Wednesday 1 November 2017
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of vaping.
I was pleased to secure this debate, because I have been interested in the phenomenon of vaping for some time. There are now millions of people vaping in the UK and many of them are former smokers. This is an important issue because if many of the reports and studies carried out on vaping are correct, it has the potential to save thousands of lives in the UK, and millions worldwide. It therefore has to be worth looking at very carefully. We all know that smoking is bad for a person’s health—indeed, more than half of smokers will die from smoking.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate; he is making some excellent points. In my constituency in Nottinghamshire, there is a class dimension to this. Of those in managerial and professional occupations, 8% are still smoking cigarettes; that rises to 26% of those in routine and manual occupations in the Nottinghamshire population, so this is a social justice issue as well as a health issue. Vaping is much cheaper and safer, so it should not be taxed, and people should stop deterring it in public places. The hon. Gentleman is right: we have finally found a way to stop smoking. We should celebrate it, and I say that as somebody who has stopped smoking and now vapes.
It is good to see some enthusiasm for this subject. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct: it tends to be more vulnerable people, if I can put it that way, who are affected by smoking, but smoking affects the whole of society. Almost everybody knows somebody who has died from smoking or has been seriously affected by the consequences. As she rightly says, we have potentially found what is almost a silver bullet that will allow us, at long last, to tackle the issue of smoking among those who want to stop.
Importantly, over the last 20 or 30 years we have moved away from the James Dean image of smoking. For many people, it is no longer seen as being cool, although it was when I was growing up; it was somehow seen as being acceptable. An increasing number of people look to vaping rather than smelly tobacco, if I can put it that way. It is increasingly recognised that there is huge problem with smoking.
Unfortunately, statistics show that more and more people are viewing vaping as more dangerous than smoking. Vaping is clearly a lot safer than smoking tobacco, but unfortunately the public perception is different from the facts presented by reputable organisations. Some 7 million people smoke in England alone, and some 8 million people do so across the whole UK, so potentially a large number of people can benefit from vaping. Although we have spoken briefly about smoking, my approach is not at all nannying. If an adult wants to smoke, that is their choice; I do not seek to lecture people on their tobacco use. It is an individual choice, but it needs to be an informed choice. We should therefore not obstruct people who want to access smoking cessation products, and vaping forms an important part of that.
I do not claim that vaping is risk-free; indeed, I would urge anybody who does not smoke not to take up vaping. There are risks, and it is unnecessary for non-smokers to take them. I also urge that our approach to vaping be evidence-based. When the Government make decisions on issues that affect vaping, they should base them on the best evidence available. Vaping should not be treated in the same way as tobacco simply because the term “e-cigarettes” has been adopted to describe vaping products.
We also need to be open-minded and objective about the pros and cons of vaping. Our views may change as more research is carried out, and that is fine. We may, over time, become more negative or more positive about vaping, but that should always be based on the facts available and not on a general dislike of smoking.
I am not a medical man at all, and I certainly do not claim to be an expert on health issues, so I have looked at what reputable organisations have to say about vaping. It makes incredibly interesting reading. For example, Cancer Research UK has said:
“the evidence so far shows that e-cigarettes are far safer”
than tobacco, even in the long term. It also says that
“Growing evidence shows e-cigarettes are helping people stop smoking”.
That is a pretty clear position. The British Heart Foundation has also looked into vaping and said:
“e-cigarettes are not harm-free.”
It has said:
“We would not advise non-smokers to take up e-cigarettes, but they can be a useful tool for harm reduction and to stop smoking.”
It also points out that long-term studies are, of course, not available just yet. That point is frequently brought up in this debate: because of the relative newness of vaping, we do not have the long-term studies that many people want to see. As I say, we need to be open-minded about vaping, but we should not turn our backs on the opportunities that it offers simply because we do not have long-term studies. It would be wrong for us not to engage with vaping for the next 50 years while we wait for long-term studies to be carried out. The opportunities are in front of us today.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the first major study on whether vaping helps pregnant smokers to quit, which is being led by Professor Hajek of Queen Mary University of London, working in conjunction with Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry? Does he accept that although there are apparent health benefits to switching to vaping if people are otherwise unable to give up smoking traditional cigarettes, it would be sensible to wait for the report to be published in three years’ time before making major interventions that might encourage pregnant women to start vaping when they are not already smoking?
I am not aware of that report, but I think there is an inherent problem with pregnant women today having to wait three years to make that decision. My gut feeling is that the best approach would of course be for pregnant women not to smoke anything at all—not to smoke any tobacco products, and not to vape. I am not qualified to say whether it is beneficial for pregnant women to vape instead of smoking if they are unable to give up tobacco, so I would not want to comment on the report the hon. Gentleman mentions, but it throws up interesting questions. That is why I believe that this whole debate should be based on facts and evidence, rather than on an instinctive dislike of tobacco products that leads to lumping vaping in with them.
The British Lung Foundation has also commented on vaping:
“Given half of long-term smokers die as a result of their habit, using vaping to help someone quit smoking could literally save their life.”
The British Lung Foundation is also clear that vaping should not be seen as a permanent alternative to smoking or promoted to non-smokers, but nor should it be banned in public in the way that smoking is.
Public Health England famously—or famously in the vaping world—said clearly that it believes vaping to be 95% safer than smoking tobacco. The Royal College of Physicians and Action on Smoking and Health have chipped in with similar comments, so there is plenty of evidence that such products have potential, but they have to be judged on their own merits and should not be in the shadow of tobacco products. That is why, in my view, the EU tobacco products directive was wrong to incorporate vaping, which should have been dealt with separately.
That ludicrous approach is illustrated in the regulations that companies have to follow. If someone buys a vaping machine, the machine has to have a warning on it that it contains nicotine. The one I have here, which was sent out by a company called Totally Wicked, says,
“This product contains nicotine which is a highly addictive substance”.
They all have to comply with that requirement. The silly thing is, of course, that the machine does not contain nicotine—but it says it does, because it has to as a consequence of the EU directive. It contains nicotine only when e-liquid is added to the product; it is not included in the product. Companies have to put a caveat at the bottom of the product to say that the statement is not true, so that they do not get prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. That is one illustration of the ludicrous nature of an approach that lumps vaping products in with tobacco products, and that expects vaping organisations to act in exactly the same way as those involving tobacco.
The EU directive also imposes a requirement to sell e-liquid only in small quantities with a maximum of 20 mg of nicotine, which I understand some heavy smokers find insufficient. I do not want to turn this into a Brexit debate—we have enough of those taking place in the House of Commons at the moment; there are plenty on today and tomorrow, if anybody is interested—but we have to recognise that there is an opportunity after Brexit to depart from some regulations, where appropriate. I ask the Minister to put March 2019 in his diary, so that he can consider which of the regulations can be looked at again, are unnecessary or can be altered.
The rules on advertising are also inconsistent. An advert on a bus is fine, but an advert in a magazine or newspaper is not. The trouble is that it sends out a mixed message, which helps neither the public nor the industry and adds to the problem whereby increasing members of the public believe that vaping is potentially more harmful than smoking tobacco. That ultimately stops the benefits that do seem to exist, according to people far more qualified in the medical field than me.
Most people agree that there is a necessity for more evidence, and I am pleased that the Select Committee on Science and Technology is about to carry out an inquiry on vaping, which aims to collate the available information and give recommendations. I hope that it will look at studies on the health implications and give its view on which studies are the most and least credible. The public should not have to rely purely on whichever report is given the greatest prominence in the press. The inquiry will be important, but what is ultimately needed is more fully independent assessments of the health considerations around vaping.
The Government have launched a tobacco control plan, which I am sure the Minister will mention. I welcome the aim in that plan to reduce the number of people smoking in the UK, and it is to be welcomed that the usefulness of vaping is recognised in the plan.
To conclude, although vaping is not risk-free, it has been found to be a useful tool for millions of people who want to stop smoking. It should therefore be given the recognition it deserves. It has huge potential to save lives. I therefore ask the Minister to meet the vaping industry as soon as his diary allows, to discuss how vaping can be best utilised.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Before he comes to a conclusion, would he agree that part of the traditional problem with smoking has been that when the number of smokers declined and we got down to about 20%, it was then difficult to make further inroads? Similarly, if a third of smokers have still not moved to vaping, again we have the problem that we have reached the hard core of people on whom more work is needed. I also congratulate him on taking a responsible attitude to the issue of vaping, rather than endorsing people moving from non-smoking to vaping.
The hon. Gentleman’s point does seem to be correct. Ultimately, if people want to smoke, are aware of the risks and are happy to take them, that is entirely their right as adults. I do not seek to dictate how people should lead their life. However, in my experience, most smokers do want to stop but find it very difficult to do so. That is why we should embrace the potential of vaping as an important tool in enabling people to give up. Patches, chewing gums and all those things—even a bit of willpower every now and then—are all very useful, but vaping potentially offers the most successful method for people to stop smoking, should they wish to do so.
We need an objective, logical and fact-based approach to vaping. In short, we should follow the evidence, which at present shows that it is an opportunity simply too good to ignore.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on bringing forward this topical issue for debate. I want to reflect on his comments about the ever-increasing popularity of vaping. The evidence is clear that vaping is less harmful than smoking, as it does not contain many of the harmful substances produced by smoking tobacco, such as tar or carbon monoxide.
When vaping was first introduced, it was targeted mainly at regular smokers attracted by the healthy alternative. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics noted that 50% of vapers were using it as an aid to stop smoking; 10% of them cited cheaper prices as the main reason for using e-cigarettes. Within a year, both numbers dropped, to 46% and 8.1% citing the cheaper price. One explanation that is frequently given nowadays is the perception that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes, but also, more strikingly, the range of different flavours available. That was cited in only 1% of cases in 2015, but it climbed to 5% within just one year.
Those numbers clearly reveal an effort made by vaping companies to diversify their customers and expand their market. My question and concern is whether vaping makes smoking more fashionable, particularly among the young. In my Gordon constituency, there are three vaping shops in the small town of Inverurie, which has a population of 15,000. That is hardly due to more traditional smokers looking to quit; it is, rather, due to non-smokers picking up vaping. However, they may be people who were going to turn to smoking anyway, particularly the young. Again, here the statistics speak for themselves. In 2015, only 2.8% of 16 to 24-year-olds were e-cigarette users, while 5.8% of them were users in 2016. The number of male users in that age category has more than doubled, so it looks as if young men who might perhaps have taken up smoking have turned to vaping instead.
Although vaping is indeed less harmful than traditional cigarettes, it still contains nicotine. I am also concerned about the misuse of e-cigarettes as a way of abusing other substances such as drugs, but I keep in mind the very powerful lobby with a vested interest in maligning the vaping industry.
Whether or not more people pick up the habit as a result of successful marketing campaigns, the biggest benefit is to those around vapers or smokers. Vaping is a matter of personal choice and, unlike smoking, it does not affect the health of those around the vaper. Passive smoking kills 600,000 people annually worldwide and is one of the major causes of lung cancer, and it is particularly dangerous for children. That makes vaping by far the better choice for those around people who choose to have the habit. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and would encourage the Minister to engage with the vaping industry. Tobacco blights the health of our society.
I was only going to intervene today, but there are other things that I wish to say. Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth.
The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said that vaping is the most successful way to stop smoking. I absolutely and fully support his contention that vaping is a valuable way of persuading people who have failed to give up smoking through other methods, and I support any attempt to use vaping to crack the hard nut of breaking addiction to nicotine. When he sums up, however, will he confirm that vaping induces a certain degree of nicotine addiction if there is nicotine in the substance that is vaped?
The reduction in smoking in this country over the past 20 years is one of the best possible advertisements for health education and smoking prevention measures. The number of people who have managed to give up smoking is fantastic. I gave up in 2013 and have not touched a cigarette since. I gave up lots of times before that, but when I gave up in 2013 it was conclusive. I have never used any substitution products, because the problem for me was breaking the addiction to nicotine, rather than to the smoke itself. Now that I have broken my addiction to nicotine, I have absolutely no intention of going back to any form of smoking product.
I believe that there is an issue with the nicotine addiction element of vaping. I look forward to seeing all of the studies, including that of pregnant women.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that nicotine is an addictive substance. There is no doubt that if someone stops smoking and moves on to vaping, their addiction continues. One of the benefits of vaping is that the substances can have a reduced amount of nicotine or no nicotine at all, which some vapers have found useful when they want to overcome their addiction to nicotine.
I fully accept that and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Vaping is clearly a valuable tool in the attempt to reduce further the number of people who smoke, but I urge caution. Health education measures that enable and encourage people who are hard-nut smokers to move on to vaping should be fully supported, but we should wait until the studies report before introducing measures that make it easier for people who do not already smoke to start vaping.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for securing this debate on nicotine vapour products. I fully agree with him about their potential to save thousands of lives. We should always bear that in mind. I am grateful that he clarified the point about the public perception of the safety of vaping versus traditional cigarettes. We need to get that important message out there, especially given that some of the briefings we have seen show that people think it is as dangerous. Clearly, it is not.
I also agree that we need a fact-based approach, and that a lot more research needs to be done. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) for mentioning some of the studies, and I look forward to seeing their results. The hon. Member for Dartford mentioned one of the most interesting dilemmas, which relates to the rules on advertising and the anomalies. How do we accurately advertise the benefits of this product to the people who would benefit from it—the 7 million smokers who are not vaping—without making it attractive and sexy to people who do not smoke at all? Finding that balance will be challenging, and I do not envy anyone who has to come up with the regulations that deal with that problem.
The positive case in favour of vaping has been well made today. Most of the harm caused by cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products comes not from the nicotine but from the smoke, which contains a huge number of carcinogens. I am very grateful to the Royal College of Physicians for its work in estimating that the hazard from long-term vapour inhalation is about 5% that of the harm of smoking. We need to get the message out to smokers that vaping is much safer. More than one quarter of all cancer deaths can be attributed directly to smoking. Smoking is associated with 10,000 deaths and about 128,000 hospital admissions each year in Scotland alone. It costs the Scottish NHS more than £300 million to treat smoking-related illnesses. It does not take a genius to work out that it is in the interest of our public purse to encourage people on to smoking cessation products.
A statistic that I have seen—I have forgotten which briefing it was in; it may have been by the Independent British Vape Trade Association, but I apologise if I have misattributed it—states that for each person we can persuade to stop smoking, we will save about £74,000 in public health benefits. That would have a huge impact, so we need to take it very seriously.
Smoking is, without any doubt, the primary preventable cause of ill health and premature death, which is why the Scottish Government are taking radical action to attempt to stub it out. We aim to create a tobacco-free generation by 2034. Smoking rates, especially among young people, are at record lows across Scotland.
We also share the view of the Royal College of Physicians and ASH that e-cigarettes should be regulated to encourage their use as a means of stopping smoking but to discourage their use by non-smokers. That is very much the dilemma that we have with advertising.
In Scotland, we know that e-cigarettes are almost certainly safer than cigarettes and have a role to play in helping people to quit smoking, but I certainly do not believe that children or young people should have access to them. A public consultation paper, “A Consultation on Electronic Cigarettes and Strengthening Tobacco Control in Scotland”, was launched in October 2014, following which the Scottish Government introduced the Health (Tobacco, Nicotine etc. and Care) (Scotland) Act 2016. The Act had cross-party support, although a number of concerns were raised during debates in the Scottish Parliament. Among other measures, it banned the sale of NVPs to under-18s, made it illegal to buy NVPs for under-18s and required all shops to have an age verification policy. That is key to preventing a new generation of people from using nicotine-based products.
In Scotland, there has been record investment in NHS smoking cessation services. We know they have a cost benefit for every pound we spend. My area is served by two NHS trusts: Forth Valley and Lothian. This issue falls under devolved competences, so it is worth pointing out that neither trust outwardly endorses e-cigarettes, unlike some stop-smoking services elsewhere.
Although I have been unable to ascertain accurate local figures, ASH states that there are 3 million vapers across the UK, half of whom have given up smoking, and that about 97% of all vapers are either current smokers or ex-smokers. The information available suggests that vaping is not currently a gateway to tobacco products and that it helps people to stop smoking, so it is genuinely a positive measure.
Vaping also helps to reduce second-hand smoke, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) has said. In Scotland, the number of children affected by second-hand smoke in the home has reduced from 11% to 6%. I do not know what proportion of that reduction was caused by NVP products and what proportion was caused by the “Take it right outside” campaign, but both have clearly contributed to it.
There is clearly a role for vaping to play in helping people to stop smoking. Despite my thick throat—I have managed not to cough today—I have never smoked in my life, but I have many friends who have done so. Looking back over the years since the smoking ban was introduced in Scotland in 2006—I thought it was a birthday present for me, as it was introduced on my birthday, 26 March—I can see that it has certainly improved the lives of many people. I have friends who gave up largely due to that event. Some managed to stop through sheer willpower—a minority, I have to say—while others struggled and used different cessation products. Vaping is probably the most popular method in my social circle. It certainly makes a real difference.
Vaping is significantly less harmful than continuing to smoke. Harm reduction is not as good as cessation, but it is way better than smoking. Realistically, given how addictive nicotine products are, that may be the best we can expect for many people. I believe that vaping can lead to a serious reduction in smoking. I welcome this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Dartford for securing it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for securing this debate. It is timely and important, especially because we have just seen the end of Stoptober, which vaping played a role in advertising. I thank all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions, and I welcome the array of views and opinions they conveyed. It is clear that there is strong interest in the House in this topic. Although we are small in number here, the quality of the contributions made up for that.
E-cigarettes have been around since the mid-2000s, but in recent years we have seen them boom. Recent figures estimate that 2.9 million adults now use e-cigarettes, compared with only 700,000 in 2012. That increase is expected to grow as more people turn to e-cigarettes to reduce their tobacco consumption or to quit tobacco completely.
The interest in e-cigarettes can also be seen in the rapid growth in availability of such products and the advertising around them. In 2014, it was estimated that there were 460 brands and more than 7,500 flavour solutions. The BMJ highlighted that the advertising and promotion of the products had grown from £1.7 million in 2010 to £13.1 million in 2012—if we had the figures for 2017, they would obviously be a lot higher.
Labour Members welcome e-cigarettes as part of our drive towards a smoke-free society and because of the role they can play in the smoking cessation landscape. What remains important, however, is that e-cigarettes are regulated correctly to ensure that the health of our country is improved, not diminished—which, at the end of the day, is our main goal when it comes to smoking cessation. I will also use my contribution to this debate as an opportunity to further discuss smoking cessation, which is a crucial aspect of the debate around vaping, and the importance of continually looking at this market as we move towards a smoke-free society.
