House of Commons
Thursday 13 October 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our ambition is to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and I am proud that that was in our manifesto. The Government are pleased to be supporting the COP21 Paris initiative to which the hon. Lady refers to promote a 0.4% average growth rate of carbon storage in soils worldwide. Opportunities are rather limited for most UK soil types to increase carbon stores, except for peat land, of which the UK has a high proportion. Our focus therefore is their restoration through Government funding and support for private sector initiatives, in which we are investing millions of pounds.
I thank the Minister for that reply and welcome her to her new role. Soil is a Cinderella ecosystems issue, yet it is vital for growing food, preventing floods, and capturing and storing carbon. The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report welcomed the Government’s commitment to increase soil carbon levels by that 0.4% a year as part of our Paris climate commitments, but we could not find any evidence of Government policies to support that goal. With the environment plan and the carbon plan delayed, can she set out as a matter of urgency specific, measurable time-bound plans to improve the nation’s soil and peat lands?
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I agree that soil health is absolutely critical and I note the inquiry of the Select Committee. The 25-year environment plan, which I hope will be out shortly—or at least the framework of it—will provide an opportunity for people to contribute to that. Meanwhile, the Government are investing in research to understand better how we can work more closely with farmers to improve soil health in the forthcoming years.
I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to look at the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s publication of last August entitled “New model farming: resilience through diversity”. I hope that she will have a look at it and get a chance to see the CPRE’s suggestions for changing the measures of success for farming. This includes looking at diverse outputs from land management such as carbon storage, water retention and landscape character. Could she look at that and respond to the CPRE?
My right hon. Friend mentions a report that I have not yet read, but I am sure it will be in my box this weekend for me to digest. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has met the CPRE to discuss the matter. There are opportunities to continue to improve soil health. I visited Honeydale farm in Witney yesterday with the excellent Conservative candidate and we also saw a demonstrator farm. There are some interesting opportunities for modern agriculture and the countryside.
Soil is such an important part of the environment. It is not just a growing medium; it is very much an ecological habitat. Will the Minister kindly comment on whether we could have a soil monitoring scheme? Unless we know the actual state of our soils, we will not know how to deal with them.
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend just the other day to discuss this matter. I have referred to the research that is happening—we are not waiting for the 10-year surveys. The opportunity afforded to us by leaving the European Union will allow the Government to take a holistic approach to improving the environment, including soil health. It will be a bespoke approach for this country, rather than one that is restricted by EU directives.
Clear food labelling is vital to show consumers exactly what they are buying. We want to promote the Great British food brand as strongly as possible. One of my top priorities is to look at what more can be done to make it easier for consumers to identify our high-quality home-grown food.
The Prime Minister recently said that, with Brexit looming, we will be able to choose our own methods of food labelling, but is there not a lot more that we could do on country of origin and method of production labelling? While we are still in the European Union, we ought to emulate some of our EU partners.
I certainly welcome the hon. Lady’s interest in this matter. As she will know, country of origin labelling is already mandatory for unprocessed beef, pork, sheep and goat meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables, olive oil, fish, shellfish, wine and honey. There are many additional voluntary schemes, which we are keen to support. As she points out, there will be further opportunities, as we leave the EU, to look at what more consumers would like to see from labelling.
The dairy industry has not really been able to label properly the Great British cheese, butter and milk that is the best in the world. Can we now take this opportunity to ensure that we get the British flag and label on our dairy products?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. He and I share an ambition for the strongest possible promotion of Great British food. He will be aware that the majority of dairy and processed meat products are compliant with the industry’s voluntary principles for origin labelling, but we can, of course, always do more, and we are working with the industry to look at what those options are.
I thank the Minister for her comments so far. In my constituency, many farmers have already diversified—Glastry Farm ice cream, Mash Direct and Willowbrook Foods are examples—but they have found difficulties with labelling. What help has been given to provide clear guidance and support? What initiatives are in place to provide that to new business and to make sure that the labelling is correct?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is an absolute Government priority that food information must not mislead—it must be accurate, clear and easy to understand for the consumer. There are clear guidelines on which foods must carry mandatory information but, as I have already mentioned, a number of food producers already go further on a voluntary basis to try to ensure that they meet consumers’ desires for more information about the food that they eat. I am very proud that the UK has some of the highest standards for food and food traceability in the world.
One Welsh business in my constituency that understands the importance and power of labelling and branding is Daioni, which exports organic British milk to China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Emirates, and has plans to expand further. Will the Secretary of State or one of her Ministers meet Daioni to talk about its plans for international expansion and to tap into its expertise in exporting Great British food?
I would be absolutely delighted to do that. Exports of organic dairy produce are a huge success for the UK. Later today, I am off to the Great British export truck, which is parked at Stoneleigh, to hear about British exports. I am off to the Paris food fair to promote Great British food next week, and I am off to China next month to do exactly that. I am always very keen to promote the export of Great British food.
The excitement in the Secretary of State’s life knows no bounds.
We have already designated 50 marine conservation zones, 99 special areas of conservation and 102 special protection areas within UK waters, so more than 17% of UK waters are now within marine protected areas. A third tranche of marine conservation zones will be designated in 2018, and I am proud to say that that will help to complete the blue belt around the English coastline.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. As well as the important habitats and wildlife that we have in our domestic waters, including those in the Thames estuary, the oceans around some of our overseas territories are home to hundreds of remarkable species. What action, if any, are we taking to protect them as well?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise those wonderful marine habitats. I am delighted to say that marine protected areas were declared around Pitcairn and St Helena in the past month, and work is in train to develop MPAs around Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, so the UK is set to double these protected areas to an area the size of India by 2020.
The right hon. Lady will know that the marine protections that have led to huge improvements in water quality and the conservation of our marine environment are underpinned largely by EU law. Can she guarantee now that, if we leave the EU, the standards that we currently enjoy will not be any less than they are now?
I can absolutely give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. As he will know, the Prime Minister has announced that we will nationalise the acquis communautaire. The advantage of the approach is that while there is continuity of legalisation, we also have the opportunity to look at what is right for the UK, instead of the 28 member states. Marine conservation zones derive from UK legislation, and we remain absolutely committed to our ambition of being the first generation to leave the environment in a better place than we found it.
Marine habitats will also be protected by the promotion of sustainable fishing, as practised by the UK inshore fleet and boats that fish out of Lowestoft. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will use the opportunity presented by Brexit to secure a better deal for under-10 metre boats?
My hon. Friend may be aware that we have already moved some quota to the under-10 metre boats, and it is absolutely our intention, as we leave the EU, to seek a good deal for every part of our great British food, farming and fishing sector. Our fishermen do a fabulous job; we absolutely support them and are totally focused on what we can do to create a better, more sustainable fishing industry.
Does the Minister agree that while marine conservation is fine—Labour Members support it wholeheartedly—we have to stop polluting the marine environment with the waste that we pour into it, all over the world? We need the EU and global intervention to stop the horrendous pollution of marine life throughout the world.
Marine conservation zones are not just fine; they are absolutely superb. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares that assessment. I can give him, as a good example, the work that we did just last month to ban microbeads in personal cosmetics and so on. I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have been fighting for that. We are putting that into action, and that is an example of the UK’s commitment to much more protection for our marine environment.
Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), may I encourage the Secretary of State, and indeed the Minister of State, who has responsibility for fisheries, to engage with all sectors of the fishing industry when designing protections for marine habitats? If those habitats are to be effective, that is absolutely essential. The Minister of State knows that because he has a good record in this regard. Would the Secretary of State, or perhaps the Minister, be prepared to meet a delegation that I will bring from the Northern Isles, who are full of good ideas about what can be done?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the importance of this sector in Scotland. We would be delighted to meet him. In fact, there are already a number of levels of engagement with analysing the opportunities that will arise from our leaving the EU. We will be very happy, keen and enthusiastic to meet his delegation.
Between the start of 2010 and the end of 2015, some 160,393 cattle were slaughtered and 3,961 badgers were removed under licence in England to prevent the spread of bovine TB. We will publish figures for 2016 in due course.
The loss of animal life as a result of trying to prevent this disease is absolutely horrendous. The Government are in the early years of a 25-year strategy to eliminate bovine TB. When does the Minister expect the low-risk area to be declared free of bovine TB?
We expect to have the low-risk area declared officially TB-free in the next four to five years—probably by the end of this Parliament. My hon. Friend makes a good point: this is a long haul. TB is a difficult disease to fight; it is slow-growing and insidious. That is why our strategy is very broad. The badger cull is one element, but we are doing many other things, including vaccination and putting in place cattle movement controls.
Not one single badger was culled in Wales due to the actions of the Welsh Government in supporting vaccination, but they face the same problem as authorities in England: a shortage of the vaccine. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we can maximise the use of vaccines in England and Wales?
I ensured that we continued to have vaccine available for important trial work that we are doing, specifically on developing an oral vaccine that we could deploy on badgers, which could give us an exit strategy from culls, once that was complete. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right: the World Health Organisation has asked people to prioritise use of the available vaccine on humans. It is worth noting that the dose needed for a badger is sometimes 10 times higher than that for an infant, so we have to be careful about how we use the vaccine. That is why we have suspended the use of vaccines for the time being.
Minister, will we make sure that we work with all the devolved Governments, and the Irish, and learn from their expertise, so that we can know what, apart from badgers, may be carrying the disease, so that we can continually learn from each other, and so that we can deal with the problem really effectively?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The chief veterinary officers in all the devolved Administrations work closely with our chief veterinary officer and veterinary teams to share experience and learn lessons. We know that Northern Ireland is using a “trap, vaccinate and remove” strategy, and the strategy in Wales is slightly different from ours in England. We are pursuing a wide range of strategies and do what we can to share evidence between the Administrations.
Tragically, the social costs of bovine TB fall largely on the farming community, but the enormous financial burden is shared with the taxpayer. Given that DEFRA has stated that there is considerable uncertainty in the value-for-money figures for the new cull, how will the Minister justify them to the general public?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. She and I served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for a number of years in the previous Parliament, so she has had a good grounding for the role that she takes on. The disease is costing us £100 million a year to fight. Doing nothing is not an option; we cannot put our head in the sand. That is why we need to pursue a broad comprehensive strategy. There is no evidence that any country in the world has managed to eradicate bovine TB without also tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population.
Rural Payments Agency
We are expecting payments under the 2016 basic payment scheme to be considerably improved from last year’s. The Rural Payments Agency received more than 86,500 BPS applications for 2016. A record proportion of these claims—over 80%—were received online, which will enable the RPA to process them more quickly. The agency is currently focused on paying 90% of farmers by the end of December.
The Minister will be aware that this is not a new problem; it has been going on for a long time. Non-payment or even partial payment causes a great deal of hardship to farmers. Given that the situation has been going on for so long, what more can he do to make sure that there is an improvement in the forthcoming year?
As my hon. Friend knows, we had tremendous challenges in year 1. This was an incredibly complex common agricultural policy with all sorts of additional auditing and recording requirements, and which carried with it complexity and caused problems for payment agencies right across the European Union. On his question about what we are doing to improve things, now that we have gone through last year’s difficult task of getting all the data on to the computer system, and now that we have 80% of claimants applying online, we believe that we are in a good position for the coming year because all the difficult work was done last year.
When the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency came to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee earlier this year, he made a commitment to pay the majority of claims by 1 December, not 90% by the end of December. Four weeks is a long time for a farmer. Will the RPA make the majority of those payments at the beginning of the month?
The commitment was to pay 90% by the end of December. That has gone into the business plan for the RPA and is one of the targets that it is working to. The payment window does not open until early in December, but clearly we will be trying to pay, as we always do, as many farmers as quickly as possible.
Yes, the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency has appeared in front of us several times at the EFRA Committee and promised to make payments by certain dates. There are cross-border farmers in my constituency and they are always at the back of the queue. Some of them were paid only last month, well outside the payment window. What more can my hon. Friend do to make sure that that does not recur?
With the complexity of the new system, there are always issues relating to cross-border claims, where farms have some of their holding in one Administration and some in the other. It is important that we share information as quickly as possible. We had a particular problem on the Scottish borders because Scotland had far deeper problems with managing the scheme than we had in England, and getting the data to make those payments was particularly challenging. I am aware that there were issues in Wales as well, and we will do all that we can to ensure that we do not encounter such problems in future.
Thousands of farmers have been pushed into acute financial hardship, anxiety or stress owing to the failure of the Rural Payments Agency. In the past year, 62% of payments were very late and many have still not been paid. Now the Government are planning further delays of payment, which is unacceptable. Why will not the Minister recruit the staff needed to pay everyone all they are owed by this Christmas and, in the interim, institute bridging loans?
We are not planning to cause any further delays, as I made clear. Last year when we had a difficulty we recruited some 600 additional people to process the claims and pay them as soon as possible. As I have already said, this year we are in a better position. We have 80% of claimants applying online and we have committed to pay at least 90% of claims by the end of December. In any normal year there will always be some cases that are incredibly complex, such as those put forward by the National Trust, whose large, complex claims always take longer to process.
It is fantastic that local food producers are developing labelling to highlight local food provenance, which really adds value to their products for the regional and tourist markets. As I said earlier, we want to do everything we can really to promote the British food brand. I am firmly committed to protecting the UK’s iconic food and drink products.
Mr Speaker, you might think of Newcastle upon Tyne Central as an urban constituency, but actually we produce excellent beef from the lucky cattle that graze the nutritious grass on the stunning Town Moor. We are developing Toon Beef labels, but labelling generally needs to be better if consumers are to make informed choices. What practical measures is she taking to ensure that the voluntary and mandatory requirements she spoke of reflect regional origin and animal welfare?
We are very proud that the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, the best food traceability and the best food safety. The hon. Lady is exactly right to point out the importance of labelling. We are doing everything we can. There is a lot of mandatory labelling, as she will be aware, but we also do a lot of work with businesses that want to label voluntarily, particularly for our iconic food products. I did a bit of research and found north-east Craster kippers, Wylam golden ale and other iconic names. I encourage her to apply for protected name status wherever possible, and we intend to support that.
This week is Seafood Week. Will my right hon. Friend outline what her Department has done to promote Seafood Week? I urge her to return to Cleethorpes so that we can have a less rushed plate of fish and chips than we had on her last visit.
I am always delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency, because he always has something exciting in store for me. During Seafood Week we have established a working group with different seafood organisations. We are absolutely committed to promoting it, as we are with all our great British food. As I have mentioned, I am off to the Paris food exhibition and the China food exhibition to see what more we can do for our great British seafood and other food.
Department for Exiting the European Union
As he was one of my great Northamptonshire colleagues during the EU referendum campaign, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that my Department is doing all it can to support DEEU on policy development and stakeholder engagement right across DEFRA’s portfolio. I will shortly meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to discuss the enormous opportunities that EU exit presents for our food, farming and fishing sectors.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the Brexit dividends is that we can take the money that the EU currently gives to our farmers and give it out more fairly and efficiently after we have left the EU? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The fact is that the money we get from the EU was British taxpayers’ money in the first place. The first thing I did on joining the Department was to agree with the Treasury that the current levels of farming and environment support should remain until 2020 to give our farmers continuity. [Interruption.] Of course, once we have left the EU we can ensure that our policies deliver for farmers while improving the environment. We want to work closely with industry stakeholder groups and the public to ensure that our policies are simple, good value for the taxpayer and free from the unnecessary constraints that we see today.
Order. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is an extremely senior and cerebral Member of the House, keeps chuntering from a sedentary position about buried money—just in case colleagues had not heard what he was chuntering about. It would be good if he ceased chuntering.
I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s desire to see clean air—nothing could be more important. We are doing absolutely everything we can, and we will continue to be committed. As the Prime Minister has said, we will be nationalising the acquis communautaire, so the EU legislation will become UK law. Just today, as the hon. Lady may be aware, we have announced our clean air zone consultation.
Including for Nottingham.
Indeed, as my hon. Friend points out, a clean air zone in Nottingham—in the Nottingham South. We are doing that to try to ensure that we make some real, serious progress towards cleaner air and a clean and healthy environment for all.
I call Mrs Caroline Spelman.
Brexit creates an opportunity to put agriculture on a more sustainable footing, but can the Secretary of State reassure the House that Brexit will not change the international leadership the UK has provided on sustainable development?
I apologise: I should have referred to the right hon. Lady properly—Dame Caroline Spelman.
Absolutely, Mr Speaker—Dame.
I can totally give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. The UK, in leaving the EU, is absolutely determined to be more globally focused and, at home, to create sustainable policies that will make our food production and our environment more sustainable and better for our people and our economy. At the same time, we are determined to maintain and enhance our global leadership role in promoting sustainability for everyone in this world.
While the Scottish National party welcomes the Secretary of State’s commitment to maintaining pillar one EU funding until 2020, she should be aware that Scotland has some of the lowest payments in the EU; that is why the UK was given millions of euros in convergence funding. So, with the same enthusiasm she has demonstrated with every question today, will she deliver on her commitment to have this in place by the end of the year?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, and I look forward to many happy days of fruitful discussions with him in the weeks and months ahead. I can absolutely tell him that we will be reviewing that by the end of this year. We look forward to meeting him and Members of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the interests of Scotland. We have a huge policy review; there are enormous opportunities, and I look forward to Scotland being delighted at the opportunities presented by Brexit.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her place? I am sure she has had discussions with the Department for Exiting the European Union about the impact of the 16% fall in the value of the pound since the referendum outcome. In the light of that, what financial drivers to replace the common agricultural policy will she prioritise, with the mutual support of that Department, to enable farmers to plan now for the future and to remain productive while making the necessary progress on environmental measures?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks, and I also look forward to working with her. May I also welcome all her colleagues to their places? A number of them I have worked with over a period of time on energy matters, with great, fruitful results, so I look forward to a constructive relationship. In answer to her specific question, those are exactly the issues we are now looking at—the opportunities for revising the support we give our food and farm producers, to make sure we can grow more, sell more and export more great British food. It will take time to properly evaluate what that policy set should be, but I hope shortly to consult broadly. I have already had informal consultations, and I will be working closely with the industry.
