Tuesday 12 June 2018
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered coastal erosion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. The future of Britain’s coastline, and of our coastal communities, is finally getting the political attention that it deserves—not a moment too soon. From the need to curb plastic waste to prevent environmental damage to our shores to the opportunities that Brexit presents for reviving our long-struggling fishing communities, Britain’s coasts are coming to the forefront of the political agenda. I am glad, because if our coastal communities are to benefit from this renewed focus on their future, we need to act now to ensure that they have a future.
Coastal erosion threatens large parts of Britain’s coasts and puts houses, businesses and entire communities at risk of flooding or, in some cases, total destruction. Many hon. Members will be familiar with this issue, as coastal erosion threatens about 17% of the UK’s coastline, specifically along the east coast. The Environment Agency estimates that more than 700 properties in England could be lost to coastal erosion by the 2030s, while in Scotland, erosion is believed to pose a risk to a fifth of the coastline and the erosion rate has doubled since the 1970s. In 2013 and 2014, storms and extreme tides caused erosion that experts believed would never happen, but it has happened, and even quicker than they thought as it occurred almost overnight. Businesses and individuals are increasingly concerned about the impact of the increasingly rapid degradation of our coastline.
Our coasts are vital areas and hubs of economic activity. As well as the obvious tourism draws, they are home to much of our crucial infrastructure. In Scotland, the soft coastline, which is about 19% of the total, and which is most at risk, includes roads, railways and Scotland’s water network. There are 30,000 buildings, 100 km of railway lines, 1,300 km of our roads and a large amount of cultural and natural heritage located near to potentially erodible stretches of the Scottish coast. They could come under threat if erosion rates continued to increase in the near future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She will be aware that East Anglia suffered serious floods as the result of surge tides in 2013. The private sector has financed a lot of the recharging of the beaches through a community interest company in my constituency, but does she agree that that will not be enough in future and that there will have to be some form of ring-fenced funding?
I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear what I am calling for the Minister to provide for my community and his.
It is time that Government at all levels took the issue more seriously. In the past, they have been guilty of putting too much emphasis on study and not enough on preventive action. If ever there was a time for urgent action, my constituents would say that it is now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is important to communities in my constituency such as Pennan, Crovie, Gardenstown and Rosehearty, which to some extent have all suffered coastal erosion or flooding recently. In England, there is a dedicated scheme that local authorities can bid into for funding to combat coastal erosion. In Scotland, there is no such dedicated fund, and local authorities must decide how to fund such works from the overall funding they receive from the Scottish Government. Does she agree that it would be better if Scottish local authorities also had access to such dedicated funding?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Scottish Government have put such scathing cuts on all our local authorities—indeed, Angus has taken one of the biggest hits—that there is no way they can expect them to fund millions of pounds to secure our coastlines. I agree that they need to take further action.
Erosion is a pressing issue in my constituency, as in many other areas of the United Kingdom. Like most of Scotland’s east coast, Angus has experienced a large increase in erosion since the 1970s. Hon. Members know that they have a big rural issue when “Countryfile” pitches up in their constituency. The BBC recently covered the incredible acceleration of Montrose’s erosion in a piece that alarmed viewers across the United Kingdom.
Montrose is one of the largest towns in my constituency, with a population of about 13,000, and it is particularly threatened. The Montrose golf links, one of the oldest golf courses in the world, is literally being washed away hole by hole, green by green. That vital part of Montrose’s local economy—a piece of history that has survived for 456 years—is slipping away before our eyes.
The course loses 1.5 metres of land to sea every year. The second, third and sixth holes have already had to move since last summer. That cannot go on forever—it probably cannot even go on for another decade. At this rate, the links will run out of space at some point and will have to relocate entirely. Action is needed to save this historic and beautiful course, which is economically important and a valuable piece of Angus’ cultural and sporting history, for future generations. In 1999, GlaxoSmithKline invested in rock armour for a stretch of the coastline, for which the local area was incredibly grateful, but we cannot continue to lean on private businesses for that type of infrastructure, which costs millions of pounds.
