Wednesday 20 January 2016
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Out-of-school Education Settings
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed regulation of out-of-school education settings.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to welcome such an excellent Minister, dedicated to school standards, and an even more excellent Opposition spokesman—I say that in the hope that they might be nice when they sum up.
How have we come to a situation in which a Conservative Government are proposing that a parish church must register with Ofsted before it can teach children the Bible for more than a few hours? The Department for Education’s consultation—I emphasise that it is a consultation—on its plans for out-of-school settings is well intentioned enough. Nobody denies that. When Sir Michael Wilshaw goes on the radio to defend them, he tells us about children
“at risk of abuse and at risk of radicalisation.”
We all have those concerns, but why does tackling abuse and radicalisation in a very tiny number of madrassahs mean that every voluntary group in England that instructs children for six or more hours a week has to register with the state? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education told Radio 4 that she thought the number of problem institutions could be numbered in the tens. Why, then, are we requiring tens of thousands of totally innocent groups to register with the state?
Does my hon. Friend remember that when we were in opposition, we opposed the then Labour Government’s ContactPoint database precisely because it sought to capture information on every child in the country? We said, “No, it should be proportionate. We should capture the information on children at risk, not every child.” Why does he think that that principle is not being applied in this case?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. This issue has caused great concern among my constituents, particularly Rev. Simon Cansdale, who leads our churches in Chesham. He makes the point that surely we should be the Government who are responsible for wiping away red tape and disincentives for voluntary organisations to carry out this sort of work, but we appear to be putting more red tape in the way and creating more disincentives for them. As far as I am concerned, the proposals could even apply to, for example, teaching children music for recitals or outdoor skills, or to any sort of activity such as singing songs or reading out stories to young children. Surely it is verging on the ridiculous and should be swept away.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Just seven months ago he proudly stood on a Conservative manifesto, which, on page 61, stated that the Conservative party would
“reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms.”
Does he believe that the proposals fit in with that promise?
Exactly. How proudly I stood on that manifesto. [Laughter.]
Returning to my speech, if the number of problem institutions could be numbered in the tens, why should all these voluntary groups be subject to inspection by Ofsted? Why does that mean that churches could have inspectors deciding whether their doctrine meets the “British values” test? Why should totally moderate, mainstream mosques and madrassahs have to register on a list of potential extremists?
The DFE says that an out-of-school education setting is
“any institution providing tuition, training or instruction to children aged under 19 in England”.
Exceptions are schools, colleges, and registered childcare providers. The Government talk about “intensive education”. That sounds bad—like it has a controlling influence on children—but the document says it is
“anything which entails an individual child attending a setting for more than between 6 to 8 hours a week”.
It says that that could be an hour or so every day after school.
I speak as somebody who even this coming weekend will be engaged in working with young people in a Sunday school. Does my hon. Friend think that, even if we normally do one or two hours a week, the proposals will apply if we take the children away for a weekend, which will be far more than six hours?
That is a very good question and is precisely what the Minister needs to respond to, because the proposals could apply and we want to know the answer.
Huge numbers of groups have the kind of contact with young people that we are discussing. They will all have to register as part of a scheme designed for spotting a few Islamic extremists. It sounds a bit excessive, doesn’t it? The DFE is clear that it has in mind
“activities and education for children in many subjects including arts, language, music, sport and religion”.
This scheme for spotting jihadists is therefore going to impose state regulation on groups teaching arts, music and sport, activities in which jihadists are not particularly known to engage. Stalin used to persecute innocent groups of philatelists or Esperanto learners; is this a very British kind of Stalinism? Members will be thinking of the many scout troops, sports teams, youth groups, churches, conservation groups and after-school clubs in their constituencies. They will all have to register, even though we can say with a high degree of certainty that none of them—none of them—are poisoning young minds with extremism.
The Scout Association has contacted me to say that the
“proposed threshold is neither helpful, nor workable”
and that “sufficient scrutiny already exists”. Of course, that is right. One does feel sorry for the association. It is hard enough nowadays to get volunteers to give up their free time to run scout groups, without more over-regulation.
Like, I am sure, many others present, I have had to go through the process of a Criminal Records Bureau check, which is now a Disclosure and Barring Service check. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an important but onerous process? Sometimes, one has to be checked more than once, because it does not transfer to another activity that one might undertake with children if one is foolish enough to do a full weekend with the Sunday school. It is a very rigorous process, and if it was applied to the people who teach children Islam in all teaching environments, it would be a very good tool to deal with any excess problem that there might be.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We should be using DBS checks if, for instance, people are trying to teach extremism, jihadism or whatever in an out-of-school setting or at home. We should use intelligence and existing powers to deal with the problem, not try to take a great sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. My constituents are concerned about the additional burden not only on volunteers, who do incredible work up and down the country, but on Ofsted. They are concerned about whether Ofsted has the capacity and the resources to implement the proposals, and about what the costs might be.
I believe that Ofsted has neither the capacity nor the resources. It should concentrate on its job of ensuring good educational standards.
The DFE consultation document also mentions settings that are used during school holidays. Clearly, summer camps were in view. The Department now says that “one off residential activities” will not be covered. Fair enough. The body charged with registration is the local authority, but I am afraid we have seen enough local authorities banning Christmas and pulling funding from church groups to know that there will be places where relationships between local churches and the council are not friendly.
Apparently, out-of-school settings will be
“eligible for investigation, and if appropriate, intervention where concerns were reported”.
Investigation? Intervention? This is pretty intrusive stuff. The Government say that all this has
“the broad aim of keeping children safe generally from the risk of harm, including emotional harm”.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I speak as somebody who, like other Members, has run residential courses like those that have been mentioned. Does he agree that we might end up with all the good, diligent organisations registering, while the ones we are trying to crack down on will not bother registering at all?
That is precisely the point, and I will come to it in a moment. Extremists will not register and will not talk about cutting off people’s heads when the Ofsted inspector is around.
Emotional harm is a vague concept. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins say it is “mental abuse” to teach children that the Bible is true. Does the Department agree? I am sure not. Do some Ofsted inspectors agree? I hope not.
The system includes a requirement to “register”, a power for Ofsted to inspect and a power to impose sanctions, including barring people from working with children and closing premises. Although the consultation process was, I believe, inadequate, the Department received thousands of responses, because people, especially Christian groups, are really worried. They are terrified because, for the first time, Ofsted will decide whether to bar someone or close down their youth work by assessing whether their teaching is
“compatible with, and does not undermine, fundamental British values.”
The Department says that prohibited activities will include:
“Undesirable teaching, for example teaching which undermines or is incompatible with fundamental British values.”
Does the Department really have a right to decide what is desirable and undesirable teaching in churches? Many groups focus on hobbies, sports, music, the outdoors —things that have no relevance whatever to British values. The truth is that those thousands of hobby groups are being forced to register only so the system looks even-handed. That is the point: the Government are terrified of not looking even-handed, and therefore they are bringing in all those other harmless groups.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on making a characteristically forthright speech that is based on common sense. Does he agree that the state has tools to address such issues in a risk-based way? We do it all the time with immigration and policing. Clearly, if there are risks, we should have a risk-based, proportionate approach based on common sense.
That sums it up very well. All the tools are there, and I will list them in a moment. They are based on risk.
The DFE’s real target, as we all know, is religious teaching; let us be honest about that. The major problem is that many religious groups do not have confidence in Ofsted. I led a debate last year on the treatment of certain Church and Jewish schools. I will not repeat all I said on that occasion. I mentioned the particular problems that Orthodox Jewish schools are having; I read out letters from pupils at a Christian school; I mentioned St Benedict’s Catholic School in leafy Bury St Edmunds, which was accused of not doing enough to tackle radicalisation; I mentioned Middle Rasen School in my constituency, which, according to Ofsted, is not British enough. I will not repeat those points, but they are on the record.
The Catholic Education Service does not oppose the plans, but it has a number of concerns, including the risk of
“Vexatious complaints and the use of the system as a means of pursuing critical objectives”.
Ofsted told Trinity Christian School in Reading to invite leaders of other faiths to lead collective worship and actively to promote other faiths. Ofsted denies it, but why would the school make it up? I am afraid that Ofsted has a reputation for being unfair to some Christian and Jewish schools. When inspectors went into the Birmingham non-faith schools that were part of the Trojan horse Islamist plot, they first rated them as “outstanding”. One of the key figures in the scandal was an Ofsted inspector, so it hardly has a stellar record of spotting extremism. Yesterday, I talked to Sir Michael Wilshaw, who is a very reasonable, able man and is clearly doing his best. I have no doubt that he has worked hard in the past year with his resources to root out radical jihadism, but because he has to look even-handed, he has to take part in this activity of controlling thousands of other group.
Are British values the answer? One only has to say the phrase now and people roll their eyes. The consultation paper says that British values include
“democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
That is too vague to provide a basis for state inspection of churches and scout groups. It is also sloppy. We cannot show respect and tolerance for all beliefs. Jihadism is a belief, and we certainly do not respect that.
The Government admit that their out-of-school plans will create a new burden on providers—the understatement of the year—but I do not think they have any idea of how big the bureaucratic monster they are creating is. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations—hardly an extremist group—says that there are more than 160,000 voluntary organisations in the UK. Many of them work with children and young people. For 37,000 of them, it is their core work. The NCVO counts only registered charities, but a vast amount of voluntary work is done without the formality of setting up a charity, so there are many thousands more groups not included in the NCVO figures.
I have several questions that I hope the Minister will reply to. How will those tens of thousands of bodies be notified of the new obligation to register, given that some of them do not even have a permanent address? Whose responsibly will it be in the setting, especially if the group is informal and has no structure? What about venues with different groups operating on the same premises? How will ad hoc groups calculate whether they breach the six-hour threshold? How many will be forced to register just in case? How will they know what Ofsted is looking for if they ever get a visit? How will they prepare for a visit? Can football be played in a non-British values compliant way? Can a conservation club be intolerant? Should martial arts clubs be worried?
The whole thing is a ridiculous mess that will severely damage the big society—our big idea. Some groups will cut their provision to less than six hours to avoid having to register, and some will close down altogether. Groups that rely on teachers as volunteers will be especially vulnerable because teachers will not want to risk their career by being involved in an amateur outfit that might slip up with Ofsted. It is the children who will suffer, not us, Ofsted or the Government. There will be less provision, which means that in future there will be fewer footballers, swimmers, linguists, artists and other high-flyers, all because of this bizarre, unfocused, ill-thought-out, politically correct imposition on our freedom.
I am also greatly worried about the cost and burden that the scheme will place on our already squeezed local authorities and on the Government. More taxpayers’ money will be spent on the scheme, and I think it would be unreasonable to expect local government to meet the cost.
From talking to our local councillors, we know that the last thing we should do is impose more burdens on them.
To top it all, the scheme will not make children any safer from extremism; it will just tie up thousands of non-jihadi groups in red tape. The idea that jihadists will take the time to register is incredibly naive. Islamist extremists regard our laws as a total irrelevance. If they have no conscience about teaching children that Jews and Christians are worse than dogs, does anyone seriously think they will have a conscience about registering with the local authority? Are they really going to put themselves on the radar for an inspection? If they beat up children for not memorising the Koran, do we really think they are going to put their hands up and say, “Here we are—come and inspect us”? If Ofsted turns up to assess them, does anybody think that they would use the occasion to show their ghastly videos?
If we want to find extremists groups that put children at risk, we have to use good old-fashioned intelligence. We spend a huge amount of money on the intelligence services. We have to rely on intelligence, surveillance, common sense and the bravery of members of the public who blow the whistle on such groups, including the many good Muslims who are fed up with this, frankly, and the good Muslim mothers who do not want their children to go to such places.
We should use existing laws, of which there are plenty. If these groups urge children to do things that break the law, we should prosecute them for encouraging the commission of a criminal offence under section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007. If the children are at risk of significant harm, we should get a prohibited steps order or a supervision order under the Children Act 1989. If the premises are dangerous, we should invoke health and safety law to close them down. If it is really an unregistered school, we should use the Education and Skills Act 2008 to close it down, as the DFE did last week to a school in Stamford Hill. We have the powers, and we should use them to deal with the genuine cases.
This out-of-school setting scheme is a total and utter distraction. We will end up with a list of tens of thousands of law-abiding, non-extremist groups, and Ofsted inspectors will try to justify their existence by picking on the occasional conservative religious group and brand them non-compliant with British values. It is a typical case of politicians and civil servants wanting to look as if they are doing something, rather than actually doing something. If they actually want to do something, they need to knock together the heads of the police, social services departments, Ofsted and all those with existing powers to make them use those powers properly.
This scheme is fundamentally illiberal. It is big government at its worst. It would do little or no discernible good, and an awful lot of harm, leading to false allegations. Ofsted knows that false allegations against teachers are a massive problem in the profession. A system based on “British values” and “undesirable” teaching is ripe for subjective, exaggerated and politically-motivated complaints, especially against religious groups. This will generate false flags and waste time. Finding extremists is already like finding a needle in a haystack. This system will just make the haystack much bigger.
Sir Michael Wilshaw tried to justify the new plans on LBC Radio last week by citing cases of unregistered schools where children were
“living in appalling conditions in a filthy environment where there was homophobic literature, anti-Semitic literature and misogynistic literature”.
That summarises the difficulty. On the one hand, it identifies real problems such as educating children in filthy conditions, but talks about those problems as if we cannot tackle them without a new law. That is not true. We do not need a new scheme to do that. On the other hand, Sir Michael Wilshaw raises issues that involve highly subjective judgments, such as what constitutes “homophobia” and “misogyny”. People routinely use words such as homophobic and misogynistic to describe the contents of holy books of all religions. One can bet there are Ofsted inspectors who take that approach. I half wonder whether the homophobic, misogynistic and anti-Semitic literature found at unregistered schools was just some religion’s holy book. There is some pretty blood-curdling stuff in the holy books of all religions.
I absolutely accept that no religious person has the right to impose any violent language on anybody else, but we are talking about religious people. It does not matter whether they are Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or Christian —they believe their holy book. I am not saying that anyone has the right to enforce their holy book on others, but they do have a right to say that they believe that their religion is right and that others are wrong. That is why they are religious. That is real diversity and pluralism—not this ridiculous situation in which we all have to pretend that we believe the same thing.
The Minister may tell us that the Government have no intention of registering Sunday schools, chiefly because they do not like the sound of the headline, but Sir Michael Wilshaw told the LBC Radio audience last week that Sunday schools would have to register. He is right because Sunday school provision is just one aspect of a church’s work with young people. If a child spends two hours at Sunday school, another two hours at a youth group on Wednesday, and another two hours in choir practice on Friday, they have spent six hours receiving tuition and training from the church. It may have involved three different groups with three different sets of volunteers but it is all in one setting, so that church will have to register. Its Sunday school workers, youth group leaders and choir masters are all liable to British values inspections.
In 1787, it was estimated that a quarter of a million children were enrolled in Sunday schools. They were mainly non-conformist. Frightened by the French revolution, the then Archbishop of Canterbury denounced Sunday schools as “nurseries of fanaticism”. Prime Minister William Pitt almost introduced a Bill prohibiting the dangerous innovation—plus ça change. In conclusion, the Department must think again before it unleashes a whirlwind of destructive over-regulation on the voluntary sector.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and I think there will be widespread agreement that the prospect of Government officials inspecting and supervising religious activity is not an attractive one.
We all understand—the hon. Gentleman set this out clearly—why the Government want to introduce the measure, but the way in which they go about doing so is very important. The Christian organisation CARE, in its briefing for the debate, rightly asks the question that he raised: what became of the big society? The approach being taken here is very different. It is the big state approach, which, as we have been reminded, the Conservative party’s election manifesto explicitly repudiated.
I am particularly uncomfortable about the idea that religious instruction should be placed under the authority of some vaguely defined British values administered by Government officials. Surely, in reality, it is the other way around. Admirable British values have been formed as a result of the practice of religious faith over hundreds of years. We need the practice of faith to renew and reinvigorate those values, and there is a good deal of that around the country at the moment—for example, in the extraordinary network of food banks that has developed over the past few years, a great majority of which are faith-based. That is where good values come from. Making religious instruction subject to a state-controlled version of values is deeply problematic.
There is a recurring theme in the Government’s efforts to address extremism. Of course, it is right that the Government address the problem, but that is a very difficult thing to do. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that the Government are coming up with ideas in order to be seen to be doing something. There is a worry that a view is emerging that a person who is deeply religious should be regarded in consequence as suspect. In reality, there is no correlation between those two things; it is not true for Christians, Muslims or others. Islamist extremists, on the whole, are people who are outside of regular mosque attendance because mosque attendance involves socialisation, which helps to protect against extremism. Therefore, in reality, the connection is mistaken.
The right hon. Gentleman is touching on the nub of the problem. In society, there are groups of people who are deeply religious and hold devout religious views. Does he agree that any Government initiative or change in legislation must not assume that those groups are in some way suspect and treat them in a blanket way to isolate and deal with the very small number of people who use devout religious views as a means and mechanism to achieve a more devious and illegal aim?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I very much agree with the way he has expressed that danger, which we are heading into at the moment. If the Government are determined to make some changes in this area, I wonder whether there might be a less problematic way of doing so than the one proposed in the recent consultation. As was mentioned earlier, there is not a good fit between the task proposed and the institution—Ofsted—proposed to undertake it. I am an admirer of Ofsted and, in particular, of its current chief inspector. I admired him when, years ago, he was a headteacher in the borough that I represent in the House of Commons. However, inspecting and holding to account publicly funded schools is a very different task from monitoring occasional problems in wholly voluntary settings. As one commentator has observed, the measure would, in effect, make Ofsted the state regulator of religion. It is quite surprising to see this idea from a Conservative Government. Ministers have rightly called for religious freedom overseas. We need to be vigilant that we do not undermine it at home.
There are pragmatic considerations as well. Sensitivity and tact are not the hallmarks of Ofsted. Its job, on our behalf, includes a lot of heavy lifting. The task that the Government envisage here is a very different kind of task. I cannot see that it would be right to ask Ofsted to undertake it. Instead, what if the task of inspection— if it must be done—were given to one of a number of inspecting bodies, which could perhaps be set up for the purpose? Each setting could then choose the body by which it was inspected. They might be set up by the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Alliance or the Muslim Council of Britain. The bodies would be rigorously supervised and audited by Ofsted, but it would be their staff who did the inspecting, rather than Government inspectors.
Of course, there would need to be a limit on the number of bodies, and there would be a case on the ground of openness for an inspector from a different body to accompany an inspecting team on its visits. Sunday schools or after-school Koranic classes do not object to outside visitors. The problem is with the idea that they are answerable to Government officials for the religious instruction that they deliver.
My right hon. Friend’s suggestion sounds interesting, but does it not fly in the face of what this Government have said for many a year, which is that they do not want to see state bodies and apparatus put in place? Whether they used the original proposals or my right hon. Friend’s interesting ideas, all of it suggests further layers of bureaucracy, which they keep saying that they do not want.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was attempting to propose a different way of doing things that might get around at least some of the serious difficulties in the Government’s proposals.
In conclusion, several of us received this morning an email from a man who writes:
“I’m a British born Muslim living in East London. I have a beard and pray five times a day and I can no longer walk down my street without being looked at strangely as a threat.”
In addressing the problem—a real problem, albeit one affecting only a tiny number of people—there is a danger of accidentally severely undermining the values that we are setting out to protect.
I will be brief, because the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has made most of what I was going to say unnecessary. The proposals are disproportionate and likely to be ineffective, and pose a real threat to freedom of speech, conscience and belief. They are also quite probably illegal, a point to which I will return in a moment.
Whatever reassurances the Minister may give us today that the proposals will not affect the salt of the earth organisations of which my hon. Friend spoke, we cannot be sure. The problem is that office holders change. Politicians change. Civil servants change. Once such regulations are in place, what guarantee do we have that they will not be interpreted differently in the future?
It will not do to say that we are being alarmist. We need only remember the plight of the Plymouth Brethren, which you will remember well, Mr Turner. They were threatened with the removal of their charitable status some three years ago over a difference of interpretation of the words “public benefit”. That came after reassurance had been given in the House during debates on the Charities Act 2006 that traditional religious charities need not fear the legislation. If I am correct, you were the shadow Minister at the time, Mr Turner, and you expressed grave disappointment in this very Chamber that, years after the passing of 2006 Act, an established charity with some 300 churches across the country was having its charitable status challenged following a different interpretation of the legislation. The reassurances that had been given were swept aside. The challenge cost the charity hundreds of thousands of pounds and was only averted after dozens of MPs stood up in this place and called for the outrageous attack to be stopped. That is why we are speaking out against the proposals today.
I now turn to the probable illegality of the proposals and the human rights issues. I thank Professor Julian Rivers, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Bristol and an expert on law and organised religion, for his advice. He describes the proposals as “astonishing”. He says that such a registration requirement, as it would apply to religious groups, would
“be straightforwardly in breach of the UK’s international human rights obligations.”
Let us have a look at articles 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 18 of the European convention on human rights. Hon. and right Hon. Members will be relieved that I will not quote them all. The Human Rights Act 1998, which refers to the convention, states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression, to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Requiring religious groups to register would breach that. Indeed, just last year, the European Court of Human Rights said that the European convention on human rights
“excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.”
It is therefore quite likely that, were Ofsted to identify and sanction undesirable teaching in a church youth group in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough described, it would be in breach of the ECHR.
