government to reinstate the national infant feeding survey across the UK. The main basis for the statistics I have given to demonstrate the need for more support today is that five-yearly study, which I understand has been on the go since 1970. It fits into the World Health Organisation’s global strategy for infant and young child feeding, which recommends that Governments carry out a survey to track rates and target support effectively. Without the data, we lose touch of where we stand in the world and what work we need to do. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments have all committed to keep it going, and I urge the Minister also to commit to it, to complete the statistics for the whole UK.
Fourthly, I seek the Minister’s advice on where the UK currently sits with regard to full implementation of the international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. I support calls by groups such as Baby Milk Action for the UK Government to play their part in protecting the public from aggressive and damaging marketing by the formula industry.
My final plea is a personal one. I have come into this place as a breastfeeding mother, which has been hard for me, even in this position of relative privilege. I ask for the consideration of all parents in this place—Members, staff and visitors—and of how we can make it easier for them. I ask colleagues to consider what they can do in their own constituencies to celebrate and support breastfeeding in this and every week of the year. Could our local cafés be more welcoming? Are our own offices a safe space for nursing mothers? Could we encourage investment in support services in our areas, and do we know where they are so that we can send them recommendations? We all have a role to play in encouraging the uptake of this most basic human need.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate.
I breastfed my two children, who are now aged nine and six. I was fortunate because that experience was relatively straightforward, but it was not without issues or a need for support. A few days after having my first baby, I remember experiencing toothache and wondering, in my slightly dazed state as a new mother, how toothache could possibly be a post-natal complication. I then realised that I had given myself toothache from clamping my teeth so hard because of the pain every time my baby fed. Those first few days were difficult and painful, and there were tears, but once I had mastered it, it was a hugely rewarding experience. My second baby could not tolerate cow’s milk, which made the transition to any type of formula very difficult, but I was glad to continue breastfeeding her for much longer because it benefited her health enormously. The health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies are well established and proven, as rehearsed by the hon. Lady.
I want to highlight a pressing issue in my constituency: the potential loss of the breastfeeding cafés that operate in Sure Start centres in my constituency, in Streatham and in Camberwell and Peckham. Those cafés, which are resourced by experienced midwives from King’s College hospital, are a vital resource for new nursing mothers. They are under threat because the support from King’s College hospital is going to be withdrawn, due to the midwives who staff the cafés being needed on the labour wards. The hospital is otherwise unable to recruit to a series of vacancies in its midwifery department.
This is a grave situation. The breastfeeding cafés operate in Sure Start centre locations where many mothers are deprived, successfully extending the reach to those areas and increasing breastfeeding rates there. The benefits of addressing nutritional disadvantages, helping those babies to be healthier and getting them off to a good start in life are vital. I am concerned that a shortage of midwives elsewhere in the health service is putting those breastfeeding cafés at risk. I will certainly raise the issue with King’s College hospital when I meet staff there on Friday, and I will talk to the local authorities in Lambeth and Southwark about whether there is any way that those vital services could be continued.
I call on the Minister to help us in that endeavour and to help make additional resources available, so that experienced midwives can continue to staff breastfeeding cafés in my constituency and beyond. Extending breast- feeding to deprived communities in particular will save the health service money in the long term, so resourcing this service is money spent positively and spent well.
I want to speak particularly about the asks that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss)—I want to say Councillor Thewliss—mentioned.
My situation is similar to my hon. Friend’s. My children are not that different in age to hers and I was also a councillor when I had both my children. I was lucky to be able to go back to work so quickly and to take my children with me. That worked well for us in terms of breastfeeding.
My second child was an absolute dream to feed. She was wonderful and knew what she was doing from day one. She was just a dream come true. However, it was still painful at times. Even in the most ideal circumstances, breastfeeding is not plain sailing all the way. My first child was a nightmare to feed. We had a horrendous time. Nearly all the things that can go wrong with breastfeeding went wrong. My son was re-admitted to hospital at five days because he was not gaining weight, so for a while we had to pump exclusively and then he was weaned back on to breastfeeding.