Smoking cessation is crucial. It improves the health of individuals and our nation significantly, and reduces the prevalence of cancer, lung disease and COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—diseases which we know are all too persistent. If smokers quit smoking when diagnosed with lung cancer, it is estimated that even at that late stage they will live nearly a year longer than if they continued to smoke. For those living with COPD, smoking cessation is the only treatment that can prevent the progression of the disease in smokers. It is also the most cost-effective one. The cost per QALY, or quality-adjusted life year, for smoking cessation in COPD patients is around £2,000, compared with between £7,000 and up to £187,000 per QALY for drugs to control the symptoms of COPD. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, NICE, has estimated that for every £1 invested in specialist stop smoking services, a return of £2.37 will be generated in savings on smoking-related diseases and in ending loss of productivity.
I hope that such issues will be addressed as the Government implement their recently published tobacco control plan, and it is welcome that e-cigarettes have been included as part of that work. E-cigarettes, however, must never be seen as a silver bullet to achieve our vision of a smoke-free society. E-cigarettes are a crucial player in the cessation landscape, but they are not the only player. It is important that we maintain the position set out by research and evidence from the World Health Organisation and in the tobacco control plan that nicotine replacement therapy is four times more effective when prescribed by a doctor and monitored than when simply bought over the counter, which is how e-cigarettes are acquired.
It is important that smoking cessation is a wide-ranging package that reduces smoking in society. Sadly, however, I have to say that the Government’s actions are undermining that approach. As the King’s Fund and the Royal Society for Public Health have identified, public health cuts will reach £800 million in the five years to 2021 and, in 2017-18, spending on tobacco control services faces cuts of 30%. That is concerning, because ASH has identified that a growing number of local authorities no longer have a specialist stop smoking service accessible to all smokers.
Even across the wider health service, it is clear that there are failures to implement NICE guidance on smoking cessation. An audit by the British Thoracic Society of 146 hospitals found that 27% of hospital patients were not even asked if they smoked, and provision of NRT and other smoking cessation treatments in hospitals was classed as poor. Is the Minister aware of that and is he ensuring that action is taken?
What is the Minister doing to address those genuine concerns? I would also welcome knowing his thoughts on promoting vaping and other smoking cessation treatments for in-patients during their stay in hospital, which is championed by Professor John Britton and chimes well with the position set out in the tobacco control plan:
“Promote links to ‘stop smoking’ services across the health and care system and full implementation of all relevant NICE guidelines by 2022”—
I am sure the Minister knows the quote well, as he published the plan, which I am pleased about.
That all shows the serious concerns within the smoking cessation landscape, and the worries for its future and for our move towards a smoke-free society. It is important to include vaping as part of the landscape, but it cannot detract from the other treatments available, which we cannot allow to wither on the vine because something new and shiny has come along. That is partly because the evidence for the impact of e-cigarettes on our health is still not definitive. Public Health England’s review of vaping products showed that they were 95% less harmful than tobacco products—which is excellent—because of the lack of carbon monoxide being inhaled and the reduction in the many other health implications that come with smoking tobacco, but that does not mean there are not concerns or split opinions over the health, harm and safety of such products.
It is paramount that such views are continually looked at and that we review our positions on the products regularly. That is why it is welcome that Public Health England will publish its update on vaping research and evidence by the end of this year. Will the Minister also outline plans to evaluate heat not burn? Although not vaping, such products are something else on the market seen as a way of limiting and reducing harm from smoking. The impact of those devices needs further research.
I did not mention the available heat-not-burn products simply because I could not find any independent information on whether they were beneficial for health or still dangerous. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady enlarged on any information that she has found out about those products, because I found it difficult to find anything.
I do not think that I know much more than the hon. Gentleman, which is why I mentioned heat not burn. I have asked some questions about it because some independent research is needed. The manufacturers of heat-not-burn products have done their own research and make quite strong claims that although they are still tobacco products, they are far less harmful, but we need independent research to back that up before anyone can substantiate the claims. Will the Minister update us on when research into vaping and perhaps heat not burn will be happening?
As we come to the end of the year, the Minister will be aware that if we see any delays in publishing reports or plans, I will of course be on his case. I welcome the Science and Technology Committee also looking into this matter, and I will keep a close eye on the developments of that inquiry while looking forward to its findings. It is important that we take a pragmatic approach to e-cigarettes, which is reflected in Public Health England’s 2016 statement, which had the support of 12 health charities:
“We all agree that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than smoking…but we must continue to study the long term effects.”
The Opposition agree, as it is clear from the evidence so far that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than tobacco smoking, but the evidence remains inconclusive. That is why monitoring must be maintained to ensure that we fully understand the impact of such products in the short and long term.
The Minister has had a lot to think about during this short debate, and I am sure that in his response he will address each and every one of the points made. I implore him in that response to remember the wider smoking cessation landscape and how important it is to ensure that vaping is included as part of that wider package, which is sustainable and effective in reducing smoking in society and thereby improving the health of the nation.
Like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing another timely debate. Only a couple of weeks ago we had an excellent three-hour debate in the main Chamber on the Government’s new—I suppose it is still new—tobacco control plan. I want to say a little about the state of the evidence as we see it on e-cigarettes and how they fit into our plans to cut smoking further. I will touch on vaping by young people, which a few hon. Members have mentioned, and our approach to regulation.
E-cigarettes were a popular subject during the debate in the main Chamber on the TCP. Every speaker bar none mentioned them in one way, shape or form, so there is a lot of interest in them across the House. That reflects the radical changes in popularity of alternative nicotine delivering products in recent years. We have moved from a position where the nicotine delivery market—if I can call it that; I think we need a better term—is dominated by the traditional cigarette, to one where we have a much wider range of nicotine delivering products.
About 2.4 million people in England use e-cigarettes. That represents huge growth over the past decade. However, we cannot be complacent. My hon. Friend referred to the number of smokers; there are still 7.3 million smokers in this country. Two hundred people die every day due to smoking and it is still the biggest preventable killer in our country. The financial burden that that puts on the NHS in England and other public services is obviously huge, but that is dwarfed by its impact on people’s lives and the unnecessary loss of loved ones. Let us remember that a regular, long-term smoker loses an average of 10 years of their life due to their habit. It is a high cost.
The tobacco control plan sets out stretching ambitions to reduce, during this Parliament, adult prevalence to 12% or less; the prevalence of 15-year-olds who regularly smoke to 3% or less; and that of pregnant smokers—an issue rightly raised by a number of hon. Members—to 6% or less. We have been somewhat criticised for that not being ambitious enough, which is why I stress the words “or less”. They are not targets; they are the absolute maximum that I expect, and we want to do better and beat them. We want to reduce the burning injustices that see some of the poorest in our society die significantly earlier than the richest in our society, so the plan will focus on people in routine and manual occupations, where rates are higher. We want to focus on other groups particularly affected by smoking, such as people with mental health conditions, those in prison and pregnant women.
In the previous debate on smoking, colleagues on both sides of the House highlighted the increasing role that e-cigarettes play in helping people to quit smoking. We heard all sorts of examples from right hon. and hon. Members of parents, friends and family members who have used e-cigarettes to wean themselves off smoking, which is always good to hear. Let us be clear that quitting smoking and nicotine use completely is the best way to improve health, as was said in the opening remarks of that debate. However, the evidence is increasingly clear that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than smoking tobacco. The Government outlined in the new plan that we are committed to supporting consumers to stop smoking and to use less harmful nicotine products.
E-cigarettes have become by far the most popular smoking quitting aid in the country. The evidence shows that they can help smokers to quit, particularly when combined with additional support from local stop smoking services. That is why, as part of the TCP, the Government asked Public Health England to include messages about the relative safety of e-cigarettes in its quit smoking campaign for Stoptober. I look forward to seeing how that played out when the data are available. There has never been a better time to quit and I am hopeful that many people took up the challenge this Stoptober. I am pleased to say that the Stoptober campaign highlighted e-cigarettes for the first time among the array of tools that smokers can use to improve their chances of successfully quitting. Public Health England, for which I am responsible, is already preparing its new year quitting campaign, and I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to know that it will reprise those messages. It is through consistent messaging that we hope to reverse the harmful, mistaken and increasingly widespread belief that vaping is no safer than smoking.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of independent evidence on e-cigarettes. I reassure him that the Government are utterly committed to rigorous scrutiny of the evidence on e-cigarettes. We do not do non-evidence-based policy making and nor should we. In that spirit, I highlight highly reputable organisations such as Cancer Research UK, led by the brilliant Sir Harpal Kumar, and the Royal College of Physicians, which hon. Members have mentioned. They rightly support e-cigarettes as a measure to stop people smoking, to ultimately move to no nicotine dependency.
I commend the work of the UK e-cigarette research forum, an initiative developed by Cancer Research UK in partnership with Public Health England and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies. The forum brings together policy makers, researchers, practitioners and the non-governmental organisations to discuss the emerging evidence and knowledge gaps on e-cigarettes. There are big knowledge gaps, which the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) mentioned a number of times. Such groups will allow us to keep strengthening the evidence base on e-cigarettes, which hon. Members have called for. We look around the world for our evidence base, and I note with interest that the New Zealand Ministry of Health recently published a position statement on e-cigarettes that recognises their potential contribution to achieving its “Smokefree 2025” goal.
The public rightly have genuine concerns, however, about the benefits and potential long-term dangers of e-cigarettes and new, so-called novel tobacco products. We take those concerns seriously, as any responsible Government would, and we outline in the plan that the Department will monitor the impact of regulation and policy on e-cigarettes and novel tobacco products in England, including evidence on safety, uptake, the health impact and effectiveness of these products as smoking cessation aids, to inform our actions and regulate their use. That has to be the right thing to do. Public Health England will also update its evidence report on e-cigarettes and other novel nicotine delivery systems annually until the end of the Parliament in 2022.
In the spirit of independent scrutiny, I warmly welcome the recent announcement by the Science and Technology Committee, which hon. Members have mentioned. It is chaired by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who I spoke to recently but who is unable to be here, and will hold an inquiry to examine the impact of electronic cigarettes on human health, the suitability of regulations guiding their use, and the financial implications of a growing market, both for business and for the NHS. This is an excellent opportunity for an independent view of the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes. What is there not to like about that? I say that as a Minister: people are doing the research for me and paying for it. The Government have a statutory duty—we will not leave it all to everyone else—to conduct an implementation review of the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 by the end of May 2021, to assess their impact, and we will do that.
I will touch on the regulatory framework introduced by the EU tobacco products directive, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford mentioned. The directive has enabled us to regulate e-cigarettes to reduce the risk of harm to children, protect against any risk of re-normalising tobacco use, and provide assurance on relative safety for users and legal certainty for businesses. The inclusion of e-cigarettes in the directive ensures that we can sensibly regulate these products. The directive is not perfect and nobody pretends that it is, but it gives a sensible basis for regulation. My hon. Friend asked me to put March 2019 in my diary—it is inked in. With one leap we will be free and we will be able to take back control, as the phrase goes. It will be an opportunity for us to look at every regulation that we are subject to, review them and go through them with a fine-toothed comb, and he has my assurance that I will do so in every area for which I am responsible.
I recognise that there are real concerns that vaping is a gateway for youth smoking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) touched on. However, there is no great evidence in the UK that vaping is leading young people to smoke. There is some evidence that some young people experiment with e-cigarettes, but that regular e-cigarette use is confined almost entirely to young people who have smoked, so it is the gateway out as opposed to the gateway in. To ensure that that remains the case, we have implemented domestic age-of-sale legislation that prevents the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s and we have prohibited the advertising and promotion of e-cigarettes in the major media streams, including TV, radio, newspapers and the internet. By and large, the banned media streams are those with the largest reach, and by controlling them we have significantly reduced children’s exposure to marketing and images of those products. The Government have no plans to ban advertising in other media, but we keep everything under review.
There is a vibrant e-cigarette market in the UK—in many ways it is a business success story—with nearly 2.4 million users. The industry is worth nearly £l billion to the UK economy. It started out as small, independent, non-tobacco-industry organisations—a cottage industry—intent on designing solutions for people to get the benefits of nicotine delivery without the harms of smoking.
My Department will continue to work closely with the vaping sector through the Independent British Vape Trade Association. The Department does not work with the UK Vaping Industry Association because of its links to the tobacco industry. Her Majesty’s Government take their duties seriously, as they should as a signatory to the World Health Organisation framework convention on tobacco control. I feel that I should put on the record that, under article 5.3 of that convention, we have committed to protect our public health policies from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry. The guidelines for the implementation of article 5.3 permit parties to engage with
“the tobacco industry only when and to the extent strictly necessary to enable them to effectively regulate the tobacco industry and tobacco products.”
I will briefly mention another innovation, namely heat-not-burn products, which the shadow Minister asked about. Two heat-not-burn products have been notified for use on the UK market as novel tobacco products. It is important to stress that, even in comparison with e-cigarettes, that market is relatively new and very small-scale in the UK. We simply do not know enough about those products. We will continue to adopt a pragmatic, sensible and cool-headed approach to regulation, based on the best possible public health advice, which I receive from advisers including Public Health England. As part of that approach, my Department has asked the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment to give a view about those products’ potential harm reduction in comparison with conventional smoking. The committee is due to respond later this year. I hope that that helps the shadow Minister, who I know will remain on my case—that is not in doubt.
We will discuss Brexit today, tomorrow, the day after and probably the day after that, too. There are concerns among people in the industry and e-cigarette users about the introduction of the EU tobacco products directive impacting on e-cigarette innovation and consumer choice. As stated in the tobacco control plan, the Government will review where the UK’s exit from the EU offers opportunities to reappraise tobacco and e-cigarette regulation to ensure that it continues to protect the nation’s health.
The hon. Member for Ipswich spoke excellently, as always. I congratulate him on quitting and not going back; that is excellent. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) talked about innovation and, as always, made a calm and sensible speech. I congratulate him on getting his birthday on the record—that, too, is now inked in our diaries.
The shadow Minister referred to “something new and shiny”. This is literally something new and shiny, but it is not for Ministers to get carried away by new and shiny things in any way, shape or form. The Government have been criticised both for being too tough on e-cigarettes and for being too lenient. That suggests to me that we have the balance about right while we look for more evidence. We have proportionate regulation that allows us to protect children, and that is absolutely right. We keep the evidence under constant review.
I mentioned previously to the Minister that he may wish to meet the vaping industry. I am glad that he has the Brexit date in his diary, but I wonder whether he will be kind enough to indicate whether he is willing to put in his diary a meeting with the vaping industry.
I mentioned that we work closely with the Independent British Vape Trade Association, which I am perfectly happy to meet, but I also mentioned that we take the WHO framework convention seriously. The door is always open to people we can meet. That is all part of us trying to understand the evidence base.
To conclude, we are clear that e-cigarettes can play a useful role in helping people to quit smoking. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, the majority of smokers want to quit, and we should help them. E-cigarettes are one of a variety of stop-smoking tools available to support them.
I will briefly reiterate what I said at the end of my opening speech. No one pretends that e-cigarettes and vaping are without risk, but they may be the best hope we have ever had for helping people to quit smoking, which is what this debate is all about. Vaping could save millions of lives worldwide. It should therefore be looked at very seriously, with an open mind and an evidence-based approach. If we do that and take advantage of the opportunities that vaping brings for the health and wellbeing of people in this country and worldwide, the whole world will be better as a consequence. I thank the Minister for his response, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for her contribution, and all other Members who contributed to the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of vaping.
Olympic Sports/GCSE PE
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Olympic sports and accepted GCSE PE activities.
This is an important matter, especially to all those students and their parents who find themselves in what I would describe as a deeply unfair situation, if I may be so bold. The mother of my constituent Kyle Ross-Waddell, who is here today with his parents, contacted me in the summer about the position he found himself in at Bramcote School in my constituency. In short, this young man is an exceptionally talented speed-skater, to the extent that he is now one of only 12 15 to 18-year-olds who are part of the national academy for primarily speed-skating, but also related sports, that is based at two centres in Nottingham and Sheffield.
In Nottingham we have a fine tradition of skating, started by Torvill and Dean, and we have a national centre in Nottingham. As a result of that, all manner of young people are now excelling in various forms of skating as a sport. Kyle is undoubtedly in that elite squad, and it has been recognised that he has genuine potential in short-track speed-skating that will take him into an elite Olympic squad.
I am proud that for some years now, Governments of whatever colour have had a policy—it has been controversial in some respects but has undoubtedly worked—of encouraging youngsters who have that elite status over the course of their development so that they achieve the very highest recognition, in the Olympic games. I will go no further than that, because I would stray into matters that do not concern us in this debate, but the importance of providing those youngsters with the training, expertise, aspiration, coaching and so on that they require to achieve at the highest level has been recognised.
I am proud that Kyle is in that elite sector, and I am proud of his achievements, as his parents undoubtedly are. At the age of 14 to 15, he chose PE as one of his GCSE topics. As part of that GCSE, a youngster has to choose three sports to be examined in. Unsurprisingly, Kyle chose speed-skating as one of those three. In fact, he made it his main sport, for obvious reasons—he is exceptionally good at it. The system is that a youngster is watched and examined to see how well they play that sport. It is not just their knowledge of the sport or other sports; their ability to play that chosen sport forms an essential ingredient of the eventual marks they get for GCSE PE.
Bramcote School assumed that the system that then prevailed would continue. Speed-skating had not necessarily been put on the main list of sporting activities, but it was recognised, as with a number of other sports, that if some national centre of excellence or other access locally was available to ensure that a pupil’s physical ability to play that sport was properly assessed, they could make it their main sport and therefore study it as part of their GCSE.
That is where it all went horribly wrong. Bramcote School thought that the system would prevail whereby if the local board agreed that there was local provision to test the young person, they could carry on and make it their main sport, even though it was not on the list. Unfortunately, the Government changed the system. The previous Administration decided to take off the list speed-skating and a number of other sports—I have the full list—many of which are accepted Olympic sports and part of the elite programme that I am very proud to say my Government and previous Governments have been so keen to support.