DEFRA leads on the conservation and management of whales and dolphins, keeping in close contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the UK has always taken a leading position on promoting conservation. The Government raise their opposition to Japan’s hunting of whales and dolphins at every appropriate opportunity. Most recently, I raised this issue with the Japanese Fisheries Minister during an official visit to Japan in April this year.
The international whaling ban has been extremely successful for many decades, but the minority of countries that do not respect it are looking to erode it. What further steps will my hon. Friend take to ensure that it is rigorously enforced?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The UK strongly supports the global moratorium on commercial whaling and continues at every appropriate opportunity to call on all whaling nations to cease their whaling activities. I currently plan to attend the International Whaling Commission meeting in Slovenia later this year, when we will reiterate our opposition to commercial and scientific permit whaling and work constructively with other like-minded countries to secure the correct outcomes.
Following the referendum, we are working closely with all those with an interest in food, farming and the environment to seize the superb opportunities we now have to develop policies specific to the needs of the UK. Alongside this, we continue to prepare for winter weather by testing our response capability, quadrupling the amount of mobile flood defences and making our critical infrastructure more resilient.
The Secretary of State seems such a nice lady, so I do not know what enjoyment she can take from the thought of a fox being torn apart. May I take it from the silence of her and her Department lately that she has dropped the idea of having a vote in this House on foxhunting?
My mum says my sisters are much nicer than me, but, that apart, my view is very simple. Like my predecessor and her predecessor before her, I remain committed to the Conservative manifesto promise that we will have a free vote in Parliament on a repeal of the Hunting Act 2004.
I am shocked by the Secretary of State’s mother’s observations. I have a vivid imagination, but I find that utterly inconceivable.
I am very happy to reassure my hon. Friend that we have a robust regulatory framework in place to ensure that shale exploration is carried out in a safe, sustainable and environmentally sound manner. The Environment Agency can undertake announced and unannounced inspections, and if there is any breach of a permit condition or a serious risk to people or the environment, it can take a number of enforcement actions, including the immediate ceasing of operations.
The damage caused by storms last winter cost about £5 billion. Thousands of homes and businesses were flooded and there was significant damage to roads and bridges. The then Prime Minister said that “money is no object”, but councils are still waiting. Allerdale, for example, is owed almost £220,000. How many councils are still waiting for the promised funds, and why?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. We both represent coastal communities and we share the issue of flooding. She raises an important point. She will be aware of the Government’s commitment to spend £2.5 billion over six years, which has given the Environment Agency long-term funding. I will have to ask my hon. Friends in the Department for Communities and Local Government about her specific point on the recovery work and then write to her, but we are continuing to invest in such schemes, including in Cumbria, as she will be aware.
I am pleased to report that woodland cover in England is at its highest since the 14th century—well before I was born—and we are committed to growing it even further by planting another 11 million trees over the course of this Parliament. The second phase of applications for the woodland creation planning grant has opened; the first phase generated plans for over 1,000 hectares of woodland. I ask hon. Members to continue to encourage schools to plant trees and to endorse our excellent scheme with the Woodland Trust, which I draw to the attention of the House.
I commend the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central for standing up for rural residents, but I assure her that we are prepared to do that ourselves. The Government are committed to the universal service obligation of 10 megabits by the end of the decade. It is an ambitious programme that we will fulfil.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we leave the European Union, there are opportunities to manage our fisheries differently. We will work with colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union on these matters, as we develop a negotiating position. He may be aware that under the UN convention on the law of the sea, it is accepted that we would have an exclusive economic zone going out to 200 nautical miles or the median line. That will be the starting point for discussions.
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I met Lesley Griffiths last week to discuss these issues, and the Secretary of State plans to meet her shortly. We intend to work very closely with all the devolved Administrations as we devise a new agriculture policy for after we leave the European Union. We recognise the importance of that to every part of the UK and will engage every part of the UK.
I completely sympathise with all those who were flooded. It is an appalling thing to happen. Following the Boxing day floods, the Environment Agency carried out £500,000-worth of maintenance work in Bury to remove gravel, debris and blockages. A £1.5-million flood defence scheme was completed in November 2014, providing better protection for 164 homes and businesses in the Stubbins area of Bury. I will, of course, look into the point my hon. Friend raises about people who are still suffering from the damage done by last winter’s floods.
As I said in response to an earlier question, we will work very closely with all the devolved Administrations and, indeed, industry groups throughout the UK as we devise a policy for after we have left the European Union. Some elements are already devolved, but the general consensus is that there will have to be some kind of UK-wide framework. We have made no decisions on this yet and will work very closely with all the devolved Administrations.
I would call the right hon. Gentleman who is intently studying his iPad, but as he does not seem keen to engage we will leave him out for now. I am giving him due notice—he had his opportunity.
When the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the current Lord Chancellor, visited my constituency in May, she visited the Orwell food enterprise zone and heard about the skills challenges faced by local small and medium-sized businesses in the food sector. She said that the Government were considering a proposal to allow large food businesses to share their apprenticeship levy with the local supply chain to encourage local buying of food and local skills. Has there been any progress on that?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have been arguing for that to happen for some time, because some large food producers are caught by the levy but would rather use it further up their supply chain. In August, the Department for Education published proposals for funding apprenticeships in England from May 2017, which propose that from 2018, employers will be able to transfer up to 10% of their levy funds in any year to another employer with a digital account. That deals with this issue.
Marine habitats are a matter of real concern to my constituents, who are very concerned about the threat of underground coal gasification in the Dee estuary, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier response on marine protected areas but would like to push her further on this point. Over the past two Parliaments the Government have created only 50 marine protected areas when their own advisers have recommended 127. Will she confirm that in the third tranche that she alluded to we will reach the recommended 127?
The original 127 sites were cited, but we have to follow the scientific evidence. That is the basis of this process. It is not about setting arbitrary targets but about making sure that we have a scientifically robust blue belt. That is what we will continue to do with the next phase of consultation.
Several farmers in my constituency of Louth and Horncastle have complained to me that the Rural Payments Agency has made mistakes in the land maps that determine how much they are paid. Will my hon. Friend help me to advise them on what can be done to address that, now and in future, so that farmers in my constituency receive fair payment for the land that is actually theirs?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Lots of farmers have been affected by the challenges we face in this first year of the new, more complex common agricultural policy scheme. A number of farmers —several thousand—had to go through a reconciliation process where we had to match some of the land-use codes they had with the land maps, which caused some complexity. I believe that the issue has now been resolved, but if she has any specific cases that are still a problem I am happy to meet her to discuss them.
Given the recent discovery of a livestock strain of MRSA in British meat products in UK supermarkets, what action is the Secretary of State’s Department taking to stop the emergence of resistant bacteria? Will she increase support to UK farmers on the use of antibiotics in meat production, to address real concerns about food safety and exports?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He will be aware that the UK is the world leader on getting out the agenda that we need to reduce our use of antibiotics in agriculture and tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance. The Government have a strategy that sets targets for reductions in the use of antibiotics in some livestock sectors. We are also investing in research to support other approaches to husbandry that reduce the need for antibiotic use. This is an important agenda that the Government take very seriously.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church has 4,700 primary and secondary schools that seek to provide excellent education to 1 million pupils each year. These are not faith schools for the faithful but Church schools for the whole community, and the Church does not propose to change that. The 50% cap applies only to new free schools that are oversubscribed. The majority of our new free schools, like many of our existing schools, do not have any faith-based oversubscription criteria.
I welcome that answer. Newcastle is a city of diverse, strong and generally united and mutually respectful communities, and our faith communities make an important contribution. The rise of hate crime since the referendum emphasises the importance of teaching that we have more in common. Mrs Davison, the head of St Cuthbert’s in Newcastle, tells me that that school’s mix of students from varying faiths and none assists inclusivity and enrichment, and ensures that the school is representative of the community. Do the commissioners agree that the proposed changes threaten the benefits of inclusivity at this crucial time?
I share completely the hon. Lady’s concerns about the rise in hate crime following the referendum. Every Member in this House is concerned about that. I point her to what the Secretary of State for Education herself said about the education that Church schools provide:
“They have an ethos and a level of academic attainment that we are trying to achieve more broadly across the whole system.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 22.]
Church schools provide education for the community as a whole, not just those who go to church.
Anglican and Catholic Churches
The Archbishop of Canterbury recently visited Assisi and Rome to deepen and strengthen relationships with His Holiness Pope Francis, and the relationship between the worldwide Anglican communion and the Roman Catholic Church. That visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican centre in Rome, which was itself the beginning of a process of healing and reconciliation.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer, but if I may, I will seamlessly move to relations with the Orthodox Church. Does she agree that the visit of Patriarch Kirill in the next week give us an opportunity to build bridges with the Orthodox Church at a time when our relationship with Moscow is perhaps not all it should be?
The hon. Lady is right. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes that deeper relations between all Christian Churches is a contribution to the peace that we all desire in such turbulent times. The visit by the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ is an opportunity not only to celebrate the 300 years of Russian Orthodox worship in London, but no doubt to discuss current affairs.
The Church of England, through its presence in every community and its large network of schools, is an enormous asset in building community relations. As we have just discussed, Church of England schools play a leading role in value-based education. That building of trust, awareness and community is an important bulwark against the spread of extremism.
With extremism being such a great threat to the UK, what plans does the Church of England education office have to expand its “What if Learning” approach, which was recently successfully piloted in more than 20 schools?
The Church promotes a number of schemes around the country to counter extremism and improve relations. The “What if Learning” scheme in schools has proved to be a good example of how we can help children from a very young age to understand the important principles of our society and the tolerance that we need to show to others of different faiths and points of view. We must also think about how we reach adults. I commend two schemes: the Church’s Living Well Together initiative, and the Near Neighbours initiative. I should like to take this opportunity to invite colleagues to hear more about those initiatives on 23 November at 4 pm, after the autumn statement, in the Jubilee Room.
Recent research on extremism suggests that a sense of humiliation, particularly among traumatised communities and individuals, is a major driver of extremism. Are the Church Commissioners aware of the need to look at bullying and traumatisation?
The hon. Lady is right that humiliation is a strong emotion that can lead to people taking strong positions and actions as a consequence. The Church is not just looking at that, but has rolled out those important initiatives. I commend to her initiatives such as Near Neighbours, funding for which came from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which demonstrated that, in our cities, there is a great opportunity to bridge the gap and speak into the humiliation that some people feel.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is imperative that those of other faiths are not left isolated in our communities, and that more help should be offered to facilitate community events to establish relationships that span the divides of religion?
The hon. Gentleman can speak with feeling on that subject. One of the most important things that the Christian denominations can do is work together to reach across to people of other faith, with whom we have a great deal in common, and defuse some of the misrepresentations of those faiths, so that the wider secular aspects of society know that we can speak and live in harmony.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked
The Electoral Commission welcomed in August the publication of the Pickles report and recommendations on electoral fraud, particularly his support for the commission’s recommendations that the Government should consider introducing voter ID at polling stations in Great Britain. The commission will submit its response shortly to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who is responsible for constitutional matters.
What can be done to ensure that staff at polling stations observe and enforce the rule that voters are accompanied to the polling booth only if they are blind or otherwise unable to make their mark?
There is Electoral Commission guidance for electoral registration officers on this very point. My right hon. Friend raises an important point. That should not happen, but I will refer his concerns to the Electoral Commission to see whether the guidance needs to be clarified or made more robust. I am grateful to him for raising it.
My hon. Friend knows that I have had long-standing serious concerns about electoral fraud in some parts of Bradford. I particularly welcome what he says about ID at polling stations. When might we expect the first elections to take place where that is the rule?
I am delighted to say that that is not a matter for the Electoral Commission, which has recommended this measure strongly since 2014. It is now a matter for the Government and this House to introduce this more robust new provision.
If someone wants to open a bank account, they have to produce all manner of identities. Yet to do the most important thing we can in our democracy, which is to vote, they do not have to produce ID. Can we expect to see that change?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend supports the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that registration and identification should be introduced at polling stations. It is now for the Government to respond.
I call Barry Sheerman. Where is the fella? He has beetled out of the Chamber. That is very unlike the hon. Gentleman. I call Mr David Hanson.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church of England is working on two main levels to assist refugees being resettled under the vulnerable person relocation scheme. The Home Secretary went to Lambeth Palace on 19 July to launch the new scheme for community sponsorship, which demonstrates the importance the Church attaches to action as well as words.
The Church nationally has been very active on refugees. Parishes such as Holywell in my constituency have been very supportive and active, too. The Home Secretary has now apparently made a commitment to accept child refugees to the United Kingdom. What steps can the Church take to help with resettlement, particularly in the field of fostering?
The Church has reached out through its parishes to provide practical help—clothing, food and English language lessons—for the refugees in our midst. To be practical about expediting reuniting children with their families in the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury has sent a youth worker to Calais. There is a call in all our parishes for more foster parents, so that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children can have a warm welcome and a safe home in our country.
LGBT Christians: Pastoral Care
I am unable to answer on the work of the Church in Wales, but the chaplaincy there recently launched in the diocese of St Asaph. It is true that the Church of England is operating a similar number of smaller scale projects. The best example I can think of is in Manchester, where a monthly communion service operates in some parishes specifically for the LGBT community.
I am delighted that, although the Church Commissioners’ writ does not run in the Church in Wales—we are not seeking to change that—the right hon. Lady has already noticed the excellent work of the diocese of St Asaph LGBT chaplaincy. Does she agree that now is the time for those of us who are Christian but not of the LGBT community to give more careful consideration to these issues?
Yes, absolutely. It is completely in line with the policy of the Church of England. The House of Bishops has consistently encouraged the clergy to offer appropriate pastoral support, including informal prayer with LGBT people, Christians and others. I think that that injunction is on us all.
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that I need no excuse to visit his beautiful constituency, having fought the election there in 1992. I was back there this summer visiting friends at Hodsock Priory, which I know he is aware of. The important and beautiful church at Scrooby is home to the festival that will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers. I have looked into the needs that it may have. I suggest we work together to ensure that the event is a great success.
The right hon. Lady is very welcome to re-tread the streets of Scrooby, and if she does, she might care to bring one of the many descendants of the pilgrims with her. If, with her good contacts, she could arrange it, the most popular would probably be Mr Richard Gere.
If only! I know that what the hon. Gentleman is looking for specifically from the Church Commissioners is some assistance with the improvement to the facilities. I have looked into this question. The church hall has facilities to ensure that the event is a success, but perhaps if he encourages the church wardens to contact me or Church House, we can make sure the event is a great success, with or without a celebrity attendance.
Priests: Same-sex Marriage
I suspect the right hon. Gentleman wants to ask me, as he did before, about a specific case, but the case of Canon Pemberton is still pending a judgment from his appeal, so I am afraid I will be unable to comment on it in any detail. The Pilling report was commissioned by the Church of England at the start of a shared conversation about sexuality, which reached its conclusion at the Synod in July. The House of Bishops has asked for a summary to be created by the bishops reference group.
But with a growing number of priests, including now one bishop, deciding commendably to be open about their sexual orientation, and indeed their marital status, why is the Church of England spending our money pursuing a legal case against Canon Jeremy Pemberton simply because he is married?
Obviously the Church is on a journey with this issue, as many of us have been, but I would gently point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the Church was not the plaintiff. Canon Pemberton was the plaintiff and therefore the Church had to defend itself in a legal process. The initial case was lost and now Canon Pemberton has sought to appeal. There will be significant costs attached to that, but the Church did not initiate those legal proceedings.
Last month I attended, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), a service of thanksgiving for the world war one centenary cathedral repairs fund at Lichfield. Without the generosity of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), it would not have been possible to effect the kind of repairs that many of our cathedrals have required just to remain open.
Derby cathedral is such an important asset to the city, bringing visitors and businesses to the wider region. Without the financial support of the world war one cathedral fund, the cathedral would potentially have faced closure to the public, due to the condition of the electrics and the roof. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating all the trades, craftspeople and apprentices who have worked to keep the cathedral open and to secure its future for at least the next 100 years? It is much improved.
I would be very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating them on all that remarkable work. In fact, Derby cathedral has received the third highest amount of world war one grant funding to date—nearly £1.4 million—to effect, as she said, roof repairs and completely refurbish the interior. There is no question but that these repairs have created jobs for skilled craftsmen and ensured a sustainable future for our cathedrals.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 17 October—Second Reading of the Savings (Government Contributions) Bill.
Tuesday 18 October—Debate on the BBC on a Government motion.
Wednesday 19 October—Opposition day (9th allotted day). There will be a debate on an SNP motion, subject to be announced.
Thursday 20 October—Debate on a motion on BHS, followed by a general debate on industrial strategy. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 21 October—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 24 October will include:
Monday 24 October—Second Reading of the Health Services Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill.
Tuesday 25 October—Opposition day (10th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.
Wednesday 26 October—Consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 27 October—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 28 October—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for October and early November will be:
Monday 17 October—Debate on e-petitions relating to the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Thursday 20 October—Debate on the Education Committee reports on mental health and well-being of looked-after children and on social work reform, followed by a general debate on National Arthritis Week 2016.
Monday 24 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to the local government pension scheme.
