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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
14 March 2018
Volume 637

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 March 2018

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Foster Care

[Relevant document: First Report of the Education Committee, Fostering, HC 340.]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered foster care.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This subject is very dear to my heart, as I shall explain. The life chances of children in care—they are also referred to as looked-after children—are significantly lower than those of other children. That applies to their prospects of getting well-paid employment, their educational achievement and the chances of them being involved in the criminal justice system. Foster care is where 75% of children in care are looked after, so supporting foster-carers is essential to ensuring the best possible outcomes—the best life chances—for the majority of children in care. Ensuring that foster care is as positive an experience as possible, maximising its benefits and minimising its risks and downsides, and ensuring the best outcomes for looked-after children, must be a priority for anyone who is interested and for everyone in a position of authority with responsibility, be that in national Government or in local government.

The outcomes for looked-after children show just what a contrast there is. Let me take educational achievement at year 11. The Minister will be all too well aware of these figures. Some 18% of looked-after children achieved A* to C grades in English and maths, and 14% achieved five or more A* to C grades, including English and maths. The figures for children as a whole are 59% and 53%, so looked-after children’s achievement is something like one quarter to one third of other children’s. That on its own tells a story.

Children in care are around five times more likely than other children to find themselves convicted of an offence between the ages of 10 and 17. Former looked-after children have difficulty establishing and holding down good relationships later in life, many of them have mental health difficulties that continue right through their lives, and many find themselves with housing difficulties or homeless. In 2015, 39% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training. That figure is far too high for comfort. Given those figures, it is essential that we ensure that children in care and those who care for them receive the best possible support, so that as much as possible can be done to improve outcomes.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate on such an important topic. Although he is absolutely right to highlight those statistics, does he agree that we should also praise the work that foster-carers themselves do in seeking to provide a caring and loving environment, particularly when children’s services are under such pressure across the UK because of austerity?

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My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. I know many foster-carers, and I am sure that other Members here do too. The vast majority do exactly as he said: they provide an extremely supportive, loving and caring environment. They do their best to deliver the kinds of outcomes he mentioned, in the face of great difficulty, due, as he said, to the cuts forced upon local government. I have nothing but the highest regard for foster-carers and the work they do.

I know from personal experience—as many Members know, I have two adopted children—that when someone adopts, they are effectively a foster-carer for the period until the adoption goes through, with all the same rights, responsibilities, restrictions and interventions from the local authority and social workers that other foster-carers have. I know just how challenging that can be. During that period and since, I have met many foster-carers and seen just what a good job they do. I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. The question is how we ensure that foster-carers continue to get support, not least given the scale of the cuts. I shall develop that point.

One of the challenges is delivering permanence for young people in care to ensure that they receive a long-term settled placement that is right for them. The Government have placed enormous importance on children being adopted. As I said, I have two adopted children. It was decided that that was the best outcome for them. They have siblings who were not adopted, and for the vast majority of children who go into care, that is not the way forward. Foster care is often a long-term option. It is really important—there are many dear old friends in the Chamber with whom I have debated this over the years—that we see adoption, fostering, residential care or kinship care not as better, but as the right outcome for the individual child. It is incredibly important to restate that.

One of the challenges right now is ensuring that we do not lose sight of putting the individual child first. My hon. Friend mentioned austerity. We have seen cuts in early intervention of 55% since 2010. It is predicted that there will be a £2 billion shortfall in the children’s services budget by 2020. The number of children on child protection plans has risen by 83% since 2010. Social workers’ case loads are rising. Local authorities have reduced the number of social workers they employ directly and have become more reliant on agency workers, who are more expensive. Although budgets have fallen, spending on children’s services has actually increased, which means that money has been taken from elsewhere, including early intervention. Many in child protection, in children’s services more widely and in local government, say that we are at crisis point in terms of both the social impact and the economic situation.

Yesterday, I was with someone from Northamptonshire County Council who is responsible for children’s services. He has been told that he cannot spend on discretionary services at all, so he will not be able to increase the number of social workers. What does that mean for foster-carers? It means that when a child comes to live with a foster-carer, there is no prospect of money for clothes or anything other than the weekly allowance, not just in Northamptonshire but everywhere. Foster-carers therefore have to pay for absolutely everything, whether new clothes for a new arrival, a holiday or any kind of additional support for the children.

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I should declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on holding this unfashionable but important debate. He will be aware that funding of children’s services has increased, albeit in very challenging circumstances—particularly now—but there are huge differentials between experiences with different authorities. As a study by the all-party parliamentary group for children found, in one authority 166 children per 10,000 will be taken into care and, at the other end, at another authority the figure is 22 for every 10,000 children. There are similar big differentials for referrals to children’s services, child protection plans and so on. To what does he attribute the huge difference in experiences of vulnerable children in different authorities? It is not just based on funding pressures.

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That is probably more of a question for the Minister. The hon. Gentleman said that funding had gone up. It is true that spending has gone up, but funding from central Government for local authorities is significantly down, including in children’s services. Some local authorities have seen significant cuts and some have seen very few. That may have something to do with what he says.

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I do not want to stop my hon. Friend because he is making some incredibly important points, but there is also a clear issue about cuts to services other than children’s services, which are putting greater strain on local authorities. In areas of high deprivation, where all those services are under significant strain, the result is much worse outcomes for children. It is essential to look at the whole picture of what is happening to these children every day in their communities.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot ignore the effects of the wider local government and public service spending situation. Numerous organisations who provided briefings for the debate pointed out that if the support is not there for families, it is difficult for local authority children’s services departments to act in anything other than a reactive way, intervening only in a crisis. That is an expensive way to operate. If the services, social workers and local foster-carers are not available, outcomes are more expensive. In a demand-led service, a crisis is invariably more expensive and, in the areas of highest deprivation that my hon. Friend mentioned, it is more likely that intervention happens only in such a situation.

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My hon. Friend and I were in the same Home for Good seminar, which I chaired yesterday, on this subject. If we put the budget to one side for a minute, does he agree that what emerged from that seminar was an acknowledgment of the inconsistency of social worker support? If the social worker keeps changing and there is not continuity, the social worker will not know the person, their background and their problems and challenges. Is that not the real problem?

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Absolutely. It is well established that continuity and stability are vital to the long-term wellbeing and life chances of children in care. In foster care, that applies to the carer and also to social workers. One point made in the briefings is that there has not been continuity between social workers. A child and their foster-family need support from a social worker, but in far too many cases they rarely see one, either because there is not one there or because they keep changing. That is damaging, as my hon. Friend points out.

We have recently had two inquiries—the national fostering stocktake requested by the Government and the inquiry into fostering by the Education Committee— which have made several recommendations. I will not address them all them, but there is evidence—this also emerges from the briefings—that while overall there are enough foster-carers, there are regional disparities. There are also problems in providing foster-carers for some groups, whether those are ethnic minorities, sibling groups, children with special needs or disabled children, so a challenge is how we improve the number of foster- carers who have the specialisms and skills to look after children in those groups.

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I apologise for arriving slightly late for the debate. We had a roundtable on faith and fostering yesterday, and I hope to get a chance to contribute on that later. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the challenges is that people of religious backgrounds feel that that is perceived as a barrier to their genuine intention to offer a home for good for children who need it in fostering, and that we need to get over the idea that in some way having a faith is problematic?

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The answer is that in all cases the consideration must be what is in the best interests of the child. That has been my view for as long as I have looked at this.

Some of the briefings pointed out the need to recruit and retrain better, to deal with the shortages in the areas I touched on. To address that point, the stocktake and the Select Committee both recommended a national register of foster-carers. I also notice that the stocktake suggested that local authorities pool resources. There have been consortiums over many years, which I thought were part of doing just that.

On a national register, one of the challenges is that often needs are local. I think the Government have made the point that it is often desirable for children in care to be relatively close to home—although not in some cases of problems with their birth families—and a national register does not always address that. There are some real tensions around that recommendation.

The stocktake concluded that pay was not an issue. The feedback I have had is that that is totally untrue. Foster-carers have seen their allowances cut. I mentioned that there are not payments for additional support or for when a child arrives, and the money that foster-carers receive is not what it used to be and is under pressure. We must be wary about that and ensure that they are properly remunerated.

As to whether foster-carers should be regarded as professionals, I understand why the stocktake says they should not be—it does not want to take away from the fact that they are there to provide a family environment, and that is quite right. However, we also need to regard them as holding an incredibly highly skilled, professional role. There is a degree of professionalism, and it is wrong not to recognise foster-carers in that respect. There are, therefore, some tensions around what is being recommended.

The Government have not yet responded to either of the two reports. It is probably a little early to expect the Minister to respond today to all the issues in those reports, but I hope he will reply to some of the points raised in the debate. In reality, only 3% of children are adopted, and 75% of looked-after children are in foster care. The scale of cuts experienced by local government has clearly created challenges in providing the support and resources that are needed to look after children and improve the outcomes I mentioned earlier. Unless there is a step change in our approach, it will become harder to prevent children from entering care in the first place, and harder to provide support that puts families back together when that would be the best outcome for the child.

It is no coincidence that more children are in care than at any time since 1985. If those numbers are to reduce, the Government must intervene to ensure that local authorities, social workers, foster-carers, and everybody who is dedicated to supporting and improving the life chances of children who end up in our care system have the support they need to do the best for those children. Only the Government can take such action—the £2 billion figure is very significant, and I hope that the Minister will listen to Members from across the House who, I suspect, will raise similar points about the need to get this right.

I mentioned both social and economic effects. If it is not possible to do the best by a child, that is disastrous for that child, and also for their birth family, foster-carers, and others involved in their care. There is also, however, an economic cost, and perhaps the Minister—or another Member—will remind us just how expensive it is to provide lifetime support for someone who does not recover from the neglect and abuse that puts them into care in the first place.

I have not mentioned prisons, but a significant proportion of our prison population are people who were in care. We must act and intervene early, not late, if we are to address those concerns and support those children, and it is incredibly important for foster-carers and all those who assist them to have that support.

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I am grateful to you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to speak, and I repeat my apology. The late arrival of the Chubb security engineer detained me—unfortunately that is a feature of modern political life.

I want to share some of the findings from a roundtable that I chaired yesterday. It was arranged by the charity Home for Good, and attended by practitioners involved in all aspects of fostering. There were different representatives from different local authorities, including large authorities such as Lancashire County Council, and district councils such as West Berkshire Council. There were other charities that encourage fostering, private foster-caring organisations and—most importantly—some foster-parents.

The focus of the roundtable was the question of faith and fostering because, as I indicated earlier, a myth often abounds that people of faith are debarred from the opportunity to provide foster care. In reality, however, people often put themselves forward to be foster-carers precisely because of their faith and because their beliefs prompt them to open their home to those in need.

Other myths abound—for example, that it is not possible for a Christian foster-parent to foster a Muslim child. That is patently untrue. A Muslim child may have had an experience in their past that means that they wish precisely not to be fostered within their own religion, or the reverse could be true. As we know, the media have not done fostering a good service by sensationalising a particular case where there was an apparent mismatch between the faith background of the child and that of the family. However, that particular local authority has a good track record of going out of its way to try to provide good matches, and it shows remarkably good faith-literacy in trying to get the right answer for the child, with the child’s needs at the centre of that.

Some good points came out of the roundtable, including the need for greater faith-literacy in social work. I think it is increasingly accepted more readily in society that in order to understand different faiths and the differences between them, and the implications of that for the world we live in today, we all need to be more literate about other people’s faiths and indeed people of no faith. We must understand those things much better, and we will get better matching if we can do so.

I think we must also go out of our way to reach some minority ethnic potential foster-carer applicants, because in many cases they are even more fearful about the question of faith when it is raised. Tellingly, the director of Home for Good spoke about a “cool wall” that he has in his office, on which he pastes the first thoughts that come to mind among the social workers he interviews regarding people of different faiths. Intrinsically, people have an instinctive set of adjectives that they may apply to one faith or another, and depressingly, right across the piece, on the whole those adjectives were negative. That myth really needs to be dispelled. We are closing our minds to the opportunity presented by people of faith who are prompted to offer help in such a way.

When we were suddenly faced with large numbers of Syrian families who the Prime Minister had pledged to accommodate, there was an outpouring of offers from churches and others who wished to provide homes for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, or for whole Syrian families in order to keep siblings together. Sadly, however, it was difficult to capture the opportunity of that offer, and many of those who came forward to offer their homes temporarily, or for good, found that that was not followed through. In some cases, there was also anecdotal evidence of the view that said, “Well, they should put their names forward to offer their homes first to the existing large numbers of children in care who need a home.” The moment was missed, and I hope we can learn from that.

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The right hon. Lady and I both chaired parts of the seminars yesterday. Does she share my concern that, in addition to the very dramatic calls that come out of the Syrian crisis, we need a much better campaign to identify the right sort of people who would be good foster-carers, and ensure that they are networked and trained?

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I could not agree more. An important point that came out of the roundtable was that evidence must exist to help to support the fact that people of faith who offer their homes for good—for fostering—often prove to have greater “stickability”, and tend to stick with a child through thick and thin until they are launched into the world as an independent adult. I would like that evidence to be brought out in the open. It is collected; we know the data exists. There are data on the religious background of all the children in care, and of the foster-carers who come forward. It is about time that we used that evidence base to bust the myths.

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My right hon. Friend is making a good point. Interestingly, the crisis point when Syrian refugees came to this country resulted in an increase in the number of families offering themselves as foster-carers or adopters for the long term. On her point about people of faith, we must remember that the Children’s Society was the Church of England Children’s Society. Barnardo’s was built on religious foundations. The important question is which family can offer the best and most appropriate loving home to a child in need of fostering or adoption. The Government had to change the law on adoption because of the prejudice against people who happen not to be of the same cultural or faith background, which excluded children who could have had a perfectly good, stable home with those parents—but it was not allowed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question is not one of cultural matching, but one of cultural sensitivity to a child’s background?

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My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about this matter, makes an extremely valid point. The issue is about opening our minds, removing barriers and preconceptions about why people cannot foster, and looking at the best solution for the child.

I know that there is pressure on time, Mr Howarth, and I do not want to delay the Minister’s response to the debate, but I just want to finish by mentioning something by way of a case study. One of the foster-carers present at yesterday’s event spoke powerfully about the five children in her care. She is of white Caucasian background and is married to a Jamaican, and they foster some Muslim children, some children of Christian heritage and some of no faith. Things work well in her household, which has proved a good match for those children. I think that challenges all of us to be more open-minded about opportunities to increase the number of foster-carers.

Another important point is that often people of faith are in communities of faith. When parents in a church community, for example, come forward to offer their home as a home for good, there is a tendency for others in that church community to be prompted to think, “Could I do that? If they can, I should be able to.” Before long, two or three families in the communities are fostering. The amazing advantage is that they support each other in the community, and the children feel more comfortable because they find others in their position. I encourage the Minister to help with that aspect, which was missed in the stocktake. Perhaps it is a little unfair to say that the official from the Department for Education who attended the round table pledged to bring the point back to the Department. I sincerely hope that when, as it will have to, the Department responds to the two reports—this is why the debate is so timely—the point about faith and fostering will not be missed.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, it may not be fashionable, but it is critical. I could not agree more with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) about the role of faith in fostering. The placement must be right for, and meet the needs of, the child. That means we must pay attention to the things that matter to the children who enter the care system.

I want to begin by asking why so many children are being taken into care in the first place. The Minister will be aware that I worked with children and young people for some time before I entered Parliament. I have never known the situation for children and families in this country to be as desperate as it is currently. We should be deeply concerned about the fact that the number of children in care is, as Barnardo’s says, at its highest point since the mid-1980s. The number of children entering the care system has increased every year for nine years. In the first six years of the coalition and Conservative Governments, the number of children subject to a child protection plan went up by 29%. The Minister will be aware that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services identified a £2 billion funding gap, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central mentioned, between the demand for children’s services and the available resources. Often when I have conversations with social workers they tell me that they are unable to take children into care when they think they need to, because of the resources available. That suggests that the situation is even starker than the figures lead us to understand.

The ADCS is clear about the reasons for what is happening. It has laid the blame squarely at the door of the coalition austerity policies that have continued under the present Government. It has blamed long delays for universal credit, and I recognise that issue from my constituency, which was a pilot area. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham shakes his head, but I spent Friday sitting with representatives of charities, primary school teachers, police and clergy in one of the poorest areas of my constituency, and some of those people were in tears because in 19 years of working with children in that community they have never known a situation so bad: it is to do with policies such as the two-child limit on benefits and the housing benefit cuts. In my area in particular the bedroom tax has been devastating. We never had the smaller properties, but we had big family homes; they were built on purpose because they were better for families. We placed families in them, and suddenly told them, “You can’t pay your rent, and it is your own fault.” The impact on those families has been devastating. There is usually nowhere to move to apart from the private rented sector, and we do not have a huge private rented sector, so many people are stuck in their accommodation accruing arrears and worrying every day how they will pay the bills and feed their children.

The situation has an impact on the profession, too. There are currently 5,540 child and family social work vacancies. That means that 13% of the children’s social work workforce is missing. Is it any wonder, then, that there are issues of continuity of care and support for children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has mentioned? During the time in question, support outside children’s services has been stripped away; 600 youth centres have closed in four years; there has been a huge loss of Sure Start and children’s centres across the country. The upshot is stark. As the ADCS found in a report last year, children in the poorest areas are 10 times more likely to be put on a child protection plan or be subject to care proceedings than those in the wealthiest areas. It is an absolute disgrace.

While I sat with frontline workers in my constituency on Friday trying to work through with them how better to support families in crisis, representatives of the secondary school—the academy—were absent. There were police at the meeting to raise concerns about the welfare of particular children. The academy tells me that it has not expelled them, but it has given them managed transfers outside the school—presumably because of the impact of some of the children on results. From 2010 onwards, many of the Members present for the debate have been coming to debates and Select Committees warning Ministers that if the children’s service workforce is fragmented—if that family of professionals who used to hang on to children and families in times of crisis is broken up—the result will be what is happening now. We see it in our communities; we see the impact on children.

I want to focus on what happens to children when they go into care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central has said, there has been a lot of focus on adoption in recent years. I do not criticise the Government at all for wanting to look closely at what happens in adoption, and to make sure that the children for whom it is right get placements quickly—that they do not miss out and find that there are no suitable families to take them. However, as my hon. Friend said, the vast majority of children in the care system are fostered. There was a lot of anxiety, in the years when it seemed that the Government were interested only in adoption services, about the lack of attention being paid to pressing problems in fostering. That is why the fostering stocktake was greeted with such enthusiasm by the sector, but it would be wrong not to explain to the Minister the real sense of anger and frustration about the fostering stocktake and its inability to deliver on the promise it made.

Before I talk a little bit about some of the problems that have emerged with that report, I will say that one area in which it is particularly strong—knowing Martin Narey as I have for many years, I am not surprised by that—is the positive role that care can play in children’s lives. He is absolutely right to highlight in the report the fact that it is not primarily the fault of the care system that children often leave care with such poor educational outcomes. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central cited the figures on young people from the care system who get into trouble with the law or end up in prison.

In the vast majority of cases, the care system does a tremendous job in supporting and enabling children to go on and live better lives than they would otherwise have done. We cannot expect the care system to compensate entirely for every single thing that happens to children before they come into care. In fact, to see the most successful examples of children who have left care, we must look to the children themselves, their ambitions and aspirations, and the support we package around that, rather than telling them how to do it.

The concern about the fostering stocktake centres on a number of key areas. There is a real sense that it is dismissive of the shortage of foster-carers and therefore the numbers who are placed outside care. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is not that there are not enough foster-carers in the country, but that there is not enough spare capacity, so that when a child in one particular area needs a foster-placement that is available in that area. As a consequence, we are still seeing far too many children moved outside their area, stranded a long way from school, family members and friends.

In all the time I worked with children and young people, what stayed with me most was that the thing that sustains them through the hardest time in their life—being taken away from family and forced to confront a whole new life unfolding ahead of them—is relationships. Sustaining those relationships ought to be a primary goal of public policy for these children, because friends and family are their top priority. It cannot be right that, at the moment when they feel they have lost everything, they also lose the trusted aunt, the best friend or the teacher who cared.

The fostering stocktake does not pay anywhere near enough attention to that issue, or to the fact that one third of foster-carers are now being referred to look after children who lack any prior knowledge about them and whose needs are outside their approved scope, as the Fostering Network reminded me this morning. The stocktake does not reflect the real hardship that many foster-carers have to endure in order to care for children. The Minister will be aware of the “State of the Nation’s Foster Care” report that the Fostering Network undertakes every two years. The most recent one was published in 2016. Some 2,500 foster-carers were consulted and 42% of them said that their allowances covered the costs. That left 58% of foster-carers who had to dig into their own pockets to cover the full cost of foster care.

To me, that seems to be nonsense. It matters to all of us that we get this right for children. We should not be saying to those children or the people who step up to care for them that they have to suffer hardship to do it. There is an issue with staying put, which the Minister may be aware of; one third of foster-carers who did not continue with placements said it was down to financial hardship. He will know of the huge battle that many of us in this House fought to get that on the agenda. We were led by my right hon. Friend, the late Paul Goggins, who did such tremendous work for children. The former children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, rightly took that issue up and said, “We have to do right by these children; we have to make sure they have the same level of stability as we would expect in any other family.” The truth is that it is not working, and the reason is the level of allowances that are paid, or sometimes not paid at all, to those foster-carers.

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I agree with almost every word that my hon. Friend says, but what comes out of both reports is the amateur basis on which we have run fostering for a long time. We do not have a national register or a national training system, and getting the balance between fostering as a calling and as a profession has not been addressed.

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As always, I have reason to thank my hon. Friend, because he brings me nicely and neatly on to my final concern, which I think is shared by many outside this place, about the fostering stocktake. The sense of professionalism that many foster-carers feel about the work they do is not adequately reflected in the report. I would really like to hear from the Minister a response to the concern that, while foster-carers foster out of compassion, love and a sense of duty to step up and care for some of the most vulnerable children in the country at a moment of crisis, foster-carers’ rights and children’s rights are pitted against each other in this report.