The support networks and breastfeeding cafés, which hon. Members have mentioned, are so important. There are proven statistical outcomes from breastfeeding cafés and people having physical support. I am not sure whether hon. Members are clear about how the outcomes are achieved. My hon. Friend mentioned the huge online support network, including Mumsnet and Facebook groups. Those places are good and people can get a huge amount of information from others there, but that does not compare with having somebody physically present who knows what they are talking about. In those early days, when people do not know what they are doing, and when their baby does not know what they are doing, they need somebody there to help and show them what they are doing wrong, or what they are doing right, and to explain it. It is not something that can be learned from a video on the internet, because every mum and every baby is a different shape and every baby reacts differently. Somebody must be physically there, and they must have huge experience and know what they are talking about.
A three-day training session on breastfeeding does not, in many cases, equip a midwife or health visitor with adequate means to provide mums with all the support they need. Those people also need experience behind them: they need to see many babies breastfeeding and speak to lots of people before advising in all cases.
In terms of the support available, the Government in Scotland and the Government here—Governments all over the place—need to think about the voluntary organisations providing support. People who have been through breastfeeding and experienced the problems—and those seeking support—are getting involved in the La Leche League and with NCT breastfeeding support, for example, to help people. When I was being shown what I was doing wrong, those were the people I found most helpful, because they knew what they were talking about. Training systems are a great idea, but we need to make sure that voluntary groups and breastfeeding cafés, which have experienced staff, are kept going. If we lose that experience, we cannot get it back. We need to keep these groups going to keep up the breastfeeding rates.
There is a postcode lottery in terms of support. People without a local support group near them have either to travel a long way to get to a group or rely on the internet. That is not ideal.
The World Health Organisation guidelines suggest breastfeeding exclusively up to six months and that breastfeeding onwards to two years or beyond is desirable, advised and good for children and mothers. This is not widely known in the UK: people even get funny looks when breastfeeding a child over six months. People do not understand that that is actually good and has health benefits.
I breastfed my children for a total of three years—adding them both together—so I had that experience of breastfeeding a child who is running around. That is totally shocking for so many people and it should not be, because World Health Organisation guidelines and statistics suggest that there are health benefits from breastfeeding. There is a job of work for all of us to normalise breastfeeding and to explain it to people. If people say, “What are you doing?”, we should explain to them, “This is right. This is not in any way unnatural. This is totally the right thing to do and has benefits for everybody.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central mentioned formula milk and the way it is advertised and classified. I spoke to some of my online friends who have been involved in supporting people with breastfeeding, and one of their biggest concerns, and one of the things that makes them most angry, is the advertising of follow-on milk. Follow-on milk is allowed to be advertised because it is not aimed at mothers with babies, and the adverts for follow-on milk have very small babies who are obviously just six months old. That is the way that the companies can get round the rules, because they are not advertising to mothers with a baby who is under six months; they are advertising to mothers with babies who are older than six months. Before the ban on advertising baby milk was introduced, there was no such thing as follow-on milk; the companies have just invented it so that they can still advertise. That is a concern.
We should have formula, and women who choose to formula-feed—or women who end up formula-feeding not by choice—need to have options in terms of formula. But formula should not be pushed at every opportunity by the companies, and we should not allow them to do so. We should try to avoid that situation.
The last thing I wanted to mention was the pressure to breastfeed. It is very positive that we are promoting and encouraging breastfeeding, but there is a fine line; some women feel that they cannot give up breastfeeding in the very early days without experiencing a huge amount of negativity. Breastfeeding is hard for some women at the moment, particularly when the support is not there nationally.
I have heard of women who have said that not being able to breastfeed caused them to have post-natal depression. The issue was the expectation—that they felt they had to breastfeed, but nobody was there to support them. What they wanted was somebody to show them what to do and to help them, and not having that help is costing the Government and the devolved Administrations through the outcomes for those babies, as they are more likely to cost the NHS more in later life; through the outcomes for the mothers; and through the outcomes for some mothers who really struggle with having to give up breastfeeding, and end up in the mental health system as a result. That really concerns some of my friends and some of the other people I have spoken to about the issue.