Kyle found, at the end of the first of his two years of studies, that he could no longer study the sport he does so brilliantly. He has been able to choose another sport, but it is not one he particularly excels in. I am not saying he does not play it very well. Indeed, I have a lot of evidence that he is extremely good at both football and athletics. I refer to the wise words of his headteacher, Paul Heery, who said in a letter to me when I raised this with him at the end of the summer:
“This decision has been a controversial one for a number of sports, and their associations and governing bodies have raised their concerns. As you indicate in the letter, our PE teachers are confident that they can assess practical skills to GCSE level—where they have had to assess unfamiliar sports in the past, they have taken advice, used available information and used their experience and judgement.”
I have had testimony from a number of people, notably a gentleman called Andy Baldwin, who is a long-standing PE teacher of great experience. He was head of PE and sport at Fernwood School in Wollaton, in the city of Nottingham and the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). In a lengthy email to my constituent’s mother, who is also a constituent, he explains that this system is simply unfair. My constituent and many others have effectively been—one hesitates to use these words, but I think it is proper in this context—discriminated against, because their sport, which they are extremely good at, has been taken off a list, to their profound disadvantage.
This is a really important speech. I speak as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for sport. In this country, we should champion and be proud of sporting excellence. Sometimes that will be in uncommon sports, and we should have the flexibility to champion people’s potential, because we will all celebrate it if they do make it to the Olympics. I also wish to put on record that I wish Kyle the very best of luck in his career.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I know Kyle will be pleased to hear those words.
There is an outbreak of unity across the normal political divides on this issue. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who wanted to attend the debate but cannot. He has been good enough to share with me correspondence relating to his constituent, Natalie Crawford, whose name he has said I can mention. She happens to be a friend of Kyle’s family. She has represented her country in the youth Olympics in speed-skating and yet finds herself—I think she is now doing her A-levels—unable to put that sport on her curriculum so that she can be examined in it. That truly cannot be right.
I believe a review is being conducted in 2018. I am grateful for the letter that my hon. Friend the Minister sent me when I wrote to him back in the summer, but I urge the Government to give this their most urgent attention. I am sure that this matter can be resolved, but we need to get on with it. Someone like Kyle cannot wait until 2018, when he is due to complete his GCSE studies and sit his exams. Until the review, many other youngsters across the whole of England and no doubt Wales will be seriously discriminated against because of an arbitrary list. I will be corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) if I am wrong, but I think that sports such as judo, in which this country has done so well at the Olympics, have been taken off the list. Again, that cannot be right.
I am very grateful to my constituents for bringing this matter to my attention, and I am lucky to have secured the debate. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. I urge the Government to look again at this list and take action not in 2018, but as soon as possible.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing the debate. I know that she is passionate about sport and physical activity and is a keen follower of a number of sports teams, including, I understand, the Leicester Tigers.
Like my right hon. Friend, the Government are committed to ensuring that all pupils are healthy and active, which is why PE remains compulsory at all four key stages in the national curriculum. It is also why, through the primary PE and sport premium, we have invested more than £600 million of ring-fenced funding for primary schools to improve PE and sport since 2013 and have doubled that funding to £320 million a year from this September.
My right hon. Friend raises the issue of some Olympic sports not being included in the activity list for PE GCSE. We should all be incredibly proud of the recent performances of our Olympians and Paralympians. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, Team GB became the first team to win more medals at a games immediately after hosting them. They won 67 medals—the most since 1908—and came second in the medal table. ParalympicsGB also finished second in the medal table, winning 147 medals—the most since national lottery funding began. Indeed, I could expand as to where Yorkshire would have ranked in the medal table if it were an independent country—but I will not.
Not all Olympic sports are included in the PE GCSE activity list, but their inclusion or non-inclusion does not represent a view on the legitimacy or value of the activity. The revised PE GCSE was first taught in September 2016, as part of wider Government reforms to ensure that qualifications are high quality, demanding and academically rigorous and prepare students for further and higher education and, of course, employment. For PE, the subject content was revised to address comments that the current GCSE and A-level were not of comparable rigour to other subjects, did not provide suitable progression and had led to inequalities in assessment.
As part of the revisions, awarding organisations proposed revising the list of activities that could be assessed in the practical element of the course. That was to ensure that all the activities reflected Ofqual’s principles that non-exam assessment should ensure sound assessment practice, be manageable and ensure that a qualification is not easily distorted. In determining which activities should be included in the list, awarding organisations considered the range and demand of skills and techniques in the activity; the application of tactics and strategy in the activity; the ability to develop skills over a significant time; whether there were suitable conditions in which to perform; and whether the level of performance could realistically be assessed by PE practitioners—probably the key point in this situation.
I should say for the record that I am a lifelong supporter of Notts County; I watch Nottingham Forest as well; and I enjoy watching Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club. I wanted to put that on the record, but I am very serious about this issue. Does the Minister agree that in the modern world, as Mr Baldwin points out to me, PE teachers are of course perfectly capable, through their knowledge of the subject, of assessing performance in all sports? They particularly rely on videos, and they have those skills, those abilities, so even if it is an unusual sport, they can test someone’s performance. And let me add that as well as judo, fencing, pentathlon, sailing, shooting, archery and many other Olympic sports have been removed from the list.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but the feedback from the awarding organisations was that, in some cases, the proficiency was not there across the country to assess some of these sports. When applicants put in for a GCSE exam, they may not necessarily all be of Olympic standard, and it is important that assessments can be made across the ability range in these sports. Often, specialist skills and knowledge are needed for some of the sports to make the assessment.
I understand that for some pupils, such as Kyle, the revisions to the activity list may be frustrating, but in many cases, pupils who excel in sports that are not on the activity list will also be highly proficient in a range of other sports that are included. It is important that GCSE PE can be assessed reliably and that the activities included in the list are of comparable demand among pupils and are manageable for schools to assess. I have discussed the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), and we agree that it is simply not practical to expect that every sport can be assessed as part of GCSE PE. Indeed, I bumped into her on the way to this debate and mentioned that it was taking place.
As we previously committed to doing, the Government will review the activity list in autumn 2018, following the first examinations next summer. We will agree that process with the exam boards and announce details closer to the time.
In the case of my right hon. Friend’s constituent, Kyle Ross-Waddell, I understand that he is on the short track speed-skating talent pathway. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on the progress that he is making and to wish him the very best for his future development.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister takes a keen interest in this area, but surely, if Kyle proves to be successful, we will cheer every bit as loudly for his success as we will for anyone in any of the other sports in the Olympics, so we should rightly be celebrating and encouraging sporting excellence in all the sports that count in the Olympics.
Of course we should celebrate sporting excellence, but a number of sports may not be particularly practical for schools to offer. For example, clay pigeon shooting is an Olympic sport, but I suspect that concerns would be raised were it to be a sport taught in schools.
In terms of practicality for teachers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said that the decision was arbitrary. It was not arbitrary: the list has been reduced considerably to ensure that a PE practitioner will be able to recognise the key skills and fluency of movement in the activities proposed. The awarding organisations have removed activities that are so specialist or niche that specific expertise in the activity is required to assess them. An example is martial arts, which have been mentioned. For a number of activities used in previous specifications, experience suggested that teachers and moderators were often unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable with the assessment of them and were relying too heavily on outside expertise to inform assessment decisions.
Again, I thank my right hon. Friend for calling the debate and I reiterate that the inclusion or non-inclusion of sports in the activity list does not represent a view on their legitimacy or value. Today’s debate will be helpful in further shaping our thinking on the activity list, and we will provide further details of the review next year.
I wish Kyle all the best in his PE GCSE and in the other subjects that he is taking. I rather suspect that if he does stand on the podium at a future Olympics, people will not be looking too closely at what grade he got in his PE GCSE, although I understand from his school that he is expected to excel in the sports that he is currently taking.
Question put and agreed to.
Residential Premises: Product Safety and Fire Risk
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered product safety and fire risk in residential premises.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate; given how many colleagues have turned up to support it and speak in it, I will take no more time than I need. I have timed my speech at eight minutes.
I pay generous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has led a determined parliamentary campaign on these issues, supporting the attempts of the London fire brigade, Which? and Electrical Safety First to improve product safety. I am grateful to those organisations for the material that they have supplied for the debate; to the Library for the debate pack that it produced yesterday; and to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, which weighed in this morning. All the safety organisations agree on what was and is needed.
I do not need to say very much about the scale of the problem. Three fires a day in the United Kingdom involve tumble dryers; more than 4,000 fires in 2016 were caused by faulty appliances and leads; and 2,000 fires in London between 2011 and 2016 involved white goods. The Grenfell fire was started by a fridge-freezer, and deaths have occurred elsewhere, too—one in 2010, five in 2011, two in 2014—as a result of similar sources of ignition.
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. She is well liked and respected across the House, and much is expected of her. The Library debate pack generously details her efforts: correspondence and meetings with Whirlpool and others in the sector, press notices, written statements, meetings with colleagues, parliamentary and other questions, steering groups, working parties, support for Register My Appliance Day, and more. Those are all commendable, but many of us want a conclusive, robust and ambitious Government response, and it will continue to reflect badly on this Administration if one does not come soon. As London fire brigade’s letter states:
“There has been over three years of reports and recommendations but as yet no action from Government…the review of the UK product recall system was first announced in November 2014. This was then launched in March 2015 with consumer champion Lynn Faulds Wood leading the review which reported in February 2016 with a series of recommendations. A steering group was then set up to take these forward. Following the Shepherds Court fire, a new working group to replace the steering group was set up in autumn 2016 which published its recommendations in July 2017.”
The Government are due to publish their response at any time; I would be grateful for an update from the Minister. Yesterday, in her latest letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, she repeated her expectation of an “autumn response”. When I was Minister for time at the Department of Trade and Industry—not many people know that there is a Minister for time, but it was me once—my office once promised an “autumn response” in an answer to a parliamentary question. When I inquired what that meant exactly, I was told it meant “by 21 December,” which was the date of the end of the Session that autumn. Will the Minister clarify whether the response to the working party will come in late December or early November?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has been a champion for product safety. Does he agree that the Whirlpool tumble dryer revelation is a warning that the electrical sector needs to heed before there is loss of life? The Government must play a part by enforcing codes of practice on an industry that is managing to fly under the radar.
The hon. Gentleman makes the central point to which I am sure all Front-Bench spokespeople will refer when they wind up the debate. I will come on to Whirlpool’s response and the central recommendations of the Faulds Wood report.
Page 7 of the Library debate pack includes an interesting detail that had previously escaped me: if people have used their credit cards to buy faulty equipment, credit card companies could be held liable. The credit card companies may therefore sue manufacturers for faulty goods. I have not heard that point mentioned in any of the debates so far, but if the credit card companies weighed in and threatened to sue Whirlpool, that might be a game-changer. That is not within the scope of this debate, but I mention it as an aside.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am an officer of the all-party group on fire safety rescue; our erstwhile chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), is also present. We all know the terrible devastation that a white goods fire can cause, but can the hon. Gentleman put an economic figure on it? It is sure to be a costly figure for the country.
I have to confess that I do not have a figure. Most of the evidence that I have seen from the organisations that have briefed us relates more to public safety and the risk to life, but other hon. Members may very well be able to provide a figure. Looking round the Chamber, I think I see all the officers of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, who are all hoping to contribute as the hon. Gentleman has done.
The recommendations of the Faulds Wood review state:
“There is a need for the creation of an official national product safety agency…There should be an official trusted website…There is an urgent need to improve funding, training, resources and procedures for…the enforcement authorities”.
Which? makes the point that trading standards officers have 260 pieces of legislation to enforce, and product safety is therefore not a priority. It further states:
“Local authority trading standards cannot be expected to hold to account multinational companies for product safety incidents of national concern”.
That is surely true. Indeed, it was under pressure from Which? that Peterborough trading standards officers took action against Whirlpool, following the Shepherd’s Bush fire in 2016. Whirlpool updated its safety advice to consumers, warning them to stop using their machines until they are repaired. However, the modification programme it initiated did not have the capacity to deliver. In April, the Minister reported to the House that Whirlpool had resolved 1.5 million of the 3.5 million affected machines, and in October the Government spokesperson in the House of Lords reported that the figure stood at 1.7 million. It would be interesting to hear an update from the Minister today.
There are clearly big issues to address, not only for consumers but for retailers, manufacturers and the Government. As consumers, we need to recognise that completing product warranty forms is in our own interest; I understand that anecdotal evidence suggests that people do not complete them for fear of receiving unwanted sales literature, although personally I think it has more to do with laziness. According to the Library,
“YouGov research showed that just over a third of us currently register our appliances.”
Retailers should be required to register customers’ purchases and personal details for safety recall purposes. Those details must not be used for promotions—although in this age of information sharing and data capture, it is almost impossible for any of us to avoid sales material and promotions.
London fire brigade has a number of simple requests to manufacturers, and these requests are supported generally. They include changing fridge-freezer construction to protect insulation materials from components that could catch fire; better permanent marking of model and serial numbers, so that appliances can be identified after a fire; and using capacitors in fridges and freezers in a way that prevents them from starting fires. Which? also mentions non-flame-retardant backings for fridge-freezers.
Finally, what should the Government do? That is obviously the biggest challenge, especially with a Government who—with respect—are set against any new regulation on business. I have already mentioned the key recommendations of the Faulds Wood report for a national safety agency, an official trusted website and better enforcement; all its other recommendations flow from those. As an aside, all the safety organisations have raised concerns about what will happen after Brexit, not only to our own safety standards and markings, but to information sharing with other countries on advice, failures and recalls. It would be helpful if the Minister could also address that issue in her wind-up.
In conclusion, I am told by the London fire brigade that there have been 14 such fires in my constituency in recent times. I have referred to some of the other regional and national statistics, including those on fatalities. I understand that this is the fifth debate on this subject since March 2015. We have also had two Government reviews and there is an ongoing working group. There have been three major incidents in tower blocks since 2009—Lakanal House, Shepherds Court and Grenfell—all of which had an electrical source of ignition. The Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had a hearing yesterday to explore these issues and I hope it will soon launch a major inquiry. Of course, we still await the Government’s conclusions on their latest review, as I have mentioned.
Meanwhile, the average success rate for an electrical product recall is apparently between 10% and 20%. We all know, including our major safety organisations and the Government, that that is just not good enough, because lives are at risk. What can the Minister do about it?
I look forward to hearing the contributions of fellow Back Benchers and the responses from the Front Benchers. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He has real expertise in this area. He was a first-class Fire Minister, as indeed was the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who is sitting next to him. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for whom this was a constituency issue in 2016, and he has not let the matter drop. In the light of the disaster at Grenfell, I am sure that I share with colleagues a sense of optimism that, at the end of the debate, our excellent Minister will leave us with a positive plan of action.
In this debate, what I term white goods are large electrical goods used domestically, such as refrigerators and washing machines. I have been provided with an excellent brief by the secretariat of the all-party fire safety rescue group, Mr Ronnie King, and by Electrical Safety First, a UK charity dedicated to reducing and preventing damage, injuries and death caused by faulty electrical goods.
In 2016, 1,873 fires were caused by domestic electrical white goods, which is a truly shocking figure. Five fires a day in the UK are caused by electrical goods, and three a day involve tumble dryers. Of course a fridge-freezer was the initial cause of the Grenfell Tower disaster; the inquiry into that is taking evidence, and we will see where that leads us.
Electrical Safety First proposes that the Government provide free mandatory electrical checks for homes in tower blocks. Colleagues might say, “Free checks are all very well and good, David, but who’s going to pay for all this?”, but perhaps we could come up with some innovative ideas; I could ask the Minister how we could address that.
Housing associations and local authorities should have a legal responsibility for ensuring free mandatory electrical safety checks, including of fixed electrical installations and appliances in properties. Housing associations and local authorities should keep a register of the white goods contained and operating in their tower blocks, regardless of an apartment’s tenure, and should ensure that tenants register those products. The cost of that is enormous—between £48 million and £60 million over five years, which is a huge amount of money—but again, I say to the Minister that we might be able to come up with an innovative way to deal with that cost.
Current policy, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, is that there is an “expectation” that landlords will keep electrical installations safe, but we all know that there is a vast gap between an expectation and ensuring that a policy is delivered.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it important that the safety checks be compulsory, not mandatory? If we are thinking about ways of introducing them, let us look at what we do about gas safety checks: every landlord has to provide a certificate.
I hope that the House will unite in the view that we cannot compromise on safety, and I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, it is simply not good enough for these products to go unchecked for years in socially rented properties.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith told the House about a serious fire in Shepherd’s Bush in 2016 that was caused, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, by a faulty Whirlpool tumble dryer. Whirlpool was aware of the fault but failed to recall the products, instead advising customers not to leave them unattended and saying that repairs would be carried out in due course. That does not seem good enough, really. Most Members present attended the Adjournment debate on this issue in September last year.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills established a working group on product recalls and safety in July this year, and I congratulate the Government on that. Its key recommendations are: having centralised technical and scientific resource capability, to support decision making and co-ordination of activity in local authorities and the businesses they regulate; having a detailed code of practice that is informed by behavioural insights research; and considering establishing central capacity to co-ordinate product safety corrective actions. Furthermore, it was recommended that manufacturers and retailers work together, through standards-setting bodies, to develop technological solutions to product marking. Finally, the registration by consumers of appliances and other consumer goods with the manufacturers should be encouraged, to make corrective actions—including product recalls—more effective. Of course, to go back to the earlier point, it is compulsion that the House is looking for, but I understand that it is pretty difficult to frame a law that achieves that effect.
In August this year, the London fire brigade wrote to the Government on the anniversary of the Shepherd’s Court disaster. The Total Recalls campaign aims to: make white goods safer by having a single, publicly accessible register of product recalls, including of international products; publicise recalls better, to reduce confusion; publish risk assessments when a fault is identified; ensure greater regulation of second-hand appliances, which is very important; change the way that fridges and freezers are manufactured—a big ask—and ensure that all appliances are marked with model and serial numbers. Also, sleeping risk should be included as a factor in risk assessments.
Dany Cotton, the London Fire Commissioner, says:
“How many more devastating white goods fires does there have to be before the Government makes it easier for consumers to check whether their fridges and freezers are on the recall list?...This is not the time for further reports and recommendations, it’s time to take action.”
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will understand the slight sense of frustration there.
In 2014, a coroner at the inquest of Santosh Benjamin-Muthiah, who died after a fire caused by a faulty Beko fridge-freezer, recommended a series of measures to improve product recalls. These changes are yet to be made. The review has been ongoing for almost three years, and as yet there have been no substantial improvements made to the system. It is about time that we acted on the group’s recommendations.