Thursday 27 October—Debate on the Defence Committee reports on defence expenditure and the use of Lariam for military personnel.
Monday 31 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to driven grouse shooting.
Thursday 3 November—General debate on the future of the steel industry.
I thank the Leader of the House for his warm welcome and for the time he took to speak to me about this role. I also thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for all his hard work in the two jobs that he undertook.
It is the first week back, and there is a crisis. This morning I received a text—an upgrade from an email—from a Jeremy, who says, “We want our Marmite back”, so will the Leader of the House do all he can to make sure that there is Marmite on the shelves? I say to Jeremy: “Cut back on the salt, and if you want to protest, do not sit on the floor and shave your beard!”
It is the first week back, and it has been a bad week for the Government. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s honeymoon period, most of which was in the Swiss Alps in the recess, came to an end as she faced her first Government defeat in the other place, which voted through new laws to compensate phone-hacking victims. Quite rightly in the age of legal aid cutbacks, victims should have access to justice and protected costs.
May we have a debate to clarify the policy of the Home Secretary’s proposals for firms to provide a list of foreign workers whom they employ? The Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s Question Time that that was not what was said, so why did more than 100 business leaders write an open letter to the Home Secretary, calling for the idea to be abandoned, saying that foreign workers should be “celebrated not demonised”? The Government may have back-tracked on the policy, just a week after it was outlined, but we need clarification that it is obsolete. If the Leader of the House went back to his alma mater, the University of Cambridge, he would know that the new Vice-Chancellor is, in fact, Canadian, so would he have to be reported to the Home Secretary? It is the anniversary of the battle of Hastings on Friday—it took place 950 years ago—so this reversal could be seen as one in the eye for the Home Secretary.
At the Conservatives’ annual conference, the Chancellor announced a U-turn on six years of Government policy. You will know, Mr Speaker, that at the time of the party conference, the pound fell—and it is still falling. Since last week, we have seen a loss of 6% against the dollar—usually a headline associated with the Labour party. The Chancellor also said that he is cancelling the plan of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) to balance the nation’s books by 2020. Instead, the Government will invest their way out of the deficit and would now borrow to invest. That sounds remarkably like the Opposition’s policy. May we have statement immediately, before the autumn statement in November, on what is being done at the Treasury on the state of the pound?
So this Government are not the Government of business, not the Government of sound fiscal policy and not the Government of the vulnerable. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions now says that people with severe, lifelong conditions will no longer face those humiliating six-monthly reassessments—but only those claiming employment and support allowance; claimants of the personal independence payment will still be subject to those inappropriate assessments. Bizarrely, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), welcomed this “progressive” reform of the retesting regime, although he introduced the assessments and they were voted for by Conservative Members. May we have a debate in Government time on the state of the assessments and their removal, as called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)?
This is our first week back after the conference recess, and there have been no votes. The first was scheduled for the Opposition day yesterday, but the Government conceded the Opposition’s motion, which basically asked for Parliament to be sovereign. We want our sovereignty back. That was all that was being asked for—making Parliament sovereign in any negotiations that affect the British people.
The referendum posed a simple question: in or out. It did not cover immigration, and it did not cover the single market. All that has to be negotiated and put to the British people through their elected representatives. The great repeal Bill, which will feature in the next Queen’s Speech, will deal only with the incorporation of EU laws in domestic law. May we have a debate in Government time on the framework of the negotiating stance, given that there are only five months—and 170 unanswered questions—before article 50 is invoked?
I know that the Leader of the House is keen to restore Parliament’s reputation. On Tuesday, he will have seen Parliament at her best—as will you, Mr Speaker, when you were in the Chair—and I am sure he will agree with me that it was incredible to see members of all parties present petitions as part of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign for fair transitional arrangements, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley). My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) put the figure at roughly £2 billion. Given the strength of feeling among all our constituents throughout the United Kingdom, may we have a statement to do justice to the WASPI women?
May we also have a debate on the report “The Good Parliament” by Dr Sarah Childs, which recommends making Parliament user-friendly to men, women, families and those with disabilities, and could that debate be consolidated with the debate that is to be held on restoration and renewal?
You will have noted, Mr Speaker, that peace has broken out—in Colombia. I congratulate its President, Juan Manuel Santos, on a hard-won peace, and on his Nobel peace prize. We look forward to his visit on 1 November.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that she was speaking for the British people who voted to leave. Well, that amounts to just 51.9%, because 48.1% voted to remain and 28% did not vote at all. If the Prime Minister is representing only 51.9%, my colleagues—each and every one of them, with their talents and skills—are ready to serve all the British people.
I warmly welcome the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) to her new responsibilities. I am sure that she will bring to the role the wit and good humour, as well as the commitment to the House, that we have grown to expect of her during her time here. Let me also thank and pay tribute to her predecessor, the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for his service. He is the living embodiment of the principle that age is nothing but a number. Throughout his parliamentary career, he has continued to express his views, and to speak on behalf of his constituents and his party, with all the passion and commitment that brought him into politics in the first place.
The hon. Lady made various points about work and pensions matters. The Government will, of course, respond in the way that they normally do to petitions that Members present to the House, and Members in all parts of the House will have an opportunity to put questions to DWP Ministers about their responsibilities as early as next Monday, when DWP questions will take place.
I think that the hon. Lady tempted providence slightly when she talked about honeymoons. I have yet to see the Leader of the Opposition’s honeymoon even begin, let alone end.
I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will have sympathy for the hon. Lady’s call to restore our Marmite. The best advice I can give her, in relation to her email correspondent, is to advise Jeremy that a number of own-brand yeast extracts will be available during the current commercial dispute between the wholesaler and the retailer, and I am confident that in an area such as Islington there will be a wealth of traditional and organic alternatives available to the discerning customer.
I shall now touch on some of the other points that the hon. Lady raised. I shall take back and reflect on the points she made about a debate on the Childs report, “The Good Parliament”, and whether it would be appropriate to link that to the debate that we are going to have on the restoration and renewal report in due course. I know that the Select Committee on Women and Equalities is looking into the implications of “The Good Parliament” report as part of its own work at the moment. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) and the Leader of the Opposition gave evidence to that Committee on some of those matters earlier this week.
The hon. Lady raised questions about foreign workers. The position on this is perfectly clear. The Government have made it plain that there is no question of naming individual employees or trying to shame companies, but it is not unreasonable for the Government to go out to consultation—which is what is being planned—on whether firms should be asked to supply evidence about the proportion of their workforce that is made up of workers from outside the UK. For one thing, that might be a way of providing independent evidence about labour shortages and informing the Government’s approach to what we and British industry might do address that issue. This system already operates in the United States of America, after all, so I do not think that a consultation of that sort is unreasonable in the way that she suggests.
The hon. Lady also asked about European matters. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), said yesterday during his speech, and I reiterate today, that we will make Government time available for debates on the European Union on the Floor of the House. At the moment, we are considering exactly when that will happen and what form those debates might take. I was glad that the Opposition accepted the Government amendment yesterday, but before the hon. Lady gives lectures on democracy, she really needs to have a word with some of her shadow Cabinet colleagues. I yield to no one in my open support for the remain cause during the referendum, but if we are democrats, we have to accept the outcome. It remains the case that, as recently as 11 September, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said on “The Murnaghan Programme” that that was not enough. She said:
“I think that we have to have some form of democratic, an injection of democracy in some way…I think we need to go back to the British people in some way”.
That is at odds with the message that came from the Opposition Front Bench yesterday about the Opposition accepting the referendum outcome, whatever view any of us took during the campaign. So I hope that we will see greater consistency from the Opposition in future.
May we have an early debate on gravy trains? That would give us the opportunity to look at the latest jobs on offer at HS2, namely the position of chief executive, which will pay between £700,000 and £800,000 a year, and posts for four recent graduates, which offer salaries of up to about £30,000. Those graduates would be required to
“write the story of HS2 from inception to the present day”.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House and the Speaker would agree with me that our constituents would not consider that a good use of taxpayers’ money. What success has the Leader of the House had in persuading HS2 and the Department for Transport that spending money on writing their version of “Thomas the Tank Engine” is not exactly enhancing their reputations?
When this report reached Transport Ministers, they immediately issued instructions to cancel the advertisement and approach this matter in a different way. Undoubtedly, there are lessons to be learned from the history of HS2 up till now, but my right hon. Friend will share the view of the Transport Secretary that the approach that she has described was not the best use of taxpayers’ money.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on her appointment. She comes to her position as a well-liked and respected individual, and I certainly look forward to working with her. I wish also to pay a short tribute to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). To go from two jobs to no jobs is pretty callous, so let us get a petition together to get the hon. Gentleman restored to the Front Bench. The hon. Member for Walsall South is the fourth shadow Leader of the House in my short tenure here. I hope that her position is a little more durable than that of some of her illustrious predecessors.
Who would have thought that the first casualty of this hard Brexit would be the nation’s supplies of Marmite? The catastrophic collapse in the pound has led to an unseemly spat between Tesco and Unilever, which seems to suggest that even our supplies of PG Tips might be threatened. As I was sitting around with a morning brew, I thought that perhaps it was time to reconsider and rethink this plan for a full English Brexit. Perhaps we could consider a more palatable continental Brexit instead.
We need an urgent statement about the position of European nationals in this country. A number of my constituents who are EU nationals are getting increasingly anxious and concerned about some of the anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric that has emerged from the Conservative party in the past few weeks. They want to be reassured that their status is secure. All this talk about lists, closed or not, and about having their position in this country relegated to little more than bargaining chips, is setting off all sorts of alarm bells.
We learned next to nothing about the Tory Brexit plans yesterday, other than the fact that it is the hard right of the Conservative party who are now in charge of the agenda. I support the calls to have full debates on this matter. We owe it to our constituents to ensure that they are properly consulted and involved in the process. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for announcing that further details will be forthcoming. Perhaps he could tell us a little bit more about them just now.
It is great to be back after the conference recess. The reason that I cut such a lonely figure on these Benches this morning is that our conference actually starts today, which makes the idea of a conference recess almost totally pointless. Will the Leader of the House have another look at this again? If we are to have a conference recess, can it please include all the main parties of this House or none of them at all?
l will certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s last point about party conferences, although, as he will know, all parties fix the dates and book the venues of their conferences several years ahead, so this is not something on which I can offer hope of change in the immediate future.
On his serious point about EU nationals living in the United Kingdom, I will respond by saying two things. First, people who have come lawfully from other European countries and who are living here, working here and contributing to our society in many different positive ways should be both welcomed and respected. We should have no truck whatever with xenophobic language let alone with tolerance of some of the appalling instances of abuse or even physical attacks that we have seen. Those should be deplored and condemned by people from all political parties, and by people who were active on both sides of the referendum campaign.
Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear more than once that her objective is to secure an agreement that enables people who are already in the United Kingdom lawfully to remain after we leave the EU. She would be keen to get agreement on that at an early stage of the exit negotiations. The only thing that we can see that would stop that happening would be if, for some reason, it were not possible to persuade the other 27 countries that British citizens on their territory should not be accorded similar rights. It ought to be in everyone’s interests to settle this definitively and early on, and I hope that we are able to achieve that.
I do not want to dwell too much on Marmite; I am sure that there is as much appetite for that product in Scotland as there is anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I simply note that, on the information that I have been given this morning, the ingredients of Marmite are not imported into the UK but are manufactured and supplied here. It is probably not for the Government to intervene in what seems to be a dispute between two commercial companies.
The Government have done extremely well in making their announcement about the disapplication of aspects of the European convention on human rights from the battlefield in future conflicts. This has been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, not least by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) who, with fellow members of the Defence Sub-Committee and other hon. Members, has focused attention on this important issue in a tremendous campaign. When will the Government make further announcements, not about protecting people in future conflicts, but about protecting people who currently face pursuit in the courts over past and present conflicts?
Following the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary a few days ago, the Government, led by the Ministry of Defence, are actively looking at the measures that we would need to take to give effect to this policy. Legislative change might be required, in which case we shall have to prepare such legislation and bring it forward as early as we can, when there is an appropriate legislative opportunity.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and the news that next week we will be debating British Home Stores and the impact on its former work force. There will also be a general debate on industrial strategy, which is long overdue. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for notice that Thursday 27 October will be a full day for Backbench Business Committee debates; we had understood that it would be a part day.
May I ask Members bringing applications to the Committee for specific dates to give us a number of weeks’ notice? This afternoon, for instance, we have a debate on baby loss, which has been secured with the advance agreement of the Leader of the House, but we were able to do that only because we had advance notice. This week, of course, is baby loss awareness week.
Members may have noticed that the occupation of these particular Benches has been a bit thin in the past few weeks, and this week in particular. It is because my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) are both undergoing treatment as they battle their illnesses. I wish them, on behalf of the House, a speedy recovery.
On behalf of the Government and my right hon. and hon. Friends, I join the hon. Gentleman in wishing a speedy restoration to health to the hon. Members for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell).
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. We always try to give as much notice as possible to him and his Committee. I should issue a word of caution about Thursday 27 October, however. The Government’s current intention is that half a day will be allocated to the Backbench Business Committee. As I said in my statement, the business for that week is provisional at this stage; I will be able to speak with much more certainty next week.
Given that I was born and brought up in Burton upon Trent, I feel that I should be talking about Marmite—after all, that is where it is made—but I am going to talk about buses. In July, I supported Arriva’s “catch the bus” week. Only a matter of weeks later, Arriva announced that it was axing services, including the No. 3 bus to Norton Canes, leaving elderly residents who are reliant on that service completely cut off and unable to catch a bus. May we have a debate in Government time about the importance of bus services to the health and wellbeing of elderly residents?
My hon. Friend is a fierce champion for the communities in her constituency on bus services, as on other matters, and I hope that she will have the opportunity to make her case directly to Arriva, as the local bus provider, and to the relevant local authority about whether it can provide any kind of subsidy to bus services that are essential socially, but that are not viable in strictly economic terms. The Government want a diverse mix of public transport provision—bus and rail services, and other kinds—and I am sure that if she wants to put her case in detail to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, he and his team will look carefully at the concerns that she expresses.
The Care Quality Commission has said today that it is becoming concerned about the fragility of the adult social care market, with evidence suggesting that it might be approaching a tipping point. May we have an urgent debate about the crisis in social care funding? Only on Tuesday I raised with the Secretary of State for Health the fact that local authorities must be properly funded for social care.
All hon. Members, on whichever side of the House they sit, certainly understand the importance to their constituents of ensuring that NHS services and local authority social care are organised and managed in a way that looks to the constituent—to the client or patient—first of all, and that budgets are organised and commissioning takes place to try to ensure there is as much support for the needs of the individual as possible. I had the chance this morning to look briefly at the Care Quality Commission’s report. What struck me was that it says that 72% of adult social care services, 87% of GP practices and 56% of the core services of NHS hospital trusts have been rated as either good or outstanding. It does point to challenges that need to be addressed and argues that less-well-performing authorities need to learn from the experience of those that are more successful. It seems to me that the commission is doing its job as an independent inspectorate, but what it has actually found is that the quality of care that most people receive in this country is very good.
Constituents in Potters Bar, Borehamwood and Radlett in my constituency rely on Govia Thameslink railways. They are used to endless excuses for its lamentable performance, but the company reached a new low yesterday, when we discovered that it is cancelling trains if it discovers graffiti that it deems offensive. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is completely absurd? Is there some mechanism for the House to convey to the company that its first priority should be getting passengers to work and home on time?
My hon. Friend is clearly campaigning very hard on behalf of his constituents. Some years ago, I used to live quite close to his constituency, so I am well aware of the importance of those commuter rail services to the people whom he represents. I suggest that his message to Govia should be to encourage it, yes, to put the need to provide for passengers first, but also to work more closely with its cleaning contractors and the transport police to ensure that trains are cleaned of offensive graffiti in a timely fashion and that the people responsible for the graffiti are identified and brought to justice.
I think that the Leader of the House went to school in Elstree, if memory serves me correctly.
May I join the Leader of the House in congratulating the shadow Leader of the House on her appointment? It has taken her only six years to get to the Front Bench; I am still in the same place I was 29 years ago. This is also my first opportunity to congratulate the Leader of the House on his appointment. I first met him 40 years ago, and indeed may well have voted for him to be chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association all that time ago.
Last week, 140 young Yemenis were killed in Sanaa, when bombs fell on a funeral cortège. Last night, Houthi rebels fired at warships owned by the Americans in the gulf of Aden. The situation in Yemen is deteriorating. We had an important debate on Syria that was well attended in the House and granted by you, Mr Speaker, but we must not allow Yemen to be the forgotten conflict. When can we have a full debate on the situation in Yemen, before it gets even worse?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I think that somewhere in my loft I have the programme card that lists him as a CUCA college secretary at some distant date in the past. He raises a really serious subject. Yemen is too often overlooked as we focus on the appalling situation in Syria. As he will, I think, know by now, he has obtained an Adjournment debate on Yemen on 18 October, which will enable him to raise some of these matters, and we have Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on 18 October, too, which will enable him and other colleagues to raise these matters with the Secretary of State and Foreign Office Ministers. I completely share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that the Government need to continue to do all that they can to help to support the UN special envoy for Yemen and his valiant efforts to establish a credible peace process, and to devote a decent slice of our humanitarian aid budget to helping people in desperate need in that country.
The Leader of the House will soon bring to the House a debate on the full decant of Parliament from the Palace of Westminster. He knows my views—I question the proposal—but that is not important; what is important is that we get a range of options. Will he consider, when he brings forward the debate, having not just one nuclear option—that we all leave for six years—but a range of options? For instance, one option could be that we start the work now, during the summer breaks, and we do so from 20 July to 12 October, either by abolishing the September sitting or, if that is not possible, holding it in Edinburgh, to buttress the Union, or Belfast or Cardiff. May we please have a full range of options? Sometimes in life, a Marmite solution that one loves or hates is not the best solution; sometimes a more nuanced approach is a better way of doing things.