Thank you very much, Mr Bone, for chairing this debate this afternoon. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate, and other Members for their excellent contributions.
We need to keep our focus on this issue, and I am very pleased that all the Members who have spoken so far share my passion for extolling the virtues of breastfeeding. I am also pleased to note that the Minister present today is the Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences, who I respect hugely. Although at first I thought it was rather strange that breastfeeding came under his brief, I am now sure that it is simply the case that the issue is so important to the Government, and crosses so many departmental boundaries, that they settled on him, and it was not just a case of Ministers perhaps playing “pass the parcel” with this important debate. As I say, I am very pleased to see that he is here to respond to it.
I will start my remarks by putting my cards firmly on the table—for me, wherever possible breast is best. I breastfed both my children, as all the Members who have spoken so far breastfed their children, and I am evangelical about the merits of breastfeeding.
As other Members have said, and shared, breastfeeding sometimes hurts at first—although not for everyone—and that is why the right support is vital, to help women and encourage them to carry on breastfeeding. Having someone physically there really makes the difference, especially when a woman has a baby like my son, who did not like to open his mouth very wide when latching on. If he could get away with it, he would just suck on the nipple until it was red raw, and obviously he then got no milk. If nobody had told me that that is not how it is supposed to happen, I would have given up immediately. Support is vital. As with my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), my second child—my daughter—could not tolerate cows’ milk. Fortunately, I was able to carry on feeding her to about 16 months, but feeding a toddler in public draws lots of frowns, and eventually I succumbed. We went on to soya milk, and even now she does not really like milk.
We have a fabulous support network in the north-east called Bosom Buddies, which helps, supports and encourages new mums as they get to grips with breastfeeding during the early days. The network provides much-needed guidance and advice for mothers who may otherwise be unsure about even starting to breastfeed. Those services are replicated in various parts of the country, and many are in Sure Start centres. I have had the great pleasure of visiting many breastfeeding support groups in those centres, and I have seen their great work. I would love every new mother across the UK to have access to such services, because that support makes a huge difference, as we have all attested today. Sadly, as we have seen across the country in recent years, Sure Start centres are closing. More than 700 have closed since 2010, which limits the amount of support that mothers can get. What assessment have the Government made of the number of support services that have been lost as a result of the closure of more than 700 Sure Start centres?
National Breastfeeding Week is a brilliant idea, and over the years it has successfully highlighted, across the world, the importance of breastfeeding. I fully endorse and support the campaign, and I hope this debate will go some way towards making even more people aware of the virtues of breastfeeding. As we have heard, numerous studies have shown breastfeeding to be the healthiest way to feed a baby. Not only does breastfeeding provide essential nutrients and sustenance, it also greatly reduces the risk of a baby developing health problems such as gastroenteritis, asthma, diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, breastfeeding helps to protect women from breast and ovarian cancer. The World Health Organisation is unequivocal that, if possible, babies should be totally breastfed until they are at least six months old. On top of all that, there is the additional bonus that breast milk from source is always at the right temperature for babies, with no bottles needing to be sterilised. Best of all, it is 100% free. Breastfeeding is cheap; it is good for babies; it comes highly recommended; and, by preventing illnesses, it keeps babies safe while saving millions of pounds from stretched NHS budgets. Put simply, what is not to like?
Unfortunately, despite all of the positives that other Members and I have outlined today, certain obstacles remain for mothers who are looking to breastfeed their children. One such obstacle comes when mothers return to work after maternity leave. Breastfeeding mothers face a heightened sense of anxiety when they return to work from maternity leave, as they have the additional worry of how their baby will be fed in their absence. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central and other hon. Members spoke of their personal experience. Women may have to raise with their employer the issues of expressing and storing breast milk and fitting in feeds around their work and lunch hour. If they harbour fears that their employer lacks an understanding of, or concern about, such accommodations, it may delay their return to work, or stop their return altogether. Alternatively, such fears may make women give up breastfeeding sooner than they had planned.
