Wednesday 2 May 2018
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
HPV Vaccination for Boys
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case for HPV vaccination for boys.
I am delighted to find you in the Chair, Sir Henry. Before I start the substance of my speech, I want to place on the record my appreciation for the help I have received from a number of people, most notably Professor Christopher Nutting, one of the country’s most eminent oncologists specialising in throat and thyroid cancers, and Peter Baker, the campaign director for HPV Action. I am grateful to them both for educating me. I am also indebted to Stephen Bergman and Jamie Rae, two sufferers from the condition we are going to discuss—I shall say more about them later. Finally, I place on record my appreciation of the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). The Minister will understand that he cannot be here this morning; he has Government duties and a vow of Trappist silence as a Government Whip.
My hon. Friend the Minister indicates that he knows the problem only too well. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has done a significant amount of work in achieving the provision of human papillomavirus vaccine for gay men—a small but significant step in the direction in which I hope we may travel further this morning.
Until a relatively few weeks ago, I knew very little about this issue. I concede that entirely. Unlike one of my colleagues who was here in this Chamber yesterday morning while I was in the Chair listening to the debate, who had a relative who had died of bowel cancer, I have no personal experience. However, when I met Professor Nutting and Peter Baker, I was astonished at the speed with which they convinced me of the argument—and I am not a pushover when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money. I think it is a no-brainer, and I hope to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister, and others, on this cause.
The human papillomavirus causes, among other things, cervical cancer, throat cancer, anal and penile cancers, and cancer of the back of the tongue. The virus is carried by about 80% of the population, which means somebody in this room is a carrier; it is not uncommon. I would like everybody to take that on board. Go on the tube in the morning and there will be dozens of people carrying the virus—most of it dormant, and a lot of it non-malignant. It is contracted in sexually active youth and, for men, usually in their teens or 20s.
The point is that it is a slow-burn issue. Its effects are not experienced overnight. A condition contracted as a teenager or at university may not rear its head for 30 years. We are talking about men now in their 50s and 60s, who some of the eminent people sitting behind me in the Public Gallery are treating, waiting that length of time without realising that they have anything wrong with them at all, because there is no screening process for men, unlike the screening process for cervical cancer.
I spoke yesterday to two people, Jamie Rae and Stephen Bergman—both sufferers, and both in their mid-50s—who described their experiences to me. I will not go into too much of the gory detail. I heard again this morning of another experience: somebody’s colleague, himself an eminent surgeon, who had throat cancer and suffered many months out of work, which was a loss to the health service, damage to his family and, of course, the treatment. The treatment involves chemotherapy and radiotherapy; it may involve a tracheostomy; and it inevitably damages the saliva glands in the mouth, leaving the patient who survives with permanent dryness, considerable pain and ongoing discomfort. As I have indicated, there is also the social damage. Both Jamie Rae and Stephen Bergman described to me in graphic detail the processes they have been through and the discomfort—I use that word very modestly indeed—they have experienced. They described themselves as the lucky ones, because both those gentlemen have come through it relatively unharmed, but of course there are many others who do not.
The HPV vaccine has been available to adolescent girls since 2008. A pubescent girl of 12 or 13 is offered the opportunity to be vaccinated in school. The parents, quite properly, have a right to refuse that vaccine. Just in case anybody has any doubt, I am aware that there are a small number of cases where parents believe that things have gone wrong and that children have suffered as a result of the vaccination. That is medically unproven, but we have to recognise that the parents believe it. Parental choice is vital, and in the case of pubescent girls there is parental choice.
The process ties in directly with the Department of Health and Social Care’s cancer strategy, which of course is about prevention. The Department has done significant work on preventing or seeking to prevent other prominent cancers. Lung cancer is the obvious one, and the anti-smoking campaign is highly relevant in this context. Melanoma is another; something that people of a certain age, such as myself, probably did not bother with at all has suddenly become prominent as the realisation of the damage that the sun’s rays can do to the skin and the cancers that can arise from that has dawned on the population. Any responsible parent or grandparent now takes the trouble to ensure that their children have appropriate sunscreens at all times when enjoying the sun. HPV vaccine falls directly into that category. It is usable for prevention and, used properly, it works. That is proven. As I said, this has been available to adolescent girls since 2008.
We now come to the hard bit of the argument, because up until now I think everybody would probably agree that we are on a winner in using HPV vaccine, but of course there is the question of cost and efficacy. The argument has been deployed that herd immunity, to use the colloquial phrase, will mean it is not necessary to vaccinate boys, because if we eliminate the infection in girls, boys will not catch it from the girls. That is nice in theory, but wrong in practice.
I am told by those who know better than I do that the average young male has at least 10 sexual partners. The Minister might find that surprising; I did myself, but it is so. It depends whom we believe, but in the United Kingdom the vaccine has an uptake of between 70% and 83%, although in some parts of the country it is as low as 50%. A young man embarking on an exciting night out with his girlfriend therefore has a very high risk of contracting HPV from a girl who has not been vaccinated, and that is just in the UK. We overlay on that the foreign travel that many young people are now happily able to enjoy. Sometimes, with sun, sea and sand goes sex, and the risk of exposure to HPV in those circumstances can be even greater. Therefore, the idea that herd immunity will in time address the problem is fallacious, and this is where I have to accuse those who are responsible for taking the decisions—that is not the Minister—of short-termism.
I can see the attraction of the argument that extending vaccination would not be cost-effective and that herd immunity is coming downstream. Yes, the cases coming through now are historical, in the sense that the disease was contracted 20 or 30 years ago, so well before any immunisation. If we want to save money and damage health at the same time, that is quite a good way of going about it. I am seeking to persuade the Minister of the real value of having the courage—he is not lacking in courage—to take a long-term decision now.
The cost of immunising every adolescent boy within the relevant range in the UK is estimated to be, at the top end—this includes the purchase of the vaccine, which of course has to be negotiated by the health service, and its application—about £22 million a year. That is a lot of money, but in health service terms it is almost a bagatelle. Set against that, I am told by those with real experience, some of whom are sitting behind me in the Public Gallery, that there are about 2,000 patients a year—men in their 50s and 60s—who have developed throat, penile or anal cancers. The cost of treating those is about £21 million a year. Of course, that takes no account of the social costs and the other damage that can be done. In the case described to me this morning, of a surgeon who was taken out of play for a considerable time, the cost of treatment—of a replacement jaw, as well as the chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hospitalisation and everything else that goes with it—is looking like being somewhere between £50,000 and £100,000, and that is just one case.
I am afraid that I do not. The figure that I have is 2,000 people a year, so one has to assume that it is that—but it is growing.
The reason the condition is becoming more prominent, not less, is the change in sexual attitudes from the 1960s onwards, when practices that were previously unacceptable became acceptable. Oral sex, for example, became relatively commonplace. We can therefore expect, certainly within the next 10, 15 or 20 years, a significant rise in the number of cases. The discussion has to be about what happens after that and whether the herd immunity actually works. I am arguing that it will not, for the reasons I have given.
I have talked about the slow burn, the 20 or 30-year wait, and the costs to the health service, on which the view seems to be, “Okay, fine. Let’s kick that into the long grass. It’s not our problem.” There will be 15 Ministers between the present one, sadly, and the time when people are developing diseases. However, the condition of genital warts, which is also caused by HPV, takes only three, four or five years to incubate, and the cost of that annually is £50 million, so do the maths. The economics of this are unassailable, and on those grounds I defy anyone to challenge my argument. The argument comes down to herd immunity. Will vaccinating girls do the job or not? I have made it clear that I believe it will not, and I think that the time has come for the Department to take a further long, hard look at the issue.
Up to now, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has indubitably taken a short-term approach to this: “Does it work? Well, yes, the vaccine works. Is it worth it? Well, not if we are vaccinating girls. Let’s see what happens—kick it down the line and save £20 million a year today,” even if that means that in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time we will be spending not £20 million but £200 million a year, which will be in addition to all the social costs. I understand that the JCVI will meet in the first week of June. We were promised that a decision on extending vaccination would be taken in 2015. That was deferred until 2017 and has now been deferred without a date being set for the final result.
Before I conclude with a request to the Minister, I want to say this. Chris Curtis, chairman of The Swallows head and neck cancer charity, sent me a video this morning. It was compelling, because he has been a sufferer himself and he described his own circumstances. I want to say something to the JCVI, to each and every member of that august body, who are of course medically qualified in a way that I am not. What I want to say on behalf of all the people who have been treated and have approached me is what Chris Curtis said at the end of his video. Friends, when you are thinking of kicking this into the long grass because it is not going to affect many people for a very long time and we do not have to concern ourselves with tomorrow, remember what Chris Curtis said, very starkly: “Tomorrow comes very quickly.”
I will not ask the Minister to second-guess the JCVI—that would not be right. I do not believe that this is his decision to make, in the sense that I suspect he is little more medically qualified than I am. Neither of us has the expertise to make this judgment. Will he please convey that sense of urgency about tomorrow to the JCVI, with the firm and genuine request that he wants them to take a long-term view, and to make the decision on the balance of long-term cost, not savings tomorrow?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on his address and on securing this debate. We have to remember two things. First, celibacy is about the only thing we cannot inherit from our parents. Sex may be adopted or forced on you, but it cannot be inherited, unless one is conceived in a glass dish, which most of us were not. Secondly, HPV is a vector. It goes from male to female and from female to male. If I was to alter my hon. Friend’s speech, I would say that the female, from whom the male may get the virus, probably got it from a male in the first place. We have to regard this as an almost endless chain of sexual engagement and the vector going on.
When I was involved in the HPV issue, it was to try to get the Government to bring in genital warts protection for females and to have that added to the cervical cancer vaccination. As it happened, the pharmaceutical company in the town I represent was making the vaccination that did not include it. Somebody came along and pointed out that this might mean a loss of trade for the particular business. I explained that the role and responsibility of a Member of Parliament—of the Government also—is not to put their constituency interest first, but to put the national interest first. My hon. Friend the Minister will not need any reminding that public health first means prevention of illness, then curing illness and then caring for those who cannot be cured. This issue is about prevention. The introductory speech should convince those behind the Minister to get things moving.
The arguments for delaying the addition of the HPV protection to the cervical cancer protection were scandalous. Adding to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, if we are looking for herd immunity, we should note that, as has been discovered in Australia, it comes twice as fast if young males are offered the protection at the same time as young females. There is the extreme case of those males who only have sex with males—the herd immunity will not get through to them, and that leads to 400 avoidable deaths a year.
The key point is to get herd immunity for everyone far faster. It seems to me blindingly obvious, in medical terms, public terms and cost terms, that the sooner that happens, the better. If there is some problem about the run-on of the existing contract only being for a certain number, I say to the Minister that no pharmaceutical company that I know supplying the national health service would object to having its order doubled, so that young males were included with young females.
We look forward to hearing that the Minister is persuaded and that he will give a strong nudge to the Joint Committee. We look forward, in time, to being able to congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving—with Government, the medical profession, the nursing profession and the affected communities—this progress, which has been too long delayed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. There is not much more that I can add to the presentations that have been made by my colleagues, but I want to make a couple of points. First, this is not simply about the sexual relationships of gay people. It affects all of us. My colleagues made that point firmly, but we need to make it again. Secondly, this virus is horrible. It is a disgraceful virus—to anthropomorphise a virus. We have heard the descriptions of the cancers that are induced by it.
I want to concentrate on the preventive powers of this vaccination for genital warts. There is a strong case for that. They may appear to be insignificant, but I do not believe that they are; they are much more widely distributed among the population than the cancers induced by the virus. My hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) have made a compelling case for the immunisation of boys, which I fully support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for bringing this debate today. I participated in the debate in June 2016, which the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) brought to the Floor of the House. I am delighted to be here for this debate. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Henley (John Howell) on participating. I am slightly disappointed that more hon. Members are not here, because this is an important debate. It is especially important for hon. Members who happen to be men to understand the issue of HPV and their role in prevention.
Across the UK, the Governments of the various nations are progressing towards what I see as a progressive policy on HPV vaccination. As a Scottish constituency MP, I am delighted that the Government in Scotland are progressing that way and that this debate is taking place in the UK Government. In all good conscience, however, as a constituency MP I also have a role to highlight the issue around HPV and the need for men to be more aware of their role in sexual health, predominantly because this is a public health issue. A great amount of work is being done all over the world, which has impacted on people’s lives.
We heard about issues relating to penile cancer. It would be interesting to know how many hon. Members know that men can get penile cancer. When I was the secretary of Cahonas Scotland, a male cancer charity in Scotland, we did a piece of work with a broad range of men from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The very idea of issues such as penile cancer was an absolute shocker to them. We showed them pictures of men wearing adult nappies. The lived experience of other men dealing with the impact of cancer related to HPV was profound and they did not know anything about it.
This is not just a sexual health issue, but a public health one. Knowledge is power. Knowing more about the issue and being able to make an informed choice to have the vaccination with parental approval is critical in ensuring that young men are protected for the future. Nevertheless, clarity is required—it is a challenge for me to say this to Governments across the UK—on why we are articulating a message about the numbers game, in which it is just about cost. If we relate that to the lived experience of men living with the consequences of not having the vaccination—I believe there may be some in the Gallery today—the clinical evidence needs to inform the economic choice. The clinical evidence is that the vaccination for young men will save lives. That is about understanding the consequences of the failure to give the HPV vaccination to young men. Governments across the UK should no longer be timid. We are being progressive at the moment, but timidity does not save lives.
There is also a difficulty at the core of this debate. In public policy debates on public health, it seems that those of us in the public policy arena—men, predominantly—are abdicating responsibility by saying, usually through the herding immunisation argument, that the public health and sexual health of young men are down to young women. I do not find that acceptable. I can no longer stand as a Member of Parliament and look young women in my constituency in the eye and say that, from a policy perspective, abdicating sexual and public health to them is acceptable. It is the responsibility of policy makers to articulate a view that young men and young women have the right to this vaccination. In allowing that public policy narrative to continue, we as men are abdicating our responsibility to those young women. That is no longer sustainable.
Historically, it is now 100 years since women over 30 got the vote. How does that relate to this issue? It is about gender being at the heart of a public health debate. We are saying to young women that they are responsible for young men’s sexual health, with negative consequences for young men. In the 21st century, that is no longer tenable. It has profound consequences for young men in the future, in relation to cancers, and it is the same stuff that we said to young women in the 19th century: “We’ll just leave it to you when it comes to sexual health.”
The hon. Member for North Thanet said that instances of oral sex were a new thing since the 1960s, but I have to admit, that is news to me. When I look at the historical narrative of sexual—[Interruption.] I sometimes feel as though I might have been born then. The historical narrative of sexual health has traditionally been an abdication of responsibility from men to women. One need only look at the friezes in Pompeii where oral sex is de rigueur. It was no different in the 18th century, when women had to tolerate the sexual norms of men who would have sex with other men and with sex workers, and when the attitude was that women just had to deal with sexual health issues.
In 2018, I make no apology for saying: not in my name. The young men of the UK deserve better, and the young women in my constituency should expect no less from me as their Member of Parliament than for me to say to Ministers—not just here in London, but in Holyrood, Belfast and Cardiff—that we need to take collective responsibility and stop genderising the public health debate. Only then will we create a more equal, fairer and far healthier society, in which young men have the opportunity to participate and acknowledge their role in sexual health and, in future, to live healthy sexual lives without fear of talking about sex or HPV—and, frankly, without having to tell parliamentarians stories of their sexual activity to bring a debate to the Floor of the House. That is no longer tenable and we need to rise to the challenge.
We need to say to young men and older men who are suffering from HPV that we will do everything in our power as politicians to meet the challenge they have placed before us. We need to say to young women that we no longer accept that they are responsible for the sexual health of young men.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for securing this important and long-awaited debate, and for speaking with such knowledge and passion. I also thank the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for their contributions. Although we are few in number, due in no small part to the local elections, that has been more than made up for by quality.
As we have already heard, 70% to 80% of sexually active women and men will acquire HPV at some point in their lives. Most healthy people will be able to clear the infection out of their system and will never know that they had been infected, but 3% to 10% of cases lead to serious health conditions. HPV is a major cause of cancers in men and women, and accounts for 4.8% of the estimated 12.7 million new cancer cases occurring annually among men and women worldwide.
HPV is linked to nearly all cervical cancers, 70% to 75% of vaginal cancers, 29% of vulvar cancers, 50% of penile cancer and 85% to 90% of anal cancers in both sexes. HPV can also cause genital warts, as we have heard, which is the most common sexually transmitted disease caused by the virus in both sexes. Why, then, do we vaccinate only girls, when men and women can be infected?
Since 2008, girls aged between 11 and 13 in the UK have been offered the HPV vaccination. My daughter was in the first cohort. As a parent, I was a bit anxious when the new vaccination was rolled out, but I need not have been. The vaccination programme has been mostly successful, with a high uptake of about 85% nationally, and it has made an important contribution to reducing the burden of infection among young women in the UK.
However, there are significant regional differences in the uptake of the vaccination, with the lowest level of uptake of two doses at 48.3% in my region, in Stockton-on-Tees, compared with the highest level of uptake in East Renfrewshire at 95.6%, which is astonishingly high. What steps will the Minister take to address those regional inequalities in the vaccine uptake? How does he expect a herd immunity philosophy to apply in areas such as Stockton in the north-east, where uptake is so low?
It is clear from the ever-growing evidence that it is time to extend the HPV vaccination to boys. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation believes that the high uptake in girls protects enough males and makes it cost-ineffective to vaccinate boys too, but that short-sighted view protects only heterosexual men who come into sexual contact with a woman who has been vaccinated, and leaves out a significant proportion of the population. Despite the high uptake among young girls, a heterosexual man still has a one in seven chance of meeting an unvaccinated woman in a sexual encounter.
Men who have sex with men are also unprotected by a girls-only vaccination programme. They are 20 times more likely than heterosexual men to develop anal cancer, but the men who have sex with men—MSM—programme being piloted in England will not be sufficient to protect that population.
Between 2009 and 2014, the median age of the first presentation of men who have sex with men to sexual health services in England was 32 years old. They are therefore likely to have been having sex for many years before they attend a sexual health clinic. A recent study of men who have sex with men attending a London sexual health clinic found that 45% had a current HPV infection of a type that could cause cancer or genital warts, which suggests that a significant proportion of them will have already been infected before they are offered the HPV vaccination. Offering the vaccine in a sexual health clinic is too little, too late for men who have sex with men.
In addition, as we know, sexual health services are at a tipping point after demand for them increased by one quarter in the past five years, but at the same time, spending on them was cut year on year. Offering the vaccination in a sexual health clinic adds to the ever-growing demand on those services, but still excludes a significant proportion of the population and is far too late for some men.
The optimum age for the HPV vaccination to work is around 12 or 13 years old, when boys are unlikely to attend a sexual health clinic or may not be aware of, or willing to declare, their sexual orientation. The only solution to the problem is to offer the vaccine to both girls and boys while they are still at school and not sexually active. That will protect girls and boys from preventable disease.
HPV Action estimates that more than 2,000 new cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed each year in men in the UK. Like me, the Minister is passionate about reducing the incidence of cancer in this country. Extending the HPV vaccination programme to boys would be a step forward in doing that.
