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Westminster Hall

Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2017

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 December 2017

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Prisoners: Parental Rights

I beg to move,

That this House has considered parental rights of prisoners.

It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

A parent’s involvement in a child’s life is nearly always a positive thing that will enhance the child’s welfare, so long as the parent can be involved in a way that does not put the child or the other parent at risk of harm. I thank Women’s Aid and the NSPCC for the attentive and tireless work that they have done on the subject of this debate.

I want to make it clear that, generally, I see no problem with people who are in prison having a relationship with their children; in fact, I believe that contact is a healthy and sustainable way to ensure that a child is not affected by enforced separation. However, when I see that parental rights harm a child, I have to speak up. I am talking about someone being able to control their child’s life after committing the most obscene crimes against them. It cannot be right that the mother of children whose own father has sexually abused them has to fight for years just to change her children’s last name because they do not want to share it with their abuser. It cannot be right that she has to seek permission from that man, who stole her children’s childhood, to take them abroad.

When a person commits such horrendous crimes against their own children, that person cannot be allowed to pull the strings from inside a prison cell. I have seen cases in which a convicted child sex offender has the rights of a father and influences the lives of the children who were his victims. I have spoken to mothers whose husbands have abused their children, and I was left speechless and emotionally drained by their harrowing stories. They told me how their children’s right to be free from their abuser is being ignored. Those occasions are rare, but when children are the victim of a parent, the parent should lose the right to be just that—a parent.

When a child is taken into care as a result of a crime that a parent has committed against them, the state assumes responsibility of those children and the offending parent’s parental rights would be removed. However, when a parent abuses a child and the child stays in the custody of the other parent, the offending parent is allowed to exercise parental control over the child. Even though access to their children would be limited, supervised or even banned, the convicted sex offender can still have a say in their upbringing. A fundamental flaw in the criminal justice system allows that to happen, and it needs to be amended. Parental rights must be challenged when they have a damaging effect on a child.

The hurdles that parents face just to protect their children and move on to a safe and happy life are unbelievable. We have heard of children who have been ordered to have contact with the parent who has committed offences against them, even though in some cases children have been killed as a result of contact or residential arrangements. The family courts are left to decide whether the abuser having an input in the child’s life would benefit the child. The objective of family courts is to treat parents in exactly the same way and to get cases over with rapidly. That blinds them to the consequences of unsafe child contact—consequences that can be damaging and even fatal.

That brings me to domestic violence and its impact on children. The routine granting of direct, unsupervised contact, even when concerns about abuse are prevalent, reveals a pronounced lack of understanding about the effects of domestic violence on women and children. The point at which a survivor leaves an abusive partner is well recognised as a highly dangerous time for her and her children. Parental separation is often mistaken as equating to the end of the abuse and reduced risk for the mother and children; in fact, the risks are intensified. Around one in five children has been exposed to domestic violence, and 62% of children in households where domestic violence is present are also directly harmed. Children are being killed by violent fathers who have been allowed to see them through formal and informal child contact arrangements.

Further avoidable child deaths must be prevented by putting children first in the family courts, as the legal framework and guidance state. Only 10% of legal professionals say that judges fully comply with the judicial guidance for dealing with child contact cases where domestic violence is an issue. Most women want their children to have a relationship with their father, despite the violence that the women have experienced, but they want to ensure that any contact would be physically and emotionally safe for them and their children. Some 45% of women experience violence after making a contact order, most commonly in the form of threats and harassment.

The culture of “contact with the child, no matter what” needs to be reviewed. Less than 1% of child contact applications are refused, but domestic abuse features in around 70% of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service’s cases, and in around 90% of cases that go to the family courts.

The system is failing children’s safety and wellbeing. The best interests of children should be the overriding principle of the family courts, but far too often that is simply not the case. I am calling on the Government to ensure that the family courts put the safety of children back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary. I welcome the revised version of practice direction 12J, which was adopted in October. It sets out new requirements for judges, including that they explain why contact will not expose the child to further harm and how it is in the child’s best interest. The practice direction requires the court to ensure that, when domestic abuse has occurred, any child arrangements ordered protect the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with care, and are in the child’s best interests.

The revised practice direction is a critical step forward but sadly, all too often, the guidance is not followed in such cases and children’s safety is put at risk. It is critical that all judges, magistrates, court staff and CAFCASS officers know about the new guidance and how to use it. I hope that the debate raises awareness of the new guidance and of how important it is to ensure children’s safety.

Although the revised practice direction is a step forward and places new requirements on judges, significant challenges to effective implementation remain. Training is critical to ensure that all judges, magistrates and staff involved know about the new guidance and, more importantly, how to use it. Mandatory training for judges, magistrates and all staff on all aspects of abuse and coercive, controlling behaviour should be part of a non-legislative package of measures. The training should be face to face, delivered by specialists and supported by ongoing professional development. It should cover the nature of coercive and controlling behaviour, the frequency and nature of post-separation abuse and, most importantly, the impact of abuse on victims. Training is vital to ensure that judicial guidance is implemented and that it informs safe contact arrangements for children in domestic and all abuse cases.

No child should have their life left in the hands of evil. No child should be harmed in an act of revenge or rage against the other parent. The impact of unsafe child contact can be devastating.

It is nice to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, for the first time, I think. I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. In her speech so far, she has not mentioned the parental right of women prisoners to have their children visit them. It is important to have that in place, as well as a dedicated strategy for dealing with children’s access to their mothers in prison. I am ever mindful that in Northern Ireland, two thirds of women inmates are mothers. Of those, nine tenths have little or no access to their children. Has the hon. Lady given that consideration in preparing for her speech?

I certainly have. I have just put a line through a large portion of my speech, because I totally agree with everything the hon. Gentleman says. I firmly believe that, in a healthy situation, it is vital for a child to have contact with their parent. However, I was recently contacted by a mum whose children were grotesquely abused by their father—a man who, in my opinion, does not deserve to be called their father. When someone is capable of stealing their own child’s life through sexual manipulation, their right to have a say about the future of that child should not mean that they are able to drag the mother to court at any opportunity. Such a man should not be allowed to have any influence or impact on his children’s lives, not just from the day he is convicted but from the day he takes their childhood away from them.

There is an urgent need for independent national oversight of the implementation of practice direction 12J. The Government and senior leaders in the family courts and CAFCASS need to bring about a cultural change in the family court system to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of children and non-abusive parents—parents who are left to pick up the pieces after such a terrible situation arises—are understood and constantly prioritised. That family—and that mother—have every right to get on with their lives, and the perpetrator of that crime needs to be removed from the situation.

All members of the family court judiciary and CAFCASS should have specialist training so that they understand the dynamics of domestic and sexual abuse and can recognise coercive control and the tactics used by abusive parents to manipulate their children’s lives from inside prison walls. The Ministry of Justice must ensure that safety and risk assessments are carried out in child contact and parental rights cases, especially when an abusive parent is involved. Assessments should be carried out by dedicated abuse practitioners who work for agencies that are dedicated to working with victims of abuse and adhere to a nationally recognised standard for responding to abuse cases.

When will we see the draft domestic violence and abuse Bill? I am interested in whether we can amend that Bill to take account of the cases of the parents I have talked to, including the one I mentioned whose life is being destroyed by a man in a prison cell who still tries to control the lives of her children. I thank the Minister for listening, and I hope that we can work together to try to find a solution that works for all. That would certainly give the children and the mothers and fathers who have been affected by this terrible crime some peace of mind.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I am pleased that she said that, in a healthy situation, it is vital for a child to have contact with their parent who is in prison. I will speak about that with particular reference to the excellent recent Farmer review about the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family relationships, where appropriate, to aid rehabilitation.

The Farmer review calls that a “golden thread” that needs to run through the prison system, along with the threads of employment and education, as a priority for prison governors. It says that that third strand is essential if we are to

“put a crowbar into the revolving door of repeat reoffending and tackle the intergenerational transmission of crime.”

I therefore urge Ministers to consider adding a new deputy director for families to the existing deputy director roles in the prison system. Before I highlight two ways in which prisoners’ family ties and, importantly, parental ties could be strengthened, I pay tribute to Dr Samantha Callan, Lord Farmer’s adviser, whose intelligent, thoughtful and dedicated contribution to the production of the review was invaluable.

First, I encourage Ministers to consider providing Skype or other face-to-face digital platforms where family visits may be difficult. BT’s slogan, “It’s good to talk”, might be a cliché, but it is incredibly important for people to keep relationships with their families or other significant individuals alive while they are in prison. Men who can ring their children every evening have a reason to stay out of trouble throughout the day. One prisoner told the Farmer review:

“If part of your prison routine is to do homework with your child or ring home regularly to hold a quality conversation with her, this is a strong deterrent to taking a substance that would mean you were unable to do that because you were ‘off your head’.”

The high cost of phone calls is frequently raised by external prison organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust as a cause of considerable resentment across the prison estate. I understand that costs should fall when the contract with BT is renegotiated in April 2018, and plans to digitise the entire prison estate with cable networks and to put a phone in every cell will further reduce call costs. However, that system will not be fully installed and functioning until 2021, and a prison service that values relationships needs to do more to help people stay in touch with their families and particularly their children.

Although phone calls are highly valued, the prison service should consider adapting to new forms of communication that are becoming commonplace in the community. That is not about giving every prisoner an iPad, although I have been told that women in some high-security prisons in the US have access to iPads in the interests of staying in touch with their children. Virtual video visiting is gradually being made available in prisons in Northern Ireland, such as Magilligan Prison. Although I would be concerned if we got to the point where that replaced face-to-face visits, Skype-type technology can enable prisoners to “visit” their own homes and see their family members in that context, and remind them of what they have to gain by settling into their sentences, getting out as soon as possible and not returning.

I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that children whose mothers are in prison are, on average, 64 miles away from them. I agree wholeheartedly with what she says, particularly about electronic interaction. Does she agree that, if we are to overcome the sheer distances, particularly for Welsh prisoners—there are no women’s prisons in Wales, although I am not advocating for one—we must find new technologies to enable mothers to interact with their children?

I absolutely do. Although keeping prisoners close to home has to be the goal wherever possible, the challenges of the prison population make that hard, so it is not unusual for prisoners to be some distance from home—so far that families may even have to stay overnight if they visit. I wholeheartedly concur with the hon. Gentleman.

Technology that is being put into prisons to facilitate virtual court appearances could be adapted to improve contact for families on the outside who may otherwise have to make a superhuman effort to come into prison. Foreign nationals are unlikely to get visitors. In his report, Lord Farmer mentions meeting a man in prison who had been in local authority care since he was a child and whose only relative was his 93-year-old grandmother. It is impossible for her to visit, but if someone helped her with Skype she would at least be able to see him again. Imagine an A-level student close to her exams who was unable to visit her dad in prison but could communicate with him using a tablet, or a mother with a child with a health problem who would otherwise have to choose between visiting her partner in prison or keeping a vigil by that child’s bedside.

Of course there have to be safeguards. The Farmer review recommends that, in the interim period before full digitisation, empowered governors should be able to make Skype-type communication available to the small percentage of prisoners whose families cannot visit them due to infirmity, distance or other factors. A booking system and application process would mean that prisoners’ requests to access video calling technology had to be cleared by the governor. Alternatively, tablets could be made available in visiting halls, as apparently happens on the juvenile estate in Tasmania. Family members might need help to access video calling technology. Funds from the assisted prison visits scheme could be made available to people who needed to travel to a local voluntary organisation for help to make a call, for example. Will the Minister consider what can be done between today and full digitisation to ensure that families can maintain contact through these innovative means?

The second point I will make—more briefly—relates to the use of ROTL: release on temporary licence. The latest, up-to-date policy on ROTL procedures is unpublished and awaited by governors. I urge Ministers to ensure that it is published as soon as possible. Research indicates that the use of ROTL to maintain and develop family ties contributes to reducing reoffending. Respondents to the Farmer review—prisoners, families, organisations and academics—considered that it should be used more. They told Lord Farmer that that would give prisoners the opportunity to adjust gradually to family life outside of prison and to spend more time in responsible roles such as parent or partner.

I agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she agree that the emphasis when making decisions about release on temporary licence should be that it is not a privilege for the offender but in the best interests of the offender’s child and family?

I do. If we are to reduce the disturbing statistics on the number of prisoners’ children who themselves go on to offend, we must take their interests into account. It is important that families’ involvement in decisions regarding ROTL is also considered and included. We cannot assume that ROTL will always be good for prisoners’ families; they need to be involved in that decision.

However, where ROTL can be granted, it really should be. Colleagues may remember the terrible riots that occurred at Strangeways—I was a young lawyer practising nearby at the time. As a result of those riots more than a quarter of a century ago, Lord Woolf published a review which said that home leave—now ROTL—

“should be extended”

because it

“restores prisoners’ self-confidence, helps maintain family relationships, and is an incentive to behave well in prison.”

However, the Ministry of Justice’s own indicators suggest that use of ROTL has fallen significantly, even since 2013, partly because governors are waiting for guidance on how to apply it. They want to be confident to apply it. They can see evidence that it is effective, but they need the guidance. Will the Minister explain why it has not been issued yet and let us know when it will be forthcoming?

An expert on social mobility, with particular reference to the opportunity areas planned around the country to help improve social mobility and opportunity for children, said that while education is important, one thing which underlies everything is parental engagement in a child’s life. If that is true outside the prison borders, it surely must be equally true within them.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate and on her powerful and important speech. I also put on record my agreement with what she and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said. I very much welcome the debate. Its title is on the parental responsibilities of prisoners, but like others I want to look at this through the lens of children’s rights and their best interests. Hon. Members agree that those interests are rarely served by the incarceration of a parent where contact and the relationship with the parent is healthy. That is especially true of mothers in prison, because they are almost always the main carers of children.

My starting point is to do what we can to keep mothers out of prison. The Minister has heard me say that on a number of occasions, and I am afraid I will be repeating myself. We need stronger community alternatives to custody for women, and especially for mothers. We need a presumption against short custodial sentences, as has now been introduced in Scotland. I know the Minister has looked or is due to look at what is going on there, so perhaps he will update us on that. I repeat to him: please do not build new women’s prisons. It is the wrong use of money—we could spend that money much better. There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something good for women offenders, and building new prisons is the worst possible route.

In fact, many more women, and particularly mothers, continue to be incarcerated. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that each year about 18,000 children under the age of 18 are separated from their mothers due to incarceration. Two thirds of women in prison are mothers of children under 18, and one third are mothers of children under the age of five. The numbers in mother and baby units are decreasing, and it is not clear what happens when a child becomes too old to remain in the MBU—the mother and child will sometimes be separated at that point.

We can all agree that separation due to incarceration will often be harmful for children. As Common Weal, the Prison Reform Trust, Epstein and Baldwin, Barnardo’s and many other organisations and researchers have shown, children will experience trauma, confusion, an adverse impact on their educational performance and behavioural problems. The care arrangements made for children whose mothers are in prison are particularly worrying: only 5% remain in the family home, and 9% continue to live with their fathers. Many live with grandparents, which is often positive, and some live with older siblings, but sometimes siblings are separated and put into different homes while their mother is in prison. Most worryingly of all, some incarcerated mothers report that they do not know where their child is being looked after or by whom.

Common Weal has shown that half of children who have a parent in prison have to change school because of changes to their care arrangements. That is very disruptive for children, too, yet despite all those adverse effects, mothers continue to receive custodial sentences without sentencers properly considering the impact on their children. The sentencing guidelines make clear that, if an offender is on the cusp of receiving a custodial sentence and custody would be disproportionate in terms of its impact, alternatives should be considered, particularly with reference to the wellbeing of children. However, sentencers are not required to be proactive in making inquiries about what will happen to children when considering sentencing a parent. We need a sentencing structure that is much more focused on the best interests of the child.

I therefore say to the Minister that we need to ensure that sentencers are presented in every case with child impact statements. We need an obligation on sentencers to consider alternatives to custody. We need clearer, much more high-profile guidelines and better sentencer training, and we need the Government as a whole to have an overview of the impact on children of mothers’ imprisonment. In a recent written answer, I learned that the Government have made no such assessment. It is time they did, particularly in the case of mothers being placed in prison on remand, because that is extremely disruptive for their children, and those mothers will often not go on to serve a custodial sentence. It is particularly important that the impact on children is considered in such cases.

As the hon. Member for Congleton said, when mothers are in prison, maintaining good-quality contact will be both important and positive in the majority of cases. It is therefore pretty concerning that the Government do not know how many visits to mothers in prison have taken place and how many mothers have been visited, as a written answer to Baroness Fall on 29 November shows. Visits are difficult, and the hon. Lady rightly referred to a number of problems that need to be resolved, such as the distance from home many women are serving their sentences; the fact that women cannot hold or touch their children during visits; the lack of activities for children to participate in during visits; the lack of support for visits; and the lack of privacy. I understand that, in the case of women in approved premises, visits from children are not permitted at all, which is very concerning. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that and take action.

We need more creative and focused solutions to maintain and facilitate that contact. The hon. Lady rightly spoke about some of those, such as the use of technology—Skype and videos. We need more opportunity for overnight visits such as those trialled at Askham Grange. We need special additional family visits, not as a privilege for the offender but in the best interests of the child. We also need good pre and post-visit preparation for both mother and children. What learning have the Government taken from the excellent programme “Visiting Mum”, which is run by the Prison Advice and Care Trust at Eastwood Park Prison? Do they intend to roll out that learning and provide such support in all women’s prisons?

Women and mothers also need better preparation for release. Once children have experienced the trauma of losing their mother to incarceration, they will often find it quite traumatic when mum returns home—they may be aloof, angry or clingy, and we have a problem in ensuring that those mothers are able to resume their parenting role. Housing is still a problem for women on release from custody. They cannot get priority for housing if their children are not living with them, but their children cannot live with them if they do not have a home. That that conundrum is still happening—I saw it for myself during a recent visit to Styal Prison—is shocking. Surely we can resolve that difficulty. In Greater Manchester we are trying to do that by bringing together housing and justice leads, but the through-the-gate services that ought to be sorting that out are failing. I hope the Minister will take a careful look at that.

My hon. Friend may be aware that in a past life, before serving in this House, I led children’s social services in a local authority. One concern about family breakdown when a woman leaves prison is that sometimes the children have become looked-after, and it is extremely complex for the mother to gain access to their children through the looked-after children’s system. That adds another dynamic, because the mother may never have had to deal with those services before she was sent to prison, which can cause even further family breakdown on her release.

That is an important point. As we know, outcomes for looked-after children are often poor, and we should be doing everything we can to return that child to the family unit, and to support the family in parenting and raising that child.

In conclusion, my message to the Minister is this: do not send mothers to prison. If that happens, can we ensure that the sentencer has fully assessed the impact of that sentence on the woman’s children? For those who are sentenced, can we facilitate good-quality contact between mother and child during the period of incarceration, as that is in the child’s best interests, and put in place structured, high-quality preparation for the reunion of the family on release? I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I know other colleagues wish to make further contributions, so I will end there.

I commend the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. I found her contribution and the other speeches interesting and profound, and I have learned a great deal.

I could have left the role of prisons and what goes on there for other colleagues to debate. I represent St Ives and the Isles of Scilly, and there are no prisons nearby and crime is relatively low. I can count on one hand the people I have met who have had contact with prisons, and only two of them, as far as I could see, should ever have ended up there. There are therefore plenty far more pressing concerns that could legitimately occupy my time. However, within each person is a heartbeat, and I believe that we have a responsibility to work to create an environment and opportunity that allows everyone to play their full part in society. On that basis, how we treat and manage prisoners is important and can lead either to full lives and safer communities, or to broken lives and chaos.

For me this is about the purpose of prisons. Prison is a method of keeping communities safe for the time that the prisoner is inside, but it is also a place where lives can be reset and people can be rehabilitated. It is right to take someone who is judged to be a risk to society out of that community, but I believe that from the day a prisoner arrives in prison, work must be done to prepare for their release.

Other than keeping an individual away from a life of crime, prison achieves little if nothing is done to address their behaviour when he or she is released. Families play an important part in that process and I want to spend a few moments considering the need to enable prisoners to fulfil their parental responsibilities, which I believe could, and should, be a focus for reform. Bringing men in particular face to face with their enduring responsibilities to the family is indispensable to the rehabilitation culture that we urgently need to develop in our penal system, and that must be integral to the changes sought. Consistently good family work can help to equip a father to play his role in the home, and that will pay dividends once the sentence is served.