Much as I would like to, I will not go on. There is a great deal more I would like to say, but I will say in closing that the consultation has been rushed through and is of particular concern to faith organisations. At some 42 days, it was very short and the shortest of the Department for Education’s current consultations. I stood up in the House before Christmas and asked for an extension, bearing in mind that the consultation took place over Advent and Christmas, but it was refused. I pointed out later that one of the email addresses on the consultation’s website was wrong, so some of the consultees’ responses were never received. There was then confusion over the time of day on the final date when the consultation finished. Many consultees who put their responses in after around 5.30 pm found that they had missed the deadline. There needs to be a clearer understanding of what the deadline is.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s speech, but my one concern is that she is almost suggesting that the Government should rerun the consultation. May I suggest that she makes it clear in her closing remarks that the best thing that the Government could do is to bury the consultation once and for all?
Two minutes? My goodness, how can I say everything that I want to say in two minutes? What a pleasure it is to stand alongside the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and support him in what he put forward. I thank him for all he has done.
I am not alone in having serious concerns raised with me by traditional faith groups and faith schools with no history of extremism whatsoever about the prospect of counter-extremism strategies potentially affecting them. That is what this is all about. Let me be clear. A framework needs to be put in place with safeguards to prevent the strategy from becoming a draconian measure. There needs to be intelligence-gathering and reasonable suspicion before any investigations or the specific targeting of a school. We cannot end up in a situation in which a Sunday school is declared a radical theatre or religious studies at a local primary school becomes a matter of national security. Such things are incredible.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I am on the record as saying that freedom of expression and of religion are essential to any free, modern and healthy democracy. I fully support that and think that other right hon. and hon. Members here support that. I want to ensure that that is how we consider the matter.
The Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella group representing some 2 million practising Christians in the UK, said that the proposals risk the
“wholesale nationalisation of youth work and the indirect state regulation of private religious practice”.
Can you believe it! What a prospect!
Colin Hart of the Christian Institute described any enforcement of the so-called British values—incidentally, I am British and a British passport holder, British by birth and British by choice, but these values are not my values—on any faith group with any reasonable cause for concern as
“an unprecedented attack on freedom of religion in this country”.
He warned that Ofsted inspectors not only could be sent into Sunday schools, but could end up investigating scout troops—this year it is the 100th anniversary of the Cub Scouts—and even bell-ringing clubs. My goodness, there will be people sitting on every corner with their black shirts on ready to do the business!
If this is the sort of Britain that we are on the road to, we are not on the road to a very good place. A serious re-evaluation is needed of whether it is worth eroding such civil and religious liberties in the name of those so-called British values. I hope that today gives the Government a chance to change that. This serious issue is important throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I urge the Minister to say clearly in his response, “It is not happening.”
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said. It is important to understand why we are in the Chamber today. We are here because Sir Michael Wilshaw found that the Trojan horse experience in Birmingham had exposed the most dangerous corruption of our children imaginable. Indeed, the people of this country cannot imagine what was being done to our children, and Sir Michael has expressed his horror about what he found.
That exposed a problem in our country and, I am afraid to say, the problem is confined to one religion only: Islam and what is done in its name. Christians do not threaten our national security, and nor do Buddhists or Sikhs. The threat to our national security is clear and defined, and we can see it in Syria: British young people, brought up in British schools and taught British values, are now perpetrating the most barbaric medieval practices imaginable.
It is therefore right for the Government to address the problem, although we are not doing so correctly by introducing such sweeping proposals, which have been drawn up only to counter Islamic extremism, which threatens our national security. The Government, however, are pretending that there are extremists in other quarters in this country, such as in far-right groups. Yes, there are undesirable, revolting groups in this country, but they do not threaten our national security as it is being threatened by one group.
That is an important point. The Government recently published a counter-extremism strategy. When I asked why Northern Ireland, which has a fair number of extremists, was not included in the strategy, I was told, “Don’t push the issue too far. It is really a counter-Islamic strategy.”
Indeed. Everything is being done so that the Government can pretend that they are being even-handed. We cannot be even-handed between those who do not threaten our national security and those who do. We have to be specific.
There is of course complete confusion about how the Government are approaching the issue. On 14 January Sir Michael Wilshaw said in an interview on LBC:
“We have got to deal with this in an even-handed way…all we’re saying is that if church groups or religious groups want to run out-of-school classes then they need to register so that the country and the Department of Education know they exist and that they’re being run properly.”
That is what he said.
Fortunately, on 15 January the Prime Minister wrote a letter to me, which I received yesterday. He said:
“I want to be clear: the Government is not proposing to regulate institutions teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the Scouts. Nor will it apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week long summer camp. We are looking specifically at places where children receive intensive education outside school, where children could be spending more than six to eight hours a week.”
I am grateful that my hon. Friend read that out. I run, or help to run—I do not want to overstate the case—a Christian youth camp that runs for longer than a week. It runs over two weekends, so for more than a week. Will he join me in calling on the Minister to clarify that such camps that run for 10 days or two weeks will also not be included in the proposals?
My hon. Friend’s illustration exposes the complete absurdity of the whole regulatory process that the Government are seeking to introduce. I thank him for his helpful intervention.
We risk passing massive powers to Ofsted to define extremism and what constitutes British values. In conclusion, therefore, the scheme is hopelessly broad, covering vast swathes of activity with children and young people in respect of which there is not a shred of evidence of anything remotely resembling extremism. Any scheme must be evidence-based, intelligence-led and tailored to the problem that it is designed to solve, which is that of Islamic fundamentalism poisoning the minds of young people in this country. This scheme represents none of those things.
The previous time I spoke in this Chamber, we discussed the Donald. Since then I have had scores of emails from lively Americans who have described Members of our honourable House as jihadist-supporting and Christian-hating fundamentalists. Today I hope that faithfulness and truth shine out of this House and that the Government take on board the strong message that we are getting throughout the Chamber that the proposals we are discussing are far too wide and far too shallow, when really they need to be narrow and deep.
As well as completely unlawful and completely unworkable.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) indicated how bizarre the proposals would be for those they are really meant to affect. Which jihadist or fundamentalist would abide by the letter of the law? Even if they are radicalised or militarised, are they not capable of stopping their radicalisation lessons at five hours and 59 minutes per week? Are they not cute enough not to register or draw themselves to the attention of the grey bureaucrats in Ofsted? Of course they are. They will avoid all the good intentions that might lie behind the proposals.
We would be left in a bizarre situation. Section 48 of the Education Act 2005 allows faith schools to select their own assessors; the denomination selects the assessors. But churches, those single entities that house so much good work for so many organisations—the cumulative effect of the Scouts, the church groups, the Sunday schools and other lessons, and the Alpha courses for children—once they reach six hours, they will come a cropper under the proposals.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) fairly and helpfully illustrated the legal difficulties. I know that there is not an awful lot of love for the Human Rights Act but, underneath all the rhetoric about it, there has always been the confirmed principle that the European convention on human rights would be upheld, including the enshrined freedoms of religion and association. Moreover, the right to freely associate is protected from arbitrary state interference. There are scores of cases involving, for example, Moldova, Hungary and Russia—there was a case involving the Church of Scientology in Moscow and the Russian state. These proposals would fall foul of the European convention on human rights. In fact, we would be associating ourselves with such champions of freedom as Belarus or Turkmenistan, which the UN’s special rapporteur criticised for seeking unfairly to hinder the freedom to teach and educate on the basis of faith principles.
I recognise, Mr Turner, that I have gone well beyond the time you suggested and I will sit down shortly, but I want to highlight the promise made to the people of this country in the Conservative manifesto last year. On page 61, it states that a Conservative Government will
“reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms.”
Live up to that promise, Minister, and having considered the possibility of the proposals, set them aside.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. Fortunately, we are discussing a consultation. Although it is closed, I urge the Minister to consider the contributions to the debate as part of that consultation.
I speak as the Second Church Estates Commissioner and I want to place on the record the position of the Church of England, which provides 500,000 children with out-of-school educational activities, involving 80,000 volunteers. The Church’s objections to the proposals should not be interpreted as a rejection of the Government’s aim of protecting children from harm. Of course not. It is simply that, if the Government do proceed, the Church wishes that the measures will be much more proportionate and avoid the unintended consequences.
If even-handedness is the concern of the Government, they should use existing laws that protect children and that the Church of England, its volunteers and its professionals are required to abide by. Everyone who works with children in such settings has to have CRB checks, which are now called disclosure and barring service checks—sometimes people have them again and again—but every church is also required to appoint a child protection officer, even if they do not have a Sunday school but aspire to teach some children in the setting. If the Minister wishes such things to be done in an even-handed way, that should also apply to other educational out-of-school settings.
One of the Church’s main concerns, which has been articulated by hon. Members, is the singling out of religious activity for new laws, which implies that religious activity is inherently problematic. That is likely to inhibit the religious freedom that the consultation aimed to ensure we protect.
Muslim mothers came to see me in my constituency before Christmas, beseeching me to ask the Government to do something about the teaching of their children in private madrassahs. They are fully aware that the Church and other religious groups are required to abide by this country’s laws, but they are also aware that that is not happening in private madrassahs. Laws already exist—for example, on the application of CRB checks and the childminding registration laws for domestic settings, which hon. Members know are quite onerous for childminders. I urge the Government to use the tools they have even-handedly so that all groups required to abide by this country’s laws actually do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. Just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister stood up in the Chamber and declared that he believed we were a Christian nation and that, in fact, it was our Christian heritage and values that have made us the great nation that we are. I believe that those words were broadly welcomed, so, if that is true, what are we afraid of? We should be promoting the teaching of the Bible to our children, not seeking to restrict it, because the results of that produce an awful lot of good.
The Government are in danger of making a bad decision based on very bad evidence. Where is the evidence of any British citizen attending the local Methodist Sunday school and being incited to carry out acts of terrorism? Where are the Sunday school teachers who seek to inspire and incite young people to join terrorist organisations? I suggest there is no evidence whatever to impose such restrictions on Sunday schools and other church groups.
My hon. Friend is right. There also seems to be little evidence that the inculcation of ideas in madrassahs leads to extremism. We have had little from the Government to show an evidential link—it seems to be lonely teenagers looking on the internet rather than being taught in schools, officially registered or otherwise.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I wholeheartedly agree with him. We need to recognise that the vast majority of people of all faiths in this nation are decent, honest, law-abiding citizens who want only the best not only for their own children, but for our nation. We are in danger of applying onerous restrictions on the many to address the actions of a few. That is the wrong thing to do.
In this country, we have already sacrificed too much of our liberty in the name of equality. I fully appreciate that the Government are trying to walk a tightrope on this issue to appear even-handed, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) pointed out, we need to be clear about where the source of the threat comes from and target the Government’s response to address the source and not tie up tens of thousands of volunteers with unwarranted bureaucracy when they already have a hard enough job to do.
When young people attend Sunday school or other Christian events throughout the year, they often find not just faith but a mission in life to go and serve humanity. Thousands of young people attend Christian camps every summer and, as a result of the teaching they receive, they are inspired to travel the world, serving humanitarian causes. That is something we should be promoting, celebrating and encouraging, not restricting.
I implore the Minister and the Government to think again. There is clearly a degree of confusion over this issue, but there is no smoke without fire, so there is certainly something going on. I ask the Minister once and for all to quash the proposal to put onerous restrictions on faith groups, and churches and Sunday schools in particular. Let us celebrate our Christian heritage and not seek to restrict it any further.
Thank you, Mr Turner. I will confine my comments because the hour draws near. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. The strength of feeling expressed in the debate speaks loudly to the Government about the concern of our constituents.
As a former teacher, I think this has all the hallmarks of parents’ evening: it is only those parents who we really need to see who will not come. That point was made ably earlier. Just this morning there has been news about teacher recruitment, with issues about schools seeking to fill vacancies. Classes have cover and supply teachers because we are struggling to recruit the numbers we need. Many are the pressures in teaching, but Ofsted represents one of the most significant pressures for teachers. I know I speak for my colleagues in that. If we bring Ofsted into this setting, we will decimate the number of volunteers who give hour upon hour and add tremendous value to the young people they engage with.
I am deeply concerned about the proposal. It strikes me as statist. I am brought back to what the Prime Minister said:
“Whether it’s tackling crime and anti-social behaviour or debt and drug addiction; whether it’s dealing with welfare dependency or improving education outcomes—whatever the social issue”—
I have the temerity to add extremism—
“the answer should always begin with family.”
These families choose the settings to which they send and entrust their children. The parents are often in that setting alongside the leaders. They are engaged, so parents are our best allies, not Ofsted inspectors. Should we go down the path of these sweeping authoritarian measures—that is how they appear to me—we will be letting terrorists win by sacrificing precious, hard-won freedoms.
I am struck by the parallel with the registration proposals of the previous Labour Government for home education. The thought was, “There could be a problem. We don’t have enough data. We don’t know what’s going on. There could be issues—children could be being abused in their homes. So we must register every single parent,” even though the long-standing settlement was to respect that parents have the duty to educate their children, not the state. This is creeping statism.
I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) not to add me to the list, but I am someone of no faith and there are lots of people in the Chamber with faith. This proposal seems to me a gross infringement of so many rights, including the rights of Muslims, and in a free society we need to respect families of whatever denomination and recognise where the line should be drawn by the Government, notwithstanding the risks.
If we go back, we think of the reds under the bed. It was not that there was not a clear and present danger from communism; it was the fact that a disproportionate, illiberal and un-American response was inappropriate. We can think back to when the leader of the Catholic Church—Islam has no such leader—was clearly opposed to the society and Government of this country, yet we recognised that Catholics were predominantly law-abiding and needed to be respected.
Nearly exclusively. It is exactly the same issue.
I make one final point. If we go ahead with this, it will have the opposite effect on safety to what is intended. Forget all the other points my colleagues have made about how it will break down volunteering and all the rest of what is good—what about targeting Islamic extremism? If we take an organisation such as Ofsted, whose budget has been falling consistently over time—local authorities are in the same position—and ask it to register everyone, it will spend its entire time trying to do that and it will fail to get to the real problem.
With the Labour proposals on home education, we knew that the people who were really troublesome would never register and would evade the authorities with ease. Everyone else—every law-abiding, committed family—would be put through the hoops and subjected to a state imposition that was clearly and utterly inappropriate. That is what we risk here.
I have changed my mind on this proposal. At first, I thought it could be proportionate and reasonable, but I do not think it can be, so let us not do it. ContactPoint was wrong, and so is this—let us put a stop to it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing the debate. I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with almost everything he said.
Like the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), I am a former teacher. I know the difficulties teachers have in recruiting people to help with out-of-school clubs and activities, and adding a further layer of bureaucracy will simply close those down, with all the benefits to our young people being lost in one foul blow.
As has been mentioned, anyone working with children already needs to undergo disclosure checks. Although those can take time and be problematic for people who want to get started, they are an important tool, and they are already in place.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an atheist who said that teaching children the Bible was akin to child abuse. We must be careful about how we perceive teachers and what they do. People often think that teachers in particular settings are taking part in indoctrination or putting forward one view. Teachers in Catholic or other Christian schools do not simply teach one view—they teach different views.
Let me give an example from my experience. I was a science teacher. When we looked at the energy debate, we would give pupils the facts about renewables and nuclear and let them make their own decisions—we would teach them how to argue and how to think. The point here is that we are forgetting the professionalism that teachers show, whatever setting they are in. Teachers are not brainwashing pupils; they want to give them the knowledge to make their own decisions.
While we are talking about brainwashing and indoctrination, I should add that I am far more concerned about children who spend six-plus hours in front of the television, being fed soap operas and “The X Factor”, with all the lessons that those teach.
The hon. Lady makes a great point. The proposed regulation could mean that more people in the communities where many churches operate—some of the most deprived communities in the country—are sitting indoors, doing less activity, which links to the debate we will have tomorrow about having a strategy to deal with the obesity that these things are resulting in.
Absolutely. We need to look at the huge benefits that children—our future citizens—gain from these additional activities.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) talked about the need to tackle the threats to national security. We all share the responsibility to tackle extremism, but in doing that we must be careful not to throw the net too wide. Tarring every Muslim in Britain with the same brush because of the actions of those who carry out atrocities such as the recent Paris attacks or the 7/7 bombings is like tarring every Irish person with the same brush because of the Warrington bombing. We must be careful about the language we use so that we do not play into the hands of extremists. If we approach the Muslim community aggressively, we will simply cause anger and upset, and we will not get to the nub of the issue—the handful of extremists feeding poison to people.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the proposal risks being very heavy-handed? At its heart, it fails to take into account the fact that children and young people access so many out-of-school services and clubs and that those are at the heart of many communities across our country.
Absolutely, and the same is true in the Muslim community. My local mosque, in Glasgow’s West End—the Ahmadiyya welcome centre—has children visiting every day after school to learn the Koran. It also opens its doors to the community and says, “Come and see what we do with these children. Come and see how they are benefiting. Come and find out about the values that are being taught here.” When we go in, we find happy children and a group of people who want to share what they are doing, and that is the experience in most mosques across these isles, so we need to be careful about these issues.
When an attack takes place, it is nothing to do with Islam, which is a faith of peace, or with our Muslim brothers and sisters, who contribute so fully, but it is everything to do with poisonous individuals and their individual agendas. We must continue to ensure that the Muslim community plays a full part in the wider community and that it does not find itself cut off or feel that it must cut itself off.
Many Members have talked about British values. Let me finish by saying that the values I hold dear are freedom of speech and freedom of expression, as long as people exercise them respectfully. Our values should include respect for people of all faiths and for those of none at all.
The fact that more than 20 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed to the debate shows how big the concern is about the issues that have been raised. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), whose constituency neighbours mine, on securing the debate and on raising so many pertinent questions.
The first thing to be clear about is what problem the Government are trying to sort out. The main spur for their desire to review the registration system for out-of-school education settings seems to be the serious problems discovered in a number of unregistered schools in Birmingham. In July 2015, Ofsted warned the Department for Education that high numbers of pupils were dropping off the radar and potentially ending up in unregistered schools, where they could be exposed to harm, exploitation or the influence of extremist ideologies.
In early November, Ofsted identified and inspected several unregistered schools in Birmingham, finding a “narrow Islamic-focused curriculum” and the use of
“misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material”,
along with “serious fire hazards”, “unhygienic and filthy conditions” and staff who had not undergone suitable checks or who did not have clearance to work with children. It immediately informed officials at the Department. Yet, when it returned on 30 November, four weeks after the initial inspections, it found that all the unregistered schools were still operating.
Rather than immediately stopping the unregistered schools operating, the Department for Education seems to have advised the proprietors that they could register their provision. That suggests that the Department perceived what was taking place as acceptable practice. Ofsted expressed serious concerns that that could encourage others to open such schools. The illegal schools were closed down only after Ofsted inspectors remained at the premises until they were satisfied that the schools had ceased operating and that alternative arrangements had been made in registered schools for all the children, with the support of local authority officers. Ofsted says that that was achieved despite “confusing and unhelpful” advice from the Department.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred earlier to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Charedi Talmud Torah Tashbar school in Stamford Hill, which apparently operated illegally for 40 years. The Department for Education, Ofsted, local authorities and others need to enforce the existing law before they are capable of extending it elsewhere. Let us enforce the existing law first and then consider extending it, once we can do what we are already supposed to properly.
Absolutely. Ofsted remains concerned that the number of children being educated in unregistered schools in parts of the country is far higher than is currently known by the Government.
When confronted with the real issue, the Government were slow to act, allowing children to remain exposed to a narrow and negative curriculum in unsafe premises, in the care of staff who had not been cleared to work with children. Every day that children remain in such a setting is a day too long. The Government have a basic responsibility to ensure that children are kept safe, yet despite warning after warning, they failed to act swiftly and deal with the issue.
The prohibited list of activities in paragraph 3.19 of the consultation document seems highly appropriate. I agree that action should take place immediately to investigate genuine concerns and evidence of out-of-school settings engaging in prohibited activities. That seems common sense, but as many Members have pointed out, there are lots of ways in which it can be done already under current legislation.
The question remains: does the direction of travel in the consultation document deal with the actual problem? As I said earlier, it seems that the main spur for the Government to review the registration scheme for out-of-school education settings is the serious problems discovered in a number of unregistered schools. I am sure the Minister will take time today to explain why the Department failed to act as swiftly and effectively back in November as we all would have wished it to.
When Ofsted investigated those unregistered schools, it found timetables suggesting that teaching was taking place in institutions for at least 20 hours a week, despite the fact that anywhere offering more than 20 hours of teaching a week is legally obliged to be registered as a school. The reality is that those institutions should therefore have already been registered under current legislation and subject to inspections and safeguarding requirements that ensure children receive high quality education and are well looked after.
Before we even begin to examine the appropriate threshold for registering schools, the most important question to answer, in my mind, is: why were those institutions, which should have already been registered, allowed to go under the radar? Without explaining that and what is going wrong in the Department for Education, the Government are wholly unable to justify the changes they propose as being the robust action needed to tackle the real problem.
As the situation in Birmingham demonstrates, the Department for Education is evidently unable to monitor and ensure that all provision that breaches the threshold set is actually registered in the first place. That issue goes to the heart of what is wrong with the Government’s approach to our schools today. There is an obsession with school structures, at the expense of driving improvement in education for all children, which has created such a fragmented system of oversight for schools that some children are dropping off the radar and ending up in harm’s way.
