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Westminster Hall

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 24 November 2015

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

World Prematurity Day

I beg to move,

That this House has considered World Prematurity Day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This subject does not get enough attention in this place, or indeed in the media. In the previous Parliament—in a Westminster Hall debate and elsewhere—I raised the subject of stillbirth, as I have a very good friend who suffered possibly one of the worst stillbirth events that I have ever heard of. I asked lots of questions in this place on that subject, including at Prime Minister’s questions, because I truly believe that we need to raise awareness of these matters. I worked very closely with Sands and with a charity called Bliss, whose strapline is,

“for babies born too soon, too small, too sick”.

Those organisations really care passionately about neonatal issues.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. I have received a number of emails about the debate, including from a constituent, Samantha Evans, whose son Dylan was born in the 27th week of pregnancy. Across the emails I have had, there is a wonderful sense of how great the care provided by the NHS to premature babies is. I absolutely praise that, but suggest that perhaps in policy development in future, it might be useful to look at what support can be provided to the parents of premature babies.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right, and I will come on to that later. I, too, have had a lot of contact from my constituents on this issue. In fact, at my very first surgery—or advice centre—as a Member of Parliament back in 2010, a lady called Catherine Allcott came in, and it is through her that I got involved with the charity Bliss. I asked whether she would mind if I read out a couple of paragraphs about what happened to her and why this issue is so important to so many parents such as her and her husband, Nigel. She very kindly agreed, so to set the scene for Members, I will read out Catherine and Nigel’s story.

Their twins, Luke and Grace, were born in the early hours of the morning of 4 May 2006, at 26 weeks’ gestation. The twins’ premature birth caused serious health problems, including brain bleeds, suspected meningitis, necrotising enterocolitis and heart problems. Although Grace is now a happy, healthy child, sadly, Luke died nearly four months after being born. Catherine tells me:

“One of the things we found hardest to deal with at that time was the fact that there was often only one nurse in the NICU”—

the neonatal intensive care unit—

“usually to three or four babies.”

She was on the unit so much because of the issues she was experiencing and because she felt so uneasy about that situation, and that is why she has been involved ever since.

Catherine says:

“When I was there sometimes I would have to help the nurse on duty by running into the next room to fetch help. I often wondered what happened when I wasn’t there. When the nurses would tell me not to spend so much time on the unit, what was I to do? Tell them I didn’t trust them with so many babies to look after?”

She goes on to say:

“As a committed campaigner for high quality neonatal care I am saddened to think that in ten years very little has changed in terms of staffing units safely and effectively. How many babies have died or now endure life changing illnesses because there simply weren’t enough nurses to care for them appropriately, and what cost is that to the NHS?”

Catherine’s story is really significant. She took me on to the Gosset ward—the neonatal ward—in Northampton general hospital. I was told by a junior doctor who works there that it has all completely changed; it has been refitted and is a much nicer space. There is no doubting the passion and the care that the staff on the ward give, but equally, there is no doubting the pressure that they are under and the fact that we can help to improve the conditions for them.

World Prematurity Day takes place on 17 November every year—we have just missed it, but this was the closest time to World Prematurity Day that I could get for the debate. The day is aimed at raising awareness of the issues facing premature babies. It is co-ordinated by a global coalition of charities and groups, including Bliss, each year.

The global statistics are quite astonishing: 15 million babies are born prematurely worldwide each year—that is 29 babies every minute, and one in 10 of all babies born—and in the UK, that equates to nearly 60,000 babies born prematurely each year. Bliss estimates that 113 babies who need specialist care to help them survive and thrive are born every year to parents living in my constituency. About 61 of those babies are born prematurely, at under 37 weeks’ gestation. Those born at under 32 weeks’ gestation are considered very pre-term. Those babies are born before they are fully developed and often spend the longest time in neonatal care.

Obviously, most premature births have no clear cause, whereas others are induced due to medical necessity. There is evidence that risk factors for premature birth include smoking, drinking alcohol, substance abuse, low or high maternal age, infection, high blood pressure and multiple births. There is lots of research—although we could always do more on this subject—showing that socio-economic factors also have an impact.

I want to underline the fact that prematurity is a global issue, which is why we have World Prematurity Day. It is the world’s biggest cause of death for young children. Of the 15 million babies that are born prematurely worldwide each year, more than 1 million do not survive. We are fortunate in the UK to have the resources to care for all babies born prematurely, but there is a long way to go before babies and their parents are given the best possible chance.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on his unstinting work for the families of those who are facing the challenges of a premature birth. Often, one of the most acute problems facing families in that situation is meeting the costs of constant hospital visits. Will he join me in calling on all hospital trusts across the country to follow the Government’s guidelines on hospital parking charges, which would see concessions and even free parking for families of babies who often stay in hospital for months on end?

I concur with my hon. Friend on that matter. I have heard many a story about that. I have also visited the John Radcliffe hospital to see its neonatal unit and talked to parents. In Northampton general hospital’s case, there is a way for someone to get their parking charge back, although actually, if they are the parent of a premature child who is not doing very well, the last thing they think about is where they are going to park and how they are going to pay for the ticket. The grandparent of a baby born prematurely who is not very well does not think about the parking charge when they go in, but it is one of their worries when they leave. We need to do better on that issue and spread some of the best practice that exists in the NHS when it comes to parking charges. Those charges seem like a minor element in the scheme of things, but they are such a big deal to parents, grandparents, friends and family—the support mechanism that builds around a family when a baby is born prematurely and especially when a baby is born unwell. My hon. Friend is completely correct to raise that issue.

As I said, we have a long way to go before all babies born too soon have the best possible chance of survival and of living a good-quality life. The UK mortality rate for babies is quite high for a western European country. I have previously raised in this place an article in The Lancet, going back probably five years now, saying that we ranked 33rd of the 35 top western countries in stillbirth mortality rates. We were in a very poor place, and I struggle with the massive regional variation across our country. I would like to think that we have best practice that spreads across the NHS, but there will always be somewhere that has a number of staff sick and where there is pressure on a unit. However, there should not be a massive regional variation. The Lancet article said that stillbirth was a third more likely in the east midlands than in the south-west, so there are significant issues to deal with. Surely that rate should be equal across the piece.

If the UK could match the mortality rates achieved in Sweden and Norway, for example, the lives of at least 1,000 babies could be saved every year. One thousand babies—that is such a significant statistic. I have met parents of stillborn children and know what they have gone through. Some 1,000 babies each year could be saved with best staffing and better equipment, although the issue is not so much about resources. It is about spreading throughout the whole NHS the best practice that I have seen in various hospitals up and down the country. Concerns about variation in care were highlighted in this year’s Bliss baby report, which found that two thirds of neonatal units do not have enough nurses and two thirds do not have enough medical staff to meet Government standards for safe, high-quality care.

We must talk about this significant issue and raise awareness of it. I sat on the Public Accounts Committee for five years and raised it there when we had the chief maternity officer in front of us, because we should talk about such issues whenever we get the opportunity. I know that those working in the NHS get it—I have spoken to all sorts of people from the top to the bottom of the NHS, and they obviously all care passionately for the parents and want the best outcome for their babies—but we have a long way to go to improve the care available to mothers, fathers and their babies. We need to raise the matter at every opportunity, and when I did so in the Public Accounts Committee the chief maternity officer took me to one side afterwards and said, “We are really working hard on this. This is an issue that we know we can do better on. The Government have announced a strategy to reduce infant mortality by, I believe, 50% by 2030. That is obviously welcome and recognises that we could and should be doing better.

I want to raise a few points about the 2015 baby report by Bliss, which has done so much work in this area. I know that plenty of other charities do fantastic work, but Bliss is one of the biggest, and I have worked closely with it through my constituents, the Allcotts. I very much respect its work. The report, entitled “Hanging in the balance”, found that funding shortfalls, national skills shortages and problems with training and recruitment are leaving many neonatal units without the staff they need to meet Government and NHS standards for safe, high-quality care. It states that 64% of neonatal units do not have enough nurses to meet national standards of safe staffing levels; two thirds do not have enough specialist nurses; two thirds do not have the medical staff they need to meet national standards; and 41% have no access to a trained mental health worker—one of my hon. Friends will raise that point, so I will not go into it in detail—leaving parents and staff without the vital support they need to help them cope.

I emphasise that it is not only parents who need help. When I went to the John Radcliffe hospital, I unfortunately went on a morning when three babies had died the night before. None could have been helped, but although the staff are professional people who know exactly what they are doing and the situation they are working in—they have a huge passion for their role, deliver a huge amount of care and become attached to families in a big way—it was palpable that the unit was feeling down that morning. In fact, I felt that I was getting in the way, so I left as soon as I could. It is not just parents who need trained mental health workers available to them; the staff also need them to help them cope in such situations.

There are insufficient funding accounts for three quarters of nursing shortfalls in neonatal units, and 72% of units struggle with at least one aspect of nurse training and development. From all the time I have been involved with the matter, especially when seen through the glasses that I have put on as Daventry’s MP and from standing beside Catherine Allcott on Gosset ward at Northampton general hospital, I know that attracting people to go into this area of nursing is quite a job. Those who go into it find it remarkably rewarding, but it is also a remarkably tough role. That is one reason why vacancies in this field of nursing specialism have historically been high, and we must address that. The rewards are massive, but occasionally there are unbelievably bad days at work.

We should have a whole host of ambitions nationally. I want to be able to look my constituents, Catherine and Nigel, in the eye and say that I have done everything I possibly can to ensure that what happened to them does not happen to anyone else.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is talking about improvements nationally, and I hope that we all concur. Does he agree that the Government should ensure that international best practice and improving statistics in several countries are closely investigated and, where possible, replicated?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. Statistics regularly prove that we are not doing as well as our Scandinavian colleagues, and we should look at that. I know that we are doing so—a lot of work is going on in the Department of Health and elsewhere to see where we can improve.

I really want to be able to say to my friends who suffered from a full-term stillbirth that the care available to parents in similar situations is much better than it was for them. I said in my 2010 speech that the mother of the full-term stillborn baby was told at the beginning of a weekend that her baby had passed away, but she was sent away because an anaesthetist was not available, so she had to come back on the Monday to have the baby delivered.

I do not deny that there will always be stillborn and premature babies, but what matters is how we look after the parents and how neonatal units look after the babies. I am absolutely sure that in this Chamber and this Parliament, and across society, we all want to deliver the best possible care in those situations.

The format in Westminster Hall is that we have the Back-Bench speeches and then, no later than 10.30 am because we are due to finish at 11, we will have the first of the Front-Bench speeches, from the Scottish National party, and then hear from the official Opposition and from the Minister, but if we get to the Front-Bench speeches before that, so be it.

I offer warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing the debate. This is a very important issue, but, as he made clear, it does not get the attention that it deserves. It is right and proper that it is being raised in Westminster Hall today, so close to World Prematurity Day.

I want to refer to a campaign that is based in Croydon North, the constituency that I represent, and that is calling for better support for the parents of premature babies. Called The Smallest Things, it was set up in 2014 by Catriona Ogilvy after her two gorgeous little boys, Samuel and Jack Smith, were born prematurely. She and her husband, Mike, were delighted to be parents. They were excited and full of joy as one would expect, but their lives were turned upside down because of the needs of their children and the fact that they did not feel that they were adequately prepared or supported to provide the care and love that their children needed.

The babies were cared for at the special care baby unit at Croydon university hospital. I had the opportunity to visit that unit with representatives from Bliss, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke. It is a fantastic unit, and I think that it is typical of many across the country. The quality of the care that is given at those special units is fantastic, but when someone walks into one even as a visitor, let alone as a parent, they are overwhelmed by an incredibly emotional feeling, because what they see is wires, tubes, boxes with portholes and bleeping machines and then those tiny little babies, vulnerable and needy, with all that paraphernalia around them. When we talk to the parents there, they are so delighted and relieved to have that support, but also so terrified and traumatised by what their little newborn baby is having to go through. At a time when they are desperate to hold that child and give them the physical love that they need, they cannot touch the child because of the intensity of the care that is being provided. That is incredibly difficult for parents, but we should pay tribute to all the staff who work in those extraordinary and wonderful live-saving units.