In Montrose, we also have the booming port authority along the shoreline, which is already feeling the financial strain of coastal erosion. It was previously dredging 60,000 tonnes of sand per annum, which has now reached 150,000 tonnes—a marked change in five years.
The flooding aspect of erosion can often be overlooked, but it remains a real threat in Angus. We know the economic, cultural and personal damage that flooding can do to a community, if we think back to the flooding that we saw wreak havoc across Scotland in early 2016. The disruption, the clean-up operation, the rebuilding of infrastructure, the reconstruction of defences and the insurance claims all came at huge cost to the local and wider economies. Failure to act and invest in proper defences for coastal communities is not only wrong; it is a false economy.
I am glad that, since 2010, the UK Government have spent £3.2 billion on flood and coastal erosion risk management, as opposed to £2.7 billion in the five years before that, which is a real-terms increase of 8%. Those figures show that there is action from the Government, not just words. That is the sort of long-term, real-terms increase that we need if we are successfully to tackle coastal erosion. I hope that the UK Government will not only maintain but redouble their commitment in this area, and that the Minister will provide more clarity on that.
The Government also need to work with local authorities, the Environment Agency and others to ensure that the approach to erosion is well funded, proactive and, most importantly, ambitious. We need constantly to look 10, 20 or 30 years ahead with a long-term strategy, as opposed to short-term fixes that do not serve our communities.
Sadly, I have found the Scottish Government lacking in ambition in this area. Their enthusiasm for centralisation is renowned, but in this instance, it has left the local authority, Angus Council, with fewer resources and more responsibility. Unlike England, the funding model means that Scottish local authorities receive no dedicated funding, and coastal defences must come at local authorities’ expense. At a time when Angus Council has been forced to find budget savings of a staggering £40 million by 2021—one of the largest cuts to any local authority across Scotland—it simply cannot take any more financial strain from the Scottish Government, if we want to ensure that our frontline services remain in place.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, but I have to take issue with some of what she says. The council in her constituency is Tory run and it has not used the full amount of money allocated to it for coastal erosion by the Scottish Government. Billions of pounds are being cut from the Scottish Government’s budget by her Tory colleagues. Perhaps she will address those issues.
The Scottish Government funding—I will come on to that in a little more detail later—goes nowhere near far enough towards trying to address the problem in Angus. In fact, there have been numerous letters to the Cabinet Secretary, who is the hon. Lady’s colleague, to suggest that we need more funding in Angus, but the responses have been filled with empty words.
The fund that the Cabinet Secretary announced was the same old Scottish National party announcement—an all-singing, all-dancing fund—but the Scottish Government have not detailed the amount of money in the fund, nor have they detailed how Angus can benefit from it. However, I will indeed go into that matter in more detail later.
Significant dedicated erosion funding must be put in place, such as the UK Government’s flood and coastal erosion risk management schemes in England. The issue is important and specific enough not to have been put under the umbrella of flood risk management. At a time when the Scottish Government should be looking at ways to boost Scotland’s poor economic growth rate—I say that on the basis of their appalling current record—they should be doing all they can to protect the economic potential of coastal Scotland from slipping beneath the waves.
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this debate. Does she realise that I fully support her call for erosion funding and I will be seeking a meeting with the Minister on this issue? The most significant ground instability problem and the largest occupied landslip in the United Kingdom is the undercliff on the Isle of Wight. Part of the road there gave way, and it has done so many times, lastly in 2014. My problem is that the council is unwilling to invest in rebuilding that road unless we can understand better and at reasonable cost the water flows underneath that part of our coastline. Therefore, we need projects such as the coastal erosion fund to give us the funding to understand some of these more geologically sensitive parts of the United Kingdom.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I absolutely agree. There are huge studies going on in my constituency as well, because we need to do the groundwork, but we also need to have the funding ready for when those studies complete, so that we can go ahead with the work that needs to be done.