In response to a written question earlier this year, the Minister stated that the Government do not have an estimate of the number of boys and men each year who are left unprotected against HPV because of a lack of direct or herd immunity. However, HPV Action estimates that, with each year that passes, another cohort of almost 400,000 boys is left unvaccinated and potentially at risk of HPV infection and the diseases it causes. As the briefing I received from the Terrence Higgins Trust says:
“When we have a vaccine that can provide effective protection against such illnesses, it is unacceptable to maintain that vaccinating only one half of the population is sufficient to stop preventable ill health.”
HPV is not gender specific, so the vaccination programme should not be gender-specific either.
This is not a new philosophy. In fact, 14 countries are already vaccinating boys against HPV, or they will be soon. They include Australia, Austria, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and the US. Compared with their international peers, therefore, boys in the UK are at risk of being disadvantaged.
This is an opportunity for us to play a leading role globally in the elimination of cancer caused by HPV, but we are at risk of letting that opportunity slip away. Since 2013, the JCVI has been reviewing whether to extend the HPV immunisation programme to boys. However, the publication of a final decision has been deferred twice. The thousands of boys who go unvaccinated each year cannot afford to wait any longer and the JCVI must make a decision this year, preferably when they meet next month. I therefore urge the Minister to work with the JCVI as it comes to make its decision, so that both genders can be protected from these preventable diseases.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate and bringing this important subject to the House. He was in the Chair the last time I was in Westminster Hall, which was just yesterday. I am surprised that so few Members are present for the debate. As the shadow Minister suggested, perhaps matters elsewhere in the House and outside are occupying their minds.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet mentioned, our expert group, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, is considering this matter, and it is important that I do not pre-empt its final advice, as he rightly said. That does make the timing of the debate challenging, but I will respond as fully as I can and give as much context as possible.
I will first set out some of the context. In 2008—before I was even a Member of the House—on the advice of the JCVI, an HPV vaccination programme for girls was introduced. The primary objective was to protect against cervical cancer. As the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) kindly said, my mission in life—not just in my job—is to challenge and beat that dreadful disease. While I am on the subject, I pay tribute to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and the brilliant Rob Music, who leads it—I know that the hon. Lady knows them well. The trust’s work in this area over many years, including with me as Minister, has been truly transformative for many women’s lives.
The HPV vaccine that is used in the UK offers protection against the two types of HPV that are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers, and since the introduction of our vaccination programme the number of young women infected with HPV has fallen dramatically. Protection is expected to be long-term, eventually saving hundreds of lives each year, which I am sure we all agree is very welcome. Today, however, our focus is on boys and men.
Is the Minister aware of the paper on this subject by Dr Gillian Prue of Queen’s University Belfast? Dr Prue’s six recommendations are very similar to what the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and others have put forward today. They include: first, that both men and women should be vaccinated against HPV-related diseases; and secondly, and more importantly, that the significant human cost of HPV-related diseases should be the primary consideration for including boys in vaccination programmes. If the Minister has not been made aware of the paper, I am happy to furnish him with the copy. Its recommendations are integral to moving forward on the issue.
Not wishing to mislead the House, my honest answer is that I am not aware of that paper. Whether my officials are aware of it is another matter—I will ask them. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be shy about putting a copy in my hand after the debate.
The good news is that HPV vaccination of girls also provides some—I emphasise “some”—indirect protection for boys. When the vaccination uptake rates are high, as they are in England, there are fewer HPV infections in heterosexual males, because the spread of HPV infection between girls and boys is reduced. There is evidence to back that up; it is not just words. For instance, diagnosis of first-episode genital warts in young heterosexual men between the ages of 15 and 17 declined by 62% between 2009 and 2016. That suggests that there is some—again, I emphasise “some”—herd protection from the existing HPV vaccination programme. However, that is not the start of the story, and neither is it the end, and I have to put it on the record that nobody in Government has ever said that it was. Nevertheless, I take the points that have been made today about herd immunity; it is only part of the story.
Of course, it will take much longer to see the impact that the girls programme has on HPV-related cancers, but we should not wait for those results before considering whether more needs to be done now for boys. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, this is a slow-burn problem.
I think that my hon. Friend is stating facts, and I know that the JCVI officials who are here today will have heard him.
The JCVI keeps all vaccination programmes under review, as it should, and it keeps Ministers informed of any reviews. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet is aware, given the increasing evidence about the link between HPV infection and oral, throat, anal and penile cancers, alongside the incidence of genital warts, the JCVI has considered whether HPV vaccination is now needed for males.
I understand the point that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) made about the surprise about penile cancer. He has more experience of the subject than I do, but it is not a surprise to me. I work with a very good charity called Orchid Cancer, some of whose staff attend my cancer roundtable regularly. It deals with male cancers and is trying to raise awareness of penile cancer as a challenge in society today. It is an issue that is difficult for society, let alone for men, to talk about. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said today.
The JCVI considered its current piece of work in two parts: first, whether the HPV vaccination should be introduced for men who have sex with men—MSM—and secondly, whether it should be introduced for adolescent boys. MSM, as we know, are a group at high risk of HPV infection. Unlike heterosexual men, of course, they are unlikely to receive much, if any, indirect protection from the HPV vaccination programme for girls. The JCVI advised us that a targeted HPV vaccination programme should be introduced for MSM up to the age of 45 who attend genitourinary medicine clinics or HIV clinics. Following a successful pilot in 42 clinics that was led by Public Health England, we announced in February that the programme would roll out across the country from April, and it is now being rolled out. That programme is welcome, but again I fully appreciate that it is not the start and it is certainly not the end of the story, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West set out in her very coherent remarks.
Let me turn to the issue of adolescent boys. Of the non-cervical HPV-associated cancers, not all cases are caused by HPV—indeed, the percentage of cases that are attributable to HPV is widely debated. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet mentioned The Swallows, which I do not have much contact with, although I have heard of it. I passed a note to my officials asking them to get in touch with the charity as a result of this debate, so it should look out for that. For head and neck cancers, alcohol is an important risk factor to take into account, but HPV does play a role, and that is why the JCVI is considering whether vaccination for boys should be introduced.
The JCVI issued interim advice on HPV last July. As Members know, that was subject to consultation. It is reviewing the evidence ahead of finalising its advice to Ministers. Its members are the experts, and they are best placed to consider the evidence and provide advice to Ministers. That is the system that Parliament has mandated. Parliament could change it, but that is our system.
When the Minister sends a report of this debate to the JCVI, it might be worth him respectfully saying that some of us here are aware of how long it took it to agree to bring in HPV protection even for females. It might want to consider whether postponing that decision was right or wrong. In my view, it was wrong. The people at the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV knew that it was wrong, and it took an awfully long time for them to change their minds. Can we please ask them respectfully not to make the same mistake again?
Those people are nearer to my hon. Friend than he knows, and they will have heard his point.
In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet asked the JCVI to take the long view, and I hope that I can reassure him somewhat on that point. Some examples of what the JCVI is taking into account in its considerations include: the projected future number of HPV cancers resulting from the current incidence of HPV infection; the potential savings as a result of preventing future cancers, which a number of Members have mentioned; the potential savings from preventing genital warts; and, crucially for my hon. Friend’s point, the long-term impact of HPV infection up to 100 years into the future, which will outlive even him.
The JCVI’s interim advice indicated that to vaccinate boys would be
“highly unlikely to be cost-effective in the UK, where uptake in adolescent girls is consistently high”.
It is true that the UK has achieved high uptake for the girls HPV immunisation programme for the past 10 years. In 2016-17, 83.1% of girls completed the current two-dose course, including the daughter of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West. I have two young children—one of each—and of course those of us who are parents want what is best for our children. Somehow arguments about cost-effectiveness do not feel right. Cost-effectiveness is important, however, because it is about how to fairly, consistently and robustly assess which interventions and treatments should be funded in what we must remember is a publicly funded health system. We need to deliver value for money for the taxpayer and deliver the most health benefit possible to all patients. That is our system.
I take on board what the Minister is saying for areas where uptake is high but, as I cited earlier, there are parts of the country where uptake is nowhere near high enough, such as Stockton, where it is 48%. How does that work? How does that argument stand up for those parts of the country?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I was hoping to have a note to respond on that specific point about regional inequalities, but I will have to write to her. Perhaps it is something we can discuss offline. That very good point has not been raised with me recently, but I will take it away and follow it up.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet did not mention discrimination and equality, but other Members certainly did. I accept that equality needs consideration in this case, and I confirm that the Department is carrying out an equality analysis. That cannot be completed until we have received the JCVI’s final advice and we know what it is advising and why, but I can confirm that officials will make contact with key organisations such as HPV Action—I met members of it recently at a roundtable I held on cost-effectiveness methodology for immunisation programmes and procurement, and I know that some of them are here today—as they progress the equality analysis to ensure that such views are taken into account. I confirm that the equality analysis will be published, and I will make the House aware when it is.
There have been a number of threats of judicial review related to equality and sex discrimination in relation to HPV vaccination. I do not think it would be appropriate to say more at this stage, but the House will have heard those two commitments.
On the equality point and the herd immunity point, may I raise the issue of men who have sex with men and the fact that their first presentation at a sexual health clinic could be at the age of 32? Again, there is no way for there to be herd immunity or even for us to extend the vaccination, as we have done in the pilot, to men who have sex with men. There will still be huge numbers of people not covered. Does the Minister agree, and what is he going to do about that?
The hon. Lady makes her point, and it is not one that I miss, I assure her. That issue forms part of the ongoing deliberations. She has made that point twice, and it is a good point.
I know there are concerns, to put it mildly. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet set out the timeline of how long it is taking the JCVI to finalise its advice. However, the consultation raised some important, complex issues around the cost-effectiveness model, and it would be remiss of the JCVI not to ask for those issues to be addressed before it puts the matter on its agenda and makes its final decision. I appreciate that my hon. Friend and other Members want the advice quickly—believe me, so do I—but I cannot advocate asking the JCVI to cut corners, which would call into question the quality and robustness of its advice and undermine an internationally respected organisation. The JCVI will get its advice on boys to me as soon as it can, and I am certainly expecting it this year. As soon as I have it, we will turn it around as quickly as we can.
I am totally committed to our world-leading vaccination programme. It is an area where this country leads the world. I am as keen as my hon. Friend and other Members present to hear the JCVI’s final advice on HPV vaccination for boys as soon as possible. The JCVI has helped successive generations of Ministers and, as my hon. Friend said, it will help those who come after me—there will be many, and maybe sooner than we think. It has helped Ministers make decisions that are fair and justifiable, and we need to allow it to complete its advice without too many distractions that could slow it down even further, which no one wants.
We have heard an impassioned case for an HPV vaccination programme for boys from, among others, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, for whom I have so much respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) suggested, I will send a transcript of the debate to the JCVI to ensure that in the unlikely event there are any issues it was not aware of, that can be reflected in its final advice. It is listening to the debate today. For the reasons I gave at the start of my remarks, I cannot give the House an indication of when exactly a decision will be made, or what that decision might be—trust me, I would love to—but I can say that I will prioritise consideration of the JCVI’s final advice as soon as I receive it.
May I first thank you, Sir Henry, for presiding over this debate with lenience, and for allowing a frank discussion of what is clearly a sensitive subject? When we do not write speeches, as I do not, we fly by the seat of our pants and ad lib. Inevitably, we miss things. I am therefore particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Henley (John Howell), and to the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who clearly has a tremendous grasp of the subject. Together colleagues have put flesh on the skeleton that I sought to create at the start of the debate. I am very thankful indeed for that.
I hugely appreciate the candour with which the Minister has spoken and the positive attitude he takes to this difficult issue. I also understand that from his point of view the timing is not easy, given the imminence of the JCVI discussions. I hope and believe that as a result of all the representations that have been made, not only in this debate but across the piece, the JCVI will now take what to some of us is the obvious decision and, for a relatively small amount of money, create a much better environment for both boys and girls in the future.
To conclude, the Minister said that he had two children. I have five grandchildren. We cannot wait. I quote again the remarks that were made earlier: “Tomorrow comes very quickly.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the case for HPV vaccination for boys.
Prison Officers: Working Conditions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the working conditions of prison officers.
Before I begin, I should explain that I have three prisons in my constituency, and I have raised regularly in this House issues that concern people working in them. As I have done on many other occasions, I pay tribute to the fantastic men and women who work in Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey. I am immensely proud of those dedicated, hard-working professionals, who work in an extremely challenging environment, facing the threat of violence almost daily with few complaints and a great deal of courage.
Violence is not the only issue that concerns prison staff—I intend to talk about numerous other issues later —but I will start by addressing it. Ministry of Justice figures show that violence in our prisons is at its highest level since records began. In the last quarter, there were 21,270 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, of which 3,029 were serious. At the same time, there were 8,429 assaults on prison staff, of which 864 were serious. In one quarter alone, about 4,000 serious assaults took place. Given the nature of what constitutes a serious assault, I suspect many were carried out using some form of offensive weapon.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 made it an offence to be in possession in prison of an offensive weapon, so I would expect action to have been taken against those assailants. However, during 2015 and 2016, there were just 149 prosecutions, which hardly seems to be a deterrent to potential troublemakers. Such a low prosecution rate means that offenders know that if they attack a prison officer, they will probably get away with little more than a slapped wrist.
The lack of prosecutions against violent prisoners by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service has been a long-standing bugbear of mine. I have pointed out on a number of occasions—I make no apology for doing so again—that if a police officer is attacked while on duty, the full weight of the law rightly comes down on the attacker. However, if a prison officer is attacked while on duty, too often nothing happens. That cannot be right.
There are a number of reasons for the increase in violence, and I will touch on a few of them. There has been an increase in organised crime in prisons. I have heard stories of prisoners resorting to violence to avoid the risk of early release because their criminal activities in prison are so lucrative. There has also been an increase in the number of gangs in prisons: they are behind much of the organised crime, including the supply of drugs, which is big business.
The use of drugs in prisons is a huge problem, as I am sure we are all aware. A steady supply is smuggled in by visitors, corrupt prison staff and, increasingly, drones. My local prisons have introduced drone-exclusion zones, but they have no real means of enforcing the ban. The problem will be solved only by installing in every prison a system to detect, track and jam drones before they reach their destination.
Another concern is the increased incidence of prisoners smoking Spice and other harmful drugs in their cells. When prison officers enter the cell, they are at risk of harm from inhaling the lingering smoke. I know of a young prison officer in one of my prisons who was seriously affected by the inhalation of Spice fumes and had to be sent home because he was so ill. To counter that, gas masks should be made available to prison officers who enter cells in which it is suspected that an inmate has been smoking harmful substances, such as Spice. Stemming the flow of drugs is essential, and prison officers believe that the task of detecting drugs will be improved by the use of more sniffer dogs in prisons. I urge the Minister to consider that.
Drugs are not the only issue making the management of our prisons difficult. Mobile phones are also a big problem, as they are used to conduct much of the illicit business in prisons. People perhaps do not realise that mobile phones can be used to take photographs of prison officers, which can be sent to contacts outside the prison, who then intimidate them. The Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012 was supposed to help solve that problem by allowing phone signals to be blocked, but I understand that there have been difficulties implementing the Act. That is why I welcome the new Bill going through Parliament, with Government support, which will make it easier to prevent the use of mobile phones in prisons.
Combating prison violence can be problematic for a number of reasons, including the lack of control in some prisons. For instance, the Prison Officers Association alleges that prison managers sometimes fail to stick to the agreed regime management plans, which are put in place to set out work practices based on the number of officers available at any given time. The POA claims that some prison managers ignore RMPs because they fear the reaction of prisoners if they are not allowed out of their cells, even if there are not sufficient prison officers to supervise them. That leads to too many prisoners being unlocked without proper supervision. I should add that there is no evidence that that is happening in my three prisons.
That leads me nicely to another problem: the lack of prison officers. The Prison Service is in the process of recruiting more officers. Like the POA, I welcome that recruitment drive, but the influx of new recruits has presented its own challenges. Under benchmarking, the Prison Service lost thousands of experienced prison officers. They have been replaced with young, inexperienced officers, who are being asked to manage increasingly violent prisoners. We must do our bit by giving them the tools they need to do their job safety and effectively. One such tool is PAVA—pelargonic acid vanillylamide—which is similar to a pepper spray and is widely used in the police force. The Prison Service is piloting the PAVA in four prisons, and the results have been extremely positive.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I rise as the co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. He made a comparison with police forces. I have taken part in the police service parliamentary scheme, which enables MPs to gain a fuller understanding of the nature of the work that we expect public servants, including prison officers, to do. Will the Minister consider establishing in prisons something along the lines of the police service parliamentary scheme so that Members of Parliament can go into that environment? I appreciate it is very dangerous, but we could none the less learn much from it and take away much that would be of benefit to our public servants.
I welcome that intervention, and I will talk about that issue later in my speech.
I met my local police chief inspector, who happens to be a very small woman, and she said that, without PAVA, she would not be able to do her job on the beat. Between November 2017 and February 2018, HMP Bedford recorded 23 assaults on staff, of which two were classified as serious, whereas, HMP Preston, which has a larger prison population, recorded just eight assaults on staff, of which one was classified as serious. It cannot be a coincidence that, during that period, officers in Preston were issued with PAVA, but those in Bedford were not. The use of PAVA seems to be a no-brainer. I urge the Minister to roll out its use and issue PAVA to all prison officers in all prisons without delay. I would also like to see made available to prison officers rigid handcuffs, radios and body-worn video cameras.
The environment in our prisons gives rise to another big concern. Unlike police officers and firefighters, prison officers have to work until they are 66 years old. Over time, that will increase to 68.
My hon. Friend is coming on to changing the pensionable age for prison officers. Recently, I visited HMP Dumfries in my constituency and was most impressed by the prison officers and the standard of their work. They expressed concern about the pensionable age being 68—as they put it, 68 is too late. I agree with them. Not everyone is physically robust at that age and, if they are not, does my hon. Friend agree that those prison officers should be found jobs in offices so that they need not be on the frontline?
I certainly agree with that, but the problem is, what happens when the administrative jobs run out? What do we do with them then? I think there is another solution. Police officers and firefighters have dangerous and physical jobs, which is why they are allowed to retire early. Prison officers, too, have dangerous, physical jobs. I believe that the time has come to allow them the same rights as their colleagues in the police force and the fire service.
I have a number of personal case studies from prison officers at the prison in my constituency. One of the issues that they have flagged up is that changes have, in effect, blocked their ability to be promoted, because to accept promotion, officers have to sign up to the lesser conditions, so we are losing the experienced officers whom we so need to run our prisons. Is my hon. Friend aware of that and does he share those concerns?
Yes and yes. That is just another example of the way in which those in the Prison Service—prison officers in particular but also other prison staff—are treated as second-class citizens of the public service. It is time for us to treat them in exactly the same way as police officers and firefighters.
Equalising the retirement age, for example, would help to make the role of a prison officer more attractive, as would increasing the salary structure. It is difficult to recruit prison staff because they are paid less than other public sector workers, such as border staff. A lot of prison officers who leave the service become border staff. Is it any wonder that a very small minority of corrupt prison officers are tempted to earn money on the side by turning a blind eye to criminal activity in prisons?
As I have pointed out before in the House, it is particularly difficult to attract staff to work in Sheppey’s prisons, because local people can earn more working in a warehouse than they can working in a prison. I believe that my prison staff are worth more money, and they should be paid what they are worth. There is also a frustration among prison officers that they are seen simply as turnkeys. That, too, is wrong. They are not jailers. They are not prison guards. They are prison officers. They should be treated with the respect that their position deserves.
