Wednesday 13 September 2017
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a waiting time standard for autism diagnosis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. During the last general election campaign, I attended a hustings in Enfield, Southgate organised by the local branch of the National Autistic Society. Following that meeting, and after further discussions with constituents and others on issues related to autism, I decided to request a debate on the matter. During this debate, I will briefly describe the effects of autism and explain the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s diagnostic assessment standard. I will also question why that standard is not being adhered to, explain the impact of late diagnosis and propose a way forward to the Minister.
As some people may be aware, autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to others and makes sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition and affects individuals to varying degrees.
All my constituents who contacted me about this issue are very concerned about the time taken for diagnosis. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to have a consistent approach right across the country—like in Wales, where last year the Welsh Government introduced a national autism strategy?
The hon. Gentleman talked about diagnosis times. In Northern Ireland, we fall foul of the 13-week standard, with some times peaking at 22 months. We have a vast shortage of psychologists. Does he agree that a massive recruitment drive is needed to reduce those times and achieve the standard?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point; I will refer to the requirement of additional resources later.
Autism usually first manifests itself in young children: four to five years old is the average age at which it is diagnosed, with girls being diagnosed later and less frequently than boys. Some people are not diagnosed until they are adults, after which they are then able to make better sense of things. Some of the early signs of autism include underdeveloped communication and attention skills, such as not establishing eye contact or responding to one’s name. It is widely acknowledged that autism can be reliably diagnosed at age two, and that early diagnosis is absolutely critical to allow parents and carers to receive the support they need so that they can give their child the best start in life that they can. It is safe to say that everyone supporting a child with autism benefits from early diagnosis.
Before looking at the NICE guidelines, I will reference the primary piece of legislation that covers autism: the Autism Act 2009, introduced as a private Member’s Bill by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). It was adopted by the Labour Government of the day and became law. Section 1 of the Act states that the Secretary of State must publish an autism strategy by April 2010, and must keep that strategy under review. In March 2010, an autism strategy was drawn up, and it covered: increasing awareness; developing a consistent pathway for diagnosis; improving access to services; helping adults with autism into work; and enabling local partners to plan and develop local services. Section 2 deals with guidance about implementing the autism strategy, with subsection (5) stating that that must include guidance about diagnosing autism, identifying adults with autism and assessing their needs.
Following the granting of Royal Assent to the Autism Act and the drawing up of the autism strategy, NICE acknowledged the need for early diagnosis. In paragraph 1.5.1 of its “Autism spectrum disorder in under 19s: recognition, referral and diagnosis” guidance, under the heading “Autism diagnostic assessment for children and young people”, it states that autism diagnostic assessment should start
“within 3 months of the referral to the autism team.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be support for the whole family of children with autism, especially when they are waiting so long for diagnosis? Will he also join me in celebrating a local charity in my constituency called Aim Higher, which supports and empowers children and parents with autism, and in congratulating it on being named Sainsbury’s local charity of the year?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Returning to support for families, is it not right that the functional needs of the child and the support for parents trying to address those functional needs could be addressed immediately, even without a diagnosis? That needs to be put into the system now.
Support early on is very much needed, and I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. In the early years, when parents and carers are trying to make sense of the situation, it is essential that they get the support they need from other agencies and that that is provided for.
The private Member’s Bill—later, the 2009 Act—was vital, but it has been too long since that time. We need action now. I chair the Westminster Commission on Autism, and a member of my family is on the autism spectrum. It is time to act now, to make the service universal for every child and to support every family. I hope that everyone’s interest will be regenerated today so that we can carry on the battle.
We are entering the period of reviewing the implementation of the 2009 Act. It will shortly be the 10th anniversary of the Act as well, so it is important that that is followed through on a cross-party basis. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will certainly be, and are already being, held to account.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that helpful intervention; we look forward to seeing how that progresses.
The autism diagnostic assessment should start within three months of referral to the autistic team. That standard was set by independent experts, and for good reason. It is a fact that autistic people who are not diagnosed early enough are also highly likely to develop other neurodevelopmental conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—ADHD—dyslexia or dyspraxia. Early diagnosis and intervention could help to reduce the prevalence of those additional conditions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the NICE guidelines he alluded to are not figures simply plucked out of the air, but are carefully considered? What is vital is that if they are implemented people can get the support and assistance that they often need for this condition.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The NICE guidelines are drawn up by experts who are qualified in their field, and it is only with the collaboration of the experts that the guidelines are set. They are set by experts and should be strictly adhered to.
The delay between referral and diagnosis not only causes more potential harm to children, but leads to untold stress and anxiety for parents and carers who cannot understand their child. If the delay was a matter of weeks, that would be bad enough, but thanks to research done by Dr Laura Crane at Goldsmiths, University of London we now know that in a sample of 1,047 parents who were surveyed, the average delay from referral by a health professional to diagnosis was three and a half years. The delay was more than four years for children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
The delay is alarming, and I have had difficulty corroborating it with any Government data. That is because data on the length of time from referral to diagnosis of autism are not collected by NHS trusts or clinical commissioning groups, so there is no way of holding the NHS to account for that failing. Since this debate was made public, I have had numerous tweets and emails, as have colleagues, that support the findings of Dr Laura Crane’s study and suggest that the delay in diagnosis is taking years, not months.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that NICE needs to look at reviewing its guidance? It is not just about the first appointment. There is a risk that there is gaming of the system. People get their first appointment, but then it is stretched out to three and a half years, as we know. Getting the diagnosis is the critical thing.
Order. Before I call Bambos Charalambous, I should say that those seeking to make a speech in the debate may consider it unnecessary to make an intervention, enabling those who for one reason or another cannot make a speech to make a short intervention. I say that in an advisory sense; it is up to the hon. Gentleman whether he accepts any interventions. As they glance around the Chamber, Members will become aware that it will be difficult to get everyone in.
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) makes a good point about the need for proper assessment of when the final diagnosis is actually made. It may not be at the first appointment; more than one appointment may be needed before the final diagnosis is established. It is absolutely vital that these diagnoses are made as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech in a timely debate. In light of this debate, a constituent contacted me and shared her very distressing experience of the five long years she waited for a diagnosis for her son. He requires support in every aspect of life and has suffered academically and socially while waiting for that diagnosis. Does my hon. Friend agree that waiting times are far too long? The damaging effects are long-lasting and a poor economic outcome for the country.
My hon. Friend makes the excellent point that the delay in diagnosing autism leads to further economic and social concerns that may have an adverse impact on society in general. That point was very well made.
NICE also has a quality standard for adults with autism, which again recommends that people should have a diagnostic assessment within three months of referral. NICE’s rationale for that states:
“It is important that the assessment is conducted as soon as possible so that appropriate health and social care interventions, advice and support can be offered.”
In my constituency of Enfield, Southgate there is currently no local diagnostic pathway. That means that an adult looking for assessment and a possible diagnosis could not have it done at North Middlesex hospital or Chase Farm hospital—or even Barnet General or the Royal Free, which are within the trust. Instead, they would have to be referred to the Maudsley hospital in south London—a distance of more than 23 miles. While I respect the excellent work that the Maudsley hospital does in mental health, I find it staggering that my constituents not only have to wait three years before getting an appointment for diagnosis, but then have to travel 23 miles to access the services. I suspect the distances may be longer for colleagues in other parts of the country.
Some parents and carers cannot bear the long wait and so feel compelled to pay privately to have their child diagnosed, putting them under extra unnecessary financial pressure in an already stressful situation. Once correctly diagnosed, a child will receive the support they need in schooling and wellbeing via a specifically designed local education, health and care plan, which could have life-changing effects.
On that point, a constituent, Zoe, explained to me how the diagnostic procedures are outdated. Some children are not being diagnosed as autistic because they can do things such as make eye contact, and then that diagnosis is proved to be wrong. She also said:
“If you become desperate and obtain a private diagnosis with an expert in the field, you are made to feel that you have bought the result and it is not seen as valid by schools and other SEN professionals. I think that the worst thing is the treatment of parents who are trying to help their child under what are extremely stressful and upsetting circumstances. Your parenting skills and your mental health are questioned regularly.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Sometimes the private assessment is not recognised by the local CCG, so referral does not take place as planned, leading to more stress on families and children. I have enormous sympathy with her constituent who has faced that situation.
We all know that the early years of a child’s life are so vital for their long-term development. If a child does not get a good start, it is always hard to catch up. Research conducted by the charity Autistica has found that a programme of parent-led video therapy delivered during the early years of an autistic child’s life could significantly improve their communication and social interaction skills. People who are not diagnosed until adulthood can experience depression and have suicidal thoughts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Autistica’s research also indicates that people with an autism diagnosis, once they get it, can have an increased risk of mental health conditions? In fact, such young people are 28 times more likely to consider suicide than other young people, and that affects adults who do not receive a diagnosis, too. People who have autism have an increased risk of suicide.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Other additional conditions can develop, and suicidal tendencies are one of them. Other mental health conditions can similarly manifest themselves in young people in particular. I congratulate her on looking at that research.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. He is making such an important speech, and I congratulate him on calling this debate. One of my constituents wrote to me about how she was diagnosed as autistic in her 40s and the struggle she had in getting past her doctor. She said that once she had that diagnosis, it was life-changing, because she could understand that she was not lazy, weird or anything else; she was autistic. She wrote to me to say that she believes there is a need for greater training of GPs to spot the signs of autism. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Sometimes the behaviours for autism in women and girls are not picked up as much as they are in boys, because they do not always display the behaviours that would lead someone to detect autism. I wish her constituent well for the future.
The lengthy delay in diagnosis can lead not only to the development of further secondary conditions to autism, but will invariably end up costing the NHS more money for more GP appointments, emergency admissions and reliance on mental health services at a time of crisis. In addition, delayed diagnosis has a disproportionate effect on women. Girls are often diagnosed late as they do not always display the same classic behaviour associated with autism as boys do.
How can the situation be remedied? I urge the Minister to consider implementing three things. First, we need to ensure that the NHS collects and publishes data for each NHS trust or CCG from the date that a child is referred to them until the date of diagnosis. At present there is no such requirement, so such a database should be cemented in the NHS accountability frameworks and should be held by the CCGs in their improvement and assurance frameworks. CCGs and the NHS trusts should be measured by how they perform on referrals and diagnoses.
Secondly, we need more investment in the NHS. To miss a standard set by NICE by more than three years leads me to believe that the Government are not really trying hard enough when it comes to ensuring that the children are seen and properly diagnosed within a timely period. It is scandalous that children’s futures are put at risk in such a way. Although the Minister may say that the three months is only a guideline and not mandatory, I believe the guideline should be strictly adhered to. The guidance is there for a reason.
We also need more specialist units to deal with diagnosing autism. We have in recent months heard some bold promises from the Government about funding for mental health, but we have yet to see any sign of firm action. We need investment in the NHS and we need it now.
Finally, we need to ensure that the improved record- keeping of autism diagnosis helps to identify where there are gaps, and that work can begin to tackle the health inequalities we face. I wish to thank the National Autistic Society and Autistica, and also the House of Commons Library for its excellent briefings on this matter. I await the Minister’s response.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out that many people wish to contribute, so there will be a time limit of three minutes starting from when the next speaker sits down. I apologise for that, but it is the only way we can try to get everybody in. Even then, it is unlikely that everybody who is down to speak will be called.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I will try not to take up too much time. I welcome the Minister to her place and look forward to hearing how she responds to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous). I add my congratulations, which I am sure will be echoed around this Chamber, to him on securing this important debate.
I am proud to be chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, which has a wide membership across all parties. I like to think that this is one subject about which we do not need to be party political; we can all work together to try to secure better outcomes for people with autism and their families. I hope that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and other new Members will join the APPG. Forgive me for the advertisement, but if they ring my office we will put them on the list and let them know what we are up to.
May I also welcome a very unusual appearance in this Chamber? I see that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), is here. We do not often see a Minister from another Department who is not called upon to speak coming in to listen to a debate. I am encouraged by that and I thank her for being here, because it shows how seriously we take this matter.
If I remember correctly, the last time we were in this Chamber to debate autism was in a debate secured by the late Jo Cox. We all acknowledge that she was a great Member of Parliament, and she had also begun to champion autism in a major way. We are grateful for her contribution, which will long be remembered in this House. It is worth looking back at that debate to see how far we have come since then and what measures are being put in place to bring down diagnosis waiting times, because all of us, including the Government, were in agreement that people are waiting too long for diagnosis—that is a given.
Last year I had the honour of chairing a well-attended APPG public meeting on this issue. Those who were there might remember hearing from Melanie, whose son Sam had waited nine years to receive a formal diagnosis. Concerns were first raised only two weeks after he started school. She was passed from agency to agency until finally, at age 14, her son was given a formal diagnosis.
Melanie told us how frustrated she was at the number of missed opportunities to pick up on Sam’s basically hidden needs. It meant that she could not put in place vital support to help him when he was young, which she believes has had a significant impact on his development and, as one of the interventions alluded to, on the subsequent mental health problems he faced. It is sad to say, but she now regrets having pushed her son to fit in and socialise, because that caused him an enormous amount of stress. Although a nine-year wait is an extreme example, the stories that our constituents tell us clearly show that we need to do more to reduce waiting times.
Let me touch once more on the importance of ensuring that we properly record diagnosis waiting times and break down the data by local area. The National Autistic Society has asked that diagnosis waiting times for children and adults become part of the mental health services data set and that measures are developed so that waiting times for diagnosis become part of the NHS’s accountability frameworks. I think that we could all agree on that. If those recommendations were taken forward in full, that would allow Members here to assess how well their local area was doing and to be assured that diagnosis waiting times were being prioritised locally, while supporting constituents to hold their local services to account. After all, that is what we are here for.
The Government have indicated previously that they are working towards a better methodology for recording autism diagnosis, but it would help if the Minister could put on the record the work that the Government are doing in this area and when Members can expect to start seeing the data, which will help us all.
I also want to highlight the data that should currently exist for diagnosis waiting times for adults. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is no doubt aware that a report on the results of the autism self-assessment framework was published in June. The self-assessment framework is a survey that is sent regularly to top-tier local councils in England to ask them to report on local implementation of the Autism Act 2009, which I introduced. Although the overview of the results across England was published in June, the Government still have not published the local area breakdowns on which it was based. That omission has meant that Members here are unable to scrutinise how their own local areas are performing. For example, we are aware that one local authority is reporting a 125-week waiting time. I am sure that the Members who represent that currently unnamed local area will want to know that information as soon as possible—I certainly would.
I thank the right hon. Lady for stating that this issue is not party political. Although the UK Government have introduced an Autism Act, it does not include children and has no funding attached to it, whereas the Welsh Government are investing millions in an innovative national integrated service. As well as investing millions in neurodevelopmental assessment services for children, they have introduced a 26-week waiting time target from referral to first appointment. Does the right hon. Lady think that patients in England would benefit from the Government looking at good practice in the devolved nations to improve services in England?
As a former Secretary of State for Wales, I welcome all the initiatives taken in Wales on this matter. An earlier intervention indicated that Wales had only recently introduced an autism strategy, but in fact Wales introduced an autism strategy back in 2008, before the Bill was introduced, so they are to be congratulated on taking that original initiative—I am not proud; I will learn from any quarter where we can improve our services.
My memory of introducing the Autism Bill is not a pleasant one. The Government of the day opposed it, but we defeated them on Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill on a Friday. That was why they decided to allow their draftsmen to work with me to produce a piece of legislation that they would accept. I decided that it was better to get that on to the statute book at the time, rather than to try to broaden the scope of the legislation. However, the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) is right. I was disappointed, but that is what I was able to get through at the time, and I felt that it was important.
Can the Minister commit to looking into the local area waiting times and publishing the breakdown as soon as possible? It is worth noting that concerns have been expressed about the waiting times data provided by the self-assessment framework. Some have described it as local areas marking their own homework, with little oversight, which does none of us any good. Including data on autism diagnosis in the mental health services data set, as I have outlined already, would help make sure that data are recorded properly and accurately.
Before I sit down, I want to touch quickly on the issue of mental health and autism, which has already been alluded to in interventions. Autism is not a mental health condition in itself, but research indicates that as many as 70% of autistic people may develop mental health problems. The lack of a timely diagnosis contributes to that and can mean that autistic children and adults develop mental health problems. A diagnosis can help to unlock the right types of support for autistic people and their families, which can prevent the development of problems further down the line.
In addition, autistic people diagnosed as adults frequently report how transformational that diagnosis is in helping explain years—in some cases, decades—of feeling different. More than 60% of respondents to a National Autistic Society survey describe getting their diagnosis as a great relief. In some of the most serious cases, autistic adults have reported that prior to their diagnosis they have not only experienced serious mental health problems, but even had suicidal thoughts, as the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) mentioned earlier.
Research from Sweden suggests that suicide rates are significantly higher among autistic people than the rest of the general public. The Swedish study, which I recommend that Members read, showed that autistic people who did not have a learning disability were nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. It is worth remembering that the Swedish healthcare system is different from ours. However, given the seriousness of those findings, it is vital to find out whether that also applies to the UK and, if so, to understand the reasons for that. I hope that the Minister will commit to investigating issues of mortality and autism, and highlight what proposals the Government might have more widely to ensure that autistic people’s mental health problems are better dealt with by the NHS.
I welcome this opportunity to get an update from the Government on how we are progressing in this vital area. The stories of the time that it has taken for families to get the right support in place are truly heartbreaking. From looking at the latest statistics, we see that every Member of this House will have at least 1,000 constituents who are affected by autism, so this is not just a problem for one; it is a problem for all.
I have an aim. I feel passionately that we should ensure that every single public-facing person employed by the Government or the state—whether a teacher, a nurse or a fireman—at some stage during their training has a module on autism, so that the wider state can really understand the needs of people and their families, and respond accordingly. I look forward to continuing to work with the Government not only on how we can get the waiting times down, but on how we can broaden the quality of the services that we offer to people with autism and their families. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate on initiating this debate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing the debate.
Like many other Members here, I have met constituents who have talked to me not only about the difficulty of diagnosis, but the importance of getting a diagnosis. I have also heard of the difficulty that both children and adults face when trying to access the services required to support their everyday lives. I stand here today as someone who has worked as an advocate for people with disabilities since 1999—in my previous life—and in our family, my brother and sister-in-law are full-time carers to a young man who is autistic, and the father of my children continues to provide respite for two young men who are autistic, so I am very familiar with the issue of autism.
The story I really want to share today is that of young Mustafa, who will be five years old in October. His parents, Aweis Asghar and Neela Fawad, have had many conversations about the fact that Mustafa was recently diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. It took 12 months for that diagnosis and a further six months to have an education, health and care plan assessment by the local authority. At a time when young parents should be enjoying spending time with their only child—getting him to school and doing all the normal things—a diagnosis of autism has a massive impact not only on that family, but on the wider family unit: their work life, home life and everything. They are trying to understand something unique to their child. No two children on the spectrum are the same, and no parents will ever feel the same; they all handle things differently.
Aweis told me this morning that in America an assessor comes to the parents’ house, offers advice and guidance on the world of autism, and understands their child as an individual. Here, parents are left to their own devices. Not everybody has the level of education or the time, because of work pressures, required to do what it takes to get their child the support they need. When they get that support, it is usually from local charities, local support groups and other parents, as opposed to statutory services, which is where the ownership for making those interventions and supporting families should lie. Aweis also told me—we have talked extensively about this—that there are no clear pathways anywhere and that we do not follow the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines.
I want to ask the Government for a few things today. First, we need to revisit the NICE guidelines and ensure that we put in place the right pathways. We need to understand that every child is an individual and create their care packages individually. Secondly, the Government need to have a consistent approach across the country for every child.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to see so many people in the Chamber; it reflects the level of concern about the waiting times for autism diagnosis.
First, I welcome the efforts that clearly are being taken by Governments and local authorities to provide more support for children and adults with autism. Just last week, the doubling of the number of health visitors since 2010 was brought to my attention in my constituency. That has had benefits in supporting young families and, in particular, parents, when their child is not behaving as they expected. There are good things going on, but I want to talk briefly about the gap between the NICE guidelines on waiting times and what appears to be happening on the ground.
When I talk to parents in my constituency, it is clear that their experience does not involve a three-month waiting time. I have several accounts from parents who have experienced much longer waits. For example, one set of parents raised concerns when their child was four. That child is now 10 and they still do not have a diagnosis, despite many professionals seeing the child and indicating that they think that they are on the autism spectrum. In another family, the mother raised concerns when her son was 15 months old and the child was nearly four before she got a diagnosis. During that period, not only did the child regress and go, for instance, from talking to not talking and communicating to not communicating, but a lot of concern was raised about the mother’s mental health. Rather than her being given support to look after the child, it was all about whether she had mental health problems. She went for all the support that she could get, but it very much felt like the focus was not on supporting the child. I have a whole raft of such stories.
