Wednesday 15 November 2017
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
House of Lords Reform: Lord Speaker’s Committee
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on reform of the House of Lords.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth, for what I hope will be a scintillating debate. I say at the outset that none of what I am about to say should be taken as a slight or criticism on any individual Member of the upper House. I have, in my limited time in this place, worked with many of them in all-party groups and on various campaigns where we share the same objectives, and I have found them, to a man and woman, to be people of integrity and ability and to exude a commitment to public service.
That aside, the institution of the House of Lords is fast becoming a national embarrassment. It is something we urgently need to address. The House of Lords is the largest legislative assembly anywhere in the world, with the sole exception of the People’s Republic of China. It is an institution where no one is elected by the wider citizenry, and it is accountable to no one. It is staggeringly unrepresentative of the population at large: only 26% of its Members are women; 44% of its Members live in London and the south-east of England; and 56% of its Members are older than 70 years of age. That is an institution that in no way reflects contemporary society. It is also an expensive institution, costing almost £100 million for every year that it operates, £20 million of which goes on the expenses and stipends of the Members who serve in that Chamber.
We are fast approaching a situation where the legitimacy and credibility of the House of Lords will be in crisis. Unless we do something about it, that crisis of credibility will extend to us as well by implication.
The Parliament Act 1911 first established that the House of Commons, the elected Chamber of this Parliament, should have primacy over the House of Lords. The preamble of that Act noted that the intention was to introduce
“a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.
For the 106 years since the passage of that Act, we have argued about how to make the upper House a popular and democratic institution. For most of that time, the argument has been led by this Chamber—elected Members representing the people—which has argued for shining the flashlight of democracy into the darker recesses of our Parliament. What we have today, however, is something quite remarkable. We have a situation where the Government of the day have said publicly that they will not countenance any reform of the upper House; they do not have the time or inclination to consider those arguments.
In frustration, Members of the upper House themselves have got together to beg the case for reform. That is a remarkable volte-face from the arguments we have had for over 100 years. I hope that the Minister, when he concludes, feels just the slightest sense of embarrassment at the situation. Here we are contemplating reform of the House of Lords not because of any motion or suggestion from an elected Member of the House of Commons but because the House of Lords is asking us to take action to try to salvage its credibility and reform its institution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his contribution. Does he not think that one of the main reasons why many Members of the House of Commons are reluctant to push reform of the House of Lords is that they want to end up there? They see it is quite a cushy retirement number, rather than seeing any practical function that a second Chamber might offer. We should be proud of the Scottish National party’s long-standing tradition of not taking seats in the House of Lords.
I agree. It is inconsistent for someone to say they wish to abolish an institution but then prop it up by serving in it and trying to enhance its credibility. That, however, is a political contradiction that others will have to wrestle with. I am glad to say it is not one my own party faces.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and facts carefully, and he is making an extremely powerful case. I have no intention of going to the House of Lords—nor will I be invited, I guess. There is another case for not reforming the House of Lords. Some of us believe it is an affront to democracy and should be abolished. Reforming it gives it greater credibility. Does he not agree that there is a danger in reform and that abolition is the better solution?
I do indeed, although the way I would put it is that I wish the reforms to be so extensive that they are tantamount to abolition. Starting with a clean sheet of paper would probably be the best way to go forward. I will come to arguments for the alternative later.
As I read the report and read between the lines, I can almost sense the authors’ exasperation at the situation they are in: their remit has been necessarily constrained to a very narrow one about the size of the House of Lords. They are not able to take into account other matters, looking at the wider context of the institution. I also sense—it is mentioned several times—their frustration at having to search for ways other than legislative and statutory reform to try to achieve some sort of change. I applaud their ingenuity in finding ways within existing statutes and by using procedures such as the code of conduct to set out how they may be able to achieve some of their suggested changes without reference to primary legislation. None of that removes the need for us as an elected Chamber to look at legislative reform. It is an abrogation of political responsibility by the Government, as well as a kick in the teeth for public opinion, that they refuse to countenance bringing forward legislative reform.
The report is necessarily limited, but I would describe it as extremely small baby steps on the road to reform. To give an idea of just how limited they are, one of the key suggestions is to bring in a fixed term of 15 years for Members to serve in the upper House. The suggestion is to phase that in, and it would not be fully implemented until 2042. That’s right—2042. I doubt whether I will be around to see what happens in 2042. To understand just how modest the suggestion is, NASA intends to put a human being on Mars by 2042. We seem to be incapable of suggesting that we can bring in fixed-term appointments for the House of Lords before, as a species, we are capable of colonising other planets. That puts it somewhat in perspective.
Given that the Committee found ways, without reference to legislation, to suggest reform, we should embrace its suggestions and perhaps be a little more ambitious about their application. In considering the report, I suggest to its authors and the upper House that, if they have found ways to bring in fixed-term appointments, why 15 years? On what possible grounds is it okay for someone first to be appointed rather than elected and secondly to serve without sanction or accountability for one and a half decades? Why not cut that in half and make it seven years? Then we could accelerate the process of moving to fixed-term appointments much more quickly.
The Committee suggested through various procedures to reduce steadily the size of the Chamber by appointing one new peer for every two who die, resign or otherwise leave the upper House. If we can have two out, one in, why not have one out, none in? Why not have a moratorium on appointments until the House begins to shrink to a more acceptable level?
We should also be concerned about the things that the report, by its own admission, does not say, and the problems that it does not address—indeed, it recognises that its limited suggestions will exacerbate some of the other problems. Consider, for example, the hereditary peers. Not only are 92 people who are appointed to make the laws of our land not elected by anybody, but the only basis for their appointment is accident of birth. They are not even the aristocracy—they are the progeny of aristocracy from centuries past. That is such an anachronism that it is an affront to every democratic ideal that we must surely espouse. A rather sordid deal was done between the Blair Government and the then Tory Leader of the House of Lords—against, by the way, the wishes of the then leader of the Conservative party—to protect the 92 hereditary peers. That was seen as an interim step, yet every attempt to follow through and complete the abolition of hereditary peers has been blocked by the institution itself and those who support it.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that next year my private Member’s Bill, the House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill, will have its Second Reading. The Government could accept that as part of the deal to reduce the size of the House of Lords immediately.
Indeed, and it is regrettable that an individual Member has to use the procedures of the House to pursue such an objective when it is so glaringly obvious that the Government should act on this issue to improve our democratic system. When he responds to the debate, perhaps the Minister will explain why the Government see fit to take no action whatever on Lords reform.
Hereditary peers are an anachronism and an affront to democracy, but under proposals in the report, which would reduce the size of the House of Lords from more than 800 Members to below 600, they are untouched. That means that their influence will increase as a proportion of the upper Chamber. Rather than tackle the problem, this tinkering will make it worse and give hereditary peers even more influence over the rest of us. We must do something urgently to tackle that democratic affront.
The report also acknowledges the situation of the Lords Spiritual, which is not to be reformed in any way, shape or form. I have many colleagues and friends who are active in the Church of England and I mean them no disrespect, but it is ridiculous in our multicultural, multi-faith society that, if any spiritual leaders are to be appointed anywhere in our legislature, that should be the preserve of just one faith and one Church in this country. That is an affront to people of other faiths and of none, and it is urgently in need of reform. I say that knowing that many people in the Church of England would agree with me and seek such reform themselves, yet the report says nothing about the issue. Indeed, it admits that the influence of the Lords Spiritual in the upper Chamber will increase under the proposals, rather than be reduced, because their number as a proportion of the upper House will increase.
The most glaringly obvious omission in the report, which its authors acknowledge, is the fact that we have not even begun to debate the method of constitution and selection of the upper Chamber. I believe in a bicameral system. I think there is a need for an upper revising Chamber, although the arguments for it need to be made. One argument most often made is not an argument for an upper House; it is an argument about the inadequacy of the primary Chamber. It suggests that we need the House of Lords because the way the House of Commons operates means that it is often capable of getting things wrong and making bad draft legislation, so everybody needs a second look and it must all be revised. That is an argument for improving our procedures in the House of Commons and considering how we originate, deliberate on and make legislation; it is not in itself a justification for a second Chamber.
I believe that there should be a revising Chamber as that has some merit in a democratic system and our parliamentary institutions. However, a fundamental tenet of my belief is that those who make laws over others should be accountable to those who serve under those laws. The governors must be appointed by the governed, otherwise they lose respect, credibility and legitimacy. If we are to consider a new upper Chamber by 2042, surely we must advance the argument that it should be an elected Chamber that is representative of the citizenry of the country. When devising a new Chamber we should take the opportunity to build in procedures that will overcome the current inadequacies and democratic deficits. We must ensure proper representation of women in the Chamber, and of the age range and ethnic mix in the country. We also need a proper geographic spread to represent the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. That is an argument whose time has come. It is something that we need to advance, and if we do so I think that many Members of the upper Chamber will be willing to join that cause.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister ever so gently whether he will reconsider his position, take off the blinkers, realise the degree of public concern about this issue, and commit the Government—not next week or month, perhaps not even next year, but before the end of this parliamentary term—to bringing forward the reforms that are so urgent and necessary. We are now at a crisis point. A report published by the Electoral Reform Society last week contained an extensive survey of public opinion in this country. It showed that only 10% of those polled agree with the House of Lords remaining unchanged as it is today. Fully 62% now believe that the upper Chamber should be elected. That number is increasing, and if we do not act it will increase further, and the political crisis in our institutions will continue. It is time to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about this issue.
In my opinion, House of Lords reform is simple: I believe that it should be reformed, but the exact nature of how that reform should be enacted is up for debate. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the House of Lords should be abolished. It has proven itself to be effective in its capacity to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account, and for that reason alone we should maintain a second Chamber.
The House of Lords also contains many experts in their fields, from Lord Winston in the sciences, and Lord Coe, who delivered the fantastic Olympic games in 2012, to Baroness Lane-Fox in business, technology and education. Those peers bring a wide range of backgrounds and expertise to these Houses of Parliament, and it would be remiss to do away with such expertise by simply abolishing the House of Lords.
The House of Lords Act 1999 retained many hereditary peers but restricted their numbers to 92, in order to ensure that any loss of knowledge and expertise caused by the removal of hundreds of experienced Members was limited. After 18 years, however, I am confident that the knowledge gap has been adequately bridged by subsequent appointments and, of course, the intervening years, and that we now have sufficient knowledge in the House of Lords.
I will be addressing that point shortly in my speech.
There are, therefore, reasons why a second Chamber should be retained. To have experts as part of the parliamentary process, able to sit outside some of the pressure of regular elections and to stay constant and think of the country’s good rather than the next election, is a benefit and a strength to the nation that should be retained. However, that does not mean the House of Lords is above reform, as I have said. All in, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, there are about 825 Members in the House of Lords, with a working number of 800. That is far too large a number to be practical in terms of work, or democratically justifiable for an unelected second Chamber. The Lords must therefore be reduced in size.
Will the hon. Gentleman address the lack of clarity about appointments that are made? There was much concern following appointments made by the previous Prime Minister, when he left office. How would the hon. Gentleman want that to be dealt with in future?
I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised that point. My favourite Prime Minister is David Lloyd George, a strong Welshman who was responsible for the “People’s Budget” in 1909, and who in 1911 pushed through reforms. However, he came unstuck on the issue of Lords and patronage in the 1920s, with similar issues to those that came a century or so later. There is a need for more clarity about the appointments process. I will come on to some of the suggestions in the report, but I think the process should be strengthened and there should be greater transparency. We should make sure that there is fair and transparent way to appoint Members in all parties, as well as independents and Cross Benchers.
I welcome the report produced by the Lord Speaker’s Committee, which proposes to reduce the number of peers to 600. It advocates that any new peers should have to sign an undertaking to serve a 15-year term before retiring from the House, requiring real commitment from them. It recommends a two out, one in system for life peers to get the number down from 800 to 600. After that, there would be a one out, one in system. Finally, it proposes a democratic link through the allocation of new peers to each party according to the average between their vote share and Commons seat share at the most recent election; it also proposes keeping 134 independent Cross Benchers, reflecting the current proportion of Cross Benchers who sit in the House of Lords. Those people are not bound by party loyalty, but are there to serve their country, and provide a valuable, independent voice.
Those are all sensible suggestions. The report proposes the implementation of meaningful reform without the loss of the beneficial aspects currently supplied by the Lords. It is important that any reforms should also respect the Parliament Act 1911 and ensure that the reformed House of Lords does not undermine the supremacy of the House of Commons, which I fear a fully elected upper House just might do. It is important to respect that principle, which has underpinned our parliamentary democracy for the past century; it is just as relevant now as it was in 1911 that those who have been directly elected and who have constituency links can have the final say on laws, and make sure that they are pushed through to reflect their constituents’ views.
I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East on one point: hereditary peers and Lords Spiritual. I am all for tradition, but as a democrat I cannot justifiably defend the continuation of such peers in the Lords, should any reforms be enacted. I would therefore push for the reforms to go further, with current hereditary peers allowed to complete their term, but an eventual phasing out of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
Yes, I would. I am coming to my point about that. House of Lords reform is always another decade away, but when we complete our current constitutional obligations through Brexit—which I think the hon. Gentleman will agree is challenge enough—I hope we can turn our attention to the House of Lords. Then people will not have to wait another decade before reform is allowed in that most respected other place.
I shall start with what is probably obvious: I have always voted for the abolition of the House of Lords, and given the opportunity I would vote to do so again. That, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has said, is not because there are not good people in the House of Lords. There are; but I take the view that some element of democratic input is needed when legislation is passed on behalf of my constituents. I wake up every morning knowing that I have been sent to this House because crosses were put by my name. At the next election, those crosses can be put by another candidate’s name. That keeps me on my toes and tells me that I am held to account by those at home for what I say here. Those people can support me for what I say when I speak, or remove me from my seat in the future.
I would always vote to abolish the House of Lords; and self-evidently if that happened, we would need to consider how to do it, or seek a mechanism for replacing it. In view of the time, I do not want to put a detailed focus on the full report. There was little in the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that I disagreed with. We can speed up the process and increase the number of people who are removed; we can do all sorts of things. I want to focus on something about which, as the Minister knows, I have a bee in my bonnet. I will continue to chew Government legs for the foreseeable future, until the goal is achieved. The issue is hereditary peers—raised by the noble Lords themselves in the report.
As hon. Members will know, there are 92 hereditary peers. I voted for the House of Lords Act 1999, which was brought in under the Labour Government and which rightly removed hundreds of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. As part of the deal to get the reform through with Lords approval, 92 hereditary peers were kept. It was intended to remove them in the future. Now, 18 years after that Act was passed, 92 hereditary peers still sit in the House of Lords. The report says:
“In the absence of legislation, the hereditary peers will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House, with a particularly significant impact on the Conservatives and Crossbenchers. The House, and perhaps more pertinently the Government, will need to consider whether such a situation is sustainable. Any change would require legislation, which could only realistically reach the statute book if it had Government support.”
Irrespective of the wide-ranging changes that are being proposed, the House of Lords, as part of its wish to reduce its number, has said, effectively, that the hereditary peers are unsustainable and that the Government need to consider a legislative solution to bring those matters forward.
It so happens that, as I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, I have a legislative solution. The House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill was printed on 7 September and is due for Second Reading on 27 April 2018 and would abolish hereditary peers with effect from 2020, to give time for the transition to take place. I should like to know from the Minister whether, in the light of the House of Lords proposals, he would support that Bill. I recognise that parliamentary time is tight, but it does not take a great deal of effort to support such a Bill if the Minister has the political will.
The Minister will know that my noble Friend Lord Grocott has come top—No. 1—in the private Member’s Bill ballot in another place. I might say that he is good cop to my bad cop in the matter of hereditary peers. He wants simply to end the election of hereditary peers, and let them disappear slowly over time when election vacancies become available. I should like to know whether the Minister would support that Bill. There is parliamentary time available in the Lords to take it through in this long Session and end the election of hereditary peers. If the Minister cannot support the principle of my Bill, he could, potentially, support Lord Grocott’s. He will at some point have to vote against that Bill from the other place, because—it is not a secret—it has had a Second Reading and Lord Grocott will take it to Committee. He wants it to come to this place, so that on his behalf I can take it through this place in parliamentary time. Today the Minister needs to focus—if on nothing else—on what he will do about hereditary peers.
Why does that matter? I happen to take the view that the great great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of someone who did something 400, 500 or 600 years ago should not be making legislation on my constituents’ behalf today. Lord Mostyn, who lives in Mostyn Hall in my constituency, recently applied again to be a hereditary peer when the vacancy came up. His great-grandparents got their peerage because his great-great-great-great-relative fought on the King’s side in the English civil war. It does not seem to me that which side someone fought on in the English civil war is a basis to make legislation in the 21st century.
I am sure that my Scottish colleagues here today will appreciate the fact that Lord Fairfax of Cameron is currently in the House of Lords. His ancestor got his peerage because he was the first person to go to Edinburgh to meet the new James I of Scotland, or James VI of England. I am sorry, that should be the other way around—I am not very good at my royals, but the point is made. He got his peerage for being the first person to travel from London to Edinburgh to meet the new King. That does not seem to me to be the modern way of making democratic decisions. Lord Attlee sits in the House of Lords now. He has his peerage because Clement Attlee was given a hereditary peerage when he retired from the House of Commons. Lord Attlee is now a Conservative Member. I do not think there is a basis for having the grandchild of the architect of the national health service making laws and voting with the Conservative Whip when his grandfather was given his peerage for being a staunch Labour party member.
The election system that we have now for hereditary peers is absolute nonsense on sticks. I will give an example: Lord Thurso, God bless his cotton socks. He was thrown out of the House of Lords by the Labour Government’s House of Lords Act 1999. He stood for the House of Commons and was elected as the Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in the 2001 election, transferring his blue blood to his ordinary blood. He was thrown out by the electorate in 2015, losing his seat to a member of the Scottish National party. By chance, a Liberal hereditary peer died and there was a by-election in the House of Lords. Three Liberal Democrats put their names forward for that by-election. Lord Thurso got 100% of the vote and is now back in the House of Lords, having had a blood transfusion to blue blood again.
I ask the Minister: is that tenable? That is the simple question he needs to ask. Is it tenable for three people to vote 100% for somebody who has a peerage because of what their relative did in ancient history, who has been thrown out of the House of Commons and who is now back legislating in the Chamber? If this Parliament were an African country, the Minister’s colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would be calling for sanctions because of the families that had ruled the Parliament for generations and the lack of democracy.
Having lived and worked in China, that is not the case, but on the right hon. Gentleman’s point about supremacy and democracy, does he not accept that under the Parliament Act 1911, the people of the United Kingdom are still sovereign and the Commons can still overrule the Lords? Although I agree that there should be reform in the Lords, let us not take the argument to the extreme. Democracy still rules in this country and it lies with the Commons.
Do not worry, Mr Howarth, I am. Trust me. The House of Commons does reign supreme, but I take the view that this debate is about a different system. Whatever else we do about the House of Lords, the Minister, who is an historian, needs to know that he is on the wrong side of history. He needs to know that he must bring forward a solution or he will be judged by history for failing to do so. I hope that, whatever else he does, he will remove hereditary peers and accept either Lord Grocott’s Bill or mine, or indeed bring forward his own and make history.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to add my voice to over 100 years of debate on the subject of reforming the House of Lords. The unresolved discussion on Lords reform has been going on for so long that an annual debate on the subject must surely now be considered a parliamentary tradition. In 1908, the Queen’s great-grandfather was the reigning monarch, while New Zealand had just become an independent country. It was also the year in which the Rosebery report made recommendations on how peers should be selected for the Lords. Such is the pace of change at Westminster that here we are, 110 years later, still tinkering around the edges of our bloated and unelected upper Chamber. After all that time, the proposed reforms before us today hardly seem worth the wait.
That is especially the case when we consider that it could take up to 15 years to reduce the size of the Lords to 600 Members. Why 600? I have read the report and nowhere does it explain why the Committee decided on 600. Did they consider how many Lords contribute to debates, Committees or groups? Some do. As was eloquently explained in the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), some make very valuable contributions, but do 600? When the Lords debated the issue, 61 Members took part—that is 61 out of the 799 currently eligible peers. When the Lord Speaker’s Committee launched a consultation, 62 Members contributed.
The reduction from 826 peers is undoubtedly progress, but we are merely reducing the size of the problem, not solving it. To underscore the timid nature of these proposals, new Members of the Lords would still have a guaranteed position for 15 years. We would retain 92 hereditary peers. We would retain the Lords Spiritual, 26 archbishops and bishops. We would retain the royal office-holders, Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Of course, reducing the peers to 600 but protecting the hereditary and spiritual peers would also mean they made up a greater proportion of the unelected House.
