Tuesday 19 January 2016
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Access to Justice: Vulnerable People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on what is an increasingly critical issue: access to justice, particularly for those who for whatever reason would otherwise be left without legal redress. The Opposition recognise the fundamental importance of legal aid in ensuring that everyone has access to justice. It is a significant time for legal aid, and today marks the inaugural meeting of the Bach commission, led by my colleague Lord Willy Bach and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). The commission has brought together experts from across the legal profession and will explore establishing access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement.
Since 2010 the Government have cut legal aid to the bone. The consensus that once existed around legal aid has been sidelined. Although we recognise the need to make savings, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee have all criticised the Government’s failure to understand the knock-on costs and wider consequences of their reforms. The Labour party recognises the importance of legal aid in making sure the state does not infringe the liberty of its citizens, and we understand its crucial role as a tool for legal redress in family disputes. Those who traditionally benefit from legal aid—the poor and most vulnerable—have been marginalised by the policies of this Government. They have seen the erosion of their rights at work, in schools, and in their housing and welfare needs. In 2010, as Labour left office, almost 500,000 cases received advice or assistance for social welfare issues. The year after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force, it was less than 53,000.
I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has constituents in his surgeries every single week desperate for legal help, who previously would have benefited from the legal aid regime, but who now cannot find legal help or representation anywhere and cannot afford to pay for it.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. This is about the kind of society we want to live in. There is no doubt that a key indicator of that is the way in which we deal with access to justice. My constituents, like hers, are deeply concerned about the distortion of our justice system, which we are discussing here today.
The figures that I have cited show a massive drop in access to justice, and that has had a huge impact on people across England and Wales: parents unable to see their children; employees unfairly dismissed or discriminated against; tenants mistreated by abusive landlords; and women unable to leave abusive partners. Those are exactly the kind of people the Government claim to stand up for, but the reality is different. Consider family proceedings, for instance. In the first quarter of 2015, 76% of private family law cases had at least one party who was not represented. That means our constituents no longer receive the support and advice that is required for them to have effective redress in the courts.
The problem is most acute in the civil and family courts, which are dealing with an unprecedented rise in the number of litigants in person. Previously, litigants in person were most often there by choice, choosing to self-represent, but it is now the case that litigants in person are there because they cannot get legal aid. The personal support unit, which provides help to people facing civil court hearings, has seen a rise of 900% in clients helped. The deck is firmly stacked against the most vulnerable. What was once a relatively level playing field has been seriously distorted, with litigants in person now effectively battling uphill, often challenging decisions passed down by the Government.
The checks and balances that were previously in place for citizens to hold the Government to account have been seriously limited. Across the legal spectrum, we have seen the removal of vast swathes of legal aid, the closing down of law centres, and the removal of good quality legal advice from those who need it most. If that was not enough, the safeguard of judicial review has also been severely curtailed. We have seen the warm words from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who decried a two-nation justice system, but unfortunately we all know his rhetoric is not being backed up by action. The Justice Secretary has carried on from where his predecessor left off: sidelining legal aid; the sector cut to the bone; court closures denying access to local justice; and massive increases in fees, excluding many from the system.
One particular section of the population in desperate need are the victims of domestic violence. During the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government made a point of saying that it was not their intention to make legal aid available to all victims of domestic violence. The Government have been too narrow in the safeguards put in place for ensuring that victims of domestic violence can receive legal aid. The Justice Committee expressed concern in its report about the evidence requirements for victims of domestic violence, and a recent survey from Rights of Women revealed that 39% of respondents did not have the evidence required to qualify for legal aid. Another survey found that almost half of respondents did not take any action in relation to their family law problem because they were unable to apply for legal aid, and a further 25% opted to represent themselves in court. Those figures reflect the findings of the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence, which found that more than 60% of respondents did not commence action and that one in six had to pay more than £50 to get the required evidence to prove domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence should not be forced to choose between staying with their abuser and having to face them in court. Although the Opposition do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in the legal aid reforms, it none the less persists and must be addressed.
My hon. Friend is raising important points about domestic violence and the barriers to accessing legal aid that particularly women face, but women face a double barrier when it comes to sex discrimination in the workplace. The new employment tribunal fees mean we have seen a huge drop in the number of women seeking justice.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes an absolutely critical point about women in the workplace. This plays into the broader theme of today’s discussion, which is about how we ensure we include all elements of society so that we can build an economy and a society that are cohesive and dynamic. The issues are not only about rights and equalities in the narrow sense; they are about how those rights and equalities play into the creation of an inclusive and dynamic economy where all people are able to bring their talents to the table, and women are a critical element of that. Without redress to justice, they will not have the checks and balances in place that they need to defend their rights, as should every other member of society.
A clear theme is coming through in the interventions from my hon. Friends. The overall theme is whether the Government have properly considered the impact of their legislation and policies on some of the most vulnerable groups in society, such as the homeless; those threatened with eviction and facing serious housing disrepair; those in need of community care services; parents and children involved in child abduction cases; and those with mental health and mental capacity issues. This test only further entrenches the gap between those who can and those who cannot access justice. The law is there to protect all citizens, and a robust justice system should make sure that justice can be afforded to all, not only those who can afford it.
Last week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, issued his annual report in which he raised concerns about the lack of access to justice, and Lord Justice Briggs said:
“To any rational observer who values access to civil justice, this is a truly shocking state of affairs.”
If we have the most senior judiciary in our country worrying about lack of access to justice, does my hon. Friend not agree that the Government must take heed and start to change their policies in this arena?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree entirely with every word of it, and with the sentiment. Members clearly have a deep and active interest in this issue, but we could never claim to be experts at the same level as the judiciary whom she just cited. We must defer to those views. If the most eminent experts in the world are telling us that the system is seriously flawed and the new legislation is deeply damaging, surely we must take heed of their interventions.
Nothing we see from the Government addresses what is increasingly being recognised as a two-nation justice system—and this from the party that claims to be a one-nation party. How we treat the most vulnerable is a key barometer of the kind of society we are and aspire to be, particularly when it relates to that most fundamental of rights: equality before the law. The increase in court fees, alongside reduced access to legal aid, restricts access to justice. Unless the Government change course, they will fail on the first duty of any Government: the just maintenance of law and order.
It is a pleasure to be able to participate, and I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for setting the scene so well. Members present, including me, have a particular interest in this matter, which I shall discuss from a Northern Ireland perspective. Some things in Northern Ireland are not right and are not going well, and this is an opportunity to tell the House about them. Perhaps the Minister, having listened to my comments, can respond. In telling the stories from Northern Ireland, I want to show where we need to focus.
Legal aid is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so the responsibility lies very clearly with the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland administers the statutory legal aid system, and although it is a devolved matter, that does not mean I cannot share views about Northern Ireland, and that is what I shall do. As the Member for Strangford, speaking on behalf of the constituents who have contacted me about this issue, it is important that we have those views on the record in the mother of Parliaments and at the same time stand up for fellow countrymen and women in England and Wales who may be affected by the changes to legal aid since 2012.
Over the previous parliamentary term, I had a number of discussions with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). He has been vociferous about legal aid on the Floor of the House. There has been no mention of it without him being there to speak about it. I look forward to the Minister’s response as well. He is a compassionate Minister who knows the issues and what we are about here, so I would like to hear his thoughts.
Despite being devolved, legal aid has proved to be an issue in Northern Ireland. More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to prove an obstacle to the efficiency of the courts. I have been in contact with the Minister responsible for policing and justice in Northern Ireland, David Ford, as well as with solicitors and barristers who have expressed their views to me, so I am aware of the issues that we have back home and where the problems are. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Aberavon spoke specifically about vulnerable people, and I will as well, because they are the people we are here to represent.
Across Northern Ireland, hundreds of Crown court cases are stuck in the early stages of the legal process as lawyers continue to refuse to take on new criminal cases in protest against cuts to their pay. It is a critical issue, and there is a balance to be struck. I understand that the Government are under financial pressures, as we are in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well. The financial constraints might start here, but they go out to all the regional Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly. The stand-off about pay has caused mayhem in the court system, with a growing backlog of cases as the dispute intensifies. Lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.
The latest figures were released just last week and show that there are currently 817 cases outstanding in Northern Ireland. Of those, 545 are directly affected by the legal aid dispute. The magnitude of what is happening there is mirrored elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The issues are financial, and perhaps there are more complexities; nevertheless, the breakdown of the figures includes some worrying cases. The outstanding cases include seven murder suspects, four accused of attempted murder, 60 accused of sex crimes, 76 accused of drug offences and 39 accused of fraud. Without stakeholder agreement and a reasonable solution here on the mainland, we could see a similar, if not worse, situation arise.
I say this with great respect because I am not someone who attacks political parties—that is not my form, Mr Bailey, and I never do it—but the Alliance party leads the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, and its unreasonable approach has seen law firms operating at a loss as a result of changes to the legal aid system. Top solicitors in the Province have warned that law firms quite simply cannot continue to operate at such a loss without bankruptcy, and that with so many cases backlogged the situation can only get worse. Local solicitors in my town, Newtownards, and elsewhere in my constituency have confirmed that.
Disputes over legal aid not only threaten the efficiency of the justice system but can lead to the erosion of the right to a free and fair trial for all. I have heard the shadow Minister say that on numerous occasions in the Chamber; I have not seen his speech, but he will probably say the same thing shortly in Westminster Hall. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society would depend on legal aid should they ever require legal assistance. We are talking about people who are unable to access justice because of their vulnerability. There are many more people out there who may need to call upon legal aid but will be unable to. As a House and as Members of Parliament, we have a duty need to ensure that such people are protected from changes to the legal aid framework.
To reduce costs, we must focus on those over-represented in the legal aid client base. Change is necessary to address that over-representation, but we must be careful of the unintended consequences. I do not think that the Government deliberately intended what we have seen, but there are unintended consequences, and we have already seen in Northern Ireland just how out of control the situation can get in a short space of time. The Government need to engage with pro-bono organisations, solicitors’ groups and other relevant bodies to ensure a comprehensive strategy to address over-representation in the legal aid client base while protecting the vulnerable people who might find themselves in genuine need of legal aid assistance.
The exceptional funding route for those who are disadvantaged is clearly not working. Not only does the Ministry of Justice fail to recognise that there are vulnerable people in our society who need this sort of funding, regardless of what the European Court of Human Rights, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission or the European Union says; it fails to provide, let alone implement, a strategy to ensure that no vulnerable person in our society is in such a position in the first place. We are elected by our constituents as Members of Parliament to speak out on their behalf about the issues that arise. That is what I do in this House, as do other right hon. and hon. Members. When vulnerable people are squeezed, pushed and coerced and find no one to turn to, we have to step up and do our best for them.
We have today an overdue opportunity to discuss legal aid, an issue that I am sure will not go away. That is why it is important that the Minister will respond and important to hear what the shadow Minister and other Members will say. It was also important to hear the opening speech by the hon. Member for Aberavon and the interventions by other Members. I hope that Members will take note of the experiences I have shared from Northern Ireland, and that they share my sense of urgency about this issue on behalf of my constituents. Everyone in a civilised country such as ours should have a free and fair trial and should be legally represented. The Ministry of Justice needs to go forth and resolve the issue in a sustainable, long-term and proper fashion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on raising this subject for debate. I did not intend to make a speech today, but in the absence of other colleagues I thought I would have a go.
Not one Member of this House regards access to justice as something that should be restricted to the rich, and nobody thinks that ensuring that people have access to fair trials and that the criminal and civil justice systems work are not serious issues. When the coalition Government came to power in 2010, it had already been flagged by the previous Government that changes to legal aid were in train. The hon. Gentleman did not set out which of the Government’s changes to legal aid the Opposition agree with. I presume they agree with some of them; perhaps the shadow Minister can tell us which.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early. I think he is about to tell us that the previous Labour Government would also have made cuts to various Departments and that the Ministry of Justice would have taken a hit, but the reality is that the coalition Government and this majority Conservative Government have made a shocking mess of the justice system. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cut hugely the number of vulnerable people who have access to the courts. The hon. Gentleman should not lecture the Chamber about the fact that the previous Labour would have cut. We accept that we would, but this issue is not about just cutting. The Government have been completely and utterly incompetent.
I thank the shadow Minister for his lengthy intervention, during which, I note, he did not answer the question I asked him. He will get a chance later to tell us which of the coalition Government’s changes to legal aid the Opposition support. Presumably they support some of them or would have done something else altogether.
Access to justice matters, and all of us have constituents who are affected by it. We heard that the Bar has been threatening to go on strike over some of the changes. I want to talk about the structure of how we do law in this country, because perhaps something is wrong with it. There were 2,500 practising barristers in 1980 and 15,000 in 2010, and there are 16,000 now. The Bar has grown hugely as legal aid costs have grown. I am not saying that is wrong—a very large number of talented people work at the Bar—but it is not indicative of a profession under major stress.
I do not want to make a cheap point about earnings at the Bar, but I will say this. A significant minority of practitioners earn from criminal legal aid sums significantly in excess of how much the Prime Minister is paid.
One moment, and I will certainly give way.
That is not to say that salaries at the Bar are too high in general, but it is an issue. No other public sector employees—I accept that the Bar is independent, but perhaps that is one of the issues—earn money of that kind. Think of how much surgeons in the national health service earn.
I am obliged, Mr Bailey, but I wonder whether you would just let me make the point. A criminal solicitor, for example, of about five years’ experience earns about £28,000. A criminal barrister with the same experience earns about £30,000, but is self-employed. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could visit his local chambers and make that argument to members of the Bar and criminal solicitors.
Part of the problem is that huge swathes of people are graduating and going into the law—both the solicitors’ profession and the Bar. The problem is that the work is not there for them now because of the Government’s cuts to legal aid, so it is very difficult to get a practice up and running. If we do not have solicitors and barristers, we will not have a judiciary in the future.
The hon. Lady’s point is spot on. Barristers have told me that too many people are going into the profession, given the work that is available, despite the fact that their numbers are several times higher than a few years ago. The consequence is that too many of them are effectively working part time and are not able to do as many cases as they ought to be doing, given their productivity, so their earnings are lower, as the shadow Minister said.
We will come to the amount of money we spend on legal aid, although I note that I have certainly got this debate going, so I guess we should at least be grateful for that—as I said, I did not intend to speak today.
A point has been made about the fact that we spend a large amount of money on legal aid compared with other countries such as Germany and France, which, as far as I am aware, do not have legal systems that are not fit for purpose. They have non-adversarial legal systems, which are different from ours, so they may be different in other areas. Despite the fact that we spend many billions of pounds on our legal system, that our spending on legal aid per capita is much higher than other countries—even those with adversarial systems, such as New Zealand—and that people work in good faith at the Bar, the judiciary, the Crown Prosecution Service and elsewhere, there is a structural issue with our legal system, and we need to look at it. Perhaps we should look at whether the Bar should be independent and at whether more barristers should be employed. Perhaps the shadow Minister will come forward with that proposal. It is not reasonable to say that the Government have no role in curtailing the amount of expenditure on that area, although we must be fair to all who are involved.
The hon. Member for Aberavon briefly mentioned judicial review, at which a number of the changes were aimed. The number of judicial reviews has increased by a factor of something like four in the past eight years. Such numbers are very significant, and it is reasonable that the Government look at them. I am not in the Government, and I do not know whether they have got it right in all cases. That is why I was so keen to get an answer from the shadow Minister to my question about which of the changes to legal aid he agrees with. I am sure we will hear from him about that.
It is wrong to say that Government Members are not as concerned about access to justice and vulnerable people as Opposition Members, but questions need to be asked about the structure of the legal system and about how things work at the moment. The rate of increase that we saw before 2010 would have been untenable if it had continued at that level, as the then Labour Government recognised.
We come now to the Opposition spokespersons’ responses. Ordinarily, they would be confined to 10 minutes. However, we are not inordinately time constrained at the moment, so I am going to be a bit flexible. Given the heat that this debate has generated so far, could the Opposition spokespersons be sensible in the way they use their time and give the Minister plenty of time to reply? Equally, if the Minister could give Mr Stephen Kinnock an opportunity to sum up, that would be appreciated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as we debate a crucial topic, Mr Bailey. What can be more fundamental than ensuring access to justice? For that reason, I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) on his brave and spontaneous speech, which certainly got the debate going.
Different jurisdictions across the UK and across the world are each on their own journey as they continually grapple with access to justice, constantly updating procedural rules, introducing new technologies and reforming legal aid. Every jurisdiction can learn lessons from each of the others, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested, but I agree with the hon. Member for Aberavon that the UK Government should be doing more learning than teaching. It is clear that access to justice has suffered under the Conservative Government, and the former coalition partnership, as yet another austerity sacrifice.
Turning to the motion, in one sense the words “for vulnerable people” could be seen as superfluous, because if people’s access to justice is denied or made difficult, they become vulnerable people as a result. Thankfully, there is access to justice for most, but that is not good enough. If we believe in the rule of law, everyone should be able to vindicate their rights and have access to justice. Under this Government, access has become harder and harder for too many people. Understandably, and unsurprisingly, the main focus of the debate was legal aid, but we had good arguments about other aspects of proceedings, which gave food for thought as to how every jurisdiction can improve access to justice.
Turning to the main point of contention, I agree that the huge cuts in funding and eligibility for legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 are little short of a disgrace. The hon. Member for Aberavon highlighted some of the frightening statistics about the dramatic fall in the number of legal aid-funded cases, particularly for victims of domestic violence. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), all the arguments were well summed up by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales when he said:
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most. In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.”
Many of the issues were aired in another recent Westminster Hall debate on access to justice in Wales, and I want to tackle a couple of the arguments that Ministers have previously used to continue their attempted defence of legal aid cuts. They have said that it is better to encourage mediation than provide legal aid and an attempt at mediation should be encouraged or even required—by all means—but without pulling the rug from under people’s feet if it does not work. Legal aid spend should fall as a result of successful mediation, but not because people who have been forced into mediation have to sell themselves short and accept settlements even when mediation has failed. Ministers also claimed, and will probably claim again—the hon. Member for Warrington South started to make arguments along these lines—that the legal aid system in England and Wales
“remains one of the most generous in the world.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 528WH.]
That is the same old chestnut that the Justice Secretary used when pushing the cuts through, but it is like comparing apples and oranges and the argument does not stack up.
Professor Alan Paterson of the University of Strathclyde, chair of the International Legal Aid Group, pointed out that systems here cannot be compared with those on the continent, which are inquisitorial systems, a point which was accepted by the hon. Member for Warrington South. Such systems generally require less input from legal representatives, but significantly more resources are spent on prosecution services and the courts. Once expenditure on those other parts of the equation is factored in, England and Wales comes about a third of the way down the European league table. Professor Paterson made a specific comparison with Holland: back in 2011, England and Wales spent more than twice as much per capita on legal aid as Holland, but with a total per capita spend of around €90 on legal aid, courts and prosecutions combined, Holland spends a greater overall per capita sum on justice than England and Wales, where the total was around €80 euros. Of course, even if England and Wales has a higher per capita legal aid spend, it absolutely does not follow that that is because it has more generous eligibility rules. The hon. Member for Warrington South mentioned New Zealand, but the Law Society of England and Wales pointed out that the differential was not significantly caused by any increased generosity. Indeed, New Zealand was more generous in that regard. More relevant were higher crime rates, higher divorce rates, and higher expenditure per case.
Briefly, I have some similar points about the position in Scotland. Professor Paterson, in his Hamlyn lectures at the University of Cambridge in 2010, pointed out that the Scottish Legal Aid Board spent around £29 per capita compared with £38 in England and Wales, and yet the system in Scotland was more generous in terms of scope, including personal injury claims and representation at employment tribunals. It was also considerably more generous in terms of coverage, with a significantly higher proportion of the population financially eligible for legal aid. The system in Scotland remains uncapped and demand-led. Why, therefore, was the per capita spend in England and Wales higher? One significant factor was the high number of high-cost fraud cases prosecuted south of the border compared with in Scotland. In reality, the Government were taking away from the least well-off in order to fund the prosecution of high-value fraudsters. That argument does not appeal to me. According to Professor Paterson, court procedures in Scotland, both civil and criminal, have received holistic reform to reduce legal aid spend. That is a better approach than wholesale legal aid cuts, which cause so much social damage.
The hon. Member for Aberavon also highlighted last year’s Select Committee on Justice report, which noted that the Ministry of Justice’s four objectives for the reforms were to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense, to target legal aid at those who need it most, to make significant savings in the cost of the scheme and to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer. However, the Committee concluded that,
“while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants and had not achieved the other three out of four of its stated objectives for the reforms.”
The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have made similar criticisms. We are left wondering whether anyone actually thinks that the reforms have been a success.
The Justice Committee also made some excellent points regarding the claimed savings and delivering value for money. It said:
“The Ministry’s efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive.”