As we have heard, in September a press release from Which? referred to a fire in Wales that killed two people, which was caused by a Whirlpool tumble dryer. Neil Gibbins, the chairman of the group, has said that “significant progress” is being made. There has also been talk about the publication of a standard PAS—publicly available specification—7100 form, which would set out the process for monitoring product safety and the actions that should be taken if something goes wrong. That idea is under consultation, and I believe that the steering group is meeting on 8 and 9 November. The PAS will give guidance to enforcing bodies to help them work with the product supplier to achieve a successful resolution to a safety issue. The report also highlighted the need for additional specialist resources to help provide guidance and enforce it if necessary. Neil Gibbins said:
“I am anticipating an update on this from our BEIS colleagues at the next meeting of the working group, scheduled for Nov 28th …We must ensure that British Standards continue to be devised and updated by people who have access to the best possible information to help them make decisions, and that agreed standards are applied, and where they are not, action is taken.”
Jeff Williams, a former offshore engineer with responsibility for fire safety systems, wrote to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to say:
“Connection between faulty goods and cladding, for example a tumble dryer may be in action a yard from flammable cladding—you cannot make flammable materials safe by using fire barriers—the only solution is to use non-combustible materials.”
I am vain enough to say that our all-party fire safety rescue group does good work, and if we had been listened to, I believe that the Grenfell disaster would not have taken place. I do not want to be giving interviews after there is a fire in a school, to find that our recommendation that all new school buildings have sprinklers fitted was ignored. The voices of the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse, and for Hammersmith, should be listened to. The figures are shocking. We had the recommendation from the working group and from London fire brigade. Now is the time for action. We do not want to read terrible headlines yet again in our newspapers in the months and years to come.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). As a member of the all-party fire safety rescue group, I identify entirely with everything they said, and without being boastful, we have made warnings that have not been heeded.
I want to concentrate on a particular area of concern, which is the safety of cables used in construction projects. I am indebted for what I am about to say to Tratos, a company that produces cables in my constituency. It has concerns about the way that the flammability of cables is classified in this country, and strong views about how that can be improved.
In July this year, a construction products regulation came into force, as a result of which all cables sold in the EU must now adhere to new, improved common standards. That should result in safer, consistent building regulations, and, as a consequence, improved public safety. The EU has not been prescriptive in specifying which classification of cable performance should be used for buildings and infrastructure. Instead, it is the responsibility of the regulator in each EU member state—which in this case is the Minister—to determine what that standard should be. I will advance the argument that the standard we are adopting is not good enough.
The Minister’s Department has not specified which class of cables should be used in buildings. Instead it requires all electrical installations in buildings to comply with British standard 7671—a minimum requirement that is equivalent to European class E. That allows more flammable cables that are less resistant to the spread of flames to be used in this country, and means that the UK is no closer to having a safer building environment for any buildings that use cables of that kind. Construction products regulation presents a real opportunity to ensure that the cables used in buildings and infrastructure are safe. Tratos has a manufacturing capability in my constituency, and it has declared that all CPR for fire cables should meet at least European class CCA, as that would ensure much greater safety.
I am sure that Members and the Minister will have seen images of cladding tests that show that the lower the classification, the quicker the fire spreads. There is a similar testing process for cables, which shows that the CCA category is much more resistant. The result is almost identical to that for cladding. The higher the specification for the cable, the less quickly the fire spreads.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Would he make that point about all white goods? My understanding is that it is primarily washing machines and tumble driers that are the first to go up, and that a higher percentage of them do so. Is he talking about all electrical goods, right down to washer-drier combos, microwaves and so on?
At the start of my remarks I identified entirely with the two previous speakers, and I wholeheartedly agree with everything that they said on that subject. I then said that I intended to speak specifically about cables used in buildings.
Tratos does not see the argument for introducing the CCA standard as if it were a sort of gold plating or a gold standard; it sees it simply as a good way of reducing the risk to public safety. It cites two reasons for that. First, it would ensure that regular plant auditing and regular audit testing of cables from the production line takes place. On a visit to the Tratos plant production facility in my constituency, I saw how rigorously it conducts its own testing. It also argues that if we introduce that standard, the reaction to fire would be better because there is no continuous flame spread, there is a limited fire growth rate because of the resistance to spread, and there is a limited heat release rate.
Tratos suggests—I wholeheartedly endorse this—that the UK regulator stipulate a minimum requirement of European class CCA for CPR. That is higher than at present, and will therefore provide better public safety. It also suggests a programme of market surveillance for CPR and cable compliance, to ensure that substandard cables are eradicated from the market. I understand that some countries produce inferior cable standard products, and export them to this country, where they are relabelled as meeting the British standards classification, although that does not by any means approach the European standard that we expect.
In the wake of Grenfell, it is timely to look at all aspects of regulation—white goods is clearly one of those, as is cladding and other factors in building, such as building layout and so on. All those things must be considered, and I argue that the standard of fire resistance for cables should be added to that list, because potentially, such cables could lead—I hope they do not—to another disaster on the scale of Grenfell.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I wholeheartedly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He said some nice things about my expertise and the length of time that I have wrestled with this issue, but that is a fraction of what he has put in.
I am grateful that the chair of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who we have heard from, and the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who I hope we will hear from, are both here. I acknowledge the many organisations that have supported us in these campaigns, such as Electrical Safety First, Which?, the London fire brigade and other fire services, and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. I apologise if I have forgotten any. They are very different organisations but they have an interesting unity of view on what needs to be done. I hope the Minister is listening to that view as well as to the individual arguments. I wish to emulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse in his precision, but that is not my strong point.
Yesterday, I attended the evidence session of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which is looking at this issue. I congratulate the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on that revealing and interesting session. I hope the Minister and her civil servants will find time to look at it.
This debate is not about one company, one product or even one type of goods—white goods or any other. Product safety goes a lot further than fire risk, and fire risk goes a lot further than individual products. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) mentioned cabling. I was involved in a BBC investigation earlier this month that revealed the rather frightening figure of 4 million metres of unsafe cabling from a now defunct Turkish company installed in residential premises in the UK. That may partly be down to the Health and Safety Executive, which realised that 11 million metres of faulty cabling was out there and tried to ensure that it was not used, but did not go ahead with a compulsory recall. There are echoes here of what happened in the white goods cases. Clearly, the danger of cabling buried in walls as a potential fire risk is in some ways even greater than the danger of goods that are on display.
As I say, this issues goes a lot wider but I will concentrate on three events that concern white goods manufactured by the Whirlpool company. Whirlpool is not the whole story but I do not think that is coincidental. All three have already been mentioned, so I will not labour the points, but I will briefly go through them to draw some more general conclusions and put some questions to the Minister.
The first tragic event happened on 10 October 2014 when two men, Bernard Hender and Doug McTavish, died at their flat in Llanrwst. The preventing future deaths report has yet to be published, but we have the transcript of the coroner for north Wales’s narrative verdict from 1 September. That inquest concluded:
“On the balance of probabilities, the fire was caused by an electrical fault in the tumble dryer in the laundry room of the flat”.
That was a tumble dryer manufactured by the Whirlpool company. I have read the whole of that verdict. It took three years for that inquest to report, and it is incontestable that the delay was partly because of Whirlpool bringing forward often spurious points such as whether the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion. That attitude, which was also shown with regard to the next fire I will talk about, is extremely regrettable.
Although the precise electrical fault was not identified, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was not the known safety fault in Whirlpool tumble dryers—the collection and ignition of dust and lint—but an electrical fault in the door mechanism. In evidence yesterday to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Whirlpool said that about 20 such fires have been identified, but there has been no product safety notice, let alone a recall notice, in relation to that particular fault.
The second event, which particularly concerns me, is the very serious fire at Shepherd’s Court on 19 August 2016. Late on a Friday afternoon, that 19-storey block of flats was fully evacuated and 50 people were made homeless, some temporarily and some for a long time. According to the fire brigade and other experts, it was only through luck, the circumstance of its happening in the afternoon and the quick and professional response of the fire services that there were no serious injuries or deaths on that occasion. In the view of the residents and their lawyers, Whirlpool has dragged its feet, notwithstanding that from an early stage it was clear that the particular fault—the one that is subject to a product safety notice but not a recall—in the 5.5 million Whirlpool tumble dryers that were manufactured over 13 years and sold in the UK caused the fire. That is not in dispute. A year on, however, we are no nearer to an admission of liability or to any action taken by Whirlpool to deal with the people who, in many cases, lost their entire life: their belongings, their furniture and their flats, when they left because of that fire.
The third and most tragic event is the Grenfell Tower fire, which happened on 14 June. We knew quite soon after the event that it was caused by a Hotpoint fridge-freezer that was manufactured by Whirlpool. We still do not know much more about that. I am grateful to the Minister for answering my most recent correspondence on this subject before the debate. Her response goes some way towards dealing with some of the points that I would have raised, but it also raises further questions. I will try to be concise in saying what those are and if she can answer them today, that would be helpful.
In relation to the product safety notices for the Whirlpool tumble dryers, it is right to acknowledge that Whirlpool has gone to considerable lengths to modify those dryers—1.65 million of them, according to the Minister’s letter. There are other issues that I will not go into today about the speed at which that was done, how that was done, whether that is sufficient and whether further problems result. That is a substantial programme of modification, but 5.5 million dryers were manufactured. Whirlpool’s own estimate—it has to be an estimate because no one knows how many have worn out, been put out of use by other methods or possibly burnt out without causing a fire—is that at least 1 million are still in use in the UK. Which? and other organisations estimate that the figure is probably nearer 2 million. Certainly a substantial number of tumble dryers with a known fault that has caused hundreds of fires are still causing a problem, probably in every constituency in the United Kingdom.
Notwithstanding whatever efforts Whirlpool has gone to—the Minister will doubtless say that the success rate in identifying a faulty product is about 40% compared with the typical 20%—this fault is so serious because of its potential risk to life and property and the number of dryers that more has to be done. It is absolutely clear that Whirlpool is not in the mood to do more. I pray in aid for that the evidence that it gave to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday.
It was remarkable that Whirlpool turned up at all because in the two or three years of various all-party groups and Committees asking it to attend, it has studiously refused and sent out the same standard letter. The Minister may want to say more about its attitude, but in terms of its accountability to Parliament, it has been extraordinarily disrespectful and continued, in the view of Committee members, to show that disrespect yesterday. It sent not the managing director or anyone with the competence to talk about the technical side of its programme, but effectively its PR man, who was able to answer very few of the questions, even the quite basic questions that I could answer. I urge the Minister to look at that and to deal with Whirlpool in the light of the attitude it continues to show.
We cannot sustain the position whereby there are 1 or 2 million highly unsafe products probably in daily use. Let us not forget the background: this company, against all professional advice, refused even to tell its customers not to use the machines. There is a great suspicion that that was because it could not cope with several million people suddenly saying, “I can’t dry my clothes any more.”
I heard only the evidence from Electrical Safety First, Which? and the London fire brigade at the BEIS Committee yesterday. From what my hon. Friend describes, the way in which Whirlpool answered the questions will surely feed the appetite of the Select Committee to have a full inquiry so that it can summon Whirlpool and interrogate it to get full answers rather than the dismissive ones that seem to have been given yesterday.
I am not sure the Committee has reached such a conclusion, but I sincerely hope it does. If anything will have encouraged it, it was the desultory way in which the manufacturers dealt with the matter yesterday.
Whirlpool’s view over months and years was that it was perfectly all right for customers to continue to use the machines, provided they were in the same building and awake—not even in the same room. It persisted with that view even against the evidence from the Shepherds Bush fire where the victim, my constituent, was in the same room when the fire started and took every possible correct action: pulling the plug out, calling the fire brigade, shutting the door, and doing everything they could to prevent the fire from spreading. It took another six months for Whirlpool to change its advice and only, as has already been said, under threat of legal action from Which?, which I applaud. It was disgraceful to see Whirlpool pretending yesterday that that was not the cause of its change of policy, but that it just suddenly lighted on the fact and, after a couple of years, decided to do that. I think all Members will be angry at the dismissive attitude that was shown.
What are we going to do about the Whirlpool situation, specifically in relation to Grenfell? I am grateful for the Minister’s clarity in saying that the broader issues to do with the cause and spread of fire are matters for the public inquiry. We accept that. As I understand it, the specific issue of a fault within the model of fridge-freezer identified is a matter for her Department. I will press her a little further and ask when we will know that. We knew quite quickly that it was a fridge-freezer, which model it was and which flat it was. We know the model number, so that indicates to me that it was not completely destroyed. I would hope that by now there was some indication, because there could be a variety of faults. It could be within the fridge-freezer, it could be to do with its use or the cabling or anything of that kind. If it is a fault in that model or similar models of fridge-freezer, that needs quick action in terms of product recall and product safety notices.
I am grateful, Mrs Main, for your very gentle chiding. I will bring my remarks to a close.
I have concentrated on the specifics, but my final point is on the generalities. The Minister said that the working party group will report in the autumn. We look forward to that, but we are already disappointed by the fact that the group’s ambitions do not go far enough. There are three key issues that the organisations I have talked to are concerned about. The first is effective registration, so that when white goods are sold, we know, as far as possible, where they are. The second is recall and better attention to proper product recall when things go wrong, as in the Whirlpool case. The third, and perhaps most important in many ways, is enforcement. With the best will in the world, given the job they try to do under difficult circumstances and with limited resources, local trading standards organisations are not enforcing. I therefore wholeheartedly support the Which? campaign for a national body to deal with and oversee such matters. I await the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on his passion and championing of this matter. I am the chair of the all-party group on home electrical safety and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is the sixth debate we have had on this or closely related subjects since March 2015, when the then Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), offered very reassuring words, particularly on counterfeit electrical goods. But those words have proved to be empty, especially when it comes to trading standards helping to prevent products from entering this country. Can they really do that when some trading standards budgets have been cut to £200,000?
We have debated Whirlpool and its tumble dryers and consumer rights, but when are we going to stop debating and start taking action? I have asked numerous questions about legislation, and on paper it appears the legislation is robust. Is it simply not being enforced? Why? Because local trading standards have been decimated by the Government’s austerity policies.
Trading standards police online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon, which fall short of complying by allowing counterfeit goods to be sold on their sites. The Minister knows that electricity is one of the biggest causes of fires in the home. Clearly, some consumers misuse products that can cause fires, but how many fires have been caused because manufacturers, such as Whirlpool, have refused to take appropriate action? How many are as a result of online sales?
What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office about fires caused by faulty electrical goods? What is the strategy to cope with it? Where is the “fire kills” campaign? It has been very quiet recently. The Minister has been co-operative in her approach and has been willing to meet and engage on the issue, but what is the way forward now? The Lynn Faulds Wood review, which had excellent recommendations, is being ignored. We have had a working group and a recent report, but what is happening now? When will the Government stop having reviews and working groups and start taking action? How many more fires and incidents involving white goods and substandard and counterfeit products do we need to have before the Government take the right measures?
We need a public body that protects consumers, such as the Food Standards Agency. I firmly believe that such a body would not only protect consumers, but act as a central point for co-ordination.
I recently met Apple as I wanted to understand the issues with counterfeit mobile phone chargers, especially when I have seen them myself. Apple informed me that it has a particular issue with Amazon, which it alleges is selling counterfeit Apple products. I am looking forward to Electrical Safety First’s report, due shortly, which will highlight how unsafe counterfeit chargers really are.
In the interests of fairness, I met Amazon yesterday, who tried to reassure me on what it is doing to prevent counterfeit electrical goods from being sold on its site. I put to it Apple’s accusation that it had been directly selling on its site counterfeit Apple products: a matter, I understand, that has been the subject of a lawsuit in the United States. In the UK, consumers are confused. How do they know that an Apple product is an Apple product when they buy on these sites? It is unacceptable and the Minister needs to look at online sales urgently. Perhaps a conversation with Amazon and Apple would be beneficial.
Although I have concerns about some of Amazon’s selling practices, it is not all bad; I believe that it has a good product recall strategy. It holds the appropriate information to recall products quickly and effectively. However, I do not believe that the service extends to notifying customers who have bought counterfeit products. If global companies are engaged in disputes about whether counterfeit goods are being sold, what chance does the consumer have of identifying counterfeit products online? The potential risk to their homes and families is too important for such a speculative approach.
I reiterate my previous call for a dedicated operation to identify counterfeit and substandard goods—something similar to Operation Jasper. It is, I accept, important to tackle counterfeit handbags and clothing; but they do not kill people. Electrical goods are different, and the consequences can be devastating and tragic. Given those serious concerns, will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee today that she will now consider a full-scale operation to tackle online sales of electrical products? I know that she will attend a meeting of the all-party group in December, but in the meantime will she meet me and a delegation of manufacturers that are victims of online electrical counterfeiting? That will enable her to understand their problems. Consumers deserve our protection, and they deserve to be safeguarded.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for obtaining this important debate. It has been good to hear from fellow members, from both sides of the House, of the APPG on fire safety rescue. The Grenfell Tower fire has brought fire safety to the top of the agenda yet again, but it has been at the top of the agenda before, and we all need to make sure that we are not here again next year or the year after, re-running the same arguments. It is time for action, and I am sure that the Minister is in listening mood.
A number of product safety issues to do with the recall and fire safety of domestic appliances led to two recent Government reviews—the Faulds Wood review, which my hon. Friend outlined earlier, and that done by the working group on product recalls and safety. Concerns have been raised in Parliament and elsewhere about the recall of Whirlpool tumble driers. Only yesterday, in an evidence session held by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Whirlpool’s communications director admitted that an estimated 1 million faulty tumble driers, which are at risk of bursting into flames, are still in people’s homes. It took six months for the company to decide to change its advice to consumers, after an Indesit model caused a serious fire in Shepherd’s Bush. No one was killed in that blaze, but 100 families were evacuated and 26 were accommodated in hotels owing to the extent of the damage. It is considered that had that fire happened during the night, there would have been a number of deaths.
The manufacturer is not going to act quickly to recall models. I suggest that it is time to legislate to force it to do so. The consumer protection organisation Which?, Electrical Safety First and the fire brigade all agree that an overarching product safety body is needed to help protect consumers and advise them on what to do when products are faulty and potentially dangerous. Will the Minister give us her view on that sensible suggestion?