I ask hon. Members whether they are happy to go out into their constituencies and argue in favour of an upper House of unelected appointees with 15-year terms—a House that has no mechanism for the public to hold its Members to account, in which the ability or suitability of its Members is completely outwith the control of the electorate. Would they be happy to speak with constituents face to face and tell them that our modern Parliament should include unelected bishops and hereditary peers, the heirs of long-forgotten generals, admirals and landowning aristocracy? Where is the progress towards a balanced House, by gender, geography or religion? How do we know that minorities are represented? We do not, and we will not, because the Committee’s remit was to address only the size of the House. I acknowledge the good work done by the Committee, but its hands were tied before it even started to write.
Here we are, skirting around the issue and ignoring the core question of whether we should even have an unelected Chamber. What does that say about the nature of Westminster? The “mother of Parliaments” has spawned many legislatures around the world, many of which have long overtaken us in their ability to reform and adapt to the changed needs of their political systems. Westminster, on the other hand, limply staggers on without any of the energy or imagination that characterises other Parliaments.
We have heard comments from my side of the House in favour of reform, but the hon. Gentleman is characterising Westminster as something that limply goes on with no energy. This is the Parliament that brought in the NHS. It has introduced hundreds of technological innovations, spawned justice systems around the world and led the world in many innovations. To say that our Parliament is without energy and “limply staggers on” is unfair.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point perfectly. When did we introduce the NHS? It was in the 1950s. The last time I checked, this was 2017.
The buildings that make up this Parliament are themselves reflective of what is happening here. They are rotten and crumbling. According to a headline in The Guardian:
“Parliament’s buildings risk ‘catastrophic failure’ without urgent repairs”.
It is estimated that the final repair bill may be more than £3.5 billion. We know, however, that the problems facing this place are deeper than crumbling masonry and decaying stonework. The institutions themselves are in need of urgent repair but, with another opportunity to genuinely reform the House of Lords, we have decided instead to paper over the cracks. We have had a century of debates like this one on deciding what colour and pattern that paper will be, yet the cracks remain underneath.
Limiting the length of terms, reducing the size of the Chamber and minimising the number of appointments the Prime Minister can make represents progress, but they are the smallest possible first steps towards reforming the Lords into a Chamber fit for 21st-century democracy. Lord Burns said that these proposals are a
“radical yet achievable solution to the excessive size of the House of Lords”.
With respect to Lord Burns and the Lord Speaker’s Committee, these proposals are not radical and will only reinforce public anger at and scepticism of Westminster politics. Most people will simply look at this situation and see a Committee of Lords concluding that the privileged position of other peers should be more or less protected.
I know that Members from all parts of the House want genuine reform, but let us be realistic: the UK Government have no authority and are barely surviving. As the country moves steadily closer to a Brexit cliff edge, Parliament has neither the time nor the political energy to tackle Lords reform when so much else is happening. Meanwhile, people in my constituency of Inverclyde and across Scotland will look at Lords reform as just another example of this Parliament’s inability to change. They may soon decide that powers resting here may be better placed in a unicameral Parliament—and that Parliament is in Edinburgh.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate and leading us off so thoughtfully and powerfully. It was not for the first time that I agreed with every word he said.
I want to start on a positive note—or at least as positive a note as I can muster—by welcoming aspects of the Lord Speaker’s report. Any attempt to reduce the number of peers is progress of a sort towards abolition. Needless to say, in my view the report is a missed opportunity and goes nowhere near far enough. It has a number of interesting recommendations, such as capping the number of peers and 15-year term limits. However, with a two out, one in limit, combined with restricting the method of reducing the existing number of peers to retiring or expiring, progress towards the proposed limit of 600 will be glacial—a pace that, although undeniably revolutionary for this place, will be viewed unsympathetically elsewhere.
For those who support the House of Lords, I see why these recommendations will be welcome. They address some of the common criticisms levelled at the Lords but, more importantly, supporters think it will kick the wider Lords reform debate down the road. The arguments for abolishing the House of Lords are well rehearsed, and we in the Scottish National party have been consistent in opposing the undemocratic anachronism that is the other place. It is a matter of principle for our party that is held almost as strongly as independence itself and our opposition to Trident nuclear weapons. Quite simply, we believe that a second Chamber should have representatives elected by the people, rather than appointed by party leaders.
As has been said, the House of Lords is a bloated institution that is largely manipulated by the Westminster-based parties to serve their own party political priorities. Its current gross membership stands at 821—some 171 more than the current elected Chamber. As we have heard, the Lords is the only second Chamber in the world whose membership exceeds that of the primary Chamber; only China’s National People’s Congress has more members. That is utterly ridiculous and completely indefensible. The SNP rightly has no peers sitting in the Lords; we are the only political party in Westminster not to play that self-serving game. In contrast, 70% of current peers come from the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
In the last Parliament, David Cameron appointed 40 peers per year, which is more than any other Prime Minister—even Tony Blair, who is comfortably at No. 2 with 37 peers per Session. Cameron, like Prime Ministers before him, exploited appointments to the House of Lords, awarding them to party members and cronies who had previously donated handsomely to the Conservative party; of course, I suggest no link between the two. That yet again highlights the deep-rooted flaws with the House of Lords, with the Prime Minister able to appoint any number of peers he desired without any kind of check or balance in place. How can anybody in their right mind say that that is anything but grossly undemocratic?
It should be noted that the report suggests that political appointments to the House of Lords mirror the results of a general election. However, this is not the first time that that has been proposed. In 2010, the coalition Government agreed as an interim measure that the appointment of new peers would reflect the vote share at the most recent general election, on the way to introducing a Chamber of 450, wholly or mostly elected by proportional representation. As we know, a Tory rebellion shamefully defeated that reform.
However, being led up the path of Lords reform is not new. The Labour Government of 1997 came to power promising to abolish hereditary peers, but as we heard in the powerful contribution from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), in order to get that legislation, which was planned to be the first step, through Parliament, it was agreed that 92 hereditary peers, elected from the hereditary peers en masse, should be able to sit as a temporary measure until the second stage of reform was completed. As we have heard, we still await that second stage of reform 18 years on. In March 2007, 10 years on from the Tony Blair landslide, the Commons voted by a majority of 113 in favour of a fully elected House of Lords, and by a majority of 280 to remove all hereditary peers. Once again, the country was led a merry parliamentary reform dance with nothing to show for it.
The Electoral Reform Society, among many others, points out that the House of Lords is hugely unrepresentative—I am sure it will not come as a surprise to many—with just 26% of its members being female and nearly half coming from London and the south-east, which accounts for only a quarter of the UK population. Another issue the ERS highlights is that political appointees rarely show independence and instead vote with their party Whip the vast majority of the time.
I will play devil’s advocate, and going against my better judgment, I will take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), but if we must continue with an unelected Chamber, I suggest that the newly reformed Canadian Senate serve as an example of an expert-appointed revising Chamber. I reiterate that that is not my favoured solution, but it would be churlish not to accept that there are some fantastically skilled people in the Lords who personally offer a huge amount to the legislative process. Like the House of Lords, the Canadian Senate was for decades hampered by individuals often being more motivated by partisan interest, rather than by effectively scrutinising and revising legislation. Under the new system brought in by Justin Trudeau in 2015, an appointment committee picks independent candidates to serve in the Senate, rather than people affiliated with any political party.
That has been widely welcomed in Canada, and moves it closer to having a second Chamber in which people serve based on merit, rather than loyalty towards any political party. However, I am a radical at heart, so despite offering that non-partisan, unelected Canadian alternative, I feel so strongly about the importance of electoral accountability that, if we cannot have an elected second Chamber, I would follow another Canadian example: the Assemblée Nationale in Quebec, which abolished its unelected Chamber in 1968.
I readily admit that the House of Lords might not be the No. 1 issue raised with me on the doorstep or causing long queues at my constituency surgeries, but it says so much about the country we want to be, and equally about how the international community perceives us.
I could not agree more. That is the point almost every contributor has made thus far, apart from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire. It is obviously a given that, in 2017, we should not appoint any unelected member to a legislative body.
To be honest, as somebody who has been campaigning for Scottish independence since I was nine years old, I never feel more strongly about independence than when I view the farce on the day of the Queen’s Speech. I have always viewed the Lords as a kind of pumped-up parliamentary panto, and seeing all that ermine and fancy dress, and the Lord Chancellor playing Widow Twanky, is embarrassing in the extreme in 2017. I believe that the Lord Speaker’s report was probably as much as we could have expected, given his position and his narrow remit, but it falls spectacularly short of what any developed western democracy should be aiming for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. At a time of austerity, with food banks being used across this great nation of the United Kingdom, I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this important debate. I also welcome the private Member’s Bill promoted by my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), which will have its Second Reading next year.
At a time when we are looking at the budgets to run our country, and local councils up and down the country will be making severe cuts that will cost jobs, it is only right that we look at ourselves and that we start with the money of taxpayers, who are looking for accountability. This debate is about reforming the House of Lords, not abolishing it—I would welcome the second part of that statement, but that is for another day.
I welcome the debate, but we need to speed up the process. We cannot support people who cannot retire. We need a balance. This reform is overdue, and the Lords are overspent. The people of the UK want reform, and now is the time to start changing the establishment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am grateful to have caught your eye. I was not originally on the list of speakers, but the spirit has moved me—in fact, the Spirit rover, which has landed on Mars. We heard an eloquent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who made the case for the red planet to be represented on the red Benches. There is a great tradition of noble Lords taking their seats as a result of colonial expeditions or military victories overseas, so when humanity colonises Mars, perhaps we will see Lord Sheppard of Olympus Mons. Indeed, if artificial intelligence progresses at its current rate, we will see—
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I think the point is made—the point being that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East would not take his seat even if he led a colonial expedition, because SNP members do not take their seats in the House of Lords.
I want to offer a couple of reflections on why I agree with the cases being made for significant and rapid reform. A number of Members have spoken about the contribution that Members of the Lords make to all-party parliamentary groups and so on, with their vast experience. I agree. I have met many learned and distinguished Members on those groups, but a lot of that happens behind the scenes, outwith the scrutiny and shining light of the main activities in the Chamber. To me, there is an issue with that, because it enhances in some ways the lack of accountability.
Many of us, as Members, find that we have massive competing pressures on our time. Our first loyalty, of course, is to our constituents—the people who put us here. I often find myself leaving all-party groups or whatever else it might be because there are important constituency matters to attend to or matters to attend to in the Chamber or here in Westminster Hall. However, Members of the House of Lords can just take their time over these things.
There is an insidious back-room politics that is not seen. The system of lobbying while voting in the Lobby, as we were doing last night for many hours, also goes on in the House of Lords. People cannot watch that on television, but Lords can nobble noble Ministers and all the rest of it. We have to bear that in mind as part of the accountability question.
The key thing I want to ask the Minister about is article 3 of protocol 1 to the European convention on human rights, which is on the right to freedom of elections. It states:
“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
My question to the UK Government is: are they satisfied that we meet that criteria? Are we compliant with our obligations under the ECHR? The fact remains, as has been ably demonstrated by Members across the Chamber today, that the vast majority of legislators in this country are not elected. It is no wonder that some Brexiteers are so desperate to get out of the EU and the ECHR. I think they can see this coming. I have heard it mocked as conspiracy theories by the Brexiteers, but I think they are well aware that if we did somehow try to get back into the European Union after Brexit, we would be incompatible with the requirements of that charter. That is the significant question I put to the Minister.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on his private Member’s Bill. I notice that it is fourth or fifth on the Order Paper for that day, which is sadly yet another corruption and defect of the system we have here. The chances of him airing the Bill’s Second Reading are incredibly slim, but I hope the Government will see the sense of it and the opportunity it presents to bring forward reform of the House of Lords.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Howarth. What a very interesting debate this has been. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for securing it. There have been many debates on the House of Lords over many years. Indeed, some would say that many Scots have been arguing over its very existence since at least 1707. We should recall, too, that England has been far less timid about this in the past. Under Cromwell, the English House of Lords was abolished by an Act of Parliament that stated:
“The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England”.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of the House of Lords’ credibility being in crisis, which, by extension, may affect the credibility of the House of Commons. He pointed out the shameful fact that the House of Lords has had to take action to address that because, as has been made clear in both the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos, the UK Government consider electoral reform “not a priority”.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) in a characteristically passionate contribution made it clear that he supported reform, although he feels a fully elected second Chamber would be unworkable. I appreciate the fact that he wants reform, but, on his concerns about such a second Chamber being unworkable, I point out that such arrangements exist in many other countries around the world, including my country of birth: Australia.
It would be great to have some clarity on the SNP position, because we have heard a couple of different opinions this morning. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) talked about having a unicameral legislature such as China’s. Other Members have talked about a fully elected second Chamber. It would be great to understand from the party’s Front-Bench spokesperson what the position is: is the SNP for a unicameral legislature such as China, or a fully elected second Chamber?
In Scotland, happily, there is a long tradition of considerable consultation on these issues. I expect the people of Scotland to decide these matters after considerable consultation.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) spoke of his long-standing support for the abolition of the House of Lords and the need to decide on a good replacement. He also decried very much the presence of hereditary peers, which I will address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), who as always made a very passionate contribution, described the report’s recommendations as timid and highlighted the House of Lords’ many democratic shortcomings. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) spoke of the SNP’s principled opposition to House of Lords membership for its representatives. I am certainly proud to be a member of a party supporting that position. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), in ebullient form, called for significant and rapid reform.
I rather admire the boldness of that statement in the Act from the English Parliament calling for the abolition of the House of Lords. I join in that sentiment and call for its abolition. I call for it to be scrapped. Many consider it to be nothing more than a retirement home for decaying politicians and people with nothing better to do than take a handout from the public purse. Some say it is a knacker’s yard for knackered politicians who refuse to accept that their time has passed. As an Australian, I have a special dislike for the idea that unelected people have a major role in governing a country. I am clearly far too young to remember Gough Whitlam’s Government, but his dismissal by an unelected Governor-General still haunts the politics of that nation.
With the help of the Library and the blog of the London School of Economics, I discovered a few things. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, there appear to be only two Parliaments in recognised democracies that have a Chamber of wholly unelected Members appointed for life: this one and Canada’s, though thankfully the one in Canada is soon to be reformed. Even Zimbabwe’s Senate is elected, and even Bahrain’s National Assembly has a four-year term instead of lifelong sinecure.
It is time to modernise properly and, if abolition is not on the cards, to introduce much greater term limits and elections. As has been mentioned, the report seems to see some difficulty in cutting the numbers quickly, but I, too, have a few suggestions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East asked, why do bishops sit in the legislature? We should remove them and the remaining hereditaries; if they think they have something to contribute, they can always stand for election. Then we could institute one of the report’s recommendations, but in a far more direct form—get rid of everyone who has served more than 15 years. That would extract a couple of hundred Members. If we got rid of former MPs, we would be down to about 350. If we removed people who had served in other Parliaments or on councils, lobbyists and those rewarded for internal party work, we would be down to about 250. We could cut the ones who have not turned up or not spoken in the past three years and the number would be down further. It is easy to cut the number if people are interested in a functioning parliamentary Chamber.
As has already been mentioned, there is great concern about the criteria used to decide who is eligible for such appointments. Many argue that the second Chamber is riddled with people rewarded for blind loyalty, people who are there doing party work rather than parliamentary work, and people ennobled so that they could become Ministers because the party of government got incompetents elected instead of people who could do the job. It is considered by many to be a rotten borough and a cesspit of self-interest and entitlement. Any Government who believed in democracy would get rid of it.
The recommendation should not be one new appointment for every two Members who leave. We should ramp that ratio up—to three or four out for every one in—or hold all appointments until the number is down to below 400 at least. Alternatively, we could have it that two must leave for every one appointed and then let the appointments clean the stables. We could get rid of all the incumbents and think again about who we actually want in that Chamber—a revising Chamber, as some would have it. We could abolish it or make people stand for election. We could do practically anything to breathe new life into a museum, but what would be unsustainable would be tinkering at the edges to reduce numbers slightly over many, many years and keeping the same broken system.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. First, I convey apologies from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). Because of ill health, I, as the shadow Parliamentary Private Secretary, have been asked to stand in at the last minute.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate to discuss the report by the Lord Speaker’s Committee. The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for reforming the other place, and I welcome any discussion on extending our democracy. Excellent points have been made by many hon. Members, and I agree with many of the arguments, especially those advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson).
Before dealing with the issue of the Lords in detail, let me just say that this is a crucial moment at which to consider Britain’s many constitutional arrangements. Our great nation is preparing to leave the EU, and that will bring many changes to the way the UK constitution functions. There was and is much appetite for extending our democracy, as we saw throughout and subsequent to the EU referendum debate. However, the Government have not responded well to the public’s concerns about our democratic deficit, whether in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Their European Union (Withdrawal) Bill would put huge and unaccountable power out of the hands of Members of either House and into the hands of Ministers, sideline Parliament on key decisions and put crucial rights and protections at risk. Far from bringing control back to Parliament, it would result in a power grab for the Government.
In this context, Labour welcomes any discussion of how to increase the scale and reach of our democracy. However, it is somewhat peculiar that we in this House are discussing an internal report, proposed by the Lord Speaker, before any debate has taken place in that House. I have always tried to be a fast worker, but we have been so quick off the mark that the Lords themselves have yet to consider their approach to its recommendations. It is entirely possible that they will have views and opinions that we have yet to think of, so I hope that this discussion leads to meaningful debate and is not a waste of critical parliamentary time. Will the Minister please tell me whether he knows when the other place will have an opportunity to consider the report?
The report focuses on the subject of reducing the number of Members of the House of Lords. Notably, it considers doing so without any legislation, although that is actually unsurprising, as this Government have no appetite for bringing in any reforms. There is widespread agreement on all sides of the Lords that that House has become too large. It is one of the biggest legislative Chambers in the world. That is in part a consequence of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s years of packing the Government Benches there. In fact, Cameron appointed more peers per year and at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since 1958, when life peerages were introduced, and more were from the Government parties and fewer from the Opposition. As he left office he appointed 13 new peers, becoming the first Prime Minister in a generation to have a controversial “resignation honours list”. This report illuminates how that Administration increased the number of Government peers at a much faster rate than previous ones. Do this Government have a prediction for how many Members the other place will have five or 10 years from now if reforms are not undertaken?
It is disappointing that comprehensive reform of the second Chamber is not a priority for the Government. That was something that the Conservative party outlined in its 2017 manifesto. The Government’s position on the matter is somewhat troubling.
Before calling the snap election, the Prime Minister attacked the other place, describing peers as “opponents” of the Government who have
“vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
She highlighted how they are not democratically elected. That was an astute and correct observation even if the rest of her statement that day was partisan rhetoric. If the Prime Minister was at that point so concerned about the undemocratic process by which Members of that House take their seats, why are the Government refusing to implement any necessary reform?
The Government’s lack of appetite to reduce the number of peers in the upper Chamber is especially peculiar given their determination to cut the number of MPs in this House. That is a cynical move that they claim will cut the cost of politics, yet they are still appointing so many Lords and doing nothing to reduce the size of that Chamber. There are costs associated with those Members, too. If the Government were really serious about cutting the amount that we spend on administering our democratic apparatus, they would be doing more to reform the upper Chamber. Will the Minister tell us what the Government will be doing to cut the cost of politics in the House of Lords?
While the Government are doing little to reduce the size of the House of Lords but trying to have fewer Members in the Commons, the casual observer might perceive on the part of the Government an 18th-century attitude, in which the principles of patronage or hereditary privilege, as seen in the Lords, are regarded as more important than the democratic mandates of the Members who sit in the Commons. With that in mind, can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to safeguard our democracy in both Houses of Parliament?
Labour Members recognise that the other place has played an integral role in the UK’s constitution, complementing the work of the House of Commons while respecting its primacy as the elected Chamber. None of our criticisms of the lack of democratic accountability detracts from the hard work and expertise of the House of Lords. That body can be an excellent Chamber for reviewing legislation and complementing our work in the Commons.
There have been a number of significant wins and concessions as a direct result of the hard work of the Labour Lords Front-Bench teams, staff and Back Benchers, in collaboration with peers from across the other place. It was because of the efforts of Labour peers that higher education providers are now required to give eligible students the option to register to vote at the same time as enrolling with a provider. Labour Lords were able to gain concessions in relation to the then Pension Schemes Bill to make sure that a scheme funder of last resort is in place to ensure that funds are protected in the event of a pension scheme collapse.
Those are just a few examples. There is certainly a large amount of expertise in the current membership of the House of Lords. However, comprehensive reform is vital to address the growing democratic deficit in our country. We cannot defend one House of our legislature not being democratically elected or accountable.