From my own experience as a solicitor, I would say that public money spent providing help to those who need it to fill in complex immigration application forms offers better value than pursuing tribunal appeals or judicial reviews after that person has got the form wrong. That is the approach taken by the Scottish Government in its 2011 strategy “A sustainable future for legal aid”, the themes of which are the right help at the right time, delivering justice efficiently and maximising value. That all points to a preventive approach that avoids problems escalating to the point at which they can cause lasting damage and disruption to people in our communities and increased cost to the public purse.
However, as other hon. Members pointed out, legal aid alone does not secure access to justice. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) pointed out that the fees that have been introduced for employment tribunals are making the vindication of important employment rights more difficult. Criminal court charges were introduced in the previous Parliament, encouraging innocent people to plead guilty. I warmly welcome the change of heart that seems to have been signalled by the current Justice Secretary. We could indeed spend days considering the simplification of procedures, the use of plain English, special safeguards for children, protections for those who are doli incapax, pro bono work, the provision of law centres and even the use of technology, which I am sure the Minister will mention.
Finally, as parliamentarians, we need to take care how we respond to Bills that are passing through Parliament. The Immigration Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords will make people leave their families and jobs and conduct appeals against Home Office decisions from abroad. I do not regard that as access to justice. The Bill would also cut back on appeal rights against refusal of asylum support, leaving vulnerable, destitute people without any legal recourse. Perhaps most disgracefully of all, the Bill will introduce procedures that will allow families with children to be summarily evicted without so much as a court order, never mind a court hearing. Any Government pursuing that sort of agenda cannot claim to be prioritising access to justice. As the new chair of the Bar Council said:
“Justice is not a luxury, and everyone should be able to defend their rights through the legal system.”
The Government need to listen and change course.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey.
To declare my interests, my wife is employed as a criminal duty solicitor and part-time judge and, before my election to the House, I was a member of Wilberforce barristers’ chambers in Hull. I was a junior member of the Bar and certainly not earning “fat cat” moneys, as the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) might want to believe.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate. It could not have come at a better time, because the commission chaired by Lord Willy Bach is as we speak hearing evidence from experts in the professions on how we deal with this problem of access to justice and legal aid.
The Bach commission was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the leader of the Labour party. It is fair to say that the Leader of the Opposition understands legal aid. He, unlike any other leader of a political party that I can remember, actually gets it, as no one else has done. He understands it, he cares about it and, as a result, he has established the Bach commission to look at access to justice and legal aid. He is also doing that in a non-party political way.
Members of the commission have been appointed by Willy Bach not because of their politics or any sort of association with or affiliation to any political party, but, on the contrary, because of their expertise and their knowledge not only of legal aid and access to justice, but of other things. For example, one member, a particularly huge asset to the commission, is Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is also providing expertise in relation to disability. So the commission is non-partisan and we hope that it will come to a view on how we provide access to justice for the most vulnerable people in our society.
It has to be said that the Government have made a real mess of access to justice and legal aid. Since 2010, advice-and-assistance matter starts in social welfare have gone from 471,000 down to 53,000, a drop of 91%. So more than 400,000 people are now not provided with the opportunity to receive legal advice and are not given the chance to access the courts. They are often left paddling their own canoe, faced with extremely complex issues of procedure and law, and left to do all that on their own.
In reality, no money is saved, because the courts are delayed. Judges are complaining constantly, privately in the main, but complaining none the less that cases are delayed while litigants in person are left fending for themselves, trying to navigate through complex areas of procedure and law. There is no real saving.
Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, exceptional case funding was supposed to help people who are denied access to lawyers. I think this is right—I will be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong—but last year, for example, only 394 applications were granted under the scheme, rather than the 3,700 or so estimated. Clearly, the system is not working.
The Government might be about to reintroduce the residence test. They got excited about that and were pleased that the judicial review was successful, in that the Government won, but the lord justices who heard the case for review were not considering the practical effects of the residence test. They were simply deciding whether the residence test was legal or “Wednesbury unreasonable”; they were not considering whether the test itself was practical or could be implemented successfully. To reintroduce the residence test would be a huge mistake. I have not heard from a lawyer who has been able to explain how it would work. I have asked the Minister, too, how it would work. Will he explain exactly how he intends the residence test to work in practice?
As for criminal legal aid, the Government are now attempting to implement a system that will see the number of duty contract providers reduced from some 1,650 to 526. There has been a cut of about 17.5%. The Government say that the number of providers needs to be reduced and consolidated, in order to allow them a profit on their work. The system, however, cannot work. It will not work and the Minister knows that it will not work. It is undergoing litigation, but the reality is that the Government have made a terrible mess of the duty criminal contracts since 2010. It was needless, in truth, but the entire thing is in a terrible mess now, to the point of a whistleblower coming forward. The whistleblower was employed through the Legal Aid Agency to help with the procurement exercise and was able to explain how chaotic the entire system was.
Last night I received an email from a criminal law solicitor, Mr Andrew Gurney of Gurney Harden Solicitors in Ashford. I will not read the entire content of the email, but that firm of solicitors was successful in its application for six contracts. Mr Gurney makes the point:
“We were involved in 6 successful bids and our early estimates put our costs at £30,000”—
so he knows. He knows that the system is impossible to implement. His firm has spent £30,000 in applying for contracts that everyone knows will probably not happen, because everyone knows that it is impossible to implement the system.
The system is not fit for purpose, and the Government have been warned about it. The Justice Secretary privately accepts that the idea of removing more than 1,000 firms of solicitors and leaving some areas without access to duty solicitors is unmanageable. So even Ministers privately believe that access to justice for the most vulnerable people will be denied as a result of the Government’s plans to implement a system that is absolutely chaotic. It is time that the Government listened to people who know better than them.
That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South. We need consensus. We need to put politics aside. It is all right for me to come here and attack the Government—I enjoy that—but the reality is that will not get us anywhere. We need to sit down and accept that people need access to law. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party has said, that ought to be considered a basic human right. If the state is taking on an individual, surely the most basic thing required of a civilised society is to allow that individual access to people who have experience and expertise in the area of law that they are trying to navigate.
It is somewhat ironic that, later on this morning, the Minister for Human Rights will be appearing before the EU Justice Sub-Committee because the Government have not implemented a European directive adopted by other member states in 2013 that gives criminal suspects a right to access legal advice following arrest.
I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend makes an important point.
It is time that we grew up. The Bach commission, with its cross-party members—I suspect some appointments are political and some non-political—chosen for their expertise only, not for their politics, will hopefully come to a view that can save money while providing access to the courts, lawyers and justice. As I have said, we need to do that in a non-partisan, non-political way. I sometimes find that difficult to manage, but it is crucial that we grow up.
Before I finish my remarks, I will mention the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). I think we have seen a drop of 80% in employment tribunals. The hon. Member for Warrington South talked about people in the law profession earning more than the Prime Minister, but we now have employment judges sitting idly in tribunals throughout England and Wales with no work to do because of the fee that needs to be paid for a tribunal to be heard.
Women want to raise serious issues. I think of a case that I advised on pro bono and referred the woman to a solicitor: she had told her employer that she would take maternity leave at some point in the not-too-distant future and he said, “Well, that’s not very convenient. I’m afraid you’ll have to find something else to do for a living.” I think she needed to find £1,300 to get her case to a tribunal, but she could not possibly afford that. I managed to find a solicitor who was prepared to act for her pro bono, but she still did not have the money—it would have taken her several months to save that up.
Sadly, the reality is that employers react to those cases only once the money is paid in. Before that, they do nothing—they are using that as a tactic. Therefore, while terrible employers such as that would have to settle if the case were taken to tribunal—they would not get anywhere near success, because they had clearly been discriminatory—because the woman concerned could not get the £1,300 together, she was at the stage of saying, “Fair enough, I give in.” The statute bar in employment cases means that people have to get their act together within three months and she could never have managed to save that money up in that period.
I do not know whether I am making this point well or not, but it is not about saving money because we have employment judges with no work to do. It is purely ideological. There is no reason for it—it does not save a penny.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another consequence is that while there are lots of good employers, bad employers, because of the tribunal fees, can get away with unlawful practices and they have no incentive to change their behaviour to become good employers?
Absolutely. I know the Minister well, I think, and he does not want a situation to arise where employers get away with treating their staff badly. I do not think he wants that for a second, but that is an unintended consequence of the Government’s policy and it needs to change. It comes to something when the Lord Chief Justice comes out of his comfort zone as a senior member of the judiciary and criticises Government policy. It is appalling.
I will finish on this note. The hon. Member for Warrington South—
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned me four times in his remarks, but he has yet to answer the question I put about which changes to the legal aid system the Opposition support. I want to ask him about his interesting comments on residency, because the Opposition reject the proposed changes to be used, at least in part, to prevent prosecutions against British soldiers in Iraq, which among other things led to Al-Sweady. Does he propose any changes to that mechanism, or is he sanguine about the fact that we are the only country in the world that pays people to sue our soldiers? I am genuinely interested in that.
With respect, I am not prepared to go into the hon. Gentleman’s Daily Mail-reading fraternity line. Frankly, that is outrageous. One thing I think the Bach commission will establish is consensus of opinion, so I will not make Opposition policy about the residence test on the hoof, but it is disgraceful that women who have been trafficked will probably be refused access to law as a result of the Government’s proposed changes.
The hon. Gentleman is desperate to get me on to that. He mentioned fat-cat lawyers who earn more than the Prime Minister, so he was probably referring to the Prime Minister’s brother who is an eminent member of the Bar and Queen’s counsel barrister reported to have earned £1 million. What he does not mention is that some of that £1 million was probably paid privately—it is very unlikely that he earned £1 million from criminal legal aid. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue, and I was reluctant to comment on it, but I am afraid he tempted me too much.
I am not going to take a further intervention from the hon. Gentleman, because, frankly, he has nothing to offer that would benefit the debate.
Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon on securing this important and timely debate. We now need a consensus. We need the Government to listen. In my respectful opinion, the new Justice Secretary has had the sense to change policies of his predecessor’s that were wrong, and there are things that he can put in place to mitigate what has been an unmitigated disaster in the justice system. I invite the Minister to respond to the comments that have been made by hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey? I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on having secured the debate. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed. This important subject is capable of arousing many passions, and I am pleased that the debate, although lively at times, has been conducted in a measured tone. I very much hope that will continue.
Let me be clear at the outset: the Government share the passion for a justice system that works for everyone. I have spoken previously about our commitment to one nation justice, which is fundamental to the rule of law. At the heart of one nation justice is equality. We are committed to making sure that our justice system delivers faster and fairer justice for all citizens, not just some. We are committed to a justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable and that works better for victims and witnesses. It must be recognised that legal aid is only one part of the balanced provision of access to justice, but it is nevertheless an important part, and I accept that there is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that it is available for those in the greatest need.
When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. The coalition had to find significant savings, which meant making difficult choices. Despite that, we have made sure that legal aid remains available for the highest priority cases, such as those where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where people face the loss of their home, as in cases of domestic violence, or where people’s children might be taken into care. It is also available in relation to the treatment and detention of people experiencing mental health problems and in cases concerning the best interests of people who lack mental capacity.
Tackling domestic violence remains a Government priority. For that reason, we have retained legal aid for the purpose of obtaining urgent protection via an injunction. In addition, in private family law cases—those concerning child arrangements and financial matters—funding may be available for those who will be materially disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court.
I hope hon. Members will accept that it is reasonable to ensure that the correct cases attract funding. However, we have listened and responded to specific concerns. That is why, during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, we made changes to make evidence easier to obtain. In April 2014, we expanded the list of evidence accepted in applications for legal aid in private family cases. We also extended the definition of health professionals to include psychologists. We made further changes in July 2015, including by adding new offences to the list of domestic violence and child abuse offences. Further regulatory changes ensure that, once a particular form of legal aid has been granted, no further evidence needs to be submitted for someone to receive legal representation for their case. We will, of course, continue to keep the evidence requirements under review.
Mention has been made of exceptional case funding, and funding has been provided where it is required by law under European Union legislation or European convention on human rights regulations.
The Minister explains how legal aid is still available in some of the most urgent situations—for example, when someone’s house is at risk of repossession. However, does that not raise the question, why wait until we get to that stage? Why not provide legal aid earlier, so that people do not get into that mess in the first place?
It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there must be some limit, and I will come in due course to how much money is spent. However, his criticism is ironic, given that he admitted in his speech that there is less expenditure per capita in Scotland than in England and Wales.
The hon. Gentleman did explain the reasons for that, but I have to say that the facts speak for themselves. He should not try to explain away the fact that there is less expenditure per capita in Scotland than in England and Wales—it is easy to be disingenuous in explaining things away. As I will explain later, the fact is that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is one of the largest in the world.
The Minister misses the two key points I made in my speech about per capita spend. First, it is not fair just to compare legal aid spending per capita; we have to look at justice spending overall. Secondly—this is a matter of fact, not explaining things away—the higher per capita spend in England and Wales is a result of things such as the larger number of expensive fraud cases prosecuted south of the border. The proportion of people eligible for civil legal aid in Scotland is about 75%—well in excess of that in England and Wales. The Minister must also bear it in mind that the financial eligibility rules are more generous and the number of legal cases covered is far broader. He should try to learn lessons from the Scottish jurisdiction, so that savings can be made not by removing all sorts of cases and people from the scope of legal aid, but by achieving efficiencies in the system and other changes.
I would simply say that the hon. Gentleman should look at some of the cases in England and Wales. He will find that some of the fraud cases in this jurisdiction are pretty complex. However, I am grateful to him for saying that it is important that we look at matters from an overall perspective. With the best will in the world, some of those who have spoken already have not done so—they have seen legal aid in a narrow confine, rather than from the overall perspective the hon. Gentleman speaks of.
Even after the reforms we have put in place, we still have a very generous legal aid system, compared with other countries. Last year we spent more than £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is about a quarter of the Ministry of Justice’s departmental expenditure. As I said, that is one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world.
May I gently tell the hon. Lady that, were it not for the economic mess that the Labour Government left this country in—[Interruption.] Labour Members may well shrug their shoulders, but the reality is that, were it not for the mess they left and their economic mismanagement, we would not have had to take the tough decisions that we are having to take. I will return later to the views the Labour shadow justice team has expressed on the record about whether the cuts should have been made.
During the previous Parliament the coalition Government proposed a civil legal aid residence test, which has been referred to. The Government continue to believe that individuals should have a strong connection to the UK to benefit from our civil legal aid scheme, and intend to implement the residence test following recent success in the courts. I should add that during the previous Parliament the Government were particularly careful to listen to, and take into account, concerns that were raised about the residence test. As a result a number of modifications and exceptions were proposed, including in cases involving particularly vulnerable individuals. We believe that the proposed residence test, with specific exceptions for vulnerable groups, is both fair and appropriate. It has to be right that when British taxpayers’ money is being used for legal aid, the recipient of the legal aid should have a strong connection to our country.
The hon. Gentleman is an experienced barrister and an experienced politician. He will appreciate that the function of this House is to put policy into implementation, by ensuring that it becomes law. The practical process will need to be thought out—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”]—as is the case with every other measure introduced by the present and previous Governments, and during the 13 years when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, and even before that. That is something that will be dealt with and resolved.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for whom I have huge respect and regard, spoke passionately; but he will of course be aware that the matter is a devolved one. I wish him well in his dealings with David Ford, with whom I too have had dealings. To the extent that it will help, I will certainly tell him the next time I see him that the hon. Gentleman was speaking passionately and would like him to give a sympathetic ear when he raises the issue. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) will appreciate that, again, the issue is a devolved one; but he has put his views on record—including in our little dialogue during my speech.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) for bringing a realistic perspective to the debate, and for pointing out the reality of the situation. He repeatedly asked the shadow Justice Minister which of the cuts that we have made his party would reverse. I am not surprised that no reply was forthcoming, because in an interview with The Guardian on 30 January 2015, the former shadow Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), said:
“I don’t have a magic wand to wave. I can’t commit to reverse the £600m cuts to legal aid made by the Tories and Lib Dems. We will still have to take tough decisions on reducing the deficit.”
However, it was not only the former shadow Justice Secretary who took that view. The person in his team dealing specifically with legal aid, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), was interviewed by John Hyde of The Law Society Gazette on 24 September 2014:
“‘We’re not going to get in a Tardis and go back to before,’ he said. ‘We are in a world where resources are tight and it would not be right to pretend otherwise.’”
The article goes on:
“Slaughter conceded that the Labour party would have been forced to make cuts to family law funding and promote mediation as a cheaper option. He added that a Labour government would seek to promote and improve mediation services on offer.”
He is quoted as saying:
“‘We are going to be honest about the tightness of resources—we can’t tackle everything immediately and other elements”
of public spending
“will have a higher place in the queue.’”
The hon. Lady seeks to justify the fact that her party says it will not make cuts reversals of £600 million by saying, “There you are.” Of course we support mediation. In fact we have said that in family cases where there are divorces, rather than the two separating parties engaging solicitors and then barristers, and then going to court—all paid for by the taxpayer—it is far better for them to sit around a table, trying to have a constructive dialogue with mediation. That way of reaching a solution is preferable.
Given that the shadow team has said it would not make any cuts, perhaps its members could reflect on whether the next time one of them speaks they might be supportive of our proposals, rather than simply saying, “Don’t reduce.”
Will the Minister concede at least that the leader of the Labour party has set up the Bach commission, to look at the issue of access to justice? It would be constructive for Ministers at least to acknowledge that. It is true that my colleagues said previously that they could not just wave a magic wand—of course not; but some of the cuts were badly made and chaotic. Areas—swathes—were taken out of the scope of legal aid, with the consequence that the most vulnerable people suffered; and the reality was that that did not really save money.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments I just made—that his party’s shadow team said it would not reverse any of the cuts. That kind of contradicts what he says; but as far as Willy Bach is concerned—and he is a man for whom I have much respect—I wish him well with his commission. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) will be aware that we have said there will be a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 three to five years from its implementation. That will be a thorough review in relation to the way forward.
I want to mention some other points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Aberavon referred to some research conducted by Rights of Women, showing that 38% or 39% of women do not have the evidence needed to apply for legal aid. That research was based on responses from 61 people, which I hope even the hon. Gentleman will agree is a small sample—much smaller than researchers would ordinarily use to generalise across the wider population.
There is much debate about the amount of work available and the number of lawyers around to do it. The Law Society has itself accepted that there are far too many people chasing too little criminal work. We must recognise that the legal profession needs to take a wider look—not just at legal aid—at how things are going. In a relatively short time the structure of the legal profession has changed. There was a time when there were simply solicitors, barristers and legal executives; but now barristers in particular face competition from solicitors who have higher rights of audience than previously. There are more people wanting to qualify as barristers, as well. Alternative business structures are coming on the scene. That means that more and more people are chasing the same amount of work.
The point is not that there is not sufficient work for barristers to do, but that there is no legal aid available to enable people who need legal advice to go to a lawyer and get help. We have more people going to prison than for many years, and more people going into the criminal justice system. There is plenty of work; it is just that those people cannot afford anyone to represent them.
Perhaps the hon. Lady missed the point when I said that we have one of the largest legal aid budgets in the world, at £1.6 billion. I would say that that is capable of buying a substantial amount of legal aid assistance and advocacy for people. I go back to the comment from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about the importance of looking at matters in the round, from a broader perspective.
Much has been said about employment tribunal fees and the fact that people are not using employment tribunals any more. There should be some recognition of the ACAS early conciliation process, which did not exist before but has dealt with some 83,000 cases in the 12 months since it was introduced. There should also be some recognition of the fact that the economy is improving, and that more jobs are being created out there. It is always the case, looking back at the trend of such things, that there is less demand for employment tribunals when the economy is improving. People should not overlook the fact that more than 80,000 cases have been dealt with by ACAS’s early conciliation process. Furthermore, looking at matters in the round, let us not forget that this Government are committed to spending some £700 million on reforming the courts system, which means there will be a better way of accessing justice than exists at the moment.
Coming back to the words in the title of this debate, we very much hope that the reforms will particularly assist vulnerable people, including victims, witnesses and others. The reforms will mean, for example, that those people do not have to attend a court to give evidence, but can instead go to a convenient location close to them and give evidence by video conferencing. We will also make more use of modern technology in a broader perspective. We already have prisoners giving evidence from prisons, which avoids getting caught up in traffic jams and all the additional security costs that taking them to court would entail.
Given the changes that are being introduced and the impact they will have in real time, does the Minister not agree that waiting for three to five years before doing a review of LASPO is simply evidence of being asleep at the wheel? A review of LASPO needs to be brought forward in a far shorter timeframe.
It is important to recognise that LASPO made a huge change to the whole structure of the legal aid system. It is important that we ensure the changes have sufficient time to bed in, in order to make a proper assessment of whether they have worked. As it happens, the three to five year period is more or less approaching us, and we will do the review in 2016 to 2018, but it is important that we allow such fundamental changes to take place.
I am afraid I cannot tell the hon. Lady when the review will be. Clearly, we are giving much thought to that. We want to get it right and to ensure that the changes we have made already have the effect we wanted. If necessary, we will make changes. As I say, the timing of the review is yet to be decided, but we are committed to doing it and will do so.