Maternity discrimination, such as prohibiting mothers from breastfeeding in cafés or restaurants, is now against the law under the Equality Act 2010, but the Act does not apply in the workplace. Mothers can be told not to express milk or be denied breastfeeding breaks. Employers do not have to provide facilities for breast milk to be expressed or stored. Good employers provide such facilities, but they do not have to do so. I can tell hon. Members, as the Health and Safety Executive already has, that toilets are no place for expressing milk or breastfeeding. We all want parents to get back to work if they wish to do so. I hope the Government understand that breastfeeding responsibilities are holding mothers back from returning to work, and I hope the Minister will assure us that he is looking into ways to address that issue.
Over the past few years, we have seen that women in general are finding it harder at work. There were more unemployed women over the past five years than at any time under the previous Labour Government, and real wages for women have fallen year on year since 2010. There has also been a dramatic fall in sexual discrimination and pregnancy discrimination cases made against employers since women were priced out of justice when expensive tribunal fees were introduced. Figures comparing the years before and after the introduction of those fees show a truly staggering 91% fall in sex discrimination cases and a 46% fall in pregnancy discrimination cases. Such dramatic falls are utterly unacceptable in a country that wants to treat women with respect in the workplace. A Labour Government would have scrapped those unfair barriers to justice. I would love to hear the Minister say that his Government will reverse that unfair policy.
Alongside the structural issues affecting breastfeeding, there is a growing cultural obstacle that prevents new mums from breastfeeding their children. It is particularly striking, as we have heard, in working-class communities. The Department for Health figures show that in Brighton almost 70% of new mothers were partially or totally breastfeeding at six to eight weeks—that is relatively early to be taking a measure, given that the recommendation is that children should be breastfed for up to six months, but we can use it as a comparison—while in Hartlepool and south Tyneside the figure falls to 19.3% and 22.6% respectively.
In some communities today, there seems to be an anti-breastfeeding culture among young mothers, which we need to challenge and reverse. National Breastfeeding Week and this debate are great ways of starting to do that. Breastfeeding must be seen as normal and natural, and new mothers should feel utterly comfortable doing it. We need to focus on the areas and communities in which new mums do not even consider starting to breastfeed because it seems so strange or even repulsive to them. Government support is required. Role models must come forward to extol the virtues of breastfeeding and we need more mums on TV—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh. We need mums in our soaps and even on “The Only Way is Essex”, breastfeeding naturally and happily. We rarely see breastfeeding, and if we do it is usually by mums such as us—middle class, professional, older mums—which reinforces the image in some young mums’ minds that breastfeeding is something for a certain type of people, not for them and their friends.
We need to work to reverse that image and let new mums and young mums know that breastfeeding is not only good for their health and that of their babies, but it has immediate benefits, such as helping them lose their pregnancy weight much faster, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said. I was never as slim as when I was breastfeeding my children. If I could have carried on breastfeeding, I would, because the weight really drops off. It also means not having to get cold in the middle of the night making up bottles, and it helps mums to bond in such a special way with their babies, which cannot be imagined until it has been experienced.
Come on, TV producers, soap writers, celebrities and “TOWIE” stars watching this debate—get to it. Get breastfeeding on TV and get mums seeing it. I want mums to feel comfortable in public—even in Claridge’s, for goodness’ sake. We need to show that it is totally normal, natural and acceptable, and that those who have a problem with it simply need to get over it.
I once again thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central for securing this important debate and for all she has said and done on this issue in the short time she has been in this House. I thank the other hon. Members for coming along and making their expert contributions. I have rarely heard such strong and powerful arguments for the benefits of breastfeeding and I thank every hon. Member who came to speak here today. I am sure that with such powerful advocacy from hon. Members and from groups and organisations throughout the country, National Breastfeeding Week will be a huge success in raising even greater awareness among parents.
I hope that the Government will listen to the concerns about women getting back into work after having a baby and will address the specific issues that affect them to ensure that that transition is best for both the mother and her baby. We all want to see the best outcomes for all parties, but only by taking action to help can we see progress. Simply hoping for the best will not be enough, so for the sake of babies, their mums and our society in general, let us hope for a successful awareness campaign and an equally successful response from the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for initiating the debate and for her leadership of it. I particularly commend her for tweeting a picture of herself breastfeeding to help launch and publicise the Breastfeeding Network and the campaign this week.