This is a serious and thoughtful report, with some interesting recommendations on 15-year terms for new Members, plans to ensure the continuing flow of new blood into the Chamber, and the removal of the Prime Minister’s absolute power of appointment. We all look forward to discussing the recommendations with colleagues from across both Houses, but in the absence of upcoming legislation on Lords reform, we also hope for a constructive response from the Government. What is the Government’s position on the various recommendations put forward?
In Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto, we committed to establish a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We must have a debate on what any reformed upper Chamber would look like and the principles upon which it would be built. The convention will include vital questions about our citizens’ relationships with Government and will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country. Together we must consider where power and sovereignty lie, in politics, the economy, the justice system and our communities.
Labour’s fundamental belief is that the second Chamber should be democratically elected. That is the standard we must work towards. In the interim period, we will seek to end the hereditary principle, abolishing the opportunity for some to become lawmakers by virtue of birth.
The hon. Lady talks about democracy in the UK and elsewhere, yet in the last Parliament the party leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), advocated reasserting direct control of overseas territories because he did not feel that they could manage their own affairs. Is it democracy or direct control, or is it just at the fiat of the good leader?
I want to point out that the last Labour Government massively reduced the number of hereditary peers who sat in the House of Lords, overthrowing the system of inherited political power that had previously dominated in the Lords. I will move on from that point if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
As I have said, it is important that the democratic deficit in this country is tackled. A root and branch system of reform must be undertaken, and quickly. We cannot allow the Government to continue their years of inaction on this matter. We must see some action on the issue.
I am grateful to you for chairing this debate so efficiently, Mr Howarth. I am also grateful that so many Members have taken part and given such passionate contributions to this debate. I am delighted that the spirits moved certain Members and that they decided to make last-minute contributions, which were all the more welcome. I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) for standing in at the last moment on the shadow Front Bench. Please do give my best wishes to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith); I hope she gets better soon. This debate has obviously given the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich the opportunity to showcase her talents. I am sure that any forthcoming reshuffle will see her rapidly promoted through the ranks.
I also thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), whom I have sparred with on several occasions already since my appointment as Minister for the constitution. His dedication to matters constitutional cannot be doubted. He has called several debates before, on several different issues. Today’s debate on the publication of the Burns report is particularly timely, coming so soon after its publication on 31 October. This debate has given Members of the Commons the opportunity to reflect upon its recommendations and to put their views, however different and passionate, on record. I am sure this will provide an invaluable record for the other place when it discusses these matters—I will discuss that later—recognising the individual views of Members here today.
The Government believe that the House of Lords plays a vital role in scrutinising, checking and challenging the work of the elected House of Commons, and in doing so it brings a wealth of expertise and experience to bear on that work. We will ensure that the Lords continues to fulfil this vital constitutional role, at the same time as respecting the vital privacy of the elected House of Commons.
Hon. Members have already touched on this, but I am sure they will not be surprised to hear that the Government do not consider comprehensive reform—it is important to stress “comprehensive”—of the House of Lords to be a priority. It has been mentioned, but I will quote in full the statement in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017:
“Although comprehensive reform is not a priority we will ensure that the House of Lords continues to fulfil its constitutional role as a revising and scrutinising chamber which respects the primacy of the House of Commons. We have already undertaken reform to allow the retirement of peers and the expulsion of members for poor conduct and will continue to ensure the work of the House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size.”
While the Government have stated that their priority is not comprehensive reform, we still believe it is important—this is a crucial point—that where there is consensus, we have been able to undertake incremental reforms of the other place. We have worked with both Houses to introduce some focused and important reforms.
I had hoped to touch on hereditary peers later, but I will come to that point now. We had a debate in Westminster Hall in July. I recognise that Lord Grocott’s Bill had its Second Reading in September. The Government still hold their position that it must be for the other place to reach a consensus around reform. If the other place reaches consensus, we will work with the House of Lords to look at what incremental changes are taking place. Lord Grocott’s Bill and the issue of hereditary peers will be further debated. We will be looking at that Bill going forwards. Obviously we will be debating the right hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill, which he mentioned, on 27 April, and I hope to be in my place discussing those issues with him.
In order to take reform forwards—I will touch on the historical precedents at a later point—we need to ensure that we have consensus. With Government support, the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 enabled peers to retire permanently for the first time and provided for peers to be disqualified when they do not attend or are convicted of serious offences. We supported the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, which provided this House with the power to expel Members in cases of serious misconduct. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014, which enabled peers to retire for the first time, has resulted in over 70 peers now taking advantage of the retirement provisions. That goes to show that incremental change can have a significant and dramatic effect on the House of Lords—its reform and it size. As a result of the 2014 Act, retirement is becoming part of the culture of the Lords. We have had other Bills, such as the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, which has allowed female bishops to sit in the Lords for the first time.
The Government are clear that we want to work constructively with Members and peers to look at pragmatic ideas for reducing the size of the Lords. It is by making those incremental reforms, which command consensus, rather than comprehensive reforms, that real progress can be made.
On that point, paragraph 10, on page 9 of the report, says:
“Since 1997, appointments have averaged 35 per year”.
I will skip through some of it, but basically it says that if we continue at this rate, we will
“settle at about 875 which, together with 92 hereditary peers and 26 Bishops…a total membership of nearly 1,000.”
That is the path we are on.
The Government are committed to seeing a reduction—they welcome a reduction—in the size of the House of Lords. The Government welcome the publication of the report and are looking forward to the peers debating it. It is not that the Government deny the growing size of the House of Lords is an issue; of course we recognise it as an issue, and one that needs to be solved. Where we might differ is in our view on how to reach the destination by which to provide a solution. We believe that the Lords themselves coming together, forming the cross-party Lord Speaker’s Committee on the back of the motion that was debated, provides a potential way forward, but it is not for the Government to lead on this particular issue. Rather, it is for the Lords to be able to come forward with proposals that we know will then be able to be passed by both Houses.
I personally have been involved in this myself. I have the scars on my back from 2012, when the coalition Government introduced proposals to introduce a partially elected House of Lords—measures that I personally supported at the time. Those measures failed to be enacted, because of a cross-party coalition of Labour and Conservative Members at the time who decided to vote against the programme motion. The lesson I learnt from that about reform of our constitution is that it is much better to take incremental steps to be able to deliver a dramatic change, such as through the retirement of peers legislation. We can then deliver a change to the statute book without having to march Back Benchers through the Lobbies and without marching parties to a stage where U-turns have to be made. I do not want the Government to make U-turns on their constitutional positions; I want the Government to be confident and not mislead Back Benchers and Members. We want to make change through consensus.
Well, we had our chance in the House of Commons to drive reform—[Interruption.] I know the hon. Gentleman was not there at the time, but Labour Members voted with Members of another party to block the programme motion. I do not want to revisit the details, but they show that we had the opportunity to introduce a partially elected Chamber. The coalition Government—this is now in the annals of constitutional history—attempted to introduce an elected Chamber, but that was not possible, so we have learnt that the best way forward is to work with the Lords to look at what is possible and achieve change within a realistic timetable.
That is why we welcome the work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee, which was chaired by Lord Burns. As Members are aware, in December 2016 the House of Lords passed a motion stating that its size should be reduced. The Government welcome the fact that the House of Lords had that debate and passed that motion. It is absolutely vital that the House of Lords recognised that its size should be reduced and that methods for how that might be achieved should be explored.
Following the motion, the Lord Speaker established a Committee, chaired by Lord Burns, to identify practical and politically viable options for reducing the size of the House that would not require primary legislation. Just as important as the point about consensus is the point about primary legislation. Achieving this viable change that allows us to reduce the numbers in the House of Lords over a period of time—I will look at the detail in a moment—is about the art of the possible and ensuring that we can begin the process that is needed.
The Government thank Lord Burns and his cross-party Committee for their work. It met 22 times and took evidence from more than 60 Members of the other place. They clearly put a great deal of work and effort into the report. Its key recommendations include a reduction in the size of the House of Lords to 600 Members, which would then become a cap. To reach the target of 600, there should be a guiding principle of two out, one in. When the target of 600 had been reached, all vacancies would be allocated on a one-out, one-in system. Vacancies should be overseen by the House of Lords Appointments Commission and allocated to each of the parties according to a mean average of their percentage share of the seats in the House of Commons and their percentage share of the national vote in the most recent general election. It also recommended fixed-term membership of the House of 15 years for new appointments, enforced by the House of Lords code of conduct.
The Government will consider the recommendations carefully. The report is incredibly detailed, and I encourage all hon. Members of both Houses who have not read the report to read through its pages.
I am keen to press the Minister on one point. The report’s introduction makes it clear that for the non-legislative reforms to work, they will require the consent of the Prime Minister of the day for the appointments they make to the upper House, both in terms of the number and the proportion across the parties. Is he in a position to say on behalf of the current Government and Prime Minister whether they will try to achieve those objectives or seek to frustrate them?
Following on from my key point about consensus, the history of Lords reform shows us that if proposals are to be effective and stand any chance of succeeding, they will need to command a consensus across the House of Lords. The Government want to listen closely to what peers have to say in response to the report. I believe that before the Government set out their position, it is important to test the mood of the House of Lords on the proposals to see whether a consensus will emerge.
On the question asked by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the Government will make time for a debate in the Lords, and I can say today that it will take place before Christmas. I hope this debate provides material for the Lords to consider. It has been incredibly timely, given that the Lords will debate this issue in the other place before Christmas. The Government look forward to that debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for flagging up the point he raised, because it was remiss of me not to touch on that detail. The House of Lords fulfils its constitutional position in scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account, but it remains subordinate to the will of the Commons, whose Members are democratically elected. It is important that that prevails, but on his point about the legal framework in relation to the ECHR, I am happy to write to him. I assure him that he will receive a detailed letter from me setting out the Government’s answer to the finer points of his question.
The Minister rightly said that any reform should be a cross-party process. Bearing in mind that the Scottish National party does not take its seats in the House of Lords, would he find it useful for the SNP to clarify its position on Lords reform and say whether it is in favour of abolition, a unicameral system, or a fully elected second Chamber to be incorporated as part of the deliberations?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. As this debate has shown, there is a wide variety of views across all parties, which goes to show how important it is that we have careful consideration of reform of the other place. Some people here are absolute abolitionists. Some are in favour of an elected Chamber. Some are obviously not in favour of a UK Parliament—a position that has been taken by the Scottish Nationalists. It is regrettable that they do not take their seats in the House of Lords, as that would enable them to influence the debate. I hope that going forward, all parties can clearly set out their views on the report in detail.
We look forward to the debate in the House of Lords before Christmas and to seeing whether a consensus on the proposals can emerge. I thank all Members who have participated today, and I hope that we can move forward on measures to ensure that we are ultimately able to reduce the size of the House of Lords.
I do not want to repeat the points that I made earlier. I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate, including the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) in particular, and the fact that he will support campaigning for the Government to provide time for legislative reform. We will obviously not go as far with reform as I might like, but the fact that he says there should be some is useful.
I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and appreciate his efforts to get the hereditary principle addressed. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out, where his proposal lies on the Order Paper at the moment means that is unlikely to be successful, which underlines the need for a rather better response than we heard from the Minister about making Government time available to debate reform of the upper House. He says that the Government are not in favour of comprehensive reform, but I am struggling to understand which reforms they are in favour of and what time they will make available. The airing of issues today should be regarded as the beginning of the debate in this parliamentary Session. After the upper House has its debate, I hope that the Government will reflect on the need for the Commons to have a proper, considered discussion that will lead to legislative reform of the upper House. If we fail to act, I fear that we will increasingly lose credibility in the eyes of the wider electorate, for whom the time for reform is now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on reform of the House of Lords.
Private Landlord Licensing
I beg to move,
That this House has considered private landlord licensing.
A couple of weeks ago, Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB trade union, accompanied the Mayor of Newham and Metropolitan police officers on a series of raids on suspected exploitative landlords in my borough. He describes what he saw as “heartbreaking”. He reports families living in a single room with one toilet in the corner; bunk beds stacked six to a tiny room; floors lined with mattresses; and dozens of people using one kitchen that was clearly meant for two people. Bad practice of that kind is sadly not unknown in our part of London and it has a severe impact on the people who live in those conditions and on the wider neighbourhood. I welcome Secretary of State’s commitment to
“protect renters against poor practice”,
and I put it to the Minister that the private landlord licensing scheme operating in my borough for the past five years has been extremely effective in tackling that.
Bad practice is a problem in my constituency, particularly on Flaxton Road. A company has even named itself after the road and is buying up properties there at higher than market value because it can afford to, based on the anticipated rents. Several company owners have changed their company’s name at Companies House. That needs investigation beyond the housing issue.
There certainly is some bad practice around, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged.
The Newham scheme expires at the end of next month. The council applied in July to reauthorise it. I urge the Minister to permit the reauthorisation of the scheme and to do so soon—the Department’s guidance specifies eight weeks for making such decisions and we are now a good way past that—to ensure that the gap between the current and reauthorised schemes can be kept to a minimum.
Under the Newham scheme, landlords are required to register the homes they rent with the council and to agree to conditions to ensure the homes are safe, of a good standard and properly managed. The scheme gives the council additional powers to enforce standards because failure to license or comply with the terms of a licence constitutes an offence. In extreme cases, the council can ban the worst landlords from operating altogether.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I add my congratulations to Ashfield District Council. The licensing scheme is now in operation in Stanton Hill and New Cross. Landlords have to take responsibility for the safety of their tenants through smoke detection, insulation and wiring—those improvements must be made. These councils are leading the way.
My hon. Friend is right and I share in her congratulations to Ashfield District Council.
In five years, Newham has banned 28 landlords. With the great majority of landlords, everything is fine, but there are powers available to intervene when things go wrong. The Newham scheme is widely supported by local residents, the Mayor of London, the borough police and the fire service. A crucial aspect of the scheme is its support of important enforcement work by central Government agencies. For example, the council emailed all licensed landlords jointly with HMRC soon after introducing the scheme with advice about getting the landlords’ tax affairs up to date. That and other joint work between the council and HMRC since then, which has been possible only because of the scheme, has led to the identification of significant previously undisclosed rental income. The fight against tax evasion requires the scheme to be reauthorised.
There has been joint work with the Home Office. Immigration Enforcement said that the collaboration with the Newham scheme has been
“an effective and productive workstream in terms of addresses that are being used by illegal migrants.”
The Minister will not want that work to be undermined. There has also been excellent joint working with the London fire brigade, which says:
“The property licensing scheme in Newham has saved lives and injury to people. The London Fire Brigade therefore supports the Newham application to continue licensing private rented properties, and we look forward to continuing our successful partnership.”
The Minister is no doubt spending a great deal of time reflecting on the lessons of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. One of those lessons must be the need for effective local vigilance against fire risks in homes.
The Metropolitan police work very closely with the housing team in the borough on enforcement work. In the five years of the scheme, officers have made 752 arrests through licensing operations for a whole range of criminal offences. In reflecting on that, the Metropolitan police have also formally supported the Newham scheme. They say that it has
“assisted the police in dealing with crime, both operationally and through the utilisation of joint intelligence…if the Government is serious about having the tools to fight crime then it must allow Newham to continue its excellent work against criminal landlords.”
The Minister has no interest in giving the green light to wrongdoers, so when crime is rising and the activities facilitated by rogue landlords are a significant part of the problem, it is not the time to block enforcement powers that the police have found so valuable.
Much of what my right hon. Friend has said, particularly on rogue landlords, applies to the Page Hall community in my constituency. With the expansion of the number of private landlords, does he think that we should introduce a statutory private landlord register? Particularly in communities where English may not be people’s first language, it can take a considerable time for the local authority to find out who landlords are. With the cuts to public services that have occurred, it would be timely to have a debate about ensuring that all private landlords are registered and that the register is open to the public for scrutiny.
In Newham, the register is open to the public. There are wider lessons to be learned from the impact of the scheme. My focus is to seek the Minister’s support for reauthorising the scheme rather than bringing it to an end on 31 December.
The scheme has led to the recovery of £3.1 million of due council tax; the identification and stopping of £300,000 of housing benefit fraud; and the issuing of 61 rent repayment orders leading to a further £380,000 in reclaimed benefits. It is not surprising that there is such strong public support for the scheme. Some 89% of residents agree and 33% agree strongly that continuing the scheme will improve the conditions and the management of private rented sector properties.
The scheme handles the problem of disrepair in the private rented sector in a fair, proportionate and effective way. The response depends on the nature of the disrepair. In some cases, the tenant will be advised by the council’s housing team on how to tackle whatever the problem is. In other cases, a letter will go to the landlord with a reminder of their responsibilities. For more serious cases, an improvement notice will be served. Only if all else has failed and the landlord fails to comply will prosecution of the landlord be considered. It is a very graduated response.
The private rented sector in the London Borough of Newham, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), has grown very rapidly: it contains 51,000 properties —46% of the total, a far higher proportion than 15 or 20 years ago. There is no question but that most landlords are responsible and law-abiding, and for such landlords the scheme is light-touch and not intrusive, apart from a modest fee. The Secretary of State is right to recognise that, in a minority of cases, poor practice is a serious problem; the Newham scheme has proved an effective response. Licence holders are required to prevent overcrowding, antisocial behaviour, rubbish in front gardens and noise nuisance—problems that occur in a small minority of cases but that disproportionately affect the vicinity. Landlords are also required to manage homes well and keep them safe and in good repair.
I assure the Minister that the scheme is not a gratuitous tax on landlords. I understand that there may well be concerns about that, but the licence fee simply covers the scheme’s administrative costs. If the scheme is reauthorised, as I hope it will be, those who apply at the start will pay just £400—less than £7 per month over the five years of the licence’s validity. That fee is also tax-deductible as a legitimate business expense.
I joined the enforcement actions of Newham Council yesterday morning, and it was alarming to see the conditions that people were living in. A £400 fee to be part of the scheme does not seem a great deal of money as a proportion of the income that landlords receive; a three-bedroom property that I saw yesterday was being let for about £1,800 per month.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Licensing also supports good landlords by preventing them from being undercut by people who own properties but do not look after them properly or keep them safe. The levels of rent in my borough are exactly as she states.
Selective licensing already exists for houses in multiple occupation, but unfortunately that is not enough. Problems in the private sector are not confined to HMOs; properties can move very quickly from single family occupancy to multiple occupancy, and the line between the two is often rather thin. The Newham scheme allows that to be monitored much more effectively, particularly as licensing requires landlords to provide copies of tenancy agreements and safety certificates.
The scheme has been successful and effective in safeguarding renters in my constituency over the past five years. The Minister and I agree on the need for Government action to protect renters against the small minority of landlords whose practice is poor. I urge him to maintain, not weaken, the protection for renters in our part of London and to reauthorise the Newham private rented sector licensing scheme.
I thank my constituency neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the Minister for allowing me to speak for two minutes.
I went out at 7 am last Wednesday with the Newham team and I was really impressed by their work. I went because my borough, Redbridge, has the same problems as Newham and has great interest in the subject. Our council applied for a borough-wide scheme in 2015, but was rejected by the Department, so in August it brought in only a selective scheme in two wards in my constituency, Valentines and Clementswood. It has now applied to the Government for an additional 12 wards in the borough to be part of a scheme similar to Newham’s. The current arrangements are difficult: because of the narrow scope, many landlords do not know whether to register and so there are difficulties in collecting data.
I am very keen that the Government should approve Redbridge’s application. I understand that the Department has asked for further information, but clearly we have the same problems in Redbridge and they cannot be dealt with on a single-ward basis, because landlords often have many properties in different wards of the borough. I hope the Government will listen to Redbridge Council’s requests and agree to its proposal, as well as to Newham’s long-term plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing this debate. I assure him that the Department is progressing the application from the London Borough of Newham; I expect to receive advice from officials very shortly, and I assure him that I will make a decision expeditiously once the submission is with me. Given that the application is in progress, he will appreciate that today I cannot comment specifically on Newham’s proposed scheme.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about how long it is taking to reach a decision. The Department received the application in July and has had further meetings and exchanges of information with the council. On two occasions, Newham has helpfully provided further clarification about the proposals and more evidence and information to support them. As he noted, the Department’s guidance sets out our aim to make a decision within eight weeks, but that is an indicative timetable; decisions can take longer if applications are more complex and further information is required, as has been the case with Newham.
Officials received the latest information on 25 October, so they have had a few weeks to process it. They are carrying out that work right now, and I make it clear that they will make a recommendation to me very shortly.
The right hon. Member for East Ham has highlighted the benefits of the current licensing regime operated by Newham and has placed his views firmly on the record. He also mentioned agencies that have worked with the council. It might be useful if I set out in general terms the Government’s current licensing framework. We support the use of licensing to address high-risk properties, such as houses in multiple occupation. We also support selective licensing of other private rented properties in areas where this will help to combat serious problems in the private rented sector.