The inspirational prison reformer Elizabeth Fry—she has also been mentioned by the Justice Secretary—called for arrangements by which prisons

“may be rendered schools of industry and virtue.”

The best family work taking place in prisons has brought men face to face with their enduring responsibilities to the family left in the community, particularly their wives, partners and children, but also their parents, siblings and grandparents. It helps them to forge a new identity for themselves—an important precursor to desistance from crime—based on being a good role model for their children, a caring husband, partner and friend, and a reliable provider through legal employment. Some men are already alive to those responsibilities when they go to prison, but they mistakenly think that using the proceeds of crime is the best way to fulfil them. If prison is to have any role in rehabilitation, work must be done to harness the virtue but adjust the means.

Responsibilities are not discharged in a vacuum. Families need to be willing and able to engage with the rehabilitation process, and harnessing the resource of good family relationships must be a golden thread that runs through processes in all prisons—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also made that point. Prisoners’ responsibilities to their families should be seen as an important lever for change, and families are often significant assets for offender management during and at the end of sentences. Prison staff find that their responsibilities and efforts are aided when good family contact and engagement is nurtured and maintained. Unfortunately, however, experience has shown that sentence planning by the offender management team rarely takes into account the understanding and knowledge that family members have about a prisoner. There are exceptions such as HMP Forest Bank and those Scottish prisons that involve a prisoner’s family in release planning, but it is uncommon.

In Scotland, the integrated case management case conference provides a mechanism for involving a prisoner’s family in release planning. An ICM case conference is a meeting held at set intervals during a prisoner’s sentence, between the ICM case co-ordinator, prison and community-based social work, and the prisoner. The prisoner may invite his family to those meetings if he wishes. The ICM case conference provides an important opportunity to prepare and advise families about the issues arising on a prisoner’s release, thereby supporting them in their own right as well as preventing reoffending.

At one men’s prison in Louisiana USA, families are involved as soon as the individual arrives in prison. The director of re-entry invites a family member or someone close to the prisoner to the prison for an informal meeting, allowing the director to learn about the prisoner’s background and how he can be best supported. There are further examples of where families are integral to the penal system. For example, in HMP Winchester, staff from the charity Spurgeons carry out first-night screening, which includes detailed questions about a father’s responsibilities. That also gives them an opportunity to hand out dad packs, where appropriate, which include top tips on how to be a father inside prison. That is an early way of grounding someone in their family responsibilities at the start of their sentence, when it is easy for them to turn in on themselves.

A new personal officer model is being trialled in 10 pathfinder establishments. That could be used to carry out a more ongoing form of assessment. Those officers will have daily contact with the prisoners, and be aware of how their family relationships are faring. I researched the role of the personal officer. The article I read stated:

“During your first few days in prison you will be allocated a Personal Officer. This is a prison officer who has been assigned to act as your point of contact while within prison, and is the officer who is expected to provide a ‘reference’ for you whenever you apply for jobs, change of status from Basic to Enhanced etc. The duties of this officer are not very much, but a good officer will come and speak to you and ask if you have any issues they can help with, a poor officer will introduce themselves once and then may favour you with a grunt as you pass on the landing.”

It seems to me that a personal officer model could and should be extended to include a family liaison aspect, which could make the role much more rewarding and productive.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, particularly given the examples of best practice that we have heard today, there is a need for that to be drawn together, from across the country, so that it can be shared more effectively among different prisons?

That is right, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention because it helps to support the point I want to make in concluding. As I said earlier, everyone has a heartbeat and we need to do what we can to support prisoners, their families and the wider community. The gold standard would be to ensure that, whatever their sentence and wherever they were sent, they will receive equal support and access.

There is a further matter to consider if we are serious about parental rights and parental responsibility. My constituency covers west Cornwall and Scilly, and a prisoner from Cornwall can be sent a very long way from home. If someone is sentenced to prison, the prison should be as close to their home as possible, wherever they live in the UK. Addressing the parental responsibilities of a prisoner is a significant part of the journey to a reformed life and a safer society. Therefore, where the prisoner is held in relation to their family home is an important consideration.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate. We have had some excellent speeches, and Westminster Hall comes into its own in debates on such topics with cross-party consensus.

I want to turn the debate around slightly and focus on the 200,000 or so children a year who will have a parent in prison, in England and Wales. That is a rough figure—a Government estimate—and it is difficult to be more precise. We have heard various figures about women in prison. It is estimated that 66% of women in prison have a child under the age of 18, and that a third of them have a child under five, although I have also seen the figure of 51%. Far more children have a father than a mother in prison and there are likely to be a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic children with a parent in prison, because of the make-up of the prison population. The statistics on young offenders institutions show that there are also many young parents in prison. I have visited young offenders institutions as an MP and before that as a lawyer working in the criminal field, and those who do so will have seen young mums turning up with their babies, to visit fathers who are themselves children. A freedom of information request from Barnardo’s in connection with its report of December 2015, “Locked out: Children’s experiences of visiting a parent in prison”, found that children make almost 10,000 visits to public prisons each week.

Those are the things that we know about the number of children affected, and the make-up of that group, but we do not know anywhere near as much as we should. There is limited published practice knowledge about working with children of prisoners, and a lack of systematic recording and information-sharing. Prisoners will not always reveal that they have children. In many cases it is a child’s step-parent or the partner of their parent rather than their own father who is in prison, but the child will still clearly be greatly affected. As we have heard, courts, Governments and local services do not routinely ask about the children involved; that information is not reported or recorded. Pressures on the probation service and the lack of sentencing reports also mean that the issue is less likely to be picked up. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) pointed out that people facing custody are not routinely asked about the situation with respect to their children.

When there were riots and looting in London boroughs after the death of Mark Duggan, in quite a few cases women were immediately thrown into custody and no one asked any questions. Single parents were put into custody and no one asked what would happen to their children left at home.

Does my hon. Friend support the suggestion that when a parent goes into custody—and particularly if they are the sole parent—there should be a period of perhaps five or seven days after the sentence is imposed and before custody commences to allow them to make arrangements for the care of the child?

That is absolutely the case, although there will always be exceptions, such as when the parent is seen to be a danger to the public. I used to work at a magistrates court, where women would be sentenced to jail because they had not paid television licence fines. It could be said that they knew they were coming to court and might face custody, but sometimes those people had chaotic lives and were not facing up to the seriousness of their situation, and it would be sensible to give them a chance to make arrangements. In America there is a tendency to use a system that gives people time to prepare for a prison sentence; I do not see why we cannot do that here.

Quite often parents going to jail, and their families, keep quiet about the fact that children are involved. That might be because of stigma and shame, or the fear of having their children taken into care. Informal kinship care is often arranged, with friends or family stepping in if the parent with caring responsibilities is sent away. There has been some progress in recognising the role of kinship carers in recent years. Edward Timpson, the former Children and Families Minister, took the issue seriously and did some good work on it, which we need to continue.

I recently wrote to the Children’s Commissioner about the matter. She had launched a very good report that identified about 15 categories of vulnerable children, and I wrote to her flagging up the fact that the categories of children of prisoners and children in informal kinship care should have been listed but were not. There would have been some overlap as, for example, one category was children in local authority care, which could include the children of prisoners; but there was not a specific focus on them. I received a good reply this week, in which the commissioner said:

“I am very keen to include children of prisoners in the next iteration of the work, but identifying the number of such children is a significant challenge. We are currently working with the ONS to link census data with Dept for Education records of children, this should then enable us to estimate the number of children in families where a parent is in prison. Doing this poses some serious challenges, but if we can do it, then we will be able to use this to get lots of additional information.”

Things are not ideal. The information should be available without the need to do various calculations to put together a picture; but it is excellent that the commissioner realises the importance of the work.

It is important to know how many children are affected by parental imprisonment. Such children can face multiple disadvantages, as has been said. Family life is disrupted and it may be necessary to move home. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned that half of such children have to change schools. In many cases family income will be lost. For children with a parent in prison there is twice the likelihood of poor conduct and mental health problems, according to a 2008 study. Those children are less likely to do well at school and three times as likely to offend: 65% of boys with a convicted father will go on to be convicted. When Hazel Blears was a Home Office Minister we had conversations about work she was doing to try to identify boys, in particular, who were at risk of offending because of their parents’ situation. There is a need to be careful about that, because we do not want to stigmatise or label children—“Because your father was a bad lot and ended up in jail you are going to go the same way.” A sensitive approach is needed, but we must recognise the particular risk for those children.

Trauma can also arise directly from the experience. Children may have seen a parent arrested, sometimes in violent circumstances. They may not have known anything was going on, only for the parent to go off to court one day and disappear. Some children may not even be told that the parent is in jail, and may find out because word has spread around the neighbourhood. Also, visiting a parent in prison is not a pleasant experience. In today’s debate there has been a focus on the importance to prisoners of maintaining contact with their children; and the reoffending figures suggest that that is important. It is estimated that 45% of prisoners lose touch with their families and that prisoners are 39% less likely to reoffend if they receive visitors. We also need to look at the impact on the children, as Barnardo’s has tried to do, because what is good for the prisoners is not necessarily good for the children.

I will briefly mention fathers’ rights. We have spoken about women receiving visits in prison, but male prisoners are treated differently from female prisoners in the system. I entirely accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East that in some cases the father clearly should not retain any influence over the children’s lives.

At the moment, in male prisons, children’s visits are classed as a privilege under the incentives and earned privileges scheme. The scheme allocates the duration, frequency and quality of visits according to the behaviour of the offender. That can have quite a severe impact on the frequency and length of visits. Basic status prisoners would be entitled to see their children for a two-hour visit every four weeks, but family visit days are restricted to enhanced prisoners who have displayed exemplary behaviour, for example by studying for qualifications. Therefore, quite a lot of prisoners do not get to have family visit days at all. We could say, “Well, they haven’t earned them,” but we are talking about their families losing that right through no fault of their own.

Children in this situation will often have ambivalent feelings toward their parent, because their parent has perhaps done something deliberately that means they have, in effect, abandoned their child. Children will see that their parent has chosen to do something that means they will be locked up and absent from the home, leaving the children to fend for themselves or endure bullying and stigma at school. They should not be doubly punished for the fact that their father is perhaps not displaying exemplary behaviour in prison; they should be allowed that quality time to try to rebuild the relationship with him.

Under the IEP scheme, fathers’ visits with their children can be withheld at the discretion of the authorities, whereas in female prisons the right is protected, on the basis that children should not be restricted from visiting or contacting the mother because of the mother’s behaviour. The number of visits should not be restricted in order to serve the needs of the incentive schemes, and incentive schemes should not be linked to any access to family visits. That is the rule for mothers, and I do not see why it should not be the case for fathers as well. It is important, and Barnardo’s has called for the IEP scheme in male prisons to be brought into line with that in female prisons.

I will say a little bit about the work of Barnardo’s, an organisation that is proactive in this area and doing some excellent work. In England there is a scheme called i-HOP—the information hub on offenders’ families with children for professionals—which was commissioned by the Department for Education and is run by Barnardo’s. It provides a one-stop information and advice service to support all professionals working with children and families of offenders, including frontline staff, strategic managers and commissioners. It is important that this is placed on professionals’ radar and that they are given advice on how to deal with it.

In 2013, Barnardo’s published a report called “Working with children with a parent in prison”, which referred to two pilot schemes called Empowering the Children of Offenders. The pilots were held in Devon and Bristol. They found that parents often struggled to talk to their children about imprisonment and needed support to do so. They also found that liaising with wider family networks, including grandparents, and with schools was vital to provide full support to a child affected by parental imprisonment. The report highlighted particular issues: problems in identifying the children affected, as I have already said, identifying the children’s rights and working out which children need support. The children of prisoners often do not meet the thresholds for children’s social care services to become involved. That means no work takes place with them, and perhaps the thresholds should be reassessed to ensure they are brought into account.

As part of the i-HOP scheme in Bristol, Barnardo’s worked with Bristol City Council to create Bristol’s “Charter for Children of Prisoners”, which recommended that children should be helped to write letters, make phone calls or visit if they want to; that children with a parent in prison should be better welcomed and respected by prison staff; that children should be told where their parent is and how long they will be there; that they should have an adult they can talk to in confidence; and that when police arrest someone they should take into account the impact on the child and ensure the situation is explained to them. Probably most importantly, it recommended that professionals such as teachers and nurses should know how many children in Bristol have a parent in prison and how to support them.

I will conclude by coming back to my earlier point. This discussion should not just be about the prisoners and their rights; it should be about the children. When we look at the children of prisoners, we should not just look at their relationship with the parent in prison. It should not just be about how often they see them and whether they maintain connection. They will face a lot of issues, whether at school, through poverty in the family home, or through informal arrangements where they may be passed from one friend of their parent to another. We need to look at those children in the community, not just in relation to the prisoners.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. I know she has a keen interest in it through her work. Sometimes the importance of this subject is lost because it does not get as much coverage as it should, so I am pleased that we are debating it today.

My hon. Friend made a powerful and passionate case that the paramount issue must always be the safeguarding of children. She is absolutely right, and the horrendous case she referred to shows that those considerations must come first, along with where children are abused and the element of domestic violence. She is right that some of those safeguards are not in place as they should be in the system. Without repeating what she said, I look forward to the Minister’s response to some of the important questions she asked, particularly on the safeguarding of children.

I am grateful to other hon. Members who made speeches about the broader debate, which I would like to concentrate on. In particular, references were made to the Farmer review. These issues date back to the early 1990s, when we had the Woolf report after the disturbances in Strangeways. Both those reports, and many other recommendations, have proved not only that parents have a right to see their children and that prisoners have a right to see their families, but that there are massive benefits. I will concentrate my remarks on some of the obstacles that children face during visitation, and the impact on both parents and children.

My first point was alluded to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—parents are not recorded in the current system. In 2009, the Ministry of Justice estimated that 200,000 children had a parent in prison. That is an estimate—there is no accurate figure, because the Government do not record which prisoners are parents. What we know is that female prisoners are more affected because they are more likely to be sole parents. Without records, there is no capability to give children better visitation access to parents, no capability to treat children better and no capability to improve parental rights. Indeed, there is no capability to deal with some of the safeguarding issues to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East referred.

Hon. Members have mentioned the cost and distance involved in visiting. Across England and Wales, many prisoners are imprisoned far from home, which means expensive journeys and long travelling distances. The Government’s new prison building plan and the super-sized prisons that they seem set on will make that challenge worse not better, because reducing the number of prison locations will force many families to journey even further. Children face even greater difficulty visiting their mothers. They are often located much further away owing to the lower number of female prisons. Children living in Wales whose mothers are in prison have to leave the country to visit them. It is disappointing that the Ministry of Justice has brushed over that in its building plans by not addressing the lack of female prisons in Wales.

Cost and distance are not the only challenges. Once families have overcome them, children and carers have to deal with prison rules and the prison environment. As has been pointed out, visiting times mean that, even if a prison is close to a child’s home, it is necessary to take them out of school, which many parents may be reluctant to do on a frequent basis, thereby limiting the child’s time with the parent in prison. While inside prison, children are subject to searches and an unwelcoming environment that can put them off. It does not get any better when a child is with their parent because the rules prevent meaningful social interactions between them.

The biggest impact for parents is on reoffending rates—the odds of reoffending are 39% lower for prisoners who receive family visits than for those who do not. The recent Farmer review was very clear that better interaction between offenders and their families improves reoffending rates and rehabilitation. If an offender does not see their family, they will often lose them. Once they have lost their family, there is often little left for them to lose by reoffending—they will have missed out on their child’s key development and defining moments, and on memories. A parent who has a stake in their child’s life can endeavour to serve as a positive role model and can turn their own life around.

A lack of access to children has been shown to have an impact on prison disturbances. As I stated earlier, that was found as far back as the Woolf report in the 1990s.

The impact is particularly strong for female offenders, the majority of whom commit non-violent offences and crimes of poverty that often warrant better support rather than imprisonment. One in three female prisoners are mothers of children under 18, and one in five are lone parents who face their children being taken away from them following their imprisonment.

Some 70% of female prisoners are serving sentences of less than six months, but that is all that is needed for them to lose their job, their home and their children, not just for those six months but forever. Without a secure job or home after release, they face an uphill struggle to get their children back from care, so it makes sense for parents in prison to have better parental rights and better contact with their children. Surely our desire to rehabilitate an offender and to help them turn their life around for the better, and to give a child a parent they can look up to, is greater than our desire to punish them and therefore to punish an innocent child in the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East is absolutely right that this has to be looked at in a broader context, with the rights of children having absolutely equal value. Having a parent in prison means that a child is three times more likely to turn to crime themselves—65% of boys with a convicted father go on to offend themselves. Having a parent in prison means that a child is much more likely to be uprooted from their home, with just one in 20 staying in their own home while one in 10 go into care, or are fostered or adopted. Having a parent in prison means that a child’s development is much more likely to be hampered, with additional pressure piled upon them such as disorientation from moving and stigmas that result in bullying.

All of that means that those children do less well at school than their peers. However, the impact is much deeper, because lack of parental rights mean that a child’s mum or dad has been ripped out of their life for what seems to the child like an eternity. Proper parental rights and visitation mean that the whole experience will not be as daunting for a child, and that the adverse impacts are not as great.

The Government must address a number of issues. First, they must address safeguarding measures and the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. Secondly, they have to record whether offenders have children, to better understand the impact of imprisonment and cater for their children. With that information, the Government have to look seriously at the merits of Barnardo’s recommendation of allowing children better access to their parents.

Thirdly, the Government must look seriously at the sentencing of mothers, who are disproportionately affected. There is a debate to be had on whether some women would be better served by smaller, more local women’s centres. Finally, they need to take another look at their prison building programme, because there is a question over whether super-sized prisons are the answer to everything.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate, which addresses an area of concern in relation to the parental rights of prisoners.

Unfortunately, through a breakdown in communications, I have not been called to speak this morning. However, I support my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). The case she discussed is my constituent’s, who I am here to support. Since first meeting my constituent and hearing her story of herself and her two children, I have wanted to ask how the law can allow the father of her children to continue to exert control over their lives from behind bars, when his offence was of a sexual nature.

If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will develop my argument with regards to the current powers of courts in such cases. As I was saying, the hon. Member for Swansea East is fast developing a strong reputation for campaigning on sensitive, difficult and often family-related issues. I commend her for her work in lots of different areas.

I am here on behalf of the Minister of State for Justice, who is detained on legislative business. While policy responsibility for family law sits with him, I have listened carefully to the points that have been made and will ensure that they are relayed to him in full. It is clear that significant distress and emotional harm can result when a parent in prison exercises their parental responsibility with the clear intention of frustrating day-to-day care decisions made by the other parent or to inflict further harm. Such behaviour is unacceptable.

While the maintenance of family ties forms a key foundation stone to support an offender’s rehabilitation, it is clear that not all children can or should maintain contact with a parent who is in prison. Maintaining family ties must always be balanced against the risk of harm posed to the child or the parent with care. While a number of protections are in place under the current law, particular issues arise in cases where children are the victims of an offence by the convicted parent. I have listened closely to the points that have been made about the practical impacts of parental responsibility being exercised in that way and to the arguments for changing the law so that a parent prisoner convicted of a sexual or violent offence loses their parental responsibility on conviction.

In considering the arguments for change, I will set out the current law. There are various aspects to the law on parental responsibility: how parental responsibility is acquired by a parent; whether and how parental responsibility can be removed from a parent in appropriate cases to protect a child or the other parent from the risk of further abuse or harm; and the exercise of parental responsibility by a parent and the means by which a court may restrict the exercise of parental responsibility in specific ways.

Mothers automatically acquire parental responsibility. A father who is married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth also acquires that responsibility. There are no provisions in law by which parental responsibility may be removed from a mother or married father, except through adoption of the child. Unmarried fathers may acquire parental responsibility through various means: birth registration, an agreement with the mother that is registered with the court or by court order. A court may remove parental responsibility from an unmarried father if the child’s welfare so requires.

Where a parent seeks to abuse their parental responsibility, their actions may be overridden by the family court. That power applies regardless of how the parent acquired parental responsibility. The child’s welfare is always the paramount consideration, and there is no absolute right for a parent or any other person to exercise parental responsibility in a way that is detrimental to the child’s best interests. That is clearly the right position in principle.

