Tuesday 17 October 2017
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Healthcare in Oxfordshire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of healthcare in Oxfordshire.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. May I, at the outset, thank colleagues from both sides of the House for attending and the Minister for replying? I have deliberately left the wording of the motion quite open, because I want all colleagues to have the chance to set on the record any of their thoughts about the future of healthcare in Oxfordshire.
This is a multifaceted, complex topic. I will of course concentrate on west Oxfordshire and hope I will be forgiven for doing so. We all have particular concerns, and this topic perhaps matters to our constituents more than any other. I would like to broadly separate the debate into the following sections. I will review what was done within the first phase of the sustainability and transformation plan process, how it was handled, the split of the consultation into two phases, how the public were involved in the matter and the outcomes. I will then look forward to phase 2, the proposed changes that have been included and how the clinical commissioning group can work better with the public and all stakeholders throughout the process. I will explore ways in which we can move forward and give Members the chance to raise specific concerns from their constituencies. I will review the past, but for the sake of learning for the future.
Horton General Hospital is unique in that it serves not only Oxfordshire but Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and even Gloucestershire. I was very concerned about the lack of engagement by Oxfordshire CCG with relevant stakeholders in Warwickshire in phase 1 of its consultation. There was very little communication between the Oxfordshire and South Warwickshire CCGs, despite the fact that there is obviously a knock-on effect on Warwick Hospital. Why was there not greater communication? Colleagues have raised that repeatedly, but with few outcomes.
That intervention precisely illustrates the point I will make in the course of this small speech about a lack of public consultation. That is most marked in the areas we will be talking about—in my case, Witney in west Oxfordshire, and in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), Banbury and the Horton. The point is that the issues surrounding the Horton go far further than Banbury; they relate to Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and the north of west Oxfordshire. The lack of engagement is perhaps the main theme of my speech, so I am grateful for that intervention.
I will start by talking about Deer Park surgery. I was elected just under a year ago today, when I faced an unfolding local press crisis. There was a lot of press attention and, understandably, an extremely distressed patient group centred around the closure of its much-loved practice, Deer Park medical centre. To give a short history, the practice was run by Virgin Care. The contract ended and was retendered, and Oxfordshire CCG health bosses received a bid from Virgin that, in their view, did not meet the requirements they were looking for, so they decided to close this small but very well-performing and popular surgery that provided an outstanding and much-needed service for Witney and its immediate surroundings.
The real kicker was that there was no real or meaningful consultation with the people of Witney before that took place. There was little discussion with the district or county councils as to how they may be able move things forward or help or to discuss the building that was coming down the line, nor with patient groups, who might have been able to suggest a way forward. The patients and elected representatives were simply told that it was happening. I met the CCG, Virgin and the patient groups many times, including here in Parliament, but the CCG was resolute: it had decided that the practice would close. Its view was that the lower level of service offered in the tender was not sufficient and that it could not justify spending that money on the surgery, even though the significant growth, to the tune of thousands of houses that we know Witney will have in the years to come, means that the need for the practice is not only present now but will remain so in the future.
The decision to close the practice led to legal action by a patient, funded by legal aid, to keep it open. After sustained campaigning by myself, the patient group and local councillors, the Oxfordshire joint health overview and scrutiny committee voted that making that change without consulting was a substantial change in service, which—I hope I am not going beyond my remit in saying this—it clearly was.
The matter was referred to the Secretary of State for Health, who referred it to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. That was the first time a primary care decision had been referred to that level—the highest possible level. Ultimately, the IRP ruled that the CCG did not have to reopen the practice, but it did provide specific strictures about the way the decision had been handled and about consultation. It specified that the CCG needed to improve the way that it engaged and further to consider Witney’s healthcare needs.
I hope everybody will forgive me if I quote a short chunk of the IRP report that is pertinent to my point:
“The CCG should immediately commission a time limited project to develop a comprehensive plan for primary care and related services in Witney and its surrounds. At the heart of this must be the engagement of the public and patients in assessing current and future health needs, understanding what the options are for meeting their needs and co-producing the solutions. This work should seek to produce a strategic vision for future primary care provision in line with national and regional aims and should not preclude the possibility of providing services from the Deer Park Medical Centre in the future.”
It is quite clear from that report that the CCG requires a separate project to assess the primary healthcare needs of Witney. Its immediate surrounding areas are included, but that wider reading should not include the entirety of west Oxfordshire, which would enable the CCG to—as it seems to wish—simply wrap this piece of work into the wider STP work it is carrying out in any event.
The IRP is clear that the CCG is required to produce a specific, specially focused piece of work on Witney and its primary care needs. That is what the people of Witney should have. That should include a consideration of the impact upon projected housing growth in and around the town and a roadmap for primary care, covering what will be provided, by whom and at what place. Above all, the people of Witney should be presented with a range of options and scenarios, because if there is only one, there is no consultation. The CCG’s approach is a little bit like Henry Ford saying to the customer, “You can have whatever colour car you like, provided it’s a black one.”
I opened with that story and took some time over it because it is a microcosm of the problems that west Oxfordshire is facing with its CCG, and I suspect—we will hear from them in due course—that other Members in Oxfordshire feel the same. Oxfordshire has been facing a systemic issue with its CCG. The public have not been fully consulted and engaged in a dialogue about the overall picture of the future of healthcare in Oxfordshire any more than they were over the future of Deer Park medical centre.
The CCG is embarking on a consultation regarding primary care in Oxfordshire over the next month, and I am sure all colleagues will join me in engaging with that process, but there are lessons to be learned from Deer Park. I focus on it today because I want those lessons to be learned, and I am keen that we look at how we can avoid this happening again, rather than simply look back and dwell on the mistakes of the past.
Let me be quite clear: I am not a doctor. I do not presume to tell doctors, healthcare professionals or those who commission them how to do their job. I am one of those who feel that, by and large, the profession should be left in peace to do what they do best and to practise their job. However, I expect the people of Witney to be consulted at all times. I expect their voice to be heard and listened to, and for their needs to be met.
The impression should not be gained that I am against any change. I accept that healthcare professionals must allocate their resources in the most efficient way to ensure the best treatment for patients. I might not disagree with changes being made per se, if there was a clinical need, they worked well with other healthcare provision in the area and they were in the interests of the people of Witney and west Oxfordshire, including when we consider the challenges of the future, particularly in respect of housing. I might not be against what is suggested, but if there is to be change, the public and local stakeholders must be fully informed and involved in decision making at the earliest opportunity. The local community must not be surprised by changes being sprung on them. They must be aware of how any proposed changes will affect them and why those changes, in the CCG’s view, need to be made. If the changes are indeed for the better, the sensible, reasonable people of Witney and west Oxfordshire will support them, provided that they are properly explained.
I shall move on to the far wider issue of the STP process across west Oxfordshire. As I said, I do not necessarily disagree with decisions that are made from a clinical perspective. I might or might not agree with decisions, although let me be clear that I do disagree with some of the decisions that have been made. However, what always concerns me in every case is the way in which they are handled.
I have made my response to phase 1 of the STP publicly available—it is on my website—and it clearly outlines my concerns. I will not go through it all in detail now, but I will go through the headlines. The first is “Process”. I do not feel that the STP should ever have been split into two phases, and I made that abundantly clear to the CCG at the time. It is a simple headline point. How can we assess Oxfordshire’s healthcare needs when we hive off the decisions for the Horton, which have an impact on Chipping Norton, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, and then say that there are some other decisions that are linked inextricably to the first section that we will look at at some future point—a date that keeps going further back into next year? The whole point of the STP process is to look at healthcare needs in the round, not piecemeal, with penny-packet decisions made earlier, making that process impossible. As I have said, the CCG has a duty to the public to provide multiple viable solutions to enable true choice and real consultation.
I shall give an example of how local communities have not been involved. The projected ambulance times from the Horton or Chipping Norton to the John Radcliffe Hospital are simply improbable. Indeed, the journey times are wildly optimistic. There is an over-reliance on Google Maps. Anyone who lives locally in Chipping Norton or Banbury can tell us how long it actually takes to get from either of those towns to the John Radcliffe in traffic, because they do that journey all the time. There is a serious lack of indication of any involvement with South Central Ambulance Service, and they are the people who will be taking heavily pregnant mothers in the late stages of labour from north Oxfordshire or the north of west Oxfordshire to the John Radcliffe. The decision permanently to downgrade maternity services at the Horton, which was made by the CCG board in August, has been unanimously referred by the health overview and scrutiny committee to the Secretary of State, alongside the judicial review appeal that we know about. I go no further at this stage than to say that that indicates a seriously flawed decision-making process.
I make it clear at this stage that for those who live in the north of my constituency, around Chipping Norton, the downgrade of the Horton is greeted with utter dismay. It is important to understand why. Chipping Norton is rural. It is one of the highest places in Oxfordshire; it is one of the few places that still gets snow in winter—people do not get it anywhere else, but they do in Chipping Norton. A journey to Oxford takes, with traffic, the best part of an hour, or more if someone is in one of the outlying villages. I made it clear in the baby loss debate last week that I fear the consequences of an absence of proper obstetric services in the north of Oxfordshire, even more so if the Horton midwife-led unit does not have a standby ambulance. Those proposals are simply not safe, and the deeply moving baby loss debate reminded us last week, if we ever needed reminding, of the consequences of getting this wrong.
For the same reasons, the services at Chipping Norton hospital itself must be safeguarded. Chipping Norton is seeing significant development and needs its own NHS services, which are based in a new building alongside a superb GP medical centre. Perhaps the best example of the mess caused by the split consultation is the confusing reference to the possible closure of the Chipping Norton MLU in phase 1, which purports to deal only with the Horton. How on earth can we say, “We’ll have as a possible solution in phase 1 the possible closure of Chipping Norton; oh, but we won’t make any decisions about Chipping Norton until we come to phase 2”—which will be at some stage in the future—when that clearly impacts on the Horton? How can we decide what is right at the Horton unless we know what there will be at Chipping Norton? It is the same point again. We cannot decide on the future of Oxfordshire’s services unless we look at them as a whole. They ought not to be hived off piecemeal.
Let us look ahead to phase 2. I hope that it is clear from the points I have made that the consultation around phase 1 was inadequate. I stress again that I am not a doctor. If the decisions are in the interest of public safety, I of course appreciate their importance.
My constituents in Oxford West and Abingdon will be heartened by the hon. Gentleman’s speech so far. The points have been extremely well made and the nail has been hit on the head about the lack of proper engagement. As he probably knows, Abingdon Community Hospital is part of phase 2, and there is a real risk that beds will be removed from the hospital without the meaningful engagement about which he so eloquently speaks. Does he agree that the approach is not just flawed because it misses out that local knowledge, but erodes public trust in the democratic process?
The hon. Lady foreshadows remarks that I will make in due course, because the issues that relate to Abingdon and Witney are linked. It is absolutely right to say that the approach erodes trust in the decision-making process and even in the democratic process. One has to have the support and understanding of the people in the communities that one is serving. That is just as true in Oxford West and Abingdon as it is in Witney and west Oxfordshire. I am very grateful for that intervention, which encapsulates precisely the point that I am making. I am interested to hear that the same things are occurring in Oxford West and Abingdon.
I stress yet again that I am not a doctor and am not seeking to tell healthcare professionals how to do their job, but as the hon. Lady’s intervention shows, all of us expect there to be proper engagement and the support of the public. I suggest that the past year and a half has been littered with mistakes and characterised by rushed and lazy consultation or no consultation at all. Now we are looking at phase 2, which is not just about the relatively isolated issue, however important, of the Horton and Chipping Norton, but about the entirety of Oxfordshire’s healthcare.
I understand that we are looking to go to full public consultation in summer 2018, with the final decisions to be made towards the end of 2018. At least, that is the case that the CCG makes; my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury may have comments about it in due course. We understand that the plan is to enhance certain regional community hospitals so that they can handle much more in house and become locality hubs, ensuring that fewer patients have to make the long journey along the A40 or the A34 to the John Radcliffe in the centre of Oxford. The aim is people being treated closer to home. That is, in itself, a laudable, sensible, clinically wise decision. It is an aim that we all have. No one wants to trek into Oxford if they can be treated in Witney, Abingdon or Chipping Norton. We are told that there will also be neighbourhood hubs, providing a centre for district nurses, general practitioners and physiotherapists.
The proposals already, at this early stage—we do not have the full proposals yet—suggest that although there is the promise of joined-up thinking and a structure for facilities, further points have not yet been fully considered. We have seen the re-emergence of some of the same issues that bedevilled Deer Park. I am talking about stroke beds at Witney Community Hospital. I hate to say it, but the CCG does not appear to have listened to the lessons that were learned in the first phase and with regard to Deer Park. We are seeing the same thing: specific issues are hived off from the wider STP process and forced through on their own, without consultation. The wider changes are meant to be considered in the round, looked at in conjunction with other facilities, with due regard to population growth. That is the whole point of an STP. We should not be seeing this balkanisation of the STP process so that within west Oxfordshire, decisions are taken outside the STP process and without the full consultation that is required.
For example, stroke beds, of which there are currently 10 each in Witney Community Hospital and Abingdon Community Hospital, will all be moved to Abingdon in November, which is only a few weeks away. The CCG’s case is that this will increase patient safety, as staff will not be spread across two sites. Again, I do not pretend to be a doctor, a healthcare professional or a clinical expert. There may be a case for that, but there are worrying signs already that it has not been thought through. For example, physiotherapy facilities have been retendered and awarded to Healthshare, which is moving into the former Deer Park medical centre in Witney. The flaw is that stroke patients needing rehab physio will now be 10 miles away in Abingdon, rather than those services being together. That also seems not to take account of the human aspects of rehabilitation: it is important to see friends and family.
I am grateful for that intervention, which is the mirror image of the point that I am making about Witney. The hon. Lady and I face exactly the same problem, but from other ends of the same road. We have the A40, the A34 and the roads inside and around Oxford. Whichever direction a patient is going in it is not a happy prospect for them, whether they originate in west Oxfordshire or in Oxford West and Abingdon.
Again, my point is that this has not been consulted on in any meaningful sense. It has been sprung upon the public when everybody understood, until now, that the future of the wider services would be considered in the round as part of phase 2 of the STP. Suddenly, these proposals were made public at the county council’s joint health overview and scrutiny committee meeting in September, only a matter of weeks ago.
The devil lies in the detail, as always. When we consider what we do not yet know, it becomes clear why it is so important to have a consultation. I would like to see, for example, a map showing where stroke patients come from—where the preponderance of those treated at Witney or Abingdon happen to be, so that we know where they can best be treated. That is not something the public have seen. We should know whether the Witney catchment area includes just the town, or whether it includes west Oxfordshire or Chipping Norton to the north of it. What will the interplay be between Witney hospital and the physiotherapy that is to be just down the road at Deer Park? What hours of care are being delivered now, and what is proposed for the future?
There may or may not be force to those points. We simply do not know. Once again, without a comparison of the status quo and the proposed changes, it is impossible to know whether what is being proposed is a downgrade to, and a reduction in, the services provided. That is the whole point of scrutiny. That is the whole point of consultation. That is not what we are seeing in Witney and west Oxfordshire at present. All this comes just a couple of months before the changes are due to come into effect, with no consultation in any meaningful sense, over a very compacted time period. It simply is not good enough for the people of Witney and west Oxfordshire.
The public can hardly be blamed if they wonder what the future of their hospital in Witney is, whether a ward is going to close or whether the hospital itself is in danger of closing—whether this is the beginning of a death by a thousand cuts, where Witney hospital becomes less and less viable as specialisms are removed from it. The ball is firmly in the CCG’s court. The public need to be reassured loudly and clearly by the CCG that no beds are closing. They need to be reassured that the loss of a specialism is not the beginning of a death by a thousand cuts, where the hospital is downgraded to the point at which it becomes unviable. They need to be reassured that a new specialism for the beds will be proposed, so that Witney hospital can look forward to a bright future in which it receives more services through phase 2, perhaps becoming a locality hub, building on the excellent, innovative emergency multidisciplinary unit that is already in place.
Of course, the CCG’s response will be that that work has not yet been done, but that just is not good enough. Why are we hearing the proposals now if some of the work that is still to be done lies a year in the future? At best, this is a situation that could result in exemplary healthcare services, structured to face the pressures on healthcare of a modern town, and the public are only seeing the negatives. At worst, something is being hidden. We need clarity. This is not about cuts or a lack of funding. This is about a failure to communicate with the public about what is happening to their treasured services. The future of Witney Community Hospital is paramount, and I look forward to the CCG making a statement that makes its bold and bright future clear very soon.
Hon. Members will be glad to know, I am sure, that I am coming to the end. I am very grateful to the Minister, to you, Sir Roger, and to all hon. Members for having listened to my rather wide-ranging speech. I have focused on Witney, with regard to Deer Park and the community hospitals, because those happened to be live issues recently, but the same issues apply to Chipping Norton hospital, which was a particularly live issue six months ago and I know will become an issue again in the future.
We have a CCG that does not seem to understand the duty—it is a duty—to involve the public in its decision making. That does not mean it necessarily has to bend to the will of what people say. It is entitled to come up with proposals itself, but it does have a duty to explain them and to explain why it feels that what it is proposing is in the interests of the people that it serves. It cannot just explain the decisions that it has already made, without explaining what is coming up on the horizon.
The fact that there have been three referrals by the HOSC to the Secretary of State in a year—over Deer Park, the temporary closure of maternity services at Horton and the permanent closure of full maternity and obstetric services at Horton—and multiple judicial reviews by the public, local councils and NHS groups, shows that there is a real danger, if it has not already happened, of a breakdown in relationships. That needs to be fixed, as the whole structure of decision making around healthcare in Oxfordshire is being called into question. I hope that this situation is unique to Oxfordshire and is not systemic across the whole country, but in any event, what has been happening over the last year is no way to construct the future of Oxfordshire’s healthcare.
I finish by saying that I and everybody here would like a constructive relationship with the CCG. That can be achieved, and it will be achieved when the CCG takes a look at the health services of Oxfordshire in the round; when it works in partnership with the county and district councils and the patient groups, which have so much to offer; and, above all, when the public and their representatives alike are properly consulted and not simply told of decisions. I know we can get to that stage and I very much look forward to doing so in the months ahead.
Mr Howell has indicated to me very courteously that as one of Her Majesty’s trade ambassadors he has an unavoidable commitment. I know that the Opposition and Government Front Benchers will understand that he will therefore not be able to be present for their winding-up speeches, but he has undertaken to read them in Hansard.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I do apologise that I have to go to meet the Minister of Agriculture from Nigeria. He is here at my own invitation, so I can hardly be absent from the meeting.
Let me say straightaway that I chair a group of Oxfordshire MPs who meet approximately every six weeks to discuss their relationship with the CCG. The meetings were started in order to discuss delayed discharges of care, and I have to say, from the last meeting that we had, they are going very well. Oxfordshire had the difficulty that it was one of the worst performers in delayed discharges, but is now coming back to being one of the best. I have been outside the STP process because my area was handled separately in advance. Townlands Hospital in Henley needed a multi-million pound investment before the STP process started, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) that the process of consultation that was started by the CCG left a lot to be desired. As a former professional in the area of consultation, I looked with some disdain at what was taking place, but I appreciate that the CCG had a particular difficulty in seeing the hospital as Henley’s or south Oxfordshire’s, which they deliberately intended it to become. In the villages outside Henley that make up the largest proportion of people in south Oxfordshire, there was enormous support for the proposals. It was only in Henley that people took the opportunity to complain about the lack of beds.
Let me turn to the lack of beds. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney spoke about treating people in hospitals close to them. I fully agree with that, but a better model would be to treat them in their own homes. That healthcare system is called ambulatory care. I have spoken about that in this Chamber at length, so I will not repeat all of what I have said before. Ambulatory care requires a full integration of social care activities and medical activities in an area, because it turns the hospital into an extremely efficient medical campus-type facility, with very few people needing to stay in overnight.
In fact, if people stay in overnight, the effects on them are quite horrendous. Anyone over the age of 60 who stays in for four or five days is immediately incontinent. Without wishing to comment on people’s ages, some of us in the Chamber would look at that with great horror. If people stay in for a lot longer than that, other bad effects come from that.
When the consultation took place, there was a tremendous amount of antagonism about the beds being put—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is making a powerful, constructive contribution to the debate, would not want to give colleagues the impression that of necessity, someone over the age of 60 would become incontinent if they spent four nights in a hospital. I think he is trying to suggest that there is a greater risk of adverse effects the longer one stays in hospital.
I thank the Minister for that point; I was not suggesting that it was an inevitability. However, at this stage let me extend an invitation to him to visit the hospital so he can see how it works and how it has integrated social care with the medical activities there. It is based around a RACU—a rapid access care unit—which is similar to the EMU—emergency multidisciplinary unit—in Abingdon that is being proposed elsewhere. As I said, it turns the hospital into a diagnostics hospital, similar to a hospital developed in Welwyn Garden City that I went to see.
I saw the difficulty for the CCG with regard to its consultation when I went to a SELF—a South East Locality Forum—meeting. People from Henley were sitting around the table with big beaming smiles on their faces saying how wonderful the hospital was, and a member of the CCG had to stop them and say, “Well, it is a pity you didn’t say that when we were developing the hospital. Right to the end of the consultation you were attacking us on this and on taking the beds out and putting them in a care home at the side of the hospital. That is working very well and now you say that it is absolutely wonderful.” The fact is that, apart from some minor snags with the new hospital, it is a fantastic new investment by the Department of Health. It shows the way a community hospital should be developed not just in Oxfordshire but across the country. I repeat my invitation to the Minister to come and visit.
The great thing about the hospital was not the consultation initiated by the CCG but the support that I got from the Royal College of Physicians, which came out very strongly in favour of an ambulatory healthcare model and very favourably in support of the hospital. That is an interesting point, which goes back to my comments in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney about the lack of consultation experience on the part of the CCG. That organisation is willing to learn, and I hope that it will. I also hope that we, as MPs who meet it from time to time, will be able to keep up our pressure on it to deliver the sort of services that we feel our constituents want.