The Housing Act 2004 introduced legislation for selective licensing to target the areas of highest risk and the most problematic private rented accommodation. It was never intended to be a means to license the entire private rented sector in an area. It provides for licensing properties in the private rented sector in very specific circumstances: when those properties are houses in multiple occupation or are subject to selective licensing, as defined in part 3. The legislation is very clear that licensing under part 3 is selective: any scheme must be targeted to address specific areas that are experiencing serious problems and that pose risks to tenants and their community. That does not rule out the possibility that a particular problem or set of problems could affect a large area or—in exceptional cases—a whole borough. In that event, the legislation provides that there must be clear evidence to demonstrate the need for licensing.
There must also be proper, robust plans in place to show that selective licensing is a crucial part of the local authority’s strategy, either to eliminate problems or, as a minimum, to mitigate their impact. This legislative framework ensures that selective licensing is not simply a means of raising revenue from local landlords—the right hon. Gentleman referred to that issue—and ultimately from tenants, as landlords pass on their licensing fees through higher rents.
In 2015, the then coalition Government extended the criteria for making a selective licensing designation to include areas with high levels of migration, crime, poor property conditions and deprivation. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman has, as I have said, highlighted the achievements of the Borough of Newham under its current scheme in tackling poor conditions and working closely with a range of agencies.
I appreciate that there are concerns about poor property conditions in the private rented sector in the borough, to which the council itself has drawn attention recently through media coverage and, of course, both the hon. Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) have also put it on the record that they have been out with the Newham team to look at the work that it does. Just to be clear, I absolutely agree that the conditions we are discussing should not be tolerated and that action must be taken.
Has the Minister found any evidence that rogue landlords who provide poor-standard accommodation are involved in other sorts of crime, such as defaulting on loans, not paying tax, or changing their names at Companies House by altering just a letter in the name of a director, because that is what investigation by some of my constituents is showing? Perhaps some work across different Departments might get to the root cause of some of these problems.
Let me briefly address the issue of rogue landlords, because the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Local authorities in England already have strong powers under part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 to tackle poor property conditions and overcrowding in privately rented properties. They can serve improvement notices that require landlords to carry out works to remedy poor conditions, or make prohibition orders to prevent overcrowding. In the most serious cases, which pose a significant risk to the health and safety of tenants and their families, local authorities are under a duty to take action to combat the problem. Landlords who fail to comply with an improvement notice or prohibition order are committing a criminal offence.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of rogue landlords, and I will just say that we have gone further in tackling such landlords by introducing new powers in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which mean that non-compliant landlords can face a civil penalty of up to £30,000. The local authority involved can also recover its legal costs of serving notices. Furthermore, we have enabled local authorities to keep the income from such fines to support their enforcement capability, and local authorities have a right to inspect properties to make sure they are in safe condition, even if the tenant has not complained.
Newham Council has used its database to identify those rented properties where enforcement under part 1 of the 2004 Act might be required. Local authorities do not need a licensing scheme to be in place to inspect and take enforcement action against poor property conditions in the private rented sector.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am listening to his speech with a lot of interest and I am grateful to him for the points he has made to acknowledge the effectiveness of what has happened in Newham. However, does he accept that the licensing scheme in Newham provides the local authority with a lot of information that it otherwise would not have, and that that information enables it to focus attention—together with the police, the fire brigade and other agencies—on the minority of properties where there are potentially the most serious problems?
The right hon. Gentleman has set out his case and how the borough has worked with other agencies. I just say to him now that the submission from the borough will be coming in front of me, so I do not want to prejudice any decision that I may make.
I do not want to waste a few minutes with a Minister in front of us. If I were to write to him detailing some instances of rogue landlords who might be involved in other forms of crime, such as tax evasion or defaulting on loans, would he be prepared to contact his colleagues in other Departments and perhaps get those landlords and their companies investigated further?
I am always very open to receiving correspondence from colleagues and indeed to having meetings with them, so I welcome anything that the hon. Gentleman wants to put in writing to me and if it would be useful for us to meet subsequently I would be happy to do so.
It is important that licensing is properly targeted and not used as a substitute for existing strong powers. However, as the right hon. Member for East Ham will know, because he has asked parliamentary questions on this issue, we have announced that we will undertake a review of selective licensing more broadly. This review will start in due course and we are currently considering its scope.
In the specific case of the Newham application, as I have said, I hope to receive a recommendation from officials very shortly, and I promise the right hon. Gentleman that I will make a decision on it as quickly as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Family Justice Reform
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered family justice reform.
There are not many more challenging areas where the law intervenes than the safety of vulnerable children and family breakdown. Judgments about such things as whether a child should be removed from their parents’ care or how a separating couple share parenting reflect our values as individuals and as a society. They go to the heart of how we see family life and how we wish our children to be raised. A nation is only as strong as the families that create it. A strong family unit of whatever form is where strong citizens are nurtured. That is why it is vital that the family justice system works as well as possible. I am grateful to be able to call this debate. Since I introduced my ten-minute rule Bill on this subject back in March, I have seen how we need to have a constructive debate on the future of the family justice system. I thank the Minister for being here on behalf of the Government.
Let me say at the outset: there has been significant progress in this field under the Conservative Government. The Children and Families Act 2014 marked a sea change in how our family justice system operated. It introduced a new family court in England and Wales that made it easier for the public to navigate the system and reduced delays. The 2014 Act introduced a new 26-week time limit for care proceedings. New child arrangement orders were enacted with the aim of encouraging parents to focus on a child’s needs, rather than on what they saw as their own rights.
My hon. Friend is talking passionately about the changes that have been made. Will she accept—I speak as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution—that a great contribution has been made by mediation? We should seriously encourage the use of mediation services in this area because they have a positive impact.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising mediation. Compulsory family mediation information meetings were one of the measures introduced in the 2014 Act. They have had the benefit of diverting conflict and cases out of the adversarial system.
The Conservatives and the Government should be proud of a record that leaves family justice in a better place than where we found it in 2010. Why did I call this debate? I called it because there is further to go.
I thank the hon. Lady for calling the debate on an important issue, but we have to have a reality check. The Government have withdrawn legal aid from the important areas she has been describing. Mediation has been badly hit by the reforms to which she has referred. We have gone backwards, not forwards. Will she accept that this is a time for reviewing the current situation so that the people who come to my surgeries, who cannot get any help to navigate the complex system, can find help?
As I said, I think there have been improvements since 2010 because of the measures in the 2014 Act, but I called the debate because there is further to go, and I do not deny that at all. I am raising some elements that should be considered in a review or commission led by this Government. That review or commission could cover three main areas: strengthening child wellbeing and families; instilling a fairer divorce regime; and creating a more transparent justice system.
First, on strengthening families and child wellbeing, I have been inundated since March by stories from families from all over England and Wales who have endured our family justice system in the event of a divorce. Months and sometimes years have been spent caught up in a labyrinthine court system and bureaucracy where typically, but not always, the non-resident father has had to fight to see his children at great emotional and financial expense. The sad truth is that many of those being failed by the system are good parents. They want to spend time with their children and be proper dads or mums. They accept that divorce will mean a change in living circumstances and they may not be the main carer, but they are pitted against their former partner who is the resident parent. They can face years of heartache, protracted court proceedings, exorbitant legal fees and diminishing relationships with their children.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She talks about the disruption caused to families by divorce and other family breakdown circumstances. Does she agree that those situations can extend beyond just parents and their children to grandparents? Does she agree that there is a possibility of looking into changing the law so that grandparents have a right to access their grandchildren, and vice versa?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of extended families. Kinship carers and grandparents in particular can play an essential role in the upbringing of our children, and they too can be cut out of children’s lives because of the obstacles placed in their way through our system, which needs some change.
Many parents in these situations have lost their life savings, their home and, perhaps worst of all, their hope. What price is too much? For those who cannot afford it, the cost can be even worse: no contact and no relationship with their children. In one of the saddest cases I came across, a dad was permitted to send merely a Christmas card every year. In another, a father spent three years and more than £100,000 fighting to see his children eight days a month, rather than the six days originally granted by the court.
Children are entitled to a meaningful relationship with both parents, but the current system enables a parent to be erased from a child’s life. It is not about parental rights; it is about child wellbeing. Children who have a good relationship with both parents are less likely to experience depression, teenage pregnancy and delinquency. Children without a father in their life often struggle to reach their full potential academically, socially or professionally.
I thank my hon. Friend for facilitating this important debate. Is she aware of research I have done on the comparative death rates of resident and non-resident parents, which indicates that it is almost twice as likely for a non-resident parent to pass away while their children are small? I indicate that that probably means that it is normally men actually committing suicide because they no longer have contact with their children.
It is a tragedy. Those cases are unspeakably sad and a reflection of the need for reform. There is a clear need, if we are to fight the burning injustices in our society, to start with the foundation of our society: families and, more specifically, parents. That change is vital.
My first proposal is to enshrine a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting. In the majority of divorce cases, parents are able to agree on how their children will be cared for, with whom holidays will be spent, how decisions about a child’s life will be made and how the child may spend time with grandparents and other extended family, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) mentioned. However, in many cases—approximately 165,000 in 2016—agreement cannot be reached. In those cases, a judge will determine the contact and residence for the parties, and that is when problems can start. As well as the paramountcy of the welfare of the child as the guiding principle, parental involvement—direct or indirect—is the relevant test in deciding access and residence. I see the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), in his place. He should be applauded for his efforts in campaigning to secure considerable progress in this field and improving the lot of non-resident parents through the 2014 Act.
My point today is that that standard is too low, as it does not enable a meaningful relationship to be fostered between parent and child. A rebuttable presumption in favour of shared parenting would go further and, as a starting point, actively enable more of that vital, meaningful relationship to be fostered between parent and child, in the event of family breakdown. To be clear, I am not talking about equal parenting. A crude, mathematical, 50:50 division of time is not always practical, desired by the parties, or optimal for the child. Rather, legislation that emphasises the importance of both parents in a child’s life is needed—other than in cases of violence or where the child is not safe, obviously.
Shared parenting is commonplace throughout the world, and operates without difficulty in Sweden, Canada and the US states of Florida and Iowa. Alternatively, Dr Hamish Cameron has suggested that there could be a presumption of the continuity of the previous arrangements. If both parents used to take the child to school, that should be the starting point. If both parents provided equal care, they should continue with that arrangement. Such examples would improve on the parental involvement—direct or indirect—position that we have now. If we are going to continue to tell fathers that they have equal responsibilities, we also need to give them equal opportunities to carry them out.
Secondly, child arrangement orders, which determine the contact and residence of children upon divorce, need to be better enforced. The current enforcement scheme sits alongside the general contempt powers of courts. If satisfied beyond reasonable doubt, courts can refer the parties to a separated parents information programme, vary or make orders for compensation, or commit to prison—remedies that are so rarely applied, it is easy to forget that they actually exist.
Although the majority of orders are complied with, too often they are breached with impunity—usually by the resident parent, due to the reluctance of courts to penalise non-compliance effectively. In 2015, of the 4,654 enforcement applications made to court, a mere 1.2% were successful. I question whether the criminal standard of proof is the right one, when family courts make other decisions, including placement in care or change of residency, on the lower threshold of the balance of probability.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend; this is a really important subject that does not get sufficient airing in this place. She is absolutely right: we can give a child the very best start by maximising the relationship with both parents wherever possible. Despite the important reforms that came in with the 2014 Act—albeit a slightly more diluted version of shared parenting presumption than some of us wanted in the legislation—in too many cases the enforcement remains weak, and parental alienation syndrome is doing serious damage to children as a result. Does she agree that the nuclear option of a change of residency needs to be used in those extreme cases, to make the point that a child is not a pawn between two warring parents? The child’s welfare is paramount, and that must be reflected in the court, and in the involvement of both parents.
I could not have put the point better myself. It goes to the nub of the issue: unfortunately, the courts are too slow to act when those orders are being breached, with the effect that they are meaningless and not worth the paper they are written on. I agree that a tougher approach is needed: one that includes the option of transfer of residency in appropriate and reasonable circumstances; one where community service is applied realistically and in practice, not theoretically; and one where confiscation of driving licenses or passports is considered. Furthermore, the costs of making those applications should be borne by the parent in breach. Currently, there is often no order when it comes to costs. Shared parenting and robust enforcement must be at the heart of reform if we are to strengthen families and child wellbeing.
The second main area ripe for reform is our antiquated divorce law. It is time for no-fault divorce. As the recent Court of Appeal case of Owens showed, not all marriages end because of fault. However, we have a law that promotes the farce of allocating blame, setting parties on a needlessly confrontational path that only fuels animosity and costs. In 2015, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) introduced a private Member’s Bill proposing no-fault divorce, and has since been an energetic campaigner on the subject. The principle is supported by Baroness Hale, Sir Paul Coleridge of the Marriage Foundation, the solicitors Vardags, and the Family Law Bar Association.
There has always been sensitivity around the notion of undermining marriage, but we need to fundamentally rethink that position. The current system forces couples to find blame, creating acrimony where it may not have existed. Divorce is a fact of life—at least for the 120,000 couples that went through it last year. It is not always about fault, but because the parties are obliged to justify fault, they often just make it up, which creates hostility at the outset. By encouraging parties to start their divorce with accusations of misconduct, the current process pushes them towards falling out, which can often affect the children who are caught up in the process. Fault-based divorce can also exacerbate domestic abuse for those women in abusive or violent relationships, because the partner whom they are trying to divorce can refuse their petition and drag it out for much longer than is safe.
Fault-based divorce increases the cost for both the state and the litigants. The need for judicial scrutiny of those 120,00 applicants per year places a significant burden on the courts; a streamlined process would save time and money. As Baroness Hale has made clear, this is not about quickie divorces, but about removing the fallacy of fault. A 12-month cooling-off period would enable that balance to be struck.
The problem was starkly highlighted by the Court of Appeal in the recent case of Owens, now on appeal to the Supreme Court, in which the petitioner—married for 27 years—was refused a divorce as she simply could not prove unreasonable behaviour, adultery or desertion. Sir James Munby, the president of the family division, described the current law as
“based on hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty.”
The Court was bound to uphold the appeal and refuse the divorce, and held that it was down to Parliament to establish no-fault divorce. Scotland is an example of where it has worked well, not causing a long-term rise in divorce rates as feared. Divorce is painful enough, but the current law only makes things worse.
As part of reforming divorce law, Parliament should also establish the enforceability of pre-nuptial agreements. If we are to support marriage, we need to accept that people are getting married later in life, with assets earned before and during their union. If the parties agree, those assets should be protected, not put at risk. A review should look into that, as well as into reform of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and financial remedies and maintenance, which are rooted in a bygone era. That framework dates back to a time when women were entirely financially dependent on their husbands, but today many women are able to support themselves, so divorce should not mean an automatic entitlement to lifetime support from an ex-husband. Scotland and North America limit payments. A commission or review should make recommendations on how to strike a better balance, so that England can shed its reputation as the divorce capital of the world.
Cohabiting couples should be afforded protection on separation. Cohabiting couples with children are the fastest-growing type of family in the UK. Between 1996 and 2016, the number of couples in that position increased from 1.5 million to 3.3 million, yet they have no rights in the event of a split. An inquiry looking into what basic protections are justified would be valuable.
Lastly, transparency in our family courts is much needed and I urge the Minister to look into that. Reform of the way in which the family courts operate in public law needs wholesale review. Far too many children are taken into care on the basis of wholly inadequate and poorly argued reasons, according to Sir James Munby, president of the family division. Only the glare of publicity will enable that to stop, so we need to remove the cloak of secrecy and open up the family courts.
Shared parenting, enforcement and no-fault divorce must be the bedrock of reform, but a broader review that covers the other points I have set out today is also required if we are to make progress. It is an opportunity that Members from both sides of the House, working alongside the Government, must seize, if we are to stop parents and, most importantly, children from suffering unnecessary emotional trauma.
I know that this Government’s commitment to social justice is unrivalled. The stories of injustice and hopelessness are too many to ignore. I hope that the Government and this House will begin the important work of making our family justice system fit for the 21st century.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on setting out such an effective case. When researching this subject, I was very conscious of its complexity—she referred to that—and I want to look at a couple of points in particular. The scope of the debate far outweighs the allocation of time that we have to explore, discuss and come to conclusions, but it is an opportunity to put down some markers on constituency cases that need consideration. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and, as always, I look forward to his comprehensive reply.
I mainly work in my Ards constituency office, with four female members of staff. There is one male and another female staff member in one of my other offices. It is hard to believe that there are so many women in what the media has made out to be a male-dominated world—in my office, they outnumber us by three to one, and that is the way life is. During a recent coffee break conversation, some of my staff highlighted to me a legal issue they had dealt with, which I want to put on record—it is one of two things I want to put on record in Hansard today.
Northern Ireland, and I suspect other parts of the country, has very little legal protection or standing for those who are common-law partners. A lot of people have the perception that common law gives the same protection as a marriage licence, but that is not the case. It was only when that came to my attention through my constituency office that I recognised that this is an anomaly that needs to be addressed, and I want to present that case today. What I found surprised me, but it is certainly the case, and the Northern Ireland Direct website provides further information:
“Most people think that after they’ve been living with their partner for a couple of years, they become ‘common law husband and wife’ with the same rights as married couples. This is not the case. There is no such thing as ‘common law marriage’. In fact, couples who live together, also called co-habitants, have hardly any of the same rights as married couples or civil partners. Legal and financial problems can arise if you decide to separate, or if one of you dies. And while you do have legal protection in some areas, you should take steps to protect yourself and your partner.”
The website is clear and makes people aware of that, but the fact is that people do not look at those things unless the need arises.
In my office, we have had a couple of examples of people who have been together for a long time, and I would like to give an example without mentioning any names or circumstances. Let us take a couple who have lived together for 10 years. The lady moves into the man’s home and begins to pay into the house. Her name is not on the deed, and therefore there is little protection. I put it to the Minister that that should not be the case. I can understand that when there is a short-term relationship that does not work out, but not in cases where partners are co-habiting for years. They have no legal protection whatever. It is up to us to step up and put in place those protections.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point, which I make in my forthcoming private Member’s Bill about extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. There are 3 million couples in this country living in the circumstances he describes, more than half of whom have children, who have no rights—financial, tax or inheritance, and so on. I hope he will support my Bill, which would extend the rights that married couples have to couples who do not want to enter a formal marriage. That relationship could be recognised by the state and they could be given all those rights through extending civil partnerships.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and explanation. There is no reason why we cannot support that—indeed, I am going to say those things right now. I fully support what he has put forward.
In the example of the lady who moved in and paid into a mortgage, everything in her relationship was in the name of her partner—their house, their car and every other loan they took out. At the end of the relationship, which ended through no fault of her own, she ended up with absolutely nothing. I find that quite annoying, and I want to put that on record. There should be no young woman or man who has paid off someone else’s mortgage, only to receive marching orders because the grass is greener on the other side.
I ask the Minister to consider working with all the devolved Assemblies—as long as we have a Northern Ireland Assembly, of course—to tighten up protection and responsibilities for long-term co-habiting partners. At the very least, people should be made aware that the common-law principle is a myth. When they chose to move in with someone rather than to formalise their choice, they are left open, and legal redress is a long and drawn-out process. There is a process, but it is laborious, convoluted and difficult to see through. In my introduction, I said how complex the situation is; the stories of the people who come to tell me what they have had to go through to try to get to the end of the road are quite unbelievable.
People can prove they have lived in a house through direct debits and other bills that they pay, but that process should not be difficult or open to badness—if I can use that terminology—from one partner, leaving the other partner homeless and hopeless.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. There is a horrible consensus emerging in the debate, particularly on common-law marriage. The idea emerged from I know not where, but it has never ever existed. The other important aspect is that the whole process is hideously expensive. For someone to establish their rights through the courts, which may be possible through a resulting trust or a constructive trust, is impossibly expensive for most ordinary people.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, because that is something I had not focused on and it is good to have it on record. The process is hideously expensive, and prohibitive, by the very nature of the costs involved.
I am very conscious of the time, so I shall fire on, but another issue I wanted to focus on is reform of grandparents’ rights, which the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) commented on. I have dealt with a number of cases in my office where this problem arises. Grandparents have no special right to see their grandchildren in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but can ask for contact, just like any other interested party. I tell you what, Ms Ryan, people go through that process only because they love their grandchildren and would do everything they can to try to see them; the process would put people off.