I am mindful that the hon. Member for Aberavon must have an opportunity to wind up, so I will simply conclude by saying that I hope hon. Members will appreciate this Government’s commitment to a one nation justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable, supported by a strong and sustainable legal aid system to provide advice and support for the highest priority cases. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon for securing the debate and to all other Members who have spoken.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey. I thank all hon. Members present today for some truly engaging and insightful contributions to this vital debate. We have heard a range of comments about the comparison between our system and others and the professed commitment to a one nation justice system, as well as a passionate exchange of views about the real role of a legal and justice system.
A conclusion from my point of view is that there seems to be very little traction in comparing other systems to ours; it is like comparing apples and pears. Another conclusion I draw is that change and reform are absolutely fine. Nobody thinks our system should be static and stuck in the mud, but if we are going to change, we do not change simply by slashing and burning. We change by having a proper plan B and a sustainable system to put in as a replacement, rather than simply salami-slicing across the current system. It seems we are creating a truly two nation justice system, and if that happens, it will be a tragedy.
We have seen some evidence of listening from the Government. The screeching U-turn that the Justice Secretary performed on the scrapping of criminal court charges is evidence of such listening, and Opposition Members certainly welcome that. Rather than diving down into the weeds, I will conclude by saying that a justice system needs to pass four key tests. First, it must uphold the belief that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, everyone should have access to justice, regardless of their means. Thirdly, it is essential that we have confidence that the true perpetrators of crime have been found guilty and are not walking the streets. Fourthly, the system must deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
I am afraid that on all four of those tests, the Government are failing. We hope they will listen carefully to the proposals we have made today about the changes that are required. I also hope that we can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said, try to put politics aside and work together to create a more equitable, efficient and fair justice system.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered access to justice for vulnerable people.
Historical Cabinet Papers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the annual release of Cabinet papers to the National Archives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am delighted that this important debate has been called today, as it gets to the heart of this Government’s record on transparency and accountability.
The relationship between those we elect to govern us and ordinary people does not have to be built upon unbroken, uninterrupted trust. In fact, a healthy scepticism that challenges, scrutinises and protests is the hallmark of a democracy in good health. In order to do that, however, the scales needs to be as evenly weighted as possible between the people and the Government and between the institutions of the state and those who use them.
We have seen in communities up and down the land the consequences of secrecy, cover-ups and a breakdown in trust—put simply, the consequences of too much power in the hands of too few. In Liverpool, an entire community was shouting alone for justice for nearly two decades against institutions and a police force that felt that it was not for scousers to be questioning its version of events—a version of events that has been proven to be falsified, in order to protect the police at the expense of the truth.
Or take what happened on 18 June 1984 at Orgreave and the charges of police brutality, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in a public office—among the most serious offences that can be found in a country that upholds the rule of law, and yet they have still not been properly investigated to this very day. When secrecy in Government institutions prevails, the health of our democracy and the rights of our citizens pay the price. I am sorry to say that this Government’s record on transparency and accountability has been anything but exemplary.
Plans to water down the Freedom of Information Act 2000 have been cloaked in the grizzled words of Ministers, who talk darkly about journalists unacceptably abusing the Act to generate stories—something that many of us call journalism. Last year alone, such journalism uncovered remarkable details of hundreds of dangerous criminals on the run, how many times our data have been breached online, what police knew about child sexual exploitation, and details of Conservative party donors making millions in housing benefit. Those were not fanciful, frivolous requests, but stories very definitely in the public interest.
What about being held to account? We have seen the Trade Union Bill and the gagging Act. There is the strangling of the finances of political opponents, in contravention of decades-old convention. The Human Rights Act is seen as nothing but an irritant. There is the NHS weekly bulletin, which was due to begin publication late last year, but which no longer includes figures on four-hour waits. There are the new rules revealing that hospitals had effectively been banned from declaring major incidents—all that from a Prime Minister, who said airily just before entering high office, let “sunshine” be “the best disinfectant”. However, there is some cleaning up to do, because, put simply, this is a Prime Minister and a Government who do not like being challenged. This is a Prime Minister and a Government who do not like scrutiny.
It was with depressing familiarity, therefore, that we learned over the Christmas recess that the Government had stopped the long-standing practice of releasing a comprehensive historical account of discussions and decisions made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet under the 30-year rule—or, now, the 20-year rule—at the turn of the year. Instead, there was only a frankly pitiful selection of files cherry-picked from the Prime Minister’s office. For the first time in 50 years, a Government have not released official files in full. Although long-standing convention has seen some 500 files released simultaneously from the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s office at the turn of the year, this year just 58 files were released.
The Government try to reassure us that further files will be forthcoming throughout the year but as yet there is no timetable for release or any indication of whether that will be comprehensive. Will the Government choose to release them on Budget day, for instance, or perhaps on the day before the summer recess, so as to avoid scrutiny? These may seem like hypothetical musings, but Ministers already have a track record of doing that. On the day of the Christmas recess, the Government released 36 ministerial statements and 424 Government documents in one day. That was surely done in the hope that hard-pressed lobby journalists would miss—in the thousands of pages of data—revelations from the Department for Work and Pensions that three quarters of those affected by the hated bedroom tax have had to cut back on food, or that there has been a 45% increase in homeless families living in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
I would like to press the Minister on a timetable for the release of all public records and on whether that release will be comprehensive, as required under the Public Records Act 1958. It would also be helpful to the House if he could explain the contents of a somewhat cryptic answer that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). He stated:
“Cabinet papers for the period 1986-1989 have already been transferred to the National Archives.”
The answer does not clearly indicate whether all those Cabinet papers have been released to the National Archives. As the Minister knows that would include, in line with precedent, some 500 files released from both the Prime Minister’s office and the Cabinet Office. Can he assure the House that all those files have been comprehensively released to the National Archives? If they have, and given that, as the Minister knows, it is procedure for the National Archives to release all files transferred to it as soon as possible, on what basis was it decided that some files would be released and others not? Was that decision taken by the National Archives, which does a fantastic job, or was it taken, as we expect, by Ministers?
On that point, how many applications have the Government submitted to the National Archives to retain documents for any reason under section 3 of the Public Records Act? Given that the use of these instruments of retention by the Government are not always publicly available, will the Minister at least confirm how many documents the Government have submitted instruments of retention for?
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate, given that Ministers have so far failed to come and give a statement to the House on why the Cabinet Office papers have been delayed. Does he agree that it is particularly important that the Government are open and transparent about the documents they retain and release because, as of December 2015, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport now has the responsibility to approve the retention of documents on advice from the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives? Therefore, two advisers to the then Thatcher Government—the right hon. Members for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) and for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale)—are now responsible for both the release and the potential retention of information relating to matters pertaining to that Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is exactly right: these questions matter because the period covered was one of profound political sensitivity and because Ministers responsible for the release of these files were in the thick of it at that time as advisers to senior politicians.
In 2014—the last time there was a comprehensive release of Cabinet papers—we learned that the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had lied to the public about the extent of the pit closure plan, her attempt to influence police tactics, and the involvement of MI5 in spying on officials of the National Union of Mineworkers. That information demonstrated the extent to which the Government can use the institutions of the state against ordinary people. It is good for our democracy that the information was released, and it helps the ongoing fight for justice in the coalfield communities. This year, however, with such a small selection of files released, issues of political importance such as the discussions on the poll tax and the black Monday stock market crash have remained secret. Those were decisions that senior Ministers in the current Government were directly involved in.
Thanks to previous releases covering 1985-86, we know that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) advised the then Thatcher Government to use Scotland as a testing bed for the hated poll tax, but there the information, sadly, dries up. We do not know how this young adviser, in the teeth of powerful Cabinet opposition, managed to force through one of the most politically catastrophic and socially toxic policies in post-war history. Not only is that of historical interest, but it gives us an insight into the ideology and motives of the Prime Minister’s senior policy chief. We see a clear progression from the right hon. Gentleman’s policy formulation in the 1980s to policy implementation under the current Government.
On that point, is my hon. Friend aware that in the 1980s the right hon. Member for West Dorset authored an extreme pamphlet for a think-tank that offered suggestions on exactly how to privatise the NHS? Two of those suggestions have now been implemented by this Conservative Government. Does that not prove the direct link between policy formulation under that Government and the policy being implemented by this one, and further emphasise the need for transparency?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right, and I am glad she has drawn the House’s attention to the extremist past and, I would say, the extremist present of some of those in such an ideological Government. The pamphlet she is referring to is “Britain’s biggest enterprise”, in which the right hon. Member for West Dorset called for a health insurance scheme and charging across the NHS. Thankfully, those shameful views have not been taken up by the current Government—yet. His views on increasing the use of joint ventures between the NHS and the private sector very definitely have been implemented.
This goes to the heart of the matter. If previous Cabinet releases have detailed damaging revelations about senior members of this Government and their ideology and motives—motives that have been carried into the current Government—why has this year’s release been so dramatically curtailed? What detail is in those approximately 450 files that have not yet been released? Did the right hon. Member for West Dorset, who is now a Minister in the Cabinet Office—the Department with responsibility for the release of these files—have any say in that?
Apparently, the Government have managed to find a way to water down the accountability of two Conservative Administrations in one go. The Government promised to be the most transparent in the world, but we increasingly find that their rhetoric does not match the reality. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, the man charged with upholding the public’s right to information, boldly warned that the Government should not return to the dark ages of private Government. The Government should heed that warning. We all should.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) on securing this debate. I start by saying, as he did, that this Government are committed to being the most transparent ever and take their commitment under the Public Records Act seriously.
A key plank of our commitment to transparency is our work on releasing files after 20 years, rather than 30 years as was previously the case. I acknowledge openly that this is a really big, major challenge for the Government, which unfortunately we fell short of in December 2015. I hope it will be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and others here today if I respond to their points by setting out first how the Cabinet Office is working to meet its obligations under the Public Records Act, which sets out how and when Government records should be transferred to the National Archives, and explaining why some may sometimes need to be retained.
The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 shortened the period before which files are released from 30 years to 20 years. This means that for a transitional period, two years of files are being reviewed each year, a doubling of the information in scope. In this process, each file undergoes a series of detailed checks to protect, for example, national security and sensitive personal data. This in no way lessens our commitment to transparency but takes time to do properly. This is a significant challenge for all involved. For Departments, it is a doubling of the workload, and the same considerations need to be made before papers are sent to the National Archives.
The National Archives are meeting these challenges head-on, which means extra papers coming through to them with high public demand as the subjects covered are relatively recent. By 2023, this process of reviewing two years of records in one year will be complete.
In December, we transferred a number of 1987 and 1988 files and this formed part of a press event arranged by the National Archives. We will be transferring more shortly, with the aim of completing the transfer of our 1987 and 1988 files as soon as possible. Files up to 1990 will be released throughout the year.
I am a little confused. The Paymaster General wrote to me a couple of weeks ago saying the delay in the release of Cabinet papers was due to a change in policy by releasing some earlier in 2015, some in December 2015 and some at an unspecified date later this year. Now the Minister is saying that it was due to lack of resources or an increased challenge. Will he confirm whether it is due to a specific change in policy that will occur next year, or lack of resources?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. If she will bear with me, all will become clear because I will set out in painstaking detail the process by which we are handling the matter.
The Cabinet Office was due to transfer all information from 1987 and 1988 by the end of 2015 but, as is clear, we did not manage to do so. Both 1987 and 1988 were eventful years, as we have heard from the hon Gentleman, and this impacted on the Department’s ability to get these files reviewed as quickly as we wanted. Each file is painstakingly checked before transfer, which is not about withholding secrets and covering up inconvenient facts, as the hon. Gentleman alleged. Let me inform hon. Members about the sort of information that must be checked.
Files emanating from No. 10 will cover the whole range of issues that the Government deal with, from benefits to defence spending, overseas trade, support for community groups and a whole host of other things. They will include things like personal information relating to individuals involved, even home addresses, and everything to do with relationships with other countries and national security. On every appearance of such information a careful consultation process takes place, which may result in documents being redacted or retained.
The transfers that have already taken place mean that nearly 70,000 Cabinet Office files or volumes are held by the National Archives, an amazing repository holding over 1,000 years of iconic national documents, which the public can access free. Its online catalogue is the single point of access to 32 million descriptions of records. In 2014-15, there were approaching a quarter of a billion downloads from its collection.
When files reach the National Archives, a number of processes are involved to make information available to as many people as possible—for example, through digitisation. This means an inevitable time lag between the Cabinet Office transferring files to the National Archives and their appearance in the collection. This is why the Cabinet papers for 1987 and 1988 have not yet appeared in the public catalogue although they have been transferred to the National Archives. Another factor is that files are not always transferred in the year that one might expect as they are not assessed for transfer until the date of the last paper on the file. This explains why papers sometimes appear in the National Archives later than expected.
We are aware of the changing landscape of records management. The National Archives, as trusted experts in information and records management, will help to ensure that in an age when more and more of the Government’s records are born-digital, we open more records to the public as soon as possible. To that end, our intention is now to release files more frequently throughout the year, rather than in a single annual event. This means that, from later this year, we will start to release records from 1989 and 1990 in advance of the traditional release at the end of December. Cabinet Office officials are working closely with the National Archives to strengthen the entire process of how and when Cabinet Office files are released to the public.
Throughout 2016, there will be a number of releases from the Cabinet Office to the National Archives, catching up on the 1987 and 1988 records and then working through the 1989 and 1990 papers. I believe this is consistent with our overall transparency objectives, and that the regular releases will be a more effective way to work, particularly in the context of a doubling of the amount of information in scope.
The hon. Member for Leeds East asked several questions about the Cabinet minutes for 1987 and 1988, and papers from the Prime Minister’s Office for the same period. The Cabinet Office has transferred the Cabinet papers and minutes for the period 1987-88 to the National Archives. Some of the Prime Minister’s papers are already with the National Archives, including those made available at the press event in December. Our aim is for the remainder of those that can be transferred to be with the National Archives as soon as possible.
The hon. Gentleman asked about freedom of information, and he mentioned Hillsborough in his opening comments. No Government have done more than this one to shine a light on the truth, after 13 years of a Labour Government who failed to do what was necessary to open up the facts of Hillsborough to the public in the Merseyside area who were demanding access to them. He said that the Government were pushing for a review of freedom of information. Actually, I think the first person to push for such a review was Tony Blair, who mentioned in his autobiography that he was keen to change freedom of information.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the series of statements that appeared at the end of the last Session. I have to remind him that it was a Labour special adviser who, when the party was in government, described a particular day as
“a good day to bury bad news”.
I hope he remembers that phrase; it certainly did not come from the Conservative Government. I know that there is a new Mulder and Scully “X-Files” series out, and I do wonder about the conspiracy theories that sometimes run riot around this place, because in this case, there are no conspiracy theories to be had.
The Minister has mentioned conspiracy theories. One of our main conspiracy theories is about the advisers that have been involved in both Conservative Governments, whom the Minister has not mentioned. He mentioned a consultation process. I wonder whether the right hon. Member for West Dorset is involved in that consultation process, and whether he has any say over the documents that are retained or released.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The consultation process is one that officials handle. As far as I am aware—I think I am as aware as I can be on these matters—I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) has vetoed any of the files that I think the hon. Lady is referring to in her question. But if there is more information that we can provide her with, obviously I would be very happy to write to her to update her.
I will move on to some comments about freedom of information. Freedom of information remains at the heart of transparency and accountability, and it goes hand in hand with the Public Records Act. The Government fully support freedom of information, but after more than a decade of the process in operation, we think it is time that it was reviewed to make sure that it is working effectively for hard-working taxpayers while allowing free and frank advice to be given to decision makers. That is why we have appointed an independent panel to look at the issue and assess how the practical processes of freedom of information can be improved. The commission will publish a report, as the hon. Gentleman knows, as soon as possible after its oral evidence sessions have been conducted. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt its work by getting into discussions today about the relative merits of the different parts of the Act.
I will end by making a few comments on the broader question of transparency. The Government take great pride in the fact that the UK leads the world in transparency and open government. I am not the only one who says so. The World Wide Web Foundation’s open data barometer and Open Knowledge’s global open data index ranked the UK No. 1. Over the past five years we have opened up more than 20,000 Government datasets to the public. We publish an unprecedented amount of data about everything from procurement to the gifts received by Ministers, and we continually strive to go even further.
Releasing open data makes the Government more accountable to citizens, helps to improve the efficiency of public services and drives social and economic growth. We have made expenditure data covering more than £188 billion of Government spending available for public scrutiny, and through our renewed Government data programme and our leading role in the international Open Government Partnership we will continue to be one of the most open and transparent Governments in the world. Those are not insignificant achievements, and we want to go even further. In our next Open Government Partnership national action plan, which is due to be published in the summer, we will develop an offer on transparency—including freedom of information—that strengthens the Government’s commitment to open government overall.
In conclusion, this Government are the most transparent Government ever, and we are a world leader in the quantity of information available from a range of sources. I acknowledge that, in common with other Departments, the performance of the Cabinet Office in transferring papers from 1987 and 1988 has not been perfect, as I said at the outset. I am, however, confident that more of that historical information will be available to the public shortly, including the Cabinet Office papers that have already been transferred to the National Archives and will be available very soon. The aim is to complete the transfer of the 1987-88 papers as soon as possible. In future, we will move to release files more frequently throughout the year rather than in a single annual event. That means that before the end of the year, there will be 1989 and 1990 papers in the National Archives.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the removal of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund list.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I secured this debate to raise the case of a constituent and to allow other Members to discuss the effects that removing drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund will have and, I suspect, the current consultation on the fund. The latest delisting of some drugs from the fund has happened since the last debate on cancer drugs, and I am sure that many Members have heard from constituents who have been affected.
In November, I was contacted by a constituent, Tina Spencer-Keyse, about her husband Graham, who in 2010, at 51, was diagnosed with myeloma, which is a rarer cancer caused by abnormal cells in the bone marrow, where all blood cells are made. Myeloma is a relapsing and remitting cancer, meaning that there are periods when the myeloma causes symptoms and complications and needs to be treated, followed by periods of remission or plateau, when the myeloma does not cause symptoms and does not require treatment. Because myeloma is relapsing and remitting, it is crucial that clinicians are always one step ahead of the disease and that there is a treatment option for the patient to receive when it returns, especially when other treatment options have already been used.
Until August 2015, Tina and Graham had hoped to use one further drug treatment available for myeloma. Pomalidomide, also known as Imnovid, is used to treat relapsed multiple myeloma patients who have received prior treatment regimens but for whom the disease has continued to grow and spread. Imagine how devastated the Spencer-Keyse family were to find out then that the drug had been removed from the list of drugs available through the fund. Following the delisting, there are no other licensed treatments available for myeloma patients in England. Patients have no other options once the drug they are currently taking fails. They have nowhere else to go. Imagine the frustration, and probably anger, that they and thousands of others feel when a drug that was available just months before is no longer available to them but is still being used by other patients who were prescribed it before the delisting. The situation is such that a doctor might see one patient in the morning and be able to continue prescribing a treatment yet see another patient with the same disease afterwards and not be able to do so, even when they know it could help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Another example of a drug that has been delisted, causing similar frustration, is Abraxane, which is used in the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer and was removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund in November. First, does she share my concern that although the delisting applies only to England, it causes worries across the rest of the UK as to whether the drug will become unavailable there, too? Secondly, although of course a consistent set of rules must be applied, one of the issues with pancreatic cancer is that 80% of patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread. Although Abraxane may only give a few weeks more life, those weeks may double life expectancy.
I accept what the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) says. I have also campaigned for Abraxane to continue because, very sadly, a former Member of this House died from pancreatic cancer in the last Parliament. He had very few weeks to live once he was diagnosed, so it is a particularly unpleasant disease.
On Abraxane, does my hon. Friend agree that if a cancer is fast-acting and the gap between diagnosis and death can be as little as six months, getting an extra month or two means that a person can settle their affairs and get peace of mind? That is very important time.
It is incredibly important time. Any extra few weeks in such a situation is so valuable to those patients.
In answer to a written question submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on 10 December 2015, the Minister said:
“NHS England has advised that a draft treatment pathway for patients with multiple myeloma, which takes into account the…impact of treatments removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF), is currently being finalised.”
I hope he is able to update us today on when those proposals might be published. My constituent and his family would like to know what options, if any, he has.
It is not only drugs for rarer cancers that have been hit. Drugs to treat breast cancer, bowel cancer, prostate cancer, leukaemia and other blood cancers, some gynaecological cancers and cancers that affect the central nervous system have all been removed, which probably amounts to thousands of patients who are now unable to receive treatment. That is absolutely devastating for patients and their families, as the chance to prolong life for a few more months or years has been diminished.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on the passion she is showing in putting her case. What does she think about NHS England’s proposal that the Cancer Drugs Fund should become a managed access fund that pays for promising new drugs for a set period before the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence decides whether the drugs should be routinely available on the NHS? Does she think that is a good idea or not a good idea?