The Select Committee also heard from Leon Livermore, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, who told MPs that council funding cuts had affected the work of local trading standards services, slashing the amount of market surveillance they were able to do. He said:
“The current product safety system is already under pressure and won’t survive Brexit”.
If we cannot rely solely on trading standards departments to keep people safe, we need regulation. This is not regulation for regulation’s sake; the issues are important. There were 1,873 kitchen fires caused by white goods in 2015-16, and the London fire brigade reports that in London there is a fire a day involving white goods—and there have been deaths and injuries. Even so, it seems that the Government have yet to implement any safety recommendations made by the London fire brigade following the Whirlpool fire.
On the issue of fire safety in general, Electrical Safety First was calling for stronger regulation for many years before Grenfell. It has looked into the issue and says that mandatory electrical checks for homes in tower blocks should be free. I believe that that is right. It estimates that making electrical checks of all homes in tower blocks might cost about £10 million pounds a year. That is a lot of money, but it is not really a cost—it is an investment and will save money in the long run. It will also safe lives. House fires are a cost to us all.
At present, regulations specify an “expectation”, as we have heard, on social and private landlords to keep electrical installations safe. However, that language is very vague and should be clearer. The truth is that more can be done to reduce the fires caused by domestic appliances in England. As the Minister will know, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 gave the Secretary of State powers to impose proper duties on private landlords to ensure that electrical safety standards are met for the benefit of tenants across the country. Until that happens, people are safer, with greater state protection, if they live in temporary bed and breakfast or a house in multiple occupation than if they live in a privately rented home. That cannot make sense. Will the Minister let me know when the Secretary of State intends to publish and bring into force the fire safety regulations for the private rented sector? I am sure that the Minister has listened to the experts on the issue. If she has not already had a meeting with Electrical Safety First, I ask her to do so, to look at their costings and see how we can move to a system of mandatory electrical checks for homes in tower blocks.
Finally, will the Minister commit to continuing to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that this will be the last time we have to ask in the House for proper regulation on fire safety?
I am very pleased to speak in this important debate on product safety and fire risk in residential premises. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for bringing it to the House.
There is a clearly a problem, as we have heard. Electrical faults and accidents cause three quarters of all house fires in Scotland alone, according to Electrical Safety First. In England, more than five fires a day are caused by faulty white goods. We certainly need a better recall system for faulty or potentially faulty products. Currently, it would seem that the system is not working. The success rate for recalls is rarely more than 10% to 20%, despite the huge risks of electric shock, fire or even death that faulty electrical items can present. That suggests that thousands of dangerous items remain in unsuspecting people’s homes across the UK. The recall system across the UK must be improved. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) pointed out, the debate is about much more than one product or company; it is a much wider issue. I am sure that the Minister was listening carefully to the well-made points about cabling that were put by the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth).
From what I have heard in this debate, we can all agree that there must be a single, publicly accessible register of product recalls, which will allow consumers to be aware of products in their homes that could put them at risk. If people can find that important information all in one place—independently produced, full, clear and transparent—I am sure that it will be trusted. A one-stop shop for recalls and safety notices, where consumers can check their products, report incidents and seek advice will, over time, save lives. The UK Government launched such a one-stop shop last year, but it has been criticised as difficult to navigate, and it does not contain all product recall information in one place. I understand that there has been confusion when consumers are directed to other sites listing recalls, none of which is comprehensive. I know that the fire service has been pressing for a one-stop shop that is easy for consumers to use, clear and comprehensive.
Which? has campaigned for an end to the current fragmented system. It has called for a national body to be established, with responsibility for ensuring that manufacturers keep households safe and ensure that dangerous products are not in people’s homes, in the light of the risk that they clearly pose. That idea was mooted by Lynn Faulds Wood in 2016. She was commissioned to undertake a review of consumer product recalls, but her findings were dismissed by the UK Government on the grounds of cost. Since then, many of us have feared that the Government have failed to comprehend the scale of reform required for a reliable product safety system. I am sure that the Minister will reassure us on that.
We also need more education about the risks associated with faulty electrical items. Electrical Safety First has revealed that nearly 2 million adults have knowingly ignored a recall notice, citing reasons such as inconvenience, reluctance to manage without the product and a real underestimation of the risks associated with continuing to use it. It should be noted—I think this was mentioned earlier in the debate—that there seems to be a reluctance among some consumers to register products, as they do not wish to hand over their personal data in case those are used for marketing purposes. Surely we can tackle that by forbidding companies from using information from product registration for marketing opportunities. That cannot be beyond the wit of this Parliament.
In addition, product recall campaigns must be more innovative and creative about how they attract the public’s attention, so that they can penetrate the public’s consciousness much more deeply. I think we can all agree that the lack of a national body with responsibility for consumer product safety means that the current system is necessarily fragmented. With Brexit on the horizon, overhauling the UK’s consumer enforcement regime is an even greater priority. We must do that before even greater stress is loaded on to an already weak system. Brexit may be an opportune time to review the regulatory regime and address its weaknesses, and I hope the Minister can offer us reassurance on that. The challenges are real. These products are coming from a wider range of countries, with differing levels of product safety regulation and compliance checks. That makes ensuring product safety much more complex in an already weak system. Before Brexit happens, we need a new national body with responsibility for consumer safety.
The number of domestic electrical fires is increasing, sadly, and as we have heard this afternoon the most recent and tragic example of that was the Grenfell Tower fire. The review process has been ongoing for almost three years, but we still wait for substantial and meaningful change that will help protect consumers, as the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) so eloquently pointed out. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, the working group on product recalls and safety, building on the work started by the recall review steering group, finally published its report in July this year, but its recommendations do not represent the fundamental reform needed to fix the broken system of product recall. I am persuaded that the only meaningful way forward—it is pressing as Brexit looms—is the establishment of a national body with responsibility for consumer product safety. The clamour for that cannot be disregarded any longer.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) might be interested to know that in Scotland, statutory guidance has been given under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014. It imposes a new duty on landlords to carry out electrical safety inspections of installations, fixtures and fittings. That came into force in December 2015. The Minister will want to look carefully at that, because in England there is only an expectation of safety inspections. She may wish to consider imposing a similar duty on landlords in England. That issue was of concern to the hon. Members for Southend West and for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce).
Before I conclude, I should mention the dangers of counterfeit goods, which were eloquently spelled out by the hon. Member for Swansea East. Those dangers are particularly important as Christmas approaches. Everyone loves a bargain, but counterfeit goods are now easily available across the internet, and those goods are not put through the same vigorous safety checks as legitimate items. Often they are very dangerous. Consumers often have no notion of how much danger electrical counterfeit goods pose to them and their families. We have a job of work to do in highlighting those dangers to the often unsuspecting consumer, who is simply looking for something that may seem like a bargain but which in the end could cost them more than they could possibly imagine. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say. I am particularly keen to hear her thoughts on plans for a national body with responsibility for consumer product safety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. I also commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) on highlighting the danger of electrical cables. I am sure the Minister was listening carefully to that part of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse is a distinguished former firefighter, and I think I speak for everyone when I say we are grateful for the expertise he brings to the debate around fire safety. That expertise was reflected in his contribution today. I also thank Members for their insightful, thoughtful and often harrowing stories of constituents who have faced the consequences of a fire as a result of faulty white goods. We can all agree that it is a terrifying thought, and we all should do everything we can to stop such things happening.
It saddens me to say that residential fires caused by white goods have become all too familiar, with devastating consequences for families across the UK. In my home town of Sheffield, faulty white goods caused 103 fires in residential homes between April 2014 and March 2017 according to the South Yorkshire fire and rescue service. In London, we have seen the horrific effects of such fires. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) detailed so eloquently the Shepherds Bush fire in 2016, which left 50 people unable to return to their homes. Subsequently, we have had the tragedy that shocked the nation—the Grenfell Tower fire. Both fires are thought to have been started because of faulty Whirlpool household appliances. We have heard today about the attitude shown by Whirlpool in dealing with this immensely serious issue. Such horrendous incidents have brought into sharp focus the fact that our product safety system is not fit for purpose, and an urgent and serious overhaul is required if consumers are to be confident once again that the products they buy are safe to use.
For most consumer products in the UK, it is the responsibility of businesses to ensure conformity with the general requirements set out in the EU’s general product safety directive and implemented by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005. The power to enforce product safety law and oversee product recalls falls to local authorities’ trading standards bodies. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that the deep and continued cuts to local authority budgets since 2010—according to a study commissioned by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, they have led to some local authority services being cut by 50%—have widely diminished the ability of trading standards to properly inform and enforce product safety measures.
Indeed, there is often a lack of knowledge within trading standards departments on what advice to give manufacturers and the appropriate action to take if faulty goods have been identified. That is no wonder, given the reductions of up to 56% in the staffing of trading standards bodies since 2009, according to National Audit Office figures published in 2016. Incidentally, the lack of expertise within trading standards bodies, as well as their lack of knowledge of the advice to give and action to take, has given manufacturers the flexibility to decide for themselves what action to take. That, of course, is often not in the best interests of consumers and safety.
In the case of Whirlpool, potentially dangerous advice has been issued about the safety of appliances and the circumstances in which to use them. In a Westminster Hall debate on 26 April 2017 led by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, we heard about Whirlpool’s total lack of responsibility and accountability. As a result of the lack of expert knowledge and enforcement, we are seeing the vast failure of the product recall system, which is simply not working.
According to Electrical Safety First, an average success rate for an electrical product recall in the UK is between 10% and 20%. That means there could be millions of recalled electrical items still being used in UK homes. There is not a single register for UK product recalls readily accessible to the public online, which makes it difficult for consumers to check whether appliances they have in their home are subject to product recall. That means not only that dangerous products may still be in people’s homes but, worryingly, that those same products are sometimes being sold in second-hand shops. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be much better regulation to control the second-hand selling of any product subject to a recall notice? In the United States, is it illegal to sell something under recall, and fire investigators in London, for example, have found dangerous appliances subject to a product recall being sold in second-hand shops, which is of great concern.
The bruising evidence requires serious action. People’s lives are on the line, and we ought to do everything we can to ensure that the products they buy are safe to use. There has been a series of reviews and recommendations of the current product safety regime. In March 2015, Baroness Neville-Rolfe launched an independent review into the consumer product recall system, led by the consumer champion Lynn Faulds Wood, who is widely respected in consumer protection. Her key and central recommendation was that
“an official national product safety agency...to show leadership and coordinate the system, promoting, protecting, informing and empowering business and consumers”
be created. Sadly, the Government’s response was that they do not
“believe that setting up a new public body in the current financial climate would be an effective use of taxpayer’s money.”
Can the Minister inform us what assessment the Government made of the cost to the taxpayer of setting up such a body, what that cost was, and whether other sources of funding for the body were considered?
In 2016, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s working group on product safety was launched. When it finally published its recommendations in July 2017, shortly after the Grenfell Tower disaster, I was dismayed by its half-hearted response to what consumer groups such as Which?, Electrical Safety First and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute had been calling for. The report did not acknowledge that real change is needed in the product safety regime and did not go far enough in ensuring that consumers would have easy access to information about the products they buy or that proper enforcement mechanisms would be in place to remove faulty goods effectively from the market.
There is pretty much a consensus among consumer bodies that the product safety system is not fit for purpose, and that a centralised Government agency, as proposed by Lynn Faulds Woods in 2016, is necessary to co-ordinate and enforce product safety laws. We also saw that broad consensus displayed yesterday in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Will the Minister explain why the Government are so intent on resisting that common-sense approach, backed by a wide variety of consumer bodies and consumer champions?
Leaving the European Union will bring about its own set of opportunities and challenges for UK consumer protection, but thus far we have heard very little about the Government’s plans for consumer protection after March 2019. In a Westminster Hall debate on 10 October about the effects of the UK leaving the EU, it was clear that the Government had side-tracked consumer issues in the negotiations. As I said then, consumer protections did not feature in the Brexit White Paper, or as any of the 12 negotiating principles.
I am particularly concerned, and it has been strongly expressed to me, that the ability and robustness of the current product safety regime to withstand the pressures of the weight of the EU consumer rights laws that will be transferred into the UK is questionable. There is therefore an even more urgent need to seriously overhaul the UK’s product safety regime to ensure that consumers can easily access information about product recalls in a single place, and to co-ordinate and strengthen the enforcement mechanisms available so that consumers are properly protected after Brexit and beyond.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing today’s important debate. I know that he has long championed product safety, drawing on his great expertise in fire safety, and it is a matter that he and I have discussed outside debates such as this.
Every injury and fatality in the fires that have happened recently is of course an absolute tragedy for the families and friends of those affected. No one can fail to be moved by the tragic stories of those affected by the fires in Grenfell Tower and in Llanrwst, or by any of the other fires that have been mentioned today. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) reported about the three-year inquest into the two tragic deaths at Llanrwst and the critique he made of Whirlpool’s involvement in that inquest. Those are some of the reasons for my commitment to improving the system, so that we have fewer tragic cases such as those we have heard about in today’s debate.
I have picked up on the sense of urgency now required of the Government and I understand the frustration that some hon. Members expressed at the pace of change. I am aware that it is more than a year since I have been the lead Minister in this area and more than a year since the fire in Hammersmith that prompted the latest wave of concern. One of my first actions as Minister was to bring together fire safety experts and stakeholders in the expert working group on product recalls and safety. I am sorry that the recommendations have disappointed the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), but virtually all the organisations—with the exception of Which?—that she said were frustrated by some of the proposals not going far enough are members of the group and have the opportunity to input into the recommendations and the follow-up. Having received the group’s report, we are now at the stage of taking the actions needed to deliver improvement. I have been asked by several hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, when we will publish our response. We will do so later this year, hopefully by the end of November or in early December.
However, we are already making improvements that have been recommended by the expert group in a number of key areas. One such improvement is the new code of practice on recalls and corrective actions being developed by the British Standards Institution. That will help manufacturers and enforcers follow best practice on recalls and make them more effective in future. The consultation on those proposals closed last week, and we expect the code to be available by the end of the year. That will provide important clarity to businesses about how we expect them to prepare to deal with incidents involving unsafe goods, and how they should work with trading standards and my Department in the event that a recall or corrective action programme is necessary.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and many others who spoke today mentioned Lynn Faulds Wood’s call for a national product safety agency. The working group has also called for more central capacity to support consumers and local trading standards agencies on product safety and recalls—something that the London fire brigade and Which? have also been seeking. We are now actively considering how that can be delivered, and we will address that particular recommendation later in the year in our response to the working group’s report.
With regard to the recalls website and registration, we recognise that consumers need access to the best recalls information to keep their homes safe. We have upgraded the Government recalls website on gov.uk, as urged by hon. Members, to make it easier for consumers to check for recalls and to register their appliances. We know that more can be done, should be done and needs to be done, and we are working to deliver further improvements to the website.
As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned, the success rate of recalls is thought to be as low as 10% to 20%. We have heard a lot of criticism of Whirlpool’s response to fires, but its success rate is now more than 50%, in terms of machines it has either modified or recalled. I responded to the question asked by the hon. Member for Hammersmith earlier this week by letter, but this morning Whirlpool let us have the most up-to-date figures for its tumble dryer modification programme. Whirlpool has provided the figure of 1.7 million machines that it has now modified or replaced. It has therefore resolved almost all the registrations that have been made, so the numbers are not likely to rise significantly until more consumers register their appliances.
One reason why recalls are not always—virtually never—as effective as they should or could be is the difficulty in contacting owners and getting them to respond. Some people respond very quickly. Some were contacted by Whirlpool up to 10 times and still failed to register their machine or take the necessary next steps.
People can protect themselves by registering their appliances with the manufacturer so that they can be contacted quickly if their products are subsequently subject to any corrective action or recall. We have made that easier by including registration links on the central recalls website. Now, if people register their email address, they can get an automatic notification of any product that has been put on recall since they registered.
Safe homes are not only delivered through effective recalls of electrical products; they are also delivered through planning and building regulations that require buildings to be of a safe design and construction. That involves meeting fire safety regulations that require houses of multiple occupation to fulfil fire safety standards, a product safety system that requires all domestic appliances to be safe when they are sold, and appropriate action to be taken when faults are found.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) made some important points about the cabling of buildings. I will follow up with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who have responsibility for building regulations and construction products, and make sure that either they or I write to him in response to his points.
Several hon. Members called for product safety checks in tower blocks, including the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, I asked the working group to advise me on the merits of that approach for tower blocks. The general view of the working group was that there were logistical and technical difficulties. The chair wrote to me and said that there was some interest in the approach, and he reported that a number of members of the expert group
“have been in active discussions with housing associations, community groups and fire and rescue services to consider and identify best practice”
for checks in tower blocks, but there were “logistical and technical challenges” to the approach of mandatory safety checks. He said that,
“most general safety checks of electrical goods…may not pick up a range of potential issues or problems in an appliance. It would be more effective to concentrate any outreach activity of this nature on checking appliances against recall lists, and registering appliances for any future safety alerts.”
Fire and rescue services already have good community safety programmes in place, with more than half a million home visits each year. I will explore with colleagues in the Home Office the possibility of using those visits to provide information and advice about registering appliances and checking against recall lists, as per the advice from the chair of the product safety group. We believe that is likely to be more effective in identifying any potentially unsafe goods than visual checks on them.
There has been some criticism today of standards for electrical appliances, including for fridge-freezers. It is important to remember that standards are not the law; the law requires products to be safe. The standards themselves are updated regularly to ensure that they reflect modern technologies and so that safety can be continually improved.
As hon. Members will know, my Department has been working with the London fire brigade and others, through the British Standards Institution, to improve the international and European standards for fridge-freezers. My officials recently met the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances to discuss how we can increase levels of fire resistance in those appliances, as well as the director of standards at the BSI, and Which?
The European standard is currently being reviewed and the BSI has submitted proposals for amending the standard to CENELEC, the European standards organisation that is responsible for the current standard. That will be considered at CENELEC’s next meeting later this month. Officials are continuing to seek views from the Government’s chief scientific adviser on revisions to and interpretation of the standard, and recently met the chair of the BSI technical panel for fridge-freezers.
Will the Minister say whether, as part of that investigation, action is likely to be taken to phase out or get rid of fridge-freezers with plastic backs, which is a particular concern raised by Which? and the London fire brigade? I expect the Minister has seen the same videos as we have of the extraordinary spread of fire through plastic-backed rather than metal-backed fridge-freezers.
On fridge-freezers, would the Minister also address the Grenfell point? When does she think we will know the actual cause?