We are very short of time, so I had best press on.
I draw on examples in part because we do not have regional data on waiting times. I asked the local clinical commissioning group and was told that it does not have easy access to those data, so I do not know what the waiting times are—I just have stories that make it clear that they are extraordinarily long. My first request is therefore for more transparency about the data, as well as addressing the problem of parents saying that they are waiting to wait—that is, that they are being passed from one list to another. Let us have transparency. Let us have people who are waiting getting seen sooner and then, following the diagnosis, let us have really good support services, because the story is very patchy in that area, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing this important debate.
Waiting frustrates us all. Waiting for a bus, one might have expected it in just 10 minutes or so, and it is frustrating to have to wait a bit longer. Waiting to speak in a debate, it sometimes takes many hours to be called —thankfully, not today. But how long should a parent wait if their child is not making friends, has difficulty communicating their needs, avoids eye contact and likes lining things up, and if they think that that child might have autism?
I mentioned on social media last week that I was going to speak in this debate. I have had more than 500 responses from people, each one telling me their story. Nichola has been told that she has to wait three years for her son to be assessed; Eleanor has been told she will have to wait four years for her daughter. Jodie-Marie said that that for her son it was two years, for Louise it was two years and for Janine it was three years. Leigh has a child who was referred last year and been given a first diagnostic appointment in June 2019.
Delays leave many families unable to obtain the education and social support they need, and mean that during the crucial years of child development children are not receiving optimal care. Stuart Dexter leads autism support charity Daisy Chain in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and is in the Public Gallery today. He lives and breathes such stories of frustration every day.
Stuart told me that parents cannot understand why in Middlesbrough assessment takes four months to begin but in Stockton, the town next door, it takes three or four years. The two towns are next to each other and work with the same mental health trust, but have two completely different experiences of care. I can tell those parents why: there is no central leadership of the process, no measurement and no targets, and responsibility is fragmented. Local authorities and CCGs are not working together properly, and the staff delivering assessments work for four different organisations.
On behalf of hundreds of people in Stockton South living with autism, I will ask the Minister two questions. We all come into politics to make a difference and they are not party political. Will she include indicators on diagnosis waiting times in the mental health services data set, to measure how long it takes for people to get diagnosed? Will she commit to introducing a waiting time standard for autism diagnosis and to including it in the CCG improvement and assessment framework, setting a target for maximum waiting times? Those actions might seem small but they could be a huge and welcome leap forward in creating a diagnosis process that is fit for purpose. If they were included in the NHS mandate for 2018-19, we could make a massive difference for thousands of families.
Order. It might be helpful to announce that the three Front Benchers have generously agreed to cut their speeches to give us an additional six minutes. I will therefore be calling the Front Benchers from 10.36 am. Do the maths and try to accommodate all of your colleagues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the new Minister.
I have learned a lot about this issue from my local and national charity in Harlow, PACT for Autism, which does remarkable work for families. It has been made clear to me that, although there is help out there, as described today, the diagnosis process is incredibly complicated and goes on for years. A case in Harlow sums up everything that has been described:
“My son is 7 and we are going through the very slow and frustrating process of getting a diagnosis for ASD. We are a year into the process and…we have had 1 appointment with a paediatrician who confirmed he had High Functioning ASD and told us that she would see us in a few months to complete the background and then he would be diagnosed. She then backtracked and he has been put on a waiting list (9-12 months) for CDAC—I don’t even know what this is and I’m assuming that after this we will be put on a waiting list for ADOS which we have been told is a minimum of a year. My husband spoke to her yesterday because we have been waiting for over a month for the outcome letter from our appointment. She told my husband that we would be better getting a private diagnosis and then the NHS would rubber stamp it. I am feeling a bit lost—there seems to be no clear process and I am not sure what I need to be asking the NHS for.”
The average waiting time for an autism diagnosis has been described as being between 2.5 and 3.5 years for children and 2.5 years for adults, which is far too long. It hurts parents, who are incredibly anxious to support their children; it hurts schools, which will not be receiving the funding they need to help their students reach full potential; and it hurts the children themselves, whose struggle to understand themselves and their autism may lead to mental health difficulties.
We need to recognise that some individuals with autism do not get a diagnosis until they are adults. I understand from PACT for Autism that it is seeing an increase in contact from adults seeking support because local GPs seem unaware of the diagnostic pathway for adults and are “reluctant” to refer patients. It is also important to consider the support and guidance available to individuals and families during and after diagnosis. The diagnosis process can be complicated, sometimes with no follow-ups from the NHS.
On a positive note, however, in Harlow we are lucky to have some fantastic support in schools such as Milwards primary and Passmores secondary, which have specialist autism units. Recently, I went to the opening of the renewed Milwards autism hub: what is being done there is extraordinary. I pay tribute to head teacher Katherine Henson.
I ask the Government what resources are being put in place to implement and enforce fair waiting times for autism diagnosis, and what guidelines can be put in place to ensure that individuals with autism and their families receive the support they need during and after the diagnosis process. Furthermore, I urge the Minister to visit PACT for Autism in Harlow.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing the debate and all the parents and voluntary groups who have clearly been galvanised and got so many Members to be in the Chamber this morning. That is a real tribute to them.
I will write to the Minister with my local examples of families with difficulties, but I want to bring the particular attention of the House and the Minister to a decision of my mental health trust, South West London and St George’s, and of the Merton CCG. Under pressure from the doubling of the number of referrals for autism assessment, the trusts decided simply to restrict the ability to refer. To combat the demand for diagnosis, they suggested that only those children displaying mental health problems would begin the diagnostic process. As we have learned in the debate, however, 30% of autistic children develop no further mental health problems. Girls in particular do not display autism until much later.
If the proposal goes ahead, therefore, a large number of my constituents will be living with undiagnosed autism. On 21 September, the five CCGs—Merton, Sutton, Wandsworth, Kingston and Richmond—will meet to decide whether a formal public consultation is needed. I ask the Minister directly to work with my local mental health trust and CCG to ensure that all those with autism in my constituency are given the diagnosis they need to receive support. They should certainly be involved in any consultation on changing procedures. Furthermore, those procedures should not change in a way that would mean that girls are less likely to receive a diagnosis.
A reduction in the diagnosis of autism in Merton would leave so many of my constituents without the specialist support they need. Such a reduction would be in the interests of no one, whether the individual or the state.
I was asked to speak in this debate by one of my constituents, Nichola, who has a three-year-old son called Thomas. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) referred to them.
This is a very personal story but, before I get into it, I add my tribute to Daisy Chain, the charity based only a few hundred yards from my home in Stockton North that supports children with autism and their parents. I am pleased that the great Daisy Chain team are represented here today.
Thomas has many autistic traits, such as communications difficulties and limited speech, and is behind in all areas of development, including having sensory issues. He will have to wait more than three years for a formal autism diagnosis. That is simply not good enough, and the consequences could follow Thomas through the rest of his life. He has been refused an education, health and care plan; the very fact that he does not have an official diagnosis of autism means that it is harder for him to get one, so Thomas is at severe risk of falling even further behind his peers.
High-quality and appropriate early years education is critical for all children. I am sure that we are all aware of how important those years are in the development and future opportunities of a child, and yet we are in danger of denying that high-quality and appropriate education to Thomas and many children like him.
Thomas struggles in busy, loud environments, and he can lash out as a result. He needs special attention, extra care and that education, health and care plan. He attends a mainstream nursery that has gone beyond what it needs to do for Thomas, ensuring that he has a one-to-one staff member with him at all times. However, that has cost implications for the nursery, and it is not fair on Thomas or the other children. He needs a place in a specialist nursery—again, that takes us back to the education, health and care plan, and the official autism diagnosis. What a vicious circle!
Nichola has to begin applying for schools for Thomas to attend next September, but there is no education, health and care plan—I keep having to say that—so the process will be all the harder. At the moment, he is facing the prospect of mainstream school, which would not be suitable. Thomas is still in nappies and does not have the self-awareness that other children his age have.
I have already mentioned the Daisy Chain Project. It was founded in 2003 and serves as a haven for families across the Tees valley. Nichola speaks highly of the support that they get there. It provides a respite service but, again, without an official diagnosis, Nichola cannot access that support. I worry that young children such as Thomas will be left behind while their peers flourish. I worry that parents do not and will not have the support they need.
Families and education providers up and down the country are doing their best to cope, but they should be able to do so much more than just cope. We need a specific strategy for young people to secure early diagnosis and we need appropriate plans to support them. I hope that the Minister will tell us how we can do so much better.
What is so powerful about this debate is that we have heard similar stories from all over the country of what feels like a completely dysfunctional system—stories of families fighting against the system for help for their children. I am always left thinking, “What about those families who don’t have the wherewithal to fight the system and don’t know about contacting their MP for help?” When we get involved, sometimes we can help those families, but what about the families who do not get in touch and do not know how to battle against the system?
One of my constituents is a 14-year-old boy who will wait so long that he will have left school by the time he has a diagnosis. Another is a 12-year-girl who has been pushed from pillar to post between a mental health trust and a community trust because autism diagnosis and mental healthcare are dealt with by two different trusts, for goodness’ sake. I also have a family who paid—with great difficulty—for a diagnosis, but felt dreadful because they knew that many other families are not able to do that.
The need for action is absolutely acute. Why is it so important? We know that early diagnosis and intervention can make a massive difference to life chances. It can give an individual the chance of a happy, good and fulfilled life, and it can significantly improve employment prospects. The employment rate for people with autism is horribly low, yet many have the potential to be great in the workplace, with some help and understanding. A more enlightened approach would save the state a fortune.
When I was the Minister responsible for mental health and autism, I embarked on a process of introducing maximum waiting time standards. We introduced maximum waiting time standards for early intervention in psychosis and for access to psychological therapies. I wanted those standards to be comprehensive across mental health so that there was an equilibrium between mental health and physical health. The need is just as great with autism. As the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) said, the Government have an absolute obligation to set a national maximum waiting time standard —not for the first appointment but for achieving a diagnosis—to give families hope. If we do that, we will end the awful postcode lottery and ensure that every child, wherever they live in the country, has the right to an early diagnosis. That would have a massive impact on their life chances and would save the state a fortune.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on his speech and on calling this important debate. The things that he and others said about diagnosis and data, and the personal stories we have heard, are powerful and make a very good case.
When I go knocking on doors in Croydon, it is unusual not to meet somebody who has a child with autism—diagnosed or undiagnosed—and who is struggling to get the support they need. Since I have been an MP, several people have come to my surgeries or written to me to ask for help. People with autism face a raft of challenges; as one mother told me on the doorstep, nearly in tears about her struggle to get support for her son, “It just shouldn’t have to be this difficult.” Like the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I fear for the people who do not have the wherewithal to seek out the services that they need.
We have heard about the unacceptable delays people face in securing a diagnosis and the impact that has on them. Parents have told me of the huge relief of getting a final diagnosis and the impact that has on their family. We have all seen the Public Health England survey that found that the median waiting time between referral and first appointment is 16 weeks, but in some areas it is far higher. In one local authority, the average wait is 125 weeks. Something clearly needs to change. I welcome calls for a commitment on NHS recording of diagnosis waiting times, and I hope that the Minister is able to make that commitment.
Early diagnosis is clearly vital, but diagnosis must be accompanied by a comprehensive set of early-stage services and proper funding. Three problems are impeding my constituents. The first is funding. The Government of course have the job of deciding how resources are distributed to local authorities, the NHS and other agencies. Croydon Council’s funding will be cut by 75% between 2010 and 2020, and it will have to make cuts of £45 million in the next few years. The impact of those cuts cannot be overstated. Croydon is doing what it can. Councillor Andrew Rendle, who is here today, is the council’s autism champion and chairs the autism partnership board. There is joint commissioning between the CCG and the council, which work in the same building. That has allowed them to address some of the challenges they face, but it would be wrong to say that funding is not a problem.
The second issue is education. Croydon has a high number of autistic children. Schools will continue to be the primary point of contact, yet several years after the introduction of a new special educational needs and disability system, the National Autistic Society reports that 74% of parents nationally have struggled to get the educational support that their child needs. There are worrying signs in my constituency that some academies are increasingly excluding children rather than engaging in the support that they need.
The final issue, which has been brought to me several times, is access to benefits for people who are unable to work. I have heard from several families who were refused personal independence payment but appealed and won their cases at tribunal. Constituents point to inefficiencies and lack of communication between agencies. I welcome this debate and I hope that the Minister will take action.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the chance to say a few words about this important matter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for calling this debate. I have a personal interest in this issue: my eldest son has autism, which I have had to learn about, live with and adapt to throughout my life as a parent. My first ever Westminster Hall debate, back in 2010, was on this very subject. From there, I got involved in the all-party group on autism, which is now ably chaired by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I also thank the hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland). He is now the Solicitor General and cannot participate in the debate, but he has been a great champion and friend on these issues.
This is an absolutely crucial issue. People reach out to me all the time because they know that I am a parent of an autistic child—they have seen things in the media or they have looked up the work of the all-party group. People from outside my constituency have even turned up to my surgeries to try to talk to someone who they think can help and can try to guide them through the process, which is extremely difficult for a great many people. A child being diagnosed with autism is just the beginning of a difficult journey—people in that position have to cope with a whole range of things—but diagnosis is crucial. It is the pathway to intervention and help, and so many children have co-occurring mental health problems alongside autism that, to have any hope of addressing those, we must surely begin with the process of diagnosing autism.
We have all seen the figures. People are simply waiting too long—an average of three and a half years for children and two years for adults. Until recently, people in my constituency told me that they had to travel to Sheffield for an appointment for an adult autism diagnosis. I find that incredible, given the service provision that we should have in an area the size of Greater Manchester.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said extremely well, all that contributes to a culture of making parents fight for the support that they need. It creates warrior parents, who have to struggle against the system when the system should be there to support them. The Government aspired to change that through education, health and care plans, but I cannot say with any honesty that they have succeeded. We have not yet achieved that cultural shift. I do not say that with any partisanship; I know that a great many colleagues want to work towards that. I had a lot of time for the former Minister, Edward Timpson—he lost his seat in the election—because of his work on this issue. We really must address it, and people on both sides of the House have that aspiration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate called for a primary care register. That absolutely should be the starting point, but I am clear that I want minimum national waiting times for diagnosis for autism, which a couple of Members have already mentioned. That is the only place we need the policy framework to get to, and given the support we have heard today, which parents like me up and down the country will sincerely appreciate, I believe we can get it there.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for bringing this important debate here today. Like many others, I have many constituents who have contacted me and highlighted the effect that delays in diagnosis can have. The process is often a long and confusing experience for the child and a source of great stress for parents, carers and family members. My work with children and young people during my previous role within the local authority has given me a really good understanding and great insight into the huge gaps that children and families face. Delays in obtaining diagnosis vary widely from child to child and from area to area.
As others have done, I will read out a statement from a constituent; she has two autistic children. Debates such as this are for hearing directly from those affected. This is Katy, who said:
“My first child had a reasonably short period of assessment lasting 12 months, but my youngest son is just beginning the process and we have been advised that it could take up to three years. As he is nearly three, he would be expected to go onto a school place and as such could potentially struggle and fall behind.”
They will not get access to an education, health and care plan, and
“he will not be accepted into a SEN school without this diagnosis.”
How is it right for her and her son to go through the agony of not receiving appropriate care due to the assessment process? That process has a huge impact on children being able to access the schooling environment and support they need.
I want to illustrate this. A constituent has a son, Sam, who is seven years of age. They have been waiting a considerable length of time—months and months—and no longer know what to do or how long to wait. They came to me in frustration. With no diagnosis, there is no EHCP, which means no provision, as hon. Members from across the Chamber have said. They must battle on and on.
That is exactly the point that we have all been raising. As mentioned by many here, people have gone through their entire lives without being diagnosed. In some cases, that does not present a real issue, but for others it presents decades of being misunderstood and misdiagnosed with other conditions.
Dawn is another woman in my constituency. She had spent all of her life being treated differently and feeling ill at ease with all that went on around her. This year, she was diagnosed with autism at the age of 46. She said to me that now that she understands her condition, the world makes sense. Dawn and many like her are determined to make a difference. She is exploring ways in which she can help and support other adults in the same situation and to advocate for better understanding of the condition. I applaud Wigan Council, because it understands the gaps and wants to bridge communities, businesses and other public services to create that better understanding for people affected.
I urge the Minister to ensure that the process of diagnosing and supporting people with autism is consistent across the country, with that process informing and supporting all public services and the wider community, and that the latest recommendations and resources are allocated at the earliest opportunity to support the individual’s needs and promote better outcomes for all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous). When I think of families who deal daily with children who need that little bit more attention, I often wonder just how they do it. Many are doing it alone, with no help or coping strategies available to them as they await diagnosis.
Minister, we are stating facts, not pointing the finger, but the National Autistic Society highlighted that diagnosis can be a critical milestone for people on the autism spectrum. Of those who responded to its survey, 61% said that they were relieved to get a diagnosis, and 58% said that they got new or more support. It is therefore important that people with suspected autism are able to access timely diagnosis, wherever they are in the country, and that they get appropriate post-diagnosis support.
My knowledge of autism comes directly from contact with my constituents, based on benefit applications, the help that they need and the appeals process. I want to give an example that comes from the people—the mothers and children—whom I represent. There is an autistic boy; I will not name him or his parents. His parents do everything for him. They wash him, dress him, cook for him and feed him. They bathe him and take him to the toilet. They amuse him, they hug him and they kiss him. They love him. They do all those things, and when he is at school and they are not doing that, they wash, iron, clean, shop and find time to pay the bills. They do everything they can for their son in every part of their life, but love is not enough to get the family through the sheer exhaustion and emotional and mental strain that is part and parcel of life with someone with special needs.
As elected representatives, we in this Chamber must do more to support those people and offer them the best that society can provide, to ensure that they do not reach the point of no return. The waiting times for diagnosis are shocking. In Northern Ireland, 2,079 children are waiting for diagnosis, and some 7,100 have been diagnosed. We have a duty to ensure that the mechanisms for diagnosis and support are there. At present, we are failing, and in this timely debate there is an opportunity for all of us to take a fresh look at how we can do things differently and more effectively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I will rattle through this to give others a better chance to speak. I should mention that I have been on Twitter, talking to someone in Scotland who is watching the debate with great interest because she has four children with autism. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on obtaining the debate and congratulate everyone who has spoken so well and passionately during it.
In 2011, the Scottish National party Scottish Government launched a national strategy for autism, and they updated it in 2015. Some of the work done has included working with the Autism Achieve Alliance to produce action research that provides evidence to address waiting times for diagnosis. Things are not perfect in Scotland, but we have some advantages in being a smaller country. There are also plans to provide leadership for an improvement programme across NHS Scotland to improve diagnostic capacity, which we all agree is vital.
Scottish Autism worked in partnership with the Government to develop a web-based autism toolbox to improve accessibility to resource in schools across Scotland. Crucially, it also piloted one-stop shops for autism across Scotland. That is where I got involved. There was one in my constituency and, when the pilot programme ended, the local authority did not continue the work, so many families in my constituency were left bereft, with a much less comprehensive programme and much less support for families and people with autism.
I should pay tribute to the Minister for Childcare and Early Years in Scotland. He has a son with autism. He has done a lot of work, which has led to a number of things, such as Aberdeenshire Council’s national recognition for autism friendliness. He has piloted film and theatre programmes and shopping nights in shopping malls especially for people with autism, all of which help to improve the quality of life of those affected and their families.
In Scotland, as I have said, we have seen excellent work. We really want to make all people with autism live as independent lives as possible. As has been said repeatedly, diagnosis is vital for that. It gives such comfort to people with autism to know what is “wrong” with them. Once they know that, that allows them to see life in a different way, through their own eyes. I saw that when I taught in further education colleges.
The See Me initiative in Scotland has been important in showing people to look at people, not at conditions. I commend the Scottish Government for that initiative, on which they spend £1 million a year. That programme, which helps people to look at others and understand that they have issues—it is not that there is anything wrong but that they have difficulties in normal life—is mainly linked to mental health issues, but it helps people with autism as well.
There is still much work to be done, and the Scottish Government are trying to move towards better joined-up mental health. I know, and it has been said already in the debate, that autism is not a mental health issue, but it can foster mental health issues, so we need to look at how services in Scotland are joined up, and the transition from child to adult mental health issues.
Finally, I congratulate everyone who spoke so well and passionately in the debate. I would never have known anything about this subject had I not been forced to listen to constituents who lost their one-stop shop and the support that they so heavily depended on. They have other support, but they tell me that it is not nearly as good.