I commend the hon. Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for raising in a short time a number of very important issues. They include issues about the importance of breastfeeding and about women in the workplace; issues, which we had all hoped would become legacy issues, about prejudice and discrimination; and important issues about geographic variation and inequality, including the importance of cultural leadership in changing attitudes.
There were specific questions on policy, which I will try to come to in a moment. I just want to take this opportunity to celebrate and promote National Breastfeeding Week, which runs from 20 to 28 June. It is an excellent initiative and it is particularly good to see it so active on Twitter, which may be to the credit of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, and to see the plethora of activities going on around the country and the sharing of good practice and experiences by women and health professionals in place-based and virtual networks. That is genuinely inspirational, and the Department and I look forward to seeing other activities organised by local groups around the country this week.
It will not have escaped your beady eye, Mr Bone, that I am, on a gender basis, the least qualified person in the room to be responding to the debate, but I am pleased that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, highlighted the fact that I am the Minister responsible for life and health sciences. This issue goes to the heart of our thinking more broadly about how we unleash the power of the NHS and our health system more generally to support and drive public health.
Before coming to the House, I worked in biomedical research. I had the great privilege of working at the Institute of Child Health, which is doing extraordinary work on the importance of pre and post-natal nutrition for long-term health outcomes. Extraordinary data are beginning to appear on the importance of early nutrition in determining our long-term health. As the Minister responsible for the National Institute for Health Research, as well as the whizzy high science of tomorrow’s technologies, I can say that we also have at the heart of the NHS a commitment to ensure, through the institute, that we are constantly using the power of our health system to drive public health and to promote best practice.
The Department of Health is working closely with our partners at UNICEF, the Royal College of Midwives, the Institute of Health Visiting, NHS England and Public Health England to co-ordinate our awareness messaging this week. This debate provides an invaluable opportunity for Members of Parliament to discuss these important issues.
It may help if I begin by setting out the Department’s view on breastfeeding in England, which is the only place for which I can speak. It is widely agreed that breastfeeding delivers significant health benefits for both the mother and her baby and is more cost-effective for mothers than other methods of infant feeding. A mother’s milk provides a perfect balance of nutrients and vitamins for the first six months of a child’s life. That is why the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.
The Department is aware, however, that infant feeding choices are complex and personal, based as they are on individual and family circumstances. That is right. Not all mothers choose to or are able to breastfeed. In line with UNICEF’s Baby Friendly guidelines, all mothers should be supported to make informed decisions and to develop a close relationship with their babies soon after birth.
The evidence shows that, in addition to providing all the nutrients and vitamins that a baby needs, breast milk also protects him or her from infections and diseases. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop diarrhoea, vomiting and chest infections, leading to fewer hospital visits; and they are less likely to become obese both as children and in later life. Breastfeeding can also reduce the chances for some women of getting diseases such as breast or ovarian cancer later in life. The evidence and data also show that breastfeeding as soon as possible following birth helps to start the bonding process between a mother and her baby. We know that secure parent-child attachment results in better social and emotional wellbeing among children. Furthermore, evidence shows that that, in turn, has important implications in terms of life prospects for the infant.
I am pleased that the breastfeeding initiation rate in England has increased from about 62% in 2005-06 to 73.9% in the third quarter of 2014-15. The Office for National Statistics will publish the full-year figures in a couple of weeks. However, breastfeeding initiation rates vary widely across clinical commissioning group areas, from 43.9% in NHS South Sefton to 93.4% in NHS Lambeth.
While we understand that cultural differences exist in different areas, it is important that all new mothers receive the best quality of care no matter who they are or where they live. We encourage local commissioners and services to use their resources, and opportunities such as National Breastfeeding Week, to reduce such variations and increase overall breastfeeding rates.