The answer to the question on timing is that the safety inspections have been completed on the particular fridge-freezer that led to the fire. The report on that investigation will be published very shortly; I will ensure the hon. Gentleman has a copy immediately after it comes out. I am sure that the aspect of the capacitor, and the insulation in which the capacitors are often placed, will form a part of the report, as well as of the discussions that the BSI is having at European level.
The hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough talked about Brexit and asked for reassurance on our intentions. I am pleased to be able to reassure Members that our priority is to continue the UK’s strong history of protecting consumers, to ensure that consumers can rely on safe products now and in the future. We will ensure that, as part of our relationship with the European Union post Brexit, we maintain close links with the existing European consumer protection bodies.
As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse recognised in his speech, it is important that we all play our part in keeping people safe in their homes. The Government must get the framework right and ensure that there is appropriate enforcement to support businesses in compliance. Manufacturers and retailers must comply with the law by not placing unsafe products on the market and by taking the proper action if products are found to be unsafe. Consumers also have an important role to play in making sure their homes are safe, following safety advice and registering their domestic appliances so that they can be quickly contacted should a problem be identified.
I am mindful of the challenges presented by second-hand machines. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) also raised the issue of counterfeit electrical goods. I accept her invitation to meet manufacturers to hear about their concerns first hand.
I understand the calls to do more and to do it faster. As hon. Members will agree, it is important that the changes we make deliver protections that work, and that we address the concerns as urgently as we can, within the constraints of making sure that they are the right solutions. We know that more needs to be done. I believe the actions that we are now taking will improve safety, and I agree with hon. Members that we definitely need to do more.
I am grateful to have a few seconds to finish off the debate. The Minister knows that it has been one-way traffic pretty much all the way through, with Back Benchers who are members or officers of the all-party parliamentary group, ably led by our friend, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess); there were also members from the all-party parliamentary group on electrical safety, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). We even had an audience from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who kindly gave her time to come and support the debate, which was very welcome. We equitably shared the time—with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). That was totally understandable because he has led the campaign from the start and had a lot more to say than the rest of us. We are grateful to him.
We look forward to the Minister’s conclusions being published in late November or early December. We should perhaps ask a parliamentary question to identify exactly what early December means, but that is only teasing. We hope it will be an oral statement, though there will certainly be a written statement. There will be pressure to submit an urgent question to get this on to the Floor of the House. I am grateful for all the contributions, including from the Front-Bench spokespeople.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Charing Cross Hospital
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of Charing Cross Hospital.
It is a pleasure to see you slide effortlessly into the Chair at the beginning of this debate, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise what is perhaps the central issue for my constituents: the future of the major hospital in my constituency, although it also contains the world-class Hammersmith Hospital. This issue matters not only to me but to many people across west London, and I am very grateful that my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), are here.
Next year is the 200th anniversary of Charing Cross Hospital and the rather more recent 45th anniversary of the building on the current site, although there has been a hospital—Fulham Hospital and its predecessors—on the site since 1884. It has a long and prestigious history. It is one of London’s major teaching hospitals and is part of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. It does not rest on its laurels, and has an unprecedented, and growing, level of demand.
I will spend just two minutes on what one might call the history, simply to set the scene. I deliberately titled this debate “the future of Charing Cross Hospital”, and I have been in contact with the Minister’s office to indicate how I would like to move forward on an issue that is a long-standing sore for the local community, if not entirely this afternoon—that might be asking slightly too much—then certainly over the next weeks and months.
This is not just about history, but about a devastating series of decisions. They are not new decisions. The first plans to downgrade the hospital substantially were made back in the 1990s. I remember being involved in campaigns led by the former Member of Parliament for Brentford and Isleworth, Ann Keen. When she later became a Health Minister, I knew that the hospital was in safe hands. I hope it will be in safe hands with this Minister.
The current events were, to begin with, a great surprise—it may surprise the Minister that I say that—because the plans for the changes at Charing Cross were made largely in secret over two years between 2010 and 2012. When they were announced in 2012, the plan was for a full-scale clearing of all Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust buildings from the site, and for a new clinic to be built on 3% of it. It was modified in 2013, partly because of the pressure and partly to give some cover to the Conservative-controlled local authority and others, so that they could get behind the changes. The new proposal was for what was described as a new hospital but is in fact—I say this advisedly—a collection of primary care and treatment services with an urgent care centre. It is going to be called a local accident and emergency unit and a local hospital, but let us not get hung up on the terminology. It is very clear what actual services will be provided on the site if the proposals go ahead. They will be on 13% of the floor area of the existing hospital. That is what has caused these problems and difficulties.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing this debate, and on his leadership in the campaign on the future of Charing Cross. The great fear among my residents—particularly in the eastern half of my constituency—and among people from a far wider area is about the loss of the full-scale accident and emergency service at Charing Cross, which would potentially mean downgrading many in-patient and out-patient services linked to it.
I am grateful for the clarity that my hon. Friend brings on that point. What is proposed is the loss of all consultant-led emergency services—type 1 A&E services. The site will therefore lose blue-light ambulances, emergency surgery and emergency consultant services. That is a very substantial change to the health facilities available.
The change came under the heading, “Shaping a healthier future”, which I am afraid my constituents regarded as a rather Orwellian title. That programme has now been subsumed within the sustainability and transformation partnership proposals, which are now nationwide, but essentially the meat of the proposal has not changed over that time. I do not deny—I look for points of agreement if I can—that some of the objectives are perfectly laudable, such as specialisation and the bringing together of expertise on a particular site, as has happened with stroke services, major trauma, renal services and so on, even within the three hospitals in the Imperial trust. That is to be commended. No one objects to improvement to primary, social and community care, which may in time lead to less pressure on acute services. If the consequence is not just better health outcomes but a saving for the public finances, we do not object. The problem, and the reason why there has been a breakdown of trust, is that the changes are being advanced before we know the consequences.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the plans may be transformational, but they are certainly not sustainable, given that London is heading to a population of 10 million before long? It is projected that there will be 12,000 more people in his borough, Hammersmith and Fulham, between the last census and the next one in 2021. We were both at a meeting on Monday night, and he pointed out that the borough has a target of 20,000 new homes by 2035. Where are all those people meant to get treatment, given that we have lost A&E at Charing Cross and Hammersmith, and maternity and paediatrics at Ealing? Demographically, that is illiterate.
My hon. Friend puts it very forensically. The difficulty is that however much the aspiration may be to relieve acute services, most independent analysis—whether from the King’s Fund or the Mansfield review, which specifically looked at west London—shows that that is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. The precious little additional investment in primary and social care is barely keeping up with the pressure on those services. That is where the lack of confidence comes from. However pious and laudable the aspirations, what is hoped for is simply not happening in fact.
I welcome the announcement that nothing will happen in the current sustainability and transformation partnership period, which runs to 2020. That is an admission by the Government that the pressure on services is so great that one could not possibly think about the proposed downgradings at the moment, but that is simply to put off a wrong decision. It means that nothing can happen physically to the Charing Cross site, other than maintenance, until 2021. I have been told privately that it probably means a number of years beyond that, because the eastern part of north-west London, which includes the three Imperial hospitals, has now been put in the slow lane behind what is happening in the western half, so it is unlikely that any changes will happen before 2025. That is 13 years after the first proposals were put forward; that is a very long time in politics, but it is a very long time in the NHS as well.
I am looking for something of more substance from the Government. We have had virtually nothing in writing, or in terms of consultation or engagement with the public, since those announcements back in 2013. Substantial expertise in the community has sprung up in the vacuum that has been created by the health service simply not engaging—expertise through the hospitals movement, trade unions and local people generally. An independent survey conducted by a polling organisation recently showed that 90% of people in the west London area opposed the proposals—that has been borne out in every other survey that I have seen—and 82% think that they have not been involved properly in the decisions. I urge the Minister to listen to that, to turn over a page and to engage with the community on these matters.
Going back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton, last month the four-hour waiting time target was achieved only in 70% of cases for the two hospitals in Imperial. Figures are not disaggregated, so I cannot give them exactly for Charing Cross—only for St Mary’s and Charing Cross combined. That has been a regular pattern over the previous months and years, in particular since the closure of the A&E departments at the Central Middlesex and Hammersmith Hospitals.
The population is growing hugely—as are the health demands, because the area’s population is not only ageing, but mobile and diverse, and those are not on the whole people who do not need acute care. For many years Charing Cross has had good practice: people who arrive at that hospital and have something that can be dealt with by a nurse, a GP or an urgent care centre—in some way other than through consultant care—are simply filtered off, because all those services are available on site. This is not a case of unsuitable use; this is a case of growing demand, and lack of resources to deal with that demand.
I will sit down in a moment, because I want to give the Minister a proper opportunity to respond. I urge him not to read out the brief again because, with respect, I have heard it a number of times over the past five years. I genuinely wish to engage in reassessing what has happened. I welcomed the debate in the other place on 18 October, which was called by my friend Lord Dubs, a Hammersmith resident. More eloquently than I could, he too led a debate specifically on Charing Cross, in which a number of peers took part. The Minister there responded:
“there will be no reduction in A&E or acute capacity at Charing Cross Hospital unless and until a reduction in acute demand can be achieved”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 October 2017; Vol. 785, c. 659.]
Those are very welcome words to have put on the record. I am sure that the Minister here will not resile from that today, but will there therefore be an assessment of whether the changes are likely to happen in the foreseeable future? If they are not going to happen for another four, eight or 12 years, or however long, I put it to him that the Government cannot persist in saying simply, “We will do this when the time is right.” That creates uncertainty, demoralisation among staff, and a motivation for management not to maintain or keep up services because they are in effect throwing good money into a building that they believe will not be there in the foreseeable future.
That is my first request to the Minister: that we have a proper assessment of whether those “Shaping a healthier future” proposals are still fit for purpose, as the Government believed in 2012—although I did not. My second request involves the land on the hospital site, because none of it has been designated as surplus land for redevelopment. I push the Minister to say what exactly is meant by that. In 2012 and 2013 we were told in terms that the land not used for health service purposes would be disposed of privately to subsidise the cost of building on the land that would remain within the health service. Will that not now happen, or is it simply that no formal proposals have yet been brought forward?
As I said, this has been a hospital site for well over a century, and the hospital has existed for two centuries. It would be a great pity if that were to change on my watch and the Minister’s, particularly when the hospital is needed most by people in my constituency and others who have used it throughout their life and their family’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to have been left sufficient time to address, I hope, some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I am grateful to him for engaging with my office in advance to indicate his line of questioning. He has made his points with characteristic skill and calm composure, which is much appreciated.
I will set the issue of Charing Cross within the context of the wider north-west London sustainability and transformation partnership to which he referred briefly. That is how the NHS is looking at the future of healthcare provision for populations throughout the country. Charing Cross, within the Imperial trust, sits firmly in the north-west London STP, the footprint for which has funding of some £3.7 billion. Between 2015-16 and 2020-21, that funding is expected to rise by more than £600 million—an increase of some 17%.
The Government’s position, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, is that any potential service change affecting Charing Cross is a matter for the local NHS. It will be determined primarily through the prism of the STP and the leadership of that wider NHS group. In our view it is right that decisions on service configuration are led by local clinicians, who understand better than the national NHS the healthcare needs of their local population, and that those decisions are made in consultation with local people, which was one of his challenges to the process. All proposed service changes will be based on clear evidence that they will deliver better outcomes for patients.
I do not agree with that. The analysis at the time was of course of the preliminary drafts of the STP plans, before any assessment by NHS England or the Department of Health. The plans are evolving and becoming partnerships, and they will move at differing speeds in different parts of the country, depending on the quality of the work and the extent to which they meet the four tests for service change, namely that they should have support from GP commissioners; be based on clinical evidence; demonstrate public and patient engagement; and consider patient choice.
In addition, NHS England introduced a new test from 1 April this year on the future use of beds, which is pertinent to the Charing Cross case. It requires commissioners to assure NHS England that any proposed reduction in the number of acute hospital beds is sustainable over the longer term and that key risks, such as staff levels, have been addressed.
The north-west London STP plan was published in November 2016. It confirmed that the “Shaping a healthier future” programme, to which the hon. Member for Hammersmith rightly referred and which was published in 2012, had set out the right plans to reshape health services across north-west London to respond to rapidly changing health and care needs. “Shaping a healthier future” forms a core part of the STP plan and I understand that the STP leadership intends to take that forward. There was a full public consultation in 2012 on the plans for a more integrated approach to care, whereby specialist services would be consolidated on fewer sites across north-west London to improve quality and efficiency, and routine and chronic care would be expanded to improve access, particularly in the community. It was proposed that Charing Cross would become a growing hub for integrated care in that services network. Following feedback from the public consultation, the proposals were refined to retain a wider range of services than was initially proposed on the Charing Cross site.
In October 2013, the Secretary of State for Health clearly set out, following the full public consultation, that both Charing Cross and Ealing Hospitals would retain A&E services, even if in a “different shape or size” from current arrangements, and that proposal remains. No final decisions have been made about the exact nature of services that are planned to continue at Charing Cross Hospital. It is certain that, even if changes are made, there will still be a thriving Charing Cross Hospital. There will be engagement with the public in due course on the detailed design and implementation of services on the site, which will include cancer, outpatients, diagnostics and 24/7 local A&E services.
As the hon. Member for Hammersmith quite rightly said, the STP is initially focusing on developing new models of care to reduce demand on acute services. I am grateful to him for welcoming the improvement of services in the community, so that it can be established that those services work before acute reconfiguration takes place through the proposal.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. He pointed out that no final decisions have been taken, but can he not appreciate that that uncertainty creates a lack of morale among the staff? I had to visit Charing Cross very regularly for my late mother, who we lost during the election campaign, as her specialist Dr Perry was there. Staff morale is sapped: they are demoralised because they do not know what is going on.
I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s mother; she has my considerable sympathy and condolences. I will come to the issue of staff morale, which she is right to raise.
It is important that, whichever side we are on in this debate, we do what we can to ensure that the staff of all our NHS facilities—in this case Charing Cross Hospital— have confidence and clarity that they have good career prospects at that hospital. However we describe the challenges in our local NHS, we should not try to undermine the importance of those facilities to our local residents and, therefore, the importance of encouraging staff to continue to work there.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. What I said was that I applaud the aims of improving community services. My CCG faces having to make £17 million of further savings—that creates great difficulty for maintaining services, let alone improving them. The Imperial trust has huge deficits and, as far as I can see, most of the sustainability transformation funds for last year have gone to addressing those deficits. That is the difficulty, which is why I asked for a review of where we are going—because hopes are not being fulfilled.
It is fair to say that part of the STP’s objective is to help the NHS in a particular area to work more co-operatively, to encourage better public health for the population as a whole, and thereby work within the available budgets that have been allocated by NHS England. We think that creating a coherent plan for the entire area is the most logical way to try to ensure that that happens.
As I have said, the service change is a matter for the local NHS, which has been clear that there will be no changes at Charing Cross before 2021, as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged. He did not mention that, in the meantime, NHS England has confirmed its commitment to Charing Cross Hospital and invested £8 million in the hospital in the last year alone. That funding enabled refurbishment of urgent and emergency care wards, theatres, out-patient clinics and lifts, as well as the creation of a patient service centre and the main new facility for north-west London pathology. Further significant investments are also planned, notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman says about the current financial situation of the Imperial trust.
It remains the case that the STP is planning, in due course, a phased new build across north-west London rather than refurbishing existing buildings, including on the Charing Cross site, but it is not yet at the point of finalising that plan. I can confirm, as the hon. Gentleman asked me, that no hospital run by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, including Charing Cross, has declared any site surplus land. He asked what commitment that means for the future; clearly, until the plans are completely finalised it would be wrong of me to give any further indication of what that might mean in relation to land, because that will depend on the configuration of the buildings, which have yet to be designed. It would be an unrealistic expectation to be definitive about that today.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) raised the point about the workforce. It is unsurprising that discussions about proposed service change have created some uncertainty for staff, patients and other stakeholders, including local residents. However, there has been a very clear position on the future development of Charing Cross since the STP plan for north-west London was published a year ago. This position has been shared widely with staff and all stakeholders. As I said earlier, I sincerely hope that my remarks can help to reassure staff working at the hospital that there will be no changes to service levels until 2021 at the very earliest, and that the local NHS commitment to Charing Cross Hospital has been reaffirmed.
In August, the trust leadership undertook a review to more fully understand staff morale at Charing Cross and to develop actions in response. The conclusion was that site-level data do not indicate that Charing Cross is affected by poor morale or that it has more difficulty than other sites in the trust in recruiting and retaining staff. However, there are higher vacancy levels in a few specific staff groups in certain areas, such as elderly care. In response to that review, the trust leadership team has established an action plan, including organising a succession of staff briefings. This week, the trust announced a public meeting for local residents on 27 November to ensure clarity on the future position of Charing Cross and to share information about recent and planned investments on the site. I strongly encourage the hon. Member for Hammersmith to attend that meeting, if he is able to do so, to understand what the trust is saying and to provide reassurance to local residents on the state of the hospital.
The trust has been in correspondence with the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council regarding mailings that the council has sent to residents that do not reflect the evolving position at Charing Cross. As well as raising constituents’ concerns, we have a responsibility to allay fears when discussing this subject. We can best do that by being clear about what is and is not in prospect, and by encouraging constituents to take up the offers of engagement made by local decision makers. I understand that the council has expressed some concern about doing that.
The Government remain committed to supporting the local NHS in engaging well with its local population and local clinicians, to ensure that decisions about services in north-west London are made in the best interests of patients, now and in the future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are paying attention to this debate, will make the most of the opportunities to participate in future public engagement on the design of services in their area, and that as many as possible will attend the meeting at the hospital on 27 November.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I know that many Members, as well as my constituents, have deep concerns about this important issue. I thank all the individuals and bodies that sent me information relating to the debate, especially Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club, Battersea dogs home, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the scale of the problem, but Dogs Trust research suggests that the illegal import and sale of puppies is an underground issue worth tens of millions of pounds—perhaps up to £100 million—per year. Hundreds of puppies are intercepted at our ports each year, and that is just the tip of the iceberg; thousands more must slip through the net. Britain is a particularly attractive target for puppy smugglers because of the relatively high prices that many breeds command; breeds such as pugs, dachshunds and bulldogs fetch up to £1,500 each in the UK. Puppy smuggling gangs can make up to £35,000 a week from the trade. This industry is supported by people motivated entirely by money with a callous indifference to animal welfare.