Of course, when it comes to coastal erosion, the waves do not respect local authority boundaries. Erosion affects areas up and down the coastline and different local authorities face common and related problems. This is not something that should be left to local authorities alone; there is space for a much more joined-up approach to erosion at all levels of Government. However, such action must also be timely. I do not want to see Montrose ending up as a cautionary tale for other parts of the coastline.
Unfortunately, the Scottish Government are risking that happening by leaving the implementation of further solutions to the 2022 to 2028 six-year plan for flood risk management. Angus cannot wait until 2022, or until any time between 2022 and 2028. Even by 2022, swathes of the Angus coastline will have been lost. The risk of flooding and erosion to Montrose, Arbroath and other coastal communities in Angus will be even more serious than it is today, and existing defences are being put under increasing and unbearable strain.
It is the responsibility of local authorities, the devolved Administrations and the UK Government alike to start working together on the issue as a matter of urgency, so that we can quite literally hold back the tide that threatens so many of our coastal communities. The Government are due to publish their updated national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy next year, and within that I ask the Minister to consider ways to make that work happen, ensuring that everyone involved in protecting our coasts around the whole UK is working effectively together.
Will the Minister ensure that the dedicated funding is available from Montrose to Margate? If the Scottish Government cannot support my constituency, can Scotland’s other Government step in, once again, to help?
Coastal erosion and the associated issues warrant their own fund, and such a fund must not work as slowly as the flood risk management strategies. In Angus and across Scotland, erosion is happening fast and we need a scheme that operates more quickly than on a six-year cycle.
I hope that the Scottish Government will take these suggestions seriously and give communities fighting erosion the renewed and dedicated support that they need, but what about the individuals and businesses who cannot be helped, or who do not get the help they need in time? They deserve our support too, and I ask the Minister to consider a form of compensation scheme for those who lose their property or land to erosion. It is only right that those affected by erosion get help to rebuild or relocate, and such a scheme would help to cancel out the deterrent effect of the threat of erosion if people considering moving to or investing in a coastal community had that reassurance.
No such scheme exists anywhere in the United Kingdom and it is my hope that sooner rather than later we get such support in place—not only in Scotland, but in all parts of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is speaking passionately about this important issue. Is she aware of the economic impact that flooding can have? A number of businesses in my constituency have been affected by flooding and have then been unable to get insurance for their premises, so they now face relocating to another part of Scotland just to allow them to continue doing business—not because they have been directly affected by flooding, but because insurance companies are no longer able to provide them with insurance on competitive terms.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and hope that the Minister will take seriously my call for this kind of compensation scheme, which would help constituents in the borders, in Angus and indeed across our United Kingdom in areas that are prone to flooding.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am running out of time. I have just a little of my speech left and we have a huge number of Members who want to speak.
Our coastal communities are thriving areas and we must do everything we can to support them. To do that, we must act on erosion and act quickly to secure their future not only to protect our coastline from erosion, but to eliminate, as far as possible, the looming threat that erosion poses. So let this be a call for ambition, co-operation and urgency—from the Scottish Government in particular, but also from the UK Government, the other devolved Administrations and our local authorities. We should all be invested in the bright future of our coastal economy. Let us not allow erosion to spoil it.
Order. I intend to call the three Front-Bench speakers at 10.30, but a number of Members wish to speak, so, if Members keep their contributions to about four minutes, we will have a chance of getting everybody in.
Thank you for that, Sir David. Four minutes? What a challenge.
I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. I am very happy to support her, as she knows. I am glad to say that I come from what I believe to be one of the most beautiful constituencies in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—Strangford. I am privileged to live in the heart of the Ards peninsula, on the family farm. Every morning, I wake up and look over at Strangford lough, and I am very aware of the beauty of the area. I see the sun glinting off the water, I see the mountains of Mourne in the distance and I am always very conscious of the wonder of God’s creation.
At the same time, the sun glinting off the water alerts me to the issue of coastal erosion. The water may seem somewhat pretty at times, but the fact is that our coastline is crumbling away under our feet, under the foundations of our homes and under our coastal roads. Our foundation is crumbling and we must do something to address that. The issue is not a new one. I will give a Northern Ireland perspective, to show where I am on it. When I wore my former hat as an Assembly Member, I spoke about it in the Northern Ireland Assembly and things have naturally worsened since then.