On the point about learning, the Oxfordshire clinical commissioning group has only one district council from Warwickshire—Stratford-on-Avon District Council—on its board. In phase 1 of the consultation, which began in January, it only met the council in March; the council’s overview and scrutiny committee had requested a much earlier meeting. Should that not be part of the learning process?
I fully agree that it should be. As I said, I am not here to defend how the CCG does its consultation. If I had the chance, I would make many changes to the consultation, and including others on the list of people who will be consulted as part of the decision-making process would be an important part of that.
I think I have probably said enough both to support my hon. Friend the Member for Witney and to make the point that it is possible to get through even a bad consultation by a CCG and get a fantastic hospital—ours is doing a brilliant job for all the constituents of south Oxfordshire, not just for one town.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this important debate. He spoke with verve and passion; in fact, throughout his speech I was grateful that I was never prosecuted by him when he was at the Bar, because I would not have stood a chance. He made his points cogently and those were ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). I, too, am a trade envoy—I missed a trick in not informing you of that before the debate, Sir Roger—but I wish my hon. Friend luck with his forthcoming meeting, and I quite understand why he cannot stay for the entire debate.
Let me speak briefly, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) also wants to speak and she is particularly passionate about this subject. I fully support the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney made about the consultation process, which has been, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty tortuous. That has not been helped by the fact that the chief executive and the chairman of the clinical commissioning group both left in the summer, although this gives me an opportunity to congratulate the new chairman, Kiren Collison, who has just been elected on a 97% turnout of GPs in Oxfordshire.
There is clearly great passion for health services in our county—an affluent county that is capable of providing very good services to the people here. But we are getting older, and over the next few years, the population of people aged over 85 will rise by almost 100% and the population of those aged over 60 will increase by 58,000. We are also getting more houses, which are much needed, but that also means that the population as a whole will rise from its current 700,000 to almost 900,000 in the next decade or so. There are great pressures on our local health service, and it has not been helped by this consultation period.
Let me highlight three issues in my constituency, starting with Wantage Community Hospital, a much loved local amenity, which previously had maternity services, with about 60 births a year. I regularly bump into people in Wantage who were born there—many of my constituents were. The hospital was closed in April 2016 because legionella kept being found in the pipe system. Some 4,000 people signed a petition asking simply for the physiotherapy and maternity services to remain open. As I said, there is huge support and there have been great demonstrations in favour of it.
The process that has followed has been appalling. The consultation was due to start in October 2016, but as my hon. Friends know, the clinical commissioning group split the consultation into two phases, with the first covering acute hospitals and the second covering community hospitals. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury might comment on that strange way of going about a consultation. In any event, the first consultation did not take place until January 2017, three months late. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) pointed out, community hospitals are not covered in that phase.
In addition, we have now lost our physiotherapy services. They were retendered, and Healthshare won the tender, but it informed my local newspaper that it would not provide physiotherapy services in Wantage as it otherwise would have done, because it was not offered the opportunity. The only service that the hospital can offer is limited maternity care; it has effectively been closed for more than a year, and will have been closed for two years when we get to the phase 2 consultation that might decide its future. That is a completely unacceptable position. I have said again and again to my constituents that I will support anything that provides good healthcare services in Wantage, whether in the community hospital or elsewhere, but at the very least I would like the consultation to start so that my constituents can participate in the discussion.
That leads me to my next point about the pressure on some of my local GP surgeries. For example, Wantage health centre, which could provide some of the services formerly offered by the community hospital—not maternity care, clearly—is home to two practices and is located in a relatively new building on a large site, purpose-built with a view to expansion in future. Its current capacity is 29,000 patients, but over the next 10 years it is likely to reach 45,000.
The landlords, Assura, made a bid to EFTA in March 2016, offering to meet the capital provision and proposing to ask Oxfordshire CCG to meet the additional rent reimbursement. That bid was not successful. I am told that Assura is still committed to investing in the building and that any capital provided by the NHS will be offset by reduced rent, but it needs reassurance that the NHS wants to progress the project; otherwise, it will have to consider alternative uses for the land. The current rent reimbursement is around £350,000, and would rise to around £550,000 with the increase in capacity.
The trouble is that Oxfordshire CCG has not engaged in any imaginative approach to the conundrum that the building is owned by a private landlord—albeit one that is a specialist healthcare provider—meaning that it would incur a revenue cost to the NHS rather than a capital cost. However, at least some sense that a creative discussion is taking place is needed, and I am afraid that there is none.
The White Horse medical practice in Faringdon also has problems. It is two practices merged in one large building, but the internal configuration is far from ideal: for example, it has two waiting rooms. The practice put in a bid for £375,000 to enable internal alterations that would provide five much-needed extra consulting rooms. It received funding for the plans to be drawn up and costed, but was unsuccessful in the final bid, and the CCG has no funding for this project. I do not necessarily lay the blame at the CCG’s door, but it is intensely depressing that relatively small sums of capital that would make a tremendous difference seem to be completely unavailable.
Finally, the Elm Tree surgery in Shrivenham faces issues as well. It is managed by a different CCG in Swindon. The trouble is that because Swindon is mainly an urban area, the CCG has drawn up plans that are perfectly sensible for urban areas, whereas the Elm Tree surgery is a rural practice with completely different needs. Inappropriate decisions have been taken, such as about payments and the surgery’s relationship with care homes. I have met GPs from the Elm Tree surgery and written to Swindon CCG to highlight the problem, but although I have requested a meeting, Swindon CCG has refused, which I find slightly disheartening.
I conclude by echoing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who opened this excellent debate. The whole consultation process has been completely unacceptable. All of us recognise the pressures on the local health authorities and the pressures from a changing population; all that my constituents ask for is a reasonable, open and transparent conversation about the services that they need in their towns and communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I made my first speech about the Horton General Hospital when I was seven. I apologise that many people in this Chamber will have heard it before, but I do not know that you have had that pleasure, so with your permission, I will carry on.
Let us remember what we are talking about. The Horton is not a community hospital. It has been a pleasure to listen to colleagues talk about their community hospitals; we have heard about Wantage and Abingdon, and one rarely meets my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) without hearing him mention the Townlands, of which he is very proud. I love community hospitals too; my mother helped run Brackley Cottage Hospital for most of my childhood and until recently, and I think that the marvellous hospital in Bicester still has untapped potential. However, the Horton General Hospital, which I will talk about, is quite different.
The Horton has hundreds of beds and treats about 39,000 people in accident and emergency every year—nearly one third of Oxfordshire’s A&E attendances. What happens at the Horton affects all my colleagues, due to the knock-on effects of closure. Our surgeons are among the top five in the UK for neck and femur operations. It is not a community hospital; it is a fully functioning, very busy district general.
We feel beleaguered. For more than 40 years, the John Radcliffe Hospital has viewed us as a smaller and less academic sibling that can be treated with contempt when staffing is short. In 2008—this is not ancient history; it is nine years ago—the Independent Reconfiguration Panel was asked to consider the last proposed downgrade of paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology and the special care baby unit. It conducted, as I hope it will again, a full five-month review and made five excellent recommendations, which I will read once more.
The first recommendation was:
“The IRP considers that the Horton Hospital has an important role for the future in providing local hospital-based care to people in the north of Oxfordshire and surrounding areas. However, it will need to change to ensure its services remain appropriate, safe and sustainable.”
On the proposed downgrades, it said:
“The IRP does not consider that they will provide an accessible or improved service to the people of north Oxfordshire and surrounding areas.”
Other recommendations were:
“The PCT should carry out further work with the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust to set out the arrangements and investment necessary to retain and develop services at the Horton Hospital. Patients, the public and other stakeholders should be fully involved in this work… The PCT must develop a clear vision for children’s and maternity services within an explicit strategy for services for north Oxfordshire as a whole… The ORH must do more to develop clinically integrated practice across the Horton, John Radcliffe and Churchill sites as well as developing wider clinical networks with other hospitals, primary care and the independent sector.”
I am afraid that none of that happened. The recommendations were made nine years ago, but none of them were followed. The only things that changed were that the traffic got worse and the population of the area grew. Our district council, I am proud to say, tops the leader board for house building.
Less than 10 years later, we now have no obstetrics or SCBU. They went in the blink of an eye, without any real attempt to address recruitment issues or work with us to do so, although we offered and offered. Locally, we remain deeply unhappy and frightened. Patients in the later stages of labour are travelling for up to two hours, and emergency gynaecological operations take place in a portakabin in the Radcliffe car park. We have heard stories locally—in fact, they are all people talk about—of babies born in lay-bys and in the back of ambulances. The data that show statistics of complete births—defined by when the placenta has been delivered—tell a different story; they do not register the reality of people’s experience.
I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) said about Google Maps. Locally, the impression is that the CCG and the trust massage the figures and use them when it suits their argument. I conducted a travel survey of nearly 400 people on their real-life experiences of how long it takes to get from our area to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Sadly, those data were not taken on board in any of the CCG’s reports, although the data set was bigger and better than the CCG’s. The CCG provided real data only when we had harangued, pestered and begged it to do so.
I will not go on about how worried I am; I will focus on what we can do to put the situation right. It is true, as all hon. Members have said, that local health providers do not talk to one another. Health Education England’s decision to remove training accreditation for middle-grade obstetricians was the straw that broke the camel’s back for recruitment, yet it remains aloof and makes decisions in a vacuum. Its recent decision to remove accreditation from certain grades of anaesthetists puts all the acute services provided by the Horton at risk. The dean did not communicate that decision to decision makers at the trust or the CCG; I had to tell them at a meeting in August. I do not think that that is an acceptable way to run a healthcare system.
The trust usually tells the CCG what to do. When it does not agree, there is stalemate. The trust, the clinicians and everyone else locally know that the A&E at the Horton cannot possibly be shut, because the knock-on effects on the rest of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties would be catastrophic. The CCG, however, is determined to press ahead with its consultation that suggests otherwise. Owing to this impasse, we have ended up with a split consultation that means nothing to any of us. Patients’ needs appear to be an afterthought. South Central Ambulance Service, which bears the brunt of the transfers, is carried along as a consultee with no voice at the table when decisions are taken.
One of the main complaints is that local health decision makers do not listen to us. Our latest consultation report described the “universal concerns” of more than 10,000 people from my area who responded to our consultation. I cannot overemphasise the strength of local feeling. We all feel the same: all the elected representatives, of whatever party; a great campaigning group, Keep the Horton General; and even the local churches, which are praying for sense in the clinical commissioning group’s decision making. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) laughs, but I am afraid it is impossible to overstate how essential our local hospital is to people in our area. He may think it is funny, but we do not.
At our last meeting, the trust’s chief executive told me that my fears about the Horton were “irrational”, but those fears are shared by the IRP—at least they were nine years ago, and I hope they still are—and by about 170,000 people who are served by the Horton. Rather than try to answer my questions, the chief executive simply dismissed them. I do not think that that is an acceptable way to behave.
We still do not know whether a father can transfer with a labouring mother from the midwife-led unit at the Horton. If not, how on earth is he supposed to get to north Oxford while she gives birth? We still do not know—although I have asked more often than I care to remember—whether the static ambulance will be stationed permanently at the Horton while all this is sorted out. As we have heard from all hon. Members, the CCG and the trust do not communicate with us elected representatives or with the general public, and often not even with each other. It has been left to me to organise public meetings locally. NHS Improvement was absolutely appalled when I showed it the pile of unanswered letters that I had written to the CCG and the trust. Hon. Members beyond the county boundary whose constituents use the Horton are completely overlooked.
Local health services may well be devolved to commissioners and providers, but if this is devolution, Minister, it is not working. The chief executive and the clinical lead of the CCG are leaving before the end of the year. I cannot pretend that I am unhappy about that—I have hardly been uncritical of how the CCG runs its affairs—but I have to say that I am not optimistic that the necessary changes will be made. The new clinical lead, whose appointment was announced yesterday, will be the former maternity lead. Although I will work with her, and I hope very much that she will engage with the issues we face, I am not optimistic. The CCG is hellbent on continuing the split consultation, despite various judicial reviews—I can tell it that there will be more to come, if necessary—and three referrals to the IRP, which presumably will not have changed its mind since nine years ago, particularly given the unprecedented growth in the town. Whoever takes on the CCG job is inheriting a poisoned chalice.
I am not going to give up, and nor are the constituents I represent. After all, I do not think that Banbury elected a bereaved mother with a passion for maternal safety, 20 years’ experience of judicial review and a 15-year background of voluntary work for the trust by accident. In 2008, local GPs were pivotal in the fight to save the Horton, but this time, poor leadership and an ever increasing workload—particularly given the town’s growth—have prevented them from being the vocal force that they once were. However, I have found allies in NHS Improvement, which has been investigating the trust, and in the Care Quality Commission, which can prosecute. I look forward to working further with those allies.
If help with recruitment is the answer, we need the Department to step in. Salary supplements for trainee GPs are really welcome, not just for rural or coastal areas but for market towns that face unprecedented growth. The catchment is predicted to increase from 170,000 to 207,000. We really need obstetricians. The district council has made sensible suggestions for developing and improving the Horton site; I just wish the CCG and the trust would look at them. They were included in the response to the consultation—I also made a very extensive response—but when I mentioned them at the last meeting in August, none of this had registered with the decision makers. I do wonder about the depth and quality of the work they do.
I know that the Horton has a future as a provider of acute services. I am sorry to use the language of war, but I welcome the sight of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney defending my right flank, as he so often does. Ever since he was elected, he has been a real ally and friend in this fight. We in Banbury are most grateful to him for all his work and for securing this debate. I also welcome the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who are both in Cabinet this morning but will be interested in this debate. They both feel as we do about our hospital in Banbury. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) was present earlier; his district council has been a great ally, has brought one of the judicial reviews, and continues to support us—even though, as far as I can tell, it is not consulted about anything by the Oxfordshire CCG. I really feel that we are beleaguered, so it is lovely to see hon. Members appearing like battalions, with patients and GPs in their wake, to support all of us who use the Horton General Hospital.
We are not irrational, but we are passionate. We want a reasoned and evidence-based conversation about the future. We are very, very determined, so I am afraid everyone in this Chamber will have to listen to this speech many, many more times.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing a debate on this important subject. It gives us an opportunity to discuss a subject that I would suggest goes beyond Oxfordshire.
Forgive me if I am not as familiar with the healthcare scene in Oxfordshire as many of the hon. Members who have spoken today, but I have listened closely and what they have described resonates with similar situations across the country. I applaud their commitment and dedication on behalf of their constituents, which, by the sound of things, are quite justifiable. It is clear from what hon. Members have said that the people of Oxfordshire seem to be very unhappy about the proposals, and my research shows me that perhaps they have good reason to be.
The proposed changes will mean less hospital beds; changes to acute stroke services; changes to care at the Horton General Hospital, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) has just explained to us in great detail; changes to critical care; changes to maternity services; and changes to the special baby care services. I gather that there has been lots of vociferous opposition to these proposals on the ground, which has been reflected in hon. Members’ comments today. I understand that local people have said in a petition that they believe these proposed changes will lead to poor services, a cheaper service, overcrowding and long waits. I particularly noted what a local A&E doctor said about the process way back in August:
“This is just awful. Working in A&E is particularly difficult, and has been all year. We often have significant nursing and medical rota gaps, and long waiting times. Despite it being August, every shift has patients on trolleys in the corridor, with the time waiting for a bed over 12 hours…We are not coping”.
I also note that there is a proposal to reduce the number of hospital beds in the first instance by 110 further beds. Clearly, no one is listening to the NHS staff there in Oxfordshire.
Oxford City Council has also expressed its concerns and has quite rightly commented on the lack of a workforce plan. Interestingly, however, it also said that it understands the position that the clinical commissioning group finds itself in. We have heard a lot of criticisms of the CCG this morning and it has obviously been remiss in its consultation process. However, the council says it understands that the CCG is up against national policy.
That point is very important, because what we have heard this morning is not only a problem that affects Oxfordshire. The hon. Member for Witney spoke about his constituency being one of the few that still has snow. My constituency, too, still has snow—lots of it—and we also have in common a great dissatisfaction with the health services that we are receiving, particularly as we look forward, or maybe dread, the introduction of the sustainability and transformation plans.
At this stage, we have a national health service, and the changes that we have heard about this morning are Oxfordshire’s response as part of the STP group that takes into account Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and west Berkshire. The STP ordered by Government is one of the 44 they have ordered. In total, those STPs will look to save the NHS £22 billion and the share of the savings that have to be made by Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and west Berkshire is £480 million. That, I would suggest, is at the root of the changes.
I accept that I could not possibly expect the hon. Lady, coming from Burnley as she does, to have the encyclopaedic knowledge of Oxfordshire health services that, sadly, we Oxfordshire MPs have to, but the changes to the Horton General Hospital apparently stem from recruitment—the inability to recruit obstetricians—and not a lack of money. Indeed, the changes started when the STP was just a twinkle in someone’s eye, so the situation is slightly more nuanced.
I note the hon. Lady’s points, and there is another issue we could talk about. Our NHS has a crisis on three fronts—a funding crisis, a workforce crisis and a systemic crisis—and I think that is what we are looking at today: some of the systemic problems.
Going forward, £480 million has to be saved. This is not something that the CCG has decided to do, and it does not matter how transparent the consultation is—it sounds like it needs to up its game on that—because it still has to make its share of that saving.
As for the national health service, I note with absolute horror that, when it comes to the percentage of GDP that we spend on our NHS, we are well down the league—indeed, we are close to the bottom—compared with nations that we would expect to be up there with. We are behind France, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, New Zealand, Portugal and Japan—I do not have time to list them all, but we are well down the list.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) quite rightly mentioned the issue of beds and how it is not really a bad issue—people ought to receive care at home where possible. I totally support that; the problem is that the cart is being put before the horse. The care, including social care, is not there in the first instance to allow us to reduce hospital beds and provide the excellent care in the community that we all want to see. When it comes to the number of hospital beds per head of population, we are again close to the bottom of the league.
For obvious reasons, healthcare in the modern NHS is delivered in a different way. In all comparable nations, the number of hospital beds has reduced, but nowhere near to the extent that it has been reduced in England. I particularly note with horror the reduction in maternity beds and mental health beds. There has been a lot of talk about standing up for the mentally ill, but beds in mental health care have actually been reduced by over 90%. That is very worrying when we all see that the necessary care is not there in the community. In fact, Oxfordshire County Council has said it is worried that there would be no impact assessment of some of the proposed changes. How was the community going to cope? Were the services in place in the community to provide support when, for example, hospital beds were removed? The council was not convinced that that was the case.
So, we are bottom of the league on spending as a percentage of GDP and close to the bottom—we are just bumping along the bottom—on hospital beds.
I understand that the hon. Lady has her job to do, but I am quite keen that this debate, which is about a much more complicated local healthcare issue, is not reduced to one in which—if she will forgive me for saying so—some rather crude political points are made. For what they are worth, the statistics are that the NHS Oxfordshire CCG has received a funding increase of 2% in 2017-18 compared with the previous financial year, and another 2% increase is forecast for the following financial year, so more money is going into the CCG. What is clear—the CCG was quite open about this in the phase 1 consultations instigated and organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and I—is that the issue is not funding. It is about transparency of consultation and organisation, so I would be grateful if the hon. Lady did not reduce this debate to a political or money issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sorry that he thinks I am reducing the debate; actually, I am looking at the national health service—we do still have a national health service, and I am thankful that we do. I take the points that he has made. These local reconfigurations of healthcare services are very complex; I understand that. However, underpinning all this—it is well documented—is that the STP for the region must make a saving of £480 million. That will be the funding gap if things continue as they are. The changes are not being made for patient gain, and that is why right hon. and hon. Members are rightly upset. They listen to their constituents, and their constituents, as they begin to see the changes coming forward, know they are definitely not an improvement. There is a financial motivation behind them.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Witney for introducing the debate. It is really important. I sympathise with the people of Oxfordshire, as I do with people across the country in the 44 different STP groups—we are hearing the same story in each of them. I hope that the Minister will address the points raised and that he will encourage clinical commissioning groups to consult more widely, thoroughly and transparently and will equip them with the tools they need. In case anyone does not believe me, did anyone really think that Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, was lying when he said that the NHS did not have enough funding? When the chair of the Care Quality Commission said that social care was close to its tipping point—that has a bearing on this matter—did anyone think he was lying? Of course not. These are very important issues, and I hope that the Minister is listening, because this is part of a Government’s national plan for our health service.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he spoke. I share the admiration of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) of the forensic skills he has brought here from a former life, and I feel somewhat fortunate that I am sitting on the same side of the Chamber as he is.
We have heard many powerful contributions about the strength of feeling in Oxfordshire from its many impressive elected representatives, and about how a large number of the service changes that are under consideration in the county have suffered from a lack of engagement, with the clinical commissioning group in particular failing to explain to local residents the purpose of and the objectives behind the changes. I take that on board, as something that needs to improve, and I will come back to it at the end of my remarks.
It is very clear, from the Government and the Department of Health, through the NHS leadership, that all proposed service changes should be based on clear evidence that they will deliver better outcomes for patients. That is at the heart of why service change is proposed. We have made an explicit commitment to the public that all proposed service changes should meet four tests. Just to rehearse them, they are that they should have support from GP commissioners, be based on clinical evidence, consider patient choice and, most specifically for the purposes of this debate, demonstrate public and patient engagement. In the case of the service change proposals that have been made thus far in Oxfordshire, when they are capable of coming to us for determination, for ministerial decision making on appeal, my colleague the Secretary of State and I are placed in some difficulty, because we need to remain impartial and consider the issues on their merits. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney and other colleagues will therefore appreciate that I am unable to offer opinions on the merits of the proposals from the two transformation consultations, whether actual or anticipated.