It is an honour to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I very much congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing the debate. It is an important one because, as we have heard, diagnosis is the vital first step towards getting support for people with autism.
For children with autism, and their parents, getting a diagnosis is the first hurdle that they need to get over, to secure the support and education to which they are entitled. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned, the NICE quality standard on autism recommends that people should wait no longer than three months once they are referred for their first diagnostic appointment. It is clear that people have to wait too long for a diagnosis of autism and that the waiting time can be gamed by delaying later appointments. Waiting to wait is not acceptable.
We heard that research has shown that waits can be two years for adults and three and a half years for children, but we have also heard of examples where things have taken much longer. We touched earlier on the Public Health England survey and the fact that in one local authority it is admitted that there are waits of 125 weeks. Hon. Members have spoken powerfully about long waiting times and their constituents’ experiences—and their own, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds).
I was contacted by one of my hon. Friends who could not take part in the debate, and want briefly to refer to the experience of one of her constituents. When her son was 18 months old, he suddenly stopped talking. That was raised with the health visitor at the child’s two-year review. The health visitor almost did not make a referral to a speech and language therapist, saying that the criterion for referral was that a child could say fewer than 10 words. At that time, the little boy could say only one word: “No”. It took a nine-month wait to get a first appointment with a speech and language therapist. At the second appointment, six months later, she said she would refer the child to a paediatrician. In the end, it took almost two years to get a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder from the paediatrician and the speech and language therapist working together.
Since then, the child has been discharged from speech and language therapy, despite the fact that he is still not speaking. His parents have had to get therapy for him privately, paid for with his disability living allowance money. The child spent half his young lifetime—from age two to age four—without the support that he needed to help his development. The mother says she felt
“let down by the system”,
but also that their family was one of the lucky ones, because, as we have heard, other parents had to wait longer to get a diagnosis. The issue for her was
“the lack of availability of professionals…had we seen professionals when appointments were due I think it would halve the time to get a diagnosis”.
Delays in diagnosis can hinder the implementation of effective support and intervention strategies, but they can also—understandably—lead to parents losing confidence in healthcare professionals, particularly if they feel that appointments and waiting times are being gamed in the ways we have heard about. By contrast, surveys have shown that a positive diagnostic experience is associated with lower levels of stress and more effective coping strategies, which is what we are talking about giving to families, if waiting times for diagnosis can be cut. For adults with autism, a diagnosis can end years of feeling misunderstood and isolated. We have heard about an increased risk of suicide.
A number of Members raised the point that autism diagnosis waiting times are not currently collected as part of the mental health services data set. I understand that the National Autistic Society has worked with the Government on proposals to collect those data. Will the Minister confirm to the House today that the Government plan to commit to the routine recording of diagnosis waiting times from April 2018 and, importantly, tell us what plans they have to speed up the diagnosis process? NHS England does not currently collect data on the number of diagnoses or who is being diagnosed with autism. That makes it difficult to determine where there are gaps in diagnosis. The National Autistic Society says that between 75% and 80% of people who use their adult services are male. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said, there is concern that there is under-diagnosis of women and girls, who are not getting the support they need.
Likewise, the first generation of people diagnosed with autism are now reaching middle age. That means there is a generation of people for whom autism was not a diagnosable condition during their youth. There could be significant gaps in autism diagnosis among older people. We heard in the debate of a lady diagnosed only in her 40s, and it is important that our focus should not always be on children. I find it heart-rending to think about cases such as the one I outlined, but it can also be difficult for people get a diagnosis when they are older. NICE recently recommended the creation of an autism register so that we can identify areas where autism may be under-diagnosed. Does the Minister agree that such a register might help more autistic people get the diagnosis and the support that they are entitled to? Are there likely to be moves to create one?
An early diagnosis is important. Mental health conditions are more prevalent among people with autism than among the general population. A diagnosis can provide an understanding of why a child finds things difficult and, as in the case that I talked about, suddenly stops speaking. If there are signs of mental health issues or other problems, a diagnosis can make family and friends aware and open access to proper support. However, post-diagnosis support is not always there. A survey of parents with autistic children found that many are left with no support during and after the diagnostic process, and many are not signposted to other advice and help. That is clearly important; there is a feeling of their being warrior parents and battling parents. Let us stop their having to do that. Some are even left without a written report of their child’s diagnosis.
In the example that I outlined, the four-year-old child is still not speaking but has been discharged already from speech and language therapy services, and his parents can obtain therapy for him only privately. What plans are in place to ensure that people who receive a diagnosis have access to the services to which they are entitled, and which their children need? Let us, from now, help the warrior parents and battling parents, and all the people who need a diagnosis to move ahead with their lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. Thank you for giving so many Members the opportunity to speak, because the debate has been extremely valuable. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing it. The discussion was highly informed and showed how important Members consider the issue to be. That is to be celebrated, given the 2009 starting point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) mentioned.
There have been significant advances in the treatment of people with autism, notwithstanding the serious issues raised today. I will not pretend that things are as they should be, because clearly they are not. Our ambition is for people to receive a timely autism diagnosis, but the cases that hon. Members have raised today make it clear that the standards that families deserve, and that they have a right to expect, are not being met. All Members who said that we need to do more are right. I give the House an assurance that I am determined about our need to do better.
I look forward to cross-party work with the all-party parliamentary group, and to the review of where we have reached since the Autism Act 2009. I welcome the input of all Members, because only by understanding the real-life experiences can we make everything work better. In Government we tend to work through such things as targets and processes, which ignore the fact that we are dealing with real people. When we are dealing with people who have conditions such as autism, the processes can leave them behind. It is down to all of us to be the conscience and to ensure that all our public services work better in this field. We do have a sense of urgency on this.
I want to deal with some of the common points that have been raised. Many Members wished to know when the autism data will be published. Our intention is that the data will start to be collected from next April, with a view to publication in 2019. That is hugely important, because it will enable us to see which local areas are doing the job and which are not. There is nothing like transparency to hold people to account and to ensure that we get the consistency and delivery of service so that nobody is left behind.
The Care Quality Commission and Ofsted are currently undertaking a five-year rolling programme of inspections, looking at how things are being implemented in local areas, how health services are working and how education authorities are dealing with education, health and care plans, which were mentioned in earlier contributions. We all know, and have witnessed, that so much is dependent on local leadership. If we can highlight good practice and where things are going well, as well as where things are not, we will be able to generate the pressure to increase performance across the board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned mortality rates for people with autism. I know that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), shares my concern that people with autism and learning disabilities tend to get left behind when it comes to employment and access to health, which has an impact on mortality rates. She and I are very much prioritising that. I look forward to engaging with the all-party parliamentary group on those issues too, because we will have much to learn from its expertise.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) specifically asked whether we would commit to including autism in the primary care register. We have said that we expect GPs to do that and that we want to spread that good practice. We will be working with NHS Digital to do exactly that. Again, I am open to any suggestions in that space.
With regard to access to further services following a diagnosis, that is very much the space of local commissioners, but the inspections by the Care Quality Commission will enable us to hold local commissioners to account on exactly that.
The Minister knows how frustrated parents are by the delay in getting an official diagnosis, but it is the knock-on effect on other assessments, such as education support plans, that really adds to their burden. Will she give any advice to local authorities and CCGs to look beyond the official diagnosis, to make some of those other things happen?
We very much send the message that parents of children with autism are entitled to good services and that is what they should expect. We need to spread that good practice and collect those data, in order to highlight exactly where it is not happening. When we look at the work that the Care Quality Commission has done to highlight good practice, we should be able to get some messages. We are looking for transparency to drive performance and to have those conversations. The NHS mandate for 2017-18 sets a priority for the NHS to reduce health inequalities for autistic people, so that is very much part of NHS England’s conversations with local CCGs.
I was just coming on to that. I have to say that I was very concerned by the issues that the hon. Lady raised. It occurs to me that there is a real risk that what they are suggesting could be seen as discriminatory. Certainly what she suggested should not be undertaken without real consultation with the local community and illumination of the issues concerned. She mentioned that she was going to write to me about that, so I look forward to considering it with a bit more reflection and then coming back with a response.
While the Minister is discussing correspondence, she may not have the answer to what, for me, is a crucial question—the detail of the self-assessment framework that is sent to the top-tier councils. She will remember me mentioning that we know that one local authority has a 125-week waiting time. I appreciate that she will not have the detail here, but will she undertake to write to me in the next week and let me know when she will publish that detail, so that we can all access the information?
There is a good argument for being very open about this generally. The self-assessment framework obviously requires local authorities to mark their own homework, and even then we are not seeing the increase in performance that we would like to see. One of my main messages is that we can all learn from good practice elsewhere, and bad practice can also be a learning experience. The more sunlight we can bring to what is happening, the better. I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend on that.
That brings me to the results of the most recent self-assessment exercise, which show that only 22% of local authorities are meeting the recommendation of a maximum three months between referral and first appointment for an assessment. That is obviously not good enough. On the plus side, a further 23% said that they anticipated meeting recommended waiting times by March this year and that they would be able to sustain that, but that is still only half. Although the direction of travel is positive, there is a lot more work to do.
I fully appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I am slightly uncomfortable about this, because often it can take a considerable amount of time for a proper assessment between first appointment and diagnosis, but perhaps we need to look at other measures. Generally, the more data we have in this area, the better we can measure performance. Clearly we need to ensure that we have sufficient specialists who are able to undertake these assessments and diagnoses. Sometimes that can be a challenge, so we need to ensure that local commissioners have access to those specialists.
Many of us are flexible about how we will get to the system we want to see, and capacity is definitely an issue when it comes to specialists. On the point just made by the former Minister, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), the problem is that at an initial assessment people are told, “You don’t need to go and have the official diagnosis yet. Try to persevere in mainstream school. See how the child develops.” The problem, as other Members have said, is that in the early stages of life, each month of development is so important, and we get to a point where, frankly, even if a diagnosis is given, so much has already been lost. That is the purpose of a national maximum diagnosis waiting time.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the wraparound support and care will do more than any finite target time. I am happy to look at that.
We are running short of time and I really need to give the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate time to respond. We have had a very constructive discussion today, and I look forward to engaging with all hon. Members on these issues.
Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I thank all Members who contributed today, and particularly those on the Front Benches? It was very difficult to get everybody in, but we managed it in the end—certainly all those who had applied to speak. I call Bambos Charalambous to respond.
I very much welcome the Minister’s admission that things are not as they should be and that these are real issues affecting real people. The data are very much to be welcomed and we look forward to their publication in 2019. Transparency and consistency are absolutely vital in this service. I am also very interested in the findings of any inspections by the CQC and Ofsted. Commissioners need to be held to account. We need to recognise that specialists include educational psychologists, speech therapists, psychiatrists and child psychologists. If a maximum waiting time standard is not possible, we should consider putting as much pressure as we can to ensure that diagnosis is made as soon as possible.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Future of RAF Northolt
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of RAF Northolt.
I want to ask the Minister a number of substantive questions about an issue of concern to many of my constituents. What are the Ministry of Defence’s ambitions for the future of RAF Northolt? Do Ministers envisage, as their consultants scoped out, that RAF Northolt could become an alternative to London City airport, in north-west London? When will local residents have the chance to be consulted about this airport’s future? Can the Minister confirm that RAF Northolt will be brought into line with civilian safety requirements as a result of the up to £45 million-worth of runway works planned for next year? Those substantive questions are exercising the minds of many of my constituents in Harrow on the Hill and in south Harrow who are directly under the flight path into RAF Northolt.
I should say at the outset that RAF Northolt has a very proud history in the defence of our nation, and local residents feel a unique affection for it. RAF Northolt is still the Queen’s airport, and the military squadron based there has played a crucial role in many of the conflicts in which British servicemen and women continue to play an important role.
However, it is clear that the important military function is dwindling at RAF Northolt. To those who live under its flight path, it is increasingly apparent that RAF Northolt is a commercial airport in all but name, and as a result it is having a major impact on local quality of life, with an increase in noise, concerns about safety and increasing concerns about the impact on air quality of all the extra flights.
I sought this debate specifically because the Ministry of Defence is about to undertake a £45 million renovation of RAF Northolt without any consultation with my constituents under the flight path or with other local residents. They are concerned that we might be about to see yet another escalation of commercial activity at RAF Northolt by the back door.
Official documents have revealed that RAF Northolt’s capacity could be up to 50,000 commercial flights a year, and regional airlines such as Flybe have been lobbying for access to use Northolt, so local residents’ concerns are legitimate and should be properly addressed by the Ministry of Defence. This is not “scaremongering”, as the Tory leader of Hillingdon Council recently put it.
The process of commercialisation at RAF Northolt started back in 2012, when Ministers decided to raise the annual limit for the number of commercial flights to 12,000 a year. Again, there was no direct consultation with local residents and certainly not with any of my constituents in Harrow who live under the flight path just 4 miles away. The Ministry of Defence did not even consult the then Conservative Mayor of London—now the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—who publicly opposed the plans on the grounds of air quality and traffic.
At about the same time, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a report by Ernst and Young to explore the commercial possibilities at Northolt. “Project Ark” laid out strategies to increase the number of commercial flights initially to 20,000 and ultimately to 50,000 a year, under a series of scenarios. It laid out a vision of Northolt as
“an alternative to London City Airport”
whose existing runway configuration could accommodate “small” types
“of regional jets (up to approximately 100 seats)”.
It also stated that Northolt could become
“the UK regions’ key access airport for…Heathrow.”
Perhaps the most concerning element of a linked report by Mott MacDonald involved the safety implications of expanding the number of commercial flights. Its work assessed whether Northolt would be eligible for a licence under Civil Aviation Authority regulations. Owing to a “substantial number of obstacles” on all runway approaches, it concluded that RAF Northolt “could not be licensed” by the CAA “in its current form.” Those obstacles, numbering in the hundreds, include the petrol station at the bottom of the runway, a three-storey block of flats nearby and the spire of St Mary’s church in Harrow on the Hill in my constituency.
The most serious safety flaws relate to the close proximity of Northolt’s runway to the A40 and surrounding homes and residents. Indeed, in 1996, a business jet overshot the runway and crashed through the barrier into oncoming traffic. The brutal truth, I am told, is that most aircraft accidents occur on either take-off or landing. That is why we have regulations insisting on minimum clearances between an aircraft and obstacles on the ground—so that if an aircraft does get into difficulty, it has every chance of clearing them and landing safely.
The report by Mott MacDonald stated that although some changes could be made, the permanent nature of the obstacles meant that Northolt would never be up to the safety standards required for civilian flights. It could not have been clearer in its recommendation: future expansion of commercial flights would not be allowable under CAA guidelines.
Despite the warning, commercial flights continue to operate from RAF Northolt every single day. I do not need to remind anyone of the consequences of an accident at Northolt, given the proximity of a petrol station, hundreds of homes and that major travel route, the A40. And surely I do not need to remind anyone of what happens when a public authority ignores repeated safety warnings. I want to put those safety concerns on the record and ask directly why Ministers, knowing what they have known since 2012, allow any commercial flights from RAF Northolt at all. The current Civil Aviation Authority line is basically to say that it is up to pilots to decide whether Northolt is safe. It is no wonder that the Ministry of Defence did not release either the “Project Ark” report or the Mott MacDonald report until 2015. Even now, parts remain redacted.
Now we are told that RAF Northolt will close for eight months next year for the runway to be resurfaced and safety changes to be made. Last year alone, there were more than 10,000 commercial flights, compared with just 3,800 military ones.
I apologise profusely to you, Mr Howarth, and to the Minister for not being able to stay to the end of the debate, as I have to be on the Front Bench in the main Chamber for Northern Ireland questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) talked about the history of RAF Northolt, which after all precedes and predates the existence of the RAF, but he did not mention the glorious history of the Polish squadrons there. In addition, you will know, Mr Howarth, as a former Northern Ireland Minister, about the secure transportation from RAF Northolt, not just for the Queen’s Flight but for ministerial flights. My constituents living in the Northolt area are horrified by the prospect of the skies darkening over UB5 and RAF Northolt becoming either a Heathrow hub or a “City Airport West”. Will my hon. Friend accept my assurance that my part of the world, which borders his, views the whole scheme with horror? We want to keep RAF Northolt and its history as it is.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I know that his constituency also has concerns about the future of RAF Northolt, and why shouldn’t it? There was a substantial increase in the number of commercial flights just five years ago. Now, Government-commissioned reports suggest a big increase to 50,000 commercial flights into RAF Northolt, and up to £45 million-worth of renovation works being done to the runway. It is not hard to understand why my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine are worried about where this is all leading.
When I first asked Minsters to reveal the cost of the renovation works at RAF Northolt, they refused to do so. That was despite the MOD revealing, in EU tender documents, a contract for the runway renovation works worth up to £45 million. I am no engineering expert, but that figure looks awfully high compared with the cost of resurfacing runways at similar sized airports. One thinks of the £21 million it cost to renew the runway at Manchester airport. Even RAF Waddington is managing it for some £35 million, albeit with a runway almost twice as long and a much longer projected shelf life.
I would like to ask the Minister for clarity on what the money—up to £45 million—is actually being spent on. Thus far, the official MOD line has been that it is installing modern safety equipment at the runway ends. To be fair, that was one of the recommendations of the “Project Ark” report. Can the Minister confirm whether that relates specifically to arrestor beds, and if so, whether EMAS—engineered materials arrestor system—beds will be installed. This is an important point, because EMAS beds are a necessary precondition for accepting larger jets. If arrestor beds of any type are to be installed, can the Minister confirm that that means that the Government have accepted that RAF Northolt falls short of civilian safety standards? If that is the case, what does the Minister intend to do about the petrol station nearby, identified by “Project Ark” as a significant safety risk?
The Ministry of Defence argues that it is financially prudent to use what it terms “irreducible spare capacity” at Northolt for commercial flights. In layman’s terms that means keeping RAF personnel busy with servicing commercial flights, given the relatively small number of military flights. If the Government are to spend £45 million on renovations, how do they intend to make that money back for the taxpayer? It is one thing generating revenue from the time paid for anyway; it is quite another making a new multimillion-pound investment, in these times of austerity, in order to generate further revenue. Can the Minister confirm how much revenue 12,000 commercial flights a year generate, and whether that will be enough to recoup the £45 million investment over a period of time? If that revenue is not enough to recoup the investment, will the number of commercial flights need to increase? Or does the MOD intend to increase the number of military flights—on which grounds public investment on this scale could, in my view, be justified?
Either way, my constituents and all those living near Northolt face a detrimental impact to their living standards. Surely the Government need to come clean on their long-term intentions for the airport’s future. As I understand it, the Ministry of Defence has also argued that the runway is too short for larger commercial jets. However, the “Project Ark” report directly contradicts that view, stating that the current runway can receive 100-seater jets of the type used by commercial airlines such as Flybe. Can the Minister confirm whether the runway, post-renovation, will still be a code 3 runway with a landing distance of 1,354 metres? Or will that configuration be changed? If so, in what way? Will the Minister also acknowledge that there is a difference between transcontinental airliners, which Northolt cannot accommodate, and regional jets, which it currently can? Fifty thousand flights of 100-seater aircraft are just as noisy and detrimental to air quality as a jumbo jet.
It is clear that at every turn the Government have sought to hide what is happening at Northolt from my constituents and those of other hon. Members, by using its military status as a smokescreen. That has meant a gradual worsening of quality of life and that an important discussion about safety has been swept under the carpet. The simple fact of the matter is that Northolt is no longer, in practical terms, a military airport. The vast majority of flights there are now commercial.
If this were any other airport, it would have to go through the planning system to make the kinds of changes we have seen over the past few years and that Ministers envisage over the next 12 months. It would also have had to carry out environmental impact assessments and consideration of noise controls. Again, the “Project Ark” report, commissioned by the MOD, confirms that, but RAF Northolt is not seeing any of those assessments, because it is designated under military airport regulations, as opposed to civilian airport regulations. In these circumstances, my constituents and other nearby residents have a right to be consulted on RAF Northolt’s future, before £45 million is spent on renovations, which would seem to continue the relentless march towards a full commercial operation at the Northolt aerodrome.
If all that is not enough, it appears that major regeneration projects are at risk because of questions about the future of RAF Northolt. The Ministry of Defence objected to the proposed redevelopment of the Grange Farm estate in my constituency—a project vital for creating more good quality social housing. To be fair, the MOD commissioned specialist aeronautical assessments, to verify the proposed effect of the redevelopment on RAF Northolt’s air traffic movements. Those assessments concluded that there would be no impact, yet the MOD has not withdrawn its objection to the Grange Farm redevelopment going ahead. Why not? That is the obvious question, and my constituents and council would like to know the answer. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a deputation from my local council, to discuss that specific concern about RAF Northolt?