However, although the medical care is fantastic, the support for parents is, frankly, inadequate. The Smallest Things campaign is calling for maternity leave to be extended for mothers of premature babies. That is the primary purpose of the campaign and the point to which I hope the Minister will respond. The campaign organised an online petition that secured 10,000 signatures. Many comments that were made, but I will read out just one, which was put on the petition by a mother talking about her experience. She said:

“We had a baby born 11 weeks early and it crippled us. I lost my job because of the time I had taken off. We racked up huge debts on credit cards and 9 months on”


“still struggling immensely to keep a roof over our heads.”

No parent should be put in that position when they have the stress of a little baby struggling for their life at the same time. As a society, we owe better care to parents in that situation.

There are five reasons why The Smallest Things campaign is calling for maternity leave to be extended and they are as follows: financial; bonding with the child; the child’s development; the mother’s mental health; and employment. I will quickly run through each of those issues. On average, the parents of a premature baby spend an additional £2,255 in the course of the hospital stay, but very little financial support is available to parents in those circumstances. They cannot, for instance, apply for disability living allowance, and there is little flexibility to take additional paid leave from work. Therefore, many parents of premature babies, particularly if they are not earning a great deal of money in any case, are pushed into very difficult financial circumstances and even into debt, which is not a problem that parents in that situation should be forced to live with.

The second reason is about bonding between parent and child. A child can spend months in a neonatal unit and, in those circumstances, it can be near impossible for the parent to spend as much time with the child as they would if they were able to take the child home, but the physical bonding between mother and child is critical to the future healthy development of that child and can continue having impacts even in later life. Extended maternity leave would allow mothers to make up for the loss of that very important physical bonding once the child is no longer enclosed in the way that is necessary in a neonatal unit.

The third point is about development. Premature babies have different development patterns from babies born on their due date, so parents returning to work, perhaps after six months’ maternity leave, may well know that their child has reached the development stage only of a three-month-old. They go back to work worrying that their child has not had the support that they needed to reach the stage of development that they should have reached. Often, that can slow down the child’s development for years afterwards. Added to that is the fact that the child’s physical development is often slowed down. That can lead to much more frequent and regular visits to hospital during the first few years of a child’s life. All of that places further demands on the parents and, if they are working, on the employers to give the parents time off. Where employers refuse to do that, we need more flexibility to be permitted under law. The Government need to make that change, as some employers will not or are not able to do that themselves.

The fourth point is about maternal mental health. There is a huge risk of depression for mothers of premature babies. That arises from the anxiety and stress that they experience in having a child who has to struggle for their life for such a long period in their very early and very formative years. The additional financial pressures to which I have referred can add to that stress. Many mothers, struggling in incredibly difficult circumstances to cope, experience mental ill health, but they may not have been alerted to the signs of that and therefore do not seek treatment early enough. That is damaging not only to the mother but to the whole family, and can be damaging to the child.

The fifth point to which the campaign refers is employment. A planned return to employment can be disrupted by a premature birth. Often, a mother who originally planned to return after six months cannot, which can put people in extremely difficult financial circumstances. We need greater flexibility around periods of paid maternity leave for parents of babies who are born too soon.

The name of the campaign, The Smallest Things, comes from a quote from “Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne:

“‘Sometimes,’ said Pooh, ‘the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.’”

It is time for these smallest things to take up more room in the Government’s heart as well. Maternity and paternity support for parents of babies born too soon is currently inadequate. I hope that the Minister will address the need for greater financial support for parents in those circumstances, better provision for paid parental leave and better support for the mental health issues that arise among parents whose babies come into the world too soon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, although it is not a great pleasure to listen to the debate. The quality, of course, is excellent, but the subject matter is so sad. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) for organising the debate.

It is fair to say that when our son died because he was born prematurely 15 years ago, the focus was, rightly, on the medical situation. I was extremely unwell with pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome, which is a leading cause of maternal death worldwide; I am now the patron of the charity in this country. Bliss has reported, and others will speak, about funding and skills shortages in neonatal units. My own experience is that skilled staff worked hard and did all they could for us medically. More could and probably should have been done to create memories. I have spoken and corresponded with my hon. Friend the Minister about that and hope that his excellent work on it will bear fruit. The Minister for family justice is also doing great work for the families of babies who die to ensure best practice during the cremation and burial process.

Today, I want to focus on the other medical services that can make such a difference to premature babies and their families in the long term. This is an issue of growing importance. Just as the elderly are living longer, the very young are surviving in cases where even a few years ago, they would not have done. That is, obviously, good news but, just as with the very old, prematurity presents its own challenges.

First, I turn to mental health, which my friend the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) has mentioned. According to Bliss, 40% of mothers of premature babies are affected by postnatal depression soon after birth, compared with 5% to 10% of mothers generally. For those whose babies die, I suggest that 100% need access to counselling, for both the father and the mother, and possibly for siblings and grandparents as well. It is not acceptable that on 41% of neonatal units, parents have no access to a trained mental health worker and on 30% of neonatal units, parents have no access to any psychological support at all. Not only is allowing mental health problems to go untreated needlessly cruel, but it has wider implications.

The Prime Minister made it clear how important family is to him in a speech last year, when he said that

“for those of us who want to strengthen and improve society, there is no better way than strengthening families and strengthening the relationships on which families are built.”

Sadly, however, a very large number—so large a number I am not even going to mention it—of marriages and relationships break up under the strain of a bereavement or the birth of a very sick baby, and more must be done to face that problem head-on.

I am on a Bill Committee upstairs, but I wanted to come down to this important debate. I raised some issues about summer-born children in a debate recently. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the long term, unless a family’s wishes about delaying the start of education are recognised, and unless that is embedded in the code by the Department for Education, significant problems will be experienced not only by the premature child but by the family?

I agree, not least because I am the mother of a daughter who was born on 28 August. Although she was not premature, I am very aware of the difficulties that prematurity carries with it throughout the lives of children who are born too early.

My hon. Friend touched on the question of divorce following the sad death of an infant. I wonder whether she would like to reflect on the need for more marriage guidance and support structures for those who face that awful situation, and more widely on how working towards a seven-day NHS will help to alleviate many of the problems that come about with premature birth.

Turning first to the difficulties in relationships, it is true, as I have found out personally and with great difficulty, that fathers and mothers grieve differently. The interface between two very unhappy people can be, as I know from personal experience, very difficult indeed to manage. I am fortunate that my husband and I had been married for a long time before our son died, and we were able to hold it together. We also come from very stable families who were able to provide us with a great deal of support, as was the Church. It is an enormously difficult area for people, however. On the seven-day NHS, yes, it is always terrifying to look at the units at weekends with lower numbers of staff on duty, and to wonder how those people are coping.

I return to poor mental health. It is important to focus not only on the parents but on the babies. From my work with the Parent-Infant Partnership UK, I know that long-term difficulties emerge from a lack of bonding between depressed parents and their children. The sad by-line “two is too late” is substantially true. If prematurity is not to have a multi-generational impact, early action must be taken quickly.

There are simple, practical solutions that would ease the strain on families. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) has been working hard to ensure that more beds are provided in mental health mother and baby units nationwide. We heard, at an excellent lecture that my hon. Friend hosted last week in this place, from a psychiatrist who admits women from Cornwall to his unit in Birmingham. Travelling puts additional burdens on families under strain. Probably 50 or 60 more beds are needed nationwide to meet the commitments we have made to give mental health parity of esteem.

Other associated health professionals need to be in at the off, working with premature babies and their families. Professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians and speech and language therapists form a vital part of the care that premature babies need. Such care can have an enormous effect on development and quality of life. I will give the example of a child who is well known to me—a little boy born very prematurely to well-informed parents, who were not told about the importance of physiotherapy to his development. That must be seen in the context of the fact that 20% of premature babies have a cerebral palsy diagnosis. That little boy is now 10, and, rather than playing football with his friends, he has had a punishing sequence of operations and casts on his legs. His parents were told at their last appointment that physiotherapy from babyhood might have alleviated the need for all that. According to Bliss, 43% of neonatal units had no access to an occupational therapist, even via referral to another service, and 12% of units had no access to a speech and language therapist. As ever, early intervention saves trauma, time and money.

The Government have wisely seen the need for co-ordinated care for the elderly, with named GPs and someone in charge of the entire patient experience. So often, we speak of the need for a joined-up approach to end-of-life care. Only a few weeks ago, the Minister responded to a debate on palliative care and spoke of the importance of integration between sectors. We are making great progress on that front; the Economist Intelligence Unit recently reported that we have the best palliative care in terms of access to services and the quality of those services. Perhaps the time has come to look at the needs of premature babies and their families as a whole and to do some joined-up thinking to ensure our neonatal care is also the best in the world.

It is a pleasure to be involved in this debate. I commend the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on bringing the matter to Westminster Hall for consideration and giving us all a chance to participate. Looking back, one of the greatest joys we have all had—I hope we have all had it—is the birth of our own children. Those special occasions are full of joy at the birth of a new child.

I was present when my three children were born, and I did not feel any pain at all; my wife experienced all the pain. The only pain I felt was when she grabbed my hand and would not let go, and the blood circulation got very tight. The births of the grandchildren were all great occasions as well. In this debate, we are hearing about those who did not have the same sort of experience, and I want to add some thoughts about that.

The World Health Organisation promotes World Prematurity Day to raise awareness of the one in 10 babies worldwide who are born prematurely. World Prematurity Day was just last week, so it is not too late to remember it. We are not just talking about babies who are born prematurely and die prematurely; I want to concentrate my remarks on those who are born prematurely and survive.

In addition to the risk they face to their lives, infants who are born early are prone to serious long-term health problems including heart defects, lung disorders and neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, which the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) referred to. They may reach developmental milestones later than other children do, and they may struggle at school. Premature birth may lead to all those things, and it may mean that some people do not have the privilege of having children.

In 2013, there were 51,000 pre-term births—around 7% of live births—in England and Wales. We have had a couple of Adjournment debates in the Chamber in the last while. On both those occasions, very personal stories were told that resonated with all present. We have similar problems in Northern Ireland; the matter is devolved, but the figures are the same. We can be under no illusions—this issue is a problem not only in third-world countries, but in our country, and it remains an issue that needs to be addressed in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Of the 15 million babies born prematurely worldwide each year, around 1 million die from complications due to their prematurity. More than three quarters of those babies could be saved through better access to quality care and medicines for the mother and the baby, so something can be done. It is important that we try to address those issues.

Complications of pre-term births are the leading cause of death among children under five years of age. Earlier I made a point about the medical conditions sometimes present in those who are born prematurely. Without the appropriate treatment, those who survive often face lifelong disabilities including learning, visual and hearing problems, and their quality of life is greatly affected. Fortunately the United Kingdom has relatively world-class healthcare. Indeed, we are more prepared and more able than many to deal with such complications, but that does not mean that more cannot be done to address this important issue.

I praise the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) for securing this important debate. My first child was born more than six weeks premature as a result of an emergency caesarean in the Southern general hospital in Glasgow. Luckily, Emma is now a healthy nine-year-old—touch wood—but, as has been mentioned, not all parents are as lucky. I have friends who have experienced the horrendous strain of a stillbirth. Putting aside party politics, does the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) agree with me that special care baby units should be insulated from the cost pressures on NHS hospitals and trusts, no matter what those pressures are?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the personal story that he told us, as others have today. The Minister will address that issue and mention how best he can do that. I would like to see that measure in place; we probably all would. The Minister is the man with the responsibility, so let him earn his money and give us the answer that we need to hear.

I welcome the Health Secretary’s announcement that his new ambition is to reduce the rate of stillbirths and neonatal and maternal deaths in England by 50% by 2030. He has set a goal to be achieved, which indicates a commitment to try to address those issues. Although the Minister will be the one to respond today, the man in charge at the top has indicated that he wants it to happen.

Worryingly, Christine Carson, the clinical practice programme director of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, has said:

“Despite medical advances, rates of premature birth have remained constant over the last 10 years.”

There is a clear issue to be addressed. The hon. Member for Daventry is right that although there seems to be a commitment to change and to doing it better, we have not seen much evidence of that—at least not through the statistics.

Christine Carson continued:

“An early labour—one that occurs before the pregnancy reaches 37 weeks—can pose numerous health risks to the baby, and these risks increase the earlier that child is born.”

I commend, as others have, the work of many charities. I would say to the hon. Member for Banbury that, in the worst of circumstances, it is always good to have faith and the support of the Church. Perhaps the shadow Minister and the Minister will comment on the importance of faith groups and churches, and of the availability of church ministers to offer emotional and perhaps even physical support at a time when families need it most. That is personally important to me, and I know that it is for others.