That is the problem with the report. In all the foster situations that I have had the privilege to witness or deal with over the last 20 years, I can tell the Minister that the needs and the rights of foster-carers and the children they care for go hand in hand. They are integral to each other. I would be grateful if he said something about the professionalism with which foster-carers conduct themselves, and the need for a formal structure around fostering.

What has disappointed me most of all about the fostering stocktake, and about Government policy in recent years, is that the voice of the child does not seem to be present in either. When we talk to children, as the Minister will know, they tell us that stability, security and preserving those relationships are central to them.

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The hon. Lady makes a very persuasive point. I do not know whether she has read this book, but if colleagues have not done so, I was profoundly moved by reading “My Name is Leon”, which was turned into a film. It is told from the perspective of a child aged nine in the system. It certainly altered my understanding of what it feels like for them. The risk aversion that is built into the way we try to get it right for the children can end up causing incredible heartache for the child—the one we are most trying to help.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I have read that book. Before I came to this place I worked for the Children’s Society, and before that I worked for Centrepoint with young homeless teenagers. Almost on a daily basis, when I worked in those roles, speaking to children and young people surprised me. They said very different things about their own ambitions and aspirations, the way they perceived injustice and what mattered to them from what we had assumed, sitting in an office 200 miles away.

The absence of the child’s voice from the fostering stocktake is really quite serious. I would be grateful if the Minister, when he responds to the debate, said something about how the Department is making efforts to ensure that children’s voices are heard as the Government responds to the fostering stocktake. In all the time I worked with children and young people, the need for stability and security and to preserve those relationships was at the heart of what they felt mattered.

I will never forget sitting with a nine-year-old child who shook with anger, who did not want to talk to me or anyone in the room about her own experiences. The former Children’s Commissioner had set up the meeting with children and young people so they could talk to us about their experiences of care. After a while, the child said, “Well, why should I talk to you? Who are you?” She was right; why should she? She said, “And how long are you sticking around?” I asked her, “Have you had a lot of people in your life?” She had had six social workers in three years.

I say to the Minister that we must take that seriously for children, and one of the reasons we are totally unable to get to grips with it is the austerity policies this Government are pursuing, which are causing havoc in communities such as mine. I appreciate that he is the Minister for Schools—the Minister for Children and Families has to be at the Select Committee on Education and therefore, disappointingly, cannot be here—so this is slightly outside of his natural remit. However, he must see the impact of this on children every day when he talks to teachers and teaching assistants in his own schools. I say to him what one of the teaching assistants said to me on Friday: the biggest threat to family life in this country now is this Government. That has to be taken seriously.

I want to ask the Minister a particular question about stability for children. I am not sure whether he can answer it, but if not, I would appreciate it if he wrote to me. As he knows, there was a Westminster Hall debate before Christmas, in which the Government committed to ensuring that foster-children were covered by the 30-hours childcare pledge. That was extremely welcome, but the then Minister for children was, unfortunately, sacked in the reshuffle a few weeks later. I wrote to his successor, who kindly wrote back and said that the Government were still progressing those plans to ensure that foster-children were covered by the 30-hours pledge. However, his letter caused me some concern, because he wrote that the Government were developing plans to

“allow access to extended entitlement where foster parents are working outside of their fostering responsibilities.”

I would really like to know what happens if a child already has the 30-hours entitlement and therefore has a place at a nursery or other childcare setting, then goes into foster care where the foster-carer is not working. If the child were to lose that place as a consequence of going into foster care, it would cause all the damage that is done, as I have explained, when children lose not only their families, but their friends and everything that is familiar to them. I would also be grateful if the Minister clarified whether those plans are developing at sufficient speed, so that families will be able to access them by this September.

I am aware, Mr Howarth, that I have taken up a great deal of time, and I apologise to other Members for doing so, but I feel that this debate, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central, is absolutely central to a group of people in this country who do not have a voice. They do not have the right to vote and they are not normally heard in this place. However, they have every bit of ambition, optimism, energy, creativity and commitment to the future that each of us have—in fact, in my experience, they have more. Sadly, at the moment, we are lacking a plan that matches that. We have to do better.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I have been moved by some of the significant speeches across this Chamber. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech. I thank him for reflecting on his experience both as a foster-carer and an adopter. As someone who is adopted, I would like to personally say thank you, because the value of adopting is huge and I would not be here today without it.

There are many reasons why a child enters the foster care system—abuse, neglect, abandonment, incarceration and death or illness in the family, to name a few. Sometimes it is just because parents cannot cope. In short, children are placed into care because their family is in crisis. Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution on the path to building a safe and stable family. Children deserve to be raised in a home with kindness, with their needs met and with stability. It is also vital that we recognise and pay tribute to the role played by carers, whether that be in foster care or in care homes, on a professional or part-time basis, purely because they want to do better for children in our society and to provide secure, stable and nurturing homes for those children, without which many children’s lives would be a whole lot worse.

I appreciate that this morning’s debate is about care in England, but I also want to mention the progress being made in Scotland. Most children do not care which Government are doing best; they just care about being looked after properly, having the same life opportunities and feeling equally appreciated. As we heard, in January, the Education Committee published a report, which stated that there should be a complete root and branch review of the care system in England. The report made a number of recommendations to the Government. For example, foster-carers should be paid at least a national minimum allowance; that is a no-brainer. A national college should be established, working across England to improve working conditions for carers. Foster-carers should be provided with a resource for training support and given a national voice and representation—absolutely. A national recruitment campaign should be launched. There should be a free childcare entitlement for children in foster care. Any decent society would consider those the bare minimum standards.

While the Committee report is wholly focused on England, it also calls on the UK Government to undertake many of the actions that are already happening in Scotland, and highlights and references the work done by the Scottish Government, which I will now expand on. The Scottish National party Scottish Government are working hard to improve the conditions and life prospects for children in the care system. They are currently undertaking an independent root and branch review of the care system, and examining the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the care for our young people. It will be driven and shaped by young people themselves. We heard earlier how important it is to hear the voices of young people. The Scottish Government are committed to having a conversation during the next two years with 1,000 people who have experienced care, to inform improvements to the system.

Here are a few of the things we have committed to. First, all young people who have experienced care in Scotland will be entitled to full university bursaries, and those who fulfil the minimum entry requirements will have a guaranteed place. By 2021, we want looked-after children to be just as likely to be in college, training or a job as other children—quite rightly. In addition, a new improvement programme is to be launched, which will bring together services responsible for looked-after children, young people and care leavers, to test ways to raise the average age at which a young person leaves care. Not only that, but £10 million is being provided to local authorities to ensure that kinship care allowances are raised to the same level as allowances for foster care.

In November 2015, the Scottish Government published their looked-after children and young people strategy, which builds on existing improvements in care and calls on the sector to accelerate progress. The strategy’s priorities are to support families early, to prevent children becoming looked after—as we heard, those numbers have sky-rocketed in the last 30 years—to help children to have a safe, secure and nurturing permanent home, and to ensure that every child receives the best care and support.

I am proud to say that in Scotland we are seeing real progress. School exclusions are down and the number in permanent—rather than temporary—placements is up. However, we know that more still needs to be done and we cannot ignore the reality for children in care. Why? Sadly, the statistics are still horrifying and should horrify everyone in this Chamber. Of young people who have been in care, only 6% go to university and almost half will suffer mental health issues. One in two of the adult prison population lived in care when they were growing up—one in two. Lastly—I think this is the most horrific statistic of all—a young person who has been in care is 20 times more likely to be dead by the time they are 25 than a young person who has not. Let us pause for a few seconds to take that in. Many of us will have children or nieces and nephews. All of you have been children yourselves. Think about what is being said.

I would like to put it on record for the first time that I am truly grateful and thankful for the love, care and support that I got from those individuals who allowed me to call them by their first names, as I experienced both foster care and care in a home—Uncle Eddie, Uncle Pete, Aunt Nan and Aunt Lynn. I have to say to Auntie Rhona, who used to look after my hair, well, it didn’t work in the long run. I have never spoken about this publicly before, because often it is like an indelible mark, a stain of shame that we keep to ourselves, and that I find it difficult to speak about today, but I am proud to be able to stand here today and not be silent on the matter. I speak for the many thousands out there who are yet to have their voices heard.

I am one of the lucky ones. I know, from someone who has been touch with me over the years, that others have not been so lucky, and fulfil more than half of the shocking statistics I have just outlined. Sadly, as I have said, we carry this dirty little secret. It profoundly affects our relationships at home and with each other outside, our experiences and our life opportunities for the rest of our lives. So it goes without saying that the Education Committee’s report is hugely valuable and all its recommendations should be taken on board. An independent, root and branch review is vital to ensure that we get it right for every child across these islands. What is being done in Scotland is a huge step in the right direction. We should not play party politics on this. This is for all of us to get right.

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

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing this debate. His practical experience and knowledge of fostering made for a formidable opening speech. I pay tribute to all other Members who have contributed, especially the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who it is a pleasure to follow. We are honoured that you shared your story with us today.

Since 2010 we have seen an exponential rise in the number of children coming into care. There are now 72,000—the highest since the 1980s. There is a wealth of evidence that the Government’s forced austerity measures are driving that increase. With the stream of referrals coming into children’s services departments leading to 90 young people entering the care system in England every single day, the implications for fostering are clear. That is why so many of us were keen to see the long-awaited fostering report, which was first announced in 2016 and released this February. Sadly, for some of us, that keenness quickly waned. Today I will focus on that report.

The report has received more criticism than praise, and is viewed by many as lacking vision about transforming the dire state of fostering in England. It makes assumptions based on opinion, not evidence. It makes a number of unqualified, sweeping generalisations. In my view, our children and foster-carers deserve better.

It is essential that there are enough foster-carers to meet demand. At present, there simply are not. The pitiful pay given to foster-carers, leading to some of them making the painful decision that they cannot continue in that role, coupled with the Education Committee’s findings that identified the Government’s lack of efforts in the recruitment of new foster-carers, suggest that we are on a trajectory where there will not be enough homes for the children who need them.

Foster-carers are deeply committed to every single child in their care. So it was disappointing to see that the stocktake claims that carers are not routinely underpaid, and that they are paid adequately. That is simply wrong. We know that a quarter of carers receive the equivalent of less than £1.70 an hour, based on a notional 40-hour week, and 90% of our foster-carers do not receive the national living wage. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who chairs the Education Committee, summed up its findings by saying that,

“it is clear that too many are not adequately supported, neither financially nor professionally, in the vital work that they do.”

Should it not be an embarrassment for the Minister and the Government that they are presiding over a situation where foster-carers, who provide an excellent standard of care day in, day out, report that they are struggling to support not only themselves but the children who are entrusted to their care?

Carers who are struggling are also being offered golden hellos from independent fostering agencies to leave the local authorities they work with. Those agencies then charge local authorities higher rates. The undercutting by independent fostering agencies is a pattern that has been identified by many social workers and the Conservative vice-chair of the Local Government Association. Yet, the review denies the existence of such a practice, claiming that the reverse is happening—that councils are poaching foster-carers from independent agencies. That bizarre claim is based on nothing other than the authors’ perception. I really hope that the Minister will look closely at the regulation of commercial fostering agencies, as the Labour party has.

I, with others, was aghast when I saw in the report a raft of recommendations that would require primary legislative change. The report recommended that carers be given prominence over the day-to-day decisions regarding children in their care—prominence over birth parents, even when the children are in voluntary accommodation. That is at complete odds with the current legislation on parental responsibility and is simply wrong. The report’s authors do not seem to realise that there is already provision in legislation to take account of parental disagreement.

A deeply worrying recommendation, based on very little evidence, was also made that local authorities should scrap independent reviewing officers. IROs are a fundamental part of the care system. They were created to protect the rights of vulnerable children in care, to advocate for them and to ensure that their needs are met. Without IROs, a child who is unhappy or—worse—being abused in their placement, could literally have nobody at all to turn to. Imagine being that child, who has been removed from a place of harm into a placement where that harm endures, when there is nobody to tell about it and no escape. I am sure the Minister agrees that removing such safeguards would be at the Government’s peril, and that judicial consequences will certainly follow.

In the report there is also a fixation on legal status. It claims that the priority must be to convert more fostering placements into permanent arrangements. Apart from the obvious fact that an emphasis on legal status, rather than a child’s individual needs, is at odds with good practice, it completely ignores the availability and benefits of other options, such as long-term foster care. Every single child in the care arena is completely different and has different needs. That is why there are a number of options for care. Decisions should always be made on a child-by-child basis. The cynic in me cannot help think that the authors’ predilection for adoption or special guardianship is a cost-cutting exercise. Once permanence in those forms is achieved, the state no longer has a duty towards those children or their carers.

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I am glad that my hon. Friend raises the point about the cost element of recommending adoption and special guardianship orders rather than long-term fostering. That particularly applies for those aged 18 and above. In my speech I did not mention Staying Put or the fact that the funding for it is lower than for foster care. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a big mistake and a big impediment to ensuring that children who go into foster care are given the long-term permanence of being part of a family?

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It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I completely agree. I am also a keen advocate of extending Staying Put to children in residential care. It cannot be right that there is a two-tier system where some children are treated differently simply because of their placement.

The recommendation is also symptomatic of the Government’s obsession with adoption as the gold standard, to the detriment of all other forms of care. We need a consistent, overall strategy for children in care under this current Government. Rather than seeing the holistic picture and attempting to address issues when they first arise, their piecemeal approach has led to separate and unaligned strategies around early intervention, children in need of help or protection, fostering and adoption.

Can the Minister confirm that he will robustly refute those recommendations? I respectfully remind him that full adoption comes with the severance of birth ties. He knows as well as I do that that is not always right for those children in long-term foster care who enjoy continued contact with their birth families throughout placement.

The report deeply disappointed again when it came to contact. It stated that the well-established presumption in favour of contact was removed by the Children and Families Act 2014. It was not. The presumption remains as enshrined in the Children Act 1989. I again make a plea to the Government for parity in legislation between the rights that children have to contact with their parents when in care and those that they have for contact with their siblings. As passionately explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), relationships matter deeply to children in care.

I hope that the Minister will reject the recommendation that local authorities should not presume that siblings are best placed together. I acknowledge that it is not always appropriate, which is why the law states that siblings should be placed together as far as is “reasonably practicable”. This proposal, as with the false assertions about contact, is completely at odds with well-established practice and law, which is built on robust evidence.

The majority of organisations, charities, foster-carers and social workers are not only deeply concerned about some of the recommendations in the review, but disgusted by its shoddy nature. It makes assertions backed up with no evidence and at times contradicts existing research and evidence, which are coupled with an absence of children’s voices and a lack of understanding of the relevant legislation and policy in this field. Can the Minister advise when his counterpart will formally respond to the report, and will he pass on the request that, in doing so, he very seriously takes into account what has been said today and these misgivings, and ensures that our foster-carers and children are, once and for all, given the respect that they deserve?

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Before I call the Minister, I remind him of the convention that the motion’s proposer has a short time to respond at the end of the debate.

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Thank you for the reminder, Mr Howarth. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this important debate and on a very powerful and informed opening speech. There have also been powerful speeches from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), and a moving speech by the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law).

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the Government’s plans for foster care. The hon. Member for Sefton Central has taken an interest in the independent review of fostering from the outset, and he discussed its purpose and remit with the Department’s officials. I am glad we can revisit some of those concerns now the review has concluded.

In his excellent opening speech, the hon. Gentleman made an important point about educational outcomes for children in care, which is something that I, as Schools Minister, care deeply about. Of children in care, 17.5% achieved A to C grades in their English and maths GCSEs, compared with 58.8% of other children. The average attainment 8 score for children in care stands at about 22.8, compared with 48.1 for other children.

Alongside the independent review of fostering that the Department commissioned, the Education Committee conducted an inquiry into fostering. My hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families is discussing the reports’ findings with the Committee at this very moment—obviously the right hand arranged that meeting, while the left hand arranged the timing of this debate. We are considering the recommendations set out in the independent review alongside those made by the Education Committee. I will set out the Government’s plan for a formal response to both reports, which we will publish in spring.

We recognise that not everyone will agree with the conclusions of the independent review, or of the Education Committee, but importantly, we have an opportunity to work together to improve the foster care system and to better support looked-after children and foster- parents. We cannot do that alone: not all the reports’ recommendations are for central Government. It is important that we work with local authorities, independent fostering agencies, foster-parents and, of course, young people themselves, as we develop and deliver the Government’s response.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central raised the issue of local government funding. He will be aware that the 2015 spending review made more than £200 billion available to local authorities for local services, including children’s services, up to 2019-20—the end of the spending review period. The Government will also provide additional council tax flexibilities in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Funding for children’s services is an un-ring-fenced part of the wider local government finance settlement, which gives local authorities the flexibility to focus on locally determined priorities and their statutory responsibilities. Local authorities have used that flexibility to increase spending on children’s and young people’s services to around £9.2 billion in 2015-16.

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I appreciate that the Minister is not in his usual role. I asked the Minister for Children and Families a question yesterday that he was unable to answer, so I hope the Minister will be able to today. How does his Department square the circle with regard to local authority funding, when every other service that has an impact on children’s social care is being cut and completely depleted? Social work is a holistic profession; it relies on other services that are being stripped away, day by day, under this Government.

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As I said, the spending review made more than £200 billion available to local authorities for local services throughout the review period. In addition, we have introduced greater flexibilities for local authorities to raise additional funds.

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The Minister gets out and about in the country, but has he been to children’s services in places such as Kirklees? In my time in Parliament, I have never seen such a crisis. We are in a ghastly situation where, because there is no money in local authorities—largely because of the time, money and resource that they are putting into care—money and resource is being taken away from our children, from child protection and from the fostering service. That is the truth, whether we like it or not.

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The truth is that we have made £200 billion available for local authorities in the period up to 2019-20, as part of a balanced approach to public spending, to ensure we have a strong and stable economy that is delivering the lowest level of unemployment for more than 40 years. The Government have had to take difficult decisions in the last seven or eight years, but it is an important area of Government spending.

Our ambitions for children and young people, when they are being looked after and afterwards, are the same as for any other child. We want them to fulfil their educational potential, have good health and wellbeing, build and maintain lasting relationships, and participate positively in society. Of looked-after children, 74% are in foster care. Fostering provides stability, a safe and loving home and an alternative family environment. Children and young people in foster care have made it clear that they want to feel part of a family and have a normal life.

One of the essential messages from the “Foster Care in England” report is that foster care is working for many vulnerable children and young people. That needs to be celebrated. Research tells us that, for many children in foster care, the experience can be positive and life-changing. Coram’s “Our Lives, Our Care” survey found that, in 2017, 83% of 11 to 18-year-olds living in care thought their life was getting better. Research from the Rees Centre showed that stable, high-quality care can be a protective factor educationally, and children and young people in foster care perform better at school than looked-after children as a whole, and better than children in need.

The “Foster Care in England” report draws on the evidence of children and young people, foster-carers, social workers, fostering organisations and academics to set out a broad programme of possible improvements. It is clear from both reports, and from today’s debate, that we could and should do more to improve children’s experiences of foster care.

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In the writing of those two reports, how many young people did we have conversations with, listen to or take constructive feedback from on the reports’ conclusions?

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Young people were consulted, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on the precise number involved in the consultation.

Although there are areas of disagreement, there are three common themes. First, we need to ensure that enough high-quality fostering placements are available in the right place at the right time to meet the needs of children in the care system. Secondly, we need to ensure that foster-parents receive the support and respect they need and deserve for the incredibly valuable role that they play in looking after children in care. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure that children and young people are listened to, that their wishes and feelings are taken into account, and that they are involved in decisions about their lives.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central also raised the issue of adoption. Stability and permanence are transformative for many children. For some children, long-term foster care will be the right choice. It is one of a range of options that includes adoptions and special guardianship, as he mentioned. The independent review asks the Department to put permanence at the heart of policy making, and we agree that that is the right thing to do.

Foster-parents play a vital role in supporting some of our most vulnerable children. They are essential for achieving high ambitions for the children in their care. They are uniquely placed to recognise the child’s needs and to respond to them appropriately. However, some foster-parents feel frustrated by the treatment they receive. We need to ensure that all foster-parents receive the support and respect they need for the incredibly valuable role that they play. The two fostering reports are clear that foster-parents are the experts in the children they look after and should be recognised as such. The statutory framework sets out that foster-parents should be listened to and included in decisions about the child’s care, but the evidence suggests that that does not always happen.

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I am not sure whether I heard the Minister correctly. Did he say that the Department puts permanence at the heart of everything it does? Does that not deny the wishes of children who want to go into residential care, long-term foster care or other forms of care? Why is the Department riding roughshod over the views of some children?

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That is not what I implied by what I said, which was that permanence was at the heart of policy making. Of course the views and rights of children are paramount in all the decisions that are made. The best interests of children will drive decision making for them.

We need to consider how foster-parents can be better supported so that they feel valued and empowered to parent the children in their care. For example, the independent review highlighted the need for greater delegation of day-to-day decision making. We will explore with the sector how we can improve guidance and practice.

Government policy is very clear that no foster-parent should be out of pocket because they are looking after a child. The Government set the national minimum allowance, and we are clear that we expect all foster-parents to receive at least that sum, but we need a better understanding of the national picture on remuneration. We will consider financial support alongside the wider package of support to ensure that foster-parents can continue to fulfil their valuable role.

The hon. Member for Sefton Central mentioned the professionalism and expertise of foster-parents. He is right that they should be treated professionally. He also mentioned the proposal for a national register of foster-carers. We are considering that recommendation. It is clear from both reports that more strategic sufficiency planning would help to secure better matches for more children. Some form of register may help to improve referrals, because it is hard to get a real-time picture of foster-parent availability. It is essential that we do not lose the insight from social workers in individual cases or the personal interactions in making placements.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden raised the faith background of foster-parents. The Government welcome anyone of any religion or ethnicity who comes forward to foster, provided that they meet the needs of children. However, she is right to raise the issue. We have heard and noted her concerns about faith literacy. We will consider how training can be improved for social workers and foster-parents in faith literacy and other matters. There are a number of misunderstandings about fostering in general, including about who can foster. The Government’s response to the reports will provide an opportunity to address the issues that she rightly raises.