Most recently, I read an article that referred to a report by the National Trust that had been commissioned on the issue of coastal erosion, which stated the shocking view that:
“Northern Ireland faces major risks from coastal erosion and marine flooding but ‘lacks basic information’”—
those are the very things that the hon. Member for Angus referred to—
“to deal with them.”
The article went on to say that the National Trust
“manages 108 miles of coast in the north, reveals that 46,000 properties are at risk from river or marine flooding, while recent stormy winters have had ‘major impacts on coastal residents’.
Climate change and rising sea-levels are leading to flooding and coastal erosion, the report found. The charity has called for ‘a strategic approach to shoreline management’ to address the challenges of marine flooding and erosion…saying at present it is ‘reactive and poorly structured’”.
That is exactly the problem that our region, like other regions, faces and it is something we are concerned about.
The hon. Gentleman talked about shoreline management. Does he agree that there is a major role for the private sector to contribute, working in partnership with local authorities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I totally agree with what he has said. Northern Ireland has a lack of information about how its coast works—the rates of change, the sources of coastal material, patterns of sand movement, the impact of storms and post-storm recovery—along most of the coastline. Those are the issues for us when it comes to coastal erosion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some parts of our Northern Ireland coastline are not only very scenic and beautiful, as is the case in parts of Scotland, England and Wales, but are most majestic and historic? Does he agree that those parts of it that are at risk really need to be safeguarded and that we need both private sector and Government action to do that?
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his intervention, and I wholeheartedly support the things that he has put forward.
The National Trust’s report called for a “strategic approach” and it also
“predicts that rising sea-levels will re-shape the north’s coastline.”
It states that:
“These changes will affect existing and new infrastructure and will result in more frequent flooding and a general tendency for shorelines to move landwards that will be experienced as erosion.”
That was also made clear by the hon. Member for Angus. The report goes on to state that the length of the “strategic road network” that is at risk will increase by 28%—a significant figure.
The storms in Northern Ireland have meant that Transport NI has seen its costs rise by some £800,000. In my constituency, the road replacement at Whitechurch Road in Ballywalter cost £280,000, the damage to Shore Road in Ballyhalbert cost £36,000, and to Roddens Road £86,000, and there were road repairs at Portaferry Road in Ards, Greyabbey and Kircubbin. The total came to £800,000, which is almost the full budget of the local Transport NI section in Newtownards. What was a once-in-18-years or once-in-20-years occurrence is now a once-in-three-years occurrence. Frustration reigns when Transport NI, the Department of the Environment, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Rivers Agency and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs either cannot or will not accept responsibility for damage to property and take preventive measures to prevent flooding.
I accept that the matter is a devolved one, but I want to illustrate the problems, which the hon. Member for Angus put forward clearly. At Saltwater Brig in my constituency, many houses and businesses have been damaged by high tides, with insurance claims in excess of £100,000. As the regularity of flooding due to coastal erosion becomes commonplace, we can no longer use sticking plasters to address the issue. The impact on the local community includes accessibility to the road network, the effect on community life and the tourist potential that is yet to be realised—a potential that could deliver more jobs if the road structure and coastal erosion issue were addressed. The House must establish a strategy for the coastlines of the UK. The hon. Member for Angus knows that the matters are devolved, but she looks to the Minister for a response, as do I.
We have a duty to protect people’s homes and livelihoods, their connectivity to urban areas and, most importantly, our incredibly beautiful coastlines that are unparalleled anywhere in the world. We must work now to preserve them for the future. A joined-up approach is necessary. We look to the Minister, as always, to give us the help we need in Northern Ireland and, in particular, in my constituency.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this important debate. She is a tireless champion for Angus on a number of local issues and this morning she has again demonstrated what a strong voice she is for her constituents. In Berwickshire in my constituency, we do not have the same coastal erosion problems as in Montrose and other parts of Angus. However, the coastline remains vulnerable and I want briefly to mention some of the challenges we face.