Christine Carson also said:

“Although more premature babies are surviving, rates of disability among these children remain largely unchanged. The way to tackle this is to provide consistent and high-quality care to prevent early labour”.

If we can do that, we can prevent disabilities and long-term health conditions. We cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to this issue. It is not good enough that for a decade premature birth rates have been stagnating, rather than improving with advancements in medical science. One of the best ways to promote equality is to give each and every child the best possible start in life with the most equal opportunities possible.

NICE and the World Health Organisation, among others, have produced guidelines on how best to address the problem. We have to recognise that we are short on funds at the moment but some of those recommendations provide good guidance on how best to move forward and how to make inexpensive, cost-effective changes to help to improve outcomes.

I think it was said in the news this morning that the Health Minister is going to raise some more money for the NHS—that is probably in England. Will the Minister give some indication of what that money will be focused on? Maybe it will be focused on A&E or on direct care. Is it possible that some of that funding could go towards this issue?

Some of the recommendations of NICE and the WHO include:

“When to offer progesterone…or a cervical ‘stitch’…to prevent or delay the onset of preterm labour; How to diagnose if a woman’s waters have broken prematurely before labour has begun and which antibiotics to offer to avoid infection; Which drugs will help to delay labour and to whom they should be offered; When to safely clamp and cut a premature baby’s umbilical cord.”

Those four recommendations and thoughts from NICE and the WHO are simple, yet effective measures that could make a real difference in addressing the issue.

I thank the hon. Member for Daventry again for bringing the issue to the House for consideration, and I thank all Members who have contributed. We can and should come together and get the right approaches to improve outcomes for prematurely born children in a way that is compatible with the current state of the Treasury. I look forward to the replies of the shadow Minister and the Minister, but I apologise in advance as I have to go to the Defence Committee at quarter to 11, so I have to be away at about 20 to 11.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing this incredibly important debate. I will start by picking up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that focused on mortality, because our prematurity rates are a national scandal. He is absolutely right when he says that they have stagnated for about a decade. We have one of the worst records in the western world; I believe we are positioned 33 out of 35 countries. That is totally unacceptable considering we have one of the best health services in the world. It is a scandal.

When we talk about statistics and about being 33rd out of 35, we forget that we are actually talking about babies—more than 5,000 babies a year. More than 5,000 families go through the absolute tragedy of stillbirth or neonatal death. I very much welcome the fact that the Government now have a focus on the matter. Statistically, the third biggest cause of stillbirth and neonatal death is prematurity, and that is poignant to this debate.

The Government have recently made an announcement on stillbirth and neonatal death, as the hon. Member for Strangford rightly pointed out, with an ambition to reduce rates by 20% by the end of this Parliament and by half by 2030. That is a huge number—more than 2,000 babies who will be saved and 2,000 families who will not have to go through this most traumatic and awful experience. My wife and I have been through a full-term stillbirth, and it is a traumatic experience. As a Government, we should do anything we can to avoid those tragedies. I am glad that there is that renewed focus. That is key— it is the driver to ensure that we have the training and the best possible equipment.

Looking at the whole NHS, some of our hospitals have the best maternity units and are doing the best work anywhere in the world—second to none. Sadly, that is not consistent across the country. The situation is patchy. That is something that I very much hope the Minister will address as part of this programme. We must ensure that we have the later-pregnancy monitoring equipment that can save lives and, more importantly, the training so that midwives know what to spot and have the confidence to stand by what they believe in terms of diagnoses.

There is also the question of what we do when things do not go well; of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry suggested, we cannot avoid stillbirths or neonatal deaths. We can reduce the numbers, and the Government have measures in place to do so, but, sadly and tragically, there will always be stillbirths and neonatal deaths. I secured an Adjournment debate a few weeks ago in which I said that we must have the right procedures, processes and facilities to ensure that those who go through a stillbirth or neonatal death, particularly the parents, have a support network.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) talked about gynaecology counsellors and bereavement-trained midwives, and it is important that we have such facilities providing support in every maternity unit in the country. She rightly said that a huge number of marriages fail because of a stillbirth or neonatal death—I think the figure is a staggering 90%, which is enormous; I know the huge pressure that it put on my family and my relationship with my wife. I can entirely see how relationships can be broken up by that hugely traumatic experience. When I talk about the NHS, I know that we have the best facilities in the world, but we have to ensure that those facilities are available across the country. I am talking about specialist suites, bereavement-trained midwives, specialist nurses and psychological support, which is also important.

I am conscious of the time, but I will pick up on two other points. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) mentioned hospital car parking, which was almost flippantly talked about, but it is hugely important. We forget that not everyone can afford to pay the £20 or £30 a week that some hospitals are charging. My hospital in Colchester has a reduced rate of £10 a week, I believe, but for some people even £10 a week is a huge amount of money. It is not only the parents but the families, the grandparents and the carers who are paying, so it is important that hospitals follow the guidance to ensure that hospital parking is affordable—or, even better, free so that families who are going through the most traumatic experience of their lives are not worrying about money. That is really important.

The hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) touched on an interesting point about the pressure on parents from prematurity and from having to go to the hospital. The mother is likely to be in hospital on an ongoing basis, but we forget about the importance of the father’s role. A father gets only two weeks’ paternity leave, after which he will be going back to work and either thinking all day about his premature child and then racing up to the hospital to try to squeeze in time with the baby in the morning and evening, or putting his job at risk by taking that time off, regardless of the consequences. Government guidance on the importance of employers understanding and recognising the pressures of prematurity on families is important.

I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude by saying that we have one chance to get this right. I welcome the steps that the Government are taking. When they announced their ambition to reduce by half the number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths the week before last, it was my proudest moment in the six months since I was elected to this place. I welcome those steps, but we need to go further and ensure that people have the facilities, the processes and the places to go to as they go through this incredibly traumatic experience. We must also make sure that stillbirths and neonatal deaths are as rare as possible. I welcome this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry on securing it. This is an incredibly important issue that we can all get behind and support.

If the Front Benchers can keep their speeches to 10 minutes, and if the Minister can conclude his remarks just after 10.55 am, Mr Heaton-Harris will have three minutes in which to offer us a pithy summary of the debate and I will have 30 seconds to put the motion to the House. We will then have achieved everything we set out to achieve today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and congratulate him on securing the debate. I am delighted to make a small contribution on behalf of the Scottish National party.

The hon. Gentleman started by saying that the House does not give enough attention to this issue, so again I pay tribute to him for securing the debate and for his dedication to this issue over a number of years. He delivered an excellent speech, citing examples and stories to highlight the issue. I was incredibly touched by his personal example from Catherine and Nigel. I put on record my sympathy for the loss of Luke—what an incredibly touching and harrowing story. As a father, I find it impossible to comprehend how difficult that time must be, not only for Catherine and Nigel, or for any of the other parents we have heard about today, but for all those who have experienced pre-term birth, whether or not their child has survived. It is an incredibly traumatising time for all those parents.

The hon. Gentleman said that if we were to match the pre-term survival rate of Sweden, we would save 1,000 babies a year in the UK, which would save 1,000 families from tragedy, so I hope the Minister will look at that. I absolutely agree that we must ensure that stillbirths and pre-term babies are as few as possible and that parents are properly supported. On one of his visits to his local hospital, the hon. Gentleman learned that three babies had passed away the night before. We cannot imagine the pain felt by the families, but as he said, we must also recognise and pay tribute to the work of our NHS staff, who will share that pain and trauma. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to those staff, who do an incredible job for all of us. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing a great service to his constituents and friends.

The hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), in another good speech, cited the excellent unit at Croydon university hospital, which he visited with Bliss. He said that the families were delighted to receive excellent NHS support but were also terrified and traumatised by not being able to hold their babies—babies who had survived but required extra help—because they were so fragile. When a child is suffering, it is the most natural maternal and paternal thing for their parents to want to hold them. The difficulty experienced by those parents cannot be comprehended, and we must ensure that the necessary emotional and practical help and support is in place. The hon. Gentleman gave the example of the family of an 11-week pre-term baby being forced into debt, which is an absolute tragedy that must be sorted out. I hope the Minister will touch on that in his contribution.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) brought her personal experiences to the debate in a very touching way. She cited some excellent but harrowing statistics that are difficult for us to understand. Some 40% of mothers of children born pre-term experience mental health problems, compared with 5% to 10% of mothers of children born at full term. That takes us back to the support required by parents of premature babies. It is absolutely right that extra support should be available for all parents if their baby passes away, but we must also consider the support that is available to parents whose children survive. She also mentioned the link between pre-term babies and cerebral palsy, which my family has experienced. She is right to draw attention to that, because it needs wider consideration. I thank her for her contribution.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a typically reasoned and measured contribution, touching on the long-term health problems to which surviving pre-term babies are susceptible. That point was in tune with many of the other contributions made today. He mentioned one statistic that startled me: three quarters of the 1 million babies around the world who, tragically, die after pre-term birth could have survived with adequate care and support. We must address that not just here in the UK but internationally. Surely we could consider it in our aid budget.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) made a passionate personal plea to the Minister in an intervention, and I hope that the Minister will respond. Finally, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) also brought his personal experience to the debate in a touching manner; he made a great speech. He is absolutely right: it is a national scandal that we have one of the worst pre-term mortality rates in the western world. He reminded us that when we talk about that mortality, we are talking about babies. Hopefully that brings the issue home to all of us. He also recognised the difficulties experienced by employees, and the fact that employers must take better cognisance of the fact that their employees in that situation will need extra support. I hope that the Minister will take note of that too, and refer back to it when he sums up.

The World Health Organisation promotes World Prematurity Day to raise awareness of the one in 10 babies worldwide who are born prematurely—that is, before the 37th week of pregnancy. It is the leading cause of death in newborn babies and the second most common cause of death in children under five. According to Bliss, a charity that supports families with premature babies and helps raise funds for adequate hospital equipment, 15 million babies worldwide are born prematurely every year, or 29 every minute, and 1 million of those will not survive. In the UK, 60,000 babies are born prematurely every year, which is one in 13.

A motion has been lodged in the Scottish Parliament commemorating world prematurity day and congratulating Sarah Brown on launching a new £1.5 million study on improving educational outcomes and life chances for premature babies. The study is called the Theirworld Edinburgh birth cohort. It was launched last week at the University of Edinburgh, and it will involve researchers at the university following 400 newborns from birth to adulthood, collecting biological samples and brain scans as well as information about socioeconomic status and educational attainment. There is a lot of work going on in Scotland at the moment that I would have loved to mention if there had been slightly more time.

From a local perspective, my constituency is served by the maternity and neonatal unit at Wishaw general hospital. In 2013, there were 5,988 births, 426 of them premature. Some 13% of those premature babies were born weighing less than 1,500 grams. Wishaw general hospital has had its problems in the past, but I am proud to say that NHS Lanarkshire is the only health board in Scotland to have received nominations for the Royal College of Midwives’ annual midwifery awards, which are coming up in March. My local health board has been shortlisted in two categories: the better births award, for which Maureen McSherry and Carole Burns have been nominated for their post-delivery debriefing, and the Pregnacare award for maternity support worker of the year, for which my constituent Leigh-Ann Johnstone from Airdrie has been nominated.

Earlier this year, NHS Lanarkshire implemented Scotland’s first heart rate observation system. Equipment has been installed in Wishaw general hospital to monitor the heart rate of premature and sick babies. It provides early warning of irregularities and can indicate the development of infection, a leading cause of death in vulnerable babies. I again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Daventry for securing this debate, and I thank everyone for their contributions.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing the debate and on how he introduced the subject, which, as he rightly said, does not receive enough attention in the House or in the media. Hon. Members from all parties have made excellent and sometimes very moving contributions to this debate; I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

World Prematurity Day on 17 November gives us the opportunity to raise awareness of premature birth and concerns involving pre-term babies and their families. The landscape is ever changing; advances in medicine mean that many more babies survive than ever before, and many survive at very young ages that even a few years ago would have seemed impossible. We should warmly welcome those advances, while acknowledging the extra demands that they bring. We should also use this debate as an opportunity to take stock of the progress that we have made in improving outcomes for premature babies and, more importantly, to focus on the challenges that we face and what more we can do to ensure that progress continues.