One way to enhance esteem for prison officers would be to make better use of them in other roles, such as in the provision of education and healthcare to prisoners. An inmate is more likely to respect a prison officer if they know that that officer is helping them in some way. That is simply human nature.
I am not expecting—surprise, surprise—the Minister to wave a magic wand and to deliver immediately all the measures that I have suggested. However, it would be nice if he at least acknowledged the important role of prison officers and pledged to start some of the reforms needed to make their working conditions better.
Finally, I have another special request to make of the Minister—the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) touched on this earlier. I was invited by my local prison officers to spend a day with them on the frontline. I agreed straightaway. I thought it would be a good way of understanding better the conditions in which they work. But I made one condition: I would join them only if I was able to wear a uniform and to be treated in the same way as a prison officer, so I could really know what was going on at the coalface. I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members with prisons in their constituencies would like to do the same. Unfortunately, the Prison Service ruled that I would not be allowed to take part in such an exercise. I would be really grateful if the Minister encouraged the National Offender Management Service to change its mind.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). It is important for the Houses of Parliament to focus on prisons and in particular on the service of prison officers. As my hon. Friend pointed out in his substantial and eloquent speech—he is extremely well informed, with three prisons in his constituency—and indeed as my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) and for Henley (John Howell), and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) pointed out in their interventions, we have a very strong debt of obligation towards our prison officers. Prison officers are very unusual uniformed public servants. They generally operate outside the public eye, and prisons are not places that the public generally visit. That is why I wish to come on to that good idea of a parliamentary scheme suggested by hon. Members.
The job of prison officers is very unusual. On the one hand, it has some of the features of the job of the police, in so far as they are dealing with criminals and therefore with a lot of violence and trauma but, on the other, a particular set of skills is also required. Unlike a police officer, a prison officer may often see the same individual hour after hour, day after day, week after week and even year after year, having to provide a moral exemplar for such individuals on their journey towards ceasing reoffending. Prison officers are helping to educate and support them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey pointed out, in everything from healthcare through to employment.
The challenge presented by my hon. Friend is what we can do practically to help prison officers in their daily work—and, my goodness, they face a challenging situation.
I am fascinated by the idea of providing opportunities for Members of Parliament to work in prisons. I happen to be the deputy chairman of the Industry and Parliament Trust. Will the Minister work with me to see whether the trust might develop a form of fellowship to take the idea forward?
My hon. Friend makes a very generous offer. We are incredibly interested in that, but the real thing that we need to make the idea work is Members of Parliament prepared to do it. If the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and even my hon. Friend the Member for Henley are interested in being part of a parliamentary scheme, we really have got something to take to the head of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service: I can say not just that this is a theoretical idea, but that we have real, living Members of Parliament who are genuinely interested. We can set up a pilot scheme, learn from what happens in the armed forces and the police service parliamentary schemes, and look at the potential support suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. That would be an incredibly useful thing.
For anyone listening to the debate who is not aware of such schemes, the amazing idea behind the armed forces and police parliamentary schemes is that Members of Parliament can see for themselves what people are going through on the frontline. In fact, legislation considered on Friday, partly on behalf of the police, was driven in part by the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who had been on the police scheme and had been inspired by seeing the action of police officers. So the scheme has changed legislation here in Parliament.
To accelerate, what useful things can we do for prison officers, apart from paying tribute to them for their extraordinary service, intelligence, commitment, honour, loyalty, courage and resilience, and for the way in which they work with unsociable hours and difficult people? Concretely, there are three different types of thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey touched on terms and conditions, but that I will not touch on today, because we are in confidential discussions with the public sector pay review body, looking at exactly the issues raised, such as those of how we move people from the pre-existing closed-term contracts to the new fair and sustainable contract, and the difference in salary compared with other employment opportunities.
To give one small example, of which my hon. Friend is probably aware, in the Isle of Sheppey we pay an increased amount to attract people away from competing professions, such as in transport or the police, to get them to work in the Prison Service. There is much more to be said about that, but I want to talk concretely about the equipment that we can bring in to try to make a prison officer’s life better. We talked about PAVA spray—pepper spray, in other words. My hon. Friend also talked about the introduction of rigid handcuffs and discussed other equipment being proposed, including suggestions for stab-proof vests, body-worn cameras, which we are rolling out across the estate, and CCTV. All that will increase the confidence of the prison officer in dealing with the prisoner.
We also need to be able to prosecute prisoners who assault prisoner officers. We were very proud, on Friday, to be able to double the maximum sentence for anybody who assaults a prison officer from six months to 12 months. But that requires the Crown Prosecution Service to bring those prosecutions. Too often, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there has been an attitude that, somehow, assaulting a prison officer is different from assaulting a police officer on the street.
That is a particularly sore point with me. The CPS standpoint has always been that it is not in the public interest to prosecute a prisoner who is already in prison. It may not be, but it is certainly in the interest of the staff who have to suffer those assaults.
It is 100% in the public interest to prosecute prisoners who assault prisoner officers. If they are not prosecuted, the authority of the state is undermined; it becomes almost impossible for prison officers to run a decent and human regime, very difficult for people to be unlocked from their cells and difficult to move people into education and purposeful activity.
If the education and purposeful activity and the decent and safe environment of the prisoner are not delivered, the prisoner is much more likely to reoffend when they leave that prison. That is a direct threat to public safety; therefore, as my hon. Friend implies, the Crown Prosecution Service must prosecute prisoners for attacking prison officers. We owe that to prison officers, but we also owe it to the public as a whole to have safe, clean and decent prisons. These are our prisons; in the end, prisoners are citizens who come out and reoffend on the streets. We have to restore discipline.
My hon. Friend spoke about drugs and the importation of mobile telephones. In the end, those issues can be dealt with. There are basically only five ways in which mobile telephones or drugs can get into a prison—after all, there is a fence around the prison. They can be thrown into the prison, flown into a prison, dragged into a prison, posted into a prison or carried into a prison. Every single one of these ways needs to be addressed.
We address the issue of people flying things into prisons by tackling drones; of people throwing things into prisons by the use of nets and proper yard searching; of people dragging things into prison by identifying the wire set-ups that run into prison windows; and of people posting things into prison—for example, a letter impregnated with Spice so it can be smoked can be photocopied. But we have not been good enough in England for nearly 40 years is searching humans going in and out of prisons.
Scotland is different. I venture to suggest that it is not a coincidence that the violence and drug rates have been lower in Scottish prisons and that there has been much more regular routine searching of people going in and out of Scottish prisons. I do not think that is an accident. I would be very interested in working with the Prison Service to pilot in 10 prisons increasing the security and routine searching at the gate, to see what would happen. But that will not be enough—many other things need to happen. At the core are people: the prison officers themselves.
There is no point in my standing here and pontificating about the Prison Service because there are more than 100 prisons. With the best will in the world, even if I visited two prisons a week, I would not be able to visit them all in a year. There are more than 20,000 prison officers and 84,000 prisoners. In the end, good prisons depend on good people. That is about recruiting, training and promoting the right kind of people and managing people in the right way.
How do we recruit the right kind of people? We search for exactly the values we are looking for. We train them by focusing on institutions such as Newbold Revel, the prison officer training college, to make sure people feel proud of being prison officers. I am very interested in reintroducing the passing out parade—getting families in to applaud people as they graduate from that training college, so that they feel they are extraordinary public servants, protecting our nation through their work. They need to feel that in their uniform, in their passing-out parade and in every day of their work.
We need to get the training right when people enter, and when people move into the custodial manager role. We need to think about how supervisory officers on the units, even if they do not have formal line management responsibilities, can mentor and drive those young, inexperienced staff. In many prisons, 60% to 65% of prison officers have been there for less than a year; we need supervisory officers to be able to work with them, to give them the confidence and the jailcraft to manage those prisons.
Then, we need to think about what happens at the governor level. How do we make sure that we do not end up in the situation that my hon. Friend found in a prison in his constituency, where there were four governors in five years? We need governors to stay longer in the prisons. We need them to be formally trained before they arrive in those prisons. One of the key determining features in trying to work out why one prison is performing well and another is not has to do with questions that are very difficult to put on paper. We sit here and look at staff numbers, drug levels and the age of the building, but the biggest constant is always the human factor: the culture of that prison and the prison officers, the nature of the leadership and management, the morale of the place and the way in which people work together.
This has been a really important debate. From our point of view in Parliament, we are very proud that there are three Bills on their way through the House of Commons that will help prison officers. One of them is doubling the maximum sentence for assaulting a prison officer. We have another Bill going through that will focus on new psychoactive substances and testing of drugs in prison. We have a third Bill going through the House that focuses on excluding mobile telephones from prisons.
Legislation on its own is not enough. It is about public understanding and support for one of the most unique, precious and impressive services that we have in the United Kingdom. That is why I believe that the proposal, made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, of a parliamentary scheme focused on telling Members of Parliament about the Prison Service will be an enormous help in getting legislators to understand how much our prisons matter to our society and, above all, understanding how much we owe our prison officers.
Reduction of Plastic Waste in the Marine Environment
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
We come to a debate about Government policy on reducing plastic waste in the marine environment. Everyone can see that quite a large number of Members wish to speak. I ask colleagues to bear that in mind when they make their speeches. I may have to impose a time limit. I call Mr Alistair Carmichael to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on reducing plastic waste in the marine environment.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Another week, another debate on plastics in the marine environment. I welcome the Minister back to her now familiar position. I consider myself fortunate to have obtained this debate, and I am delighted to see such a healthy turnout of Members from all parts of the House.
This issue has become quite fashionable of late. It has certainly come to public attention since the BBC screened its “Blue Planet” series last year. But what people now understand is something that I as an islander, and others who live in coastal communities, have known for some years—that the amount of plastic in our marine environment has been growing exponentially for years and is now a massive danger to us all. People just have to walk along any beach to see that. The part of the world I represent is famed for its clean environment, but the number of coffee cups, food containers, fishing nets and ropes that we find even on our otherwise very attractive beaches provides evidence of that. That is actually the easy stuff, because we can remove it with beach clean-ups, but it does not remain on the beach; it is taken back out to sea and reduced until it eventually becomes much more difficult to remove from the marine environment.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Europe and the USA are responsible for only about 2% of ocean litter? Although it matters not to a dolphin or turtle where the plastic it is being strangled by or choking on came from, that means that those of us who wish to address this subject need to focus on rapidly developing countries with inadequate waste disposal systems.
Absolutely. I read recently that about 90% of the plastic in the world’s oceans comes from 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, though, that an awful lot of things are going to have to change, one of which is how we see and think of the marine environment. It has frustrated me for years that things that happen on the high seas are out of sight and out of mind. That applies not just to this issue but to things such as shipping standards. The way we ship oil around the world occasionally comes home very graphically when something goes wrong and there is a major oil spillage.
I come back to how I, as an islander, see the world. So many people see the sea as something that divides us from other places; as an islander, I see it as something that joins us to other places. People who take that view understand that with that attitude comes a shared responsibility for ensuring that our marine environment is as clean as it can be. However, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that what we do in this country is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Inevitably, we will need to work much more closely with people in other parts of the world. I will touch on that later.
The Environmental Audit Committee estimates that we use about 2.5 billion single-use cups, and that only one in 400 of them is recycled. Consider the report in The Guardian today about the way in which wet wipes are changing the shape of our river beds. Thames21 found no fewer than 5,453 wet wipes on 116 square metres of the Thames embankment near Hammersmith. Of course, what starts in our rivers eventually ends up in our oceans.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. Before he moves off the subject of cups—this may be a matter that you wish to raise with the House authorities, Sir Edward—is it not absurd that we are having this debate surrounded by non-reusable plastic cups? Surely, we in this Parliament should lead the way by replacing them with glasses or at least reusables.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman is, like me, a signed-up member of the campaign for a plastic-free Parliament. I was fortunate to be given a coffee glass by the World Wide Fund for Nature as I came to the Chamber. He is absolutely right—that is just one good illustration of how we have become so cavalier about our use of plastics.
We all know—we have seen the pictures—where plastic ends up. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them; plastic debris is lodged on coral reefs, which affects the health of the reef and has an impact throughout the marine food chain; and microplastics are consumed by animals as small as plankton, work their way up the food chain and are eventually consumed by us at the top.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Let me go back to the issue of wet wipes. There is a lot of misleading information on packets, which suggests wet wipes are flushable and leads users to believe that they are biodegradable. In fact, all that means is that they pass through the U-bend and end up in the system, as he described. That is an important advertising and packaging issue, which should be addressed by the makers of wet wipes.
Although I am delighted that a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is here, this issue will impact on just about every area of public policy if we are serious about tackling it meaningfully. The Government’s role is probably the most significant, but I am resistant, as ever, to the notion that the Government can do everything for us. There are any number of interests at play and places where behaviour can be changed for the better.
There is a role for us all as individuals—in particular as consumers. If we say to supermarkets, “No, we’re not going to come to you. We will go to a supermarket like Iceland,” which has committed to reducing plastic packaging, every supermarket will soon sit up and listen. I recently got my Friday lunch in the Peerie Shop café in Lerwick, and I was gladdened to find that it now has compostable knives, forks and spoons in its takeaway section. That is not a massive expense, but it is a demonstration of commitment—and a demonstration of that café’s commitment to providing what its customers want. There is a business incentive and imperative here.
There is also a role for local government. The provision and operation of recycling facilities will be crucial. We will doubtless talk about the operation of a deposit return scheme, which I hope will increase massively the amount of material there is to be recycled. In fact, it is a bit like flushable wet wipes—there is no point gathering recyclable material if we do not have the capacity to recycle it. Among the representations I received ahead of the debate was a fairly minded one from Harrogate Water Brands, which produces water. It explained that a lot of the plastic that is described as single use is single use only because we do not recycle it, and pointed out, quite fairly, that only about half the material in the plastic bales that local authorities supply for recycling can be used for recycling, as opposed to 95% in the United States and 99% in France.
There is a role for business. I commend Sky in particular, which has not just run its ocean rescue campaign but, in its business operations, taken the goal of becoming plastic-free seriously. It has a target of being plastic-free by 2020. I was struck by the difference that will make. One company of a reasonable size—but not that big—says that by
“eliminating plastic from all Sky offices…it is estimated we will save 560,000 water bottles and 7 million coffee cups per year through our operations.”
That is a good illustration of a company responding to what its customers would want.
Then there is the role for Government—or perhaps I should say Governments. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), 90% of plastics in the oceans come from 10 rivers, and tackling that will obviously require international co-operation. That is the nature of the marine environment; UK action alone will not be sufficient.
I will have some questions later in relation to a specific international issue, but I hope the Minister will have noted Sky—a significant company but one that is not that big—and its target to be plastic-free by 2020. That goal contrasts, in a way that should raise questions, with the targets set by Government for our economy as a whole, which would take us closer to 2040. When Government action and targets are being so outstripped by corporate effort, perhaps we should consider whether we are being ambitious enough.
I welcome the ban on microbeads, although it is still not complete. A microbead that is washed off someone’s face may not be allowed to enter our watercourse or our oceans, but surely a microbead could enter the watercourse and the marine environment if it came from a suntan lotion or similar. A complete ban on microbeads would be the logical conclusion to the brave and innovative work already taking place.
I welcome the commitment to introducing a deposit return scheme, but the detail remains sketchy. I appreciate that we have yet to hear about a consultation, but we should be able to agree on the broad principles. I commend to the Minister the work of Greenpeace, which has come up with some fairly broad headings that she could do worse than include in her consultation. The first of those headings states that there should be no cost to central Government, with administration funded by the scheme, and cost savings for local authorities. Secondly, the only cost to consumers should be to those who do not return the containers they purchase and pay a deposit on. Thirdly, there should not be a cost for small retailers, for a whole range of reasons—our small shops and retailers are already struggling in the current environment—but there is a strong case for including larger retailers in such a scheme. Fourthly, it suggests charging producers an administrative fee for each container manufactured, and a one-off contribution to start-up costs.
Surely we can agree that, at its heart, a deposit return scheme should include all sizes of vessel—and, indeed, plastic, metal and glass. Only then will it be effective. The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Government have already started down this road, and that is the approach they are taking. I suggest there is a benefit to us all in having a single scheme across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am puzzled by the bottle return scheme. Of course, on the face of it, it is a good thing: in so far as bottles are recyclable, we can bring them back into use and that is great. However, what happens to the non-recyclable materials gathered back through those means? Surely that material will end up in landfill, as it does at the moment. What will we have achieved?
I am not sure that I share the hon. Gentleman’s understanding of what is involved in the return scheme; of course, the consultation is there for that, if necessary. To take his hypothesis as correct, at the very least we would have succeeded in separating the different constituent parts, and that in itself is valuable.
I am conscious of time and the number of Members who wish to speak, so I will try to canter on. The last concern on which I seek the Minister’s comments is the introduction of a so-called latte levy: a surcharge for the use of disposable cups from coffee shops. The Marine Conservation Society recommends something in the region of 25p for each non-reusable drink cup, or indeed a reduction for those who bring a cup to the store themselves. There is a parallel with the plastic bag levy introduced under the coalition Government, which has been a spectacular success: there was an 85% reduction in the use of plastic bags in the first year of its operation. Is that because when we hand over £100 or whatever for our weekly supermarket shop, we think, “I’m not going to spend another 50p on plastic bags”? I do not think so. The introduction of the levy made people consider their behaviour and the impact it would have. I suggest to the Minister that a levy of the sort proposed by the Marine Conservation Society would have a similar impact and could be transformative. I commend it to her for departmental consideration.
I have some technical points in relation to the revision of the EU directive on port reception facilities and how that will impact on campaigns such as the fishing for litter scheme, an initiative run by KIMO that I have supported for many years. In view of the time I have taken—notwithstanding interventions—I will spare the Chamber my comments on that, but the Minister can expect them to land in her correspondence bag in the near future.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. I suspect that most of us in the Chamber watched “Blue Planet II”, which reminded us—if we needed reminding—of the magic of the natural world. We were sickened by the sight of those giant, swirling plastic continents—some are bigger than France—that we have created. More than 1 million birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles die each year because of the plastic we continue to dump—some 12 million tonnes globally a year. We learnt that 90% of all seabirds tested last year were found to have plastic in their gut.
We have treated the environment with contempt, like a giant rubbish dump. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid. It appals all normal people. None of us wants to be part of the problem, but most of us, if not all, are, simply because it is so hard to escape plastic—it surrounds us. There are plastic cups, which have already been identified, as well as plastic water bottles, sandwich wrappers, plastic knives, forks and spoons, plastic straws and plastic stirrers, which inexplicably are still available in so many pubs. Totally unnecessarily packaging encases so much of the food and other products we buy in supermarkets.
We need to recognise and understand that as a consequence of a form of market failure. These things are used for a few seconds but last in the environment for many hundreds of years, and it is not the producers who pay the cost; we all do. This is a clear area where the market has simply failed to spot the cost of these products, which is why Government action is not only important but absolutely essential.