Winning contact through the court system is, at best, a two-step process. The first step is to ask for leave from the court—in other words, grandparents must ask the court for permission to petition. If the first step is successfully negotiated, grandparents must ask for a contact order. Contact orders specify direct or indirect contact. I am a doting grandparent of two young girls, and I would find it impossible to comprehend being kept from them. Grandparents come to me and tell me about their cases, and I understand the heartache and pain they feel if, perhaps due to the actions of their child, they are prevented from seeing their grandchild. To petition the court is onerous and frightening. For cases in which the behaviour of the grandparents is not an issue, I say respectfully to the Minister that he should implement a new system, whereby access is expected unless there is a reason not to grant it.
I do not pretend to be a legal expert. When legal issues are referred to me in my office, I always seek a legal opinion from those who know best, as I should. I believe that it would be a worthwhile use of the Department’s time to give grandparents the knowledge that, no matter what the circumstances of the familial breakdown are, they have a legal right to see their grandchild for a set amount of time. That should be there for them. I ask the Minister to take that into consideration when undertaking a review of family law.
Families exist in many different forms, and the law must be fluid and capable of changing to best meet their needs. It is impossible to legislate to cover every eventuality, but we can and must offer more help and protection. I say respectfully that the Government need to do that. I ask the Minister to consider those two examples, which I have been directly involved with through my office, in looking at how we can have better laws.
Before my hon. Friend concludes, does he agree that, although mediation does not always end up in a happy place, if it is entered into amicably by both sides, it can assist in resolving matters at an early stage or in making the separation much less distressing, particularly for the children?
Yes, mediation can help. In many cases in which I have suggested it, there has been a successful conclusion. That does not happen in every case, but it is good to have a mediation process in place so that we can negate the negative and problematic conclusions.
I look to the Minister for support and advice about how best we can address these examples—I gave two, and other hon. Members will put forward many others. We need better laws and better protection.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this afternoon’s debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing this important debate and on her tireless campaigning for family law reform in England and Wales.
As a Member representing a Scottish constituency and a former solicitor, notwithstanding the fact that I did not have anything to do with family law, I will contribute to this debate from a slightly different perspective. Scotland has a different legal system and a different approach to family law matters. I will keep my comments relatively brief. I do not intend to give an opinion about the adequacy of family law south of the border, but I will speak a bit about Scotland in the hope that my comments inform this afternoon’s discussion.
The Scottish legal system has been distinct from that of the rest of the United Kingdom since long before the devolution of family law to the Scottish Parliament. Scots family law has certainly changed during that time. In 1864, there were only two recorded divorces in Scotland. The modernisation of Scottish family law has come gradually. Until as recently as the 1980s, husbands had a common law right to choose the matrimonial home, and a legal presumption existed that a wife acted as a domestic manager to her husband’s home. Things have certainly changed in Scotland in recent history. We have come a long way since then. We reached the milestone of legalising same-sex marriages shortly before this Parliament—something I was happy to vote in favour of during my time as a Member of the Scottish Parliament.
However, there are some fundamental differences in approach in Scots family law. For example, in Scotland, it is almost impossible for a person to disinherit their spouse or children, no matter how much they want to do so. In England, an individual’s views, as expressed in their will, are given much greater weight. We have the “clean break” principle for divorce: there is the presumption that, unless a spouse will suffer severe hardship following the divorce, each party should be entitled to a share of the fruits of the marriage.
There are also practical differences in Scotland. A speedier divorce mechanism was introduced by legislation in 2006. Pre-nuptial agreements are generally considered enforceable in Scots law, and co-habitees have greater rights than those in England and Wales—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that point.
I certainly recommend looking at different systems to see how family justice in England can be reformed, and Scotland would be an obvious place to start. However, I urge caution in putting Scottish law on some sort of pedestal. Although it is easy to criticise the generous financial provision often awarded to spouses in England and Wales after a divorce, some might argue that the Scottish system does not well serve spouses coming out of a marriage late in life with no employment.
Although it is difficult to compare divorce rates in Scotland with those in England and Wales because of the different ways they are recorded, the numbers seem to be roughly similar. There are just over 100,000 divorces a year in England and Wales and just under 9,000 in Scotland—a similar rate, based on the number of people involved.
There are real concerns about the way in which Scotland’s key Act relating to this matter—the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006—is working. The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee recently suggested a wholesale review of how it operates. We should reflect on that before we rush to replicate the Scottish system south of the border. Some parts of the legislation are seen as ineffective and insufficiently clear, and it is said that they cause unnecessary problems in often already acrimonious family law cases.
I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham for securing this important debate. I encourage her to look to Scotland for guidance, but with a critical eye.
I came to this debate because this is a very important subject. I am a solicitor by background, although it was a very long time ago and I have never been a family lawyer. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) for securing this debate. We have had an interesting discussion.
I often come across family cases in my constituency because I am the end of the line for my constituents. I am sure colleagues here share that experience. Those individuals are often in very distressing circumstances, are dealing with important relationships with their children—those cases disturb me most of all—and cannot find any help to negotiate the very complex and difficult system.
I have no doubt that the legal changes since 2010 have largely improved the situation for children, but they will have an impact only if they are properly enforced, and enforcement depends on equal access to justice. We need a legal system that reflects the society in which we live. I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s comments about our divorce laws, which predate my legal training, and are therefore completely out of date and need to be reconsidered.
In this Parliament, in which there is a lack of political consensus the likes of which we have never seen before, this is the kind of area on which we can work together as Members of Parliament. There is no profound political difference on this matter, so there is scope for making progress if we can agree on a way forward. The key point I want to make is that we need to have a system that gives decent access to justice to all the people who need it in this country.
I have a constituent, a very committed father, who has been to see me on numerous occasions throughout a long legal case involving contact with his children. Despite the fact that I have tried to use some of the avenues available through the good people who provide voluntary services to support individuals before the court, my constituent really needs a solicitor to deal properly with his case. The present system has deteriorated since 2010 because for him legal aid is not available in the way that I used to know it. I therefore strongly welcome the investigation of the Bach Commission that the Labour party has conducted. The Government have indicated they are prepared to look at the matters again. I welcome that, too, because I believe there is a broad consensus, although it is not spoken of very often, on the need to have better access to justice, particularly in cases that involve children.
I hope this debate will be a starting point for us to look again at access to justice and to recognise that there are real problems in our communities, which we see in our constituency offices and arise because of the lack of access to justice. The system is hideously complex. It is difficult for any individual to negotiate it and we have an obligation to try to revisit it and make it better.
I did not intend to speak today, but I feel I ought to comment on the mediation aspect, which has numerous advantages. Of course, any mediation is only as good as the mediator. If we acknowledge that, we can take the collaborative approach of mediation to put together something that is in the interests of the parties involved. There are a couple of other aspects of mediation that I want to bring up. First, it saves a considerable amount of time in dealing with the problems, rather than taking them, perhaps on several occasions, before a judge and expanding on them there. Secondly, it saves a considerable amount of money. I have been trying to get to the bottom of how much money mediation saves, and I think it is a considerable sum.
There is an important overriding aspect, which is that mediation is the best way of ensuring that we deal with the emotions involved. There is no doubt that a divorce is a very emotional time for both parties and for third parties such as children. Mediation can deal with matters in a non-emotional way.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about mediation, but how can it work without guidelines for parents, depending on the age of the children, on what contact might be reasonable and what they might expect? One of the main reasons why conflict over contact with children is so intense is because there are no guidelines on what parents might expect on separation. It is basically the all or nothing rule, so people go into battle and they could come out with nothing or they could come out with complete contact. That is the crux of the problem.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. However, there is much more to be gained out of mediation in terms of working out what the arrangements for contact are. I fully accept that that is a major difficulty, but there are many more opportunities for getting it right in a non-emotional way and by trying to take those raw emotions out of the situation than there are in a formal legal battle. That is why I emphasise taking away the difficult emotional aspects through mediation.
Above all, mediation leaves control of the situation in the hands of the parties. It does not take it away and give it to a judge. The parties do not lose control of the process or of how to deal with the children and with access. They retain control. Anyone who sits through a mediation will experience the enormous amount of power that that gives people to be able to decide for themselves, rather than passing it off to a third party. In the session that the all-party group on alternative dispute resolution had on family mediation, that came across strongly as one of the things that should be valued.
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying and I absolutely agree about the parties keeping control over the contact levels they have with their children. Normally in a court that is farmed out to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which came out of the family court welfare service. In correspondence with CAFCASS, we have established that in all the time that CAFCASS has been set up, there has never been any training for its main function, which is making recommendations to a court on the allocation of contact time for various parents. How can it be that it has such power, yet it admits to me in correspondence that it has never had any formal guidance, and it does not record the contact that it recommends at various stages? There is no record of the contacts awarded and whether they are right. Also, CAFCASS’s statements are not sworn, so it cannot even be held to account for the recommendations it gives in court.
My hon. Friend makes the very point that I was making about the difference between that system and the mediation system. Mediators are not people who have no knowledge. They are not appointed off the street. They have spent a large part of their time in office going through training to make sure that they understand the process and the sensitivities of the issues, particularly the emotional sensitivities, and can deal with those in a professional way. Certainly if there any examples of mediators who do not do that, I would like to hear about them, because that is contrary to the whole mediation process, which provides enormous benefits to couples. I say that as a final comment and contribution to the excellent debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) secured.
It is exceptionally kind of you to call me, Ms Ryan, especially as I was a few minutes late arriving for the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing it. I had hoped to push my luck with a lengthy intervention on the Minister, but as time allows I can perhaps offer some thoughts in a slightly different area.
A female constituent came to me 18 months or so ago to complain that her ex-husband had been using the family courts vexatiously to incur costs and to cause her pain and control her. I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor, who was kind enough to reply. I thought that case was a one-off, but a second constituent has come forward and indicated the same thing. So, today, as we talk about family justice reform, I wonder whether I may add to the learned and wise recommendations that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham has made and suggest that we encourage the Department to consider how, if at all, access to the family courts may be adjusted so that equal access to justice is maintained, but we have clear processes for denying access to the courts for those who seek to use them vexatiously or to cause pain and to control.
In one constituent’s case, they have been awarded the measure that denies use of the courts for up to a year, but, as soon as the year elapses, further legal processes are embarked on, which causes further pain to my constituent and her children. In another case, there is a significant imbalance in wealth between my constituent and her ex-husband. He brings about legal proceedings, incurring the cost in doing so, but when my constituent arrives for the proceedings, having also incurred costs in attending and being represented, she finds that her ex-husband does not turn up and has merely brought the case to cause her distress and financial cost.
It seems that in the case of my two constituents the family courts are allowing themselves to be a part of the very unpleasant and controlling behaviour of abusive ex-husbands. I wonder whether a better balance could be struck between equal, free access to the courts and denying their use to those who seek to use them to cause their ex-wives pain.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing the debate, and wish her well in seeking reform of the law. I shall not labour for long, because of course, as we have heard, Scotland has a distinct legal system, and I do not want to lecture or give lessons from Scotland. I simply want a sharing of best practice between the two nations, and to ensure that where legal reform is necessary we seek to proceed in tandem, so that there are not huge disparities between England and Scotland.
For clarity, I will mention that the area of family justice reform covers marriage, civil partnership and cohabitation; what happens when a relationship ends—separation or divorce; and the relationships between parents and children, including parental rights and responsibilities and the interplay of children’s panels incorporating the rights of the child. In Scotland we have gone further than most of the other nation states in the UK to ensure that the voice of the child is paramount, and that it is ultimately the principal consideration in a divorce or resolution settlement about custody of children. However, I want to echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Fareham and reinforce what she said, encouraging continual reform and review of the process, as family life evolves. We no longer have the 2.4-child nuclear family that the system was perhaps built around. It is necessary to consider the legal system now and how family life will evolve. Valid points have been made about no-fault divorce and encouraging shared parenting, and they are worth considering. I hope that the Minister will take what the hon. Lady said into account.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), who spoke about Scotland’s distinct legal system; his learned experience will be welcomed by the House. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, explained that Northern Ireland also has a distinct legal system, which does not necessarily recognise common-law or cohabiting partners. I hope that protections in that regard, and in connection with the rights and responsibilities of grandparents, may be strengthened. That would be a welcome adjustment.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke about work that has been done in Scotland on family justice and reform, and what will happen as of 2018. There is a strategy for review of this area of law, including the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. That is clearly necessary because things have evolved; as a law graduate I recognise that there is a need to review and update the law continually, as family life and society evolve. As I said, it is necessary for the voice of the child to be at the heart of the principle.
As to grandparents’ rights, I wonder how the hon. Lady would accommodate that question. The Scottish Government have considered it in the past and have refused to confirm that they want to amend the law proactively to accommodate it. I wonder what her view of that is.
Personally, I am happy to say that I think grandparents should play an active role in their grandchildren’s lives. There is room, in the next review period, to consider the role of grandparents, but as I sit in this place I have no locus in the matter and my opinions are frankly irrelevant. However, I agree that children and their grandparents should be able to have a relationship, and there is room in the review for consideration of the role of kinship carers, as it is not simply grandparents but also aunts and uncles, or other relations, who often take on parental responsibilities or care-giving roles.
I believe that there is room for the Children (Scotland) Act to be transformed into something fit for 2017, and fit for purpose in the future. That is why I fully support the motion, and why I argue that we need continually to review family law and to consider the possibility of consulting on simplifying the process and making it more user-friendly. That is our ambition in Scotland—to make the process easier for families. Families have a difficult enough time when relationships are dissolved; the last thing they need is to be pulled through a family court system that does not necessarily make sense to them or seem user-friendly.
In Scotland, we have made a specific commitment to encourage legislation on domestic abuse, which includes coercion and controlling behaviour. I hope that that will be replicated across the UK. I think that it is necessary to cover all aspects of family law, including domestic abuse and violence, and that there should be protections for anyone who finds themselves in that dangerous situation.
An area of law that has not been covered, which is not specifically relevant to the title of the debate but is relevant to the area, is gender recognition. The Government have on several occasions had the opportunity to respond to the inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I hope that there will be progress across the UK, as there has been in Scotland, and a commitment to non-medicalisation, self-identification, and the ability for anyone who identifies themselves as transgender to have recognition in law for their chosen gender. It is entirely reasonable and fair and I hope that the Minister and the Government will take the opportunity to respond to that aspect of law reform in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing the debate. Before I became a Member of Parliament I was a practising barrister and dealt with cases in the family courts. Because family court proceedings are held in private, not much is known about their operation and decision making. Yet those courts make decisions affecting more than 200,000 families. I believe that the courts need to be opened up, and that that can be done without the identity of parties being disclosed. The expression “child A” or “family A” can be used to stop identification of parties. The concept of no-fault divorce should be looked at and implemented, as the current law effectively forces spouses to throw mud at each other, when the truth is probably that the marriage has just come to an end. Cost is another issue that adds to the worry, as many people who are separating will already face financial difficulties and challenges.
Another important aspect of family courts that has been alluded to is what happens when partners have separated, including questions about the enforceability of child arrangement orders. The courts make those orders to regulate the contact and residence of children, but, sadly, they are breached regularly. I remember distressed clients complaining about how their ex-partner would not turn up, would be very late, would make excuses for not allowing the child to be picked up, and would generally be manipulative. It caused a lot of frustration. The only legal solution was to go back to the court, but that meant spending more money, which, often, the clients did not have, and getting cases listed before courts, which would take months. They therefore lost valuable time with their children. The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) mentioned one of his constituents facing similar game-playing by the other parent. I agree with the hon. Member for Fareham that there should be a much quicker method to deal with people who manipulate the system.
When orders are being arranged, the judge could, in a very severe way, inform the parties of the consequences of non-compliance. We must also not forget about parenting orders for cohabiting families. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he is not in his place at the moment—spoke about the rise in the number of cohabiting families, and it is important to consider how to protect those families and the challenges that have arisen.
Another point about family courts often does not get mentioned—it has not been mentioned much in this debate, but it is important and I hope that the Minister will consider it. The president of the family division, Sir James Munby, recently said that too many children are being taken into care for wholly inadequate and poorly argued reasons. Again, from my experience, I tend to agree with him. Although it is inevitable that some children must be taken into care, there are too many such cases, and there seems to be an almost unseemly haste to take young babies away from their families—many people are waiting to adopt little babies, as opposed to toddlers or young children. Perhaps we should consider what assistance, advice and guidance can be provided to new mothers so that they can look after their children themselves, as opposed to social services getting involved and taking the children.
Child safety and protection are obviously paramount, and we heard about famous cases such as that of Baby P and other children. However, from my practical experience, and that of others who have spoken to me, I know that there are occasions when local authorities, social workers and other people do not make enough effort to work with families. Perhaps that is because it is more time consuming or resource intensive, but we should think about that because far too many children who go into care go into foster homes, and not many are being adopted, as they should be. Some children who go into foster care are with one family for one year, another family for two years, then another for one more year, which causes them a lot of instability. A lot of those children are affected by being moved around, so I urge local authorities—I know they are facing massive funding cuts—and the Ministry of Justice to consider incentivising social services in local authorities to work with families so that we can keep as many children as possible within the home, as opposed to shunting them around the care system.
There is some anecdotal evidence—I hope the Minister will consider this—that BME communities and working-class families have a higher incidence of children being taken away than the rest of the population. It is almost as if sometimes they are being judged on what an ideal, upper middle-class lifestyle might be like, and perhaps there should be more of a reality check about what happens in ordinary families. I also believe—this happens very infrequently—that judges should take it upon themselves to talk to children involved in these proceedings to get more information about what they feel about the reality of family life. That does not happen enough. CAFCASS officers, social services and other people should hold many more discussions with children about how they see the situation and what their experiences are.
The hon. Member for Fareham did not allude to the big elephant in the room—legal aid—although my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) did mention it. There has been a real cut in civil legal aid, especially in family courts, because the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 abolished free early legal advice. Often lawyers were able to encourage clients to seek mediation and agree to arrangements, but that is not happening now because so many people are unrepresented. More people are now coming into the court system and clogging up court structures, and often district judges and legal advisers have to draft complex care orders, which is having an effect on the backlog of cases in court. It also means that unrepresented individuals often do not know the procedures and it takes much longer, so again, a backlog is forming in the courts.
When I sat on the Justice Committee in 2012, the fears about LASPO were raised, and it has been confirmed that, although there have been austerity cuts, in reality, no savings have been made because court time has increased, and dealing with those cases takes much longer.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and I have heard court staff say that courts are under increasing pressure. It is not really the role of judges to advise the parties; the judge is there to determine the case, but they are being placed in the difficult position of having to supplement that by advising the parties they are judging.
That is absolutely right. The judge’s job is to adjudicate, but now legal advisers and judges have to take a proactive role in the legal processes. That causes a lot of difficulties for them, and it is clogging up a lot of court time. Cases are taking much longer to progress through the court than they would if we had a system in which people are represented, so many of the issues could be cut down and a debate held on the main features or issues of that case.
We were told that victims of domestic and child abuse would have access to free legal aid, but in reality that is not happening in the majority of cases because of the number of bureaucratic rules that people have to satisfy to apply for funding. One in four women suffer from domestic violence, and every week two women are killed by their current or former partners. One of the most distressing aspects is that victims of domestic violence can be cross-examined by their abusers. I cannot imagine how bad a situation that would be.
The Legal Aid Agency’s failure to apply exceptional case funding has caused major hardship. Many parents with significant learning disabilities cannot get legal aid and are therefore unable to protect their interests as well as those of their children. Will the Government consider the Bach Commission report and whether exceptional case funding could be established to help people who suffer from domestic violence? The Government suggested that 847 children and 4,888 young adults would be granted exceptional case funding, but between October 2013 and June 2015 only eight children and 28 young adults were granted legal aid. That is unacceptable, and I look forward to the Minister telling the House what action the Ministry of Justice will take to deal with that issue.
We must also address the ability of the Child Maintenance Service and the Child Support Agency to work efficiently and quickly to ensure fairness for all involved. In many instances child support arrangements are not working well, which causes difficulties for the parent who has responsibility for looking after the children. What action will the Minister’s Department take to ensure that those orders are working?
In conclusion, this has been a good debate and hon. Members have shared their experiences. I particularly thank the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who have given us a bird’s eye view of Scottish law, and all hon. Members who spoke about cohabiting families and legal aid. I hope that the Minister will address some of our concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I begin by passing on the sincere apologies of the Minister of State for his absence. He is attending to urgent parliamentary business to do with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) on securing the debate, and I thank her for that. She has professional experience from before she joined the House and is already developing a fantastic reputation for work in this area. I recognise the strength of feeling on the subject of family justice and the importance that hon. Members from all parties attach to the issues involved, and I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to discuss them.