This issue is extremely significant, and I am pleased to see it receiving attention and a good turnout by Members. As the hon. Member for Daventry said in his opening remarks, an estimated 15 million babies around the world are born prematurely each year, and pre-term birth problems remain the leading cause of death among children under five, responsible for nearly 1 million deaths in 2013 alone. The World Health Organisation estimates that if everyone had access to the same kinds of intervention that we in the developed world enjoy, three quarters of those babies could be saved. This country has a proud cross-party tradition of supporting international development, and I hope that world prematurity day will provide a catalyst for us to redouble our efforts to support programmes to improve outcomes worldwide.

Turning to matters closer to home, in 2013 more than 50,000 babies were born prematurely in England and Wales, meaning that tens of thousands of families faced one of the most terrifying and physically and emotionally exhausting experiences imaginable. I recently spoke to one of my constituents about the issue, and I wanted to share her story with the House, as I am sure that it will be familiar to many who have, sadly, faced the same issues. She told me:

“My twins were born nine weeks prematurely, and seeing your tiny poorly babies hooked up to machines and wires, having to watch while your baby’s heart has stopped and seeing them helped back to life, praying the machine will pick up a rhythm again, isn’t something that I would wish on my worst enemy.”

I am sure that some Members will recognise the intensity of that statement. She goes on to say:

“All we want is for all premature babies to be looked after and given the best chance possible, with the best medical care available to help them to survive”.

Who can disagree with that? I am pleased to say that my constituent’s twins are now four years old, fit and healthy and attending a local primary school, which by coincidence I visited last Friday.

We have made significant progress on increasing the number of premature children who go on to live full lives. Mortality rates have improved year on year, falling by 15.5% between 2006 and 2012. Thousands of people are alive now who would simply not have survived in previous decades. That is the impact of the progress that we have made in recent times, and particularly of advances in treating the most premature babies. We should be rightly proud of that.

However, there is no room for complacency. I am sure that hon. Members share my concern about the recent report by the charity Bliss, which has already been highlighted, particularly by the hon. Member for Daventry. The report, “Hanging in the balance”, argues that neonatal services are “stretched to breaking point” and states that two thirds of neonatal intensive care units do not have enough doctors and nurses, with 2,140 more nurses needed to fill the gap. It also identifies a shortage in junior doctors, a situation that could worsen if the Government do not reverse their current antagonistic stance toward the profession.

The Bliss report goes on to state that more than 850 babies were transferred between hospitals last year because there was not enough space or staff at the units where they were. More than 100 of those babies were ventilated. Such transfers are unnecessary and risky. Frankly, at such a time, the family has quite enough stress already, so I hope that we can work to reduce the number of transfers needed in future.

A report by the Royal College of Midwives states that more than 40% of wards became so busy last year that they were forced to close their doors. The average unit closed its doors on five occasions, with some closing more than 20 times. That situation cannot be allowed to continue. One key issue is training. Trusts currently face the Catch-22 situation of having insufficient qualified staff to cover for nurses on training, while the lack of training contributes to the shortage of qualified staff.

It is clear that a co-ordinated approach is required from the Government, the NHS and local managers to tackle the issue. We welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State on 13 November of extra investment in high-tech digital equipment and training, but we question just how far £4 million will go, particularly when we consider that the shortfall in nurses has almost doubled in the last five years, while during the same period the proportion of nurses with specialist qualifications has fallen by 19%. I would welcome any comments from the Minister about when we can expect that investment to come on stream, and what impact he expects it to have on the number of staff available in our overstretched neonatal units.

However, the biggest issue is without doubt a lack of adequate funding for neonatal services across the board. We welcome the work being done by NHS England and its partners to review the payment model for neonatal services and the priority being given to this area in next year’s NHS plans. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that that will result in the increases in funding that are required to provide the right level of care for premature babies. I also hope that he can reassure us that we will be able to provide that care in the right place, with the number of transfers being minimised as far as possible.

As I set out earlier, there has been a huge amount of progress in reducing the rates of stillbirths and infant deaths. Sadly, however, we know that there is further work to do. The national confidential inquiry, which was led by the University of Leicester, found that more than 60% of stillbirths might have been avoided with better care. As the hon. Member for Daventry said, Britain is currently ranked 33rd out of 35 countries in the developed world for stillbirth rates. As the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) said, that is a national scandal, and there is an urgent need for improvement. He also quite rightly pointed out the massive regional variations that exist. Those variations should be avoidable, and they inform us that best practice should be disseminated further so that improvements can be made across the board.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s declaration of his ambition to reduce the rate of stillbirths and neonatal and maternal deaths in England by 50% by 2030. However, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, the rate of stillbirths has remained stable for the last 10 years and 2030 is clearly a long way off, so we hope that some of the issues can be tackled in the much shorter term. I would welcome any comments from the Minister about what progress is expected within the next five years.

I will return to the experience of my constituent for a moment. In addition to telling me about the obvious pain that she experienced during the time that her babies were in hospital, she went on to express to me something that appears, sadly, to be common among mothers of premature children—a sense of guilt for not being able to carry their children until full term. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) quite rightly raised the issue of parental health, as did the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), and we have heard that up to 40% of mothers of premature babies are affected by postnatal depression soon after birth. So it is not just the premature babies who need the care; it is the parents as well. That is why it is so concerning that a third of neonatal units have no overnight accommodation, 41% have no access to a trained mental health worker and 30% are unable to offer psychological support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) highlighted the challenges set out in the campaign The Smallest Things, including the financial, emotional and developmental challenges that premature births create, and the impact that those challenges can have on the mental health of parents. Interestingly, he also touched on the need for greater flexibility in maternity and paternity leave. Although we have legislation on such leave, it is a fact that working mothers still face considerable workplace discrimination, and from what my hon. Friend said it seems that those problems are exacerbated when a mother is dealing with a premature birth. I hope we will see some recognition of that issue by the Minister.

I also hope that the Minister can confirm to us what steps he will take to expand access to mental health services in neonatal units. We should also point out that services have been stretched, so a significant allocation of resources is required if progress is to continue to be made.

We will continue to hold the Government to account to ensure that the vision of England as one of the safest places in the world to have a baby becomes a reality, and while the Government continue to make progress they will have our support.

It is a great pleasure to answer another debate on neonatal care. It demonstrates that there is a real head of steam behind this important issue. I cannot comment with any experience on the number of debates on this issue that there were in the previous Parliament, but it is clear that there is now a critical mass of Members in this House, and interest in all parties, to try to do something to improve neonatal care, whether that is for babies who are born prematurely or at term.

First, I add my tribute and thanks to those given by the shadow Ministers and spokesmen, the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), for the personal stories told by Members, and I will state on the record that I think the whole House is grateful to them for their personal bravery in explaining what has happened to them, and to other Members who have told the stories of their constituents.

It was with such a story that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) began his speech, discussing the account of Catherine and Nigel Allcott, and their son and daughter. He reminded us, as did many hon. Members later, that we can speak about statistics and percentages but what we are actually dealing with are newborn people, little ones and “the smallest things”, who deserve the greatest protection and care that we can possibly give, because they could not be more vulnerable.

In a 2014 study, The Lancet estimated that there were 5.5 million newborn deaths in the world every year and it is that stupefyingly large number that we are addressing today in discussing World Prematurity Day. I know that many speeches were addressed to the domestic situation, but I am very grateful to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, for pointing out that we have an international obligation in this regard, and I will certainly talk to my counterpart in the Department for International Development about the areas that our aid spending are being focused on in terms of healthcare and neonatal support, to see if we are doing all we can to try to spread the best practice in this country and Europe to those parts of the world that are beginning their journey in creating a universal healthcare system for their populations.

With that in mind, I turn to the current situation in the United Kingdom. In this country we have some of the finest neonatal care in the world, but what has been apparent in the speeches given today—accurately reflecting the facts—is that we have far too much variability. That is the principal reason why we are at the bottom of the pack in terms of developed countries when measuring rates of stillbirth, which is by means of proxy for the way that we look after premature babies. So I will outline what the Government plan to do about that situation, because it significantly touches—indeed, it does not just touch but covers—the ground that those campaigning to improve care for premature babies have so rightly highlighted, and the Bliss report is an important contribution to that work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry and many other hon. Members have pointed to the announcement a couple of weeks ago by the Secretary of State that we wish to see the rates of stillbirth, neonatal death and maternal death reduce by 20% by 2020, and by 50%, or by half, by 2030. Within that target, we include a reduction in brain injury for babies.

It is worth pointing out that many of the contributory factors to stillbirth and to brain injury are the same for prematurity, which, in the round, are public health measures. They have not been covered much in this debate but I would like to raise them, because it is very important that we also understand the obligations of parents, to ensure that we can bring down the rates of prematurity and stillbirth.

We still have too many mothers in this country smoking. We know that smoking is a significant contribution to prematurity. If we were to improve the variability of smoking rates across the country, which is actually quite shocking, we would do much to reduce rates of stillbirth. In looking at the smoking rates across the country, it is quite interesting that there is not just a simple binary division between areas of affluence and areas of deprivation. There are some areas of significant deprivation where local public health partners have made considerable strides in reducing smoking rates compared with areas that are quite close by. Likewise, obese pregnant women are much more likely to experience miscarriage or pre-term birth than those women who are in the normal body mass index range.

Therefore, we have significant public health challenges ahead of us in reducing obesity, smoking, drinking and substance abuse, and if we are able to achieve those reductions in partnership with parents across the country we will have made the biggest stride that we can towards reducing rates of prematurity, ensuring that those babies that are born premature are as healthy as they can be and reducing rates of stillbirth, whether premature or term.

I wish to turn to the University of Leicester study and the “Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries in the UK”—or MBRRACE-UK—report that was published last week, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. The study highlights the challenge ahead regarding the care of neonates across the country. The figures are arresting. In half of all the cases highlighted, at least one aspect of antenatal care that could have had an impact on whether the baby was born alive could have been improved. In a third of cases, there were significant problems with bereavement care and in a quarter there were major issues with one or more aspects of intrapartum care.

For me, perhaps the most troubling statistic in the report is that in only a quarter of all the stillbirths it looked at was there an internal case review. We are not improving our position as quickly as we could because we are not reviewing cases in enough instances—we should be reviewing 100% of them—and we are not spreading the knowledge of the reviews across the system. That is one reason why the Secretary of State is so keen to turn the NHS into a learning organisation. Until we get the NHS to do well something that it currently does badly—spreading learning from places that have had a problem, a tragedy, and from those that have made significant strides—we will not make improvements. I refer hon. Members to the experience of St George’s hospital in Tooting, where they have undergone that journey in the past few years, just through dogged clinical persistence, and have been able to change the outcomes for children attending the maternity unit.

I was interested in the remarks made by the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on support for parents, and I shall certainly take his valid point about maternity leave—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) added comments about paternity leave—to my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. I would hope that all employers—not that they will know about or watch this debate—would have the consideration to behave properly with parents of a premature child. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to reflect the development of a baby who has been born prematurely in maternity pay arrangements is interesting and important. I shall certainly take his comments back to colleagues but I can make no promises about what we can do.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about mothers’ mental health, which is something that the Government put a lot of emphasis on in the previous Parliament. We know about the importance of investing in perinatal mental health and that it pays significant dividends if done successfully. That is why we announced in March that we will invest an additional £75 million in it over this Parliament. The services, as provided, are not sufficiently good and we need to do much to improve them.

I hope that many of the instances that hon. Members have mentioned of the lack of support for parents with a premature child who is either living or has died and the lack of counselling for both mother and father—along with the important points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry about marriage counselling and the powerful ones made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage through a premature or stillbirth—can be addressed through the additional money. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who is now in his place, was critical in securing that funding in March.

Various hon. Members also made important points about parking charges and travelling. I hope that NHS England’s 2014 neonatal critical care services review and service specifications will lead, in the next few years, to ensuring that we have more comprehensive neonatal cover. There will be instances when that is not possible—we cannot predict every occasion on which there will be stress on a maternity service—but I hope that the services specifications will come to correct that in the next few years. Hospitals should follow the Department of Health guidance on parking, which contains specific recommendations to ensure that people who have to park for long periods are catered for.

I know that hon. Members raised additional issues that I have not been able to cover in this fascinating debate but I shall ensure that they are responded to afterwards. I thank all hon. Members for their interesting and personal accounts regarding this important subject.

May I thank, through you Mr Hollobone, the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me and the House the time to discuss this important issue? I thank the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for their contributions, and also the Front-Bench spokespeople for the consensual and cross-party basis on which they made their speeches, which is the basis from which we should attack issues about premature babies.