The report published today by the Select Committee on Education supports that. It finds that oversight of our schools is not being carried out by Whitehall effectively. The model of eight regional schools commissioners, each responsible for thousands of schools across very large areas, is not working well to identify problems and to challenge and support schools to improve, let alone to spot the provision going under the radar, which is at the heart of the problem.
At the same time, local authorities are not empowered with the responsibility and capacity to act when inappropriate things are happening and children are potentially at risk. They do not have the resources to ensure they have strong intelligence about what is happening on the ground and that appropriate action is taken when things go wrong. Further cuts to local authority budgets, as promised by the current Government, will only weaken that situation even more.
The truth is that the Department for Education is currently failing on all its route 1, basic duties. Are we recruiting enough teachers? As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) pointed out, there are chronic shortages of teachers up and down the country. Are we providing enough school places? Instead, some families applying last week will go straight on to a waiting list with no offer of a school place, and soaring numbers of children are being crammed into ever expanding classes.
It is the point. It is important that we concentrate on the key issues, and at the heart of this is a failure of oversight. Are we ensuring that all children are safe and out of harm’s way when they are in school or out of school?
As we have seen time and time again since 2010, this Government are not delivering on the big issues. There is real concern in the wider community that the Government are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, tying up many voluntary organisations and faith groups in more red tape that makes it look as if the Government are doing something. They already have the powers to act, but they have a track record of being slow to use them.
I fear that this is all about activity, rather than action. As the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said, what is being proposed is wide and shallow, when what we need is something narrow and deep. That is very pertinent to the debate. It is rather like a teacher keeping the whole class in at break to teach them a lesson, when just one pupil had been misbehaving. It is better to use our energies and finite capacity to deal with the actual problem in a focused way.
Will the increase in red tape make it more likely that people running unregistered provision get it registered—which is part of the problem—or will it end up putting an administrative burden on various voluntary and charitable organisations running youth activities, including Sunday schools? If so, for what purpose? I would be grateful if the Minister—who is a very good Minister, I have to say—focused on the following questions when he responds. How many registered out-of-school settings are there under the current system? What is the Government’s estimate of the number of unregistered settings that should be registered under current legislation? What steps are they taking to register those settings? What is the Government’s estimate of the number of out-of-school settings that would need to be registered if the proposals in the consultation were where we ended up?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for his kind comments. I was going to criticise him for his wider criticism of the Government’s education policy on school places, to point out that we have increased school places by 445,000 since 2010, in stark contrast with the 200,000 primary school places cut by the Labour Government when the birth rate was increasing. I also would have pointed out that we have had to tackle the grade inflation we inherited from his party’s Government, that we have had to improve the curriculum, which was deeply damaged by his party’s Government, that there are 1.4 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools today than there were in 2010, that 120,000 more six-year-olds are reading better today than they were in 2010, and that there are 13,000 more teachers in our schools today than there were in 2010.
Those impact assessments will be done as we come to produce firm proposals. We, of course, assess the cost of all proposals as we develop policy.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing this debate on the proposals for regulating out-of-school education settings? I welcome the constructive debate we have had and the thoughtful and passionate speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman). We also heard very good speeches from the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).
All of the speeches made today will be taken into account as we consider the responses to the consultation, which closed on 11 January after six and a half weeks and to which we received more than 10,000 responses. Notwithstanding the valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, the consultation has been widely heard and responded to, and we will now consider all responses as we develop the policy in more detail.
Ensuring that parents have the freedom to decide how best to educate their children is a fundamental principle of our society and our education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to the long history of the churches’ role in education which, of course, predates that of the state.
Parents have always valued the education provided by religious organisations. They choose faith schools for their high academic standards and ethos and they appreciate the religious faith of those schools, which gives them confidence that their children will be taught to understand and respect the traditions and values of their faith. Responding to that demand, we have opened more than 300 free schools since 2010, of which 76 have a religious designation or ethos.
Out-of-school settings can also be of immense value. As my hon. Friend pointed out, many of those are run by religious groups and provide a distinctive education or activities that supplement and enhance that provided in mainstream schools. Such settings, including Sunday schools, can enrich children’s education and deepen their understanding of their own culture and heritage.
My hon. Friend made a powerful argument that the providers of this broader education, which is often staffed by dedicated volunteers, should be supported by the Government and not stifled by excessive regulation. I can assure him that we share that objective. The Government do, however, need to balance the need to protect and encourage high-quality out-of-school education with the need to keep children safe from any harm. That includes not only extremism, but the risk of physical punishment, unsuitable individuals working in some out-of-school settings and children being educated in unsafe or insanitary conditions.
A clear regulatory framework exists to protect children from those risks in childcare settings, and in state and independent schools. The call for evidence on out-of-school education, which closed last week, invited submissions on how to ensure that we are similarly able to safeguard children attending such settings—supplementary education —while avoiding disproportionate regulation. It reflects a commitment made in the Prevent strategy, published in June 2011, to reduce the risks of radicalisation occurring in out-of-school settings. It is the latest step in implementing the Prime Minister’s announcement in October last year that, if an institution is teaching children intensively, we will, as with any other school, make it register so that it can be inspected. He was also clear that, in addressing the risks that we have identified, we will uphold parents’ right to educate their children about their faith.
The call for evidence highlighted the fact that many settings already have robust measures in place to ensure safety. They may work under umbrella organisations that set high standards, be part of voluntary accreditation schemes or receive support from the local authority. However, that is not universal. We are therefore considering how best to address failures in the minority of settings that fail to meet their obligations while preserving everything that has made the vast majority of supplementary education so successful.
The responses to the call for evidence included many from Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, and we will continue to discuss our developing proposals with those groups and others to ensure that they are proportionate and effective. Any final proposals will, of course, be subject to further discussions with interested parties.
At this stage, I hope I can provide assurances on some of the specific concerns raised by my hon. Friend and others.
Will the Minister deal with one of the practical points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? Those who wish to teach in this extremist way will effortlessly elude any regulation system that we set up. We will therefore have an expensive and burdensome system that captures so many organisations, but does not capture the very organisations that we need to capture. Is that not the central point? To me, it seems to be a rocket that explodes this whole policy and should cause the Minister to think again.
Well, no, because by not registering, such organisations are liable under strict liability to an offence, and we can then take much swifter action when we are made aware of those settings through our usual intelligence routes. That is why this has a double edge: we register the settings and only inspect settings where risks are identified; and we have very real powers to tackle the settings that do not register.
Let me go through some of the specific concerns that have been raised.
If I may, I will continue for a little while, then give way to the hon. Gentleman.
First, I can confirm that the Government are not proposing to regulate settings teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the scouts, nor will it apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week-long summer camp. We are looking specifically at places where children receive intensive education outside schools, where they could typically be spending more than six to eight hours a week.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to go through these four specific points in the time available.
Secondly, providers wishing to set up and run out-of-school education settings will not need to seek the Government’s approval to do so. Although our proposals envisage that such settings operating intensively should register, the aim of that is simply to improve the visibility of such settings. There would not be an application process and registration would be automatic. We have no intention of tying up voluntary and private sector organisations in red tape.
Thirdly, we are not proposing that settings eligible to register should be routinely inspected. This would be wholly disproportionate and an inefficient use of resources. We think that an inspection should only happen when there is evidence that certain prohibited activities might be taking place within a particular setting. Settings that provide a safe environment for children to learn in could legitimately expect never to be inspected.
Fourthly, we have no intention of seeking to regulate religion or to interfere in parents’ right to teach children about their faith and heritage. Protecting religious liberty is a fundamental principle. Out-of-school settings will not have the same obligations as schools actively to promote fundamental British values. Although out-of-school settings of all types can, and do, impart positive values to children, they are not the main providers of children’s education, and it is certainly not the state’s role to prescribe what they should teach, just as we are not seeking to prescribe other aspects of how they operate. I can therefore confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and other hon. Members that Sunday schools will not be under any requirement to teach any other religions.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am glad that he has indicated he will consider the contributions as part of the consultation. He has reiterated the Prime Minister’s point that Sunday schools will not be included, but will he consider the cumulative effect of all the activities taking place under one church roof? That includes Sunday schools, youth clubs, the scouts, worship, choirs and whatever else people may be engaged in. It will all add up to more than six hours.
The plans are for the threshold to be hit when a child attends a setting for more than six hours a week and that activities run by one setting would be aggregated but, following the call for evidence, we are considering a range of issues and how to take forward the proposals. We will look at whether it is appropriate to disaggregate particular activities or indeed, exempt particular activities altogether. That question was in the call for evidence.
The Minister says that the Government do not wish to inhibit religious freedom, but is he aware that the very existence of such regulations could have a serious impact? The proposals carry the risk of a so-called chilling effect on free speech, and they could shut down debate because of the fear, on the part of, say, youth workers teaching young people, of speaking on issues that might not be mainstream. They may fear that someone is listening who, perhaps out of mischief or with a particular agenda, may report them as undesirable—as not being in line with British values—and in itself, that would shut down free speech and debate.
That is not the intention of the regulations. They are not a way of regulating religion. We are not infringing on people’s freedom to follow particular faiths or hold particular beliefs. In fact, the mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is one of our core British values, alongside democracy, rule of law and individual liberty, and nothing in the proposals infringes on that.
In view of time, I will finish by saying that we welcome the suggestions that a number of faith organisations have made about how to ensure that any system of regulation is targeted, proportionate and focused on those settings that are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. We wish to continue that dialogue and, once again, I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions today.
In conclusion, I thank the perhaps up to 20 people—friends and colleagues from all parties—who have turned up this morning. It is not often that we have a debate such as this in Westminster Hall, and we have heard some very powerful speeches and very powerful points.
I will sum it all up: we have sacrificed too much of our liberty in the name of equality, so I beg the Minister to bear in mind the places that are under the radar, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) mentioned. Bear in mind the cumulative hours. Bear in mind that there is very little extremism—indeed none at all—ever practised in Methodist Sunday schools. This is the point we are making, and we are doing so powerfully and strongly. We are not a party that intends to further state regulation and control; we are a party of liberty, freedom and religious tolerance. I will leave it there.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Concessionary Fares: Blackpool North and Cleveleys
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered concessionary fares in Blackpool North and Cleveleys.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am disappointed to see so many colleagues leaving and not staying for my debate. I simply cannot understand it, but I thank the Minister for his time.
Blackpool tramway needs no introduction from me. I am sure many of the hon. Members who are leaving have also left Blackpool after a party conference. The tramway has been there for well over 100 years, connecting Fleetwood in the north to Squires Gate in the south and linking the pleasure beach, the tower, Cleveleys, Fleetwood and many of our tourist attractions, which 10 million people visit every year. The tramway is a major reason for visiting Blackpool.
It is worth pointing out to the Minister that the tram is not just about tourism. It is particularly beneficial for my constituents who live near the Fylde coast. It is a major means for people to get to and from work in central Blackpool, where parking may be limited and more expensive than the cost of using the tram. It is particularly important for many of my elderly constituents who use it to go into the town centre and to go shopping. They may have chosen to live in this part of the world because of access to the tramway.
The usefulness and value of the tramway is coming under threat for two reasons that I want to cover today, both of which relate to the concessionary fare schemes. We were grateful that the previous Labour Government, before 2010, agreed to invest in upgrading the tramway to meet modern standards. As much as we all loved and cherished the antique, heritage trams—many of them still trundle up and down to this day at weekends and during the holiday season—they were fast becoming not fit for purpose. There were serious issues with meeting modern accessibility standards, and it was right to invest in and improve them to bring them up to date.
In 2012, it was a great day for the Fylde coast when the new tramway was launched and I travelled on the first new tram. Blackpool Council took a brave and visionary decision to ensure that, notwithstanding national legislation on concessionary fares, anyone coming to Blackpool in possession of a concessionary card could use it on the trams and travel anywhere on the network free of charge. That certainly helped ridership levels as the tramway came back into use. The ridership levels built up again, but things are now changing.
There has been an alteration in local government financing—we have to recognise that. Blackpool Council has decided that it can no longer afford to make that generous offer to all UK residents. That has had a major impact in my constituency, where residents of Cleveleys—which is in Wyre Borough Council’s area and immediately adjacent to the tracks, surrounded by houses on both sides—must now pay full fare to travel on the tramway as it passes through Wyre, even though they may have a concessionary card. That has had a direct impact on the transport choices they have to make about where they go, what they do and how they live. That is a concern.
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
I entirely understand the perfectly rational argument that a transport authority should fund concessionary fares only for those who live within their area. I do not expect Blackpool Council to fund a national tram concession for everyone. It would be great if it did, but I entirely understand that it must work within its own budgetary limits, and its residents would criticise it if it chose to be more generous. However, it is worth pointing out that under the previous scheme Lancashire County Council, which is the transport authority for the northern part of my constituency, was paying £36,000 a year towards some of the concessionary travel for Lancashire residents on the tramway.
Removing that money was the trigger for the overall deconstruction of what had been a perfectly simple and straightforward scheme that everyone understood. If someone had a concessionary fare card—it is called a NoWcard in our part of the world—they could go anywhere on the tram. Everyone understood it and no one was caught out, but its removal was pernicious to my constituents and illogical. For example, a resident of Blackpool can travel on the tram free of charge between Cleveleys and Fleetwood, without entering Blackpool territory and remaining wholly within Lancashire County Council territory. They travel free of charge. However, a resident of Cleveleys wanting to go into Blackpool to spend money in the local Blackpool economy would have to pay full fare on the tram. That is simply illogical, and angers and frustrates many of my local residents. We have to think about what we can do to ameliorate the situation.
It is worth explaining the local geography. People may think that because I represent Blackpool North and Cleveleys, they are two separate and distinct geographic areas with a green belt separating the two communities. Far from it. It is one solid, cohesive urban block. I have read somewhere that it is the most densely populated constituency outside central London. There is very little green space, apart from one or two golf courses and one farm. The boundary between Blackpool and Wyre is but a line on a map and divides bedrooms, living rooms, greenhouses and back gardens. It goes through people’s houses, creating the ultimate postcode lottery. On many roads, residents on one side still have full and unfettered access to the whole tram network, while those on the other side have been hit by the changes. There is a fundamental illogicality.
An even greater concern is the impact on disabled passengers. A major reason for upgrading the trams at around the turn of the decade was to improve disabled access. Every station platform was raised, the new trams had level access and new flexi-trams were commissioned to ensure that wheelchair users had no problem getting on them. Blackpool has a valued reputation among disabled tourists for being somewhere they can get around easily because of the tram network.
A consequence of Lancashire Council’s decision to remove what limited concessionary fares it provided is that disabled passengers cannot now access the tram other than by paying full fare. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any parallel bus service will be accessible. Although Blackpool Transport is updating its fleet as fast as it can, no one could stand at the bus stop and be confident that the next bus would be able to accommodate a wheelchair. Will the Minister look at how the network is constructed and funded, and whether that complies with disability access rules?
The solution is relatively simple: Blackpool Council should fund concessionary travel for Blackpool residents and Lancashire Council should fund concessionary travel for Wyre residents. The estimated cost would be around £170,000. I have been unable to obtain a precise figure, much as I would like to, but that is what I have been told is a rough, ballpark figure. In the context of Lancashire’s multimillion pound budget, that is not a significant amount, although it is to many of us.
That is a simple solution. It should not be difficult to agree to it—it is certainly not difficult to understand—yet I can think of no issue that has been more controversial or provoked more partisan arguments in recent years than how we deal with it in our constituency. It was a major defining issue at the last election. Today I am trying to remove the partisanship from the debate—I am not referring to the political control of the individual councils involved.
Numerous arguments are deployed against what I think is the correct solution. Many rightly point out, for example, that there is a parallel bus route to the tram network—the No. 1 bus, which goes, just like the tram, all the way from Fleetwood down to Squires Gate. Of course, there is an element of common sense in that. If someone has to pay full fare on the tram but can use their concessionary card on the bus, why do they not take the bus? However, there is a reason why the bus and tram coexist in the first place: the level of demand. There has been no increase in bus provision on the route. As I discussed earlier, there has been no change in the buses serving the No. 1 route.
More important is the seasonal demand on the route. Numerous hotels line the promenade, as anyone who has been to Blackpool will have seen for themselves. When the No. 1 bus stops at the 480-bed Norbreck Castle hotel, half way between Cleveleys and Blackpool, a large number of the guests want to get on. Indeed, the queue can be dozens long, so that when the bus gets nearer to Blackpool there is no room on it, even if it is accessible to wheelchairs. Further down into the town centre there are more hotels, on what is known as the cliff stretch of the promenade. Once again, bus queues develop rapidly there, both for buses going north into Cleveleys and those going south into Blackpool. People can have only quite limited confidence in their likelihood of getting a bus service at peak hours. The expansion of the bus service would naturally require greater investment by both transport authorities. It is surely far better to restore the concessionary travel scheme on to the trams, where there is currently excess capacity. That would make far more sense.
Another argument is often put, which may sound plausible on first hearing. Why, it is asked, if I want concessionary travel fares for Wyre residents, does not Wyre Council, the borough council, pay for them? Superficially that sounds eminently plausible, but of course Wyre is not the transport authority. It is a small borough council, one of about 16, I think, in Lancashire. I have been told that providing funding of £172,000 for the concessionary fares scheme would increase Wyre’s council tax by roughly 3%—a considerable increase for every council taxpayer in the borough. Because Wyre is not the transport authority, I believe it does not have an obligation to meet that funding request.
There are many things that Lancashire is trying to offload on to the boroughs at the moment. For example, it is seeking to stop the ferry from Fleetwood to Knott End—it expects someone else to pay for it. It is keen to get Wyre to part-fund lollipop ladies. Wyre already part-funds police community support officers. It would set a dangerous precedent for Wyre to keep agreeing to fund everything that the council decided it no longer wanted to fund, despite having an obligation to do so. Therefore, I am not convinced by that argument. Wyre council tax payers pay the bulk of their council tax to Lancashire County Council, the transport authority, which has an obligation to provide public transport and should meet that.
The whole argument is at risk of being overshadowed, because Lancashire is going beyond concessionary fare restrictions. It argues that it will stop paying for the maintenance of the tramway altogether. That would make this debate almost pointless. There will be no trams to Cleveleys or Fleetwood. They will turn around at the Little Bispham turning loop and not enter Wyre or Lancashire territory at all. That would be devastating for towns such as Cleveleys and Fleetwood. Fleetwood in particular went through hell during the tram upgrade. The central road of Fleetwood, Lord Street, was basically shut down during the work, with a major impact on local businesses. To have gone through all that and had the tramway open for a couple of years, it would make no sense now to have the tramway cease operating.
I continue to be deeply concerned about what is going on with our tramways on the Fylde coast. I have held rallies in Cleveleys, launched petitions and made protests. I have had extensive talks with the Department, and it would make my day if I could force the Government’s hand in some way and encourage them to extend the national regulations to include trams. I make no apologies for asking once again for the Minister to do just that. I live in hope; I always do. Will the Government at least look again at my ten-minute rule Bill from a number of years ago, on extending the concessionary fare scheme to community transport, which can take up some of the slack created within the tram network—particularly for those disabled passengers who cannot always gain access to bus travel?
I would also welcome the Minister’s views on how the Government can help Lancashire to meet its public transport obligations. What assessment has he made of the human rights implications of Lancashire’s various decisions, particularly on disabled access? Would he be prepared to encourage Lancashire County Council to discuss further how devolution might allow it to find a way out of the problem it has created for itself? We have Transport for Lancashire—no one is quite sure what it does, least of all Transport for Lancashire itself, I fear. We have the new Transport for the North, which I heartily welcome. The direction of devolution is towards giving greater control to local areas to craft their own solutions on public transport. What help can the Department give to the various bodies in Lancashire, as they journey at varying rates towards a combined authority, to enable them to find a solution with a single common travel area of Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn? An arbitrary divide and a postcode lottery make no sense, as I have said.
What advice can the Minister offer the many thousands of my constituents in Cleveleys who have been left marooned because they cannot use trams without paying full fare and may not be able to afford it? Does he agree that it is perverse for the county council to spend £150,000—almost the amount of one year’s worth of concessionary fare travel—on looking at whether the tramway should be extended to Lytham St Annes, at the same time as it is trying to restrict concessionary fare travel? I have no objection to the tramway going to St Annes—it is a lovely destination—but what does that say about the priorities of the county council at the moment?
What assessment has the Minister made of the implications of the decisions and proposals for the Government’s generous agreement to help to fund the £16 million upgrade to extend the tramway in Blackpool town centre up to Blackpool North station? There will inevitably be fewer people riding on the trams if everything I have outlined comes to pass. Does that mean that we have to re-examine the business case for the proposal and does it call it into question? I would be highly concerned if that were so, and I would welcome some reassurance from the Minister.
In the interest of time, so that the Minister has a chance to reply, as I know he is keen to do, I will just stress once more that, although in the bulk of constituencies tramways might seem to be a peripheral issue, they are literally at the heart of my constituency. They are at the heart of our daily life. I would find it hard to conceive of the Fylde coast without them. At a time when the county council is sitting on reserves of £400 million, for which it cannot identify a specific use, is it really prudent financial management for it to say it cannot afford £172,000 just to keep the concessionary fares going each year? That is artificially dividing my community, and has a detrimental economic impact on the towns of Cleveleys and Fleetwood. It is causing continued anger in my constituency. Can I look to the Minister for some positive words and some hope for the future that the accurate direction he is going in on transport devolution will lead to the conundrum being solved as soon as possible?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing the debate. He made his case with his customary passion, and I was particularly struck by how important the issue is for both visitors and residents. I have some knowledge of the area, having visited his constituency on a number of occasions; in a former life I took company conferences to the Norbreck Castle hotel—and very successful and enjoyable they have always been.