We recognise that Oxfordshire, like many areas across England, faces unprecedented demand for its services. We are all aware of the growing number of older people, many of whom are living with more complex, chronic conditions, partially thanks to the success of the NHS in keeping people going for longer, but we have also heard from a number of colleagues that Oxfordshire faces particular population pressures, with welcome increases in house building planned for the coming decades. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) said when she intervened on the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper), there are particular challenges in recruiting high-quality NHS staff into many of our facilities, not just in rural and coastal areas but across the country. We accept that, and are looking to increase the numbers of medical and nursing staff being trained. There was an unprecedented 25% increase in doctors in training, announced last year by the Secretary of State, and earlier this month a record increase of 25% in the number of nurses in training was announced for the next two years. Those are all reasons why the Oxfordshire transformation programme has been reviewing the model of care to ensure that future health service provision in the county is clinically and financially sustainable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney began his remarks by referring to the closure of the Deer Park medical practice in Witney. I will not go into the full history, but he acknowledged that the closure took place in March this year. In the previous December, a judicial review had been requested and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, this was the first time in recent years that such a thing had happened to a primary care facility. The judge who heard the case refused permission to bring it for judicial review, and it was therefore passed to the independent review panel in March of this year. The panel concluded that the referral was not suitable for full review because further local action could address the issues raised.
The Secretary of State considered and accepted the recommendations—some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Witney read out—and the Oxfordshire CCG is now working to address them. Foremost among the recommendations was that all former patients of Deer Park medical practice should be registered at an alternative practice as soon as possible. My understanding is that, of the 4,400 patients who were registered with the practice, more than 4,000 had been reregistered, as of mid-September, and that the CCG is acting to encourage the remaining 400 patients to register at one of the three other GP practices in and around Witney, whose lists remain open so that patients can register at a practice of their choice, as long as they live within its catchment area. I believe that a further letter will be sent out to all those remaining patients, to encourage them to register with another GP.
The second key recommendation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witney also referred to, was that a primary care framework be developed to provide direction for a sustainable GP service in Witney and the surrounding area. That is at the crux of his concern about the way in which the CCG engages. I happen to have a copy of its locality place-based plan for primary care, and I note that the consultation on how primary care services should be developed for west Oxfordshire opened last week. I strongly encourage my hon. Friend to engage with the CCG and to encourage his residents to do so, so that it learns from the lessons of the Deer Park lack of consultation and, in devising services for the future, fully takes into account local residents’ concerns. I believe that the consultation period is six weeks and is due to conclude at the end of November. A common theme in colleagues’ contributions today has been that lack of engagement, as they see it, with the local CCG.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury raised again today her historic championing of the cause of Horton General, which clearly goes beyond primary care into secondary care. She gave us another history lesson. She has been campaigning on this issue since she was seven years old, and I think she could probably trump any Member who wanted to stand up and say that they had been consistently campaigning on any issue since a young age. Having said that, I suspect that one or two older Members have been campaigning on the same issues for longer, but certainly not from such a young age.
My hon. Friend referred to the temporary suspension last October of the obstetric-led service in the Horton because of the difficulties in recruiting doctors and midwives. It has temporarily become a midwife-led unit. As she also pointed out, at a public board meeting this August, the CCG accepted recommendations following consultation. [Interruption.] She may regard that as inadequate, but there has been some consultation. Those recommendations include one to centralise Oxfordshire’s obstetric facilities in the John Radcliffe Hospital and one to make the midwife-led unit at Horton General a permanent establishment. As she has pointed out, that decision is subject to judicial review and referral to the Secretary of State, so no action will be taken to make that recommendation permanent until the referral process has run its course.
My hon. Friend has referred to a number of the challenges posed for local residents and for pregnant women in labour in getting access to Horton General. I have taken note of the comments made by her and other Members on the reliance on Google Maps to determine travel times. I understand that the CCG has undertaken an extensive travel survey. If a mother is in labour and is in an ambulance, she has the benefit of the blue light service to get through the traffic. That can mean a more rapid journey time than ordinary residents would expect or experience.
I am so grateful to the Minister for giving way and for the comments he is making. Most people who go to hospital while in the later stages of labour to have a baby are not in an ambulance. The ambulance times relate only to transfers from the midwife-led unit to the Radcliffe. Although a significant number of the people who give birth in the MLU have to transfer during or immediately after labour—we are told that it is up to 40%—that is nothing compared with the vast majority of women, who travel in a private car, if they are lucky enough to have one.
Indeed, I recognise that. If we are moving to an obstetric-led service at the John Radcliffe, any mother who is high-risk or is expected to give birth will have time to travel in good order, rather than in an emergency. I accept that emergency transfers do take place from midwife-led units during the course of labour.
I have heard the criticism about the overall transformation programme for Oxfordshire being divided into two phases. At this point, we are where we are. The first phase has come to a conclusion, and we are entering the second phase. I recognise some of the criticisms that it is hard to comprehend a coherent system without seeing it all laid out together.
I hate to interrupt the Minister’s flow as he is getting stuck into the STP, but as time is running out, will he prevail on his officials to write to me after this debate and answer two questions? First, when will the next tranche of capital funding be available for GP surgeries in Oxfordshire? Secondly, what engagements could his Department facilitate between Assura, myself and the clinical commissioning group to try to break the logjam at the Wantage surgery? I do not want to waste any more of his time, and I feel reluctant to prevail upon his officials’ time, but that would be very helpful.
I can do better than that; I can answer my right hon. Friend’s first question directly. The bids for STP capital funding have been made by all 44 STP areas. They are being assessed at the moment, and we will be making submissions to the Chancellor for the Budget to see whether there will be a capital release for phase 2 of STPs. It is a competitive process. I can confirm that the STP area covering Oxfordshire has made a bid, but I cannot confirm whether it will be successful, because we will not know until we know how much the Chancellor is prepared to release in the Budget. I will happily write to him on his second question and his concerns about Wantage.
Members have said much about some of their concerns about their community hospitals. In his absence, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for his invitation to visit his hospital and look at the rapid access care unit. I am pleased that he supports the impact it is having in ensuring that elderly and frail people are seen quickly and can return to their homes without needing to be admitted. As he pointed out, and I think we all agree, care at home is how we should be seeking to treat as many people as possible, because that allows people to lead longer independent lives instead of having a prolonged stay in hospital.
The second phase of the Oxfordshire transformation programme is continuing. As has been pointed out in the debate, the CCG leadership is going through a transition period. We have a process under way to recruit a new chief executive, who is expected to be in post in the coming weeks. I am sure that the chairman will read this debate and take note of the comments that have been made on the challenges in engaging in recent years, as will the new clinical lead, who was appointed only yesterday. It is important that Oxfordshire CCG undertakes full public engagement for the second phase of the transformation, and I am aware that that is what it is intending to do. It is likely to begin early in the new year, and I strongly encourage all Members to engage with that consultation in as forceful and impressive a way as they have with this debate, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney. I pay tribute to the passion with which everyone has spoken about their commitment to their local residents in providing high-quality healthcare in Oxfordshire.
I thank every Member who has contributed with such passion, in such detail and in such a thoughtful way to a debate that is of overriding importance to all our residents in all our constituencies.
In particular, I thank those Members who have brought extra elements into the debate. I am now under time pressure, but I am grateful to Members for listening to me when I spoke in some detail on some things. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned ambulatory care; as we all know, treatment close to or at home is ideal. He also told us about his community hospital of which he is so proud. It sounds very much as if it is the way in which things should be done.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) mentioned the population growth of 700,000 to 900,000, which illustrates the challenge we face in Oxfordshire. I also thank him for mentioning the pressure on GP services, including on a number of the surgeries in his constituency. Through pressure of time, I have not been able to mention all those in my constituency, but I am well aware of the pressures on primary care, which go wider than Deer Park. Other hon. Members will feel the same.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the lack of an imaginative approach to the use of buildings, which is absolutely right. That is what I asked the CCG to do and that is really why I was talking about engagement with the local community and with patient groups; they are the ones who have those imaginative ideas.
We all bow down before the passion and knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). She is a formidable voice in fighting for her constituents at the Horton and more widely. She quoted the IRP recommendation from nine years ago, and it is extraordinary how that almost directly foreshadows the remarks I made. As she said, patients must be fully involved.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for attending. She is in the Opposition and so has a political job to do, but I slightly regret her tone, because the issue is not political. She does not realise that locally this has been a cross-party issue. I am grateful to people from other parties in Witney—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury feels the same—where we have been fighting for the common good.
The Minister gave us some statistics, but there are many others. I alluded to the increase in funding received by the CCG, and I thank the Government for the fact that we have record investment in the NHS, record numbers of doctors and nurses in training, and record investment in mental health in particular. Let us not lose sight of that. The issue is clear and it is not about funding—I echo that now.
I thank the Minister for his understanding. I understand the limits of what he can say. Service charges must be based on clear evidence—that is absolutely right. I shall of course engage with the primary care location plan. Oxfordshire is a wonderful place to live and if we all work together with the CCG we will secure the future of Oxfordshire’s healthcare.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered lowland curlew.
It is a pleasure to talk about the natural environment under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, as you have spoken out forcefully for animal welfare and the natural environment during your time in Parliament. One of the great things about this forum is that is allows Members of this House to indulge their passions. I am proud to call myself a passionate bird lover.
I applied for this debate in the context of a crisis of species decline across these islands. For me, the curlew is special. It is one of our largest waders, with a beautiful, haunting call, but this species of bird is in serious trouble across large parts of Britain. Across many counties, species of birds, mammals, invertebrates and plants are going extinct. The curlew is already extinct in my county of Berkshire, and it is estimated that there are just 300 pairs of breeding curlew left south of Birmingham. At the current rate of loss, they will disappear from southern England in the next eight years. Like the nightingale and corncrake, these once-common and much-loved birds are silently vanishing. The reason is simple: curlew chicks are being killed by predators. In one study site in Shropshire, 63 eggs in 19 curlew nests were monitored by volunteers, and not one chick fledged. The majority were predated by foxes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has just left the Chamber, is extremely proud of the volunteer operation to protect curlew in Shropshire and is desperate to know more about what can be done to protect the remaining curlew in his county. Sadly, those facts about predation are not unique to Shropshire. Sites in Hampshire and Devon reported 100% nest failure last year. Those dire results prompted me to request this debate about the failure of existing conservation approaches to face tough decisions.
We need to recognise that this species is slipping away because our national approach to conserving species does not work well enough. Ten years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee identified that a new approach was required to address the dramatic biodiversity loss that is occurring in England, but that never happened. I thought that I was helping it to happen with “Biodiversity 2020”, which was published under my watch at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2011, but it was not enough.
Over the past decade or more, politicians and large conservation organisations have become locked in a doomed pact. Both want to achieve change through legislation and increasing regulation. The logic is simple enough, and it suits both sides: they can both take the credit for acting without ever having to undertake a day’s conservation themselves. Should that approach fail, they can demand a further increase in regulation and take more credit. The problem, as the curlew illustrates, is that it does not work. The music has stopped, and as last year’s “State of Nature” report highlighted, 56% of UK species have declined. The curlew declines are a reminder of that failure.
As a DEFRA Minister, I experienced lobby groups proposing that regulation would reverse losses. They were naive. In every area of life, regulation is important—I am the first to agree with that—but we never expect it to deliver success on its own. Yet some conservation lobby groups suggest that it is possible; it is not. With the exception of some coastal areas, to which upland curlew migrate, curlew are vanishing from southern England because the young are being eaten by predators such as foxes and crows. Predators do not comply with regulations. Even putting electric fencing around nests does not yet work. In the Shropshire study, volunteers watched as foxes simply waited for the chicks to walk outside the protection of the electric fence—we can imagine the rest.
If we want to increase curlew numbers, we need to stop being squeamish and start killing some of the predators that eat the curlew young. A few will be uncomfortable with that, but it is time to focus on what works, not on what we like. I am not squeamish about killing animals such as foxes. I do not want to do it myself, but I would if I had to. I get no pleasure from it, save the satisfaction of protecting a rare and threatened species.
Some lobby groups have been incredibly successful in building their income through recruiting a large membership and then seeking to use it to influence policy. For the curlew, that has not worked. That is because, to maintain their popularity, big membership organisations avoid acknowledging that the approach they have been advocating for decades does not work, and they do not like the approaches that do work.
That lack of flexibility has resulted in farmers being paid to manage beautiful grass meadows for nesting curlew, but not to kill the animals that subsequently come along and eat the chicks. We would never allow that failure to continue for decades in other areas of Government spending—money being paid to people for no effect. Why should any conservation organisation want to use its significant lobbying power to block what works, just because it might lose a few members? One farmer in Kent said that
“predator control does seem to raise strong feelings as some policy-makers have, over the years, become separated from the realities of conservation management”.
In Ireland, which faces a similar crisis, this problem is being gripped. Plans have been announced to employ staff to cull foxes, mink, crows and magpies in the vicinity of curlew nests. How refreshing to hear that that will be happening alongside habitat management—the other key factor in species conservation.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I want to bring his attention to my own experience on farmland. We allowed patches in fields where we know we get a lot of ground-nesting birds left among crops, but to our dismay we found, a few weeks later, that carrion crows came in, took the eggs and destroyed the nests. Those areas stood out like a sore thumb, so the crows prioritised and attacked them.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Sometimes the spatial measures that one tries actually draw the attention of the predator. As a Minister, I went up to Northumberland, where I saw layer upon layer of conservation designation, and lots of public money and public bodies protecting a very special site, but nothing had been done about the cloud of crows that were going to wipe out the lapwing they were seeking to protect. We need to reassess how we do this.
The contrast between Ireland and the UK is stark. The 50 organisations that published the comprehensive “State of Nature” report last year did not mention the curlew once in its 88 pages. I do not know whether that is because the plight of the curlew is too embarrassing; it is unlikely that they simply forgot. Only a year earlier, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others published a paper suggesting that curlew are our
“most pressing bird conservation priority”.
They were right to flag that up. Our Eurasian curlew are classified globally as “near threatened”, and since we are home to 25% of the global population, we have to look after them. We should not forget that two of the other curlew species—Eskimo and slender-billed—are already assumed to be globally extinct.
Twenty years ago, English Nature, as it was then called, produced the first curlew nesting study, which reported that 64% of chick mortality was caused by predation. Study after study kept making similar observations. As the studies continued, the curlew population fell slowly and silently by 46% in just 15 years. Regulation and legal protection were not enough. The drop would have been even more dramatic if the curlew were not thriving in the north of England on driven grouse moors. On those moors, the population is maintained because fox numbers are controlled by gamekeepers. There are actually more curlew on one grouse moor in Yorkshire than there are in the whole of Wales. On farms in the south of England it is an equally bleak story.
One organisation, of which I am proud to be a trustee, has undertaken much of the available research on controlling predators and recently launched a website offering information and practical advice for those who have curlew on their land. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is a charity bucking the trend. It is part of a groundswell of smaller organisations that believe the curlew will be saved only by putting farmers, not big organisations, back in control. If we do not, it fears the only place we may soon be able to see curlew in southern England will be on nature reserves where someone is paid to control predators. Those are some of the same organisations that object to the Government funding of fox control on farmland. I would go further and suggest that we should stop funding curlew conservation projects that do not include effective predator control options. We have to do what works, not what is popular, before those wonderful birds vanish completely.
Research carried out by the GWCT revealed that predicted populations of curlew will increase by 91% where predation control takes place, and populations will reduce over the same period by 64% where it does not. So please, no more research; we need action.
I am pleased to hear of the various workshops and meetings that have taken place in recent months that have brought together many of the different groups that share my anxiety about the potential extinction of the lowland curlew. I was pleased to hear from the RSPB:
“We are investing £1.8 million in an ambitious five-year Curlew recovery programme... One of our main objectives is to test the response of breeding Curlew to a combination of habitat and predator management work.”
It specifically links foxes and crows. It stated:
“Working with a range of partners, the trial management is happening across six key sites in upland”—
“areas of the UK: two in Scotland, two in Northern England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. This will help us identify what we need to do (and how) to help Curlew breed more successfully in the wider countryside. This might include developing policy and practice to reduce the numbers of predators in the landscape and shaping new agri-environment options to support land managers who want to do positive things for birds like the Curlew.”
That is great, but it means more research and I do not think we need more research. I do not think we need to demand more money, as some are. It seems that some want more money from a post-Brexit agricultural support mechanism that is targeted towards species such as the curlew. That is fine, but I suspect some sort of agri-environmental plan that a curlew project could slot into is already on the cards and being worked on by my hon. Friend the Minister and her team. Anyway, if we wait until 2022 when the current arrangement for farm support ends, that might be too late for the curlew in lowland England.
Then there are some who want Government money to support the voluntary work currently happening in certain areas. I am happy to support that if it is focused in the right way, but what would it be for? I would not advocate money for project officers to go around telling farmers what they should or should not do. Farmers, landowners and land managers are key to the success of any recovery project. Most already buy into plans, even at their own expense.
After 20 years of studying curlew, we know enough to take action. We need to empower, not criticise, farmers. The recent highly successful conference last week on cluster farms showed how an enlightened non-governmental organisation and charity can get huge environmental results by getting farmers to work together to pool resources and deliver real conservation in a short space of time across large landscapes.
By way of an example and to reinforce my right hon. Friend’s comments on predator control, on the island of Caldey, just off Pembrokeshire, it was decided to simply eliminate the resident population of rats. It cost £75,000 of private money and was a straightforward operation. No permissions were necessary. Within less than a year, puffins have returned and the skylark population is improving. A relatively modest investment has brought about a transformation and, most importantly, the pest control has been profound. It has come at no social or economic cost, but I suspect that is because the problem concerned rats rather than foxes.
My hon. Friend talks my language. When I was briefly relevant, I managed to shoehorn some money out of the Treasury to assist the RSPB, which did a superb job in annihilating mice and rats on South Georgia and other islands. As a result, South Georgia is on the fast track to returning to the pristine environment it was before the whalers arrived at the end of the 18th century, but I digress.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I stop when I see a fox. I love looking at them in the context of the environment, but when a species is threatened we have to treat all animals in the same way. We have to do things humanely in an understanding way and try to maintain a balance of nature. We cannot see species wiped out. We have to face the facts of the research that we know exists and take action.
Most land managers, like me, love their wildlife. Since they do not have large memberships to please, let us give them the practical tools and support that they need to take action. Only our farmers and land managers can save our southern curlew now. I have the highest respect for the Minister and look forward to hearing what she says. She has proved to be a fantastic listener in her role and also a fantastic doer. I hope the combination of what we say today will be a cause for celebration.
I have had the rare pleasure of lying in a meadow in Fermanagh listening to the rasping call of the corncrake. I will never hear that in Berkshire because the species now lives only in an existential state in the margins of these islands. We must not let that happen to the curlew. We owe it to future generations to do whatever we have to do to save this rare and special bird.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. He has set out a compelling and passionate case for saving, preserving and enhancing the life of the curlew in this country. As we know, he was one of my most successful predecessors. I appreciate his years of valued service and experience, and indeed the advice he has given me from his time when he was the Minister responsible for the natural environment.
As my right hon. Friend highlights, the curlew is among the UK’s most widespread wading birds, but its breeding range has contracted substantially in the past 50 years. As a result, and as he set out, 10 years ago the species was moved to the globally near-threatened category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species. As was noted earlier in the debate, in the past 20 years the curlew population has decreased by about a half.
Supporting a quarter of the summer breeding population and a fifth of the overwintering population in global terms, the UK has an important role to play in protecting curlew. This is reflected in the fact that declines in the UK have a greater impact on the global population than in any other country. As my right hon. Friend knows from experience, the Government are absolutely committed to reversing the declines in bird populations, including curlew and other wading birds.
Declines in the curlew have been caused by a reduction in breeding. Although adult curlew are long-lived birds, very few breed successfully, and the few remaining lowland populations that have been studied show that very few, if any, chicks are produced each year. There are two principal causes of the decline in production in lowland areas. My right hon. Friend set out very clearly the predation of nests and chicks, but there is also the intensification of grassland management, especially earlier rolling and cutting of grasslands, which crushes nests and can kill chicks.
On protection, the curlew is a migratory species and there is an obligation to classify special protection areas under article 4 of the birds directive, which requires the provision of SPAs. The UK network of more than 270 SPAs covers about 2.8 million hectares of key habitats. There are currently 87 SPAs in England, of which 13 have been classified for non-breeding curlew. There are currently no SPAs classified for breeding curlew in England or elsewhere in the UK, but reviews of the network show that the north Pennine moors—admittedly not lowlands—are the single most important site in England for breeding curlew.
A third of curlew overwintering in Britain use habitat provided as part of those SPAs. I recognise that that is only part of protecting the species, but increasing that suitable habitat and then focusing on breeding success in upland and lowland grasslands is vital. We have to have an international action plan for curlew. We are contributing internationally to actions to address that in our role as a signatory to the African-Eurasian migratory waterbird agreement, notably through the national implementation of our international action plan for the species, which was adopted two years ago. The long-term goal of that plan is to restore the favourable conservation status of the Eurasian curlew throughout its AEWA range, and for it to be assessed by 2025 as “least concern” against the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list criteria. The short-term aims are to stabilise breeding population declines, to improve knowledge relating to the population and conservation status, and for any hunting activity to be sustainable.
In spring last year, an Ireland and UK curlew action group was formed by a range of organisations, including our country’s conservation agencies, the RSPB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to co-ordinate conservation measures. The group is meeting for the third time, but as my right hon. Friend points out, talking is challenging when it is time for action.
Activities already under way include Natural England working with the RSPB on a recovery programme aimed at providing a co-ordinated approach to the management of curlew habitats, including predator control, to increase breeding numbers. That forms part of the international action plan to address the “near threatened” status of the curlew.
My right hon. Friend argued passionately for the increased use of predator control in the protection of curlew, and was reinforced in that by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). I absolutely agree that control of predators such as foxes and stoats has a role to play in the recovery of rare or declining species, particularly ground-nesting birds.
As my right hon. Friend knows, predator control already takes place throughout the countryside as part of normal farming and game-keeping practice. It is true that predation at the egg stage is common in some areas and control of those predators has a role to play in their recovery. However, that control should be effective and not lead to making the predators themselves extinct.