Increased awareness of the health risks associated with not breastfeeding has brought about a drive in recent years to improve breastfeeding support and increase breastfeeding prevalence rates. Support and information is currently available to health professionals and parents through a range of channels such as the NHS Choices website under the Start4Life banner; the national breastfeeding helpline; the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly initiative; and local peer support programmes.
Parents-to-be and new mothers and fathers can also sign up to the Start4life information service for parents. Subscribers receive regular free emails, videos and text messages that offer high quality advice and information based on the stage of pregnancy and the age of the child. That service includes breastfeeding and signposts parents to other quality-assured information about parenting, relationship support and benefits advice.
In the past five years, I am delighted to say that we have recruited more than 2,100 more midwives into the NHS. We are training a further 6,400, who will provide women with the information, advice and support they need to breastfeed. In addition, appropriately trained and supervised maternity support workers play an important role in supporting women with breastfeeding and helping midwives to run parentcraft classes. In the past five years, 2,000 new health visitors have been recruited and we are on track to reach our target of 4,200 by the end of the year.
I will try to answer the important questions raised in the few minutes available; if I am beaten by the clock, perhaps I can write to hon. Members. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned the National Infant Feeding Network. In 2014, the Department of Health provided £30,000 to UNICEF UK to support the establishment of the network, which shares and promotes evidence-based practice on infant feeding and early childhood development to deliver optimum outcomes. It comprises 600 infant feeding specialists and supports 30,000 health professionals who, in turn, are responsible for caring for more than 650,000 mothers.
The network approached the Department for funding support in 2015. Unfortunately, its request could not be accommodated because it came in too late for the 2015-16 budget. However, we continue to work closely with the network co-ordinators on future funding.
The hon. Lady also raised the breastfeeding rights of women in the workplace. Specific health and safety requirements relating to new and expectant mothers at work are contained in regulations 16 to 18 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. A woman can ask her employer to provide a private, safe and healthy space to allow her to express milk and a fridge to store it in.
On the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly initiative, I repeat that we want to encourage more women to breastfeed. That is why we welcome the revised Baby Friendly standards that support feeding and relationship building. It is great to see that, across the UK, 91% of maternity services and 88% of health visiting services are working towards Baby Friendly accreditation. In the UK, 49% of maternity services, 51% of health visiting services, 37% of university midwifery courses and 9% of health visiting courses currently have full Baby Friendly accreditation.
On the infant feeding survey, I am happy to confirm that the Government’s policy is to improve outcomes for women and their babies. To do that, we need current information to inform policy and service delivery. The statistics that NHS England regularly gathers capture data from all women using NHS services, rather than from the periodic survey samples. From 2016, the maternity and children’s dataset will, for the first time, link a mother’s health and behaviours during pregnancy and post-natally to outcomes for herself. I will happily write with more details on that and on the issue of breast milk substitutes, since I am defeated by the clock.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I apologise; I was merely stretching my legs as I saw the clock hit the 5.30 button. I was not expecting the vote. I am delighted that I have more time to finish dealing with the two questions. There was an important question on breast milk substitutes.
For mothers who choose to use formula milk, it is important that measures are in place to protect babies’ health and that all the parents have the information they need to make the right choice. The Government provide advice for parents on maternal and infant nutrition via NHS Choices and the NHS Start4life information service.
The international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes is an international health policy framework to regulate the marketing of breast milk substitutes. In view of the vulnerability of babies in the early months of life and the risks involved in inappropriate feeding, the marketing of breast milk substitutes requires special treatment. Baby Friendly accreditation requires services to implement the requirements of the code, which goes further than UK law in regulating marketing activity. To meet the Baby Friendly standards, services must ensure that there is no promotion of breast milk substitutes, bottles, teats or dummies in any part of the facility or by any of the staff.
The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula (England) Regulations 2007 are designed to ensure that all types of infant formulae meet the nutritional needs of babies, while ensuring that breastfeeding is not undermined by the advertising, marketing and promotion of such products. The regulations include strict controls on the promotion, labelling and composition of infant and follow-on formula and set out clear guidance for infant formula manufacturers on how the regulations should be implemented.