I will come on to that later. If my hon. Friend does not mind waiting a few moments, he will hear what I have to say.
Delisted drugs are still potentially available on an individual basis via an individual funding request. Is the Minister able to say how many of those requests have been successful as a proportion of all requests, and for which drugs? I know he is working extremely hard on this matter, about which he cares passionately, and I thank him for that.
Although there has been recent progress, the UK still lags behind most other developed nations on use of and access to cancer drugs. In fact, we do not do as well on outcomes for cancer as many other nations. Nationally, cancer is still the largest killer, accounting for 29% of all registered deaths in 2014, the last year for which Office for National Statistics figures are available. Tracking the history of the Cancer Drugs Fund, a fund for which I have repeatedly supported investment, we can see that it has been on a rocky road to get to where we are now. Drugs have been removed, and the general consensus is that the fund has become unsustainable.
For the first three years, the fund underspent its budget—the opposite problem from the one we have now. In fact, between October 2010 and March 2013, the 10 strategic health authorities that administered the fund underspent by £128 million, or 28% of the fund’s total budget. That is a lot of money that could have been spent treating cancer patients. There was significant geographic disparity in the use of the fund. In the east midlands, which covers my Mid Derbyshire constituency, the number of patients supported by the fund per 1,000 new cancer cases in 2012-13 was just 27. That was the lowest figure in the country and represented a failure of the East Midlands strategic health authority, which was then in control of administering the fund, to promote its use to clinicians and patients. Several of my constituents died prematurely because they were refused funds for the drugs they needed when the fund was always underspent, despite pleading from me on behalf of people who were spending their own money on those drugs.
Since NHS England and Public Health England took control of the fund, the change has been dramatic. Having one central authority administering the fund removes the geographic differences whereby treatment authorities were promoting the fund and treatments at different levels. The effect is such that patient numbers skyrocketed. As last year’s high quality National Audit Office report on the Cancer Drugs Fund notes, the number of patients approved for funding increased by about 30% each year from 2011 to 2015, which should be viewed as a success for patients. Thanks to the fund, 84,000 patients have been able to access treatments that they would otherwise have been denied. The success is such that, in 2014-15, almost one in five patients started a new cancer drug through the Cancer Drugs Fund. What was meant to be a temporary measure is now a mainstay of cancer treatment in England.
Obviously, such growth comes with a price; the cost of funding the scheme spiralled out of control. Following the Government’s decision to extend the fund to March 2016, NHS England increased the annual budget from £200 million to £280 million for 2014-15 and 2015-16. In January 2015, it increased the budget for 2015-16 again, to £340 million, meaning that the fund now has an expected lifetime budget of £1.27 billion.
Was taking drugs off the list a solution to the fund’s problems? It was certainly the easiest way to regain control of costs, but it hit patients hardest rather than solving the problems with NICE’s approval processes, which was the underlying reason for the fund’s creation. The rapid response to regain control of the budget also means that no new treatments were added to the Cancer Drugs Fund from January 2015. The decision to keep drugs on the fund’s list or remove them was based on their clinical effectiveness and cost, but from the start the fund did not keep records of treatment outcomes. Surely it is hard to obtain a full understanding of drugs’ full efficacy if a full analysis is not available by which to judge them. The failure to collect data on patient outcomes until July 2015 is truly disgraceful and undermines any proper evaluation of the fund’s success.
I am particularly attracted to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) during a Public Accounts Committee oral evidence session on the Cancer Drugs Fund last year. She asked why the Department of Health did not
“knock the heads of the SHAs together to ensure that there was some sort of common collection of data”,
instead of just recommending it. Fortunately, NHS England and Public Health England have resolved the problem—today, every new Cancer Drugs Fund patient is automatically identified on the systemic anti-cancer therapy database—but five years to fix a problem is far too long, and a failing of the fund.
Although data outcomes are now mandated, the rate of return has been far from perfect. In 2014-15, many records lacked important data. Most shockingly, 93% of patient records submitted did not have an outcome summary. Will the Minister inform us whether there will be penalties for trusts that consistently fail to produce the required data on cancer treatments?
The lack of data collection also undermines efforts to establish whether the price paid for drugs is equal to their outcomes. As the chief executive of the NHS admitted himself, the NHS has not been good enough at negotiating a price for drugs. Many drugs have been delisted because they were deemed too expensive. The drug Imnovid, which would benefit my constituent Graham, costs the NHS £115,000 a year, compared with £90,000 in Spain.
The failure to negotiate the best price was demonstrated by the fact that when threatened with removal from the list, some manufacturers were able to offer a lower price for their drugs. I understand that Imnovid was already offered at a discounted price, but I cannot blame drug manufacturers for not immediately offering the lowest price that they can afford. They need profits to use on research and development and to show value for their investments. Will the lack of positive outcomes from the price negotiations be addressed in the new CDF proposals? Also, can the Minister provide information on the number of negotiations between NHS England and drug manufacturers that have been positively resolved, and which drugs they relate to?
The new Cancer Drugs Fund proposals aim to distribute more evenly the financial risk of placing a drug in the fund, but the Rarer Cancers Foundation strongly suggests that the NHS has not been flexible in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies on value propositions for treatments in the fund. Can the Minister confirm whether NHS England rejected multi-treatment cost reductions from drug companies because they would have fallen outside NHS England’s standard operating procedure? Likewise, from evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee, it is clear that some companies have offered financial schemes stating that if the medicine does not work as expected, its cost will be returned to the NHS, but have been turned down in favour of straight discount schemes. Together, such schemes would offer a win for the taxpayer and would have allowed more drugs to be made available for the fund.
My final comments concern the proposed reforms of the appraisal process for drugs on the fund, which under current plans will be put solely in the hands of NICE. The proposal is that the CDF should become a managed access fund for new cancer drugs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) mentioned, with clear entry and exit criteria. It would be used to enable access to drugs that appear promising but for which NICE indicates that there is insufficient evidence to support a recommendation for routine commissioning. At the end of the period, the drug would go through a short NICE appraisal, using the additional evidence.
For those looking for treatment for rarer cancers, such as myeloma, there are a number of questions about the new proposals that need to be addressed to ensure access to new treatments. As I understand it, under the new proposals, only a limited number of patients will have treatment funded through the CDF, and the industry is expected to fund additional patients. The consultation sets out NHS England’s proposal to limit funding for each drug on the CDF to the number of patients required to be treated in order to gain further evidence for use in NICE appraisal. The consultation is not clear what data NICE might require to be gathered during the CDF funding phase or the indicative size of patient populations. It is therefore difficult to assess whether the proposals would result in more or fewer patients getting access to treatment than the current arrangements.
What consideration is there of drugs for rarer cancers, which will have smaller patient pools creating only a small amount of data? Does the appraisal process have flexibility for such drugs? It is not clear whether pharmaceutical companies will be willing to fund patients for the 24 months required to allow data to mature if they think the likelihood of NICE approval at the end remains small. That could result in patients losing out once again on innovative treatments, or a situation in which drugs are put on the fund list and taken off in 24-month cycles, leading to uncertainty for patients about which drugs they have access to, just like the uncertainty caused by the current delisting.
I would like reassurances from the Minister that patients seeking treatment after the number of patients required to be treated in order to gain further evidence has been reached will not be denied treatment given to others in their situation. Does he believe that the changes to the NICE process outlined in the consultation are sufficient to ensure that more cancer treatments will receive positive NICE recommendations? Patients should be at the centre of any new decisions about the fund. Finally, I ask the Minister how the views of patients will be given greater weight in the new CDF arrangements.
I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that the crux of the matter is that the NICE evaluation criteria for those sorts of drug have not been adequate? The whole genesis of the Cancer Drugs Fund is in a failure of NICE. We need to get the NICE criteria right; then we would not need a drugs fund in the current format.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. NICE has not done what it should have done. I hope that the Minister will be able to rectify that failure in the system.
Resolving data collection issues, negotiating value for the taxpayer and making the NICE assessment process flexible for innovative new drugs and drugs designed to treat only a small number of patients are vital for the fund to work successfully when it re-launches in April. Will the Minister please look again at the delisted drugs and give hope to people such as Graham that they can spend longer with their loved ones? Failing to do so will not help those whom the fund is designed to help most: cancer patients and their families.
Colleagues, we have 40 minutes until the winding-up speeches begin at 3.30, so we are looking at six-minute speeches, by voluntary submission. I will call Jim Shannon first, as he has to go and chair an important all-party parliamentary group; I hope that colleagues will accept that. He has promised to speak for no more than five minutes.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. You have put me on a sticky wicket. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this debate. It is good to be here and to be involved. About six months ago, I had a similar debate on the availability of cancer drugs, at which I think she was present. We hoped that six months later we might be back to say that things were better or had advanced, but unfortunately that is not so, or not in the way that we would like.
I would just like to mention the many organisations that are helpful, because every one of us will have some cancer organisations close to their heart. Mine are Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie, because I have a very good friend, Irene Brown, who is terminally ill and she is in the Marie Curie centre in Belfast. The treatment that Marie Curie gives is second to none, and people only have to be there to be part of that family that helps.
The Macmillan charity says that 2.5 million people in the UK were living with cancer in 2015. It says that 5% of our total adult population are affected, which shows the problem is enormous. For many of us, cancer is not simply something that others talk about; it is something that affects each and every one of us every day. My father was a survivor of cancer on three occasions. I put that down to the skill of the surgeon, the prayers of God’s people—something that many of us here would understand—and the care of the nurses. He survived and lived for another 36 years, dying just last year, at the ripe old age of 85. The marvellous steps that modern medicine has taken are fantastic.
Moves such as the removal of drugs prevents thousands of cancer sufferers across England and Wales from being able to access the quality treatment they deserve. Thousands of people are disadvantaged, thousands of people lose out and thousands of normal people are in despair. That is the reality of not having access to cancer drugs. I do not know what it is, but I have more people coming to my office suffering from cancer than I can ever recall. I know that there is a 50% survival rate today for those with cancer, which is fantastic—what a step forward—but I see more people with cancer than ever before. I am not sure whether it is due to diet or lifestyle, or whatever it is, but cancer is certainly a greater issue for me than ever.
We understand that, from April, NICE will have the overall say on what drugs and treatments people will receive. We know that we have to be prudent with money, but surely finance should not be the overriding factor when it comes to people’s lives.
I thank my hon. Friend for saying that. Over the last few months and before Christmas, I had the opportunity to meet some of the pharmaceutical companies, and I have to say—and to be careful what I say—that they are not terribly happy with NICE and how it has responded to them. Some of those pharmaceutical companies have reduced their prices and still NICE does not respond in the positive fashion that we would expect it to. That is one of my concerns, certainly.
I would put Queen’s University Belfast up there as one of the universities working in partnership with medical companies, including companies from China and from across the United Kingdom. The partnerships that the university has developed and the innovative drugs that it is coming up with, as well as the investigations and trials that take place there to find new drugs, are impressive. We have new developments in Northern Ireland in cancer research, and we need to see a national strategy. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that point—let me apologise to him again, having already done so beforehand, for not being here for his response to the debate.
My party colleague Simon Hamilton is a Member of the Legislative Assembly and the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. We have a number of Members from Northern Ireland—there are five here today—which shows the interest in this issue in Northern Ireland. Simon Hamilton has taken the initiative to release £1.5 million to fund specialist cancer drugs. That will allow some of the NICE-approved cancer drugs and treatments to go ahead this year.
That move in Northern Ireland will go some way towards enabling the health service there to reach the cancer target. Each day in Northern Ireland, 23 people are diagnosed with cancer and 11 people die of it. There were more than 331,000 new cases of cancer in 2011 across the United Kingdom, and 161,823 deaths from cancer in 2012. The enormity of cancer—how it afflicts people and how many people die—cannot be underlined enough.
The latest delisting of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund looks like a step back rather than a step forward in the fight against cancer. I know that we cannot be completely resistant to change—the Minister knows that and, as elected representatives ourselves, we also know it. If drugs are proving ineffective, they should be delisted, but at the same time, if drugs are effective, let us get them on the list and make them available to those who need them most. We should be here to commend, I hope, the addition of a new form of effective treatment.
To conclude—I am very conscious of what you said earlier, Mr Streeter—the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned Abraxane, and here is the postcode lottery. Those living in Northern Ireland do not have any access to Abraxane whatsoever. Those living in England had access to it in March 2014, but not now. People in Scotland have had access to Abraxane since January 2015 and will still have it. In Wales, people have been able to access it since September 2014, but now it looks like that might be affected as well. That is the postcode lottery for cancer drugs. It is completely unacceptable, and I commend the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire for securing this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this debate. She asked many pertinent questions that I will be very interested to hear the answers to today.
First, let us look at some good points for a moment, before I give what is quite a Solihull perspective on this issue. This is a unique fund in the NHS—it is the only one of its type. I believe it was originally intended to run until March 2014, with a projected budget of some £650 million. To date, spend has been around £960 million and 84,000 people have been treated under this fund, which is a real positive. This year alone, the spend will be £340 million.
In the main, therefore, policy makers have ensured that resources have been in place. However, perhaps at times the allocation of those resources has not been of the best. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the most recent assessments have seen 23 drugs being delisted, including Abraxane. Imnovid, which was particular to the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, has also been delisted.
During the recent election campaign and since, Solihull’s breast cancer care group has been in regular contact with me about this issue and more widely about cancer treatment in the NHS. Hon. Members will be aware of the great sensitivity in my constituency about such issues, because unfortunately the rogue surgeon—Mr Paterson—carried out his work in the Solihull area. Many of the botched operations have added to the misery of my constituents and their cancer has been made far worse by his activities. Many people are still waiting for compensation and justice. However, what Solihull’s breast cancer care group and other patient groups in Solihull want is for the Cancer Drugs Fund to stay, and to be fair and transparent in its dealings. They do not want the fund to wither on the vine, but neither do they want it to become a free-for-all for drug companies. They understand that in a market we have to try to get the best possible price.
That is an important point, and I understand that there are still negotiations under way about all the drugs removed from the fund. Manufacturers have an opportunity to reduce the costs to the taxpayer. However, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is unfortunate that there are concerns about the negotiation process. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that data on every new Cancer Drugs Fund patient are now captured—it is quite an oversight that that was not the case before—but I am concerned at the failure to adequately negotiate good deals for drugs, particularly those to treat rare cancers, so I would add to her calls in that respect.
There are some other aspects of the Cancer Drugs Fund that need to be emphasised. I have been told that patients who are already in receipt of treatment should be able to continue with it. Individual funding requests are an option; however, as many Members present have probably discovered, they can often be ad hoc and very difficult to secure. I emphasise that point again to Ministers today.
Policy makers have to be careful that the Cancer Drugs Fund does not become a hostage to fortune to the drugs companies and their lobbyists. There must be sensitivity as well. The Cancer Drugs Fund is precious. I am concerned that although 84,000 people have benefited from it, there are 1,700 patients with blood cancer who may miss certain treatments because of the removal of the drugs. The top 10 drugs, it seems, account for 71% of all patients treated. However, there seems to be a black spot when it comes to rarer cancers and drugs that are more difficult to acquire.
There are options for change for the Cancer Drugs Fund. As has been pointed out, NHS England has proposed that the fund should become a managed access fund—effectively, providing drugs in advance of NICE deciding whether or not they should be routinely available. However, my hon. Friend has quite rightly raised issues in that respect.
In conclusion, whatever the future direction of the Cancer Drugs Fund, let us not forget that thousands of people are alive today and thousands of families still have their loved ones because of its advent. We must not lose sight of what the Cancer Drugs Fund has achieved. We must protect those achievements for the future, but be very mindful of the case laid out by my hon. Friend.
As ever, Mr Streeter, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing a debate on this important subject; she has tirelessly raised the issue of access to cancer treatments since she entered the House. She was right to describe the Cancer Drugs Fund as having moved from being a temporary measure to being a mainstay, and therein lies much of the challenge we face today. In that respect, the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) was right to remind us of the many good things the fund has done, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to emphasise the increased number of people with cancer and the need for cancer treatment.
Let us be clear: last year’s delisting of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund was a retrograde step for many cancer patients across the country. The decision affected many thousands of patients, and I am sorry to report, as the chair of the all-party group on pancreatic cancer, that that included hundreds of pancreatic cancer patients, because the pancreatic cancer drug Abraxane was removed from the CDF on 4 November.
Pancreatic cancer has the worst survival rate of any of the 21 most common cancers, with less than 5% of patients surviving five years or longer. That survival rate has barely changed over the last 40 years. Sadly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) emphasised, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed late, with about 80% of diagnoses taking place when the disease has spread to another part of the body. Patients diagnosed when the disease is metastatic live, on average, for just two to six more months.
Trials have shown that Abraxane, when used in combination with the standard chemotherapy drug gemcitabine, can extend eligible patients’ lives by an average of about two months more than gemcitabine alone. However, it is important to note that some patients live for significantly longer than two months, with some on the trials living for more than two years, and with a significant increase in the number surviving for more than one year. Clearly, when the average survival rate is between two and six months, even an extra two months’ survival gain represents a relatively large amount of time for patients to spend with their loved ones, and the value of that was indicated earlier.
That survival gain is why Abraxane is now in use around the world. From Germany to the USA, and from Austria to Australia, it is making a small but tangible difference to patients. It is worth noting that Scotland and Wales have also approved Abraxane for use on the NHS. Yet, in England, as of 4 November, it is no longer available to new patients, creating a devastating postcode lottery, as the hon. Member for Strangford said.
There has been a significant outcry from members of the public—people such as my constituent Maggie Watts who lost her husband, Kevin, to pancreatic cancer in 2009, and the 102,000 people who signed her petition on Change.org calling for Abraxane to be put back on the CDF list.
Why was Abraxane removed? Unlike some other drugs, it was not removed because of cost. Instead, it was decreed that it did not meet the minimum clinical effectiveness threshold when that was raised in 2015. In short, it was removed because the CDF scoring system did not take account of relative survival gain. The scorecard CDF panel members must complete requires them to give a score of zero to a drug that gives an average of less than three months’ life extension. Despite there being few treatments for pancreatic cancer, the system also did not recognise that this cancer has an unmet need in terms of treatment options. Abraxane is the first significant new treatment for nearly two decades, but the scoring system was inflexible, so the drug scored low.
That is the issue: we cannot just compare a new treatment for, say, breast cancer, where the average five-year survival rate is more than 80%, and where there are many effective treatments, with a new drug for a cancer such as pancreatic cancer, which has the lowest survival rate and few treatment options. Put simply, where a cost-benefit analysis takes place in a system with a finite budget, and where drugs for cancers with relatively high survival rates are scored on the same basis as drugs with the lowest survival rates, that system will always work against new drugs for cancers such as pancreatic cancer.
That brings us to the NICE consultation on how the CDF will be used in the future, which the all-party group will be submitting its views on. If a NICE committee defines a drug as an end-of-life drug, it can approve it at a higher cost threshold than other drugs. That is extremely important for cancer drugs and especially for pancreatic cancer drugs. However, the consultation document suggests only minor changes to the end-of-life three-month threshold, which, as hon. Members will gather from my earlier comments, is vital for cancers such as pancreatic cancer. This is where the issue of relative survival gain needs to be properly addressed.
Another way to have addressed issues affecting cancers with the worst survival rates would have been to introduce a system of patient and clinician engagement for pre-defined end-of-life drugs. That system is being used successfully in Scotland. Introducing it here would mean that NICE had to engage more with clinicians and patients to establish what extra benefits certain drugs might bring. NICE committees would then have to give due weight to that PACE evidence, in addition to the clinical and cost-effectiveness data they usually review. Without PACE, Abraxane would not be available in Scotland. The system could make a big difference to patients in England if it were introduced for certain pre-defined cancer types, such as rare cancers—the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned the failure we have seen in that respect—and cancers of unmet need with the lowest survival rates.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) for calling a debate on an issue that is important not only to me and several of my constituents, but to the broader population.
The Cancer Drugs Fund is not fit for purpose. As the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, who chaired the independent taskforce that looked into the fund, pointed out, we have several problems. First, curative treatments cannot be accessed readily enough. Also, insufficient data are collected in the system to prove the benefits of drugs and their effectiveness for patients. Although we welcome the data collection that is taking place now, it is a little too late.
We continue to lag behind other countries in cancer recovery rates and appropriate prescribing. Indeed, 20% of cancer patients present at our accident and emergency wards, and the later a patient presents, the poorer the outcome. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, certain cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, are devastating in the speed with which they attack the individual.
It must be remembered that the Cancer Drugs Fund is unique: cancer is the only condition with a dedicated fund. My constituents and I welcome the Prime Minister’s support, but I am a little concerned that cancer is being labelled as a special disease. My surgery often includes patients with other diseases, and we must look across the piece. My concern is that we should have a road map from the accelerated access review so that we can learn how to drive forward advances not only for cancer, but for all areas of medicine. Standing in this hall takes me back six months, to when I first spoke here, about a constituent’s access to the rare-disease drug everolimus.