My hon. Friend raised several issues, and I will begin my response by talking about concessionary travel. The Government know how important affordable, accessible transport is. It is the bread and butter of the way communities function and move around. That is especially true for older and disabled passengers—a point that he made clearly and powerfully. That is, of course, why the Government have committed to protecting the national bus travel concession in England, and why they spend some £950 million a year on doing so.[Official Report, 21 January 2016, Vol. 604, c. 5-6MC.] The concession provides much-needed help for some of the most vulnerable people in our society by giving them greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables some 10 million older people and disabled people to access facilities in their local area. It helps them to keep in touch with family and friends, and it brings wider benefits to the economy.
The national concession sets a minimum standard available to any eligible person anywhere in England. That does not come cheap, which is why, given the current economic situation, we do not have plans to extend the remit of the basic concession any further. My hon. Friend asked whether we could extend it to tramways. I will do some costing, but we do not have tramways just in his constituency; they are a growing feature of urban transport in our country. They are successful, and they are being extended in Nottingham, Manchester and other areas. They are popular and well used, so extending the concessionary fare scheme into our tramways nationally would be an extremely expensive undertaking.
Local authorities have the power to enhance the national offer with discretionary concessions according to local need and funding priorities; I will come back to funding priorities at the end. That may include extending the times of the concession to include peak-time travel, offering a companion pass for people who need assistance to travel, or offering concessions on different modes of transport, such as trams. As we have heard, it can also include concessionary arrangements between neighbouring local authorities, such as the arrangement between Blackpool Borough Council and Lancashire County Council to accept NoWcards from other Lancashire residents on the Blackpool tramway. I am aware of the changes to the administration of that enhancement. Although I fully understand my hon. Friend’s disappointment and that of his constituents, the provision of such discretionary concessions is a matter on which local authorities must work together to try to solve such problems, based on those authorities’ assessment of local need and funding priorities.
Trams and light rail are a convenient, regular and reliable way for people to get to work or school, or to travel around their area with ease. Well planned systems in the right location can enhance the reputation and ambience of an area. However, I do not think it is for the Government to dictate what extensions should be made to particular schemes, because such decisions should be taken locally to reflect the individual needs and circumstances of an area. That is entirely in the grain of Government thinking about devolution, about people taking responsibility and ownership of their areas and about ensuring that decisions are made as close as possible to where a service is delivered. As a consequence, such services will be better tailored to local need and, therefore, better services.
On the joint funding arrangements between Blackpool Borough Council and Lancashire County Council for tramway maintenance, I understand that discussions may already be taking place, and I do not wish to pre-empt any outcome. It is, however, my sincere hope that a speedy and satisfactory resolution can be reached, with the best interests of the community at heart.
It is worth taking a moment to consider funding for rural services, because we have had many requests for further support for transport in rural areas. Calls have been made for Government to provide a dedicated fund to maintain and improve bus services in rural areas. I assure the House that we fully recognise the extra pressure placed on local authorities to provide services in more isolated areas. If communities are disconnected from transport, they may wither and die, so transport is fundamental to community health. That is why we have introduced the rural services delivery grant, which is a non-ring-fenced grant paid to the most rural councils. Last year, the Government added £2 million of additional funding to the £9.5 million of rural services delivery grant already provided, and I am sure we all welcome the recent announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that he intends to increase the support for the most sparsely populated rural areas by quadrupling the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million to £65 million in 2019-20.
Transport in rural areas is not just about the levels of public funding; it is about how and where that funding is used. Where commercial operations are not feasible, local authorities have a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Indeed, around one fifth of bus mileage in predominantly rural areas is operated under contract to the local authority. We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide what support to provide in response to local need. That is why we devolved £40 million of the £250 million paid in the bus service operators grant subsidy to councils outside London last year to support bus services in England, so that they can decide for themselves how it is spent. It is vital that those local authorities maximise the return on every penny of the funding that they provide.
Does the Minister recognise that many urban bus services in the centre of Blackpool originate in rural areas? The proposals for Lancashire County Council to reduce rural bus subsidies will also reduce the frequency of bus services in central Blackpool. It is not just about rural or urban, because many rural bus services also support urban areas.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I entirely agree with it. The distinctions are very blurred, and both things clearly have a knock-on effect on each other.
I want to highlight an initiative called Total Transport. At present, some £2 billion of public funding for transport services every year is provided by a number of different agencies. For example, I have mentioned the bus service operators grant of £250 million. DCLG provides support for local bus services of £317 million, and home-to-school transport funding of £1 billion. Non-emergency patient transport worth £150 million is provided by the NHS to local clinical commissioning groups. All that funding is provided from different sources. That is why last year we launched the £7.6 million Total Transport pilot scheme across England to explore how different authorities working together can potentially deliver a much better transport solution. It is about working collectively and pooling services where there is common interest. We seek to avoid the duplication of commissioned services, to allow networks to be designed to complement each other, to reduce administrative costs and to focus on how a more comprehensive offer can be delivered by working together.
My hon. Friend mentioned community transport, which is fundamental in many parts of our country, both urban and rural. I hope that he is aware of our strong support for it. We have supported it with a recent community minibus fund of £25 million, which will help elderly residents by providing, I think, 310 new minibuses to groups up and down our country. So far, £1.3 million of grant has been paid to organisations to buy their vehicles, and the procurement of the remaining vehicles is well under way. That will make a difference to the whole sector.
On the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, I will certainly write to the councils concerned, because the point is partnership solutions to deliver a result for residents. I will highlight to the councils the strength of feeling that has been shown in the debate and urge them to work together. The solution has to lie in councils working in a non-partisan way. In my letter to Lancashire County Council, I will ask it to consider the impact of changes on disabled people, in particular. That is an area of personal interest to my hon. Friend and of significant personal interest to me. I do not want disability access to our public transport to be compromised in any area. I want it to be improved, not the opposite.
I hope that the message that goes from here to the councils is that we want to see a solution that will continue to offer tramway access and support Blackpool’s trams. They are an iconic part of Blackpool, and they are one of the reasons why visitors go to Blackpool, particularly at certain times of the year. That is something I have experienced, as a visitor to Blackpool. They must be understood to be a driver of the local economy, so there is an economic and a social reason why a swift resolution would be helpful. That is the message that I will send to the councils, and when I hear back from them, I will report back to my hon. Friend. They will, I am sure, be acutely aware of the strong case he has made and continues to make.
Question put and agreed to.
Safety in Youth Custody
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered safety in youth custody.
Thank you, Mr Wilson, for allowing time for this most important of debates. I am most grateful. The safety of our children and young people is of great and continuing interest to many Members of this House, and has been for many years. The question of safety has been discussed in numerous debates here and in the other place. In addition, it has been explored in numerous Select Committee inquiries—most recently by the Select Committee on Justice in 2013—and has been the subject of a tide of media attention, often following shocking revelations arising from the dedicated work of journalists. It is worth reflecting for a moment and asking ourselves why so many Members, people in our society, charities and third-sector bodies, and those in the media, are so tireless in their determination to protect the safety of our children and young people.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech, which I am listening to very carefully. Has she considered the situation of young adults? The Justice Committee is doing an inquiry about that at the moment, and we have learned that the development of the brain means that many young adults are still effectively children when they are sent into prison.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that interesting point, which I hope to cover later.
My belief is that, no matter what someone’s upbringing is, and whatever their political affiliation and perspective on law and order, there is a shared and enduring view that the safety of children and young people is of paramount concern. Each and every one of us believes that we must ensure that each and every child and young person is able to feel safe, wherever in the country they live. As we all know instinctively, each child and young person deserves to grow up in a nurturing, encouraging and, most importantly, safe environment. That is true in all settings—in the home, in schools or, as we are debating today, in our custodial institutions. The setting does not matter because whatever the circumstances, and whatever children and young people may have done in their short lives, regardless of whether they have been found to have acted criminally, they remain children.
We have always quite rightly held children and young people to be different from adults. Children and young people with their whole lives ahead of them are still finding their way in life and learning what it is to make their way in the world. As we sorely know, too many children and young people, especially those who find themselves in custody and in the care system, far too often find their way in life in the most desperate of circumstances. Too many live in unsafe homes or go hungry. Too many see horrific things that no person, never mind a child, should ever see. Too many suffer from mental illness that is often unrecognised and untreated, or have not received the help and support that might, in better circumstances, have lifted them away from criminal behaviour and supported them into becoming successful, loving and humane children and young people.
At this point, I pause and acknowledge that we could very easily spend all day debating the desperate circumstances that so many children find themselves in, but that is not the topic today. Today, I wish to discuss just one very important element of the safety of, without doubt, our most vulnerable children—those who are held in our custodial institutions. In leading the debate, we cannot ignore the scandalous revelations of the past weeks, broken by BBC’s “Panorama”, concerning Medway secure training centre, an institution managed by G4S. I am sure we all recoiled with revulsion at the scenes that played out on our screens during the programme: young people subjected to the most horrific maltreatment and children struggling to breathe as they were restrained by apparent professionals. Such scenes in a documentary about prisons in developing nations would have sent a shiver up our backs, but those scenes took place in a UK establishment that exists to care for children while they are held in custody.
I do not propose to discuss the “Panorama” allegations in any great deal as they are subject to an ongoing police investigation but, as we debate this important matter, the scenes that we saw on our television screens should remain vividly in our minds because they confirm one thing: complacency is never an option. The safety of our most vulnerable children—those held in custody in establishments throughout the country—is forever fragile and under threat. We must be forever vigilant. Further incidents are only a hair’s breadth of complacency away.
With those thoughts clear in our mind, it is worth reminding ourselves of what this House passed into law in 1998. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 did two important things. First, it stated that the youth justice system’s principal aim was to prevent reoffending by our children and young people. Secondly, it established the Youth Justice Board, which was given the job of making that noble aim a reality. The Youth Justice Board, in setting its strategic objectives for 2014 to 2017, recognised that an undeniable cornerstone of successfully helping children back into society is
“to promote the safety and welfare of children and young people in the criminal justice system”.
In recognising that safety and wellbeing is a fundamental cornerstone of the successful rehabilitation of children and young people, the Youth Justice Board acknowledged in clear and unambiguous terms what we all know instinctively as parents, as brothers and sisters, as aunties and uncles and as other family members: where children and young people feel unsafe, insecure, intimidated and under threat of violence, everything else becomes background noise. Efforts to help children to socialise, learn and become confident in themselves stop and begin to regress, as do efforts to teach children the values and principles of choosing to live respectfully, humanely and in a law-abiding manner in society and communities.
If the principal aim of the Youth Justice Board is to prevent reoffending, safety in custodial institutions is not only key, but imperative. Without it, helping children and young people to become respectful, humane and law-abiding adults is an empty hope. Everything else is simply background noise. The question is: what success is our youth justice system having in ensuring that children and young people are being held in a safe environment while they are custody? Sadly, from the statistics provided by the House of Commons Library, the picture is depressing and worrying. That remains the case for the use of restrictive physical intervention—in layman’s terms, when staff restrain children—incidents of self-harm by children, assault on children and young people in custody or, most damningly and depressingly, deaths in custody.
Thankfully, the number of children who have been committed to custody in recent years has steadily fallen. All hon. Members would surely welcome this improving position but, although the number of each type of incident has dropped over recent years, the number of each type of incident per hundred children and young people in custody—the most accurate measure—has steadily increased. Whichever way we look at it, those in custody are becoming proportionately more likely to find themselves in an unsafe environment. With the “Panorama” revelations of the past weeks in mind and the erosion of safety in our custodial establishment only serving to bring the issue into sharper focus, it prompts the question: what are this Conservative Government doing to improve the safety of children and young people, and to help them to re-enter society, equipping them to become law-abiding, respectful and humane members of our communities?
In recent years, there have been a number of expert reports that have explored the safety of children and young people in custody. Inquest, alongside the Prison Reform Trust, released a report in 2012 raising important questions about the number of self-inflicted deaths in our custodial institutions. More recently, in 2015, Inquest released another report raising unsettling questions about deaths in our institutions. The Howard League for Penal Reform released a report in 2011 exploring the questions of restraint in our institutions—that work has become especially resonant following the “Panorama” revelations of the last week. I pay tribute to each of those organisations alongside so many others that I have not been able to mention which, through their continuing and valiant efforts, are successfully keeping the question of safety so firmly on both the parliamentary and public agendas.
Does my hon. Friend agree that probation and pre-sentence reports should consider the impact of maturity on a young person’s ability to cope with prison? There should be up-to-date information on local alternatives to prison, which should also be considered. We should consider transforming sentencing policies; radically restructuring the training of the judiciary; and introducing far-reaching and well-resourced alternatives that are well staffed by individuals who are properly trained to address the complex issues that confront many young people. We should develop a criminal justice system in which prisons for young people are used as a last resort, as the Harris review said. Does she agree?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, to its credit, has remained committed, as it has under previous Governments, to continuing scrutiny of the safety of children and young people in custody. Today, I will focus on one element of the Government’s responsibilities —their responsibility to ensure that restraint in our institutions is limited to an absolute minimum and is used solely when all other avenues fail. As I said earlier, although it is only one element of the Government’s responsibilities, restraint is arguably one of the most important. When children and young people are unnecessarily restrained, they will inevitably feel unsafe, threatened and intimidated. In such circumstances, everything else is background noise, progress ceases and children regress.
In 2012, the previous coalition Government set up the independent restraint advisory panel, which, among other things, was responsible for rolling out across all custodial institutions a new restraint system called “Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint.” That was the coalition Government’s commitment to improving the unsafe environment of all those in custody. By setting in train that cultural shift in which unnecessary restraint would become unacceptable, they displayed laudable ambition, for which I commend them.
As seems to be the case with many initiatives under this Government, despite laudable ambitions and promises of much-needed cultural shifts, the ambition and promises have not been borne out in reality. As has recently become clear, the much-needed change on the ground has been, and continues to be, painfully and unacceptably slow. In November 2015, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons published a report on behaviour management and restraint of children in custody, which objectively measured the Government’s progress in rolling out their new restraint system. Depressingly, Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, offered a damning indictment of progress under this Government:
“The implementation…is taking place against a backdrop of a substantial fall in the number of children in custody, the decommissioning of beds…and staffing shortages… This has caused significant delay in the roll out”.
It is not only Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons that has challenged the Government on their complacency in driving improved safety in our custodial institutions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recently conducted an inquiry into the UK’s compliance with the UN convention on the rights of the child. Children in custody was one area that the Joint Committee rightly considered to be deserving of scrutiny. Although the Joint Committee welcomed the Conservative Government’s progress in recognising children’s rights in law and policy, it said in no uncertain terms that there is no room for complacency and that much more needs to be done. On child custody, the Joint Committee said:
“We remain very concerned about the use of force on children in custody and believe that the recent provisions with regard to secure colleges in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act cannot be considered compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
Worryingly, despite those critical remarks not only from the Government’s own independent inspectorate but from a cross-parliamentary Committee, the Government continue to act with disturbing complacency. In response to an urgent question granted by Mr Speaker following the “Panorama” revelations, the Justice Secretary offered nothing more than cursory assurances about the safety of our children and young people in custody. There were no firm guarantees and no commitment to action. One line of his response underlines that the Government’s commitment to laudable ambition is backed up by little to no substance:
“my Department and the Youth Justice Board—under the determined leadership of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord McNally—will do everything we can to assist the police and the local council.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 573.]
Why do I say little to no substance? Well, the Justice Secretary failed to mention the financial backdrop—a 5%, or £13.5 million, in-year budget cut to the Youth Justice Board, the very institution that he believes will be front and centre in helping the local council to respond to the scandalous revelations of the past week. He also did not mention that £9 million of the £13.5 million cut, the lion’s share, is to be found by cutting the youth justice grant, the very grant that is used by local councils to fund their local youth justice teams.
The Justice Secretary recently announced the Taylor review of youth justice. The stated purpose of that review, due to report in summer 2016, is to explore whether the youth justice system remains fit for purpose in these modern times. Following today’s debate, it will be clear to the Government that, despite their ambitions and the Justice Secretary’s warm words, many believe that there is a distinct lack of substance and that there is wide-ranging evidence of complacency. That serves no one, particularly not our children and young people, who so very much need our help and support, especially to ensure that they are safe while held in our custodial institutions. I urge the Justice Secretary and the Minister to reflect on today’s debate and on the recommendations of the Taylor review later this year.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), and I am glad that she has secured this debate. As I mentioned in my intervention, the Select Committee on Justice, including the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), has been investigating the experience of young adults in custody. A key point raised in that inquiry is that the distinction we make between young adults and youths is meaningless. The development of the brain is such that, at times, there are many people who are much more mature for their age and many people who are less mature for their age. Although those people will be treated as young adults in the prison system, they should be treated as if they were much younger. That is an important point that the hon. Member for Bradford South needs to take into account.
Yesterday we held an important informal seminar that was attended by a number of parents of people who were under 18 when they first committed their offences, some of whom have died in custody. It was very sad and moving to listen to their testimony. There were also young people who had been in custody, and it was clear that some of them should really have been treated as youths during that period.
One of the key points to come out was the issue of mental illness. I do not think that the prison system understands mental illness in its complexities or recognises it in individuals when they present with it. We even heard examples of where people had presented with some form of mental illness to start with and their records had been flagged up, but where nobody had had the time to check what the flag meant. If someone had checked that, they would have seen that there was some mental illness attached to that person and would have taken different action while they were in custody.
As I am sure the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston would agree, it was a very moving experience to listen to those testimonies from individuals and to hear the real experience of people who had been through the loss of a son or a daughter—in many cases they were sons rather than daughters—and the reasons for that. The point the hon. Lady made about mental health is a very good one, and it is one that we need our prison system to be more flexible in identifying, picking up and dealing with.
With that, I will leave my remarks there.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me in at the last minute. I am glad that he has raised the issue of the mental health of prisoners, because the prison ombudsman’s report, which I think came out today or yesterday, has highlighted that very issue—in relation, obviously, not only to children in prison, but to adults as well—and the lack of mental health services for prisoners. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should be a priority for the current Government to address what are clearly failings in the current system?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I do not want to make this a party political piece; it is a duty of all Governments to identify the need for mental health services and to take that issue forward. She makes a valid point.
We also met some people who were dealing with this issue—for example, an organisation called A Band of Brothers—by taking young people in, giving them a role in life and helping them to overcome some of the difficulties they had experienced, including some of the mental health difficulties. I am therefore not saying that it is a forlorn hope that mental health will be dealt with: there are many different ways of dealing with it, and we saw some of those yesterday. I hope that the report we produce will be able to address some of them in the future.
I would like first to thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for securing this debate in Westminster Hall today. As hon. Members will know, the Medway Secure Training Centre is in my constituency, and for me it was heart-breaking and horrifying to witness the “Panorama” programme and watch the activity that was taking place. We knew this programme was going to be broadcast, but what I saw was not what I had expected to see. I say that because, on an individual level and prior to becoming an MP, I did a lot of work with looked-after children, particularly children with foster carers or in children’s homes, so I understand not only some of the challenges that some of our young people face when they are looked after, but the upbringing that some of them have had prior to arriving in a place such as the Medway Secure Training Centre.
I know that we will not go into detail, because the investigation is ongoing and there are still questions that need to be answered, but one of the concerns for me is about how we can support the workers in these particular institutions to enable them to carry out their role in a safe manner, to make sure that the young people under their control are looked after and safe. Having worked with some very challenging young people and experienced what I would call situations that have not always been pleasant or easy to manage, I know that the people working in the service and dealing with young people are in an incredibly pressurised environment. It is extremely intense, and sometimes we do not quite know how we will deal with a particular situation.
I absolutely accept that that is not an acceptable excuse for how some young people are treated when they are in our care. However, as an outcome of this process I would like to consider how we support the officers who work with these young people to do that job effectively, including from a mental health perspective, because obviously some of the things they might be subjected to and the backgrounds of some of the young people they deal with might be awful for them to understand.
In Medway, we have three secure units up at the Medway Secure Training Centre site. One of the challenges I have seen, both as a constituency MP and as a local councillor for the ward where the unit is, is that we have struggled to recruit people into the youth justice element of the secure centres—because, fundamentally, working there is very different from working in an adult prison and the pressures are much more strenuous. I would welcome it if the Government looked at ways to support those officers far more effectively—that would probably have national implications—and also to encourage people to come into the service and work. As we know, however, we are struggling to recruit social workers and other such workers.
Does the hon. Lady agree that if prison is to be justified as a last resort, it must operate in a small, rehabilitative and therapeutic environment, rather than having big prisons? What we need is a well structured induction programme, adapted to suit each individual—many children do not see anyone in the first 24 hours after they go in—with thorough background checks carried out; risk assessments; well attended safeguarding and daily morning meetings, allowing for effective and robust measures to be applied; strong monitoring of bullying and support for prisoners who are victimised—
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she makes a valid point. My concern is about the support given to those particular officers. Unless someone has been in that environment and worked with some of these young people, it is very difficult to understand some of the pressures—it might be something as simple as shift lengths—and how intense the environment is.
I was contacted by a number of people who work within the service after those revelations, who are concerned that the public view will now be that people who work in the youth justice system are all like that, which we know is completely untrue. In fact, they include some marvellous people, whom I have had the privilege to meet.