As I said earlier, there will be, as recommended by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, a debate and decision by this House, and separately by the House of Lords, on the proposals in the Committee’s report. I am giving thought to the precise wording of the motion to be tabled. Whatever the form of words used, the motion will be, subject to your ruling, Mr Speaker, capable of amendment. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will want to look at the motion and see whether they want to change it in any way.
I hope that hon. Members take the time to read the Joint Committee’s report. It is a completely cross-party Committee. It spent a lot of time on the subject and interrogated a lot of witnesses before reaching its recommendations, and the House owes it to colleagues who served on the Committee to look seriously at the arguments and evidence that it has presented.
The Leader of the House just put a very complacent gloss on the Care Quality Commission report. This is our independent health and social care regulator. The report is devastating. It contains an explicit request, which is unprecedented from the commission, for urgent funds for social care now. That follows exactly the same call by the person whom the Government appointed to lead the NHS, Simon Stevens. When will we get an emergency statement from the Secretary of State for Health on what he will do about our collapsing health and social care sector?
I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman’s description of my earlier response. I not only had a look at the report this morning, but listened to the chief executive of the commission speaking on BBC radio, and it was he who said that the key lesson was that best practice needed to be copied by those authorities and NHS areas that were not delivering the best quality service at present. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will, of course, want to consider very carefully and urgently the views expressed in the Care Quality Commission’s report. I am sure he will want to make clear to the House in the relatively near future his view on its recommendations, and there will be opportunity at Health questions or otherwise to put questions to him.
In East Cowes, as well, no doubt, as elsewhere, the Homes and Communities Agency appears to have forgotten that its brief includes delivering much-needed business premises as well as homes, thus threatening economic development and island homes. Will the Leader of the House consider scheduling a debate on this issue?
I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but my hon. Friend has been in the House long enough to know that there may be opportunities by way of Adjournment debates or questions to Ministers that enable him to speak up on behalf of his constituents.
Figures show that one in five of my constituents are over-indebted, which is why I am bringing the Money Advice Service to Bristol South tomorrow to meet other local debt advice services and support them. May we have a debate on problem debt to help us to understand the Government’s position and their strategy for addressing this serious issue for working people?
We all have constituents who have benefited from debt advice, which is not always best provided by an agency that has “OHMS” stamped all over it. It is sometimes better provided through a voluntary organisation that is able to engage with people in a less rule-bound way than is usually the case with even the best-intentioned Government agencies. I will take back to my hon. Friends with ministerial responsibility the concern that the hon. Lady has expressed and ask the relevant Minister to write to her directly.
The National Citizen Service provides incredible opportunities for young people in Corby and east Northamptonshire, ably led by Nigel Anderson and his team at the University of the First Age. With the very welcome news that David Cameron is to take a greater role in the NCS programme going forward, may we have a debate next week on the terrific opportunities that that provides for young people across our country?
That is a cause that David Cameron championed during his time as Prime Minister and I am delighted that he is continuing his association with the cause afterwards. As my hon. Friend will know, earlier this week the Government introduced the National Citizen Service Bill, which will put the NCS on a statutory basis for the first time.
Yesterday I attended an event organised by the Gun Control Network to mark the 20th anniversary of the implementation of measures for gun control following the Dunblane tragedy. Measures brought in at that time have made an enormous difference and have undoubtedly saved many lives. However, regrettably, people are still dying from gun use and gun ownership, and too often that is caused by licensed firearms. May we have a statement from the Government on their plans to continue to combat gun crime?
I know that the Home Office is looking at the legislation governing gun dealers, and that may go some way to address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. It is right that we remind ourselves that police forces have an important responsibility to ensure that people who hold firearms licences legitimately store guns and ammunition in a secure and safe fashion, and that they are fit and responsible people to have such licences.
The Government have a policy of closing old Victorian prisons and replacing them with modern ones. Wellingborough prison, which is a reserve prison, is a modern one. May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Justice on how that policy is working and, in particular, on what is happening to Wellingborough prison?
My hon. Friend will want to talk with the Prisons Minister about Wellingborough prison, but I am sure that the policy is the right one for our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to be pursuing. Not only are more modern prisons more cost-effective than maintaining prisons on what has become very valuable inner-city real estate, but they provide conditions for prisoners that are more secure and humane than those in the old-fashioned, Victorian prisons, which in some cases have lasted for far too long.
Many constituents have contacted me recently regarding visitor visa refusals for close relatives who want to visit their family. Most unsuccessful applicants have travelled to the UK previously on a visitor visa and ensured full compliance. May we have a debate in Government time so that we can look into the issue and find out why we appear suddenly to be having many more refusals, which are largely unexplained, than we did in previous years?
Those of us who deal with a significant amount of immigration casework in our constituencies will know that it is quite difficult to generalise about cases when the quality of evidence varies greatly. From my experience, I advise my constituents that it is really important to have the audit trail of evidence to show that there is a previous pattern of sticking to the terms of visas that have previously been granted, and also the best possible documentation to show that a potential visitor has good reasons to return home afterwards, such as family or job reasons.
The late Eric Forth used to have a description for early-day motions, but there is insufficient chastity in language to repeat it without offence. Nevertheless, may we have a statement from my right hon. Friend on the wholesale abuse and trivialisation of EDMs, not least by the Scottish National party?
My own view is that early-day motions are an overrated currency. I was somewhat surprised to see reports this morning that Scottish National party Members have been spending so much time tabling early-day motions, and on subjects ranging from Christmas trees to the anniversary of the first screening of “Star Trek”. They need to be a little careful, because a number of us are coming to the conclusion that they do not have enough work to do, and I think their constituents would be somewhat shocked to find that out.
I welcome the shadow Leader of the House to her post and acknowledge her reference to the peace in Colombia and the forthcoming visit by President Santos. In that context, will the Leader of the House ensure that he and his colleagues, who have in very valid terms ruled out a second referendum here, do not mistranslate that message, given the particular challenges in Colombia, because a second referendum might well be what they need following the national dialogue and other negotiations now in train?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have, for a long time and under successive British Governments, supported the efforts to try to bring about an end to the appalling conflict in Colombia. We welcome the courageous work President Santos has done to try to reach that agreement, and British Ministers are certainly not going to, in any way, seek to tell the President of Colombia how he should proceed in setting the final seal on an agreement that we all hope will endure.
Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on the policy of allowing prisoners out to spend time with their families at Christmas? It seems from an answer to a parliamentary question that 973 prisoners were allowed home to spend time with their families last Christmas, including 61 murderers. I would have hoped that it went without saying that the victims of those murderers will never be able to spend Christmas at home with their families again. The Government might reflect on what the families of those victims must think when those murderers are allowed out to enjoy a family Christmas at home, when the victims will never have that experience again. The Government might tell prisoners that if they want to spend time at home with their families at Christmas they should not commit the crimes in the first place that get them sent to prison.
I will certainly draw the Justice Secretary’s attention to the point my hon. Friend has made, but I would just add this: all but a very small number of prisoners are going to be released one day, either at the end of the sentence or on life licence. It is not unreasonable, in the context of people who are approaching the end of a sentence, to be looking at ways in which to make it possible for them to adjust to society outside prison and to earn a living, take family responsibility and, hopefully, pursue a better path at that point. Where my hon. Friend is absolutely right is that such a step needs to be looked at in the context of overall sentence planning, and should not be a way in which to soften the necessity for the punitive aspect of a prison sentence, which the public rightly expect judges and the Prison Service to see enforced.
In response to the crisis in the steel industry, the Government produced some better procurement guidelines. It would appear that those have not yet reached the Ministry of Defence, which is using French steel to build Trident submarines. May we have a statement by the Business Secretary on how those procurement guidelines are affecting the steel industry in a positive way and how he will move the Ministry of Defence’s marks up from E minus to alpha plus?
We do source British steel wherever possible, but in this case there was no viable UK bid for the specialised steel required for this particular part of the Successor submarine manufacture. Other stages of construction will include steel that British suppliers can support, and we expect them to take the opportunity to bid. As with every major Government procurement, we are working hard to ensure that, where we can, we source British steel. We expect about 85% of the BAE Systems supply chain for the new submarines to be based in the UK.
May we have a debate in Government time on long-term funding for health and social care and on the way in which we raise that funding? There was an interesting leader in The Times yesterday on that subject, which made some suggestions, but it is vital that we take the opportunity now to look at how things move forward post-2020, given the Government’s welcome support up to that point.
It will be important, as we move towards 2020, to see the NHS making best possible use of the extra £10 billion the Government have allocated to it—£2 billion more than the NHS itself had requested—but also for the NHS to deliver on the internal reforms that the chief executive has said he intends and needs to carry out. I am sure my hon. Friend will find an opportunity to raise some of these wider questions about future funding with Health Ministers, either at questions or perhaps through a Westminster Hall debate.
May we have a debate on the political and security situation in Kashmir? As my right hon. Friend will be aware, there has been a serious escalation in violence there in recent weeks, which is understandably a matter of great concern to those with a Kashmiri heritage not just in my constituency but right across the country.
My hon. Friend may well have the opportunity to raise this matter directly with the Foreign Secretary at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday. I share his wish to see an end to the violence in Kashmir, which has continued for far too long. That will in the end depend on the readiness of the Governments of both India and Pakistan to hammer out an agreement with which they both feel able to live.
I offer warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), whose talents have at last been recognised. Her appointment guarantees that the exchanges between the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House will continue to be a very welcome oasis of political restraint, good sense and good humour.
When can we debate the royal prerogative and the supreme duty of the sovereign to act in the interests of the nation when a Government start to act in their own interests rather than those of the nation? Now that there is a certain Brexit crisis ahead—and given that we should judge the value of the referendum on the basis that it was won by deceptions, exaggerations and lies from both parties—how will the Leader of the House handle the situation if, in the service of the nation and in the service of the will of the democratic majority of this House, a decision is taken to withdraw the royal prerogatives delegated by the sovereign? What will he do in such a situation, if the sovereign is acting in the service of the nation?
I do not want to say anything that could prejudice court proceedings under way today that touch on precisely the issues the hon. Gentleman raises. However, when I looked at the Hansard report of yesterday’s debate, I found that the issues of prerogative powers and the rights of Parliament were aired at considerable length and I am sure that that will continue as we find other opportunities to debate the European issue in the months to come.
Services to my constituents provided by North East Lincolnshire Council may well suffer in the near future because the council has been forced to make safe and to maintain a listed building, to the tune of £2 million and rising, after the owners abrogated their responsibilities. Will the Government find time for a debate to consider whether legislative changes are required to avoid this happening again?
I cannot offer my hon. Friend a debate in Government time. If he would like to put some of the detail in a note to me, I will draw it to the attention of the relevant Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport so that he can have a comprehensive response.
Today is Secondary Breast Cancer Awareness Day. May we have a debate on the support given to people living with secondary breast cancer, given that Breast Cancer Care’s campaign “Secondary, not Second Rate” has found that people living with this incurable disease face poor care, delayed diagnosis and a lack of information and support?
A half-hour debate on cancer diagnosis in Westminster Hall on Tuesday may provide the opportunity for an intervention, but the hon. Lady has done the House a service by reminding us of the importance of this issue. I am sure we would all wish to support the work the cancer charities are doing to highlight the importance of secondary breast cancer to ensure that that challenge is not overlooked, and that we would all wish to support both the research on causes and cures, and the work going on to support those who have to live with secondary breast cancer and their families.
Given the Government’s excellent support for keeping fit, healthy and active, may we have a debate on the possible closure of sports centres, such as the one in Knighton in my constituency, which provides fantastic facilities on a cross-border basis, but is sadly under the threat of closure by the local authority?
I am sorry to learn about what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency. These decisions are sometimes a matter for the local authorities involved. If he will let me have the details, I will ask the Sports Minister to respond to him. He may also like to seek an Adjournment debate, where he can secure a ministerial reply in open session of the House.
I declare an interest as an affected resident. Many of my constituents, and hundreds if not thousands of people across the country, have had their summer ruined again. They cannot sit in their gardens and cannot even open their windows. Why? Wagons carrying rotten carcases, emitting a horrendous stench, travel up and down our roads and past people’s homes. May we have a debate in Government time on the need for sealed wagons to control the stench that is given off by the rotten corpses of animals and other meat products, or should we bring containers of rotten meat here, because if it is good enough for my constituents to inhale, perhaps it is good enough for this House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter on behalf of his constituents. I confess that it is not a subject with which I am familiar. It strikes me that it is likely to involve the responsibilities of a number of Departments. My advice to him is to look for opportunities to raise it with the relevant Ministers at questions or to secure an Adjournment debate, so that he can get a direct response from Ministers to the concerns his constituents are expressing.
More than 65,000 people are employed in the British nuclear industry, and I am delighted that more than a fifth of that workforce are women. May we have a debate on the importance of the nuclear sector to our economy, particularly considering the looming energy gap, and on how we can support nuclear through continued investment in skills, infrastructure and the supply chain? It would be particularly pertinent, given the recent announcement on Hinkley Point C.
I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the nuclear industry. I share her view that nuclear has an important part to play in this country, as it already has in France, as part of the overall energy mix to ensure that we have supplies of fuel that are as clean as possible and reliable. The nuclear industry provides many opportunities for high-skilled and relatively well-paid employment, often in parts of the country where such jobs are very scarce indeed. Although I cannot promise her an early debate in Government time, I think her comments will have struck a chord with hon. Members in all parts of the House.
On Monday, there was a written statement from the Ministry of Defence on protecting our soldiers overseas from the legal process. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence today highlighted how we should be looking after our soldiers who are under that process. In Northern Ireland, we are just about to start a process for some people who are being hauled back, quite possibly for political reasons. May we please have a statement by Ministers from the three Departments together—Defence, Northern Ireland and Justice—to ensure that our servicemen are treated fairly?
Clearly, in all parts of the United Kingdom, decisions about individual prosecutions and court cases are rightly the province of independent prosecuting authorities. I am uneasy about the idea that Governments should intervene to either initiate or stop a prosecution that has been decided upon independently in that way, but I completely understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. Pretty well everyone in the House will acknowledge the bravery over so many years of the servicemen and women who served in Northern Ireland. They were a line of defence for decent, law-abiding people of all communities in Northern Ireland against ruthless terrorism. I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Ministers he mentioned.
Walter Kershaw from my constituency is a world-famous mural artist. His work is exceptionally well received from Portugal to Peru, but that work needs to come back home. May we have a debate on what Arts Council England funding is available for projects such as Walter painting a mural in Rochdale town centre?
I cannot promise an immediate debate in Government time. It is quite an important principle that the Arts Council administers its budget at arm’s length from Ministers; we do not want any suggestion that political sympathies might start to influence individual grant decisions made by Arts Council England or arts organisations elsewhere in the UK. But the hon. Gentleman has demonstrated again that he is a champion of the achievements of Rochdale in the artistic world as well as in many other areas of life.
Tom Weaver and Philip Loveday are two disabled veterans living in Bridgend. They decided to spend £1,500 of their own savings to buy lunch for citizens across the county borough of Bridgend. They wanted to carry out random acts of kindness for people because in living with their disability they had found great help and support in the local community. The local branch of Subway added another 500 meals, so we handed out 1,000 lunches. Given that this week we have discussed Brexit, Aleppo and the fall of the pound, may we have a Government statement on the importance of random acts of kindness in raising the spirits of us all and making this a great country to live in?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments and add my unreserved congratulations, support and good will to her two constituents. It is the truth that in our constituency work every single one of us in this House comes across cases, such as the one she has described to us this morning, of the most incredible acts of selflessness and public spirit by our fellow citizens. Whenever politics is at risk of making us feel a bit low and depressed, those sorts of acts of kindness and generosity by ordinary, decent British citizens really warm the heart and make us have faith in this country.
I am sure the House will join me in wishing Sheffield’s very own Jessica Ennis-Hill all the best as she announces her retirement, and in congratulating Yorkshire—God’s very own county, of course—on securing the world road cycling championships in 2019. Will the Leader of the House commit the Government to continuing to support the county as it works to make the most of this wonderful opportunity?
I am happy to endorse the hon. Lady’s congratulations to Yorkshire, and will make sure that the Sports Minister is aware of her concerns about funding—I am sure that the Sports Minister will want to have due regard to the importance of the success of that event. Everyone in the House will want to thank Jessica Ennis-Hill for all that she has done, for her achievements in her chosen sport and for the inspiration she has given to so many aspiring young athletes, and women athletes in particular, in Yorkshire and far beyond in the UK.
Houmous and taramasalata are big business in Blaenau Gwent. Zorba Foods makes dips, employs more than 300 people and has a turnover of £50 million a year. However, the cost of its imported ingredients such as chickpeas has increased because the pound has dropped by nearly 20%. May we have a debate on Brexit and its impact on family food bills, because it looks like both breakfast and lunch are getting more expensive as our currency weakens?
We seem to be moving from toast and sandwiches through to pitta bread and dips. The truth is that when sterling falls, imports become more expensive but exports become cheaper. When sterling rises, it is the other way around. Companies of all types learn to plan and adjust for those currency risks. Currencies go up and down, fluctuating in value. If the companies in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are producing good, high-quality products in an efficient way, they should look forward to a successful future.
The increase in childhood cancers is alarming—it is some 40% in the past 16 years. Even given population growth, the increase is still 30%. That is down to things such as lifestyle, the environment, genetics, air pollution, pesticides and diet. May we have a debate on the increase in children’s cancers, which are critical for each and every one of us in the House?