In conclusion, it is time for some transparency about the future of RAF Northolt. If Ministers intend to extract greater commercial revenue from commercial flights at Northolt, that is clearly within their rights under current military aircraft regulations, but they should be open about that intention, and the people most affected in the area should have a say about the airport’s future. There should be a debate, not just in this House but in the communities affected. It is not right to continue to hide behind the military status of the airport, making small changes each time that in the long term add up to a significant change to the way in which RAF Northolt operates. I ask the Minister today to recognise those genuine concerns and grant my constituents and other nearby residents a full and open consultation on the future of RAF Northolt, before the runway redevelopment works commence.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this important debate, Mr Howarth; I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing it. I have prepared some remarks in response to where I think he would like me to go, but I will write to him in due course about a number of specific issues that he raised, if I do not cover them in my remarks today.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that transparency is very helpful. If consultations and studies are taking place, they have to go through the course of those actions before any results can come forward. Once those are there, they should absolutely be shared. I will be delighted to meet him and representatives of his council in due course, once he has taken stock of what I have to say today.
I begin, as the hon. Gentleman did, by paying tribute to those who are connected with RAF Northolt—the community around RAF Northolt, who for many years have been so supportive of the aerodrome, and the personnel of RAF Northolt. It is not just an aerodrome, but a vibrant, core military station, with over 1,800 personnel based across 33 diverse units, from all three of the armed services and wider Government. Alongside 32 (The Royal) Squadron undertaking VIP and operational command support flying, there are many other major units at the station in ground roles. An Army bomb disposal squadron, the British forces post office, the Service Prosecution Authority, an aeronautical publication and mapping centre, two RAF bands and an operational RAF regiment unit, which also encompasses the ceremonial Queen’s Colour Squadron, are all based at the aerodrome.
I turn to the aerodrome itself. As the hon. Member for Harrow West has highlighted, it is used and needed by the military every single day. It is true that for a number of decades it has been underutilised in that role. Since the 1980s, RAF Northolt has accepted up to 7,000 business aviation movements per year, but that was done under stringent terms and conditions to utilise the spare capacity. For that very reason, from 2011 to 2013 we conducted an extensive value-for-money evaluation of RAF Northolt’s future utilisation. Wide-ranging options were considered, including selling the aerodrome off as a civilian licensed airport, devising shared civilian and military usage to better maximise revenue, and retaining the aerodrome in military hands—although that would leave an irreducible spare capacity. I impress on the Chamber that those were simply options that were considered.
While the review was going on in 2012, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a series of reports under Project Ark and Project Noah. Those reports were not designed simply to open the floodgates—no pun intended—to civil movements at the station, but rather to analyse the various available options. Other evidence was also analysed. The benefit of spare military capacity at RAF Northolt’s aerodrome was ably demonstrated in 2012, when it played a vital role in the security of the London Olympics. RAF Typhoon and military helicopters were able to seamlessly deploy to the station as part of the multilayered deterrence and defence of Olympic sites. That could not have been achieved at a civilian-operated site.
The Minister describes the work that the Ministry of Defence undertook between 2011 and 2013. Does he acknowledge that it was an error not to share that assessment with local residents, and not to involve them in a full consultation process about the decisions that the Ministry was weighing up?
I am willing to meet councillors and other residents. I very much want to share the information we have, but we have to allow the Ministry of Defence to conduct its own studies in due course and share them as is deemed pertinent, as decisions and options are considered.
As I said, other evidence was analysed and the benefit of the aerodrome was demonstrated in its use during the Olympics, but military movements will always have priority at RAF Northolt. If necessary, civil business aviation movements can be fully stopped from using the station at any point. Ministers took those final decisions in the value-for-money review in 2013 and decided that the firm benefit was in retaining the aerodrome as a military aerodrome. It is still used by the military every day on vital operational tasks. We also retained the same stringent civilian operating terms and conditions, which exclude schedule airlines.
I make it clear that the whole review had nothing to do with Government options on the future of Heathrow; it was purely about the future of RAF Northolt. Our decision means that the aerodrome, although vital, will remain underutilised by the military for a large proportion of the time, but also that it has capacity to accept military contingency requirements that displace civil movements whenever required for the national benefit.
The review seeks to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used properly, so we still need value for money from that spare capacity when the military are not using the aerodrome. Further consideration was given to one “Project Ark” option that had the potential to increase civil use of the military aerodrome to up to 20,000 movements, to generate additional revenue from the underutilised spare capacity. That, in turn, would benefit taxpayers by offsetting the costs to the taxpaying public of the station’s military operation. However, Ministers took the final decision to increase the self-imposed cap on civil movements to only 12,000 movements per year. That was implemented in April 2013, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I firmly assure hon. Members that there are no plans to revisit that decision.
Following the review decision, the “Project Ark” report and other review documents were archived and the project’s other options remained hypothetical. I assure the hon. Gentleman and residents of the area that no current active planning is looking at any further changes to that 2013 decision about the cap or the operating terms and conditions. The unchanged, stringent terms and conditions that have been in place for civil movements for many years mean that in future we will not attract any aircraft larger than those that we have accepted for decades.
It was against these terms and conditions, which were reaffirmed in 2013, that Flybe made an unsolicited bid in 2015. No meetings about RAF Northolt have been held with any commercial airlines, but in late 2015 and early 2016, Ministers corresponded twice with the chief executive of Flybe to inform him that his bid was not being considered further.
The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no public consultation. In 2013, the decision was for a relatively modest increase; the terms and conditions of use remained unchanged, as I have stressed, and the existing infrastructure had the spare capacity to absorb the increase. No formal regulatory action was therefore required in any form, but the station did undertake extensive community engagement to keep residents informed once the decision had been taken. I will be delighted to continue that process, as the hon. Gentleman requests.
On the aviation regulatory and safety structure, the Military Aviation Authority is the single independent regulatory body for all defence aviation activity, and regulates Government aerodromes. The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for the safety regulation oversight of civil aviation activity at Government aerodromes and sets out the requirements for civil operators that wish to use them. The robust oversight relationship between both regulators is formalised in a memorandum of understanding that demonstrates constant dialogue and joint audit and assurance activity where appropriate.
There is close stakeholder engagement with the CAA on changes related to air safety that may have an impact on civil aviation operations at RAF Northolt and on the oversight of published aeronautical information pertaining to it. The memorandum of understanding is reviewed annually to ensure that the MAA and the CAA continue to employ robust oversight and assurance of civil aviation activity at all Government aerodromes.
The runway resurfacing project at RAF Northolt aims to make improvements as required to upgrade existing military runway end safety features and extend the life of the main runway pavement to between 10 and 15 years. This planned life cycle replacement works in line with the safety cases for the military aircraft that operate from the station. I repeat firmly that the aim is not to accept bigger commercial aircraft, but to ensure that the runway has the strength to accept the larger military aircraft that may be required to visit the station in future. Alongside the BAe 146 military airframes based there, a number of European allies operate medium-airliner-sized military aircraft into RAF Northolt on military business. The RAF C-17 and A400M Atlas are the largest types of aircraft that visit the station.
In conclusion, RAF Northolt remains a core station with many diverse units. The aerodrome is needed by the military every day and is valuable for contingency, as we saw during the Olympics and the Ebola outbreak. A decision on its future use was taken in 2013, and we will not revisit that decision. After the military runway works are complete and the runway reopens, nothing will have changed: the same stringent terms and conditions on civil movements that have been in place for many years and that were reaffirmed in 2013 will remain in place. The MAA and the CAA continue to employ robust oversight and assurance of civil aviation activity.
Does the Minister recognise that despite his words, there will still be widespread concern about the scale and cost of the runway works, and about what they might mean for the future? Will he commit to consulting residents to explain what that money will achieve?
I have only a short time left, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are comparing apples and pears. A runway’s length, thickness and usage and an aircraft’s heaviness all determine the total cost. I will write to him with more details.
Civil operating hours and numbers of passengers will remain limited, the movement cap of 12,000 that was set in 2013 will remain unchanged, and scheduled commercial operations will remain excluded. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and the communities he represents.
Question put and agreed to.
Parliamentary Candidates: Barriers for Women
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the barriers for women in standing for Parliament.
Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and lead this debate this afternoon. Last week, I was in this Chamber discussing transparency at the BBC and expressing my disappointment at the large gender pay gap. I hope today that we can have a similarly productive conversation about the barriers facing women coming into politics.
As the 380th woman ever to be elected to this place and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, I am grateful to have secured this important debate and I am also very grateful to all the hon. Members who are here today for attending this debate, on a subject that I know we are all passionate about—getting more women into politics and interested in politics, and encouraging women to put themselves forward for election to become a Member of this House or, as importantly, to get involved at a local level.
I recognise that that is not a simple task. Let me sell the job: “It has long hours. You will be open to abuse, sexism and jeering. The pressures and responsibilities of doing the job for constituents are immense. You won’t see your family as much as you’d like. In fact,”—as has been the case this week—“you might see your sleeping bag or sofa a little bit more, because the hours for this role can run rather late. Indeed, you don’t know how pregnancy, maternity or even caring responsibilities will fit around the job—you can’t find that on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority website.”
The hon. Lady is making a great speech and I congratulate her on bringing this issue to the House. Does she agree that, in some respects, it was great to see no fewer than three babies in the Lobby last night? However, whether it is men or women who have had babies in recent weeks, they should not have to come into this place with their children and be breastfeeding or going through the Lobby. We should have a system, either proxy or digital, whereby people can vote remotely.
I absolutely agree that it was most wonderful to see those children, because my children—several other MPs have said the same to me—would never have been that well-behaved. Clearly those children have had some experience of this place. If the demographics are changing, we must consider how we can work differently.
On paper, and in reality, the job that I have described does not sound all that appealing. However, we know the pros that come with our position: the wonderful opportunities to stand up for what is right, on issues that matter to us and to our constituents, and the fact that we are able to do something about what we care about. There is a platform to speak in this historic place. Nobody here, among all these talented colleagues, could fail to want to engage and use this opportunity for their constituents. We have a wonderful responsibility to marry the good and the bad, to demonstrate why what we do is worthwhile and to encourage fresh talent to join us—even if they are only seven months or even seven weeks old.
I am delighted to have served on the Women and Equalities Committee previously, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is here today. I hope to join the Welsh Affairs Committee, having lived and worked in Wales for a number of years, and that is the magic of this place. Members can use their position and experience to do something that will really make a difference—luckily, I might, apparently, be making up the female numbers, although that was of course not my intention.
My hon. Friend is making a great case on an issue that I know she is very passionate about; I have worked with her on it before. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women and enterprise, and it is a big, big privilege for me to work with a really inspirational group of female entrepreneurs from across a range of businesses. Interestingly, however, virtually none of them see politics as a route forward for them. Does she agree that it is critical that we provide more role models and mentors to allow this huge untapped pool of talent to make their faces known in this place?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I will come to that later in my speech, when I talk about the joint work of the all-party group on women in Parliament and the all-party group on women and enterprise. Unless we show that this is a worthwhile career for the other side of the country—male and female, north and south—we will absolutely be doing down the opportunities for everybody.
My hon. Friend is making her case very passionately. She is number 380, so I beat her by one—I am the 379th woman elected to Parliament, which is something I am very proud of. Does she agree that we want to encourage women from all walks of life? We talk very much about how things fit in for young women with children or babies, but I am particularly aware that women who have had a career and brought up their children have an awful lot of expertise to offer as they get older. I do not know if I have a lot of expertise, but I put myself in that category: my youngest was 16 when I came here and has just left school. I feel that many women do not use all the knowledge and experience they have gained through their career; indeed, some of them start to wind down when they hit their 50s. Does my hon. Friend think there might be a way to encourage those women in particular to get involved?
Coming from a woman returner who freely admitted last night that she never reveals her age—I totally agree. It is my experience that has brought me here. I do not quite know where I fit in when it comes to maturity, but it does not matter; it is the mix that matters and the fact that we are all welcome here. Indeed, confidence in returning to work at any level, in any job, is so key for females.
We need to talk about the measures that the Women and Equalities Committee came up with, which address how the Government and political parties must and can increase female representation. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments later, but the paper that we have seen outlines the opportunities that the Government and political parties have—and, frankly, should be taking—to increase the number of women being put forward for election. That is the starting point; indeed, they are more likely to be elected if they are on the ballot. What is the old adage? “If you’re not on the ballot, you can’t win”—but just be careful: if you are on the ballot, you do not know who you are going to get. Funny, that. I look forward to hearing Members’ thoughts on that issue during the debate.
All of us, whether male or female Members of Parliament, have our individual stories about how we came to be here. For us, it was a little luck, or indeed a lot of luck; for others, it is a matter of “Try, try, try and try again”. Being an MP, of course, is a job like no other, in terms of the challenge in pursuing the goal of reaching Parliament. At the same time, it is really important for political parties, MPs, the Government and for us all as individuals to look at why so few women MPs overall have been elected. What can we do to improve the situation overall?
In 1918, the first woman, Constance Markievicz of Sinn Féin, was elected to this place, and we look forward to celebrating the centenary of that event in 2018. The following year, Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons Chamber. Since then, 487 women in total have been elected to Parliament. That is something to celebrate, but it is also worth remembering that we have only just exceeded the number of men who were elected to the Commons in just one election in 2015.
I was elected in 2015, as one of the 191 women elected in that year. That was hailed at the time as a momentous step forward for the representation of women in our Parliament, given that there was a jump of almost a third compared with the number of women MPs in 2010. In June, we witnessed a further leap forward, with that number increasing to 208—sadly, on our side we lost some of our fantastic female colleagues, which was a disappointment to us all.
Our progress must be welcomed, and I am grateful to all of those who have put so much effort into supporting women in politics, certainly in our party. Some of our male colleagues have been active in movements such as Women2Win—I see some of them here in the Chamber today—as well as the Conservative Women’s Organisation, which offers a kind of soft landing within the party. I applaud the female and male Conservative MPs who are mentoring and supporting our future Conservative MPs and councillors. Their work is absolutely making a difference; we see that in the numbers.
In the light of that progress, I remain mindful—it is easy to lose sight of this—that although women make up half the population, they make up less than a third of the MPs in this place. We must not rest on our laurels, because there is so much more to be done. As MPs, we need to challenge and change the public perception of our role as MPs to make it more attractive for women to join us.
Coming from a family with no political links and no political passion, there was a time when the thought of becoming an MP would have seemed somewhat out of reach or rather unsuitable, but after two years in this place, I have realised that my assumptions of what makes an appropriate parliamentarian have changed. Actually, women are very much suited to decision-making processes. We urgently need to reach out into our communities and tear down the perceived barriers to this and other jobs. Where women can rise to the top, we need to ensure that our would-be colleagues feel that that is achievable for them.
Sadly, it takes a huge amount of courage these days for women to stand to be MPs, because we are often scrutinised through a different lens from our male colleagues. Interest in our personal lives, how we raise our children and how we look—what we wear, what our shoes look like and so on—is still interesting to people. We have not quite gone beyond that. Over the pond, a presidential candidate and former Secretary of State—we know who we are talking about—was branded a “nasty woman” during the presidential election. When a boy or a man asserts himself and considers himself a leader, that is okay, but we are still in the realm of women being seen as bossy when they want to be leaders. That issue was bravely addressed by the shadow Home Secretary when she spoke out about the sexist and racist abuse she received through social media. Sadly, we know that she is not an isolated example. As was revealed back in January this year, almost two thirds of respondents to a BBC survey on the mistreatment of female MPs said that they had received sexist comments from fellow workers and fellow MPs.
I chose to cut my hair and have a political haircut to look more like a politician. I got here and decided to throw that book out the window. I have certainly looked at parliamentary procedures and processes and how we actually do things, and I know, having spoken to former trailblazing women MPs, that there was a certain look and style that we were supposed to conform to in order to fit in. I am delighted that we all know that we do not have to do that anymore. When we put ourselves out there to stand up for our communities, we feel incredibly vulnerable about how we look and what we do. New MPs enter a whole new world where inflection and inference is under a level of public scrutiny that cannot be believed. Every single word we utter—I have already been speaking for some time—will never go away. Hansard has a lot to answer for. We have to be ready for that scrutiny, whether we are male or female.
Not only is there pressure for women to be here, but we need to be extraordinarily effective, both at home and at work. We all have to be superwomen now. It is not only that we as MPs have to look perfect and be perfect; there is a danger in all society that those participating and putting themselves in the public eye have to do everything brilliantly. I have heard that from some of our new female MPs. They have the pressure of not mucking up, not drawing attention to themselves once they get here—it is really difficult—and matching our experienced male colleagues. It is about justifying our female presence here and messing up the status quo in Westminster. All parliamentarians have the responsibility to demonstrate that the Westminster bubble is broader, more welcoming and better than it is perceived to be. It is more inclusive and the outdated notions are on their way out, and we have a part to play in that.
Dare I point out the obvious? We have a female Prime Minister. We also have a female Home Secretary. The Leader of the House is female. The Secretaries of State for Education, for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and for International Development are all of the so-called fairer sex, but frankly they are just powerful women. In my party, we acknowledge that diversity in the Opposition and other parties is extremely strong. We should not be navel-gazing about whether we are getting things right; public perception of what it is to be a woman making a decision must be tackled, whether it is here or in any top job. Through that, we can ensure that hidden female talent, whether it is political or in any other role, is found, supported, mentored and encouraged, so that we all feel that we can stand for election.
I am really proud of the women in Parliament all-party parliamentary group and in particular the mentoring scheme we are developing with Lloyds Banking Group. That scheme gives insights into getting those top jobs to young women across the country. That includes not only the realities of being an MP, but the opportunities that exist in the workplace, and I am delighted to be bringing the scheme forward. There are so many all-party parliamentary groups focused on female, family, health and community issues, and I am proud of all the work that has been done by men and women on those groups.
The women and enterprise all-party group, led by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), is to be applauded, as is the work on baby loss done by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). We are working on a cross-party basis—male and female—championing heart-breaking and difficult causes. Having more women here in Parliament gives us the opportunity as parliamentarians to champion and tackle those difficult and often unspoken challenges. It was shocking and poignant to hear that, until International Men’s Day last year, this House had simply not discussed or understood male suicide. We should be out in our communities highlighting and explaining that work to our constituents. I applaud the fact I have been given the opportunity to have this debate.
There should be a focus on specifically promoting this job to women who have never considered standing for election, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. As the Women and Equalities Committee report made clear, we cannot take it for granted that the number of women MPs will just carry on increasing. We are meant to push to be world leaders in women’s representation, so we need to be working closer to home. If we do not agree on targets, why are we so afraid of setting goals?
I started my journey into politics as a non-political local parish councillor, co-opted in after complaining about the local play facilities. Then I was elected on to a town and district council. Now I have the honour of serving the constituency of Eastleigh as its first female MP; some of the previous male incumbents had some complications, so my constituents turned to a woman.
Given my personal experience, I am so delighted to be here as an advocate for local government and an access point to politics and to Parliament, but efforts must be made to develop the pipeline of female councillors so that they can learn the challenges of local government and be able to enter a political career at a less intimidating point. Councils are less political and are community-led—surely a more attractive place for someone to be, if they find they have time on their hands. Women must be welcomed into parties. They must be given the opportunity to stand for winnable seats and have a realistic route to political success. I welcome the fact that in 2017, my party actively looked to field women as candidates in 50% of the retirement seats, which were winnable.
If we cannot set targets or goals, how on earth can we get people to fill out the application forms? I spent four years toying with the opportunity to become a candidate to be a Member of Parliament. The timing was not right for my career; I felt I needed time to gather my experiences and personal confidence before taking the plunge. Carers and women returners will know that—this resonates beyond politics—as men and women we must support our loved ones on their next employment step. We all have a lot to give.
Incidentally, one of the recommendations in the Women and Equalities Committee report called on the Government to take action by supporting all-women shortlists. I must say I am not massively in favour of such shortlists, even though I ended up on one myself. I must admit that the last man standing stepped down due to life-changing issues, so I was called in. On reflection, I am not totally certain that I would have wished to have been the token female candidate, added to the list for diversity’s sake. After all that dithering on my application form, I was finally there to be counted.
Does the hon. Lady agree that all-female shortlists should be a temporary measure, until we strike the right gender balance? Of course, nobody wants to be on an all-female shortlist, but has anybody in this House who has been elected from one ever had that thrown back at them? To be fair to the media, I do not believe that they have.
I absolutely agree—once someone is here and doing the job, how the heck does it matter how they got here? Perhaps we do need to have a good look at that. I am not a fan of all-female shortlists, but if we want to make change happen, perhaps we have to be bold. We do not want to fill the Chamber with women just because they are women; we want all our Members of Parliament, from whatever party, to bring experience and ability to the table.