The hon. Member for Wigan raised the issue of foster-carers’ 30 hours of free childcare. The child’s best interests have to be the paramount consideration. We are working with local authorities, and where childcare is in the child’s best interests, we expect it to continue even if they move to another placement. The hon. Lady also expressed concern about the high number of placements out of area. At the end of March 2017, 60% of children in foster care had been placed inside their council boundary and 80% within 20 miles of their home. However, the national availability of foster-carers does not always reflect local need. Local authorities have a duty to ensure the availability of foster-parents. The Government are working out how we can support councils to fulfil that duty.

The hon. Lady also raised the important issue of the voice of the child. The survey of children and young people by the Children’s Commissioner heard how important it was for young people to feel listened to and to have a greater role in decisions made about their lives. Several said that they felt that they did not have a say in anything and found that foster-carers and social workers dominated decisions about their placement. It is clear that the whole system needs to be better at listening and responding to the views of children and young people in its care. We are determined that children and young people have opportunities to contribute to the development of the Government’s response to the two fostering reports, so they are being supported by external organisations who have the necessary expertise.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sefton Central for this opportunity to continue debating the important issue of fostering. The independent review, the Education Committee and the many organisations and people who have contributed to the reports have given us a real opportunity to develop policy further and make a sustained change to the outcomes of children in care. The points raised today continue our important debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. As we develop our future work programme on fostering, we will continue to listen and work with all those who have an interest—not least young people themselves.

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I am listening to the Minister with great interest, but I am astonished and appalled that he has not once mentioned the work done in Scotland, which has devolved responsibility in the matter. Is this not a perfect opportunity for Administrations to learn from each other’s experiences and draw the best conclusions? He has not even referred to the Scottish Government’s good works that I spoke about or the reports that we have been doing north of the border. Judging from what he says, the idea of our working as a family of nations has clearly been totally disregarded. Will he please address it now and say that he will consider it and take it forward?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We will do just that.

Let me make a final point in the time available. The Government’s priority is that any changes must make a positive difference to the lives of the 53,000 children and young people who live in foster-families, and to the lives of foster-parents. We are committed to ensuring that vulnerable children have access to the best possible care to help them to thrive and prepare them for adulthood.

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I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this excellent debate. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) made an excellent speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), as ever, brought huge insight to the debate, combining passion and authority and making some brilliant points. I also thank hon. Members who made interventions. I especially thank the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for having the bravery to tell his story. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for her speech too.

The Minister ended his speech by saying that the Government want to make a difference to the lives of all children in care. He made many very good points and accepted the arguments that have been made today, but that is only part of the story. I thank him for congratulating me on what he called my excellent opening speech, but if he is really serious about thanking me, he should use his influence in the Department to ensure that the Government play their part in supporting foster-carers, social workers and children’s services departments to reverse recent developments such as the 83% increase in children on child protection plans and the fact that the number of children in care is at its highest since 1985.

It is no good taking money away from early years and cutting early intervention by 55% and local authority spending by 49%, as this Government have done since 2010, without expecting an impact on children’s services, child protection and the number of children in care. By the way, it is no good cutting support for the police service without expecting an impact either—our police service in Merseyside has had the biggest cut of all. The Government have cut £233 million of funding to my local authority since 2010 and we face severe pressures in children’s services. It is a cut, not an increase. The Minister kept saying that there was an increase in the local government funding settlement in 2015, but there has not been an increase in the funding to local authorities under this Government since 2010.

The Minister is right that there are many wonderful foster-carers out there. There are many children who are given every possible chance when they go into foster care in this country, and who are provided with the love and support that they need and have every right to expect. But the Minister needs to listen to those children, to their foster-carers, to the professionals who have lobbied for this debate and to those who gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiry and the stocktake. It is short-sighted and short-termist to do anything less than ensure that intervention is possible. It is failing the children and young people who need all our support.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Electric Dog Collars

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It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

The recent announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—

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Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman intended to move the motion, and say that this House has considered the use, sale and distribution of electric dog collars.

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That is exactly what I wanted to say. I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use, sale and distribution of electric dog collars.

Thank you, Mr Howarth. Can you tell that this is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured? It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.

As I was saying, the recent announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, proposing Government action to ban electric shock collars for cats and dogs, is very welcome. Members will be aware that I have been lobbying colleagues across the Chamber to support the campaign to outlaw the use, sale and distribution of these barbaric devices. However, there is a big difference between banning the use of shock collars and stopping their sale and distribution altogether.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a subject that I know he feels passionate about. However, can he confirm in his opening remarks that what he is proposing to ban is the shock collar that is used by humans when training dogs, rather than the collars that dogs wear that warn them when they are close to a boundary fence? Those collars serve a good purpose and even save dogs’ lives if there are busy roads or other dangers beyond the fence.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Having had numerous discussions with the Dogs Trust, as well as meeting the Secretary of State, I know that there is a difference. He is absolutely right that shock collars are controlled by humans and, depending on the device, they can control how long a shock is administered for, and those collars can even be used as devices of torture. The advice that I have had from the Dogs Trust is that although we do not like anything that administers a shock, when it comes to these boundary fences the dog itself is in control. Technically, therefore, the dog can administer the shock.

The concern with those collars for boundary fences is that if dogs were to cross the boundary fence, would they be nervous about coming back again, because they know that there is a shock coming? However, my understanding is that a ban on those collars is not being considered, because as far as the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and others are concerned, the dog is in control and not a human. Although they are not ideal, they are still better than an electric shock collar.

One of the key planks of my campaign has been around the sale—

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I thank my hon. Friend very much for giving way in this important debate. What is his opinion on sonic collars, because they have a different function but should also probably be banned?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the things that I have learned throughout this whole campaign is the range of different devices that are available. Across the world, there are hundreds of different devices using different techniques, whether that is vibrations or shocks, to administer some form of treatment for a behaviour that is unwanted. Therefore, the consultation that has been announced is very broad, which is why I encourage Members here, as well as members of the public and all sorts of organisations and charities, to make their views known on exactly this issue and these kinds of devices.

I welcome the swift action that has been taken in Wales to ban the use of electric shock collars and I also welcome the intention of the Scottish Government to change guidance for prosecutors. However, we all know that banning the sale and distribution of these items across the UK requires action in this Parliament.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward and on supporting the Secretary of State in his endeavour. However, he has just touched on a point about the extent of this sort of legislation. In Northern Ireland, we currently do not have a democratic institution that could pass a legislative consent motion, for example. I am interested in hearing his views as to whether this process should extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I invite the Minister to confirm whether that will be the case.

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I wish to make it clear that if we are to tackle the issue of electric shock collars and properly ban their use, it has to happen right across our United Kingdom, and only this Parliament can stop the sale and distribution of these collars. We can prohibit their use, but if we really want to eradicate them, banning their sale and distribution is key. And I hope that the Minister will pick up on the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. A number of other Members and I applied for a similar debate, but he had better dice than us in the selection. However, it is important to recognise that he has widespread support across this House and across parties for the points that he is making. I wonder whether he would agree to ask the Minister, in the gentlest terms possible, to explain why the whole matter of the sale of these devices has been left out of the consultation that was announced this week, and to encourage the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to include the sale in that consultation.

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I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right that we have had cross-party support on this issue. I am glad that the Government are taking action, because right across the Chamber and regardless of party colour, there is real support for action on this issue. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is very timely—

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rose—

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I will take another intervention, but first I will respond to the intervention from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I was about to discuss what has been suggested regarding the consultation since it was launched at the weekend—namely, that the Government are not seeking to ban the sale of these devices. My understanding is that that is wrong, because the consultation document itself says that the consultation is seeking views and calling for evidence on the sale of electric shock dog collars, as well as views and evidence on their use. I will quote the consultation document directly, which says that the Government

“want to hear views about what these proposals will mean for the sale and retailers of e-collars and whether any further restrictions will be required”.

I have made it clear from the outset that I would only ever welcome a Government proposal for a ban if it applied to the sale as well as the use of these devices. So, yes, I ask the Minister to confirm that it is the intention of the Government to seek a ban that covers the sale and use of these devices, and I call on those colleagues who are just as passionate as I am about banning their sale to submit their views to the consultation. In fact, I hope that all animal lovers will take the opportunity to engage in the upcoming consultation and make their feelings clear.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I am also grateful to him for securing this very important debate. My parents have been training dogs—working dogs—for the best part of 30 years, and they have never felt the need to use these barbaric devices. My parents are good trainers and understand dogs very well. Does my hon. Friend agree with the recommendation from the Kennel Club that a ban should be rolled out across the country?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he highlights is some of the anecdotal evidence that has come through this campaign from people who are dog behaviourists and trainers, and who have seen the effects of the use of shock collars and how detrimental they can be. I absolutely agree with him, and with the Kennel Club recommendations, that whatever we do must happen right across the country.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dog advisory welfare, I have been inundated by people contacting me from right across the United Kingdom to give their support for this campaign. I wanted to let him know about that. Also, given his passion for this subject, I wanted to ask him to consider joining the all-party group and working collaboratively on this issue and other issues, such as Lucy’s law.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is absolutely right that there has been huge support from the public on this issue, and no doubt many of our inboxes are filled with emails about it from constituents and from others right across the country who care just as much as we do about animal welfare and driving up animal welfare standards. I congratulate her on all the work that she has done with the all-party group. I would be absolutely delighted to join it and support it in any work that it is seeking to do, because she is right that dog welfare does not just end with banning shock collars; there is an awful lot more to do, and introducing Lucy’s law is absolutely one of those things.

In the run-up to this debate, members of the public were invited to post and share their views about banning shock collars on the House of Commons Facebook page. The response to that invitation has been quite amazing and the comments are still coming in, so I thank everyone who took the time to share their thoughts. The majority of respondents believe that shock collars are not necessary to train dogs, and I will share with Members a couple of the comments. Deb said:

“There is no justification for training animals using pain, rather than reward and building trust. It is not only cruel. It risks creating behavioural issues in the short or long term that could be a risk to humans. Ban the shock collars. It’s overdue.”

Karen said:

“They need to be banned. It is a cruel and inhumane form of torture and abuse. If it isn’t suitable to use on your human child then it shouldn’t be suitable to use on a pet.”

Bill said:

“If you love your dog why would you want to give them an electric shock? Why not spend time with them training them?”

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate to us today. As he has just touched on, persuasion is always better than aversion. What we have is a sentient dog that is potentially living in fear, not knowing where the next shock is coming from. We must stop that cruelty as soon as we can. We must bring the ban forward and expand it, rather than just rolling on endlessly, given the time it takes to get through these things through Parliament.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All the evidence from experts in dog training shows that when an electric shock is administered, the dog does not understand why it has received that shock. When using these collars, owners have to be incredibly precise with the timing, otherwise it can result in even more detrimental behaviour, rather than correcting the behaviour someone is seeking to change. I will come on to that, because there is worrying anecdotal evidence about cases in which people have got that wrong and what that means for the welfare of the dog.

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My hon. Friend will agree that for generations, guide dogs, sheepdogs, hearing dogs, police dogs, mountain rescue dogs and, indeed, domestic pets have been trained very successfully without the barbaric use of electric collars. Does he agree that the vast majority of the British public would aim for one outcome: a ban on the use of such collars and, equally importantly, a ban on the sale of the devices in the United Kingdom?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are many different positive, reward-based training techniques out there to train our dogs. Guide dogs are one of the greatest examples. People do not have to electrocute guide dogs to get them to carry out the marvellous, wonderful things they do. I experienced it for myself when I went out in my constituency blindfolded and with a guide dog. They are incredibly intelligent and they save people’s lives. People do not need to electrocute them to do so. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are going to do this properly, we need to ban the sale and use of these devices.

Since launching the campaign, many people have been astonished that these so-called training devices are still so prevalent when there have been significant advances in positive, reward-based training. I recently met the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust with the Secretary of State, and we made that case forcefully. The Secretary of State was struck that such devices of torture are still available. Although I welcome the announcement of a consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it is clear that the campaign cannot and should not end there. We need to continue to make the argument that someone does not have to own a pet to understand that an electric shock collar is cruel and unnecessary. They are openly marketed and sold as training aids, and they work by instilling in the animal a fear of punishment.

When fitted, shock collars deliver an electric shock either through a remote control or an automatic trigger such as a dog’s bark. The punishment can last for up to 11 seconds. In some devices, the punishment can last as long as the owner holds down the button on the remote. The theory is that having received a shock the dog is more likely to do what it is asked, rather than that coming from a natural willingness to obey. Research commissioned by DEFRA showed that one in four dogs subjected to shock collars showed signs of stress compared with less than 5% who were trained by more positive methods. It was found that one third of dogs yelped when they felt a shock, and a further quarter yelped again when the punishment was repeated. The research also found that even when used by professionals, there were still long-term impacts on dog welfare.

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My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I congratulate him not only on securing this debate, but on the campaign he has been running so successfully over the past weeks and months. To declare an interest, I was lucky enough to prosecute animal cruelty cases at the Bar and to work for some time in the animal sphere with regards to the law. In that context, I came across and worked with a lot of animal behaviour experts. Perhaps he will discuss this in due course, but does he agree that canine behaviour is incredibly complex? That has become apparent to me. He has painted a vivid picture of the distress caused to animals by these barbaric devices, but in addition, does he agree that they simply do not work? They are counterproductive, given the complexity of dog behaviour and dog society.

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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. His intervention comes at a timely point. He talked about his experience prosecuting animal cruelty cases. He mentioned how it can be complicated to time when the shocks should be given. The dog might not understand, and that can create unwanted behaviour. When I met the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust, they raised that very concern. Owners of the devices often do not get the timing right, and that leads to unwanted behaviour.

There is a dangerous dogs case that is cited. Ostarra Langridge was prosecuted in 2001 when one of her dogs attacked and killed another dog while on a walk. A control order was imposed on Miss Langridge’s dog because of its aggressive behaviour, which was attributable to the effects of the shock collar. Miss Langridge sought the help of a behaviourist when her dogs started to run away from her on their walks along the beach. The dogs were given shock collars, which Miss Langridge was told to keep on for three months and activate whenever they misbehaved, but the first time the dogs got a shock was by mistake, after a small dog they were walking past made Miss Langridge jump. From then on her pets associated the shocks with small dogs and became afraid of them. When Miss Langridge described the day in July that her dogs turned on a shih tzu, she had tears in her eyes. She stated:

“They connected the pain of the electric shock with little dogs because of the first time I used the collar. The day that machine came in this house I regret.”

There should be no place for this type of outdated practice, particularly given the recent advances in positive, reward-based training. In my view, it is not enough to simply tighten up regulations. We need to outlaw these devices altogether as soon as possible.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) on securing this debate on the use, sale and distribution of e-collars. As he pointed out, this is a timely debate, given the Government’s announcement only three days ago that we are seeking views on a ban on the use of e-collars in England. A public consultation provides people with the opportunity to express their views on the use of e-collars. They have until 27 April to respond to the consultation, which can be found via the gov.uk website.

I begin by commending the campaigning work that my hon. Friend has done recently on this issue. He has raised it many times and has met the Secretary of State to discuss it. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the long-standing work in this area by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). As long ago as 2014, he introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to ban e-collars. He has been a long-standing campaigner on these issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South pointed out, many people are opposed to the use of e-collars for dogs and cats. That opposition includes many of the animal welfare and veterinary organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association.

While we have signalled through the consultation our intention to act and introduce legislation, it is important to remember that in the meantime it is already an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal. The maximum penalty is currently six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. We have already announced that we will increase the maximum penalty to five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both. If anyone considers that someone has caused an animal unnecessary suffering by the use of an e-collar, they should report it to the relevant local authority, which has powers to investigate such allegations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Alternatively, they can report it to the RSPCA, which will also investigate.

The Government previously considered that e-collars should be used only as a last resort, when more conventional forms of positive reward training had failed. We also encouraged owners of such devices to read and follow the manufacturers’ instructions. However, we suspect that people are taking shortcuts, thinking that an e-collar might save them money in the long run, as they would not have to commit to a series of training courses for their dog. We think it is wrong for people to conclude that a simple hand-held device that emits a static pulse is all they need to correct their dog’s behaviour. As veterinarians, behaviourists, trainers and welfare organisations all tell us, it is not that simple.

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Can the Minister be clear on whether the Government intend to review the legislation relating to the sale of such devices? He said that the consultation is about their use in England, but as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and others have made clear, there is great public concern about the sale of such devices. Failing to act on their sale may undermine attempts to curb their use. Can the Minister be clear whether the current consultation includes that issue, and if it does not, will he commit to reviewing it in the future?

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I was going to come to that later, because it was one the key points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South. The point is that the consultation leaves open that option; we are suggesting a ban on use, but we also invite views on whether that would be sufficient, or whether we should consider a wider ban. I will say a little more on that later, but first I want to describe some of the context.

In 2014, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funded research on the use of e-collars on dogs. I stress that that research was restricted to remote hand-held devices, rather than containment fences for both cats and dogs. The research concluded that e-collars have a detrimental effect on the welfare of dogs in some cases. People need to be aware that an e-collar is by no means an easy answer to a problem. Indeed, using an e-collar may have a long-term, detrimental effect on the welfare of a beloved pet. In such circumstances, an owner could be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, leaving themselves open to prosecution.

At the time of the 2014 research—I was in the Department at the time—the Government stopped short of recommending an outright ban, for a number of reasons. Given that we were approaching a general election—frankly, since then we have all had lots of enjoyable referendums and elections that have distracted us from our duty in this place—we decided that it would be quicker to include some references in the updated dog welfare code. I pressed for that in 2015 with officials, having had representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, and those additions went into the updated dog welfare code that is currently under consideration. However, if we want it to be enforceable, and if we want clarity in the law, the Government are currently of the view that going a step further and simply banning the devices would probably give that clarity.

The difficulty with having codes that say that such devices should be used as a last resort, or that include comments that basically strengthen a presumption against the use of negative training devices, is that there is always a difficulty with enforcement. That is why, notwithstanding the position that we took then, now that we have a clear run in Parliament to address such issues without the constant distraction of forthcoming elections, it is right that we have a consultation and call for evidence, and consider going further.

As we make clear in the consultation, we want to promote the positive training of dogs. We do not consider that dogs should be subject to negative forms of training, particularly when positive methods can have such beneficial effects. There are some very good trainers out there whom people can approach about the behaviour of their dogs, and who are used to all sorts of challenges with regard to disobedient dogs. We want owners to use positive training methods as much as possible.

I have heard many arguments about individual experiences of using e-collars. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South outlined some of the anecdotes that he has received. I have heard anecdotes on both sides. There are often-quoted reactions to e-collars, such as people using the hand-held devices at the strongest setting on the first use. Another example that we have had drawn to our attention relates to containment fences. When dogs chase something beyond the boundary line, they are often too scared to return. I have also heard stories of dogs that might not be alive today were it not for e-collars, particularly when it comes to those boundary fences. The consultation provides supporters of e-collars and opponents of such devices an opportunity to express their views on the issue.

Turning to some of the specific points that have been made, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South referred to the sale of the devices. I can confirm that the consultation is open to evidence on that. We have made a specific proposal on banning the use of e-collars, because that is the approach that has been taken successfully in Wales and other countries such as Denmark and Germany. I was not intending to dwell on EU law in this debate, because obviously we have lots of debates on that in this place. However, there are potentially complexities and difficulties, partly linked to single market legislation, that could make it more difficult for us to introduce a ban on sale while we are a member of the European Union. Nevertheless, in our call for evidence and in our consultation we remain open to representations on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) raised the specific issue of sonic collars. I can confirm that the proposal covers all such electronic devices—not just shock collars, but those that emit noxious liquids or painful sonic signals. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) referred to his impatience to get on with it. As somebody who has been quite sympathetic to taking further action in this area since 2014, I can tell him that patience is a virtue in this House. The reality is that if we want to introduce a ban of this nature, the first step has to be a consultation and a genuine debate and discussion, giving people the opportunity to express their views. I am afraid we cannot introduce a ban without getting to the point of legislation. I hope that he will recognise that the Government have acted in this area. We have made it clear that we are publishing a consultation and inviting views, which is the crucial first step to making progress in this area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) made a very important point, which in my mind goes to the heart of the debate. He talked about the complexity of canine behaviour, and the fact that dogs can associate the shock with something else in their immediate environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South gave the anecdote of dogs that associated the shock with the first time that they received it, and with small dogs that were in the vicinity. I always remember my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, at the time of his ten-minute rule Bill, giving a powerful case of a dog that had associated the shock with small children, because the shock collar had been used when children were in the area. It is clearly very damaging to confuse dogs and cause them to have concerns about small children. That could have completely unintended consequences from which we cannot row back.

In conclusion, we have had a very interesting debate, with lots of important interventions.

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I asked a specific question about the extent of proposals. Can the Minister confirm that he will look carefully and kindly on the idea of the legislation, if it is introduced, extending across the entire United Kingdom?

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Yes. I may have given the impression that I was avoiding the point that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. The consultation is specifically for England because it is a devolved matter at the moment. Wales introduced a similar ban—I think as long ago as 2010, from memory. I understand that the Scottish Government are consulting on something similar. Our consultation addresses England, but I am conscious of the particular issue that we have in Northern Ireland at the moment, without an Administration in place. I will happily consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but I hope that he will understand that we would not want to violate the devolved settlement that we have on the issue of animal welfare.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Women and Work

[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered women and work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. May I address you as Sir David? What is your preference?

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You can. My friends don’t have to, but I think they should.

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Thank you for that clarification.

Women make up half the population but, for many years, less than half the workforce. The key to female empowerment is economic independence, which is what this debate is about.

Hon. Members will know that it is only comparatively recently that women were accepted in the workplace. When I was growing up, my mum was unusual, because she worked outside the home as a GP. I had to let myself into the house when I came back from school and make my own meals, which forced me to become independent from an early age. I learned great life skills, including how to make a quick, nutritious meal for my sister and myself, as well as how to climb over garden fences and through bedroom windows when I lost my door key, which happened quite regularly. I hasten to add—I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to know—that that is not a skill I have used regularly since that time.