A number of species predate curlew nests and chicks in the lowlands, including red fox, carrion crows and badgers. The relative importance of different predators differs locally. Land-use changes can have an impact on curlew populations through support of predators, so there is sometimes the interesting challenge of fragmented landscapes—where we may introduce patches of woodland —that have often been shown to support greater numbers of predators, but can be beneficial in other aspects of biodiversity.
Areas where predators are managed, such as areas managed for grouse shooting, have higher rates of breeding success, as my right hon. Friend illustrated, and we have seen a threefold increase in curlew abundance. The question of predator-prey interactions, however, is not straightforward. A variety of research shows that predators are part of a complex mix of factors that can influence prey populations. I am assured by my scientific advisers that the research shows that, although predation is the main reason for egg and chick losses in many bird species, most can withstand high levels of predation. There may be local short-lived benefits and we need to consider long-lasting measures.
Will the Minister go back to her officials? I entirely accept that populations of certain species can withstand levels of predation as long as there are plenty of them, but when there is a very small number of a declining species, there is no margin for error. We can do as much habitat preservation as possible, but if we do not include this part of the piece—predator control—then that margin for error means that we will continue to see a decline.
My right hon. Friend, dare I say it, needs to wait for the conclusion of my speech, which I have rewritten during the debate.
I wholeheartedly agree that we need to empower farmers. He will know that our agri-environment schemes have been designed with the aim of encouraging habitat management to promote conservation in targeted areas, whether that is about suitable nesting or foraging conditions. We are delivering significant areas of habitat for wading birds, including the curlew. About 600,000 hectares from the predecessor schemes are managed for wading birds, and since 2016 Countryside Stewardship has provided 10,000 hectares under the new schemes.
A payment-by-results approach currently being piloted in the Yorkshire dales includes looking at habitat, but I want to stress to my right hon. Friend that farmers are able to manage the land as they wish. They are paid on the suitability of the habitat that they provide, but they can undertake predator control. That is farmers’ choice. It is important to stress that they have absolute clearance from the Minister responsible. It is about managing habitat, but they are also free to use techniques to ensure that predator control does not undermine the intended outcome of the project.
In highlighting projects to help curlew decline, my right hon. Friend rightly praises the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, including their action for curlew project launched earlier this year. However, GWCT states that it is not just about predator control. We have to make sure that we get a balance of dry nesting areas, wet foraging areas and insect-rich grassland for chicks in spring and summer. Through that combination of proactive habitat management and predator control where required, we can bring about positive change for curlew.
I am also conscious of the RSPB’s upper Thames wader project, which is working with more than 200 farmers to create, restore and manage wetland grasslands to support species including curlew. That area now supports the largest population of curlew on lowland farmland and again demonstrates the importance of providing habitat and feeding resources for birds and chicks.
My right hon. Friend may well be aware of the curlew country project in Shropshire, which brings together local communities to raise awareness and monitor local curlew populations. I understand that, although they may not be having quite the impact that he rightly demands, in raising awareness and bringing communities together to work to preserve the curlew, they do valuable work that we should not underestimate.
I am genuinely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. He will be aware, from his time as a Minister, that in a portfolio as wide as the natural environment, it often does take debates to get some focus on a particular topic. He has passionately set out why we need effective action, and I agree. That is why I will be asking Natural England and policy officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to include the use of predator control in all current and future projects that we fund. It is important to me that it is at least considered, and that reasons are given for why it is or—equally importantly—why it is not included in a particular scheme.
My right hon. Friend will understand that we need to undertake an appropriate mix of actions, including protecting important sites, working with farmers and other land managers to manage these habitats carefully, and targeting legal predator control to halt, and then reverse, the decline of this iconic species. The curlew is too important to be lost from our world’s biodiversity. As I set out earlier, our actions matter because a substantial proportion of these birds winter or breed in the United Kingdom. We need to make this a success, so that England and lowland curlew can continue to have the bright future for which my right hon. Friend hopes.
Question put and agreed to.
Safeguarding Adults with Learning Disabilities
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered supporting and safeguarding adults with learning disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, as we consider this hugely important issue. How we better support and safeguard adults with learning disabilities is a subject on which I have been seeking to secure a debate for some time, following the most appalling case involving a young man with learning disabilities from my constituency and his violent death back in June 2015.
The circumstances leading up to Lee Irving’s killing have been the subject of a safeguarding adults review which was published in June 2017, following the trial and sentencing of those responsible which finally concluded in December 2016. I will return to Lee’s case and the outcome of the review in more depth, but first I will briefly provide some context to the debate.
About 1.4 million to 1.5 million people with a learning disability are estimated to live in the UK, of whom some 350,000 have a severe learning disability. The charity Mencap, which describes itself as the leading voice of learning disability, replies to the question, “What is a learning disability?” by explaining:
“The answer is that it’s different for every person who has one. But there are some things that are true for everyone with a learning disability, and some common (and not so common) conditions that will mean you have a learning disability.”
Mencap goes on to state:
“A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities—for example household tasks, socialising or managing money—which affects someone for their whole life.
People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people.
The level of support someone needs depends on the individual.”
Importantly, Mencap concludes:
“It’s important to remember that with the right support, most people with a learning disability in the UK can lead independent lives.”
I saw that for myself in Dinnington in my constituency when I visited the home of the then 18-year-old Joe to hear about how he was being supported by the national charity United Response during the transition from childhood to adulthood. That involved providing Joe with tailored assistance in a supported housing setting to help master tasks such as managing money, basic cooking skills, cleaning the house, keeping up with the laundry, managing his coursework on his construction course at the local mainstream college, and being able to use public transport safely.
One of the concerns that Joe raised with me during that visit was his disappointment that he had been prevented from securing an apprenticeship because he was unable to achieve the required grade C in maths and English at GCSE. I am pleased, as one of the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships, that that requirement has recently been lifted for people with learning disabilities, following a review conducted by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).
I am regularly lobbied by constituents with learning disabilities who, with the support and encouragement of the Newcastle-based charity Better Days, are able to send me easy-read letters about issues of concern, such as the lessons to be learned from the independent review of deaths of people with a learning disability conducted following the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk, or the Government’s decision no longer to provide funding to the National Forum of People with Learning Disabilities, which meant it closed in March 2017, having been operational since 2001.
There is a variety of good support out there, but we all know that many people with learning disabilities, and their families and carers, will face a series of enormous challenges, barriers and indeed discrimination throughout their lives, all of which inevitably puts a great deal of strain on family relationships. What do those barriers involve for people with learning disabilities?
Mencap highlights that children with special educational needs are twice as likely as other children to be bullied regularly; 40% of disabled children live in poverty; and 75% of GPs have received no training to help them treat people with a learning disability. The House of Commons Library has noted the evidence that people with a learning disability experience inequalities in healthcare and the fact that, on average, men with a learning disability die 13 years sooner and women with a learning disability 20 years sooner than those without learning disabilities.
Learning Disability Today has reported on a survey that found that almost two thirds of parents of children with learning disabilities said that they missed social engagements in the past year due to the fear of how other people would react to them; one in four young people with a learning disability had been bullied by members of the public at nightclubs or concerts; and only 30% of people would feel comfortable sitting next to someone with a mild learning disability at a show or a concert.
That is an interesting suggestion. As a constituency MP, I work closely with the organisations I have mentioned so that I may correspond with and represent people with learning disabilities. There are local solutions and, potentially, national ways to support MPs. That is a good suggestion to ensure that those voices are heard in Parliament, and the intention of this debate is very much to give voice to some of the concerns. I am sure that other hon. Members are present for the very same reason.
The issues that I have outlined are just some of the frankly depressing ones faced by people with learning disabilities. Such issues were commented on by Mencap in its response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, “Being disabled in Britain: a journey less equal”, which was published earlier this year. In responding to the EHRC report back in April, Mencap commented:
“Rather than move forwards in the past 20 years this report shows how inadequate action and a constant stream of cuts have condemned disabled people to a life of poverty and inequality.
With the employment rate for people with a learning disability currently standing at less than 6% and with cuts to Employment Support Allowance coming into effect this week, it’s not hard to see why so many disabled people are struggling to find money for things as basic as food. People with a learning disability also face inadequate housing, poor access to health care and a society that misunderstands them.”
One challenge facing people with learning disabilities and their families is of course being able to access the right social care support at a time when adult social care budgets are at breaking point after years of punitive cuts to local authority funding since 2010, combined with rising cost pressures. The Local Government Association outlines that some 127,725 adults in England under the age of 65 were receiving long-term social care from their local council for a learning disability in 2015-16, meaning that about one third of councils’ annual social care spending, or approximately £5 billion, is used to support adults with learning disabilities.
The LGA also highlights, however, that the number of adults with a learning disability needing social care is set to rise by 3% a year, piling further pressure on local authority finances. Overall, councils face a £2.3 billion shortage in funding by 2020. I therefore strongly urge the Chancellor to address this issue next month as part of his autumn Budget, as well as the ongoing and serious concerns about the potential historic and future costs associated with sleep-ins, following the change in Government guidance on them, which have significant implications for the future provision of support to adults with learning disabilities.
As I said, there is a particular reason that I secured this debate, which I have been trying to do so for several months. Undoubtedly, all Members of Parliament frequently have to handle very distressing issues, and I have dealt with a lot.
My hon. Friend is making a valiant attempt. This is a very difficult subject and she is talking about a very distressing and tragic case. To go back to the point about greater public awareness, I have been a Member for 12 years and have certainly never been offered any training about learning disabilities. There is so much to know and she has just given us a useful range of facts. I encourage the Minister to take away what my hon. Friend has just raised as things we should all know.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. It is hard to imagine a more harrowing and disturbing case than that of Lee Irving. My thoughts remain very much with Lee’s family, particularly his mother, Bev, who I know is determined to ensure that something positive comes of her son’s death. I am sorry; I must do this subject the justice of staying composed. I am particularly conscious that Lee’s mother is watching this debate online in Newcastle and that having to relive what happened to her son clearly will always be upsetting. However, it is important that right hon. and hon. Members appreciate the gravity of this case.
Lee was a 24-year-old vulnerable young man with learning disabilities from the West Denton area of my constituency, who was tragically murdered in 2015. In the months leading up to his death, he was living on and off—perhaps existing would be a better word—with a group of people he had befriended and trusted, at their home in the Kenton Bar area of Newcastle. During that time, he was the victim of sustained abuse and exploitation. Lee’s mother, Bev, had reported him missing on three occasions in the weeks before his death, and indeed had alerted the authorities to where he was staying and of her serious concerns about Lee’s safety, given the previous behaviour of those individuals towards her son.
Tragically, Lee’s badly beaten body was found on 6 June 2015, dumped on a grass bank near the A1 in Newcastle, not far from the house he had been occupying with those who were accused of his murder. The cause of Lee’s death was given as respiratory failure due to multiple severe injuries that were inflicted upon him at the house in Kenton Bar between 28 May and 5 June 2015. The injuries included fractures to his nose and jaw, the fracture of 24 ribs and damage to underlying organs, after he had been drugged with a combination of morphine, Valium and buprenorphine—medication used by heroin addicts—which enabled his attackers to conduct sustained physical beatings against him. The four people responsible for Lee’s death also prevented him from receiving the urgent medical attention that he clearly required on several occasions.
Following Lee’s death, a safeguarding adults review was established to hear from the myriad organisations and agencies involved in providing support to Lee and his family during his short life. The review explains:
“The relationship between Lee Irving and his killers was described as one of subservience with Lee beholden to the primary perpetrator”—
“for drugs and shelter and where Lee looked up to the primary perpetrator and desperate to fit in tolerated continued violence and abuse. This coercion and drugging were used to control him, prevent him seeking help and over a period of time drawing him back to the house at 33 Studdon Walk.”
Indeed, Mencap has informed me of its concern that Lee’s case is not an isolated one, commenting:
“There are many examples, both reported and unreported, of people with a learning disability who have been abused physically and psychologically by people who they thought were friends. This has given rise to the phrase ‘mate crime’, where individuals take advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities, bullying them physically, psychologically or stealing money or possessions.”
I believe that the safeguarding adults review instigated after Lee’s death raises serious issues, not just for Newcastle, but about how we, as a wider society, support and safeguard adults with learning disabilities. Vida Morris, chair of the Newcastle Safeguarding Adults Board, said after the review had been published:
“Lee’s story will be used locally, regionally and nationally to improve safeguarding and protect vulnerable adults.”
That absolutely must be the case.
It is evident from the review that Lee’s vulnerabilities, which were the result of his learning disability, were clearly identified by a number of local agencies some years before and right up to his death. On six occasions between 2010 and 2014, different organisations considered the risk to Lee to be such as to merit formal multi-agency adult safeguarding written referrals. Examples of Lee’s known vulnerability include an assessment undertaken by Percy Hedley School when he was nearly 18, which described him as
“socially immature and impressionable, a very vulnerable young man who could not ignore people who are distracting him, naive in social situations, easily influenced by others, and unable to identify people’s motivations and intentions.”
The national probation service in Northumbria had numerous interactions with Lee, as he was arrested 30 times between May 2011 and March 2015 for various offences. In December 2012, Lee was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment for the offences of burglary and theft, and was
“treated as an adult fully responsible for his own actions and able to understand the consequences of the measures imposed.”
Yet the year before, in 2011, the NPS carried out an assessment of Lee and identified that he was
“incredibly vulnerable to the influence and harmful behaviour of others he encounters; that he was financially vulnerable from others. In addition, he was assessed as being vulnerable in custody and in a hostel setting.”
A further NPS assessment stated:
“Lee seems to understand that he is being used and bullied but seems to put up with it rather than be rejected by his peers.”
“Lee is not aware of the risks that he places himself in e.g. spending time with homeless people, sleeping rough, sharing taxis with strangers and giving his clothes and money away. His level of Learning Disability means that he behaves in a way which is focussed on pleasing people, to develop acceptance within groups and possibly to gain kudos through offending for others.”
Despite those assessments, no safeguarding alert was raised by the NPS about Lee Irving during its interaction with him in 2011 and 2012.
An assessment carried out in 2010—five years before Lee’s death—under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 confirmed that Lee’s overall reasoning and thinking abilities were the same as or better than only 0.2% of adults his own age. In other words, Lee’s intellectual abilities placed him in the bottom 1% of adults his own age. There is also a concern that Lee’s intellectual ability may at times have been overestimated, because his relatively better verbal skills may have masked his deficits in other areas.
In March 2015, shortly before Lee’s death, a further Mental Capacity Act assessment was undertaken, at which both he and his family were present, after his family reported that he had returned to live with the people who were exploiting him. That assessment identified that he did not have the capacity to make decisions to keep himself safe when alone in the community. The assessment resulted in an exploration of supported living options, which were still being explored at the time of his death.
The safeguarding adults review notes:
“Throughout his long engagement with services Lee failed to attend nearly half his numerous appointments with various services. While in his early teenage years his family often ensured his attendance, when in his late teens, his family’s influence declined and his chaotic lifestyle led to less frequent attendance at appointments, making it…difficult for…agencies to deliver the care and support that Lee needed.”
I find it hard to understand why that behaviour did not set more alarm bells ringing about Lee’s welfare, given that his vulnerabilities were well documented.
The review further states that
“Lee’s life slid into a chaotic cycle of offending, being reported missing and associating with so called ‘friends’ who exploited him. In October 2014 a decision was taken to award Lee with a direct payment—giving him control of some of his monies in order to directly purchase services or other forms of support… later that control passed to Lee himself.”
Again, given the circumstances in which Lee was living and the fact that his mother was already reporting that he was being financially exploited, I find that hard to understand.
Tragically, given what was to happen later, the police actually attended the address at which Lee was being held between 28 May and 5 June 2015, when we know that Lee was inside the house and already injured. However, no search was conducted, despite Lee having been reported missing by his mother, her belief that he was at the house and the police being aware of the extensive criminal records of those living at the property, including for violent offences.
The safeguarding review notes:
“It is clear that all agencies tried hard to deliver a service to Lee and/or his family but on many occasions this was made difficult due to Lee’s lack of engagement and his determination to keep bad company…these efforts were not adequately co-ordinated or led by each of the main agencies…Throughout the long engagement with agencies the lead changed according to the circumstances…Therefore, no agency was able to take overall responsibility for co-ordination and leadership, however, as noted in the report agencies were in contact on a regular basis with each other.”
The review adds:
“Lee Irving was a difficult person to help. His reluctance to engage with services and his failure to attend appointments made it extremely difficult for agencies to support him and his family. Despite this, agencies persisted in their attempts to help and protect him. It is clear that all agencies approached Lee Irving with the best of intentions.”
I continue from the review:
“Many agencies were involved in Lee’s complex case over a lengthy period. They saw him in different ways according to their discipline and…many did not appreciate the risk attached to his lifestyle and disability. There were, however, clear indications of Lee Irving’s vulnerabilities and recorded Safeguarding Alerts pointing to the threats present at the house at 33 Studdon Walk where he lived latterly and where he was killed…his specific vulnerabilities were accurately identified. The cumulative effects of these risk factors were not, however, weighed or considered in a multi-agency forum when planning for his care.”
The review also made clear:
“Perhaps as a consequence of a lack of co-ordination a number of options for intervening in the case of Lee Irving were not considered. No legal advice was sought from agencies solicitors and the possibility of Court of Protection proceedings or other legal options”—
deprivation of liberty—
“were not pursued.”
Whether any of those options would have succeeded in intervening in Lee Irving’s decline and eventual death will never be known.
Extremely worryingly, the safeguarding adults review suggested that:
“The behaviour of Lee was perhaps interpreted by some professionals as consistent with his choice of an antisocial and criminal lifestyle. Whilst not held by all agencies this interpretation meant that his criminal conduct was not always considered as a symptom of his disability, increasing vulnerability or the exploitation that he was subject to.”
Of particular concern to Lee’s mother, Bev, following her son’s death, are the challenges that parents of adult children with learning difficulties face in continuing to be involved in decisions about their care. The safeguarding adults review outlined that Lee’s family
“described the difference in the way professionals were able to respond to Lee as an adult as being frustrating and difficult to understand…Lee was…classed as an adult while his mental capacity remained that of a child”.
It also recorded that, on Lee reaching adulthood, Lee’s family
“felt excluded from some of the key decisions about his care. They felt that some professionals excluded or disregarded them and that decisions about options for the ongoing care of their family member were made without their input. In particular, they express severe concern that despite their specific warnings about Lee’s living conditions at the home at Studdon Walk, the measures taken to protect him were unsuccessful.
In conclusion, the family felt that while more should have been done to protect Lee towards the end of his life such was Lee’s determination to place himself at risk that only secure accommodation would have protected him. Whilst they had resisted this option at the time, with the benefit of hindsight they recognise that other measures were unlikely to have succeeded.”
Indeed, following the publication of the review in June, Lee’s mother, Bev, commented:
“Nobody listened to each other, but my main concern was nobody listened to me. If I had been listened to, then my son would still be alive now. I had my son reported missing three times in the previous few weeks up until his death and they wouldn’t bring him back. They wouldn’t inform me where he was, which I find very, very hurtful. It’s disgusting.”
In response to that, the director of people at Newcastle City Council stated:
“I know that Lee’s family felt excluded from some of the decisions that were taken about his care and that their warnings about his living conditions were not acted upon effectively. For that we are truly sorry.”
The safeguarding adults review highlighted that Lee’s family “had two main recommendations” following their son’s death. First, that
“the move from Children’s to Adults’ services be better managed to ensure a smoother transition without loss of support and that services consider the capacity rather than the age of the individual.”
“families remain part of the decision-making process in the case of vulnerable adults and be fully involved/consulted on ‘best interest’ and other decisions relating to family members.”
Bev Irving has explained that she hopes those changes will be made so that, in her words,
“Lee’s name can live on in the name of Lee’s law”.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the recommendations and whether the Government can act on them to help ensure that the lessons from Lee’s case are genuinely learned across the country.
There is one further aspect to the case that I find deeply concerning. James Wheatley was found guilty of murdering Lee in December 2016. His mother, Julie Mills, his then girlfriend, Nicole Lawrence, and Barry Imray, who also had learning disabilities, were found guilty of, or admitted to, conspiring to pervert the course of justice and causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable person. Wheatley was sentenced to a minimum 23-year term and the original sentences of Mills and Lawrence were increased after the Crown Prosecution Service successfully appealed them as being unduly lenient, with the support of the Solicitor General. I know that the family are grateful for that.
Both the CPS and Northumbria police believed that the multiple and horrific offences perpetrated against Lee were motivated by his disability. Indeed, the safeguarding adults review commenced with that view. However, the trial judge, in his sentencing remarks, told Wheatley that
“In order to reach the conclusion”
that the offence was aggravated by disability
“the statute requires me to be sure that, at the time of committing the offence or immediately before or after doing so, you demonstrated hostility towards Lee Irving based on his disability or that your offence was motivated by hostility towards persons who have this or any disability. I am not satisfied on either basis. Although your texts”
to one of the other accused
“show repeated use of the repellent word ‘spastic’, I am not able to infer that such language was used towards Lee Irving at the time or immediately before or after your murderous assault. Furthermore, in my judgment you were motivated in this offence not by hostility towards those with disability but by your vicious and bullying nature which particularly takes advantage of those who are unable or less able to resist.”
That calls into question whether the current legislation—section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which provides for an aggravated sentence—is fit for purpose, as it is unclear how anyone could prove a disability hate crime under the threshold unless the perpetrator made such an admission. I raised this issue with the Solicitor General, to which I received a response that the judge’s
“finding that the offences were not motivated by hostility is a finding of fact. Such findings are incredibly difficult…to challenge on appeal to the Court of Appeal, since I need to satisfy the court not only that the judge was plainly wrong, but also that it is in the interests of justice to overturn his finding of fact.