The ability of a parent prisoner to exercise parental responsibility in many aspects of a child’s day-to-day life is limited by having no direct contact with the child or the parent with care, and powers are available to the family court to restrict the exercise of parental responsibility, which I will talk about in a moment. However, where those protections have not been sought or have not worked for whatever reason, a parent who is determined to abuse their parental responsibility may still be able to do so.

Where there is disagreement between parents who both have parental responsibility, either of them may make an application to the family court for a prohibited steps or specific issue order. A prohibited steps order has the effect of preventing a parent from exercising his or her parental responsibility for their child in a specified way without first obtaining the consent of the court—for example, changing a child’s surname or causing a child to be known by a different surname. A specific issue order allows the court to determine how a specific aspect of parental responsibility for a child should be decided—for example, whether a child should change school.

In addition, where the court is making any order and the person who has applied for it has made multiple previous applications in relation to the child that the court considers to be vexatious, it may make an order restricting that person’s ability to make any further applications of a specified kind in respect of that child without the permission of the court.

I recognise that the current protections place the onus on the parent with care to apply to the family court to restrict the other parent’s exercise of parental responsibility, which is why there are calls to legislate for an automatic removal of parental responsibility in certain circumstances. Questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the orders and how they can best be used to protect a child or parent with care from the abusive exercise of parental responsibility by a parent in prison.

Any change to remove parental responsibility automatically on conviction of certain criminal offences would involve some important considerations for my Department. We would need to be clear that such a change in the law would be in the best interests of all children, for whom the current law provides maximum flexibility. The family court currently balances the legal rights, responsibilities and duties of each parent with the paramount need to further the welfare of the child and to safeguard them from risk of harm or further harm.

I am listening with real interest to what the Minister is saying. Would it be possible to consider a change in the law that created a rebuttable presumption of the loss of parental responsibility in certain circumstances? That would put the onus not on the parent with care, but on the parent who has perpetrated the damage.

That certainly warrants consideration, so I will take it away and pass it on to my ministerial colleague.

Legislation to remove parental responsibility upon conviction of specified offences would need to be carefully considered, given the potential impact on a wide range of children in different family circumstances. There would be many points of detail to work through, some of them potentially quite difficult, to ensure that any changes to the law were workable in practice and likely to achieve the desired outcome, while maintaining the right balance between rights, duties and responsibilities and protecting vulnerable children and adults.

I will turn to some of the questions raised in this interesting debate. The hon. Member for Swansea East referred to judicial awareness of practice direction 12J and mandatory training of judges. The Judicial College plays a vital role in providing the appropriate training for all family judges. The president of the family division has publicly urged the judiciary to familiarise themselves with the new rules and to do everything possible to ensure that those rules are properly complied with on every occasion.

The hon. Members for Swansea East and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) asked about fathers exercising parental responsibility and why they should have the right to control a child’s life from behind bars. The Children Act 1989 makes it clear that parental responsibility can be exercised alone unless the law requires the consent of all those who share parental responsibility. The courts have held that there are exceptional categories of decision that need such consent—for example, changing names or taking the child abroad. Day-to-day decisions should not be affected or blocked by the father.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made a characteristically informed speech. She mentioned the importance of children having contact with their mothers in prison. Prisoners have a statutory right to have contact with their children where it is safe to do so. There is a presumption that a parent’s involvement will further the child’s welfare, and that is not revoked or rebutted when a mother is imprisoned, provided that contact remains safe and in the child’s best interests.

The hon. Lady asked about the sentencing of mothers without a consideration of the impact on dependent children. The courts are required under article 8 of the European convention on human rights to obtain information on dependent children and conduct a balancing exercise, weighing the rights of potentially affected children against the seriousness of the parent’s offence. Case law shows that that is often done in practice. The Government cannot interfere with the exercise of the judiciary.

The hon. Lady also raised the “Visiting Mum” programme run at Eastwood Park, which I gather is funded by the Big Lottery Fund. It has supported 150 children and 89 mothers to have visits from Wales to Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire. I assure her that its work is being considered as part of the broader women’s justice strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke of the improving situation for women offenders and family access. We are developing a women’s strategy, which will be published in the new year, to improve outcomes for women. The legacy of where prisons are makes it practically difficult to hold women closer to home. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), referred to the women’s custodial estate being absent in Wales. I assure him that I have not met anybody who wants a prison for women to be built in Wales. I will just say that all decisions about women’s justice are currently under consideration, and I hope that all colleagues, and particularly the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, will be pleased when the strategy is published in the new year.

Of course, I cannot make any commitments today about changing the law on parental responsibility, but the Government will give careful consideration to the points that have been raised this morning. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing the debate and for raising these important issues.

I thank all colleagues for attending the debate and for their excellent contributions. I pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). Without her support and her bringing this dreadful case to my attention, we would not be here today.

It is not comfortable for me to stand here and not rant about improving prisoners’ rights, including access and parental rights, as ranting is probably what I do best, but on this occasion, I am deeply concerned that a family is being torn apart by one person and that his controlling behaviour towards his victims is allowing him to have any control at all, not just now but in the future. I know that the Minister is a compassionate man. We have spent many hours discussing other issues, and I know that he will work with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower to try to find a way to bring some solutions to those who are affected by this dreadful situation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered parental rights of prisoners.

Sitting suspended.

Cliff Erosion: Isle of Sheppey

I beg to move,

That this House has considered cliff erosion on the north coastline of the Isle of Sheppey.

I am raising this issue because I am concerned about the impact that cliff erosion is having on the lives of some of my constituents living at the east end of the Isle of Sheppey, particularly people living in the Eastchurch and Warden cliffs area. I declare an interest, because I live in Eastchurch, although my home is not directly affected by cliff erosion. However, many other properties in the area are under threat.

As its name suggests, Sheppey is an island in the Thames estuary, situated just off the north Kent coast and separated from the mainland by the Swale. It is home to almost 40,000 people, but during the summer months the population increases with an inflow of visitors who stay in the thousands of caravans and chalets on Sheppey, most of which are at the east end of the island. Tourism is the bedrock of eastern Sheppey’s economy and the holiday parks are very important to that tourism. Unfortunately, the erosion of the cliffs is affecting, in addition to homes, some of the holiday parks in Eastchurch, Minster and Warden, with some caravan pitches now only feet away from the crumbling coastline.

The truth is that the Isle of Sheppey is getting smaller. Since Roman times, a third of the island has disappeared into the sea and land is still being lost every year. Some of my constituents are increasingly worried as they see their homes and businesses under threat. I have first-hand experience of the problem, because Sheppey East was the ward I first represented on Swale Borough Council over 30 years ago. I also represented the area on Kent County Council. Some of the buildings to which I delivered my election literature at that time are now in the sea and more homes are likely to disappear during the next 30 years.

I have been working with residents of one affected community, who have seen the cliffs near their homes collapse dramatically over the last few years. I facilitated a meeting between those residents, our local authorities and the Environment Agency, to see what could be done to help to protect them. It soon became apparent that very little would be done to help them. The Environment Agency made it clear that it would not act to stop the cliffs eroding because it has a long-standing policy of non-intervention in the area. I was given to understand that that policy was driven by economic considerations. It was considered that the cost of protecting the cliffs outweighed the benefit derived from saving the threatened homes. While I do not necessarily agree with that reason, I do at least understand the logic of a non-intervention policy based on a cost-benefit basis.

I was delighted when one of my local farmers came forward with a scheme that would have removed that cost obstacle. His plan was to use waste spoil from major infrastructure projects, such as Thameslink and HS2, to reclaim some of the lost land and create a country park along the north Sheppey coastline that would have stopped any further cliff erosion and, at the same time, boosted tourism. The development would have been self-financing, so it would have cost the Government nothing, but the Environment Agency has made it clear that it would object to the scheme because protecting the cliffs is contrary to its policy of non-intervention and managed retreat.

In addition, Natural England has confirmed it would also oppose in principle any scheme that prevents erosion of the cliffs, using as an objection the fact that the cliffs are designated a site of special scientific interest and are afforded legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The cliffs were designated an SSSI because of their deemed scientific interest features, namely:

“fossil assemblage, the natural active coastal processes along the coastline, including erosion pattern of the cliffs and the slumping clay”.

There we have it: in Natural England’s eyes, fossils and slumping clay are more important than the homes and livelihoods of my constituents. In my view, that is not only scandalous, but makes no sense, not least because when questioned, Natural England could not identify any ongoing scientific studies that are interested in the cliffs or their fossil assemblage. It was also unable to explain how losing the fossils and clay to the sea, which happens when the cliffs erode, is enhancing scientific knowledge. In my long association with the cliffs, I am not aware of a single incidence of scientific interest being shown in them—not one.

I understand that the Environment Agency has other environmental concerns, for instance the impact that stopping the cliff erosion would have on the mud and silt that ends up in the Thames and Medway estuaries. The farmer behind the scheme appreciates fully that those concerns would necessitate extensive geo- morphological modelling to determine the impact a reduction in mud and silt would have on our local wading bird species. My view is that a reasonable compromise can be found, because it can always be found when it comes to protecting our local wildlife. However, no compromise, reasonable or otherwise, can be found if Natural England continues to maintain its stance of objecting in principle to any plan that would stop the erosion of the cliffs, using the SSSI status of the cliffs as an excuse. When we consider the pressure for land to house a growing population, it makes no sense to allow more of the Isle of Sheppey to simply wash away.

Something must be done to protect my constituents. The proposal to build a country park along the north Sheppey coastline would do that by stopping erosion of the cliffs and, I repeat, it would do so at no cost to the taxpayer. Therefore, I urge the Minister to instigate an urgent review of the SSSI designation of the cliffs. I would like her also to have Natural England submit evidence proving there really is scientific interest in the cliffs; stating exactly what that interest is; and stating how and when scientific tests have been, and will be, undertaken.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on coastal erosion affecting the northern coastline of the Isle of Sheppey. I expect that the post office at Warden Point is probably no longer there and has gone into the sea, but I remember several childhood holidays there.

Coastal erosion is a natural process that has always changed the shape of our coastline and will continue to do so, but I fully understand that it can be distressing for those living nearby. As an MP for a coastal constituency with a fragile coastline, I absolutely understand his constituents’ concerns and the fears they face. I have direct examples of places, such as Benacre, where we have the same challenge of balancing nature with people’s homes. Central Government are responsible for setting the overall national policy, but I point out the local councils, formally termed coastal protection authorities under our statutes, lead on the management of coastal erosion risk in their areas. A significant and brave decision was taken by the Government earlier this decade to recognise formally that it would not be possible or desirable to defend every part of our coastline from erosion, confirming what had already been happening in practice. That made the process for councils designing their local shoreline management plans more meaningful. The plans set out at a top level the policy framework to manage the risk of coastal change. Covering three time horizons of 20, 50 and 100 years, the plans recommend four approaches to manage the local coastline: advance the line, hold the line, managed realignment and no active intervention. Councils design them in partnership with the Environment Agency, but the decision is made locally.

To support councils, the Environment Agency provides a national picture on what is happening on the coast. It has established national coastal erosion risk maps that provide a consistent assessment of coastal erosion risk around the country, and set out a best practice method for calculating that risk. The Environment Agency also ensures that different councils take a consistent approach to risk management, as actions taken along one part of a coastline can have a direct impact further along the coast. For those where defence from coastal erosion is neither practical nor economical, it is important that the communities affected are supported to adapt to the changing coastline. That means anticipating the changes, preparing for them and adapting to them when they occur.

Coastal change management areas are areas identified locally as likely to be affected by coastal change. They provide a means for local authorities to take their specific needs and circumstances into account when making decisions and planning for the future. Between 2009 and 2011, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funded a coastal change pathfinder programme in which 15 local authorities considered new approaches for managing coastal change in partnership with their communities. The Government are committed to investing significant amounts of taxpayer money in coastal erosion and flooding schemes. Specifically for coastal management between 2015 and 2021, our plans will see £885 million invested in projects to manage coastal erosion and coastal flooding, better protecting communities against flooding from the sea.

At the same time that the Government decided formally not to defend the entire coastline, they made the important decision that any scheme that has a positive benefit-cost ratio would be eligible for Government funding. Therefore, cost-beneficial schemes that would not have progressed in the past can now receive Government funding.

Turning specifically to my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Isle of Sheppey, the shoreline over much of the length of the north Sheppey coast is in retreat and has been for centuries. That is very much part of a natural process. As sea levels have slowly risen, land levels have gradually dropped since the last ice age. Added to that natural process are the effects of global warming and climate change. The amount of physical change depends on the degree of exposure of each length of coast and the underlying geology. Increasing rainfall in between longer periods of drier weather can lead to increased weathering of cliff faces, with potentially more cutback of the cliff face.

In general, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the undefended length of coastline between Minster and Warden bay comprises a mix of residential property and agricultural land. He recognises, as does the Department, that 1,000 caravans and 124 buildings will be at risk over the next 100 years. He questioned the value of preserving the area as a geological site. Officials believe that it is an important part of the UK’s natural heritage and provides an invaluable resource for scientific research and education. In particular, the geological features contain nationally and internationally important, diverse and extremely well preserved fossil fauna and flora.

The Geological Conservation Review—a rigorous and systematic assessment of all geological sites in Great Britain—was undertaken by a wide range of experts, who identified the foreshore at Sheppey as being of national scientific importance. The main phase of the review took place some time ago, between 1977 and 1990, but it is still a live process, with small revisions taking place on a regular basis and sites being assessed and added right up to the present day to reflect new scientific discoveries and interpretations. However, I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s point. I will look into his request to review the SSSI designation, but I hope that he understands that we have to make decisions based on the best evidence that is provided to us.

The cliffs at Sheppey are part of a natural system that includes the whole Thames estuary. They provide an important source of fine-grained sediment to the estuary and its tributary estuaries in north Kent and Essex. Decisions about what is done there need to be balanced with the framework identified by the shoreline management plan, and such plans tend to be based on natural sediment cells. The northern coastline is part of the 2010 Isle of Grain to South Foreland shoreline management plan, which is led and endorsed by local councils. It splits the coastline into five sections. Garrison Point to Minster town, which includes Sheerness, has been designated “hold the line”. Minster slopes to Warden bay has been designated “no active intervention”. From Warden bay to Leysdown-on-Sea, the designation is a mix of “hold the line” and “managed realignment”, and from there to Shellness, the designation is “managed realignment”.

Swale Borough Council has also published technical papers, including setting out a coastal change management area. In 2011, it published the “North Sheppey Erosion Study”. That has helped the council to provide appropriate advice to the public and make informed decisions about planning issues to plan ahead and mitigate the effects of coastal erosion on their lives.

There has already been significant investment by both the Government and local councils to manage the coast in the area. In 2012, there was a shingle recycling project at Sheerness, and next year there will be a further £350,000 investment to continue that work, which will protect 3,000 homes. In addition, Swale Borough Council undertook a £250,000 scheme of coastal protection works at Minster-on-Sea.

New projects are in the planning pipeline for the area: the southern regional flood and coastal committee has allocated £500,000 towards a project to replace or refurbish Warden bay outfall, thus reducing fluvial flood risk from an ageing asset. There are other schemes on the Isle of Sheppey. The total current investment is about £5.9 million, supporting projects at Great Bells farm, Bells pumping station and the Queenborough tidal barrier to protect several hundred houses.

As for my hon. Friend’s suggestions about the country park—the privately funded scheme at this location—I hope he will appreciate that I cannot comment on the technical merits given that the planning application might come before Ministers if it is deemed sufficiently contentious. I know that the challenges of the SSSI exist, and the Environment Agency will also need to be confident about the role of the reuse of waste from other parts of the country.

I am led to believe that we do not in principle oppose a viable third-party scheme, but I heard carefully what my hon. Friend said. We need to recognise, however, that in this particular location, extremely challenging impacts would need to be assessed and mitigated against before the plan could proceed. He will be aware that the £30,000 scheme funded by the local borough council at Eastchurch to address the rate of coastal erosion has simply not had the desired impact. I understand that local teams from both the Environment Agency and Natural England have offered to discuss the proposal that his constituents are considering making.

The Swale and Medway plan remains open for consultation. As part of the development of the strategy to fulfil the shoreline management plan and its update, a public meeting was held in Eastchurch village hall last month. Local people had the opportunity to speak directly to those working on the strategy. One important takeaway from that meeting, both for the officials and members of the public who attended, was the need to explain better the opportunities afforded by the rollback policies in the council’s recently adopted local plan. That creates the opportunity and option for local residents to be helped to relocate their homes to areas at less risk nearby. That applies to any home likely to be affected by erosion within 20 years and allows people to build a new home of a similar character close to the community from which they are displaced.

Allowing natural processes to continue to operate has been a consistent approach since the first shoreline management plan was developed back in the 1990s, and that is likely to continue to be the case. I recognise that that is not the answer that my hon. Friend or his constituents want to hear, but I assure him that I will reflect carefully on his requests. I will commission the review of the SSSI as he asked, and I will make sure that we share it with him when it is completed.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Work Capability Assessments

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered work capability assessments.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I am really grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue in Parliament today, as flawed work capability assessments have been a major topic in my case load since my election in June this year.

May I start by thanking the many charities, organisations and individuals who have reached out to me in the run-up to this debate with an offer to share briefings and information about their experience of work capability assessments? It is only appropriate at this juncture to commend the hard-working staff in the House of Commons Library for the excellent briefing that they have supplied to all right hon. and hon. Members. I am immensely grateful to individual members of the public from across the UK who got in touch to share their own, often harrowing, experiences of undergoing assessment and the sheer distress caused to them. Time will not permit me to share every testimony, but I want to share some case studies with the House this afternoon, and I am sure that other hon. Members will wish to do the same.

From my short time as a constituency MP, it has become abundantly clear that the UK Government’s work capability assessment is not fit for purpose and requires a full, independent, root-and-branch review to ensure that it treats people with dignity and respect. As it stands, the system is failing the most vulnerable in our society and all too often plunges people into chaos and depression, and in some cases, I am afraid, to the brink of suicide.

I therefore very much welcome the decision of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions to carry out an inquiry into personal independence payment and employment and support allowance assessments. What I do not want to see, however, is a powerful report coming from the Select Committee, only for it to be ignored by the Government, as happened in late 2014 during the last inquiry. The evidence and testimony that the Committee has already received should be sounding the alarm bells at Caxton House, and that is before the Committee has even published its report.

I very much welcome the Minister to her new role. As she knows, I enjoyed a constructive working relationship with her predecessor, particularly on the campaign to end the baby benefit bar. The Minister is widely respected across the House and I have no doubt that she will be in listening mode today. I therefore hope that she will approach this sensitive topic with fresh eyes and the compassionate conservatism that we have heard so much about from the Government.

I will outline some of my major concerns about the work capability assessment process, including the number of claimants with serious health conditions or disabilities who are found fit for work or placed in the wrong ESA group because of deficiencies with the WCA descriptors or in the assessment process.

I think that there are two issues here. One is that private companies are not necessarily equipped to assess people. Secondly, the questionnaire form can give enough information that it does not necessitate an interview of the kind handled by private companies.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I will come to that point in a moment.

I will talk about the difficulties faced by certain groups, in particular people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities, in navigating the WCA process; the lack of information about outcomes for individuals following fit for work determinations; and concerns about the risk of poverty and destitution as a result of incorrect decisions. I also want to touch on the relatively high success rate of appeals against ESA decisions, and the difficulties experienced by claimants seeking to challenge fit for work decisions, including the fact that ESA is not payable pending a mandatory reconsideration, meaning that the only option in the meantime is to claim jobseeker’s allowance, potentially exposing an individual to inappropriate conditionality.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned mandatory reconsiderations. Is he aware that Department for Work and Pensions staff are informing people that mandatory reconsiderations will be delayed over Christmas because of the excess workload they face? Through him, can I ask the Minister to transfer staff from bringing in the sanctions and stopping the money, to the mandatory reconsiderations, so that people get their money?

I know that the Minister is respected across the House for listening; I am sure she will have heard that point, and I hope the hon. Gentleman gets an answer to it in the wind-ups.