Puppies as young as four weeks old are taken from their mothers in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere, and transported hundreds of miles in terrible conditions to British ports, often with little food and water. They are often transported using false pet passports, and they are frequently too young to have had the proper vaccinations. At ports, their false documents all too often are believed, and not enough border officials are trained to be able accurately to assess the age of a young puppy—if they are visually checked at all. Those young puppies are then sold on to often well-meaning but unsuspecting families, who of course fall in love with them the first time they set eyes on them. Only later, when the puppies succumb to the stress of their arduous journeys or are taken to a vet who ascertains their true age, do those families realise the problem. The puppies are sent on to quarantine, where they receive appropriate medical attention. That can cost families hundreds if not thousands of pounds before they can finally take the puppies home.
Rather than being sent back or put to sleep, as happened in the recent past, many puppies that are intercepted by officials at the border are taken under the wing of the Dogs Trust puppy pilot scheme, where they are quarantined and provided with appropriate medical treatment, paid for by Dogs Trust. We all appreciate that. Many of those puppies then find homes with families via the Dogs Trust network of rehoming and rescue centres, including a large one in my constituency. Despite the hundreds of interceptions, there are just a handful of prosecutions each year for puppy smuggling, which illustrates the challenges with bringing cases to court and the need for alternative deterrents, such as on-the-spot fines, which I shall come on to.
My hon. Friend raises prosecutions. A £500 fine was recently handed out in my constituency, yet huge amounts of money are made out of this industry. Under Operation Delphin, which has been operating at the port of Cairnryan in my constituency, more than 500 puppies have been seized and returned to puppy farms in southern Ireland in the past year. Does he welcome that huge success, and the fact that that operation has been extended for another year? He commended a long list of people—Dogs Trust and others—but we should also commend the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has led that enormously successful operation.
My hon. Friend raises very important points. Everyone acting on puppy welfare deserves a great deal of credit. He gave some fantastic examples, which we can learn from and should expand. He also mentioned Ireland, which is a particular problem. I have been contacted in the past week by many people who have highlighted border control between Ireland and Northern Ireland as an acute problem.
Clearly, no one wanted this situation to arise; it came about as an unintended consequence of the relaxation of the pet travel scheme in 2012, when changes were introduced to try to harmonise pet travel across Europe. Those included reducing the minimum age of entry from 10 months to just 15 weeks, which produced challenges, because it is difficult for anyone other than a trained vet accurately to ascertain the age of a very young puppy. The pet travel scheme was further amended in 2014, but the number of dogs entering the UK trebled between 2011 and 2016.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s support for the work that Dogs Trust has done, especially with the puppy pilot scheme, but does he share my view that if it is easier for people to move puppies, we need stronger penalties to ensure that there is a genuine deterrent to them doing so?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Indeed, we should focus on on-the-spot fines and penalties. This trade is perpetrated for the purpose of making money, and we need to hit perpetrators in their wallets. I agree completely.
Since 2014, Dogs Trust has investigated the extent to which puppy dealers use the pet travel scheme as cover to illegally import puppies into the UK for sale. In July 2017, Dogs Trust completed its third undercover investigation of the trade, which was carried out in Lithuania and revealed some sobering findings. Dogs Trust found breeders openly supplying puppies under the legal age of 15 weeks, vets willing to falsify data on pet passports or sedate puppies for their journey through the border, and transporters willing to take under-age puppies into Britain. Dogs Trust obtained alarming footage of one such journey, in a van that carried four puppies for 29 hours in pet carriers stacked among other packages, with no food or ventilation. Those puppies were given water only twice. Dogs Trust also found Lithuanian breeders advertising puppies online for sale in the UK, and one case study showed a breeder who had advertised 40 puppies for sale.
The Minister is no doubt aware of a number of policy asks by bodies such as Dogs Trust. Although he has said previously that the UK carries out more pet checks at borders than many other EU nations, the fact remains that an increasing number of illegal puppies pass through the UK border undetected.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. Indeed, several recommendations can really be carried out only if and when—or rather when—we leave the EU, because at the moment we have to abide by certain conditions. Indeed, leaving the EU may enable us to be a little more active in this area. I will make a couple more points about that later.
If Government agencies could provide an enhanced presence at our ports, make more checks outside normal office hours and introduce mandatory visual checks at the border, we would both increase the likelihood of intercepting smuggled puppies and, I hope, disincentivise breeders from transporting puppies that are visibly under age. Visual checks are not always carried out. That was proved by Dogs Trust, which was able to smuggle a child’s toy dog through the British border on not one but two occasions without anyone noticing that it was not a real dog.
Other suggested changes include introducing on-the-spot fines, as Members have mentioned, perhaps to the value of the puppies seized, which may be more than £500—it may be £1,500 or more. Big fines would better reflect the seriousness of the crime.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. I hear what he says about the various actions that can and should be taken, but does he agree that there is an onus on owners, too, to ensure that puppies come from a legitimate source?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and has stolen the end of my speech in some ways. This is the key point. One of the purposes of the debate is not only to make policy recommendations but to help educate the public, who are innocently buying puppies without full knowledge of where they came from. The onus is on them as well to take action, and I will make a couple of suggestions for changes in a moment.
As well as on-the-spot fines, other areas for changes could include such things as further co-ordination and co-operation between UK and eastern and central European law enforcement, Government agencies and Departments and of course veterinary bodies, and especially a crackdown on those vets who supply fake passports for pets. The all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare identified that puppies are at their most desirable between the ages of about two and three months, so by raising the minimum age to, say, six months, we could reduce the incentive to import young puppies. Raising that minimum age would also make it easier for border agents to assess the age of puppies more accurately.
Some wish to go further and ban the third-party sale of puppies altogether. There are some valid arguments for that. That would allow purchases to be made only through responsible breeders and official rehoming centres, effectively banning the sale of puppies through pet shops, for example. The Government have already committed to introducing new regulations for dog breeding. I hope they will consider all options—another option suggested by many is formal recognition of the Kennel Club’s assured breeder scheme.
We must seek to avoid the unintended consequences that further regulation could bring, such as encouraging an underground market or increasing the burden on those who are fairly, legally and professionally breeding in the UK.
Indeed—another important point, which is often overlooked. When I ask the Minister to look at all options, that is precisely the kind of thing I hope he will consider, and I know he is considering. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), one of the key purposes of the debate is to raise the awareness of the onus that is on those considering purchasing a puppy.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, in calling the debate, he is highlighting the explosive growth in social media platforms, which have driven demand where people are looking at dogs as fashion accessories? I hope he will touch on dealing with that as well, because that is undoubtedly driving this despicable trade.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. There are 8.5 million dog owners in the UK today, and that number is growing. The reasons why people wish to purchase dogs, and very young puppies in particular, are many and varied. The vast majority have perfectly honourable reasons, but some people view them as fashion accessories. I think we all question that kind of motivation.
However, anyone looking to buy a puppy needs to ask certain key questions. Where did the puppy come from? Does it have a passport? Has it had appropriate vaccinations? Of course, one of the most obvious things is: can we see the puppy’s parents? That immediately gives an indication as to whether the puppy was born locally. That does not mean that everyone is questionable, but it is a very strong indication.
I very much support what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he agree that there is also the issue of adequate resources being allocated to both the Border and Immigration Agency and local authorities to ensure that regulations are properly enforced? That is an issue that we cannot get away from.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair and valid comment about prioritising resources. It is the responsibility of all of us in politics to consider that carefully every single day. We also need to recognise other bodies, including the likes of Dogs Trust, which finance some of the solutions. We should applaud that. The Government need to play a role, but so do many other bodies and groups as well as individuals.
I am aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) mentioned, some of the suggestions are reliant on changes in the law that we may or may not be able to make until we leave the EU. I am sure the Minister will comment on some of those later. There are some things we can do now, and there are some things that we may not be able to do for a couple of years, but I hope we can pay attention to all of them and plan for the future now, not just when it occurs.
I know the Government are aware of all the issues I and others have raised today and I appreciate, and am proud of the fact, that they have made many changes and raised issues around animal welfare recently. That is to be applauded. I respectfully request, therefore, that the Minister and his colleagues carefully consider the various suggestions and actions that will come out of the debate. I look forward to hearing his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this important debate on puppy smuggling. It is a subject close to my heart; indeed, I sponsored a debate on puppy farming in the previous parliamentary Session. I am therefore pleased in one sense that this debate is happening, but in another sense I am displeased that it has to happen. However, I congratulate him on making it happen.
Puppy smuggling is enabled—even encouraged—by third-party sellers such as pet shops and puppy dealers, which are vessels for the irresponsible, low-welfare commercial dog breeding, in the UK and abroad, commonly described as puppy farming. Endorsing any commercial puppy movement from abroad to the UK conveniently hands responsibility for any animal welfare standards designed to protect breeding dogs on puppy farms, and laws on puppy transportation, to the country of origin—well out of our control. This is clearly unacceptable, and can only encourage an even greater lack of breeder traceability, transparency and accountability than is found in legal puppy farming in the UK.
Putting an end to the legal sale of puppies through third-party agents licensed by the Government as pet shops—anyone in the business of commercially buying and selling puppies without their mums—and not just from high street premises, will go a long way towards eradicating the unacceptable activity of puppy smuggling. Little improvement can be made while this “legitimate” outlet—the market—exists.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point and pre-empts a point that I was going to mention later. I thank her for that excellent contribution.
The decision to implement a wholesale ban now rests with the Government, but despite the ongoing efforts of many wonderful parliamentarians, some on the Minister’s own party’s Benches, who have, for years, repeatedly raised this issue, the Government stubbornly continue to resist a ban. As recently as 17 October, the Minister told the House:
“We do not believe that a ban on third-party sellers is necessary”—[Official Report, 17 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 820.]
That brief dismissal is unacceptable. It shows complete disregard for the suffering of the dogs and puppies, and for the emotional—and often financial—impact that has on owners. I would like to see the Minister tell those owners whose puppies die within a few days of purchase that banning the trade is not necessary, or visiting a licenced commercial breeding establishment, here or abroad, that sells smuggled or legally puppy-farmed puppies without their mums through pet shops and dealers and then saying honestly that it is necessary for those poor dogs to lead that kind of half-life. It is not necessary.
There is no possible justification for this appalling industry that sells pups from puppy farms, whether they are transported from abroad or bred in the UK. We cannot allow that to continue to be legally acceptable, because it cannot be done without causing some degree of harm. We all know that the Government know that, too. Moments after reassuring the Commons that a ban was not necessary and that it was better to aim for more robust licensing, the Minister effectively revealed that the Government already knew that that was not enough. Furthermore, he told the House not only that a ban was not necessary, but that
“that view is shared by many stakeholders.” —[Official Report, 17 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 820.]
Only two—Dogs Trust and Blue Cross—have made their views known and continue to refuse to support a ban on puppies sold in pet shops. Will the Minister reveal who the “many stakeholders” are who do not believe a ban on third-party sales is necessary?
If an activity is licensed, it is supposed to be safe. The licence is supposed to reassure the public that the trader is to be trusted. To the public, it is an official legal stamp of approval. Yet the Government have no confidence that so-called robust licensing for third-party sellers will offer effective protection. By continuing to advise purchasers to buy only from reputable breeders, and to see the puppy with its mother in the place where it was born, the Government are essentially contradicting themselves and telling purchasers not to buy from those “robustly” licensed third-party sellers.
It takes an incredible amount of willpower to walk away when confronted by the reality of a puppy that seems to be in an unsatisfactory situation. The Minister said that consumer pressure would drive down the sale of puppies from third parties such as pet shops, but it is completely unrealistic to expect puppy buyers to separate the wheat from the chaff at the moment of purchase, nor should that burden rest with them. They will inevitably think of the puppy first and the consequences later. The British public should not have to try to make sense of the fact that Government guidance recommends seeing a puppy with its mother, while the Government are content to permit puppies to be sold without their mothers by third-party sellers in licensed pet shops.
The Government’s priority is to protect people by protecting puppies. Today, let us all send out a strong cross-party message that there is no justification for the existence of puppy smuggling, farming or trafficking—whatever hon. Members want to label it—and that removing their primary market is the first step toward eliminating that horrendous trade. Dogs and their people deserve better. I urge the Minister to please do the right thing. It would be a timely move, with the Christmas rush for puppies about to rear its ugly head. I urge him to commit to banning the third-party trade in puppies and removing the legal market for smuggled pups.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate.
I will be honest: when my wife first suggested it, I was not a particular fan of having a puppy come into my family; I could think of all the problems of having a brand-new puppy around the house. But my wife is a determined woman, and six years later we are very proud to have Murphy the Dalmatian, an integral part of our family. I mention Krystle and Murphy because I wanted to get them both on to the official record of the House of Commons at some point, and today’s debate has allowed me to do that.
While many of us celebrate and enjoy having a puppy, and in later years a dog, as part of our family, unfortunately many have a very difficult experience because of the problems we have heard about today. Of those puppies intercepted by the Dogs Trust’s puppy pilot, 469 have been cared for in quarantine, and 5.2% died while in quarantine. Those statistics shed a light on the problems that hon. Members have mentioned.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire that the problem has arisen out of something that was supposed to be good. The pet travel scheme was introduced in 2012 to allow people to travel around Europe with their dogs—to take them on holiday, rather than having to worry about leaving them at home—but there have been unintended consequences. Dogs Trust is on its third report on the issue, and there are still serious problems.
There have been positive developments. I welcome the advances made in Lithuania in 2015. Now, to get a passport, any dogs must be signed off by an official state vet, but that has not solved the problem completely and there are still issues with Poland, Lithuania and others. I welcome the fact that there is some movement, but it is not enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) mentioned punishments. The latest report by Dogs Trust gives an example of a breeder in Poland with potentially 20 breeding bulldog bitches. The bitches have four puppies in their litter each year, resulting in potentially 80 puppies coming to the UK. Each pup can be sold for £1,500. The breeder’s turnover, from one puppy farm in one country, could therefore be £120,000, yet the punishment is a couple of hundred pounds. That does not send out the right message. I also welcome my hon. Friend’s point about the agencies. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is doing great work in Scotland, but there is a lot more we can do.
I realise that time is short. I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, and I am interested to hear the experiences of others. Many hon. Members here, on both sides of the House, competed in the Westminster dog of the year competition just last week. Unfortunately, Murphy and I could not take part because it is 584 miles from Elgin to London, and I would not put my dog through that, yet people buy farmed puppies that travel across Europe, for potentially 30 hours and over thousands of miles, followed by an onward journey in the UK. That is a message that we must get across. There is a message for Ministers, for the puppy breeders and for some of the people who buy these puppies.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I declare an interest as the proud owner of Rocky the wonder dog, Westminster dog of the year 2017. I also put on record that, as Rocky is a handsome chocolate Labrador with a fine pedigree, we wanted a mini-me and, on a number of occasions, we introduced him to female Labradors in the hope that we could breed from him. Sadly, after four encounters with the opposite sex, we realised that he is too much of a romantic, as he just kept licking their faces, so we put that hope to one side.
More seriously, it is both shocking and disappointing that West Yorkshire is one of the worst places to be a dog. It is the worst county outside London for animal cruelty, with the second-highest number of complaints to the authorities—7,920, beaten only by London with 11,812. Puppy farming is part of that larger picture of cruelty to animals. On top of the home-grown, unlicensed UK trade, an extra 40,000 dogs per year come into the country from Ireland through Holyhead and Fishguard. Puppies from further afield in Europe, usually coming through Dover and the channel tunnel, are stored in pods until buyers are found, and then placed in fake homes to appear legitimate. Fake papers are then arranged to reassure buyers that the dog is genuine. Sadly, nearly 50% of people who bought a puppy last year did not even see it with its mother or in its breeding environment.
We know, do we not, that puppy farmers are not dog lovers? They do not care about puppies’ welfare. Why should they, when profits through the unlicensed trade can exceed £2 million per year? Without proper guidelines, that can only get worse. With high profits and a low chance of being caught or prosecuted, there is an even greater incentive. The RSPCA estimates in its puppy report “Sold a pup?” that 430,000 puppies come from unlicensed UK breeders each year. The desire for designer and handbag dogs has fuelled that rise, with only 70,000 puppies—10% of those sold annually in Britain—entering the market through legitimate breeders.
The cruelty with which these poor animals are handled is truly heart-breaking: four-week-old puppies, with umbilical cords still attached, subjected to a 30-hour journey; puppies sedated to smuggle them across the border without documentation, put into baskets with cling film over the top and only a small hole to breathe through; puppies observed vomiting or eating their own faeces during a packed minibus journey from Lithuania. While I am sure that all parties welcome the recent tightening of the law on irresponsible and criminal breeders by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the number of prosecutions is far too low and the lack of visual checks at ferry ports and borders is unacceptable. We can go still further to protect these innocent animals.
I draw to the hon. Lady’s attention the fact that the problem is not just in Europe or Lithuania, but very much in southern Ireland. Only this summer, a father and son drowned off the coast of Galloway with a boat full of puppies, smuggling them across the Irish sea. Does she acknowledge that we must pay attention to southern Ireland and the puppy farms? Those farms operate on an agricultural basis, with bitches stored in cages and fed with automated machines, and puppies coming by boat and by car, 40 in a van. As we said earlier, 40 in a van can bring in £40,000. Yet the fine is £500.
I could not agree more—it is despicable. They are taking that risk and are prepared to go to sea because the profits are so great. We have to stop that. We have to ensure that all puppies are microchipped. If people see anything suspicious, they must have the opportunity and the wherewithal to report it, and Dogs Trust has an excellent website where that can be done.
We need, as a Parliament, to work with our European partners, including border and veterinary authorities. We also need to think about signing the RSPCA’s “puppy contract” between buyer and seller, which states that they have met or will meet their obligations to puppy welfare. As we know, Christmas is around the corner, and I urge anybody wanting a puppy to be vigilant. No one wants to bring a beautiful puppy into a family, only for that puppy to fall ill or even die because it has been bred by unscrupulous breeders who care only for profit. I encourage the Government to think again about further tightening the legislation and banning third-party puppy sales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber.
One thing we have not fully taken on board during the debate is supply and demand. We are clearly not breeding enough puppies in this country to fulfil the required demand, which is sad. I am a former member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and we held an inquiry just last year that I will come on to in a second. I was very much against puppy farming. We have just heard a very eloquent description of puppy farming and the reasons why we should be against it.