The family justice system is responsible for making decisions that change lives. The issues at stake are sensitive and complex, and the decisions of the court can have far-reaching implications for those involved. We need to ensure the system is delivering the best outcomes for children and families, with emphasis on protecting the vulnerable. As my hon. Friend said, strong families create strong citizens.
The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration for the court when making a decision that will affect a child’s life. I for one am proud of the child-centred approach that our family justice system takes. As my hon. Friend recognised, there has been significant recent progress in that area.
To address my hon. Friend’s comments about the importance of fathers in the upbringing of their children, following a change to the law in 2014, the court must now presume that a parent’s involvement in the child’s life will further the child’s welfare, unless the contrary can be shown. That change was intended to strengthen children’s rights to each parent’s involvement in their life.
Orders limiting such involvement to indirect contact—my hon. Friend mentioned a case in which only a Christmas card was permitted—are usually reserved for cases where face-to-face contact is deemed unsafe. Such orders are relatively rare and the court will not take the decision lightly.
Where parents are in dispute and seek a court decision, the court must decide what form of parental involvement will best meet the child’s welfare needs. The quality of parenting, rather than any particular pattern of it, is the most important thing for a child. Parliament stopped short of introducing a presumption of shared parenting because every family is different and every child’s needs are different—the law provides for the maximum flexibility.
Courts apply the presumption of parental involvement in a child’s life unless there is risk of harm to the child or the other parent. Given the prevalence of domestic abuse, however, the court must consider carefully any evidence of a risk of harm to the child or other parent when deciding child arrangements. The president of the family division, the country’s most senior family judge, only last month issued a revised practice direction setting out the practice and procedure to be followed by courts dealing with child arrangements cases where domestic abuse is alleged. That makes it clear that the court should have full regard to the harm caused by domestic abuse, including the harm that can be caused to children from witnessing such abuse. The Government welcome the development, and I am sure the House appreciates that the aim is always to produce the best outcome for the child.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham went on to argue that child arrangements orders must be enforced more robustly. When such an order is breached, a pragmatic response is often to vary the order to make it work for the child. Punitive enforcement can increase hostility and make the child feel responsible. In 2012, a Government consultation concluded that measures designed to punish parents were unlikely in many cases to be appropriate or to encourage them to be co-operative in future. In 2014 changes were made to return enforcement cases to court sooner and to improve judicial continuity.
When a child arrangements order is breached without reasonable excuse, sanctions are available. A parent who breaches an order can be ordered to pay financial compensation, ordered to carry out unpaid work, fined or even imprisoned. The reasons for breach are varied. In a 2012 sample study, only 4% of the breaches could be characterised as resulting from resident parents being implacably opposed to contact. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about the low number of successful enforcement order applications but that reflects a more complex picture, including sometimes technical breaches. How a breach is addressed will depend on the individual circumstances of the case, and the focus of the court will be on making the order work for the benefit of the child.
My hon. Friend also argued for no-fault divorce. Only last month the Nuffield Foundation published a research report on that, led by Professor Liz Trinder. We are aware of the strength of feeling on the issue. It is important to note, however, that the existing law already allows people to divorce without needing to cite fault, as I am sure the House appreciates. Parliament has determined that the law should provide for divorce only if the marriage has irretrievably broken down. One way of demonstrating that is to cite a period of separation. Some are concerned that the periods required are too long, but many things need to be balanced when considering whether reform is necessary. We will study the evidence for change, but will not rush to a conclusion.
In response to my hon. Friend’s concerns about the law on financial orders in divorce, I point out that the law is gender-neutral and gives the court wide discretion to make financial orders based on individual circumstances. The court’s primary concern is always the needs of any children. We have no plans to change that key principle of fairness.
My hon. Friend asked whether the process would be improved if couples could make nuptial agreements that they were confident could be enforced if the marriage ended. She called for a commission to look into that. The Law Commission has already published proposals on the issue, and the Government will consider those and make their position known in due course.
Marriage is of course only one part of the picture. Many people now live together without being married or in a civil partnership. Some people, including the Law Commission, argue that the law should give cohabitants rights in finances, but others disagree. I can give no indication as to how those differences will be resolved, but the Government will in due course consider how to respond to the commission’s proposals.
Will the Minister concede that under existing law the resident parent often has a financial incentive to withhold contact from the non-resident parent, because the fewer the nights spent with a non-resident parent, the greater the amount of child maintenance paid over? How do we square that?
I think the Minister said he was about to conclude, but I wanted to intervene before he did. I know he is not the Minister directly responsible, but individuals in the Chamber have brought some things to his attention. May I request a response from him on each of those individual issues—a comprehensive response, I hope? I certainly wish for a response on the two examples that I brought to his attention.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I will come on shortly to questions asked in speeches and interventions. If I fail to answer all the questions, of course a response will be arranged.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham is not alone in calling for greater transparency in family proceedings. Openness can lead to greater accountability and improve public understanding of the decisions of the court. The Government therefore fully recognise that family proceedings should be as transparent as possible. That is why we welcome the progress that has been made in this area in recent years. Since 2009, accredited media have been allowed access to certain hearings in the family courts, and in 2014 the president of the family division introduced judicial guidance that has resulted in the publication of more judgments than ever.
Arguments in favour of greater transparency, however, must of course be weighed against the need to safeguard children and their family’s privacy. The family courts often consider extremely sensitive information about individuals which should not become public. They must be cautious about putting information in the public domain that, even if anonymised, could lead to the inappropriate identification of vulnerable parties. We continue to work with senior judiciary to ensure that the right balance is struck between transparency and privacy.
I will now respond to some of the specific points made by hon. Members during the debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the role of grandparents. We recognise the important role that grandparents can play in a child’s upbringing. It is obviously preferable to reach an informal agreement on contact with the family, and we encourage families to consider the role that mediation can play. If that fails, grandparents can apply to the court for an order. In answer to the question on cohabitation and civil partnerships, cohabitants have some legal protections under the general law. Parents who have cohabited also have access to the court for orders relating to children. The Government Equalities Office is evaluating the impact that the marriage of same-sex couples has on the take-up of civil partnerships. It will also carefully consider the Court of Appeal judgment before the Government decide on their next steps.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) raised the question of access to justice and support for litigants. The Government have taken action to improve support for litigants in person, including sponsorship of plain English guidance. The Family Justice Council has produced a range of accessible guides for separating couples, which are available on the advicenow website. In answer to his earlier intervention with regards to legal aid cuts destroying access to justice, I respond on behalf of the Government that that is not the case. Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but we must ensure that it is sustainable and fair for those who need it, for those who provide legal services as part of it, and fair for the taxpayer who ultimately pays for it. We have made sure that legal aid continues to be available in the highest priority cases, for example where people’s life or liberty is at stake, or where their children may be taken into care.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) raised the challenges of potential vexatious use of the family courts. We have been working closely with the judiciary to improve in-court protections for vulnerable court users. New court rules and a practice direction come into force this month with the same aim. We are determined also to give family courts power to prevent unrepresented abusers from cross-examining their victims and the court has powers to manage cases appropriately and to prevent vexatious litigation.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) raised the question of the Government agreeing to introduce 50:50 parenting. The Government are aware of the difficulties that non-resident parents can face when attempting to spend meaningful time with their child following separation or divorce. However, introducing an automatic presumption of shared parenting in all cases would not always be in the best interests of the children involved.
I will turn to the first question raised by the shadow Minister, that too many children are taken into care for inadequate reasons. The law is clear that local authorities must first consider placing a child with relatives or friends. A loving, supportive family is the best place to bring up children. The Government have always been clear that the right to permanence option—whether adoption, special guardianship, kinship care or foster care—will always depend on a child’s individual needs and circumstances. The ultimate decision to remove children from their families rests with the court.
With regards to legal aid for private family law proceedings, we have made sure that such aid remains available for victims of domestic abuse. We have reviewed the arrangements for making legal aid available to victims of domestic abuse in private family cases, and we will announce further improvements shortly.
We have had a fantastic debate, with contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, the hon. Member for Strangford, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont)—who contributed to my belief that the Conservatives should look north of the border for sensible solutions on so many things, including family law—the hon. Member for Wrexham, my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Wells, and the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). I am hopeful that we can work across the House and beyond as we continue efforts to improve the family justice system.
Yes—my apologies. That reflects the widespread support for the subject of the debate. I am grateful for the response from the Minister and I am hopeful that we will continue the work to ensure that we get justice for families, strengthen child wellbeing and provide the context for equitable resolution in this difficult area.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered family justice reform
Proposed Chicken Farm (Rushden Higham Ferrers)
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed high-intensity chicken farm in Rushden Higham Ferrers.
First, I would like to thank my researcher, James Shipp, who has been unwell in the past few days—I wish him well—and my other colleagues, Jordan Ayres and Helen Harrison, who picked up and finished his research and my speech. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is of utmost importance to communities in my constituency: the proposal by Bedfordia Farms Ltd to construct an intensive poultry farm in the Rushden and Higham Ferrers area.
In this case, “farm” is a rather misleading term. This large-scale plant will be more like a chicken factory than a farm. Under the proposals, 10 sheds and a total of 540,000 birds would be crammed on to one site. Given that there are only around 247,000 indoor-reared meat chickens in the whole of Northamptonshire, this site in my constituency would represent a substantial increase, and it is unacceptable. Local residents are quite rightly appalled by the proposed new plant. The fantastic “Cluck Off” campaign has campaigned energetically ever since the plans were made public, and I know that a number of the leaders of that campaign are watching this debate closely.
On a sadder note, one of the people who was against the mega-farm was Councillor Glenn Harwood. I am sorry to have to say that Glenn died yesterday of a suspected heart attack. He was one of those local politicians who get so little credit yet do so much. He was in politics not for his own ego but because he wanted to do good in the community. He was a tireless worker for the people of Higham Ferrers. He was a leading supporter of the magnificent Rushden Lakes retail and leisure development. He was an integral part of my listening campaign and turned up to campaign across the constituency week in, week out. He was the excellent deputy leader of East Northamptonshire Council. He was a paratrooper who fought in the Falklands war and was quite rightly awarded the MBE. To his wife Jenny and his family, I send my sincere sympathy. I know he will be sorely missed by all.
This issue in my constituency is just one example of a worrying shift in the approach to livestock farming across the whole United Kingdom, and I hope to voice the concerns of many about the rising prevalence of intensive broiler chicken farms in our nation’s countryside. So-called mega-farms have been on the rise in Britain in recent times. Since 2002, 1,418 permits have been issued for farms classed as intensive by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. To be classed as intensive, a farm must have warehouses with more than 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. Factory farming has increased by more than a quarter in the United Kingdom in the past six years. Some 86% of the permits issued for intensive operations went to poultry farms.
As we might expect, the USA does things on a bigger scale. To be classed as intensive there, a farm needs to have 125,000 broiler chickens, 2,500 pigs or 1,000 beef cattle. That seems like an awful lot, but at the last count, 789 farms in the United Kingdom met those American mega-farm criteria. Believe me, the people of Rushden and Higham Ferrers feel strongly that there should not be a 790th.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said on 20 July 2017:
“One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country. The future for British farming is in quality and provenance, maintaining high environmental and animal welfare standards. We have a world-leading reputation based on doing things better, and that will not be compromised while I am in this Department.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 961.]
He is entirely right about that, as he is about other things.
I do not understand why the Department issued around five licences that will allow Bedfordia to operate this mega-factory farm. I urge officials to look again at the proposal and find legal reasons to revoke those licences. There are three reasons to do that. The first is animal welfare, which I will talk about later. The second is the one that the Secretary of State laid out, and the third is that it is unwise for officials to go against the wishes of their Secretary of State—especially this Secretary of State. Such mega-farms have no place in the British countryside, for a number of reasons. They have an appalling animal welfare record, they are notorious for polluting the local environment and they cause disruption to local communities.
I would like first to focus on the terrible conditions in which broiler chickens are kept in mega-farms. I think it is fair to say that most people recognise that a chicken is an animal with its own consciousness and capacity for feeling. DEFRA certainly recognises that animals have feelings, and article 13 of the Lisbon treaty enshrines that in law. The Secretary of State has already confirmed that that principle will be kept through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. In any case, the principle was recognised in British law long before the Lisbon treaty.
If we recognise that animals—chickens included—are able to think and feel, farmers surely have a moral obligation to provide them with a basic level of welfare. That means ensuring that animals are given the opportunity to live free of pain, a relative level of comfort and freedom to exercise their natural behaviours. However, intensively farmed broiler chickens are afforded no quality of life. They are kept in very tight spaces, in appalling conditions, in mega-farm chicken sheds.
Chickens farmed for meat have been bred selectively to grow bigger and faster. Chickens can live for six years or more under natural conditions. However, those reared through intensive farming are commonly slaughtered before they reach six weeks old. Free-range broilers are usually slaughtered at eight weeks, and organic broilers at around 12 weeks. Yet given the planned turnover for the site in Rushden, a fresh generation will be slaughtered after just 39 days. After three days for cleaning up the mess, the whole process will start all over again.
Chickens in those conditions are often slaughtered still with their juvenile feathers, as their body growth outstrips their maturity. They often suffer grotesque deformities in their legs because their bodies grow so quickly that they become too heavy to support. That rapid growth also puts a strain on the chickens’ hearts and lungs, and they suffer from fatigue and do not have much energy for exercise. Fast-growing broilers spend less time performing natural behaviours such as walking, pecking, scratching the litter and perching, and more time sitting and eating, than slower-growing breeds. In the UK alone, millions of chickens die in their sheds from heart attacks each year.
That said, the question of exercise is irrelevant for those birds. They live in such confined spaces that they do not have any room for exercise. Take the plans for Rushden and Higham Ferrers as a typical example of facilities across the UK. Each shed will have 2,440 square metres of floor space to accommodate 54,000 chickens. That works out as 22 chickens per square metre. In reality, a chicken in an intensive facility has less space than the A4 piece of paper I hold in my hand. Given their fast growth rate, it is hard not to agree that that is a cruel situation to keep an animal in.
The chickens in intensive broiler sheds are unable to move much and are therefore at the mercy of other pollutants in the shed. The birds suffer from a condition called hock burns: essentially, chemical burning of the legs and bodies by the ammonia produced by the accumulated droppings of the vast multitude crammed into a small space. There is litter on the floor to absorb some of the droppings, but that is cleared out only when each generation is sent to slaughter. Birds often suffer eye and respiratory problems due to the high pollutant content in the sheds. If a dog or cat owner kept their animals in similar conditions to these chickens, they would be prosecuted for animal cruelty. That surely seems like a double standard in our law. The conditions are simply abhorrent. It is no way to treat thinking, feeling creatures. To me, it feels completely un-British.
On top of those welfare issues, mega-farms cause plenty of disruption to the local communities that surround them. Sites like that planned for Rushden and Higham Ferrers have a poor record environmentally. Industrial-scale farming produces huge amounts of manure, carcases, silage and dirty water. All of that waste can have significant environmental impacts, even when disposed of properly. Local residents in my constituency are concerned that waste products from the farm will pollute nearby rivers and severely affect the ecosystem in the surrounding area. Air pollution will no doubt affect local residents as well.
People who live near other intensively farmed sites often complain of a horrible, sticky smell, which persists for miles around the sites. That can ruin the lives of local populations and spoil the enjoyment of the surrounding countryside for many more people. That is a very real problem for local businesses. For example, the brand-new nature and leisure park at Rushden Lakes, which has been a great boon for the economy in my constituency, will no doubt be badly affected if the smell should spread from the proposed large chicken farm. The farms also inevitably come with large increases in traffic to local areas. Heavy goods vehicles that support large facilities clog up country roads and cause problems with congestion and further increase the air pollution associated with mega-farms.
These facilities also do nothing for the beauty of our countryside. They are never pretty and blight our countryside with grey industrial buildings. Ten huge sheds will certainly not enhance the vista in Rushden and Higham Ferrers. These huge intensive farms are also bad for our countryside’s small businesses. Encouraging their growth is opening up the market to huge agri-corporations at the expense of small family producers. As intensive farms have spread, small farms have closed down. According to DEFRA, about 4,000 farms closed between 2010 and 2016, of which three quarters were in the smallest category.
The loss of small farms would be a great loss for the United Kingdom. They are good custodians of the countryside. Small producers are more likely to run mixed farms, which help to keep soil healthy and produce grain for animals. Intensive farms bring in grain, and dispose of waste, on HGVs going in and out. Pollution accidents from large intensive farms are on a bigger scale and much more disastrous. The rise of intensive farms is therefore not just a nuisance for local residents, but poses a real threat to the health of our countryside. I, like the local residents of Rushden and Higham Ferrers, feel very strongly that Bedfordia should not be permitted to build this mega-farm in our local area.
The Secretary of State says these mega-farms are wrong. The British people say these mega-farms are wrong. I say these mega-farms are wrong. Now it is the turn of the Minister to say the mega-farm is wrong.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on securing the debate on an application that has been made for a new poultry development in his constituency. I am aware that it is contentious in his constituency, and indeed that a petition signed by many people is already doing the rounds. I join him in offering my sympathy and condolences to Jenny Harwood, the wife of Councillor Glenn Harwood, whom he mentioned. He gave a fitting, moving tribute to the councillor, who sadly passed away this week and who, like so many of our councillors, did much work and campaigning that does not always get recognised. It was right for him to note that today.
The proposal is currently the subject of a planning application, and it will not be considered by East Northamptonshire Council’s planning committee until December 2017—next month—at the earliest. My hon. Friend is familiar with processes and aware that this is a planning application and not an issue that either DEFRA or Ministers would lead on in the first instance. Local authorities act independently of central Government when it comes to planning applications. However, the Government have a role when it comes to developing national planning policy. We are clear in national planning policy that local councils should prevent existing developments from being put at unacceptable risk from, or adversely affected by, unacceptable levels of air or noise pollution. That can include emissions such as smoke, fumes, gases, dust, odour and noise.
Obviously, the weight to be given to representations on a particular matter is ultimately for the decision maker, whether that is in the first instance the planning authority, or indeed, if it goes to appeal, the planning inspector. I know my hon. Friend is familiar with all that; indeed, he did not ask me to intervene in a planning decision. Many of his points related to animal welfare, to which I will return.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the area where DEFRA has a role: environmental permits, for which the Environment Agency is responsible. Under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, there is provision for large poultry units—as he identified, that is those with more than 40,000 places—to be permitted by the Environment Agency. The permit covers all aspects of farm management from feed delivery to manure management in order to ensure that farms take the responsibility to address risks of pollution to air, land and water.
Permits regulate the general management of the site, the operations that take place on the site, and emissions from the site while also ensuring that sites keep good records and are accountable. Permit holders must take appropriate measures to reduce their environmental impact. Those include, but are not limited to: the prevention of odour by restricting odorous raw materials, minimising quantities of odorous materials, and effectively containing any odorous materials; restriction, recovery where possible, and disposal of waste in a manner that minimises the impact on the environment; and the adoption of best-practice techniques to reduce ammonia emissions from the site.
In the case in question, Bedfordia Farms, I understand that the operator originally applied for a permit covering a poultry unit of 360,000 birds in 2016. That permit was granted in June last year. In January 2017, the operator applied to increase the number of birds to 540,000, to increase the site boundary, to increase the number of sheds and to install biomass boilers. Due to the scale of the increase, the permit was publicly advertised for consultation. I am told that no objections were received in response to that particular consultation, and the permit was subsequently issued by the Environment Agency in March 2017. At that point, however, the site expansion had yet to obtain planning consent or, indeed, be constructed, as is still the case.
I have looked at the environmental permit issued and the consideration given. A comprehensive range of issues were taken into account, including the change to the site boundary, the increased number of bird places and whether the additional biomass boilers were sufficient, with an assessment of those impacts. It gave consideration to groundwater and soil monitoring, it considered the impact on special protected areas—a Ramsar assessment—and also potential impact on a site of special scientific interest, and it looked at ammonia emissions. It was a fairly comprehensive review, as is normally the case with such applications.
Environmental permits are designed to regulate the day-to-day operation of the site to minimise pollution. That the site has been granted a permit by the Environment Agency means that the agency is satisfied that the operations at the site will not negatively affect the environment. It also means that the site has been deemed to have no likely significant effect on local sites of scientific interest, or on the local area through ammonia emissions. I will point out that, in general, intensive poultry sites are classed as a high-performing sector, and very few sites cause local amenity issues.
I make those points because there is an important issue here. My hon. Friend’s speech was predominantly dedicated to animal welfare considerations, which I will return to at the end. I point out to him that environmental permitting takes account of environmental considerations, as it says on the tin. It is not the role of the Environment Agency to consider animal welfare; that is an issue of national policy, set either through domestic national or EU legislation. There are rules in place on maximum stocking densities and so on, which I will touch on later.