I would argue that Berwickshire has some of the finest coastline in the United Kingdom. Anyone who has taken the east coast main line will have been impressed by the Berwickshire coastline north of the border. The communities of St Abbs, Coldingham and Eyemouth, and Cove all have spectacular views of sea cliffs, fantastic beaches and the wide-open North sea. The 28-mile-long Berwickshire coastal path from Cockburnspath in my constituency to Berwick-upon-Tweed has, at Tun Law, the second highest cliffs on Britain’s east coast and some internationally important habitats for sea birds, coastal flora and marine life. We also have one of the world’s most famous geological sites, that of Siccar point. It is an example of a Hutton’s unconformity, which led the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, to conclude that the Earth was much older than was widely believed in the 18th century. From the beautiful Pease bay to the spectacular St Abb’s Head and Coldingham bay, this stretch of coastline deserves to be looked after and cherished, in the same way as those in other parts of the United Kingdom.
We are lucky in Berwickshire that, because the cliffs are mainly of hard rock, they are more resistant to weathering. However, the softer cliffs at Lower Burnmouth and Cove are under threat. Local erosion through the use of the coastal paths, as well as residential and recreational development, may threaten maritime cliff and slope habitats as well as coastline stability. Parts of the coastline are also vulnerable to flooding, particularly around Eyemouth, where damage to properties has occurred four times since 2012—just last March, a flood warning was issued. The town is lucky to have an extremely well organised community group, the Eyemouth response team, who respond efficiently and professionally to emergencies such as flooding. They were in action at the beginning of the year and, astonishingly, were able to put up flood barriers at the end of the harbour in just 20 minutes.
The Scottish Borders Council manages the Berwickshire coastline well, including maintaining and protecting the coastal path and working alongside Edinburgh Council on the Forth estuary local flood risk management plan. However, I agree that the Scottish Government must step in. In recent years, the choice of the Scottish National party’s Administration in Holyrood has been to slash local authority budgets across Scotland. Since 2013, the Scottish Government’s revenue budget has fallen by 1.8%, but the SNP Administration have chosen to pass on a much larger cut of 7.1%—£744 million—to local councils, including those in my constituency in the Scottish borders and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus. Councils simply cannot be expected properly to protect their coastline without additional support from the Scottish Government, and I commend my hon. Friend for her efforts to put pressure on them. I hope that the UK Government will be able to assist too, in doing more to protect our beautiful coastlines.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing the debate.
I want briefly to talk about the serious issue of erosion on the island of Walney, which is just opposite Barrow-in-Furness. That strip of land is connected to the mainland by a bridge. We have wanted a second bridge for many generations, but Walney could need one in a way that we had never anticipated, because it is quite possible that unless action is taken, the island will be split in two by the serious erosion that is taking place—similarly to in other areas across the country—far faster than any study has predicted.
There are two main issues, one in the north of the island and one in the south. In the north, there is what is officially known as West Shore caravan park. The name might suggest that it is a transient part of the visitor economy, but people have bought static caravans there and live in a community. They have seen the erosion getting closer and closer to their homes, threatening several hundred properties. For many years, we have beseeched the Government and looked to the local authority, and potentially to private investment, but the issue remains critical. In the main, the park provides homes for low-income and often elderly, retired people. They are afraid of what nature is doing and fear for the homes they had always dreamed of having on the coast.
On the south of the island is South Walney nature reserve, which is home to Cumbria’s only grey seal colony and to the Walney geranium, which is unique to the island. There is a rare vegetated shingle patch, and the yellow horned poppy, which I am reliably told is hard to find, is grown there. The reserve is an invaluable resource for Barrow’s schoolchildren. Teachers in some of the schools tell me that many children have never seen the natural environment until they are taken to such places. The reserve is connected by a road that is in desperate need of rock armouring. Without such flood and coastal erosion protection, there is the potential for the island to be cut in two and for the nature reserve to be rendered impassable.