Nobody would dissent from the hon. Gentleman’s view that any increase in incidence of childhood cancer should be deplored and that we should be active in seeking ways in which to prevent the occurrence of cancer, and to ensure early detection and effective treatment. I hope he will have the opportunity at Health questions in future or in an Adjournment debate to continue to highlight that important subject.
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Amber Rudd, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Attorney General, Secretary David Mundell, Secretary James Brokenshire and Mr Ben Wallace, presented a Bill to amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002; make provision in connection with terrorist property; create corporate offences for cases where a person associated with a body corporate or partnership facilitates the commission by another person of a tax evasion offence; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 75) with explanatory notes (Bill 75-EN).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered baby loss.
It is an honour and privilege to open the debate, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving us the use of your house to launch baby loss awareness week in Parliament yesterday, which is the first time it has been officially recognised. Parliament is helping to break the silence around the death of a child, which is the most devastating loss that can happen to any parent. Last year, when my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) spoke in the Adjournment debate, neither of us was prepared for the huge response from parents who have suffered similar losses.
In the Prime Minister’s recent speech, she spoke about tackling injustice where she found it. The sheer scale of child loss in the UK is an injustice, and one that is suffered by so many families year in, year out. Child loss is devastating for each family involved. I should like to outline the size of the problem facing parents, speak about what can be done to prevent loss on the scale we currently face in the UK, and finally talk about bereavement care and best practice to support parents through such a terrible time.
The major types of child loss include miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death, although the Department of Health needs to look at streptococcus B deaths, ectopic pregnancies and many other specialist areas such as multiple birth pregnancies.
One in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage. This is often a silent killer, one where parents receive very little support. Of the estimated 200,000 mothers and their families who are affected by miscarriage every year, many will suffer in silence and isolation. A woman has to go through three consecutive miscarriages before any investigation will be carried out.
Ms O’Sullivan, speaking of her experiences after four miscarriages, said:
“The lack of recognition for miscarriage often just serves to reinforce the flawed idea that somehow a pregnancy ‘didn’t matter’, which increases the feelings of isolation”.
She went on to say:
“The loneliness and isolation that miscarriage brings, and the way that it can affect other aspects of life—hopes, dreams, decisions about work—are so difficult and yet under-recognised. We need to demystify it and make it okay to talk about.”
One parent I know wrote this to me:
“Before I even knew I was pregnant I developed a butterfly rash across my chest. My GP dismissed it as an ‘allergic rash’. No blood test, nothing. When I miscarried 9 weeks later at 12 weeks, my GP cheerily said, ‘Keep trying. Miscarriage is common at your age.’ I was 37. No blood test. Feeling disheartened and dismissed I went onto a further two early miscarriages without even daring to call the GP and waste his time. At my fourth miscarriage, I started googling. I approached my GP again—could all this be due to my existing thyroid condition? ‘Extremely unlikely’ was the response. Again, no blood test, but a recommendation to quit my stressful job. I obliged. It was only at a routine annual hospital check-up with my thyroid doctor after my fourth miscarriage four years later that I heard, ‘This sounds like Hughes syndrome, let’s do a blood test.’ St Thomas’s hospital confirmed the diagnosis, but sadly not soon enough to save the baby I was carrying—my fifth. Happily, after proper treatment I became pregnant again, finally giving birth to a healthy boy on the eve of my 42nd birthday. After five miscarriages and five years of my life lost to hope and grief and hope again due to my GP’s ignorance, I still feel cheated and, shame on me, a little bitter. I urge you please, give miscarriage the research, resources and respect it deserves.”
This is just one example of why we need action to help us to find the root causes of miscarriage. I am pleased that earlier this year the first miscarriage research centre in the UK dedicated to preventing early miscarriage opened. That centre is working with Warwick, Birmingham and Imperial NHS trusts, as well as Queen Charlotte’s. It is undertaking excellent research. I know that because my sister, who has had seven miscarriages, has benefited from its work. This year, she gave birth to baby Ella. I am thrilled for her.
The clinicians there, Dr Maya and the team, Dr Tom Bourne and others are doing ground-breaking work on the Genesis Project, looking at the issues around early miscarriage. As an example of how dedicated the staff are, the receptionists who had seen women walking in and out of Queen Charlotte’s, organised for the first time, and in their own time on a Saturday, a multiple miscarriage support group. Clinicians and psychologists also attended in their free time. It has benefited a huge number of women. That learning has the potential to really help to support the work the Government would like to achieve in tackling our child loss rates.
In 2014, 3,245 stillbirths were recorded by Embrace UK. That rate is shockingly high for a high-income country. Even more frightening is the fact that the causes of 46% of stillbirths are unknown. This is devastating for families who want answers. It is also unacceptable in this day and age that more is not being done to identify and investigate the cause of death. When combined with neo-natal death rates, over 6,000 patients are suffering child loss every year. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are experienced by parents who suffer other forms of child loss. Data on tackling stillbirth in The Lancet rate the UK 114 out of 164 countries for progress in reducing stillbirth. Justin Farrimond, who engaged in the digital outreach debate organised by the House on Monday, put it this way:
“To the nurse that had a bad day, that didn’t take correct measurements, that failed to notice a lack of growth, that chose not to look at previous records, that decided not to engage with the mother, that was instrumental in the loss of our baby—we don’t want an apology—your actions were unintentional—we don’t want you to lose your job, you need to continue in your post. In future we know you will be more careful, you will be a model nurse, because you will know what can happen if you have just one bad day. When you have lost a baby you don’t want revenge, retribution, or compensation. You only want to be understood, and for it to never happen again”.
That powerful quotation reflects what so many parents have said to me. They want lessons to be learnt. Most of all, they do not want it to happen to anyone else.
In order to achieve that, there needs to be better investigation of full-term stillbirth where no foetal abnormality is present. There needs to be greater willingness by medical staff to discuss the value of post mortems with parents, so that causes can be identified. There needs to be better and thorough investigation. Professor Cameron of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has stated:
“The quality of local investigations into cases of stillbirth, early neonatal death and severe brain injury occurring as a result of incidents during term labour must improve”.
My hon. Friend is making a wonderful, wonderful speech and I am very glad to be involved in this debate. I am here because of my constituent Rolf Dalhaug, who lost one of his twin sons, Thor, due to some mistakes during birth. He is particularly concerned that we should take on board the messages in the report to which my hon. Friend has referred about the importance of learning and reviews. I want to underline the point she is making and look forward to hearing the Minister say what we are doing to ensure that that happens.
I am grateful for that intervention because it makes the point entirely.
Professor Cameron went on:
“Stillbirth rates in the UK remain high and our current data indicate that nearly 1,000 babies a year die or are left severely disabled because of potentially avoidable harm in labour. The emotional cost of these events is immeasurable…When the outcome for parents is the devastating loss of a baby, or a baby born with a severe brain injury, there can be little justification for poor quality reviews. Only by ensuring that local investigations are conducted thoroughly with parental and external input, can we identify where systems need to be improved. Once every baby affected has their care reviewed robustly we can begin to understand the causes of these tragedies.”
The parents who engaged in the digital debate on Twitter earlier this week to raise their concerns about baby loss spoke of the need for third trimester scans and greater consistency of care during the pre-birth period, during labour and following the loss of an infant.
I want to move on to neonatal death. Mr Speaker, as you know, I spoke about my experiences with Sam last year. Parents from around the country wrote to me of their experiences, some dating back many years and others from more recently. One father told me about his son George. He wrote:
“On 7th November my wife and I were delighted when baby George came into our lives, but on the 5th January just days after the festivities our lives were rocked, when our beautiful baby boy passed away in his sleep. Nothing could have prepared us for the hopelessness and feeling of loss, each morning waking up wishing that it was just a bad dream. As we watch the seconds turn into hours, days, weeks and even months, things for us felt hopeless, it was only the knowledge that our other children needed us that kept us from drowning in self-pity.”
George’s father went on that, like other parents,
“I found everyone affected share similar experiences, all wanting to do something, all wanting to make a difference. This is probably why I still feel I should do more, and more is never enough. I am now putting my spare time into raising awareness of sudden infant death syndrome and raising money for charities”.
My hon. Friend is making an emotional and passionate speech. Two of my constituents, Annika and James Dowson, attended a reception yesterday that was kindly provided by Mr Speaker. They suffered the loss of their baby, Gypsy, who was stillborn in Scarborough hospital. Annika stayed on the maternity ward, with expectant mothers, listening in the most tragic of circumstances to babies crying. Following that, she started to raise money, putting her energies to good use. She raised £9,000 towards the funding of the £134,000 bereavement suite at Scarborough hospital. Does my hon. Friend agree that by directing their energies in such ways, parents can really make a difference to other people and gain support from each other in the process?
I do agree. I had the pleasure of meeting Annika last year, following on from the speech in Parliament. I know that there are many parents like her who want to see some good come out of the loss. It demonstrates the importance of motivating those parents and allowing them to get involved. Very often, the Snowdrop suite at Scarborough hospital acts as a real reminder in memory of Gypsy.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and on speaking in such a powerful and deeply human way. She is talking about parents’ desire to see some good come from their loss. Does she agree that where failings have occurred, part of that critical process should involve NHS trusts communicating with parents on an ongoing basis about the actions and steps being taken to ensure that these tragedies are not repeated?
I certainly do. The more open trusts can be and the more they can share information, the more we are likely to achieve reductions in baby death rates. We need that learning to happen in order to tackle what went wrong and why. Without openness, we will not have that.
Freedom of information requests that I submitted to every NHS England trust indicated that approximately 25% of maternity hospitals still do not have bereavement suites. I am aware that, because of the huge difference it makes to parents, the Government have done much to ensure that funding is available and that action can be taken to tackle the problem.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter before the House. We well remember the Adjournment debates to which she and the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) contributed. One in four pregnancies end in loss, and every one of us in this House has seen the reality of that. My own mother had three miscarriages, as did my sister and one of my staff members. We want to take the opportunity to stand together with all those who have loved and lost a baby. We want to say to them, “We acknowledge the loss; we grieve with you; we pray for peace for your family.” Does the hon. Lady acknowledge the importance of having someone with faith in the grieving suite and of the Church assisting?
I know many good examples of that. I shall talk a little later about the Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where a midwife together with the chaplain have developed the most amazing suite of resources to support parents. They have tailor-made the information available specifically for the loss that parents face—whether a miscarriage or a stillbirth—and it was all done in their own time, unpaid and unsupported. There is that level of dedication. For every area where there is bad practice, there are fantastic and dedicated clinicians, midwives and indeed chaplains, providing support to bereaved parents.
Like George’s father, members of the all-party parliamentary group want to make a difference. We welcome the Government’s commitment to a 20% reduction in stillbirth rates by 2020 and a halving by 2030 and the additional resources that have been put into the perinatal mortality tool. We are calling for some additional steps which we believe will help to deliver those targets.
The report that we launched yesterday identifies three key aims. The first is prevention. We need a sustained public health campaign that informs parents of the known risks. We know that parents of twins are three times more likely to suffer loss. Black and ethnic minority groups face much higher rates of stillbirth and loss. Mothers over 40, mothers living in poverty, and teenage mothers all have increased risk of stillbirth or neonatal death.
I am most grateful to both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for securing the debate.
A Dwyfor mother asked me to take the opportunity to express the depth of her feeling. She wrote:
“We don’t just suffer the loss of a baby, we lose a toddler, a child, a teenager, birthdays, Christmas days, mother/father’s days the list is endless as is the grief. The pain of losing a child never leaves you.”
She also wanted me to say that she believes that a third-trimester scan would have made a significant difference in her case.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point.
We know that information needs to be targeted at high-risk groups: messages about smoking during pregnancy, risks associated with obesity, and, of course, the importance of not sharing a bed with your baby, and of putting the baby back to sleep. The success of the Back to Sleep campaign, supported by the Lullaby Trust, has shown what can be achieved in reducing sudden infant death. We now need similar information campaigns in relation to stillbirth, Count the Kicks and reduced foetal movement. I welcome the additional steps being taken by the Department of Health—along with the major charities—to highlight avoidable risks, but it is vital for such messages to be targeted at the most at-risk groups in order to have the biggest impact.
The hon. Lady has done a great service in raising this issue today. I have had letters about it, and I know that many others have as well. What she is saying is very informative to people such as me, who have not had this experience. What struck me particularly was her observation that one individual had had five or six miscarriages before anything actually happened about it. I found that very enlightening, as, I am sure, did many people outside the House.
I think it is shocking. Miscarriage is one of the silent subjects. Other Members will probably speak about it, or will have had their own experiences.
The second key principle involves commissioning. We know that the knowledge and learning are out there. There are some inspirational NHS trusts, consultants, midwives and chaplains who have established best practice in hospitals. Greater Manchester, Lancashire and South Cumbria Strategic Clinical Networks has developed a stillbirth-specific integrated pathway. Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has introduced butterfly signs on maternity room doors to alert staff when parents have lost a baby, and has adapted its literature to ensure that they receive relevant information and advice. Abigail’s Footsteps offers equipment such as cold cots to hospitals.
The work that is being done by many charities and dedicated healthcare professionals needs to be shared within the NHS to address gaps in the service when parents are effectively left to fend for themselves. That means that there needs to be better and more effective training for healthcare professionals. It is really not acceptable that such limited pre-qualification bereavement training—sometimes as little as an hour—is given to midwives, given the current stillbirth rates. There needs to be better pre-qualification training for them and also for sonographers and GPs, given the statistics.
There are a number of inspirational examples of good practice in the country, and this weekend they are being celebrated at the Butterfly Awards ceremony in Worcester. If Members have examples of good practice in their constituencies, they should consider nominating them for next year’s Butterfly Awards, so that we can increase their prominence.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for initiating the debate. If there is one thing that we can do in the House, it is break taboos, and she, along with other Members, has done that very successfully. Does she think that it is partly because of that taboo that the quality of training is so poor, and does she agree that the more we talk about miscarriage and baby loss, the better it will be?
I certainly do. Baby loss awareness week has been running for 13 years, but we in this place need to ensure that it affects policy and delivers better outcomes, and that when outcomes do not change, we hold the Secretary of State and the Minister to account. I know that they have recognised the problem, but we will need to see a change in the figures by 2020.
I want to add my congratulations to the hon. Lady and also to express my intense respect and admiration for her moving and evidence-based opening to this debate. She mentioned the Butterfly Awards. Daddys with Angels, a charity that offers online help for those who have lost a baby, is campaigning for a day—15 October—to recognise baby loss, as well as raising awareness. Does she agree that that could help to make us more aware as well as helping those who have suffered to gain greater respect and understanding?
October 15 is the international Wave of Light day, on which parents across the world will light candles in memory of their children. I believe that a lighthouse in Scotland will be lit up for the first time in many years in memory of lost children. I agree that if we talk about the issues and really drill down into the causes, we can start to change the figures in the UK. Key to that is raising the issues here in this place.
Our final ask to the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister is for a bereavement care pathway for parents. That needs to involve an integrated support service, including counselling for parents following the death of a child. I am grateful that, as a result of the work of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss and information obtained through freedom of information requests, the Department of Health has commissioned Sands—the stillbirth and neonatal death charity—to start developing such a pathway. It is clear that it will require clinical commissioning groups, GPs, local NHS trusts and healthcare professionals to recognise the need for these services and to support such a pathway, working together with the third sector.
I join other Members in thanking my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for bringing this issue to the Chamber today. A mother and father living in my constituency had the nightmare of their baby boy passing away unexpectedly at home. The baby boy was rushed to the nearest hospital, which happened to be in a different region. The fact that the death was registered in a different region from the one in which my constituents live has caused them incredible problems, not least in accessing counselling and therapy. Does my hon. Friend agree that geographical and regional boundaries must not prevent grieving parents from getting the help that they need and deserve?
I most certainly do. That is exactly the kind of bureaucratic barrier that needs to be broken down. My hon. Friend’s example powerfully demonstrates the need to have a proper bereavement care pathway in place in every region. It should not matter where someone lives; everyone who needs such support should be able to access it.
In relation to the integrated bereavement care pathway, does the hon. Lady envisage the same level of service for parents who have suffered bereavement post-hospital discharge as the service that parents would receive following a bereavement in their own home?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It should not matter what kind of loss a person suffers; they should be able to access that bereavement care pathway whether it is inside or outside hospital.
The hon. Lady has been very generous with her time. Before she concludes her remarks, may I, as an officer of the all-party group, commend her and my fellow officers, including the hon. Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for breaking the taboo, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has said? I also commend the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) for her bravery in bringing this important issue forward for debate in the House. My daughter, Lucy, would have been 18 this year. When I became an MP 11 years ago, I intended to raise the issue, but I never had the hon. Lady’s bravery—I just wanted to commend her for that.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her words; I know how important this debate is to her. She has done important work in the all-party group in helping to set out these aims and this vision so that other parents can benefit from our experiences. We know that the energy and commitment of a number of brilliant charities could be brought together with NHS trusts to help deliver the care pathway that is so badly needed for parents such as the hon. Lady.
By breaking the silence and the taboo of talking about child death, the APPG, which is composed of parents who have suffered loss, hopes that the debate will lead to better scrutiny of what is happening in maternity units and primary care relative to child loss. We welcome the additional focus from the Government in this area, but there is more to be done if other families are not to suffer the same grief and loss as so many parents in the UK.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I am about to conclude my speech.
The time has come to act and to see real change in the rates of child loss. I thank all the charities and the bereaved parents who have worked with us and whose expertise has helped to inform this debate. I know that other Members will have their own personal contributions to make.