We women have made great strides in society from the days when it was completely normal to say that a woman’s place was in the home, or we had to give up our careers when we became pregnant, or we were forced out due to attitudes and outdated policies or the unwelcoming culture of the workplace. In my very first job after university, in a large high street bank, I was the only woman recruited into my job role, at the age of 22. I remember when I was called into the top boss’s office and was asked what they should write in a maternity policy if I became pregnant. They had never had a female employee in that role, let alone anyone with a baby. How times have changed. Those incidents date me of course, but they also illustrate how things have changed in just four short decades.

Women cannot achieve their potential in society, in the workplace or in the family without independent resources of their own. That is why women and work is a critically important subject and why I have called this debate. I pay tribute to the progress made under previous Governments of all colours to open up the workplace to women. It has been a long journey. Although I accept that there is always more that we can do, I will touch on a few key themes and highlight the major progress that this Conservative Government have made.

As Conservatives, we believe in helping everyone, male or female, achieve their potential. I am proud of the progress that we have made since 2010. Some 15.1 million women in the UK aged 16 and over were working in December 2017, which is 1.48 million higher than a decade ago. That represents a record high employment rate of 70.8%, and results in the smallest gap between male and female employment rates, of just under nine percentage points, since comparable records began in 1971. As we would probably expect given that it is still the norm for women to take on the bulk of caring responsibilities in the family, women are more likely than men to be working part time, but I note that, since 2014, the growth in full-time employment for women has outpaced that of men.

Why does this matter? There is a massive evidence base that diverse teams that include men and women equally perform better. This is not just about doing something to benefit women. It is about action that benefits men and the whole of society. The evidence is overwhelming. Study after study, report after report, demonstrate beyond all doubt that diverse teams overcome groupthink, problem-solve more effectively and build better teams.

What have the Government done to encourage women into the workplace? One critical factor is being able to work flexibly or to stay in work when the alternative would be to give up work, which is very good news for individual employees and their employers, and good news for the economy. Under the Conservatives, I welcome the fact that working patterns are becoming increasingly flexible.

In the three months to August 2016, 23.2 million people were working full time—362,000 more than a year earlier. There were 8.6 million people working part time—198,000 more than a year earlier. Based on 2011 data, around 60% of employees had done some form of flexible working in the previous year, up from 56% in 2006. There is no doubt that the extension of the right to request flexible working has doubled the number of employees who are able to make a request, to more than 20 million. The former business Department—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—estimated that that would lead to a further 80,000 requests a year, which has led to 60,000 new working arrangements a year.

Let us pause for a moment to consider what that means in a woman’s life. It means that a woman is able to have control over her work-life balance and take on the responsibilities she may face, whether that is caring for children or for elderly relatives, yet still contribute to the workplace without being discriminated against.

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I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to secure this important debate and I am pleased to be here. I agree that having women in the workplace is not just good for women. It is also good for men. I pay personal tribute to the fact that my hon. Friend embodies that maxim through her contributions to parliamentary business. She touched elegantly on her personal experience and mentioned her mother. In terms of what drew her into having a working career, was there a particular role model? Does she think that role models in general are a critical factor in bringing women into the workplace?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that well-considered question. He touches on the reason I requested this debate. I have a number of personal role models, the greatest of whom is my sadly departed mother-in-law, Margaret Maclean. She was a fantastic example of a woman who started her own business—not even from the kitchen table, but from the downstairs toilet. Many times we have been in her toilet packing up boxes of books for her book distribution business. I learned the value of hard work and never having a day off. I recognise that she did that and raised her three children, one of whom is still my husband, I am pleased to say.

We have seen in the Government’s recent industrial strategy that they are committed to continue to work with businesses to make flexible working a reality for all employees across Britain and to inform the evaluation of the right to request flexible working regulations. We all know that some barriers remain to requesting flexible working. I worked in businesses for 25 years before I entered the House and I know that there are barriers for women. It is only by making overwhelming change in the culture of business and society that it will become the norm to request and to grant flexible working to women and men with caring responsibilities. It is really good news for women when forward-thinking businesses are able to have a dialogue with their staff and accommodate the reality of our lives. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) said, men also benefit from that, along with the whole family.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that apprenticeships are a very good way of allowing women and girls to achieve, progress and reach their full potential in the workforce by working flexibly? I declare an interest as chair of the apprenticeship diversity champions network.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because it draws attention to the statistics on women and apprenticeships. Women account for the majority of apprenticeship starts in recent years—53.4% in 2016-17 and 52.8% in 2015-16. That has risen year on year under this Government, and is no doubt a tribute to the work that she is doing in championing diversity and apprenticeships in the workplace. I thank her very much for that.

Having women in the workplace is very good news for men and the culture of businesses as a whole because it encourages a more dynamic, progressive and modern workplace. When the Minister responds, will he touch on the uptake of shared parental leave, which is a fantastic policy supported by this Government and previous Governments? What more can the Government do to encourage more employers to take it up? I am sure hon. Members will agree that it is very important.

I believe that women are natural entrepreneurs, so a debate on women in work would not be complete without a celebration of our tenacity and business acumen. This is a subject close to my heart, because I have spent the past 25 years running my own business. I have battled issues that I am sure we have all faced, including mansplaining and hepeating, which is a new one—obviously, hon. Members in this Chamber are not guilty of those sins—juggling my family and my work, losing my income when my business went bust, and all the highs and devastating lows that came with that journey.

Groups of women, such as the mumpreneurs and others, are increasingly using technological tools to make a living for themselves and to set their own agenda. The latest statistics indicate that there are now 1.2 million women-led small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, which contribute an estimated £110 billion to the economy. The Government are getting behind those women with a range of realistic measures designed to help them. Government-backed start-up loans are one of the ways we are helping women to realise their talents, create jobs and boost the local and national economies, but there is more to do. Only 5.7% of women were involved in starting or running a new business last year—half the rate of men. I think that is a shame, and the Women’s Business Council agrees. If women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 1 million more female entrepreneurs.

I am therefore pleased that the Government have recognised the urgency of this mission. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has responded to calls from across the world of business and politics to investigate the funding gap, which women face when they try to access capital. According to the Entrepreneurs Network, men are 86% more likely to be funded by venture capital and 56% more likely to secure angel investment than women. A new study by the Federation of Small Businesses shows that one quarter of female small business owners said that the ability to access traditional funding channels is a key challenge. Many are therefore forced to rely on alternative sources for growth, such as crowdfunding, personal cash and credit.

I have personal experience of that. Before I entered Parliament, I worked for a tech start-up, and I saw for myself the barriers that women in that sector face. There is a massive disparity between men and women in that industry, which is a huge shame because women have so much potential to offer. Statistics indicate that one in eight women want to launch their own business in the UK. I agree with my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary, who said that helping more women access the capital they need presents

“a massive economic opportunity to the UK”.

That opportunity is currently untapped. I therefore look forward to seeing the results of the landmark study announced by the Treasury of the female funding gap. I hope that important lessons are learned, and that the Government do everything in their power to tackle this important issue.

The third key issue I wish to raise is that of returners, which relates to women who find it difficult to interact with the workplace. The group is loosely called returners, but it includes a lot of different women at different stages of their life. Taking a career break can often mean the end of a career or put barriers in the way of progression. I had four children and four periods of maternity leave, so I know how difficult it is to re-enter the world of work after the stress and exhaustion of having a baby. It is a joyful time, but as any new mum will say, coming back to work is hard. They have to contend with not just the sleep deprivation but the challenges of keeping up with new developments in the workplace and in technology, and of course juggling childcare. That is why I am pleased that the Government acknowledge that issue and are leading the way on it.

I hear evidence of large companies such as AXA getting on board. There are many others, but I have singled out AXA because I read the evidence that it recently gave to the Treasury Committee. It has instigated flexible working, maternity buddying and maternity coaching to ease the transition back into the workplace. Such practices should become the norm, not the exception. By constantly talking about the importance of such issues in this place, I hope we send out the signal that the world of work has changed and will change in the future. A woman can be just as effective working from home, with a managed team and open and honest communication with her team.

When I recruited staff for very senior management positions in the business I ran, I never hesitated to recruit mothers, women with children, or even dads who wanted to work part time or school hours. That is unusual in many businesses, but I knew that they would be perfectly able to manage by using technology and virtual methods of communication to overcome the barriers of not being present. They do not need to sit at a desk to be effective. I knew that, although they were not physically present every moment of the day, their brains would be working on business problems, even while they were taking care of their children, doing the school run, preparing meals or doing the laundry. If you want anything doing, ask a busy person—especially a mother or a father who is up against a deadline to collect a child. I guarantee they will get the job done.

The Government are supporting hard-working women and businesses in this country. I welcome the fact that in the 2017 spring Budget the Government committed £5 million to support people who would like to return to paid work after spending time caring for others. That funding will help to unlock the potential and benefits of work for those individuals, employers and the economy. Some 2.1 million people, nearly 90% of whom are women, are currently out of the labour market because they are looking after their home or caring for family members, so we can see how important that agenda is. More and more businesses are joining the fight and making this a boardroom issue. Change will come only when directors step up and lead, and put their money and resources where their mouth is. I call on them to acknowledge the reality of the world of work for women today.

I want to touch on the Taylor review, of which I have experience, because I was a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for a short period. The Government are listening to and acting on the concerns raised in that important review, which looked at the world of work and recommended measures to protect all workers in our economy, including the gig economy, from being exploited. Many women work in lower-paid sectors of the economy, and they are just as entitled to good working conditions, which is why I welcome the Government’s action on this issue. There is more to come.

Working is good for women. It is not just an economic proposition; it is a chance for a woman to make the most of her potential and contribute her talents. There are many other upsides, including a real impact on her health and wellbeing. The fact that being in work has a positive impact on mental health is not talked about enough. In doing research for this speech, I uncovered statistics that indicate that women who work are less likely to be depressed, to live in poverty, to be in a violent relationship or be a victim of domestic abuse, to suffer substance abuse, or to experience family breakdown. They are more likely to live a balanced, happy life. They are also less likely to be offenders or be in prison. If a woman has children and is working, the children are more likely to grow up in a stable home with a stable experience. They are more likely to achieve academically, and are less likely to have mental health problems.

The issue of women and work touches all our lives, businesses and families, which is why I welcome Government action on it. Thank you for allowing me the time to have this debate, Sir David. I hope hon. Members agree that if a woman can work, earn and achieve in her own right, nothing can stop her and the world is her oyster.

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Order. I intend to call the first of the three Front Benchers at 3.30 pm. A number of Members have indicated that they want to speak, so if Members can keep their contributions to about five minutes, I think they will all get in.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing the debate and setting the scene so very well. I will give some stats, then some information about my own office and where I stand.

In the period October to December 2017 in the UK, 15.1 million women aged 16 and over were in employment. The employment rate was 70.8% for women, compared with 79.7% for men; 8.8 million women were working full time and 6.3 million part time; and 42% of women in employment were working part time compared with 13% of men—so part-time work for women is far above the norm elsewhere.

The most common sectors of employment for women are health and social work, accounting for 20% of all jobs held by women at September 2017; wholesale and retail, 14%; and education, 12%. Around 78% of jobs in the health and social work sector and 70% of jobs in the education sector were held by women. Around 20% of small and medium-sized enterprises with employees were led by women, and it is good to see that happening. As the hon. Member for Redditch, as a former employer, said, there is a lot more that we can do to encourage that, and I look to the Minister for his thoughts.

Men are more likely than women to be involved in total early-stage entrepreneurial activity, which includes owning or running a business less than 3.5 years old. At February 2018, 29% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women and at the next stage down, in the FTSE 250, 23% of directors were women.

In 2010 I was elected here, my wife came over and she got a wee fridge magnet. It was a famous quote from Margaret Thatcher, which we all know: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” My wife put that on the fridge for a purpose—I am wondering whether there is a message there that she is trying to tell me—and I am reminded of it every day because it is still there.

The contribution of working women is incredible when added to the fact that many have main care of their children and also run their household—that is something that has to be recognised. As a proud employer of six staff, I must highlight that five of the six are women. One is a lady in her 50s with her children raised who works part time and minds her grandchildren part time, and for whom I provide flexible working. A lady in her 40s with her children mostly grown works full time for me, and another in her 40s works part time. Another lady, in her 30s, with a two-year-old and a three-year-old, works full time doing my speeches and press—as I am sure hon. Members know, I keep her very busy on speeches, and she does a lot of overtime. On her return home, it is not unknown for her to email documentation and speeches to me for the next day at 12.30 in the morning. That is the sort of person she is, and she does it because I have given her flexible hours and she likes doing it. I do not press her about anything, letting her do it as she sees fit. A girl in her 20s also works for me four days a week.

I therefore have a staff with different ages, from different backgrounds and at different stages of their lives, and yet one similar purpose links them all together—not just my office—which is that they wish to work, and work very hard. That is what they do. I might well have lost one of my best workers when my parliamentary aide had two maternity leaves within one year, but we had the discussion of how to make changes to make things happen so that she could be a great mother and still be great in her job. I made it clear that I was willing to work with her to make it work. She has been back at work for more than a year, but I have learned that family comes first—I always believed that anyway—and that she is more than capable of holding everything together. I did not penalise her for her maternity leave, but became flexible to ensure that I did not lose a great worker.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the barriers to promoting women’s full contribution in the world of work is the sufficient supply of quality childcare?

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I am glad the hon. Lady mentioned that, because childcare is very important. For many ladies in my constituency, the availability of and access to childcare mean that they are able to work.

I have another great example of a working women in my mother. She is at pains to let us know—my mother tells this story about when I was born, which was a long time ago—that she was in the shop working again within 48 hours of giving birth. My mother must be a very strong lady. We owned a shop and she worked beside my dad every day. She ran our home and the shop, she helped in the church, and she regimented us with the ability of a sergeant-major or indeed a general, but at the same time she gave us a wonderful example of love and care.

I pay my staff the same wage whether they are men or women. Sadly, however, somewhere along the line as a society some people determined that it is acceptable to pay different wages for the same job, due not to job performance or ability, but to gender. I want to say clearly: that is unacceptable to me. I want to see the same wages for men and for women, so let us say that together and get it right.

Yes, there is the potential for a member of staff to take maternity leave or request flexible working hours to suit a family when they are female, but in today’s society men are just as able and willing to take care of their children, and rightly so. The gender pay gap does not simply apply in the BBC or Hollywood; we see it day in and day out, and it is not right. I would take great exception to anyone who decided that my granddaughters were worth less because they are girls—they are strong, bright, courageous and ready to take on the world, and in this day and age they should be allowed to do so without discrimination, based on their ability and not solely on their gender. That is the way that it should and must be, and we have a role to play. I am willing, as the Member of Parliament for Strangford, to do my bit to make that happen.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this debate, which is so timely, as we have recently passed the milestone of 15 million women in work, with the south-west tying with the south-east for having the highest proportion.

I want to briefly give my two-pennyworth. I believe in opportunities and equality, and it is important to note that if women choose not to work and have the means to support themselves, that is their choice, and one that I respect as well. Many do that to look after their children. The important thing, however, is to ensure that they have the choice and that there is a level playing field. That is why the 30-hour free childcare policy is such a massive step forward, empowering and enabling women to be able to afford to work, and making work pay.

The 15-hour policy rolled out in 2010 helped 93% of three-year-olds and 96% of four-year-olds, and now hundreds of thousands of parents across the country benefit from the increase to 30 hours, which enables and incentivises people to work. I am proud that the Government made that a priority. In fact, by 2019-20 we will be spending a record of about £6 billion on childcare support. We have also invested in supporting women back into work, which is crucial. In the 2017 spring Budget, we committed £5 million to support people who would like to return to paid work after time spent caring for others.

The introduction of shared parental leave in 2015 was an egalitarian move to enable women and men to share leave. I am delighted that the Government are investing money and resource into promoting that scheme. I look forward to hearing from the Minister more about the awareness campaign. I also call on him to recognise and celebrate those companies that offer at least an element of shared corporate parental leave, which is a true step forward towards equality and choice, and one that will help to tackle the gender pay gap. I am keen to know his thoughts. For my part, I believe that fully shared corporate parental leave is the future. We should look at countries such as Iceland for a model. I know its system is very different and based on individual benefits for parental leave, but it provides a starting block and something to build on to truly have equality.

The number of women on FTSE 350 boards has doubled since 2011, and there are no longer any male-only boards in the FTSE 100, which I am proud of, but we still need to go further. I do not agree with demeaning quotas or positive discrimination, and I am not a fan of singling out particular groups. In fact, I believe that further segregation can cause discrimination. Instead, I believe in empowering and encouraging women and all minorities to succeed and fulfil their true potential, and in levelling the playing field so that everyone gets an equal shot in life. That is why I entered politics: to facilitate and open opportunities. That is why challenging stereotypes and career preconceptions is so important.

Did you know, Sir David, that only 5.4% of women are engaged in entrepreneurial activities, compared with double that for men? Yet if women were to set up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 150,000 more start-ups a year. The lower figure is not due to a lack of talent or to physical barriers; it is mainly because of stereotypes, preconceptions and a lack of encouragement. I do not buy the argument that men are risk takers and women are not, or that men see possibilities and women see obstacles, but constantly asserting that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Women are capable of anything, so once the financial, legislative and logistical obstacles are removed, what remains are the social barriers that we place in front of women. It is these that we must tear down. We tore down the glass ceiling with equalities legislation, but some have stuck up an umbrella in its place, with negative talk and stereotyped roles. We have been tackling the remaining obstacles with the introduction of 30-hour free childcare and other policies. I want us to continue to do that, but also to foster more of a “can do, will do” attitude among everyone.

That is particularly important in tackling the severe shortage of women in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—which fuels our skills shortage, which is something I talk about regularly in relation to my own constituency. In fact, in 2016, women accounted for just 7% of engineering apprenticeships, and only 20% of A-level physics students were female. If women in the UK had got into engineering at the same rate as men, the engineering skills gap would have been met in 2017. That is being cried out for in Wiltshire, which is a hub of engineering design and technology. Each year, I hold my own engineering festival, targeted at girls and boys, which focuses on challenging the stereotypes and social expectations around these roles, with some inspirational, hard-hitting women from companies such as Dyson, Airbus and Siemens.

I am delighted that the UK is racing to the top of Europe in terms of women’s access to work, sitting 11% above the EU average. That means that women have more of a chance than ever before to be in employment. We have come a long way in my lifetime; in fact, when I was born only 3.2% of MPs were female. It is the policies of this Government that will truly make an impact over time, by tackling the obstacles, especially to childcare and shared paternity leave, enabling women to have a true choice. I urge the Government, industry and fellow hon. Members to continue focusing on dispelling stigma and stereotypes, to truly empower women and to enable them to access the jobs they want to do and that our economy needs them to do.

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It is a pleasure to serve under chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this debate and on the powerful way she introduced the subject. As she said, the world of work is evolving rapidly, and we are seeing a fracturing of the traditional working structures. The large employers with unionised workforces are being replaced by new working arrangements, and it is quite possible that those arrangements will open the door to greater discrimination. We cannot afford to rely on outdated laws to tackle discrimination—laws that, frankly, have never worked for women anyway.

As a former employment lawyer, I am far too familiar with the kind of discrimination that women face in the workplace. When I was discussing with them how they wanted to proceed, there was real anxiety, because whatever has gone on and whatever laws are in place to prevent victimisation, people know that once they raise an allegation of discrimination, regardless of what ultimately happens with that allegation, all too often the employment relationship is never the same again, if it survives at all. That would not usually manifest itself in anything blatant that could give rise to a further complaint, but many women feel that once they raise their concerns, their card is marked and their career at that particular employer is over. That is really about the culture that is created—the feeling that they do not want to make waves; the feeling that next time there is a promotion, they will not stand much of a chance; the feeling that their work colleagues are all talking about them behind their backs, and the risk, which we see in this place, that they could bump into the person they have complained about at any time.

Given that, is it any wonder that people see what happens when they raise their head above the parapet and do not feel empowered to speak out? Is it any wonder that women feel inhibited about raising concerns when, until recently, if they wanted to take a complaint any further, they would have to go into a tribunal system that the Supreme Court has declared discriminatory? We know about the huge drop in the tribunal claims once fees were introduced, and the number of sexual discrimination cases brought dropped even further, with an 87% drop, as well as a 70% drop in equal pay claims. I do not think that anybody has ever seriously considered that employers have suddenly been 87% less discriminatory. We know what that was: a barrier to justice, and a discriminatory one at that.

I want to say a few words about the success rate of discrimination claims for those who actually take their claims to the tribunal. There can be a considerable tangible impact on a woman’s work prospects, which is no doubt a deterrent for many. The success rate for sex discrimination claims has been around 20% for many years, and many women will look at those odds and think that it is not worth it. The fact is that women are more than twice as likely to succeed in a claim for unfair dismissal as they are in a claim for sex discrimination. There could be any number of reasons for that, not least the complexity of bringing a discrimination claim.

The failure of women to assert their rights is a big problem. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that up to 54,000 women a year could be forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination. That is 11% of all pregnant women in the workplace who lose their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination. Is that not a scandal? Of the 54,000 potential claims a year relating to pregnancy discrimination, only 790 were lodged in 2015—less than 1.5% of all potential discriminatory acts resulted in a claim being lodged.

What are the Government doing to tackle this rampant discrimination in the workplace and the inability of our system to protect women and assert their rights? It is evident that many women simply do not feel confident in asserting their right not to be discriminated against at work. Is there not a risk that this perpetuates the cycle of discrimination? Perhaps some employers do not know that what they are doing is wrong. Perhaps some will feel that they do not have to change their ways until they are forced to. Either way, the women lose out, and the employer loses out too, by demotivating and hindering people whose talents would make a significant contribution to the business if they were allowed to.

There should be no glass ceilings; everyone should have just as much chance of realising their potential. Childbirth should not be a barrier to success, and women should have the security of knowing that if things go wrong, they have a realistic avenue to seek redress and that there will be no adverse consequences for them if they challenge what they consider to be discriminatory acts.

We have a system in place that already puts security near the bottom of the pile in terms of priorities. Security should be the cornerstone of any settlement on how the workplace operates. Kosovo, Estonia, and Mexico are all rated by the OECD as having greater individual employment protection than this country. I would like to think that we could set our sights a little higher than that. Women’s rights are not just about individual dignity and respect in the workplace; they bring important social and economic benefits to this country. They help to encourage a committed and engaged workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They allow people to plan their lives and to plan for a future, knowing that if they do a good job and if their employer runs its business well, they will be rewarded.