Many important issues have been raised, including mental health care and the acknowledgement of the Government’s ambition to halve the rate of stillbirths and neonatal and maternal deaths by 2030. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health issues an annual national neonatal audit programme report, and the 2014 report came forward with some interesting points, some of which we have talked about today. Sometimes, unfortunately, in Britain in 2014 we were still missing development checks for premature babies, and that is raised in the report. It also mentions something I find shocking, which we have all talked about in our speeches today. We are doing better, and we are focused on the ambition of doing the best we can for parents with a premature baby, but one in 10 families is still not recorded as having a consultation with a senior member of the neonatal team within 24 hours of their baby’s admission. It is unbelievable that that can happen when the parents are at their most stressed and worried.

I thank the Minister for his reply and thank everyone who has taken part. I thank Bliss and other charities for their work in this area, and I especially thank my constituents Catherine and Nigel for their magnificent work in trying to ensure that no one else goes through what they had to go through.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered World Prematurity Day.

Children of Alcoholics

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for children of alcoholics.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am glad to see the Minister for Children and Families, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson) in his place. The matter we are about to debate is something I know he will care deeply about, and I very much look forward to working with him over the months—and, I hope, years—to come, to implement many of the things that I will talk about. I think he will embrace wholeheartedly what I call for, and I look forward to turning some of the ideas that we will debate into action.

I have done some difficult jobs in politics with my right hon. and hon. Friends, but in many ways this is the hardest speech I will have made in my 11 years in the House: it will be the first time I have talked publicly about being the child of an alcoholic. My dad was an amazing individual. He was warm and charismatic. He was the son of Irish immigrants. He dragged himself into grammar school and into university. He was a great idealist who devoted his life to public service. His warmth, charisma and idealism inspired me to join the Labour party when I was 15, and it was his example that inspired me to get stuck into politics—to do my bit to try to make our country a bit better.

My dad battled with an addiction to alcohol for most of his adult life. When he lost the woman whom he loved so passionately—my mother—at the age of 52 to pancreatic cancer, it knocked him over the edge. I know from first-hand experience the damage and harm that come to families living with an alcoholic. I know what that sense of guilt and shame feels like. I know about the kind of co-dependency that builds up in families as different members of the family do what they can to support each other. In my case, it was a co-dependency with my mum, who I talked to about my dad’s drinking from the age of seven or eight. I know all too well the feeling that most children of alcoholics have as they wrestle with why they cannot fix things or make things better. I know what it feels like to worry constantly about whether your parent is okay. You worry about whether they are on a floor and whether they are eating. I know what it is like to be at a bedside in an intensive care unit, having been told that your parent has maybe a one in 10 chance of surviving. I know the agony of constantly asking yourself whether there was more you could have done to help stop that drinking. I know that there are no answers to those questions.

I know what it feels like to feel second best. “Second Best” was the title of a great book written by Calum Best, the son of George Best, the footballer. Calum has done a great deal over the past few years to highlight the plight of children of alcoholics and to explain what the emotional turmoil feels like. I also know that if anything, I had it easy. Ultimately, I had a loving home. So many children of alcoholics have it an awful lot worse than I did, and many of them are here with us today in the House.

Children of alcoholics are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. They are something like three times more likely to attempt suicide. They are three to four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, and that is what happened to my dad. He, too, was the child of an alcoholic. In the months since my dad’s death just before the election campaign started, it has been a struggle to decide whether to speak up and speak out. I have been inspired by such people as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) to take the plunge.

For me, the challenge was the programming that comes with the fourth commandment, which is for people to honour their mum and dad. I struggled with whether I would be dishonouring my dad’s memory by bringing this issue into the public domain and talking about it. I suppose I concluded that I had to honour the boy who became a man who became my dad, because there was no help for him when he was growing up as the child of an alcoholic. If I want to change things for children in the future, I have to play my part by speaking up.

The final trigger for speaking up was the loss of a great friend to this House, Charles Kennedy. When I read a lot of the media coverage about his death, so much was riddled through with the old clichés about how Charles was a man who battled with demons. Charles was not battling with demons; he was battling with a disease—alcoholism. The sooner we start talking about alcoholism as a disease and the sooner we get rid of the taboos, the stigma and the shame, the easier we will make it for hazardous drinkers in this country to get the help they need to quit or to cut down.

The scale of alcohol harm is profound. It is estimated to cost our country something like £21 billion a year. It costs the national health service something like £3.5 billion a year, and there are something like 1 million accident and emergency admissions related to alcohol harm each year. I have accompanied people on a couple of those admissions myself in the past few years. When we look at different parts of the country, we can see how the problem is getting worse. Figures from the House of Commons Library that I am publishing today show that the number of A&E admissions due to alcohol harm is rising in two thirds of local authority areas. The problem is not going away; it is snowballing and getting worse. As a country, we have to decide not only how we will break the silence around the disease, but how we will break the cycle of alcoholism cascading down the generations.

I would like to offer a few thoughts today, based on my conversations with friends in the House. I thank in particular the host of organisations that have had the good grace to listen to me bleat on about this issue over the past few months. Some of the charities have helped me try to build an integrated picture of my path. In particular, I give enormous thanks to Hilary Henriques of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. It was through her doors that I walked about a month and a half after my dad died. NACOA was magnificent. It helped me see clearly for the first time that I was not on my own and that my dad’s drinking was not my fault, and that, frankly, there was little I could have done to change things for him. NACOA celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It is a small group that is run on a shoestring, and it has helped more than 200,000 children in our country over the past few years with the same kind of advice that it gave me earlier this summer.

Additionally, I thank Sir Ian Gilmore at the Royal College of Surgeons; the British Medical Association; the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield; Alcohol Concern; Adfam; Turning Point; and the Institute of Alcohol Studies for the advice that they have given. I do not want to offer the Minister some kind of manifesto that is perfect in all its design; I want to start a conversation, which I hope he will engage with in the months and years to come. Last night, I asked Members of this House and the other place whether they would be interested in joining an all-party group for children of alcoholics, and I have been overwhelmed by the response and moved by the personal stories that colleagues have shared. I hope that the group can work together with a number of other all-party groups—we have the chair of one here this morning—that have done such a magnificent job to champion solutions to the curse of alcohol harm.

Let me offer the Minister a few points to get the debate going. Above all, I want the Government to do more to support extraordinary helplines such as NACOA, which make such an enormous difference. As a former Minister with responsibility for children’s health, I know that there is a challenge when it comes to specialised commissioning for children’s services. There is never enough of a problem in any one part of the country to create a critical mass of demand, so we have to find ways in which local authorities can work together to put in place specialised commissioning. Crucially, however, we need to support charities such as NACOA, which is making so much difference to so many people.

I want to ensure that we have a Minister with clear ownership of the problem. The responsibilities span not only the brief of the Minister here today but those of Department of Health Ministers, so I was glad that the Minister for Government Policy, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), told me that the Minister here today is in charge of co-ordinating the challenge. The Home Office took the lead on the alcohol strategy published in 2012. We need clear, visible ownership of who will provide and lead the support policy for children of alcoholics.

I want the Government to set out clearly a plan of action to support children of alcoholics. Having someone in charge of creating a solution is not good enough if we do not have a plan in place. As the Minister knows, the Government published their alcohol strategy in March 2012. It did not mention children, support for children or the challenge of children of alcoholics. Over the next few months we need the Minister to come up with a specific plan to provide support for the children of alcoholics. He might tell me that the forthcoming report, “Collateral Damage”, to be published in 2016, will be the framework for that. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the bravery he has shown this morning in his moving description of his own experiences and what happened to his dad. He is asking the Minister a list of things. As he mentioned, I chair the all-party group on foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Will he include in his list of asks the children of alcoholic mothers who drink during pregnancy? We need the awareness and support that he has been talking about to be applied to that group as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that he has shown on that. Mothers who drink during pregnancy are absolutely included in the asks. I hope that the Government will accelerate the publication of advice for pregnant mums about what it is safe and not safe for expectant mothers to drink.

I want every public health director in England to make an estimate of how many children of alcoholics live locally. I want a local plan to make sure that hospitals, GPs and school nurses and teachers know how to identify the children of alcoholics and how to put help within their reach. The challenge with alcoholism as it relates to children is that it often falls between stools—between the public health director, the commissioning groups for children’s social care, the groups for adult social care, and primary care services. The children of alcoholics often sit in a hole in commissioning, which is why we need a specific plan of action locally.

I want the Government to publish a national league table of which councils are spending what on alcohol treatment, so that it becomes much easier for the public and parliamentarians to see where the problem is greatest. In that way we can challenge whether public health directors, councils and health and wellbeing boards have put in place the right provision for hazardous drinkers who are parents.

I want to make sure we have a public information campaign aimed at parents who are hazardous drinkers, so that they are clear about the damage they do to their children and how they can get help. What has been good about the way in which we talk about smoking is that we now aim our messaging at parents and help them understand the harm to children. Now that alcohol harm is the third biggest public health risk after obesity and smoking, it is time for a public health campaign on the same lines aimed at parents who are hazardous drinkers.

I want the Government to change the law, particularly the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, so that it would be illegal for under-16s to drink at home. Current legislation allows for drinking at home from the age of five, and I think that is the wrong message. I congratulate the coalition of alcohol charities that are preparing proposals on that front.

If the Scottish Government win their case for minimum alcohol pricing, I hope that the Government will look again at introducing that policy across the whole of England. Crucially, every charity and campaign group has said to me that we need far more research into the scale of the problem. The research that we have at the moment is patchy, and I think the Minister could do a great deal with a very small amount of money to make sure we have a good research base in place.

The 10 points that I have mentioned are a framework that parliamentarians can discuss over the weeks and months to come. I hope they are ideas that the Minister will be able to embrace wholeheartedly. If I were to pull out just my top three, however, the proposals would be as follows. First, we should equip front-line professionals to take proactive steps to identify the children of alcoholics and to make sure that they are equipped to advise and counsel children on where they can get help. For me it was absolutely crucial to understand that I was not alone as the child of an alcoholic, that my dad’s drinking was not my fault and that there was not much I could do about it. I want every child of an alcoholic in this country to know that they are not alone and that help, such as the NACOA helpline, is on hand.

My second priority would be the public information campaign. Many people have said to me that the Minister should take inspiration from the success of the public smoking campaigns, and we should gear up quite quickly a campaign aimed at hazardous drinkers who are parents.

Thirdly, we need to make sure that there is the right investment in treatment services up and down the land. We have made great progress over the past few years in putting in place the right budgets for drug treatment. By and large, we now know what works when it comes to alcohol treatment, but provision is patchy. The Minister will tell us that it is down to local authorities to ensure that the right treatment is in place, but right now, we as parliamentarians do not know whether the right treatment is in place. We need transparency so that we can get to grips with where budgets need to go up and where they need to go down.

What is shocking about some of the statistics that I am publishing this morning is that some local authority areas have seen 20%, 30% or 40% increases over the past few years in the number of A&E admissions due to alcohol harm. That tells us there are particular parts of the country where the problem is incredibly pronounced. Behind those statistics are children, which is why we need to know which local authorities are spending what so that we can campaign for better support.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has secured the debate. Does he agree that, as was certainly the case with my mother, many alcoholics are functional? They often go to work and outwardly lead normal lives, so they do not present themselves at A&E and the problem is invisible to many people. We need to make sure that in the campaign, and in whatever the Minister responds with, we understand that this group of people is wider than the public perceive.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Her intervention gives me the chance to say on the record how important her courage in speaking out some years ago was in persuading me that I could do it too. I very much follow in her footsteps.

Every child of an alcoholic has a different story. My right hon. Friend’s story is different from mine. Each of us in our own way and on our own journey learned that we could not really change things for our parents, but we sure as hell can change things for our children. That is what we have to do now as parliamentarians. We have to try to break the silence on this issue so that we can break the cycle of alcohol harm cascading down the generations. To normalise this conversation, we have to organise this conversation. We must sweep aside the stigma and the taboos. We must treat alcoholism as the disease that it is and make sure that help is within reach of those who need it. That is the only way we can help to heal so many lives up and down this country. It is a difference that I think we can make with practical steps over the months and years to come. I look forward to working with the Minister on putting some practical action into place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to put on the record my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing the debate and sharing some difficult personal experiences with the Chamber. That was not an easy thing to do—it is not an easy thing for anyone in public life. However, I hope that the conversation that he talked about opening will bring huge benefit to the lives of many children and improve the public health of our nation as a result.