My speaking notes are telling me to move on to motherhood—I was going to call that “the elephant in the room”, but I am not sure that is terribly flattering. I want to talk about balancing politics with motherhood. I am really grateful to those, both in the room and elsewhere on the parliamentary estate, who help me juggle my commitments. I know that everyone here with caring responsibilities feels exactly the same. Our duties in Westminster and to our constituents are very much helped by the support that we get from our families. None of us takes that at all for granted. I have had a wealth of support from colleagues, staff and my team. In fact, when I stopped bringing out my baby buggy when leafleting, people were really upset—they had nothing to put their bags on.
I am also really proud, now that I have got here, to think about how we make it easier for those with caring responsibilities. I am delighted to be on Mr Speaker’s exciting diversity committee, which seeks to make a parliamentary career more appealing for everybody, not just the typical parliamentary stock. I thank Mr Speaker for his attention to making this House more accessible. Incidentally, I look forward to chairing the upcoming roundtable with the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament on flexible working practices and the impact of technology on women in the workplace. All our colleagues are benefiting from technology and we need to look at how it works in this place.
My experience of being a mum and juggling many metaphorical and literal balls comes in very handy as we dash around speaking and, more importantly, listening on behalf of our constituents, on issues from education to animal welfare. An ability to flip and change is really useful in this place, not to mention the practice that we, as parents, have at diplomacy. There is nothing wrong with using the constructive, supportive attitude that can come from caring for small children or loved ones to help us participate in parliamentary life. I am still very much on a learning curve, but I hope that those diplomatic skills will continue to hold me in good stead.
Those qualities and experiences are what make Members of Parliament returning to the House from maternity or parental leave really important. I hope that many women will take the advantage that motherhood can give them career-wise, both in and outside politics. A male friend of mine once said to me, “Do you know what? Don’t take it for granted. You’ve got a chance to reassess your life and look at what suits you. Many men don’t often feel that they’ve got that opportunity.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and commend her for what she has done—prior to being elected here, and since—for women in politics. She has done a wonderful job. I am in awe of all my colleagues across the House who have young children. I have not got a family, and every day I am amazed at how well my female colleagues on both sides of the House are able to juggle the challenges.
Does my hon. Friend agree that having this debate and talking about so many women in politics having families shows women outside the House that having a family never stops a woman from achieving what she wants as an individual—whether in politics or in big jobs in any industry? There is no limit to what she can achieve.
I wholeheartedly agree. The problem is often the job market: what job can be worked 30 weeks a year from 9 until 3, to cater for the children? What pays enough for someone not to spend that time with their children? We are really lucky here; when I say to my children, “I am so excited and busy and it’s worth doing,” they understand. It is not just me taking time away from them.
As many parliamentarians can see, the barriers that we have just heard about really do stop people coming to this place. The “Improving Parliament” report in 2014, which assessed the selection, retention and supply of women to this House, looked closely at the issue. It flagged up the unpredictable parliamentary calendar, the challenges of managing two geographical workplaces and a lack of clarification for MPs with primary caring responsibilities about the impact that has on their work as major factors that influence a prospective Member of Parliament—or somebody who wants to become a parent.
Such a person might say, “I want to become a Member of Parliament, but I actually do not know what that means for my parental responsibilities, let alone my parental leave.” We have a debate tomorrow about abuse of candidates—particularly abuse received by women. That is also a major player in people’s lives and life decisions now. As we well know, when we are elected we are often asked, “What on earth have you done? You’re putting yourself out there for major scrutiny.”
There is no formal parental leave for Members of Parliament, despite the fact that since 2010, 17 babies have been born to 12 women MPs. It is bordering on ironic that we as MPs are doing so much for the wider workforce, yet are unable to look at our own working arrangements. There is currently no formal pairing and that makes options difficult for both male and female Members of Parliament. There is no voting by proxy and no flexible crèche that can cater for ad hoc childcare arrangements. In short, there are no real practicalities to assist with parenthood because, frankly, at the moment Parliament fails to set a proper example as an employer. As a result, prospective candidates commit themselves to the demands of the job, which requires a huge amount of attention, but are not officially able to look at the flexibility that a parent needs.
I have touched on the support that we all luckily receive. Frankly, if we are looking to achieve true diversity in the long term, informal arrangements are not enough to combat the huge amount of guilt, let alone the practicalities, attached to being a working parent. I am not alone in this room in saying that my priorities lie with being a parent. Given that the role of the MP is so attractive and important, I might also often not be alone in saying, why on earth would we need a requirement for maternity leave? We run our own diaries and have some level of flexibility, but we all know that this job comes first. Luckily, our families and children have thick skins and, it seems, boundless patience.
It is notable that the Danish Parliament allows an MP, male or female, up to 12 months’ paid leave which, in practice, is always granted. In Sweden, the same rules for parental leave applicable to the general public apply to MPs—in fact, it is possible for them to take 480 days’ parental allowance. I think we would all miss our constituencies quite a lot if we took all that off—I do not know where we would be—but it is time for us to be bold and look to update our parliamentary practices, so that we can keep up with our goal of achieving parity.
We need to recognise that this is an unstable career path. If we want people to stand, take their seat, relocate and balance their homes—the norm for an MP—we need to ask whether ordinary people can afford to become an MP and whether the current Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is fit for purpose when it comes to facilitating a parliamentary career and a growing family. Considering the issues of disability and diversity, which come to the fore when looking at our careers, is IPSA really fit for purpose for everybody who would wish, or is able, to pursue such a career? Can we honestly say to anyone—anywhere, regardless of gender, marital status, family commitments or caring responsibilities—that they can afford to be here and are able to be here? We are looking for a big commitment from any MP, male or female, in taking on an insecure, non-guaranteed career.
We must not, of course, use such scrutiny to stop the public being able to elect and vote out their representatives in Parliament, but it is fundamental to our democracy that we ensure that we look properly at diversity. I have no desire to challenge who the electorate choose, but I want to ensure that a wide range of the most able candidates can get on the ballot paper.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that having more women in Parliament is not simply the right thing to do? Diverse company boards are more successful on every single measure, so it stands to reason that we will get even better results from a diverse Parliament.
I absolutely agree. My experiences as a local councillor, before I became a Member of Parliament, were so important. Drawing people into politics with that sort of background and professionalism—not necessarily solely driven by ideology—is really important. We need to address the issue, and I hope that this debate will go some way towards that.
As politicians, we have to decide whether there is a point at which we should stand down, allowing our fresh talent to take up new issues, ideas and opportunities. Perhaps we should be prepared to give way to those whom we are mentoring, as well as offering leadership. It is all very well encouraging people in, but are we allowing space for them? How do we sell the role of MP at Westminster and get myriad applications? A lot of things come to mind, such as coming through as a police and crime commissioner or in the councillor role. Indeed, having the chance to stand as an MP should not be a leap of faith for anyone. People’s families being dependent on that is a real concern, so there is juggling to do.
Many Members are waiting to speak, so I will move to my final remarks and reiterate and elaborate on exactly why this debate is so important. There is not only a shortfall in our democracy, but a crucial aspect is involved. To be here is to have a special chance—to do what matters, to be in the Chamber, to take part in the decision-making process, to tackle issues of inequality and discrimination and to develop laws, policies and programmes. It is vital to hear women’s voices on women’s issues, and for Parliament’s perspective to benefit fully from the diverse country that we have been elected to represent.
What is more, it cannot be a coincidence that five out of the nine Select Committees chaired by women have equal or better representation of women, but only one out of the 18 Committees chaired by men has equal or better representation. I sincerely believe that when in power women should continue to empower other people in this place.
Staying on this theme of having more women leading the political charge and encouraging participation, we cannot expect young girls simply to want to engage in the modern political environment if we do not show them what they can relate to. Men are key role models in that, as we have heard, and vice versa. I admire so many male colleagues who have done and do so much to empower all generations in politics. We must reconnect with our voters and demonstrate that Westminster does not have to be out of touch. I urge voters and the media to look more deeply at who we are: dig, and we are more interested and more diverse—honestly.
The idea that the UK can enjoy more from the “feminine touch” is faintly ridiculous. The phrase is outmoded, but the fact is that women are more linked into public office, have lower levels of corruption, are more keen on peace and reconciliation, and find it more important to promote policies that address the challenges facing disadvantaged groups. Everything is to be gained by encouraging women and breaking down the barriers: working across party, for me, is one of the most important parts of the job.
I used to work in radio, where we had a saying that provides an analogy for what I want to say today. Sometimes, radio DJs love a hit record before anyone else has heard it, and they play it incessantly—to death; they then hate it, but by that point everyone else has caught up and loves it. I have the responsibility today of playing the tune with the goal of encouraging more equality, diversity and women in Parliament. It is the responsibility of all of us in this place to ensure that others have the opportunity to follow. There have been trailblazers such as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), my right hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and for Devizes (Claire Perry). So many people have warmly welcomed us and given huge amounts of advice to all of us here. Without those women trailblazers, where would we all be?
We have an opportunity to achieve parity of attitudes inside and outside Parliament. If we can reflect the outside world in this House, we will be in absolutely the right place. I ask the Minister for action to be led sincerely by the Government and all political parties, so that we can increase women’s representation in this place. Along with many other colleagues in the Chamber, I will welcome all the Minister’s comments and action to ensure that that happens.
Order. Seven Members have written in asking to speak and some others are standing who have not, but if you do the maths it does not work. I will set a time limit on speeches of three minutes, but I request a self-denying ordinance—even at three minutes, not everyone will get in. I apologise for that, but that is the way it is.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate and on everything she said. She told us that she dithered about filling in her application form to be the Member of Parliament for Eastleigh but, my goodness me, since she arrived here she has not dithered at all. I pay tribute to her. It is baffling to me when I hear Conservative women Members of Parliament making a speech that I myself might have made, but I guess that shows that daughters of the women’s movement are in all parts of the House. I warmly appreciate what the hon. Lady said.
The Minister for Women is now a woman; the first Minister for Women was a man, so that is progress. We have a Select Committee, a Women and Equalities Committee, which is ably chaired and pushing things forward. My goodness me, we even have women MPs from Scotland, and that is incredibly important. There used to be only two women MPs in the whole of the north, and I remember complaining to my Labour colleagues, who said, “Women in the north do not want to be MPs”—but oh yes, they did. One of my colleagues even said, “There are no women in the north,” which was obviously not true.
In particular, I support what the hon. Member for Eastleigh said about having baby leave for Members of Parliament; we are not doing women any favours by letting them be in the House of Commons. It is a democratic imperative that our Parliament is representative, which means of women as well as men, and it is a fact of life that women have babies. As she said, 17 babies have been born to women MPs since 2010, and more will be on the way. We set the rules for maternity and paternity leave outside this place, but we have none for ourselves. Although Whips are much more civilised than they used to be—not entirely civilised, but more civilised—what woman or man should be beholden or grateful to the Whip for letting them have time off? We need it to be on the table, transparent and as of right.
Also, the vote of such MPs should be recorded, which is why we should have proxy votes. The constituency is entitled to have its Member voting, even one who has just had a baby. That is why I suggest a system of proxy votes, so that when we go past our wonderful Clerks with their iPad, we give not only our own name but the name of someone on whose behalf we are casting a proxy vote. The constituency will then be represented.
I agree with what the hon. Lady said about IPSA. It is chaired by someone who formerly chaired the Maternity Alliance, and I hope that IPSA will look at maternity cover, so that we can have six months’ leave, as people do in the civil service. That should apply as much to men as women. Nowadays men aspire to be more involved with their children than they did in the past.
I will finish with an anecdote. I remember sitting in a Committee when one of my colleagues jumped up and said, “On a point of order, Mr Chair.” He looked at his pager and said, “My wife’s just had a baby.” Everybody said, “Hear, hear!” and I thought, “Why on earth are you here?” That is not a good example of fatherhood or motherhood. We expect fathers to be involved with their children; women need to be with their babies; babies need to be with their mothers for the early months; and the constituency needs to be represented, but we can square that circle, not least because everyone here supports it and because we have a Speaker who, despite having arrived in the House of Commons as a Tory and still being a man, is an honorary sister on these issues. I hope that this broad-ranging debate will bring about progress, and I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh for securing it.
I am tempted to simply say I agree with Mims and Harriet and sit down, given the quality of the debate so far. However, I will congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this debate. It is an honour to be able to participate.
When I first entered the House in 2015, somebody told me a shocking statistic. They said that there were more men in the 2015 Parliament than there had ever been female MPs. I am glad to say we have moved on from that, although not far. It was a really shocking statistic to find out, and still only 32% of Members of Parliament are women.
There is no doubt that a more diverse Parliament is beneficial. It is not only morally correct, but in my experience of Parliament the female MPs adopt a different tone and initiate a more diverse range of debates, whether we are in Westminster Hall, on the Backbench Business Committee or in all sorts of debates in this House. It is also my observation that they are more willing and able to participate in cross-party work than their male counterparts are, so there is a lot to be said for having more female MPs.
As somebody who comes from a background from which people do not normally go on to become Conservative MPs, I struggled and was intimidated by the process to become a Member of Parliament, but it is even worse for women. The abuse that MPs currently get in the digital age, particularly for some reason the female MPs, is something we really need to address, so I am glad there will be a debate tomorrow on that. In that area, the public have a role. I will state very clearly: if they want more female MPs, it is probably a good idea to stop abusing the ones they have already. It is important we consider that. We need to do our job, but the public have a responsibility as well.
Many ideas and suggestions have been put forward. In most circumstances I am the kind of person who agrees not to take anything off the table. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned that our party is often a little worried, not so much about targets and goals, but about quotas, which is the one area I am a little queasy about. All-women shortlists concern me and many people. I do not quite get the moral superiority of replacing one form of discrimination with another when it comes to positive discrimination. No matter how well intended it may be, on the basis of gender it prevents a capable and qualified person from having the opportunity to take a role, so we need to be careful about that. All sorts of things need to be considered, and I would support many of the options.
It is the role of all MPs, male and female, to do everything we can to encourage a more diverse Parliament. I will play my role in encouraging as many female candidates as possible, because Parliament would be a better place and our politics would be better. I call on all colleagues to do the same.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate today. She gave a fantastic speech. It is great to be in a debate where there is so much consensus on women’s role in this place and in society.
In the words of Emmeline Pankhurst,
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
Emmeline Pankhurst made those comments when she was tried for trying to break into Parliament. We are lucky that none of us here today, women or men, had to break in. We are just across the Hall from the cupboard where Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the census. Unfortunately, there is no public face to that memorial; you have to be a Member to get in there. Something about this building and our surroundings are in some ways exclusionary and difficult to penetrate. We have to think about the kind of Parliament and the kind of building we are in. In more modern Parliaments, in places such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a seat for every Member and they can vote by simply pushing a button. The fact that they do not have to queue up for 20 minutes makes it more modern, open and attractive.
I am proud of what Scotland has achieved in terms of gender balance. We have one of only a handful of gender-balanced Cabinets in Scotland and we have our first female First Minister. We also had up until recently three female leaders leading the Scottish National party, the Conservatives and Labour, although sadly Kezia Dugdale has recently moved on. There is a huge amount to be said also for our predecessors and the giants on whose shoulders I and my SNP colleagues stand. Winnie Ewing was elected to this place 50 years ago and she is the only parliamentarian to have sat in the European Parliament, the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament.
I was inspired to stand by my mother, who stood in 2010 in my Livingston constituency. Sadly, she was defeated by a man, but I got the pleasure of standing against him five years later and beating him, so I succeeded where she had failed. My opposite numbers in my constituency, Fiona Hyslop MSP and Angela Constance MSP, are both women. Neither of them came from shortlists. West Lothian and Livingston have had a proud tradition of producing female parliamentarians. I will not give away all of our secrets, but it has been about having an open and inclusive process, encouraging women from the grassroots up, and particularly encouraging young women.
What we see now in the Scottish Youth Parliament and in the UK Youth Parliament is many more young people and many more women engaged in politics and interested in standing. That is something we should all be proud of, but we have a duty in how we speak to each other in the Chamber and how we conduct our public discourse. It is very important to remember that and to do all we can to encourage more women into Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing such an important debate today. As a 28 year-old female Scottish Conservative elected to this House, I bucked many trends on 8 June. I am one of the youngest MPs, I am a Scottish Conservative MP and, of course, I am female. As the other speakers have mentioned, there has been considerable progress made to encourage females into parliamentary careers. The recent election statistics are incredibly encouraging and show the highest number of female MPs to date, at 208.
The Conservative party has an incredibly proud record on promoting women in Government. The first woman to sit in the House of Commons, Nancy Astor, was a Conservative. We were the first party in the western world to elect a female leader and Prime Minister. We have now had two female Prime Ministers and are continuing to work hard to attract female candidates in local and national elections and to participate in our party through the Women2Win movement. Back home in Scotland we have a female leader who we hope by 2021 will be the second female First Minister of Scotland.
I absolutely agree that more could be done to encourage females into a parliamentary career. Our 32% ratio of women in the House of Commons puts us at 46th in the world rankings. Of course, having fewer females in the House has an effect on our Committees, our Cabinet and other roles. Perhaps I am in a minority, but I strongly believe that I have never been disadvantaged or advantaged in life because of gender. What I have achieved in whatever area has been down to my strong will, determination and merit. In order to deliver a promising future for women in politics, we must seek to break the barriers as opposed to seeking to reach targeted quotas. Success has to be based on merit. What are those barriers and how do we break them?
Women often take on a greater support role within the home, even in days of increasing equality and less of his and hers tasks. They regularly take on the majority of tasks in the home, acting as a support for partners and their children. Careers in politics seem to have a stigma of male dominance and a public perception of an aggressive environment. The demands of the role of a Member of Parliament split the week into two locations—in my case, six hours apart. With a constantly changing diary there is little certainty and routine, which is what families and young children need.
For me, this is one of the largest obstacles in the way of a female parliamentary career: the difficulty of integrating family life into Parliament with long hours, late-night sittings and often working seven days a week with little down time. Those aspects of the role of a parliamentarian make it impossible to spend as much time at home as one might wish to. Perhaps it is therefore the responsibility of us as females in politics to reach out to the public, further promote what the role involves and remove the uncertainty and fear that surrounds it. It is demanding and it is not easy to juggle life, but it is hugely rewarding. Not one of us would deny that. We must explore in more depth further family-friendly measures, including some of those mentioned today. Studies show that the early years of a child’s life are of the utmost importance in their development. The roles of a Member and a parent are not mutually exclusive.
The public perception of the role must also be addressed. Throughout—
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on her excellent speech and on raising an important issue. I am my party’s spokesperson on women and equalities, and I can remember buying my parliamentary aide a fridge magnet with a quotation from the late, great Margaret Thatcher, which said:
“If you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
My wife, incidentally, has one on her fridge, as a constant reminder of who is in charge in my house, but that is by the way.
I took the quote to heart, and that is why five out of six of my full-time and part-time staff are female. I like to get work done. I say that tongue in cheek, but I am happy to state that I am pleased about the number of women taking their place in this Parliament, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). She was once an intern in my office, many years ago when I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and it is a pleasure to see her in this place, working alongside me and all of us.
More than 60% of my party’s membership are women, which suggests that women are politically aware and interested. I believe in hiring people for the right reason, and for their fitness for the purpose. I believe that 50:50 recruiting in the Police Service of Northern Ireland was wrong—it was not fairness or equality. My party is led by Arlene Foster, a capable and intelligent lady who is formidable and caring. My colleague Michelle McIlveen MLA also works very hard. They are both role models for young aspiring politicians.
My parliamentary aide would say that the first step in shattering the glass ceiling needs to be taken by women themselves, who feel they cannot have it all and excel in their jobs and their home life, and that they must choose. She had tremendous difficulty in leaving her two children under the age of two—Essie and Lily—in care while she worked 12-hour days for me. That had been no problem in her drive to have a career before she had the children. A year down the line she has managed to ensure that she excels in her job, with her children no worse off. The hon. Member for Eastleigh showed in her introductory remarks that she knows about that. I like to think that I facilitated some of the flexibility that was needed; my aide says that the first step was when she realised she could do both.
I am a man who believes that every one of us is different and brings something different to the table—not because of our gender but because of our life experience. That means encouraging those who are fit for this job to stand up and put themselves forward for it, knowing that they will be supported by people who judge not by gender but by ability, heart and capability.
I am glad to be able to speak in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for proposing it. The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) does not know this, but she played a large part in my coming to this place, partly because of difficulties encountered in practice at the Bar—she was the Solicitor General at the time—and chambers rent. A percentage of rent based on a three-year average was taken from women, so if someone had to take time off for maternity leave, that had a direct impact. That caused me to explore other avenues to vent my frustrations, and it ended up with my coming here.