My decision was that I would not succeed in overturning the finding of fact in this particular case. I only reached this conclusion after receiving advice from the leading counsel at trial, the CPS’ hate crime stakeholder manager, and a senior barrister who is a specialist in these kind of cases. I also looked at general advice from First Senior Treasury Counsel, the Government’s most senior barrister in criminal matters, on how to apply the hate crime provisions.”
I am aware that the CPS has recently published revised guidance setting out the factors to be taken into consideration when reviewing cases and prosecuting offences classified as disability hate crime. However, in Lee Irving’s case the issue was not with the police or CPS not recording or prosecuting the barbaric offences committed against him as disability hate crimes but that the judge could not be sure that, at the time of committing the offence, or immediately before or afterwards, the perpetrator demonstrated hostility towards Lee based on his disability, or that the offence was motivated by hostility towards people with disabilities—the threshold set in the existing legislation. That is concerning at a time when we know that disability hate crime is a significant issue.
Mencap highlights that some 73% of people with a learning disability and autism responding to a 2016 Dimensions survey said that they had experienced hate crime, while recorded hate crime based on disability has increased by 44% since last year. The true extent of the problem is being masked by people with a disability or learning disability who are too scared or do not feel able to report incidents. I strongly urge the Minister to ensure that the Government look at this issue again, in the light of Lee’s case, although I am conscious that it is not within her departmental remit.
I fully recognise that I have raised a number of wide-ranging issues this afternoon, many of which do not fall directly within the Minister’s portfolio. However, I am pleased to have been able to put on record the different, and very important, concerns that Lee’s mother has raised with me following her son’s death. Those ultimately responsible for Lee Irving’s horrific abuse and murder are now locked up in prison where they belong. Indeed, thanks to the intervention of the Solicitor General, some sentences were increased for being unduly lenient. However, the current legislation needs to be reviewed, because if Lee’s case could not be regarded as a disability hate crime, it is hard to know how the current threshold could be met.
I have also outlined how important it is for adults with learning disabilities to receive the right care and support to enable them to live independent lives where that is appropriate. However, I have real concerns about the issues raised by Lee’s case, and the fact that those charged with safeguarding Lee—an extremely vulnerable adult—did not get the balance right between independence and protection. Nor does it appear that the many agencies that interacted with Lee shared information with each other about his vulnerabilities, or properly listened to or acted on the concerns repeatedly raised by his family, which might have resulted in Lee still being here today.
It is critical that lessons are learned from Lee Irving’s case as quickly as possible, right across the country. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how she intends to ensure that that will be the case.
I will not make a long intervention, but I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for raising that case, which was clearly a distressing one, as the emotions she has shown illustrate. What she said about the safeguarding rules is absolutely crucial, and all our county councils could take note of those and ensure that they follow them clearly. My concern is always about the gap that might exist between the safeguarding rules that apply to children and those that apply to young adults. The gap that can emerge there causes many problems, so the more we can do about it, the better.
I make a suggestion to the hon. Lady. She has raised a lot of concerns about the law, and I wonder whether, if she could gather together enough evidence to make a presentation to the Select Committee on Justice, it might be willing to take up an inquiry into a review of this area, which would provide further support for her efforts to change the law. I cannot speak for the Justice Committee, even though I am a member of it, but I think it is worth her trying to gather as much information as possible to take that forward.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to look after people with learning disabilities. In my constituency we try to do that in a number of ways outside the country council system. First, the Ways & Means Trust’s operation in my constituency tries to provide in-work experience for young people with learning disabilities by providing them with garden centre experience. They are trained in how to look after flowers, how to bag pots—if hon. Members see what I mean—and eventually how to sell them. At Christmas time in particular, it is a useful place to go to get wreaths and things like that, made by people with learning disabilities. That is a good way of showing that we care and of providing them with enormous opportunities to fulfil their lives by holding jobs that are meaningful and keep them in work.
Secondly, an event called the Regatta for the Disabled occurs in my constituency every autumn. I have been involved since its commencement some seven years ago, usually in opening and compering it. The regatta provides an opportunity for people with physical and learning disabilities to enjoy the river. It provides boat trips for them and allows them to share with others their enjoyment of life and what they can do. One would need to be there to see their physical enjoyment of life; it is absolutely catching. I point that out as a way in which my own constituency tries to look after people with learning disabilities.
Finally, every year, with the help of Mencap, we bring together all those people with learning disabilities who are able to come in the town square in Henley, and we sing to the population who come along and do their shopping, stop and have a cup of coffee and listen to the singing. The quality of the singing and the enthusiasm with which people with learning disabilities take it up are amazing. I am convinced that, by putting the effort into ensuring that we understand and care for people with learning disabilities, we can achieve a vast amount.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to sum up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. It is customary at this stage to congratulate the hon. Member who has brought the debate, but those words do not do justice to what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) has brought before us.
This is an incredibly tragic, harrowing and cruel case, and she has done her constituent and his family a great service in bringing it to the House. She should be congratulated on her perseverance in ensuring that the story was heard today; the manner in which she covered such tragic and horrendous issues was commendable and incredibly honourable. I pay considerable tribute to her for her contribution and I thank her for it, and I am sure the House does also. I am also sorry that there were not more hon. Members in the Chamber to hear what happened. I am sure we all, as constituency MPs and representatives as well as parliamentarians, will have taken note of what happened in Lee Irving’s case, and will hopefully have learned lessons for ourselves and our local services as well.
The case that the hon. Lady raised covered unspeakable cruelty and was harrowing and devastating to hear; it was probably one of the hardest things I have had to hear in my time as a parliamentarian, particularly in the Chamber. Most concerning are Mencap saying that this is possibly not an isolated case and the history of missed opportunities in the handling of Lee’s case, with clear warning signs and failures from a variety of services that should have supported him to get on, but sadly let him down.
I am also very sorry for Lee’s mother, Bev; if she is watching and listening, this will be incredibly difficult. As a father, my worst nightmare must be losing a child, but to do so in such cruel and painful circumstances must be an incredible torment. My heart goes out to her. It is unspeakable, and I am so glad that, in the end, it appears that justice has been done and that those murderers are behind bars and serving the time they deserve for their horrible crime.
Most aspects of the issues discussed are devolved, so forgive me for raising some of what is happening in Scotland. It would not be right for me to comment too heavily on aspects of the case, as much of it is a matter for England and Wales. The SNP Government acknowledge that transformational change is needed for disabled people of all ages to realise their full potential. That is why the Scottish Government are working with partners towards the long-term ambition of halving the disability employment gap in Scotland. In 2015, the employment rate in Scotland for those who were Equality Act-disabled was 42%, compared with 80.3% for those who were not. It was 73.1% for the total population aged 16 to 64. We will work to reduce the barriers to employment for disabled people and will redress the imbalance of disabled people making up only 12% of the private and public sector workforce in Scotland.
The SNP Government are also working with the national skills agency, Skills Development Scotland, to make modern apprenticeships more open, attractive and available to people with disabilities. The SNP is also committed to promoting and protecting equality and human rights for disabled people. We want to make sure that disabled people can take part fully in all areas of daily and public life. We are working to break down the barriers to independent living that people may face. Living an independent life is important to people with learning disabilities. That means having the same choice and control in their lives that others have.
The Scottish Government have taken practical steps such as supporting disabled and young people and their families from birth, through school and into the world of work. We are also investing £5.4 million over the next two years to improve learning disability services in Scotland. We are continuing our work to create a fairer and more equal society through our draft delivery plan, which sets out the steps we will take over the next four years to implement the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. We are also consulting disabled people and the organisations that represent them, including the likes of Mencap, to bring the voice of disabled people into the heart of Government in Scotland.
We are committed to the independent living fund and will protect the funding for it. The Deputy First Minister announced in April 2014 that the new Scottish independent living fund would be set up following the decision here in Westminster to close the fund. On 1 July 2015, the Independent Living Fund Scotland came into force and now administers the Scottish and Northern Irish independent living fund service users’ awards. The scheme will safeguard more than 3,000 disabled people across Scotland and will build on existing care through a £5.5 million investment, which will reopen to new users, ensuring its long-term future.
Clearly, there is more work to be done with ILF Scotland, but I am confident that Scottish Ministers can and will continue to support that service. We also passed the Social Care (Self-directed Support) (Scotland) Act 2013, which embodies the ideas of equality, human rights and independent living. The Act is designed to give those who require community care more choice and control over the social care they receive and will integrate the language of self-direction into support in legislation. The Scottish Government also legislated to better integrate the provision of adult health and social care with more joined-up working between local authorities, health boards and third sector organisations.
Again, I congratulate and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North. I wish to put on the record my deep condolences again to Bev, Lee’s mother, at a time when the cruel and unspeakable death of her son is being raised in such a public way again. If nothing else comes from this debate, I desperately hope that the fact that this case has been heard today in such a public setting will trigger the people responsible for the care of vulnerable adults with learning disabilities to always press a little bit harder to save a life.
Thank you, Mr Wilson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is always a pleasure to follow the spokesman for the SNP who, during my time as the Minister for Disabled People, was one of the most constructive Opposition Members and engaged regularly with good proactive ideas.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who set out the horrific case of Lee Irving. There is no other way of describing it. Nobody could fail to be touched by the pure emotion that was shown, which is no surprise, because the system failed somebody so vulnerable. It should never have happened.
We have two Ministers here today, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who I know care deeply about the most vulnerable people in society. They have listened and, I have no doubt, will take this matter forward. I hope that one of the commitments today will be for them to meet with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and with Beverley to learn the lessons. We cannot put the clock back, but we need to make sure that such a case never ever happens again.
What horrified me most was all of the warnings and the fact that the family had flagged up that they felt they were not part of the decisions. The hon. Lady summed it up when she said that Lee was treated as an adult, but really he was a child. Yes, he was. We have to do everything we can collectively to make sure that the lessons are learned. The two Ministers are best equipped to do that. I know that they care deeply. It is good that the matter has been flagged up today because that is the best way that we can make a difference.
I was proud to serve as a disabilities Minister. I did a lot of national news and interviews, which were normally quite tricky. That was when I heard for the first time the statistic that only 6% of those with a learning disability could expect to find employment, in contrast with around 80% of people across the population. That is by far the worst statistic of any disability. Yet at the same time, when we meet anybody with a learning disability, particularly young people, they have an incredible amount of enthusiasm, energy and determination. It is not necessarily the case that all of them will be able to have a full-time job. For some, an hour a week is the equivalent of landing a dream job. We talk to their families and friends, and people with learning disabilities are all united in wanting an opportunity to contribute and to feel part of society.
I was greatly impressed when I visited Foxes hotel in Bridgwater. It was one of my favourite visits. The hotel had taken part in a TV programme, which I had seen, so I recognised some of the young adults when I went there. I was star-struck and demanded lots of photographs.
The hotel offered a three-year course for the young adults. There were two roles. In the first role, they developed independent living skills. They would start by being heavily supervised and over the three years would become more and more independent until the end of their three-year experience, when they would go into a separate house. That equipped them with the skills they needed to have the best chance to live independently, because once people get to 25, they really need them. A lot of these people rely on their family and friends, and the biggest fear for family and friends relates to when their health starts to fail, because who will be there to look after them? The course was brilliant and the young adults were really well equipped.
The second part involved developing skills that would give the young adults an opportunity to work. The hotel worked with the other hotels, restaurants and care homes across Bridgwater and the surrounding areas to train them in the skills where there were job vacancies. It was key that there were job vacancies for them. Towards the end, they would spend their final year working in the hotels, restaurants and care homes and taking on different roles. They were supervised with patient training, because it takes them longer to pick up a role, but by the end the vast majority remained in employment. Some 80% remained in employment, of which half were paid.
The course was brilliant. One lad I saw celebrated his birthday shortly afterwards. His employers baked him a cake and they sent me a wonderful picture. I was really touched by that. We made sure that each and every one of those young adults was given the best opportunity to have an independent life and to participate and engage constructively in society, and the employers benefited. They were not doing this for charity, but were filling skills gaps. Yes, they had to be more patient with the training, but they ended up with somebody who was enthusiastic, who always turned up on time, who always had a big smile on their face and who made their workforce better, so they came back year after year.
I called the headteacher involved and she was very cynical about politics, which she made clear in her speech. We all hear those. We go on visits and they do not always roll out the red carpet when we turn up. However, she saw my enthusiasm and acknowledged that in her speech. I said to her, “I need to talk to you in more detail. I need to understand why there isn’t a Foxes hotel in every single constituency,” so she came to Parliament.
Ultimately, it came down to two things. The first was the postcode lottery of funding. In some towns we have brilliant examples where things go really well, but there are too many towns where the system is not joined up, where there are not the opportunities and where there is too much demand and not enough supply.
Secondly, that final year, which is a supervised work placement, was very expensive. That capped the number of young adults who were given that amazing opportunity. That was when I said, “Why is this not an apprenticeship?”. It is work-based learning, something that all politicians support. We all want more apprenticeships. They said they could not access the apprenticeship system, because most of the young adults would not get a grade C in GCSE maths and English.
I therefore organised a meeting with the then Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). I said to him, “We have got to get this sorted,” and he agreed 100%. His officials fell about on the floor and had to be scraped back up and gently reminded him, “We don’t want to dilute the perceived quality of apprenticeships.” I said, “I don’t care; rename it. Call it a disability apprenticeship. We just need access to the funding. I am not proud how we do it.” We came up with a cunning plan to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), now the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, to head a taskforce. We gave him about four weeks, because we suspected we might not be the decision makers beyond that time, and we were right. We needed to get things in motion and I am delighted that the proposal is now coming on line. I hope that it will allow the left and right hands to join together, to give those young people an opportunity.
The Solicitor General has been fantastic about disability hate crime. When I lobbied to make the justice system better, he was really engaged. It is great that there has been an increase in reporting. The system is getting better, but there is still a long way to go, and the case that we have heard about today highlights that hate crime was not recognised. My legal knowledge is based on watching “Columbo” on a Sunday, so I do not profess to be an expert, but it is clear that advantage was taken of Lee’s disability. In my mind there is no discussion: the offence should have been categorised as disability hate crime. The Government, including the Solicitor General, are engaged on that issue, and we should all keep passing on examples of how the law is or is not working. The Government are determined to get that right.
I have four quick requests. We must embrace innovation and technology. I loved going to events where we, as a nation, were spearheading brilliant new products to help people with learning and other disabilities with their everyday lives. We can be a world leader in that.
Secondly, let us not forget the power of sport. Nothing matches the time when I took part in a learning disability netball game. I thought the other participants were going to explode with excitement. They were people who had never had the opportunity to exercise and many of them were overweight. One young adult had lost three stone over the summer. I have never seen people more enthusiastic about an opportunity to engage. I urge the Minister to continue to remind Ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the power that sport has. Thirdly, tackling the postcode lottery is an absolute must.
Finally, we should not forget the families. They face a huge challenge. Many of those I met were families that had a good network of support, which was how they got through the postcode lottery, but many carers are not best equipped to navigate an incredibly complicated system, and ultimately it is the vulnerable people for whom they are responsible who miss out. We must all collectively do much better to improve the system. There is a lot of good practice; we just have to make sure that it is a given.
It is an honour to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Wilson. As other hon. Members have done, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). It is usual to congratulate another Member on securing such an important debate, and she has been persistent in trying to secure this one; the dignified and passionate way in which she set out a deeply tragic case made it an important speech to listen to.
As my hon. Friend said, Lee Irving’s extreme vulnerability due to his learning disability was known about three years before the tragic murder of her constituent. It is disturbing that, despite knowing that, the national probation service did not raise an alarm or a safeguarding alert. As we heard, Lee was being treated as an adult, not a vulnerable adult. The failings highlighted by the safeguarding adults review in the case of Lee Irving included a failure to involve his family in decisions about his future. Mencap has also highlighted the fact that only 1% of hate crimes reported against disabled people result in prosecutions.
Mencap has also called for greater public awareness of learning disabilities. It is important that we have talked about that issue in this debate, and that we have realised that MPs do not have much training on it. Clearly, there is much to know, and many of us could help with that and bring about greater public awareness. I shall say more later about the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and the impact that it can have on the families of people with learning disabilities, and their ability to stay involved in decisions about vulnerable people such as Lee Irving. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that lessons must be learned from his case. There is much to learn.
I want to mention the campaign Justice for LB, which was set up to campaign on learning disability issues following the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk while he was in the care of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North touched on the case earlier. We have discussed issues at Southern Health a number of times in debates, because Members of the House have had deep concerns about the safety of the care and services provided by the trust. Connor Sparrowhawk was left to drown in a bath; and there were many other deaths. The Mazars investigation, commissioned by NHS England, looked at all deaths at the trust between April 2011 and March 2015. It found that during that period 10,306 people had died. Most deaths were expected, but 1,454 were not. The likelihood of an unexpected death being investigated by the trust depended on the type of patient. The most likely group of deaths to be investigated was deaths among adults with mental health problems, of which 30% were investigated. For those with a learning disability the figure was just 1%. Parents and families left bereaved and grieving want to see accountability, but too often they do not.
There has not, for example, been accountability at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. In fact, the opposite has happened. Last October, I asked the Health Secretary to investigate the way the Southern Health Trust created a sideways move, to an advisory role at the same salary, for Katrina Percy, the chief executive who was criticised for leading the trust through the time when it failed to investigate all those patient deaths. Six weeks later she resigned from that newly created advisory role and received a £190,000 salary pay-off that was signed off by the Department of Health and the Treasury. How does the Minister think that makes bereaved and grieving parents feel? Justice for LB called the pay-off “utterly disgraceful”, and I agree with that, but the Health Secretary would not investigate it.
Campaigns such as Justice for LB are asking that provision for people with learning disabilities should be an integral part of health and care services—not a specialist branch that can be ignored, as it appears to have been ignored at the trust in question. They believe that the law should be changed so that every unexpected death in a secure or locked unit is automatically investigated independently. It is also an important point of crossover with the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North put so well today that they want to stop the Mental Capacity Act 2005 being used to distance families and isolate people—particularly young people.
The Justice for LB campaign, which obviously focuses on different issues from those relating to Lee Irving, has asked for a critical look to be taken at the system of inspection and regulation under which catastrophic events have happened—as they have: from Winterbourne View to the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust there are too many. Sadly, failures carry on over many years. Last week, Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust was fined £125,000 after a prosecution in the case of a patient who fell from the roof of the mental health complex of Melbury Lodge in Winchester. The prosecution was brought following the injuries sustained by a patient known as Mr AB. Since 2010, a number of patients detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 had climbed onto the roof of Melbury Lodge in a bid to abscond. The trust’s own security review had recommended safety measures, including anti-climb guttering, but those improvements had not been made.
Mr AB had climbed on to the roof earlier, in March 2012, slipping twice and nearly falling before he was brought down. Three years later, he was admitted to Melbury Lodge again. His family were so worried that he might try again to abscond and climb on to the roof that they asked the staff to keep a close eye on him. However, in the early hours of a morning in December 2015, Mr AB again climbed on the roof of the lodge and fell to the ground, sustaining very serious neck injuries. Despite that accident, three more patients were able to gain access to the roof in February 2016, two months later, and one of them was injured.
The court was told that the trust had not taken action to deal with the risk as there was no money to spend on the remedial work. This is a trust that paid a consultancy firm more than £5 million for a contract originally tendered for £288,000, while another firm was awarded a contract for £600,000, for which it did not even have to bid. It makes things worse that both companies awarded contracts were run by former colleagues of the trust’s chief executive, Katrina Percy. Nearly £6 million of NHS funding went from that trust to a company called Talent Works, described as experts in culture and behaviour change. It is not good enough that an NHS trust spends £6 million on culture and behaviour change consultants when it cannot get the basics right and safeguard its patients or a young person put in its care.
Those events, and everything we have heard in the debate, leave us questions to answer, which I will put to the Minister. Why were only 1% of the unexpected deaths of people with learning disabilities at a trust such as Southern Health investigated? Why do only 1% of hate crimes against people with learning disabilities result in prosecutions? Parents from both campaigns for better safeguarding of people with learning disabilities urge us to stop the Mental Capacity Act being used to distance those families and isolate people, particularly young people.
My hon. Friend spoke powerfully of the need to give families of adult children with learning disabilities much clearer and increased rights over their adult child’s welfare. She highlighted well the horrific events that can occur when families do not remain part of the decision-making process. I will repeat, because they are important, the two recommendations of Lee Irving’s family. The first is that the move from children’s to adults’ services be better managed, to ensure a smoother transition without loss of support, and that services consider the capacity, rather than the age, of the individual. That was clearly an important factor in the case of Lee Irving. Secondly—and very importantly, because this matters to many families—they recommend that families remain part of the decision-making process in the case of vulnerable adults and are fully involved in and consulted on best interest and other decisions relating to family members.
In a dignified and passionate speech, my hon. Friend also argued convincingly of the need to introduce a new offence of disability hate crime, to send a clear message that what happened to Lee Irving will not be tolerated in 21st-century Britain. It is unusual to have such a small debate, but it has been worth while to lay out that case and make other points. We must continue to have an informed debate about the status of adults with learning disabilities as full citizens, but more important than anything is that we should listen to them and their families. We should remember the deeply disturbing words of Lee’s mother, Bev:
“nobody listened to me. If I had been listened to, then my son would still have been alive now.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I join everyone else in paying tribute to the dignified and passionate way in which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) outlined her case. It is truly heartbreaking. Lee’s mother is watching today. She put her trust in the institutions of the state to care for her son, and we failed her. It should never have happened, and for that I am truly, truly sorry. I give the hon. Lady and Bev my commitment that I will take lessons from this. I hope the hon. Lady will act as my conscience in ensuring that I do so. The issues highlighted across the Chamber today need to be acted upon, to ensure that we do our best by all our constituents.
I was struck by the way that the hon. Lady talked more generally about people with learning disabilities. It is, frankly, the reason we all get involved in politics—we get involved in politics when we see the state failing and to make sure we do the best for everyone in society and for the people we can see being failed. I do not think that any group is failed more than people with learning disabilities. They have potential and the ability to live independently, but all too often they have been parked. My hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) outlined examples of where, with some support, people with learning disabilities can lead very productive lives, but it requires support and investment. Sadly, that is not always forthcoming, and without it, they are very vulnerable, as this tragic case all too clearly illustrates. We owe it to them and to ourselves, in order to make the best of society, to do all we can to help people with learning disabilities to live independent lives.