It has to be said that, relative to other Governments and other countries, what we have done is impressive. The 5p bag levy, which has already been mentioned, has been a tremendous success. We have banned microbeads and are therefore world leaders in that department. Our commitment to bring in the deposit return scheme for bottles and other products, and our commitments to ban straws, those absurd stirrers and plastic cotton buds are all excellent. I salute the Secretary of State for the leadership he has shown. Nevertheless, relative to the problem we face, those are baby steps, and we need much, much more.
We need to set up an urgent plan, a roadmap toward a genuine zero-waste society, and part of that must mean banning single-use plastics across the board and making it easier for the recycling business to recycle what we use. It is crazy, for example, that all local authorities have different rules on recycling. That just creates a confusing mess, and the sheer variety of plastics on offer does not help. We should be seeking to limit the range of plastics available, as Japan has done, to make it easier for things to be recycled and to make it certain that those products that are used can be recycled.
Where companies make things that cannot be recycled or repaired, they should be subject to some kind of higher tax, which can itself be recycled to pay to help those companies that are doing the right thing. That tax would, in a sense, be their paying for their own pollution footprint. Where companies are doing the right thing, we should help them. For example, the big retailers are a huge part of the problem today, but they could so easily become a huge part of the solution. The laggards need to be pressed by Government, and the pioneers need to be helped, perhaps through VAT reductions or reduced business rates, which could be paid for through those pollution taxes.
To know what is possible, we need only look at those pioneers. In January, we heard from the supermarket chain Iceland that it was to become the first major UK retailer to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products within five years. Iceland, by the way, was also the first big supermarket to ban the use of palm oil, which is devastating the world’s forests, particularly in and around Indonesia.
I will cut back what I was going to say, or I will run out of time. As has already been said, this is not just an issue for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Treasury, but an international issue, and therefore an issue for the Department for International Development. We have already heard that 90% of waste enters the oceans via just 10 rivers. That must be a priority for DFID, and I think we would find that even those people—not myself, I have to say—who are sceptical of that Department’s existence and our commitment to spend 0.7% of our annual budget on it would find this an issue that we should prioritise. I think Government action in that regard would be met with a big round of applause.
To give one example of those rivers, I discovered this morning that the Yangtze carries 1.5 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year. The Thames carries just 18 tonnes. That shows the sheer scale of the problem coming from some rivers, and it should be a priority.
I have something to ask the Government to do, before I add my complaint about the plastic cups, but I am going to reverse the order. I cannot tell hon. Members how many Select Committees have written to the House authorities saying, “We’ve got to get rid of these plastic cups,” how many individual MPs have echoed those demands in their own private letters, how many people have signed petitions or how many people have joined campaigns for a plastic-free Parliament. It is absurd that the cups are still here. I cannot understand it. Is it apathy? Is it incompetence? Is it lack of interest or laziness? I do not know, but there is no justifiable reason why they should still be here today. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take that message to the highest levels.
On a point of order, Sir Edward. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has just made is terribly important. It is hard to understand why the House authorities have not taken note of our calls for the abolition of plastics in Committees. Is this not a message that you, as the Chair, should be able to take to Mr Speaker and the Committees of the House, in the hope that they will finally listen to us?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to speak in this timely and important debate. I will go back to May 2017, when Greenpeace’s ship the Beluga II visited the Bass rock in East Lothian, bringing with it water sampling equipment to test the microplastics in the area. The Bass rock is important because it is the world’s largest northern gannet colony. The children who came out to see the Beluga II were so excited, enthralled and enthused by what they saw that they took up a beach clean and took it upon themselves—aged between seven and 11—to clean up the beach. They did that having spoken not just to those who come out and advertise such things, but to the scientists who were on the ship, who explained to them the damage that the plastic did.
That work moved on in East Lothian with Surfers Against Sewage, a group that rightly has great interest in what is in the seawater for its sport. It worked with Dunbar primary school, one of only 20 schools to have been awarded the title of ocean guardian, and works year on year with beach cleans of that sort. Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, has said that it is willing to provide the basic equipment for beach cleans. More importantly, it says:
“From grassroots to Government, the time to act is now.”
That is why today’s debate is so timely, because what happens in the very near future will make such a difference to our seas.
We have already heard mention of the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign. When the plastic whale, which has also visited Parliament, visited Musselburgh in my constituency, children flocked to see it. But they also went down again with the rangers of East Lothian Council to clean the beaches of plastic. I was privileged to be with them when they were interviewed by Sky. The children did not say they were doing it because Sky was there. They did not say they were doing it just for half a day away from school. They were stunned that people still dropped litter.
These primary school children understand something that, apparently, people forget as they grow older. They were aghast at what they found on the beaches. When it was suggested to them that perhaps it was teenagers who had dropped all the bottles, they said, “No it’s not; it’s adults,” and they picked the bottles up. That is testament to our young people and their understanding of and connection with the environment, which is something to be hopeful about and something we should promote.
In East Lothian, we have a charity called Fidra, which looks at the problem of nurdles. Nurdles are the small plastic balls that go to make all the plastic bottles we see. Nurdles are how raw plastic, for want of a better description, is transported around the world, and they make up an astronomically large proportion of the plastic damage in our oceans. The difficulty is that, much like the microbeads, once they get into the water, they are impossible to get out. Fidra is working hard with companies to change the way that nurdles are transported and to change business procedures, in order to prevent spillages and prevent the nurdles getting into the ocean.
Fidra also uses beach cleans to raise awareness of the matter. Working with children at Yellowcraig, a truly beautiful beach in East Lothian, over 400 nurdles were collected in just five minutes. That is a phenomenal amount to have washed up on a beach. Industrial spillage and mishandling then cause nurdles to float and travel around the world.
I also attended a nurdle hunt in North Queensferry with members of Fidra. While there is a great sense of displeasure from children and parents that this is happening to their beach and their environment, what steps can we take to get that message through to the people who produce the plastics in the first place, to ensure that we do not have to have beach cleans, but can have a policy that prevents it from happening in the first place?
That intervention brings me on to Operation Clean Sweep, an agreement that has come up from the plastics industry and is supported by both the British Plastics Federation and PlasticsEurope. The Operation Clean Sweep manual provides practical solutions to prevent nurdle loss for those who make, ship and use nurdles. The key message, of course, is good handling to reduce pellet loss and pellet use, which in turn goes to the type of plastic being used.
However, the work by young people, volunteer groups and charities will not be enough without political and, if necessary, legislative support. The EU is promoting the target of 2030 as the year by which member states should have phased out single-use plastics. The UK Government’s proposal of a 25-year environment plan appears to be, with all due respect, more of a repackaging of existing policies and previous announcements—I sincerely hope that the repackaging is not in plastic. It is our children who go to beach cleans, and our surfers who use the water. Through the conduit of the plastic whale and the nurdle hunts, they attack this issue with passion, enthusiasm and commitment. Unfortunately, those children will be in their 30s when the Government have caught up. We owe them more than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate. Like him, I represent a beautiful area of stunning coastline; it is one of only three constituencies that have two separate coastlines. I grew up in Cornwall and have noticed over my lifetime—growing up and spending as much time as I possibly could on beaches—the increasing amount of plastic being deposited from the sea on to our beaches and how that developed into something that we could no longer ignore. It is almost as though, collectively, the British public have had a lightbulb moment. For generations we have been abusing the seas that surround our country, seeing them as just a dumping site where we could throw anything, but we have suddenly come to the realisation that we cannot go on vandalising the seas that surround us.
A team effort has got us to this point. Hon. Members have mentioned the role that “Blue Planet II” played in bringing this issue to the public’s awareness. There has also been the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign. Newspapers have been involved; the Daily Mail has run a campaign on the issue. That has all contributed to getting us to this point.
I also pay tribute to the Cornwall-based charity Surfers Against Sewage, which I work closely with as chair of the Protect our Waves all-party parliamentary group. That charity has been campaigning since 1990 for us to stop abusing our seas and take action to clean them up and improve the quality of the water. It started by focusing on sewage and recently has been working to address the way plastic is affecting our oceans. Just two weekends ago it mobilised 35,000 people—I understand that it was one of the biggest volunteer mobilisations in the country—to carry out beach cleans right across our country, and they collected more than 65 tonnes of plastic from our beaches in just one weekend. That demonstrates just how much plastic is washed up on our beaches every day of the year.
Just as it has taken a team effort to bring this issue to the public’s awareness, so we now have, I believe, an unstoppable national grassroots movement, which is determined to address this issue, reduce the amount of plastic that we use and stop plastic polluting our marine environment. It will take a team effort to address it, and I believe that much of the pressure will come from consumers as they begin to demand that retailers and industry use less plastic in their packaging. I encourage every member of the British public to use their power as a consumer to force industry to make the necessary changes and cut back on the amount of plastic we use.
Clearly there is also a role for Government. We should congratulate the current Government on the action they have taken to start to address this issue—far more than any previous Government—and we should be proud of them for that. I am talking about the 5p plastic bag charge, which has resulted in 9 billion fewer plastic bags being used in our country, the microbead ban, the action to address straws and cotton buds, and the commitment to find a way to bring in a deposit return scheme to increase recycling.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for outlining those measures, many of which came from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I and other hon. Members in the Chamber serve. That Committee also suggested charges on disposable coffee cups, which has not come forward as a measure. What does he think about charges on disposable coffee cups—the so-called latte levy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that there has been a team effort within Parliament. The Environmental Audit Committee has played a role, as has the APPG that I chair. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, have played a role in sending a clear message that the Government need to take action, and the Government have responded and acted in a very responsible way to start to address that. The coffee cup challenge is a difficult one. It is very easy to say what we will do, but we have to work with industry to find a sustainable solution that will reduce the amount of plastic that we throw away and not do untold damage to our economy in the process. It is therefore right that the Government think carefully and consult on these issues; they must work with the industry.
Only yesterday, I met a company—it happens to be an Israeli company—that thinks it has found the solution to the coffee cup challenge. I hope that it will be able to bring that forward, but we also need to recognise that, in the supply chain, businesses have invested tens of millions of pounds in the current packaging system and it is therefore unrealistic to expect them to throw away that investment overnight and change the way they do things. We need to work with industry to come forward with sustainable solutions to the problem. I would love to see action taken, but we must ensure that it is the right sort of action. It is therefore right that the Government consider the issue carefully, rather than just jumping to a conclusion.
In the time left to me, I will make a point that has already been made. This is a global problem. It is very important that the UK takes a lead—that we get our own house in order so that we can take a lead internationally on the issue—but we have to work with other countries. It was good to see the progress that was made recently with the Commonwealth countries. Many of us would like to have seen more progress, but a step was taken forward, which is very welcome. We also need to use our influence around the world, through our aid budget and the Foreign Office, to ensure that we call other countries to account and that global action is taken to clean up our seas.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing this issue forward for consideration; I thank him for that. All the speeches so far have been excellent. I was raised learning that the Earth is the Lord’s and all within it belongs to Him. I was taught to be frugal and thrifty—or, as the girls in my office say, as an Ulster-Scot I am tight. Perhaps some of the boys, and ladies, in this Chamber will understand what that means. I do not like to buy things unnecessarily; that is a fact. If a mistake is made printing letterheads, the paper is turned over and used for other purposes. If envelopes have lost their stickiness, I put sellotape on them and make sure that they are used. It is a matter not simply of working to keep costs down, but of being a good steward. I believe that that is my job as an individual and one that we should be doing in the House.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) referred to plastic bags. I hail from Northern Ireland: we were the first country in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to introduce charges for plastic bags. We took the lead—we did the business, and everyone else followed. It is great to lead and have others follow; we enjoy doing that. The 5p per bag protocol was perhaps hard for some people to understand, yet as time has progressed there has been no more complaining, as people have got into the routine of putting bags in their cars. People adjust and get used to it; people do what has to be done.
The same goes for the introduction of recycling as a must for the local council. Black bins are collected in alternate weeks and recycling the other week. People have to think before they bin things, which, again, is the right way to do it. What are the results, from a local perspective? The local rates were kept down directly from money saved in landfill costs. Every year 8 child enjoyed a day seeing why we recycle and the difference that it makes. As has been said, it is a case of educating future generations to think differently from us. We as adults do not have the savvy that children have when it comes to litter and recycling, but we need to learn.
Has it been worth it thus far? The report that I read in a national newspaper, which indicated that the number of plastic bags found on the seabed has plummeted, suggests that it has. There have been some good things. It is all very well to be negative and critical, but at the end of the day we have to be positive as well. However, as is to be expected, plastic bags are not the only issue facing the marine environment. We are winning the war on plastic bags, and winning hearts and minds, but more has to be done.
As hon. Members have said, 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into oceans each year. Experts estimate that plastic is ingested by 31 species of marine mammal and more than 100 species of seabird. More than 9 billion fewer plastic bags have been used since the Government introduced the 5p charge. That is enough to wrap around the world more than 100 times. It is an outstanding reduction of 83%—good news—but we have to do more. The deep sea is now littered with plastic items, including bottles and fishing debris. The amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is touted to treble within a decade. If that does not shock us and make us want to do something, I am not sure what will.
The annual beach survey by the Marine Conservation Society recorded a 10% rise in litter in 2017. September’s “Great British Beach Clean” collected an average of 718 pieces of rubbish every 100 metres. There were 701 items per 100 metres in Northern Ireland—the second worst in the United Kingdom, so we have a lot to learn as well. It is good to highlight this matter, but it is equally important that we bring people along with us to understand exactly why steps are being taken and why we are asking people to remember to bring their reusable bottles and containers, and to stop using straws and so on.
I get the impression that the public are a step ahead of the Government and legislation. They are already prepared mentally and attitudinally to make the change. I spoke to our friends from Plastic Free Dunfermline, a group in my constituency that tries to make our town plastic-free. They talked about not applying levies or negative instruments on people, but being positive by encouraging retailers to provide water in the town’s shops, so that people can take a bottle and have it refilled at any point. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with such simple ideas?
So that more people can get in, Sir Edward, I will not take extra time. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly support what he said.
Many people may knee-jerk react and resist, but we are not eco-warriors on the attack. We should be eco-educators coming alongside people, as that will be more successful. I look to the method of my local council with regard to those who persist in refusing to recycle: three strikes and your bin is not lifted. Then they know what they need to do. The gentle approach has meant that very few bins are not lifted, and people in the borough are coming to terms with recycling in a way that is not offensive but inclusive. That is the approach that the Government—I look to the Minister—should use. We have a duty of care to our environment, but also to help people understand. Our approach must reflect that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. I stand as the Member for Stirling, a landlocked constituency, but, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the issue captures the imagination of constituents and matters a great deal to them.
I wholeheartedly welcome the recent Government announcement of their intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. I also welcome the Scottish Government’s consultation and proposal to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in Scotland, and there are reports that the Scottish Government might also consider banning plastic straws at the end of 2019. I strongly urge Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Administrations to work together in the development of those policy instruments. The Welsh Government have already said—
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who was about to turn to the Welsh Government, for giving way. Does he agree that Wales has been leading the way in this area as the third best recycling nation? Furthermore, it is very ambitious with a recycling and zero-waste target by 2050. Of course there is more to do, but Wales is certainly leading the way.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The Welsh Government are absolutely right to say that it is good for us to co-operate across these islands. Just because something is devolved does not mean that we should not work together to get the job done, and I hope that that is what will happen. I hope we will not see a divergence when there can be commonality and collaboration.
Recycling is a feasible solution, and stimulating the development of the market for recycled products is essential. In my constituency of Stirling, Graham’s Dairy is working with its bottle supplier, Nampak—also based in Stirling—to develop milk bottles that use significantly less plastic, yet maintain the same rigidity and security for the milk that we all buy. It uses a significant amount of recycled material in its bottles and that pays dividends in costs and allows its product to be more sustainable into the long term.
The innovations by Nampak to create a milk bottle that uses significantly less plastic is worthy of note, as are attempts to make a plastic that will degrade safely over a shorter period. We should never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit and inventiveness of British innovators and entrepreneurs, and we should do everything to encourage it.
There is a lot of talk about a deposit scheme, and I am very much behind that principle. Many of us in Scotland mourn the loss of the Barr deposit scheme. Returning your Irn-Bru bottle for money off your next purchase gave the bottles value and meant that consumers were rewarded for returning them and behaving in an environmentally appropriate way—so the cycle of Irn-Bru drinking would continue. This cyclical economy for waste, in which the packaging is returned and reused, is worth aspiring to.
There are lots of details to be worked out. Packaging is complex; the materials involved are sometimes not as simple as they appear to be and can be remarkably varied. Often the complexity of the materials makes recycling almost impossible and certainly makes sorting more difficult. The issue becomes about how to control what we create and what we demand as a society. How do we simplify and amalgamate our product packaging to ensure that it is simple enough to be disposed of? The issue becomes about how we treat the packaging as a part of the supply chain and how we as consumers behave. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) said, consumers are ahead of the wave in this respect.
I conclude with an apocryphal story from the constituency of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield). Last week, it was reported that a packet of Golden Wonder crisps from 1967 had been found on a beach in East Lothian. Neil McDonald found the 50-year-old wrapper while cleaning up a beach in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. STV News reported that it had apparently survived half a century beneath the dunes and may have been unearthed by heavy winds hitting the beach. The ready-salted packet of crisps had a promotion on it to enter a competition to win a Triumph estate car. That is how they were able to date the packet of crisps to 1967.
What Mr McDonald said is worth dwelling on in this debate. He was shocked when he discovered the age of the packet and how it had been preserved. He said:
“It was buried under the sand but I could see the corner edging out. I was very surprised, it’s quite frightening how durable these plastics can be. It’s a real indicator that we need to do more to control what goes into the ocean and on the coasts.”
That is incredibly profound and I genuinely believe that by innovating around packaging, both design and material, we can create solutions to the marine plastic challenge, which can then be exported around the world, as has been mentioned by several hon. Members. By innovating to change habits and create new disposal techniques, we can lead the way on systems that can be adopted by the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate, which is timely and extremely important and means a great deal to me personally. I am a lifelong conservationist. I am particularly interested in birds and marine life. I am a member of my local wildlife trust and, with particular relevance to this debate, a member of the Maritime Conservation Society and a diver. I am not only interested in the things we have been discussing today, but I can see with my own eyes the beauty of the oceans and have a real personal interest in ensuring that they are clean and fit for us and for future generations.
The interest in the oceans and our environment and in keeping them clean and pristine goes way beyond those who simply use them for recreation. The “Blue Planet” programme has of course been referred to. It is intrinsic in all of us that we have an affinity for the natural world, but particularly for the oceans. Perhaps we think of the Apollo photographs with the “blue marble” floating in space, that the oceans and our part in them are all wrapped up together and that they are intrinsic to our feeling for the natural world. Whatever the reason, it none the less matters hugely to us all.
My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), is landlocked, but a great many rivers run through west Oxfordshire and of course flow to the sea. Water pollution and quality are big issues in my constituency; they matter a great deal to my constituents. The statistics bear that out: 12 million tonnes were discarded last year, 80% of which was lost on land, in rivers such as those that flow through west Oxfordshire, ending up in the sea. Only 57% was collected for recycling, although west Oxfordshire has a relatively high recycling rate—one of the highest in the country—but more must be done. We must put a stop to the problem. We must work to eradicate plastics in the oceans, for all our sakes in the years to come.
A lot has been done—I welcome everything that the Government have done. They have already taken great strides, particularly under the current Secretary of State, and things have become turbocharged: banning microbeads; the incredibly successful approach to single-use plastics introduced under the coalition Government; the bottle deposit that has been mentioned already, and which is extremely encouraging; and the ban on straws, cotton buds and stirrers.