I wanted to speak because of my experience as a single mother. Parties need to do much more to tackle the particular struggles faced by candidates to get elected, and to give them support. I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and, indeed, the Prime Minister, for setting up Women2Win, and for the support that they gave me when I stood in 2010. Baroness Jenkin also played a vital role. That level of mentoring and support was key.
It is not just a question of getting the gender balance right; it is about the diversity of backgrounds and voices in Parliament. We come here with our life experience, which proves invaluable when we consider legislation. I am grateful to the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. I have offered to mentor a single parent in my constituency and would very much like to get her involved. I say to other women, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a Conservative; please get involved in politics and what you believe in. Realise that you can make changes.” It is possible to make changes in this place, as we all know, as a Back Bencher. It is not necessary to be a Minister. There are myriad ways of doing it. People who are not elected can influence their MPs and get involved. I see many wonderful women in the Public Gallery: they should get involved and come into this place, because we have fantastic opportunities here.
There is a struggle over childcare and balancing family life. I urge the House authorities to consider the simple step of making recess dates fit school holidays and half terms. It is not a difficult thing to do, but such small steps would allow us to spend a bit of time with our children. I was elected to the Welsh Assembly, which is very gender-balanced, but I could not see my daughter and she had to board, aged eight. That is the difficult choice that women have to make.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this important debate. I support all-women shortlists for a simple reason, which is that in 2001, when I was first elected to Parliament, 10 Labour MPs in safe seats stood down in Wales. Did we select five men and five women, or six men and four women? No, we selected 10 men to replace them. Before the Conservatives say that they do better, there has never been a Conservative woman MP in Wales. [Interruption.] There have been Conservative women in the Assembly, but not a single one elected to Parliament. All-women shortlists have made a difference to my party and it is a delight. The fact that there are more Labour women MPs has made it easier for women to get selected in other political parties as well, so the issue applies to all of us.
The biggest barrier is still financial. It is very costly to start the process of trying to get selected, and women are still paid less than men, so inevitably the barrier is worse for them than for men. Incidentally, many of the early women MPs were, of course, very posh and wealthy. Countess Markievicz was elected and Nancy Astor was no pauper. Others included Lady Vera Terrington and Gwendolen Guinness, who was a member of the Guinness family. Even on the Labour side quite a lot came from wealthy families, such as the Daltons.
The second barrier is the vitriol and abuse that have already been mentioned. It goes mostly to women. Some goes to gay men and ethnic minority MPs. If someone fits into several of those categories, it is even worse. The treatment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is often racist and misogynist and we can surely conduct ourselves better. I should like Facebook, Twitter and so on to end anonymity so that people are not hiding all the time. Police also need to take incidents far more seriously in relation to politicians, because we are vulnerable, and it is not long ago that one of our kin—our family—was murdered: Jo Cox, last year.
The words of George Osborne about the Prime Minister are disgraceful. He cannot say that he wants her chopped up in bags in the freezer, as he is today reported to have said. He should apologise and withdraw that statement. That kind of language is misogynist in its basis and it needs to be done away with.
I wholeheartedly agree with all the things that have been said about maternity. We need more mothers in Parliament. One of the most shocking elements here is that some nights can go on for ever.
I was honoured when I was asked to be co-chairman of Women2Win—and pleased, because I recognise that gender equality in this place is the responsibility of men as much as women.
I have three points to make. First, I am conscious that role models matter. I know because I am the proud owner, with my wife, of a pair of five-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. Pleasingly, our young daughter has been given all sorts of role models by books such as “Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer”, “Rosie Revere, Engineer”, “Ada Twist, Scientist” and “Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World”. One day, while describing a picture with a spacecraft in it, I referred to the spaceman being inside. I realised that we were making progress when she said to me, “Daddy, how do you know it’s a man?”
On the flip side, the responsibility of men was made clear to me when my son argued with my wife about whether there could be female bus drivers, because he had never seen one. These things matter. That is why the education programme in this place—getting schoolchildren in to talk to them about what MPs do and who they are—is so important.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; there is certainly not enough literature and so on for young people, but the situation is better than it used to be. I recommend “Princess Smartypants” for young girls who want a good combination.
It was a real shock to come here after 16 years in London government, where politicians do not actually get a lot of abuse, and realise how much abuse female MPs take compared with male MPs. I am with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about getting rid of anonymity online. Women generally—not just female MPs or female journalists—get enormous amounts of abuse online compared with men, and we need to think carefully about anonymity.
I also want to mention what we project in this building. It is often said that women are put off coming here by the atmosphere: the aggression, the confrontation—all the stuff that appears in the media. In fact, 90% of our work in this place is not like that. The real picture, in Committee, in debates such as this one and elsewhere, is much more consensual and less aggressive.
I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for giving way. It is important to say that not just political parties but the Government and Parliament need to think about ways of encouraging more women to come here. Too often we say that it is down to women themselves and the parties, but this place and the Government need to work with us to make that happen.
I completely agree. It is incumbent on everyone—women, the Government, men and society—to present the real picture of what happens here, so that women who are put off by the principal atmosphere projected in the media realise that there are other aspects of the work beyond the yah-boo politics in the Chamber.
I am with those who suggest that we should have a proxy system. Frankly, that should be not just for Members who are on maternity leave but for those with serious illnesses. It is strange that the maths of the House can be changed—often significantly, as we might find—by someone happening to suffer an illness or by someone having a baby. I think a sensible proxy system for use in particular circumstances would be widely supported in the House and in the country as a sensible measure to enhance our democracy, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for calling this debate. While we wrangle over Brexit and other serious matters, we often forget to highlight and address the systemic and obvious barriers in society.
I came to this place because I was inspired to create change and I wanted to tackle the everyday inequality that I saw in the houses that surrounded me on the streets that I grew up on—the everyday challenges that real people face, such as struggling to heat their homes and to eat. We are privileged to sit in this House and to have the opportunities that are afforded to us, and it is absolutely incumbent upon us to address those issues and tackle the big systemic problems in society.
I was first elected to local government when I was 24 years old. I remember at the time asking my colleagues and friends, “How did you get into politics?” Each and every one of the women I asked told me, “Well, someone asked me.” Each of the men who answered that question said, “Well, I just thought I’d be good at the job.” That probably sounds like quite a lot of my colleagues. The fact is that women often have to be encouraged and inspired, and I suspect that most of us are here only because someone encouraged and inspired us. We have a responsibility to make sure that we tackle those issues and change the gender balance of this place at the next election—whenever that may be.
We can start right here and now. The Government can address some of the barriers in the House and we can start to challenge ourselves. I watched a Member in last night’s debate look across the Chamber, gesticulate to the men—we women are invisible, of course—and ask when any of them had last been home to put their child to bed, and suggest that they should talk all night. That language just reinforces the idea that men are not responsible for their children. Some people are not privileged enough to have nannies, and some people—men and women—would love to go home and put their children to bed at night. That kind of attitude reminds us that we have so much work to do to get where we need to be.
I was in that debate as well. In fairness to that Member, he was saying that the so-called family-friendly hours are not in fact family friendly. I do not know whether his messaging was correct, but I think he was making precisely the same point as the hon. Lady—that they are not family friendly.
I agree that that Member’s point may have been misconstrued, but the point is this: we can stand here in our privileged position and talk all day and all night, but there are not enough women in this House. We do not fully represent society. Women have to be able to afford to get here, have childcare, sit in hustings where men ask them, “What are you going to do about your children?” and experience the silly things that happen to us every day—if it has not happened to us, I am sure that we have heard about it happening to someone else. There are systemic barriers in society, barriers in this building and barriers in the fact that we did not get home until whatever time last night or the night before but we are here today.
Parenting or caring for another person often requires predictable timing, and the worst thing about Parliament is that it is so unpredictable. Whips engaging in shenanigans, like they did yesterday, makes it much more difficult for many women—in particular mothers—to see how they could possibly operate here.
I wholeheartedly agree. I am sure that everyone agrees that this place has a negative impact on many people’s family life and work-life balance. I do not intend to cry and play a tiny fiddle on behalf of MPs, but if we cannot get it right here, how do we expect anyone to get it right elsewhere? Whether the lack of women is due to family, childcare, caring responsibilities, society, the media, our parties and their structures or our inability to challenge, we need mechanisms to get women here. I am sorry, but that is just where we are. Until we do not need them, that is what we will do. We should push for more.
I am inspired by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. I have the privilege of sitting on the Women and Equalities Committee with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and it is a privilege to work with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has inspired me for a great many years, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), to name but a few, but this place must change and action must happen. If we are to inspire the next generation of daughters and women to get here, we need to change the structure of this place, through proxy votes and by tackling attitudes and changing its unpredictability. The ridiculous need to grandstand, act macho, hold the Floor, filibuster, waste everyone’s time and ruin a lot of people’s lives is not the way to operate a business and it is not efficient.
How will the Minister ensure that this Government tackle the barriers to women standing for Parliament? Will she ensure that making this Parliament more family friendly is her priority? Will she ensure that there is a way to tackle party structures and the attitudes of this place so that women can get here in the first place and that opportunity is not just our privilege?
I am coming to a close, so I will continue. Will the Government commit to rise to the challenge and be world leaders? Will they make that happen? Will they take on this issue as their responsibility? Will the Minister lead and ensure that this place has the representation that we all want?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing this important debate.
Women make up 51% of the UK population—and if it were not for them, the other 49% would not be here. It is no big ask for Parliament to be represented 50:50. I am proud that Labour has more women than all the other political parties put together, and I am really proud that Labour’s shadow Cabinet is 50:50. That is in line with our support for “50:50”, the cross-party campaign that aims to encourage and inspire support for political engagement.
I agree with almost everything that has been said in the debate. However, it is our duty in this House to ask difficult questions and highlight the uncomfortable truths on barriers to women entering Parliament. Some of the solutions have been spoken about today, such as proxy votes and baby leave, and I agree with all of those things. We have also touched on abuse of women—especially on the internet; there is a debate on that tomorrow.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) penned a letter to the chair of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). I want to highlight some of its points. It said:
“We are writing to express our dismay and deep concern at the vitriolic personal attacks that defined the Conservative Party’s election campaign. The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.”
That campaign contributed to the awful, horrific abuse that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was subjected to. The Conservative party spent millions of pounds on abusive Facebook campaigns, and we in this House have a responsibility to lead by example—not just with our words, but with our actions.
What has characterised the debate so far has been consensus and the notion that this is a shared problem. I hope the hon. Lady agrees on the importance of that consensus continuing. Does she agree that what we really need is a plan, not a series of tactics, undertaken by Parliament, the Government or political parties? At the moment, we have no plan.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is right. I will come to some more solutions and ways to ensure that we make this place more acceptable and accessible to women, to which I hope the Government will respond.
Sometimes, the issue is not with women standing. Women often stand for positions but find that other barriers stop them from being selected or elected. Some of that is racism, discrimination, sexism and misogyny. As uncomfortable as it is to listen to, I am afraid we have to talk about these issues, because they are barriers to women entering Parliament.
I want to highlight something that I came across today. This is not a party political point, but it is another example. It came to my attention that one of our newly elected Members of Parliament, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Jared O'Mara), personally wrote a song, the title of which is, “I wish I were a misogynist, I’d smash her in the face”. Attitudes like that really do not help us in this place. Forgive me, but if that is an example of an MP we have in this place, I would like us to do more to tackle that behaviour. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to do more to challenge our colleagues?
Absolutely. It can be difficult and uncomfortable, but we do have to challenge our colleagues. The other day, I challenged a Member who used a racist slur while speaking on a panel at the East India Club a few weeks ago. I found that deeply offensive—and there were other Members of Parliament on that panel who did not challenge that language. That kind of attitude is a barrier to women entering politics. It shows that certain people think they can get away with it.
I have been very generous. Would the hon. Lady mind if I continued a little longer?
We can come to some of the solutions; I hope that when the Minister responds she will tackle some of them. In February 2016, the Law Commission published its interim report, which urged the Government to redraft electoral offences in a more modern and simple way so that they can be more readily understood and enforced by campaigners, the public and the police. It would be good to know when the Government will respond to that interim report, because I think that will go some way towards projecting what is acceptable and not acceptable and how political campaigns should be run, which would make for a friendlier environment for women entering this arena.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked a question about the Government’s internet strategy. I wonder when the Green Paper for that strategy will be published. According to the records of the House of Commons Library, it was due to be published in September but, as we have only a day to go before the conference recess, it is probably not going to be published this month.
The other thing that would be really good and help women, other Members of Parliament and others who are subject to internet abuse that stops them from taking public office is the creation of an internet ombudsman. When will the Minister create that? The Government have been talking about it for quite a while. Again, I am looking at the House of Commons Library paper and I cannot find any official announcements regarding the creation of such a position, but that would be extremely important in ensuring that we tackle some of the bullying that goes on, especially of female MPs and of those who, because of intersectionality, suffer horrendous additional abuse on top of that suffered by others because they are a woman, a black woman, disabled or gay.
As a woman of colour, a black woman, and as a working-class trade unionist, a career in politics was not an obvious choice for me. It was not something people encouraged by saying, “You must do that—you’ll be a great politician.” In fact, they often thought that I was just too mouthy to do anything. It has been an extremely hard journey, and I want to ensure that, when I leave this place, the journey for other Members of Parliament coming through is smoother. The Government are in a position to do an awful lot to tackle the barriers for women entering Parliament and to ensure that we have a 50:50 Parliament. If I might be so bold, the Labour party still has a long way to go, but the all-women shortlist has done a lot in terms of ensuring that this House is more representative than it ever has been.
Will the hon. Lady please ask her Whips Office to pair mums of newborn babies so that they can be slipped from this place? I understand that Labour Whips are refusing to pair mums who should be on maternity leave; they are being dragged back to the Chamber. Please can she encourage her Whips Office to do that?
That is an important point. We have already spoken about pairing and having people subbing for others, but it does not help when the Government act in such an irresponsible manner when conducting the business of the House—threatening to keep MPs here until three o’clock in the morning, with mothers and fathers having to bring their babies through the Lobby. When the Government do not say when we can have Opposition day debates or when they are going to have certain discussions, that does not help with the pairing of Members of Parliament. However, I will try to adopt a consensual tone by saying that anything that can be introduced to ensure that Parliament is fairer and more family-friendly should be supported by all parts of the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate. I was tempted to say “Stop squabbling,” and it is very likely that I will forget the speech I have in front of me: my one point is that if we want to change things, we have to take down the party political barriers. There is fault on every side, but all political parties have done what they can and what they feel is appropriate to make sure that some of the barriers come down.
I go to women’s forums where people stand up and say, particularly in business, “We have done so well.” I get a bit tired of hearing how well we have done; the truth is that we have not done well enough. I am absolutely clear about one thing: as women, we have to take down those barriers. Only then can we get change.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to do more. We need the data to understand exactly how much more we need to do. As she knows, the Government could enact section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, so that parties publish the data on candidates who are standing. The Government have rejected that proposal from my Committee.
That was a compliment, Sir Roger. It is the tenacity of people such as my right hon. Friend that will change things. It is almost 100 years since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, which made it possible for women to stand as parliamentary candidates. Next year is the centenary, which is an opportunity for us, as women in Parliament, to do something to make sure that we remember the message. It is extraordinary to think that that Act received Royal Assent on 21 November 1918, just 10 days after the end of the first world war. Even while Europe was reeling from four years of devastating conflict, Parliament recognised the necessity for equality by introducing and passing a Bill.
The question we need to take away is whether we still recognise that necessity for equality today. Those of us in this chamber do, but we need to make sure that we never let that ball drop. The 1918 Act came after years of protest and debate for women’s suffrage. Brave women fought and died, and were imprisoned and demonised by Government and the police. Thousands petitioned and marched throughout Britain. The struggle was bruising. Nancy Astor has been mentioned already. In her maiden speech, she said:
“it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first lady M.P. into the House. It was almost as difficult for some of them as it was for the lady M.P. herself to come in.”—[Official Report, 24 February 1920; Vol. 125, c. 1623.]
This is the most diverse Parliament in British history, with 208 female MPs: 32% of the House. Some 45 MPs identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and 52 MPs are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background—interestingly, they are 26 women and 26 men. However, that progress has been painfully slow, and 100 years on the House does not reflect the public it serves. One hon. Member referred to there having been only 489 women MPs, with 33 of those first elected in 2017. In 2015, we finally exceeded the existing number of sitting male MPs. Women make up 51% of the population and, as the shadow spokesperson rightly pointed out, the men would not be here if it was not for us.
It would be ridiculous to believe that, in a population of 66 million, there are not 124 women who are capable and absolutely willing to take on the job of MP. Women made up a record 29% of candidates in 2017, but it is a stark fact that in 104 constituencies there were no women candidates at all. That equates to about 7.5 million people who had no option to vote for a woman.
The problem is twofold. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh talked about barriers and the problems of women who have children, and we looked at a number of those, but there are also the social and structural limits that we systematically place on women and girls. Women are less likely to consider themselves knowledgeable about subjects than men, despite growing evidence that proves there is no difference. Many women feel excluded or uninformed, because time and again they are shown that the opinions and authority of men are valued over theirs. The overwhelming majority of expert opinion and commentary in all public spheres is given by men.
Much work has been done in recent years to improve the diversity of experts called on by the news media. The 30% Club, which was launched by women, created a database of women experts for the media to contact on a range of topics. However, we need to see sustained efforts. I was recently told a story by a member of the Government who was phoned up by a mainstream radio news outlet in the past couple of years but who was stood down at the last minute and told, “It’s alright; we’ve already got a woman.” It is shocking that, in this day and age, mainstream media still feel it acceptable to say something like that.
It absolutely must, and I take the opportunity to praise Mr Speaker for his chairing of the diversity and inclusion group. We have looked at exactly that—opportunities for crèche facilities for expert witnesses and so on.
There is no doubt that parenthood remains a structural and practical barrier for many women. Of those not in work due to caring responsibilities, 89% are women; I am not denying that men perform some of those roles, but 89% are women. Mothers have been underrepresented in Parliament. Interestingly, a 2013 survey of MPs found that 55% of the women had children, which is low, compared with 72% of the men. Women juggle their dual lives as parent and a parliamentarian, working against long and unpredictable working weeks—an issue that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly raised.
I will pick up on a couple of points. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) mentioned gender stereotyping. It is a critical issue and I am pleased that the Advertising Standards Authority has recently taken action on it. All-women shortlists also came up. I also struggle with them; they ensure compliance but not a change in culture, and as women in this place we need to aim for a change in culture. I went into politics with absolutely no political background at all. Somebody once described me as an “accidental Member of Parliament”, which I feel I was. I did not feel as though people like me were well represented—a woman with a background in the public sector—and that was one of the driving forces behind why I came here.
I would like to feel as though I will leave something behind me. The shadow Front-Bench spokesperson talked about things the Government can do, and that plays its part, but we have to change the culture. We have to leave women feeling that they have an equal chance of getting here. It is critical that they come, so that we have the benefit of their skills, life experience and the unique contribution that they make, and to make sure that the voice of 50% of the population is equally represented in this place.
I thank all Members from across the House for the spirit and tone of the debate. It would be remiss of me not to mention the candidates department, which I hope is being swamped with applications from females as we speak. I will use and adapt two Madeleine Albright quotes to end the debate: there is a special place in hell for women and men who do not support other women; and we should use the debate to form our opinions, and use those opinions to create discussions, so that we can all work to break and end barriers.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Corby Urgent Care Centre
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Corby urgent care centre.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I have to say that in the two and a half years I have been a Member of this place, this is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have ever applied for. The reason is that I think we should use these sorts of opportunity sparingly, for issues that are very pertinent and significant for our constituents. This issue matters very much to people in Corby and the surrounding area, so I felt that it warranted a debate. I am delighted that this opportunity has been granted.
I want to emphasise at the outset that the facility we have in Corby at the moment—the Corby urgent care centre—is class-leading, hugely popular, well used and a beacon of best practice. I know that representatives of Lakeside Plus, which is the current provider, are watching this debate closely. At this point, I want to say a huge thank you to Lakeside Plus for the quality of service it has provided since 2012, when the Corby urgent care centre opened under the coalition Government. I am proud that it was Conservatives in government who delivered this class-leading facility for my constituents. The dedicated staff who work there day in, day out do a remarkable job, and that is something I hear all the time. When I knock on doors in the constituency and am out in the town centre, that is the message I hear loud and clear.
Back on 20 July, I spoke in the final debate before the summer recess, which was an important opportunity, given the press release issued by Corby clinical commissioning group on 13 July that led to concern locally about the potential loss of this service at the end of September. Fortunately, we are in a better position now than we were when I spoke in that debate on 20 July. That is because on 29 August, the governing body of the CCG met, and the CCG subsequently communicated with me to advise that at that meeting a number of things had been agreed to, including a rolling four-month extension to Lakeside Plus’s contract, subject to legal agreement, and a “robust timeline” for patient, public and stakeholder engagement and consultation. That is obviously a very important step forward and, in some respects, provides reassurance to my constituents in the short term.