We need to do more to tackle the whole issue of prejudice. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North said she has been very persistent in trying to secure this debate, but perhaps it is fitting that the debate is happening in the middle of National Hate Crime Awareness Week. That is the perfect backdrop against which to address her case. It is fair to say that we are still early in the day when it comes to hate crime prosecution. There is slowness in reporting all hate crime, and suddenly people have become more aware.
People with learning disabilities are generally victims of quite widely held prejudice. It is not just the fact that they are targeted because of their disability; the agencies that should support them do not necessarily give them the support they need because of their disability. We have seen across the board, in so many examples of abuse, that particular social groups who are not the best at representing themselves do not always get a fair deal at the hands of the organisations that support them. We should look at that under the umbrella of hate crime, but it is slightly different; it is about prejudice more generally that we can all help to tackle. It is a very real inequality that we are tackling.
Central to our job as Members of Parliament is supporting people who have been victims of maladministration and who are not getting enough support from the state. In many cases, that is people with learning disabilities. I have always found that some of the most rewarding work I do as a Member of Parliament is in supporting people with learning disabilities. It is also the most inspiring, and it is great to see the enthusiasm that my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon referred to.
Unfortunately the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), is no longer in her place, but the fact that she was here is testimony to her support for this work. We are very keen that people with learning disabilities receive more attention. I give the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that commitment, and we will continue to engage with her as this work develops.
I agree with the hon. Lady that people with learning disabilities are among the most vulnerable in our society, and it is the responsibility of all of us to protect them from risk. I will not pretend that we have got this perfect—there is a hell of a lot more to do. There has been significant progress in identifying and managing risk, but it is not consistent, and there are too many occasions when it just does not happen.
The hon. Lady articulated clear views on a specific case of hate crime. She will appreciate that that falls outside my bailiwick, but I will make a few observations, in so far as I can without treading on other Departments’ toes. As she said, the judge concluded that hate was not a factor in the motivation behind the crime. That is a matter for the courts, and it is for them to interpret, but I come back to the issue of prejudice. That case throws up a number of issues that we all need to be more vigilant about. We know that people with learning disabilities are very vulnerable to bad people, and bad people will find vulnerable people to prey on. I am aware that young women with learning disabilities are often preyed upon sexually, which is a real hidden issue that we need to think about. There is also the whole issue of modern slavery. People with learning disabilities are often subject to that. In this case, Lee was obviously being exploited financially by the people who murdered him.
I did not manage to raise the very important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) raised about the fact that Lee Irving was labelled as difficult to help and classed as an adult who could choose a lifestyle, with such tragic results. That has echoes of other forms of abuse because, as my hon. Friend so clearly pointed out to us, his intellectual skills and reasoning were at 0.2% of those of adults of his age. Why were agencies saying that he could choose that awful lifestyle, which ended up having such a tragic result?
I totally agree with the hon. Lady. As she says, we have seen that in other cases of abuse. We can look at Rotherham and how the agencies behaved there. It is almost as if there is a view that, “He’s a bad ’un; he doesn’t deserve protection.” That is absolutely not the case. We need to be thinking about the person in a very person-centred way. It was very clear that Lee had a learning disability and did not have the capacity to act as an adult, yet he was treated as one. That is one of the real lessons of this case.
With specific regard to the requests of the family, the whole area of transition is certainly of concern to me. We see this issue in relation not just to learning disabilities, but to mental health. In both cases, families are often completely unable to influence support or care for their loved one; they are utterly powerless because they are in the control of institutions. We need to be learning the very clear lessons there.
We need to raise awareness of hate crime against people with disabilities. Too often, we look at hate crime through the prisms of race and gender. To be honest, we look at hate crime through those prisms because it is the victim of a hate crime who will raise it as such and, frankly, people with disabilities are in less of a position to do so. That said, things are getting better. As I said, it is early days for the offence and prosecution of hate crime, but I am told that in the past year the police have recorded an additional 5,558 disability hate crimes; the number is up by 53%. That suggests that people are more inclined to report it and that the police are more inclined to identify hate crime due to disability, but we continue to monitor the situation and see what else needs to be done to protect the vulnerable.
I appreciate the response that the Minister has given, but the increase in reporting of hate crime is very concerning. There are potentially two issues here. One is that people are more motivated or able to report hate crime, but it may be that there is a significant increase in hate crime as well. It is incumbent on the Government to find a way of monitoring that, so that we can understand whether this is a growing problem or whether there is just more success in terms of the reporting of the crime. We should not confuse the two.
That is a fair point. Data is everything, and as time progresses, we will build up more meaningful data, but certainly if crimes are being reported, they are more likely to be prosecuted. Even if the behaviour has been hidden, or if it is on the rise, at least prosecution can happen, but we need to tackle the behaviour first and foremost, to be frank. Prevention is always better than cure.
Under the hate crime action plan launched in July 2016, we committed to providing funding to community-led projects aimed at tackling hate crime. In the first year of the scheme, we funded nine projects across England and Wales covering all types of hate crime. We funded a project in Carlisle involving Mencap. It was to develop an education resource to raise awareness of disability hate crime and how to report it. The great thing about that was that it was created by people with learning disabilities for people with learning disabilities, so it was enabling and empowering the victims. I am advised that three of the projects for the second year of the programme will focus on tackling disability hate crime, but clearly there is more to do.
On 21 August 2017, the Crown Prosecution Service published revised public statements and legal guidance for all strands of hate crime, as well as a support guide for disabled victims and witnesses. One of the most telling things about the speech by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North was that it was in the interaction with the criminal justice system that perhaps the most decisive intervention to support Lee could have occurred. Again, we can do more. The Solicitor General is well aware of this matter and, I am sure, is already having discussions with the legal agencies about how we can spread good practice and perhaps look at guidance.
Safeguarding was obviously the real failing in this case. Clearly, we need a system that protects those at risk and acts on issues effectively; that did not happen in this case. As we have heard, once someone becomes an adult, it is very important that it has regard to their feelings and wishes, but the whole issue of mental capacity needs to be determined. In the Care Act 2014, there is a clear legal framework for safeguarding, which gives clear instruction on the responsibilities of local authorities and the rights of adults, but it is also important to involve their families and loved ones as and when necessary. Again, that is a very troubling aspect of this case.
We need to do better. We need to make clear what is expected of the various agencies under the Care Act. We are pursuing Making Safeguarding Personal, which is a sector-led improvement programme that aims to reinforce the placing of the individual at the centre of safeguarding. We are also working with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services to improve that.
To come back to the issue of the criminal justice system, that was a missed opportunity to give Lee support. During the past two years, we have been working very hard to expand liaison and diversion services. It has been a good news story: more than 71,000 vulnerable adults have been taken out of the criminal justice system and instead put on an integrated health and justice pathway, helping them into health services and away from custody where appropriate. I can assure the hon. Lady that that is still a key part of how we will approach this issue. In fact, I met the team doing that work just last week.
To address the specific recommendations made by the family, the transition from children’s to adults’ services is clearly key. That is where things go wrong; we need to ensure that it is joined up. I always say that if we have a weak link in a chain, we can usually get over that, but if we have a succession of them, that is when things go terribly wrong. As the hon. Lady outlined, there were probably half a dozen in this case.
We are determined that young people with learning disabilities will be properly prepared for adulthood. We are looking at four specific areas: employment, good health, independent living and community inclusion. From the way the hon. Lady articulated Lee’s circumstances, I do not think he could have been judged to be meeting all four of those criteria by any stretch of the imagination, so we must ensure that the support network is in place to help to steer individuals through that, for as long as it takes. It can take a number of years, but the end goal is a good one if we are prepared to make that investment. If people are not ready, they must have support to prevent them from being exploited by those who would exploit people who are vulnerable.
Many people think that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is very complex legislation, and clearly in this case not everyone knew their obligations under it. There was not a clear understanding of how far the family should have been involved when Lee’s mental capacity was clearly not that of an adult. We want to do a lot more work on educating people in this space. In 2015 we established, with the Ministry of Justice, the National Mental Capacity Forum, specifically to develop those messages and good practice across the sector.
We also have to look at deprivation of liberty safeguards. The Law Commission has recently published its report on mental capacity and deprivation of liberty, and I welcome the observations of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North in the light of this case. Like all Law Commission reports, it is a very well-thought-out piece of work. It has had lots of investigation and engagement with stakeholders. We need to make sure that the law is proportionate in respecting people’s liberties, but can also be used to protect the vulnerable. That is clearly the test that we will apply.
We have heard that Lee struggled to navigate the system and that agencies did not work well to support him. Another important tool that will perhaps avoid cases like Lee’s in future is having a named social worker who owns the individual and their needs, and makes sure that those have been satisfied. I think that would make a big difference. We have the named social worker pilot scheme so that more people can have that personalised care and support. They can hold every agency responsible under care plans and be really person-centred, recognising that this is an individual with his own personality, needs and circumstances. That is a very important piece of work. It is our response to the 2015 consultation, “No voice unheard, no right ignored”, which sought views on strengthening the rights of people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health conditions, to enable them to live more independently.
The hon. Lady raised the case of Southern Health and Connor Sparrowhawk. I think we agree that sunlight is the best disinfectant, so all NHS trusts are now required to publish estimates of how many deaths they could have avoided had they been better. That includes the deaths of people with a learning disability. From June next year, trusts must also publish evidence of learning improvements that happen as a result of those data. We expect that the leaders of trusts should show some real accountability and leadership in how they deal with their duties under that requirement.
I want to give the hon. Lady plenty of time to speak at the end, because this is clearly a very important subject for her, but I will quickly add that one of the most important things we need to get right in supporting those with learning disabilities is to invest in good quality supported housing. That is central to encouraging independent living and to having the infrastructure in place to protect them from any potential exploitation.
The hon. Lady also raised the issue of costs and challenges. It is to be celebrated that people with learning disabilities are living longer—for a long time they were dying prematurely. That is a massive improvement in justice, but it does bring with it cash challenges, and obviously we are facing cash challenges across the sector. I wish that was easy to fix. It is not, but it is at the top of my in-tray, as I am sure both she and the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) will understand, and we are very keen to address it. On the specific issue of sleep-ins, which I know Mencap is very worried about, we are actively involved in discussions about how we can support the sector to deal with that.
To conclude, what happened to Lee was not the result of a single cause. There were a number of failings, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North articulately set out. I think there are real challenges: how the criminal justice system understands people with a learning disability, how all the agencies can work more effectively together and how we can provide support for people with a learning disability, so that we not only support, but protect them. We are taking action at a national level to address those. The permanent secretary at the Department of Health is about to convene a cross-departmental roundtable to look at how we can deal with this across Government.
I can give the hon. Lady my assurance that people with learning disabilities are a key priority of mine, and I look forward to making sure that we do not have to have a debate like this in future.
I am pleased to have been able to put the details of Lee Irving’s case on the parliamentary record, for his family and in the hope that some good can come out of this horrendous tragedy. Unfortunately, after seven years of representing the people in Newcastle North, I have not yet succeeded in growing a cold heart or cynicism. I wanted to remain composed in order to make the strongest case possible on behalf of Lee Irving and his family, but the sheer inhumanity of what happened to him shocked the local community and everybody here. Only a cold-hearted person would not be moved by what happened. There is not only upset, but anger and frustration on my part, that the system—our system—let them down so badly.
I thank hon. Members for their powerful and constructive contributions to the debate today—the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), and both the SNP and Labour Front Benchers, but in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for her timely intervention. I thank the Minister for a very sincere and encouraging response. That the Minister for disabled people has been present for this debate, and that the Government are listening so intently, will mean a lot to Lee’s family and anybody following these proceedings.
As well as listening, we need to make sure that the lessons that can be learnt from this case are learnt, as Lee’s family have reasonably requested. I understand what the Minister said about the funding situation, but I could not miss this opportunity, ahead of the Budget next week, to make that case for funding for local authorities, to make sure that we protect and safeguard the most vulnerable in our society. That is to make sure that our local authorities have the funding to put in place some of the measures that the Minister has outlined, because it cannot be done on the cheap. I appreciate that there is also a lot we can do on the funding issues, so I will continue, as invited, to work with the Government, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to make sure that something good can come out of this horrific tragedy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered supporting and safeguarding adults with learning disabilities.
Dangerous Driving involving Death: Sentencing
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered sentencing in cases of dangerous driving involving death.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your wise chairmanship as ever, Mr Hollobone. As hon. Members and the Minister will know, this debate is timely, given the publication on 16 October of the response to the Government’s consultation on maximum sentences for particular driving offences. Our debate today is inevitably and rightly informed by the changes that the Government announced yesterday, but like many other Members, I sought this debate in response to a case in my constituency in which the perpetrator was convicted after pleading guilty to causing death by dangerous driving. As a former Minister, I understand and sympathise with the fact that the Minister will not be able to comment on individual cases, but my aim is to use this tragic case as an example to question whether the current sentencing regime is fit for purpose, to discuss some of the Government’s proposals and changes, and to discuss how this case and ones like it need to lead to a change in policy.
I am sure that many will know of the sad case of four-year-old Violet-Grace Youens, who was killed this year and whose grandmother was left seriously injured when they were returning from their nursery. A stolen car crashed into them at 80 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone in St Helens. Two young men were in the car, one driving and one not. One of them ran past dying Violet-Grace laughing, making his getaway. The other posted a video from his prison cell celebrating his birthday; it depicts drug-taking and misbehaviour in prison. One will understand why Violet-Grace’s parents are deeply distressed and have no faith in our justice system. The boy who was celebrating his birthday received a 10-day extension to his sentence for posting the video. I have read these proposals with interest and welcome them, but please consider those who may not have been on drugs and drink at the time.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Obviously, that is a horrendous case and a great deal needs to be done on our prisons policy. It is not for us to debate that here today, but there is much to be done to improve the current state of affairs in our prisons, and I sympathise with her constituents and their families.
I want to talk about Sophie Taylor, a 22-year-old constituent of mine; she was a young woman in the prime of her life, with much to look forward to. She was described by her distraught mother, Jackie, as a loving and caring individual. I pay tribute to Jackie for somehow finding the strength to come and talk to me about the case, and to talk to the media about her horrific loss and her subsequent experience of the criminal justice and court system.
During the early hours of the morning of 22 August 2016, Sophie and her friend, Joshua Deguara, were chased through the streets of Cardiff by her ex-boyfriend, Michael Wheeler, and another driver. I will not comment on the case of the second driver, because elements of that case might still be sub judice, but I will focus on the actions and sentencing of Michael Wheeler, who entered a guilty plea and whose case is not subject to appeal.
During the chase, Sophie called 999 because she was scared and felt unsafe. She was on the phone, talking to an operator for 24 minutes. As that duration shows, the chase was a sustained and deliberate action by Mr Wheeler. During that time, his car reached speeds of up to 56 mph as he chased Sophie and Joshua into narrow residential streets. Then, he turned his car to the left into Sophie’s, causing her car to crash into a block of flats. The collision caused Sophie a catastrophic brain injury, which led to her death. Joshua suffered life-changing injuries, including a brain bleed, a shattered pelvis and an injury to his leg that has since led to its amputation. News reports stated that Mr Wheeler drove away after the crash before parking nearby, where he was arrested.
The judge who heard the case at Cardiff Crown court described what happened that night as
“nothing more than a pack chasing its prey”.
“You were trying to ram her off the road and you did”.
It is also worth noting that Sophie had made several reports to the police and visited the police station in the weeks leading up to her death about the problems she was experiencing with Mr Wheeler. The chase was an act of decisive, prolonged and co-ordinated aggression, and in my view, one which should have led to an even more serious charge than causing death by dangerous driving, but the judge was clear, saying
“you were consumed by a self-righteous and jealous rage, chasing her down to frighten her and teach her a lesson”.
We can only imagine Sophie’s family’s loss and the stress and torment that they have endured throughout the legal process. As I said, I met her mother, Jackie. Understandably, she is absolutely devastated by what happened, but she is equally determined to do what she can to prevent other families having to go through what her family has suffered.
As I said, I completely understand that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases. However, the details of the case that I have outlined are extremely pertinent in discussing the sentencing of cases of death by dangerous driving.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Members might know of an incident that happened in Penge last year, when two of my constituents, Makayah McDermott—a 10-year old boy and aspiring young actor—and his aunt, Rozanne Cooper, were killed when a stolen vehicle was travelling at 55 miles per hour in a residential area just opposite a playpark. That case is particularly close to my heart because I was at school with the mother of the boy and his aunt, both of whom died. Does my hon. Friend agree that the disparity between sentences for manslaughter and sentences for death by dangerous driving has long been unjust?
Yes I do, as a matter of fact, and I extend my sympathies to my hon. Friend and her constituents in relation to that tragic case. The case I will try to develop in my argument is that it is not enough just to get parity of sentence. We need to look at what sentences are being handed out and why, and whether justice is being served by the system, whatever ultimate maximum tariff the Government decide is appropriate for this offence.
The details of this case are pertinent. As hon. Members know, the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving has been raised in recent years to 14 years in custody. I note that in its guidelines, the Sentencing Council characterises a level 1 conviction for causing death by dangerous driving as
“a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others.”
Given that Sophie was deliberately and persistently chased through the streets of Cardiff and forced off the road in a way that ultimately led to her death, it seems to me that a level 1 sentence would have to apply in this case. However, although the starting point for a level 1 conviction is eight years in custody, Wheeler was sentenced to seven and a half years, which is just over half the maximum sentence available. My constituent Jackie Taylor’s understanding is that the guidelines available to the judge did not allow for the maximum sentence to be given, despite the obvious aggressive and aggravating factors in this particular case.
The Justice Secretary said in reply to a letter that I sent to him about this case that the courts must follow sentencing guidelines
“unless it is not in the interest of justice to do so”.
That leads to an obvious question: how could it be in the interests of justice to opt for a shorter sentence in a case such as the one that I have outlined? The sentence following Sophie Taylor’s death poses questions about the current frequency and circumstances of use of the maximum sentence that are particularly timely, given the Government’s announcement that they intend to increase the maximum sentence from 14 years to life in cases of death by dangerous driving.
The first issue is how often the maximum sentence is used. In my previous correspondence on the matter with the Justice Secretary, I asked how many maximum sentences for causing death by dangerous driving had been handed out in recent years. I noted that the Government press release yesterday containing the announcement on the maximum sentence said that 157 people were sentenced in 2016 for causing death by dangerous driving. In his response to the question I asked in my letter, the Justice Secretary—it is not like him not to respond to my direct question—simply said that the maximum sentence was rarely used. When the Minister responds, can he give us that figure? I looked carefully at the Government’s press release to see whether it was there, but it was not.
I say gently to him that such sensitive matters should be carefully proofread. The final point of the notes to editors in the press release says:
“The government will give further consideration to increasing minimum driving bans for those convicted of causing serious death.”
I know that that is an error, but an error so crass is not really acceptable in something so sensitive.
My hon. Friend is getting to the fundamental point. This week, Merseyside Road Safety Partnership announced a strategy to reduce road deaths dramatically by 2020, but I am sure he will agree that preventive measures are useful and good only if those who cause death by dangerous driving know that they will be dealt with harshly by the law.
Justice should be served by the right sentence being given for the offence. There should also be an anticipation that offenders are likely to be caught and justice served upon them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: if that is not clear, such offences will continue.
I hope that the Minister can at least give us that figure. The public are entitled to know. When my constituent, Jackie Taylor, read the Justice Secretary’s response, she said:
“I note that the right hon. David Lidington, CBE, MP mentions about the government in consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death and serious injury, possibly increasing to life imprisonment. This will only deem as a deterrent, not deal with the offence committed. If 14 years has never been passed down to any individual for this charge, why would life imprisonment ever be used? If the Sentencing Council control what the judges can serve, and are recommending low guidelines in the criteria that the judges work with, then what difference would it make if it’s life?”
That is a reasonable question for my constituent, as a victim of this crime, to pose to the Government. I hope that the Minister can deal with it in his response to this debate.
Obviously, I am interested in how often the maximum sentence is given, as the Government’s consultation showed that 70% of respondents did not feel that the current maximum of 14 years was long enough. The Minister will understand that if the sentence of 14 years is hardly ever used, it raises the question how a new increased maximum would be used and why it was found to be necessary. Have the Government estimated how often they estimate the new maximum sentence is likely to be given, based on current experience and their consultation? Likewise, what effect does he think the new maximum will have on the average sentence for causing death by dangerous driving? If there is no answer to those questions, the obvious next question is what is the point of the proposed change.
In 2015, with a maximum sentence of 14 years, the average custodial sentence length was 57.1 months. Is it projected, as the Government anticipated, that that will increase in line with the new maximum? The second issue is the circumstances in which the maximum penalty is used. Maximum sentences and sentences of a similarly lengthy duration are rightly reserved for the most heinous crimes. I have outlined the horrible circumstances of my constituent’s death. Given that Wheeler was sentenced to just over half the maximum time in custody, the victim’s mother’s question is what someone would have to do for the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to be available, if it was not available in this case. How will that change as the Government change the maximum sentence?
As I mentioned, my constituent understands that the sentencing guidelines prevented the judge from giving Wheeler the maximum sentence; indeed, it was reduced by six months from the eight-year starting point. Sophie’s mother is concerned about how the sentencing guidelines operate. What assessment has the Minister made of how accountable the Sentencing Council is? I know that it is independent, but it should still be accountable for how it draws up its guidelines.
The Sentencing Council does important and valuable work, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in some of its guidelines—for the sake of argument, let us say assault occasioning actual bodily harm, for which the maximum is five years—the range that the Sentencing Council imposes for the most heinous offence stops well short of the maximum, effectively sending a steer to the judges that says, “Don’t ever sentence for the maximum”? Does he agree that that is a concern?