However, there is more to do. We must do more on recycling, and the issue must be introduced to people’s education. It is a question of personal choice: we have all had the battle between conscience and convenience, when we go to buy a coffee and wish that we did not have to use a disposable cup, or water and we wish we did not have to use the plastic bottle—but we do. That is why the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign was so significant. We can all get into the habit of using those water canisters every time we go to buy a bottle. The Government are consulting, in the 25-year environment plan, on free water fountains so that wherever people are they can fill a canister for free, without having to buy water and, as a by-product, the plastic they do not want.
In addition, we must simply reduce the amount of packaging that we use. I commend Iceland for its attitude to reducing its plastic use. I echo all that has been said about working with industry. Producers have a role, and there are excellent innovators looking at ways to find better plastics, or to reduce or reuse plastic—perhaps using biodegradable materials when plastics are unavoidable.
The UK is leading the world. The Government have taken necessary and brave steps and the 25-year environment plan is a big part of what they are doing. We are on the right track, but the oceans are our shared heritage. Their health is our responsibility, and we must get things right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate.
The marine environment stretches way beyond our 200-mile territorial waters, but that does not reduce the UK’s responsibilities. However, it is staggering to discover that, as other hon. Members have mentioned, 90% of plastic pollution in the seas comes from 10 major rivers, eight of which are in Asia, the others being the Nile and the Niger in Africa. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has said, the Yangtze is a major producer, but the Ganges produces an estimated 900,000 tonnes. That is why I welcomed the announcement by the Secretary of State for International Development of her Department’s commitment to support research and carry out waste management pilot programmes. We should also consider conditional aid. On so many fronts, it is great news: livelihoods and health will be protected, the oceans will be cleaned up and jobs will be provided for some of the world’s poorest people.
Reducing plastic loads by 50% in the rivers ranked in the top 10 would reduce the total river-based load going to the sea by 45%, according to research by Christian Schmidt. There is an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic in the world. What is at issue is not the propensities of plastic, but what we do with it. If 10 rivers are largely responsible for getting discarded plastic to the ocean, it is obvious, if we follow the 80/20 rule, what our priority should be. The US and Europe are not mismanaging their collected waste; the plastic in developing world rivers is due to littering, industrial and building waste, and poor waste collection. We in the west should, of course, reduce plastic use and lead the way on recycling, but China alone is estimated to cause 2.4 million tonnes of plastic waste. That is 28% of the world total. The US, the biggest consumer country on the planet, produces 77,000 tonnes, or 1% of the total.
Many of those taking part in the debate will reasonably ask Ministers why we are not moving faster in the matters of plastic bottles and coffee cups, and why the 25-year plan is not more ambitious. I am conscious of the time and will cut my speech short, but I shall end with something that the Environment Secretary said recently:
“When it comes to our seas and oceans, the challenge is global so the answer must be too.”
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. In passing, I wonder whether the Triumph car lasted as long as the crisp bag with the promotion for it. I suspect not.
I welcome the debate, at a time when the Government are already being proactive in addressing public concern about plastic waste and, in particular, its impact on the marine environment. The subject is close to my heart, as for 10 years as a local councillor in Ayr I undertook a weekly litter pick—land-based, not sea-based. My thanks go to Cathy, Mary, Ross, Betty and David, and many others who were a great help over that decade. I also thank the local Rotary clubs for their annual contribution to a beach clean that lifts tonnes of litter from the lovely beaches around Ayrshire. However, as has been said, that approach, though welcome, is not the answer.
Discarded plastic places the natural balance of the marine ecosystem at risk, including the lives of many marine species. Off the coast of my constituency is Ailsa Craig, an attraction for tourists and ornithologists. Among the birds that nest on the island are a colony of puffins which were recently reintroduced. It would be shameful if discarded plastic caused a decline in their numbers or indeed the numbers of any other coastal seabirds. I am advised by Plymouth Marine Laboratory that the six commonest seaborne litter items are on the increase year after year. The majority, but not all, come off the land: they are small plastic items, plastic food packaging, wet wipes, which have been mentioned, polystyrene foam, balloons and, not surprisingly, nylon fishing nets. Up to 80% of seaborne plastic has been discarded on land, having found its way into the sea via rivers and estuaries, but at some point it must have been discarded by our fellow human beings in a range and variety of countries throughout the world.
The ban on the manufacture of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products came into force in January 2018, with a ban on their sale to follow. That step forward by the Government is surely welcome. On 18 April 2018 the Government announced their intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. I also commend the Scottish Government. They are consulting on banning plastic-stemmed cotton buds and will have set a determined target to end the use of plastic straws by 2019. The use of single-use carrier bags has fallen by 83% since 2015, which is, again, to be welcomed.
I recently visited a holiday park—Turnberry, near Girvan. Those who run it have, of their own volition, taken it upon themselves to end the use of plastic straws, plastic stirrers and single-use cups. I commend that organisation and any other that has taken up the cudgels to improve the environment. I welcome the Government’s consideration of several initiatives, such as bottle return deposit schemes, bottle refill points and a levy on single-use coffee cups. Amn’t I pleased that I do not drink coffee! I am a tea drinker—perhaps it will apply to tea as well. They are also considering an extension of the 5p charge for single-use carrier bags.
It is important that all nations throughout the world work together with manufacturers and retailers to reduce dependency on plastics. My thanks go to those companies, such as Iceland, that have indicated support for ending the use of single-use plastic. The Government’s 25-year environment plan is to be commended. One could call it ambitious, and it is the right thing to do, but I think it could be more ambitious, and it could be accelerated, because there is an appetite among the British public to end the catastrophe happening in the oceans. The Government can exert better influence. We need, as I have said, to work with other nations throughout the world. With a bit of effort we can end this disaster.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our age. I represent the seaside constituency of Southport, which has a long-standing maritime culture, and like all those who have seen the scale of this issue at first hand, I know that it can be solved only by co-ordinated international action.
Just as coal dust in our cities was the unfortunate by-product of the first industrial revolution, plastic in our oceans and maritime environments has become the by-product of the second. It is essential that our Government—indeed, every national Government—act now. I am delighted that DEFRA now has at its helm the most prominent Secretary of State for that Department for a generation, and under his stewardship I am sure that these often under-reported issues will be given the attention they deserve.
It is terrifying that 8 million tonnes of plastic are released into the ocean each year, and with the emergence of the new tiger economies, that number is sadly set to rise. Much of the plastic that finds its way into oceans ends up in one of the main ocean gyres, where it spins around in giant whirlpools, devastating marine life, and is almost impossible to remove. The plastic that does not fall into a gyre invariably floats around the sea until it washes up on land, damaging the local ecology, disrupting tourism and presenting health hazards.
The results of the great British beach clean undertaken by the Marine Conversation Society show that litter on our beaches is up by 10%, with a staggering 718 pieces of predominately plastic rubbish found in every 100-metre area cleaned. Southport’s beach is famously big and stretches out to the horizon. If we apply that statistic to the town’s beach, I dread to think how many pieces of plastic and other detritus are covering it at this very moment. Whether or not they consider themselves to be environmentally conscientious, I am sure that all Members present will share my sadness about that fact.
I am a great believer in the 25-year environmental plan, and a UK with absolutely no plastic waste is an achievable goal, despite the amount of plastic debris discarded every day. A quarter of a century is a long time, and I would be interested to know whether there have been any discussions about reducing that time frame. My constituents in Southport are weary of the damage that discarded plastic has done to the town, the beach and tourism, and they are keen for improvement over the next few years, rather than the next few decades. As we leave the EU, we have the chance to be a world leader in environmental standards, and ridding ourselves of plastic waste is the first step. Be it bottles, bags or microbeads, plastic has destroyed our oceans, killed our marine life and ravaged our maritime environments for too long. It is my hope that we are now on the cusp of serious change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. He made some good points about plastic waste, which is now a fashionable topic. The Government are now at a privileged moment in time in which to take further action on the pollution of our environment, and I hope they take that opportunity.
Members have demonstrated the will to work across the devolved Parliaments. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) made superb points about market failure. He reiterated that there is confusion regarding the disposal of a vast amount of products in our shops. Reducing VAT on such products would be a superb nudge to everyone involved in making and disposing of them.
I thank all previous speakers for their views on this highly important issue. I am delighted to take part in a debate on a topic about which I feel strongly, namely the scourge of plastic pollution on the environment. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned Barr’s Irn-Bru deposit scheme. How far-sighted of that company, which started in the Falkirk area—[Interruption.] I thought you would like that, Stephen.
While watching the magnificent “Blue Planet”, I was struck by how much we have to thank David Attenborough for ending his TV series with the theme of protecting our marine life. It is a subject close to my heart, and I know the public feel strongly about it, too. Many of my constituents have contacted me about it, and in my work with the Environmental Audit Committee the fight to halt the pollution of our seas by plastic waste goes on.
Scotland has been praised for leading the way in this battle. Nurdle hunt events on beaches in my constituency and East Lothian have allowed people to see how many tiny pieces of plastic litter our rock pools and sand. Because of that, and other awareness-raising events around the country, people have increasingly added their support to combating that creeping threat to waterways. We welcomed the successful UK ban on microbeads, which is a positive move in the ongoing war against pollution. However, the ban covers only products that are designed to go down the drain, which does not even include cosmetics, never mind consumer products. More must be done.
As you know, Sir Edward, many individuals and companies are undertaking good initiatives. For example, on Sunday 29 April I was invited to attend the 100th anniversary of the Falkirk and District Boys Brigade service at Larbert Old church. The Very Rev. Dr John Chalmers, who was a former moderator, spoke and his message was very clear. His speech was captivating. It was about where our planet came from, how it began, and he spoke about “great radiance”, and how we must look after this planet. Those words were not lost on anyone attending the service, especially the young people present. They get the message, and so should decision makers in this place.
Scotland’s decision to charge 5p for a plastic bag was taken up across the UK—I might have a disagreement here with my friend from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—and that was another good move for the environment. Sadly, after Brexit we have no guarantees from the UK Government that Scotland will still be in charge of its own laws for protecting our clean water and land. We must keep pressing for answers, and we will.
On my visits to local supermarket giants Asda and Tesco, it was encouraging to see their work to reduce plastic in their products and packaging. Ordinary items such as cotton buds cause real problems for marine life. Through time, they are gradually broken down into small plastic fragments that are scattered through our waterways. That is a massive problem, and we must all do our bit to help reduce it. The Co-op ceased using microbeads in its products in the ’90s, as did Falkirk’s Scottish Fine Soaps Company.
There is more good news, and creative thinking, in a scheme that involves authors and illustrators, including Quentin Blake and Robert Macfarlane, from the publisher Penguin Random House. That new campaign centres on reducing the use of plastics in the book industry. Authors4Oceans asks publishers, book shops and readers to reduce the amount of plastic they use by finding eco alternatives to the bags, straws, bottles and single-use cutlery that ends up at the bottom of the sea. Even its jiffy bags are going to be plastic free.
The alliance between big business and the public is what gets things done and brings about change. The rising tide of plastic waste in the ocean has been described by the UN oceans chief as a “planetary crisis”. How can we disagree with that? There is increasing public appetite for urgent action. It is a horrific fact that in some parts of the sea there is now more plastic by weight than plankton, and that impacts on the environment, wildlife and people. The quantity of plastic in our oceans grows by about 8 million tonnes per year, and plastic production is set to double.
DEFRA’s marine litter monitoring, which measures the number of items found on the sea floor, found an increase of 150% last year. Meanwhile, the UK approach to this crisis remains rather inward-looking. Let us get away from this silo-thinking. Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, the UK seems to lack a clear plan. Although the UK marine strategy acknowledges plastic as a problem in the context of marine litter and as a danger to wildlife, the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into plastic bottles criticised it for its weak analysis. The EAC identified the need for more research, and outlined a basic environmental monitoring programme. Actual measures were sparse—surely the precautionary principle would suggest that we act as well as research the problem. The only monitoring of floating plastics under the marine strategy is a DEFRA initiative to measure the prevalence of plastic items in the stomachs of dead seabirds, especially fulmars, that members of the public have found washed up on the beach. A fulmar is roughly the size of a small chicken, and it only eats plastic that looks like fish eggs—I have here some nurdles; these are what kill the birds—so that plan will not detect items such as floating water bottles.
Marine issues are transnational, and the EU’s integrated maritime policy provides the framework through which the UK and its neighbours strategise and legislate for the future of their seas. What will happen to that co-operation post-Brexit? Amid the uncertainty, we have an onslaught of words and announcements, including consultations on charges for single-use plastics and a deposit return scheme for England. As hon. Members know, the Scottish Government have already committed to such a scheme. Local authorities in England and Wales can issue on-the-spot fines for litter louts, but what about fly-tippers who refuse to pay up?
The Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme has signed up major retailers and manufacturers to its plastics pact and promises a “resource revolution”. That is good, but it does not go far enough, because there is no enforcement mechanism. The UK Government are taking a soft approach by refusing to implement practical solutions recommended by the EAC such as the 25p latte levy, and instead they seek voluntary agreements with coffee chains.
The UK Government have sought only voluntary agreements for manufacturers and retailers to reduce plastic packaging. Like the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), I would like to use the nudge principle and colour code all plastic bottles and coffee cups in green, amber and red, to make it simple, so that when people have the thing in front of them, they can put it into the appropriate coloured bin. For example, action on microbeads was limited to a narrow class of products, against the advice of the EAC. There is too much reliance on citizen participation, though it is great to clean up litter and collect research data. Austerity is forcing local authorities to cut essential services that are needed to help them meet litter-related targets.
Over the years, I have felt that my concerns with environmental issues have often fallen on deaf ears. I do not feel that any more. I think the public are behind us and we are finally realising that there is no such thing as throwing something away on our poor, choked planet. I will conclude by saying that if you want to change the world, you get busy in your own little corner. The EAC has already done that and it has served this Parliament well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate. Like other hon. Members, on both sides, he articulated incredibly well how taking action on plastic waste will require a variety of approaches, not simply legislation.
Like the constituencies of the hon. Members for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), Halifax could not be any more landlocked, but this is still an issue that many of my constituents feel strongly about. This debate is timely. Although the Government have made some bold announcements about their policies on plastic waste, like other hon. Members I am keen to ensure that the talk is backed up with decisive and urgent action.
Like the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), the shadow DEFRA team has also sought to engage with the House authorities on the prevalence of single-use plastics across the parliamentary estate. We, too, have found that engagement challenging. We are keen to pursue it and make some progress. I join my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) in saying that so often it is children and young people who, on occasion, get a bad reputation for engaging in litter and plastic waste, but often they are among the most concerned about the issue, and are involved in some of the most positive examples we have seen in clean-ups and taking action, which is delivering a benefit to coastal communities.
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I am hopeful that she will provide a positive response to many of the issues raised in the contributions, which I thought were outstanding. We heard in shocking detail about the true scale of the plastic waste crisis. Greenpeace estimates that 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year—equivalent to a truck-load of rubbish every minute. The waste includes everything we might expect from our throw-away society, from plastic bottles and bags to fruit stickers and disposable razors. We are becoming increasingly aware of the impact this can have on our sea life, with large plastic pieces poisoning whales or entangling turtles and smaller pieces entering the ocean food chain as they are eaten by smaller fish.
Like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Members for Richmond Park and for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), I pay tribute to the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” series, which inspired both wonder at the beauty of the world’s oceans, and horror at the way they are being desecrated. The BBC’s natural history unit and David Attenborough deserve huge credit for highlighting exactly why our marine environment must be protected. Since the series was broadcast, it has been heartening to see the war on plastics go from something of a fringe issue to dominating the mainstream political agenda. People across the country are switching to reusable bags, bottles and coffee cups, and retailers are being challenged on social media for examples of excessive and wasteful packaging in their stores. It is good to hear that many events such as this year’s tennis championships at Wimbledon are going straw-free, after handing out 400,000 last year.
The Government have taken steps in the right direction. We are happy to support those initiatives, which play a role in reducing the plastic waste entering our oceans. We have supported the microbeads ban and have continually called for action on straws and a plastic bottle deposit return scheme. We welcome the approach of addressing plastic waste not simply as a national problem, but as an international problem that requires international co-operation—a point made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). However, we are keen, where appropriate, to push the Government to go faster and be bolder wherever possible across this policy area.
Labour has a keen record of protecting our marine environment. I must mention that one of the proudest achievements of the previous Labour Government was the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This created a system for improving the management and protection of coastal ecosystems. It is in this tradition that the shadow DEFRA team has been working on a number of campaigns to tackle plastic waste and protect our sea life.
The Minister and I share a passion to see plastic straws become a thing of the past. Last year, I wrote to the top 20 bar and restaurant chains in the country, urging them to adopt a “straws on request only” policy and asking them to stock biodegradable straws only for those who do require them. The response was positive and several major chains responded with a commitment to remove straws from their businesses. Upon realising that plastics have crept into tea bags, Labour’s DEFRA team sent letters to the top tea bag producers, urging them to consider plastic-free alternatives. Responses are coming back from these firms and it has been reassuring to see the appetite for action on this specific product, which is just one of so many products that we will need to consider redesigning.
We recognise that the priority for marine pollution at present is stopping plastics getting into the oceans. This will of course require changing consumer behaviour and business practice, as well as improved product design. It will also require Government leadership to encourage recycling and incentivise making single-use plastics unavailable. Yet our concerns about this Government stem from the fact that they have failed to bring forward a single piece of primary legislation on any of their announcements on the environment since the last election. The deposit return scheme for plastic bottles really highlights how the Government’s environmental policy is quick to get the headlines, but much slower to take action in reality. The Secretary of State has now confirmed that a consultation on the specifics of a deposit return scheme will have to wait until the conclusion of the ongoing single-use plastic tax consultation by the Treasury.
The Minister will already be aware that, as a country, we use 13 billion plastic drinks bottles every year, but more than 3 billion are still not recycled. Why is it taking Government so long to introduce a deposit return scheme, when 700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day? We are told to expect a date of 2020, but with so much uncertainty at present and timelines sliding across a range of DEFRA policy areas, when will we see a commitment that a deposit return scheme will be introduced?
It is a similar story with coffee cups. Some 99.75% of disposable coffee cups used in Britain are not recycled. In 2011, it was estimated that we threw away 2.5 billion coffee cups a year in the UK, and the figure will have inevitably increased since then. A poll for The Independent found that 54% of the public support a latte levy of 25% on all drinks sold in disposable cups. Businesses are taking the lead, as we have heard, with Starbucks trialling a 5p surcharge at 35 locations across London, and Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee and Greggs all offering discounts for bringing a reusable cup. The Secretary of State seemed to be taking serious action on the issue. As hon. Members may remember, in January he highlighted the issue by handing out reusable coffee cups to all members of the Cabinet. Yet once again, after a few good headlines, the action failed to materialise when the Government rejected the latte levy in March. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what steps, if any, the Government are planning to take to tackle the problem of disposable coffee cups.