Order. Just before I bring in the next speaker, may I suggest that, although I am not imposing a time limit, we should aim to speak for no more than 10 minutes? In that way, everybody will have a fair speech time, and things will be equal across the Chamber.
I want to start by paying tribute to the hon. Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince) for securing this debate. This is probably the hardest speech that I have ever had to write and deliver.
This week has been a tough week, as I had never heard of baby loss awareness week but it has been all around me. There have been online discussions and commemorative badges, and we have a debate in the Chamber today. I have struggled in a debate with myself about whether I should contribute today, as it is such a personal issue, and whether I want to share my very personal experiences. The absolute truth is that I struggle to talk to my family and very close friends about this, but during the events of this week, I can see that a large focus is on people talking about their loved ones, supporting each other and making sure that, when needed, important issues are raised and addressed.
I thank all my friends who have come into the Chamber today to support me as they know how hard this is for me. I also want to apologise to my many friends who I have not told about this. It is not because I do not want them to know or that I am embarrassed; it is just because I find it so very hard to do so. Ever since I was elected, I have always said that I want to be the kind of politician who is willing to share my experiences—not for therapy, but to empower others and to seek to change things for the better. Lewisham bereavement counselling service tells me that it has a two-to-four month waiting list, and that just is not good enough.
I guess that now is the time for me to talk about and pay tribute to my little angel, Veronica. When I was 16 years old, I became unexpectedly pregnant. At first, I was terrified and even debated having her adopted, but during my pregnancy something changed—I became so attached; I was excited; I was going to be the best mum ever. Me and my partner at the time named our baby girl Veronica. We could not wait to meet her. I went full term and was 10 days overdue, so they had to induce me. I was in labour for a long time. I was sick, tired and in a huge amount of pain.
Veronica’s heartbeat was checked regularly and everything was fine, but once I was dilated, the staff checked for her heartbeat again and could not find it. This went on for about 20 minutes, checking with different machines because the staff were not sure whether the equipment was broken. Eventually, the doctor was called and I was rushed to the emergency room. I had to push, and forceps was used to get her out. The umbilical cord had been wrapped around her throat for the whole 20 minutes. She lived for five days, but we had to agree to the life machine being turned off. I got to hold her then for the first time until her heartbeat eventually stopped. She stayed alive for hours. I never wanted to let her go.
My baby awareness week is every year from 22 to 27 February—my five days of her being alive. She was never able to cry or to smile, but I loved her and I desperately wanted her. I still love her. She is always in my thoughts—all these years afterwards—even if I do not talk about her all the time. I do not not talk about her because I am embarrassed—I am not. It is because it hurts so much to do so.
After Veronica was taken from me, my coping mechanism was to chuck myself into college and work. I could not talk about it; my heart was broken. I do not have children now because I have lived with the fear of the same thing happening again, and I just could not go through it twice. I have to say that, as a young woman going through this, I felt as if most people looked at me as if I should be grateful—I was not and I am not. It felt like every organisation I dealt with gave me that same message. Every time I wanted to campaign to highlight the problems that led to her life being taken away so unfairly, I was treated like a kid, not a grieving mum. I was her mum. I also hoped that, one day, I would be her best friend. If she was alive today, she would be 23 years old. The pain does get easier to deal with over time, but it never ever goes away.
I really welcome this debate and genuinely pay tribute to Members for bringing it forward. I hope that, one day, no one else has to endure this pain. I want my experience to be heard by young women in my constituency and across the country who have been through this, or who may go through it in the future, and to just say to them, “You’re not alone.”
I hope that the whole House will read the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and feel that she has done something incredibly brave and courageous today. To my hon. Friends who have proposed this debate, I say that nothing but the greatest respect is due. To my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), who talked about this with such courage and straightforwardness, I say that all our thoughts are with her and all the other parents who have suffered these terrible losses.
I do not think that it is possible—having heard the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford I know that it is not possible—for anyone who has not suffered the unbearable tragedy of the loss of a child truly to understand the grief, the pain and the hopeless feelings that it must involve. I therefore warmly congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this very important debate.
I will, if the House will allow me, speak about two issues. For the past 15 years, I have worked with a wonderful charity in my constituency that is very close to my heart and I greatly admire. I am patron of Group B Strep Support. I first became aware of the work of the charity in 2003 when its founder and chief executive, Jane Plumb—a remarkable woman—came to see me to raise the issue of group B strep. Jane and her husband, Robert, lost their middle son, Theo, to a group B strep infection in 1996 less than a day after he was born.
I learned that group B strep is the UK’s most common cause of serious infection in newborn babies. It is the most common cause of meningitis in babies under three months, and also causes sepsis and pneumonia. It is truly shocking that on average in the United Kingdom one baby a day develops group B strep infection, one baby a week dies from group B strep infection, and one baby every two weeks survives with long-term disabilities. It is even more shocking that most group B strep infections in babies can and should be prevented. The parents of these precious babies and their wider family live with the consequences of their baby’s unnecessarily horrible illness for the rest of their lives.
The right hon. Gentleman will know of the case of my constituents Fiona Paddon and Scott Bramley, whose son Edward tragically died at just nine days old from a group B strep infection. As devastated as they were and still are, they have channelled their grief into campaigning work and on a petition that has reached almost 250,000 signatures. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is an urgent need for more consistent and effective screening, and that the risk factor strategy by which we have assessed this infection to date has failed to reduce the number of instances and should be reviewed?
I certainly agree, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for talking to me last night. I look forward to working with him on this terrible illness and to joining him to present the petition when it comes along.
I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister of State—he is not only my hon. Friend, but a real friend—who will be responding to debate, that what I have to say is not meant in any disrespectful way to him, but I have what can only be described as “issues” with the Department of Health about this matter. I have made representations on the issue to Governments of both complexions, and it has been an uphill, pretty unrewarding and generally lowering experience. Since the time of an Adjournment debate introduced by the previous Prime Minister, the former Member for Witney, on 9 July 2003, I have dealt with five Ministers, all of whom have promised prompt action and progress, all of which has been unacceptably slow, for reasons that I, the charity, the families involved and mothers to be would find pretty hard to understand in any objective examination.
The campaign has been pushing since 2003 for the enriched culture medium test to be made available, and I would like my hon. Friend to note that the Government committed to making the ECM test available on the NHS from 1 January 2014, following a meeting we had with the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), and the chief medical officer in December 2012, only to make a complete U-turn on the decision in the final weeks of 2013. Despite these setbacks and the dismal pattern of indecision, I want to congratulate Group B Strep Support on all that it has achieved to raise awareness of this terrible, unnecessary infection since its founding in 1996, and to ensure that the issue is at least on the agenda among the key decision makers, even if they do nothing about it.
The charity has one overarching objective: to eradicate group B strep infection in newborn babies. To achieve that objective, which is frankly military in its clarity and precision, the charity informs and supports families affected by group B strep, educates the relevant health professionals and pushes for improvements. The charity has virtually single-handedly raised awareness of group B strep from virtually nothing to a position where one in 10 new and expectant mothers had heard of it in 2006, and five in 10 new and expectant mothers had heard of it in 2015. Amazingly, the NHS does not routinely provide information about group B strep as part of standard antenatal care, which makes that a significant achievement for a small charity. The charity has covered for an inexplicable shortcoming on the part of the NHS.
From the very start, Group B Strep Support has pushed for improvement to policy and practice, and it has done an extraordinarily good job. It is my view that the reason for the shortcoming is a fundamental disagreement between doctors, and we all know what that means. It is not clear to me why Ministers do not simply override this and order the test, which would save lives, and spare the tragedy and agony of those involved. I know that the Government say that they are committed to finding a way forward, but it is taking them a very long time to get there, and neither I nor the charity are one bit satisfied by the progress. When my hon. Friend the Minister winds up the debate, will he particularly mention group strep B and give us some hope that that cause will be considered?
The most wonderful young constituent of mine, an adorable girl aged 14 named Emily McStravik, came to see me at my surgery 10 days ago with her mother. Emily is a miracle child who survived two strokes at the age of 18 months. I shall be sending my hon. Friend the details of Emily’s case and the wider case for dealing with childhood stroke, which needs to achieve greater prominence and understanding. Stroke is one of the top 10 reasons why children die, and an alarming number of children who have had a stroke are misdiagnosed or sent home. There is no greater honour or privilege that Members of Parliament can have than to raise on the Floor of the House a child’s story and talk about her remarkable courage and survival. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would examine carefully the information that I will be sending him from Emily and her family.
I am deeply honoured to participate in this debate on an issue that could not be closer to my heart, and I am grateful to the cross-party group on baby loss for bringing this forward.
As we have heard, the loss of a baby is what every parent dreads. Those to whom it occurs are irrevocably changed for ever—their lives scarred by unspeakable tragedy. A year before I was elected, I had no notion that I would ever have the honour of being elected to represent the good people of North Ayrshire and Arran, but here I am, and because of my own horrific experience of stillbirth I feel profoundly that I should use that experience to help shine a light on this issue, which truly is the last taboo.
For too long, too many of those to whom this has happened understandably did not feel equal to the task of speaking out about this issue, and in turn those who have no direct experience of this issue simply do not know how to broach it and are often surprised to find out how prevalent stillbirth is across the UK. Around 3,500 babies each year across the UK are stillborn and another 3,000 die shortly after birth. To put this into context, that is around one baby every hour and a half, the equivalent of 16 jumbo jets crashing every year. It is inconceivable that this should continue. But it will, unless we remove the taboo and shine a light on this awful, awful phenomenon and do all we can for all the mums and dads of the future and all the babies yet to be born. It is sobering to think that in the course of this debate, somewhere in the UK two more little babies will have died, and two families will have been destroyed. It does not bear thinking about, but think about it we must. Yes, it is extremely difficult to talk about this, but we have a duty to all the babies who have been lost and a duty to all the bereaved parents who are struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together.
The fact is that, in Scotland, 34% of stillbirths are babies at the full term of pregnancy, and in England the figure is 33%. This is shocking, since medics at all levels will say that, barring some terrible freak accident, no baby who has survived a full pregnancy need die—not if proper monitoring and procedures are in place—yet such babies do die. In Scotland, some progress has been made in recent years to reduce the incidence of stillbirth, but we still do not compare favourably with our European neighbours. Across the UK, we still have a long way to go.
I know, as many others do, the horror of losing a baby. My baby, Kenneth, would have been seven years old this Saturday, the very day when we reach the culmination of Baby Loss Awareness Week—international pregnancy and infant loss awareness day—when we will see a wave of light for all our babies.
When children lose their parents, they are called orphans. When a husband loses his wife, he is called a widower. When a wife loses her husband, she is called a widow. When parents lose their child, there is no name for that. The reason that there is no name for it is that there are no words. It goes against nature. And in other loss of loved ones, all those who knew and loved them can share memories such as the last holiday, the last Christmas or the last important family milestone, but it is not like that with a stillbirth, so people understandably do not know what to say. How on earth could they? Sometimes, people are so keen to avoid saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. I have heard reports of women after a stillbirth seeing their neighbours cross the road to avoid speaking to them, such is the discomfort and anxiety about saying the wrong thing, because there is no right thing to say. There simply are no words; just a deafening silence and a terrible sense of being utterly isolated in consuming grief.
Like so many parents who have lost their babies, my husband and I are haunted by the loss of how we expected our lives to be after five years of fertility treatment. We are haunted by the potential wiped away so cruelly, so suddenly and so unexpectedly; haunted by the fact that it was completely avoidable; haunted by the fact that all this grief and sense of waste was because the Southern general hospital in Glasgow, now called the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, made a series of basic errors; haunted by the fact that that same hospital pulled the shutters down and for six and a half years refused to recognise that any mistakes were made at all and to this day has still not done so; and haunted by the fact that that same hospital, despite independent experts flatly contradicting it, insists that it did nothing wrong.
And this matters. It matters because this is an all too common story and demonstrates an unwillingness openly to engage in a learning process when mistakes are made. That shows the real culture—a fear even—of improvement if people cannot accept it when mistakes are made. How many parents must go through this horrific ordeal only to feel swept aside, ignored, dismissed and told, “It’s just one of those things,” as they try somehow to cope with the crushing weight of grief?
As we have heard already, bereavement care for parents is simply not good enough. Sands has done very important work in this field, and I want today to pay tribute to it. It understands the importance of listening to mothers’ concerns. It found that 45% of the mothers it surveyed who had undergone a stillbirth felt something was wrong before any problems were diagnosed, yet too many of those women were told that their concerns were unfounded and sent home, only for their babies to die shortly afterwards. Antenatal care must be a collaborative process. Mothers’ concerns must be paid attention to. Women know their own bodies.
We must have better monitoring of pregnancies, particularly those of women at risk of experiencing a stillbirth or neonatal death. The truth is that we are failing to identify many babies at risk. In addition, we must have more knowledge, data and research to help us to tackle this issue. The more we know about why our babies are dying, the more measures we can take to militate against it happening. It is very important that if mistakes are made—and remember that one in three stillbirths are at full-term babies—health boards and trusts should not investigate themselves. For investigations to be credible, they must be independent and carried out by people outside the situation. That is the right and proper thing to do to challenge the culture of secrecy.
Where it is believed to be merited, we should allow coroners in England to investigate stillbirths, so that errors in care can be addressed, where they have occurred. In Scotland, the equivalent would be a fatal accident inquiry. These are not straightforward or easy asks, but such an investment now will increasingly mean that, as expertise grows and intelligence is gathered, the need for such measures will necessarily decrease over time.
Does the hon. Lady agree that local authorities need to take into account the registration of deaths? I have heard of cases where people have had to register deaths at the same place where people were registering births. That is most upsetting for those parents.
Indeed. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. It is an extremely traumatic experience to register the death at the same place where people are registering births. That simply makes the experience much more traumatic.
In my own case, my notes recorded that I was asked if I wanted a post mortem performed on my son. My notes did not record who asked me this question, what information I was given, or when I was asked it. I was so drowsy on morphine in intensive care, since my liver had ruptured after my body tried for 48 hours to deliver my baby naturally and the hospital repeatedly refused to perform a caesarean section, that I have no idea if I was actually asked this question. Why was the conversation not properly recorded in my notes? It is all pretty suspicious and only feeds into the sense of cover up and evasion by hospitals in such circumstances.
I am delighted that we are finally putting this very important issue firmly on the political agenda, and that is where it must stay. For those of us inside the Chamber and those of us outside—all the grieving parents watching today—it is too late to save our little boys and girls. But there are other boys and girls—other people out there, thinking of starting their own families, for whom it is not too late. It is our duty to do all we can to ensure that those little boys and girls enter the world as safely as possible. It is our duty to commit ourselves to this cause for their sakes and for the sake of all the babies who have been lost but will never be forgotten.
It is an honour to co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who is an active member of the group.
I should like to share some statistics, some of which have already been shared with the House, but repetition is important in this case, so that we have a real understanding of the scale. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. One in 200 babies are stillborn in the UK. About 15 babies die each day either before, during or shortly after birth in the UK. There are about 3,500 stillbirths every year in the UK. Half of all stillbirths are said to be preventable. The rate of stillbirth in the UK is higher than in Poland, Croatia and Estonia. The lives of 2,000 babies could be saved every year if the UK matched the best survival rates in Europe.
It is a great honour to follow all those right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far and shared such harrowing accounts of what has happened to them. In particular, I should like to praise—I do not want to appear patronising in any way—and to say how proud I am of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who is a good friend of mine, for giving her account in such a powerful and emotional way. I want to make it absolutely clear that I genuinely believe that we are doing something very special in the Chamber today. We are breaking a silence; we are breaking a taboo; and we are showing parents up and down this country that it is okay to talk about the babies and children we have lost. In fact, it is more than okay; where we feel that we are able to, we should. I hope that people across this country have seen today that there is no subject that we will not debate and talk about in the mother of all Parliaments if doing so will improve the lives of others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On his point about inspiring people to come forward, what he describes is exactly what happened to Luke and Ruthie Heron, constituents of mine. Their son Eli was born after 23 weeks and six days. He lived for two and a half days further. Had he not lived those two and a half days, he would have been considered a miscarriage, rather than a short life. Grief cannot be measured in hours, days or weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should reconsider the time criteria that determine when a life is considered a life?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. The all-party parliamentary group is very much looking at that. He is absolutely right to say how important this is. There are people who have suffered what is currently termed a miscarriage when—let us be clear—we are talking about a life, a baby. However, because of our abortion laws and all sorts of other rules and regulations, we are not allowed to register that life and give that baby a name. We are certainly looking at that.
Lucy, my daughter, was born at 23 and a half weeks. Sadly, she did not live; if she had, she would have been rushed straight to the special care baby unit at the Royal Victoria infirmary. I always class her as a stillbirth, but officially it was put down as a miscarriage, and I was not given a death certificate, which was another trauma on top of the trauma I had already gone through. On paper, it was a miscarriage, but she was blessed by the chaplain while I was still in hospital, and we went on to have a funeral, which I felt was right; I had held her in my arms, and she was a fully formed baby. There is an anomaly that has to be addressed.
Indeed. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. Moreover, I thank her for the huge role that she plays on the all-party group, and played in its formation.
To come back to the point that I was making about the importance of today’s debate, we are really lucky—I hope that all hon. Members agree—to have the best job in the world. We have a duty and responsibility to try to use our experiences—some great, some good, and some terrible—where we can to make the lives of others better. Through this debate, we would like to, in the fullness of time, reduce the stillbirth rate and neonatal death rate by 50% and save the lives of 2,000 babies. That is an incredible target to aim for.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and other Members on being so brave and speaking out in this debate. In the spirit of sharing experiences, friends of mine who were due to have twins sadly lost one due to twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. Does he agree that it is important that, in the aftercare for parents who have lost babies, we consider the very different nature of, for example, multiple births, and ensure that care is tailored appropriately in all circumstances?