I do, and I think that there are similar concerns in relation to the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. I do not advocate not having proper guidelines—we want consistency in sentencing—but it sometimes seems to victims that the sentence they are told the perpetrator is likely to get is a bit of a fiction, and that the tariff actually served is nothing like the maximum, even in a case such as the one I have discussed, in which there are horrific aggravating factors. Can the Minister address the questions posed by Sophie Taylor’s case about the frequency and circumstances in which a maximum sentence is given?
I want to make it clear that this is not about revenge; it is about justice. In the case that I am discussing, sentencing guidelines led to an outcome that outraged not only the victims’ families but the wider community. The Government need to be clearer about what they are doing to deter such crime. Knowing that a life sentence is a real possibility would be a start, as would increasing the likelihood of getting caught by funding the police properly; that is a vital part of it. The prospect that sentences could be increased on appeal when judges are too lenient is also important. I understand that out of 713 such requests in recent years, 136 have resulted in longer sentences, but not one has been for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving.
Sophie Taylor’s death was a horrible tragedy. Nothing will relieve her family’s loss. However, the perception that justice was not done because the maximum sentence is unreachable adds another burden for them to bear.
It is a great pleasure, as ever, to speak under your doughty chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin in the customary manner by congratulating the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this debate on sentencing for causing death by dangerous driving offences. I know that many colleagues here will have dealt with tragic cases in their constituencies; we have heard, movingly, of a couple of them. Those who have had that misfortune will know that reckless driving ruins lives and devastates families, whether the culprit is racing, talking on a mobile phone or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The hon. Gentleman has championed this cause tenaciously since the tragic case in the summer of 2016 in which Michael Wheeler and Melissa Pesticcio started a car chase that, as he described, left Sophie Taylor dead and her passenger Joshua Deguara seriously injured. I extend my deepest sympathies to Sophie’s mother Jackie, whom the hon. Member for Cardiff West described, and to Sophie’s wider family and friends. I cannot begin to imagine their loss. The technical and legal changes that we are making will not bring her back, but these reforms must try to deliver some reassurance and solace, through a greater sense that justice is being done. I also pay tribute to Joshua Deguara and his family, whose suffering has been immense. The case highlights the need for reform.
Thomas Crowther, QC, the Cardiff Crown court judge in the case of Sophie Taylor, said that
“that shattering of two families was completely avoidable. It was caused by…the self-righteous and jealous rage”
of the defendants, who were
“chasing her down to frighten her and teach her a lesson”.
The court sentenced Michael Wheeler to seven and a half years in prison and Melissa Pesticcio to six and a half years.
Such cases are far too common. The reforms that we have announced this week will come too late for the families of Kris Jarvis, John Morland and James Gilbey, to name the victims of just a few of the tragedies that have struck me as I have worked on proposals for reform. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) gave moving accounts of tragedies in their constituencies; I pay tribute to them and extend my sympathies and condolences to the families. I appreciate the frustration and anguish that they must feel. I met Major Gilbey, James’s father, last week. It is right to pay tribute to his courage and strength, and to all the families who have campaigned for a change in the law. Numerous colleagues across the House have also raised cases with me and my predecessors at the Ministry of Justice.
We recognise that the law has too often prevented judges from handing down sufficiently long sentences for the very worst cases of dangerous driving, bearing in mind the severity of the harm and the anguish of the victims’ families. We have looked at the evidence, and now is the time to change the law. Although we cannot bring back lost loved ones, we can make sure that justice is done. Yesterday, we published our response to the consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death and serious injury. The consultation, which closed earlier this year, received more than 9,000 submissions with different views on the offences and penalties. That shows the widespread public interest in reform and the concern about how the law has operated.
Based on the evidence, we propose three specific changes to the law. I hope the hon. Member for Cardiff West will welcome them, but I will also try to address his specific points. Even more importantly, I hope the changes will give the victims and the wider public a stronger sense that justice is being done. All three proposals received overwhelming support in the consultation.
First, we propose to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life imprisonment. We want the courts to have additional powers to deal with the most serious cases in which life is lost. In 2016, the average sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was five years. In the last two years, three sentences of longer than 10 years have been imposed. That makes the case that those sentences are not attracting the level of seriousness that the hon. Member for Cardiff West and the Government think is due.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman, the point of the change is to send an unequivocal, crystal-clear message to the courts that they can and should impose a higher sentence—a life sentence—for the very worst cases. It is for the Sentencing Council to decide whether new guidelines are needed on this sentence or on any of the others that I will mention. He is right to mention that the ULS—unduly lenient sentences—scheme applies to those cases and that they will therefore be referred to the Court of Appeal if the Attorney General so decides. He rightly acknowledges that as politicians, we cannot and should not interfere with individual decision making, as opposed to the sentencing framework that applies in such cases.
In very serious cases in which there are multiple victims, in which the offender has previous convictions or in which their behaviour is particularly reckless and culpable—as in some of the cases described by the hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston and for Lewisham West and Penge—offenders will face a maximum life sentence. The effect of that change is twofold. Offenders who receive a life sentence will serve a minimum period in prison and will be released only when the Parole Board considers it safe. For offenders who do not merit a life sentence, the court will have the power to impose a determinate sentence of any length. That will empower the courts to reflect the full severity of the worst offending and its devastating impact on victims and their families.
The Minister speaks about sending a powerful message. A powerful message is sent to the Sentencing Council too. Does he agree that for offences such as stalking, for which the maximum sentence has been doubled, that message has been reflected to a large extent in the Sentencing Council’s most recently published guidelines?
My hon. Friend is right. I remember his tenacious campaign on that subject from my early days as a Justice Minister. As well as empowering the courts, the change sends a message that will have an effect, right through the system, on the raw power available to a sentencing court. It will have a knock-on effect on the Sentencing Council and its ability to assess and consider whether further guidelines need to be provided. At the appeal level, there is also the ULS scheme.
In the time available, I will address the other key proposals. The second proposal is to raise the maximum penalty for the separate offence of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. We recognise that although the driving in such cases may not amount to dangerous driving, the overall seriousness of the offence is the same, because of the combination of careless driving and the irresponsible decision to get behind the wheel under the influence of drink or drugs. Again, for the worst cases, we propose that the maximum sentence be life imprisonment.
Our third proposal will close a gap in the law. At the moment, if a driver who is driving carelessly injures another road user, passenger or pedestrian, the maximum penalty is a fine, even if the incident results in the victim being left with serious, debilitating or permanent injuries. The case that particularly struck me was that of Sophie Wilkinson, who was left in a coma with a life-changing set of injuries after a horror crash in 2007. We need the criminal law to cover careless driving that results in such severe harm and injury, so we will introduce a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. That offence will carry a custodial penalty and will sit alongside the existing offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving.
Those are the three key areas of reform that we plan to implement as soon as parliamentary time allows. We will incorporate any further changes that emerge from the review of cycling safety announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport last month, so that we have a consistent overarching framework for sentencing people who kill or cause serious injury on our roads. I am grateful for the time and effort that so many people, including the hon. Member for Cardiff West and the campaigning families, put into their responses to the consultation. No punishment in these cases can make up for the loss of a loved one, but we can make sure that justice is properly done.
The Minister says that three sentences longer than 10 years have been imposed in the last couple of years, but he did not say that the maximum 14-year sentence had been used. I hope he wants to signal that that maximum sentence should be used more frequently.
Devolved Powers in Scotland
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of devolved powers in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to lead my first debate as a Member of Parliament.
Twenty years ago, I was in the minority. At the referendum in 1997, I campaigned against the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, not from party loyalty but from the starting point that any dilution of the Union could lead to its ending. I urged the people of Scotland to think twice and vote no. They did not; instead, they voted yes to a future with a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh.
However, I now realise that I was wrong. With the zeal of the convert, I have trodden my own road to Damascus and now I stand here today to extol the virtues of the Scottish Parliament and devolution. The Scottish Parliament has helped and is helping to create a better Scotland, and a more comfortable and confident Union, too; but more than that, I firmly believe that devolution is a principle worth arguing for. I am not talking about devolution in the sense of the establishment of a Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, but about the concept of devolution. It is core to my credo that politics should be and is local. It is personal to communities that decisions that impact on people’s lives should be made as near to them as possible. Edinburgh is not the end of the road; Holyrood should just be the beginning. Politics should be local and we should seek to localise decision making.
Order. This is an hour-long debate. Lots of Back Benchers have put in to speak. The time limit is already looking like it will be three minutes; that time limit will go down if there are interventions. I say now that if a Member intervenes, they will not catch my eye to be called to make a speech.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he might know, we have a problem on the west coast of Scotland, because we need fishermen from non-European economic area countries. Westminster is stopping that, in contrast to Switzerland, for example, where half the visas are controlled by Bern and the other half by the 26 cantons. Does he not think that it is time for Westminster to loosen its iron grip and allow fishing boats on the west of Scotland, and indeed in Northern Ireland, to fish?
I do not necessarily recognise the nature of the problem that the hon. Gentleman is describing and I will come on to talk about the relationship that should exist between the Parliaments of this island.
As I was saying, Edinburgh is not the end of the road; Holyrood should just be the beginning. Politics, indeed, should be local. However, that is not Scotland’s story, nor has it been for the last 20 years of our Scottish Parliament. Instead of treating devolution as a process of bringing power to the people, first the Scottish Executive and then the Scottish Government have consolidated power in their offices in Edinburgh.
There has been a power grab in Scotland, sucking power from communities and taking power from the many into the hands of the few. Decisions taken around the Cabinet table in Bute House are remote and removed from the daily lives of the people of Scotland. They often run roughshod over the views of the public, and are apparently unheeding to and uncaring about the difficulties that communities face.
I am, however, full of hope that that situation can be addressed by the simple adoption of the principles of devolution by the Scottish Nationalist Government in Edinburgh. Since the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, we now have a powerhouse Parliament. It should not be forgotten that it was a Conservative Government who delivered those powers, in fulfilment of the vow made by David Cameron and, as Scottish Conservatives, we are proud to have done that. It is David Cameron’s proud legacy. Powers over equalities, gaming machines, income tax, railway policing, welfare, quarrying, air passenger duty, consumer advocacy and advice, the Crown Estate, elections and employment programmes—all these are in addition to the powers of general competence that the Scottish Government already enjoy, and there are more powers on their way.
The powers at the disposal of the Scottish Parliament have the potential to make a real difference to the lives of the people of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament can develop the economy, create specific help for people who need welfare and choose to vary taxation. I am by no means a fan of the idea of raising taxes, but I believe that services must be paid for and it should be for local councils and the Scottish Government to set an appropriate level of tax to pay for those services. With all those powers and the ability to tax and borrow more than ever before, the Scottish Parliament is well placed to get to work to solve our country’s problems and to work for Scotland’s betterment. What a shame that we still have so much confusion and grievance being shown.
Let me give an example of that. One of the Members of the Scottish Parliament made a statement just last month calling on Westminster to do something about the number of fixed odds betting machines, with the grievance about the lack of power hanging in the air, but of course that power was devolved in May 2016. It is possible that that statement was a simple mistake brought about by the confusing nature of the legislation, but it also misled members of the public about who is responsible. Instead of using such an important issue as a political ping-pong ball batted over Hadrian’s Wall, would it not be better if we approached such issues as a way of creating partnerships between different levels of Government, in order to achieve something?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for giving us the opportunity to talk a bit about why the Scottish National party Government are still polling very highly and why the Tories have moved back into third place in Scotland. However, on the subject of fixed odds betting terminals, I represent a constituency that is littered with betting shops, as a result of the liberalisation of the Gambling Act 2005. Does he recognise that most of those shops are covered by previous legislation and that only new terminals are dealt with differently?
The reality is that the power to legislate in this area belongs with the Scottish Parliament.
As I have said, instead of treating such issues as political ping-pong balls, where there are elements reserved for Westminster, elements that are at Holyrood level and elements that require the intervention of a local authority, would it not be better if we worked together? Problems can be passed between Holyrood and Westminster without resolution, or we can take responsibility as lawmakers to work together for a solution. I believe in creating partnerships to achieve things, rather than issuing press releases as a display of political virility. Activity and achievement are not the same thing in politics. There is much to do in Scotland.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing his first debate in this Chamber and on his election. He talks about working together, so was he as astonished as I was when the Scottish Nationalist Government in Edinburgh voted against lifting the public sector pay cap in Scotland while SNP Members here voted to lift it in Westminster? If so, could the UK and Scottish Governments work together to lift the public sector pay cap?
Contradictions between what the SNP does in the Scottish Parliament and what it says here are quite common.
The Scottish Parliament has powers to do so much good, but some of those powers remain unused. The tax-raising powers that the Scottish Parliament has had since its inception, which were agreed to at the referendum in 1997, remain in their box, unused. I do not believe in higher taxes, but there have been a few parties that might have some small representation in the Scottish Parliament that do. The SNP has the full right to use those powers, so when we hear talk decrying the funding settlement, we should remember that the Scottish Government have the power to vary the tax rate and to raise their own money.
Newer powers, on speed limits and air passenger duty, also remain unused, but we will see what the future holds in respect of those powers. All these powers are weapons in the arsenal, and let us not forget that they were brought forward by a Conservative Government looking out for the interests of the people of Scotland.
Just because we have our own powerhouse Parliament in Edinburgh does not mean that our Parliament in London should be less of a force for good in Scotland. The UK Parliament is still as much of a Scottish Parliament as it has been since the Act of Union in 1707. Scotland is one land with two Parliaments. We deserve our voice to be heard here and we deserve our Government—the UK Government—to work in our interests. Action taken by the Exchequer to work with the oil industry, to ensure that the full force of the UK economy can come to the assistance of the regional economy of Aberdeen, is an example of our working together as a United Kingdom.
On 3 October the Scottish Government announced an absolute ban on fracking in Scotland. In 1969—the year I was born—the main discovery of oil was made in the North sea. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Scottish National party were in power now, it would ban the exploration of oil in the North sea, based on quasi-science?
Indeed, the SNP is more defined by what it is against than what it is for, in most instances.
I say to the Minister that it is vital that the UK Government do not devolve and forget. Betterment will come—in so many ways—only when different levels of government work together in co-operation. That is why a positive relationship between all levels of government—Edinburgh, Westminster and local government—is imperative. Such a relationship should be built on respect, and it should not matter whether someone is a local councillor, a Member of the Scottish Parliament or a Member of this Parliament. We are all unified in our goal of making Scotland a better place. We might have different approaches, but I believe that people who enter politics do so out of a genuine belief, either in a cause or in the value of public service or, as is often the case, in both. That respect must run both ways, and political parties have a fundamental responsibility to embody the principle of respect, as we all know what happens when it breaks down.
In Stirling we have a city deal, which, to work, requires the agreement of the local authority, the Scottish Government and the UK Government. The UK Government have made a significant commitment to the city region deal and the local authority is already spending money on projects. The Scottish Government are coming to the table, but there is a nagging feeling that Edinburgh is reticent about getting involved. I hope that changes soon and that we see movement, but it is part of a worrying trend. I will work with all levels—politicians, officials and businesses—to make the deal happen and to make it work.
On the other side, the UK Government are responsible for broadband policy in Scotland. [Interruption.] Listen, listen. That policy is being delivered through the Scottish Government. There is a contract set by the Scottish Government, targets set by the Scottish Government and a delivery body, within the Scottish Government. When new areas are released as being covered by broadband, SNP Ministers will be there getting their photos taken. Who can blame them? All politicians love to have their pictures taken. But then when questions are raised or there are negative stories, it all somehow, as if by magic, becomes a problem caused by Westminster neglect.
The Scottish Government—the SNP Government—tends towards grievance instead of fixing the issues. With fixed odds betting terminals, welfare rights or broadband, they prefer to focus on process. The reason the SNP exists is to build support for independence. Despite its being an overwhelmingly negative way of doing things, grievance is clearly how it likes to do them and, frankly, Scotland suffers because of that.
While the Scottish Government are distracted, education is slipping. The fact that international scoring puts us behind England should be a source of national embarrassment, yet the Scottish Government prefer to focus on independence. Business growth in Scotland in 2016 was the lowest for any part of the United Kingdom. The business community are crying out for a more joined-up approach to business support and reform of the business rates system. Despite that, the Scottish Government want to focus their time on fighting for more economic power, when they will not use the powers they already have at their disposal. Instead of focusing on the crime rate and the leadership crisis in the police force, the SNP Scottish Government choose to put their time and attention into scrapping the British Transport police.
There is a clear pattern: the SNP puts process and stoking up grievance ahead of the good of the people of Scotland, and that is not what the powers of the Scottish Parliament are for, nor what people pay their taxes to support the Scottish Government for—nor is it to pay for ministerial limos, by the way, but that is a different story. And there are more process issues being stoked up by Brexit. Scotland’s most important markets are in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—one could call that the United Kingdom single market. We have been in a social union with those countries for 310 years. There is freedom of movement and a customs union, but the SNP would prefer powers to be handled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels than by a Government elected by the people of the United Kingdom. I have always found that position to be confusing at best and disingenuous at worst.
We need a regulated, open market within the UK, so it remains vital that some of the regulations and frameworks are set at Westminster level. Equally, some of the powers that Europe now holds should sit logically in the devolved Governments of Cardiff and Edinburgh. Beyond that, the devolved Assemblies have a responsibility to consider which of those powers can be reasonably held at local authority level. Again, if we approach this in partnership for Scotland, the UK and Scottish Governments can really deliver on the benefits of Brexit, but if we focus on the process and on fomenting grievance, Scotland will be let down again.
I am going to close. Our Scottish Government have a wide range of powers that they can use for the good of Scotland—more powers delivered by a Conservative Government. Devolution, however, should be a process and the Scottish people are best served when decisions are made closest to where they live. We must push for more power to be delivered to town halls across Scotland. Clarity over where power sits and honesty about that is essential. Politicians should be problem solvers, working across government levels to achieve for their constituents, rather than throwing their hands up in the air and decrying their lack of power.
Throughout all this is my fundamental belief that by working together we can achieve so much more for Scotland. We need to stop arguing—[Interruption.] Sorry, I correct myself: we need to keep arguing—[Laughter]—about policy and ideas. That is part of our nature as Scots. If we get away from the grievances and use the powers of devolution, we can all be winners. That is the promise of the use of power by government, whether local, devolved or national. Scotland is a land with two Parliaments, but it is one land and it deserves to be governed not in conflict but in partnership.
The debate ends at 5.30 pm. Mr Kerr has three minutes to sum up at the end. The guideline limits for the Front-Bench speeches are five minutes for Mr Sheppard and the SNP, five minutes for Mr Sweeney and Her Majesty’s official Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. That means that I have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at seven minutes past five. There are 19 minutes between now and then, and there are nine Members seeking to speak, so to get you all in there will have to be a two-minute limit, starting from now. If there is a two-minute limit, all those Members will get to speak; if there are interventions, someone or some people will lose out.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I must confess that when I saw the debate on the Order Paper I had very low expectations, and the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) matched every single one of them.
The hon. Member for Stirling talks about politics being local. What about the Trade Union Act 2016? In that Act, local authorities and the Scottish Parliament were denied an opportunity to deal with their workforces in the way they wanted to because a Westminster Government imposed restrictions on them. That is not grievance, it is a simple fact. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that politics should be local, the Government should devolve the Trade Union Act to the Scottish Parliament.
As for the public sector pay cap, it was very strange that not one Scottish Conservative contributed to, or was in, the debate on that a couple of weeks ago. They were absent. They boycotted the debate, and they were local. The treatment of workers is one of the key powers that we need to debate—whether it should be a power for the Scottish Parliament or for Westminster. The Scottish Parliament would not be treating workers in the way that the Westminster Parliament is by not taking action against companies exploiting employees.
The hon. Gentleman did not speak in the public sector pay cap debate, and Hansard will show that. He asked a question during the ministerial statement. He was not there for the debate.
I think there should be an honest debate about powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and I hope we will see that in the rest of the debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for bringing this incredibly important debate to Westminster Hall, and to you, Mr Hollobone, for kindly allowing me to speak.
In my constituency of Angus, one of the biggest challenges is delivering effective and efficient healthcare in such a rural community. While the Scottish Parliament should in theory have the ability to better understand local needs, with this SNP Government, that unfortunately applies only to the central belt. For example, in my home town of Brechin—part of it falls into the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland—the health centre was staffed by six full-time GPs back in 2007. After 10 years of an SNP Government, that service has halved. In addition to the difficulty now faced by residents in simply securing a GP appointment—never mind continuity with the same GP—other services that should be delivered locally to reduce demand on Dundee’s A&E department are being withdrawn or reviewed with no guarantees about their replacement.
No, I am going to make some progress. Speaking on behalf of my constituents, I say quite simply that we are fed up of being hoodwinked by this SNP Government. They should stop pulling the wool over our eyes. We deserve honesty, clarity and an open dialogue on such vital services—not back-room discussions that the service users have no ability to influence effectively. As a result of the fall in the number of doctors, out-of-hours care services that should be delivered in the community have all but disappeared. Rural residents are being forced to travel up to 40 miles to Dundee or wait until the daytime services re-open.
It is not just general practice that has been badly hit by the SNP’s mismanagement of Scotland’s NHS; every aspect of healthcare is being threatened by a Government set on centralisation. Whether it is the sham consultation on the Mulberry mental health unit—the SNP MSP who claims to be fighting the case refused to turn up to the regional NHS meeting where that exact issue was at the top of the agenda—or whether it is the closure of Brechin Infirmary—
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for securing this debate. To have power and not use it is a crime. For a Government to have power and to let it lie in abeyance for so long is to mistrust and ill-serve the people who voted for them.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I thank him for the extra time. Devolution under the Scotland Act 1998 created the Parliament that sat on 12 May 1999. The first Act passed was the Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 1999, and it is interesting that we still talk about the need and desires for mental health services to this day.