To add to this inaction in preventing plastic waste, we are also concerned about the Government’s approach to recycling the waste that is already produced. Progress on recycling must be driven through a comprehensive framework. Hon. Members will be aware that the EU has brought forward a target of 2030 for phasing out single-use plastics. Compare those ambitious targets with the Government’s 25-year environment plan. While the EU is outlining exactly where targets need to be met, the Government’s plan states that they will be developing ambitious new future targets and milestones, but that it will take 25 years to tackle single-use plastics. I am glad that the Government have now agreed to support the EU targets. However, it is concerning that, as we leave the EU, we stand to lag behind our neighbours on this issue.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention that cuts to local authorities have impacted on their ability to collect waste in a timely and efficient manner, as we have heard. An increasing number of councils are opting for collections every three weeks, with many introducing increased charges for bulky waste or garden waste collections. Although some of the Government’s work in this area is certainly welcomed, we would all like to see efforts go much further.
There is undoubtedly an international element to this work, as we have heard. I hope that the Minister can explain why, despite the profile given to the issue of marine pollution and plastics at the recent Commonwealth summit, only four Commonwealth countries joined the Government’s clean oceans alliance.
To conclude, we look to the Minister to allay our fears and show that the Government are about actions as well as headlines. I hope that she will commit to taking the boldest steps to combat the consumption and littering of single-use plastics, which do so much harm to our cherished marine environments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate. I am pleased to inform the House of our progress in addressing the global issue of plastic pollution in the maritime environment. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked passionately about wanting to introduce biodegradable straws, and I am pleased that we will be able to do that in due course. We must be able to prevent and tackle waste wherever it appears, which is why it is important to work on a domestic and a global scale. We work with multilateral organisations, such as the G7, which is developing a plastics charter, and the UN on the clean seas initiative. Through the International Maritime Organisation, we collectively oversee the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, which is of similar importance.
At the Commonwealth summit two weeks ago, the Prime Minister outlined her key priorities for oceans. The 53 nations set out a Commonwealth blue charter, which highlighted the key things for tackling issues affecting the blue sea. It was important that we could work together to find an interest in how to develop the responses to some of those challenges, particularly those that focus on improvements to oceans and plastics.
During the Commonwealth meeting, we announced with Vanuatu that we had set up an agreement in which Commonwealth member states will join forces in the fight against plastic pollution by pledging action and enterprising approaches, such as the global ghost gear initiative, which seeks to encourage the greater removal of one of the most dangerous forms of marine litter. Seven countries have come forward so far in support of the alliance: New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, Ghana, St Lucia, Fiji and Sri Lanka. Engaging companies and non-governmental organisations will be essential to meet the challenge of plastic pollution.
The Commonwealth clean oceans alliance will work in partnership with the World Economic Forum, Sky, Waitrose, Coca-Cola, Fauna and Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature to share expertise and experience and push for global change. The Prime Minister also announced £61.4 million in funding to boost global research and to help countries across the Commonwealth stop plastic waste entering the oceans.
Our deposit return scheme has been highlighted. It is key that we want to boost recycling rates and reduce littering of those bottles. As has been said, it will be subject to consultation later this year. One of the challenges of the DRS is that in this country we use more plastic material in the on-the-go environment than any other country around the world. It will take some time for us to come up with the context to put forward because we have to recognise that the process that individuals use, and the way the scheme is processed, is quite different in Norway, Sweden and Germany, which I went to see. We need to consider how we can bring the scheme in line with transport activities. On-the-go activity needs to be considered to ensure that, instead of people throwing plastics away to be disbanded or having always to take them back to their homes or to a particular supermarket, there are potentially ways open to submit them at a rail station or something similar nearby.
We have already committed to reforming our producer responsibility schemes to better incentivise producers to be more resource efficient. We are already talking to industry and other groups about how we might reform the packaging waste regulations to encourage businesses to design their packaging products in a more sustainable way, to encourage the greater use of recycled material in those products, and to stimulate the increase of collection, reprocessing and recycling of packaging waste. As part of the upcoming resources and waste strategy, we will set out options for the kind of packaging waste producer responsibility system that we think will work best to deliver our ambitions.
Earlier this year we announced our world-leading ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, which will finally come into force before the end of next month. Furthermore, we have announced that, subject to a consultation later this year, we will remove the sale of plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. We will consider, however, that straws may be required by some consumers who suffer from disabilities and other medical conditions. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland highlighted, Scotland has also announced a consultation on those matters. We are keen to continue to work with the devolved Administrations so that we share ambitions to take things forward. We will recognise that as we take steps forward.
Our plastic bag charge has been in place since 2015. To give credit to the other nations, England was the last to introduce it. We have had huge success since then, with more than 9 billion bags being taken out of circulation. We have announced that we will take further action on all plastic bags, and in the short term, newsagents have started to take proactive action. Recent research by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science showed a decrease in the amount of plastic bags found on the UK’s seabed.
We will continue to look at ways to reduce plastic waste. Improving and encouraging the removal of high-harm material such as ghost gear should be encouraged. In his spring statement, the Chancellor launched a call for evidence to seek views on how the tax system or charges could reduce waste from single-use plastics. We need to get better at understanding potential forms, sources and types of impact of different types of marine litter. The Marine Management Organisation is looking at evidence in English seas for that. To improve understanding about the origin of litter and its potential extraction, we are working through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation to improve capability to mark fishing gear, which supports our guidance in UK waters. Ropes, lines and pots are marine litter of the highest harm type. To reduce that threat, the UK co-leads an action group with Sweden within the OSPAR convention to develop and promote best practice for the fishing industry and competent authorities.
The Government cannot do it alone. We support initiatives such as Fishing for Litter, the beach cleans run by the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage, and the other work that people do every day to clean up our seas and look for new ways to reuse and recycle what is recovered. We are pleased that Morrisons has recently announced that it will sign the global ghost gear initiative. We are delighted to be supporting the ground-breaking UK plastics pact that was announced last week, which brings together more than 40 companies, NGOs and the Government with the aim of creating a circular economy to tackle plastic waste.
I hope that I have provided the House with a satisfactory outline of what we are doing to reduce plastic waste in the marine environment. We will continue to work with other countries, NGOs, industry and experts from across the board to go further.
I thank the Minister for her attendance and engagement with us. It is apparent from the debate that there is broad agreement across the House. We accept that the Government have done a lot in this regard, but we look to them to do more. The more they do, and the faster they do it, the more support they will get across the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government policy on reducing plastic waste in the marine environment.
Ticket Touting: Musical Events
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered ticket touting and musical events.
Thank you very much, Sir Christopher, for calling me to speak. It is really good to renew our acquaintance after all the years we spent together on the Scottish Affairs Committee, and I congratulate you on your recent knighthood. I also refer people to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It should be the easiest thing in the world: simply buying a ticket to go and see a rock concert—I have you down, Sir Christopher, as a grime fan. When you try to secure your Stormzy ticket, it should be straightforward, but swimming through shark-infested waters would probably be an easier and safer thing to do than trying to buy a ticket for a popular musical show.
From the first click of the mouse in their quest to secure a ticket, customers are exposed to any number of touts, profiteers and spivs, who are determined to exploit them and maximise their own return at the customer’s expense. Customers will come into contact with an out-of-control, all-consuming, rip-off machine, which operates from the artist’s management and promoter all the way down to the venue and ticketing agency, and then all the way down to the tout and the unsuspecting fan. It is a business model designed to maximise profits and exploit its consumer base, and it has become one of the biggest consumer crises that we face in this country today. Quite simply, our ticketing infrastructure is irredeemably broken and beyond repair.
Let us have a cursory look at how this system has been created and designed. Touting has always gone on; it was probably going on in the Colosseum in the Roman empire. As a young lad trying to secure my Clash tickets, I certainly saw touts outside the venues, selling tickets for a few pounds extra. So touting has always happened, but the way it is designed just now is almost on an industrial scale, and it is riddled with all sorts of pernicious arrangements and invidious relationships.
The situation was probably defined in 2010, when the largest live music promoter in the world, Live Nation, bought the largest ticket agency in the world, Ticketmaster, creating something close to a monopoly on the live music scene. In addition, Ticketmaster just so happens to own two out of “the big four” secondary sites, Get Me In! and Seatwave; the touts like to do most of their business on those four sites.
What has been created, therefore, is a vertically integrated model that works in almost perfect partnership and symbiosis, whereby everybody gets their cut and their share. I will try to describe it as best I can. Live Nation, which is the largest music promoter in the world, ensures that venues employ Ticketmaster to sell the tickets for the artists that it represents. Tickets then go on sale, but they are hoovered up on an industrial scale by the touts and the scalpers. They are then put up for sale by the touts on the secondary sites owned by Ticketmaster, at hugely inflated prices.
My hon. Friend will be aware that I have a long-standing interest in this issue. Does he agree that the measures announced by the UK Government to outlaw the so-called ticket-bots cannot come soon enough and have been too long in the waiting?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and she is absolutely and utterly right. Last week, I listened to the presentation by the Competition and Markets Authority at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse, which was hosted by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). These measures have been far too slow in coming; the Government need to get a move on with them. I will come back to that point later, because what the Government are doing is important, but there is lethargy at the heart of their response.
I was trying to describe how all this works. We have Live Nation putting on the shows and Ticketmaster selling the tickets at the venues, which are all hoovered up by the touts. The tickets then go on sale on the secondary sites owned by Ticketmaster. Google is then incentivised to promote those secondary sites by placing them at the top of their searches. So what happens in this perfect model is that the touts get their hit on the secondary sites and Google gets a share, but critically Ticketmaster and Live Nation secure their secondary cut from their secondary sites.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. We have had numerous debates on this issue over the years, but this one is extremely timely, with the “bot law” coming in just last week, and following the meeting that we had with the CMA. He mentioned Google. Does he agree that most people are driven to these sites by Google? If he does, does he also agree that Google has a role to play—by not giving these sites top billing and by ensuring that consumers realise that these markets are secondary markets and not primary ones?
Absolutely, and what Google actually does is breach its own certification rules, which suggest that it must ensure that such sites are designated as secondary sites. Google has a big role to play in this, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention it.
This business model is almost elegant in its exploitative design. Last year, Live Nation made over £1 billion just from its secondary sites. There is also good anecdotal evidence, which I will try to relay under parliamentary privilege, suggesting that the players at the very top of the music business tree—at management level and at promoter level—have a working relationship with some of the biggest touts in the world, to ensure that the wheels and the cogs of this huge, exploitative machine are properly oiled and working at maximum efficiency.
Everywhere throughout this broken infrastructure, relationships and models of exploitation such as those I have mentioned are the norm. StubHub is another one of the “big four” secondary sites. It is owned by eBay, which purchased it in 2007. StubHub now has a global partnership with AEG, which just so happens to operate the O2 and Wembley Arena. That means that, by default, the parasite-infested StubHub is the official resale partner of the O2 and Wembley Arena, which are two of the most prestigious venues in the United Kingdom.
However, the daddy of them all is the truly appalling and exploitative Viagogo. I do not know what arrangement Viagogo has with Google, but if you were to look online for your Stormzy ticket, Sir Christopher, you would be directed to Viagogo to try and purchase it.
Our ticketing infrastructure, therefore, is a broken monolith of misery, where tech giants are in cahoots with touts, who are in cahoots with the promoters and managers. But I will spend just a couple of minutes on Viagogo. How a company that exists exclusively to exploit people and to rip them off is allowed to continue operating is simply beyond me. If anybody is watching this debate at home, I say to them, “Do not buy tickets from Viagogo! Go nowhere near them! You will be ripped off totally! Do not touch them!”
At the all-party group meeting last week, I listened to some of the unfortunate victims of Viagogo. Viagogo is so exploitative that a self-help group has emerged among its customers—that group has thousands and thousands of members, who are ordinary, honest people just trying to secure a ticket for a friend or a grandchild, or as a rare treat for themselves. They had no reason to believe that the simple fact of trying to buy a ticket would expose them to such shark-infested waters and such danger. Why would they? Here was “nice Mr Google” directing them to these sites, so that they could find tickets. But that is where the horror starts, as the victims of Viagogo are exposed to all sorts of hard sells, tricks and exploitative practices.
I am intervening because I want the hon. Gentleman to join me in congratulating Claire Turnham for her amazing work. She set up Victims of Viagogo, originally because she was a victim herself and wanted to try to get her money back. After that long fight, however, she put out the information she had gathered, in order to help others. She has now helped thousands of people to receive hundreds of thousands of pounds in refunds. So will he join me in welcoming Claire’s work?
I have no hesitation in doing so, and I also commend the hon. Lady herself for her diligent work over the years in chairing the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. In fact, it is in my speech to congratulate Claire Turnham, whom I met last week and who has done a fantastic job. She has managed to reclaim thousands and thousands of pounds for the Victims of Viagogo, but why should she have to do that? It is not the job of individuals—drummers, guitarists and singers—to protect the public; it is the Minister’s job. That is your job, Minister. It should be you who is protecting people—not individuals such as Claire Turnham, who are having to do that difficult job.
I heard about the emotional impact of being ripped off and realised how stressful and difficult it is for people to try to reclaim the money they have been swindled out of. I heard that health, relationships and work have all seriously suffered. As a musician, I heard about people being put off attending gigs for the rest of their lives because of the experience they have suffered from these parasites and companies that exist solely to rip people off.
My hon. Friend has been very generous with his time. He talks about the vast number of people who are exploited by these big businesses moving in and hoovering up tickets. Does he agree that it looks like the only way to stop this practice is to legally cap the price of resale tickets?
I have got an even better and more elegant solution than my hon. Friend’s, and I beg her to be patient; I will get to it. The issue has to be tackled properly. There is no point mucking around, doing things tentatively. We have to grab the bull by the horns. If she gives me a few minutes, I will get to that point.
I want to explain my renewed interest in the matter, Sir Christopher, because I know you will be absolutely fascinated. My former band, Runrig, put tickets on sale for their last ever concert, which will be at Stirling castle later this year. As the last ever concert, it was obviously going to be popular. There was no way that supply would ever satisfy demand, so it was going to be a target for the touts. Within minutes of tickets going on sale, I was inundated with Runrig fans angry, frustrated and disappointed with the experience of trying to secure a ticket. I was provided with screengrabs of tickets available on the secondary site, Get Me In!, at four times the face value of the tickets that the secondary site owner, the official agent Ticketmaster, had just put on sale 12 minutes earlier.
Runrig did everything possible to spare their fans from the touts, but it is almost impossible to evade their parasitic reach. Since then, I have watched through disbelieving eyes the misery extended to other live music events scheduled to take place this summer. Probably the biggest ticket of the year will be the Rolling Stones. They are playing at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. It will be a really popular show, and it is another huge opportunity for the touts. I saw tickets on sale for 480% above face value, even though face-value tickets were still available. People were directed through Google to the sites and encouraged to buy from them.
I pay credit to the Rolling Stones and the Daily Record, which has been absolutely fantastic—particularly the journalist Mark McGivern, who has pursued this matter resolutely. The Daily Record reported that the Stones were offered a cash incentive to put their tickets on sale to an agency that has pretty invidious relationships with secondary sites. It is to their immense credit that Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards turned that down, but does that not demonstrate how far up the chain the issue reaches that such matters are discussed in band meetings? It shows the callous disregard for music fans from those at the very top of the music business. Given Government inaction, it has been left to the artists and musicians to try to develop solutions to protect their fans. It should not be the job of singers, musicians and guitarists to protect ordinary people from consumer affairs issues. That is the Government’s job. Ministers should be doing that.
Bands have attempted to put all sorts of tough terms and conditions on their tickets to try to keep them out of the secondary market, and artists are looking at ever more innovative solutions to protect their fans. I pay tribute to artists including Adele, Ed Sheeran, Noel Gallagher, Bastille and in particular the Arctic Monkeys, who have deployed a number of anti-touting strategies, but we need Government to take the lead.
I do not know which hon. Member or hon. Friend suggested banning bots, but the Government are starting to do something. They are in the process of banning those anonymous bots that hoover up tickets, and they are now starting to ensure that recalcitrant secondary companies comply with existing law. At last the CMA has given notice to Seatwave, Get Me In! and StubHub, but they have been given nine months to comply. The biggest culprit of them all, Viagogo, has not even responded to the Government, but they still allow it to do business. We have had the Waterson report and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, but that is regularly broken and ignored. It has failed to protect people and it is tentatively enforced. Much stronger action is required.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I question the need for a secondary market at all. Why is there one? If someone cannot go to a concert they have a ticket for, they should give it back to the venue, which can then resell it to someone who can go. What is wrong with a simple arrangement such as that?
We usually hear from people—we have seen it in a couple of articles—that this is all about tickets finding their natural value, as if there is a sort of stock market where tickets find their real value at the hands of the touts reselling them. What utter tosh and rubbish! Since I secured this debate, I have even had touts getting in touch with me who say that they are some sort of misunderstood public servants. They have even set up their own self-help group called the Fair Ticketing Alliance. Someone will have to patiently explain to me how snapping up hundreds of tickets, then selling them back at twice, three or four times the price is really in the consumer interest. That is the thing about the touts: they will never stop, and they will always remain one step ahead of any measures to deal with them.
Touting is a hugely profitable business that will not be given up lightly, but it is what it is doing to live music that concerns me most. It is now threatening the whole music industry. The anti-tout campaign group FanFair Alliance—I pay tribute to the excellent work it is doing through Mark and Adam—conducted an opinion poll. Two thirds of respondents who paid more than face value for a ticket on a resale site said they would attend fewer concerts in future, while half would spend less on recorded music. The FanFair Alliance is spot on in concluding that touting is doing considerable damage to one of our great export industries, in which we lead the world and which supports 150,000 jobs.
The Government have been reluctant and slow to legislate on behalf of music fans and artists, but they cannot continue to ignore the damage being done by a dysfunctional infrastructure that is broken beyond repair.
I am lucky to have venues in my constituency from the Barrowland right across to the Hydro, but does my hon. Friend agree that if people are paying more money for their tickets, there will be less money to spend in the neighbouring venues? Cities will lose out as a result.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a dynamic hit on all associated industries and businesses. If money is put into the hands of the touts and agencies, it is taken out of the hands of the music industry and those in it. Come on, Minister! Let us reclaim the music. Let us make going to a live show a safe environment. Let us make buying a ticket a reasonable experience, where we will not be exposed to profiteers, touts and spivs.
This is an exploitative marketplace. It is one of the biggest crises we have in consumer affairs, and it is destroying our music industry. It is no good pussyfooting around any longer; it is time to act. Join the rest of us, Minister. Let us reclaim the music and make it safe for fans to buy tickets online.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate. The Government, along with brilliant groups such as UK Music and the British Phonographic Industry, have consistently championed the British music industry and the incredible talent that makes it such a success story and a brilliant export for this country. We have produced the Beatles, the Stones, Adele, Amy Winehouse and so many more. The live music industry is a vital part of the ecosystem, contributing £1 billion to our economy in 2016.
Our live music scene is clearly thriving, but it is far from easy for fans to experience it. We have all experienced the frustration of waiting for tickets to go on sale—our fingers hovering over the keyboard, only to find that all the tickets have been mysteriously snapped up in seconds. Given the time constraints of this job, I have slightly fallen out of the practice of trying to get tickets for events in recent years, so I was absolutely appalled when I heard about the practices now going on from my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). It is so frustrating to see tickets reappearing on secondary sites almost instantaneously, at the huge mark-ups that have become commonplace.