Finally, I will touch on the impact of assessments, frequent reassessments and poor decision making on the physical and mental health of claimants. We could easily spend the next hour and a half trading statistics across the Chamber, but I prefer to focus on real people and those whom I have been elected to represent. Throughout my short time as Glasgow East’s MP, I have seldom had a surgery in which a constituent has not come to me having been the subject of a flawed work capability assessment.

One such case was that of my constituent, David Stewart from Baillieston. David suffers from hidradenitis suppurativa and has had numerous abscesses over the years requiring extensive surgery and skin grafts. It is not uncommon, at times, for him to receive morphine up to six times a day. His own general practitioner stated clearly that David should not be working, yet he was found fit for work at a work capability assessment. It was only after my office intervened and helped him draft a mandatory reconsideration that that decision was finally, and justly, overturned. That brings me to the first issue I want to raise with the Minister today: the astonishingly high level of successful appeals against work capability assessment decisions.

In my constituency, two thirds of residents who are initially rejected for PIP and ESA are shown to be eligible on appeal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that suggests the whole work capability system requires much more reform?

The hon. Lady makes a good point; I very much agree.

The latest quarterly release on appeals of work capability assessments shows that 59% of decisions are overturned at appeal. To be blunt, that means that six in every 10 decisions are wrong. That is incredibly alarming.

There is, of course, a wider point about the undertaking of work capability assessments by a private sector provider, which I oppose on ideological grounds—I agree with the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on that point. I doubt, therefore, that it will come as much surprise that I very much welcome the commitment by the Scottish Government to ban private firms from carrying out benefit assessments. I wholly concur with the Scottish Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman, that

“profit should never be a motive nor play any part in assessing or making decisions on people’s health and eligibility for benefits.”

Over and above my ideological objection to private sector provision, I am sure that all hon. Members will be concerned to note that, according to the DWP’s own data released only last week, the ESA assessment provider has consistently failed to meet the contractual expectation for the quality of assessment reports.

One thing I have been calling for, for some time, is standard recording of all work capability assessments. Often there is one story from one side and another story from the other, and recording would not only provide some evidence about what really happened, but improve people’s experience of the assessments. It has been piloted, so does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good to push forward with the recording of assessments as one way of improving the experience for our constituents?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and will come back to how the assessments are conducted, because that forms a major part of my speech.

At this juncture, I want to commend to the House the excellent report by Rethink Mental Illness entitled “It’s broken her”. It was published just last week and makes truly harrowing reading. The report lays bare the full extent of the challenges for people with mental illness when facing assessments for both ESA and PIP. Drawing on findings from a series of interviews and focus group-style discussions, the report finds that the assessment can be “traumatising and anxiety-inducing” for the following reasons: there are numerous issues with the paper forms that claimants must submit, including their complexity and length, and the inflexible nature of the questions they ask; claimants must collect their own medical evidence, which is extremely burdensome, often expensive and time-consuming; the staff who perform face-to-face assessments frequently have a poor understanding of mental illness; and, finally, delays in mandatory reconsideration and appeals to the tribunal mean that claimants may have to wait many months for the correct result.

The report concludes that the current PIP and ESA assessment procedure

“inherently discriminates against people with mental illnesses”.

It sets out a number of policy recommendations to

“dramatically improve the benefits system for people with mental illnesses, as well as saving the Government the vast costs that are currently incurred due to persistent incorrect decisions made early in the process.”

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. May I bring to his attention the case of my constituent, Adam Brown, a 51-year-old man who suffers from epilepsy and cerebral palsy and has a learning disability? By the time Adam came to see me, he had been trying to get a work capability assessment for nine months with the assistance of benefit agencies, and had not got it. We had to intervene and got it within 10 months. It is surely shocking that it takes the intervention of a Member of Parliament for people with disabilities to get fair treatment.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am glad that his office was able to help on that occasion, as mine was in the case of my constituent David Stewart. It is all well and good that as Members of Parliament we can intervene in individual cases, but so many people are affected throughout the entire process that our being able to help on a one-off basis is not good enough.

The hon. Gentleman is making a fluent and powerful case. Does he agree that if there is a review of the process, two things need to happen? First, in clear, medically proven cases of mental illness, the medical evidence should be accepted without face-to-face examination. Secondly, the assessors and decision makers should be appropriately trained in mental health.

I am grateful for that intervention, which leads me on to the recommendations of the Rethink Mental Illness report. The first is:

“A major reform of the PIP assessment and the WCA for ESA is needed. This should result in both assessments reducing the distress caused to people affected by mental illness and that better reflect the realities of living with a condition of this type. Such reform would reduce the need for appeals and the associated costs to the DWP and HM Courts & Tribunals Service”.

The second recommendation is that, as the right hon. Gentleman argues,

“The Government should review the way in which people with mental illness are assessed. Where clear medical evidence exists that claimants have severe forms of mental illness, they should be exempt from face-to-face assessments. Where face-to-face assessments are necessary, claimants should be encouraged to seek support from carers, friends or family members.”

I have seen numerous examples of friends, family members and carers being taken along, only to be told that they are not allowed to help.

The third recommendation is:

“All assessors and DWP decision-makers should be appropriately trained in mental health. The scandal of inappropriately trained and experienced assessors making critical decisions about the lives of people affected by mental illness must end.”

One case study in the report caught my eye, and I want to share it with the House. James, who was 53, had a work capability assessment with a physiotherapist after he lost his job because of depression—not that I can see the connection between physiotherapy and depression. This is his testimony:

“The assessor wanted yes or no answers to various questions like ‘can you leave the house?’ I tried to explain that some days I can leave the house or answer the door, and other days it’s not possible because of my mental health, and the response from the assessor was ‘is that a yes or a no then?’

I have no problem when people don’t understand mental health; it’s when they have an opinion on something they don’t know anything about.

There weren’t any specific questions exploring my mental health. At the end of the assessment, the assessor asked me to touch my toes, and I felt that the whole assessment was set up so people with mental illness fail.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems with the process is that it lumps mental health conditions together? Epilepsy is a very different condition from depression, for example, yet people with mental health conditions all undertake the same assessment. Surely that is not fair or right.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

The quotation from James ends:

“I came out of the assessment feeling let down, and not listened to, and later I made two attempts on my life. I’m still waiting for the result of my WCA.”

That should certainly sound alarm bells in this House. Closer to home, Michelle Ferns, a member of my constituency casework team, has a profoundly autistic son, Richard, who is non-verbal. During Richard’s assessment, Michelle was asked by the professional—the professional!—whether Richard still had autism. That is the kind of ridiculous behaviour that we are seeing in the process.

An ongoing case that I would like to press with the Minister is that of a constituent from Tollcross; I hope you will indulge me, Ms McDonagh, because it relates to a PIP assessment rather than a work capability assessment. My constituent was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago. She is fiercely independent, but in the past two years her memory and physical mobility have declined steadily. She was awarded the standard rate for PIP but nothing for the mobility component. She submitted a mandatory reconsideration but, despite new information, it was still rejected. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I am certain beyond doubt that the wrong decision was made in that case, and I will be writing to the Minister to ask her to intervene personally and review it.

At this juncture, with a sense of trepidation, I must ask the Minister whether she has ever sat in on a work capability assessment. When I asked the Secretary of State that question in the main Chamber two weeks ago, I was quite shocked to learn that in his seven years as a Minister, he had never sat in on a work capability assessment.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, particularly with respect to mental health, which is one of my specialities. In my constituency, Hartlepool, a man waiting for a double kidney transplant was declared fit for work despite having to make four trips a week to his local hospital. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such cases are abhorrent?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman’s point is very valid; his constituents are lucky to have such a strong representative.

Getting a work capability assessment right is vital. Wrong assessments can mean that people with a learning disability are moved to a benefit such as jobseeker’s allowance, which makes many demands that are often difficult for people with a learning disability to understand or fulfil. As a result, they are put at risk of being sanctioned.

Yesterday, Muscular Dystrophy UK shared with me the awful story of a lady with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease who was deemed ineligible for ESA after a work capability assessment. The content of the questions resulted in the entire assessment missing several key points about how her condition affected her, such as the loss of dexterity in her hands and her inability to lift her arms above her head or use buttons. No consideration was given to the pain or fatigue she experiences daily. Many people like her are not adequately assessed during the work capability assessment because the questions that relate to its criteria are not suitable to extract the information required to help the assessor in understanding progressive conditions such as muscular dystrophy. With universal credit on the horizon, particularly in Glasgow, what plans do the Government have to alter the questions to be more appropriate and relevant for people with rare and complex conditions?

Some commentators have suggested reforming the work capability assessment to take account of how people’s functional impairments affect their ability to work, given who they are. They argue that a broader “real world” assessment that took into account factors such as skills, qualifications, experience and age would be possible and would better reflect everyday realities than the existing work capability assessment. To that end, I commend to the Minister and all hon. Members some reading for the Christmas recess: Demos’s March 2015 report “Rethinking the Work Capability Assessment”.

I am conscious that time is marching on, and I want to allow fellow Back Benchers the opportunity to speak, so I should wrap up.

The hon. Gentleman mentions capabilities with reference to individuals. Is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 also included in those capabilities when assessments are carried out?

That is a very good question. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, will press that point with the Minister.

I am grateful to all hon. Members attending the debate. I especially thank the Minister for listening this afternoon; I have a huge amount of respect for her, and I look forward to her winding-up speech for the Government. However, what I want from the Government is deeds, not words. I want a full root-and-branch review of the work capability assessment process, and I want an assessment that is underpinned by professionalism, knowledge, dignity and—above all—respect.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this debate.

During my time in this place, listening to constituents and supporting them with their work capability and PIP assessments has been part of my constituency casework. In recent months, the number of cases handled by my constituency staff has increased, which suggests that the system is not working as well as it should and needs reviewing. The problems generally relate to the challenges that people with mental health conditions or fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s face when they are given assessments, the anguish they go through and the fact that the assessments often do not reach the right decisions. The conclusion of Rethink Mental Illness’s report states:

“The current assessment system…discriminates against people with mental illnesses”.

After the 2014 judicial review decision, I am inclined to agree.

I shall briefly outline three cases with which I have been involved. Two relate to PIP rather than work capability assessments, but I believe that there are clear parallels to be drawn. All three relate to constituents whom I or my staff have known for some time. Previously, they had no problem in obtaining the support that they needed and it is only in recent months that they have experienced problems that have caused them and their families a lot of distress and worry.

The first case involves a constituent who took a supporting letter from her doctor to her assessment, which confirmed that she suffered from a long-standing mental health disorder and concluded that she would find it difficult to cope with any work commitment at the current time. The doctor added that her case should be reviewed in six months’ time.

In reviewing the assessor’s decision, the Department for Work and Pensions decision maker referred to the doctor’s letter but commented that

“at the time of your assessment, your mood did not appear to be low”.

The remainder of the review concentrated on physical issues and included comments such as:

“You appeared to be of average build and well-nourished…You said that you did not need prompting to dress or undress”.

The decision maker concluded that, because my constituent could plan a route of journey unaided, she was able to cope with anxiety. To my mind, the case demonstrates that currently assessors do not have the necessary training to assess accurately people’s mental wellbeing, and that the assessment form does not properly take account of mental conditions as well as physical conditions, and needs to be reviewed.

The second case involves a man who, along with his family, I have known personally for some time. He faces a variety of challenges, including a heart condition, kidney problems, diabetes and hypoglycaemia, as well as mental health challenges. Again, his doctor wrote a letter expressing the professional opinion that he was unfit for work at the current time. While my constituent’s assessment was going on, first, his mother was in hospital to be treated for cancer and then, very sadly, his father died. When he went for his assessment, he collapsed and was admitted to hospital. When such an awful chain of events unfolds, there should be an in-built mechanism in the work capability assessment process so that reviews are put on hold and suspended.

The third case involves a constituent of mine whom I first met some years ago. At that time, she was clearly not fit for work and was duly placed in the support group of employment and support allowance. Her case was reviewed this summer. Her condition has not improved at all in the time I have known her, yet the initial outcome of that assessment was that she should be placed in the work-related activity group. The first mandatory reconsideration upheld that decision. There was then a second mandatory reconsideration and the decision was revised. During this time, my constituent suffered a great deal of worry and distress, and was utterly perplexed as to why this was happening to her.

I have other cases that reveal similar concerns and lead me to conclude that the work capability assessment process needs to be overhauled. I suggest that this could be done in three ways. First, the Government should fully engage with charities and support groups in the sector. Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have interesting proposals that should be considered, while organisations such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Parkinson’s UK can provide feedback regarding fluctuating conditions.

Secondly, Parliament has a key role to play in making changes to the assessment. The Work and Pensions Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry and its findings should be considered very carefully.

Thirdly and finally, in future the system needs to be subject to its own form of continuing professional development. Reviews such as those carried out in the past by Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield should not take place periodically—they should be an ongoing part of the process.

We need work capability assessments, but in their current form they are causing a lot of turmoil in people’s lives and need to be reformed.

Order. May I just inform Members that there are about six people who want to speak? If you could consider limiting your contributions to five or six minutes, that would get everybody in.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing this debate. Many of my constituents have written to me regarding the degrading process of the work capability assessment and the effect it has on their mental health. They have complained about the lack of mental health expertise and the insensitive way that the questions are worded, which has led many of my constituents to feel as though there is no compassion.

My constituents have criticised the process, saying that assessors have not asked questions about how often they can undertake activities or about the kind of support they need to undertake them. Often, the way questions are worded makes it difficult for people with mental health problems to explain how their condition fluctuates.

One of my constituents—she gave me permission to highlight her case—has said she felt broken by the work capability assessment. She suffers from dissociative disorder and a complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and due to a reassessment she had violent flashbacks, which triggered self-harming behaviour. Although her case has now been dealt with, after she appealed the decision by the Department for Work and Pensions and won the case, she feels that the system is broken and has left her broken. Like many of us, she says the system needs reform.

As a nurse, I understand that people who have mental health problems need to be treated with care. That should also be the priority for the assessors. While the Government have announced the Green Paper on work, health and disability, will they commit to take on board the recommendations from mental health charities such as Mind to increase the use of specialist assessors and to train the current assessors, who are the people dealing with the clients who have mental health issues?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith)—I have many happy childhood memories of visiting Wolverhampton. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who demonstrated his passion for this very important subject. He is clearly representing his constituents in a very strong way.

The importance of this debate is shown by how well-attended it is, particularly with other things going on in the main Chamber. That is because there is an opportunity to influence what the Government are doing. Following the Green Paper, they have demonstrated that they are willing to listen, engage, consult and make changes. We have a new Minister—the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work—who is widely respected and who is determined to be accessible, to listen and learn, and to improve the situation.

The work capability assessment is not a new thing—it was introduced in 2008. There have been five independent reviews, more than 100 recommendations to improve it have been made and more than 100 recommendations have been enacted. Almost weekly, the Government are considering ways to make further changes. Each and every hon. Member, through our experiences of casework and of sitting through work capability assessments, can feed into the process and suggest changes.

I am a former disabilities Minister. The work capability assessment was not in my remit, but I made representations on behalf of many of the groups that have already been mentioned—Parkinson’s UK, Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Groups, Mind and others—and found that the policy makers and experts are willing to listen and change the scripts, including on how questions are asked and how things are identified, particularly when people have fluctuating health conditions and when health conditions are less common, such that an assessor does not regularly come across them. We have come along in leaps and bounds.

It is clear to me that the examples given today by Members—I presume other examples will be given by the Members who follow me—show that the system is still not right. That is why it is so important to have a Minister who is keen to engage.

I will make a couple of broad points, and then I have some asks. Many people ask why we have assessments. I wondered that myself when I arrived as a Minister. I thought, “I could save the Government a fortune. We could do away with assessments. They are expensive. The Treasury—George Osborne—is very keen for us to find savings, and this is a bit of an easy win.” The reality—we saw this as we transferred from disability living allowance to PIP—is that the assessments, ignoring the cases where they have gone wrong, are there to help build the case.

Under DLA it was purely a paper form. In that written document, most of us here would have articulated the challenges we face in our everyday lives pretty well, and we almost certainly would have got the benefits to which we were entitled, but many people navigating the system were not able to do that for a variety of reasons. Only 16% of claimants under DLA accessed the highest rate of benefit. Under PIP, that figure is 26%. That is because in some parts, the assessment has helped build people’s cases, particularly those with deteriorating health conditions at the beginning of that journey. The assessors are able to say, “At the moment, your day-to-day life is not too affected, but it is likely to be before too long.” The system triggers the ability to reassess and, in the majority of cases, that benefit and support is increased. The principle of the assessments is good. That is why the then Labour Government introduced them in 2008. The assessments are not Conservative ideology, but are done to assist people. Where the assessments go wrong, there is a problem, and that is why it is absolutely right to have this debate to engage and help shape the future.

When the hon. Gentleman was a Minister, we had a very constructive relationship on the points we are debating. Does he accept that one problem with the assessments is that they assess people on their best days and make an assumption on what their best days look like, not their worst days? If there was a change in assumption, that might help.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and in particular for his very kind words. It was always a pleasure working with him. He is certainly one of my favourite Members on the Opposition Benches in the way he engages and shapes things, although my comment might not help him in Scotland. The theory is that, if the assessments are done correctly, they are a judgment over a period of time. They should not be a judgment just of the isolated moment someone is in the assessment. It is meant to make a judgment on the typical challenges someone has to overcome over a period of time. That is an important point to make, and the system should be recognising it.

The first concern people raise is why the appeal rates are so high. They say, “If the rates are so high, there must be a fundamental problem.” Actually, if we drill down, the vast majority of successful appeals are where additional evidence is provided late, whether orally or in writing. The solution is that we must do more to access people’s health records in advance. Before data protection people come down on me like a tonne of bricks, that can be voluntary, but it should be a given.

One solution could be for consultants’ records rather than doctors’ to be considered right at the beginning. I appreciate the challenges around GPs, but a consultant could say that Mr A or Mrs B was not capable of doing x, y and z because of their impairment. If that was acceptable, it would make life a lot easier, and it would deal with some of the anxiety some GPs feel about being intimidated into agreeing such and such a position.

That is an important intervention. Those records are already taken into consideration, but other things that I am about to come on to strengthen that point.

On the high appeal rates, it would help if we could get permission to automatically access those health records. Far too many people are going through the system and only realise they need those pieces of supporting evidence after they have failed and received the helpful communication saying, “This is why you have not accessed that particular level of benefits.” That is an inefficient way of doing it, and we should be more proactive. We have started to see that, but it should be emphasised.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) about recording sessions. That should be a given and would help deal with questions asked in appeals. There should be more videos setting out what is going on. That would help deal with the anxiety and allow people to see what is coming forward. One of the successes under the PIP assessments is that the assessors go out of their way to encourage a claimant to bring a colleague, friend or family member to support them. The same principle should apply.

Many MPs understandably get work capability assessments and PIP assessments mixed up because they are so similar. It would be a good idea if we aligned them more closely, and I know the Government are looking at that.

Getting the work capability assessment right is only part of the journey. The idea is that that assessment identifies what support people need and how we can help them move forward. Mind has said that the Government should have an emphasis on removing the real-world barriers to work. That is why I said at the beginning of my remarks that the debate is an opportunity. We have 3 million new jobs created and 776,000 vacancies available, which is a record high.

Earlier in the hon. Gentleman’s speech, he said that things should not go wrong. My problem is that one of my constituents lost more than £300 after she had to cancel an appointment because of urgent ill health. For four months, she has not been able to resolve that. It is okay saying things should not go wrong, but when they do, the system is not there. What action can be taken to ensure that the work capability system is responsive to applicants and considers their concerns, especially when it goes wrong?

None of us wants it go wrong ever—no one would argue for that. Four months is not acceptable. The hon. Lady has raised the issue. I suspect that our helpful Minister will diligently make a note and that the hon. Lady will be contacted shortly about that case.

The majority of those out of work have been away from work for a very long time. They are desperate for an opportunity. As part of the assessment, assessors look at what someone can do. More than 50% of those people will have a health condition, which will make it harder to find work than it is for the majority of people. The system needs to identify the support needed in terms of financial benefits as well as embracing the principle of offering the tailored support that is at the core of universal credit.