In a system that is challenged financially, we need to be very sure that any drug for whatever illness is effective and offers value for money. Within that landscape, the CDF has gone from its original four-year spend of £650 million to a six-year spend of £1.27 billion. It could be argued that it has been a victim of its own success.
With improved access to medicines for nearly 80,000 people, but with ever-increasing need and demand, it is right that the Cancer Drugs Fund should sit alongside the cancer strategy as part of the entire commissioning pathway. Non-surgical cancer treatments such as drugs can and should be incorporated into a treatment package of surgery and radiotherapy to deliver an integrated and effective approach. There is a need for radiotherapy machines right across our hospitals, because they deliver extremely high survival rates for cancer patients. We therefore need to be careful about these issues.
For me, the rub has been the lack of thought given to the removal of drugs, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, I have been approached on this issue by constituents—particularly those suffering from pancreatic cancer and, given my history, those with breast cancer. A review in September led to 23 separate treatments being removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund, before we understood what the new horizon will look like for the charities and pharmaceutical companies, how the pathway will progress and whether we have a solution to ensure that our constituents can access drugs. In short, this removed the clinical choice from doctors and, more importantly, from patients. Those patients are my constituents and friends. With the loss of Imnovid and Revlimid—two drugs for myeloma—and the removal of breast, bowel and pancreatic cancer drugs for all those patients, life suddenly became less certain. A new CDF should have clear entry and exit levels for promising drugs. It needs to be a trial area, and defined as such; if, as proposed, it is to be brought into NICE, we need answers to some of the questions that other hon. Members have asked about how the Minister will hold NICE to account. In the cancer drug future, once a drug was approved it would be made available for routine use and would go into baseline commissioning. That would take some of the fear about whether someone would get it out of the system.
What remains to be seen is whether new drugs will have to meet the current inflexibilities of the cost-effectiveness criteria. That is a concern for cancer charities and pharmaceutical companies, which predominantly have the care of the patient, and patient outcomes, at their heart. To deliver cost-effective and timely treatments, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, we need a flexible new system. The NICE appraisal process is slow and unwieldy. It should be flexible enough to cope with new cancer drugs and—the Minister is aware of my interest in this—off-patent and repurposed drugs, which can also be effective in the area in question. That is about gathering and delivering the data on the patient for the patient, to allow drugs to be recommended and prescribed, or to make it possible to return to an individual pathway for a funding request. However, that merely sends us back to where we are today—people not knowing whether they will get the drug or not.
The irony of our system is that with the vibrancy of our life science industry, drugs are often readily available in Europe or Scotland before patients in England and Wales can access them. That is the bigger problem. We have improved one-year survival rates in the UK; but despite that we lag behind many other countries and our five-year survival rates have shown little progress. More must be done. In the world of pharmaceuticals and, more importantly, genomics, advances are happening at pace. We need a space where we can trial medicines for use not only in big cohorts but for rarer cancers and diseases. We need a landscape that will allow for the personalised medicine that is coming down the tracks to us. Cancer will not wait for NICE. Nor will it wait for the patient. I know: I have been diagnosed with cancer and pre-cancerous tumours on several occasions. That is why I challenge the Minister on behalf of other cancer patients and my constituents in need to ensure that the CDF delivers reforms that will improve patient access to effective cancer medicine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Streeter. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing a debate on a vital issue at such an important time.
No one is unaffected by cancer, and I am sure every Member present will know of a constituent who has had their cancer treatment improved by access to specialist drugs. However, particularly in light of recent decisions, I am sure that we all know stories of constituents and family members who have not had access to the drugs they need, and who have, sadly, suffered as a result. That is why we are here today to discuss this important subject.
There are many who believe that, wherever they live and whatever their age, cancer patients—and there are many different types of cancers—should be able to access clinically effective, evidence-based treatments in a fair, consistent, timely and transparent way from the point of diagnosis. It is therefore deeply regrettable that, given that the Cancer Drugs Fund was already scheduled to come to a close this year, additional funding could not be found to provide the 16 medicines that were delisted last September, at least until a more effective commissioning system for cancer drugs was put in place.
Of course, difficult decisions will always have to be made about the allocation of finite resources, but this has been a particularly hard blow. It is difficult to describe how it must feel for someone to be diagnosed with cancer and then told, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire described, that the life-extending drug they need was funded yesterday but will not be funded today. I take on board the issues about pancreatic cancer, which is one of the severest forms. In fact there are many forms within that spectrum. I note particularly that it was not necessarily resources that were the issue: it was to do with clinical commissioning and clinical effectiveness, and drug trials. Many people who are desperately in need of help and access to drugs, and who feel very unwell, are at the mercy of wider decisions that are part of the NICE agenda and the wider Government agenda.
We may not find ourselves in that position deliberately. However, the Rare Cancers Foundation estimates that it will have been the experience for thousands of patients across Britain and Northern Ireland, and I feel that that suffering should be put on record in our debate today. It is, at the very least, a dire indication of why commissioning reform is needed so badly. It is not too late for the Government to provide the additional support needed to give relief to the patients who are being denied access to life-extending drugs, but, given that such an announcement is unlikely, I shall turn my attention to the ways in which a new system can be designed, to ensure that the same mistake will not happen again.
The funding given for cancer drugs, whether through a Cancer Drugs Fund or a special medicines fund, must be sustainable and well co-ordinated, and should work alongside comprehensive support for treatment and wider health infrastructure. On that basis, the review of how the Cancer Drugs Fund works with NICE should also consider how specialist drug support can be co-ordinated with more localised radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery options. Integrating the Cancer Drugs Fund with the NICE system creates an opportunity to address broader issues within the NICE commissioning process, offering the potential remedy for long-standing issues such as access to necessary specialist drugs.
I will mention by way of background, given that I represent a Northern Ireland constituency, a difficulty that we sometimes have. Many specialist drugs are trialled at Queen’s University Belfast, but because of the commissioning process they are not available to our constituents in Northern Ireland. They have not yet been commissioned, or they are commissioned for England and Wales but not necessarily for Northern Ireland. Therefore I urge the UK Ministers responsible for the issue to engage fully with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations, including Northern Ireland, to make sure that the issue is considered fully, and to turn the potential danger into an opportunity to improve both the NHS and access to specialist drugs. I hope that today the Minister, whom I am glad to see here, will provide us with some form of resolution, and a panacea that will bring relief to many people throughout the UK who are suffering from any of a wide variety of cancers, and particularly sufferers of rare cancers.
I too thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) for obtaining the debate. I feel that I am the most inexperienced of the Members present on this subject, having never been on a health committee, but having been lobbied hard; but I lost my sister some 25 years ago, and I know that everyone has either lost a family member to cancer or knows someone who won, and was cured.
There is a key thing to get across today. Every MP needs to realise the limitations on funding and what we are learning, so that we can all lobby, and help to find a better way forward. I was particularly impressed when President Obama said he wanted all cancers to be cured. I am not sure that that will always be possible, but it is the right aim with which to go forward.
As I have been trying to learn about, and get myself briefed on, the topic, I have realised that we need a more dynamic and flexible approach to what we are doing. It is right to have a fund that allows everyone to get to it, but we must find a way in which everyone does get to it—to the drugs. Taking drugs off the list seems to be the wrong way forward. Can we look for some form of flexibility, so that with drugs that have been removed there is perhaps a different way of getting at them, one step back?
I had two main reasons for wanting to speak today. One, which has been touched on by my colleagues, is the difficulty that comes from Northern Ireland being treated as a devolved country with its own cancer. As we have heard, only £1.5 million is being put forward and the cost of cancer is a phenomenal chunk out of a small budget. People often have to travel elsewhere in the UK to get the drugs and the cures they need.
One such case is this. I was sitting on a train once—before I ended up here—listening to two Northern Irish people speaking loudly about how useless all politicians were, not just here but also in Northern Ireland, because no one had helped them with their cancer. I interrupted them, and it turned out that a politician from the Social Democratic and Labour party was the only person who had, in fact, helped them. One of them had had to sell his house and use all his savings to get the cure he needed, which was available only here in London. My main point is that we have to find a more joined-up way of doing this, so that the drugs are available for everyone, everywhere. Can we consider an approach that includes all four countries?
We have heard from others that we have an extremely good Queen’s University link-up with Almac and with other countries, and we also have, in my patch, Randox. We have fantastic pharmaceutical companies leading the way in Northern Ireland. However, it was from a meeting with one of those companies that a story we have touched on today emerged. The company tried to sell the diagnostic system to our local NHS, but it could not. It sold it to a company in America, which repackaged it, and the Northern Ireland health service then bought it from that company for an extra few million. We have heard about the difference in costs between Spain and Britain. There must be a system for looking at the procurement process, to ensure that we are more dynamic in how we buy things, so that the drugs are there and available to everyone.
Those are the two main points I wanted to make. Let us work it all together and get a better use of drugs. I am glad that we have had the debate today, and I am thankful for having had the chance to speak.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) for securing this important debate. I will give the debate a more Scottish context.
For patients with a life-threatening or highly symptomatic illness, getting access to the best treatment is crucial. Living with a condition that has no cure or treatment is difficult, but knowing that you or your loved one is denied access to an available treatment is intolerable. Our biggest problem is accessing new drugs, which are often very expensive and above the limit set for NHS access by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence—NICE—or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Medicines Consortium, the SMC. That results in delayed access to new treatments and, as has been mentioned, it appears to contribute to the UK’s poor cancer outcomes by comparison with other countries. The issue is even worse for those with rare diseases, because the commercial imperative to develop a drug in the first place is weaker, due to low patient numbers.
There is also frustration for clinical researchers who enter patients into trials that lead to a drug’s development in the first place. The UK, and particularly Scotland, punch above their weight in the active recruitment of patients into drug trials for diseases such as cancer. Patients may benefit from gaining access to the new treatment during the trial but, once the trial has been successfully completed, new patients do not get that opportunity, which is demoralising and could undermine research efforts in the future. Some of the drugs that have been researched over the years are now being removed from the list in England.
Once a new drug has gained a licence, NICE and the SMC carry out their assessments. In Scotland, however, the SMC utilises the evidence gathered to carry out just a brief review, with the emphasis being more on the drug’s effectiveness. Cost comes after that.
There are three major differences in the access systems north and south of the border. While both have drug access funds, in England the fund is only for cancer whereas in Scotland it is for any new drugs and rare diseases.
The Cancer Drugs Fund in England, which was meant to be temporary, has enabled patients to access new cancer drugs that would otherwise have been unobtainable. It has now been running for five years and some drugs are being excluded on cost grounds. In Scotland, after a review in 2014, the SMC established the patient and clinician evaluation, which allows reconsideration of a drug while taking into account the wider experience of it and capturing input from patients and clinicians. That gives patients a voice.
Abraxane fails the test of three months’ effectiveness, but it is useful in producing two. Why is it that the Scottish system allows Abraxane? Will the hon. Lady give us a bit more of an understanding of that? I would like to see the drug back on the list, and if the Scottish system is a way of doing that, it might be worth looking at.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention. He has asked me something that I cannot answer definitively at the moment, because I am not a clinician. I am, however, more than happy to come back to him on that. I know that PACE—the patient and clinician engagement group—has done some development on it, but I would like to give the hon. and learned Gentleman a fuller answer and I can do that later, if he agrees.
Where cost is a factor in prescribing drugs it is important that we consider ways of lowering it. The pharmaceutical price regulation scheme could be used. When a drug’s spending threshold is reached, a rebate is paid. In England, it goes back to the Treasury but in Scotland it goes on to further new drugs.
The delisting of cancer drugs because of cost causes untold heartbreak to patients and families—the very people we all represent—and the time has come to find a way of making new drugs accessible to, and affordable for, the NHS by considering arrangements such as multi-year budgeting, which would allow for a lower initial price. Pharmaceutical companies would hopefully be open to that in exchange for getting their drug into use at an earlier stage.
It is important to understand that drug companies fund drug development research for years before they even know if the drug is worth licensing. Many potential drugs fall by the wayside and, as the public purse would never be able to fund such a level of risk, it is necessary that pharmaceutical firms see a return on their investment, to secure ongoing research. That goes back to why some drugs are delisted because of their cost. However, there must also be recognition of the support provided by universities in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and in England, which get Government funding to help towards researching new drugs.
Off-patent drugs can also be used in cancer treatments, usually through repurposing. It is important that we consider that, as it could also lead to a cost—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I will just wind-up my speech. Some of the barriers to treatment can, however, be broken down through negotiation between all interested parties. The aim would be a system that worked equitably for all stakeholders, from patients, doctors and the NHS to Governments and the pharmaceutical industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this important debate and on the depth of knowledge she has demonstrated. We might not share the same political allegiances, but we share a commitment to improving the lives of people affected by cancer, as do all Members—those who have contributed to the debate and all those in the House of Commons. The nature of the cross-party debate we have had today stands as a testament to that. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Solihull (Julian Knight), for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for their contributions too.
Cancer transcends party politics. Each and every one of us has had a constituent, family member or friend affected by cancer. It is a disease that sadly touches us all, and it deserves the proper attention of the House of Commons. It is because it transcends party politics that I commend the Government on introducing the Cancer Drugs Fund during the last Parliament. Patients have benefited significantly since the fund’s introduction, and that has to be welcomed. However, we are here today because the progress over recent years to improve access to cancer drugs is now partially at risk.
The Government introduced the Cancer Drugs Fund, but they are now sadly presiding over damaging cuts to the treatment available through it, as we have heard in the debate. At the general election, the Conservatives promised to continue to invest in cancer drugs, but less than six months later they announced that a number of treatments would be removed from the fund, meaning that they would no longer be routinely available to patients. That will have a tragic human cost for cancer patients. Indeed, the Rarer Cancers Foundation has calculated that the reductions could affect as many as 4,100 cancer patients every year. Members from all parts of the House have expressed significant concerns about the impact those reductions will have on all our constituents.
Many important points have been made during this debate, but I would like to add a few of my own. First, can the Minister, whom I have a great deal of respect for, tell us what support is being made available to patients who will now miss out on treatments that have been removed? Will he promise that this is the last time we will see cuts of this nature? The sad truth is that the cuts were an inevitable consequence of an abject failure by Government to fix the drugs pricing system. The Cancer Drugs Fund was always meant to be a temporary measure, but the inability to implement value-based pricing and then value-based assessment during the last Parliament has to some extent led us to the situation we are in today. Cancer Research UK has said that it is
“unacceptable that after five years of conversation, there still isn’t an effective solution in place,”
and I agree. We need a better system of drug pricing that is fair for patients and has the confidence of doctors. At the moment, patients are being badly let down.
Before the election, Labour promised to reform the Cancer Drugs Fund to make it a cancer treatment fund and end the bias towards certain types of treatment. We also promised reform of NICE to ensure a clear route for new treatments to be made available on the NHS. Nobody wants a return to the days when people’s access to treatment was determined by the first two characters of their postcode. Unfortunately, however, the latest promise of reform of the Cancer Drugs Fund has been riddled with confusion and delay. Ministers said the consultation would be published in July, then September, and it finally came out in November. The consultation is expected to run until mid-February, with a new system ready to be in place by April this year. The Minister might be able to hear the scepticism in my voice about whether the Government can deliver meaningful reform of the Cancer Drugs Fund in such a short period, so will he confirm, secondly, that these are still the timescales for delivering reform? If so, will he promise us that the outputs from the consultation will deliver the change being demanded by the cancer community and not leave a half-baked solution?
Although some aspects of the Cancer Drugs Fund proposals are to be welcomed, others cause concern. Beyond some tweaks at the edges, it is not clear that NICE is proposing the fundamental changes to its processes that charities have rightly requested. Breast Cancer Now has warned that the consultation
“does not offer sufficient changes to the way NICE currently operates...to allow drugs to be approved for routine use on the NHS.”
The charity has also said that it is
“concerned that these proposals may result in fewer drugs being made available rather than more.”
Those are troubling comments, so, thirdly, will the Minister respond to those concerns? Can he tell us the extent to which final decisions about treatment access will differ under the reforms? Which drugs that have previously been rejected by NICE will be available?
NHS England has not published an impact assessment for the Cancer Drugs Fund consultation. Members of the cancer community have raised concerns about that with me and asked what NHS England might be attempting to hide, so can the Minister confirm, fourthly, whether NHS England has carried out an impact assessment on the proposed changes? If so, will he promise to place a copy in the Library before the consultation closes, so that Members of this House can give it the scrutiny it deserves?
Beyond the current planned changes, there are disturbing stories of NHS England refusing to discuss price cuts with drug companies, effectively leaving deals on the table that could have helped patients and the taxpayer. Simon Stevens once said that he wanted NHS England to:
“Think like a patient, act like a taxpayer.”
At the moment, it is frankly doing neither. We cannot allow red tape to get in the way of what is right for patients. The reforms must create greater flexibility and pressure for both sides to get round the table and agree deals. Other countries seem to be able to make the drugs available without spending more money on their health services, which implies that they are better at striking deals, or at least are more flexible in doing so. Therefore, fifthly, will the Minister promise to intervene in NHS England to ensure it is doing everything it can to secure the best deal from industry for patients and taxpayers? Will he commit to reviewing the processes carried out in other countries for securing access to medicines and ensure that learnings from them are translated into NHS England’s new system?
It is also worrying that the drugs companies and the Secretary of State have negotiated a deal in secret that changes the drugs pricing scheme, effectively creating a half-a-billion-pound funding black hole over the course of the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme. I am fearful that that could lead to more bad news for cancer patients. I have pressed the Minister on that before, so will he tell me, sixthly and lastly, how that funding gap will be filled? Will he guarantee that the shortfall will not lead to any further damaging cuts in cancer patients’ access to treatments?
I want to end my contribution to this debate in the spirit in which I started, because this is not a party political issue. Our shared goal is an NHS that is the best health service in the world for treating cancer, but we will only achieve that if we can ensure that patients can access the most effective forms of treatment. Cancer patients need and deserve an end to the current uncertainty. We on this side of the House will stand with the Government to do all we can to ensure that cancer patients get that fairer deal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing this debate and I thank her for the chance to discuss these important issues, which I know are important to various Members who cannot be here this afternoon. I thank colleagues of all parties who have spoken. It was particularly powerful to hear the personal perspective of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who is a cancer survivor. I pay tribute to the work of Myeloma UK, Cancer Research UK, Macmillan and the other charities that have done, and continue to do, so much work looking after patients and supporting policy and research. As colleagues know, I am passionate that charities should have a bigger role to play in policy making. I have opened the Department’s door and invited them to come to the top table.
Few families in the country are untouched by cancer, and I am no different. My father died of throat cancer when I was 19, 18 months after I had met him. My mother-in-law died of myeloid leukaemia a few years ago. The family, like so many families, had to watch her go from a wonderful and healthy, vibrant grandmother to a corpse in 12 to 15 months. It is a tragedy when it happens, but the truth is that our generation has lived through the most extraordinary advances in cancer. Certainly in my childhood it was a death sentence. One sat in the back of cars as a child and heard parents discussing in hushed tones that somebody had a cancer diagnosis, which meant they would die. Now that has changed: 2 million people live with cancer and it has become a treatable disease. In some cases, it has become a preventable disease. That is why it is such a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds here. Many others in the country today work and live with cancer. It is a stunning tribute to the success of our life sciences sector and our academic and clinical scientists.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire talked about Tina and Graham and their experience of cancer. We should always remember—I do every day—that at the heart of difficult policy decisions there are people living with the disease. As constituency MPs and parliamentarians we need to bring that personal perspective to policy making. Certainly as a Minister I try to do that. My hon. Friend highlighted the trauma experienced by patients who, at diagnosis, think they will be eligible for a drug but find they have been caught by the timing of the CDF review, which means that the drug is tantalisingly taken away from them. We can all sympathise with that. As in all Administrations, when change comes, somebody normally gets caught at the point of change and it is very difficult. My hon. Friend also made a powerful point about data being crucial, and I accept that we need to do better on data. I have picked out those comments, but we have had excellent comments from across the House.
I want to set the context before dealing with specific questions. In the past 20 or 30 years, we have seen incredible transformations in biomedical research and in our ability to develop new treatments and diagnostics. My own 15-year career in biomedical research saw us go from the early days of genetics to extraordinary abilities to drive diagnosis and personalised therapy. One looks at Herceptin for breast cancer, a genomic biomarker theranostic partner drug. We have guaranteed that it works in patients who have that genetic biomarker. This is the future: much more genomic targeting of drugs. Genomics and informatics are transforming the way in which drugs are developed.
I arrived in the House of Commons six years ago. As a Government adviser on life sciences, I supported the Prime Minister in putting a life sciences strategy in place that built on the previous Government’s good work. We set out an ambition for the NHS to become not only a passive recipient of new therapies, but an active partner in the development of them, making available our genomic and informatics leadership and our clinical research, which is at the heart of the life sciences strategy: two cylinders pumping together, with the NHS not just as a purchaser but a partner in development.