We have a responsibility to challenge discrimination wherever it appears. The evidence tells us beyond a scintilla of doubt that discrimination in the workplace is out of control. To stamp it out, we need to fundamentally question whether the current system is doing the job that we want it to.

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I asked Members to keep their speeches to five minutes, but everyone has exceeded that a bit. That means that someone may not get the chance to speak, so please keep your contributions to below five minutes.

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Thank you, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on this debate. This is an important subject that we need to continue to talk about.

Historically, women have been under-represented across many employment sectors. My experience throughout my 30-year corporate business career affirms that, as more often than not I was the only woman in the room in every business meeting, in every country I worked in—and that was a lot of meetings. I am happy to say that the tide is turning. In 2010, the 30% Club, founded by Helena Morrissey, who is Chichester born and bred, launched a campaign to get a minimum of 30% women on FTSE 100 boards. Today, that goal is close to being achieved, as women make up 28% of all directors of FTSE 100 companies. That progress is something to celebrate; however, there is still a lot more to be done to support women in the world of work.

Women commonly juggle multiple commitments and disproportionately take on family obligations, whether that is raising children or caring for elderly relatives. Part of the issue is the long-standing social constructs that we as a society have put in place. It is just as important to look at the roles of men at home and as it is to look at their role in the workplace. When the women and work all-party parliamentary group looked at this, the expert panel felt that improving the affordability of shared parental leave would help to create a cultural shift, by encouraging more men to share caring roles. One proposal was for shared parental leave to be paid at a greater rate than statutory maternity leave, to ensure shared parental leave is truly affordable.

In many countries, extended paternity leave schemes are already in place and are deemed to be a success. For example, in Iceland, both parents are entitled to three months of statutory leave and a further three months that can be shared between them. Consequently, women there enjoy a very high employment rate, at just under 83%. Sweden leads in the EU, with more than 75% of women in employment. Fathers receive 90 days of paid leave, which is a lot in comparison with the UK, where men receive one to two weeks. Those modern systems support women, enable them to return to the workplace and help to achieve a better gender balance in business. They will have a business case.

Last year, the employment rate for women over 16 in the UK reached a record high of 70.8%. However, these positive figures do not tell the full story: 42% of those women work part time. The effects of working part time can often mean that opportunities for promotion are limited, which has an impact on the gender pay gap. It does not have to be that way. The all-party group on women and work heard examples of good practice at the University of Sussex, which promoted Alison Phipps to a professorship, despite her being a part-time worker after having two children. I personally witnessed an excellent example of good practice when my fellow classmate at the London Business School was promoted to partner level at PricewaterhouseCoopers while she was on maternity leave.

Another factor to consider in the 21st-century workplace is self-employment. There are 1.6 million self-employed women, which accounts for the majority of the newly self-employed as well, probably because of the flexibility that comes with that option. At present, self-employed women may be eligible for maternity allowance of £140.98 a week, but not statutory maternity pay, meaning that they will receive a lot less than an employee. Similarly, casual workers or zero-hours workers do not have the right to paid leave or perhaps even to attend antenatal appointments with a healthcare professional. Such barriers negatively impact on women, and more needs to be done to address those issues.

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I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done, both before coming to the House and while here, to encourage women to engage in politics. It is the duty of all parliamentarians to encourage that. It is a matter of regret to me that we have only ever had male MPs for Aldershot. That is not something I want to change too soon, but I am pleased to have some female constituents here today whom I would encourage to maintain an interest in politics.

How important does my hon. Friend think it is to encourage young women to get involved in business careers, given her experience of being an apprentice? Does she think that we are doing all that we can to encourage awareness among young women of school age of the opportunities for work and apprenticeships at that critical stage in their school career when they consider what career to go into?

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I think that for both men and women the availability of high-quality apprenticeships needs to be better understood by all children and parents, and from a young age. I did an apprenticeship at 16 and I was the only woman. There were four guys, so I was the token 20%, which is a figure we often find. It is a great way into the workplace, particularly degree-level apprenticeships, which means that people do not have to choose between education and work experience, and certainly it propelled my career.

I have mentioned self-employed women, zero-hours contracts and the barriers that women face. Millions of women have taken time out of work to raise a family, and others take time out to care for loved ones. For them it is often difficult to get back on the career ladder. Of the people who are out of paid work to care for family, 90% are women. That is a huge loss, not only to those individuals, but to our economy and businesses all over the country. I welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), that £1.5 million is being made available to support people, particularly women, to get back into work after time out.

The fund will offer grants to help people return to work in the private sector by updating their skills and supporting businesses with guidance and a toolkit to increase employment opportunities. That is just part of the £5 million commitment made by the Prime Minister last year to help people back into employment after a career break. Similar returner schemes are already up and running in the public sector, in the health professions, social work, and the civil service. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is using the cyber-security skills impact fund to help women who have been out of the labour market to get jobs in cyber-security.

It is crucial that women have the opportunity to reach their potential and that our industries do not lose out on their valuable skills and experience. The Government have championed the rights of women in the workplace, with gender pay being just one area widely commented on. We are moving in the right direction, and I am pleased that we are having debates such as this one to address the barriers that are still present for women in work.

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I thank the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for securing this extremely important debate. I am sure it will not be a surprise that some of the interpretations that I have of the world of work are somewhat different from what has been expressed. For many of the women in my constituency, work is not a choice or a health benefit, but an absolute necessity for survival.

Last Thursday we marked International Women’s Day: a day when we celebrate the victories that women have achieved so far on the path to liberation, and a day when we remember how far we have to go. That one day in the calendar is when we focus on women’s issues and they are thrust into the limelight. It serves as an opportunity to briefly scrutinise our collective experience. The Labour party used the day to announce that we would fine employers who not only fail to audit their gender pay gap, but fail to take decisive action against it.

In the narrative around women at work, the focus is not always on workplace issues that affect women the most. In recent years we have seen the agenda—it is as though I knew what the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) was going to say in her speech—that applies only to women at the top. Women in this Chamber will be aware of campaigns such as the 30% Club, which aims to get at least 30% of women on the board of large public companies, and similar campaigns. I do not wish to discredit such campaigns, but I do not think it is unfair for me to say that they are irrelevant to the majority of working women in this country.

Pictures of gender-balanced boards or of women chief executive officers might be glitzy, but they are a distraction from the material reality of working-class women in this country.

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I simply want to say that I am a working- class woman who left school at 16 but still aspired to be on a board, so I would say they are relevant. They are just one part of the picture.

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Those campaigns do not focus on the reality of most working-class women in work at this point in time in our nation. As with most things, success at the top does not trickle down. [Interruption.] I will not take any more interventions, because of time constraints.

What good is it if a woman becomes a CEO, only to rely on an army of women on precarious contracts and on poverty pay to make her sandwiches, look after her children and clean her offices? The success of elite women does not facilitate the emancipation of lower-paid sisters in the economy. In fact, some would argue it prevents it. The experience of most women, after all, is that of a worker, not of a boss. Our obsession with boardrooms has not only failed to close the pay gap for working-class women, but produced another kind of pay gap—the gap between women at the bottom and women at the top. Professional women earn on average 80% more than unskilled women, while the difference between professional and unskilled men is still huge, at 60%.

Although a few elite women succeed, the experience for most working-class women is of a system that is completely rigged against them. It is a system in which women are on zero-hours contracts and are scared that they will not get adequate maternity pay if they want to start a family. As a proud pregnant working woman, I know that my position protects me from many of the forms of discrimination that pregnant women face in the workplace. It is a system in which women are still the main childcare providers. They represent 90% of lone parents and are terrified that they will not get enough hours to provide for their children.

It is a system in which 230,000 jobs held by women pay less than the minimum wage. The Government—let us be honest—do not even give adequate notice to women about changes to their pensions, leaving them in fear of their retirement, and then think it appropriate to suggest that those women expecting to reach retirement take an apprenticeship. It is a system in which women in low pay and poverty reduce their meal portions to allow their children to eat in the school holidays. It is a system in which unaffordable and inaccessible childcare forces women to work fewer hours or accept poorly paid, poor quality part-time positions—and, of course, as has been mentioned, they are at risk of dismissal while on maternity leave.

It has been mentioned many times in the Chamber that the fact that we have had two female Prime Ministers satisfactorily explains that the Conservatives are the party of gender equality. That is an affront to the women in my constituency and across the UK who experience much inequality. It is important that there are women in the highest positions, of course, but it is never enough to just stop there. There have always been women who have succeeded in the face of structural sexism and women who buck the trend, but we cannot and must not be satisfied with the achievements of a minority of women while most women bear the brunt of poverty and austerity.

Some Members might not know that International Women’s Day started as a campaign for the rights of women garment workers in New York. Women’s issues have always been inextricably linked with class issues. Only by punishing the bosses who exploit women and only by creating a social security system that recognises the inequality faced by women, will we have any hope of genuine equality at work. Fundamentally, we must give all workers the ability to collectively bargain for their own pay and terms and conditions. We need a system that challenges the gender-segregated nature of employment. I am glad that the hon. Member for Redditch secured the debate, but I can tell the House that women in my constituency will not be grateful for the way the Conservatives have treated them.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for bringing this important matter to the House, particularly in view of the journey that she went on in her working life. It was good to hear about the positive changes she experienced.

The influx of women into the workplace is one of the greatest social revolutions of recent decades. As my hon. Friend mentioned, in 1951 only one third of women were economically active—employed or unemployed. Today the proportion is about three quarters of women. Thanks to that remarkable change in society, workplaces across the country have benefited from the talents and contributions of women who just decades ago would not have entered those workplaces. Today women are free, and the country as a whole is more prosperous. However, there is still more to do to create equal opportunity between men and women, both in the world of work and across society.

We must make sure that no industry is closed to women because of sexist prejudice, and that no woman is paid less than a man for equal work. I was delighted to visit my local primary school, Whitehills, in Forfar, on Monday morning to discuss the correlation between science, technology, engineering and maths and career opportunities. When I asked the 400 pupils about their career goals, it was heartening that there was no evidence of gender-specific jobs. There were would-be scientists, engineers and architects aplenty. Those young people had their minds wide open and we need to ensure that as they grow up and develop we do not narrow them in any way. All jobs are open to both genders. That is why I am proud to support the UK Government, who have required companies with more than 250 employees to publish data on their gender pay gap. It is important that we get to the root causes of the overall gender pay gap and introduce the appropriate measures to deal with them, so that the young girls I met on Monday will enter a workplace where gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

Childcare is a massive financial burden on any working family. It is no coincidence that the gender pay gap widens considerably after age 30, or that relatively few women have broken into high-ranking positions that require considerable experience. Indeed, when I decided to stand for Parliament, the question of how I would be able to have a family in years to come was raised. However, no job in this country should force any female to make a choice between career and family. Of course, individual families know best how to organise themselves and balance childcare with work commitments. However, it is crucial that the Government should offer parents the childcare support that makes achieving that balance easier and allows them to do so without being pressured by antiquated societal assumptions.

I therefore commend the Government on doubling the amount of free childcare available to parents of three and four-year-olds in England and Wales, introducing shared parental leave and pay, and encouraging more flexible working, including in the armed forces. I also support the increase in childcare hours brought in by the Scottish Government, although I believe that the roll-out was slightly ill-thought-out, and that further flexibility is required to increase parents’ ability to take up the provision.

All the measures I have mentioned will help more mothers to remain in work. That will help more women to rise to the top of their field, which will help to reduce the gender pay gap. While there is certainly more to do to encourage a culture of more flexible working and of mothers and fathers sharing responsibility for childcare more equally, the measures in question are a strong start.

Women must also have an equal opportunity to use their expertise through enterprise. As has been mentioned, only 5.7% of women were involved in starting or running a new business last year. That is half the rate for men. For that reason I recently joined the Telegraph campaign for the Government to boost female entrepreneurship in Britain. There is a need for easier access to capital, higher levels of funding, and support from experienced mentors to guide people through that life-changing process. Astonishingly, the Federation of Small Businesses has suggested that Britain is missing up to 1.2 million new enterprises because the business potential of women remains untapped in the sector. Another poll demonstrated that two thirds of female business owners were not taken seriously when trying to secure funding for start-ups. That leaves them two options—to self-fund or to walk away. That is simply unacceptable.

I say those things with optimism about the future. Let us consider the progress that we have already made, which our great-grandmothers would not have thought remotely possible. I wholeheartedly believe that the progress we want can be made quickly. It will take action in this House and in wider society, but we should go forward with confidence that it can be done. A post-Brexit Britain has to back British businesses and I look forward to continued progress in that area.

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I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing it, and agreed with much of what she said, although however much progress has been made, there is still a huge amount to do.

I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on women and work, which the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) co-chairs. Ironically, I am the secretary of the group. It is one of the most informative and best organised that I have been a member of in my past three years in Parliament. Sadly, I have not been able to attend as frequently as I did at the outset. It has done a fantastic job, complementing the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, illuminating workplace issues that affect women and bringing cross-party consensus to the search for ideas and solutions.

Through my membership of the all-party group I have learned about excellent programmes such as those at Centrica, which has a fantastic female engineering apprenticeship programme, and Royal Bank of Scotland, which does brilliant work on mentoring and female returnships. To my mind, too much intervention of that type happens in isolation. Encouraging as it is, we need more structural intervention to help to address the gender pay gap—and the gender employment gap: women still struggle to get on in traditionally male-dominated sectors. That is why I want more ambitious Government intervention on easily accessible and affordable childcare. I take the point that has been made about the expansion that has taken place already. The Scottish Government currently offer the most ambitious and far-reaching childcare support package in these isles, and that is to be welcomed.

I also want the UK Government to go further to provide greater encouragement and incentive for the take-up of shared parental leave. It was a worthy but, I believe, unfinished policy success of the coalition Government’s time in office. I want more men to be confident about requesting—and to be encouraged to request—shared parental leave. However, that will happen only when there is intervention to that effect, as the hon. Member for Chichester mentioned. The change would help women in competing with men for jobs. Right now, if a man and a woman in their mid-twenties with similar credentials are job candidates and go to an interview panel, there will, sadly, although it will not necessarily be publicly articulated, be an unconscious bias away from the woman, in case she needs maternity leave. If fathers were to take on more responsibility in that area, it would clearly rebalance and equalise the opportunities for women to get on—and help them to be better fathers.

As someone who is proud to “talk flexible working” with my staff, I want more action from the Government to define what flexible working means. All employees currently have a right to request flexible work, but there is no definition of it. Sometimes that leaves both employer and employee in a difficult position in discussions. Guidelines would help both of them to know where they stand. They would strengthen the position of women and men in securing flexible work, and employers in retaining staff and increasing productivity and morale. We are doing what we can in Scotland to make things more progressive, although we cannot act on all the areas where I would want us to.

I understand the points made by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock). However, we have lowered the reporting threshold in the requirement on companies to publish their gender pay gap, so it now applies to those with more than 20 employees, rather than 250. We currently have the lowest gap in the UK, at 6.6% compared with 9.1% overall. We want more progress, clearly. I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), but we have led by example in matters of gender balance. We have the first female First Minister in Scotland, who chairs a gender-balanced Cabinet. We are also committed to legislating to ensure gender balance in public sector boardrooms by 2020, and to campaigning for gender balance in the boardrooms of private sector organisations that have signed our business pledge.

We welcome the debate, and understand the positivity of the hon. Member for Redditch, but there is much more that we could and should do to make sure that all of society and the whole economy can benefit from the closing of the gender pay and employment gaps.

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I will now call the last Back-Bench speaker but I expect a tiny speech—no more than two minutes.

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I will do my best, Sir David. I thank you for calling me, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this debate. It is a particular honour to speak on this important subject in the year of the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. While we celebrate the advancement of women in society, politics, and the workplace, we must also reflect on progress that still needs to be made, because especially in the workplace, women do not have parity with their male counterparts. There are many reasons why women have not secured the great progress that we deserve in recent years. I will try to address as many of those reasons as possible, and set out why I believe the Government have a duty to take action.

The first and most obvious disparity is pay. The Office for National Statistics found that men earn, on average, nearly 20% more than women, and 48 years after Labour passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, men are still paid substantially more than their female counterparts. Those figures are simply unacceptable. The gender pay gap exposes the multitude of barriers and other daily challenges that women face in the workplace. Women are unlikely to progress up the career ladder at the same speed as men. Employers may discriminate against women when recruiting due to the maternity leave they may take in future, and research published today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission states that six in 10 employers—59%—agree that a woman should disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process. That is unacceptable; that is not what we are fighting for.

As a single mother I have experienced at first hand the enormous challenge of juggling parenthood with a sustainable career. With two young children at primary school, the only work available to me was in retail, and I met many single mothers in that position who were struggling on low pay. Many also had poor working conditions, which is something we need to combat, especially for single women. I am pleased that an all-party group for single or lone parents will soon be launched.

We cannot begin to achieve gender equality or improve social mobility across society when half the population face a different set of social rules from the other half. We have a duty as parliamentarians to do all we can to level the playing field and support women in the workplace, and we know that Government intervention in that area works. I therefore hope that when responding to the debate, the Minister will set out in detailed terms the measures to be taken to address the inequalities that women face in the workplace. We cannot strive to move forward as a country when half of employees are held back. Time is up on unequal conditions and treatment; we need action now for a fair workplace.

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Everybody pinches a minute. I will now call the Opposition Front-Bench speakers, but I ask them to limit their speeches to under nine minutes to allow the Minister an opportunity to respond.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. It is also a pleasure, as a woman with all the privileges of an MP, to get up on my pins in this place and talk about issues that affect women all around us. We have a moral obligation to speak for women who do not have the same opportunities to speak out, and that includes many women who work here but are not Members. Dignity at work for women everywhere should be one of our core demands in politics. This is not about women getting a special deal; it is about dignity and respect.

I commend the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for securing this debate. She made the important point that the key to female empowerment is economic independence. She shared some of her own experiences, and said that fairer treatment for women is good for the culture of any business as a whole. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) shared the experiences of some of his colleagues and family members and—as often happens in this place—such examples can illustrate political points better than any number of statistics from the Library. The hon. Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) spoke about looking elsewhere in the world for inspiration to tackle the UK’s problems in this area, and I hope to provide some ideas from Scotland that the Minister may wish to contemplate. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) gave us the benefit of his legal background and experience and called for greater employment protections for women against discrimination. The hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) spoke with characteristic passion about the pay gap between those at the bottom of the pay scale and those at the top, and of structural sexism—very important points.

I am particularly pleased to speak in a debate secured by the hon Member for Redditch because I remember her in November last year advising 65-year-old women to get an apprenticeship—that was also mentioned by the hon. Member for North West Durham. I am not sure why those women would want to undertake an apprenticeship if not to begin a career that would last a few decades, but perhaps things are a little different down Redditch way. The speech by the hon. Member for Redditch was very complimentary about the UK Government’s track record in this area, but sadly I would argue that the Government she supports are very bad at supporting women in work. I could run through the entire gamut of failures, but I will settle for just a few.

First, the two-child cap for child tax credits. Whoever thought that that was a good idea? Who sat down one day and thought that the third child costs nothing to bring up? Who thought that the best way to help parents survive in a challenging job market is to cut the amount of money they have to live on? How does that help children to grow up strong enough to be productive members of society and contribute to the economy? Women’s Aid calculated that that move alone put 200,000 children below the poverty line—that is 200,000 children going hungry because this Government lack simple human decency.

Library research from last year showed that 86% of the impact of austerity cuts lands on women and will continue to do so in future. WASPI women who are not too busy doing an apprenticeship will tell you just how unfair the sudden hikes in retirement age are. Indeed, the costs to individuals associated with the gender pay gap continue into retirement because female retirees end up with smaller pensions than their male counterparts, but still there is no action to address that.

Law firm Travers Smith reported yesterday that the pay gap between its employees was 14.7%—women are paid only six sevenths of what men are paid in the same firm. For bonus pay, women are paid 37.8% less. Those figures are not because women do different jobs. Female associates are paid less than male associates, and female senior associates are paid less than male senior associates. It is the same in other big law firms. Women are the poorer sisters again and again and again.

The gender pay gap is not the only problem. The Government had to be dragged through the courts in order to scrap employment tribunal charges that prevented access to justice for lower-paid workers—a policy that adversely affected far more women than men. Losing the employment protections afforded by the threat of effective enforcement would have been one more poke in the eye for female workers. Discrimination against working women is rife. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that 11% of mothers reported that they were either dismissed, made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job. That could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year facing pregnancy discrimination. About twice as many mothers—one in five—said that they experienced harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer and/or colleagues. That could affect as many as 100,000 mothers a year.

As for the thought that some gender balance might start to creep into the boards of top companies, or indeed the civil service—dream on. The European Institute for Gender Equality released an update to the gender equality index which for the UK showed no progress in many areas over the past 10 years, including for decision-making powers in the business sector. Of 18 permanent secretaries in the UK civil service, only five are women.

The UK Government seem to be doing little to help to rebalance gender opportunities. By contrast—this was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray)—the gender-balanced Cabinet in the Scottish Government is leading the way. It has established a fair work convention aimed at developing a fair employment and workplace framework for women. It has committed to achieving gender balance on private, public, and third sector boards by 2020, and it has established a strategic group on women and work to tackle the barriers faced by women in the labour market.

Let me offer another example to show that things do not have to be this way. Microbusinesses offer real opportunities and could have a significant economic impact on women. One example of good practice is the Etsy platform for the creative industries, which gives people with internet access and a good idea the opportunity to trade globally. Its flexibility and ease of access has brought forward a whole range of artistic women entrepreneurs. A whopping 86% of Etsy sellers are women, in stark contrast to just 20% of small and medium-sized business owners generally. A large chunk—32%—are from rural communities, and they are younger: the median age of the workforce is 38, with 67% under 45. Most microbusinesses are outside traditional full-time employment models: 62% of their owners are part of the independent workforce, and only 21% have full-time jobs elsewhere.