I am sure we can reach cross-party agreement on this, but I wonder whether professionalising the work of these staff—who, as the hon. Lady has outlined, work in very challenging conditions—and trying to recruit people who want to go into the profession would raise public perceptions and help to raise standards.
Absolutely. We must value the work that people in these centres do; in fact, it can be one of the most rewarding things that anyone can do.
As someone who had worked in commerce, my experience of working with young people who had such terrible backgrounds and were facing such severe challenges was one of the best things I have ever done. The staff do go through a training programme, but again there are things that perhaps cannot be learned quickly, and things come up along the way. Every single child—young person, I should say—is different. Every single young person has a completely different set of circumstances that has led to their being in the system. I absolutely agree that this should all be about outcomes.
Speaking from experience, I absolutely believe that institutions are the right place for some young people. For example, it may not necessarily be easy for them to be in a family. It is absolutely right that we have institutions where adults can be mentors, there to look after those young people on a daily basis and to work with them to rehabilitate them. My personal view is that young people should not be integrated with the adult prison service. They have different requirements, and sometimes the offences are different for particular reasons.
My biggest concern is that all these young people will eventually become adults. Whether they are looked-after children who have had a difficult background in different institutions, or whether they are unfortunate enough—maybe through fault of their own—to end up in a secure training centre, for me there is nothing more important than ensuring that we are doing all we can to ensure that the outcomes for those young people as adults are improved. The Government’s aim is to achieve that. I welcome Charlie Taylor’s review of the system. I would like to see a review in particular of the Medway centre and some of the safeguarding. I point out that I definitely have not seen all the footage and I have not been privy to the information that “Panorama” picked up during recording, but the centre is broken up into different units, and I believe that we are only looking at one element. I would like to hear some of the better stories that have come out of that centre, which I am sure exist.
Fundamentally, I welcome the debate and the review that is taking place. From a local council perspective, I was impressed as a local Member of Parliament by the immediate response that my local authority made to deal with the allegations. The local authority is carrying out due diligence in following through on the investigations in the local authority-designated officer review and in co-operating completely with the police.
What the hon. Lady is saying from her experience and her contact with the Medway centre is very important. In general terms, does she agree that it is partly about the ethos and professionalism of the members of staff, but also partly about the ratios between the young people and the members of staff? Generally speaking, the more staff who can devote time and attention to young people, the better things are.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Personally, I still think it is a matter of the individual young person’s needs. There is no system that fits all. I am not so sure that the issue is ratios; it is about the particular care plans around those particular children or young people, the reasons why they are in the centre and the individual support they need. That is obviously just my view, but staff build up relationships with young people who may have been exposed to some desperate situations and who may have seen and witnessed things that have affected their development. Some of the challenges affecting the young people—whether those are mental or in terms of decision making—are not always evident when the staff start working with them. It is harder for young people, because adults can articulate things more easily. Sometimes it is a big challenge for young people to articulate some of the things that have happened to them and some of their thought processes.
My honest belief is that there is not an easy solution. I am pleased that this issue is on our radar, but I wish that it had not had to be brought forward by BBC “Panorama”. I am desperately sad that young people have been affected by what has been shown to have happened there, but we have an opportunity to move forward and do what we can. As an MP who has three secure units in my constituency, I will be taking an interest in the issue, not just because of my interest in looked-after children and wanting the very best outcomes for our young people, but because I want a constituency where my constituents are happy that what is going on in our patch is right. I welcome the debate and I welcome the information that will be released in the coming months by the review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing this important debate. Today’s debate was anticipated by the exposure by “Panorama” of the Medway secure training centre earlier this month. The prison abuses it broadcast, which we have discussed today, are shocking and to be condemned, and I thank Members for their valuable and knowledgeable contributions.
It is important to acknowledge that youth justice is a devolved policy area, and the Ministry of Justice is responsible for justice policy in England and Wales only. My brief contribution to this debate will therefore acknowledge the importance of promoting the safety of children and young people in the criminal justice system more generally, and I will refer to how youth justice is administrated in Scotland to provide some experience of an alternative strategy that the UK Government may wish to consider.
If we are to prevent young people from going down the wrong path in life, we must be proactive in making timely, appropriate and effective interventions to address offending behaviour at the outset. That will keep our communities and children safe from crime, including protecting young people when they are detained. We must ensure that action is taken by all agencies so that adequate safeguards and structures are put in place to prevent abuse.
The hon. Member for Bradford South rightly questioned the safety of young people in these institutions. It is only fair to acknowledge that children and young people facing the desperate circumstances that she referred to rightly deserve the safety and wellbeing that can and should be provided by these institutions. As she said, that is key to their rehabilitation. We must ensure that young people are at the heart of that. This could be a moment in time in their lives, and they could move on to much greater things with the right support. I hope that all Members in the room acknowledge that.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly emphasised that young people are in many ways still children. He took the time to emphasise the impact that mental health can have on young people’s experiences in the institutions, and that point should be highlighted.
The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) spoke of her personal experience, as the Medway centre is in her constituency. She spoke of the heart-breaking and horrifying experience she had learning of these things. I am sure that no Member in this room takes any pleasure in or would choose to politicise such an important and truly atrocious example of bad practice. I am sure there are many more examples of good practice across the country, but we must in this instance take stock of bad practice and look at what we can do across the country to make the experience better and to ensure that these young people go on to better and positive destinations.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) said that safeguarding young people and children should be at the heart of the work we do. She also made the constructive and important point that bullying should be monitored. These children and young people experience the day-to-day issues other young people face, and institutions must ensure that their experiences are not damaged by bad practice or bad management in those institutions.
As I mentioned, youth justice is a devolved matter in Scotland. The youth justice strategy for Scotland from 2015 to 2020 focuses on taking a whole-system approach, improving life chances and developing the capacity for improvement. An holistic approach to youth offending and rehabilitation allows us to reverse negative trends and curb the statistics, to prevent offending from happening again. Indeed, in Scotland, there has been a substantial reduction in offence referrals to the Children’s Reporter, as well as in the number of young people committing crimes and the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in custody. Partnership working has been crucial to that, and it will remain integral to the delivery of the strategy, with consideration of course given to the role of alternative measures.
The Scottish Government’s vision is to promote Scotland as the best place for children to grow up. That was outlined in 2008 in “Preventing Offending by Young People—Framework for Action”, marking a significant shift towards prevention and early intervention, combined with procedures to manage high risk and build community confidence. In particular, the children’s hearings system is a unique feature of the Scottish youth justice system, providing special protective measures for children and dealing with offending alongside the child’s needs and best interests. Fundamentally, the hearings recognise that children and young people who offend and who require care and protection are equally deserving of being considered as children in need.
In conclusion, all children and young people have the right to be cared for and to be protected from harm, and we cannot forget that. They must be allowed to grow up in a safe environment, and the duty of child protection is shared among all of us in society, not just core professionals. In the case of the Medway secure training centre, that duty was completely breached, and I hope the Minister will take my points on board and ensure that further action is taken. I thank all Members for their contributions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing a timely and much-needed debate on this subject, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
It is agreed that the safety of children in custody is paramount. The investigation by the BBC broadcast on 11 January, which uncovered serious and shocking incidents at Medway secure training centre, must be my starting point. Those incidents have once again highlighted the need for urgent action specifically at that centre, but they are also indicative of failures across secure training centres and the prison estate as a whole.
For those hon. Members who have not viewed the programme, I should say that it makes for extremely disturbing viewing. There are allegations of guards unnecessarily using restraint techniques, hitting a teenager, pressing heavily on young people’s necks, using intimidating language and taking concerted action to conceal their behaviour by avoiding CCTV cameras and misreporting incidents. That is simply unacceptable. Since the broadcast, four G4S staff members have been dismissed and four other staff members have been suspended, including one person employed by the healthcare provider.
As hon. Members may be aware, the Labour party called on the Secretary of State to take immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures and to prevent G4S from being considered for bidding for other Government contracts. He responded that the allegations must be treated with the “utmost seriousness”, and police and child protection teams are investigating. However, we should not believe that that is the end of the matter. Running a centre such as Medway requires staff who are well trained and properly motivated and who have a full appreciation of their role in the youth justice system, as the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) mentioned.
Just last September, G4S was stripped of its contract for managing a separate STC—Rainsbrook, in Northamptonshire—following an inspection revealing that there had been a doubling in the number of assaults since the last inspection; that 15 young people had required medical attention following assaults, with one requiring hospital treatment; and that the number of assaults on staff was higher than at the previous inspection, averaging nine per month. Let us not forget that G4S is still the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.
Such incidents raise serious questions as to whether G4S is a fit and proper organisation to run youth facilities. However, the debate is about not only what happened at Medway, but youth custody generally. Unfortunately, the problems underlying recent incidents are echoed across the prison estate. Ministry of Justice figures show that deaths, incidents of self-harm and assaults in prison are at their highest level in a decade, with assaults up 13% in a year, serious assaults on prison staff up 42% in a year, self-harm up 21% from last year and seven prison murders in the last 12 months—the highest number recorded since 1978.
In 2012, the Prison Reform Trust and INQUEST jointly published a report entitled “Fatally flawed: Has the state learned lessons from the deaths of children and young people in prison?” The report considered the deaths of 143 children and young adults between 2003 and 2010. It concluded that many young people whose deaths were self-inflicted shared common traits and that successive Governments had not learned the lessons from those deaths.
A further INQUEST report in March 2015 studied the deaths of 65 young people and children between 2011 and 2014. It concluded that institutions had not learned the lessons from previous deaths, stating:
“The vulnerabilities of young prisoners have been well documented, yet they continue to be sent to unsafe environments, with scarce resources and staff untrained to deal with, and respond humanely to, their particular and complex needs.”
The report concluded that
“too many deaths occur because the same mistakes are made time and again.”
Last July, the Harris review published its report “Changing Prisons, Saving Lives: Report of the Independent Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds”. Soon after the report was published, another report, from the Children's Commissioner for England, revealed that a third of young offenders experience isolation and segregation for up to 22 hours a day, particularly in larger institutions. The report found that the children who are isolated are nearly 50% more at risk of suicide. It called for an end to solitary confinement and urged that large secure units for children be replaced by smaller units.
Overcrowding and a widespread lack of staff resources across the Prison Service is leading, not surprisingly, to widespread problems. Temporary staff are used to fill quotas, but they often do not have the requisite experience to carry out such a challenging yet important role. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, prison officers simply lack the time to do anything more than carry out the most straightforward security functions, with no time to talk to inmates or to assist in their rehabilitation. There is no time to spot mental ill health, or drug issues. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) has already mentioned how concerned he is that prison staff do not have time to follow through in flagging up issues that may affect a young individual. There is insufficient time to escort inmates to and from the classes and programmes on offer.
Instead, long periods of lock-up and inactivity lead to increasing frustration, making violence more likely. The Government proclaim that they recognise the importance of rehabilitation. If what I have been saying sounds familiar, it is because Labour has long said that prisons should be measured by their success on rehabilitation, and our manifesto at the general election stressed the importance of increasing the amount of time prisoners spend learning and working. Nowhere is that more important than in youth justice, where young lives can be turned around, with the right intervention.
Does the hon. Lady agree that some of the young people who arrive at these institutions are there only for short periods, depending on the challenges that they have had before arriving at the centre, and that we should perhaps consider what happened to them before they arrived at the centre or the unit? In some cases, the young people are there for just a short period, and finding the opportunity to complete a really good rehabilitation is sometimes a challenge.
I agree. I think a partnership approach is needed. The hon. Lady spoke about the local authority in her constituency and its important role in youth rehabilitation and the care of children. The whole approach must be one of across-the-board partnership. I agree that sometimes a short time in prison does not allow for any beneficial turnaround.
On that point, taking preventive measures was one of the recommendations in the Harris report about how to stop young people going into custody in the first place. Perhaps my hon. Friend will ask the Minister how many of the Harris recommendations have been implemented.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
The Government must understand that a fundamentally different approach to youth justice and custody is needed. Young people and children need to be supported and helped. The idea that young offenders should be punished, locked away and forgotten about or, worse, mistreated, is morally reprehensible and entirely counter-productive. However, just months ago, the Chancellor announced cuts of £9 million to the Youth Justice Board, despite warnings from the Local Government Association, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services that that would lead to an increase in the number of young people in custody. Coincidentally, the £9 million that is being taken away almost exactly matches the amount that the Government have wasted on a failed procurement process to outsource fine collection—a clear case of misplaced priorities and ideology taking precedence over sound, evidence-based policy making.
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 states that the principle aim of the youth justice system is the prevention of reoffending. However, currently two thirds of offenders under the age of 18 reoffend within a year of release. Behind every one of those figures is a victim, or victims, of crime. How can young people be rehabilitated when there are so many failings within the youth justice system —when it is not even a safe environment for them?
The media reports of what happened at Medway clearly demonstrate a deeper crisis in our youth custody system. Government cuts and a refusal to address the issues properly are creating a perfect storm of overcrowding, understaffing and poor resources. First and foremost, we urge immediate action to put all G4S-run prisons, secure training centres and detention centres into special measures so that the safety and competence of each facility can be urgently assessed.
The Government have the power, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to intervene in contracted-out STCs. Therefore, as we outlined in our recent letter to the Secretary of State, we urge the Minister to put in management teams alongside existing staff at those facilities—teams with experience of working with vulnerable children. The reforms to youth justice made by a Labour Government, requiring agencies to collaborate in preventing youth offending, reduced both youth crime and the numbers of young people in prison. We would further extend that model by piloting a new approach for 18 to 20-year-old offenders. That would incentivise local authorities, the police and the probation services to work together, to identify those at risk of engaging in criminal activity and to divert them on to a more constructive path.
I want to pose the following questions to the Minister: how many children are currently in Medway STC; and have any been sent there since 30 December? What action did the Ministry of Justice take between 30 December and 8 January? Since 2010, how many times have contract breaches occurred at secure training centres run by G4S under contract with his Department? What was the budget of the Youth Justice Board in 2009-10 and 2014-15; and what is the estimated budget for that body in 2015-16? Has the Minister considered writing to the local safeguarding children board to see whether it will order a serious case review of the allegations regarding abuse at Medway secure training centre? I also remind him of the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) in her intervention.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on bringing this important debate before the House. She said that complacency is never an option in such matters, and she is absolutely right. I assure her that that is exactly the attitude we have in the Ministry of Justice. We also made the broader point that, if we want people to behave well in custody, we should treat them well. She is absolutely right as far as that is concerned.
The hon. Lady spent quite a lot of her speech talking about “Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint”—understandably, following the shocking revelations we saw in the “Panorama” programme. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons described “Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint” as a significant step forward; but of course we acknowledge that more needs to be done. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that detailed action plans are being agreed with individual sites on its implementation, and additional training and support are being provided. We want to get things to a really high standard, and of course it is not good enough just to have good training; we must ensure that the officers on the ground actually implement what they have been trained to do.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), who spoke for the official Opposition, mentioned the Youth Justice Board budget. The YJB has, as part of general Government savings—as, unfortunately, the country continues to live beyond its means—reduced its administrative expenditure by restructuring to become more efficient; but in doing that, it has been able to focus more resources on monitoring in the youth estate, despite falling numbers of people in youth custody. It is important that that should be on the record.
The hon. Lady asks the central question of the whole debate. I can tell her that I have thought long and hard about it since the “Panorama” revelations. I do not know whether she was in the House for the urgent question when my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice set out in some detail the considerable monitoring arrangements we have. Yet the fact is that they did not detect mistreatment and prevent it from happening. As the Minister responsible for youth justice, I have absolutely fully taken that on board and can assure her we will continue to review seriously how we monitor to ensure we do not find out that terrible things are happening from an investigatory television programme. I will elaborate further during the course of my speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is a valued member of the Justice Committee, rightly drew attention to the issue of mental health. I can tell him and other Members who properly drew attention to that issue that a comprehensive health assessment is completed for every young person on arrival in custody. This includes an immediate assessment of needs during the first day or night, followed by a more comprehensive assessment as part of their induction programme. If an alternative placement is deemed appropriate, this will be referred back to the youth justice board placement team for consideration in consultation with healthcare professionals.
I can also tell the House that each site has healthcare teams and in-reach teams that provide appropriate treatment for young people with mental health issues. I get the seriousness and importance of this issue and will continue to work with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure we keep a relentless focus on mental health.
My hon. Friend raises an important and serious point. Yes, of course I will look into that matter. We have to have a joined-up system as far as health needs are concerned. He makes a valuable point.
My hon. Friend also made points about young adult provision. I know the Select Committee is looking at that at the moment, but I can tell him that a Government consultation on the management of young adults was paused while the Harris review was completed. This is now being reconsidered as part of our wider prison reform strategy work and alongside the youth justice review, about which I will say more in a few moments.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), who is also an extremely diligent and engaged member of the Justice Committee, asked a general point about the threshold for custody for children. The threshold is high and the courts must state in open court why a youth community sentence with high-intensity supervision and surveillance is not appropriate. I will point out, as have others during this debate, that the under-18 youth custody population has halved in the past five years.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) for her contribution to the debate. She is not only the local Member of Parliament who represents Medway, but a ward councillor in that area, so she has detailed local knowledge that we all respect. I have had frequent dealings with her since the revelations came to light. I also thank her for praising the vast majority of decent staff who work very hard in a challenging environment. She was right to put that on the record, and I do so as the Minister as well. We will be relentless in dealing with staff who fall below the very high standards that we rightly expect of them and will continue to demand.
I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for her contribution. She pointed out that my domain as the Minister extends to England and Wales, and not to Scotland, but generally we take a serious interest in what happens in criminal justice matters and in the youth estate north of our border with Scotland. I have spent time with Scottish academics and others trying to learn what we can from the Scottish prison system, so I thank her for her contribution this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Neath, who speaks for the official Opposition, asked me a large number of questions, which I will do my best to answer this afternoon. I will write to her if I do not answer them all—she posed her questions just before my own contribution, so I will not manage to answer all of them. In general, I repeat what the Secretary of State for Justice said during the urgent question:
“the care and supervision of young offenders in custody is not good enough.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 573.]
We recognise that. That is why the Secretary of State has commissioned the youth justice review. There will be an interim report in due course and a final report in the summer. It is the right thing to do.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) asked her hon. Friend the Member for Neath to ask me how many of Lord Harris’s recommendations had been implemented. The answer is more than half, but I would ask the hon. Member for Cardiff Central to look at our wider prison reform strategy, more of which will be unveiled over the coming months. She and others will see much in that that speaks to the important points that she and others have raised this afternoon.
The allegations made by the BBC in the “Panorama” programme on 11 January were profoundly disturbing and have quite rightly generated concern about the safety of young people detained at Medway. Let me put on the record, as the Justice Secretary did, my thanks to the BBC for the work it has undertaken to bring the serious allegations to light, although it should not have taken an investigatory television programme to do so.
We take all allegations about mistreatment of children in custody extremely seriously and make sure that they are swiftly referred to the local area designated child protection officer for immediate action. Although it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific allegations while the investigation by Kent police and Medway Council is under way, I can assure Members that we place the highest priority on the safety of the children and young people committed to our care in custody.
It may be helpful for me to outline in further detail the action taken since the contents of the “Panorama” investigation were first reported. First, G4S suspended all seven staff members named by the BBC on 30 December 2015 and referred the allegations to Medway Council’s local authority designated officer, who is responsible for overseeing safeguarding concerns about children across the local authority, and to Kent police. G4S has subsequently dismissed five staff members, and three more are suspended.
Kent police and Medway Council’s child protection team have launched an investigation that will determine whether there is any evidence to justify criminal proceedings against anyone involved. Five members of staff have been arrested and bailed while police inquiries continue. It is important that the police are now able to complete a full and thorough investigation into each incident and to pursue all necessary lines of inquiry. I can assure Members that the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board will support and co-operate with their inquiries to the fullest possible extent.
Our immediate priority has been the safety of the young people in custody at Medway. As the Secretary of State indicated in his statement to the House on 11 January, we are meeting Lin Hinnigan, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, regularly to make sure that all necessary action to ensure the wellbeing of young people at Medway is being taken. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and Ofsted also visited Medway on 11 January to meet representatives of G4S, Medway Council and the Youth Justice Board, as well as the children detained there. The findings of HMIP’s report are being considered carefully by the Secretary of State and me.
The YJB, which is responsible for commissioning the youth secure estate, has also taken immediate steps to safeguard the children and young people placed in Medway. It might be helpful for me to outline those steps to the House. The YJB has, with immediate effect, ceased new placements of young people to Medway until further notice—that addresses one of the shadow Minister’s questions. The YJB sought urgent assurance from the G4S director of Medway that the centre had safe staffing levels following the suspension and dismissal of staff. That assurance was received on 31 December and is being kept under review. The YJB has increased both its monitoring activity at the centre and the presence of other of its staff members, including senior managers.
I am concerned that the allegations were not readily identified by the checks and systems that we already have in place. It is clear that my Department and the YJB need to work together to make sure that monitoring in the youth secure estate is more effective and robust. We expect the highest standards from all the providers who operate the youth secure estate. We expect staff to want to work with children, to have the skills and training to engage with children positively, and to act with professionalism and integrity throughout. We expect our providers’ management teams to rigorously supervise their staff and drive a positive culture throughout their organisations.