The secondary market has a place. Real fans, who are sometimes unable to attend an event, should have the means of making sure that their tickets do not go to waste. However, the Government recognise that the process of distributing and buying tickets often causes momentous public frustration and concern. We are determined to crack down on unacceptable behaviour in the ticketing market, and to improve fans’ chances of buying tickets at a reasonable price. There is absolutely no inertia in the Government, and I was sorry to hear the tone of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire.
We are determined to get on top of this issue. I will outline recent measures that we have taken, but first I will address specific concerns about the relationship between primary and secondary ticketing sites. Competition is fundamental to that relationship, and competition decisions are made independently of Government, and of Ministers, by the Competition and Markets Authority. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to make his points directly to the CMA. I assure him that there is no lethargy in the CMA or in Government about these matters.
We have already taken several measures. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 imposed a duty on sellers and secondary ticketing facilities to provide buyers with certain information about tickets, such as their face value and any restrictions limiting their potential use. Section 105 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced a provision for an additional requirement under the CRA for ticket sellers to provide a unique ticket number, where one has originally been given, when putting a ticket up for resale. I am pleased that that provision is now in force, and that some event organisers are looking at how it can be used to improve access and protections for the ticket-buying public.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate; he has certainly sold more tickets to his public performances than I ever have. The Minister made a specific point about having a unique identifier for consumers. What consultations have taken place with people in the industry, and industry experts, to ensure that that is carried across? Such events can be really beneficial for our constituencies—particularly those like mine, where we used to host T in the Park.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We are in constant contact with the industry. My officials have been in touch with the major event organisers UK Music to get the message out there that this is a powerful tool, which event managers and primary ticketers can use to oblige secondary sites to include the unique number on anything that they offer for resale.
I am also pleased, because I had personal involvement in this in my previous job at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, that last week I laid the draft regulations under section 106 of the Digital Economy Act, making a provision to ban the use of bots, and the purchase and resale—for profit—of more tickets than provided for by caps set by event organisers. I hope that that will be successful as well. Of course, the legislation has to be properly enforced.
I think the hon. Lady is slightly mistaken. I believe it is only professional football that has that protection, for historical reasons. The rest of sport is dealt with in the same way as the music industry.
I welcomed the CMA’s announcement last week, as part of its ongoing enforcement investigation, that it had secured commitments from three of the largest secondary ticketing platforms to provide additional information. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that the one secondary site that has not yet co-operated is Viagogo, which is controlled from abroad. I believe it is based in Switzerland, which presents an extra challenge. I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, advising customers not to use Viagogo’s services until it comes within the law. The CMA is concerned that all ticketing sites, secondary and primary, accept their responsibilities to consumers.
The Government are also giving approximately £15 million to National Trading Standards for national and cross-boundary enforcement. I welcomed the NTS’s announcement at the end of last year that its officers had conducted raids on a number of properties across the UK, resulting in four people being arrested under suspicion of breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. I congratulate National Trading Standards and local trading standards officers on their excellent work.
In addition, the Advertising Standards Authority has recently taken action against the main four secondary ticketing websites, banning the misleading presentation of pricing information on those websites. Companies will have to show prices in a clear, transparent and upfront manner before consumers make their purchasing decision. Hopefully, that will put an end to the drip-pricing practice that has been commonplace.
Clearly, enforcement bodies are taking the matter seriously. We are prepared to go after those who flout the law or abuse the ticketing market. The ticketing industry and online platforms need to take action, and we are attacking the situation on a number of fronts.
Google recently introduced new rules for ticket resellers advertising through its AdWords platform, requiring them to be certified. To apply for certification, they will need to comply with a number of rules to improve transparency, and stop implying that they are a
“primary or original provider of event tickets”.
We are getting at them through Google as well, and industry is becoming increasingly adept at using technology to improve the ticketing experience, exerting greater control over the transfer of tickets through the use, for example, of blockchain and “ticketless” tickets attached to fans’ mobile phones.
I welcome what the Minister has said. She has outlined the plethora of instruments and laws that we now have. As someone who has worked on this for 10 years, I feel that it is all starting to come together. I know she takes this issue seriously, but will she commit to keeping a very close personal eye on it? As those of us who have fought Viagogo and the secondary market for years know, they are slippery characters. I doubt they will ever comply, so we will be back here revisiting this issue.
I thank the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her work over the years, and on her chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group. I will stay across this issue. I have exactly the same suspicion: that the company that we have already mentioned in no uncertain terms will drag its feet and fight all the way. We will have to be across that, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s continued involvement in helping us. I also welcome the work that the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers and sports bodies have undertaken with the CMA to look at ways to ensure that terms and conditions are considered to be fair, particularly in instances where tickets were put on sale many months before the performance.
I recognise that there is no magic bullet to solving the worst excesses of the secondary ticketing market; it requires concerted and consistent effort. I have laid out our efforts as they stand. I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about how we are now pulling together a number of strands to deal with the issue. We are making good progress, but I have no doubt that there is more to do. We must ensure that the UK is a vibrant place for fans to experience great music.
Question put and agreed to.
Access Rights to Grandparents
I beg to move,
That this House has considered grandchildren’s access right to their grandparents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. Since announcing that this debate was happening, I have been inundated with emails, letters and calls from grandparents and grandchildren from across the country expressing their support, and many colleagues from across the House have told me that they have been dealing with cases on this issue for many years. I extend a special thank you to Dame Esther Rantzen and to Jane and Marc Jackson from the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, who first brought the issue to my attention. I thank the Minister, as we have had several conversations about this issue over the past few months.
This is not the first time that this issue has been debated in the House of Commons. A similar debate took place about a year ago. Unfortunately, because of purdah rules close to the election, the then Minister was unable to give the full response that I think he expected to give. A Green Paper was mentioned. I hope that the new Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer)—will be able to give a fuller response today. We will ensure she has time.
As I said in a question to the Prime Minister late last year, divorce and family breakdown can take an emotional toll on all involved, but the family dynamic that is all too often overlooked is that between grandparents and their grandchildren. When access to grandchildren is blocked, some grandparents call it a kind of living bereavement. Unlike some other countries, grandparents in the UK have no automatic rights to see their grandchildren, and vice versa. I count myself lucky that I had a very good relationship with my grandparents when I was growing up—I went on holidays with them and saw them virtually every weekend—but I am well aware that not every family is fortunate enough to have that family dynamic.
The estrangement of grandchildren from grandparents happens for a wide variety of reasons: divorce, bereavement, marital breakdown or just a falling out between family members. However the estrangement has come about, rarely is it anything to do with the grandchildren. That is why I have deliberately worded the motion for the debate today so that the emphasis is on children’s rights as well as those of their grandparents. They are the innocent victims in family breakdown. The loss of the relationship with their grandparents is usually the result of a disagreement among the adults, and the children have had no say and no control over the matter.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I have received volumes of precisely those sorts of comment in the emails sent to me over the past few weeks. It is a compelling point.
Large numbers of children in family breakdowns are left very sad and confused about the sudden loss of contact with their grandparents, which in many cases goes completely and utterly unexplained. The children are then left feeling that they have been unloved by their grandparents or believe that their grandparents simply did not want to see them anymore.
One grandson who was denied contact with his grandparents from the age of 10 said to me,
“as a child, you are powerless to insist that you see your grandparents, however much you may want to. I feel a sense of deep loss, guilt and regret. I truly hope that my grandparents still knew of our love for them, and that we were powerless to do anything.”
Another grandchild referred to their parents’ decision to sever ties with his grandparents after a family disagreement as “an abuse of power”. While grandparents may have friends, partners and support groups to turn to and lean on, young children, as my hon. Friend has said, are often left to deal with the emotional toll of the separation from their grandparents by themselves. The situation undoubtedly also has an impact on the family dynamic and the relationship between the children and their parents.
My hon. Friend is speaking passionately. My constituent, Issy Shillinglaw from Tweedbank, has been campaigning outside the Scottish Parliament for many years, every single week, for the law in Scotland to be changed. Does my hon. Friend recognise that the same issue exists in Scotland and that there is also a jurisdictional issue? Sometimes parents move south or north of the border and there is that extra challenge in ensuring access is achieved in different parts of the United Kingdom.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point. I focus today on English and Welsh law, but the laws are very similar in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know that campaigning groups have been set up to argue the same case as we are making in England and Wales. The jurisdiction element causes great confusion, which I hope the Minister will also address.
I have heard horrendous stories about children being put up for adoption despite the grandparents wanting to care for them. They cannot, however, afford the legal costs to pursue the issue through the courts, which I will come on to in a minute. There are cases where grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren for perfectly legitimate reasons and in the best interests of the child, and I am not seeking to block that. Safeguarding children should be paramount. As the Prime Minister said when I raised this issue in Prime Minister’s questions,
“when making a decision about a child’s future, the first consideration must be their welfare”.
She also stated that
“grandparents...play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 1035.]
With this debate, I am trying to draw attention to the growing number of cases where grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren for apparently little or no legitimate reason.
I have focused on the impact of family breakdown on the grandchildren. I turn now to how the breakdown of relationships can impact on the grandparents. As I said earlier, some of the grandparents who have contacted me have said that being cut off from their grandchildren is like a living bereavement. One grandparent poignantly said that the grief does not have
“the closure or finality of death”.
I do agree. Unfortunately, in the letters and emails I have received the stories go back years and years, and in some cases decades. They are absolutely heartrending. Many hon. Members will have received similar and seen people in surgeries over the past few years. The length of time is horrendous.
Another common feeling is, of course, guilt. Many grandparents feel that they must have failed their children somehow for the relationship to have deteriorated to such an extent, and they are ashamed that they were not able to hold their family together. One grandfather said:
“I have been to the blackest places you can imagine and felt total despair and loss of confidence in myself as a father.”
Hon. Members could be forgiven for assuming, as I perhaps did when I first started hearing about these cases, that some drastic event must have taken place for family breakdown to have happened, but that is often not the case. Too often, the family rift arises from a simple tiff that snowballs out of control. As one grandfather said,
“there is an inevitable feeling that no one cuts people off for no reason but it can happen for the slightest thing, it doesn’t take a full blown argument, just a wrong word or a badly timed comment”.
Another said that,
“a lot of the time, the grandparents have no idea what the problem is”.
I have heard some truly heartbreaking stories from grandparents detailing how their emotional anguish has led them to consider, and in some cases attempt, suicide. One grandmother who considered suicide said that
“the only thing that stops me is hoping that my daughter will have a change of heart and let me be part of my grandson’s life again”.
Sadly, three grandparents known to the Bristol Grandparents Support Group felt unable to continue their lives without seeing their grandchildren. I was shocked to hear from one grandparent who told me that seven members of their support group had committed suicide.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important issue. Does he agree that when parents divorce, they do not divorce their children? The law now has a supposition that the parents should both be as involved as possible in their children’s upbringing when cases have to go to court because they cannot be agreed in mediation.
Does my hon. Friend not think that it would be equally appropriate to have a presumption that grandparents should be involved as much as possible in the upbringing of those children, unless—and only unless—there is a problem with the welfare of that child?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point—he is very knowledgeable about these issues. I will come on later to the asks and the potential resolutions. He has absolutely hit the nail on the head—that is exactly what we need. That also involves safeguarding. I hope the Minister will respond to that point.
That this is a growing issue is evidenced by the growing number of grandparents support groups across the country. One has been recently established in my patch, in Worcestershire. The Bristol Grandparents Support Group has dealt with more than 6,000 grandparents in the 11 years since it was formed. Unfortunately, one experience that many alienated grandparents have in common is that they have sometimes had a visit from the police. I have heard from a number of grandparents who have tried to send birthday cards or Christmas gifts to their grandchildren and found themselves being visited by the police and accused of harassment. As Jane Jackson of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group said,
“grandparents are living in fear that if they drop a present at the door, then officers will come and march them to the cells”.
Of course, genuine cases of stalking or harassment are extremely serious and need to be dealt with accordingly, but it seems that our anti-harassment laws are being used as a weapon in family disputes. I hope the Minister will tell us how we can overcome that.
What can grandparents who have been cut off from their grandchildren do? If appealing directly to the parents’ good will does not work, the first step is to go through mediation. If that does not work, the next step is for grandparents to apply for a child arrangements order. Increasing numbers of grandparents are taking that route. Ministry of Justice stats show that 2,000 grandparents applied for CAOs in 2016, up from just over 1,600 in 2014. Unlike parents, most grandparents must take the additional step of seeking leave of the court before they can even make the application for the order. I know that is not intended to be an obstacle for grandparents, but clearly it is. I urge the Minister to consider introducing an automatic right for grandparents to seek contact through the courts.
As well as being emotionally draining, the whole process can be time-consuming and costly. Some grandparents have told me that they have spent three years and thousands of pounds going through the process. Time is not always on their side, and many are on fixed incomes and are dipping into their savings and pensions to pay for legal costs, as legal aid is rarely available in those cases.
Once a child arrangements order has been granted, enforcement can be an issue. One grandmother told me that she and her husband spent nine months going through the courts, had three court hearings, and were finally granted an order of contact, but as her daughter chose to ignore it, she had still not seen or spoken to her granddaughter.
What else can be done? I am calling for the Government to introduce an amendment to the Children Act 1989, to enshrine in law the child’s right to have a relationship with their grandparents by adding the words “and extended family” or “and any grandparents” to the section on parental involvement in relation to the welfare of the child, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. As he is aware, on 31 January 2017, my constituent, Lorraine Bushell, held a lobby day here in Parliament. I welcome the right of the child to see their grandparent, but is my hon. Friend aware that such a procedure already exists in France? We can learn from that country and make it happen for our constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is a good precedent. Changing the law also changes the culture so that deliberately restricting the access of one family member to another becomes socially unacceptable. The legal change that France has already pursued is very important, as is the social tone that comes with it. That is a very important point.
I, too, am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is clear from the number of hon. Members here to support him that this issue affects not just his constituents but the constituents of every single Member of Parliament. He mentioned the law. Going through a court process is painful, time-consuming and costly. Will his proposal ensure that families will not have to go through that painful and costly procedure?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. One of the important considerations is the need to ensure that children’s welfare is paramount. Some kind of court action is probably required, but we can make it a hell of a lot easier. I am calling for an amendment to section 1(2A) of the Children Act to provide for the court to presume that the involvement of a grandparent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare, unless the contrary is shown. It is important to note the phraseology. That kind of amendment would not grant grandparents the right to involvement in the child’s life if a case be made that it would bring harm to the child in question.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I have been supporting constituents in Aberdeen South who have been denied access to their grandchildren, and I have been struck by the role of social media. Facebook posts can be used as a weapon, and grandparents sometimes feel punished by them. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling for UK Government action not just in England and Wales but in Scotland to address these points?
I will indeed stand united with my hon. Friend in calling for similar action in Scotland. This issue affects all nations of the UK, and I hope we can act with one voice.
There are unintended consequences to any change in the law. In the previous debate on this issue, questions were asked about what a change in the law would mean, in terms of clarity about who had the ultimate right over children and grandchildren. The Minister is extremely capable and is surrounded by a very capable team at the MOJ, so I am fairly confident that we can find a form of words that will work. I do not want every single iteration of unintended consequences to prevent us from doing the right thing.
I hope that this debate will raise awareness of the anguish that grandparents and grandchildren across the country feel, and that my brief summary of just a fraction of the cases I have come across demonstrates to the Minister that the status quo is simply not acceptable. I wish to conclude with the words of a grandparent who sent me an email just last night. She very eloquently said:
“My story has been going on for 15 years…The pain I have and still feel is indescribable and affects every aspect of my life…dreading Christmas, Easter, birthdays, mother’s day, summer breaks…all the times when you would hope to see the grandkids. Instead, just pain and heartache—a life sentence. So although at 70 years of age I will probably die before I’m forgiven whatever it is I’ve done, you may be able to help the hundreds of poor souls suffering the same torment.”
I wish to say to that lady that I will indeed do what I can to help, and I call on the Minister to do the same.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this important debate and championing this really important issue. He referred to my constituent, Jane Jackson, who set up the Bristol Grandparents Support Group and has been campaigning for a very long time on this issue.
I seek to make only a short contribution today, to share the words of Jane Jackson, because her story speaks for itself. She said:
“Ten years ago, I lost contact with my granddaughter after my son’s separation and divorce.
To not see our granddaughter was heartbreaking and, as is often said, a ‘living bereavement.’ Contact was stopped overnight. The last time we saw her, at the age of seven, she told us she had been told to ‘dump her family in Bristol.’ That was the last time we saw her. You go through the stages of grief as you do when you actually lose someone, except you are grieving for someone who is still alive.
Not being able to tell her how much she was loved was beyond words. I just had a constant knot in my stomach, a huge void.
She was my first grandchild, my first granddaughter, and she always will be.
She is the person I first think of in the morning and last thing at night. Does she think we don’t love her anymore?
I have a memory box for her, with all sorts of things in it—pieces of a jig-saw. It includes a tiny bear she gave me that says, ‘The best granny’. I certainly don’t feel that way. There are so many questions and no way to find answers.
The acid drip feed of alienation is a very powerful thing, and I have no doubt that a very bad picture of us has been painted.
The emotions felt when this happens are so destructive.
Because when you become a grandparent, it holds such promise of the future, you being able to watch the new generation growing, giving them your experiences of life and to be a support through the highs and the lows.
I decided I wasn’t prepared to go down a dark spiral of depression and so set up Bristol Grandparents Support Group. I had to turn a negative into a positive.
At my first meeting we had 6 grandparents. To date, I have now been contacted by over 6,000 grandparents across the UK, and we are now a registered charity with groups around the country.”
For Jane Jackson to turn that heartbreaking series of events, which for many of us is difficult to understand, into the positive of establishing a charity such as the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, engaging with those throughout the country suffering similar pain, and achieving such wide reach over so many years, deserves tribute from all of us. I have every confidence that the Minister will tell us how she and the Government in which she serves will seek to make the changes that so many people are rightly crying out for across the country.
I shall finish with an update, which I received from Jane only recently. She said:
“Our granddaughter contacted her Dad a couple of weeks ago and has been messaging me. She is coming to Bristol over the bank holiday weekend, which is going to be very emotional.
The little girl we last saw at age 7 is now a young woman of 17. We now start to build up trust and to start a brand new relationship. She has told me that she never forgot us and knows we love her—words I never, ever thought we would hear. It is early days and it could all change in the wink of an eye, but I have already told her how much she is loved, and that is the most important thing.”
I pay tribute to Jane and to people in her position throughout the country. I wish them the very best for this bank holiday weekend. I support the efforts of right hon. and hon. Members across the House in seeking to bring joy and love back to those who have suffered so much dark and pain in the past.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for organising the debate and for his excellent and moving speech. I thank the other contributors for their moving speeches too. At a time when politics and public opinion often revolve around Brexit and adjacent matters that are seen as huge, it is important to recognise that our constituents are directly affected by other, personal problems that require our attention, such as grandparents’ access to children.
The bond between children and their grandparents is an essential one, yet, as we have heard, the latter lack clear legal rights to the former. In the event of divorce or family dispute, grandparents need to make an application for permission to see their grandchildren under a court order. At the hearing, the court assesses the relationship between the grandparent and the child. It is heartbreaking that a bond between close relatives has to be deemed to be significant, or not, by a legal entity, especially when the two parties are usually victims of a family rupture.