In the brief time available to me, I want to outline and expand on a couple of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made. He is absolutely right that substance misuse—in this case, alcohol misuse—is an illness. Often there are links with anxiety, depression and people struggling with mental health problems. Yet our framework for tackling alcoholism in this country seems somewhat fragmented. I am sure that the Minister will want to pick up on that issue in his response. Local health services commission mental health services, and yet it is local authorities that have primary responsibility for tackling issues to do with substance misuse.

The two issues are so inherently intertwined that the support for both the people suffering from mental ill health and their families has to be co-ordinated and holistic, but it is difficult to understand how that can be achieved with a fragmented commissioning landscape. For me, that is at the heart of this dilemma—this challenge—and the right hon. Gentleman made the point very well. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, particularly on how we can better unify the services available for people who are alcoholics and their families.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing this important debate, and even more on the manner in which he introduced it and his courage in speaking out about his experience with his own family. It is a testament to him that his determination to give a voice to the many thousands of children who find themselves in a similar predicament has led to today’s debate—and, I am sure, to many conversations in the coming weeks and months. I read about his dad, Dermot, this morning. I listened to the right hon. Gentleman talking about his dad’s life and how he inspired him to enter the world of politics and make the world a better place. I also heard about the ongoing anguish that his father’s battle with alcoholism caused him, which will inevitably still affect him today. But there is no shame in that whatever—absolutely none.

I am really pleased that the right hon. Gentleman made the decision to speak up today and put on the record his desire to ensure that, from here on in, those children out there will feel more able to deal with the consequences of living in such a family environment. Even more important is his desire to prevent the problem from even happening in the first place. To that end, I look forward to working with him and the organisations that have helped him to prepare for this debate, so that we can take stock of both the progress that has been made and where there are shortcomings and a lack of understanding. There is sometimes a lack of encouragement to those out there who still feel very much unable to let others know of the suffering that they are having to deal with day after day.

I salute the bravery of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) in introducing this debate. On the Minister’s point, will he ensure that all educational professionals have the appropriate training for when a child might disclose something to them? Many alcoholic parents are very concerned about losing their children, so will seek to involve them in the secret to try to prevent their child from being taken into care. The Minister is from the Department for Education, so will he look at whether all educational professionals are suitably trained for disclosure?

That is hugely important. It is not a surprise to me that one of the top three points that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill wanted me to address was the fact that it is the professionals who interact with children daily who are best placed to try to spot the signs and act on them sooner rather than later. In that way, children who have nowhere else to turn will receive timely and sympathetic support, backed by the knowledge of that professional about what works and how they can help the child and their family to turn the corner—knowledge that has so often been lacking in the past.

I am conscious that I have only five minutes in which to address all the right hon. Gentleman’s extremely well-made points. We must base any response on the premise that every child has a right to grow up in a safe and secure environment. Parents play a crucial role in how their children develop and behave. Of course, parents should act as role models for their children, but we recognise that parental alcohol dependency is a disease that affects many parents. It can limit their parenting capacity, which can have serious consequences for their children.

Rather than read out the response that a Government Minister might normally give to this sort of debate, I shall discuss how my own experience reflects what the right hon. Gentleman said and why I, too, am determined to join him in trying to do more and to do right by the children who still have to live in such circumstances.

I grew up in a family who fostered many children, of whom a large proportion, including one of my adopted brothers, came from a home in which alcohol misuse had been a regular feature. We cannot underestimate the lifelong impact on such a child, who, whether for a short time or a much longer period of their childhood, has been trapped in a cycle. They learn behaviour that they find difficult to avoid later in life, which creates that cycle between generations, and they often witness violence and conflict and feel a sense of isolation. To try to unravel all that is a huge task for anyone. If we superimpose on to that the scale of the problem, irrespective of the progress that has been made on the public health agenda and reducing alcohol dependency, we will see that huge problems further down the line are being stored up for future generations.

In both the private and public cases I dealt with in the family courts, alcohol was often a feature; as the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) rightly said, it was sometimes a feature in families of whom the overriding public impression was that alcohol would not be at the heart of their problems. On the surface, these are functional families, but underneath there are serious issues that need to be addressed. To that end, notwithstanding that this is a complex issue that transcends the work of many Departments, the Government have a role, because there is commonality: a shared ambition to ensure that no child should be left behind in our determined efforts to try to tackle the problem.

I will look very carefully at the 10 points raised by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill and undertake to talk to ministerial colleagues, particularly in the Department of Health, about how we raise public awareness of parental alcohol dependency in a similar way to how we have raised awareness on smoking. I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, along with representatives from many of the excellent organisations that have come together to help him in both a personal and professional capacity to prepare for this debate, so that we can pull together our collective understanding of what is being done and where we continue to fall short.

Much of the work that we are doing on the social work reform agenda, and on how we equip teachers and other educational staff to understand the presentation of children from a family in which alcoholism is a problem, is going to be key to unlocking this taboo that sometimes remains. If we are honest, we all know of someone in our own family or immediate circle of friends, or certainly in our social network, for whom this is a feature in their lives.

We should not pretend that there is an easy way of trying to make changes happen, but, on the back of the right hon. Gentleman’s public push to galvanise the work already being done in many places around the country, we have a real opportunity to ensure that responses are more consistent and that we start to reduce some of the anomalies we see in different local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, there should be a much more joined up approach so that families who feel unsupported and children who feel lonely no longer have that as a central feature of their lives. We must use some of the innovation out there to ensure that the work we do in future really does make a difference.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for children of alcoholics.

Sitting suspended.

Community and Voluntary Sector Funding

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

I beg to move,

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I welcome the presence of the Minister, who will respond to this debate.

Given the value that the charity, community and voluntary sector adds to the communities we represent and the incredible services that it provides to our constituents, such as mine in Bradford West, it is fitting that we debate this important issue as the sector faces difficult and economically challenging times and increasing user need. We are on the verge of another round of Government spending cuts, and in many places the cuts have already done irreparable damage to the community and voluntary sector. There have been many changes over the past five years to grants, commissioning and procurement for small, medium and large charities. Many should have offered a lifeline to vital projects in our constituencies in the face of austerity, but the reality is that they could not.

The previous and current Governments committed to reforming the voluntary and charitable sector and helping it to be buoyant at a time when it was most needed. The big society project translated to commitments made in this House, but in reality little progress was made in communities that saw funding falling, grants drying up, short-term procurement opportunities, increasing costs and plateauing revenue streams. We have seen projects and charities that provide innovative services and important community projects close and others struggle to stay afloat. By and large, the charity sector has tried to adapt to the challenging economic environment, but we should create a culture in which it can thrive and serve, because there are intangible and immeasurable benefits to the services it provides. I believe that all parties recognise that fact, but are the Government giving it due consideration?

On procurement, a recent study by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on the financial sustainability of the sector showed that since 2009 there has been a £2.3 billion reduction in Government contracts, and that the sector faces a £4.6 billion annual shortfall by 2018-19 in the funding it needs to maintain its current level of service. The simple fact is that the need for charitable services is increasing, as demonstrated by a report published by the Charity Finance Group in December 2014, which showed that more than 70% of charities expect demand to increase. We have to recognise that, if we are to maintain the same level of services, we must take action now to ensure the long-term sustainability of the community and voluntary sector.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the issue of sustainability and the need for charities, I want to mention two charities in my constituency. First, given that this will be the coldest and longest winter in 40 years, the services that Energy Solutions provides to the community are essential. Secondly, although World AIDS Day is coming up on 1 December, the Community Health Action Trust has had its funding cut, which means that it can no longer serve the community and test people rapidly for HIV, which is on the increase among heterosexuals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) makes a valid point. We are seeing that theme across the country.

The £2.3 billion reduction in Government funding is interesting. It will come through a number of streams, because the third sector has a symbiotic relationship with many Government-funded organisations, not least local councils, whose budgets have been decimated by austerity. However, the wider point is that the Government have been unable to build the third sector’s capacity to apply for more complicated contracts through increasingly complex and larger tendering processes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. The Government talked about a big society, but they really meant a smaller society. My hon. Friend touched on an important point. A lot of local authorities procure services from the voluntary sector—particularly from citizens advice bureaux, and I am sure from a lot of other organisations. In a time of austerity, people badly need those services. They cannot get legal aid any more for a whole range of issues. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an injustice perpetrated on society?

I absolutely agree. I will come on to talk more about the big society—or the failure to have a big society—and what should be done.

The coalition Government and this Government concretely demonstrated their commitment to tendering provisions for the VCS sector when they embraced the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. They have attempted—I use the term loosely—to reform public sector procurement to benefit VCS and social enterprise groups through their open public services approach. However, the reality on the ground is quite different. According to the National Audit Office, income from the Government to deliver contracts decreased by £1 billion in 2012. Its report shows that the biggest private sector contractors’ market share increased, and in 2012 charities lost almost £886 million in contracts, while the largest providers’ income grew by £551 million. That is unacceptable.

Those are not new statistics, and the problems are not new. There has been a lack of solid progress since the 2012 Act was enacted. The Government backtracked and kicked their commitment to transparent tendering into the long grass. They tender contracts that are far too large for the majority of VCS organisations to bid for; they put unrealistic timescales on the bidding process, which works in the favour of the larger private companies; and the calculations of cost value per unit still fail to consider the social value added by VCS organisations. Those issues are magnified by the financial pressure that all VCS organisations are under. Many have adapted and risen to the challenge of maintaining a similar level of service by innovating and raising finance elsewhere. The Government have failed to give due consideration to how charities can build the capacity that will give them the necessary skills to bid for contracts.

There has been a massive shift away from grant funding, which was more discretionary, to contract-based services, which are far more rigid. Without flexibility and financial stability, VCS organisations are unable to innovate—not in their front-line service, but in their capacity to bid for large contracts against private companies. I am extremely interested to hear how the Government will address that capacity shortfall to ensure that those who are doing the best, most valuable work are capable of applying for such contracts.

I used to issue health action zone grants. As a former NHS commissioner, I have seen at first hand how the voluntary and charitable sector developed, and how the Government strangled the ability of smaller organisations to thrive and meet the demand in their communities. Until recently I chaired a large mental health organisation, which, as a large organisation, was in a privileged position. We were able to ensure that we could survive. That is an example of the inequalities that are created by the Government’s stance on voluntary sector funding.

A further issue that must be addressed today is the Government’s longer-term strategy to devolve discretionary business rate exemptions for the VCS sector and charities. As the Minister is aware, there is currently an 80% mandatory business rate relief for charities, and the other 20% relief is provided at the discretion of local councils. Councils are already suffering incredible pressure on their budgets and are struggling to offer the full rate relief that is important to large and small VCS organisations. That 20% can be the difference between keeping services going and their having to close altogether. The situation made difficult by the uncertainty about the future of the rate relief and the expected full devolution of council tax control to councils.

It is essential that we give small charities all possible support so that they can continue to provide services to our constituents. It is imperative that the Government issue a long-term strategy on rate relief. Ideally, they should help councils to offer full rate relief to all charities for the foreseeable future. Given that more of the financial burden has fallen on councils in areas of higher deprivation, such as my constituency, it is not fair that yet again the Government are not supporting the communities that have the most need.

Recently, I was invited to address an event in my constituency organised by the Blenheim Project, which helped local women and their children who were made homeless and vulnerable due to domestic violence. I heard moving testimony and stories from those who had received invaluable support from the project and who, as a result of that help, managed to live not as victims but as active and productive citizens. Breaking the cycle of homelessness is the most cost-effective approach in the long term and has benefits for communities and for the economy as a whole. I heard from one woman who stayed in the project as a young child with her mother after they finally had to leave home. She continued to enjoy security at the project even though it had been taken away from her at home. That young women went to university and is now working and contributing to society. She is just one example from thousands of similar stories about the importance of receiving that much-needed support.

However, the event was not held to celebrate the Blenheim Project moving forward or developing; it was to celebrate the project’s achievements upon its closure due to funding cuts. It was sad, because I know the value and appreciate the benefit that the project added to my constituency and community, reaching places and people that others could not. As someone whose life has been shaped immensely by the voluntary sector, both as a service user when facing difficulties in my own life and when I worked in it as an employee, I am devastated at the loss of the project’s beds. Let me be clear: one bed space literally means the difference between life and death for some women. Where I come from, one death is one too many.