We have to look at matching things with what they can do. For some people, it may be an hour a week. Some people with fluctuating health conditions may be fine for months and then have to dip in and out of work. We have to ensure that support is provided to the individual person, co-ordinated by their named job coach, looking at issues to do with their health, confidence and skills. The Government have to get smarter at talking to employers, particularly the small and medium-sized employers that create 45% of jobs in this country. The big organisations and big businesses are pretty good. They have human resources departments and are good at dealing with this issue on the whole, but small and medium-sized businesses without HR or personnel departments need more support. [Interruption.] I am being reminded to be quick; I will be.

I encourage the Government not to lose sight of the need to create those opportunities for people. I am encouraged that the Government are making improvements, and each and every one of us can help to shape those.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for presenting the case so well. I will refer to many of the things he mentioned, but purely from a constituency point of view.

The issues to do with ESA, DLA and PIP appeals that Members have referred to come into my office every day of the week. On my staff I have a lady, Yvonne, who is blessed with the talent of being able to listen to someone, be compassionate and help put into words what people are frightened to write down. The forms are beyond off-putting. Sometimes the format of the forms is disappointing. Yvonne works hard and there is never a day that she is not up to her eyes in the crux of the matter. Housing and planning used to be the major issues in my office, but the major issue of the day now is benefits. We have a full-time staff member who deals with nothing else, and other staff members do so on a part-time basis. Whenever she takes annual leave, I try to keep on top of the most pressing appeals, and that tells me much about her character and what she is able to do.

Our local citizens advice bureau points people to our office as it is simply unable to process the sheer volume of cases of people appealing. I have the deepest respect for the Minister, and I want to put that on record, but does everyone understand how immense the issue is? I invite her to come to my office in Newtownards, if she is ever in the area, to speak to some of my staff. They will tell her clearly what the issues are.

I will quickly run through the system. If a claimant wishes to appeal a decision, they must request a mandatory reconsideration. Guess what happens next? More often than not, the original decision is upheld. Then, the claimant goes through the appeals process. If 64% of ESA tribunal cases find in favour of the claimant—in other words, the original decision is overturned—that indicates that there is something wrong with the system to start with. Two thirds of appeals are successfully appealed. The same thing applies to the DLA and the PIPs as well. It frustrates me greatly when constituents I have known for umpteen years—I have known their physical illnesses and health problems—get a form back that says, “We have decided you can work.” Well, they are not able to work. They do not see the same person sitting across the table from them. They are asked, “Can you jump up and down? Can you walk 100 yards? Can you make your tea?” There are issues with mental health as well; the hon. Member for Glasgow East referred to that.

People ring our offices in genuine distress and actually crying over the issues. Even the hardest heart in this Chamber would have to acknowledge that and take note. The problem is that the unwell person feels as though they have been dragged across hot coals. Their illness is exacerbated by the stress and they become even more ill. I have seen that happening so often.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good case that chimes with my constituent, Mr Ramsey, who had his ESA terminated. He has arthritis, kidney and heart problems, type 2 diabetes and colitis, and he receives DLA at the higher rate. He is at risk of a heart attack and a stroke if he is made to go back to work, but he was told he could not get what he was entitled to. He has now been placed in the WRAG, so he continues to have great stress and worry about whether he will be hauled back in again.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which will be mirrored by me and everyone else in this Chamber. Indeed, I do not see how anyone could have a different opinion. We see the reality in our offices every day.

The vicious cycle continues. Although it might look good on paper for the decision makers to meet their quotas, it does not look good to the doctor who has to care for the person. We need a system that lends adequate weight to the illnesses that people have without having to tax doctors even more. We all know how difficult it is for doctors to make appointments, and we are asking them to provide additional information that puts more strain on local GP practices. I understand that system. GPs in my constituency have decided to inform patients they will no longer provide letters for PIP or ESA, and will give information only if requested by ESA or by PIP. Again, that happens irregularly.

On the other hand, ESA and PIP request only certain information, so the whole case is not heard and the loser is the person applying. What comes first—the chicken or the egg? People are bouncing back and forth between the benefits office and the GP. It really frustrates me.

On becoming a new Member of Parliament I had a stark introduction when I held a street surgery in Dennistoun the day after my election. Some of the massive problems highlighted by the hon. Gentleman came to light for me when a woman approached me in tears in the street and said that she had to support her son who had a high-grade brain tumour—a terminal brain tumour—and yet was still deemed fit to work. In that context, in the face of all the medical evidence, we still see flaws happening in the most degrading and humiliating way. In the face of the most vindictive box-ticking exercise, we see such hard-hearted approaches. Medical opinion must take greater weight in the process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?

I absolutely agree with that. The evidence is very clear from the overturning of cases at tribunals. There are people who have complex medical conditions, who are obviously unwell, and there are even wards of court where the court has decided a person is unable to look after their financial affairs, and yet the ESA writes to the person and all of a sudden we have myriad problems.

Delays in mandatory reconsideration and appeals to the tribunal mean that claimants may have to wait many months for the correct result. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) says, that adds to the strain that the appellant faces. It does not affect just a single person, but the family as well. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) mentioned, it affects the family and everybody coming together.

I am glad to say we have a food bank in our area. Thank the Lord for food banks. One of the biggest reasons why my office points people in the direction of the local food bank is because of benefit delay. The DWP has failed to make reasonable adjustments in line with the Equality Act 2010. The 2017 Green Paper “Improving Lives: the Future of Work, Health and Disability” contained no proposals to substantially reform assessments. I ask the Minister why.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate. It is always refreshing to be in a debate where there are so many shared views from different parties. I congratulate him on the tone with which he conducted his speech.

I echo some of the comments that remind us of how we have come to this position. There is absolutely a need for a work capability assessment within our benefits system. It is extremely important that people who suffer from physical and mental conditions have their conditions assessed to see whether they are able to work today or tomorrow. It allows the state to give them the requisite support that they need and deserve.

When the Labour party introduced the system in 2008, it did so with the laudable intention of creating a benefits system that identified what people could do rather than what they could not. That is a value to which we should remain attached. I am not sure that between 2008 and 2010 the then Government managed to achieve that. To be honest, I am not sure that we have managed to achieve it since, but the value of that principle is one that we should hold dear.

I should prefix what I say with my belief that there is substantial room for improvement within the system and perhaps a need to go back to some basic values. One thing that I find often gets lost in the powerful and personal stories that I come across in my surgery, and that colleagues from all parties come across in theirs, is that the system works well for a great many people. Of the 1.6 million people who completed the assessment process between October 2013 and December 2016, 85% did not appeal, so the vast majority were content with the decision that was made. Only 3.5% of the 1.6 million had a successful appeal. I do not wish to belittle those numbers because that 3.5% still represents tens of thousands of people, many of whom have very serious conditions, and many of whom will have been left substantially worse off by a negative decision. I want us to remember that the system is not wholly bad, but that there is substantial room for improvement within it.

The hon. Gentleman quotes figures that I am happy to accept, but does he accept that many people who have been through the system, particularly with work capability assessments, feel so frustrated by the process they have gone through that they self-deny the support that might be available to them, and that that is perhaps part of the reason why there is a low appeal rate in some periods?

I absolutely accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I think he would accept that some people do not appeal because they are pleased with the outcome. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned that the Government and the previous Government have always been in a process of ongoing review—we have had annual reviews and a Green Paper. I am sure everyone has read “Improving Lives”, published last month, which sets out the Government’s future commitment to reform, and that we all welcome it.

As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I have been fortunate enough to come across a great many cases and a great amount of submitted evidence. It is becoming clear to me that there are four key areas in which we should seek to improve the system. The first, which resonates with a lot of what has been said, is the accuracy of the assessments. I have had people through my surgery in my constituency who have presented me with information that is clearly wrong and clearly relates to somebody else. Basic errors creep in before we even get to the validity of the assessment process. That makes me think that the accountability system for the accuracy of the reports should also be revised. If an assessment company sees its assessments overturned, there should be consequences. I would certainly like, at the very least, the cost of the assessment process to be charged to that assessment company, and I would certainly be open to the idea of compensation for people who had been wrongfully denied benefits because assessments had been mishandled.

The matter is bound up with the question of expertise. The Work and Pensions Committee questioned witnesses from the major companies the other day about the level of expertise that they employed.

The hon. Gentleman talks about compensation, but how does he think people can be compensated for damage to their mental health? A constituent who contacted me has been on Valium since her last ESA assessment because it was so devastating. Another constituent, who is affected by the issues covered by the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign and is therefore already missing out, has multiple sclerosis. She was so damaged and upset by the assessment that she and her husband cannot bear to go through the experience again.

The hon. Lady gives powerful examples. As I have said, the most important thing that we can do is improve the accuracy and quality of the assessments to prevent such cases.

Schizophrenia is a complex condition that can manifest in many different ways from case to case. Consequently, it will vary in its impact on the ability to work, depending on the individual case. To my mind, it would be difficult for an individual assessor without expertise in schizophrenia to make an accurate judgment about whether someone with schizophrenia would be capable of working, whether on a daily or temporary basis. I urge the Government to consider how we can encourage or oblige assessment companies to employ people with the requisite expertise.

There is a substantial point to be made about simplicity. I have been through all the application papers. I do not like filling in forms at the best of times, but those things are the stuff of nightmares. They have a huge number of pages and fields, and contain requests for information that the Government must hold. I find it strange that that peculiar bureaucracy is asking for information that other bits of our state system must have.

I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the difficulty with forms. The inadequate and inflexible nature of the questions that are asked has been raised with me. I have heard of people with epilepsy being asked, “Can you lift a glass to your lips?” The answer was “Yes, if I am not having a fit,” but there was no room on the form to add that important additional fact. “Can you walk 25 yards?” “Yes, if I am not having a fit,” and so on. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

I appreciate that it is the nature of bureaucracy to be inflexible, so I take the hon. Lady’s point.

I am keen for the Government to go back to the central principle of finding out what people can do rather than what they cannot do. With greater expertise in the assessment process it would be possible to identify the sorts of jobs that other people with the condition in question have managed to hold down. That would bring the principles of universal support into the assessment process, helping people to identify their barriers to work and overcome them.

I am delighted to speak and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for bringing this important debate forward. I last spoke on the issue in February. Many of the problems that were raised then have been highlighted again today. We know about the negative experiences people have in assessments. I know of them from my constituents. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) talked about the system having come on in leaps and bounds, but I am afraid that when 59% of assessments that go to appeal are overturned, it does not sound like leaps and bounds to me or to the system’s victims—I use that word advisedly.

The fact that the system as it currently operates completely fails the vulnerable who rely on it is borne out by the current inquiry by the Work and Pensions Committee. Some appalling and shameful experiences have come to light—we have heard much about them today. There are reports of assessors not being sufficiently qualified to carry out assessments, and not possessing sufficient medical expertise on the medical condition in question. We have heard about physiotherapists assessing mental health problems, and claimants feeling that their responses are not recorded accurately. Assessment methods vary widely in quality and—this comes up a lot—those assessed feel that they are not being listened to. There is a lack of understanding of disability and the hidden impact of mental health challenges.

Anyone who doubts or rejects that analysis must find another explanation of why so many—59%—of appeals against DWP decisions are successful. That figure alone shows that the initial decisions are often wrong—they are wrong in the majority of cases.

I cannot give way because so many hon. Members have taken far more time than courtesy permitted.

I know from constituents who have been through the process that lodging an appeal is a huge cause of stress and anxiety, and does nothing to improve the health and wellbeing of those who go through it. Indeed, many simply give up, feeling abandoned and betrayed by a system that they believed would be there in their time of need, when they most needed support. The assessments are so traumatic for some people that they may be hospitalised or have to increase their medication. Some people may even attempt suicide, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East pointed out. He also eloquently pointed out that about half of ESA claimants have a mental health condition, but that the system seems actively to discriminate against people living with such conditions. The system is clearly not fit for purpose, despite any amount of pretence about how it has improved. It may well have improved, but that is no comfort to the people who live with those decisions day in, day out.

The impact of the flawed system on those who are disabled can be profound. Work done by the Scottish Government found that between 7,000 and 10,000 disabled people a year are affected by the removal of their support. The SNP Scottish Government have completely mitigated the bedroom tax, saving 40,000 disabled people in Scotland who claim ESA from that hated and unjust tax. I trust that the Minister will seek improvements to the system, and I ask her as she does so to remember and reflect on the fact that the United Nations committee on the rights of persons with disabilities has slammed the Government’s record. In contrast to the current stressful, poorly carried out and often humiliating assessments, there will, when Scotland has control over some benefits—it will not have control of work capability assessments, because ESA has not been devolved—be an end to the tick-box assessments that are now used. They cannot and do not take proper account of complex conditions.

Several times in the debate hon. Members have said that the principle of assessment is important, but no one said that assessments should be carried out by private companies. Those who believe that they should be should be prepared to come here and defend that decision. The assessments are carried out by private companies, which by their nature are driven by the profit motive. That is the end of the story. When people’s mental health is being assessed, the profit motive cannot be a factor in the equation. I ask the Minister to consider that carefully.

Time prevents me from continuing, but I urge the Minister to look seriously at the system and overhaul it completely. I hope she will feed back to the Government the concerns expressed by so many hon. Members today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this vital debate.

We have heard today that work capability assessments are not working for people and that they cause problems. That is borne out across my constituency. People often struggle to get into my surgeries to tell me their difficulties, and they may have combinations of conditions. There are people who are blind, and who are also coping with mental illness or sometimes cancer treatment. To be asked to attend a work capability assessment is an incredible situation to be in, and it leads to people being absolutely petrified—we have heard that word before. People are terrified about what they will have to go through. They have to sit down in front of people and be challenged on their conditions, when it is self-evident that they are not capable of doing the things that the assessors would like them to do. For many people, the process escalates and compounds the difficulties that they face in their daily lives. It is—this may be an overused word in this place—genuinely heartbreaking when people present themselves in that way. How on earth can we have a system that puts people through that kind of torture? It is not right and we must challenge it.

Members have spoken about work capability assessments and the kinds of questions that put people under pressure. Constituents have told me that they have been asked whether they can do something and they have said “no”. They are then asked again, “What about on a good day? What about when the sun is shining outside and it is great? Can you do this then?” People have a natural instinct to say, “Yes I can do that,” even if they cannot. They want to be seen to be trying to do something, so they are put in a horrible place and are caught between what they would like to do and think they might be able to do in certain circumstances, and what they absolutely cannot do. That is the problem, and I hope that the Minister trusts the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East and is listening, because people are being put through the mill.

Work capability assessments are problematic and inefficient. Appointments have been cancelled, and there are delays for people who cannot stand the stress or cope with the process. It is vital that they get the support they need. As has been said, people are petrified; they are afraid to appeal in case they lose what they have got. Those moving from employment and support allowance to universal credit have already lost their severe disablement allowance—£62 a week does not sound a lot when said like that, but for someone who depends on that it is an enormous amount, and those people are being put through hardship.

I know there is limited time so I will be brief, but I must point out that those on the frontline in citizens advice bureaux and constituency offices see this problem on a daily basis. Lesley Newton from my local CAB stated:

“The assessment examination has significant weaknesses leading to chronically ill people both physically and mental health challenged being given zero points at assessment.”

That is not right; it should not happen. She continues:

“Many of these clients have had ESA in payment for a number of years and following these assessments are deemed fit for work.”

She said that with the introduction of universal credit, those clients face the challenge of replacing that benefit income while the decision is challenged and they are required to claim universal credit. She continued:

“Many ESA claimants also receive PIP so they lose the premiums that are paid within ESA linked to their PIP award when forced to claim UC… We have a high success rate when we challenge ESA decisions at appeal but”—

this is critical because we are talking about those who have access to the appeal system—

“we are struggling with the volume of these due to our own resource restrictions”.

This is such a difficult process for people to cope with that even those who support them are finding it incredibly difficult, leading to stress in their own workplaces.

I could go on but I will not because time is limited. However, I appeal to the Minister to listen carefully to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East. What is needed is professionalism, knowledge and—most importantly—dignity and respect.

I am pleased to sum up this important debate on behalf of the Scottish National party with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing it. I pay tribute to the way that he has started his time in Parliament because he has, without doubt, been one of the most active and effective Members of the 2017 intake, and I am proud to work alongside him.

My hon. Friend made a typically forthright and incisive speech, drawing on his constituency experience and the expert testimony of groups who support and campaign for people with disabilities or long-term health conditions. He rightly called out a number of the flaws in the current work capability assessment process and the running of employment and support allowance, and he is right about the lack of information and data collection by the UK Government on the impact of cuts to ESA and wrong decision making at WCA level.

I am sure that the new Minister will question the high success rate of appeals against decisions made after work capability assessments. As has been said, a two-thirds success rate for appeals calls into question whether the system is working for those it is supposed to support, and I am sure she will raise that issue with her Department. Those who appeal against WCA decisions can only claim jobseeker’s allowance to receive an income, which adds additional conditionality and stress.

Other Members have made valuable contributions. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) made an important intervention about the way people with mental health conditions are treated, and I hope the Minister will consider and respond to that in her closing remarks. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) was typically challenging of the Government, and he based those challenges on casework experience that will be familiar to us all. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) spoke from her practical experience in healthcare and made a critical intervention.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) —a former Minister—made a typically considered speech and accepted that there are issues with WCAs. He also made a good point about access to medical information, which we all agree is a constructive change that the Minister could consider. That issue is a major stumbling block for constituents I have represented who have problems with the WCA.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a strong case and did what too few of us do in this House, which is to pay tribute to the efforts made by staff. In my office, Lawrie, Margaret, Carrie, Adam, Michael and Lesley see and deal with these issues on a daily basis, and they do a power of work to support affected constituents.

This is the first—and perhaps only—time that I will say I agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), but there has been cross-party consensus in this debate that work capability assessments are not working. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), as always, made a passionate and erudite speech. She was right to say that not much has changed in debates on this issue since I have been in Parliament, but the Minister has an opportunity to make changes, based on the suggestions that have been put forward today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) was also right, because the people who I see before an assessment in my constituency surgeries and office are petrified. They are terrified because this process has the potential to rip security away from them. It is a fundamental point in their journey through the process, and it is a difficult time because of their experiences and those of people around them who have previously gone through it.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister came to this debate in listening mode, has engaged with it, and will leave in action mode. The personal and expert testimony that she has heard today should give her all the ammunition she needs to instruct a full review of work capability assessments, as called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East. The system clearly is not working and is not fit for purpose. We welcome the move to exempt people with certain conditions from having to suffer reassessment for ESA, but that highlights the need for a proper and full review of the whole system. Such a review should be based on the Scottish Government’s principle of establishing a system that is fundamentally based on dignity and respect for those who need its help.

Order. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for withdrawing his right to sum up at the end of the debate, so the shadow Minister and the Minister have until 4 o’clock.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate. He made some very valuable points, particularly about inaccurate decision making leading to a very high success rate at tribunal. I also share his hope that finally the Government will actually take some action following the inquiry that the Work and Pensions Committee are currently carrying out, which has had an overwhelming response.

I also thank all other hon. Members for their powerful contributions, particularly those sharing real-life examples of people’s experiences with work capability assessments. The Government have overseen the unnecessary suffering of many of the most vulnerable in society with these assessments, which have proven to be unfair and unfit for purpose. Despite the many Chamber debates, Westminster Hall debates and Select Committee hearings, we have seen little or negligible action.

No, I will not be taking any interventions.

There is now a broad consensus that the work capability assessment needs to be reformed. Disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, and charities have been clear that it is a blunt instrument that often gets it wrong and frequently fails to link people to the appropriate support. Labour has made it clear that we will scrap both the work capability assessment and the personal independence payment assessments, and replace them with a holistic, supportive and enabling approach. Until then, we need to mitigate the most adverse effects of the work capability assessment.

We are all familiar with disabled people who wish to be in work and to have a career, but are left without the high-quality, impairment-specific employment support that they need to make that a reality. We are also familiar with disabled people who have no realistic prospect of work, but have been put in the wrong group—the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance. Some have even been found fit for work and put on jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit equivalents—forced on to lower rates of social security support for long periods.

There has always been tension regarding ESA and its predecessors on whether the main objective is to help those with the potential to move into work to find suitable employment, or just to save money by getting claimants on to the lowest rates of social security support wherever possible. Both objectives run side by side in uneasy co-existence, but the latter aim seems to have dominated recently, as poor-quality assessments and decisions have increased. A culture seems to have developed in which a good number of the Department’s contracted-out, private assessors seem to have a perception that the Government want to make a minimum award. There also seem to be parallel views among many DWP decision makers, even at the mandatory reconsideration stage, that that is indeed what their managers possibly require.