There will be children in Medway and other secure training centres who are repeat offenders, but it seems to me that the real culprit here is G4S, which is a persistent offender in failing to deliver Government contracts to the required standards. I am concerned about whether G4S should be awarded any further contracts, or should even be bidding, until all the outstanding issues with the company—the Serious Fraud Office inquiry and the investigation into Medway—are resolved. Will the Minister please address that specific point?
I hear what the hon. Lady says and, given what has happened, I understand the strength of feeling on this issue. Nevertheless, I repeat what I said earlier: it is important that we allow Medway Council and Kent police to investigate fully what are, at the moment, allegations, albeit extremely serious ones. We should wait for the results before we do anything else.
The YJB has increased the availability of the independent advocacy service provided by Barnardo’s. It will now be available on site six days a week, compared with three days a week previously. All youth offending teams that are responsible for those currently held at Medway secure training centre have been contacted and asked whether they have any concerns about individual children or young people. The YJB will consider, on a case-by-case basis, any specific action that needs to be taken to meet the particular needs of each individual child or young person, including, where appropriate, reviewing their placement at the centre. The YJB has also contacted the families of each child and young person at all three secure training centres to explain the actions we have taken and to give them a contact point at the YJB.
I shall outline the key safeguarding and monitoring arrangements that already exist in secure training centres, which we have now reinforced at Medway in the light of the recent allegations. First, YJB monitors are appointed at all STCs to monitor and report on the performance of the establishment. Monitors will investigate and report on allegations made against custody officers and, where necessary, suspend and revoke custody officers’ certificates to work. Barnardo’s staff are also in place at all STCs to provide independent support and advice to young people through its independent advocacy service. Young people can raise any issues or concerns through either the YJB monitors or the advocacy service provided independently by Barnardo’s. There are clear processes in place that enable staff to raise concerns.
The YJB’s service specifications and commissioning arrangements for the secure estate make it clear to providers that there is an expectation that children’s welfare and safety is paramount when they are in custody. That expectation has been strengthened and reinforced in the specifications for new STC contracts and as part of the provision in young offender institutions. All persons in charge of secure establishments have a statutory duty to ensure that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. They must also participate as a member of their relevant local safeguarding children’s board. In line with statutory safeguarding guidance, each secure establishment must have an annually reviewed safeguarding policy and a member of the senior management team with responsibility for implementation of the policy. The policy should promote safeguarding and wellbeing by covering issues such as child protection, risk of harm, restraint, separation, staff recruitment and information sharing.
Each local authority has a designated officer to whom concerns about children’s safety that arise from the behaviour of adults must be referred. That is in addition to the requirement for those working with children to report to the local authority any concerns about a child they believe to have been harmed or at risk of harm. All safeguarding managers in young offender institutions are expected to attend the Working With Young People in Custody training programme, which includes modules on child protection and safeguarding. The head of safeguarding will be supported by an establishment-based qualified social worker from the local authority.
As many Members know, there is now a higher concentration of violent and high-risk offenders in the youth secure estate who present complex risks and needs. The level of violent incidents remains a concern, and one to which there is no single, simple solution. For that reason, we have in place a wide range of measures to manage safety and stability. That begins with the placement of young people. The YJB actively manages where young people are placed to support custodial providers, who in turn manage their regimes locally to keep children safe. In young offender institutions in particular, we are working to use more mental health support and psychological services to better manage and support those detained. We are also implementing a range of tools for staff to manage conflict more positively and deal with challenging and complex children. All the while, we have a zero-tolerance approach to violence and are seeking to increase children’s engagement in education to give them a greater opportunity of making progress during custody and on release. For example, in young offender institutes we now require 30 hours of education a week, which is a significant increase.
I welcome many of the positive proposals that the Minister is making, but will he give us a commitment that, if it is clearly demonstrated that certain organisations that run STCs are in breach of their duty of care to young children, they will be formally excluded from future bidding processes?
As I said earlier, for now, we should wait for the result of the investigation by the local authority and the police. I have already said that we have the power to strike off someone from being a custody officer. We have statutory powers and we are not afraid to use them in pursuit of our serious duties regarding the care of these young people.
The managing and minimising physical restraint policy that I mentioned earlier sets out that robust local governance arrangements should be in place to enable those running secure establishments to identify any poor practice. A weekly use-of-force meeting takes place in all establishments using the MMPR policy, and it is regularly attended by a YJB performance manager. During the meeting, which is attended by senior managers in the establishment, along with the YJB, CCTV footage of all incidents is reviewed, anything that happened in the lead-up to an incident is discussed, and any training that might be required to handle incidents better in future can be identified. Those arrangements were already in place at Medway. If there is an incident that warrants referral, we would expect an establishment to refer it to the local area designated officer at the local authority. If that is not done by an establishment, the YJB’s performance managers can make referrals themselves.
As the Secretary of State made clear in his statement on 11 January, it is a matter of record that there have been earlier examples of where G4S has let down the Ministry of Justice and those in our care. But there are also examples of innovative and high-quality institutions run by G4S. I recognise in particular that unacceptable incidents and practices were identified in Ofsted’s inspection of Rainsbrook last year. In that case, the monitoring arrangements in place were effective. The YJB monitor was aware of each of the incidents as they occurred, took the appropriate action and highlighted them to the inspection team. The YJB immediately required G4S to address the issues swiftly and effectively. G4S put in place new leadership, and the YJB agreed an action plan to improve recruitment and training.
I am pleased to tell colleagues that Ofsted’s latest inspection of Rainsbrook shows significant improvement, with improved findings for both safety and care of young people. Although the report identified two serious incidents of staff misconduct since the previous inspection, in both cases, G4S took action and dismissed the members of staff involved before the latest inspection took place.
Although the problems at Rainsbrook have been identified and welcome steps have been taken, the Government allowed G4S to renew its contract at Medway. Will the Minister explain why it was allowed to renew that contract when it has a history of problems running a secure training unit at Rainsbrook?
There was a competitive bid to run the contract. Ministry of Justice officials, who are wholly independent from Ministers, scrutinised all the bids using set criteria. They demanded higher standards than we currently have in the STCs. We are satisfied that there was a robust, proper, independent and legal process.
Following the re-tendering of the Rainsbrook STC last year, we selected a new provider, MTCnovo, to take over the running of the centre from May 2016. The YJB put in place an enhanced monitoring plan that aims to support G4S to continue to make the required improvements, as well as supporting MTCnovo as it takes over delivery. We are clear that standards must continue to rise before MTCnovo takes over the contract.
Although youth offending has fallen, reoffending rates have remained high, particularly for those leaving youth custody. We acknowledge that violence in custody has risen and that we are dealing with an increasingly challenging cohort of young people in our custody. As I said earlier, there are no simple solutions to that, which is why the Secretary of State and I agree that the youth justice system requires reform.
As Members will be aware, we asked Charlie Taylor, the former chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, to conduct a review of youth justice. He is looking at the evidence and current practice in preventing youth crime and rehabilitating young offenders; how the youth justice system can most effectively interact with wider services for children and young people; and whether the current arrangements are fit for purpose. The review will publish an interim report shortly and conclude this summer.
I recognise and share Members’ concern about the allegations featured in the “Panorama” programme, but hope I have reassured colleagues that young people’s safety and wellbeing will remain central to how we look after young people in custody. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood said, the vast majority of those working in the youth justice system display high levels of professionalism and dedication in working with young people from particularly complex and challenging backgrounds. They are committed to the rehabilitation and support of the young people in their care.
I am aware that a duty of candour has been introduced in the NHS to good effect, I believe. I commit to look carefully at the lessons learned from its introduction in the NHS to see whether one could be applicable to the youth justice system.
I am clear that the provision of safe, decent and secure environments is an essential foundation for achieving our objectives to protect the public and reduce reoffending. We will continue to challenge the youth justice system to provide the best possible support and the highest levels of care for young people in youth custody.
I thank all Members who spoke in this debate. Their contributions reflect the seriousness and importance of the issue of ensuring the safety of children in custodial institutions. We all acknowledge the need for high professional standards when looking after our children and young people in custodial institutions. I ask the Minister to take very seriously the concerns that were raised about the continuation of G4S’s contract.
When looking at the issue of child safety in our custodial institutions, the concerns about children with complex needs or mental health problems must be looked at in detail and treated appropriately, particularly those pertaining to the issue of restraint in our custodial institutions. It is important that the Minister addresses our concerns about the cuts to the budgets of the Youth Justice Board and local authorities. Thank you, Mr Wilson, for treating me kindly today. I thank all Members present.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered safety in youth custody.
IVF: Welfare of Women
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the welfare of women undergoing IVF treatment.
I want to draw attention to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which is also known as the HFE Act. It contains worrying failures that are endangering women’s lives and long-term health. As a result of the failures, it is time for Parliament to take action to protect the welfare of women undergoing IVF treatment. IVF is a huge industry, estimated to be worth some £500 million, with most treatment taking place in the private sector.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority code of practice, which follows from the 26-year-old HFE Act, rightly requires clinics to take into account the welfare of the child before providing IVF treatment, but the HFEA’s narrow interpretation means that women’s welfare is not considered. IVF treatment works by stimulating the ovaries of a woman to grow multiple follicles through the use of a drug identical to the natural stimulating hormone called follicle stimulating hormone or FSH. In turn, the growth of such follicles causes a rise in oestrogen in a woman’s bloodstream.
However, if levels become too high, there can be a profound and adverse effect on a woman’s health. Indeed, extensive research has shown that the high stimulation given to women during IVF can significantly compromise their health. The most common adverse effect following the use of such hormones during IVF is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome or OHSS, which can be mild, moderate or severe. Mild OHSS can occur in up to 33% of IVF cycles, while 3% to 8% of IVF cycles are complicated by moderate to severe OHSS. Women with severe OHSS are hospitalised, some in intensive care, needing intravenous infusions and drugs to save their lives. In its most severe form, OHSS can be fatal and women have died in the UK as a result of the complication.
Given the serious health risks that can arise from women being treated with too much hormone medication during IVF, does my hon. Friend agree that the HFEA must collect and publish information on the type and amount of drugs given to women so that they can make a more informed choice about the treatment they may receive?
I thought I would get an intervention in while the hon. Lady was in the mood for taking them. I appreciate that she is talking about women who are going through IVF, but has she considered the health effects on women who want IVF but are prevented from doing so due to their age?
I have no comments in my speech that address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about age and effectiveness. I mostly want to ask the Minister, and through her the Department of Health, to consider how figures are recorded, what the practice is and how we can improve on what is now a 26-year-old Act.
It goes without saying that OHSS has a huge emotional cost to women and a huge financial cost to the NHS, but it is preventable. It is widely known that there are modern OHSS-free protocols that can entirely prevent the syndrome from manifesting, but they are underused. In a 2011 article in The BMJ, authors Bewley and Braude reported on women’s deaths as a result of the complications around IVF treatment. The article states:
“The last Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Death recorded four deaths directly related to IVF via ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome and three deaths related to multiple pregnancy after IVF. Thus, more deaths were related to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome than to abortion…despite many fewer procedures (for example, 48,829 IVF cycles v 198,500 abortions were performed in the UK in 2007). IVF associated maternal deaths may be underestimates, because record linkage is not allowed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act”.
The article worryingly concludes that:
“infertility treatment now poses a higher risk for maternal death.”
Despite the potentially fatal risks to the health of women going through IVF, there is little accurate or complete information regarding the incidence of OHSS. Instead, the HFEA records it only via a flawed self-reporting system. In practice, that means that clinics must indicate when a patient has been admitted to hospital with severe OHSS when it is entirely induced by their IVF treatment, but that system of self-reporting is inadequate, for obvious reasons. The HFEA’s own data suggest that there is gross under-reporting of the condition.
We know that the number of eggs collected is a predictor of OHSS. The collection of more than fifteen eggs significantly increases the risk of OHSS, without improving the live birth rate. Bearing that in mind, over the first half of 2013, there were over 1,700 IVF cycles in which more than 20 eggs were collected—cycles that therefore posed an increased risk of OHSS. Yet, that same year, only 46 cases of severe OHSS were reported. Between 2010 and 2012, only 60 cases of severe OHSS and 150 cases of moderate OHSS were reported. During the same period, however, there were more than 3,000 IVF cycles in which more than 20 eggs were collected per cycle. Those examples demonstrate the worrying, and dangerous, trend of under-reporting. We also know that the stimulation dose given in IVF is negatively correlated to live birth. In other words, the higher the stimulation, the lower the rate of live births. Research has also shown that a high number of eggs collected increases rates of prematurity and low birth weight in babies. The risks are clear when considering how many cycles feature high stimulation and high numbers of eggs collected.
The HFEA database demonstrates that, between 2008 and 2013, more than 20 eggs were collected per egg collection procedure in more than 18,000 IVF cycles, more than 30 eggs were collected in 2,285 IVF cycles, and more than 40 eggs were collected in 313 IVF cycles. It cannot be stressed enough that those figures show a very worrying trend in IVF treatment in the UK, potentially placing women in real, and avoidable, danger. The evidence also demonstrates the pressing need for a change in legislation and for reliable data to be collected by an empowered regulator.
Furthermore, research from last year has observed an increased risk of ovarian cancer among women undergoing IVF in the UK compared with national averages. That was based on the HFEA database of more than a quarter of a million women who have received IVF treatment between 1991 and 2010. Similarly, a large Dutch study from 2011 of 20,000 women who had received IVF treatment concluded that ovarian stimulation for IVF may increase the risk of ovarian malignancies, especially borderline tumours. The link between ovarian cancer and IVF treatment, as well as the many health risks I have outlined, so obviously justifies the collection of reliable data by the HFEA.
As if the risks were not enough, several clinics are using a cocktail of drugs off-label in a manner for which they were not intended. It is most common in the use of drugs and intravenous infusions during IVF treatment and pregnancy that affect a woman’s immune system. However, they are often used without any supporting scientific evidence, posing significant risks to women. Both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the US Food and Drug Administration have issued warnings about the use of drugs off-label. The HFEA, while stating on its website that there is no evidence to support such practice, has admitted that it has no powers to stop it from happening despite being aware of the considerable potential harm posed to women. That clearly needs to change.
Despite the potential threat to women’s safety, the HFEA states that it does not have the statutory authority to take action in the so-called areas of clinical judgment and drug administration. Indeed, in relation to the HFEA’s limited response on the incidence of OHSS, the Minister stated the following:
“They have no express powers concerning the administration of drugs, which is a matter of clinical judgment. Although the HFEA does not collect data about the overall incidence of OHSS, clinics are asked to report when a cycle has been abandoned because of risk of OHSS. Severe OHSS is treated as an incident and depending on the nature of incident and the patient outcome, the HFEA will either expect an incident report or conduct an incident review itself”.
Given the severity of the risk to women that I have outlined, however, that response is clearly inadequate.
Considering the evidence, the absence of comprehensive data collection seems to be the result of a bizarre regulatory remit. That limited remit seems to see the safety of women as secondary. The McCracken review into the HFEA, the recommendations of which were entirely accepted by the Government, argued that the balance of HFEA activities was unacceptable. Recommendation 10 stated:
“The HFEA should conduct a review of the balance of its regulatory focus to ensure that it reflects the relative risks of the different activities that it oversees. Its approach should reflect the relative maturity of the sector it regulates…the need to ensure appropriate oversight of technical developments in the field of ART”—
assisted reproductive technology—
“the need to ensure that appropriate standards of practice are implemented consistently throughout the sector, and the continuing need for a high degree of public assurance regarding the sensitive activities that it oversees. This should not lead to any overall increase in regulatory activity or cost, but a rebalancing of activity.”
Further, as part of the preface to the recommendation, McCracken stated:
“Similarly where there are well known side effects of ART techniques, such as…OHSS…the HFEA should make sure that appropriate standards in managing them are being adopted across the sector...It is worth noting here that the work that the HFEA led in reducing multiple births, the ‘One at a Time’ project, is universally praised and may provide a model for addressing some of these other topics.”
To reiterate, the report states that reviewing the HFEA remit should not lead to an increase in regulatory activity or cost, but simply a rebalancing of its activity. However, the HFEA has not taken any specific action on OHSS or on the other interventions so desperately needed. That is why we need Parliament to act.
What can be done? I have a number of recommendations that I hope the Minister will be able to implement to address the risk to women’s health. First, an explicit commitment to the protection of the welfare of women urgently needs to be added to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 in order to give powers to the HFEA to regulate and monitor drug administration to safeguard the short and long-term health and welfare of women undergoing IVF.
Secondly, the HFEA must immediately start collecting information about all drugs, dosages—whether daily or cumulative—and off-label drugs administered to women during IVF treatment and pregnancy. The HFEA already collects extensive data about embryos, including the use of consumables or culture medium. In other words, what is administered to eggs, sperm and embryos is regarded as of primary importance, but what is administered to women is deemed to be of limited importance. We urgently need to redress that imbalance. Adequate information is desperately needed to gauge the adverse effects of the drugs on gametes and embryos, and to assess their threat to women’s health. Those data are already collected in the USA, Australia and across Europe. It is about time the UK followed suit.
Thirdly, the HFEA should introduce a campaign and licence condition expressly focused on reducing the incidence of OHSS, which can be fatal. That could be modelled on the HFEA’s successful multiple births minimisation strategy.
Finally, the HFE Act should be amended to link the HFEA registry with the hospital, cancer and death registries. That would allow accurate recording and publication of the links between IVF treatment and incidence of severe OHSS, cancer and mortality among women. The HFE Act has typically used patient confidentiality as a reason to have a hands-off approach to collecting important information. Links between IVF treatment and such incidences, however, have already been established in other developed nations by using such data. I am sure the Minister will agree that the more we understand such links, the more we can do to prevent unnecessary harm to women.
We urgently need a regulatory body that has the powers to monitor drug administration during IVF treatment, and to take action where needed to protect the welfare of women. We need to have adequate information to assess the safety of fertility treatments. Indeed, it seems absurd to have a regulator that is dedicated to licensing and monitoring clinics that carry out IVF, but that is unable to take action because it lacks statutory authority.
According to the McCracken report, such changes can be cost-neutral, and the HFEA has already achieved success in other areas. By including the welfare-of-women protection in the HFE Act, alongside the “welfare of any child”, we can finally act on the issue. By doing so, Government can oversee the collection of information about drugs administered to women during IVF treatment and pregnancy. What I am calling for is not unusual elsewhere in the world, and such systems of data collection are prevalent in so many developed countries. Changing the Act will also enable the HFEA to implement fully the recommendations of the McCracken report, in particular that
“appropriate standards in managing…are…adopted across the sector.”
That should include the use of modern OHSS-free protocols that prevent the incidence of potentially fatal OHSS.
Patients undergoing IVF treatment are often vulnerable, forced into paying for treatment themselves, and they desperately need someone to protect them. As more and more people use IVF treatment, the issue is no longer one for only a minority. It is time to give the safety of women the recognition that it desperately deserves in the Act. Let us not sit back and allow another woman to suffer or die unnecessarily during IVF treatment.
In the HFEA, we have a body dedicated to regulating IVF. Let us give it the tools to fulfil its duty. Twenty-six years since its creation, it is time to maintain what is good about the HFE Act and to reform what is inadequate. I hope the Minister will recognise the opportunity for the Government to pioneer a new chapter in the young history of IVF treatment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.
I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for raising this important subject for debate. I will take the opportunity to offer, I hope, some assurance to interested Members about what is being done to safeguard women’s health in the area.
IVF has been an amazing gift for millions of people throughout the world, bringing the joy of a child to those who would otherwise not have been able to have one. The treatment was a groundbreaking one that we can be proud to say was invented and developed in the United Kingdom.
Recognising the special ethical approach needed for the creation of human life, the Government introduced the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990 to bring a strong legislative framework to the provision of fertility treatments, establishing the HFEA as the specialist regulator. That legislation was supplemented by a review and amendments in 2008, providing a legislative settlement agreed by Parliament, and it has served the United Kingdom well since then.
The hon. Lady eloquently outlined the effects of OHSS, which is a well recognised side effect of the use of ovarian stimulatory drugs. In its most severe form, it can be fatal for the patient if not treated, although thankfully that is rare. There are more than 60,000 cycles of IVF each year, with between 150 and 200 instances of what would be regarded as more serious incidents, known as grade A and grade B. That represents about 0.33% of all cycles.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
If the debate has to conclude early, which would be a great shame, I shall certainly undertake to write in detail to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, to respond to the various points she made in her speech.
As I was saying, thankfully, very severe incidents for women undergoing IVF are very rare. There are more than 60,000 cycles of IVF each year, and around 150 to 200 instances of what would be regarded as more serious incidents. That represents 0.33% of all cycles. To put that in context, in 2013-14, there were four grade A incidents that involved a serious threat to health, while in 2012-13 there were none. It is helpful to explain that.
It would also be helpful for me to put on the record that ovarian stimulatory drugs are generally self-administered after being prescribed, and each patient is given instruction from the clinic with appropriate warnings about side effect symptoms to be aware of. Patients are monitored at the clinic through regular ultrasound scans and blood tests to check how the ovarian stimulation is progressing and to look out for any signs of OHSS.
I note the suggestion from the hon. Lady about amending the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to require the UK regulator to collect data on the dosage of drugs prescribed to women during fertility treatment and birth rates and information on any adverse outcomes for the patient. That proposal would also place a duty on all fertility clinics to consider the welfare of women proposing to undergo these treatments. It is important to put on the record that drug dosage levels do not determine the risk to individual women of OHSS. Patients react differently and individually to the same dosage levels, so it is not possible to identify those who may be at the highest risk of an adverse reaction.