The charity had 37 long years of hard work, supporting hundreds of women and providing exceptionally high-quality support to prevent women and children from becoming permanently homeless. It had proved itself successful, but could not find a sustainable financial platform despite offering a service that others could not, and for a modest sum when all its intangible benefits are considered. If it was not the definition of a public good that we in this House should protect at all costs, what is?

The pressures of the funding cuts brought about by the coalition Government’s austerity measures and increased by this Conservative Government cut to the heart of our communities. They disproportionately affect northern councils that have some of the poorest wards in the country. The funding cuts have propelled councils to rationalise and reconfigure services to meet demand and support vulnerable people, but the impact on service delivery continues to hit the most vulnerable indirectly, and initiatives such as the Blenheim Project are falling victim. The VCS is known to provide high-class services to people and communities who often get missed by mainstream services, but this Government believe that that does not carry a price tag, as we have seen from their so-called big society pronouncements in the past.

The changes in funding, which have required the development of new commissioning and VCS frameworks, have made it impossible for projects such as Blenheim to continue providing the quality support that they know women and children need. The new reality in funding and commissioning arrangements makes many successful small charities unsustainable. Small to medium-sized local charities face challenges due to the drive towards commissioning processes that seek to maximise outputs on the same resources. The tendency for bigger charities to drive down costs as loss leaders in the first instance makes the option of tendering for contracts unsustainable. Smaller charities do not have the resources to invest in future developments, never mind taking on projects as loss leaders as part of a wider strategy. In a statement, the Blenheim Project said:

“Due to pressures in funding Bradford Council can no longer support as many homeless people as before and have drastically reduced both the number of places they will fund and also the level of funding”,

which would no longer be adequate for the services that the project offered. In addition, the council took away the project’s ability

“to assess the needs and risks of the clients”

for itself.

Only a few hundred yards up the road from the Blenheim Project used to be another project, the Manningham Mills Community Association, which has also bitten the dust. Another community has been robbed of a vital resource due to funding cuts and belt tightening. For me, however, there is belt tightening and there is just strangling a community. What the Government are doing is a shameful indictment of how out of touch they are with the communities they are supposed to protect.

The hon. Lady is making a generalisation—it sounds as though the whole of the third sector had disappeared. I met the Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations, my local third sector governing body, just last week at its annual general meeting. Everyone would like more money, but such organisations are striving to succeed and still doing an extremely valuable job. I regret the fact that the hon. Lady is making it sound like the third sector has vanished.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. Although I agree that the third sector is doing a valuable job and is working hard, if one considers the Tory Government’s proposed £300 million-plus cuts to the Big Lottery Fund, which I will refer to later, that will put my comments in context.

In communities such as my constituency of Bradford West, where more than 26% of children are already living in poverty, the average weekly wage is more than £110 less than the national average. In another ward in my constituency is a specialist project catering for black and minority ethnic women fleeing violence, which would have soon closed due to pressures facing the local council were it not for the intervention of the Big Lottery Fund, the input of which in my community is literally life-changing. Across my great city there are many other examples of the axe falling heavily, and all of them have a few things in common. They are smaller VCS organisations, providing vital services and lifelines to those most in need of support and plugging the gaps where statutory services are not delivering strongly.

The Government are making it harder to secure grants and funding at a time when demand is increasing and capacity is already stretched to maintain current service levels. The top-heavy austerity measures and the slashing of Bradford council’s budgets by almost half by 2020 have led to a short-termist view, wholly created by the Conservative Government. Whereas councils were previously able to take long-term views on VCS funding, the parameters of that work have now been narrowly defined. The money available has been restricted to reduce costs, there has been a drive for efficiency and to obtain ever-increasing best value, and a reduction in unit costs has led to the likes of the Blenheim Project being placed in vulnerable positions. The situation is set to get significantly worse and have an impact on other areas of the VCS and charitable economy.

The Government fail to realise that much of local government, the NHS and the third sector operate in a symbiotic relationship, helping to create a robust mechanism to meet needs across the board. Taking out the third sector or reducing its ability to operate under financial strain will have an impact on the drive to reduce admissions, promote self-care and increase community capacity for home care and the promotion of health. We are only storing up problems for the future. Saving money in that way is a false economy.

Along with the provision that we have lost due to charities such as the Blenheim Project closing, the Bradford district has lost expertise and the ability to reach out to places and groups that need help. The project closed its doors at the end of September 2015 after 37 years of supporting hundreds of vulnerable, homeless women and children. As a result, Bradford has lost jobs and 17 rooms for vulnerable people, and wider community involvement and community development has ended. A successful church community project has closed, leading to the loss of valuable expertise that knew its community exceptionally well. There are many other such cases across Bradford, and the picture is repeated in constituencies across the country. It is not unique to Bradford West.

My final point is about potential cuts to the Big Lottery Fund. We have been hearing reports of a 30% reduction, with the money being used to cover a hole in the finances of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport equating to between £300 million and £320 million a year. If true, that will be devastating to VCS organisations across the entire country. I will use the example of my constituency to illustrate just how damaging the loss of 30% of grant money would be to small organisations, in particular small charitable projects. Since 2014, the fund has commissioned 466 projects in my constituency to the tune of £4.9 million, almost 90% of which were for under £10,000. It is an amazing array of projects, targeting some of the most vulnerable and the most in need. From that alone, we can see how a reduction in grant awards would decimate the small community projects that can have transformational impacts on people’s lives as they often concentrate on specific, niche needs. The Anah Project in Bradford is only there because of the Big Lottery Fund. Furthermore, as I said, we have seen changes to the awarding of grants, a lack of capacity in the VCS to apply for more complex funding and the loss of funding from struggling local councils. In all, plainly, the big society appears to be even more hollow than first feared.

Unlike the Government in their approach to communities such as mine in the north, the Big Lottery Fund does not discriminate. It gives out funding to individual projects, based solely on the value they add and, most importantly, on need. We could face a betrayal not only of the great work that individuals and organisations do in the community with lottery funding, but of the members of the public who elected this Government. Many will feel that the Government are overstepping the mark if they backtrack on the principle of the additionality of lottery money, which has been reiterated time and time again by successive Governments. The money is there for the community, not for this Government or any Government to plug holes in their funding.

I want assurances from the Government that they are considering the long-term implications of their decisions and the pressure that they are putting on the VCS. More has to be done to tackle the inequality in procurement and the manner in which contracts are decided if we hope to be able to retain some of the most valuable and innovative community engagement work across all sectors in the foreseeable future. Charities and voluntary organisations need to be able to plan their funding and projects on a longer-term basis. The Government not only have a responsibility to help build capacity in the third sector through investment, but they also need to give assurances on the unknown costs by making critical decisions, such as on council tax relief for charities. Ultimately, the Chancellor must not use the Big Lottery Fund to act as tape to cover up poor financial planning in central Government. As John Major said, lottery money is from the people for the people.

Given the number of Members who have indicated their wish to speak in the debate, with the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means I impose a time limit of six minutes on Back-Bench speeches.

Thank you, Mrs Moon.

I commend the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for the subject of the debate. I am extremely passionate about it because my constituency has some of the highest rates of volunteering in the country; more than 1,500 voluntary opportunities are being advertised there at the moment. Volunteering is deeply embedded in the fabric of the Wiltshire community. In fact, it is the very glue that binds it, filling the gaps left by the state. Voluntary organisations are essential for those two reasons and I welcome the Government’s support for the sector, although I encourage them to protect and support its work further.

Given a ballooning state, a huge deficit and an ageing population, the truth is that we will not be able to sustain the existing model and will be unable to continue providing all the levels of service that we have now. We will need to look to the voluntary sector for more and more, so it is imperative that we support and strengthen the industry today. In addition, as the hon. Lady said, charities save the state money in the long term.

For example, Wiltshire Mind, which is based in my constituency, receives no Government funding, but even the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust acknowledges the charity’s vital work and how it reduces pressure on services. Alzheimers Support and the Alzheimer’s Society are prime examples of charities that achieve better outcomes than many state-run organisations, because they are specialised in their sector. Volunteer centres act as pivotal hubs, promoting and filling roles, and they often excel at rehabilitation of ex-offenders and back-to-work programmes.

As we all know, the recession has hit the voluntary sector hard; its total income has fallen in real terms every year since 2009-10. That is because of not only the reduction in Government spending, but the reduction in giving—an obvious symptom of recession. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimates that the rate of giving fell by around 10% during the recession, and it has still not recovered. Individuals are the voluntary sector’s single biggest source of income, hence the impact.

Funding is not the only issue, and that is the point that I want to labour. We also need to encourage volunteering, especially among the young and the elderly. In 2014-15 47% of adults in the country did some form of informal or formal volunteering. Informal volunteering is most prevalent among 26 to 34-year-olds and formal volunteering among the young—those of 25 and under. That means that a huge number of people in the retired sector with time and expertise who could get involved. Volunteering would also help some of them to ward off loneliness and other such attributes.

I recognise some of what the hon. Lady is saying, but does she recognise that such volunteering activity requires investment? It does not come for nothing.

Exactly. I am trying to make that point and will continue to, but I am also saying that we can throw money at things, but it is not only a case of money—we must also promote the voluntary sector to ensure that we have the volunteers for tomorrow.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Carers’ organisations also recognise that the issue is not only about funding, but about the freely given caring provided day in, day out by carers to their families up and down the country.

I agree. I am very much involved with the carers’ organisation in my constituency and I completely understand that point.

We need to go further to encourage and enable more people in long-term unemployment to go into volunteering schemes. We already do that, but we need to work more closely with volunteer centres to ensure that it happens more. There is a lot of concern about the loss of benefits to volunteers, so there is much work to do there.

We need to invest to encourage more young people to volunteer as well. Some fantastic work has already been done, such as that of the National Citizen Service. It is important today to focus not only on the negatives, but on the positives. Seventy-five thousand young people have changed their lives and got involved in their communities through the NCS. We should take note of the things that are working as well.

I share the hon. Lady’s positive view of the NCS and its good work with young people. At the same time we are seeing huge cuts to youth services across local authorities and the NCS works with a fairly small number of young people compared with the great majority who can access mainstream services. Does she not think that the cuts to local authorities also impact on young people’s preventive services?

The cuts to youth services are for a totally different debate, because they are not purely about volunteering. There is a vast variety of youth services depending on the different areas and models involved. There is also the question of replacement: in many areas, including mine, the council has worked closely with the community to offer a replacement service that is the most cost-effective and efficient for the people using it.

In addition, the Government are providing funding for campaigns such as the national Step Up To Serve #iwill campaign, which aims to make social action part of the lives of as many 10 to 20-year-olds as possible. More remains to be done, however, and I am quite shocked that there is still no formal encouragement in respect of the value of getting volunteering into schools, through things such as voluntary placements. We have always had a system of work placements, but there has never been a system of voluntary placements as a formal mechanism in the UK. I have approached my local volunteer centre about the issue, and we are trying to do something with willing schools in my constituency.

We need to change the ethos and encourage more businesses to allow voluntary days, which would build on the Government’s initiative on that. There have been other great investments, which we should not fail to mention, such as Big Society Capital, tax relief for social investment, social impact bonds and £70 million for social investment in the investment and contract readiness fund.

In addition, business rate relief for charities is worth £1.7 billion. Does the hon. Lady not think that they should be excluded from the Government’s plans for rate relief? Those plans will hinder charities’ ability to provide services to the community.

That is one thing we could look at, but it is not the only thing, as I shall get on to in the rest of my speech.

More needs to be done and it is time we looked at gift aid in particular. On average, the charity sector loses almost £1 billion a year from people not opting into gift aid. Perhaps we should not only promote it more as a mechanism, so that people understand it, but look at the logistics of having an opt-out instead for the working population. That might be one solution.

When compared with the state, charities are often far better placed to deliver services and value for money, as well as being far more knowledgeable about those services. The charities also provide specialised local knowledge and learning for volunteers. Young people can gain skills and a preparation for life and employment, while older volunteers can impart their own knowledge and reduce the training burden carried by charities. Charities may also reduce demand on the NHS as people stay active and healthier during volunteering. There are thousands of voluntary organisations in Wiltshire that bring in money from inside and outside the county in addition to Government funding.