Some of the cases are truly appalling. A lady with muscular dystrophy was deemed ineligible for ESA after a WCA. The content of the questions in that WCA resulted in the entire assessment missing several key points about how her condition affects her, such as the dexterity in her hands, and her ability to lift her arms above her head or to use buttons. There was also no consideration of the pain or fatigue she experiences on a daily basis.

On Monday, the Work and Pensions Committee heard about a visually impaired woman with a medical certificate to prove her condition—the certificate of visual impairment—being asked by her assessor to read it out, and then asked to read other documents as a test. Disability organisations have raised the issue of a lack of knowledge and understanding among assessors, particularly of equality and the social model of disability. There is a lack of understanding about health conditions, and often inappropriate or unreasonable questions and treatment of those with disabilities. Assessment locations are often far away or inaccessible to people. Alternative forms and formats vary across providers. Questions that form the criteria of the WCA are often unsuitable to extract the information required to help the assessor to understand certain conditions. For some people, face-to-face assessments can also be unhelpful and counterproductive. Patients suffering from mental health conditions downplay their conditions, particularly if they have had negative experiences or fear being sectioned. Others have had their condition exacerbated by the process.

The Government have argued that as only a modest proportion of decisions are appealed, the rest must be right. That assumption is clearly unsound. More than 90% of mandatory reconsiderations are upheld, with some decisions made within 48 hours. That is not reconsideration; it is rubber-stamping. When we look at the results of those who go on to appeal, the success rate is drastically different: 60% for ESA appeals between 2013 and 2016. Clearly, many people simply accept decisions that are likely to be incorrect, and suffer as a result. We can all agree, across the parties, that the system is broken and unfit for purpose.

What assessment have the Government made of how many incorrect decisions go un-appealed? Faulty assessments and decisions not only penalise claimants, but swamp advice surgeries and services, and appeal tribunals. There are beginning to be concerns among the judiciary. Britain’s most senior tribunal judge has said that most of the benefits cases that reach court are based on bad decisions, where the Government have had no case at all.

Any work capability assessment should be rooted in the real world. In each case, the genuine employment prospects of that individual in the light of their disability or health condition, age, work history, qualifications, and so on, should be the subject of a skilled assessment. It should also not be a one-off event. Certainly, pointless reassessments of people whose disability or health condition is not going to improve should be avoided, but for those who have genuine future employment prospects, there should be positive engagement.

Since April 2017, new claimants in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group have been paid the same rate as JSA—a reduction of £29 per week. That measure removes any recognition of the barriers to work and the additional costs of undertaking work-related activity faced by many disabled people. The change also creates a cliff-edge of about £59 between the ESA support group and the WRAG.

This approach, linked to high-quality, impairment-specific, real-world assessments, points the way towards a much better system. I hope the Government listen to the judiciary, disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, and commit to scrapping the work capability assessment. They should also listen to Labour. We will replace the WCA with a personalised, holistic process. We will end the privatisation of assessments and the pointless stress of reassessments for people with severe long-term conditions. We will change the culture of the social security system, from one that demonises people not in work to one that is supportive and enabling. The Government must listen and ensure that there is “nothing about us without us”.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I very much welcome this afternoon’s debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden)—I hope I can call him that—on the manner in which he introduced it. Making sure that the most vulnerable people in our society have the support that they need must be something that rises above all party politics. I appreciate the contributions from so many Members today: 11 speakers, with 16 interventions. That shows how important this issue is to Members of all parties across the House.

Today’s debate is also very timely. Only last week, we published our response to the Green Paper consultation proposals for reform in “Improving Lives: the Future of Work, Health and Disability”. I will not have time today to give detailed responses to all the points that have been raised, but if hon. Members were to read that response they would see that many of their ideas for improving the work capability assessment are reflected in the plans we have set out. We have set out a very ambitious programme of testing and learning to make sure that we get this right. I will of course write to Members if I have not been able to address their individual concerns.

We have heard passionate contributions from Members who have rightly talked about their constituents’ experiences. I am a constituency MP first and foremost, as is every Minister. I have had similarly harrowing experiences with my constituents and I have listened to their concerns about the process. I assure hon. Members that I am as motivated as them to make sure the process is as good as it can possibly be. I invite them to send me the individual cases they talked about today so I can take a closer look at them and respond fully.

I have had a month in my new role. After dealing with a number of colleagues who have spoken to me and reading the correspondence I have received, I think it is important that I set up a series of meetings about PIP and ESA so Members and their caseworkers can meet me and the officials in my Department. It will be a kind of teach-in. We will listen to their concerns, explain the improvements we are putting in place and communicate the support that is available. That series of meetings, which will be available to all Members of Parliament, will start in January.

I will not—I have very little time. I can of course follow up the hon. Gentleman’s point after the debate.

The timing of the debate is important for another reason. I welcome the fact that the Work and Pensions Committee is doing an inquiry into ESA and PIP assessments. I assure hon. Members that I will not only participate in that inquiry—I look forward to going along to the Committee next week—but pay attention to its findings and consider them. It is clear from this debate that we are all committed to ensuring that people with health conditions and disabilities have the right support.

In the past couple of weeks, I have visited assessment centres that are undertaking work capability and PIP assessments, and I have seen NHS doctors, nurses and health professionals bring their professionalism and compassion to their work. They are the same people we could meet if we go to an appointment to see a GP or are treated in our local hospital. I have seen compassion and professionalism in the assessments, but I accept that there are improvements to make. We can always do a lot more.

Returning to some of the fundamental points that hon. Members made, it is right that our system focuses on what people can do, not on what they cannot do. We embrace the social model of disability. We want to break down barriers to work and ensure that people can truly reach their full potential in our society and in work, because we know that good work is good for health. I have met many people who would be considered severely disabled, and they tell me that they want an opportunity to participate in society and to work. In my few short weeks as a Minister, I have already seen inspirational work in our NHS and among providers of support for people with disabilities that enables people to have a role in our society. People who have been cast aside, rejected and put on the scrap heap for the past 30 years are now being supported into work.

I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), with whom I work in partnership in the Department of Health, here today. We visited a fantastic project run by a mental health trust in London. The doctors said, “We had written off these patients. We never thought that somebody with such a severe mental health problem would ever work, but we have changed our minds because of the programmes we have been putting in place in our hospitals.” We have to focus on listening, learning and developing our systems so that more people like those my hon. Friend and I saw last week have an opportunity to play their full part in society.

Of course, some people are too poorly to work, much as they would like to do so. Every year, the Government spend more money on disability benefits and benefits for people with heath conditions, and it is clearly set out in our spending that we will continue to do so. We are spending more than £50 billion—more than the defence budget—on such benefits, so the idea that we are cutting support to people, as many hon. Members said, is simply wrong.

Any financial support system has to go through a process of evaluation to ensure we get the right support for the right person, and it must be individually based. My vision is very clear: each person is an individual, and no two people are the same. People who on paper have the same medical reports for the same condition will have very different prospects and will be able to do different things. The system must be tailor-made to support them. That is what we are doing in our future strategy, which we set up last week.

Labour introduced the work capability assessment in 2008, and we all agreed that it was not good enough and was not fit for purpose. Since then, it has been under constant review, and we have made more than 100 recommendations. Whenever we find good new ideas to improve it, we implement them. We regularly engage with disabled people and stakeholder groups to ensure that we listen, learn and make improvements. Probably the most significant improvements have been in mental health. Work capability and PIP assessors, and frontline staff in the DWP—the people in the jobcentres and those who make decisions about benefits—have all undertaken mental health training to ensure they are sensitive to the needs of people with mental health conditions.

There is a person behind every statistic, so I am leery about using statistics, but I cannot allow some of the misinformation we have heard today to remain unchallenged. We undertake 1 million ESA assessments every year. Since April, 8% have been appealed and only 4% have been upheld. I know there is a person behind every statistic, and I know the impact that that can have on people, but it is not fair to say that, in the majority of cases, the system does not work. In the majority of cases, it does work.

I want to answer the points that have been raised.

We are not satisfied with the appeal rate. That is not a “good enough for me” measurement of the process. I am interested in the experience of the individual claimant and their journey through the process. Independent customer satisfaction surveys are undertaken, and the latest shows an 83% highly satisfied or satisfied rate. I am not going to be satisfied until it is 100% of claimants, but hon. Members have indicated that everybody is having the most terrible experience, which is simply not the case.

I am not complacent, and I want to highlight some of the improvements that are under way. We have representative groups that include charities and disabled people, and we are always looking at what more we can do with the forms and the process. Videos are going to be put up on our contractors’ websites so that, before people go along to the assessments, they have got information about what to expect, what they can bring with them and the people they can bring along to support them so they are not scared. I do not want anybody to be terrified about going to the assessments. We are doing a lot of work with healthcare professionals to ensure that they have continuous improvement. We are particularly focusing on mental health.

I am sorry that I have not been able to address all the concerns that were raised. As I say, I will write to hon. Members, and I am taking careful note of the Work and Pensions Committee’s work. I agree with everyone that we want a system that treats people with respect and dignity, gives them the personal, tailor-made service that they richly deserve, and enables them to play a full part in our society.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered work capability assessments.

Male Suicide

[Joan Ryan in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of male suicide.

This is my first Westminster Hall debate and it is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Ms Ryan. I hope that this is the first of many opportunities to do so.

We are gathered in this Chamber to debate the single biggest killer of men aged 20 to 49, a bigger killer than cancer, heart disease or road accidents: I am talking about suicide. Suicide is of course a highly complex issue. It is not only men who are at risk of suicide, but women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, people who have suffered family breakdown, black and ethnic minority people who live in deprived areas, and others who have suffered loss or structural disadvantage. They are all at increased risk. The focus of today’s debate is on men, but that should not come at the expense of the consideration of risk of suicide in other groups.

Since 1981 the Office for National Statistics has collected the figures for suicide in the UK. In almost every year from 1981 to 2016, men have been at least three times more likely to kill themselves than women. That is not a problem that has gone away over time and it is evident from the figures that both historically and contemporarily suicide is a problem that disproportionately affects men.

For me, and I am sure many other men in this place, suicide is not only an issue of public health but something personal. From 2012 to 2016, 198 people have taken their own lives in South Lanarkshire, of whom 147, or 74%, were men. People I care about have been directly affected by male suicide in recent times. The wider community of each death by suicide is substantial. The Local Government Association estimates that, for every person who dies, between six and 60 people are directly affected.

Suicide among men is complex. It is not helpful to speculate why an individual might have taken their own life. However, there has been research into factors that increase the risk of suicide in men. Research by the Samaritans and data from the ONS highlight some of those factors: loneliness from family breakdown or the death of a spouse; the decline of traditionally male-dominated industries; inequality; and social expectations about masculinity.

Today I will focus on how views of masculinity can increase the risk of suicide in men and on the idea that suicide among men is not just a health issue but one that is often linked with social deprivation and inequality. Many in this House and wider society have made great strides to challenge how we conceive masculinity, but for many men the key tenets of masculinity remain important to their identities and conceptions of how they believe they are meant to behave. It is not just the men themselves—society at large can be guilty of holding men to those unrealistic standards.

Having grown up in the west of Scotland, I know that that masculine ideal requires that men should never be depressed, anxious or unable to cope and, if they are, they should never admit it—they should be strong. That can often mean that when men are most in pain, they are also at their most determined to hide that pain and to shrink away from help due to a fear that their vulnerabilities will be exposed. That can lead men to respond to distress with denial, to angst with avoidance and to insecurity with isolation.

Rather than seeking out the help and support they need—often the help and support that may save their life—many men will suffer in silence. That presents a problem. Across the UK health services are being retooled to provide parity of esteem between mental and physical health, but the problem for suicide among men is often not treatment but identification. We could have the best mental health service in the world, but until we start better identifying those who need to access it, we are unlikely to see an improvement.

At present, 70% of people who take their own lives are not under the care of a specialist mental health service. Changing the culture, in particular among men, is central to reducing suicide.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on a very powerful speech. I spoke on this very issue on International Men’s Day. Does he recognise a particular role for men’s sheds, where men can come together to have conversations about mental health? We welcome the work being done in Shettleston Men’s Shed, where people can come together to have exactly those conversations, getting them out in the open.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A lot of good work is going on around the country to encourage men to talk more.

Initiatives by the Samaritans and Time to Change encourage us all to think differently about mental health and suicide and to be alert when the behaviour of our friends, families and colleagues changes. Personal interventions can save lives and it is incumbent on us as individuals and as representatives to challenge traditional conceptions of masculinity, in particular when they pose a risk to life.

Put simply, men need to get better at talking to each other. I include myself in that. I have not always been good about talking about my own mental health and my experience of anxiety and OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. We need to get over any embarrassment or awkwardness we might feel, and realise that sitting down for a simple cup of tea or coffee and asking a friend how he feels might be the thing that saves his life.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Does he agree that we need to start very young with that? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that if people can talk about that when they are at school, that may be the greatest preventer of all.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, though early intervention with mental health is an entirely separate debate, which I suggest would want its own time. I certainly agree with his point.

As I was saying, if a friend is experiencing a suicidal train of thought, a simple chat might be just the thing to break that cycle of thought. It might refer the person to the help they need.

Suicide among men, however, can no longer be seen purely as a health issue. There is a statistically significant relationship between high levels of deprivation and high levels of suicide. That association means that as area-level deprivation increases, the likelihood of suicidal behaviour will probably increase as well.

On that very point about deprivation in what is a very passionate speech, does my hon. Friend agree that such areas show clustering following a suicide? Conversation among all men is doubly important at that stage, to reduce stress in the area.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In those deprived areas people are on average two or three times more likely to experience suicidal behaviour. Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are more at risk and less likely to seek help for mental health problems than the more affluent. It bears repeating that, although each person’s suicide is complex and individual, this is a fact that cannot be ignored: a man living in the most deprived area of our country is 10 times more likely to take his own life than a man in the most affluent area. In no uncertain terms, I am saying that for men in deprived areas, inequality kills.

We cannot conclusively draw links between all Government policies and suicide—I would not seek to do so—but I have a growing fear that the Government’s roll-out of universal credit in its current form will exacerbate inequality and could present an increased risk of suicide in deprived areas.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to focus on deprived areas, but does he agree that there are areas in which people successful in business or agriculture—third or fourth generation—might have a business that slips away from them? They are not necessarily on a journey of deprivation, but they are losing something that the family had built up over the years. They may see the way out as taking their own life. That is the burden of a family business and its loss—does he agree that suicide includes a broad range of unfortunate individuals?

As I said, there are a lot of complex issues that might affect suicidal behaviour. I am identifying specific areas that research shows are more likely to increase the risk of suicide. Living in a deprived area is one of those.

Sadly, many Members have said in the Chamber that they hear from increasing numbers of people showing signs of suicidal behaviour, as do I in my own office. I could not speak in the debate without acknowledging that. But I bring the debate in a spirit of collaboration. I am certain that every Member in this room wants a reduction in male suicides and wants strategies to be devised and implemented to achieve that aim.

One note of encouragement is that the suicide rate in Glasgow has certainly gone down in the last 20 years: 64 men took their lives last year in Glasgow, but that is down from 122 men in 2000. Might that indicate a generational difference, where the generation of younger men feel more open to talking about their issues? Perhaps that represents a challenge for older generations, who still feel that certain social norms or taboos prevent them from opening up, but one that is changing slowly but surely.

I hope that is the case and I think that, certainly, younger men are more likely to talk about their feelings than the older generation. Although there has been a strong downward trend in suicide rates in Scotland, in 2016 there was an 8% increase. Hopefully, that will go back down, but the issue still needs to be addressed, which is why it is important to have debates such as this.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He talked about the Samaritans research, which showed, in summary, that less well-off men are ten times more likely to die by suicide than more well-off men. Does he agree that it is important that the Government try to tackle the problem through a suicide prevention strategy and through identifying specific ways of helping to address the rate of male suicides?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I hope that the Minister will touch on that. I note that suicide is treated as a health matter.

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct to raise this hugely important subject. Sometimes, suicide is not any respecter of wealth. A much-loved local general practitioner in my constituency committed suicide, and there is a very moving memorial to him in my home town of Tain. The hon. Gentleman mentioned health, but does he feel that the education system might have a useful role in getting men to talk from an early age?

I absolutely agree. I keep making the point that there are many different factors that influence suicidal behaviour, but certainly, if we can take the opportunity as early as possible in school, or even before, to look at mental health in general, we will go a long way in tackling the issue across the board.

Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland pursue their own suicide prevention strategies, since it is a devolved matter, in line with devolution of health policy. This debate is important to raise awareness of male suicide. I hope that the Minister will talk about what the Government are doing to prevent suicide, particularly on the issues I have touched on, including inequality and perceptions of masculinity.

If those watching this debate—particularly men who are watching—take one thing away, I hope that it is that as we approach what, for many people, can be a difficult time of year—for many others it is a very happy time—and as we battle the elements to pick up last-minute gifts, we please keep in mind those who might be fighting battles with their mental health. There are some things that money cannot buy, so for many of those people, some company and a chat might be all it takes to save their lives.

I ask the Minister to tell us of any initial evidence or representations that she has received regarding the roll-out of universal credit and the increased risk of suicidal behaviour associated with that. What consideration has her Department given to equalising the maximum limit of eight days to register a death, as is the case in Scotland? That has been called for by the Samaritans, to improve the reporting of suicide. What assessments has her Department made of the misclassification of suicides by coroners and the effects that that may have on official statistics? Could she update us on the Government’s strategies for tackling suicide among men in deprived areas?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) for the powerful and moving way in which he addressed this important subject. He said that this is his first Westminster Hall debate; I am sure that it will be the first of many. I encourage him to continue to look at this subject, because it is clear from the passion with which he articulated his argument that he cares deeply about it. I will always welcome hearing any representations from him.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 25 and 49. Any death by suicide is an avoidable death. We should always be vigilant and do what we can to tackle suicide and self-harm. There is a gender difference because suicide affects men more and women tend to self-harm more, but the motivation is the same. We should look at the same tools in order to curb them.

Every death by suicide is a tragedy. As the Minister responsible for mental health, I hear from families bereaved by suicide about the devastating impact that it has on them and on the wider community. All of us in this House will have been touched by suicide in one way or another, whether directly and personally or through the experience of constituents. It feels like society has failed those people. That is why I am determined to drive forward the action we are taking at a national level and in local communities to reduce suicides. Generally, paying greater attention to mental health will make a great deal of difference, particularly on the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised: encouraging people to be willing to talk and encouraging everyone around them to know when somebody might need help.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) said, the majority of people who have committed suicide never reached professional help or went to a health professional. Does the Minister agree that preventive training needs to be rolled out to people such as landlords, firemen and taxi drivers with whom people with suicidal feelings might have contact, even if they do not reach out?

In a nutshell, we all need to become much more aware about when people might show signs of mental ill health. I hope that through the programmes that we are running, the priority that we are putting on mental health will do much to raise awareness.

Obviously, we are trying to do much more in schools, following the publication of “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper”, but the category of people that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West referred to miss all that attention. Working-class men who work on building sites are not “meant” to have mental health problems, so when they have them, nobody pays any attention, because the environment is very masculine. The hon. Gentleman identified that. They are certainly not going to seek help, so it is not surprising that that particular group of people has a very high incidence of suicide. There is a general role for public awareness.

The point that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) made about bars is a very interesting one. We are keen to use mainstream media to highlight the message. One of the reasons that we support Time to Change, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, is exactly that—to get out those populist messages to raise awareness among the whole general public, so that we can all identify when someone is in trouble.

On building sites, is the Minister aware of an organisation called Mates in Mind, in which the Samaritans is involved? It encourages people in the building industry to talk to each other, to avoid the very problems that she mentions.

I was not aware of Mates in Mind, but it sounds like an excellent initiative that I would be keen to support. Ultimately, we would not worry about showing up to a hospital with a broken leg, so why should we worry about seeking help when we do not feel so well mentally? There is nothing unmasculine about reaching out for help—nothing at all. We just need to make that much easier for people.

The profile of suicide has never been higher, and that is testimony to the progress we are all making—this debate is a great help—in tackling the taboo of talking about it. We need to be a lot more open about it. We must strive to reduce suicide among the whole population, but as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, men are at the highest risk. Despite suicides among men having reduced in England in the past few years, the number of men who die by suicide remains too high.