That shows that providing small-scale opportunities for flexible working is massively beneficial for women entrepreneurs and the economy, and leads to a good geographical spread of income. It also suggests that employers are missing out on the huge productivity that they would get from their female employees if only they embraced more flexible working. When barriers are reduced, traditional stereotypes and gender imbalances in the workforce disappear and women are shown to be just as productive as men. The Government should work to remove those barriers and enable women into work, not just in microbusinesses but across all sectors.

Let me make a very important final point. Women have to be able to work with dignity. That means that they have to be able to work free of harassment, abuse, sexism and misogyny. We know that a lot of work needs to be done to make that a reality. The Scottish National party is not immune to that, as the recent case of Mark McDonald demonstrates, and nor is any other party in this place. I am glad that my party took action when that issue was brought up, but none of us has a halo. We may need more than encouragement and good intentions. We may very well need new legislation. Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether the Government are open to that.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this really important debate and on her wide-ranging speech. It is clear from the contributions we have heard that we are all aware of the importance of equality, to put it in a nutshell, and I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) in particular for giving such a thorough account of all those contributions.

It is hard to believe that until 1946 a marriage bar prevented married women from joining the civil service, and women civil servants had to resign on marrying unless they were given an exemption. It is even harder to believe that the Foreign Office did not remove that bar until 1973. Although we have come a long way in some respects, the continuing gender pay gap, the greater prevalence of zero-hours contracts among women, and the Weinstein scandal remind us how limited progress has been in others.

Women born in the 1950s have lived through major changes in the workplace. They should have the right to a decent pension, but instead their state pension age was changed without sufficient notice for them to prepare properly. Labour would extend pension credit to the women affected and allow them to retire at 64 on a reduced state pension, rather than wait until 66, if they chose to do so. Will the Government act, even at this late stage, to give women born in the 1950s justice?

Many Members mentioned the gender pay gap. It was of course a Labour Government who passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, following the brave fight for justice by Dagenham women who were employed sewing car seat covers. It is less well known that a factor behind the introduction of that Act was the expectation that the UK would soon accede to the European Economic Community, so UK legislation needed to be in line with the treaty of Rome, which requires that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. That helps to illustrate why the Opposition have fought so hard to amend clause 7 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which was designed to give the Government the power to amend by statutory instrument, primary legislation such as the Equal Pay Act.

The gender pay gap has narrowed over time, but it remains more than 9% for full-time employees and more than double that—18.4%—for employees overall. Men are more heavily represented in highly paid occupations: 72% of chief executives, 70% of managers and directors, and 92% of people in skilled trades are men. For example, easyJet reported a gender pay gap of just under 52%. The main reason for that is that most of the airline’s pilots are male and the average salary for a pilot is £92,000 a year, but more than two-thirds of easyJet cabin crew are women and the average salary for that job is £25,500. Women far outnumber men among health and social work professionals, yet the gender pay gap in that sector is nearly 19%. Some 58% of students accepted on to medicine and dentistry courses in 2016 were women, but only around 16% of consultant surgeons were. Paediatrics was the only specialty where more than a quarter of consultants were women. In contrast, in 2016 only around 11% of registered UK nurses were male.

Companies with more than 250 employees are required to complete a gender audit of pay by April 2018, but the legislation has no teeth. They are not required to do anything about their gender pay gap: the only sanction they will suffer is reputational damage, significant though that may be. Will the Government introduce tough new rules, as Labour would, to fine companies with large gender pay gaps that do not take action to close them?

Another part of the explanation for the overall gender pay gap is that, in general, a far higher percentage of women than men are in part-time employment. Part-time work tends to be paid less well than full-time work, and it offers fewer opportunities for progression. At the last count, 42% of women in employment were working part time, compared with 13% of men—more than 6 million women, compared with 2.25 million men. That difference is especially marked from the age of 30 onwards. That no doubt reflects the fact that women still overwhelmingly play a greater role in bringing up children, caring for other family members and doing household work. Among people over 30, the percentage of men who work full time is around a third higher than the percentage of women. The gender pay gap also rises among older age groups: it is around 2% for full-time workers in their 20s and 30s, but increases to nearly 14% for full-time workers aged 40 to 49.

Those figures should not be allowed to disguise the reality that part-time and flexible work can still be difficult to find. Since last April, mothers whose youngest child is aged three, rather than five as previously, have been required to look for work if they are claiming social security. Many mothers with very young children want to work, but affordable childcare that fits around work is extremely difficult to find in a lot of places, as is work that fits with childcare. Under universal credit, childcare costs have to be paid up front and then reclaimed, which is not the case with tax credits. That is a major outlay for parents, who would not be claiming universal credit unless they were on a low income in the first place. Citizens Advice has also highlighted problems with the online system for universal credit, which does not accept receipts for childcare unless they are in a specific form. Can the Minister assure us that those problems have been resolved?

A study by Gingerbread of employment opportunities for single mothers found that very few part-time jobs were advertised on the Government’s own job search portal, which all jobseekers are required to register with. Will the Government ensure that the claimant commitments of parents of very young children—in particular single parents—reflect the availability of childcare and part-time work?

Women are more likely than men to be on a zero-hours contract: 3% of women in work are on one, compared with 2% of men. They are also more likely to be in temporary work: 5% of women are, as opposed to 4% of men. Insecure work can have different implications for women. Caring responsibilities are difficult to fit in with insecure work, because a parent or carer may not be able to drop everything at short notice for a shift. Will the Government take action to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, as Labour would?

In her Mansion House speech on 2 March, the Prime Minister said that the UK would

“not engage in a race to the bottom in the standards and protections”

of workers’ rights. We should be far more ambitious than that. The EU is looking to extend those rights by, for example, requiring employers to give workers on zero-hours contracts a written statement of their pay rates and expected hours of work. Will the Government ensure that they match such advances in employment rights, so that UK workers do not have less protection than workers in other parts of Europe after we leave the EU?

The Government estimate that universal credit will bring as many as 1 million people under in-work conditionality by the time it is fully rolled out, which means that people who are in work but on a low income will be asked to increase their hours. However, some sectors, such as retail, where women workers are heavily represented, tend to offer extra hours at weekends or evenings, which are much more difficult to fit around caring responsibilities than daytime hours during the week. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of in-work conditionality on the number of women at risk of being sanctioned?

There is also evidence that women on zero-hours contracts or in temporary work may be at a higher risk of sexual harassment at work, because there is a greater power imbalance between an employer and someone who does not have a permanent contract. Women in that situation may be more reluctant to report harassment, for fear of losing out in future on work that they desperately need, and there may not be a proper HR structure for people to report abuse. In 2014, an employment tribunal imposed £19,500 damages on an employer in a case of that kind. The level of those damages in part reflected the employer’s failure to follow up the complaint, but the tribunal also gave weight to the fact that the employee was on a zero-hours contract and so could be said to be more vulnerable.

It is illegal to treat women less favourably at work as a result of pregnancy or maternity leave. Statutory rights to maternity leave and maternity pay were first introduced in 1975 under a Labour Government. While it is true that domestic legislation predated European directives in this area, European legislation has also led to the extension of rights, such as improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers, and workers who are new mothers. Here again, will the Government ensure that workers in the UK do not come to have lesser rights than their European counterparts as European legislation develops in the area of parental leave?

Rights are one thing; the exercise of those rights and enforcement is just as important. A survey for the TUC shows that one in 10 women found that when they returned to work, they were given a more junior position. In the five years from 2008 to 2013, more than 9,000 women brought tribunal claims on the grounds of unfair dismissal or unfair treatment as a result of pregnancy. It may be even more common than those figures suggest, as many women may not be aware of their rights or simply decide it is too much trouble to fight against discrimination.

Pregnancy and maternity claims fell by one quarter following the introduction of fees, which highlights how important a factor fees were in dissuading people to fight for their rights. Labour pledged to abolish tribunal fees at the last election, and thankfully the Supreme Court ruled in July 2017 that fees were illegal. Statistics published a few days ago show that in the six months after that judgment, the number of employment cases overall taken to a tribunal rose by 100%—although that increase is on a number reduced as a result of fees. Even so, a senior employment lawyer at the solicitors Kingsley Napley recently highlighted that the system is struggling to cope with the increase, as funding for tribunals was cut in the wake of the introduction of fees. At London South tribunal, for example, current estimates are that the parties in a discrimination case that may last two or three days will have to wait until late this year or early next year for it to be heard. The basis of the Supreme Court judgment was that fees impeded access to justice, but so does excessive delay. Will the Government ensure that the tribunal system is properly resourced?

What of the future? As has been said, since 2010 more women than men have started apprenticeships, which is a sign of positive change. A major factor in that was the announcement in 2009 by the last Labour Government of 50,000 new social care apprenticeships and more than 5,000 apprenticeships in the NHS.

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Order. I think the Minister needs a chance to reply.

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May I finish my speech?

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Very quickly.

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My final line is that we must fight for equal rights at work, because they are essential if we are to have an equal society.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this important debate. In her speech, she spoke with passion and from the heart about her own experiences. It is often our shared experiences that drive us to bring about change and improvements. There was a discussion about role models, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), and he is right: they matter as well.

Many colleagues noted that last week we celebrated International Women’s Day, when we reflected on the achievements and progress of women not only in the workplace but in everyday life. This year’s theme encouraged everyone, regardless of gender, to press for progress—to think, act and be more gender-inclusive every day. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch that it is important that we celebrate the success and the progress that we are making for women in work, but I also agree with many colleagues that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) noted, there is more to do.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others talked about the joint-record high for female employment, which, at 70.8%, is five percentage points higher than in 2010. I have no wish to introduce any note of rancour in the debate, but I point out that under the last Labour Government the highest rate was 67%, back in 2008. I agree that all of us—politicians and businesses—should be working together to improve the employment rate further.

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It is irrefutable that there are more people in employment, but does the Minister acknowledge that work is more precarious, and that people have to do two or three jobs?

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Unfortunately we do not have time for a long debate on this, but as I have said previously in the House, the welfare changes we have brought forward actually ensure that work pays. The hon. Lady will disagree, but I am sure that she will welcome the money made available in terms of childcare costs, as the hon. Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Angus did. When I was first elected in 2010 and talking in my constituency to many parents—especially mums—of young children, the cost of childcare was a key barrier to returning to work and increasing their hours. We have acted by introducing 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds and tax-free childcare, and under universal credit the Government will cover up to 85% of childcare costs for eligible claimants. It is worth noting that an independent evaluation of the early roll-out of the childcare offer shows that parents are working much more flexibly and about 23% of mothers have been able to increase their hours as a result of that support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch and others referred to returners. Of course, putting in £5 million to fund specially designed programmes to help returners to the workplace in both the public sector and the private sector is very important. We should encourage that.

I do not think anyone mentioned the issue of women of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, but we should be celebrating that the employment rate for BAME people is at its highest rate since records began, at 64.8%. An extra 1.1 million people of BAME backgrounds have got into work since 2010, and almost exactly half of that increase is women. However, there is much further to go. Women from some BAME backgrounds have an employment rate of only 51.6%, and as part of the Government’s race disparity audit follow-up we are working on pilots to see how to address that issue in the 20 challenge areas identified around the country.

We discussed the gender pay gap. The Prime Minister has made it clear that tackling injustices such as the gender pay gap is part of building a country that works for everyone. I am proud that last year we introduced groundbreaking regulations requiring large employers in all sectors to publish the differences between what they pay their male and female staff in average salaries and bonuses.

The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) talked about what we are doing further. Of course, we are encouraging organisations to go beyond the mandatory requirements and, for example, publishing an action plan that sets out how they will close the gender pay gap in their companies. She is right that reputation does matter. In my role as Employment Minister, I talk to people who run companies, and they recognise that having a workforce that is representative of the country is important, so they will take this matter seriously.

We had a discussion about the increase in the percentage of women on boards, which the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) did not think was making a difference. Actually, if the people at the top of a company are representative, that makes a huge difference. I have to say, I really welcome the fact that we have a second female Prime Minister.

I am fast running out of time, but we had a discussion about the Taylor review and flexible working. One of the review’s key outcomes is a recommendation for employers to offer more flexible working.

A number of points were raised on shared parental leave by my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham and for Redditch. I confirm that the Government Equalities Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have launched a £1.5 million campaign to promote shared parental leave. There was also a discussion on encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and maths jobs, and the Government are making more funding available for that.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke about discrimination. He will be aware that maternity discrimination is against the law, and the Government are working with ACAS to update guidance. As I said, there was a discussion on the Taylor review, and the Government have launched a number of consultations, which will make a difference.

We are almost out of time, but we have had a really thoughtful and comprehensive debate. Hon. Members have highlighted the significant progress made since 2010, but we should be under no illusions: there is further to go, and it is absolutely imperative that all of us strain every sinew to ensure we have a workforce in Britain that reflects the modern, diverse country that we are.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered women and work.

Allergy Awareness in Schools

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered allergy awareness in schools.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, as we discuss the issue of allergy awareness. It is a serious issue, and I look forward to discussing it and hearing from the Minister later on. I will talk about the serious and growing problem of allergies and the challenges faced by those who have them, the portrayal of allergies in the media and how that shapes our attitudes, the horrendous incidents of allergy bullying in schools and the potential for fatalities, and what we can do to raise awareness in schools and beyond.

First, I feel I should declare an interest; I had my first allergic reaction when I was four years old. I walked to the shop with my grandmother, where we bought a bar of chocolate—a Marathon, which shows my age—and by the time we had walked back up to the end of the street I had vomited up the Marathon. When I was a small child, happily, that was as far as the allergy went. It was not life-threatening; it was certainly an inconvenience and something to be avoided, but it was not as serious as it later became.

When I reached my teenage years, the reactions became more serious and began to include swelling in my mouth and throat. That was when I was prescribed an EpiPen injector, which I carry, regularly updated, in my handbag to this day and take with me wherever I go. That is an important thing for anyone who has been prescribed an adrenaline injector to do.

The experience of going through an anaphylactic reaction is terrifying. It involves a whole-body physiological reaction. I start to get a tingle in my mouth if I have eaten something that has nuts in it. I feel almost a rasping at the back of my throat. That, for me, is the tell-tale sign, at which point I try to take action. I sometimes try to make myself sick, to expel whatever it is I have eaten, although I know that can sometimes be problematic. I never really know how serious the reaction will be; sometimes it is mild and can be treated with antihistamine, and sometimes it develops into full-blown anaphylaxis. It is difficult for me as an individual to know which it will be.

When it does become anaphylaxis, that is when the heart starts beating. I find it is quite similar to having an asthma attack, where breathing becomes incredibly difficult. My face swells up and changes colour to become a sort of red-purple, I have palpitations, and it is not a pleasant sensation. Ultimately I need the adrenalin injector and treatment in hospital; I thank the NHS and indeed the health services in countries around the world where I have experienced this, as I literally owe my life to them.

I know what it is like to experience it as a sufferer myself, but I also want to describe how one mother talked about having her toddler try a walnut sauce for the first time. She said:

“His mouth started to bubble and mini-hives appeared. I could see the hives getting bigger and spreading all over his cheeks, his ears, up the back of his neck and starting to go down his chest. On the car on the way to hospital, he started to cough and vomit everywhere in the backseat. My greatest fear started to kick in when the choking, vomiting and crying turned to utter silence. He had gone limp. I was saying ‘C’mon buddy. Wake up’”.

She says:

“‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘I’ve killed my boy’.”

That little boy received hospital treatment and lived, but I ask hon. Members to put themselves in that parent’s shoes—particularly for that first reaction, when they do not know what is happening, the anaphylaxis is so terrifying and the child is of an age where they cannot even tell them what their symptoms are and what they are experiencing.

At this point, I pay tribute to Nicky Forrest, a mum in my constituency who, in addition to all sorts of work on the parent council of a local school, runs a local support group for allergy sufferers and their parents so they can share their experiences, advise one another and campaign.

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The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that schools need to educate children and parents further, so that children who have allergies can socialise like any other child?

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Absolutely. As I can attest, having an allergy is a condition that can be managed and need not prevent someone from having a full life and taking part in school and all the educational opportunities, but that relies on a wider awareness of allergy. Indeed, living with allergy as an adult is the same.

That is why awareness and education are so important—even more so because the prevalence of allergies in our society is growing. It is now estimated that about 2% of children have a nut allergy; of course there are many other allergens as well, so if we include other foods the percentage is higher. Last year in England there were more than 1,900 food-related hospital admissions for anaphylaxis. The anaphylaxis hospital admission rate increased sevenfold between 1992 and 2012. The UK is not alone in that, as there are other countries where the prevalence of allergies is growing, but we need to recognise it as a serious health issue. Indeed, it can be fatal. Data over the same period from 1992 to 2012 showed 124 fatalities were likely to be due to food-based anaphylaxis, 48 of which were school-aged children. For one in six of those school-aged children who died, the reactions occurred in school or another educational environment. The role of schools in this is crucial.

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The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Since the Human Medicines (Amendment) Regulations 2017, adrenalin auto-injectors can be held by schools, but it is crucial that the education goes to teaching staff, who are reluctant to use them as well. Will she comment on that?

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I certainly will. I praise the change to the regulations, which is a positive thing. It would be great if schools had some help with the cost of the injectors, because they go out of date; they typically last from a year to 18 months before they have to be replaced, and they can cost from £30 to £100 each, but the change is very helpful.

The hon. Lady is right about the training element. I was scared about using my own EpiPen. I carried it for years before I used it, and I used to go to hospital if something happened because I was petrified about what would happen if I used it. The first time I used it, I was on a parliamentary trip looking at human rights issues in Chechnya, and it was not safe to go to hospital because we had to go everywhere under armed guard. I was in a situation where I had to use the EpiPen, and I was really scared. Nicole, a wonderful woman from the human rights group who was with me, held my hand. We read the instructions and we did it together.

It started to work really quickly, and the relief and the experience of doing it have made me say to other people with EpiPens, “If you’re experiencing your reaction, use it. Then go to hospital, absolutely, but use that EpiPen, because it starts to work right away and delay can be fatal.” I know the experience I had is probably shared by others, but it is not the best medical advice. The more we can train and encourage people that it is a positive thing to do and will bring relief to someone who is having that kind of reaction is important.

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I thank the hon. Lady for introducing today’s debate. I too declare an interest, because my 15-year-old son has a severe peanut allergy. We have gone through life having to manage it since he was seven. I have only praise for my son’s primary school, which managed the medications and the out-of-date medications when the date was coming up. My worry and concern, not just for my son but for others in the same position, is secondary school, because things completely change. There are 1,000-plus pupils in the school, including teenagers who are difficult to manage and seem to think, “It’s okay, we can manage this.” My son’s reaction is so severe that if somebody else in the room has a bag of peanuts he reacts and needs his medication. I will get to the point: we need to inform other pupils and teachers of the seriousness of this.

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I absolutely concur. That is why this wider awareness is important. Of course individuals need to have the information to manage their own condition, but particularly in those teenage years it can be more difficult for people. They feel a bit more awkward when they are eating out, because they might be perceived to be making a fuss. It is not making a fuss, but that is how it can feel in a group negotiating all sorts of adolescent relationships. For others to understand the seriousness of this is incredibly important.

There is not always a blanket ban on allergens. Schools make their own decisions. Some schools in East Dunbartonshire have become a nut-free zone, but that does not have to be the approach that is always taken—it depends on the specific risk being managed. However, reporting in the media is an important part of how we look at allergies, and food allergy and food intolerance are often conflated. Food intolerance, in particular, can get a pretty bad press.

We know that it is an issue at the school gates and on play dates, where parents of children with allergies can be viewed as neurotic or over-protective. Eating out can be a minefield. Improvements have been made in food labelling over the years, thanks largely to the European Union, which has driven that. Now the key allergens are listed in bold on the back of packets—they are very clearly marked. Indeed, since the 2014 regulations came in, we have the right to that information when eating out, about what food ingredients are going into what we are about to eat.

Restaurants, however, can easily become complacent. We had a prosecution, thankfully, which showed at least that the criminal justice system would take this seriously. An Indian restaurant owner, who had a cavalier attitude to safety, was jailed for manslaughter after a customer died from a nut allergy, because the restaurant had taken the liberty of swapping almond powder for a cheaper one containing peanuts and had not included that information on the menu.

Just a few months ago, top chef Raymond Blanc was at the BBC Good Food Show. He said:

“We are a kitchen not a hospital. Of course, now, if you don’t have an allergy, you’re nobody… It’s a very great fashion to have a food intolerance.”

I really think we do not need comments like that. They rather undermine his other claims to take diners with allergies seriously.

That attitude is really familiar to people with allergies. There is either the excessive response: “Well, you’ve got an allergy. We cannot possibly serve you, because we can’t guarantee anything, so, frankly, just go away and never eat out.” Or there is the response, equivalent to that eye-roll, which assumes that someone is making a fuss about nothing, and then people do not check the ingredients properly and that is when fatalities can happen. Many hon. Members will be aware of the case of Amy May Shead who, in 2014, was left with permanent brain damage when she suffered anaphylactic shock and cardiac arrest after consuming a dish that contained nuts in a restaurant when she was on holiday.

I have also raised the issue of parents of children with allergies being afraid when flying abroad, because they are worried about an allergic reaction happening in the air. I raised that at Transport questions and recently met campaigners and the Minister for aviation to discuss how to take that forward. Part of this is about the airlines getting their act together, but it is also about the air hostesses and air hosts on the plane having a wider understanding of allergies, so that they do not have the kind of really insensitive reactions that were reported by some parents. In one case, somebody made requests for an announcement to be made and had been deemed to be an over-protective parent. When the child and his mum got off the flight, the air host said, “See, we didn’t kill you, did we?” When we hear stories like that, we realise how far we have to go in raising awareness. This is quite a difficult issue to categorise. There are issues around health, education, transport and media, so it requires cross-governmental working.

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Is it not the case that it is impossible to separate the question of allergies in schools from wider paediatric allergy support in the communities? The postcode lotteries are creating problems with access to suitable specialist support, as well as blood tests and so on. The work of the Department for Education and of the Department of Health and Social Care needs to go hand in hand.

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I absolutely concur with the hon. Gentleman. I would argue that this is a public health issue that needs to involve all Government Departments. I thank him for the important work he does with the all-party parliamentary group on allergy. Perhaps I will spy in the Chamber a few hon. Members whom we might approach to become members of that group.