I have been contacted by a number of grandparents in my constituency who have sought my help after being denied access to their grandchildren. Colleagues have related similar experiences. To that end, I met Marion Turner of the GranPart support group, which is based in Northampton and Milton Keynes. The group offers such grandparents help and support to deal with the pain and loss, and it provides free legal advice from solicitors. The information it provides online and via telephone about the complexities of application for leave of court, child arrangement orders and so on is of great comfort to grandparents at what is a hugely stressful time.
I am grateful for the support given by that group in this matter, but I believe that there is still a need for a justice reform to treat the problem at the root, instead of people having to try to ameliorate the consequences case by case. To that effect, a few months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), whose constituency neighbours mine, with me and others, sent a letter to the Minister of State for Courts and Justice, who at the time was my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), calling for a legislative change to allow grandparents to have legal access to their grandchildren. Since then we have awaited developments. I therefore join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire in asking the Minister—who is now, I hope, of some standing—to produce a long-awaited Green Paper, treating the matter with the attention it clearly deserves.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. We talked about it last Thursday, when we were away with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. When I heard what he was planning to say, I mentioned that I was keen to come along and support him. I have constituents who think the same as he does, which is why I am here: first, to support him and, secondly, to look to the Minister for her thoughts on how we can make things happen.
The issue is close to my heart. I am thankful for a wonderful daughter-in-law who allows me to bring my grandchildren to church and Sunday school, to tag along at family dinners when time permits and, with my wife, to enjoy family holidays with them. Such occasions with children and grandchildren are always precious, whenever they may be.
Looking to the past, I find that my sons always had a great advocate not only in their mother, who is truly a warrior mum, but in their grandparents, who simply adored them. No breakage in my grandmother or my mother’s house, even of special china or collectibles, was so bad. If it was my children who broke them, their grandparents would said, “Don’t worry about that”—it was not the same when I was young, but that is by the way. Even when it came to writing on the wall, it was never vandalism but artwork, and not a word was said, other than, “That’s all right.”
I was often amazed that the parents who believed firmly in the “spare the rod and spoil the child” doctrine when it came to raising me and my brothers and sister were suddenly converted to saying, “It’s better they are spirited,” or, “There’s no harm in them,” or, my personal favourite, “You’re far too hard on them.” That was grandparents; they see things that wee bit differently. Words that were never applied to me found a home when it came to the boys, and now to the great-grandchildren.
Why is that? It is because the job of a grandparent is to love, to love some more and to love some more again. Hon. Members have referred to that in their contributions. I heartily support what they have said, and what others will say after me—I am conscious that others wish to speak, so I shall not go on for too much longer.
Discipline is for the parents; joy is for grandparents. As a grandparent now, I probably see that better than ever. For that reason, my heart aches when I think of the more than 20 decisions a day being made under the children order behind closed doors in courts in Northern Ireland. It grieves me greatly to see what is happening. Rather than mediation, under legislation in Northern Ireland families battle their way through the courts for access to children and grandchildren. An analysis of data from the family proceedings courts, the family care centres and the High Court found that 10,206 contact and residence orders had been made over the past three judicial years. Those orders can relate to more than one child. That is what is happening in Northern Ireland.
We have that system, which I wanted to speak about if I could in a short time. By comparison, Family Mediation NI, the largest provider of pre-court family mediation in Northern Ireland, received Government funding over the same period to assist only 750 families. That is just scraping at the edge of things. I understand that the Minister has no responsibility for the issue in Northern Ireland, but I wanted to give a Northern Ireland perspective in the debate, because it ties in with what the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire and others have said, and includes Scotland and Wales—throughout the United Kingdom. It is important to put that on the record.
There is no automatic right to apply for visitation for a grandparent, and that must change. We need to legislate to ensure that grandparents have their right to see and sow in the life of their grandchild, which is why I wholeheartedly support the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire and the themes and thoughts raised by other Members in speeches and interventions. I spoke on this issue the last time it came to the Floor—perhaps he secured the previous debate too—and I was later contacted by a lady who was not my constituent but had heard the debate. She thanked me for speaking out on her behalf as a grandparent. She was being denied access solely because of an argument between her son and his former spouse; it had nothing whatsoever to do with her or her family.
In conclusion, as a grandparent and someone who could not imagine life without my grandchildren, I ask the Minister to take the issue into consideration and to take the steps to make the changes necessary to allow grandparents basic rights to family life and love. That is all such people ask for: the chance to love their own flesh and blood, and not to be caught in the middle of a conflict that has absolutely nothing to do with them yet so deeply and irrevocably affects them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on raising this important subject. I do not intend to speak for long, because I know others wish to contribute.
My motivation for speaking and interest in the issue stem from the wonderful organisation GranPart that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) mentioned, which was set up by Marion Turner in both our constituencies. It is a very important support and self-help group for grandparents who find themselves in this appalling situation. I have gone to visit the group a number of times and have heard their stories. The emotions there are very raw. Some of the cases have only just started, but others have been going on for many years. It has been mentioned in the debate that time is not a healer—some of these cases go on for far too long. I have heard the stories; I absolutely agree with the analysis that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire provided and I support his proposals for reform.
I do not have grandchildren or children, but I was a grandson. I think back to the incredibly important and influential role that my two grandmothers played in my upbringing; I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without them and cannot imagine that similar level of love and support being denied any grandchild. They passed away many years ago, but I still think of them regularly. Particularly in here, if I have a dilemma to resolve, I often ask myself, “What would gran have said?” in this matter. The answer often comes more quickly than if I had not asked that question. To deny any grandchild that support and love is absolutely wrong, where the grandchild is innocent in whatever the dispute is.
From what I have seen in GranPart meetings, the current access arrangements do not work. There are legal ways of getting access but they are too cumbersome and the barriers are too big. Many of the grandparents I have met do not want to go down that road, either because they cannot afford it or because they just do not want the anguish. It is a barrier that should not be there—there is a problem to address immediately.
In the debate last year and other conversations and correspondence that have happened, there has been talk of a broader family justice Green Paper that looks at all aspects of the issue. There are other issues that I am not as familiar with, which also need to be addressed, but I make a plea to the Minister not to delay in making a reform and improvement here, in the context of a broader review of family justice. This is a stand-alone issue.
The grief that grandparents are suffering is here and now. It is real. Surely we have the bandwidth in this place and in Government to address it in isolation. I am not denying that the other matters are important, too, but they can be looked at later on. I ask the Minister to have a separate look at this issue. Again, I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important subject.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I will not delay the House for too long on this matter, because I have spoken about it in the past. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this debate. As I mentioned earlier, my constituent Lorraine Bushell had an event here in the Houses of Parliament, when we were joined by Esther Rantzen. At that time, the meeting was packed; today, a number of people are in the Public Gallery to listen to what we have to say on this subject.
I want to make a plea to the Minister: I previously brought this issue to the attention of the Government and I hoped it would be in the Conservative party manifesto. I cannot recall whether it was—but even if it was not, I make a plea to her to make this issue a priority. Many grandparents are of an age that means that time is of the essence. They are not able to go down a legal route; many people would find that difficult not only financially but emotionally. People do not want to go down that route, because whether it is in a divorce court or between families, it is very painful for all those involved.
I raised an issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire that my constituents raised with me: the resolution is not that the grandparents have the right, but the children. The child should have the right to access to their grandparents. We could incorporate that into our law in this country, based upon the legal system in France or whatever. That would allow the possibility for children to be able to have that relationship with their grandparents.
Other Members have made reference to the relationship for them and for their grandparents; we all treasure and remember that relationship. My grandparents are no longer alive, but I often think that being a grandparent is often a second opportunity. When people are younger, perhaps they do not have the time that they would like to spend with their children because they are busy at work. It is a second opportunity to do the things that they were not able to do, perhaps because they did it wrong or they want to do it differently. Who knows? We must not allow this opportunity to go by. I repeat my plea to the Minister to take action on this issue sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I commend the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing the debate. I am conscious that it focuses on the situation in England and Wales, which is why, as I indicated to you, Sir Christopher, I will keep my remarks short, to allow the hon. Gentleman time at the end to conclude.
I thank grandparents for the work that they do—in particular kinship carers, who are huge part of my constituency. The number of kinship carers who are grandparents is massive. Before taking part in the debate, I reflected on my own experience. My mum and dad split up before I was one year old. My dad was pretty much off the scene from that point. It was probably then that my mother was faced with the dilemma of whether to go and visit her ex-mother-in-law and take me with her. To my mum’s credit, she did that. That must have been quite a difficult thing to do; I respect it and I think we would all want that.
The Members from north of the border, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), mentioned the situation in Scotland. It is only right to put that on the record. The hon. Gentlemen made the point that under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, grandparents do not have an automatic right to see their grandchild, but can apply for a court order to get that access.
It is important to place it on the record that the Scottish Government are committed to reviewing the 1995 Act; the consultation on that begins this month. I hope that hon. Members will feed into that consultation and encourage their constituents to do so. My only word of caution is that it is paramount that the needs of the child are put first. For example, it is possible that contact with grandparents could allow a parent who has been deemed unfit to see their child to have contact with the child. That raises some child protection issues. I understand the need for us to get this right. I hope that the consultation will tease that out and we can get to a point that balances child safety and the most important thing: people having a relationship with their grandchildren.
I am grateful for the opportunity to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party and I hope that any remaining time will be given to the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire to make his closing remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. We have heard touching stories today that demonstrate just how important the relationship between children and grandparents can be. Experiences of our own grandparents in our formative years, and of actually being a grandparent from some of our more experienced colleagues, make it clear that this relationship can be incredibly significant and often unique.
Grandparents can enrich the lives of children and provide one of the closest and most loving experiences a child can have. The relationship can be important in other ways, too. Grandparents can provide vital help and support for parents, particularly in recent years as increasing childcare costs have pushed parents to rely on informal care from family members. It is difficult to overstate the role of grandparents for many families.
Whether through our own experiences or through those we hear in our constituency surgeries, we know that family relationships can simply break down. Of course, the welfare of the child comes first and we should endeavour to ensure that that remains so. But the impact on the grandparent can be devastating. Many are distanced and lose contact, and they are understandably distressed by the experience. That can be made worse when they feel they have no effective form of redress to apply for access.
As it stands, child arrangements orders, established by the Children and Families Act 2014, determine where and with whom a child lives. They determine who can access a child, spend time with them, visit them and speak to them on the phone, and those people are named in the order. However, before applying for a child contact order, grandparents must seek leave from a court. In 2010, the Labour Government produced a Green Paper that considered that legal requirement for grandparents and, acknowledging concerns that it may be an administrative barrier to justice, vowed to assess the extent to which that was the case.
My party lost the 2010 election, and the condition to seek leave from a court was supported by the coalition Government on the basis that it filtered potentially vexatious access claims. Nobody objects to the prevention of claims that may harm a child, but does the Minister agree that an updated review may be important to understanding the impact of the requirement to seek leave, which may be an administrative barrier to justice? The Government promised earlier in the year to publish a family justice Green Paper, which would provide a further opportunity to assess the necessity of that requirement. Can the Minister tell us when that Green Paper will be published, and will she guarantee that the requirement for grandparents to seek leave from a court will be addressed?
For grandparents who succeed in their leave application and then find themselves negotiating an unfamiliar and costly legal system to gain access to their grandchild, the removal of legal aid is a further barrier. Early legal advice is vital to ensuring that grandparents are best prepared to navigate complex legal requirements, yet cuts to legal aid have removed the right to representation in many areas of the family court.
The impact that an absence of advice can have on an application is demonstrated when objections are raised and the process moves to a full hearing. We simply have no way of knowing how many grandparents who find themselves without those vital resources are left unsuccessful or deterred from applying due to a lack of legal access. Does the Minister agree that cuts to vital legal aid present a barrier to justice and may leave grandparents without contact with their grandchildren?
Arbitration and mediation are, of course, more amicable, preferable and cheaper routes, and they have been found to work in many cases, but we acknowledge that family disputes may not be that simple and that, sadly, the courts are sometimes the only appropriate course. It is imperative that we provide a legal system that protects both the welfare of the child and access to justice for grandparents seeking to navigate complex and unfamiliar procedures.
I am sure we were all touched by the stories we heard from hon. Members today; I certainly was. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is incumbent on us all in this place to ensure that the justice system is accessible and open, and absent of obstacles that may prevent loving grandparents from seeing their beloved grandchildren.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate and continuing to highlight this really important issue.
Grandparents play a significant role in family life. There is something special about the bond between a grandparent and a grandchild. The loving relationship that is formed often enriches family life. Grandparents provide stability when it is needed. They can give a sense of history and show how important it is to belong to a family. They can give familial support when it is needed, such as when it is difficult for more immediate family members to be called upon. My grandparents—in particular my grandmother—taught me many things. She passed on her values.
I, too, recognise the work of Marc and Jane Jackson from the Bristol Grandparents Support Group and of Dame Esther Rantzen. As my hon. Friend mentioned, I had the opportunity to listen to their points on this issue at a meeting he arranged with my predecessor when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Justice Secretary.
Hon. Members have made important and powerful points during the debate, and many have written to me about this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) pointed out that grandparents often support grandchildren when there is family breakdown. The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said that time is not a healer. In his impassioned speech, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) described the grief of his constituent, whom I met, and the work that that family has done to support so many other people. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the precious moments that he has had as a grandparent and that grandparents can have with their grandchildren.
My hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) mentioned the great work that has been done by a support group in their constituencies. My hon. Friends the Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) reminded us that other jurisdictions are grappling with this important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) reminded us that the law in France has already moved on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire told us some terrible stories about the effect on grandparents of an inability to see their grandchildren. He quoted grandparents and grandchildren directly, not only underlining how important the issue is but giving them a powerful voice in this debate. I commend him for doing so. He made an important point that children are the innocent victims in family breakdown, and that the best interests of the child must always come first, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon reinforced. My hon. Friends were right to emphasise that point. Children are at the heart of our family laws and our family justice system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire recognised and made clear the fact that there is a legal route for a grandparent to gain contact with their grandchildren. Under the current legislation, a family court can make a child arrangements order to determine who a child can live with, spend time with or otherwise have contact with. Some 2,000 grandparents go down that route every year. Let me describe how it works. A child arrangements order can provide for face-to-face contact—long visits and short visits, including overnight stays if appropriate. If necessary, it can also provide for contact to be made by other means, such as email, telephone or letter. The court has flexibility when considering whether to make a child arrangements order and, if so, on what terms.
Whether the court orders that a grandparent or other family member should have involvement in a child’s life depends on a number of factors. One or both parents may oppose such involvement. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service may be asked to provide a welfare report on the beneficial impact of the involvement of a grandparent or other family member, and any risk of harm from ongoing parental opposition to such involvement and exposure of the child to ongoing conflict. That report can also include the wishes and feelings of the child. As I said, the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration at all times.
Given the dreadful stories we have heard about the impact of this issue on people’s lives, it is clear that the system could work better, and I am keen to look into how we can improve it.
We are fortunate indeed that the Minister has a good deal more time than Ministers normally have to respond, so I would welcome a lengthy response. The system she has outlined—the legal system of going to court—is complex and heart-wrenching. People should not have to go through that. Will she directly address the point my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) made about a presumption, which we hope would avoid the need for people to go to court in the first place?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point that he expects me deal with, and I was just about to come to that. He made a very important point about out-of-court procedures. We need to look at the expensive and difficult court procedure, which sometimes increases conflict. That is not just the case when grandparents apply to court; in family law as a whole, courts can provide resolution for people who really need it but also increase conflict, particularly in family situations.
In my contribution I referred to Family Mediation NI, which has the specific task of trying to sort things out before they get to court. It was clear to me from a Northern Ireland perspective that had more money been available to it, many of those cases would have been sorted out beforehand and would never have got to court—I think that is what the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire was saying. If we can get to the point where we can try to mediate and solve problems rather than get into litigation, with all the nastiness that brings, that is where we want to be.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is critical that we solve these issues early on, before they get to court. We are reviewing legal aid generally, but legal aid can be available for mediation for early legal help. In that context, there is a fees remission scheme in relation to the application to court where the threshold is higher for people over 60. However, would it not be better if people did not go to court at all?
A number of issues have been raised and ideas put forward about how we can improve the system. One, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire and by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), was about the fact that grandparents have to apply for leave. Some people see that as an additional hurdle, but experience shows that grandparents do not usually experience any difficulty in obtaining permission when their application is motivated by a genuine concern for the interests of the child. That is because a person can seek the court’s permission at the same time as they make their substantive application simply by ticking the box on the relevant form, and there is no need to pay a separate fee. That can be part and parcel of the hearing.
The leave requirement is not designed to be an obstacle to grandparents or other family members; it is meant to be a filter to sift out applications that are clearly not in a child’s best interests, such as vexatious applications aimed at undermining one of the parents involved in a dispute over the child or continuing parental conflict. Leave was examined as part of the independent family justice review led by David Norgrove, which in its final report, published in November 2011, recommended that the requirement for grandparents to apply for leave should remain as it is because it
“prevents hopeless or vexatious applications that are not in the interests of the child.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire also identified the fact that it was unfortunate that sometimes children were placed for adoption, despite the fact that a grandparent might be willing to care for them. Grandparents can apply for special guardianship orders, and the local authority should give preference to placing a child with a family member. He also identified, as picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), that there should be a change in the law in relation to presumption. We can look at that. He identified, and it is important to recognise, that some people think that elevates the grandparent’s involvement into a right, whereas, as I have identified, the family justice system puts the child, not the grandparent, at the heart of its consideration. As he accepts, there may be some unintended consequences that we will have to look into.
The Minister is rightly highlighting the importance of the child being at the centre. She also said that she is willing to look at some issues again to avoid the involvement of expensive lawyers—I pay all due respect to lawyers; she is a distinguished lawyer herself. However, will she indicate when we might see some of those proposals and ideas come forward from the Ministry?
As a new Minister, I am looking afresh at a number of issues. This point, which has been raised by many people, is one of a number of family justice measures the Department is looking at—this morning I had a meeting on another family justice issue of concern. We are looking at these matters very closely. The challenge is that one size does not necessarily fit all. These are important issues but, as I mentioned, we must also look at the out-of-court settlement procedure. I will look at this issue carefully, working with the Department for Education.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire said at the end of his speech that he wanted to raise awareness. He has done that in the past, and he has certainly done so by calling the debate today. I commend him for his campaigning efforts, and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Finally, I send Marc and Jane Jackson every best wish on reuniting with their first granddaughter.
I thank the Minister for that response. Her tone is appreciated across the whole House. I know that she is diligent and that she is looking at a range of things, but I would like this to be quite high on that pile. I am sure she knows I will continue to hassle her until we get a response.
I appreciated several comments the Minister made, in particular the recognition that the system could work better. I recognise that family law is horrendously complex and that therefore there are no easy answers. We will be very willing to work with her and anybody else on ensuring that we look very carefully for any unintended consequences, because we all want to avoid those. We would all love to have a situation where we did not have to have such debates, or to have family breakdowns ending up in court, but the reality is that that does happen, so we have to deal with it. As parliamentarians, we need to ensure that we can help make the processes as easy and painless as possible for all involved.
Finally, I thank many of those in the Public Gallery who are here today, some of whom I know have travelled a considerable distance to be here, and who include representatives from all over the country. I thank them and I thank colleagues. I look forward to making progress on the issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered grandchildren’s access right to their grandparents.