While central Government may be able to replicate the functions of a local charity in part, that is not sustainable. That also does not take into account the unseen costs of not funding those charities, such as the loss of expert knowledge and the unquantifiable but large wider social benefit that community charities provide. I welcome the Government’s recent initiatives, but I urge them to go further. The reality is that we will need to rely more and more on the voluntary sector in coming years, so it is imperative that we support and promote it today.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am not sure whether this requires a declaration, but I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on civil society and volunteering, which is administered by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. I put that on the record; I might have got into trouble if I had not.

Six minutes is not a lot of time to talk about this. As it was in 1601 that the Charitable Uses Act came to this House, we have been discussing charities and their development for the past 414 years. In England and Wales, we have got about 180,000 registered charities and there are probably as many again that are not registered. Charities have a combined income of £40.5 billion a year, similar to the figure for 2006. Of that, £13.3 billion is from Government sources, down £1.7 billion since 2010-11, and 83% is from contracts. Many of those points were made most eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who spoke magnificently at the start of the debate.

Wherever we stand on the ideological spectrum, we all know that the public sector cuts will hit hard, so I will put in a plea for the charities’ old block grants. I know the history of contracts and the rest of it, but, as well as providing value in terms of simplicity for smaller charities, they also deal with capacity building. The core funding can and should be monitored. Indeed, when I was a manager of a small charity in London, I think I faced a lot more monitoring than Kids Company did for its multi-millions. That should be looked at, because it would enable those charities to develop and grow in funding and capacity.

It is right that controversies and indeed slightly dodgy fundraising practices are looked into, and it is right that we are considering those issues in the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill. I, for one, will welcome the development of a fundraising preference service, but we know that charities need to raise money and always have needed to. We have seen that throughout our history, whether it was Dr Barnardo or those lesser known and less wealthy philanthropists such as those individuals and families who, in Victorian times, ensured that orphaned, destitute and illegitimate children became part of their family. They did not have the money or get the big plaques, but they were part of that bigger society.

To look to the new generation, I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) that we must look again at gift aid. I suspect that many of us make direct debits and the like and sign the little gift aid forms in the old-fashioned way. However, there is a new generation out there. Demos, in its “Introducing Generation Citizen” report in 2014, made the point that 13 to 19-year-olds have a real desire to help others through social action. Of course, many younger people do donations by text, so we need philanthropy for a modern age and a new generation of givers. Think, indeed, of Stephen Sutton and how crowdgiving led to more than £3 million for a charity in a year—that is a phenomenal legacy from a phenomenal life. Cancer Research UK’s no make-up selfies raised £2 million for charity and received more than 800,000 donations by text.

We know the history of gift aid and as a society we should be proud of how it has developed and increased, but surely it is time to look at making it automatic for text donation. The Government must look at that. We made the point in the Small Charitable Donations Act 2012—this is not for gift aid, but it is similar—that charities can automatically claim back on a gift from an unknown donor, so I hope that the Minister will look at that.

We are looking at our communities and discussing the charities and community organisations, which I think reflect the diverse aspects of Britain: the different societies; the wealthy philanthropists; the miners’ welfare organisations; the Churches and other faith groups; and a whole series of initiatives.

Let us not forget that the NHS did not start off as a national, state-sponsored health service; it actually began in small communities where people had ideas. When we talk about the divisions between voluntary sector and state and private sector, we forget that often a good idea is piloted in the voluntary sector and people think, “This is good. We will have a bit more of this and then we will do it locally or nationally.” At the heart of the debate, we need to look at funding and where clear problems are caused by the funding cuts, but we need to be innovative and pluralistic and celebrate that work. It is not that we want a big state; what we challenge the Government for is a much bigger society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The more general point I wanted to get on to relates to the role of big businesses in supporting volunteering. They have done a lot to support links with the armed forces. They have rightly been part of a big drive, with the Government, to support people in having time off to serve with the armed forces. There is also often a synergistic relationship with the voluntary sector, and local businesses can benefit and get good will from the community by allowing staff to have time off to contribute to charitable and other good causes. However, one area that needs attention is the legal sector—

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

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

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

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

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

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

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West said, the indication that the Treasury may look to cut the Big Lottery Fund share of national lottery funding from 40% to 25%—a cut of some £300 million—is hugely worrying, and such a cut would have a catastrophic effect on hundreds of voluntary organisations. The Big Lottery Fund is the biggest single funder of voluntary sector organisations, and given that charities are struggling financially, this is not the time for the Government to make matters worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Scotland, the Big Lottery Fund awards more than 2,000 new grants every year to organisations ranging from grassroots volunteer-led community groups to major charities. Its work is funded through an average annual budget in Scotland of £70 million, and it has recently come to the end of a five-year strategy. The fund has existing financial commitments to more than 3,000 projects in Scotland. Last year, more than 116,000 people in Scotland took part in small grassroots projects funded by the fund. Nearly 2,500 jobs, mainly in registered charities and community organisations, are at least partly funded by grants from the Big Lottery Fund, almost 780 of which are full-time posts solely supported by those grants. As we approach the comprehensive spending review, our grave fear is of a possible reduction in that funding. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to deny the possibility of a reduction of national lottery funding to the Big Lottery Fund from 50% of moneys raised to 25%.

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

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

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

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

As is the case in the rest of the UK, the majority of these organisations in Scotland are run by volunteers, in service delivery roles as well as management roles, with volunteer committee members and, on occasion, charitable trustees. The sector has considerable experience and understanding of working with individuals and communities in developing solutions, and thus mobilising the skills and knowledge of communities. That co-production model for solutions is essential to successful prevention, and I am sure that hon. Members here today would like to see similar models in their own constituencies. While the UK Government are poised to cut funding, the Scottish Government are investing in the enterprise ready fund, which distributed nearly £6 million between 2013 and 2015 to help maintain, develop and grow the sector. I am sure other Members will also want to look at the model of the social entrepreneurs fund.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worry for many of our hard-working community and voluntary sector volunteers and professionals, as well as those who rely on their vital services, is whether the Chancellor will tomorrow hasten his assault on the sector, which has already seen the big society agenda disappear like a mirage, wiped out by a wave of cuts over the past five years. Figures I have received from the NCVO show the sector is already receiving £1.7 billion less of its income from Government than it was in 2010-11, and the number of grants to the sector from Government has halved since 2002. The charity sector faces a shortfall of £4.6 billion by 2018-19 on current spending trajectories. Charities and community groups have been hit by a triple whammy of cuts to their grants and income; a reduction in local government support, with partnering public services facing their own drastic cuts, leading many of them to cut preventive services; and having to deal with a large rise in demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) on securing the debate and on her election; there are not many Labour MPs I raise a glass for when they get elected. I know that in her maiden speech she spoke about social action in terms of food banks. Although, of course, I disagree with her on some points, she spoke thoughtfully and with passion, and I will try to answer some of her points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should also note that five years ago, our country was broken. We had experienced the deepest recession in living memory and the deficit between public spending and the Government’s revenue was unsustainable. Unemployment had risen to record levels and household debt was higher than many of us would agree is sensible. The societal issues that stemmed from those circumstances meant that public services and civil society both faced an incredible challenge—one of increasing demand, but without the ability easily to invest increased resources to meet it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.


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

African Lion Numbers

[Fabian Hamilton in the Chair]

I beg to move,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly in southern Africa, lion population numbers are under less threat, but that is due in part to the reintroduction of lions not into the wild as we would know it, but into small, intensively-managed and funded reserves. I suggest that it is a matter of the utmost sadness that so important a creature as the African lion should be consigned to a future life behind fences.

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

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

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

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildlife tourism accounts for more than 10% of GDP in some African lion range states that still allow trophy hunting. The Government should be explaining that a lion can be shot only once with a rifle, but many thousands of times with a camera. In the long term, photographic tourism is much more beneficial both to the economies of those African states and to lion numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tanzania. I pay tribute to the Tanzanian Government for categorising and gazetting so many additional thousands of square kilometres as national parks over many years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.

Fuel Poverty

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

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fuel poverty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite the fact that it has been an issue for a number of years now, fuel poverty continues to grow across our nation. The population in my constituency, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom, is ageing. Inaction on this issue will only allow the negative trend to continue. The time for action is now. We can all talk about protecting the most vulnerable in our society—and we should, because it is important—but we need action as well as words. The proof of any pudding is in the eating. Clearly, given that fuel poverty is rising across this country, it has been all talk and not enough action.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe something could be targeted specifically at those in park homes, so they could take advantage of it to improve their energy efficiency. Quality insulation could be installed in many homes, and heating systems upgraded. Boiler systems have been done in Northern Ireland, and I am sure they could be done elsewhere. I know that similar approaches have been used here on the mainland. We should continue to pursue such approaches where they work, but fuel poverty is still increasing across the country, even after the drop in oil prices, and the population is ageing. Those are the factors that we must consider.

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

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

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

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

So far in this debate, we have not got bogged down in the exact definition of fuel poverty—if we had been, it would have detracted from the point because we are talking about the living conditions and the social circumstances of some of our most vulnerable constituents: people with mental illness, pensioners on fixed incomes and, very often, people who are unemployed. We are also talking about people who live in what is often some of the most challenging housing, in that it lacks good insulation and good home energy efficiency measures. Much of that is in the private rented sector; the housing of many people living in fuel poverty is from the private rented sector. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address that issue in her remarks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), which is the neighbouring constituency to mine, for securing this important debate. It is important, as other hon. Members have said, with millions of households around the United Kingdom being affected by fuel poverty. As I look around Westminster Hall on the day when the Scottish National party has its Supply day and a number of SNP Members are heavily engaged in the main Chamber, I am glad to say that there are seven SNP MPs here out of a total of 12 MPs. One has to ask the question, “Where is the Labour party?” It is missing from the debate in Scotland, having let the people of Scotland down, and its MPs cannot even be bothered to discuss this important subject, which affects constituents throughout the rest of the UK. It is no wonder that the people of Scotland have fallen out of love with the Labour party in our country.

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

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

levels that are unprecedented. It goes on to say that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those statistics should shame us all.

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

One of the most fundamental questions that we must ask the Minister is: why do we have to accept that there are 14 regional energy markets in the UK, with consumers in the highlands and islands, who are some of the greatest users of energy in this country, paying that premium of 2p per kilowatt-hour? We must have a universal market throughout the UK. If it is good enough for postage stamps, we should have one for electricity distribution too, and that is in the gift of the current Government. I asked the Secretary of State a written question to that effect not so long ago, and I was amazed that the response was that consumers in other parts of the country would have to pay more. The point that that answer seems to ignore is that such a market would introduce fairness, and no more would consumers in the highlands and islands be discriminated against by a Government who want to penalise them for living there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On behalf of all the speakers, I thank you, Mr Hamilton, for your excellent chairmanship.

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

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

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

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

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

Fuel poverty is the result of a combination of low household income, fuel costs and the poor energy efficiency of homes. Several of my colleagues and other Members have mentioned that. The contributing factors can be addressed in a number of practical ways, and that in turn will help to prevent fuel poverty. Low household income can be tackled through a number of measures. A living wage for everyone in work, not those just over the age of 25, would allow young individuals and families to afford the rising costs of fuel. Unfortunately, the cuts to working tax credit and child tax credit recently announced by the Conservative Government—so many households rely upon those credits to be able to pay for basic necessities—will only further punish lower-income households and put even more at risk of fuel poverty. We must provide a fair deal for hard-working individuals and families and not force them to bear the cost of letting large corporations and the financial sector skip taxes. Notably, the tariffs for pay-as-you-go phones, which are used most by those in fuel poverty, are some of the highest on the market. We need to address that, because the market certainly is not and has no intention of doing so.

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

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we have only 15 minutes left for two more contributions.

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

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

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

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

Today’s discussion has been detailed, impassioned and generally of an excellent standard. Going through some of the points made by Members, someone—I cannot remember who—mentioned that fuel poverty is like a thief in the night, which is dramatic, but spot on. Another Member mentioned that fuel poverty is a bigger killer than all road traffic accidents and drug abuse combined, which is a startling fact. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) talked about the human component, which is something I want to come on to in my brief speech. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, spoke of how his constituents are struggling in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) made some good points. He spoke about how 73% of households in some communities are experiencing some form of fuel poverty. He also touched on some things that I will not have a chance to talk about in my speech, such as the impact that energy companies across the UK are having on fuel poverty and how we begin to tackle that. I will press on, because time is brief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am sorry; I cannot give way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fabian Hamilton (in the Chair); Order

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