The hon. Gentleman and others referred to the Samaritans, which I cannot praise enough. We are pleased to continue to support its prevention work. Frankly, given its outcomes and the lives it supports, it is a fantastic organisation and fantastic value for money. That just goes to show that personal interventions—often anonymous ones—are of most use in this area. People in this position often self-medicate using alcohol, so, as the hon. Member for Midlothian said, a stranger in a bar saying, “Are you all right, my friend?”, could make all the difference and save a life. We should encourage people to support exactly that kind of organisation.

As I said, the ONS found that construction is among the occupations with the highest incidence of suicide, so I am keen to hear more about the initiative that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) mentioned. It is worth noting that that kind of work is often transient: people move around to do it and it is often seasonal. We need to be sensitive to the fact that people who move in and out of work often experience additional mental pressure.

We are approaching Christmas. If there is a time of year when people feel particularly lonely, it is Christmas. Every Member here is showing an interest in this issue, so I do not need to tell them this, but we all need to be aware that people will feel lonely and will often be at their lowest ebb at Christmas, so that is when acts of kindness can mean the most.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) for bringing this debate forward. As a trade union rep in the Royal Mail, which is male-dominated, I spoke to many men over the decades who had got to the final point, and said, “Think about it.” That did not stop one of my members taking his own life just last year. He was the life and soul of the party, as these people usually are. They really hide it. Christmas is going to be a long old time for a lot of those young men, as more and more partners are splitting up due to the pressures of life and everything else. It would be good if the Government, and all of us, sent out a Christmas message this year: “Take care and stay strong.”

I could not have put it better. That is a fantastic message to send out. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am pleased that the Royal Mail has done a lot more in this space, no doubt in partnership with the trade union. Again, I pay tribute to all that work.

As part of my support for World Suicide Prevention Day this year, I visited the Samaritans and met some of its volunteers. They have to do a good number of hours a week to maintain their status, which shows fantastic commitment on their part. I think we would all thank them for the work that they do. I am pleased that we have agreed to fund the Samaritans helpline until 2022 to support that work.

We have heard that men are much less likely to seek professional help and are more likely to engage with services outside traditional clinical settings. We need to send a positive message that there is no shame in seeking professional help, which is exactly why we are investing in those services. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, we could have the best and most accessible services in the world, but they would be pointless unless people were willing to use them. We really need to tackle that sense of shame.

Many excellent initiatives in local communities seek to do exactly that. The Men’s Sheds Association provides opportunities for men to meet others and to engage in activities together in familiar settings. Andys Man Club engages men through sport while making it easy for them to seek advice about things such as relationships and debt, which we have heard often contribute to the mental health crises that can lead to suicide. The Government also support the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s mental health charter, which aims to do the same. As I mentioned, we have given Time to Change, which is designed to tackle stigma, £30 million since 2012, and we will continue to support it until 2020. I hope that that indicates clearly our direction of travel in raising awareness.

As the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) outlined, there are good messages that we can send. My message to the public is: “Reach out. If you think someone is in difficulty, send them a text or give them a phone call. Keep your eye on people who might be feeling down, because feeling down one day can suddenly become feeling rock bottom another. Listen and don’t judge when people are feeling unhappy about circumstances.” People with mental health difficulties lose perspective, and the smallest things can become absolutely huge. It is often said—this is one of the wisest proverbs—that a problem shared is a problem halved, and it can be more than halved when someone is having a mental health crisis.

The Minister rightly emphasises the need for personal support and the need to talk. Will she address socioeconomic issues? In its “Dying from Inequality” report, the Samaritans shows that socioeconomic factors are really important in whether people consider ending their life by suicide. Will the Minister talk about that?

Socioeconomic issues determine when and how people seek help—that is the key. It is clear that that means suicide levels are higher among lower-income groups. We need to tackle that by developing tools that are accessible to that audience. Time to Change has a great track record in that respect, having improved the attitudes of 3.5 million people in recent years. I encourage anyone who has not seen its campaign to have a look at it and at how it engages people.

As I am running out of time, I will quickly go through some of the other points I wanted to make. Local suicide prevention plans are critical to tackling suicide in the long term. We need services that people can access directly. I am keen that we do more work with the Association of Directors of Public Health and the Local Government Association to ensure that local suicide prevention plans are rigorous and deliver the right outcomes. We do not want them to be just a box-ticking exercise: they need to deliver and reduce the impact of suicide.

The cross-Government suicide prevention strategy for England has been updated to focus on high-risk groups, such as middle-aged men, and widened to include self-harm, as I mentioned. That means that suicide plans will be more targeted than ever at those who need the most support.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West raised the issue of deaths being registered within eight days and pointed out that it can take longer in England. The ONS continues to try to improve the timeliness of published data about suicide, and we will definitely look at that.

Although our efforts should be about reducing the risk of suicide for everyone in our communities, it is fair to say that men remain at the highest risk and are therefore a priority. We are looking to local areas to develop strong local partnerships and implement innovative ways of reaching out to men who may be at risk of suicide. There is clearly a political consensus that we must address suicide prevention. Now is the time for us all to take action to make change a reality for people and communities, and the Government will be tireless in our pursuit of that. I am grateful to hon. Members for attending the debate. Their number illustrates that the House cares deeply about this issue and really wants to tackle it. Let’s make a real difference.

Question put and agreed to.

Quality in the Built Environment

I beg to move,

That this House has considered delivering quality in the built environment.

It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. Having spent much of my working life in the construction industry, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

One’s home is the biggest purchase that many of us will make in our lives. The fact that there is so little consumer protection attached to the purchase of new homes needs addressing. It is staggering that one is better protected when purchasing a kettle than when buying a house, given that the average house price in October was £223,000 and the average price of a kettle is £25. Most of us know our protection under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 or the Consumer Rights Act 2015, so we can get a kettle sorted. However, no matter where a homebuyer is in the system—whether freehold, housing association or charity—they have no clear understanding of how to escalate complaints and seek redress for problems when they move into a new house or move within the guarantee period.

Why is that important? The latest report delivered by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, of which I am chair, namely “More homes, fewer complaints”, showed that 93% of all people surveyed reported problems to their builders.

The latest national new home customer satisfaction survey showed customers’ dissatisfaction had risen to some 98%. Not all people are dissatisfied with their homes, but that shows that an alarmingly large number of people move into their new home, full of expectation, but are left unhappy with the quality therein. Thirty-eight per cent. of buyers had more problems than they expected, a staggering 25% of buyers reported 16 faults or more, and just 2% of consumers buying a home in the period reported zero defects.

Given that the debate is brief and I would like colleagues to have time to contribute, I intend to cover quality within house building, and briefly cover skills in construction, the needs of the consumer and where we might positively go from this point. Along with the APPG’s report last year, we held an open inquiry into the quality and workmanship of new housing for sale in England. Evidence suggests that, as the number of homes being built increases, the quality declines. That correlation is supported by the Chartered Institute of Building, which has commissioned an investigation in order to drive up quality. Thus far, it has identified behaviour and education as two key components that we need to address if we want to make changes.

Like many of my colleagues, I have encountered constituent issues: people frustrated with the problems with their new homes. They feel there is a lack of recourse to builders and warranty providers to address the problems.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not just for calling for the debate but for taking over as chair of the APPG of which I used to be a member—I was involved in the report she has talked about. As a result of that report and work I have done on behalf of my constituents, the Government agreed to make approved inspectors’ reports available to new homebuyers as a way of making transparent build-quality problems. We have yet to hear much about how that is working in practice. Does she agree that that might be one practical way in which a homeowner could understand more about the problems there might have been when their home was being built?

My right hon. Friend highlights one of the key recommendations that came out of the report, several of which were very easy to implement. I will ask the Minister where we are on that and how we can move forward more swiftly, because it seems that we have been talking about these problems for well over a decade. It was first mooted that we needed to do something in 2008, and we will be 10 years on from that next year.

My right hon. Friend mentioned transparency. That is what is important to people: they want to understand. It needs to be simple, straightforward and transparent. While I appreciate that the Home Builders Federation is looking into a voluntary code, there are problems with the industry policing itself. If there were any real intent, it would not have let the situation deteriorate as it has done, and for so long.

I thank my hon. Friend for tabling this increasingly important debate. I have been dealing with a case involving new homes in my constituency, where for two years the developer of a National House Building Council-guaranteed home failed to rectify problems stemming from the installation of a communal heating system that posed a serious safety risk to the residents. The managing agent told me that it firmly believed that the NHBC faces a fundamental conflict of interest in enforcing its technical requirement against the developer, because it was a major fee-paying member of the organisation. Does she share my concern that the NHBC guarantee might be providing new home- owners with a false sense of security over its independence and enforcement powers?

My hon. Friend is in an area of the country where there is large pressure on the number of houses being built. She brings a pertinent point to the debate. It is difficult to be independent when not independent of the entire system. I will come to that point.

There are four different redress providers in the system: the housing ombudsman; the property ombudsman; ombudsman services; and the property redress scheme. However, there are still gaps. A key point is that we need simplicity in any system we develop for the individual homebuyer, for them to understand how to navigate the system.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this forward. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings, and therefore this is a very important issue for me. We are doing an inquiry at the moment looking at noise, acoustics, heating, windows and finish so that we have homes that are habitable for this day and age. Does she agree that being environmentally responsible and promoting social integration—the designer sometimes does not see that important issue—are key components in delivering quality in the built environment, and that planners and indeed Government need to give consideration to that?

I could not agree more. Many of us sit on different APPGs, and the hon. Gentleman brought up environmental issues and the fact that people’s homes should use modern-day construction methods that give them the cheapness to be able to run a home efficiently. It should not impact on the environment. We should be using what skills we have to make homes healthier for people and communities. I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) may well come on to the importance of design within the environment. The hon. Gentleman is right. Also, building in the vernacular is extremely important in certain areas of the country, making people feel like they are rooted and have more of a sense of place.

The NHBC guarantee currently covers most builds in the sector and purports to be independent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) said. However, in the main, large house builders fund the organisation, and any surplus funds are returned to the house builder at the end of the guarantee period. It is my belief that that skews the system and leaves it unable to act clearly on the side of the consumer.

Large house builders obviously seek to make a profit, and I have no issue with that, but some of our largest house builders have paid themselves tens of millions of pounds—in one case it was hundreds of millions of pounds —in dividends this year. When we have such poor outcomes on quality, I find that challenging. For an industry that has overseen a substantial rise in profitability over recent years to oversee an equal decline in customer satisfaction ratings and a fall-off in skills training, for which it sees itself as only partially responsible, is unacceptable. Just 10 companies build half of new private homes. Arguably, that does not aid competition. As the number of new homes has risen, satisfaction has fallen. The time for Government action to step into the broken market is arguably upon us.

Research indicates that investment by these companies should be targeted at skills. They build thousands of units each year—thankfully, they built somewhere in the region of 220,000 to 230,000 units last year—but they directly employ very few skilled workers and are largely reliant on subcontractors across the industry, where the whole basis is to drive down costs rather than concentrate on quality. An acute shortage of good site managers compounds the problem, yet they seem reluctant to train and to ensure quality and delivery. Worryingly, the industry estimates that to carry on building in the same way we would need to double our workforce. My question to the Minister is why we are not building construction training schools at the heart of large sites—even those sites subdivided between different house builders—so that individuals can earn while they learn and be proud of the homes in which their communities live.

It is not an industry into which young people will be encouraged to go, given the working in all weathers, the cyclical nature of the industry and the prospects it holds. The difficulty for small builders and subcontractors in accessing and providing employment for training over the course of a national vocational qualification period means that, if work dries up and they have apprentices, they potentially fail to enable them to complete their training. There is no co-ordinated thinking. If someone is on a price for a contract, they are less likely to spend time training employees—they will be looking to optimise their income.

Large house builders take much of the gain from others’ training, but do not always feed back down the supply chain, nor do they incentivise or reward the benefit they ultimately get from others. That is short-sighted, since it is those skilled craftsmen who will ensure continuity of supply in the future. Having an independent clerk of works or similar who would look at the quality of the work as the construction is going up is one solution. Currently, there are some 700 inspectors in the industry, which equates to their inspecting some 317 units each year. We know that houses are not being inspected properly.

What about the consumer? Unless there is a challenge to the system to ensure that quality standards are driven up, there is little encouragement for those house builders who produce a poor quality product to raise their game. Some large producers concentrate on quality, but that is often reflected in the price. Should quality be a question of either/or? Snagging on new house builds ranges from issues such as backfilling cavity walls with site rubbish to splicing broken roof trusses, leaky roofs, poor electrical work, insufficient insulation and the repointing of joints on walls where purposeful demolition and reconstruction should have happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster alluded to the problems she had.

One of the interesting phenomena I have noticed in recent years is that the quality of homes developed by local authorities is substantially higher than the quality of homes developed in the private sector, for which consumers are asked to pay very high sums. Does my hon. Friend think we should be applying similar standards in the private sector to ensure that people are not short-changed?

That is interesting to a point, but there are also quality problems in the housing association and local authority sector. It is an overall raising of standards throughout the industry that we should be seeking.

People purchase a home, full of hope, pride and expectation that it has enduring quality and performs to the requisite levels of maintenance, costs and energy efficiency, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) alluded to. Giving peace of mind to those who are working hard for it should be a given. It should not be possible to build new homes without the fourth utility, broadband, and every home constructed in the UK should be as energy efficient as possible, lowering the cost of heating but also the environmental impact. The building industry has high waste costs, which add to the build cost. The highest levels of insulation should be a basic standard: grey water collection, battery storage, solar panels, triple glazed windows and a plethora of modern, energy-efficient building materials could be used. That is often not the case, because it is argued that new and ever-better things will come along and will need to be retrofitted. That means that the industry never moves forward.

Looking ahead, there is a quality gap between customer demand and industry delivery. I applaud the Department for Communities and Local Government for getting the Home Builders Federation to look into the voluntary ombudsman scheme, but perhaps the time for any such voluntary scheme has passed. We are sitting on the cusp of the largest construction delivery ever: some 300,000 new homes, the biggest expansion in the construction of homes since Macmillan. It is imperative that we get the quality right. The domination of the market by a handful of large developers is part of the problem. It used to be the case that 60% of new homes were built by small and medium-sized enterprises, often local, which had a vested interest in the build quality and were more conscious of the vernacular and the local environment. Currently, that figure is less than 30%. Although the £1.5 billion of short-term loan finance from the Government is welcome to drive activity in that market and the modular market, there must also be quality.

Quality in the modular, or modern methods of construction, market should be easier to achieve, as should speed, but I ask the Minister what build standards are being driven into this new area of house building from the start. Organisations such as the Federation of Master Builders, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Chartered Institute of Building, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Construction Industry Training Board and others have an important role to play in ensuring that quality is a given and not a “nice to have”. From a quality design to a first-class finish, including national space standards and the right regulatory environment, it is essential.

The practice of retention in the industry is currently under consultation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but it also has a part to play in quality, restricting the cash flow of small businesses. As we develop new models of finance and business for delivering homes, we need to understand how they affect type, tenure and quality.

It is of concern that large house builders set aside enormous contingency funds for what they call customer service problems—that is, poorly built houses. That has a detrimental effect on the bottom line and productivity. If they constantly have to revisit a building to address its defects and snagging, they are not building the next home. It is also much harder to put faults right once a family has moved in. I have been contacted by numerous people listing incidents and faults that caused them misery, from lintels to crib walls, from foundations to roofs, for which they cannot get redress. The letters often state that all they want is an acknowledgment of the problem, a pathway to a solution and someone to say sorry.

There is a feeling that large house builders are happy to trouser the profit and move on, and are not interested in the long-term reputation of their product. We might regularly replace our white goods; our homes we do not. They should be right the first time. We need a single, transparent, accountable body, with a remit covering the whole housing industry. Currently, someone housed by a charity would go to the Charity Commission, someone in social housing would go to the Housing Ombudsman Service and someone in private housing would go to the National House Building Council or a similar guarantee scheme. We know that in areas with a single ombudsman it is much easier to get it right.

Customers need to be aware that the guarantee often covers far less than they assume, and neither building control functions nor warranties provide any form of comfort that finishings and fittings will be defect-free. Many new homebuyers fail to appreciate that, for the first two years after completion, it is for the builder to sort the defects. Little notice is given to the customer about when the clock starts to run, or the amount of procrastination the builder is allowed in rectification. For the remaining eight years, warranties cover purely structural matters. Individuals often go to the local authority building control, but that carries no jurisdiction.

In conclusion, I would like the Minister to say whether the Department keeps records on the number of defects and on dissatisfaction rates for individual house builders, so it can benchmark them and drive up quality. I would like him to say whether the Department recognises the need for more on-site inspections by independent organisations and individuals to achieve that. A minimum number of inspections would cover both the customer and warranty, say at two, five and 10 years, as argued by RIBA. The responsibility for constructing a defect-free home should rest with the house builder. Consumers need greater leverage—the under-supply in the housing market means that normal market forces do not come into play, as the house builder has the upper hand. We saw that recently with the issue of selling on leaseholds.

House builders must put purchasers at the heart of what they do. They should aspire to deliver a zero-defect construction, make consumers more aware of the construction and warranty process, and develop quicker forms of redress to solve disputes. The next inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group will look into the primary recommendation of our last report: that an ombudsman be set up. We will take evidence from across the sector, including from ombudsmen that currently exist, builders and failed consumers.

Some simplification of sales contracts should arguably be a priority, and those contracts should be standardised, so that people know what to expect and are not blind-sided by a smart operator. A buyer should potentially have the right to inspect a home before completion—consumers can have an MOT on a car but not on £230,000-worth of house. If snagging issues are found, repairs should be carried out prior to completion, preferably in a given time period. If after inspection the buyer or surveyor deems the property is not capable of occupation, the final financing should be delayed at the builder’s cost, which might speed the job up.

An easy win for builders would be to improve the transparency of the design, building and inspection process, and as part of the conveyancing for a new house, written information should be provided to enable buyers to take issue if what they purchase is materially different from what they are sold. That information could include a version of building regulations, designs, details of the warranty and who the builder is and how to contact them.

I would like to understand whether DCLG is working on a thorough review of the warranties that exist in the marketplace. Homebuyers have said that they may well be prepared to pay for the guarantee of a worthwhile warranty, rather than continuing in the somewhat opaque market that currently exists. Warranty providers are currently covered by the financial services ombudsman. We need to establish whether warranties are currently adequate and look into clear and transparent ways in which house builders can set out, at the time of conveyancing, what the warranty actually covers, to stop the misery of individual lives being wrecked by poor housing.

Solving these issues will see an increase in trust between house builder and homebuyer. We need to see houses of improved construction, and one way for that to happen is for house builders to ensure that their annual customer satisfaction surveys are more independent, with their being obliged to publish the number of reported defects, which may well focus them on building better houses. I offer the Minister the support of the all-party parliamentary group in ensuring that the homebuyer is the most important person in the system.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) on securing the debate. She made some excellent and knowledgeable points.

As we all know, anyone who wants to change the world has to get busy in their own little corner—and where better than in their own home? There is no better way of improving quality of life and changing the world we live in, particularly for our communities that we represent, than by improving the quality of the built environment that we spend most of our daily lives in.

The quality of the built environment is intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the local community. Land is a finite resource, and we should all recognise that the modern day built environment must be multifunctional, meeting society’s cultural, aesthetic and community health needs, as well as contributing to a vibrant local community. Access to green-space opportunities for biodiversity to flourish and sustainable urban design to manage environmental risks are no longer nice-to-haves—they are absolutely essential elements of our towns, villages and cities.

Achieving a high quality built environment requires good planning, imaginative design and, importantly, forward-thinking investment. However, it also requires a policy framework that not only encourages but expects local authorities and developers to take proper account of those essential elements in building for the future, in construction, design, management and planning.

All have the highest responsibility to deliver a quality built environment for communities. Our communities must be involved in planning and what affects their wellbeing. Community empowerment is a great vision, and it should mean just that. Empowerment is to have a say in the decision-making process—for communities to be their own architects of choice. In my own area of Falkirk, the communities of Denny and Dunipace were deeply involved in the decision-making process for a new town centre investment when I was a councillor in that community.