I have been a dog lover all my life, and I declare that I, too, am a dog owner. Travelling from Wales is not quite as far as from Scotland, but my wife would not let me bring it; she is the boss, as is the wife of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) in his house, I am sure. As a dog lover, I was appalled to see a puppy farm. What struck me was that the dogs could not be dogs. Living in the countryside, we have always allowed our dogs to run freely—under strict supervision—where there is no stock around. That is for another day, but it was a sad experience. I have changed. I am all for banning third-party sales. One of the biggest problems is not just puppy farming but the importing of puppies. I think we are all saddened because we realise that this is big business. It is a massive business out there, and we need to tackle it as quickly as we can.
During the previous Session, when I sat on that Committee, we published a report on animal welfare, which looked into this matter in great detail. I have a lot to say, but I will not be able to get it out in my remaining three or four minutes. However, I will just pick out a couple of the report’s conclusions. They were primarily on the failures that allowed puppies entry into the UK—enforcement checks at ports and intelligence sharing between agencies. This is a massive issue, but it is easily remedied; that is the sad thing. The Government need to pay a little more attention to this matter. The pet travel scheme—PETS—has been mentioned already. Under PETS, the minimum age for entry into the UK is 15 weeks, with vaccination not before 12 weeks followed by a three-week incubation period. However, as Dogs Trust told us during that inquiry, the data on passports were being falsified to evade contravening PETS.
In a former life, before coming to this place, I spent a few years running a veterinary group. It was always distressing to see children and dog owners leaving after their dogs, including puppies, had been put down, through no fault of their own. They had paid a lot of money and taken on what was a fashionable breed and, sadly, they left the veterinary surgery without that dog, because it had died through an illness it had picked up on the way to this country. That is not acceptable. People may think they have found a very good deal or possibly a bargain for the dog of their lives, but unless the Government put the proper controls in place, we will sadly see a great disservice being done to the people of this country.
The British Veterinary Association—I declare at this point that I am an honorary associate—has scrupulous enforcement procedures here, but it was not the vets in this country that allowed those animals to come in; it was vets from outside, from southern Ireland or on the continent. I ask the Minister to look at that when he responds, not just today but in future. I understand that time is against us, so I will leave it there. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire for introducing the debate. It is really important that people in this place fully take this on board.
It is a pleasure to speak on this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. I have had dogs probably all my life; from a very early age, I cannot remember not having a puppy or a dog alongside me. I use springer spaniels for hunting purposes; way back in other days, it was either collies or Jack Russell terriers. I was recently telling a friend that I remember having a Jack Russell terrier that slept at the end of the bed before I got married. When I got married, I came home and the wee dog trotted down to the bedroom, and I said, “Not tonight, mate; you’re up in the kitchen. Sandra’s in the bedroom now.” Things change, and the wee dog had to realise that life was not the same as it used to be. Dogs were very much part of the family; that is how it was in my house.
I have been contacted by a number of constituents regarding this sensitive issue. I agree that there must be more regulation. I am glad to see the Minister in his place; I know he is a man who understands these issues. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that we will all be heartened to hear his reply. It will hopefully mean more legislation or looking at more regulation. I believe there needs to be regulation to protect these puppies from people who have not thought of the puppies’ welfare but only of lining their pockets, as other Members have said. We have strong legislation in Northern Ireland. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—the agricultural body in Northern Ireland—operates a statutory scheme for dog-breeding establishments and continues to work with all key stakeholders to promote safe breeding at all times.
DAERA also shares information with the environment Department in Dublin, which has responsibility for this, as well as enforcement bodies on the UK mainland. There needs to be better information sharing, especially pertaining to sales from Scotland to Northern Ireland and vice versa. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack), who has just left the Chamber, referred to one case of which I am personally very aware. Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and other bodies have suggested that puppies entering the UK via puppy smuggling from abroad simply should not be sold if the legal third-party trade—without the mum and away from the location it was bred—is banned, thus simply removing the market for them. I say to the Minister, very gently and honestly, that there are methods that could be put in place very quickly. It has been suggested that there must be a dedicated campaign aimed at the public to educate them on the signs.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. People see the cuddly wee dog and just want to hold it in their arms and be friends with it. It wants to be friends with them; the great thing about a dog is that it will always wag its tail and want to be friends, no matter what happens. So yes, we need to be educated on that. It has also been suggested that there must be a dedicated campaign to educate the public so that they can anonymously report to the authorities, in an attempt to cease this illegal trade. It is important that we do that as well. Only policing by consent—public scrutiny, with prospective puppy buyers visiting the breeders and insisting on seeing the pup interacting with its mum and littermates—supported by new, improved legislation can ever make the impact necessary to improve welfare standards, traceability, transparency and, importantly, accountability. We really need that in place.
There is a possibility that some underestimate the level of puppy smuggling. I agree that there are people out there who do not really understand it in its entirety, but I believe that those here in the Chamber, and to be fair, perhaps many who are not, understand it very well. I put on the record, for the purposes of Hansard, RSPCA figures that suggest there could be at least 700,000, and as many as 1.9 million, animals illegally sold annually. The RSPCA further highlights that poor breeding, dealing and trading practices can have a significant, long-term impact on animal welfare, not just for the young being sold but their parents, resulting in animals having chronic health and behaviour problems and dissatisfied consumers seeing their newly bought puppy suffer from illness and, in some cases, even dying soon after purchase.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) referred to Labradors. As someone who has had hunting dogs all his life, and still has them, I am aware of a malady within Labradors—especially the hunting variety—called hip dysplasia. It is a hereditary thing. If somebody really knew their business, they would check for that beforehand to make sure that a Labrador was not affected. In the past three years, the British puppy market has changed, with the number of imported puppies increasing. More than 60,000 puppies a year come from places such as the Republic of Ireland, Lithuania and Hungary, leading to increased disease risks and criminal gangs earning up to £2 billion.
I received an email from a vet who expressed the opinion that implementing much stricter rules would make impulse purchasing more difficult, as people would be unable to see a cute puppy online and buy on a whim. That would be hugely beneficial. My wife Sandra has been a volunteer in the local Assisi shelter for many years—I think it is 11 years. She often tells me horror stories of young dogs that are no longer puppy-like and have lost their appeal, which is when people abandon them and hand them in. This should not be allowed to happen. That is why I, along with others, ask the Minister to implement changes soon and make a difference.
I will keep my speech short, to allow other Members to speak. I merely want to highlight the issue of social media driving an unprecedented demand for young puppies, which are viewed by some people as accessories.
We need to get a message across to the public. I highlighted a statistic in my intervention earlier. It is also the case that one in five people spend no time at all researching the origin of the puppy they buy, having seen it on Instagram or another social media platform. Some pups are purchased in 20 minutes or less. How on earth can someone ascertain the origin of a puppy on that basis? Statistics also show that almost one in six puppies purchased in 20 minutes or less experience illness or ongoing veterinary treatment.
The level of public awareness is clearly not what it needs to be at the moment, despite the wonderful efforts of the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and other organisations. The Government need to act to address this issue. We can all make these points in the Chamber, but it needs to be backed up by action. Bringing in extra fines will enable us to better resource enforcement facilities, in order to protect these puppies. I very much welcome the points that have been made and hope the Government will look at strengthening the law.
I hope Members will forgive me for putting on record the name of my own wonderful rescue dog, Phoebe, who is a Jack Russell cross—I could not let this moment go by without mentioning her. She was a worthy competitor against the dog of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), although Phoebe was more interested in stealing the bacon sandwiches from the table than in competing like the hon. Lady’s lovely dog. I congratulate her on her win. That competition was a great opportunity for us all to highlight this issue.
I am glad to be able to make a contribution to the debate, and I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing it.
The overproduction of puppies and the smuggling of them from abroad raises serious and disturbing questions. It is incumbent on all of us to give due consideration to the ethical sourcing of all pets, as was so eloquently set out by the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean). Sadly, where there is demand and money to be made, there are always unscrupulous elements waiting to meet that demand, who will find ways around the law to import animals illegally from breeders in other countries. It is essential that awareness is raised of the risks involved.
As the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) pointed out, the money that can be made relative to the punishments levied demonstrates that we need greater deterrence for offenders. There is a real risk to puppies’ health. How a puppy is bred and reared, especially in its early weeks, influences its health, welfare and socialisation throughout its life. That is why the standard and quality of breeding practices matter so much. As we have heard, smuggling often involves long-distance transportation at a very young age. That can give rise to severe anxiety, stress and fear, which can have a huge impact on the quality of the rest of the dog’s life.
Sadly, far too many commercial breeders, back-street breeders and imported puppy sellers are driven purely by profit, and the health and welfare of the animals is not a priority. We must work towards an end to third-party dealers, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and others have said. That would help to stop unscrupulous breeders. The legislation must also be drafted properly. We heard of the damaging changes to the pet travel scheme in 2012 that resulted in an influx of puppies being illegally imported into the UK for sale from central and eastern Europe, as well as Ireland, as corrupt breeders abused the system. Such mistakes must not be inadvertently compounded; they must be comprehensively addressed.
We need new resolution and determination to end the illegal trafficking of pets—something the European Parliament called for only last year. As we have heard, that involves microchipping pets across member states of the EU, because harmonising the databases will make it much easier. We know that criminal gangs take advantage of the lack of harmonisation, so that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Disturbingly, puppies are the third most valuable illegally traded commodity in the EU after drugs and arms. That should give us pause for thought. It is increasingly important that we work with our European partners to prevent the illegal trade in puppies. It is a concern that Brexit may put a bureaucratic strain on or barriers against such co-operation. If that happens, the puppy smugglers will win. We need to strike a blow at the very heart of this cruel and vile trade. As we have heard today, the political will for that exists across the House. I urge the Minister not to delay and to work with Members across the House for a resolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. This is a really important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing it. We have had important contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber. I would like to specifically congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on Rocky winning the Westminster dog of the year show. I was there, and he was absolutely fabulous. I congratulate all Members who brought their dogs along.
It has been said that Britain has the best animal welfare in the world. The last Labour Government’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 was undoubtedly a landmark piece of legislation, but if we want to maintain our position as the world leader when it comes to animal health and welfare, we need to build on the foundations laid by that Act. As any MP will tell you, animal welfare is the single biggest issue that comes into our postbags, by a long way. There is a huge public appetite for robust action to improve the lives of animals and to strengthen animal protections in our laws. We are a nation of animal lovers and we want to see the animals here well loved and living happy lives. Puppy smuggling is just one of many serious animal welfare issues we read about in our postbags, and I have received hundreds of emails about it.
It is obvious that the humane treatment of animals should be a benchmark for a civilised society, and we as parliamentarians must send out a strong message that the illegal importation of puppies is a cruel practice that must stop. The animal and plant health agency, alongside the Dogs Trust, has done a lot of crucial work to tackle the smuggling of puppies, and that is to be welcomed.
That is an incredibly important point. One good thing about the Westminster dog of the year show was that there were dogs there for rehoming. That was very important.
It is time for the Government to act on this. We need to look at how to drive up standards for online advertising and raise awareness of rogue pet dealers among the general public. We also need to ensure we have a robust pet travel scheme in operation. I am a dog owner, and I have long believed that we must do more to block wholesale puppy imports that abuse the pet travel scheme and ensure that all puppies have legitimate documentation. One thing that came out of the Dogs Trust’s work was that chips were being put in collars and then reused. We need to be very clear about the tricks being played.
Government agencies need the resources to tackle puppy smuggling by enforcing the current legislation. We need to ensure we have sufficient border guards, and there needs to be greater international co-operation between police forces, to crack down on this problem internationally. I also would like to see the Government commit to banning the third-party sale of dogs, which would help to drive down demand for smuggled puppies. Dogs should be available only from licensed, regulated breeders or approved rehoming organisations. Unfortunately, the current legislation does not protect the welfare of all dogs or the interests of all consumers, so the only solution to protect the welfare of puppies is to ban third-party sales entirely.
International studies have shown that puppies obtained from pet shops are more likely to be aggressive towards people, fearful, prone to separation anxiety and infected with parasites and pathogens to a significant level. As we know, puppies continue to be bred in large numbers in central and eastern Europe and in Ireland, sometimes in horrific conditions. Responsible breeders do not sell puppies through third parties. The third-party licensed pet shop market depends on and sustains that low-welfare breeding. As long as there is a market for cheap, intensively bred puppies, welfare problems will persist, because the incentives for non-compliance, as we have heard, far exceed the penalties. Availability may artificially inflate demand, so reducing the supply of cheap, poorly bred puppies from dealers and smugglers will promote a more responsible buying culture.
When we bought our dog, Max, another chocolate labrador, we knew how to find a responsible breeder, but not everyone does. It is critical that we protect the public from irresponsible breeders and help people to make responsible purchases, because animal welfare must come before profit. Last week, the Minister said that prospective puppy buyers should always insist on seeing the puppy interacting with its mum in the place where it was born. That advice is inconsistent with the ongoing legality of third-party sales, as it concedes that neither animals nor consumers can be protected by the regulations imposed on the industry.
I do not think it too ambitious to want to move on and to ask the Government to do more. Animal welfare must not be swept under the carpet or undercut, so I ask the Minister to commit today to continuing to show his understanding of the needs of puppies and do everything he can to stamp out this appalling trade.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. I know, based on the number of hon. Members present, that people care deeply about this issue. Hon. Members who have attended similar debates in recent years will know that, both as a Back Bencher and as the Minister responsible for companion animals, I have championed this cause and tried to make improvements, particularly to the legislation on the breeding of puppies —an issue to which I shall return.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire pointed out, puppy smuggling is an abhorrent practice and is partly driven by demand for certain breeds in this country. We need to ensure greater public awareness of these things. If a person is told that someone wants to meet them at a motorway service station to sell them a puppy, that should set alarm bells ringing that something is not right. Everyone has a role to play in solving this problem, but in the time I have, I shall restrict my comments to what the Government are trying to do to improve things.
First, I shall explain a bit about what is required now. Under our current regulations, predominantly shaped by EU law, any dogs imported for commercial reasons—
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the Government’s brave and right decision to increase sentences for animal cruelty, which will certainly help to deal with the scourge of puppy smuggling. Secondly, may I encourage him to use the opportunities of Brexit to bring about reform of the 2012 legislation, to which he has just referred, so that we can clamp down more firmly on puppy smuggling? Thirdly, may I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and encourage the Minister to encourage other people to take on rescue dogs? I have seen in my own family how even very difficult dogs can become wonderful pets with the right family.
My hon. Friend and I have worked together on European issues in the past, so we come from a similar position on that. A number of hon. Members have mentioned their dogs. I had a pet dog called Mono, a particularly erratic border collie, which came from the RSPCA, and I would always recommend that as the first choice for people.
As I was saying, under the existing regulations, we have something called the Balai directive, under which all commercial dogs are supposed to come in. There has been growth in the number of dogs coming in under those commercial provisions, but also, following changes to PETS—commonly called the pet passport scheme—in 2012, we have seen significant growth in the number of dogs and puppies coming in under that pet travel scheme.
There are really three potential problems of which we need to be aware. First, are there people who are flouting the system altogether, not having any kind of passport or documentation and simply smuggling puppies in in the most literal sense? I have asked that question many times and I can give hon. Members some reassurance. Border Force obviously carries out lots of checks at the border for people who are people trafficking, for drugs, and for customs issues. Whenever they come across dogs that are hidden and do not have the documentation, they alert the local trading standards officers so that they can take action, but we do not get many of those cases. In the last 10 months, there has been one case of people coming in with no documentation at all.
The second issue is whether there are people bringing puppies into the UK on the PETS travel scheme, which is supposed to be for people’s pets, with the intention of selling them commercially. That is where there is greater concern and where our efforts have been focused.
The final issue is whether the existing commercial arrangements go far enough, because the truth is that checks under the Balai directive are more thorough than under the PETS travel scheme, but the difference is not that great, and applying that may not achieve very much.
I want to let hon. Members know that we have been working with Dogs Trust and the Animal and Plant Health Agency in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Two years ago, following a similar debate to this, I asked them to get involved to toughen our approach at the border, and I can say that where we have come across examples of fraudulent vets, predominantly in east European countries, issuing fake documentation, we have taken action. For instance, the chief veterinary officer has written to authorities in Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia to highlight in particular the problem of under-age puppies. In January 2017, the Hungarian authorities wrote to advise us that they had responded to our letter and taken action, including police investigations of the veterinary practices and transporters involved. In July 2015, the Lithuanian authorities introduced legislation meaning that passports can now be issued only by a vet from their state veterinary service. Where we have seen problems, we have acted, which has led to change in some of these countries.
As I said, we are working with Dogs Trust to carry out more physical checks at our borders and particularly at the port of Dover. I thank Dogs Trust for the work that it has done in helping us to put the puppies that are seized into quarantine and, hopefully, find homes for them. Following that work, which started in December 2015—two years ago—in response to a similar debate to this, we have seized 649 non-compliant animals. The Animal and Plant Health Agency has played a leading role in that by helping to age the puppies involved. In most cases, the people are single, one-time offenders. I have asked whether we have a small number of repeat offenders. That appears not to be the case, but we are taking action on that front.
A number of hon. Members mentioned third-party sales. When I was the Minister responsible for companion animals, we took action on that. We have completed a consultation. We are bringing forward regulations that will ensure that anyone selling pets, whether online or in a pet shop, will need a licence, and they will have to abide by a statutory animal welfare code for dogs. We have introduced in that some provision to have “earned recognition” for groups such as the Kennel Club that run their own schemes.
The changes that we have made, both to the threshold before which people need a licence to breed puppies in the first place and to put it beyond doubt that anyone selling a puppy needs a licence and must comply with the dog welfare code, will deal with this problem. We should also recognise the work done by groups such as the Pet Advertising Advisory Group, to prevent people from going on and selling if they have high-velocity sales. A lot of progress has been made there.
I want to touch on the options that we will have when we leave the European Union. There is obviously a chance to look at these things afresh. We could, for instance, review the approach that we take on commercial animals so that we tighten the restrictions for those coming in—tighten the requirements. We could introduce more checks and restrict the ability of pets to travel from other European countries. If we think that a European country has weak authorities, we could address that by putting a particular restriction on it. It will be open to us to start to consider these things once we leave the European Union, but while we are in the EU, we must focus on doing the work we are doing to tackle this problem at the border and seize these under-age puppies.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.