I will say a little bit about the poultry sector. While I acknowledge and appreciate the concerns surrounding the proposal, we should not forget the importance of the British poultry industry. It employs around 45,000 people in the UK, is largely unsupported by subsidies and does not have a levy body. It is one of our more innovative sectors. The output of the poultry sector was worth more than £2 billion in 2016, and the sector has achieved quite impressive reductions, for instance in the use of antibiotics, through voluntary industry actions. It has reduced its use of antibiotics by—the last time I looked—over 40%. The UK chicken industry maintains an excellent level of salmonella control; it has one of the lowest salmonella prevalence levels in the EU and is well below the EU target.
We should also acknowledge that poultry meat consumption is increasing. Per capita consumption increased from 31.8 kg in 2010 to 37.3 kg in 2016 and the long-term projections are that consumption is likely to increase, as many people find themselves switching more to white meat and eating less red meat. Over the past 50 years, the poultry sector has developed and honed quite a progressive industry, committed to improving and expanding skills in the industry and looking for new markets. Of course, there is always more that can be done, and the public are definitely growing more conscious of the impact of agriculture on both the environment and animal welfare. The UK poultry industry, through the British Poultry Council, operates a climate change agreement that includes targets for the reduction of energy use. BPC member companies are also required to be part of the agreement for both their farms and processing plants.
As I said, there are two types of permits being sought here. The first is the environmental permits. As I explained earlier, under the environmental permitting regulations, the Environment Agency looks at the environmental issues. It does not look at animal welfare issues, which was the point my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was making. The second issue is planning, and that is something for the local planning authority to look at.
Returning to animal welfare, it is something we are considering in the context of future agricultural policy. The Secretary of State and I have been consistent on that: we want the highest standards on animal welfare in the world. As we design a new agricultural policy, we are considering whether we can support and incentivise different approaches to farm husbandry that would be better for animal welfare. It is worth noting that we already have individual farm animal welfare codes on a statutory footing, and there is one for broiler chicken production. We already have regulations to ensure that our stocking density—as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough pointed out, they do not have a lot of room—in the UK is far lower than it is in the United States. Our standards of animal welfare here in the UK are infinitely better than those we would see in the United States. The reason we have debates around chlorinated chicken from the United States, which is always a contentious issue when potential trade deals are discussed, is that the chlorination of chicken in the US masks wider animal welfare problems.
While acknowledging my hon. Friend’s points, we should recognise that standards of welfare in Europe and the UK are already far better than would be the case in the US. I recently visited one of the FAI farms in Oxfordshire, which is dedicated to researching how we can promote and improve animal welfare. For instance, they have done some interesting work on using mottled shade, trees and bushes for laying hens, so that free-range chickens are more likely to venture outdoors. Sometimes, simple interventions like that can go a long way towards improving animal welfare.
I agree with my hon. Friend: we support the view that animals are sentient beings, and how we treat sentient beings is a hallmark of a civilised society. That is why I have always championed high animal welfare in agricultural policy. In conclusion, the animal welfare issues that my hon. Friend raised are issues that we are considering in the context of future policy.
It was in the Queen’s Speech that there will be an agriculture Bill later in this Session—possibly by next summer or autumn. We will publish further thoughts on future agriculture policy at some point in the new year. I assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of thinking on all these issues is going on. We are working with organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and with Peter Stevenson, its head of policy and a key advocate, and looking at ways to improve animal welfare. That includes looking at incentives to support different approaches to farm husbandry.
We are considering whether to divert more research to promoting high animal welfare. One of the issues my hon. Friend raised was that genetic research is currently targeted only at yield, which is also a common problem in the laying poultry sector. I want more genetic work to go into addressing other concerns such as prevalence of disease and animal welfare issues. For instance, we know that, using the right approach to genetics with laying hens, it is possible to reduce feather pecking, so that there is no issue of beak trimming for laying hens. That is just one example. I am sure there will be similar examples for broiler chickens, and I look forward to debating animal welfare with my hon. Friend when the agriculture Bill comes forward.
I am pleased that there has been such a surge of interest in our debate on poultry welfare and that so many people have come to hear about that important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
Loneliness and Local Communities
We will move immediately to the next debate, which is very heavily subscribed. I want as many Members as possible to have the opportunity to speak, but that will of course depend on interventions and other speakers. I ask Members to bear that in mind.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of loneliness on local communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to see so many colleagues from across the House here to support a debate on the incredibly important issue of loneliness. More than 9 million people in the UK report that they are always or often lonely. The Office for National Statistics believes that the UK is the loneliness capital of Europe. I hope that the debate will be an opportunity for colleagues from across the House to share the impact of loneliness in their communities, but also to celebrate the local interventions that are making such a difference to so many people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. I see so much work in my constituency by local groups that bring people out of their houses and give them company to deal with loneliness. Will she join me in congratulating all those groups that do so much work in that respect?
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating all the groups across our constituencies, including Bramley Elderly Action in my constituency, which has turned a struggling day centre into a thriving community centre, bringing old and young together.
As well as celebrating what is happening in our own communities, we are also here to support the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, of which I am co-chair with my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). As Jo Cox said, loneliness is an urgent issue. As I see it, loneliness is a warning sign that our needs are not being met. Hunger is a sign that we need food, thirst is a sign that we need water and pain signals that our body is sick and needs healing and repair. Experiencing loneliness tells us that there is a gap between our need to connect and the reality of the connectedness that we have at that moment.
This is not a call to end loneliness, even if that were indeed possible, because if we never experience loneliness—that need for human interaction—we would not know how it felt to be connected again. However, for too many, loneliness is a feeling that lasts too long or never quite seems to go away. Loneliness is today’s silent epidemic; it is both chronic and acute. However, being lonely is not necessarily the same thing as being alone. Someone may be far from home and family and feel lonely, but they might be surrounded by people and feel lonely too.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I am very concerned about loneliness in younger people. I wonder whether she will come on in a moment to the effect of social media, which can increase the feelings of worthlessness and loneliness, which are fundamental and long term?
Indeed; I think something like one in six calls to ChildLine are from young people who feel lonely or isolated. Loneliness is something we should worry about not only among older people, although that is a significant issue, but among younger people. The connection searched for on social media is sometimes not a real connection, which should concern us, although we should also recognise that things such as Skype can help to keep people connected. I definitely share some of those concerns.
Last week, I visited the Newcastle office of Independent Age and I heard how its friendship service actually has more volunteers than people registered to receive its support. People of any age can volunteer. Does she agree that volunteering benefits not only those who use the befriending service but those who volunteer and provide that befriending service?
Absolutely. I met a group of befrienders in Bramley in my constituency. They talked about the impact that their befriending has on those people whom they support but also the real impact that building those connections has had on their lives.
As we all know, loneliness is bad for our mental health, but it is bad for our physical health as well. Research suggests that loneliness is worse for us than obesity, in terms of mortality, and that being acutely lonely is as bad for someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Just last month, Helen Stokes-Lampard, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that loneliness can be as bad for someone’s health as a chronic long-term condition.
It is close to Christmas, which can be a particularly difficult time for those who are lonely and alone. I celebrate the Kirkby Christmas lunch, which is the brainchild of somebody called Pip Forbes in Kirkby. It brings people together, spreads festive cheer and gives them a Christmas to remember. I put on the record my thanks to people such as Pip Forbes who are addressing this.
I know my hon. Friend is a proud champion of the people of Ashfield and the people there who do so much work in our communities. The reality is that, without work like that by her constituent and others, more people would feel lonely at Christmas and throughout the year.
The truth is that loneliness could be killing us, but no one is talking about it. However, somebody talked about it: our friend and former colleague, Jo Cox. Jo said that loneliness was an urgent but solvable issue. Jo came into Parliament in 2015 wanting to do something about so many issues, including loneliness. For Jo, it was personal. Jo’s grandfather was a postman in Cleckheaton, and as a young girl during her holidays, Jo used to accompany her grandfather on his rounds. She realised that, for many people, her grandfather was the only person they saw that day.
Later, when Jo went to university, she experienced loneliness. Most of us will remember Jo as a confident, fun-loving person who was always full of life and energy, but it was not always like that for her. When she went to university, away from her friends and family and, particularly, from her sister, Kim, whom she was so close to, Jo too felt the chronic loneliness we are talking about.
I thank the hon. Lady, who is my friend, for giving way. I pay tribute to the partner organisations that have worked with the hon. Lady and me on making the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness such a success. I thank Ruth Price, Julianne Marriott and Danielle Grufferty for all their dedication in supporting the commission’s work. I know it is not normal for the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary to speak, but I put on the record that, although it is a burden I would never have wanted to carry, it has been the honour of my professional life to carry on work in Jo Cox’s name.
I thank my friend for that intervention. I also thank her because, in Parliament after Jo died, I said that it now falls on all our shoulders—Jo’s friends and family; all of us—to take forward Jo’s work. The hon. Lady heard that speech and approached me in the Members’ cloakroom the next day to ask whether I would become co-chair of the commission.
Until then, loneliness had not been something I had worked on or championed, but I agreed to meet the hon. Lady for a cup of tea to discuss it. Later that day, I received an email from Jo’s former researcher, Ruth Price, who said it was fantastic that I was happy to step into the role. Even later in the day, I received another email from Kirsty McNeill, one of Jo’s closest friends, saying it was wonderful and that all of Jo’s friends and family were delighted I had taken it on. The hon. Lady is indeed a great lobbyist and the Prime Minister has in her a great PPS.
Later, when Jo became the MP for Batley and Spen and was knocking on doors and attending community events, she saw that loneliness was a lived reality for many of her constituents. Jo was determined to put loneliness on the agenda as the Member for Batley and Spen. Jo was essentially a practical person who worked across parties. She said in her maiden speech that
“we…have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
That was the way that Jo approached politics as well as life. Jo worked with the hon. Member for South Ribble in setting up the commission in the first place, and it is my pleasure and privilege to carry forward that work.
Jo’s view was that, young or old, loneliness does not discriminate, and that is the guiding light of the commission’s work. Over the last year, we have shone a spotlight on some of the different groups who experience loneliness. Loneliness can often be triggered by moments of transition in our lives, whether it is losing our job, going to university, having a child for the first time or bereavement. All those things can be transition points for loneliness.
As I said earlier, loneliness often acutely affects older people, many of whom feel invisible between the four rooms of their home. Age UK has shown that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend every day alone.
Does the hon. Lady agree that loneliness is a particular issue in rural communities? For older people, it is not only the fact of their age, but that there is little transport and often no broadband. I pay tribute to my communities, and particularly my churches, which have done such a fantastic job and done the right thing by getting groups together and making sure that people are not on their own at Christmas.
There are particular challenges in rural areas, as the hon. Lady says, but there are also issues in towns and cities, where we have so many people around us but we do not perhaps have the close-knit communities that are so important for combating loneliness and isolation.
The commission has also shone a spotlight on loneliness among men. The hon. Member for South Ribble and I visited a Men in Sheds project in May. Some of the men who attended the project lived alone, and others lived with family, but they came together to share craft and companionship. Projects such as those, which do something to tackle loneliness, are not always badged that way, but they are helping people to make connections, often engaging them on issues they have in common.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for the fantastic work they are doing in this area. Another very important initiative connected with the Jo Cox Foundation is the Great Get Together, which made a massive impact last June. I believe that something like 9 million people participated in it. I am sure my hon. Friend is already reflecting on this, but I wonder whether there is an opportunity to join some of the work around loneliness with the work of the Great Get Together and plan something with even more impact in June next year.
My hon. Friend is right. We all came together last June on the anniversary of Jo’s murder as part of the Great Get Together to share food, laughter, companionship and friendship with our neighbours and friends. That was a really powerful moment in paying tribute to Jo and everything she stood for. There are, indeed, plans to take that forward, which I will come on to later.
As well as older people and men, loneliness affects disabled people and carers. Our partners in the commission, Sense, found through its research that 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day, while a staggering one in four people admitted to avoiding conversations with disabled people, feeling they will have nothing in common. Carers UK surveyed carers around the country and found the sobering statistic that eight out of 10 carers felt lonely or isolated as a result of caring or looking after a loved one.
I thank the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for all the work they do in this area. The Great Get Together certainly brought communities together in my rural area, as does the great work of the Rural Coffee Caravan, where a coffee shop is put in a caravan and taken round communities. The hon. Lady very articulately made the point that sometimes things happen to us in life that cause us to be lonely, as our horizons diminish. Carers do not ask to care. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s also fall into this group, along with young children at school, with the pressures of social media. Does she agree that this can happen anywhere and to any one of us?
I thank the hon. Lady for that powerful intervention. She is absolutely right that loneliness does not discriminate; it can happen to anybody. I pay tribute to the work in her constituency in Suffolk through the coffee caravan.
As well as having a direct impact on those experiencing it, loneliness has a social impact. Lonely people tend to visit GPs more often. Seven out of 10 GPs say that at least one in 10 people coming to their surgeries are there primarily because they are lonely. Lonely people stay longer in hospital and find it harder to cope and heal, adding even more pressure to our national health service.
Outside of my life in the public sector, I have worked in the hill livestock industry. I remember, from the period of foot and mouth disease, how people in that industry were simply working alone most of the day. I remember the impact that I had as a public representative simply by ringing up those who I knew were on their own and struggling, just to talk to them. A practice that all of us can enter into, especially at Christmas time, is simply to ring people up and say, “I’m the MP. I’m just ringing up to see how you are,” and speak for a couple of minutes. That has a huge impact, enables people to talk about it to their friends and makes them more a part of things. That is a real plus and all of us can do it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. So many of the stories today are about things we can practically do, as individuals, as part of our communities and in our role as MPs.
In the last few weeks, in other Westminster Hall debates and in their constituencies, Members have done work to tackle loneliness. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke in a Westminster Hall debate last month about the need for English classes for refugees and asylum seekers. She described how in Glasgow, welcome letters are sent to newly arrived refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) held a loneliness summit, bringing stakeholders together from across Liverpool, and the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) used the commission’s “Happy to Chat” badges to get older people to chat to someone new at an annual fair in his constituency. The solutions to loneliness have to come from the communities who experience it at first hand and have to be relevant to the communities in which they operate.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I know that in her short time as a Member of Parliament, she has already made a real difference in her community on this issue and so many others.
Yesterday I participated in a live discussion on Facebook and asked for suggestions for tackling loneliness, ahead of this debate. Loads of fantastic ideas came through, with hundreds of people getting in touch. People spoke about work to bring children and older people together. Someone mentioned the Friendly Bench, which is funded by the Big Lottery and is a mini kerbside community garden specially designed to connect the lonely, isolated and people with limited mobility with each other and with nature. I also heard from Mush, an app for new mums that encourages them to connect over social media to share their worries but also their happy moments.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I have to say that her former colleague would be very proud of her and of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). This point has been made before, but I wish to make it again. Charities in my constituency and in all our constituencies do so, so much work. They are often unsung heroes. I wonder if the hon. Lady would pay tribute today again to the work they do.
I am happy to pay tribute to the work that happens in Maidstone and around the country to tackle these issues. There is, though, undoubtedly a role for Government, too. Support at the top level is vital if we are to see the vibrant community and local authority-run projects and interventions such as those mentioned today.
We also need systems in place to measure loneliness properly. At the moment, loneliness is measured in the English longitudinal study of ageing. However, we have spent this year talking about how loneliness affects us all, not just the elderly. We need Government commitment to measure loneliness at a national level, and we need local authorities supported and resourced to do more locally. By supporting local authorities to uncover what is working, we can pump resources into interventions that really make a difference to all our constituents.
As the Royal College of General Practitioners has said, loneliness should not be disregarded as a minor problem. Our GPs need to be supported to give not just clinical prescriptions but social prescriptions as well. They could encourage patients to get out into the community, using volunteers—befrienders and others—to ensure that people who are struggling most get the support and access to the local services that so many people have spoken about powerfully today.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. It has almost brought a tear to the eye of an old firefighter as well; this is a very emotive subject. Loneliness, as we see, has no borders. My accent tells people that I am from the other side of Hadrian’s wall, and we have the same problem there. It also spans the generations; it spans the age range. Could I mention just one initiative? There are many groups that try to tackle this issue, such as befriending societies, but in Ayr we have Street Pastors, who play an early-intervention role on the wettest and most miserable nights, at 2 and 3 in the morning. I am sure that Street Pastors operate throughout the United Kingdom and I commend them for their good voluntary work. The Government and we all as parliamentarians need to work hard to ensure that this country loses its title as the loneliness capital of Europe. We need to talk to and befriend people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Jo very much believed that the solution to loneliness is in each and every one of us. We all have to do our bit to reach out to an elderly neighbour who we know is on their own, perhaps particularly at Christmas time, and to phone someone who we think might be struggling. Actions such as that can make a real difference to people’s lives, and I again commend everyone who is doing such work.
There is a stigma attached to loneliness, and a taboo. One reason for the commission is to try to tackle that and to encourage people to talk about their feelings and experiences. Some of us struggle even to tell our loved ones how we are feeling. A Gransnet survey suggested that the vast majority of people would rather share their feelings of loneliness online than with their friends and family. That might be the quintessentially British thing to do, but it also means that too many people suffer in silence. As I said, Jo thought that solving the issue of loneliness starts with each and every one of us. That is why we use the slogans #HappyToChat and #StartAConversation —to encourage people to do just that.
I am sorry to interrupt the flow of a wonderful speech. The hon. Lady talks about people not being willing to talk about their feelings—not being happy to chat. As I know, an issue that often arises is that one partner in a relationship can be suffering from loneliness, for example, following the birth of a child, and the other partner is not knowledgeable about or aware of the issue and does not know how to deal with it. That can exacerbate the situation—it can make things worse—and lead to issues in the home, which reinforces how important it is that we are able to talk to each other in our homes.
That is absolutely right. Issues of post-natal depression are sometimes linked to loneliness. What should be the happiest time of your life is not always like that for a lot of people. That is the point: a lonely person is not always the figure that we might have in our mind of an elderly lady outliving her relatives. Loneliness is all around us. People who are lonely will be seen as much on a busy street as in the living room of a house with an older person living there. Part of the role of the commission over the last year has been to do just that—to remind people that loneliness does not discriminate and to get people to be more willing to talk about these issues, because only if we talk about them, as we now do much more about mental health, are we likely to solve them.
I want to conclude by saying a little about the Great Get Together and the work that is coming up with the Jo Cox Foundation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said, 9.3 million people took part in the Great Get Together this summer. The Jo Cox Foundation will be building on that with the Great Christmas Get Together next month, to ensure that no one has no one at Christmastime.
In December, the loneliness commission manifesto will be launched by the hon. Member for South Ribble and me, so that we start to give some of the answers to some of the questions that I have posed today, building on the work that the commission has done over the year, but also with the input from all the hon. Members who speak today and the different groups that they talk about.
Loneliness is a blight on our society, and too many suffer in silence, so it is up to all of us, from Westminster to our constituencies, to come together and take the action necessary, and do Jo proud.
Before I call Neil O’Brien, followed fast by Tracy Brabin—I just want to give you warning—I am going to impose a three-minute limit on speeches. The three Front-Bench spokespersons, including the Minister, have agreed that they will not take much time at all; in fact, I do not intend to call them until 5.23 pm at the earliest. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind. Taking interventions will mean that we move to two-minute speeches, which as Members we know is utterly useless, but that is where we will end up if Members take interventions. I call Neil O’Brien.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing this important debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). I will be as brief as possible, Mr Paisley.
Many hon. Members present will have had the experience of knocking on doors and finding someone who wants to carry on talking to us because we are the only person they have seen for a long time. There are many statistics in this area, which the hon. Member for Leeds West is more knowledgeable about than I am. The statistic that always strikes me is the one from Age UK that 3.6 million people over the age of 65 say that the TV is their main form of company. This is a profound problem, and in my constituency it is one that many people want to do something about. There are brilliant organisations such as Voluntary Action South Leicestershire, which has a befriending programme that helps not just the befriended but the befriender. The Churches do so much, and there are groups such as Age UK, which has great programmes, including Elderberries.
I would like to turn the conversation a little towards solutions. Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a problem. The hon. Lady is right to say that the first step is to measure the problem more, so that we know what interventions best address it. In the short time available, let me suggest just a few different things that we might want to discuss.
We could expand the National Citizen Service—a brilliant initiative from David Cameron that sees young people doing more in their communities. We could think about how to encourage more multigenerational living. Multifamily households are the fastest growing type of household in the UK today. By bringing younger and older generations together in one household, we potentially address not just the problem of loneliness, but some of the questions about the costs of an ageing society, because we would have younger people looking after older people.