There were many difficult conversations, but we had them, and I think that our participation, as well as that of many other Scottish communities, helped the Scottish Government to introduce the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. That came into force this year and will benefit local organisations across Scotland to the tune of some £8.6 million of funding this year. That investment says everything about our values and our inspiration, and it means that communities are active—and developers now know that. That is extremely important.

Providing everyday access to the natural environment and working with natural features to manage risk, such as flooding or poor air quality, should be a requirement, not a choice. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention and have undertaken visits to various places—one as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and four to other villages and towns around the UK. Following the storms of December 2015 and January 2016, we spoke with community leaders and residents affected by flooding and reported the challenges that their communities faced and how those challenges were being tackled.

Differences between Scotland and England emerged during those visits. For example, it is worth highlighting that the Scottish planning system severely restricts development on floodplains, while the English system is more permissive. English planners often have little choice, as many of the country’s larger population centres are located on floodplains. If planning permission is granted for a development that later floods, local authorities in Scotland are legally accountable, while English ones are not. That is quite a staggering discovery.

Sustainable urban drainage systems—SUDS—are mandatory in Scotland. It should be remembered every time housing provision is considered that one in six homes is at risk of flooding, and up to £1 billion of flood damage is incurred every single year. Flooding, water quality, access to green space and biodiversity are all affected by the way homes and communities are planned and delivered. There is extensive evidence that demonstrates how healthy local environments drive healthier economies and healthier people, so in aspiring to solve one crisis, we have an opportunity to solve many more and deliver multiple benefits to communities, for little or no additional cost.

We have found that well-designed SUDS can be built affordably and without delay in nearly all kinds of developments, and can be retrofitted in established developments. Arguments for not developing SUDS on the basis of site constraints may be overstated; the range of options available means it is nearly always possible to incorporate some measures. SUDS are a cost-effective alternative to conventional drainage when included early in the planning process; the failure to consider SUDS from the very start of a development’s design is a significant barrier to their efficient delivery.

SUDS are enablers of climate resilience and support healthy and economically vibrant communities. The value of those benefits is considerable. However, because the benefits accrue to local communities and are not valued by conventional markets—as I think the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds was referring to earlier—with costs initially borne by one party, typically the developer, they require effective policies to correct the market externalities involved.

Our analysis, underpinned by the findings from a survey, provided some clear indications. First, at the majority of sites, the costs and, particularly, the benefits of implementing SUDS are not being assessed. Secondly, physical site constraints are frequently cited as reasons to opt out of delivering SUDS in new housing and commercial developments, when the range of options available means that that is commonly unjustified. Thirdly planning authorities in many areas do not have the capacity to properly judge the merits of applications, leading to more opt-outs than necessary on the grounds of price and practicality, as many go unchallenged. Fourthly, when SUDS have been delivered, they often miss opportunities to provide multiple benefits, as they follow the very narrow and non-statutory standards that presently exist. Fifthly, the adoption and future maintenance of SUDS are the greatest barriers to be resolved.

Scottish Water, Scotland’s sole water company, is legally required to adopt and maintain SUDS, and it has the legal right to block planning permission for developments if the local water supply or sewerage system is inadequate. As a statutory corporation, it can borrow money off the Scottish Government at lower interest rates than it would receive from commercial lenders. The water framework directive and the habitats directive have been transposed into Scots law, subject to sustainable flood management requirements; water bodies can be dredged or altered to manage flood risk. In England, those directives can prevent flood management work from being carried out.

Under the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009, flood risk is managed at a catchment scale. Co-operation is facilitated between local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Water and other stakeholders. Failure to consider the catchment-level flood risk impacts of new developments or flood risk management work was a hot topic in north Yorkshire when I visited earlier this year. Information sharing between organisations carrying out flood defence work and flood-related repairs to critical infrastructure was also criticised.

I sincerely hope that this debate will improve the quality of life and peace of mind that our communities deserve, with a high-quality built environment for them to live and work in. I hope the Minister takes into consideration the need for a SUDS appraisal to be made compulsory in delivering a quality built environment. I look forward to his reply.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) on securing the debate. She covered in great detail and with great aplomb the snagging problems that arise with individual homes.

I want to take us back a stage in the process. I do not want to see the built environment characterised by little boxes or rabbit hutches, nor do I want to see it characterised by little boxes and rabbit hutches that are badly built. In around 2011, I was one of those here who was responsible for introducing neighbourhood planning as a means of dealing with that. Neighbourhood planning has become very well known for giving communities a say over where housing should go, but it is less well known that they have the right also to comment on what those buildings should look like.

The reason we have a large number of rabbit hutches and little boxes is that house builders largely go about the building of their houses on their own, with no influence from the communities in which they operate. A great deal of influence from communities would be of great advantage to the people who will live in those houses and to the communities, because of the overall impression they create, as well as to the house builders, who would produce exactly what someone wants.

That deals a bit with the big picture stuff. I completely agree that there is still a need to get the details of the housing right, but I want to continue on that in my role as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary design and innovation group. That is particularly relevant to the points I made about the use of neighbourhood planning for people to decide what sort of houses they want to get involved with.

I was very pleased to see that the Design Council has produced a guide to neighbourhood planning. When a body such as the Design Council gets involved in neighbourhood planning, it represents a significant shift in the attitude of communities to taking advantage of the principles we set out in neighbourhood planning, to talk about and have influence over the design aspects of what they are trying to include in their neighbourhood plan. Having some influence on design and being able to participate in the design process is fundamental to the success of the neighbourhood planning process.

My hon. Friend is right to bring up the issue of design. Does he share my concern at how often new houses and new settlements are designed without any thought for disabled people who might live in those settlements? At the moment, an office block is being converted into a new community in my constituency. The local authority is not able to insist on disabled access in that office block because it is a conversion, which means the rules on disabled access do not apply.

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The conversion of buildings is largely permitted development, and therefore the community has no ability to get into that. I go back to my fundamental point, which is that the community’s involvement in the process at the beginning should take account of what will be required for disabled people. That should feed into the design parameters that should be being discussed with the house builders, to get the design of the house right.

I echo the Design Council’s comment that embedding good design in a neighbourhood plan is crucial. The sad thing is that very few neighbourhood plans include design. They are mostly concerned with where the housing should go, and they do not look at design. Even within my constituency, there is a community that forgot to look at design criteria when producing its neighbourhood plan. Later, when it tried to object to a particular design format being used for an area, it did not have anything to rely on to make that change. It is of no consequence to that community now that it missed the boat, but that serves as a good lesson for communities looking at producing a neighbourhood plan that they should include some design features.

Overall, I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds in her concentration on problems with individual houses, but I urge communities to go back one stage in the process. They need to include design in their neighbourhood plan and ensure they have really got to grips with what they want to see, so that they can influence the type and design of buildings from the outset.

I am going to call Justin Tomlinson next, but I will have to limit him to two minutes, so that I can call the Front-Bench spokespeople in good order.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I was initially only looking to intervene, so my contribution will be short.

I want to offer my total support for my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). I cannot think of a speech I have agreed with more than the one she made. I say that as someone who represents Swindon, which has been one of the fastest growing towns year on year for some time. I was a councillor for 10 years in Swindon and have been an MP for seven, so I have had 17 years of representing new build areas. My maiden speech was dedicated to this subject, and I brought forward a private Member’s Bill in the early days of my political career to offer some solutions—they were wholeheartedly rejected, but I had a go. I have had countless public meetings and an incredible amount of casework. There is clear frustration, anger and despair from the residents who have made their single biggest purchase and from myself, on behalf of the Government, because I am desperate to see us fulfil our commitment to 300,000 houses being built.

This poor, shoddy and shambolic work is all too often putting people off and, frankly, ripping people off. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds summed it up well with her reference to a kettle. It is a given with every other purchase that we are protected by trading standards and all the various Acts, but when it comes to our single biggest purchase, we are at others’ mercy. Members have rightly highlighted build quality and the excuse of a lack of skills. Why on earth do people sign houses off if they are not fit? Cars are another big purchase, and at Honda in my constituency, nothing leaves the factory unless it has been robustly tested. If there is a problem, which is rare, it is dealt with swiftly. That is not the case with houses.

There is frustration about change of plans. People buy houses based on the layout and the scheme proposed, but for a variety of reasons, that often changes, and people have no recourse. There is all too often a lack of maintenance of roads and open space, particularly, perhaps by coincidence, at the point that the final house is sold before the road is adopted. One of the tactics is—

It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I will try to be brief. I might pick up where the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) left off, with unadopted roads, which are a serious issue. My mother-in-law has spent many years fighting with her local council in an attempt to get her road adopted, and it is a real challenge if those things are not done as they should be.

In Scotland, we agree about the need for better guarantees for consumers. In general, we believe that the communities that we build and invest in today say everything about our values and aspirations as a country. In particular, community empowerment and people having a say in their local communities on how developments are built and the facilities that go in, along with housing on its own, are really important.

The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) made an excellent speech. I agree that it is entirely concerning that a kettle has more guarantees than the place that someone wants to stay in for the rest of their life with their family. The Government ought to be addressing that urgently. In thinking about what she was saying, I was reflecting on my own experience. When my parents moved into the house that I grew up in, they had to take up numerous snagging issues with the developer. Many of those issues were addressed. Further down the line, there was an issue with the roughcast falling off, and they had to go to the NHBC to get that dealt with, but even when it was a very simple thing, such as getting the cap on the cold tap fixed, they could not get that piece of snagging done, and eventually they had to deal with it by pinching one out of the show home, because they knew that the show home would be fixed. A very simple thing such as that proved to be very difficult to get fixed, and that just should not be the case—snagging issues should be dealt with. That was more than 30 years ago, so the problem has been around for a very long time and deserves to be addressed with great seriousness.

The hon. Lady raised issues about the ombudsman and the gaps that exist. People ought to have a very clear pathway. They should be able to say, “This is an issue. How do I get it fixed? If it’s not fixed, where do I go?” That is crucial.

The hon. Lady’s point about broadband and energy efficiency is very pertinent to my constituency, as residents in Toryglen have been missed in the various stages of broadband roll-out and infill later on. People move into smashing, brand-new houses, marketed as being close to the city centre and for young professionals, yet the broadband service that they get is wholly inadequate. Getting it retrofitted in those properties is proving hugely frustrating, both for the residents and for my office.

In a number of different areas, there need to be standards whereby quality can be assured. The hon. Lady mentioned modular developments. I have visited the factory of CCG, which is next to my constituency. It built the Commonwealth games village in Glasgow, along with many other developments. The Commonwealth games village in Dalmarnock was a mixed development of private homes for sale and homes for social rent. Residents had some issues with snagging and still do, but the fact of being able to guarantee the quality going out of the factory was important. CCG prides itself on producing a product that can be quality-assured before it leaves. It does a number of checks to ensure that what it is sending out of the factory is fit for purpose. The company is very innovative.

Looking at the wider context, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) talked about ensuring that the whole of a development is of good quality and is future-proofed in relation to flood risk. A SUDS scheme runs through the Commonwealth games development in Dalmarnock. That was an integral part of it. It would not have been built had that scheme not been part of the development—it was a requirement. Looking at things ahead of time in that way is best practice. What is the environment more broadly going to look like in a number of different years? How can people ensure that the house that they have bought and paid for will not be flooded? I would suggest that people can have more than just snagging problems when water is coming through their door.

The point made by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) about design quality is crucial. When people are building something, they want it to be theirs. When people are moving into a home, they want to have ownership of it, and not just in the sense of having the keys to the door. They want to feel that they are investing in something of good quality, and embedding good design is a hugely important part of that. The Scottish Government have a very useful place standard tool, which the hon. Gentleman may want to look at. It looks at all the different aspects not only of a house but of a whole development, to ensure that all the aspects of quality—the transport infrastructure, the roads, the facilities, and a walkable, liveable, safe and secure neighbourhood—are in place. The house should not just stand on its own as part of a wider development, but be connected to other things, so that people are not just building a house but having a home, and one that is in a community.

In Glasgow, the East Pollokshields charrette carried out a very interesting exercise in that regard. In my constituency, there is less new build and lots of existing properties, but where new build comes in, we want it to be integrated well into the community. There is a big gap site in East Pollokshields that is going to be developed, and they took the time to get money from the Scottish Government to have that charrette, which involves the whole community in the area coming together and seeing what the facilities are, what they would like to have in their area, what does not quite work and what the opportunities are for change. I very much recommend that wider approach both to the Government and to other hon. Members. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on all the excellent points that have been raised.

May I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)? She will have to go home blushing tonight, because she made an excellent speech and set out the terrain very well. Indeed, all the contributions had real merit in their different ways.

We know that we have a housing crisis in this country and that we have to build at levels not seen previously, but the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) is absolutely right: this is not just about houses; it is about people’s homes. It is about people’s homes in communities that are both safe and sustainable, and that means things such as flood prevention. The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) talked about building that in and, as far as we can, future-proofing.

The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) spoke about the need for facilities for people with disabilities. In fact, we should be building homes that can be retrofitted where appropriate, so that people can, if they choose to, spend their lives in those homes. The windy staircases of the past are simply not consistent with the future. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) also made very valid points on how we ought to move forward. I was attracted by the comments of the hon. Member for Henley about neighbourhood planning. Yes, we have to see design as a central part of the changes that we want to make.

One of the realities is that we have a serious infrastructure backlog that will prevent us from moving forward quickly. Building 300,000 new homes means an awful lot of construction workers. We have an ageing construction force in this country, and half the construction workers in the national capital are EU nationals. I know not where they will go post-Brexit, but there is a good chance that many will disappear. That will, if nothing else, create shortages in London and suck in construction workers from elsewhere. With those twin problems, we have to be serious about training the next generation of construction workers. They will not necessarily always be young people; they may be less than young people.

I say to the Minister that under this Government, we have seen the hollowing out of both planning and building control in our local authorities. That simply is not consistent with the demands that the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds has rightly made. We have to see the public weal protected, and in the end it is our local authorities that can do that best, if we are to make it meaningful. I will not repeat everything that the hon. Lady said about the housing surveys. I will simply repeat the point that we know that many people—a disproportionately high number—are dissatisfied with the homes that they get.

There is a house in my constituency that was referred to in the report by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. It is owned by Elizabeth and Stephen Watkins. The house was built in 1998, and they have been involved in a dispute ever since. It has never been lived in. It is a disgrace that there is no process for reconciliation. We must have not a nice, cosy, industry-led ombudsman, but an ombudsman process that has real teeth and the capacity to make a material difference. I have to agree again with the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds, because yes, that would be good for the private sector.

Grenfell Tower, we know, was retrofitted. We will probably have to do a serious retrofit to something like 27 million homes that already exist in Britain, but the work on Grenfell Tower was very recent. We have to ensure that there is an ombudsman capacity that has real teeth and can protect people, whether they are living in social housing, in owner-occupation or, very importantly, under private landlords. We know that private landlords will play a disproportionate part in the building of the future.

I will finish on a couple of issues. The hon. Member for Henley said that he does not want to see little boxes. We have to do something about the space standards. There is a consultation out, and I say to the Minister that we have to bring that to a conclusion. Secondly—this will be my concluding point—we know that we are not hitting our targets for moving to carbon neutrality by 2050. Probably 1 million homes in this country will be retrofitted to those carbon standards. The Committee on Climate Change said that it should be something like 4 million over the same period. I say to the Minister that the Government have now got to do an awful lot more.

Congratulations to the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds. This has been a great debate and it is an important one for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) on securing this vital debate on delivering quality in the built environment. I know that her contribution is based on first-hand experience, with her expertise in the sector. We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) made some very pertinent points, as did other Opposition Members.

The one thing we all recognise is that our country urgently needs many more homes. The Government are delivering them. There were 217,000 net additions in England last year alone. That is the biggest increase in housing supply for almost a decade. The housing supply package announced in the Budget takes the total financial support for housing up to at least £44 billion over the next five years. Alongside the planning reforms that were also announced, this package will enable us to deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average by the mid-2020s.

Just as important as building those homes is the need to ensure that they are of good quality, well designed and respond positively to their local context, as all hon. Members have agreed. We believe that we can build not only more homes, but better homes. This is something I care deeply about, which I emphasise every time I talk to representatives from the sector, particularly the large developers. There are some great examples of house builders who are making quality and design a priority, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds has said, too many new homes still fall short.

The all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, which my hon. Friend chairs, has led the charge. It is thanks to its work that we are taking forward many of the measures to bring about improvements.

My hon. Friend made reference to a number of statistics, but let me throw in another. According to the latest Home Builders Federation survey, 84% of new homebuyers would recommend their builder to a friend. That figure has fallen steadily from 90% over the last four years. That means that 16% of new homebuyers would not recommend their builder. That simply is not good enough and must change. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am committed to addressing that by putting the focus squarely on better quality and design at every stage: planning, design and construction.

Our housing White Paper launched in February this year set out our proposals to amend the national planning policy framework. We want to increase the emphasis on design and community engagement in local neighbourhood plans and other development plan documents. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley spoke with great clarity—he is a champion of neighbourhood planning, and it is right that design should be reflected at the neighbourhood planning stage. We want to strengthen the importance of early pre-application discussions with local communities about design and the types of homes being provided. We want to make it clear that design should not be used as a valid reason to object to development where it accords with clear design expectations set out in statutory plans. We also want to recognise the value of using a widely accepted design standard, such as Building for Life, which is from the Design Council, in shaping and addressing basic design principles.

To ensure we achieve those high standards in planning, we must ensure that the right skills are available. Last week, I announced a £25 million planning delivery fund, which will provide ambitious local planning authorities with funding, to ensure they have the skills, capacity and capability they need to deliver high-quality housing at scale. One of the streams of this funding is the design quality fund, which is all about increasing design skills in local authorities.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) talked about the Government hollowing out the planning system of the local planning authorities. I would just point out to him that I am grateful for the support of his party in our passing regulations to increase planning fees by 20% earlier today. That will have a positive impact for planning departments up and down the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds and other hon. Members raised the issue of skills. There is a commitment by the industry—we are encouraging it—to work to deliver another 45,000 skilled workers by 2019 through the Construction Industry Training Board. The Chancellor announced another £34 million for construction skills funding. On apprenticeships, I agree we should be looking to do more, but I have been pleased to visit sites up and down the country where apprentices are on site and being trained up.

On our work on design with the industry, early this year I launched a design quality symposium at the Royal Institute of British Architects. On Monday, the Secretary of State announced that in the spring we will be following that up with a national design conference to raise the bar even further.

Yesterday I launched a new modern methods of construction working group—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned modern methods of construction. The working group comprises key stakeholders from across the house building sector. It will be tasked with looking at issues such as the availability of finance, warranties and insurance to encourage people to consider using modern methods of construction, which will enable us to build good-quality homes more quickly.

On the core of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds, as well as championing better quality and design, the Government want to make it easier for people to get redress when things do go wrong, which her all-party group has rightly highlighted. Residents currently have to navigate four different redress providers to make a complaint. Research in other sectors has shown that redress works more efficiently for consumers when there is a single ombudsman. It is right that we explore the need to consolidate processes and look at the options to improve redress. Therefore, we will be consulting on the potential for a single housing ombudsman in the new year. I welcome the inquiry into the potential for a new homes ombudsman that the APPG for excellence in the built environment has announced, and which my hon. Friend referred to in her speech. I can assure her that we will consider the findings closely.

I have a few minutes left, so let me respond to a couple of other points. My hon. Friend talked about improving the redress scheme. We will look at that as part of the consultation in the new year. There was discussion about how independent the national house building guarantee is. She asked whether the Government keep records on the number of defects and the dissatisfaction rates. We do not but, as she pointed out, warranty provision and the handling of cases can be raised with the Financial Ombudsman Service.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) asked about inspection records. They are available for homeowners for building works that started after 1 April. Of course, we are committed to ensuring that the system performs to the best level that it can, and we will continue to assess that.

The hon. Member for Falkirk rightly raised the issue of flooding risk. The national planning policy framework sets out that flood risk areas can be built on only if they pass an exception test and no other areas can be built on. On the flood risk assessment process, there must be very clear consultation with bodies such as the Environment Agency.

In conclusion, we are taking action across all fronts to drive up not only quantity, but quality. We do not have to choose between the two, quite rightly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds said. I thank her and congratulate her on raising this issue and on the valuable work that she and her all-party group do.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered delivering quality in the built environment.

Sitting adjourned.