Absolutely; the hon. Lady makes a very good point. I will mention that a bit later. Charities such as the Twins and Multiple Births Association do incredible work in this field; one of my hon. Friends raised that issue earlier.
Following on from the point about mothers who experience late-term baby loss and the treatment that they receive in hospital, very often they are kept on maternity wards, which can be incredibly traumatic. The point was made about tailoring care and support for parents who lose their children. Is remaining on a maternity ward the most suitable option for them?
I thank the hon. Lady for that point, which I will come to in a moment.
Begging the indulgence of the House, I would like to share my experience, in the spirit of showing people outside the Chamber how important it is to talk about this, if we are able to. We found out at our 20-week scan that our son had a very rare chromosomal disorder called Edwards syndrome, a condition that is rather unhelpfully described as being “not compatible with life”. We knew throughout my wife’s pregnancy that the most likely outcome would be stillbirth, but our son was an incredible little fighter, and he went full term—over 40 weeks. He lost his life in the last few moments of labour at Colchester general hospital.
To pick up on the hon. Lady’s point, Colchester has a fantastic hospital that has a specialist bereavement suite called the Rosemary suite, where we got to spend that really special time—including before the birth, because we knew what outcome was, sadly, likely. I got to stay with my wife; we got to stay there overnight; we had a cold cot, so that we could have lots of cuddles. We could continue, the next morning, to spend time with our son. I completely agree with the hon. Lady, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and I had a debate in November last year on bereavement care in maternity units. Bereavement suites are so important. In this country, in the NHS, there should never be any excuse for a mother and father, or a mother, who have lost a baby to go back on a maternity ward with crying babies, happy families and balloons; that is just not appropriate or acceptable. Having gone through that experience, I know that what people need is the peace and quiet to come to terms with the personal absolute tragedy that has just happened.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and all others who have been involved with the all-party group. When my child died at term, 23 years ago, we did not have a bereavement suite in Leicester, although we do now. The issue is not just parents’ ability to grieve and be with their child; it is also about getting expert help and counselling at that moment. My wife was told that she would never have children again after the stillbirth, but we had two children subsequently. It is so important to get that advice right at that time. Does he agree?
Yes, of course I agree. I will come to that point later. After the debate in November on bereavement care in maternity units, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and I were taken aback by the number of people across the country who got in touch and shared their stories with us. We sat down—this was during proceedings on a Finance Bill, so it was about 1.30 am —with the then Minister with responsibility for care quality, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is not quite in her place, and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). We thought, “This is a far bigger issue than just bereavement suites. The whole subject of baby loss needs addressing.” We were pretty surprised that there was not already a group looking at the issue.
The all-party parliamentary group was formed in February, and I am very proud of the work that we have done so far, working with amazing charities across this country. I cannot name some of them, because I would have to name them all. From large charities that do the most amazing work and fundraising, through to the groups made up of just a handful of people who get together in a local pub or village hall and knit really small pieces of clothing for babies who are premature and sadly stillborn, it means so much that so many people across this country want to play their part and make a difference.
I cannot let this speech go by without referring to the support of Mr Speaker, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, not just for this campaign, but in kindly allowing us to use his apartments for the reception yesterday, and during baby loss awareness week. Yesterday, which would and should have been my son’s second birthday, he called me to ask a Prime Minister’s question on this subject, and so raise the issue in front of millions of people and the country’s media.
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to name individual charities, but Sands does a great job. The point raised with me by Ashleigh Corker, a north-east co-ordinator who lives in my constituency, is that one of the most powerful things that Sands can do is put parents in touch with other parents—people who have gone through the same thing—so that they can share experiences. Does he agree that that is a very powerful thing to do? A lot of people can empathise with what parents are going through, but unless a person has gone through this themselves, it is very difficult to understand.
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly good point. In the run-up to birth, people can go to groups such as NCT and prenatal classes, so I totally agree. We have made friends who have gone through similar experiences. You feel that you can talk openly with them, because they have gone through very similar experiences and are feeling the same things as you. That is very powerful. There may be a role that charities and the NHS can play in putting parents—where they feel able—in touch with other parents who may want to talk about their experience.
I shall speak briefly about Government targets. I know that the Government sometimes get a hard time on the NHS, but they have accepted the premise of our argument. I remember first meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich as Minister responsible for care quality—it was like pushing at an open door. We now have firm commitments to a reduction of 20% by the end of this Parliament and 50% by 2030. It is our job as an all-party parliamentary group to hold the Government’s feet to the fire and to make sure that they are working towards those targets and that we start to see results.
I could not let this debate go by without talking about some of the issues that charities have raised with me. I shall touch on prevention and then talk about bereavement. Research in this area is vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, around 50%—in fact, the figure is 46%—of stillbirths and 5% of neonatal deaths are unexplained. We need to look, for example, at ethnicity and ask why south Asian women are 60% more likely to have a stillbirth, and why black women are twice as likely to do so. Why is there a geographical disparity across the UK? I know that part of the answer is social inequality, but why is the figure 4.9% in some parts of the UK and 7.1% in others? That is around a 25% variation. It is not acceptable and we need to understand why it exists.
We need to look at multiple pregnancies, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) mentioned from the Scottish National party Front Bench, and at lower income families. We need to study our European counterparts and see why they are getting it so right and whether we can implement similar measures in the UK.
Some right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned public health and they are right to do so. Maternal age, nutrition and diet, drugs, alcohol and smoking are all relevant. We could achieve a 7% reduction if no woman smoked during pregnancy. That is a huge target to achieve and we could do a lot of work on smoking cessation, especially during pregnancy. Studies show that we could achieve a 12% reduction if no mothers were overweight or obese.
There is a huge piece of work that we could do on empowering women and mothers-to-be. Initiatives such as Count the Kicks are important. Nobody knows their body as well as a mother. If she feels that there is something wrong, there is a good chance that something is wrong. When she picks up the phone to the hospital or to her GP and her concern is dismissed with the words, “Don’t worry, it’s not important,” she needs to get it checked out. If there is nothing to worry about, great, but on the occasions when we do not get a concern checked out and then something terrible happens, we have to hold ourselves responsible.
There are various initiatives to empower women. Teddy’s Wish is currently sponsoring fantastic folders—as anybody who has had a baby will know, mothers-to-be get purple maternity notes which they carry around religiously just in case the baby comes early. The wonderful plastic folders that the maternity notes go in inform mothers—and fathers—what to look out for, what are the signs if something is not right, when to pick up the phone, when to go and see their GP and when to go to the hospital. Such innovation is exactly what is needed.
Investigation and reporting are important so that we learn the lessons of every stillbirth and neonatal death. Covering things up and dismissing them with comments such as, “That’s unexplained. These things happen. I’m terribly sorry,” are unacceptable. We have to learn from every case. I am pleased that the Government have put a significant amount of money into setting up a system of reporting to enable us to investigate and learn from every stillbirth and neonatal death.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) rightly mentioned post-mortems. So many parents are not offered a post-mortem. One might wonder what parent would want that opportunity, but parents who lose children often want to know why. They want to understand how and why it happened and how they can make sure that it does not happen again. Offered the opportunity, many parents opt for a post-mortem because they know that that research can help others, but clinicians may not be asking the question—often with good intentions, because it is not an easy question to ask. We must ask the question if we are to get post-mortem rates up, which will feed into the research that will allow us to cut our stillbirth rate.
An hon. Member—I apologise, I cannot remember who it was—mentioned late-stage pregnancy scanning. In this country we do not scan past 20 weeks. We scan at 12 weeks and we scan routinely at 20 weeks, but there is no routine scanning past that. I find it bizarre that the abnormality scan takes place halfway through the pregnancy, but after that the mother-to-be is not seen again for a scan until she arrives at the hospital when she is in labour. Other countries across the world and particularly our counterparts in Europe do scans at 36 weeks or Doppler scans. There are huge improvements that we could make in that area.
I want to clarify one point in relation to prevention. The NHS is brilliant, and where we get it right in this country, we really get it right. The problem is the inconsistency across the NHS. I know that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State will agree when I say that we have some of the best care in the world, but it is important that that is replicated in every hospital and every maternity unit in the country, so that whatever hospital a woman goes into and whatever GP she sees, she will get the same level of care and consistent advice.
Even if we manage to achieve our target, even if we match our European counterparts and reduce our stillbirth and neonatal death rates by 50%, that will still mean between 1,500 and 2,500 parents going through that personal tragedy every year. That is why it is important that the APPG puts an equal emphasis on bereavement. I have talked about consistency of care across the NHS, and there should also be consistency of bereavement pathway and bereavement care across the NHS. It is important that we consider aspects such as training for staff. I know that Ministers have put huge amounts of funding into training as part of the plan to achieve a significant reduction in the stillbirth rate.
I am extremely grateful, as I said, to my hon. Friend for his part in securing this debate. I mentioned my constituents who had the nightmare of losing their baby boy. I asked the mother to write to me to set out precisely what had happened. Perhaps one of the most harrowing parts of an already harrowing story was when she told me that at the hospital she and her husband were not allowed to stay with the little boy for long. They were pressured to leave and when she was leaving the baby boy, she wanted to go back to say her last goodbye. She was refused. She collapsed to the floor and the officials around her said that if she did not get up, she would have to leave in a wheelchair or a stretcher, as it was time to go. Does my hon. Friend agree that kindness costs nothing, and that there is a duty on everyone, whether in the NHS or in the police, to make sure that when they are dealing with parents in such a situation, kindness is very much part of the way that they behave?
Yes, and my hon. Friend raises a good point. I only wish that the disgraceful behaviour and story that she has just related was unique, but sadly it is not. Reports from across the country and personal testimonies that I have read, sadly, echo such experiences. That is exactly what we need to address, and it is why training in this area is so important. Midwives and clinicians should be trained to deal with bereavement, including what language to use and what not to say. I will not repeat some of the things that I have heard said to parents who are grieving.
In our case, a stillbirth did not come as a huge shock, but let us not forget that many parents have no idea that such an experience, of stillbirth or neonatal death, is coming. It is one of the most emotionally sensitive periods of their lives and they are at their most fragile. My hon. Friend is right: it costs nothing to act with kindness, empathy and compassion. I would like to think that we can reach a point where those themes run through every maternity unit in the country. I know that that is the case in the vast majority of maternity units, but where we have instances such as my hon. Friend describes, they have to be ironed out.
I know that I am pushing your patience with regard to time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I think that the bereavement point is so important. We must have bereavement suites and bereavement-trained midwives in every hospital in the country, and we need gynaecology-trained counsellors in every maternity unit. We also need ongoing mental health support, because the time a bereaved parent leaves the hospital is the not the end of their grief; for many it is just the start. Indeed, future pregnancies can be the most traumatic periods, because from the day they find out they are pregnant to the day they have a crying baby in their arms, they are thinking, “Is this going to happen again?” What mental health support is available? In some parts of the country it is fantastic, but in others it simply is not.
I want to make two final points. One relates to relationship support. We know that between 80% and 90% of relationships break down after the loss of a child, and that has a huge social cost. That is why mental health support is so important. I also think—this is one of the reasons I co-chair the APPG—that the voice of fathers must be heard. Fathers feel that they have to act as a rock, but in many cases we were there too. In my view, there is no worse experience than seeing your wife give birth to a lifeless baby. It is something that never leaves you. Every single day I think about my son. I think about what he would have been like yesterday, on what would have been his second birthday. I imagine a small boy running around our house, causing havoc and winding up his sisters. It is not to be, but every single day we live with that grief. Fathers need support too, as indeed do the wider family.
I want to end on a positive note. This is a hugely exciting time for us, because the opportunity for change is enormous. The APPG has made enormous progress since publishing our vision document, and I encourage those Members who have not yet seen it to find a copy—it is available online and in paper copy. What we have achieved since February, working with magnificent charities across the country, and with individuals feeding in their personal experiences, has been absolutely incredible. This is just the beginning of the journey, because we have just set out our aspirations and our vision of what we want to achieve. I know that we are pushing at an open door, because the Government want to achieve these targets too.
I want to send one final message to every parent who is bereaved up and down this country: we care; we are going to keep talking about it; and we are not going to stop talking about it until we reduce the stillbirth rate and, most importantly, we have the best quality bereavement care in the world.
It is a pleasure to follow such an excellent and passionate contribution from the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince). This is such a sensitive and important subject. I congratulate him and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) on securing the debate in this important week, and on speaking about their own personal experiences. I also pay tribute to those other brave Members who have shared their personal experiences so eloquently today: my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and my hon. Friend—my very good friend—the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson).
In Hull the levels of stillbirth and neonatal deaths are higher than the national average. There is so much more that needs to be done, as we have heard. I want to put on the record my tribute to the excellent work in supporting parents of the Hull and east Yorkshire branch of Sands. I also pay tribute to the Lullaby Trust, under the inspirational leadership of Francine Bates.
I want to go back to the issue that the hon. Member for Eddisbury talked about at the beginning of her contribution: injustice. We know that the trauma of losing a baby can be compounded by what happens next. I want to share with the House the story of my constituents Mike and Tina Trowhill, who came to tell me about what happened to them. They explained that their baby son William had very sadly died in 1994, which was a long time ago. They were told at the time that when he was cremated there would be no ashes. Many years later, Tina discovered that William’s ashes had in fact been retained—they were never returned to her—and that somebody had scattered them without her knowledge. That was very sad and bewildering. Why would somebody do that? It soon became clear that it was not a one-off incident.
Tina has worked relentlessly in Hull and the wider area to help the many other families who have discovered that their baby’s ashes were not returned to them and were scattered without their knowledge, or that there is still a mystery as to where the ashes are. Tina set up the local Action 4 Ashes group, which now has 420 members. She has discovered that many families were told by NHS clinicians and nurses that there would be no ashes when their babies were cremated. Many families have since discovered that the ashes were scattered. Over 50 sets of ashes are still held by the Co-operative funeral service and have not been returned to the families. Cases are now coming to light in which babies appear to have been transported to the crematorium without the use of an undertaker. Tina has helped families submit forms to the local authority seeking information about what happened to those babies. She has submitted over 50 such requests so far.
It is clear that this has happened not only in Hull, but up and down the country, for example in Scotland and Shrewsbury. The local authority in Shrewsbury rightly held a local inquiry to find out what happened and get answers for local families. Tina and I decided to ask Hull City Council for a similar independent inquiry. Although initially sympathetic, the council decided that it was not willing to hold such an inquiry. We challenged that, stating that it was not okay for the local authority to investigate itself and that it had to be done in an open and transparent way. But the council said no. It was not willing to have that local inquiry.
I therefore raised the matter with the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, and asked what he thought about it. He expressed to me that he thought it must be absolutely dreadful not to know what happened to a baby’s ashes and that something should be done. Eventually, Tina and I went to see the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who I think was genuinely moved by Tina’s plight and by hearing about the many families in Hull who still did not know what happened. Tina made it clear that she wanted a local inquiry so that those families could get answers. On 10 May this year the Justice Secretary wrote to me, stating:
“I am pleased to be able to tell you that my fellow Secretaries of State at the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government have agreed with me that there is a need for an historic investigation into the practices relating to infant cremations in the Hull area, and we have today jointly written to the Chief Executive of Hull City Council asking him to commission this.”
As Members can imagine, we were delighted to have three Secretaries of State acknowledge that the families in Hull deserve to know what happened. It was excellent news.
However, two issues rightly remained of concern. One related to jurisdiction. It was not just about the local council, which had responsibility for the crematoriums; it was also about the role that the national health service had played. It was about the training needs and anything else that might come out of an inquiry. It was therefore important that the health service was involved. There was obviously an issue about how private funeral directors would be compelled to take part in any investigation. It was clear that there were some issues that needed to be addressed.
The other issue, which I had a lot of sympathy with, was the cost on holding an independent inquiry, which we know can be expensive. We also know that local councils are under enormous financial pressure at the moment. I supported Hull City Council in returning to the Ministry of Justice and asking for clarification and assistance on the two points of jurisdiction and available financial help. That all seemed to be going well, and I thought those were genuine issues that the Department would deal with.
However, on 26 September, the new Justice Secretary wrote to Hull City Council saying she thought there was no longer any need for an inquiry. The letter was not copied to me or my constituent, and I became aware of it only because the chief executive of Hull City Council sent a copy to me. I have to say, on behalf of my constituent and the many families affected in Hull, that I am absolutely furious that a decision made by three Secretaries of State was completely overturned without any consultation—indeed, without any attempt to consult me, my constituent or the Action 4 Ashes group in Hull. As Members can imagine, my constituent is devastated.
The letter from Hull City Council said the council had carried out investigations and was satisfied that everything that could be done had been done. Reading the letter, it was clear that the council had not really engaged fully with the problems around the NHS and funeral directors, and it certainly had not engaged fully with the families. In recent years, we have become a very much more open country, and we are less willing to take on trust the word of authority figures. Organisations left to investigate themselves rarely see the need for independent scrutiny of their actions; we only have to look at cases such as Hillsborough. Organisations that investigate themselves almost always find nothing much wrong and no one answerable for any error that is owned up to. “Nothing to see here. Go away. Move on” could be the motto of that culture.