Some schools take the action of banning nuts on the premises following a risk assessment. When that happened in Exeter a few months ago, we were greeted by this headline on the Mail Online:

“‘The only nut ban should be the head’: Parents blast primary headteacher’s ‘ridiculous’ proposal to completely bar nuts from school grounds”.

That focuses on the anger and outrage of parents, rather than the potential threat to the lives of children in the school. These articles are often written in a way that encourages outrage on the part of readers, as if children with allergies are somehow an inconvenience to everybody else.

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I thank the hon. Lady for informing us on this subject. I do not have a nut allergy, nor do I know anyone with a nut allergy, but I have met people who are concerned not just about allergies in school, but about other medical conditions such as diabetes. They are concerned about the ability of staff to be available to help if a child gets into difficulties at school. The issue is not only training for schools, but monitoring and enforcement, perhaps by Ofsted, to ensure that those training plans are in place and that kids can have access to everything, including sports and all the other things that they would like to do in school.

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I quite agree with the hon. Lady. Indeed, my sister has had type 1 diabetes from a very young age. The ability of schools to incorporate children with a range of conditions and ensure there is wider awareness, so that those children can play a full part in the life of the school, is really important.

On Friday, Sony’s new film “Peter Rabbit” will be released in the UK. The villain of the piece, Tom McGregor, is allergic to blackberries. One scene in the movie shows the rabbits—our beloved Peter Rabbit—deliberately pelting a blackberry into Tom’s mouth with a slingshot. Tom goes into anaphylactic shock, before stabbing himself with an EpiPen and then collapsing.

What do we make of that? I suppose we could argue that it shows that allergies can be dangerous, but I would take the view that for a popular children’s character to be light-heartedly encouraging behaviour that threatens the life of someone else, who is at risk of anaphylaxis, is unacceptable. Imagine that there was a scenario in which Peter Rabbit decided to start throwing knives at someone. We would not think that was acceptable viewing for young children in the cinema. What message does this send to children about how we treat people who have allergies and anaphylaxis? What message is going to be taken by the children who go to see that film and who have an allergy?

Apparently, Sony recognises that food allergies are a serious issue and that its film

“should not have made light”

of Peter Rabbit’s arch-nemesis being allergic to blackberries,

“even in a cartoonish…way.”

However, it is that cartoonish, slapstick portrayal that is the problem—it trivialises allergies in that way. I have written to Sony to request that in addition to that apology, that scene should be cut from the film when it is released. I think it has done that in one country. I hope that the Minister will add his voice to that request, because the truth is that children suffering from allergies experience that kind of onslaught in school.

Allergy bullying is a real problem. According to a recent study, more than one third of children and teens with food allergies have been bullied specifically because of their food allergies, usually by classmates. Sometimes that includes physical threats with foods. The consequences can be fatal. Last year, Karan Cheema, a 13-year old boy, died from a severe allergic reaction to cheese. Reports say that he was being bullied and that classmates might have flicked cheese at him or rubbed cheese on his neck. That sort of allergy bullying happens all the time. Only this weekend I saw a tweet from another worried parent whose son, aged nine, was confronted by an 11-year old threatening to throw a Snickers bar in his mouth. Two years previously, the same boy had threatened to throw peanuts at that little boy during a football session. We see more stories of allergy bullying in schools. It is far too much of a problem, and it needs to be addressed.

Schools have an important role to play in raising awareness. The spare EpiPens in schools project is positive, but more needs to be done through first aid training, health and safety training and raising awareness in schools of food allergy, and, indeed, other allergies. I hope that the Minister can give us more details about how his Department can help schools to get this right, so that children who have allergies and their classmates, are well-equipped to deal with these issues, and so that children do not feel ostracised or are bullied because they have this particular health condition.

Excellent work has been done by organisations such as Allergy UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, to look at how schools can improve the work that they do. Allergy UK has produced the school allergy action group toolkit, to help with awareness policies. Those efforts are to be commended. I hope that the Minister agrees with that.

In conclusion, changing people’s attitudes is never easy. It requires persistence and an holistic approach across Government. We face considerable challenges in altering perceptions of allergy in the media, in the school playground, in restaurants and right across society. Incorporating allergy and anaphylaxis awareness into first aid training as part of a new-look personal, social and health and economic education would be an excellent start. Training on these issues within teacher training would also be helpful. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us further on what he and his colleagues in other Departments can do to improve this issue.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this debate. I would like to thank everyone present for their contributions to this valuable discussion.

I have twins who are now 21, one of whom is asthmatic. The hon. Lady talked eloquently and passionately about her own experience, and having an anaphylactic fit is similar to an asthma attack. We also have a five-year-old. In her school, the teachers clearly do things properly. Last week at breakfast, she was planning to have her best friend over for a play date and she said, “Daddy, my friend’s got a dairy allergy, so we have to make sure we’ve got the right food at home.” That brought home to me how complex it is, thinking about what food to give a five-year-old, to avoid what sadly happened to Karan in Ealing.

The hon. Lady spoke passionately about how the media handle this stuff. Yes, Sony has apologised, but I have looked at some of the comments linked to those media stories with people saying, “What’s the big deal? This is just a cartoon—a CGI movie. Get a life!” Actually, it is about life. Sometimes we have to step back for a second and not be so selfish as to think that everybody without an allergy has the right to everything, while people with allergies should be excluded.

The hon. Lady spoke about transport. British Airways no longer provides nuts on its flights, which I think is the right thing to do. I do not have a nut allergy—I love eating nuts—but I am in no way concerned that it has taken them off the menu. Think about the number of flights, children and holidays—that is a better way of doing things, and it provides lots of other nutritious and good food.

In the short time that I have been in post as Minister for Children and Families, I have been truly inspired by the commitment shown, at all levels in the school sector, to children from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of needs. I have visited early years providers and local authorities and seen the exemplary work that many of them are undertaking to support some of our most vulnerable children and members of society. Colleagues mentioned the inspection regime. Under its inspection framework, Ofsted requires inspectors to pay particular attention to children with allergies and to gather evidence about pupil welfare and how well needs are met by individual schools, and it will evaluate the experience of particular individuals and groups, including those with medical needs.

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At the moment it is completely voluntary for schools to hold an EpiPen. Will the Minister look into ensuring that all schools have such devices?

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Currently, governing boards have an obligation to put forward a clear strategy for what a school is doing for children with allergies. My understanding is that they have to have two EpiPens, not one—one and a spare—but I will hold a roundtable to look at what more we can do to ensure that happens in every school.[Official Report, 18 April 2018, Vol. 639, c. 1MC.]

Our vision is that every child, no matter what their background or ability, should play an active part in their school community. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned that just because a child happens to have an allergy, they should not feel excluded from a trip, visit or any other activity at school. We want all children to reach their full potential and to receive the right support to succeed in their education and as they move into adult life. We recognise the importance of supporting pupils with medical conditions at school, and I share her concerns about instances of poor practice that have the potential to place pupils at risk.

With regards to statutory duty, in the Children and Families Act 2014 we introduced a duty on governing boards of schools in England to make arrangements to support pupils with medical conditions. That is a clear signal to schools that supporting pupils with medical conditions is important. I hope that through the roundtable we can see how to improve that further.

The guidance is based on existing best practice and sets clear expectations on schools. It covers a range of areas, including the preparation and implementation of school policies for supporting pupils with medical conditions and the use of individual care plans. It also covers staff training, medicines administration, consulting with parents and collaborative working with healthcare professionals.

The Government understand that food allergies can be complex and worrying for parents. That is why we have set out minimum standards for school food through legislation, with the latest school food standards having come into force in January 2015. We expect headteachers, school governors and their caterers to make effective decisions about their school food policies that take into account the needs of all their pupils.

I want to address an issue that has not come up in the debate but is equally important. Schools have a legal requirement to offer free school meals to all pupils in reception, year 1 or year 2 whose parents want them, and we expect them to make every effort to ensure that pupils with allergies are able to benefit from that entitlement. In all but exceptional circumstances, schools and their caterers are expected to take into account factors such as the type of diet required by the child with allergies, the number of children in a similar position and the cost of making suitable foods.

Like many colleagues, I was shocked and horrified to hear about Karan, who sadly passed away. The case is under investigation, so it is difficult for me to say too much about it. However, it is important to remember that this case could have been bullying. The hon. Lady was right to condemn the messaging to young people that it is okay to tease other children over their allergies and that it is a bit of harmless fun. That is completely wrong.

In conclusion, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting this issue this afternoon. We have much to be proud of in how we have moved forward to address the medical conditions of pupils in schools, but I recognise that there may be much more that we can do. I have arranged a roundtable with the Health Conditions in Schools Alliance to discuss in detail the issues that it feels still need to be addressed, to ensure that every young person has the best opportunity to reach their full potential. I am open-minded about what will hopefully be put in front of me. I will take my learning from this debate to that roundtable and ensure that we consider the issue of allergies in the round, alongside those of other medical conditions in schools. I feel incredibly privileged to have been placed in this role. I am aware that the system often seems to be stacked against those who need more help, and I want to make sure that all vulnerable children have the support to achieve in school and to progress successfully into adulthood.

Question put and agreed to.

Labour Reforms: Qatar

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered labour reforms in Qatar.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Sir Christopher. It is no secret that I am a trade unionist—I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, should they wish to know more. I believe that participating in a trade union is an act of solidarity and that acting collectively strengthens the individual and the whole.

When I recruit members, I use a common analogy about sticks: one stick can easily be snapped, but it is harder to snap 10 sticks bunched together, and harder still to snap 1,000. That applies at home, when we back University and College Union members engaged in industrial action, and across the world. Our movement is international. The location and the industry may change, but we still have a responsibility to stand up for one another.

I secured this debate in that vein. Qatar might seem a long way from the north side of Nottingham, but we know that workers have struggled and even died there. I feel a responsibility to use my privileged position in this place to highlight that. In doing so, I follow other hon. Members who have done similar or who have visited, and Unite the Union, which has made it an issue of national interest thanks to its terrific efforts.

I will give a potted history of workers’ conditions in Qatar, talk about the challenges that workers face there, talk about the positive reforms put in place by the Qatari Government, and look to the future. I will not give a pious homily. In my experience, they rarely work—and I am not very good at them. Whether it is trying to persuade my neighbours to make better health decisions, or trying to persuade international Governments about workers’ conditions, I find that wagging my finger is rarely the best way to do it. Instead, I intend to be clear about the problems, to recognise the progress made and to be practical about the future.

Qatar has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In a 15-year period from the late ’90s, the GDP per capita almost tripled thanks to its natural assets. The CIA’s factbook estimates that Qatar is the second-richest country in the world by GDP per capita. Alongside that significant change, there has been an obvious effort to put the country on the world map. Infrastructure development has been the No. 1 priority, with the Government planning to spend more than 47% of the national budget on major infrastructure projects this year. Of course, that is best highlighted by the coming 2022 World cup.

Qatar is a rapidly changing country. Change at that pace requires wholesale building, which in turn requires lots and lots of labour, and, inevitably, migrant workers. That can be a good thing if workers can secure high-quality, properly paid jobs with decent working conditions—indeed, workers from 183 countries sent home over £11 billion in 2016—but it can be a bad thing if the treatment of human beings is not a priority and if the project comes first, rather than the individual’s interest. That is what we are discussing today.

The award of the World cup seems a reasonable place to start. In 2010, when Russia and Qatar secured the 2018 and 2022 World cups respectively, those decisions were controversial, and they continue to be so for many reasons. However, we do not often talk about the important, intangible benefits that the World cup can bring. The 2018 World cup will be the first hosted in eastern Europe, and the 2022 World cup will be the first hosted in the middle east, and only the second in Asia. Prior to that, other than when it was in South Africa in 2010, the global tournament has been anything but global.

The World cup, and other mega-sporting events, is an incredible way to bring people of different nationalities and cultures together to bond over a simple shared love, especially in difficult times. Qatar’s World cup will allow people to learn first hand about the Arab world—and vice versa—who might not have done so otherwise.

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I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I travelled to Qatar last month. Migrant workers are involved in building infrastructure and stadiums for the forthcoming World cup in 2022, and a lot of those stadiums will be sent to third-world countries and developing countries in places such as Africa after the World cup, so that children there can benefit from that infrastructure as well. Does my hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for that?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention, which I completely agree with. I will talk about legacy shortly.

I feel strongly about this issue, and I co-chair the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on sport, modern slavery and human rights, which focuses on mega-sporting events and their impact on host communities, as my hon. Friend talked about. Growing up in Manchester, I saw at first hand the transformation that the Commonwealth games had on the city. We should hope to see that sort of legacy from all these events. I encourage hon. Members to come to the all-party group’s events—we have one on Monday—if they wish to participate further in that.

Qatar’s population followed its economy in increasing, from just under 600,000 at the turn of the millennium to around 2.6 million today. Most of that increase comes from migration, with 88% of the population made up of migrants from countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. That has worked well for the Government and for business owners, but for the workers, conditions have often been dire. Although the acquisition of the World cup brought global attention and pressure, workers’ conditions are still not at a standard that we would expect for ourselves. As we talk about the positive developments, we have to bear that in mind. We must continue to press for improvement.

Until 2016, the kafala system was at the root of the problem. All unskilled migrant workers were subject to it, as they are in much of the middle east. The system linked workers to an in-country sponsor, who was responsible for their visa and legal status. It was described by Amnesty International as a system that

“facilitates forced labour and a range of other abuses.”

As the home of football, we would not want that tied to the beautiful game. In 2014, four years after the successful World cup bid, that was just one of nine exploitation issues that Amnesty highlighted for urgent reform.

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I also direct hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I travelled to Qatar last month. When I visited, I was pleased to hear about the improvements made to workers’ rights and labour reforms. The International Labour Organisation has stated that workers “enjoy better protection” and has agreed to open an office to oversee the reforms. What more can the UK do to support Qatar in that process?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that constructive intervention and for her insights. At the end I will come to, not necessarily what more can be done, but a list of the current plans, which we must support. On paper they are very good, and if we can make the reality match the rhetoric, something good indeed will have happened, but I will talk about the background first, so we understand the context.

The other issues that Amnesty highlighted were the exit permit system, which allows employers to stop workers leaving the country, the lack of protection for domestic workers in labour law, and the late or non-payment of wages to migrant workers.

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I visited Qatar on a delegation in 2014, and I was appalled by the workers’ poor living and working conditions. My hon. Friend is helpfully setting out some of the concerns. My understanding is that some things have improved since 2014, but there is still the routine non-payment of wages, and agencies in the sending country give false expectations about salaries and charge exorbitant fees. Although conditions might have improved on World cup stadium sites, health and safety on other construction sites is still very poor. How can those things be improved?

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It is important to remember that although the World cup will get the most focus, because of its global interest, it does not make up the majority of construction. There is a lot of development going on, and we must look at those other developments to ensure that the positive changes from the World cup are extended. It is no coincidence that when my hon. Friend and others went on their delegations, things started to get better. That is why I wanted to secure the debate.

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It is clear that significant improvements have been made to workers’ rights in Qatar, hopefully with more to come. Does my hon. Friend agree that many other countries in the region, including in the Gulf, need to mirror those improvements? Clearly, Qatar is leading the way in the region.

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My hon. Friend has slightly tipped off my grand finale, because the important point is that what is secured and achieved in Qatar needs to spread out to neighbouring countries that still have that relationship to the kafala system. If we do that, we will have secured something in this struggle.

The last couple of issues that Amnesty highlighted were harsh and dangerous working conditions, obstacles to access to justice, the denial of the right to form a trade union—something very basic and fundamental to us in this country—and the failed enforcement of existing labour standards. Many of those issues have now been addressed and further action is on the horizon, as I shall set out shortly. However, it is worth understanding what they mean, which is that workers are dying. Only last year, a British man from Hove, Zachary Cox, fell to his death when his safety harness failed.

It has been a real challenge—perhaps Ministers can support us in this venture—to get good information on how many people have lost their lives as a result of labour exploitation. Lots of numbers are floating around, but the death toll is certainly in four figures. The Washington Post said that 1,200 had died in construction on World cup sites alone. That claim has since been picked apart a little, but we know that the real figure is an awful one that will continue to grow unless the change that we must support happens. We have responsibilities, and I certainly feel a responsibility to use this privileged place to talk about the issue.

In December 2016, in response to the outrage about the kafala system and the need to change it, the Qatari Government passed what is known as Law No. 21. It offered many reforms; the Qatari Government said that it would strike a fine balance between the rights of workers, Qatari culture and the needs of Qatari business, promising sweeping and significant reform. However, the view on the ground was that that had not happened. The situation has developed since, but the context is important. Human rights groups have pointed out that the law did not address the power of employers over workers, exit permits or passport confiscations. Some of the changes were a little cosmetic.

Three areas in particular need to be revisited: sponsorship reform, exit permits and passport confiscation. Under Law No. 21, the two-year ban on re-entering Qatar after leaving an employer was replaced with a stay tied to the duration of a contract. That grants a little more freedom but still leaves workers unable to move jobs during a contract, so the protections are not very strong.

With respect to exit permits, workers were required under the 2009 sponsorship law to have express permission from their employers in order to leave the country. That violated the universal declaration of human rights, the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and the Arab charter on human rights—all of which Qatar is a signatory to. The Qatari Government has said that under the new law,

“freedom of movement is explicitly guaranteed”.

However, Amnesty International has said that,

“their employers will still be able to stop them going home.”

As per the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, the exit permit system applies to few, if any, migrant workers, and

“does not justify the pre-emptive punishment of thousands.”

Again, we need to look at that.

Passport confiscation used to be illegal in Qatar and could result in a fine, although in practice it rarely did. Employers are now permitted to confiscate passports, although there is a potential fine for breach of conditions. Amnesty International has raised concerns about that.

I do not think the new law reaches the level of sweeping and significant reform, and there is clearly much to do. However, significant progress has been reported, and it is important that we acknowledge it, as hon. Members have done. We need to give the Qatari Government the credit they deserve and, hopefully, support them in going all the way. Significantly and helpfully, the UN International Labour Organisation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) referred to, has agreed to partner with the Qatari Government to implement true reforms. The Qatari ambassador to the UK has assured me that those reforms will “strengthen protections” for the

“expatriate community, so that their freedom and rights are secure.”

Again, we will be very interested to see them.

Another measure that the Qatari Government are trying to introduce is the implementation of a wage protection system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, which would require wages for workers to be paid locally. The ILO describes the system as

“a positive measure which, if implemented effectively, could contribute to addressing the recurring issue of the non-payment…of wages.”

Yet another measure is the introduction of a temporary minimum wage—a matter that we in this country feel very strongly about—while an assessment is carried out to determine a fixed minimum wage. Workers must also receive accommodation, food and healthcare from their employers, but again, it is important that we ensure that that happens across all development, as well as on World cup sites.

The domestic workers law sets out several rights for workers, including the right to terminate employment, along with provisions on holidays, end-of-service bonuses, improved access to justice and penalties for violations. Construction of brand-new accommodation for workers is ongoing, and I know that visiting delegations have shown a real interest in it. A national committee for combating human trafficking has been established. Bilateral agreements have been reached, and other work has been done with origin countries to combat the issue at source, including licensing of recruitment agencies. There has also been increased inspection and enforcement of housing and working conditions.

These are good reforms that would make things better for a lot of people, so it is really important that they are followed through. I spoke to Amnesty only this morning, and its response is still a little mixed, especially with respect to sponsorship, so it is clearly an issue to look into further. I am delighted that the Qatari Government have asked to meet me, and I will raise all these points with them. I believe we have a duty—I certainly feel a personal duty—to keep asking questions and asking for evidence to ensure that the reforms are delivered.

Amnesty, Unite and Caabu—the Council for Arab-British Understanding—have all supported me in identifying plenty of issues that need to be resolved. They have made it clear that there has been an obvious difference and that action has been taken. Other organisations have given similar praise. The general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, has praised

“the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations on workers’ rights”.

There is a real prize here. I slightly buried the lede when I answered the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), but if pressure and improvements in Qatar mean that standards are pushed up across the region—in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Oman and Bahrain—we will have achieved something really important. It will all have started from the visits and the interest of Unite and others. By going there, going into cupboards and looking at security harnesses in the way that trade unionists do, they will have achieved something exceptional on a regional scale.

I thank my friends at Amnesty, Caabu and Unite for helping to develop my work in the area and helping me with this debate. As a result of their efforts, lives will be saved and improved. I know that they will be keen to stay the course to ensure that the reality matches the rhetoric. I will certainly do my bit.

I have gone through quite a lot of the timeline, but the most important part is still to come. It is important that we recognise the progress that has been made, but in the spirit of friendship and, most importantly, solidarity with Qatari workers, we need to press for more—to press for the job to be finished. We must offer whatever co-operation we can to support that. I am looking forward to a 22-year-old Phil Foden leading England to World cup glory in 2022—he will probably be Manchester City captain by then.

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Never going to happen.

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It is certainly going to happen. More importantly, I hope that, long before then, we will see a Qatar in which 1.7 million workers have the rights and protections that they deserve.

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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing it and on setting the scene so comprehensively.

I have been a massive football fan all my life. For those who do not know, I am a Leicester City supporter and have been for 48 years, since long before they won the premier league—we never used to have much to celebrate. I am interested in football and obviously I am interested in Qatar, which will host the 2022 World cup. I wait for each World cup with great anticipation. We do not see as much of them as we would like to, but watching them is something to enjoy with family and friends—there is a real buzz about it. Sadly, unlike some people, I have never been able to predict exactly which country will win each group and which will ultimately win the cup, but I always hope that it will be one of the home nations. That is what I look forward to.

In the build-up to the 2022 World cup, however, joy has turned to shock because of the alleged treatment of the workers who are building the stadiums and facilities. I do not think the hon. Gentleman cited a figure, but some newspapers say that more than 1,200 people have so far died while building the stadiums and facilities. Although we are in no way responsible for health and safety executives around the world, I believe we have an international obligation to ensure that in an event that hosts our football teams, the competition is carried out to an adequate standard.

A BBC article states:

“Living and working conditions for some migrants in Qatar are appalling. Long hours in the blazing heat, low pay and squalid dormitories, are a daily ordeal for thousands—and they cannot leave without an exit visa…And many workers have died.”