Finally, there was a question about the National Infant Feeding Network, which I think I have dealt with. If there are any other issues, I will happily respond by letter. I shall leave enough time for the hon. Member for Glasgow Central to close the debate.
I thank the Minister and all the Members who have spoken today; the fact that they came along and participated is very much appreciated. I can see from Twitter that the debate has been getting a good and interesting response. I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for her contribution and for her support for the organisations in her area that clearly need it at this time. Where we have instances of good practice in breastfeeding in this country, we must absolutely support services in every way we can. It is absolutely true that if we lose the expertise and the service, that will set breastfeeding back hugely and it will be difficult to re-establish.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) spoke passionately about the support required, about the importance of the consistency of a network and about the importance of having experienced midwife support. Experienced professional advice must be given, and it can be given only, whatever the circumstances, by seeing somebody physically. The answer cannot always be to do things online.
The Minister made the point about follow-on milk, commercialisation and the implementation of the code. I still think that we have issues. We can go further to implement the code; it is clear that the implication of some of the adverts for follow-on milk is that if women breastfeed for a year or two, their milk might not contain enough nutrients for their child. The opposite is true—it contains all the nutrients that are needed. That is exactly and specifically how nature has designed it for the healthy development of children.
I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for her contribution. She is hugely experienced and clearly very passionate about the subject, which is great. There are lots of obstacles in the way, not least women returning to work, and we need to be mindful of that and how best we can offer support. We need to make breastfeeding a normal process so that women do not feel embarrassed about asking to nip out to express milk or going to visit the nursery to feed their child.
I had a strange experience last summer as a volunteer at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. It was the longest time I had been away from my baby at that point. I found it very difficult to explain to a room of strangers that I was nipping out for a couple of minutes to express milk and to ask whether I could hide it in the fridge somewhere. The situation is difficult and awkward; we need to be aware of that. Employers need to be aware of their obligations and how to make it easy for people, so that there is a private space where they will not be interrupted. People should not be offered a corner of a busy lunchroom and certainly never a toilet, because that is disgusting, frankly. We would not eat our lunch in the toilet, so we should not expect anyone else to.
The point about images and showing the world what breastfeeding looks like was interesting. The Minister commented that I had tweeted a picture at the weekend; someone came up to me yesterday and said, “That’s very daring of you!” and “That’s very brave of you!” To be honest, I did not think about it. I was holding a baby; there was nothing particularly to see in the picture other than me feeding my daughter. I thought, “What a strange reaction.” To me, it is completely natural; I do it almost without thinking.
I put the picture up to publicise the importance of the debate and National Breastfeeding Week. If we look at the hashtag, we will see women doing similar across the internet just now. It is a process of normalising the activity—perhaps making a breastfeeding selfie something that people do, rather than draw back from. The issue is about making breastfeeding part of everyday life that people see all the time. If people do not see women breastfeeding, do not know anyone who breastfeeds and all they see are women feeding children with bottles, they will think that breastfeeding is odd and may not feel brave enough—because it will feel brave—to attempt it themselves.
We need to think carefully about how we normalise breastfeeding and how families, extended families and friends can best support women when they are doing it. My neighbours in Glasgow were keen to help their daughters and daughters-in-law by taking their babies overnight when they were tiny to give the mother a break. Although that is a wonderful thing to do to help, it will not help breastfeeding at all and will make it all the more difficult. We all need to think about our roles as part of families, the things we say and the way in which we say them—not say, “You must be exhausted”, but rather, “Can I make you a wee cup of tea?” It is about finding ways to support people rather than passing comment or using phrases that almost feel undermining at every turn. We need to think about that as much as we can.
Order. We are all finding our way with the new system that we have only just implemented in Westminster Hall. The wind-up speech should really be very brief—probably about two minutes. I think the hon. Lady has been going for more than five minutes, so she might want to bring her contribution to an end.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I have found it difficult because the time is not what I expected it to be, so I was unsure about whether I was running out of time and how long I had. I thank the Minister for his contribution. I still think that there are lots of issues that we, as individual Members, ought to take up in this Parliament to support mothers in any way we can. I thank hon. Members again for attending.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered National Breastfeeding Week.