Although we have had phenomenal revolutions in genomics and informatics and in the pace of discovery—pioneered in cancer, which is why cancer has led with this pressure on our funding mechanisms—they give rise to great challenges: rising costs of treatment; ever more expensive drugs; smaller patient catchments, which puts a coach and horses through the traditional model of reimbursement; and the end of a one-size-fits-all blockbuster model of drug discovery, which is what NICE was originally set up to deal with. Those are very big challenges and I am putting policy responses in place. However, they are also big opportunities. As the world’s only integrated comprehensive healthcare system, nowhere is better equipped in the world to unleash the power of genomics and informatics for public good. I believe Nye Bevan would be banging the table today and saying, “The NHS was about the collective use of our health assets to prevent disease. Come on! Let’s harness the extraordinary ability of our NHS,” which is what we are doing.
As we reform the way in which NICE works, there is an opportunity for us to take the lead in the development of these new drugs and new specialised therapies, and to pioneer new models of reimbursement as well. It will not happen overnight—that is the honest truth—but it will happen over the next few years. That is why we have set out a 10-year strategy, and I am absolutely honoured and privileged to be at the beginning of a five-year Parliament as the Minister for Life Sciences with a chance to drive the reforms through. That is at the heart of the accelerated access review that I have launched, which I will talk about in a moment.
I urge everyone to recognise that the Government are not complacent. We have put £250 million extra into Genomics England. We are the first country on earth to do, at scale, full genome sequencing in cancer and rare diseases. Rare cancers are particularly well served. We have led on data and informatics for research in the NHS, often at a high political price, but it is essential if we are to drive this forward. We have set up the precision medicine catapult, the cell therapy catapult and the £700 million Crick Institute. We have protected, increased and ring-fenced science budget increases. We have announced and secured a multi-billion pound drugs budget, and more on that will be announced shortly. We have set up the rare diseases consortium, the accelerated access review, the early access to medicines scheme and a £1.2 billion commitment to the Cancer Drugs Fund, so I hope colleagues will acknowledge, as some have, that we are serious about trying to both invest in and reform this space.
The Cancer Drugs Fund was set up with strong leadership from the Prime Minister. Because of the progress in cancer putting pressure on NICE’s systems, NICE’s clinically led, world class, independent advice rejected many of the new cancer therapies that did not fit well with its scoring system, so the Prime Minster said that we must make the money available to make sure cancer patients do not suffer while we reform the system. The fund is now £1.2 billion; another £340 million was invested this year. Some 84,000 people have received life-extending drugs that they would not otherwise have got.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the balance of responsibilities between NICE and NHS England. The system was set up so that NHS England is statutorily bound by NICE’s recommendations. Part of the problem in recent years has been that even treatments approved by NICE can take up to two, three and in some cases five years to be rolled out across NHS England. Much as we all love the NHS, we accept—even the NHS accepts—that there is a problem with patchy roll-out. That is also to do with data, which various colleagues have touched on.
The Minister used the words “world class” in respect of NICE, but said that its scoring system was such that drugs did not get authorised, and that many that the drugs fund includes were not authorised by NICE. Those two things do not seem to be consistent. Should we not look carefully at what NICE’s criteria are, as they have done in Scotland, and make them more appropriate?
The answer is yes. That is why I have set up the accelerated access review, which is doing precisely that. NICE is heavily involved in contributing to setting up the reforms, giving it new flexibilities and changing the way we adopt, assess and reimburse new medicines. I meant that NICE is recognised internationally. Indeed, other countries follow its health technology assessments, and its methodology and protocols. The challenge now is to update them for a world of genomics and informatics, with a much more targeted and precision medicine landscape. I accept that in that context we are not yet world class—we have more to do—but NICE is a world class organisation. Given the chance to update its systems, I believe it will lead the world in that field.
In the autumn statement we fully funded the NHS’s five-year forward view, including its cancer strategy, with a commitment to £10 billion extra per year by 2020. We frontloaded that with £6 billion, as was asked for, to allow it to make the investments necessary to modernise. That is a half-trillion pound commitment to spending on the NHS over this Parliament, so I gently point out to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), that to describe that as a cut is testing the admirable elasticity of the English language.
On the importance of NICE and independent, clinically led decision making, much as at times like this I yearn to reach for a big lever, pull it, make a decision and send hon. Members out dancing and cheering and send patients home happy, I think we all understand that it is right that such decisions are not taken by MPs or Ministers; they must be taken by clinicians, based on the very best evidence from the very best independent advice. That is how this system works: NICE makes an independent judgment using the very best systems available to it. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) that that needs to be, and it is being, updated to give NICE more flexibility to reflect the challenges of precision medicine—treatments that have a very definable, predictable response in a very small number of patients. NICE’s advice goes to NHS England, which makes the clinical judgment about treatment protocols. It is right that the Cancer Drugs Fund is based on that clinical decision making.
Nevertheless, there is an anomaly. Although we expect NHS England to be guided by NICE, in one therapeutic area, with the best of intentions, we have created a fund that sits at the end of the process, so that NHS England has a fund to buy drugs that NICE has said no to. That is an anomaly in the system. The point of the review is to take the CDF commitment to fund earlier, so that NICE can use it as an assessment fund to enable it to look earlier in the process at new drugs that are coming on stream and then give NHS England advice. That is in keeping with our general policy of opening up a space between research and medical practice in which we use data from the front-line treatment of patients and from the system to inform our procurement and reimbursement system.
Rather than “finger in the air” theoretical models of health-economic benefits, we are within touching distance of a system that is able to use real data in realtime from real patients with real diseases to drive real models of cost-benefit and health economics, and we are trying to wire the system in order to deliver that exciting prize. Members will understand that, where funding is finite—£1.3 billion is a big commitment, but it is finite—the system must re-prioritise which drugs it purchases. That is difficult for those who are in the process of getting a diagnosis and expecting a treatment that is then withdrawn, but I stress that no patient who is in receipt of a treatment that is withdrawn has that treatment withdrawn from them specifically. If they are getting a drug, they continue to get it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned pomalidomide, a drug used to treat relapsed myeloma. The CDF clinical panel looked at it, reviewed it, and, based on its independent, best-in-class assessment, the score was too low so the panel recommended that it not be approved. As I understand it, NICE is currently looking at other treatments for multiple myeloma, including panobinostat. I checked with NICE before the debate, and can say that final guidance on that treatment for that condition is imminent.
I remind Members that any patients receiving drugs continue to be treated, and that no drug will be removed if it is the only proven therapy available on the NHS. Sometimes in debates such as this we give the impression that we are taking away a drug, patients will stop getting it, and patients who have no other treatment will be left without treatment. That is not what happens. We should remember that there is an individual funding request mechanism—the IFR—for patients with exceptional conditions that are not met by other drugs. That is there specifically so that if any constituents have a unique claim on clinical exceptionality, their clinicians can make that case.
I should highlight the fact that two new drugs were approved in the previous CDF round. We sometimes forget that new drugs are being approved. We do not get requests for debates in Westminster Hall to congratulate the system on their approval, but it is worth mentioning them. The system approved panitumumab for bowel cancer and ibrutinib for cell lymphoma. Those approvals have been widely welcomed by patients and charities in the relevant sectors. I am delighted that, through the early access to medicine scheme that we introduced last year, which, with patient consent and their clinician’s approval, enables unlicensed drugs to be fast-tracked, we have now got pembrolizumab through, tested, into patients and purchased by NHS England several years earlier than would have been the case. That is a precursor of what we want to do much more widely through the accelerated access review.
It is no coincidence that one reason for the delay that was referred to earlier is that I am very keen for the CDF review to be done at the same time as the accelerated access review. Had we not done that, colleagues would have been saying to me, “How ridiculous, Minister, that you have reviewed the Cancer Drugs Fund and closed it before you have received the recommendations of the accelerated access review this spring.” I wanted to ensure that we are building a landscape that is logical and fit.
Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that it is worth while to look at the difference between a condition that goes from diagnosis to death over, say, 18 months, where an extra two months of life is proportionately quite small, and one of these very fast-acting cancers, such as pancreatic, where a person gets only six months and giving them an extra two would be very important in allowing them to settle their affairs and come to terms with the world?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. I urge colleagues, as elected representatives, to make such points to NHS England through the CDF review, which closes on 11 February. We represent 70,000 or 80,000-odd people, so it is appropriate to make the point that for different diseases there is a big difference between the benefits of extra time for patients.
In the limited time I have left, I want to touch on some of the questions that came up. Colleagues asked about performance measures for data. It is important that we use the data from the CDF better. We are introducing measures to ensure that the contracts for 2016-17 specify that trusts that do not submit complete datasets will be penalised. One hundred per cent. of trusts are now submitting data, so we have closed that door. Some of the horses may have bolted, but we are getting properly on top of the data.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire asked first about a draft treatment pathway for multiple myeloma. NHS England advises that that is currently in the process of being finalised. It has been the subject of public consultation and is being revised to take account of the comments received and the potential impact of treatments that have been removed from the CDF. The treatment pathway is due to be published in 2016. Secondly, on individual funding requests, NHS England does publish data on its website, including the number of individual funding requests for each drug on the national CDF list. Thirdly, on the issue of penalties for failing to produce data, we have built specific performance measures into the systemic anti-cancer therapy database.
My hon. Friend also mentioned multi-drug treatment cost reductions. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on NHS England’s individual commercial discussions with companies, but I can say that I am actively looking at ways to integrate better the Department of Health negotiators with NHS England commissioners through the accelerated access programme, so that we can get the benefit of time, cost and risk reductions in the pathway in more enterprising pricing mechanisms. I am confident that there is interesting progress to be made in that space.
I am aware that it is traditional for the Minister to leave a little time for the Member who secured the debate to wind up. I have around 15 questions that I have not had the chance to answer, so with your permission, Mr Streeter, I will write to the Members who contributed to the debate. I close by reiterating our commitment, as a Government, to get on top of the issues that have been raised. I hope that Members can see that, as the first Minister for Life Sciences, I am making progress in the direction that has been highlighted.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this very important debate. Turning to my hon. friend the Minister, I would just like to say that imminent is great, but it might not be imminent enough for my constituent Graham. He needs help now. I accept that the Minister is doing all he can to accelerate things, but imminent might not be soon enough.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the removal of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund list.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the safety of towed trailers on public roads.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this important debate.
My objective in securing this debate is to articulate the experiences of a constituent family who, just under two years ago on 27 January 2014, found themselves facing every parent’s worst nightmare. Although I need to explain the tragic circumstances that caused the death of three-year-old Bedminster resident Freddie Hussey, devastating the lives of his mum, dad and older brother, I hope to ensure that the Minister’s attention is focused on the action, legislative or otherwise, that can be taken to prevent similar avoidable tragedies from befalling others. I also hope that this debate will raise the profile of an issue that the family believes—and my research backs this up—is far more widespread and potentially life-threatening than might first appear.
On Monday 27 January 2014, three-year-old Freddie Hussey and his mother Donna were walking home along Parson Street, Bristol, after dropping off Freddie’s older brother at school. A Land Rover was driving along Parson Street that day towing a 2-tonne trailer, which became detached from the vehicle as the hitch had not been correctly attached and careered across the pavement, fatally crushing Freddie. I do not want to delve into the detail of the case brought against the driver, other than to say that at court he was sentenced to 200 hours of unpaid work and handed a six-month driving ban. It is easy in such tragic circumstances to call for sentence structures to be reviewed and so on, but I and Freddie’s family are keen that in this debate we instead focus on the possibility of introducing legislation to prevent unsafe trailers from being towed on our roads.
South Bristol’s people are made of strong stuff. They are resilient, they support each other and they are generous. In the face of that local tragedy, local residents rallied round with donations, which was particularly valuable after Freddie’s dad, Scott, a professional driver, lost his job after having become so traumatised that every time he got into his lorry he suffered panic attacks. I pay tribute to my constituents for their dignified response, which saw them hoisted into the public eye. The Hussey family deserve and expect to be allowed to continue to reflect on the tragedy that ripped apart their lives without any media intrusion. I express in anticipation our thanks to media representatives for their understanding of and respect for the family’s wishes.
Having experienced that personal tragedy, the family impressed on me their determination that some good will come from Freddie’s death. Other families should not be forced to undergo a similar nightmare. They seek certain outcomes, which I want to articulate on their behalf. They accept that nothing can be done about the driver’s sentence, but they wish the law to be changed so trailers must pass a roadworthiness test.
First and foremost, I ask the Government to state their position on the law surrounding the roadworthiness of trailers and the ability of drivers to ensure safe attachment, and why it will not be changed. Looking at this issue from a layperson’s perspective, people are surprised that there is no requirement for a person driving with a 2-tonne trailer on their tail to check how it can be safely fixed or to ensure it is roadworthy. I have been told by the Minister responsible that no change is planned, but I do not have a clear idea why that is so. I sought a clear understanding on my constituents’ behalf over a period of several months last year.
I was elected in May 2015, and I was first contacted by Freddie’s mum, Donna, a month later. I subsequently met her and her husband. Donna’s email outlined the tragic circumstances and explained:
“We want trailer and towing laws changed and tougher sentences for drivers. Our little boy cannot have been killed for nothing.”
Like many other residents of Bristol and elsewhere, I still remember where I was when I heard the awful news of Freddie’s death. The depth and cruelty of the disaster felt almost unreal, and shattered the special home-to-school journey that thousands of parents make every day. It surely must have been a one in a million occurrence, but Freddie’s mum explained that
“in the last two weeks alone I have come across four separate incidents where trailers have come loose.”
She gave me web links to news stories, and has added to them since, from North Yorkshire, Kent, Dorset, Tameside, Essex and Somerset. One from Taunton, Somerset, even included a dash-cam video of the incident. Anyone who watches that footage of a trailer smashing across a busy road into traffic lights, luckily without hitting anyone, will understand the risk to public safety we are dealing with. My constituents told me that they have kept a log of further similar incidents, and they assure me that many similar cases have come to light. Such incidents are far from uncommon. The work they have undertaken to highlight this issue means they have been alerted to new accidents on an ongoing basis by a network of people across the country who share their concerns. If the Minister would like to know more, they will be pleased to furnish him with more information.
In her email, my constituent stated:
“in the UK trailers do not carry MOT or safety checks. In countries like Australia or New Zealand they do, and if you are caught with an unsafe trailer you are prosecuted.”
The Minister will be aware of the legal position in other countries across the world. For example, I understand that in New Zealand trailers require a warrant of fitness similar in principle to an MOT, and in Sweden all trailers are required to be registered, to have a certificate of conformity from the manufacturer and to pass a roadworthiness test. The family understandably wondered why similar measures cannot be enacted at home, so I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport outlining the case and asking what plans his Department has to introduce safety checks for trailers and other towed vehicles. I also asked whether any consideration had been given to changing the driving test regime to include towing a trailer. The short reply I received stated that
“there are no plans at this time to require MOT tests for small trailers”.
From my research, I became aware of a similar case that was raised in Parliament in January 2008 by the then Member for Amber Valley. It involved a hauntingly similar case of a four-year-old boy tragically killed when he was hit by a trailer that broke free from a car while he was walking in a Derbyshire village with his mother.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She raised the tragic case of young Finlay Martin in my constituency, who died just over eight years ago. I agree, first, that sentences for people who cause such accidents should be much tougher—the sentence for Finlay’s killers was derisory—and, secondly, that there need to be tests of trailers’ roadworthiness. When they are manufactured, we must ensure that they have all the controls and safety checks that they need. When they are used, an MOT is the right idea.
I am grateful for that intervention. I agree that sentences are an issue, although the Hussey family do not want to look at them. It is surprising that there are no checks at the moment, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.
That case was raised in Parliament at the time. Having expressed his condolences, the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport responded to the then Member for Amber Valley:
“Introducing MOT-style tests for such trailers is a possibility that we have considered before, and it is a matter that we keep under review. There have been several such accidents in recent months, and I will certainly consider the matter with officials in the Department to see whether we need to move on that.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1354.]
As I was aware from that parliamentary record that the Department pledged to keep the issue under review, last August I wrote to the Minister to draw attention to that case. I asked to see any documentation or advice that his Department officials had provided, and I asked whether the Department had considered whether it is now appropriate to introduce MOT-type tests for small trailers. The somewhat terse reply was:
“I am not able to provide information about advice given to Ministers in a previous government.”
It stated that the testing of small trailers had been considered at a European Union level in 2014, but that it would not be mandated. It did not explain why, so my constituents remain in the dark. It concluded, in the fourth short paragraph of four, by repeating that the Minister is not considering introducing MOT tests for small trailers at this time. Again, it failed to explain why. It prompted me and my constituents to ask, what has changed since 2008 and why? Had incidents of trailers becoming detached fallen or ceased? We know that they have not. In 2008, the Government kept the matter under review. Had the active review policy changed? If so, when? Who changed it? Why? My constituents are angry, but they are dignified and tenacious. They have asked me to seek answers. I have tried, but the Minister’s written responses have been unhelpful, in the opinion of those who have read them, because they failed to give answers to those key questions and prompted further questions.
Let me be clear. I am not calling for the Government to introduce a compulsory MOT test for trailers immediately, although I would like the Minister to set out how UK law compares with that of other countries that do have roadworthiness tests for towed trailers. It might be that a change in the law is the right course for the UK, but at this stage I, along with the family whom I represent, want to understand fully why the considerations that were actively undertaken as recently as 2008 have now apparently been dropped. If the process of introducing such a test is felt to be too bureaucratic or too expensive for trailer owners or for the taxpayer or both, what is the evidence base? Perhaps the issue is not considered important enough to justify public expenditure. Will the Minister please explain the sums involved? Speaking of the evidence base, will he outline data showing the number of recorded incidents of trailers becoming detached? If he will not or cannot, will he accept my constituents’ help in understanding the levels, and therefore the extent, of the issue, which would then allow them to contribute in some way to shaping future Department for Transport policy on an issue that has devastated their family and their south Bristol community?
Finally, will the Minister agree to meet my constituents, should they wish it, so that he can explain personally, face to face, what the Government can do to address this serious issue? My constituents believe that it cannot be long before there are further fatalities and, based on my research, I agree with them. They know that they cannot rewrite history, but they want to help shape a better future and to do all that they can to help avoid any other families suffering as they do. As a minimum, the Government should publish any evidence they have considered around trailer safety and allow further consideration of how tragic deaths from unsafe trailers can be avoided in the future in this country.
Before I call the Minister, I should advise the House that my information is that there are likely to be two Divisions at 4.20 pm, in which case the sitting will be suspended, the clock will stop on the Minister, and he will have to come back to finish his remarks.
I fully share the sadness, so eloquently detailed by the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), at the death of Freddie Hussey. I can only extend my deepest sympathies to his parents, Donna and Scott, and their other son, Archie, for their tragic loss. It is always devastating to hear about the impact that road deaths have on families. Losing a child is a burden that no parent should have to bear.
Road safety is right at the heart of transport policy and is a top priority for me, so I will first put my remarks into context with some words on road safety. I recently set out our new road safety statement, which contains our commitments to realistic and appropriate action to tackle deaths on our roads. We are particularly concerned about the deaths of vulnerable road users such as children. The statement sets out our key priorities for road safety, which include adopting the safe systems approach. That approach is clear in the framework we have set with Highways England, which it is now implementing. It is also a theme that runs throughout the statement. We are protecting vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders, through infrastructure and vehicle improvements, the promotion of safer behaviour and equipment, and ensuring that other road users are aware of the risks posed to these groups and adapt accordingly.
Taking tough action against those who speed, exceed the drink-drive limit, take drugs or use their mobile phone has been a priority for successive Governments, and I intend to build on that. We are increasing the fixed penalty for handheld mobile phone use behind the wheel from £100 to £150 and increasing the penalty points for the offence from three to four for motorists and from three to six for HGV drivers. We are also consulting on legislative changes to improve urban cycle safety by ensuring that sideguards and rear under-run devices remain permanently fitted to HGVs.
I have also ensured that a £750,000 grant will be made available in this financial year to police forces in England and Wales to build drug-driving enforcement capacity, and we are consulting on options for a drug-drive rehabilitation scheme course and a high-risk offenders regime for drug-drivers. Further to that, I am consulting on proposals to support safety for motorcyclists, who tragically account for 19% of all road deaths and yet make up only 1% of road users, including better training and improved safety equipment. It is a comprehensive package of initiatives to tackle road safety and build on the progress that our country has made over many years.
Turning to towed trailers specifically, I should start by explaining the type approval and licensing processes for trailers. While small trailers are not subject to MOT testing, all new trailers now need to be type approved. Trailers are, for legal purposes, divided into four different types. Category O1 and O2 trailers are the smaller variety—meaning under 3.5 tonnes laden—which are mostly for personal and domestic use and include caravans. The trailer in this case was in the O2 category. Categories O3 and O4 cover larger trailers, which are usually used commercially and include, for example, articulated lorry trailers. The latter varieties are subject to more rigorous inspection procedures that are appropriate to large and heavily used vehicles.