In response to the suggestions made, I want to stress that all clinicians have a general duty to consider the welfare of patients when deciding whether it is appropriate to offer any treatment service. The 1990 Act also requires that same assessment to be made of any child born as a result of fertility treatment and any existing children who might be affected by it.
The prescription of stimulatory drugs is not an activity regulated by the HFE Act 1990, as amended, or by the HFEA. Prescribing is a matter for clinical judgment, taking account of professional guidance, of which there is a considerable amount, and the individual circumstances of the patient. All patients who undergo ovarian stimulation as part of their IVF treatment are given information on the symptoms to look out for and are advised to contact clinics immediately if they suspect they may be developing the condition. That includes being given contact details for out-of-hours arrangements, so that they can report immediately. In addition, it is a requirement under the 1990 Act that a woman shall not be provided with treatment services unless she has been provided with information relevant to the treatment, including the potential side effects, and a suitable opportunity to receive counselling about the implications.
Although the HFEA does not collect data about the overall incidence of OHSS, clinics are asked to report treatment cycles to the HFEA where a cycle has been abandoned due to there being a risk of the patient developing OHSS. All severe cases of OHSS must be reported to the HFEA as a serious adverse incident. Depending on the nature of the incident and the patient outcome, the HFEA will either expect an incident report from the clinic or will conduct an incident review itself. The HFEA publishes a detailed annual analysis of the data it receives, and information is also available on the HFEA’s website on outcome rates for each clinic, including information on live birth rates as a percentage of embryo transfers.
I reiterate that the administration of drugs is a matter for clinical judgment. The HFEA’s code of practice advises licensed fertility clinics to provide women seeking treatment with information on the likely outcomes of the proposed treatment and the nature and potential risks of that treatment. That includes the risk of children conceived having, for example, developmental defects, as well as the potential side effects and risks for the woman, including OHSS. That requirement is examined as part of the HFEA inspection regime. The HFEA also asks to see a clinic’s OHSS management protocols before a licensed renewal inspection, so it is part of the regulatory process for each clinic.
In its fertility guidelines, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence advises clinics that they should inform patients about any potential long-term safety implications associated with IVF. That includes specific reference to limiting the use of ovulation induction or ovarian stimulation agents to the lowest effective dose and duration of use. In addition, the HFEA code of practice sets out the expectation that clinics should follow relevant and appropriate professional guidance in the care of patients, which obviously includes NICE guidance. Clinicians must have the clinical discretion to make decisions about the care of individual patients, taking account of their individual circumstances.
I want to give the hon. Lady assurance about some of the work the HFEA has in the pipeline. In its business plan, the HFEA sets out an intention to increase focus on learning from incidents and adverse events through, for example, publication of a report on clinical incidents between 2010 and 2012; dialogue with the sector about how best to learn from incidents and adverse events; and exploring, with professional groups, whether more data need to be collected better to understand factors contributing to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, in order to reduce its incidence. That is in the HFEA’s business plan, which is publicly available.
I would like again to thank the hon. Lady for raising this important and complex subject. I understand and appreciate the concerns she rightly has about the possible impact on women’s health of a reaction to stimulatory drugs during the process of fertility treatment and the consequences. However, I believe that the existing UK regulatory system is second to none in its approach to safeguarding women’s health. I am assured that, within its statutory and regulatory remit, the HFEA is taking proportionate action.
I know that the debate must end here, Sir Alan, so I will write to the hon. Lady with responses to additional points made in her speech.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Storm Eva: Local Authority Support
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for local authorities after Storm Eva.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, even if it is later than scheduled. The first challenge of debating the flooding that devastated parts of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire over the Christmas period is that just one Department can respond. In considering what support local authorities will require as they seek to emerge from these difficult times, nothing short of co-operation from almost every single Department will be sufficient. In calling on the Department for Communities and Local Government to hear the challenges that we face, I hope the Minister will be working with his colleagues across Government to respond as comprehensively as possible.
For the purpose of today’s debate, I am representing Calderdale Council, which includes both my constituency of Halifax and the neighbouring Calder Valley constituency. Areas around the Dean Clough Mills complex in Halifax town centre, and particularly Sowerby Bridge and Copley in my patch, were devastated by the floods on Boxing day in weather that had not been seen in living memory. However, the devastation further down the valley in Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge, with further damage in Elland, Todmorden and Brighouse, has put Calderdale Council under unprecedented pressure of a primarily financial nature.
I attended a transport working group meeting at Halifax town hall on Friday with my friend, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). The chief officer for highways and engineering, John Lamb, who is doing a fantastic job, described the River Calder as having become “weaponised” over Boxing day, picking up everything in its path and using it to smash its way through the valley, taking on the bridges, roads, homes and businesses in its path.
To give Members a quick overview and to demonstrate the breadth of the range of problems, 2,781 residential properties and 1,635 businesses have been affected by Storm Eva in Calderdale. Nine electrical substations were flooded, resulting in widespread power outages, with some properties without electricity for four days. Eight schools across the district were damaged, and at least two of them will be closed for a prolonged period. The police station in Sowerby Bridge and the fire station in Mytholmroyd were flooded, and general practitioners’ surgeries, Sowerby Bridge leisure centre, libraries and Sure Start centres along the river all sustained damage.
With that in mind, I hope the Chair and the hon. Member for Calder Valley will grant me the freedom to speak about the needs of the local authority as a whole, taking into account the challenges facing our constituents, who will traverse both constituencies on an almost daily basis. I start by thanking the Government for their announcement earlier this week that £5.5 million will be made available for the rebuilding of Elland bridge. Having to rewrite this speech in the wake of that good news was a welcome inconvenience. The floods envoy, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), hit the nail on the head when he said during the announcement:
“A good local transport system is the lifeblood of the region, and key to a thriving economy.”
As the Minister may already know, the communications network that crosses Elland bridge is essential to businesses in the area, so discussion now moves from funding to the speed with which we can get it back up and running. Partly due to the bridge’s status as a grade II listed building, it is estimated that a replacement bridge will not be in place until December 2016.
Elland bridge will not be the only damaged structure with listed building status. Although, as a history graduate, I appreciate the significance of listed buildings in principle, where a listed structure is no longer fit for its intended purpose and, conversely, presents a danger to the public, what power do the Government have to work with Historic England to consider lifting that status, thereby giving local authorities, or in this instance, the Canal and River Trust, the greatest range of options for reconnecting communities as quickly as possible? I hope the Minister will consider looking into that.
Although the £5.5 million for Elland bridge is extremely welcome, new problems resulting from the flooding are arising on an almost daily basis, which is increasingly worrying. New landslips are compounding the existing damage. The combined cost of damage to infrastructure as a result of that weaponised river and the broader impact of Storm Eva—just to be clear, this excludes the money allocated for Elland bridge—is now in the region of £18.5 million. I am not saying that for impact or effect, and I am not rounding up. That is what we are facing in the cost of highways alone, and it is financially terrifying. I hope the Minister recognises that Calderdale Council will need support to cope with the scale of damage to infrastructure and that constructive dialogue on how to do that will follow today’s debate.
On where some of that money might come from, like many of my colleagues and constituents, I am confused as to why the Government have not yet applied to the EU solidarity fund for financial support. The Prime Minister said that he had looked carefully at the question of EU funding but decided that it was “quicker and better” to give the people the help they need from our own resources. Although it is a relief that we must have the resources to meet the financial challenges that I have just outlined, I ask the Government to think again and apply for the solidarity fund. There may be strings attached to that funding, but the Government have failed so far to give a credible answer as to why they have sent that opportunity begging. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to think again for the benefit of all those who stand to gain from tapping into that fund?
I visited several businesses in Sowerby Bridge immediately after the floods. Some are big employers in my constituency that have never flooded before, but the cost and devastation caused by flooding just once means that they are thinking long and hard about whether they want to rebuild in the same premises or to leave the valley altogether. I met small and medium-sized enterprises that had struggled to find affordable insurance due to their proximity to the river. At least one of the bigger businesses that I visited had business interruption insurance, but it is anxious about whether that same protection would still be available at an affordable price if it were to rebuild in the same location.
I mentioned in the recent floods debate in the main Chamber that Pulman Steel, a business in Sowerby Bridge that was visited by the Chancellor twice in the run-up to the 2010 and 2015 general elections, is faced with completely refitting its factory, and it is battling to be up and trading at full strength as soon as possible. I have written to the Chancellor inviting him on a return visit to Pulman Steel. He will be aware that Pulman Steel is a supplier to a number of key northern powerhouse infrastructure projects, so it is of strategic importance to the north and beyond that it is up and running. I ask the Chancellor to put his high-vis and his hard hat back on and to come and discuss with Pulman Steel how its situation has changed and what his team could be doing to support it as a key player in our local economy.
A shot-blasting company at Lee Bridge in Halifax and its neighbours were flooded three times in four weeks over the Christmas period due to a complicated culvert system that runs underneath the small industrial estate. Calderdale Council has identified that 800 businesses, which employ 4,588 people, will need financial support following the floods. The grants of £2,500 from Government funding are going out to businesses and are making a difference, but businesses such as the ones I have mentioned need specialist business support—they need not only cash but expertise. They face dilemmas around how to hold on to customers while they deal with the impact of the floods, or around how to remain competitive when they are faced with increased insurance bills, or quite simply around how to keep trading when the back wall of their premises and half their stock have ended up in the River Calder, as was sadly the case at some of the businesses that I saw at Tenterfields business park.
The local authority can provide some of that support, but I am here to echo Calderdale Council’s request to the Government that staff from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills get out to flood-affected areas and work with the local enterprise partnerships to bolster the specialist business support that could make such a big difference. I hope the Minister is in a position to give us assurances today that he will work with his colleagues in DBIS to send those delegations out from our central offices and to get experts’ boots on the ground, where they are most needed.
Everyone in this room will also appreciate that we cannot talk about business support without pressing for affordable insurance. The Federation of Small Businesses has carried out research that suggests that 75,000 smaller businesses at risk of flooding had found it difficult to find flood insurance, and that 50,000 had been refused cover.
Later this year, Flood Re is set to provide access to affordable insurance for around 350,000 households. Whether it is through an extension of Flood Re or through an alternative scheme, we must look long and hard at how we can offer the same protections to businesses that we have been able to offer to residents. The Association of British Insurers does not believe that extending Flood Re to businesses would be the answer. However we do it, we must find a way of delivering affordable protection, and I hope the Minister might be able to update hon. Members about any progress that has been made in that regard.
I appreciate that the issue of flood defences has one foot firmly in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but in this instance I believe that the other foot is firmly in the Department for Communities and Local Government. In an article written by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that was published in the Yorkshire Post on 30 December, she suggested that £280 million in Government funds will allow flood prevention schemes to go ahead in a number of areas, including Calderdale. Calderdale Council and the Environment Agency have worked closely together to identify which schemes would be required and where. Under the current funding formula, however, once the maximum Government contribution has met the maximum possible funds available from the local authority and any other funding streams, there is still a £15 million shortfall in delivering those projects.
Of course, the flood defence formula that we are dealing with is the one that was changed just before 2010, and it causes particular problems for many people in our area across Yorkshire and the Humber, and particularly for a number of houses. I make that point not to be political—both Governments have operated under it. Does she agree that we need a root-and-branch review of the whole formula because it does not work in the way that people hoped it would, and are now ending up with situations in which schemes will not be funded because they do not have match funding?
The hon. Gentleman might be right. Actually, what we have got to look at is those schemes that were in place and how much they were going to cost. Will they work? Will they be effective in the light of the new models and the damage that we have seen this time? What would the cost of those schemes be, and how do we consider meeting that cost from Government and local authority funding?
I know that at least one scheme in particular would benefit the shot-blasting business that I mentioned, which sits directly above the culvert at Lee Bridge, and so I plead with the Minister to speak to his colleagues at DEFRA to seek clarity on behalf of the local authority, so that work can begin on those schemes—where they are now appropriate—without delay.
On a very pragmatic note, a proposal that I do not believe would cost a great deal at all is a national floods conference. It would be a meeting for all the affected local authorities to come together to discuss their experiences with the Government, but more importantly with one another. They could share best practice, and examine what worked and what did not work in terms of both flood defences and the emergency response to the flooding.
I genuinely believe that Calderdale Council responded as quickly and efficiently as was possible, but I hear from other hon. Members that they did not necessarily have the same experience with their local authorities. Further down the valley from Halifax in Hebden Bridge, there is a volunteer flood warden scheme, for example. Flood wardens have not been necessary in my constituency before now, but I am keen to explore this possibility, which may also be useful to other areas. What training have those wardens in Hebden Bridge had and how did the local authority mobilise them over the Christmas period? Would Calderdale benefit from more emergency planning? Do other local authorities, in Cumbria for example, already have emergency plans in place?
If there are examples of best practice that can be shared and lessons that can be learned following Storm Eva—and following Storms Desmond and Frank, for that matter—will DCLG consider organising such a national conference sooner rather than later, so that we can all learn from these recent experiences as we start to plan for the future?
I thank the hon. Member for giving way again, precisely because my area floods so consistently. Does she agree that one thing we should consider is organising from the bottom up rather than from the top down, through local parish councils where they exist? In my area, many of the parish councils now have emergency plans—they have been provided with funding from the local authorities to develop those plans. Actually, it was the people on those councils who, after every flooding incident we had, were the people out there on the ground. They have the connections into the local authority and the Environment Agency. That model exists already and we need to spread it across the country. That bottom-up approach, through parish councils, emergency plans and emergency committees, can be really effective.
I completely appreciate that intervention and those local schemes are very effective. For example, in my constituency—I am not aware of what the hon. Gentleman is doing in his constituency—such schemes might be effective, and that is why some oversight and some co-ordination might be helpful to get them off the ground. That is all I will say on that.
Finally, I return to the issue of volunteers and the at-times heroic efforts of local council officers and the emergency services. It was overwhelming to see the number of volunteers who came out to help following the worst of the rains on Boxing day. Ordinary people—most of them from the local area, but some from much further afield—came to play their part in the clean-up. The staggering generosity and compassion of those volunteers, who gave up time over the Christmas period that would otherwise have been spent with family and friends, allowed us to make a great deal of progress in the hours and days immediately after the floods. Volunteers took the lead on cleaning up the streets, and on helping homeowners and businesses with the removal of ruined and contaminated goods and furniture, which freed up council officers to deal with the most serious incidents. The depth of the community spirit that got us through the worst was staggering.
There were also acts of outstanding bravery from our emergency services, who worked around the clock to remove people from harm’s way. A local authority cabinet member told me this week that she had taken car keys from a council officer who had worked for almost four days straight with barely any sleep and called him a taxi, because she was worried that he was too exhausted to drive himself home. That is not an exceptional case. Council officers and staff came in to work over the Christmas period without a moment’s hesitation.
Will the Minister consider recognising outstanding contributions where local authority staff went over and above and served with distinction? Will he ask his colleagues at the Home Office to extend the same recognition to the emergency services and the volunteers who gave so much to their communities in what were desperate times? I appreciate that more could be done locally to recognise key individuals and key contributions.
I could go on, but I am aware that several hon. Members want to put their “asks” to the Minister. I will leave it there and I look forward to hearing from my colleagues and the Minister’s response.
Order. Before we proceed, I advise Members that we will have Back-Bench Members’ contributions until about 5.48 pm. We can continue to 6.12 pm because of the delays that preceded this debate, and I intend to call the Front-Benchers to make their winding-up speeches from about 5.48 pm. You can all do the mathematics in that, and could you please try to be succinct to give proper leeway to the mover of the motion at the end of the debate, so that she can have a minute just to speak about how the debate has gone?
Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak. As always it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship.
I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate on a subject that has affected both of our constituencies on a horrendous scale. In total, 2,700 homes and 1,635 businesses were flooded; three bridges are down; four schools were affected; there was a landslide that affected 17 homes, and a school was closed as a result; and there was major damage to vital roads and other infrastructure all over Calder Valley and indeed all over Calderdale. So far, the bill for the infrastructure damage alone is in excess of £20 million, which is massive, and that is not to mention the pain and misery suffered by many of our constituents.
The Government response to date has been rapid and welcome: a £12 million package for households and businesses to help with initial costs; Bellwin at 100%; and, as has already been mentioned, £5.5 million for Elland bridge, which is in Calder Valley. We have also had £2 million in match funding, which I know has been welcomed by a lot of people locally.
As my neighbour, the hon. Member for Halifax, has already said, we need further help, but I will not go over the ground that has already been covered. Instead, I will raise two main points on relieving pressure on local authorities. First, insurance is a problem for most people in businesses. We know Flood Re takes effect from April. Sadly, it will not help homes that could not get insurance this time before the floods, but it will in future. The major issue is that Flood Re does not include businesses. So many of my well established businesses, despite paying for flood insurance, in some cases for decades, are now finding that they have not been covered for flooding. The results are catastrophic for many. It will mean many businesses in Calder Valley will not reopen, and many jobs and much expertise will be lost.
In reply to a question a couple of weeks ago during Question Time, the Prime Minister said that the insurance industry says all businesses will be offered insurance. That may be the case in some instances, but it is not the case for many.
Those that were offered insurance saw phenomenal premiums with equally high excesses. A local sandwich shop was offered insurance for £10,000 with a £10,000 excess. A local factory owner was offered insurance, but with a £30,000 excess for flooding. A world-renowned British furniture manufacturer in Mytholmroyd was insured for stock but not equipment, and lost more than £600,000. Christmas orders were massive, but there were no facilities to fulfil those orders.
A destination retailer lost £650,000. A fireplace manufacturer and retailer, offered no option of insurance, is facing ruin. A major supplier of coir mats to supermarkets and hardware stores all over Europe lost all its stock. It had no insurance; no stock to supply ongoing; penalty charges for non-delivery; and it is tied into its current lease for three years. If those businesses manage to get up and running again, they face no prospect of being able to get insurance and no prospect of getting out of leases to relocate. If they do relocate, our local valley bottom towns will die: places such as Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Elland. We need our businesses to stay to feed our local economies and keep the skill set that has grown up with these businesses over decades and generations.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. He is absolutely right to focus on business insurance and the problems that local businesses face. However, is it not also true that many businesses have not been flooded, but are hugely affected because the wider regional economy is affected? Is it not right that we send out a clear message that Yorkshire is open for business? My area and that of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) are certainly open for business, and I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency is definitely open for business.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I had a call only this morning from a local farm business—Porcus—that supplies pork sausages far and wide, not only in Calder Valley but in many of the flood areas as well. The business is down 75%, even though it has not been hit by the floods.
We are supporting private homes with Flood Re, but to not support businesses with insurance is criminal. Will the Minister consider urgent talks with the insurance industry and look again at Flood Re—if not Flood Re, something else—to include businesses as well? If no urgent progress can be made, will he look at introducing secondary legislation to force insurers to insure companies for floods at a level that is affordable and fair to all?
As I have said, the pain and suffering of Calder Valley residents over Christmas has been horrendous. To have the possibility of losing their jobs as well as their homes and businesses is a bridge too far—if you can find a bridge in Calder Valley still standing. The situation is dire, and the Government could help in a way that would help far more than a simple cash injection. On behalf of Calder Valley business owners, please, please, please can we sort out their plight with insurance? That would also alleviate many pressures that the local authority is currently picking up on.
My second point—I will be brief—concerns planning and co-ordination. The floods happening on Boxing day meant that many people were at home, and help among communities and neighbours was humbling and incredible to see in action. A multitude of agencies and Government Departments were very difficult to contact and get hold of because they were not working, because it was Christmas, or they were on holiday.
Local farmers were saying in November that the moors and hilltops were saturated with water after record rainfalls in November. Some were warning that if we had severe rainfall in December, we would be in trouble, as the only place for water to go when the land up above is saturated is downhill. That is exactly what happened.
It took several days for the recovery to get fully under way because of the lack of agency co-ordination among Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency, the National Grid, utility companies, including mobile phone providers —we had areas with no phone coverage at all—Calderdale Council, the Canal and River Trust, Network Rail, highways, police, fire, ambulance, the Army, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am sure there are many more.
In areas such as Calder Valley, where we suffer from flooding on a fairly regular basis and where the floods are getting far more frequent and severe—we had floods in 2000, 2007, 2012, and of course recently in 2015—we need one individual or one individual agency to take responsibility on behalf of all agencies, not just to mobilise all agencies as a co-ordinated response, but to flag areas where flooding can be reduced. For example, if Yorkshire Water had released some capacity from reservoirs in November, the flow downhill could have been slowed. The Canal and River Trust could have opened locks at strategic points. The Environment Agency could have warned residents to move cars, for example, in multiple parking areas that were flooded. All that needs co-ordinating through one person or one body. Although it would not have prevented all the flooding, it would have prevented some of it and would have saved millions of pounds’ worth of damage to infrastructure and personal possessions.
To sum up, may we have a serious look at having one person or one body that will be responsible in areas such as Calder Valley for co-ordinating a rapid response from all agencies during disasters like the one we have just experienced, and that will also hopefully help to prevent them on the scale that Calder Valley has just experienced?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing today’s debate. There have been different experiences, but we are hearing very much from Yorkshire today. Many aspects of the operations in York are to be highly praised—the mountain rescue team, the Army, the public sector workers who gave up their Christmases, and the awesome response from volunteers across the city, mainly co-ordinated through one person, Chelle Holmes, and her Facebook page, “York Floods 2015: Help for the affected”, with its 14,000 members, which put together the operation. That, together with BBC Radio York, became the mainstay of communications.