From the formation of the Scottish Parliament we are now in a position where in a recent poll, 19% of people in Scotland seemed to indicate that they want devolved powers returned to Westminster. That is an appalling state of affairs. After this length of time, instead of an increasing number finding confidence and security in our Parliament in Scotland, one fifth of the population wants to go back to what they had.
I want to look at the powers in relation to one industry that concerns my constituency greatly, which is timber. Businesses north of the border can draw down from the apprenticeship levy if and only if they have an approved training provider. Businesses south of the border can draw down for the individual apprentices they have. In my constituency, we have a forestry business that can produce 10 million trees a year, but the number of apprentices within the industry is so small that there is no provider, so the businesses cannot draw down on the levy and they get no financial support.
Other industries in my constituency have apprenticeships that cross the border. The nuclear power station wants to send its apprentices around the whole fleet, and that causes problems, because it can draw down on the apprenticeship levy south of the border, but not north of the border. This debate is very timely, and the discussion needs to be across the border so as to facilitate the best interests of those in Scotland and of the United Kingdom and its economy across the board. Maybe it is time we stop screaming and shouting at each other and sit down and talk and act in the best interests of both Scotland and the United Kingdom.
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on initiating it. Devolution should have been a good thing for Scotland, bringing power and decision-making closer to the people. Holyrood has evolved to be one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world, and I for one welcome that process, but it does mean that the Scottish Government must face the reality of spending within their means. Every time the SNP objects to a reduction in public spending, they have a simple solution: increase taxes to pay for what it is promising.
Devolution does not and should not stop at Holyrood. What we have seen, particularly over the past 10 years, is an increasingly powerful Scottish Parliament refusing to hand over any powers to local authorities. In fact, the reverse has often been the case. The current SNP Administration in Holyrood have been one of the most centralising Governments in recent years. Most people in Scotland do not feel that decision making has been brought any closer to them.
No, I have got only a short amount of time left. In many cases, decision making has moved from Westminster to Holyrood. Scotland has become one of the most centralised countries in the western world. The vast majority of economic decision-making powers are kept by the Scottish Government, and councils have been relegated to little more than service providers. Council oversight of policing has been all but destroyed by the creation of Police Scotland. Local sheriff courts have been shut in Duns and Peebles, as have local police station counters. The Scottish Government meddle in hundreds of planning decisions each year, overturning council decisions half the time.
My final point is this: the Scottish Government constantly say that they want more devolution, but it is interesting to see what they do with that devolution when they get it. The answer is nothing. The Scottish Government have had the power to raise or lower income tax, but have chosen not to use that power. They have the power to compensate women who have been affected by the changes to pension age, but they choose to do nothing apart from complain about it. Most recently, after years of demanding control over welfare, what did the SNP do when it actually got those powers? It asked the Department for Work and Pensions to remain in charge of payments for three more years because they were not ready for the responsibility. Time and time again, the SNP is failing Scotland because it fails to use the powers it has available.
I thank my comrade the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for calling this debate. I will be as brief as possible. I want to talk about where Scotland is today and about our future. Most importantly, I want to talk about how we can use our significant powers to make the lives of the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and all those across Scotland better, healthier and happier.
My commitment to the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not a secret. I proudly campaigned for a no vote across Scotland during the referendum because I believed that the powers in the Scottish Parliament were sufficient to ensure that Scotland and her people were adequately and effectively represented and served while still being part of the United Kingdom. Our issue is about the use of the powers. Some people in Scotland, many of them on the Conservative side, say that Holyrood has too many powers. Those in the SNP, who have been in government for more than 10 years, say there are not enough. To both sides, I say, “Rubbish.” We have enough powers to do it, so please let us start focusing on the issues that affect our young people in their schools, on our hospital wards that are at breaking point, and on our transport system that needs investment and focus.
I apologise for not giving way; I have only got two minutes.
We have the powers to change and improve the lives of people in Scotland. The current Government in Scotland are a one-trick pony and do not seem to want to focus on the issues facing my constituents. If there is no appetite to use the powers, then we look forward to Scotland electing a Labour Government that will use the powers—a Labour Government that will empower, enrich and serve our people. Scotland will use the powers—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will make it nice and brief. Devolution, as my colleagues rightly said, was meant to bring power closer to people and to ensure that our two levels of government worked better together.
I want to focus on spending choices in health and education. In health, we know that there is a gap. In England, spending has been increased by 50% in the last 10 years. In Scotland, spending has increased by 34% and, after 20 years of devolution and 10 years of SNP Government, Scottish people still have the lowest life expectancy in the whole United Kingdom. That is a problem.
My real focus today, however, is on education. To put it bluntly, the nation of the enlightenment is foundering under the yoke of nationalism. Despite substantially higher overall spending in Scotland—£37.9 billion, up from £34.2 billion—Scottish schools and colleges have suffered. Spending in further education has been squeezed by the decision to abolish the graduate endowment fee, increasing the burden on the public purse to pay for free tuition fees for Scottish and EU students, although not for our nearest neighbours from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That decision has actually led to a smaller percentage of deprived children going to university than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Just 12.5% of the poorest 20% in Scotland go to university, versus 20.2% in England. Since 2006, our reading score has dropped from 499 to 493; our mathematics score from 506 to 491; and our science score from 515 to 497.
That is unacceptable, but it is not just the SNP’s spending decisions in education and health that are harming Scotland; it is the deliberately divisive nature of the SNP Administration—from frustrating the relationship with the UK Government to the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, who is from my constituency, refusing to meet me about a city deal for four weeks and counting. That is neither good nor bad devolution; it is dysfunctional devolution, and we need to bring it to an end.
I have to say, in congratulating the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on introducing the debate, that I think he just had a 15-minute argument with himself—not, perhaps, the best use of his time, but that is for his judgment.
I am slightly concerned that we are learning nothing new here. This debate is on more powers for Scotland, and not a single Conservative Member has argued for a single new power to come to Scotland. I understand why the Minister is looking so nervous as he sees this historic event happen in front of us—the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party transforming from caterpillars into butterflies of devo-max-olutionism.
Nobody is buying it, and I ask Members in all seriousness what they are adding to the debate. We can have a slagging match on my Government or the Conservative Government’s record. That is fine, but hon. Members should ask themselves what members of the public watching the debate will think. This is meant to be a serious debate about where power lies and—yes, I accept—how it is used, but what Members have come here for this afternoon is essentially a stairheid rammy.
If hon. Members want to have a serious debate about how powers are used to combat poverty or better the lives of the people of Scotland, let us have that discussion. As to all the accusations about not getting on with the day job—I really do not think so. When their own leader in Scotland is about to embark on a celebrity version of “The Great British Bake Off”, I will take no lectures in how to govern.
I also say this: there is a Minister here. Why not tear him apart on the half a trillion pounds that the Government have just lost—wiped off the UK’s wealth? There is not a single piece of holding to account. They were elected to send a message; well what a message it is.
The SNP has been in power for a decade now and throughout its time in office, the approach to dealing with any issue has been that control from Edinburgh is inherently better. The SNP Administration under Nicola Sturgeon have been characterised by illiberal reforms such as the named person scheme, where the Government did not trust parents to the extent that they wanted to assign a state guardian, because state officials know better than parents. The Supreme Court was unanimous in declaring that the Scottish Government had exceeded their powers in making a law that gave unprecedented powers to officials to share sensitive, private information about children without the consent of their parents.
Across Scotland, we have seen the Big Brother centralisation of power to an unprecedented degree and it is deeply disturbing. We have seen the Scottish Government’s illiberal control-freakery in the area of education, where the SNP’s top-down, authoritarian, one-size-fits-all approach is failing Scotland’s children. Schools are falling down international rankings and a smaller percentage of the most deprived children are going to university in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. Furthermore, the SNP has cut 152,000 college places.
In health, ministerial control has been tightened over health boards. Subsequently, NHS waiting times are being missed. We have seen widespread staffing crises right across Scotland, in every region. Turning to Police Scotland, eight regional police forces were merged into one, with accountability to a board appointed by Scottish Ministers, while right here, under the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary, we saw local accountability with elected police and crime commissioners. The SNP has called for more devolution for Scotland, but is silent when it comes to devolution within Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Eighteen years since the opening of the Scottish Parliament, it is right that we in this place—the place that passed the original Scotland Act 1998—consider the use of devolved powers, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for introducing this debate.
It is a fact that thanks to the actions of this Government, the Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved legislative Assemblies in the world, with powers over justice, education, health, transport, the environment, and now taxation and elements of social security. That is a good thing. However, for the people of my constituency, and indeed for the people of the wider north-east of Scotland, far from the renewing or revitalising experience promised in 1999, the reality of devolution has been cuts, tax rises and the perception of a central-belt bias in all decision making.
Let us just look at what has happened: sheriff courts closed; the Grampian police gone; motorway improvements in the central belt, but still no new junction at Laurencekirk; 120 teaching posts in Aberdeen still vacant; council tax up; income tax up; business rates up; the land and buildings transaction tax unfairly hitting the north-east; psychiatric wards closing; GP surgeries overstretched; planning decisions that were taken by Aberdeenshire Council overridden by the Scottish Government; and our farmers completely and utterly failed. It is quite clear that devolution and the use of devolved powers, as they are at the minute, have not delivered for the people of the north-east of Scotland, but I am an optimist and I think that they really could.
Now is the perfect time to begin a genuine, rational cross-party debate about the future of devolved powers, where they are held, and how they are used. For me, the biggest question has to be: must devolution stop at Edinburgh? Real, accountable local authorities; directly elected and accountable provosts for our cities; a return to local, accountable policing; and more democracy and devolution within Scotland—that is what we need.
It is customary, when I rise to make the third party submission, to thank the Member who has brought the debate. On this occasion, I will decline to do that. The Scottish Government are accountable to the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament, who are elected by and accountable to the Scottish people. It is not a matter for this Westminster Parliament—indeed there is an explicit constitutional convention that forbids it—to try to hold to account the Scottish Government, so I wonder why the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) has chosen, among all the things he could discuss that affect his constituents, to bring this motion here today.
I conclude that the only possible reason for this debate is not to try to advance or develop public policy but purely and simply political point scoring and to have a go at the SNP. It is a matter of some regret that the hon. Gentleman has been aided and abetted in that endeavour by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.
It seems that contributors to the debate cannot make up their mind about whether the problem is that the Scottish Government are not using the powers they have, or whether they are using their powers, as some speakers have complained. The truth is that the Scottish Parliament and Government use their powers every day and in every way to try to make things better for the people of Scotland, but they do so within considerable legislative and financial constraints, which have seen Scottish public funding cut by almost 10% in real terms in a decade.
Sit down, please. I have not got time.
Despite that adversity, there have been many achievements. Time is short, so let me list just 10. First, in Scotland, people get free medicine. Since that policy was introduced, 34,000 free prescriptions have been issued in Stirling.
In Scotland, we do what we can to make taxation progressive. Higher-rate taxpayers in Scotland today pay more than they do in England. People with larger houses pay more when they sell them than they do in England, and people who live in larger houses pay more council tax than they do in England.
No, I will not.
We use the powers we have got. Crime is at an all-time low. More than 1,000 extra police officers have been on the beat over the 10 years of the SNP Government.
Scottish school students’ highers results were a full third higher than they were 10 years ago—a better performance than in any other part of the United Kingdom.
I shall not be giving way at all, because I have not got the time.
Help for small businesses in Scotland is at an unprecedented level, and much higher than it is in the rest of the UK. In Stirling, 4,882 businesses benefit from the small business scheme.
In Scotland, we will ensure that fracking will not take place beneath the houses of people living in Stirling, in line with their publicly expressed wishes. We have done what we can to mitigate the effects of the Westminster Government. We have used the hardship fund to try to mitigate the bedroom tax—a pernicious attack on the poor. In Stirling, there are 1,021 recipients of that fund.
We have a better-performing national health service than any other part of the United Kingdom. There are still many challenges, but there is a higher spend per head, more staff, shorter waiting times and a better public perception.
We have built 60,000 affordable homes in Scotland in the last 10 years, including 3,085 in Stirling, of which 777 are social housing. Most of all, in Scotland, if someone wants to go to university, it is free and they do not have to cripple themselves with unnecessary debt to pursue their education.
Compare and contrast the Scottish Government’s record with that of the Tory Government here in Westminster—a Government who, after just four months in office, appear to be punch-drunk and adrift on a sea of uncertainty and chaos of their own making. I know which Government I would rather have in control of my life: the Scottish Government led by the SNP. No wonder the SNP is 17 points ahead in the opinion polls and the Conservative party is trailing in third place in Scotland. The wafer-thin majority of the hon. Member for Stirling is disappearing day by day.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on his first speech in this Chamber. I also thank him for reminding us that this is the 20th anniversary of the historic referendum on devolution. It was generally accepted at the time that it was the settled will of the Scottish people to establish a Parliament in Edinburgh—they were clearly not in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. He reminds us that the Scottish Parliament was founded in the face of Tory intransigence—that must never be forgotten. I am heartened that he has changed his view since then. Perhaps the evidence of the Parliament’s credibility over its two decades of operation has made him see the light. I fear that we may be doomed to disappointment, because it is clear that there is continued intractable opposition from Conservative Members about how we progress the constitutional future of the United Kingdom sustainably.
Several Conservative Members referred to the need to move power closer to the people, yet the Strathclyde Regional Council was abolished because it dared to hold a referendum on maintaining a public-sector water supply company. How does that square with their position?
I have asked questions on two occasions—including to the Prime Minister—about the need to establish a constitutional convention to deal with the distribution of power and governance across the United Kingdom in the wake of Brexit, and I had a totally unsatisfactory response on both. It is clear that, when it comes to defending the integrity of the United Kingdom, the Tory party is utterly inept and totally incapable. That is unacceptable. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the only presence in this House that will fight for a sustainable future built on solidarity in the United Kingdom is the Labour party.
I recall John Smith’s comment that there are two forces sawing away at the legs that support the Union—the Scottish National party, whose primary mission is to destroy the United Kingdom, and the stupid Conservative party, which always fails to rise to the occasion when it comes to delivering deep, meaningful and fundamental reforms to the constitution of this country. That is unacceptable, and it must be called out in this Chamber today.
Although the hon. Member for Stirling lauds the Scotland Act 2016, which enhanced the Scottish Parliament’s powers, he failed to say that the devolution of welfare powers was due to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who tabled more than 120 amendments to the Bill, including on all of the welfare powers. Therefore, to suggest that it was all the initiative of the Conservative party is absolutely bogus and unacceptable.
They delivered it in the face of intransigence. They failed to rise to the occasion.
The hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) talked about NHS cuts, but did not propose to use the Scottish Parliament’s powers to deal with them meaningfully. Conservative Members talk about NHS cuts, but I have heard repeated claims that they have no interest in using the Scottish Parliament to deal with them meaningfully. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said that 19% of Scots feel that the Scottish Parliament has not risen to the occasion; in fact, they wish to abolish it.
We have to raise our game. We have to look at what we can do to build a credible devolution settlement. We need to use the Scottish Parliament’s powers to maximise the benefit for the Scottish people.
No, I do not have time—sorry.
Why has the SNP ignored the will of the Scottish Parliament five times since 2016 on key issues pertaining to things such as the public sector pay cap and raising tax in Scotland to deliver a progressive outcome? The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) talked about workers’ rights, but why is it that only the Labour party has consistently voted to lift the public sector pay cap in both Houses? That is clearly the case, and yet the Scottish Parliament only responded as a result of Labour pressure. The SNP’s record in both Houses is clear. [Interruption.] Its record reflects that, I am afraid.
The only real, practical and progressive measure for tax reform in the Scottish Parliament has come at the behest of the Labour party. Proposals for progressive taxation—potentially raising up to £600 million extra a year in Scotland—would deliver real, meaningful reform, because it would end austerity in Scotland. We would also add £5 a week more to child benefit, which would raise 30,000 children a year out of poverty. That is the opportunity in front of us today.
I am a child of the devolution settlement—I was only seven years old when the vote took place. We have to remember Donald Dewar’s words: it was not an event, but a process—
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. In a sedentary intervention, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) claimed that he was at the last debate about the public sector pay cap. I have checked Hansard for 13 September, and he is not listed as having made a contribution in that debate. As an experienced Member of this House, Mr Hollobone, can you advise me what steps an hon. Member who makes an inaccurate claim in a sedentary intervention can take to correct the record?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As I understand it, Hansard is an almost verbatim record of verbal contributions in the House. It does not record attendance. Members may be in the Chamber without making a verbal contribution.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on securing this debate, his first in this Chamber. Hearty congratulations are very much in order. The debate has provided an important opportunity for us to reflect on devolution within the United Kingdom and within Scotland, and to look ahead to a stronger Holyrood in the next few years as we exit the European Union.
As my hon. Friend highlighted in his speech, it has been just over 20 years since people in Scotland voted to support the creation of a Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers on 11 September 1997. In just over a year from now we will celebrate a further anniversary, that of Royal Assent of the Scotland Bill in November 1998. The Scotland Act 1998 established the new Scottish Parliament and set out its powers as a legislature within the United Kingdom. Since the Scottish Parliament first sat in May 1999, it has truly come into its own. Devolution is clearly the right approach for Scotland. It is what the people in Scotland voted for and it ensures that decisions are taken at the right level.
The Scottish Government may choose their own path on key policy decisions. Of course, I cannot say that I agree with everything that the Scottish Governments do or have done since 1999. I do not agree, for example, with the SNP Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, and I do not agree with how they chose to handle common agricultural policy payments in the past couple of years, but I do agree that it is their right to decide those things for themselves. It is up to the people of Scotland to make their own judgment of their Government in devolved matters.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, I do not have the time.
The SNP are failures—Ruth Davidson has the right ideas. Because of devolution, key decisions about Scotland can be taken in Scotland, while Scotland benefits from the pooling of risk and resources that comes from being part of a successful and historic Union. A powerful Scottish Parliament within a strong United Kingdom offers people in Scotland maximum security and opportunity, representing their interests in the world and allowing resources and risks to be shared effectively.
Devolution has also been shown to be flexible and responsive to changing needs and circumstances. Most recently, the Scotland Act 2016 ensured that the Scottish Parliament has a significantly greater say on matters including further taxation powers and welfare support in Scotland. The Scotland Act is now in the process of being implemented, with a number of its new powers already in force and the Scottish Parliament able to legislate and make choices on a range of new policy areas. The Scottish Parliament also has new powers, for example, to top up reserved welfare benefits or to create new benefits in devolved areas, should it decide to do so. Taken together with the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament, the Act creates an even more powerful and accountable Scottish Parliament within a strong United Kingdom.
That is what the people of Scotland voted for. The Scotland Act balances more decisions being taken in Scotland, closer to those they affect, with retaining the strength and security that comes from membership of the larger United Kingdom. The 2016 Act provides the Scottish Parliament with much greater tax-raising powers, which means that, from responsibility for raising around 10% of what it spends today, Holyrood will in future be responsible for raising more than 50% of what it spends. With new powers on welfare, the Scottish Government need to publish details of how they plan to support disabled people in Scotland, for example.
Enough of the grievance culture and the obsession with process; the SNP and the Scottish Government must use their powers to serve the people. The Scottish Parliament has unprecedented flexibilities on income tax—to set income tax rates and thresholds for earned income, including the ability to introduce new tax bands—so it is most unfortunate, and I suspect that many in the Chamber who represent seats in Scotland will be dismayed, that that power is being used to hike income tax on Scots in their constituencies and throughout Scotland. It is vital that the new powers are used to the greatest benefit in Scotland. I have heard much concern this afternoon about that not being the case from those on the Conservative Benches, who are rightly concerned that it is not the case.
The Minister mentioned income taxes. He is right that the First Minister, in conversation on her programme for government, not only mentioned increased taxes but spoke about her “cast-iron mandate” for independence. Yet she never once mentioned tax increases in her manifestos in 2016 or for the 2017 snap general election. If she is to talk about mandates, there is no mandate for increased taxes.
It is vital that the new powers are used to the greatest benefit in Scotland. I have heard much concern this afternoon about that not being the case, and I expect that we will see more of this debate in the coming months, as the Scottish Government outline their plans in their budget and beyond.
Of course, the question is not simply one of existing powers and how they are used. We are now engaged in a new discussion about devolution in the United Kingdom, because leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity to determine where powers that will return from Brussels will best sit.
The UK Government have clear objectives in mind. We want the UK after Brexit to work for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is right that we consider the big picture and ensure that our future constitutional arrangements support our new position in the world as we leave the EU. However, let me be clear that where there is no reason to keep a common framework, we will not, and where there is no reason to hold on to powers, we will not. No powers currently exercised by the Scottish Parliament will be taken away from the Scottish Parliament, and the Government expect that leaving the EU will mean more powers for the devolved Administrations. Only the SNP could turn no powers removed and more powers to come into an alleged power grab.
The time for divisive rhetoric is over, on Brexit and elsewhere across public policy. We have opportunities as we leave the EU to shape the UK and Scotland within the UK. We need to take those opportunities and to consider them properly. In doing so, both Governments have to continue to work together, as people in Scotland rightly expect us to do. It was my pleasure to respond to this debate, and I am sure that the debate on devolution will extend beyond the limited time we have had today.
I thank all my colleagues serving in the House of Commons who have come here today to participate in the debate in one form or another. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. If nothing else, what we have displayed together in Westminster Hall this afternoon is the shared passion and love that we have for Scotland and its people. With that passion and all the arguments that go with it, I hope that there might be enough good will that we can occasionally stretch across the divide between nationalists and Unionists to work together to get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.
For my part and that of those in my party who serve in the House of Commons, there is nothing but the utmost respect for the institution of the Scottish Parliament. We look forward to the increased powers to which the Minister referred coming to the Scottish Parliament. I note, however, that I found the speech of the SNP Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), to be totally graceless. I do not feel that he did himself any credit in how he conducted himself in this debate. On a personal level, I have always held the hon. Gentleman in a degree of respect, which has sadly been challenged this afternoon by the things he has said and the way in which he has spoken.
Once again, I thank everyone for supporting this debate and for the privilege of leading it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the use of devolved powers in Scotland.