I understand that the contract extension has not yet been agreed, and the clock is ticking. Once we get to the end of September, that is the cliff edge. I want to see urgent action taken by the CCG, getting around the table with Lakeside Plus to get the contract signed, to take the cliff edge out of the equation, because that is what my constituents are most worried about at this point—and with good reason, because we can conclude that, were the facility to close on 30 September, it would be very difficult for it to be reopened. We must avoid that cliff edge, and I urge everybody concerned to get around the table and ensure that we get the agreement signed as quickly as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his tireless efforts, not only in this House but locally in Corby, to fight this cause. It is a hugely popular facility. My constituents in Kettering know that without the Corby urgent care centre, the pressure on Kettering General Hospital would be even greater. The Minister knows how busy Kettering General Hospital is because he had the good heart to visit it recently. I am 100% behind my hon. Friend in his campaign.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been unstinting in his support for the Corby urgent care centre and the local campaign. He recognises, quite rightly, the pressures that the facility relieves Kettering General Hospital of. Kettering General Hospital is obviously a very important facility in our community. I will touch on those pressures a little bit later, but I very much appreciate his support for what we are doing.
I have talked about the short-term situation. In the longer term, the CCG appears to be committed to much more thorough consultation, first with a pre-consultation, and followed by a thorough consultation on options, which I understand would run between November and January. I welcome that, but I am clear that corners must not be cut in that process. The whole community must be engaged. It is not enough to engage with a group of 700 people in a patient participation group; that is just not good enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. His reference to Kettering General Hospital and this fairly narrow consultation leads me to ask whether he agrees that not only Kettering General Hospital but Northampton General Hospital would be impacted by this. Have those he has been working with made references to that in the course of their discussions?
I am grateful to my county colleague for his intervention. He is absolutely right. As this campaign has progressed since July, I have been receiving communication from people across the county and from outside the county who say they make use of the Corby urgent care centre rather than going to the acute hospitals in our area. I have no doubt that not only Kettering General Hospital but Northampton General Hospital would be affected. This is not just a Corby issue by any means, although it is obviously very important to Corby residents. It is also fundamental to the wider health infrastructure of north Northamptonshire.
I want Corby CCG to be very aware of and alive to the fact that I will be watching the consultation process ahead of us like a hawk, because the consultation that has gone on previously has not been good enough. I think the CCG would recognise, if it were honest, that that has not been good enough, and we need to see improvement. I will not hesitate to ask difficult questions, should they need to be asked. I will also be clear with the CCG that it ought to make no mistake that in the long term we need urgent care facilities in our town. There are a number of key reasons for that.
The first is the growth agenda. There can be no doubt that in north Northamptonshire, there will be increasing pressures on our health infrastructure more generally in the years ahead. We are taking thousands and thousands of new homes, not just in Corby but in east Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough. That inevitably brings pressures for existing health services.
I have already referred to the KGH pressures, which are very pertinent. I am pleased, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) will be, that the recent Care Quality Commission inspection saw quite considerable improvement compared with the last inspection. We welcome that, but I do not want to see all that good work undone by additional people who would previously have gone to the Corby urgent care centre turning up at A&E.
One flaw in the CCG’s argument to date has been that it has never been able to account for the number of people who currently go to the urgent care centre and who, if that were not available, would go on to Kettering General Hospital. I am very concerned about that. We must not forget that last year, 70,000 people made use of the Corby urgent care centre, and only 6% of those went on to Kettering General Hospital for further treatment. That gives us an idea of the impact here. I think we would also all recognise that Corby has significant and acute health needs, particularly on the back of the fact that we are an industrial town. Our town has been built on our industries, which inevitably leads to acute health needs among the local population.
I know that local people share my strength of feeling on this. The “Save Corby Urgent Care Centre” group has done a fantastic job, particularly online, harnessing local opinion and local support for the campaign. In fact, tomorrow night at the end of business, I shall present a petition signed by more than 2,500 local people in support of the urgent care centre. I pay tribute to Lyn Buckingham, Maria Bryan and others for the work that they have been doing on the issue.
As the local Member of Parliament, I am proud to say that the fact that we have a Labour council in Corby does not mean that we do not work together for what is best for the people of our area. Tom Beattie, the Labour leader of the council, and I have worked very closely on this issue, as we do on others, such as the steel issue, because party politics does not matter when it comes to these issues. People do not want to see politicians squabbling and arguing about petty points; they want solutions to the problems, so I am pleased that that cross-party work continues in our community. I want to say again a big thank you to my Northamptonshire colleagues for their support on this issue, because, as I said, it affects not just my constituents, but people in their areas.
The final thing giving me heart in terms of the strength of local feeling is that I launched a parliamentary postcode campaign on this issue, and although not that many have yet been delivered—that process is going on at the moment—we are seeing hundreds and hundreds returned. I look forward to the opportunity to present sacks of those cards to the commissioners in the months ahead, as part of the consultation process, to hammer home how strongly we as a community feel about the issue. They are also coming in thick and fast on email, and not just from people in Northamptonshire.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his interest. Obviously, we have just had a recess, which is not necessarily a particularly good time for challenges to occur in constituencies, but I have really appreciated the fact that he has always been willing and available to talk about this issue when concerns have been brought to my attention. That availability is appreciated. Often, politicians are accused of talking about problems, raising issues, but having no solutions. When I look at this issue, there are some things that really stand out for me that I think are just common sense. What concerns me is that when we look at the figures for same-day access in Corby, for example, we are not doing well enough. There are clearly key challenges ahead, and the CCG’s performance on that particular matter has to improve.
However, that should not be at the expense of urgent care facilities in the town, and local people should not be penalised in relation to the urgent care centre as a result of the current contract not having been handled as it should have been by the commissioners. Obviously, the expert determination speaks to that point. I do not need to say any more on that, but local people should not be penalised, in terms of the health services available to them going forward, as a result of the contract not having been handled as it should have been.
It is clear to me that if we improved GP access, the cost of the urgent care centre service would reduce, because if more of my constituents, or more of those people from the surrounding areas, could see their GP on the day that they needed an appointment, they would not have cause to go to the urgent care centre, where they have perhaps been going because the access has not been good enough to date. It should be about doing both: improving GP access at the same time as providing urgent care facilities. I argue very strongly that the cost of the urgent care facilities would be less were the GP access better.
I will continue to advance these arguments in the months ahead. I am conscious that county colleagues who are present may want to say a few words, so I shall wrap up, but I want to be very clear about the fact that losing this facility would be a betrayal of local people. The proof is in the pudding: it is making an impact. The idea of losing it is obscene when we consider that other areas look at Corby urgent care centre with envy. For example, people in Wellingborough want to see, at the Isebrook site, a very similar service replicated. Were we to lose Corby urgent care centre, that would also undermine the whole model that we have been working on, cross-party, for some years. I am talking about a hub-and-spoke model—ensuring that we have the urgent care hub on the Kettering General Hospital site, with a spoke in Wellingborough and a spoke in Corby. That makes absolute sense, and I do not want the good work that has been done on it undone, because this facility is class-leading and can demonstrate that it has made quite an impact. I say again that I am in no doubt that losing the facility would be a disaster for Kettering General Hospital. I also recognise that Corby CCG has responsibility for Kettering General Hospital as its pinned CCG.
As I said in the debate before the summer recess, my message to the CCG remains very clear: please don’t let us down.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me briefly to speak in the debate. We have an excellent Minister who has shown a great deal of interest in the concerns of north Northamptonshire NHS.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby both on initiating the debate and on his campaigning across his constituency on many issues, but particularly on Corby urgent care centre. His listening campaign has galvanised support from all over the town and the surrounding areas, and it is the surroundings areas that I want to mention, because people from Wellingborough go to Corby urgent care centre. Wellingborough is one of those towns that does not have an urgent care centre or a hospital, so if someone unfortunately has an emergency, they have to travel to Kettering and, on occasion, to Northampton, which is not a good situation. The urgent care centre allows people to be seen more quickly, and the system really works. I saw one of my constituents who had fallen ill, could not see the doctor that day in Wellingborough, went to Corby urgent care centre and was then referred on to Kettering, so the system works. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) for being here, because they represent the two constituencies with the two major hospitals. The problem is that if we get rid of Corby urgent care centre, we will finish up with more and more people going to Kettering A&E and to Northampton General Hospital.
For a long time now—since before my hon. Friend the Member for Corby was even elected—there has been a campaign for a hub at Kettering. That would be a national leader and is something that the Department has supported. We would have the urgent care centre in Corby, which we already have; we could have an urgent care centre at Kettering General; and we would have an urgent care centre at the Isebrook Hospital in Wellingborough. That is my plea to the commissioning groups, because I have been round the site where they are going to put the urgent care centre in Wellingborough, but I am afraid the commissioning groups have let us down. I have introduced in this Parliament a Bill, which you may be aware of, Mr Chope, to merge the two commissioning groups, the Northamptonshire Clinical Commissioning Groups (Merger) Bill, because having a Corby commissioning group—the smallest in the country—is hopeless. I am not much more impressed by the Nene group, so let us put them together and see whether we can get something better. I have also introduced a Bill that would bring the hub system to Northamptonshire —the North Northamptonshire (Urgent Care Facilities) Bill.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby for letting me speak in the debate. He is doing an absolutely terrific job in Corby. He said right at the beginning of his speech that these debates should be used only for really important occasions. The first time I was in Westminster Hall, the aim was to keep open Rushden fire station, using a listening campaign, and we achieved that, so I hope that as a result of this debate we will ensure that Corby urgent care centre stays open.
Thank you, Mr Chope, for chairing the debate in your inimitable style. I was intrigued to learn that my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) had not used the precincts of Westminster Hall to raise an issue before; I was somewhat surprised, because he is such an assiduous campaigner for his constituency and such a frequent contributor in the main Chamber. The reason may simply be that he does not manage to find time to get into Westminster Hall, so often does he raise his constituents’ interests on the Floor of the House. It is good to see him so well supported again today by his constituency neighbours from Wellingborough and Kettering.
We have discussed this matter privately and, to a limited degree, on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby referred to the Adjournment debate to which he contributed before Parliament rose for the summer recess. We have also discussed during the summer, as events unfolded in a more unpredictable way, what could be done to secure the future of the facility for which he has advocated so well today.
I feel reasonably up to speed with events in Corby; for the benefit of other Members present, I will rehearse a small number of them. I will not go into too much detail, not least because at the heart of the issue has been a contractual dispute, which has limited the ability of participants to describe the nature of it. That has, in itself, given rise to some problems in communicating to the local population what the problem has been. We remain bound by the confidentiality arrangements around the legal procedure, but suffice it to say that, as my hon. Friend correctly observes, we are close to a point where action has to be taken to maintain the facility from the end of this month.
From my conversations with the CCG leadership in preparation for this debate, I can assure my hon. Friend that on that side of the negotiating table they are determined to ensure that continuity of service is provided through the rolling four-month contract. They alerted him to that contract at the end of last month and are engaging with the provider, Lakeside Plus, to try to reach agreement. There is no doubt that without an agreement, some of the services would have to be provided in an alternative and less satisfactory way for the local population. That is inevitable, if it is put together in a short timeframe.
It is in everybody’s interest to make this work, but it will be a precursor to a longer-term solution, which is clearly required for the local population. I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises that such a solution needs to be widely consulted on. Indeed, he is pressing for a more fulsome consultation than is perhaps typical. Given the circumstances surrounding this case, I will be urging the CCG regarding that full consultation. I have been alerted that it is due to start in November, and think that he has been given the same information.
I was not aware of a pre-consultation, and am not quite sure what it means. Hopefully, it means providing an opportunity to ensure that the full consultation is as detailed as necessary. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will encourage all those who have been in touch with him to participate in that consultation when it gets under way. I was pleased to learn from him about the cross-party nature of the support and full engagement that he has been working, alongside the action group, to generate. I am sure that all those taking an interest will participate in the consultation.
To touch on the substance of the issue, I should say that the GP practice co-located with the urgent care centre has the largest patient list of any GP practice in the midlands, certainly, and possibly across NHS England’s footprint, so it has some unusual characteristics. One of the pressures on that practice, which my hon. Friend alluded to, is access to that GP surgery. Pressure is put on the urgent care centre by the difficulty in securing access to that part of the GP provision in the area. My understanding is that there is a federation of GPs, beyond the immediate catchment of the UCC but within the CCG area, that has much better access. Work should be done as part of the consultation to see how the performance across the entire CCG area can be improved to relieve some of the pressure on the urgent care centre.
A consequence of that pressure is that the original contract, designed to undertake 120 patient episodes a day, has been dealing with more like 170 patients a day attending the urgent care centre. Of those patients, the vast majority—88%—could be dealt with either in that facility or in the GP practice itself. As I understand it, 12% definitely require treatment at the urgent care centre, and some of those are then referred to either Kettering General Hospital or, in a small number of cases, to Northampton’s A&E facility.
There is a need for an urgent care setting, but there is as much of a need to ensure that those who could be treated in the primary care environment can be. Part of the consultation will look at the appropriateness of a primary care home arrangement. That is an establishment that brings together primary care providers, social care providers and other providers, such as pharmacies, within an area, to provide a more integrated primary care service. That in itself might have benefits for improving access to treatment for the population served by the UCC at present.
My hon. Friend will be well aware of the history of the contracting challenge between the CCG and Lakeside Plus. I will not exhaust his patience by going into that in any detail, but will simply say that it is the intent of the CCG to re-establish a contractual relationship. The CCG wishes to have this moving forward on a four-month rolling basis while the consultation takes place, and then any subsequent arrangements will need to go out to tender. The intent is that this contract will continue until the successor arrangements are in place, so that there is continuity of care for his constituents—something that the Department absolutely supports.
I conclude by saying that it is really important that we use this public consultation to get the model of care right for the people in the area served by the UCC. That needs to take into account the evidence base for the clinical model, the right to patient choice for the people who will be using it, to meet the local need—my hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the particular local needs in the Corby area, and those are recognised—and also value for money. The approach has to be coherent and comprehensive, to come up with the right solution for the future.
I heard what my hon. Friend’s neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), said about looking for a similar hub in Wellingborough. I will look with interest to see how his private Member’s Bill progresses, to endeavour to bring that about. I also note his comments regarding the structure of the CCGs in the area. That is really a matter for the STP—the sustainability and transformation partnership—to make progress on and decide the structure of both commissioning and provision of service in the area. It is not really for me to comment on that off the cuff here today, but I note what he says and am aware that this is one of the smallest CCGs in the country. I am also aware that there is a very substantial programme of collaboration already underway with the neighbouring CCG at Nene, so I think that the CCGs themselves see the benefits of closer integration of their working.
On that basis, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby that I will endeavour to keep him informed as matters come to my attention, and I am quite sure he will continue to keep me and the Department informed as well.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Scotland-Malawi relationship.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, having spent the afternoon with you in the Procedure Committee.
I am pleased to have secured today’s debate, and am very grateful to be able to give the House a chance to discuss and celebrate our very important and successful bilateral relationship. Before I speak about some of the more pressing matters, I would like to talk about the connection, the significance of which is seen through the numerous links to Malawi in every single one of the 59 constituencies in Scotland. I do not doubt that some of the other hon. Members present will be keen to use this debate to highlight some of those cultural links and will try to keep my comments brief to allow other Members to speak. I am happy to take appropriate interventions as well.
I pay tribute to the Scotland Malawi Partnership for all its work to promote the relationship between our nations. It has been invaluable in helping me to prepare for this debate. In particular, I thank and pay tribute to David Hope-Jones, its chief executive, who is tireless in his resolve to celebrate the scale, energy and impact of Scotland’s bilateral relationship with Malawi.
I cannot speak on this subject without honouring another David—now would probably be a good time for someone to intervene with those immortal words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” The doctor is a famed figure across the globe, but nowhere more so than in his home nation of Scotland and in Malawi, where he travelled extensively on missionary work. David Livingstone’s influence on Malawi is evident right across the country. Its commercial centre and oldest city, Blantyre, was named after his birthplace in Lanarkshire. The history of the great Scotsman’s travels and crusades against slavery is taught to every schoolchild in Malawi even today, which ensures that he remains a much revered figure.
It should therefore come as no surprise that almost 200,000 Malawians are now involved in the Scotland Malawi Partnership, along with 100,000 Scots. The organisation’s impact should not be underestimated: some 2 million Malawians benefit directly from the partnership and 4 million benefit indirectly. In Scotland, almost half the population know someone with a connection to Malawi—an absolutely remarkable statistic.
There are 1,131 Scottish organisations and community champions with active links to Malawi, such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Classrooms for Malawi, Mary’s Meals, Oxfam Scotland and 500 Miles. Glasgow City Council also has strong links. Successive Lords Provost have made the link a real priority since 2005, with each visiting Malawi and outdoing the last in raising funds, engaging and inspiring more people in Scotland and Malawi to connect for their mutual benefit. I recently met our newly appointed Lord Provost, Councillor Eva Bolander. I take great pleasure in informing the House that she will continue the tradition and is ready for the challenge.
A number of Glasgow City Council’s schools already have thriving relationships and partnerships with Malawi. These are active, dignified, two-way, school-to-school links that inform and inspire generations of young Scots to be good global citizens and that are transforming lives in Malawi and in Scotland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Will he join me in recognising and commending the excellent work of a disproportionately large number of people in my constituency to support the people of Malawi? He has already mentioned the excellent work of Mary’s Meals, but we also have the Mid Argyll Malawi Twinning Group, the Imani Development Foundation in Oban, the Netherlorn Churches’ project “Seed for life. Feed for life”, many secondary schools such as the Rothesay Academy, Dunoon Grammar School, and the primary schools of Strone, Dalmally and Iona.
I wholeheartedly join my hon. Friend in commending those wonderful local organisations. We have seen the generous, welcoming spirit of Argyll and Bute in its international work in recent years. I am more than happy to put that on the record.
In my constituency, Carmyle Primary School, St Joachim’s Catholic Primary School, Croftcroighn School, Swinton Primary School, Eastbank Academy and my own former high school, Bannerman High School, all participate in programmes to connect our distinct but intertwined communities over thousands of miles. On a recent visit back to Bannerman, I was delighted to learn that the school is preparing for a trip to Malawi next year, which I hope to be able to join.
Bannerman High School’s preparations are likely to be a lot easier than those of Malawians who wish to travel to Scotland, however. That brings me to my first substantive issue: the extremely serious shortcomings in the UK Government’s handling of visa applications. The Scotland Malawi Partnership has reported that over the past decade, its members have experienced an increasing number of issues with visa applications. Worryingly, many of them feel that the situation is worse now than it has ever been. Some argue that Malawians who apply for visas to visit the United Kingdom are treated with contempt from the outset, with ever increasing charges and an ever decreasing quality of service.
The partnership reports that what it sees as the dysfunctional processing of UK visas not only affects its work and the work of its members across Scottish civil society, but has a serious negative impact on the Government’s own development and diplomatic efforts, causing reputational damage. It is quite clear that this is not an isolated issue. The partnership’s experience is that Scottish churches, schools, non-governmental organisations, businesses, NHS boards, hospitals, universities and community groups have had to cancel visits, often at a considerable cost, because UK visas have not been processed correctly or in time.
When concerns have been raised in this place, the Government have been quick to point out that about 82% of UK visa applications from Malawi are successful—perhaps the Minister might ask the relevant Minister to break down for me how that percentage was arrived at. I understand that a significant proportion of Scotland Malawi Partnership members who start the process of applying for a UK visitor visa are not able to complete it because of systemic failures, so I would be keen to find out whether those incomplete applications are included within that percentage. I would also like to know if the figure includes visas that are awarded on the day of travel or even after the scheduled travel date.
The second substantive issue is the 1955 Malawi-UK double taxation treaty. I appreciate that Ministers may have been somewhat distracted by Brexit and disrupted by the snap general election, but the Government have not yet honoured their promise—and it was a promise—to update that treaty. The final deadline of July 2017 has now passed. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) recently asked a written question about the matter, but I am afraid the Treasury’s answer was disappointingly non-committal about the timeframe for completion. Its reason for delay—that the Government of Malawi had raised further points for consideration in August 2016—was somewhat at odds with the promise made by the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury last December that
“we hope to conclude soon”.—[Official Report, 16 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 1142.]
Nine months on, we seem to be no further forward. I do not think that I am overstepping the mark when I say that the UK Government appear to be dragging their heels. They ought to get on with their day job and bring this matter to resolution. I do not consider it unreasonable to ask them to let us know exactly when they aim to have the treaty signed off. Any update would be most welcome.