Other parts of the operation have been heavily criticised by people on the ground. Much of this has boiled down to communication and co-ordination during the flood period. It has now become clear from a meeting in the city last Friday that the local authority had no plan for the Foss catchment should flooding occur, despite the council’s strategic flood risk assessment highlighting a greater than one-in-10-year risk of the capacity of the River Foss exceeding the capacity of the pumps at the barrier. To give some context, the River Foss is protected from the far larger river, the Ouse, by a sixteen-and-a-half-tonne steel barrier. When flows of the Ouse rise, the barrier is closed to protect the Foss catchment, and eight pumps are switched on to pump up to 30.4 tonnes a second.
The capacity of the water was 35 tonnes a second over Christmas. The pumps could not cope, and water surged up into the pump house, where the power for the pumps and operations for the barrier were. The decision was therefore to switch off the power supply and lift the barrier in the belief that this was the least worst option and could save 1,000 homes. Reports from the Environment Agency going back to 2004 show that there was a risk of this happening. In the 30 years of the barrier, there has been no attempt to raise the level of the electrics, which are at a low level. There was a plan to lift them higher, but planning permission was denied to the agency at the time.
The revelation that there was no plan should the barrier fail and not be able to cope is quite astounding, and it has left people in York angered, upset and certainly with a host of questions that still need answers. I have been inundated with correspondence. I have been going door to door, and I have held a series of community meetings with residents and with business to ensure that we drill down on the issues and raise them, as we now are, with the various agencies.
I want to raise various points about action for the future. The first and perhaps most vital is that I want to see all local authorities having flood plans externally audited. This will ensure that we will have the right support in place at the right time and that local authorities are not left with the burden of marking their own homework. We know that there were certainly some serious flaws in York during the flooding. Vulnerable people, particularly those in an elderly residential complex and an area where Travellers live, saw no one at all from the council. People self-evacuated when the waters rose. There were also difficulties with the sandbag operation—not only were there problems filling them, not enough shovels and not enough personnel to fill them, but there was no distribution plan. That must be addressed.
There were problems with phones even before 45,000 phones went down—an issue that is the subject of a different inquiry. If someone whose home was being flooded called the number that the Environment Agency gave to the council, they got an answer machine message saying that the council was returning to work on the Tuesday morning. That is not good enough. When the phones at the council came back into operation, just four people were answering calls. We need proper plans in place.
I am listening with interest to what my hon. Friend is saying about the response of her local council. In my city, Leeds, the council responded to the floods amazingly. Nevertheless, the council is worried about the future and what the additional cuts to its budgets will mean, not only for its day-to-day capacity for things such as keeping gullies clean, but for how it will respond in emergency situations. Does my hon. Friend share those concerns?
Absolutely. Part of the inquiry I am carrying out is about how much cuts to date have affected the resources available to the plethora of agencies involved and how that will be addressed in future, what with further cuts planned, including to the fire and rescue service, which was overstretched over the Christmas period.
People gave up their Christmases, but there was no one to direct them to where they should volunteer. Again, that was a serious problem. I could discuss other issues, such as electrics being switched on in residential council accommodation without sockets being checked and people being denied their £500 despite their properties being flooded. The list is enormous—it is six pages long—but the Minister probably gets the gist: things must be improved. The council has said that it will carry out its own independent investigation. It is incredibly important that it truly is independent, that all questions are asked and that no stone is left unturned.
I want to share some of the other questions and issues that people have raised. We must recognise that the agencies came together and ensured that nobody died, but important questions have been raised. First, the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that we hold a conference to try to share best practice was excellent. We are learning a lot at the moment, so it is important that we share best practice in a structured way to ensure that local authorities draw on it to respond to communities.
Secondly, I ask the Government to hold an inquiry into the communications failure. Elderly residents who depend on their Lifeline personal alarms were left without any communications at all. I explained earlier the situation with the phones. When phones go down in an emergency, we should be able to switch systems. Even the ambulance service did not have a system to call on. We should be able to switch call centres to enable a continuous response. We must even look at the basics on the ground. Someone with a loud hailer or a siren could have made such a difference to people’s lives.
Thirdly, I very much support the point made by the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) about expediency in responding. We have a local barracks, but we had to wait for a process to be gone through before soldiers were mobilised. It could have been done a lot quicker. I am going to meet Brigadier Strickland to discuss future military involvement.
Fourthly, we have heard about the success of the flood wardens on the ground who were able to bring things together. There is now a real appetite among the community to ensure that flood wardens are part of the future strategy. It is really important to draw on that experience.
Fifthly, there is concern about drainage, which relates back to the point about local authority resourcing. Gullies, drains and ditches must be cleared. Surface water was a factor in the flooding in parts of the city, so we need to ensure that the right resources are in place to address it. We must also ensure that drainage and sewage are dealt with appropriately, because Yorkshire Water suffered a breach when its pumps failed and sewage went into the mainstream water supply.
Sixthly, we must ensure that there is better flood literacy. There is an assumption that people know how to address issues appertaining to floods and how to build resilience for the future. We cannot make assumptions in these situations, so it is vital that we ensure that there is proper education around floods—what people need to do, how they should respond and how they can protect themselves for the future.
On that point, because volunteers were so enthusiastic—so keen to get involved and help people where they could—there were issues with education and keeping safe volunteers who were almost too keen and were potentially exposing themselves to risk. That is part of the education that might be required for the future.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point that is true not only for during the flooding, when people are trying to save lives and protect the public, but for the clean-up operation. Clearly, when people are dealing with sewage, they are also dealing with risk. People need to be made aware of the risks and how best to protect themselves.
Seventhly, we have heard very clearly that businesses really do require support. Last Friday I brought together the local chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the local enterprise partnership to discuss how we can support business better at times of flood. It is clear that our city centre, like so many towns and cities, is experiencing a downturn in trade, so it is important that we get more support to local authorities to help with plans to build capacity back into the city.
My hon. Friend mentions the impact on businesses. In my constituency, around 250 small businesses have been affected by the floods, but those businesses employ 2,500 people, most of whom have not been working since Boxing day. That is a real worry. As well as talking about the businesses, we should be mindful of the people who work for them and think about the support we can provide to them, both to regenerate the places where they work and to support them in the interim.
I totally agree.
Finally, I want to raise the issue of personal finances. So many people in my constituency who were flooded could not afford any insurance at all. They just do not have the resources to pay for insurance, and £500 does not stretch far. All I have been told is that they need to draw on charitable sources. We need a more structured approach to support people who, in their poverty, have lost even more.
There are so many things that I could raise; this is just the start. I hope that there will be an opportunity for MPs to gather together to share their intelligence and concerns and to raise issues that they believe could help future operations. As we gather that intelligence, between us we could ensure that sufficient plans are in place to address the need, should such floods occur again. With climate change on its way, there is a high possibility that that could be the case.
As seems to be in keeping with proceedings in Westminster Hall, this has been an enlightening and constructive debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on kicking it off so perfectly. Her description of the River Calder as becoming weaponised is something I can relate to. I walked through very shallow flood water in Hawick in my constituency and was taken by the sheer power, even of shallow water. The sheer force was incredible, which means all the more credit should go to those who went out and worked for days and nights to try to help people to save properties and businesses throughout the UK. We thank them for their commitment and hard work.
The hon. Lady made a number of excellent points that brought home the incredible damage and range of costs that have resulted from the flooding. I echo her thoughts on the EU solidarity fund. The fact that it might take a while to get the money suggests to me that perhaps they think we will be out of the EU by the time it comes through. I do not care: let us get the money, because it should all help. Everything helps, and every pound is a prisoner nowadays, so absolutely, let us apply and have some benefit from the EU instead of continually complaining about it.
The hon. Lady made an excellent point about Flood Re. I realise that there are some challenges and that we have to be careful, but if there is a will, there is a way, so I am sure we can do something.
I sat on the Bill Committee that debated Flood Re, so I can tell the hon. Gentleman that if a business is also a residence, it falls within the scheme. The problem is that Flood Re is paid for by other consumers. Nobody of any party in the Bill Committee tabled an amendment to include businesses, because the cost would be passed on to other consumers. That is the rub.
Absolutely. That is a great articulation of the challenges, but as I said, if there is a will, there is a way. Let us look at what schemes we can put in place, even though there will be limitations.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) talked about the importance of insurance for businesses. He brought the issue alive with some detailed figures about the impact on businesses. It is easy to talk about things conceptually, but personalised stories enable us to really understand how important this is.
Having a single agency is an interesting idea, but the approach in Scotland is different. Granted, we have a considerably smaller population, but the structure of the agencies is different, so we have an opportunity to share lessons and experiences and learn from one another. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the importance of learning lessons. Although floods happen too often, thankfully they do not happen very often. Whenever they happen and cause people trauma and disruption, we need to look for lessons that we can learn. As the hon. Lady said, we already knew some things from past problems. Let us ensure we do not say the same thing when the next event happens, as it surely will. She came up with a number of great suggestions as a way forward.
The reality is between December and January—certainly in Scotland—we had the greatest rainfall in the past 100 years of available records, and there were 50 new record river levels across Scotland. We will probably not get used to climate change, but it means that we need to look at how we manage severe weather in the future. Local authorities in Scotland were at the centre of the relief operations. They worked in partnership with the Scottish Government and other agencies to distribute funds and plan for future risk.
In Scotland, the draft budget provided £4 million of extra funding for the local authorities most affected by flooding, including my constituency, which was one of the worst hit. The Scottish Borders Council got nearly £2 million. Earlier this month, Nicola Sturgeon announced an additional £12 million of funding to help affected areas, including capital funding of up to £5 million for local authorities to replace infrastructure severely damaged by flood waters. An additional £5.8 million has been allocated to households and businesses, including a provision for local authorities to make payments of £1,500 to households, businesses, charities and communities affected by flooding. A flat-rate grant payment of £3,000, which will be funded separately by the Scottish Government, can also be made to businesses to offset clean-up costs.
Earlier this month, I was in Selkirk with the Scottish Environment Minister to launch our first ever flood risk management plan, which includes 14 local strategies. In June, local authority-led partnerships will set out a detailed action plan with details of how that plan will be delivered up to 2021. The Scottish response has been rapid, comprehensive and effective, with partnership and local authority action at its heart, but we still have lessons to learn, and we strive to do so. We recognise that there are severe challenges across the UK. We welcome all UK Government investment in flood prevention, not least because it led to Barnett consequentials, which we gratefully received.
Flooding is not going to go away, so the Scottish Government have prioritised prevention. We need to share best practice across the UK and in the regions and develop a fuller understanding of the issue. The UK and Scottish Governments can and should learn from each other. That is an example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate. All hon. Members who contributed made excellent points. My hon. Friend made the important point that only one Government Department can respond to this issue. We discussed which Department is the most appropriate to respond, but the responsibility fell to the Department for Communities and Local Government. I will do my best to sum up the debate, and I am sure the Minister will respond in kind.
Hon. Members made several important points. I do not want to repeat what everybody said, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say in answer to them. It is, however, important that we talk about electricity sub-stations, which is an issue that I have raised in the Chamber. We need to do something about our flood defences around electricity sub-stations. The major issue in my area was not the flooding, but the power cuts that left 20,000 homes in the borough of Rochdale without electricity for a long time, so the Government must improve flood defences around our power stations.
An important point was made about the listed building status. I would like to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what we should do when a building or structure becomes unfit for purpose. I fully appreciate the problems that my hon. Friend, who is a history graduate, has with that issue. We need to pay a lot of attention to it.
Let us apply for the EU solidarity fund. I do not understand why the Government keep saying, “It’s difficult; it’s a lengthy process.” Prevaricating makes the process even lengthier.
Several Members talked about business support. I fully concur with my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), and with the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr). Every Member in the Chamber mentioned business insurance, and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West made a very important point about people who are still out of work because damage to their business has made it unable to operate.
I fully support the idea of getting Department for Business, Innovation and Skills staff to bring their expertise to flooded areas. We have been called on to work with other Departments. It is really important that we use our expertise to advise businesses that are struggling with ruined stock and problems with insurance.
The idea of a national floods conference is excellent. Everyone in the Chamber said that we need to learn lessons and that local councils can learn from best practice. We heard about some brilliant examples of good practice and some not so good examples where there were delays in communication. In York Central, there were problems with the phone lines.
We could spend three hours on this debate, but I will wind up to give the Minister sufficient time to respond. Will he consider the example of the Somerset Rivers Authority? It has been given the power to raise a shadow precept from April 2016, which enables it to raise additional funding for flood risk. Will the Government allow other areas to use a similar mechanism where there is local agreement to do so?
Before the Minister starts, I want to say that we have had a full and frank debate. Members on both sides have been very kind in being here for the whole of this very serious debate and restricting themselves to making interventions. This is a very difficult subject, and we are grateful for that. I ask the Minister to leave a little time at the end for the mover of the motion to respond to the debate.
Thank you, Sir Alan. I will of course take that request on board and endeavour to do so. The debate has been constructive, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on bringing it forward.
Those whose constituents have been affected know just how devastating flooding can be and the impact that it has on individuals, businesses and communities. Whether an area has a small number of homes or, as we have sadly seen in some areas during the recent storms, a significant number of homes, that makes little difference to the person or business affected by flooding. We need to look right across all areas to see what we can do to support them now that we have passed through the immediate response phase. We must ensure that recovery starts, that businesses are protected as best we can, that homeowners are given the support that they need, and that we recognise the good response work that so many different agencies, local authorities and volunteers have done. We must do everything that we can to mitigate the flooding’s impact.
December was a record-breaking month for rainfall in some parts of the UK, with exceptional amounts of rain falling on to already saturated ground. Over the weekend of 5 and 6 December, we experienced the highest levels of rainfall ever recorded in a 24-hour period in the UK. Around 7,000 properties were initially reported as flooded. Over Christmas and new year, we experienced more heavy and sustained rainfall, which resulted in widespread flooding across the north of England. At the height of this second incident, 32 severe flood warnings were in place and around 9,000 properties were initially reported as flooded. It has been a major series of incidents and the impact has been significant, as we have heard in hon. Member’s comments today.
We deployed resources and personnel to where they were most needed in what was a fast-moving, complex situation. The multi-agency response to the flooding was rapid, with the army deployed from day one and with assets deployed and money paid out to local authorities in record time. We wanted to ensure that local authorities had the financial support that they needed to respond quickly, and without hesitation and concern as to what would follow. Cobra met 14 times, including daily between Christmas eve and new year’s eve, to assess impacts and to co-ordinate where and how most effectively to deploy further resources from across Government to support affected communities. The Environment Agency, local authorities, fire and police, military personnel, the voluntary sector, utility providers, communities and a range of individuals came together to respond to what was such a significant incident.
I also include in that list many Members of Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who is in the Chamber, was out in his constituency delivering sandbags to those who needed them during the Christmas recess. He was working hard to look after and protect his constituents and to ensure that they were given every support. Members were not only out doing things on the ground. Many were also talking to Ministers, responders and their local authorities, feeding in what was going well and what they wanted done differently, ensuring that the response was as informed as it could be, so that it could do what was needed to minimise the impact of such a significant weather event.
It is appropriate to put on the record the scale of the response and the scale of what we were responding to. The Government have announced support packages worth around £200 million. Money has been given out in record time. There have been concerted efforts to co-ordinate across Government Departments and agencies. We have seen so many individuals work so hard throughout the period.
I want to address some of the specific points raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Halifax made specific reference to Elland bridge and the welcome £5.5 million for its repair. She asked about its listing and what that means for the repair work. Listed buildings are complex, and it is sometimes difficult to know the right answer. The list of listed buildings is maintained by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and if consideration is to be given to delist a building, it would be done in consultation with Historic England to ensure that it is the right thing to do. If the hon. Lady wants to pursue the matter, I am happy to assist in facilitating that. I do not know what the outcome will be, because we will have to look at the impact and at the bridge’s contribution and consider Historic England’s views, but if she feels that it is an avenue worth pursuing, we should discuss it further.
The hon. Lady and several other hon. Members have asked about the European Union solidarity fund and I want to make the Government’s position absolutely clear. We have not ruled out applying for such funds, but we need to understand what that would mean, what sums of money we are talking about, which incidents are eligible, and what resource would need to be put in to the complex process of applying—it is an incredibly complex fund.
However, we have not yet reached a deadline by which a decision whether to apply would have to be taken, so we are looking to understand the impact across the board to see how it breaks down and what making an application would mean. A decision will be made at the appropriate time as to whether it is the right thing to do. It is true that it takes a long time for such funding to be paid. I believe it is in the region of six to seven months from the date at which we can make an application, which has not yet arrived. It would not therefore provide the immediate relief that many areas are looking for, but if going through that process is the right thing to do, it is of course what we will look to do. We want to understand exactly what it would mean and exactly what sums we are talking about before giving a black or white answer, which some Members may seek, because the picture is not as simple as some—not anyone who has contributed to the debate today—in public discussion have occasionally attempted to present it.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the cases of specific businesses and the level of Government business support. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) also referred to several businesses in his constituency about which he has concerns. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has teams located across the country, and our teams covering the north-west, Yorkshire, Humber and the north-east are working closely with local partners on business recovery. Where specific expertise or additional support is needed, I encourage hon. Members to contact me with the details. Our teams can be deployed to try to provide support, advice and guidance, and we will look to direct them to any businesses in Members’ constituencies that have been specifically affected. I am happy not only to take on board the comments that have been made during the debate, but to take something constructive and proactive away from it should hon. Members want to contact me.
The proposal for a national floods conference has merit—it would be foolish of me to say we would not consider it. At this time, we have to support local authorities with their significant ongoing work dealing with the situation, but in the longer term I see no reason why we would not want to consider such a conference.
I agree with the Minister that that is something to consider, but we have been here before, through such lesson-learning exercises—guidance was issued years ago to local authorities about the need for emergency plans. My contribution, which I hope to make in this intervention, is that they are not top-down only. The 2007 event hit my area, as all those other events have, but we are in exactly the same position with resources. The response has to be bottom-up, with strategic sandbag stores in the localities, run by parish council emergency committees, such as the one established in my area, and with local flood warnings. We have to have a bottom-up approach. I commend to him North Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire for the funding that they have provided to parish councils to do just that, so that the parish councils are the people who respond to an event.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that I have shown in many different kinds of debate my support for devolution and for allowing people at the appropriate level to make decisions and to drive forward responses, whether to flooding or in other areas of local government. We have seen some of the lessons learned in the Government response to the events of recent weeks and months. We have seen funding transferred quickly to local authorities, but control over how it is spent has also been devolved to them. They have had much greater flexibility in how they deliver schemes, in how they support local areas and in what they do. We have looked not only to support but to empower local authorities to do what is needed with that £200 million of funding on which I have already commented.
I agree with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) that a bottom-up approach is needed. Floods are an example of an area in which we have to pool risk and share resources, including for flood defences. In 2011, the Government scrapped the flood defence scheme in Leeds that would have protected the area from the city centre and the train station up to Newlay bridge. Had that scheme been in place, the Boxing day floods would not have had the same devastating impact on Kirkstall. I urge the Minister to take the opportunity to learn the lessons from the floods and to put in place the comprehensive defence schemes necessary if we are to create a northern powerhouse.
I gave way hoping that the constructive nature of our debate would continue, but I fear that we are starting to venture into broader points of a party political nature, which I had hoped we would avoid. In 2005, the Government spent £1.5 billion on flood defences; the coalition Government in the last Parliament spent £1.7 billion; and in this Parliament £2.5 billion is to be spent—a real-terms increase in each consecutive Parliament.
We need to learn lessons, however, and we need to look at what the areas can do. We need to listen to what local communities understand about their areas and about what has to be done.
I have given way to the hon. Lady once, but now I must wrap up so that the Member who introduced the debate may conclude it.
It is important that we recognise that MPs from across politics and the areas affected have worked well in and with their communities. Lessons have been learned from what has happened before, and we have seen evidence of those lessons in the route that Government response has taken recently. We ensured that funding got out more quickly and we gave local authorities as much flexibility with it as we could to ensure that they could respond properly. We are continuing that in the nature of the resilience funding that we are providing, which is up to £5,000 per flooded household. Furthermore, only last week at a meeting in Manchester, we gave guidance to local authorities that gave them flexibility on how they will deliver their schemes, because we recognise that different areas need different things.
Hon. Members have raised a number of important issues, some of which I have been able to touch on, including insurance. We need to continue to look, to listen and to learn lessons from what has happened. A lot is being done, but we can always ask, “Can we do more?” My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley wanted a single responsible person, but we have already seen great improvements in how Government respond and bring Departments together. We have seen the appointment of flood envoys by the Prime Minister in response to some of what we have seen happening recently. We always ought to look at where we might go further and what else we might do, however, and my hon. Friend’s ideas are valuable.
In the spirit of bringing people, Departments and local authorities together, does the Minister not agree that, when we are talking about spending money on flood defences, we have to look at the whole catchment area? That might mean spending money to defend York outside the city in the wider catchment area.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that will of course form part of our considerations. I hope I have been able to answer some of the questions asked by hon. Members. I am always happy to have further discussions and meetings, whether in debates or outside the Chamber. I am conscious that the hon. Member for Halifax who introduced the debate might wish to add a further comment.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I will follow some issues up with him in more detail, if that is okay. I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate today, and I thank you, Sir Alan, for your chairmanship. I hope we can all work constructively together to prevent some of the damage we have seen recently in future events.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).