The nearly 100 families in Hull who have come forward are not just going to go away and accept that they will not get the answers to their questions about what happened to the ashes of their deceased babies. A proper independent inquiry from outside the council—as they had in Shrewsbury—to ascertain whether more can be learned is the least those families deserve. If we do not learn the lessons of the past, there will be less confidence about whether measures proposed by Ministers to reform practices at crematoriums will be enough. I really do not understand what the Secretary of State for Justice had to gain by closing down the prospect of proper independent scrutiny of what went wrong in Hull.
In this week, in particular, I would ask the Minister to put himself in the shoes of those families in Hull who want answers and justice. There are three key demands. First, my constituent ought to receive an apology from the Secretary of State for Justice. Secondly, the Secretary of State should give her the courtesy of a personal meeting, just as the previous Secretary of State did. Thirdly, the independent investigation into what happened to the ashes of the babies of over 100 families in Hull should be reinstated forthwith, with funding from the Government to ensure that it can go ahead.
What an honour it is to follow that speech by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). She and I have worked closely together over the last year on difficulties relating to infant cremations, and I very much listened with interest to what she had to say.
When my son died, I was told by our consultant that, one day, it would be possible to put my grief in a box and open the box only when it suited me. Obviously, at the time, I thought she was completely insane; now I realise it is possible to have an element of control over lifting the lid in public—although it is not one I have exercised particularly well today.
Over the years, I have talked about my experiences to raise money for charities, including mental health charities, and I have learned that nothing opens those wallets quicker than a few tears. I have also trained hundreds of midwives for Action on Pre-eclampsia; midwives are fairly used to emotional mothers, so the lid can be fully lifted with them around.
It is an honour to be vice-chair of the all-party group and to have been there at its conception one very late night in the Tea Room. We have well and truly lifted the lid this week in Parliament, which is an achievement in itself. However, just as importantly, we have succeeded in enlisting Health and MOJ Ministers—certainly to date—to our cause. The emotion of the Secretary of State for Health was obvious to all yesterday, and I was pleased to see him here earlier in the debate. The charitable fundraiser in me did wonder whether, next year, we should ask a well-known tissue manufacturer to sponsor baby loss awareness week in Parliament.
In brief, my story is that, following two miscarriages, I developed severe pre-eclampsia and HELLP—hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count—syndrome during my third pregnancy 16 years ago. My son died soon after he was born, and for some time it was not at all clear whether I would survive. To put that in context, my father was slipped from this place at a time of enormous difficulty for the Government, which shows that my condition was clearly very serious. I went on to have two more children, now aged 15 and 13.
With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to touch first on learning points from my own experience and then on some of the work the all-party group has done this year, and finally to make some general points about maternity care going forward.
The learning points from my own experience are out of date, but, sadly, not all of these things have been put right—in fact, most have not. Obviously, physical care comes first where maternal and baby death is a real possibility. However, someone needs to be tasked with the mental care of the whole family, because the death of a baby, as we have heard, leaves deep scars in so many of his or her relations. Memories, clothes and photos make a real difference later, however much they seem like fripperies at the time. Putting bereaved mothers in with live babies is simply not on, however ill they are. Explaining what is going on all the time is critical, and it may need to be done many times to different family members. Medical conditions have to be understood by those who are suffering.
Midwives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) said, need considerably more than one hour of bereavement training. They also need training on how to have grown-up conversations on things such as lactation—conversations which were utterly lacking, in my experience. In fact, training all obstetric staff is important, as so many parents go on to have more children. GPs, who are often the first port of call, and other health workers, also need to be aware of the very long-term effects of baby loss.
It is difficult to go back to hospital with whatever condition in the future, let alone one to do with pregnancy. Where possible, parents should not have to tell and re-tell their story at every appointment. HELLP syndrome, which I suffered from, leads to multiple organ failure. I am not a doctor, and I do not really understand what is wrong with me, but if I go to the doctor with a minor condition, I have to go through the whole blinking story again. It would be easy to have a simple flag on my notes so that every time I have my blood pressure taken, for whatever reason, I do not have to re-tell everything.
Fathers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) mentioned, get ignored. We need proper evidence of the effects on relationships of babies dying. We have some evidence, which he touched on, but it is not broad enough or good enough. Let me read from an article about stillbirth in The Lancet this January:
“Fathers reported feeling unacknowledged as a legitimately grieving parent. The burden of these men keeping feelings to themselves increased the risk of chronic grief. Differences in the grieving process between parents can lead to incongruent grief, which was reported to cause serious relationship issues”.
The effects on grandparents should also be considered. My parents had to cope with the loss of their grandchild and the near loss of their daughter.
Access to mental health provision must be standardised, and good practice copied. According to Bliss, 40% of parents of premature babies need some mental health intervention. I would suggest that every one of those whose babies die needs at least an assessment. Relationship counselling should also be offered as part of an automatic deal, although I do not know at what stage that would be beneficial. At the very least, we need evidence on the effects of baby loss on relationships.
The all-party group is made up of individuals with different experiences and talents. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester is excellent on parental leave. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury knows more than all others about pathways of care. My role this year has, sadly, been dealing with the issue of infant cremations, not least because of a constituency case I had. I am aware that the Minister is not the Minister who should respond on infant cremation, but it is important that we have a cross-departmental and joined-up approach to the issue, and I would welcome it if he could intervene or at least speak to the MOJ about it.
I have been horrified in listening to this debate. I have never lost a baby in my family, but I am horrified and upset. Surely for a mother who gives birth to a child, stillborn or not, that is her baby or the family’s baby, and surely she and the father should have absolute rights about what happens with the cremation and thereafter. I am absolutely horrified that they do not do so at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention.
We in the all-party group welcome the MOJ’s consultation and the subsequent response, which was published just before the summer. It seems that we are—I really hope we are—on the cusp of making some very important changes in this area. I ask that we push for these changes to happen speedily, because they are really important.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for letting me intervene during her impressive and important speech. On the back of that comment, I want to inform the House that my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), announced last month the formation of a national cremation working group. It is now working with all interested parties, and it intends to take evidence from Members of the House. I strongly encourage all hon. Members with such an interest to participate.
I very much thank the Minister for that intervention. We in the all-party group were thrilled about the formation of that group.
In that contest, may I give the House a few more examples from the response of the MOJ that we feel are particularly important to take forward speedily? We hope that the MOJ will provide a statutory definition of ashes to make it clear that everything cremated with a baby, including personal items and clothing, must be recovered. We hope that the MOJ will amend cremation application forms to make explicit the applicant’s wishes in relation to ashes that are recovered. Crucially—I know this point is very important for many Members in the Chamber—we hope that the cremation of foetuses of fewer than 24 weeks’ gestation can be brought within the scope of the regulation, where parents wish that to happen. There is some positive news in this very sensitive area.
Moving on to the future of maternity services more generally, my overriding constituency concern at the moment is the future of the Horton general hospital. In fact, if I am honest, it occupies most of my waking moments, and my children complained during our summer holiday in August that I cannot formulate a sentence without the word “Horton” in it, which I fear is true. This summer, I found the lid repeatedly lifted on my own experiences, as we have real safety concerns about the downgrading of our obstetrics unit at the Horton general hospital.
Since last week, a midwife-led unit remains at the Horton general hospital, but all mothers who might—might, not necessarily will—need obstetric care, which is of course the majority of them, have to go under their own steam or be transferred as an emergency to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. In a blue-light ambulance, that journey of between 22 and 27 miles, depending on the route taken, takes about 45 minutes. If my labouring mothers travel in their own car—of course, not all of them have one—the journey can easily take up to an hour and a half, depending on where they live and on the state of the Oxford traffic. The decision to downgrade the service was taken on safety grounds, as the trust had failed to recruit enough obstetricians, but I must say that I have severe safety concerns for the mothers and babies in our area. In 2008, an Independent Reconfiguration Panel report concluded that the distance was too far for our unit to be downgraded. As I see it, nothing has changed except that the Oxford traffic has worsened. I am keen, generally, that we start to be kinder to mothers during pregnancy and birth, and in my view, that does not mean encouraging them to labour in the back of the car on the A34.
We know that personal care leads to better outcomes. We need to take very careful note of Baroness Cumberlege’s recommendations in her “Better Births” report. She said that births should
“become safer, more personalised, kinder, professional and more family friendly”.
We must use the impetus of events such as this week to drive through her major recommendations.
Chief among these recommendations must be the recommendation for continuity not of care but of the carer, which has been shown to reduce premature deaths by 24%. Professor Lesley Regan, recently elected the first woman president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists for 64 years, has done a plethora of well-evidenced research on miscarriage, demonstrating again and again that a system of reassurance and continuity, with weekly scans and meetings with a midwife, has reduced the rate of recurrent miscarriage by 80%. That figure of 80% is for women who have miscarried three or four times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury mentioned the excellent work being done at Queen Charlotte’s as well. In this context, I am troubled that the sustainability and transformation plans might push us towards larger and larger units with less personal care. I may be wrong— I hope I am—and perhaps it is safer for such giant units to deliver the majority of babies, but I worry that in our case in Banbury decisions are being taken about my constituents without their views being considered and without real evidence of the risks involved.
Everyone in the House today is clearly committed to reducing baby loss, and I have never heard such emotion in a debate. We have evidenced-based research to show us how, in part, to do that. I refer the Minister very firmly to Baroness Cumberlege’s report. Yes, better bereavement care is important. Sadly, some babies will always die, as mine did, but let us really now make a commitment to reduce miscarriages and deaths from prematurity.
I need to be able to tell my constituents that they will not have to suffer as I did.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent and very moving, yet very practical speech made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is making me want to cry as well. I think the idea of having a tissue manufacturer to sponsor this debate was quite a good one.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince) for bringing this very important debate to the House. We owe both hon. Members and their families a great deal of gratitude for raising awareness about this issue through Baby Loss Awareness Week and their commitment to the all-party group.
I also pay tribute to the families who started Infant Loss Awareness Day back in 2002, and to the thousands of families across the country who continue to make a commitment to helping other families through their grief while highlighting the lack of maternity bereavement care in hospitals and in the community. As we have heard, thousands of families each year in the UK suffer the tragedy of losing a child. I hope that this debate may in a small way lead to their not having to suffer in silence and to their realising that they are not alone in their grief. This debate has raised many issues, some of which are uncomfortable, albeit very necessary if we are to change policy to help to reduce infant death, to save bereaved families from isolation and to make sure that the best possible maternity and neonatal care is available to everyone across the NHS.
Before I was elected to this place, I worked for the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which is based in the north-west. It performed some good work in this area, including by holding an annual baby memorial day for parents who had lost babies in the hospital. That was led by our excellent hospital chaplains, who perform such a good service for bereaved parents.
I was asked to attend this debate by my constituent Jane Casey, whose daughter Niamh tragically died shortly after her birth at the trust. Jane has still not received the root cause analysis of her daughter’s death from the trust and, 11 months after Niamh’s death, I am helping her to obtain the report. Jane says:
“The hospital has made me feel that my daughter’s life was not important. I am completely broken and find life a struggle. I keep on going because of my son.”
Those are such sad words, but they are typical of the examples that have been shared today. I really hope that this debate will achieve some practical steps to help other families to avoid such grief.
Health visitors, who have not yet been mentioned, play an important role pre and post-pregnancy. They can give support and practical help, but I feel that their role is undervalued. Since 2015, health visitors have been devolved to local authorities, but in that time there have been cuts to local authorities of nearly £200 million. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further £77 million cut in 2016-17 and an £84 million cut in 2017-18. The funding that was transferred with the health visiting services was not ring-fenced. I sincerely hope that, under the guidance of a new Prime Minister and Chancellor, the Government will consider protecting this vital service and investing more.
Staggeringly, 68% of local authorities do not commission bereavement support, and neither do nearly a fifth of clinical commissioning groups. This is a vital provision for families at their time of greatest need, and the failure to provide it is clearly apparent in our healthcare structures. I am pleased that NHS England is developing the children’s palliative care funding currency. That includes pre-bereavement care before a baby or child dies, but it sadly overlooks bereavement care after a baby or child dies, so I hope that amendments will be made to that policy.
The Government and the House have the opportunity, by passing the Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement) Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Colchester, to put parental bereavement leave on the statute book. It would give bereaved parents the entitlement to a leave of absence from employment, which is a common right across Europe. That would be an important first step in the right direction as the entitlement should be afforded to all at their time of greatest need.
Although mothers, fathers and families will never forget the children they have lost, baby loss awareness week is a chance for them to meet other families and share memories in remembrance. The collective sharing of experiences can begin the process of healing and alleviate a small part of the pain. The most powerful thing it provides is the opportunity to speak out and prevent other parents across the UK from suffering the same agony. We, as legislators, must act upon the words that have been spoken today in the House and create a better environment of support for bereaved families.
Finally, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) for sharing the tragic story of her daughter, Veronica. I am in awe of the bravery and courage she showed in speaking out today. Her bravery and courage were echoed in the words of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the hon. Member for Banbury and the two hon. Members who brought this debate to the House, whom I thank for giving me this opportunity to speak.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this incredibly important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing it and thank them for the outstanding work they have undertaken on this issue through the all-party group on baby loss. I also thank the other hon. Members who have participated in that group. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) for their brave speeches.
I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury for quite some time. We are friends and were Members of the National Assembly for Wales together. Indeed, we used to sit next to each other in the Assembly, and I witnessed at first hand the terrible devastation she faced when going through the loss of her baby. It is testimony to her courage and resolve that, despite her tragic loss, she is highlighting once again this issue that has affected some of us who are here today. It takes bravery to tackle the silence and stigma that used to exist around baby loss. She was instrumental in tackling it as an Assembly Member, and she has been instrumental in bringing this issue to the national stage and raising awareness for the tens of thousands of families who need help and support. I pay tribute to the outstanding work that she does.
In November 2015, the Secretary of State for Health launched the national ambition to reduce the rate of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 50% by 2030, along with the short-term aim of achieving a 20% reduction during this Parliament—by 2020. That was, no doubt, in large part due to the extraordinary work that my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Colchester are doing.
In 2014, there were 3,245 stillbirths and 2,689 infant deaths in England and Wales. The death of a baby is one of the most traumatic events for a mother and father to go through and to deal with the aftermath of. The care that families receive afterwards is vital in helping them to cope in the long term with the loss of their child. That is why I am so pleased that this issue is being raised by my hon. Friends. Awareness is the key to reducing stillbirths and infant mortality, and to tackling the stigma surrounding the issue.
There can be no greater grief than that caused by the loss of a child. It causes psychological conditions that can last years and even a lifetime. The loss never truly leaves you, but how we care for families and individuals can make a huge difference to the future lives of those who live with such tragedy.
I have been through it myself. My wife and I have a wonderful son, but we also lost a child in the 1980s, when there was certainly a stigma around the issue—you just could not talk about it; it was taboo. It was almost an embarrassment to bring it up in public. We could not discuss the grief and sadness that we felt, and we did not have help to deal with what was one of the most traumatic experiences of our lives. It is a devastating experience. I am pleased to say that my son, who is now 34, and his lovely wife Natalie have presented us with a grandchild.
Having children is one of the most marvellous and truly happy experiences for a couple, and something we cherish. Yet, in a moment, we can go from one of the happiest, life-changing experiences to one of the most devastating. When you lose a child, you lose something for which you and your loved one have built a life for and around. You looked forward to going to sports at school, graduations and marriages, and in an instant that cherished future, that child and that happiness are cruelly taken away. I well remember that when we experienced that loss, there was no way to talk about it and all those feelings had to be bottled up. That never does and never can help the grieving process. We, too, were given medical advice to keep trying. I am afraid that that was not quite good enough at the time.
That brings me to the crucial point that, as with many mental health issues, we must communicate to everyone that talking about problems is always a sign of strength and never one of weakness. It is vital that we have the very best care, counselling and services for mothers who have experienced this agonising loss. They must be treated with kindness, sensitivity and respect in the hospital afterwards. It is also crucial that we support fathers who, while being strong for the mother and focusing on her needs, also have to bear the terrible loss.
As I have said, my family have experienced this at first hand. There is a great feeling of powerlessness and anguish when you see your wife, girlfriend or partner rushed into hospital and then into theatre, with no idea of the issue or the outcome, when all you are trying to do is to start your own family. In an instant, the whole world, your family and your life spiral out of your control. You are a bystander to your fate and future, with no power to help your loved ones.
We must therefore ensure that the national health service provides counselling and advice, coupled with statutory leave, so that parents have the best professional support. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly support the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester through the Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement) Bill. It is fundamental to guarantee that parents will have some time to grieve for their loss. To ensure that that opportunity is given, it needs to be on a statutory footing.
Finally, I am pleased that the Department of Health has conducted a survey to map the bereavement provision in England to build up a picture of current provision and identify where the gaps are. It is crucial to highlight areas of good practice and understand the challenges that services face. It is also crucial that the Government are increasing the number of midwives, and I hope that that leads to an increase in the number of midwives who have specialist training in bereavement. That should be a lesson to all our devolved Governments.
A Sands report found that fewer than half of doctors and midwives had had mandatory training in care for after the death of a baby. It is vital that staff are trained in caring for the psychological and physical needs of families, and in counselling them when needed. I hope that the Government commit to going even further in improving mandatory training and in supporting the need for statutory leave for families to grieve for the loss of the most cherished thing in our lives—a child.
It is always with great care that one treads into some areas of one’s own life, but, like many hon. Members, I remember around that 21-week or 22-week point of pregnancy—obviously I am addressing the women Members in the Chamber—having that marvellous, magical moment of what the books describe as a fluttering. You suddenly realise then that the nightmare of morning sickness and the other afflictions that there often are in pregnancy are all about the new life there within you. I suspect that I am not alone in this but that many hon. Members of both sexes have had that moment of looking into the Moses basket and knowing that the next time you look into it that bundle of lif