We could think about the challenge of ensuring that everyone in our communities has a good ability in English. As I go round my constituency, I am often sad when I knock on the door and meet constituents who are not really able to have a conversation with me. That is not just bad for their ability to take part in our economy and our society, but incredibly isolating for them; they are often women. We could think about how we provide English for everyone.
We could think about how to spread initiatives for young mothers. I am thinking of organisations such as the NCT. This is something that I have experienced in my own family: we have absolutely relied on the network that we built up of other young parents through the NCT. Not everyone is able to access that, because it is a paid-for service, but I wonder how we could spread that kind of service and network to more people. Perhaps related to that, but much broader, is the question of how we can use technology as a tool to fight loneliness. I have been very encouraged in that respect by some of the projects in my constituency. Older people, who always say that they do not want to get involved—
Thank you for calling me, Mr Paisley, in this important debate. I am grateful for all the work that my hon. Friends have done in continuing the work of the late Jo Cox in tackling loneliness.
The truth is that loneliness is a widespread problem. When I was a 26-year-old actor, I was probably not an obvious suspect for suffering from loneliness. However, I had been living in London and I split with my long-term boyfriend of five years. In a mad weekend, having saved a deposit from a long theatre tour, on impulse I bought a ticket to Brighton, saw three tiny flats and put in an offer on one that day. I was obviously still heartbroken and not thinking straight. In the first few weeks, I was delirious with joy. I had bought my own place with money that I had earned as an actor—a huge achievement. But when summer faded and autumn and winter set in, the steady stream of London pals visiting for the day dried up, and I was alone and desperate. I cried myself to sleep with loneliness more nights than not. I am a gregarious can-do person, so I would force myself to go to gigs and events, libraries and coffee bars just on the off chance that I would meet someone I vaguely knew, but it was excruciating. Superficially, I may have been smiling, but inside I was screaming, “Be my friend” and then, conversely, “Don’t look desperate!”
At the time, I could never have imagined admitting that I was lonely, but I was. I was embarrassed about being needy, about not winning, about looking like a loser. I tell this story to illuminate how loneliness can affect anyone, at any age. It can affect toddlers, teens, young mums, carers, children in care, disabled people, widowers and widows. Loneliness is a gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach, a loss of companionship, a realisation that days have gone by and you have not spoken to anyone. My feelings of loneliness definitely added to my stress. I felt anxious and depressed. I probably drank more than I normally would; I probably ate more, as a comfort; and I felt overall dissatisfaction with my life.
With the Jo Cox loneliness commission, I am very proud to say that Batley and Spen is a brilliant community tackling loneliness. The Royal Voluntary Service has more than 170 volunteers, of whom 100 support older people as community champions. Local community groups and drop-ins are run by volunteers, none more effective than the RVS. The same service offers community companions and individualised one-to-one support for older folk, taking them shopping and to appointments, working in partnership with Batley Old People’s Centre.
Loneliness can strike anyone at any time. For anyone who is listening who feels lonely, please do not be shy. Reach out to organisations that can help—they are waiting to hear from you.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Paisley. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on the work of the commission, which looked into this important issue.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people and this issue has been a focus of our work, too. We held an inquiry last year looking at the issues of social isolation, which clearly is different from loneliness, and at the context in which many people can become lonely, which has become worse as there have been so many cuts on services. We really need to focus on those issues, on taking down the barriers to loneliness and on enabling people to go forward.
Currently 1 million people in later life are lonely—they describe themselves as often or always lonely. That is an issue that we obviously need to tackle. There are 1 million people today who are ageing without children. We know that the rapidly changing demographics mean that that will be 2 million by 2030. There are some serious issues coming to us, which we really need to get a grip on. Indeed, 49% of people living alone are over the age of 75. I will work with the commission and with the all-party parliamentary group to ensure that we tackle these issues for people in later life.
There is a positive side to this story, too, and that comes from our communities. I witness in my constituency of York Central the amazing work that is being done to support older people. I hold it up as a good model. York Neighbours, which came out of the churches, carries out jobs for people across our community, makes regular calls on people in our community and arranges trips to enable those environments where people can start forming relationships and friendships. We have Lidgett Grove church, which has an intergenerational café, so youngsters are mixing with older people. Revitalising new families are giving people the connection that they need. We have the St Sampson’s Centre, which is there for the over-60s, providing food and drink throughout the day, where anybody can come into our city and gather; anybody passing by can sit down and they are welcomed and form new friendships. That is open throughout the week. That is something that is really special in our city.
We have heard about the Men’s Sheds. York Men’s Shed, which I helped get off the ground, has been an incredible place where people come to tinker and talk. It is a great place for men to gather. They perhaps would not openly talk about the issue of loneliness. Of course, organisations such as Age UK do incredible work as well.
We know that there are serious issues. Looking at older people and the challenges they face, particularly around this area of loneliness, has driven me throughout my life. There are so many challenges and so much good is coming from that work. When we work together, we can really make a difference and ensure that older people have the support they need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing the debate and on all her work on this issue, alongside the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and so many others, including, of course, Jo Cox. I did not have the privilege of knowing her—our time in Parliament did not overlap—but even as someone who did not get to meet her personally, it is so clear how her inspiration shines through and lives on in initiatives and debates such as this.
I love the practicality of the hashtag, #HappyToChat, about empowering individuals to make small changes that together can add up to become a big solution to a problem such as loneliness. We all pay tribute to the many volunteers in our communities running the lunch clubs, the faith groups, the youth groups and the community spaces that provide opportunities for people to interact and to help to combat loneliness.
I am conscious of time, so I am afraid that I will not.
I remember my time as a new mum on maternity leave. It is so easy to understand how loneliness can creep in and how you can feel like climbing the walls with a new-born. Despite the fact that you are spending 24 hours, 7 days a week with another human being—perhaps it is not despite that, but because of it—challenges arise. It is so easy to feel isolated. At the other end of the age spectrum, I recall my grandfather Matthew Marshall, who, after my grandmother died, I think did feel loneliness. It was compounded by the fact that he suffered from deafness. Particularly as part of a generation that was not able to embrace the internet, that became a massive isolating factor and another layer of difficulty.
On the positive side and the value of social interaction, my grandmother Gladys Swinson—my dad’s mum—lived independently on her own to the age of 99 and then for a further two years in a home. I think one of the secrets to her longevity and long good health was that every day she made a point of going out on the Broadway and going into the shops to get her messages and speak to the individuals. I think the value of that to health is so significant.
The key message we need to learn from this is the value of human interaction. In an age of tablets and smartphones, of technological developments, it is so easy to overlook the importance of a kind word, a friendly conversation, a smile or a hug in all our daily lives, in our public services and in our interactions in shops, at the bus stop, at the school gate, in the queue at the post office, with neighbours, friends and family. Those have such an impact on our quality of life, yet they are not captured in the economic data that too often drives decision making to the exclusion of all else. We cannot be reduced to pounds and pence, to figures on a spreadsheet. Our humanity matters and connecting with others matters. We must all ensure that the issue of loneliness stays on the political agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this debate and on all the work that she and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) have done on this agenda in memory of our friend Jo Cox.
As we have heard, loneliness is by its very nature hidden and can affect just about anyone in society, although some groups are more likely to be impacted than others. I do not want to repeat the substance of the many excellent contributions; I just want to reflect on some of the issues I have heard about locally.
I was fortunate enough last week to talk to a number of health and wellbeing co-ordinators in my consistency, and much of what I will say is based on what they told me. The sad truth of the matter is that, for all the effort and focus going into tackling loneliness, there are a number of reasons why the many great initiatives we hear about are not always as successful as we would like them to be.
The No. 1 challenge I heard about from wellbeing co-ordinators was transport. They had a real concern that, although they could refer people to particular groups and activities, in order to access these the patients often rely on public transport or community transport groups, both of which have been decimated in recent years. Part of the issue with transport was not just that the community groups are not as well funded to provide the services, but that there are not enough volunteers to meet demand. That is a common theme in many voluntary organisations. Often, we have fantastic people doing a great job running them. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the great work that they do, but we must remember that these volunteers are just volunteers and they have their own lives, too. Sadly, sometimes things happen in their own lives—illnesses, new caring responsibilities or changes in working commitments—which mean that they can no longer commit the time to volunteering that they would like to. Sometimes, because that person has been the driving force of that particular organisation, the organisation suffers. I would like to see much greater capacity building among volunteers, so that we can overcome these challenges.
It is about putting organisations on a sustainable footing. The question of sustainability also applies to funding. There are lots of pots of money out there to support good causes, but they are often time-limited or for specific purposes and frequently are not able to be used on day-to-day running costs. It is also the case that a certain level of dexterity needs to be applied to actually access the funding in the first place, so I would like to see greater support for people to successfully apply for these pots of money.
There are lots of great people in my constituency who freely give their time to help to tackle loneliness—luncheon clubs, befriender schemes and Men’s Sheds are just three of them—but we have lost other organisations for a variety of reasons in recent times, such as Endeavour, which was doing an excellent job in my constituency in reaching out to older people but sadly had to shut down over the summer. It has not been replaced, which is hugely concerning, and because it is not a statutory service, the only way we will see an equivalent scheme is if there is somebody out there who decides to start another one from scratch. That hardly seems to me a coherent or sustainable way to tackle one of the biggest challenges in our society.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, for calling me in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing the debate.
Over the next five weeks, in the build-up to Christmas, we will see many adverts on television and online promoting all sorts of products, with the backdrop of a happy family sitting around a well-stocked dining table, ready to tuck in to their Christmas dinner, all happiness, smiles and laughter. For many people, that will be the ideal they strive for, but for others that representation of Christmas could not be further from the truth. We now have an estimated average of 1 in 3 people living alone in the UK, and many of them are not alone by choice. Christmas can be a very strong and unwanted reminder of the cause of their circumstance and lead to increased stress and sadness.
The stark reality of loneliness was brought home to me some years ago, on Christmas day in 1996 to be precise, which I had the misfortune of spending in hospital at St Mary’s in Paddington. On that Christmas day I was lucky enough to have friends and family visit, but it was noticeable to me that other patients on the ward had no one. It then struck me that even though those patients were at their most vulnerable, some having had major surgery, on such a significant day of the year no one was coming to see them—to take an interest in them, comfort them, listen to them, share their hopes and fears and bring them news of friends and family. The late Mother Teresa expressed it perfectly when she said:
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”
Loneliness can affect anybody, in any profession, at any time. No one is immune to it. Being a MP can lead to periods of loneliness, especially for those who have to travel long distances every week and are without their children, partners or family members on a regular basis. It can also be very debilitating.
I am reassured by the number of charities and campaigns that are attempting to tackle loneliness in older people, including the Campaign to End Loneliness. In my constituency we are lucky to have the Ruth Winston Centre, which provides so many wonderful activities for the over-50s, and of course we have heard about the amazing work that the Jo Cox commission is doing, and will continue to do, in tackling loneliness and social isolation.
We all have a role to play, especially at this time of year, as we reflect and remember others, whether by sending Christmas cards, phoning people we have not spoken to for a while or buying presents. Perhaps we should also try to remember our neighbours who may be living alone in our street and whom we may not have spoken to in a while. We could all be making a big difference just by spending a little time with them, especially at this time of year, which should always be about giving. I would encourage everyone to think of someone they have not spoken to for ages or who they know is alone and to make contact and start a dialogue with them. Those minutes spent making contact could be saving someone’s life. We should all be happy to chat.
Thank you, Mr Paisley; it is a pleasure to be called. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on setting the scene, and I congratulate all those involved in this issue on behalf of Jo, who we knew from this place.
No man is an island; no woman is an island. The truth is that while we can do things, we simply do not need or want to do them alone. In the short time I have, I want to focus on a couple of things, and in particular the statistics from Northern Ireland, where alcohol-related deaths among women have almost doubled in three years. The figure went from 6.4 per 100,000 females in 2013 to 11.8 in 2016. Addiction NI says that over-55s are quietly drinking themselves to death. They do not cause any bother or get involved in antisocial behaviour, but they sit at home alone and simply drink. That is symptomatic, I believe, of the scourge of loneliness in our nation. Addiction NI says that it is due to relationship break-ups, bereavement and redundancy. People feel alone, with no hope.
We have this every day in my constituency, as indeed we do in all constituencies. People come in who have lost their partner of 40 or 50-odd years and who feel loneliness greater than they ever did before. I want to commend some of the organisations that do tremendous work. Others have referred to churches, and the churches in my area are very active in dealing with people who are bereaved and making sure they have someone to speak to.
In one case, for example, the church was wonderful. They sent someone round once a week—they would have loved to do more, but they could not. I wrote to the GP and the health trust to ask whether the care package could be uplifted. As usual, funds were not available, but that is a fact of life. I contacted the local charities, which were struggling to provide the time for house calls, although they were able to do some. One thing we did get done through other charities was to put in place a phone system. We need to have more of those systems in place.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) referred to Street Pastors. They do great work in my constituency. They meet vulnerable people in the streets at night, when they are probably feeling at their lowest and most vulnerable. It is important to see those things. Community groups have senior citizen nights and craft nights too.
That lady was able to get help through our office, not because we are more important than anybody else but because we were able to do that. How much harder must it be for those who are not asking—never mind screaming —for help?
I make this call on the Minister, ever mindful that in Northern Ireland 20% of people are often lonely, according to stats from the Co-op and British Red Cross. I believe those stats are probably representative of the whole of the United Kingdom. I ask the Minister to look, as I know he will, at how we can help voluntary organisations, how we can ensure their funding and how we can encourage everyone across the whole of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to help one another. Reach out and make a phone call to a neighbour—that is a start.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this important debate.
While none of us is immune to being lonely or socially isolated, we know that older people are especially vulnerable, primarily because they face greater personal or wider societal barriers. In Coventry, which is ranked 59 out of 326 at a local authority level on the loneliness index, it is estimated that more than 3,400 people aged 65 or over are often lonely.
Over recent years there has been a greater focus on loneliness among older people in our communities, and that has been accompanied by a shift in our understanding of its impact. We know there is an established link between loneliness and poor mental and physical health. It affects a person’s wellbeing and quality of life, increases the onset of frailty and functional and cognitive decline, and has serious implications for a person’s mortality and morbidity. The consequences of loneliness are felt not only by the individual directly affected, but by society, through our public services, as lonely individuals are more likely to visit their GP, use A&E services, have higher use of medication and undergo earlier entry into residential or nursing care.
Thankfully, in Coventry there are some faith and third sector organisations that offer preventive, responsive and restorative services, such as the collaborative Good Neighbours Coventry scheme. The befriending, practical support and group activities offered through the scheme can prevent loneliness; but even where problems already exist, it can be responsive to them. Finally, it can be restorative, by helping individuals with entrenched problems to build new and meaningful friendships and regain confidence.
If we are ever to get a grip on this wholly avoidable problem, we need the Government to ensure that adequate resources are available in each and every community to prevent anyone from being lonely or socially isolated—
Thank you, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing this debate on such an important topic, which she has championed so well.
I would like to start by reading a short excerpt from one of my favourite stories:
“‘Yes,’ said the bear. ‘I emigrated, you know.’ A sad expression came into its eyes. ‘I used to live with my Aunt Lucy in Peru, but she had to go into a home for retired bears.’
‘You don’t mean to say you’ve come all the way from South America by yourself?’ exclaimed Mrs Brown.
The bear nodded…‘You can’t just sit on Paddington station waiting for something to happen.’
‘Oh, I shall be all right… I expect.’ The bear bent down to do up its case again. As he did so Mrs Brown caught a glimpse of the writing on the label. It said, simply, Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
That is an extract from “A Bear Called Paddington” and it is something that we all need to take notice of. Mr and Mrs Brown saved a lonely bear from deepest, darkest Peru. They gave him friendship, love and something he could call a family.
As we talk today about loneliness, we need to listen to Michael Bond’s words. He was someone I knew well, who took inspiration from lonely refugee children with tags around their necks fleeing London during the second world war. That inspired his stories about Paddington. His stories are more than a great child’s favourite; they are stories about how each one of us can play a small part in reducing loneliness, like Mr and Mrs Brown did for Paddington.
Loneliness occurs across the globe, from refugee children in war-torn countries who have lost their family and belongings to places close to home in my constituency of Colne Valley. Clem’s Garden in Lindley is a community project designed to reduce loneliness in over-50s through the simple act of gardening. It is a not-for-profit enterprise set up and run by my constituent Vicky House—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing the debate. I am proud to be hosting a Jo Cox loneliness summit in my constituency tomorrow, specifically on parental loneliness. I will bring together national organisations such as Action for Children and the Young Women’s Trust, and local organisations such as Bromley Maternity Voices, Mummy’s Gin Fund and the local women’s institute, as well as a lot of local parents.
This issue is close to my heart, as I suffered from loneliness after I became a mum. I now know that I was not alone in feeling lonely after having my son almost three years ago. Recent research from Action for Children found that 52% of parents admitted to suffering from loneliness, with a fifth saying that they had felt lonely “in the past week”. Its survey of 2,000 people found that the majority felt cut off from friends, colleagues and families after the birth of their child.
For me, the shift from being a busy lawyer, working to strict deadlines with a daily task list to work through and a really good social life, to being at home every day, suddenly with a lot of time to fill and little structure, was quite a shock. Were it not for coffees and play dates with friends I had met through my National Childbirth Trust antenatal class, I would have found things very difficult. However, my struggle with loneliness really started after my maternity leave finished and I set up my own business and started working from home. I could sometimes go for days without having a proper conversation with another adult, and the only time I would leave the house was to collect my son from the childminder. It became a vicious circle, where the more isolated I became, the harder I found it to go out.
Thankfully, with support I was able to get back on track, but it is that experience that has driven me to want to tackle loneliness in my constituency. I hope that this debate encourages other people to reach out to their communities to help to combat isolation and loneliness, and that it helps people to know that it is okay to say they feel lonely and to ask for help and support.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this important debate and on the work that she and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) have done as co-chairs of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
I had the privilege to be part of the Jo Cox women in leadership programme. What Jo said was absolutely right:
“young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate…it is something many of us could easily help with.”
In what seems like a lifetime ago, but in reality was only a little over two months, I gave my maiden speech. I spoke about how my parents arrived in this country from the Punjab in India and how they understood what it felt like to feel new, alone and lost. I also spoke about the issues surrounding mental health and emotional wellbeing that can lead to loneliness and how they can be cruel and indiscriminate.
Although loneliness is often automatically linked to old age, it in fact permeates the whole of society—young and old, rich and poor, male and female. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2010, more than half of all people over 75 lived alone, with nearly 4 million older people saying that television was their main form of company. However, new research conducted by Action for Children reveals that more than half of UK parents have suffered from loneliness, with more than a fifth having felt lonely “in the past week”, while more than a third of children also say that
“they have felt lonely in the last week”.
Given that loneliness affects every corner of our society, both mentally and physically, it is imperative that every effort is made to rid ourselves of the concerns presented by loneliness. It really does not take much. We all lead busy and hectic lives, but by taking just five minutes out of our day to speak to someone who might not have any human interaction, we can all make a real difference to someone’s life. I applaud the work being done by various organisations—some of which I have mentioned, but there are many others—on what is a truly preventable problem. I am pleased to have been able to participate in this debate and I will continue to support the battle against loneliness in any way I can.
Thank you very much, Mr Paisley, and I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for organising this debate. I will not say any more about that; I want to get on to the meat of what I have to say.
Loneliness and isolation are widespread across all levels of society and all ages. We know that there is a link between loneliness and poor physical and mental health and that it impacts on everyday life for everyone. Among older people, loneliness doubles the risk of developing dementia. A 2006 study found that women without close friends were four times more likely to die of breast cancer than those with 10 friends or more.
Loneliness can have a particular impact at Christmas, when moods are lower because of darker and colder days, and when getting out can be much more difficult, especially in Scotland. Families may be at a distance or non-existent, so in 2016, the SNP Scottish Government set up a fund to tackle loneliness and isolation. They used £300,000 to help young and older people who become lonely and isolated, giving money to existing organisations to help their work. The great thing about that funding is that it is being distributed to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, to older people—everywhere.
Last Christmas, there was a great campaign that those who were in Scotland at the time will remember. It was about asking older people to get involved—I have a personal interest in the subject, being an older person, so I embrace that. Sometimes, physically meeting people does not help, but we have organisations such as Breathing Space, which people can phone up to talk about issues and get help, and there is also the Samaritans. Money is not always the answer. I am a bletherer—for those who do not know what that means, many people in the Chamber and across Parliament know me because I talk to them. It is great. People generally talk back, and as leaders in our communities, we should be doing that.
I commend the organisations in my community that I have worked with, including churches, the blether and friendship club, and the knitting club. We really need to take a lead on this—loneliness kills people—and Jo Cox should be remembered in this way.