Recent developments have improved the safety of all new trailers, but given the long life of trailers, it will take some time for the trailer fleet to be completely renewed. All new road-going trailers that are towed behind road vehicles such as cars, lorries or buses need to be submitted for European type approval. The system checks the safety of a new trailer, with regard to important items relevant to road safety such as the braking system, the lights, the tyres and the towing coupling. For larger trailers, devices to protect other road users from under-running the side or rear of the trailer were already fitted in most cases, but they have been subject to more stringent strength testing. We and the industry believe that that has achieved a significant improvement in the safety and quality of trailers. The trailer manufacturing industry has invested in improving the build quality of its product and in more thorough testing, in particular of their braking systems and devices for protecting other road users.
Moving on, we have also made it road users what is acceptable behaviour while towing a vehicle and we consistently make clear how people should behave. Rule 98 of the Highway Code makes it clear that individuals should not tow more than their licence permits and should ensure that loads are secured and distributed throughout the trailer body. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency also issues a significant degree of guidance on responsible trailer use, including on how much weight a trailer is allowed to bear and the checks that a responsible driver ought to undertake before driving off. The checks include ensuring that the lights are working and the coupling height is correct and checking that the load is secure. The DVSA also provides advice on what to do if the trailer starts to snake or swerve, which is to ease off the accelerator and reduce speed gently. It is entirely reprehensible for an individual driver to set off without ensuring that the trailer is correctly and appropriately coupled and the load correctly distributed through the trailer.
I am grateful for what the Minister is outlining. I agree that that is entirely reprehensible, but we are talking about guidance and advice, and there is no onus on the driver or any enforcement authorities to enforce the advice. Will the Minister expand on how exactly he sees that working?
I will come on to further points, so perhaps we can pick up some of the issues then.
One issue that came out clearly in the hon. Lady’s speech was MOT-type testing. As I said earlier, smaller trailers are not subject to MOT testing, although larger ones are. There is no statutory or comprehensive national database to identify small trailers or to detail when they were built, so any such MOT scheme would prove difficult to implement.
A more universal testing regime for smaller trailers, such as those with the O2 category, was considered as part of a 2013 debate on the European Union roadworthiness directive. At the time, EU member states were in agreement that a scheme to register and test those vehicles throughout Europe was disproportionately burdensome—that was the phrase used—to establish and operate. Unless a registration scheme for such vehicles were established in advance of any testing scheme, it would be hard for enforcement authorities to check effectively that a trailer, such as a caravan, had its own authentic test pass certificate or, indeed, documentation on who owned it. It would be too easy, for example, for a certificate to be used for another, similar vehicle.
It might help our debate if I detail some accident data—I am aware that the hon. Lady’s opening speech included a request for more data to be published and, if I can find more, I will certainly write to her with that information. The number of accidents and casualties involving towed vehicles, compared with other types of vehicles, is low, at about 1% of all accidents. If we take 2014, the latest full year of data, 268,527 vehicles were involved in road accidents of all severities on the roads in our country. Within that total, 1,257 vehicles were towing a trailer, which equates to less than 1% of all vehicles involved in reported road accidents. Obviously that is absolutely no comfort whatever to families who have lost someone in any kind of incident, including the Husseys.
Furthermore, in many of those accidents the trailers are of the larger type, over 3.5 tonnes. Such heavier trailers are used by the operators of HGVs and for many years have been registered and tested under the DVSA’s heavy vehicles plating and testing scheme. The drivers are also used to towing trailers day after day, in the normal course of their jobs.
In respect of large and small trailers, much of the work on road safety, including in relation to careless driving, mobile phone use, drug-hindered driving and drink-driving, is also relevant to those vehicle combinations and applies to drivers irrespective of what they are driving. In the case that we have been discussing, I understand that the failure was to do with coupling the trailer to the Land Rover, which was an error by the driver. It is therefore unlikely that that type of failure would be picked up in a test designed for equipment, such as an equivalent to the MOT test for trailers.
The available data suggest that most accidents involving light trailers relate to driver behaviour, such as inappropriate driving behaviour for the conditions or breaking the speed limit. Indeed, the national speed limits for vehicles towing trailers, including caravans, are lower than standard national road speed limits. That is because of the handling characteristics of those vehicle combinations. Sixty miles per hour is the legal maximum on motorways and other dual carriageways, with 50 mph being the maximum on single carriageway roads, subject to the national 60 mph limit for general traffic.
I want lessons to be learned from the sad case that we have been discussing. We should all bear in mind the comments made about the family’s aspirations. I have met many families who have lost loved ones in road accidents, and I am happy to meet with the Husseys, should they wish to do so. We are always seeking to learn lessons, so I will spend a little time on what we can do with driver behaviour.
I will ask the DVSA to review all the advice it publishes about trailer safety. That will include in relation to trailer coupling—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a Division in the House on the Opposition day motion. I think there will be another Division straight afterwards, on the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, so I will suspend the sitting until after the second Division, when the Minister will have five and a half minutes remaining.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Let me pick up on the points I was making in the context of driver behaviour, because it is important that we learn as many lessons as we can, not just from this case, but from all incidents that have resulted in fatalities or serious injuries on our roads.
I will ask the DVSA to review all the advice that it publishes about trailer safety, including in relation to trailer coupling. Safety of trailers, of course, involves more than the operation of coupling them safely. Cars, including four-wheel drives, and vans towing trailers can be driven in an unsafe way at excessive speeds. I will look at checking that those messages about vehicle control and speed are clearly put as well.
The DVSA can and does undertake regular checks of trailers. I will ask officials to examine the trends and patterns being picked up at those checks in respect of trailer maintenance and use, and to feed back to me some underlying trends, if, indeed, that is what is identified. I will ask officials to consider how the DVSA guidance about trailers and the lessons learned from the checks can be brought home to more of these motorists through some of their representative groups. That includes considering how we can communicate these issues to people towing trailers. For example, we can reach groups representing people towing caravans and horseboxes, although I appreciate that the trailer in this tragic incident was of a different type.
The hon. Lady mentioned other points, including European comparisons. I will ask my officials to make contact with their European counterparts and report back to me on any lessons that people may have learnt in other countries.
I mentioned earlier that I would write regarding data. I have some comparative data: in 2014, as I said, there were 1,257 total incidents involving trailers. That was broken down to 39 fatalities, 214 serious injuries and 1,004 slight injuries. Although that is a slight increase on the previous year, it is part of a broader downward trend. However, I will write with the data that we have, as they might help to inform the debate.
The Minister mentioned discussing the matter with different bodies. I know that this particular issue is not the same, but have there been discussions with the National Farmers Union, for instance, about the safety of farm vehicles? That is important: they are on the roads regularly and there are sometimes issues with lights, trailers and so on.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will certainly pick up with farmers’ unions.
I come to my last point. I have detailed a number of positive actions, which I will progress personally. I am extremely keen to see our country’s record on road safety improve. We have a good road safety record in our country and some of the safest roads in the world—I do not want people who may be following this debate to go away thinking anything other than that—but at the same time, we still lose many hundreds of people every year on our roads. Those people represent not just statistics, but families shattered, so I will continue to work to improve on our record. The case of Freddie Hussey is particularly sad, and I will do all I can to ensure that we learn from this case, so that the tragic circumstances faced by the Hussey family are not endured by any other families.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the safety of towed trailers on public roads.
STEM Careers: Diversity
(Bath) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered increasing diversity in STEM careers.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone—my new style consultant, apparently. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Put simply, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector is largely dominated by white men and much more needs to be done to create a diverse and more balanced sector. I am sure that I do not need to explain to anyone why a more balanced sector will be beneficial to our economy and productivity, and to creating a much more equal society. I will therefore spend most of my time today discussing the lack of female representation in the sector, as well as the need to make it more appealing to the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, as well as disabled individuals.
As a man and as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I must say that it is an absolute privilege to be leading this debate, as I believe strongly that it is not just a woman’s job to end up championing diversity in the sector; rather, it is for all of us to do so. I first got interested in this subject quite a while ago, but I saw a stark example of the problem last year, when I attended a school—which shall remain nameless—in my constituency to see an IT development class. There was a single woman in that class and a sea of men. To be frank, that is appalling in 21st-century Britain and we should be doing an awful lot more to change that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on leading this very important debate. As someone who still is a chartered engineer, and who worked as an engineer across the world for 20 years before coming to this House, may I say how pleased I am to hear him say that this is the responsibility of everyone, including white men? Having men who talk about the importance of diversity—and not simply when they are being asked about it by women—and who raise it in the boardroom constantly is an important part of changing the culture. We need both men and women to speak up for it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I completely agree that it is the job of men and women to be championing this issue. Black, white, BME—from whichever sector of the community, it is important that we get that voice out there. I pay tribute to her for her work on championing this area, and particularly diversity in STEM, given her background. I have heard an awful lot from her over the last few months and I look forward to working with her on that in future.
Before I came here today, I was pleased to lead a digital debate on Twitter, alongside the House of Commons engagement team, using the hashtag #WomenInSTEM. As well as trending at No. 1 in the UK—it was the first time I have been involved in something like that that has been as successful, which was quite exciting—the debate was really insightful, with a huge number of ideas, which I will hopefully be able to reference today, although I cannot reference every single one of them. There were over 800 tweets altogether, and I will try my best to summarise as many as possible. I want to thank the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who took part in the debate—I hope many of them will be watching today’s debate—which shows that Parliament can really speak up for people out there who do not necessarily have a voice. I am sure that the hashtag #WomenInSTEM can be used throughout today’s debate as well. Sometimes Parliament can be seen as distant from people’s everyday lives. Looking at the debate yesterday online, I hope that we were able to show that this place was and is listening, and is working to improve the everyday lives of hard-working people.
There are some truly shocking figures that show the lack of diversity in STEM. For example, in 2012, a survey of girls between the ages of seven and 21 found that the top three careers they would choose for themselves were teacher, hairdresser and beautician. As I am sure we can all agree, these are often seen as “traditional” female roles. We need to ask ourselves why engineer, physicist, chemist and mechanic are not mentioned in that list. When it comes to engineering, only 3% of engineering degree applicants are girls and just 6% of the UK engineering workforce are female. Physics is the third most popular A-level for boys, but only the 19th for girls, and around half of all state schools in the UK have no girls studying physics A-level at all.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to start earlier? A lot of research shows that from the age of seven upwards, girls are ruling out such careers. We need to tackle that stigma in primary schools, not just when it becomes too late in secondary schools.
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. She is absolutely right, and I will come to that. We should be looking at diversity and removing gender biases even earlier, in nursery or even from birth—I will provide evidence to back that up.
It is not only science that has an issue with diversity. There is a lack of female academics in the English department of a very prestigious university—although I will spare its blushes by not mentioning which. An inherent misconception is putting girls off a career in STEM subjects, but that does not apply to other sectors. The figures speak for themselves. There is something about STEM subjects that appeals to boys but puts off girls. I want to look at various key stages throughout life before suggesting some steps to see more girls taking a greater interest in STEM subjects and, ultimately, STEM careers. The trend will not change overnight, but we must stop stalling and start to bring about real change.
This is an important debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is real value in mentoring women and young girls in STEM subjects so that they look forward to careers in those subjects? Does he also agree that we could and should be doing a lot more to encourage women to step forward and to help in this way?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right. Mentoring is a key and valuable part of helping girls into careers in STEM subjects and, when they are in such careers, helping them to progress. It is clear from all the evidence across all age groups that women, black, Asian and minority ethnic people and all groups that are under-represented in the STEM sector should also have improved access to mentoring.
I want to thank a local councillor in Bath who has done a lot of work to increase diversity in STEM and lobbied me for this debate. He rightly pointed out that there is a huge benefit to our economy from having the best of all potential talent going into science, technology and engineering, and anyone who makes a career in these industries will be guaranteed excitement, satisfaction and opportunities that are unique and rewarding. I also want to thank a constituent, Danielle Workman from Ralph Allen School in Bath, who produced a superb report on the lack of women taking STEM subjects, which helped me to construct today’s debate. I thank her for her time and commitment.
We will never address the lack of diversity without addressing the very foundation of career choice. In 2016, children are still pressed to conform to gender stereotypes, with pink Babygros, Barbie dolls and ovens for girls, and blue rooms, cars and chemistry sets for boys. Children obviously do not make that conscious decision; they are guided by their parents, family and society from an early age. That guidance is not malicious, but I am concerned that some decisions are affecting the take-up of STEM careers later on. The Campaign for Science and Engineering produced an excellent report backing up that evidence.
Even children’s advertising exploits gender stereotypes. Adverts for toys targeted at girls commonly use words such as cuddly, magic, princess and glitter, and those targeted at boys use words such as adventure, battle, action and launch. Yesterday’s Twitter debate on the “Let Toys be Toys” campaign, which campaigns to de-gender children’s toys, said that just 4% of adverts for toy vehicles feature girls. When so much of what children are exposed to seems to be so gender-biased, how are children expected to take a neutral look at future careers?
My hon. Friend is making some interesting points. Does he agree that much of the problem is about role models and that if children cannot see a role model they can identify with, their career choices will naturally go elsewhere? Torquay Girls Grammar School in my constituency has had STEM days with STEM ambassadors from the Met Office. Does he see a role for local employers to go out and ensure that technology is seen as an attractive career choice?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that that is one way in which schools can work better with businesses to help to de-gender the STEM career field. I pay tribute to him for his work in his constituency to help to promote that.
I want parents to encourage both their sons and daughters to look at all available careers options. That means acceptance by parents that their daughters can consider a profession in which females may be in a minority. If young girls are encouraged to get excited by chemistry sets and to enjoy thinking about space, more might start to dream about a career in STEM, rather than some of the more stereotypically female sectors.
By the age of six, children are already beginning to classify certain jobs as male or female, and by 13 many limit their career aspirations to fit in with these artificial boundaries. That is shocking and shows why the problem has been so difficult to overturn. Any action at older ages is potentially redundant unless these early misconceptions are challenged. As well as taking further steps to encourage retention of STEM subjects and uptake of STEM careers, those early preconceptions need to be altered.
If young girls have parents who think they should enter a gender-stereotypical career when they have grown up, how are they expected to look at STEM careers with an open mind? To increase uptake of STEM subjects and ultimately careers, we must remove this hugely inaccurate preconception, and that has to be reflected in the way these careers and subjects are treated both at school and at home. I hope the Minister will explain not just what the Government are doing to change the mind set in early years, but how we are going to take these arguments and change the minds of parents.
Following on from the development of early opinions on the gender of particular careers and subjects, the next key step is the choice of A-levels. At the age of 15 and 16, pupils are given the option to choose their A-levels and think more carefully about their future careers. Of course, some will have a clear career path in mind, but others will try to pick subjects that they enjoy, which could lead to a wide range of careers when they have decided what they want to pursue in life. It is important that young girls are reminded at this stage that a STEM career may be limited if they choose restricting subjects.
It is key at this point, when girls may turn their back on STEM subjects, that as many as possible are encouraged to consider STEM careers. When it comes to educational attainment, girls often outperform their male counterparts in STEM subjects, so that is not putting off girls. A large variety of careers advice is given to students and it is key that female role models are used to show where maths, biology, chemistry, physics, IT, and so on, can take girls. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) alluded to that.
Examples of successful women in STEM careers would hopefully see more girls continuing with STEM subjects and looking further into a career in the sector. That point was brought up repeatedly during the online Twitter debate yesterday, with many people agreeing that a mentoring system to support girls who have an interest in STEM subjects and show them where such careers could take them would help them and could see the industry change for the better. Some involved in the debate said they would support such an initiative. I urge schools to get in touch with local businesses to see whether they can help with giving young girls role models in STEM subjects. I hope the Minister will explore the various ways that the Government can facilitate and help to develop an alumni and mentoring scheme across the UK to encourage young women into the sector.
I want to make it clear that the uptake of STEM subjects at A-level and university is important. Apprenticeships are a key part of our economy, and a fundamental part of STEM careers. They are a fantastic way to get into the sector while earning, and millions of people are accessing apprenticeships. We need to tackle the fact that under 5% of engineering apprenticeships are being undertaken by women. Increasing the uptake of women in STEM apprenticeships is another route to improving the gender balance within STEM careers and ultimately changing the misconception that they are careers just for men.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that encouraging women and people from ethnic minorities into STEM careers will not only improve diversity, but alleviate the bigger problem of the skills shortage in the industry throughout the country? It is a ticking time bomb in areas such as Chippenham, because companies will leave if they cannot find the right skills there.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It seems outrageous to me, or at least incredibly strange, that the understanding that a woman can be as productive as, or more productive than, a man is not part of the mindset of many businesses in the sector. The skill sets that should be created to help to grow the economies that are important to us—the tech economy, in particular—are simply not being built. We need to be generating a whole new pool of talent, which can, obviously, come from women. There is no reason why it cannot; there simply seems to be a culture out there that prevents women from being able to access the sector.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Part of the culture that he has just mentioned may well be the idea that science and engineering are somehow separate from arts and creativity, and that people must choose between the two. The great thing about engineering and science careers is that the best and the most productive involve creativity and imagination, which are the sorts of skills that we need for our future.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. There is no difference between the two. Some of the most creative women I have met work in professions in the tech economy, and I do not know why the separation that she mentioned exists. The application of a particular type of STEM, whether it is science, technology, engineering or maths, seems to be missed in the wider debate. Women would be much better able to access the sector if they knew that science or technology would help them in their future careers and that they would be accessing a very creative sector.
Once women have chosen a career in STEM, we must work to make sure the sector retains them. I was saddened to learn of a former constituent of mine, one of Bath’s only female IT developers—given the fact that we have a huge tech economy, I find it absurd that we had literally one IT developer who was a woman—who needed flexible working and found that her only option was to move to London. Sadly, we have lost her now. The tech economy in the west of England, and elsewhere in the UK, should learn from that, understand the reasons why it happened and encourage more women to access the sector. I hope that example will shift the mindset of many employers.
It should not be difficult to allow women to work flexibly and pursue a career in STEM. I am not saying that every company that contributes to the STEM sector is not flexible or accommodating of women with families, but a sizeable number are not. All sectors need to step into the 21st century and be flexible. The STEM sector is no different, and I hope that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work to encourage that.
I did say that I would touch on the importance of extending STEM to be more inclusive of the BAME community and disabled people. Just as we need to work to break down barriers for women, we need to break down any barriers that exist for the BAME community, and even more so for women BAME community members. There is much information available about female uptake of STEM, but for some reason far less when it comes to the BAME community. To create an appropriate strategy to combat any issues, we need to monitor the uptake of subjects and careers, and highlight trends, which policy can work to mitigate. We need to focus much more on workplace adjustments in STEM careers to help disabled people to access roles and further their careers in the sector.
I am pleased to say that there are success stories, which we need to hold high and use as models to improve the diversity of STEM in the future. Athena SWAN, as I am sure many Members are aware, is a national scheme that recognises a commitment to supporting and advancing women’s careers in STEM within higher education and research. Members across the country sign up to its charter, which contains principles such as
“To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation”,
“The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address”,
to name but two. Athena SWAN grants awards to organisations for good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in higher education. Universities proudly display their certificates, which no doubt help when they are competing to attract the best staff and students.
In the last Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was a strong champion in this area, and I pay tribute to her for her work on increasing diversity. I direct the Minister’s attention to the excellent report published by the Select Committee on Science and Technology during the last Parliament, which included a range of recommendations to improve diversity in STEM. Other sectors need to look at Athena SWAN and bring in similar charters to ensure that they are doing all that they can to put increasing and maintaining a diverse workforce at the centre of their work.
I am pleased to see that the Government have committed to addressing the lack of diversity in STEM, and I would like to suggest, as I am sure other colleagues will too, ways in which we could start to de-gender STEM careers and ensure that the sector is as attractive to young girls as it is to young boys.
I rise as someone who has three daughters and has failed with two of them, in spite of intense parental pressure, to get them to do STEM subjects. It is important to recognise that one area of STEM is medicine, which is increasingly dominated by women. Perhaps the propensity to do medicine, as opposed to engineering, can be an issue.
Medicine and chemistry are intertwined. Chemistry is slightly less behind maths, technology and science; indeed, it seems to be positively favoured. We need to learn why more women are coming forward to do medicine, and we must apply that knowledge to maths, engineering and science. A range of different organisations has published recommendations about how to do that. We need to stop so many 16-year-old girls walking away from STEM. Some level of science is compulsory until that age, but we need to stop girls abandoning it just as they are getting started. The more girls choose to take STEM-related A-level subjects, the more will consider studying a STEM subject at university, and so on. To make sure that happens, I would like to see more female role models to show young girls the success that can be had in male-dominated areas.
Finally, I would like to add my voice to those who have called for a link between STEM research funding and a university’s progress in Athena SWAN. That would lead to an increase in research funding for universities that have successful diversity strategies, and it might encourage more universities to reconsider STEM policies and encourage diversity.