The point is that we need to get on with getting this sorted. The Government have been quite clear about setting a timeframe, but I can see from my constituency caseload that they are perhaps too focused on other matters at the moment. I would like Ministers in the Treasury to honour their promise to get this sorted. As I said, I do not think it is unreasonable for the Government to let us know exactly when they aim to have the treaty signed off. Perhaps the Treasury can follow that up, although I appreciate that it is not the Minister’s Department.
My third concern is investment in Malawi. It is only fair to point out that the Scotland Malawi Partnership applauds the CDC-DFID impact accelerator programme, which enables smaller investments that are better suited to a country such as Malawi. I echo the partnership’s calls for the Government to build on that and urge the CDC to increase the investment going to Malawi.
I am conscious of time, as I know other hon. Members wish to speak. The final issue I will raise is DFID’s engagement with civic links between Scotland and Malawi. The Department’s small charities challenge fund aims to better engage smaller NGOs, but there are concerns about the design of the programme, such as the fear that payment in lieu will render the fund inaccessible for smaller organisations in Scotland. Will the Minister undertake to discuss that with his colleagues, so that this well-intentioned fund can be tweaked to be of greater benefit to organisations that have the potential to do great work with its support?
Let me finish by looking positively towards the future of the bilateral relationship between our nations. The phenomenal work being done in Scotland and Malawi, which I hope other hon. Members will highlight, is certainly something to be celebrated. Our ties continue to be strengthened and further developed. Our 150-year relationship bridges the gap. Let each of us continue to build upon that. In the words of Dr Livingstone,
“I will go anywhere, provided it is forward.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this debate.
Malawi obviously has a great effect over all of Scotland, and I will mention one or two of my colleagues who cannot be here today. Scottish organisations such as Scotland’s Rural College, part of which is in my constituency of Gordon, and the Co-operative College have developed innovative solutions for agriculture and trade—which, being a farmer myself, is something that is close to my heart—helping to increase sustainable daily production and helping farmers to get the best return from their crop. That has transformed Malawi into a regional hub for the development of cattle vaccines, which protects livelihoods and food security for hundreds of thousands of people.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East has mentioned a number of schools already; I will not go over them all again. However, Williamwood school in East Renfrewshire, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), has sent more than a hundred pupils on visits to towns in Malawi and raised more than £25,000 for Classrooms for Malawi, leading to the construction of a local nursery and the completion of 14 classrooms at Ekwendeni Primary School.
In my own constituency of Gordon, Famine Relief for Orphans in Malawi has worked with communities in Malawi for more than a decade. Originally set up to provide food for feeding stations, it worked in response to the floods in Malawi in 2015 and 2017, and over time it has provided funds to build two health clinics, a health worker’s house and two school classrooms with composting toilets.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) has also supported development opportunities in Malawi for some time now. She told me that she visited an excellent event in her constituency last Saturday, which highlighted the brilliant work of the Dalitso Project, an organisation based in Arbroath, since 2007. It runs two day care centres and orphan residences. It now cares for 310 children and provides jobs for 30 staff.
I want to add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Glasgow East. I am aware of the difficulties for Malawian citizens of obtaining a visa for the UK. There have been many reports of the system being dysfunctional. Furthermore, the 1955 UK-Malawi double taxation treaty dearly needs updating. Now is the time to use the strength of our relationship to overcome these hurdles.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing it.
The links between Scotland and Malawi were well documented by the hon. Gentleman. They have their roots in history, but they are still flourishing now. I suppose that traditionally they existed through the links between the Church of Scotland and the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, which remain strong to this day. Indeed, my own presbytery in Orkney is linked with the Thyolo Highlands Presbytery in Malawi. These are the sort of direct and meaningful links that exist.
Like other hon. Members, there are schools in my constituency that have direct links and partnerships with schools in Malawi. Westray Junior High School and Sanday Junior High School in particular have done a lot in recent years to offer their pupils an opportunity to see the life of their contemporaries in Malawi and to offer people in Malawi a chance to come in the other direction.
Those are very commendable links—the sort of links that should give us confidence that the civic links between Scotland and Malawi will continue to grow and endure, built as they are on links between communities and individuals within those communities. Indeed, at this point I should also pay tribute to the Scotland Malawi Partnership, which provided me with a briefing for this debate. I suspect that it has done for other hon. Members what it has done for me—namely, listing the links that exist within our communities.
In fact, there is another link that the Scotland Malawi Partnership was obviously not aware of, because it did not appear on its list. Nevertheless, it is an absolute exemplar of the sort of project that we should see and indeed do see across Scotland. It is the Malawi Music Fund, which is based in Orkney. It was set up by a constituent of mine, Glenys Hughes, who taught music in secondary schools in Malawi in 2006; she took a year out to go there. She came back and with her knowledge and experience she then built up links. The traffic between the two countries has continued to this day. Malawi Music Fund runs residential workshops and also raises funds for bursaries for secondary education, which, as hon. Members will know, is not free in Malawi.
Just this weekend, I met a dance teacher in Orkney, Joanna Davies, who had just been in Malawi with Orkney’s Malawi Music Fund. She told me, with some excitement, of her plans to bring a dance teacher and dancer from Malawi to Orkney—a link that she had built during the visit. I listened with a curious mix of inspiration and despondency. I could not help being inspired by the enthusiasm of somebody who had gone out and made a connection with somebody she had identified, from her own professional experience, as very talented. I was despondent, however, that by encouraging her to go forward with a visit or programme for this young man, I was almost certainly creating my own casework, because from the profile she described, I just know that getting him a visa will be an absolute nightmare.
It need not be like that. As a constituency MP, I have seen a number of projects over the years in which visitors come from Malawi to the United Kingdom. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat at my desk, bashing the phones and trying to get some common sense out of UK Visas and Immigration, the UK Border Agency, Border Force or whatever it was called at the time. It is the same old story every time: “We don’t believe that these people are going to go back, notwithstanding the basis on which they have been brought here.”
I apologise for coming late to the debate; pepani chomene, as we say in Chitumbuka. Is it not one of the greatest ironies of visas that the visitors who apply have so often been funded by Government institutions? These are UK Government and Scottish Government programmes that are vouched for by highly reliable organisations, but that does not seem to make a blind bit of difference to the Home Office.
In calling it ironic, the hon. Gentleman is being kind to those responsible. Whether or not it is ironic, it sure as hell is frustrating and totally unnecessary. I have found myself speaking to Heathrow Border Force staff on a Saturday, with every document that could possibly be required, but it is always the same old story: any ambiguity in any of the information provided is always interpreted to the detriment, not the advantage, of the person seeking entry.
The right hon. Gentleman makes some very good points; I share his frustration in my own constituency cases. Does he agree that it fundamentally undermines the reciprocal nature of the relationship that we can go to Malawi relatively easily, but people from Malawi cannot come here? It is difficult to have a friendship of equals when we do not treat people from Malawi as equals in the immigration system.
Indeed. It strikes at the very heart of the nature of the relationship, which ought to be a partnership. I was struck by the last thing Joanna Davies said on Saturday, after I outlined a fraction of what she would have to deal with before her friend’s visit: “When we go there, we have absolutely none of these difficulties.” That is the experience that many of us have had, and I hope the Minister will take on board the hon. Lady’s good point. It is difficult and occasionally impossible to build the sorts of links that I believe the Minister wants, if another part of the Government is operating in a way that undermines the efforts of such groups.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned the 1955 UK-Malawi double taxation treaty. It is to be regretted, to say the least, that we are still speaking about this; I rather thought that we had got beyond that and that we had sufficient undertakings. If there are difficulties at the Malawi end, we need to hear more about them, but surely in a modern agreement the partners should be equal. The characterisation of the 1955 treaty is one of a colonial power to its colony. I hope that when the Minister talks about difficulties coming in each way, that is not an indication of the UK Government’s attitude in the present day.
It is a little uncomfortable, but the question of the trade relationships is about technical legal definitions and trade. The problem is not an ideological problem; it is not a problem of colonial history or timetables. It is a problem of such things as very specific legal definitions of geography. These things cannot be resolved by simply standing up, trying to shame the British Government and telling us to get on with it. The Malawian Government have to make some moves in the negotiation. The negotiation cannot be resolved in the way the right hon. Gentleman suggests.
I was a legal practitioner before I came to this House, so I am well acquainted with the issues around interpretation and negotiation. All I would say is that if the Government are experiencing difficulties in revising a 62-year-old treaty with a former colony—now a partner in the Commonwealth—they may have a taste of what is ahead of them in other upcoming negotiations. The Minister may wish to educate some of his ministerial colleagues in that regard.
In conclusion, we often hold up Malawi as an example of some of the negatives: poverty, the debt burden and some of the social issues, such as the oppression of LGBT+ people within the country. That is an inevitable fact in how the issues are seen. I suggest that today’s debate offers us an opportunity to hold up Malawi and our relationship with it in a rather more positive light. How Malawi has built its links with Scotland—the civic links, church links, school links and business links—could in many ways inform the opportunities open to other African countries. I spent two weeks with Voluntary Services Overseas in Cameroon a couple of years ago. The problems facing people in Cameroon are not dissimilar to those affecting people in Malawi, but there is not the same plethora of local groups and civic engagement across Cameroon. Malawi could bring some of its experience to bear, perhaps through an organisation such as the Commonwealth, to show the opportunities for civic engagement and the results that could be produced when that is made to work properly.
Thank you, Mr Chope, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate marking the relationship between Malawi and Scotland. I start by paying tribute to Dr Jack Thompson, one of the Scotland Malawi Partnership board members. He passed away last month. He played a huge role in bringing our two countries together, and he will be missed.
It is a real pleasure to be able to say a few words about the warm historical ties between our two countries and what we can do in the future. Scotland has long had a close relationship with southern Africa, with many Scots making that part of the world their home in days gone by. In recent times, many Africans have chosen to make Scotland their home. I welcome that diversity and I want to see more of it. I am hugely proud to be a Lanarkshire man and to represent my area in Parliament, but Lanarkshire men have been making their mark for generations. None other than David Livingstone left Scotland generations ago and formed a lasting bond between Malawi and Scotland.
Health and wellbeing matter to us all, particularly those of us on the Labour Benches. Today’s debate on public sector pay showed that; the motion has just been accepted, which I welcome. Health and wellbeing are at the heart of our partnership and friendship. In Edinburgh just last month, Sarah Brown, the education campaigner and wife of the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, rightly paid tribute to the role Scotland has played in reducing the numbers of women dying during childbirth and during pregnancy. There has also been good work on HIV and support for older people. In education, the links between our young people grow and grow—year after year, some 94,000 people throughout Scotland have active links with Malawi.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about health and wellbeing, and I know of his constituency association with Dr David Livingstone. Will he acknowledge, with me, that the association continues to this day—not least through the University of St Andrews and its connection with the College of Medicine in Malawi? The university is doing some fantastic work and is continuing the good work of David Livingstone.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I certainly recommend such work, as I recommend anyone on a visit to Blantyre to see the tribute we pay to David Livingstone.
Forty-six per cent. of Scots know someone who has been to Malawi, supported someone living and learning in Malawi, or donated to charities supporting good work in Malawi. I pay tribute to all those Scots who have played a part and I ask more to do so.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned education. Rosshall Academy and St Marnock’s Primary School in my constituency are partnered with schools in Malawi. Does he agree that two-way communication ensures that generations of young Scots become good global citizens?
I certainly pay that tribute to education, and I will come on to it, as many schools in my area are involved.
I will say a word about the Scotland Malawi Partnership, which exists to co-ordinate, support and represent the huge number of civic links that Scotland has with Malawi. It is a small charity working independently, but it is changing lives. Organisations from across Scotland include half of Scotland’s local authorities, every Scottish university and most of the colleges, as well as more than 100 primary and secondary schools, hundreds of faith groups, hospitals, businesses, charities, NGOs and, more widely, several grassroots community-based organisations.
My hon. Friend makes great mention of the level and depth of support in Scotland for Malawi, in particular for its development. Will he take particular note of the Mary’s Meals charity, which supports 320,000 children by ensuring that they have at least one nutritious meal a day as part of their education? That is a vital component of ensuring a resilient education system in Malawi.
I certainly welcome Mary’s Meals. My hon. Friend is right in what he was saying. It is a charity from Scotland, and the work we do in Scotland through such groups is absolutely fantastic for our nation. I urge as many people as possible to join the Scotland Malawi Partnership and attend the 2017 annual general meeting on Saturday 30 September.
I pay tribute to my Labour colleague, the noble Lord Jack McConnell, who inspired the signing of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, and to the Scottish Government for their work in this area. Labour has a proud record of international work, support and investment. We did so much to help the poorest in our world, to support small businesses, to encourage and defend the rights of women and girls and, importantly, to deliver on the values of never walking by on the other side.
The days of Lady Penelope and Parker are over; this is about equality, solidarity and decency. My constituency has a proud and active number of residents building strong links with Malawi. We talked earlier about education, and in my constituency we have schools such as Coatbridge High School, St Mary’s Primary School and St Michael’s Primary School twinning with schools in Malawi, allowing our young people to share ideas, experiences and ambitions. That is at the foundation of building a better world for us all, no matter where we stay.
It is worth noting that Scotland and Malawi have been drawn in the same group for my favourite sport, netball, at the Commonwealth games next April. I am hopeful that our long-standing friendship will withstand the result of the game, which I am quite sure will be a Scottish victory.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing it.
I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr Chope, because I appreciate that I came late to the Chamber. I was detained in a Select Committee, so my apologies—pepani chomene. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer a few brief reflections on Scotland’s relationship with Malawi, and congratulate—yewo chomene; zikomo kwambiri—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this debate.
I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on St Andrew’s Day 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Scotland-Malawi relationship. In the nearly two years since, the relationship has continued to get stronger. The Scotland Malawi Partnership continues to publish evidence of its impact and outreach in both Scotland and Malawi.
One of the most formative experiences of my life was spending a year working in the north of the country, teaching in St Peter’s secondary school in the wonderful city of Mzuzu. I made many tremendous friends, who have stayed with me for life, and had a huge number of valuable experiences interacting with the young people and seeing how daily life pans out for people in some of the most difficult circumstances in the world.
I echo the points made about the value of the relationship in both directions. We in Scotland and the United Kingdom have just as much opportunity to learn from our friends, colleagues and communities in Malawi as they have to learn from our different experiences here in the UK.
There has been a lot of mention of constituency links. In my own constituency, a number of different projects and schools have connections and partnerships. I would particularly highlight the University of Glasgow’s Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology, which is running the Blantyre-Blantyre project. It is funded by the Scottish Government and a number of other funders to study life expectancy and different health interventions in Blantyre, Malawi and Blantyre, Scotland, and to share the learning experiences and the lessons from both those communities.
The hon. Gentleman highlights some of the projects in his constituency, including education projects. South Morningside, Bruntsfield and Gilmerton primaries in my constituency have direct links with primary schools in Malawi. Will he reflect on the fact that that might be why this partnership has grown, flourished and endured for so long—that younger people are involved and they take that through the rest of their lives?
That is absolutely correct. It is more than 10 years ago now that I spent time living there, although I do not know that I would have counted as a young person even when I was there. In my 2015 debate, I said that it would be a fascinating job of work to fund research that tracks the experiences. I say that to the Minister again today. Many of the partnerships and school visits took place when the children were quite young, in secondary school. They will now be well into their careers. We should track the impact that that has had, as well as the impact on their counterparts in Malawi, so that we can start to quantify and see how we can continue to build on it.
I am conscious of the time.
We need to make sure that there is support for the institutions of Government. I would reiterate the points made about visas, so that we can show that we are genuinely welcoming. People who are sponsored and supported by organisations in Scotland, very often with Government money, are able to come here, take part in those visits and feel the benefits, and the communities they visit are able to feel the benefits.
Likewise, there is a need to get the tax treaty correct. The way that we will ultimately help Malawi and countries across sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world is when they are able to mobilise their own resources and invest in their own infrastructure. That means they have to have tax treaties and financial institutions and structures fit for the 21st century.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Chope. I congratulate all the speakers and look forward to the Minister’s reply. Zikomo kwambiri.
It is good to see you in your position, Mr Chope, and it is a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate.
We have heard today that the links between Scotland and Malawi go back more than 150 years. They are built on a sense of dignified partnership and civil engagement. It is a relationship of mutual understanding and respect. The friendship between Scots and Malawians began, as we have heard, in the late 1850s, with a warm welcome extended to abolitionist and missionary David Livingstone and his companions when they entered what is now Malawi for the first time. The Scotland-Malawi relationship is arguably one of the world’s strongest north-south people-to-people links. It is defined by respect for a two-way partnership, rather than simply a one-way charity. As we have heard, almost 100,000 Scots are actively involved in links with Malawi, and almost double that number of Malawians are actively involved in links with Scotland. In fact, almost half of all Scots personally now know someone involved in a link with Malawi. That is an incredible achievement, is it not?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, the partnership succeeds in mobilising energy from across all sections of Scottish civil society, with hundreds of Scottish schools, churches, community groups, universities, businesses and hospitals actively involved.
My hon. Friend mentioned the links that schools have made. Is he aware of the Glasgow-Malawi Leaders of Learning programme that Maureen McKenna, the director of education in Glasgow, has piloted? It has taken 35 staff from Glasgow since 2012 over to Malawi and fostered really great links between Malawi and Glasgow.
I am aware of it. It is just one of many examples of the partnership between Scotland and Malawi and how it continues to grow. I certainly will touch on a couple more examples.
To give one example in my constituency, Dundee University medical school is partnered with the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine and Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, providing outstanding opportunities for final-year Dundee medical students though placements at partner institutions in Malawi. Those placements are used to help to develop medical and educational infrastructure in Malawi by supporting staffing and staff development.
A further example is the twinning project between Westgate health centre in Dundee and Matawale clinic in Zomba. They maintain two-way communication between Dundee and Malawi via internet access at the clinic. They also provide locally sourced equipment for the clinic, and local Dundee artists display their paintings for sale in the waiting room, with 25% of the purchase price then donated to the project.
We have heard a lot in this debate about the constituency and school links. In my constituency, St Margaret’s High School has set up an orphanage. It has improved attendance and attainment at its partner school, Chisitu. New Monkland Primary School, Clarkston Primary School and St Dominic’s nursery are also all doing great work. Does my hon. Friend agree that the work done on fostering those links from an early age is so important for both countries and needs to continue?
I absolutely agree. It is also about understanding people from different parts of the world, and the exchange, the cultural relationship and the building of bonds.
I would like to turn my attention to the 1955 UK-Malawi double taxation treaty. I echo the comments and concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East and other colleagues who urged the Government to update that treaty. It is without doubt a completely unfair and outdated treaty. It is so outdated, in fact, that it cannot cover not only digital and IT services but televisions, which go back to before my date of birth. We know that both Governments have committed to updating the treaty. However, in the last Parliament UK Ministers repeatedly stated that it would be imminently finalised, and a final deadline of July 2017 was stated and once again missed. I do not know about your thoughts on this, Mr Chope, but to me, “imminently” means immediately. Here we are, with something so simple still to resolve. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments shortly.
I would also like to draw the Minister’s attention to the issue of UK visas, which we have heard about today. Malawians regularly report that getting a visa for the UK is almost impossible because they are faced with endless bureaucracy, failing systems and non-existent customer service, and they can only ever speak with private businesses contracted to work for the UK Government. The failures of that system, week in, week out, have the potential to undermine not only the 150-year-old Scotland-Malawi friendship but the UK Government’s own development, diplomatic and trade interests in Africa. I therefore urge the Minister today to support a full public review of the UK Government’s visa-issuing processes for those invited to the UK as part of our credible, long-standing civic links.
On a lighter note—I will finish on this—I believe that this debate has captured and celebrated the scale, energy and impact of the bilateral relationship between Scotland and Malawi. The relationship is stronger and more engaging today than ever before and represents the best of Scottish internationalism. For the reasons I have stated, Scotland can rightly be proud of the distinctive and effective approach it has taken over the last 150 years to international development, and I am sure that all in the Chamber would agree that they wish this partnership to not only endure but strengthen for many years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who has summed up the issues succinctly. It is my pleasure also to speak for the Opposition in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing this important debate.
The relationship between Scotland and Malawi, as most contributors have said, is rooted deep in history, going back more than 150 years to the work of Dr David Livingstone. In addition to the historical nature of the relationship, the Scottish Government justified their decision to focus effort on Malawi on the basis of developmental need. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries and ranked 170th out of 176 countries in the human development index, which includes such factors as income, education and health achievements.
Today it was my pleasure to speak to Lord Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale, who, as the then First Minster of Scotland, signed off the Scottish international development programme. He emphasised to me the cross-party nature of