The article cites

“a report by the International Trades Union Confederation, called The Case Against Qatar. The ITUC went to the embassies of Nepal and India, two countries which are the source of many of the migrant workers who go to Qatar”,

although not all of them. It continues:

“Those embassies had counted more than 400 deaths a year between them—a total of 1,239 deaths in the three years to the end of 2013.”

On Tuesday, I watched an exposé on the morning news about Qatar, obesity and the rise of diabetes. It has been said that the World cup will bring lots of opportunities for sport, and the people of Qatar have been encouraged to get involved in sport to reduce diabetes. That is Qatar’s plan, but this debate is about what is happening to the workers, which is shocking. It is past time that labour relations were brought up to an acceptable standard. The building industry is obviously building more than World cup-related facilities, but the fact that construction is part of the strategy to provide infrastructure to host the games means that we have some level of obligation. That is why we are here today; I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North on setting the scene and on giving us the opportunity to participate in the debate.

Reforms have been proposed, including setting a minimum wage and allowing workers to leave the country without their employer’s permission by using exit visas. There now seems to be a willingness to continue to make improvements and we welcome that; it is a step in the right direction. It is also necessary, and we must do our part through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and UN representatives, to ensure that this process continues, for the sake of all those who leave their home to provide a living for their family but face the possibility of not returning home.

Those who come from Nepal, Tibet or other countries are not heading off to war; they are heading off to a building site and therefore they expect to come home. And whenever 1,239 workers do not return home, you know something? We ask questions and I believe this House has a responsibility to ask those questions through our Minister and our Government.

To conclude, I am pleased that some reforms have been made, but I urge our Minister, given the position and the power that he has, to put some pressure on Qatar to ensure that the reforms are carried through and go further. We must do what we can to increase the diplomatic pressure, to see changes for the better. Our Minister is very active; he is very responsive to debates such as this one. I look to him and to the Government to provide the response that we want to see.

I will not be going to the World cup in Qatar—I would probably be unable to, even if Northern Ireland qualify—but I am concerned for the workers there and that is what this debate is about. I urge our Minister and our Government to do all they can to ensure that those workers are safe and have the facilities, conditions and health conditions that we have here. They should have those things in Qatar; let us make sure that they do.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), not just on obtaining the debate but because it is, as he rightly said, on a very important issue. I also congratulate him on the way in which he presented the arguments, which I thought was exceptionally fair and even-handed.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is little to be served by our standing here in Westminster delivering pious sermons, not least because although we have within our own legal systems good standards of labour rights, they are not universal and they are not always applied. I think back, during my time in this House, to the tragic deaths of the cockle pickers on Morecambe Bay. I am the MP for Orkney and Shetland, so I have very close links to the fishing industry. I know that some truly appalling incidents have been reported of migrant crews from outside the European economic area and the conditions in which they have worked in our own country in recent years. So we must approach this subject with a bit of humility, and that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman did.

I should also declare an interest, as the chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group. Twice in recent years I have visited Qatar; it is outlined in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to all others in the Chamber that they are most welcome to engage with the all-party group. We have regular contact with the Qatari embassy here and I have also made it my business to engage with human rights non-governmental organisations that are working in the region. The last visit to Qatar that I was part of was in February 2017. We were hosted by the British embassy in Doha and we met a number of the human rights NGOs and other campaigning organisations working in the region.

We have challenged the Qataris on many occasions in relation to the matters that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is from the Democratic Unionist party, have raised. There is no point in pulling our punches; we add no value if we stand here as apologists, or as people explaining the inadequacies in the systems that we find in other countries. However, I say to the House that on all the occasions when we have raised, tackled and quite robustly put to the Qataris the shortcomings that have been identified, I have always found in them a willingness to engage, and as we have seen in recent years, that engagement has resulted in significant progress.

In particular, in entering into the three-year programme of technical co-operation with the International Labour Organisation, Qatar has done something that I hope will produce the sort of change within the system that we all want to see. We have already seen the abolition of the kafala system and the introduction of a temporary minimum wage, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said.

Most importantly, from my experience of engaging with the Qatari Government I am encouraged by the establishment of the national committee for combating human trafficking. I say that because I have engaged in recent times with the National Human Rights Committee in Qatar, which is a body set up by the Government but independent of the Government. If the committee for combating human trafficking is allowed and able to operate in the same way as the human rights committee does, I suggest that there is significant opportunity for making the sort of progress that we want to see in Qatar.

It is almost a heresy for a Scotsman to say this, but I am absolutely indifferent on the subject of football. The World cup holds little joy for me, or indeed probably —in all sincerity—for many Scotsmen when it comes to the subject of our own national team’s prospects. However, I have always been quite struck by the vision that underpins the idea of the first Arab World cup. It is a quite remarkable vision that Qatar has. If Qatar is to justify it, and do it justice, it will have to come up to the mark on labour rights and other human rights.

That gives the Qataris a real opportunity. With every major sporting occasion, we always speak about a legacy. It is my sincere hope, and it is an aspiration that I know is shared by many in Qatar itself, that the legacy of the 2022 World cup may be that the standard of labour rights and human rights, which will bear scrutiny in the future, will mean that the recent history of Qatar that we have seen—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) witnessed it for herself—will genuinely be consigned to history.

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Thank you, Sir Christopher, for giving me the opportunity to speak, and I also thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for securing this debate. There have been many jokes about the World cup, but I am looking forward to 2022, when Scotland are victorious in the final against England.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am a proud member of that international organisation called the trade union movement. I think there were three key themes in his contribution: what is happening; what we can do to promote sustainable development and the fight against poverty, injustice and inequality internationally; and what we can do to promote best practice here in the United Kingdom.

Those are certainly the themes that I want to pick up, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, in October last year the Government in Qatar committed to reforms to improve significantly the physical and employment situation of 2 million migrant workers, including ending the kafala system, which has already been referred to and which the International Trade Union Confederation had described as modern slavery. Those concessions by the Qatari Government were reported by state media and announced just before the International Labour Organisation was due to decide whether to hold a formal commission of inquiry into conditions in Qatar for migrant workers.

The human rights abuses that we have seen—workers being tied to a single employer, low pay, poor accommodation, labouring in dangerous heat and, sadly, hundreds of unexplained deaths—have been subject to intense global scrutiny and criticism. Foreign workers can only come to the Arab Gulf states through a sponsor, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, the essence of that kafala system was the relationship binding the employee to the employer, which has often been criticised as being like slavery, because the employer could dictate the recruitment process and working conditions, while workers were often forced to pay their own medical insurance fees and surrender their passports and identification papers.

Much work has been done, not only here but in the Scottish Parliament, in relation to how we can make a contribution to sustainable development and the fight against poverty, injustice and inequality internationally. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, pledged to implement the global goals and made a dual commitment to tackle poverty and inequality at home in Scotland and to help developing countries grow in a fair and sustainable manner. Our commitment to contribute internationally to the global goals must reflect and mirror our domestic aims and ambitions for Scotland. That includes building the economy; tackling poverty and inequality; providing quality healthcare and education; promoting affordable and clean energy; and ensuring a sustainable environment. I am sure that we all want to play our part in contributing to the development of our partner countries through those global goals.

The international framework and international development strategy agreed in the Scottish Parliament have set the direction for Scotland’s international activity. It sets out the priorities that will contribute to Scotland’s ongoing ambition to be a good global citizen continuing to make distinctive contributions in addressing global challenges. We should recognise that businesses have a crucial role to play in preventing and remedying breaches of human rights. Although states, rather than the private sector, have the principal responsibility for respecting and protecting human rights, we can encourage businesses to take positive action, for example by actively managing the risk of being party to human rights abuses. Businesses can exert a direct influence through their trade and investment decisions.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly raised the issue of trafficking and exploitation. In Scotland, a strategy was adopted in May last year that was agreed by Police Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. That is an important strategy. A number of case studies were produced to show what human trafficking involved and the impact it had on victims. A number of people who had been subjected to human trafficking played their part in developing that strategy.

To conclude, the hon. Member for Nottingham North said that we should promote best practice at home. There are some areas where the UK can help. It can certainly help by looking at how to provide better workplace protection for people in the gig economy. I ask the Government to look seriously at my Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill, which seeks to do that. We certainly need to look at parts of our economy where there are exploitative zero-hours contracts. We need to show that we in the UK lead by example when it comes to workers’ rights and human rights across the globe.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on introducing this debate. He is well known on the Labour Benches and, I think, throughout the House for his defence of trade union rights and for his trade union background. He has a brilliant record on that, and he is now bringing those skills and that knowledge to the House, where he is promoting the rights of union members, trade unions and workers.

In my hon. Friend’s introductory speech, he said that the treatment of workers must be a priority, and that is where we are starting from this afternoon. He talked about the benefits of holding the World cup finals outside Europe for the first time, and I agree with him on that, although like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) I am no great football fan. Clearly, it will benefit football, the people of that region and all who take part in the competition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said that workers’ conditions are not what we would accept in the United Kingdom, and I totally agree with him. That is why we are having this debate. He said that it is the responsibility of MPs to draw attention to abuses in places such as Qatar, and that is exactly what he has done so well this afternoon. He concluded his speech by saying that lives will be saved and improved, and we have to recognise the progress that has been made, although there is much still to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I hope he does not mind me calling him my hon. Friend, but every time I speak in this place, he is there making a contribution, and we have got to know each other well over the years—pointed to the level of obligation we have in this place to draw attention to workers’ rights in Qatar because it is hosting the World cup. He said his concern is for the workers, and I certainly agree with him.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said that we need to approach this subject with some humility because perhaps we are not perfect here in the United Kingdom, and of course he is right. He is the chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group. He pointed out that although he is indifferent to the World cup itself, Qatar is important to him. I will certainly take up his offer to attend some of the meetings of the all-party group.

As we have heard today, Qatar is home to 1.7 million migrant workers as of 2015. Some 40% of those workers are employed in the construction sector. I hate to quote the Daily Mail, but I will, because in 2015 it highlighted the lack of a minimum wage, with some workers, such as carpenters, paid as little as 56p an hour. That is disgraceful. By 2017, more than 1,200 migrant workers had been killed in Qatar in the construction industry and other industries and trades since it was awarded the 2022 World cup finals. Many are still working on building sites in potentially life-threatening heat and humidity. Ultimately, the Government of Qatar are responsible for the human rights abuses occurring there. That is what Amnesty International said in 2017. Qatar began implementing reforms to migrant workers’ rights to head off a potentially embarrassing inquiry by the International Labour Organisation before the 2022 World cup.

Following international criticism, Qatar agreed in 2014 to bring in reforms including a minimum wage and reform to the kafala system, about which we have heard a great deal this afternoon. I will not add to what has been said about that, but I draw Members’ attention to some of the abuses that workers have had to suffer. Contractors withhold workers’ passport and personal documents so they cannot leave the country. Workers need permission from their employer to leave Qatar. Workers are often housed in unsanitary camps, sleeping in small dormitory rooms, some with more than 20 people to a room—imagine that. Employers have refused permission for any form of inspection of those facilities. Many workers are paid less than £1 an hour. While Qatar may have a cheaper cost of living than the UK, it is not that much cheaper. We often hear that domestic violence is common in those conditions.

I am told that Qatar is spending $500 million a week on World cup-related infrastructure projects, including the construction or restoration of eight stadiums, hotels, transportation and other facilities. FIFA, the international football organisation, has stated that it

“seeks to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts”

in relation to World cup projects.

Many Members will know that in the past nine months there has been a blockade of Qatar by some of its neighbours: Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia. When I visited the country in February, I was told that that has acted as a catalyst to increase the pace and speed of reforms. Whether that is true or not, only time will tell.

In August 2017, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, ratified Law No. 15 on service workers working in the home. It is the first law that grants labour protections for Qatar’s 175,000 domestic workers, and we must not forget them. In talking about construction, let us not forget domestic workers, who often receive far more abuse than even those on construction sites. Under the law, employers would not be allowed to withhold personal documents. However, migrant workers would continue to require permission to leave the country, as they would be required to notify their employer, and I guess permission could be withheld.

When I was in Qatar I had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Faisal bin Abdullah Al-Henzab, who is the director of the human rights department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He speaks extremely good English, having represented his country in many parts of the world including, most recently, Geneva. He told me that the International Labour Organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North pointed out, finished its inquiry in November 2017, in response to the Qatar Government’s expressed reform commitments and legislative actions. ILO director general, Guy Ryder, said:

“The ILO welcomes the commitment of Qatar to engage in substantive cooperation with the Organization for the promotion and protection of workers’ rights, and looks forward to the successful implementation of the cooperation programme over the next three years”.

The United Kingdom ambassador to Qatar in Doha, Ajay Sharma, confirmed that the pace of reform is speeding up, partly in response to the boycott and the crisis, as the Qataris call it. Of course, we warmly welcome that.

We believe that the labour reforms are a positive result of international pressure on Qatar, as many Members have pointed out, including the mover of this afternoon’s motion. Human Rights Watch called them

“a step in the right direction”,

but highlighted the fact that

“their implementation will be the decisive factor”.

The ILO report that I mentioned earlier is also a little vague. For example, it states that a minimum wage will be adopted by Qatar without stipulating when, what it will be, and how it will be enforced. Qatar remains unique among its peers in the Gulf for implementing the ILO recommendations, but as Amnesty International said, the ILO and the international community

“must continue to scrutinise Qatar’s record on migrant labour abuse”.

As has been said this afternoon, the reforms are warmly welcomed, but much more needs to be done. We will be watching, encouraging and—I hope—helping the Government of Qatar to implement those reforms so that they can lead the region. Perhaps other countries in the region will follow.

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I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for securing today’s debate. On behalf of the entire House, I wish the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) a very happy birthday. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is currently elsewhere on ministerial duties, so it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

Working conditions in other countries obviously matter to us—not just for their own sake, but to give British workers employed in other countries confidence that they will be properly protected. The tragic death of Zachary Cox in Qatar last year has once again focused public attention on the working conditions there, particularly in the construction industry. May I, as I am sure we all do, extend sincere condolences once again to his family?

I would like to set out what the main concerns about labour conditions in Qatar have been, what steps the Qatari Government have been taking to address them, and what the UK Government have been doing to support reforms there. Public attention, as has been mentioned, was drawn to the working conditions in Qatar, and particularly the conditions endured by the mainly migrant workforce on construction sites, when Qatar won the competition to host the 2022 football World cup just over seven years ago. It would be wise of me to say nothing about my own enthusiasm for football or, if I were to be honest, lack of it.

In 2014, the International Labour Organisation raised a complaint against Qatar concerning the non-observance of the forced labour convention. As we have heard today, the ILO had particular concerns about the kafala, an Arabic term meaning, essentially, “sponsorship system”. The kafala gives responsibility for migrant workers’ visas and legal status to their sponsors in many Gulf countries. The practice has been widely criticised by human rights organisations because of concerns that it could leave workers open to exploitation. We believe that there are clear examples where that has definitely been the case. There have been reports that more than one million migrant workers in Qatar might be subject to kafala.

Following the ILO complaint, the Qatari Ministry of Labour committed to a number of reforms, including introducing laws to end the kafala. The Ministry also undertook to take other steps that go beyond the minimum required to address the ILO’s concerns. As well as changes to legislation to address the kafala system, the Ministry has made a number of specific commitments, which include addressing three main concerns. First, it has committed to improve health screening and access to healthcare for migrant workers. Secondly, it has committed to introduce a minimum wage. Thirdly, it has committed to establish a fund to help workers with their salaries in the event that an employer goes bankrupt.

In addition to those commitments, the Qataris have reformed the process for migrant workers leaving the country, and introduced an electronic wage payment scheme. They have also built new accommodation for the foreign labour force, and increased their health and safety inspection capability. Qatar has also introduced legislation to offer legal protection to domestic workers, and has made efforts to improve recruitment practices in workers’ countries of origin. That means that employers should in future hire only through independently monitored and licensed recruiting agents, and the Ministry of Labour must approve all contracts. That will help to avoid problems with the misrepresentation of contracts and salaries, and to end the high recruitment fees being charged by unscrupulous agents, as has happened previously.

Qatar has taken other practical steps to improve the situation for migrant workers. The supreme committee for delivery and legacy for the World cup has been working with a number of international companies and agencies to carry out regular audits and inspections of construction sites. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the Building and Wood Workers’ International union—the BWI—18 months ago, and has been conducting joint worksite inspections with the BWI, to assess standards for construction workers involved in all World cup projects. The committee is also inspecting the accommodation provided for the workers, to ensure that it is fit for them to live in.

The supreme committee and the BWI published their first report in January, which set out a number of observations and recommendations to improve safety standards further. Those recommendations include sharing health records between accommodation and work sites, improving standards in kitchen areas, and trying to prevent workplace injuries. It is clearly vital that all those recommendations are implemented as soon as possible, not least because the number of workers on World cup and associated infrastructure construction projects is likely to reach its peak of almost 2 million later this year.

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The programme that was on TV the other morning referred to Qatar’s having one of the highest levels of income per head in the whole of the Arab world. There really should not be any financial reasons for not doing all the work that the Minister has pointed out. Does he agree that, given the finance that they have available, they should just get the job done?

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As we are discussing today, we want to see high standards, fair pay, and all the guarantees around those two structures, to ensure that people are not exploited and cheated, which appears to have been the case on a number of occasions in the past.

Qatar’s efforts to improve the situation for its migrant workforce have recently been welcomed by the ILO, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation. In fact, in November the ILO decided to close its complaint, in recognition of the progress being made by Qatar to address its concerns. Last October, Qatar and the ILO signed a technical co-operation agreement, which aims to bring Qatar’s labour laws in line with international standards. The agreement will last three years. During that time, an ILO office based in Doha will provide support and monitor progress on reforming labour rights and ending forced labour. That will include further work to improve the working and living conditions for construction workers, ensuring that workers have a voice through an improved grievance system, and tackling issues in recruitment. ILO staff are already working in Qatar ahead of the formal opening of the office in April.

The UK Government are committed to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, so we welcome the commitments and efforts being made by Qatar. Modern slavery is a particular priority for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and she has discussed the issue in detail with His Highness the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The Qataris have shown a willingness to improve workers’ human rights. Last September, Qatar endorsed the Prime Minister’s call to action at the UN General Assembly to end modern slavery. The UK’s close bilateral relationship with Qatar has allowed us not only to raise concerns about working conditions and human rights, but to offer our assistance and expertise. The UK’s recent experience of hosting the Olympics, the Commonwealth games and the rugby world cup means that we have the expertise to help Qatar stage a safe and successful World cup in 2022. That includes improving health and safety on construction sites, as well as designing world-class stadiums and providing British expertise to keep the stadiums cool. We will continue to work with Qatar on labour reform and other issues, such as supporting its 2030 national vision—its ambitious vision to transform and diversify its economy away from the hydrocarbons sector.

Later this month, the Minister for the Middle East will travel to Qatar for talks on strengthening our relationship and to discuss what more we can do to help implement the national vision. At the same time, our embassy in Doha will continue to urge the British business community in Qatar, as well as its contractors and subcontractors, to adhere to the toughest health and safety standards. Our embassy staff have seen at first hand the positive steps that have been taken by Qatar over the past year to improve construction safety standards as well as the wider situation for migrant workers in the country. We will continue to encourage those measures and to follow the significant progress made by the Qatari authorities.

Although a number of challenges remain, we are encouraged by Qatar’s clear commitment to improving the labour conditions of migrant workers. For our part, the UK firmly believes that prosperity and respect for human rights should go hand in hand. We welcome Qatar’s willingness to introduce reforms that will bring their laws into line with international standards. We will continue to work with Qatar to support progress and reform, to give all workers in Qatar confidence to know that their safety, their wellbeing, and their rights will be properly protected.

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I am still a relatively new Member and this is my first hour-long Westminster Hall debate. A few minutes ago, I had the moment that new Members often have, when I realised I would get the chance, and the obligation, to sum up. Happily, I keep good notes and I am light on my feet, so I suspect I will be able to do so briefly.

My previous two debates were on advice services in Nottingham and voter registration in Nottingham North. They were much more solo ventures than today’s debate, and it has been lovely to have some company. I was slightly thrown because I was expecting the Minister for the Middle East, but I was very excited to see the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) in his place as Minister, because he and I have spent quite a bit of time in the last few weeks on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill Committee. This gives me another chance to remind him of our enthusiasm for the passing of a Magnitsky-type amendment to that Bill on Report.

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I would draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the commitment made by the Prime Minister in a statement today to table such an amendment, and assure the House that I am working very closely with his party in the hope that we can have a cross-party agreement on that that will give a strong voice from the United Kingdom, particularly given the background of Salisbury.

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Order. I call Alex Norris, on the subject of the debate.

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I thank the Minister for that, but will return to topic.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it very aptly when he said that these migrant workers are not going to war but going to work. They are going to a building site and it should be held in that spirit. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for his leadership through the all-party parliamentary group. It is really important to recognise, as many Members have said, that things have got better because people have looked at this, have taken part and have gone and taken time to have difficult conversations. That is how things get better.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is, like me, a strong trade unionist and an internationalist. He gave us some timely reminders of the challenge at home. I saw him speak last week at an event for his old union, so I am in no doubt that he will press the case strongly.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for his comprehensive speech. It was quite reassuring that our speeches fitted together, so I clearly was not too far off beam. It was really clear about the sort of pressure that we can bring as a country, how we can help raise standards and the impact that that might have in the broader region, which is, as I said earlier, a real prize.

I am grateful to the Minister for talking us through the Government’s position and the connection to modern-day slavery, which is an issue on which Members across the House hold strong opinions.

I appreciate the spirit in which we discussed the issue. I will confess that I was having a couple of beers with a couple of mates last night, watching the football. When I said I was having this debate, they said, “You just want to talk about football, don’t you, Alex?” I do love football—I seem to have got all the enthusiasm from those Members who do not, and combined it in me—but this is not actually about football. It is not about the World cup. That is an emblem of the issue, but it is about people, workers and being able to go to work with the expectation of getting fair pay, getting paid and being safe—something we would all want for ourselves, our friends and our family, and that we should want for everyone around the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered labour reforms in Qatar.

Sitting adjourned.