It is so important that we get women into these areas. Does my hon. Friend agree that one big driver should be the fact that people who enter STEM industries attract wages that are significantly higher—up to 20% higher—than those in other industries? In my constituency, NXP Semiconductors, which is a big manufacturing exporter in a big industry, is looking for people to come and work in its industry. We want to see more women doing so.
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution, and for the work she is doing in her constituency to champion this area. From my conversations with her, I know that it is high on her agenda. There are two angles. First, we need to improve careers advice and explain to many women that entering a STEM career will give them a higher earning potential. Such advice is not necessarily available, although careers advice in the UK is getting better. My experience was that I was told to go into the Army when I left school—that was the only career option available to me in rural Colchester. Secondly, we have to explain to companies that they can increase productivity and grow into much more profitable businesses by employing more women. It is quite clear that women are incredibly productive members of whatever sector they are in, and we need to break down the stereotypes that exist in the business community.
I know that the Minister cares deeply about the issue and that she understands the need to improve diversity in the sector for the sake of increasing productivity. We must live in a more equal society, and if we do nothing, we will be damaging the opportunity to fulfil every woman’s potential.
Order. The debate finishes at 5.56 pm. The Front Benchers will be called at 5.33 pm and will have five minutes, five minutes and 10 minutes. With four Members standing, I will have to impose a time limit of three and a half minutes, which will include interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate. It is good for a representative of Aberdeen to be thinking about this subject. The oil and gas industry is one of the major employers in Aberdeen, if not the biggest employer in the whole city—it certainly has a huge ripple effect. The other thing that we do quite well is academia. We have a major issue with the lack of women in STEM careers.
As an MP, I travel through Aberdeen airport quite a lot. I am there twice a week most weeks. It has the world’s busiest heliport, and it is the UK’s fifth-busiest airport in terms of total movements. There is a huge number of oil-related movements. There are very few women in the airport. Almost all the women I see at Aberdeen airport are going on holiday or are there with a male partner. Very few of those women are travelling on business in their own right. I have mentioned the two major industries in the city, and from the airport alone I can see that there is huge under-representation. OPITO, the oil and gas training body, did a survey in 2011 on the proportion of female employees in the industry as a whole. The survey found that more than 50% of those employed in the admin sector are women, and in all other sectors, including marketing, communications and engineering, it was less than 20%. Women are woefully under-represented in the whole oil and gas industry, particularly in higher-paid jobs, and not just in STEM careers.
I am beginning to wonder why that should be. I tried to find evidence for it, and all I could come up with was that these jobs are “not for women.” If we start with the entrenched cultural position—the hon. Gentleman said that there is a culture around this—that jobs in the oil and gas industry are not for women, women will not go into those jobs, and when they do go into them they will not be promoted because it will be assumed that women will not do very well. Actually, we are just as good—some of us might be better.
We are doing a couple of things in Aberdeen. At the weekend I visited Satrosphere, which is basically Aberdeen’s science centre. I went with my children, and it was fantastic. The boys and girls were equally involved in all the activities, and it was totally non-gendered. There was no place where there were more women or more men. Even the staff were pretty representative—they were pretty fifty-fifty—which is good for people to see. Aberdeen does some of those things well.
Aberdeen has TechFest, which is also encouraging young people to get into STEM subjects. Again, there is no bias towards either women or men at TechFest, and it will be interesting in a few years’ time to see whether these young people begin to choose STEM careers as a result. I studied advanced higher applied maths with mechanics in my sixth year of secondary school, and I was the only girl doing that subject. As the hon. Gentleman says, we also have a huge lack of women studying physics. Hopefully, talking about it can improve the situation.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate. He is passionate about this topic, as I am, and his debate on Twitter yesterday was seen by 2 million people. The STEM agenda is very important to us in Portsmouth, where we have a history of naval engineering and are moving into high-tech industries. One graduate of Portsmouth University, Tim Peake, is now working on the space station, which I hope is inspiring a new generation of scientists.
To me, however, STEM does not necessarily mean academic subjects; to me, STEM is about a range of careers. That is one of the reasons why I invited the university technical colleges to look again at setting up in Portsmouth, and I am pleased that they will be setting up in 2017. The college will not only be doing maths and sciences but technical engineering, training draughtsmen and teaching craftsmanship in areas such as carpentry and other vocational subjects.
Many STEM subjects are perceived as boring, with little practical relevance. I remember being interested only in the space shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles, rather than in the equations that got it into space. My daughter started doing engineering at university only to find it boring. She changed to natural sciences and is now training to be a doctor. Members will be glad to know that my other daughter also did science at A-level, but my sons did not.
I agree with many of the things that my hon. Friend said, but my wish is that plumbers, electricians and other technicians, whom I consider to be part of the STEM agenda, will be invited into schools. How much more interesting would it be to learn electricity from an electrician in the classroom and to learn about angles and the movement of water from a plumber? Architects could come in and show how everything fits together. Those jobs need a lot of trigonometry and maths. Would children not feel more engaged if they could see the everyday practical consequences of technology? As has been mentioned, this needs to start in primary schools to inspire children and to increase participation. Children all learn differently, and I suspect that we would get more women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds engaged in STEM subjects if we made them more relevant in the classroom. I encourage schools to use their imagination in the way that they teach STEM subjects, using people from the community to come in and show practical applications of why STEM is important to life. I guarantee that it would also lead to more diversity.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on securing this debate and on setting an excellent scene. In Northern Ireland our society is not as ethnically diverse as in some parts of England, but with the rest of the country we share a lack of gender diversity in STEM careers.
We have made some giant steps forward. The hon. Gentleman mentioned role models, and what better role model is there than to have Arlene Foster as the leader of our party? I am immensely pleased to see that happening. I supported her when she was an Ulster Unionist. She is now a member of the Democratic Unionist party, and I am pleased to see her in place. Not only is she the leader of our party; she is now First Minister, too. If someone wants a role model, they should look no further than Arlene Foster. The sky is the limit for what can be achieved. It is good news to have ambition, drive and a target to aim for.
Nationwide, just 9% of people in non-medical STEM careers are women, despite women making up more than half the population. We could consider quotas to address the situation, but with such a low figure there clearly needs to be a much more thorough and comprehensive approach. Last week the House debated space policy, and the idea of introducing young girls and ladies to engineering and STEM careers was raised. There are obviously great possibilities for space policy, too.
With public spending in Northern Ireland still stubbornly high at a staggering 77% of GDP, STEM careers will be an integral part of future growth. It is essential that a STEM sector emerges that reflects the population. We must be more proactive in addressing the gender imbalance both here on the mainland and back home.
We also have a disabled population, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to that, because it was in my mind to do so. We must highlight that disabled people also need to benefit from any moves to address the lack of diversity in STEM subjects and STEM careers. There are 5.2 million disabled adults of working age in the UK, and almost half of them have a degree-level qualification—the same as for those without a disability—yet a small number are in employment. There have been noticeable steps forward since 2008, particularly on resources for disabled students and employees in STEM. The STEMM Disability Advisory Committee was founded in 2011, which is a welcome step. Both the Northern Ireland Executive’s programme for Government and the skills strategy for Northern Ireland, “Success through Skills—Transforming Futures,” recognise that the Northern Ireland economy’s future success will require increased numbers of skilled workers with a science, technology, engineering or mathematics qualification.
In engineering in Northern Ireland, I am encouraged by the number of young girls who are interested in apprenticeships at Bombardier, Shorts and Magellan. I am keenly encouraged by those who are taking up engineering opportunities, and I have advised many young girls when going around schools and universities, “There are opportunities in engineering for girls in Northern Ireland. Take the course now, get the university degree and get the job.” We can move forward very positively. We just need to focus on the right way to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome this debate and both the fact that it has been secured by a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee and that he is a white man. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing this debate—he is setting an example by doing so.
We have a lot of work to do in this country. Only 14% of all STEM roles and jobs are taken by women, and only 9% of engineering jobs, the lowest proportion among European countries. My constituency is home to a large number of employers that depend on technology, information and communications technology and transport roles. One of those is GlaxoSmithKline, which is headquartered locally. I congratulate GSK on the successful work that it has done to recruit women into STEM apprenticeships: 34% of its STEM apprenticeships are taken by women, against a national average of 16%. GSK has done so through a number of initiatives, particularly by promoting role models, ensuring that female apprentices and other staff attend careers fairs and feature in promotional videos, and talking to young women who might consider taking up a career in a STEM field.
Other Members have addressed gender stereotyping, an issue for which we all need to take responsibility, particularly employers and the Government. The small proportion of female teachers of STEM subjects is concerning. Teachers play such an important role in the career choices that young women make, and it saddens me that in the 21st century, we still have gender differentiation in the career choices of young people in our schools. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, because I believe that the Government have a significant role to play in taking action and leadership on this important issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on raising this important issue.
I wish it were hard to believe, but 40 years ago I did a study of women in politics. For more than 40 years, I have had an interest in gender divides in society. I was particularly interested in the issue raised by the hon. Member for Bath, which I think is fundamental: this is predominantly a cultural matter. It is about our society and how we view one another. I was intrigued, too, when he raised the issue—if I recall his speech correctly—of the difficulty of getting an IT developer in his constituency, and the small number of women involved in that scientific area. It reminded me of the daughter of Lord Byron.
Lord Byron’s daughter began to study and show an interest in mathematics as a young child. She was fortunate for the 19th century in that she was strongly supported by her mother, who was keen for her to move away from the romantic and emotional interests of her father and take on something rather more practical, in her view. But, of course, it was difficult. Women had few rights to enter such areas at that time.
She began to correspond with Charles Babbage, the mathematician, who asked her to translate from the Italian a memoir describing his analytical machine, which was one of the first to carry out computations. Not only did she translate it, but she made her own notes about the machine, which even included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. Because of that, she is acknowledged as the world’s first computer programmer. The world’s first computer programmer was a female from our society, but she had to fight against many odds and break down many barriers to get there.
Hopefully, it is much easier for young women to break into such areas today, but they still face the same cultural biases. I am pleased that in Scotland we have a programme called Improving Gender Balance Scotland, which involves not only young people and teachers but, centrally, parents. They are the people who carry many of the myths, values and prejudices in our society. These matters will not be resolved by dealing with them through curriculum alone; we need to look much more widely at the things that create cultural influences in our society.
I was therefore pleased when the hon. Member for Bath mentioned the role of television and the like in the modern era—the types of adverts we get, and how they can discriminate, perhaps unwittingly, by characterising some things as only for girls and some as only for boys. That must be tackled from the earliest stage. It is too late to leave it to secondary school, and probably too late to leave it to primary school. We must think about influencing people from the earliest days, which means that parents are crucial in the campaign, as are nurseries and other people who come into contact with young children.
I mentioned Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. She faced many barriers to her rights. I thought that, since this is January and I am a Scot, I would perhaps say a few words on the rights of women by one Robert Burns:
While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) on obtaining this debate. We have heard about the Campaign for Science and Engineering report. Yes, the statistics are indeed depressing, although I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) that there are exceptions. However, we must consider what we are doing to harness the enthusiasm for the subject that young people, both girls and boys, have from an early age. In primary school, at the age of eight, they are equally enthusiastic about STEM subjects, but by the time they reach 16, that enthusiasm has waned.
We have heard a lot about gender stereotyping, and some of it is down to that, but we must also consider the teaching methods used. A science teacher said to me, “It’s all big bangs and noise.” STEM subjects can put off young women by being seen as a bit dirty. The impression still exists that engineering and science are dirty and that it is about men in hard hats and is not for young women. Hairdressing and beauty are still the apprenticeships of choice for young women.
I have some questions for the Minister. First, what work is being done with the Department for Education to improve the quality of careers advice and, crucially, to involve parents? In areas such as mine, apprenticeships in Heinz, as they say, are for the boys, and apprenticeships in hair and beauty are for the girls, and teachers sometimes encourage that. A young woman came to me who is apprentice of the year at MBDA. Her maths teacher said, “Why are you taking an apprenticeship? You’re far too bright to be taking an apprenticeship. Go to university first.” She has a degree now, through taking up that apprenticeship.
I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that more role models are needed. We must ensure, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) said, that high-quality jobs are available to young women as well as young men. We also need to consider career progression. Only 19% of young women working in the private sector are in engineering or STEM subjects. For all STEM occupations, only 13% employed in them are women, and only 10% of STEM managers are women.
What is being done to identify and address the barriers to women once they have entered these careers? We know from research that one barrier is the fact that if someone takes a career break, they tend to lose their immediacy of research. How can we identify that and help with that?
I would also like to know what strategy there is for the black, Asian and minority ethnic community to break down the barriers that members of that community face, and to explain why BAME men are 28% less likely to work in STEM careers than white men.
Finally, I would like the Minister’s comments on what is being done to break down barriers between employers and the employment of people with disabilities. I no longer want to hear from someone with a disability, as I have already heard, that they were not taken on in a factory as an apprentice in a STEM subject because they were a fire risk. Education matters, and again role models, to provide practical examples of how people with disabilities are forging forward in these careers, would be extremely useful.
We all know that these are the high-quality jobs. They range right from under the ocean to the moon, and we need to do a lot more to encourage people from disadvantaged backgrounds—young women, members of the BAME community and people with disabilities—to take full advantage of all the opportunities offered by these wonderful careers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I will do everything I can to comply. I have taken out some large chunks of the speech that was helpfully provided by my officials. And I always say—there are some here this afternoon who have heard the usual line that I trot out, and I am looking at my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as I say this—that the usual rules apply. Anyone who I do not reply to by way of my speech will receive a letter that will answer all the points that have been raised in what has been an excellent debate, and I pay full credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) for securing it. Truthfully, we could have gone on.
There have been some splendid contributions and perhaps most importantly of all there has been huge agreement across the House. It is not often that we hear that, but when these sorts of debates occur we hear people speaking in the way they have done today: free of party politics and not making daft points half the time; and speaking from experience but with shared common goals about wanting to make sure that more women and in particular young girls take up these STEM subjects and then do as well as any boy or man and flourish in them.
I will try to answer some of the points that have been made and obviously I will make the case for what the Government are doing. However, I begin by saying that I am getting very concerned, because I am becoming increasingly fond of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin). I am concerned that he is becoming the Scottish National party’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). [Laughter.] That is a compliment, because my hon. Friend is an outstanding historian and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is also a great historian, and I thought that his contribution today was very useful.
I just want to make a sensible point; I am now in my sixtieth year. I know that is difficult to believe; some would say that I look nearer 65 and it often feels it. The thing that slightly concerns me is that I think that when I was in my early 20s—almost 40 years ago—I heard this very same debate. What worries me and troubles me is that despite the efforts of all Governments to try to get more young women to break down these dreadful stereotypes, to get rid of the barriers and to open up all the channels of opportunity, I sometimes wonder whether we have made progress; I do not think we have made the progress that we all want. And trying to crack this problem is incredibly difficult. Yes, there are schemes and, yes, there is money going into it.
I praise the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, but actually he reflected what my hon. Friend the Member for Bath said—it is all about culture and changing culture. Yes, we can do masses in our primary schools, secondary schools and universities, but it probably begins long before that with the attitudes that we as parents impart to our children.
There were some great contributions. There was an intervention from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and I could not agree with her more; there was the contribution from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman); and I thought that the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) was particularly important, and I will just concentrate on one particular thing she said. That was when she talked, quite rightly, about the fine tradition within Portsmouth in relation to the Navy. When I was in the Ministry of Defence, one of the things that really struck me was the fact that so many young women are now going into the Navy. They are doing particularly well in those highly skilled jobs—they are all skilled in the Navy, as indeed they are in all our armed forces—and the number of women going into the Royal Navy really struck me.
Those women are doing incredibly well, which resonates with the point that the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made in her speech. I do not know whether hon. Members find this as they go round their constituencies, as I have done in my new role in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but often employers will talk about the quality of their apprentices and then they will produce the prize apprentice, and invariably they are women. So, we have those brilliant role models there; the trouble is that we do not have enough of them, and we all understand and recognise that.
We know that science is a universal culture; no one should face barriers to involvement in science because of their background. However, I will give what I suggest is a horrible statistic. The provisional figures for 2015 show more than 25,000 boys taking A-level physics; for girls, the figure is less than 7,000. And the United Kingdom has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe, at less than 10%. If those figures are accurate, they are not good ones.
In the research community, when we look at grant applications we see that men have higher success rates than women across all but one research council. White applicants have higher success rates than black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants. We know that there are barriers to achieving a diverse team at various stages of education and work, so as a Government we are committed to developing a strong, diverse STEM community, and we are working with the research councils, the national academies, industry and educators to deliver it.
There are some other facts that I hope will give people some encouragement that we are on the right track. We are investing £2.15 million in the Stimulating Physics network and £5 million in the Further Mathematics Support programme to help schools, academies and colleges to increase the take-up of maths and physics, with a particular focus on engaging more girls.
From 2014 to 2016, we will invest £11 million in the maths hubs. I pay tribute to the one in my own constituency of Broxtowe, which is at the George Spencer Academy, and I know that the academy’s brilliant principal—its headteacher, who is an outstanding woman—is determined that she will get more young women taking up maths. We are also investing £7.2 million in the Science Learning Partnerships to support better teaching in schools.
There are some other interesting statistics. I put my hand up to ask, “Please don’t tweet out in an adversarial way about this”, because I had not heard—it is not within my departmental responsibility, I quickly add, so I am grateful to be able to come along and respond to this debate—of the Careers & Enterprise Company. It is an employer-led, Department for Education-funded organisation that strengthens links between employers, schools and colleges. It will inspire young people—of course it will—and it has a £5 million investment fund. I shall certainly contact it, because I am finding in my own constituency a real willingness by schools to engage far more now with the business community and to bring people in.
We have heard from a number of hon. Members today about some of the work in their own constituencies, and their encouragement of schools and teachers to engage far more with businesses. Some really sensible and good points have been made about bringing in the engineers and the plumbers—it does not matter—to break down these stereotypes and to open the minds of all our young people to the fact that there is a full range of opportunities available to them, and to break out of those stereotypical opportunities of fashion and beauty.
I do not know what it is about our culture, which seems in some ways to be going backwards; whether that is because of the predominance of the personality culture, I do not know. So I pay full tribute to the fact that we have the first woman First Minister in Northern Ireland—fantastic—and the first woman First Minister in Scotland. Do you know what? I do not care what Nicola Sturgeon’s clothes are like; I am not interested in her hair, any more than I am interested in whether the Chancellor is on the 5:2 diet. [Laughter.] It really is so totally, utterly irrelevant, is it not? What matters much more is what they do; the Chancellor, of course, is brilliant, and Nicola Sturgeon could do an awful lot more. No—I am making a cheap political point. But we all know what the point is. We have an obsession now with the way people look, with what they are wearing and how they dress, but it does not matter; it is what they do and say that matters most. We have moved backwards in that respect, and changing that would encourage more young women to get involved in STEM subjects.
You will probably be pleased to know, Mr Hollobone, that I fear hugely that I will be unable to deal with all of the speech. In any event, it is far too long to deal with in the time available to me.
I pay full credit to the Secretary of State for Education, who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, for the work she does and her absolute determination to ensure that girls and young women have all possible opportunities. For example, in 2014 we set up the Your Life campaign, which aimed over three years significantly to increase the numbers taking A-level maths and physics. It has a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which is the way of communicating with young people, even if at times it drives people like me completely bonkers, because of the trolls and the abuse.
Regarding the levels of misogyny, I do not know whether the number of attacks on women in public life has increased, but certainly on social media we see that sort of abuse, and it is absolutely not acceptable in a modern world and does nothing to encourage women to step away from the stereotype.
I want to say just one other thing, and it is about mentoring. We have a great scheme to ensure that we get mentors into schools, and we have STEM ambassadors. In BIS we support more than 32,000 ambassadors to go into our schools, and I want to find out more about them when I go back to my Department. That really is the future, but it is also about changing the culture.
I thank the Minister very much for her closing remarks. Her passion for the subject is clear. She is obviously looking to take on board the recommendations and the issues raised in the debate today and report back to us later, to carry on the good work that the Government are doing to address this culture.
Members on both sides of the House are right to say that there is a cultural problem. We have talked about role models that need to be rolled out, and we need to ensure that the 5.2 million disabled people are not left to one side and forgotten about. They are hugely productive members of our community and we should do everything we can to encourage them into STEM careers as well. In addition, we have heard about the Improving Gender Balance Scotland project, and I will go away and read about that and find out what work has been done there too.
In particular, I hugely congratulate everyone who was on Twitter yesterday—I have to say that there was a limited number of trolls. The debate has been amazing, incredibly sensible and forthright and has shown how wonderful this place can be when we focus on an issue that has cross-party support. I hope that this will not be a single debate but a long-term campaign to ensure that we change our culture, so that in a number of decades’ time we will not have to talk about these same problems. I thank everyone who has taken part today, and particularly the millions of people out there who were watching the Twitter debate yesterday.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered increasing diversity in STEM careers.