As if all that were not enough, it is not simply about saving the yellow horned poppy; the nation’s continuous at-sea deterrent may be at stake for the want of a single road that could be rock armoured for, the landowner tells me, only £200,000. We are in the process of spending about £30 billion on renewing the nation’s deterrent—I know everyone in this room will be thoroughly behind that; it is great value to protect the nation from the threat of nuclear destruction—but for the want of £200,000 and a few rocks, we could render the exit passage from Barrow shipyard impassable. At the moment, the boats come out of the dock and sail down Walney channel and away to start their sea trials. They then come back to Faslane. The amount of silt that flows into the channel from the erosion on Walney could make the narrow passage impassable. Often, submarines can pass through it only once a month.
My back is hurting so it takes me a while to get up. Is that channel dredged to ensure that it works all the time?
The hon. Gentleman asks a very good question. The channel has been dredged in the past, and it could be in the future, but that would probably only be at the cost of many hundreds of millions of pounds—certainly if the nature of it were to change. A preventive measure would be simply to put in the rock-armoured road, which would protect the nature reserve and the caravan site to the south, and keep our nation safe from the potential for nuclear blackmail. That has to be good value. As a first step, I urge the Minister to consult his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence to see whether we can get an official study into the nature of the threat to the channel and the potential blocking of submarine access.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this important debate and highlighting the risk to all our coastal communities.
Many of my constituents are lucky enough to live by the sea, with beautiful views and a vibrant tourism economy. The Chichester constituency is home to some of the UK’s most beautiful beaches and diverse marine ecosystems, but with those privileges comes a great deal of risk. Coastal erosion and flooding are a constant threat to many areas. Over the past century, we have observed a global mean sea level rise of 20 cm and that trend is set to continue over the coming years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To contextualise that, just a 50 cm rise in local sea levels would make 200 km of our current defences vulnerable to failure. Under the IPCC’s modelling, that is within the range of likely outcomes by the end of this century.
In my area, Chichester District Council is doing well to tackle the symptoms, if not the cause. It maintains the majority of the populated open coastline that stretches from Emsworth to Pagham. The council has shoreline management plans in place for each stretch of its coastline. Its work is highly collaborative and transparent, and by working with local stakeholders and the Environment Agency, it ensures that its work benefits the area’s economy, community and ecosystems.
My local council has similar policies in place, but there is a real problem coming down the track with the disappearance of the revenue support grant. When that goes, there will surely have to be some form of top-slicing or maybe a ring-fenced precept for local authorities such as my hon. Friend’s and mine.
I agree. My local authority is very concerned by negative RSG, not just the disappearance of RSG. Negative RSG would mean having to pay more to support other areas.
The council’s collaborative work has achieved high levels of third-party investment and led to better coastal protection. My hon. Friend is right that we need to properly fund our coastal areas. At East Head and at Pagham harbour, coastal advisory groups run the UK’s only two active management sites. Both sites have a highly dynamic coastline, so predicting erosive and flood patterns can be very challenging. Active management involves long-term monitoring and observation to ensure interventions are effective and in tune with the natural processes.
The regional coastal monitoring programme, based in Southampton, is key to that process, providing data on waves, tides and the changing nature of the coastline. Armed with that data, the group can make decisions on interventions such as replacing or removing failing structures or replenishing beach sediments. Such is the success of the programme that natural changes at Pagham since 2016 have removed the threat to residents in the short term and introduced an intertidal wetland habitat that is now a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve.
The council receives a grant of £250,000 a year. That funding allows it to protect people, business and habitats. Over recent years, the Environment Agency has invested a further £30 million as part of its flood and coastal erosion risk management at Medmerry, where the UK’s first managed realignment site is ongoing. West Wittering, where erosive processes are mitigated to maintain the beach, attracted around 800,000 visitors last year, driving the local economy and simultaneously helping protect the internationally important saltmarsh environment sheltered by East Head spit.
There is still significant concern in my area, however. In the long term, the council has warned that highly populated areas such as Selsey, Bracklesham and East Wittering will eventually require significant investment.
I know West Wittering; it is a fabulous beach. Knowing it quite well, I wonder how the heck it and the saltmarshes can be protected. The area is so big, and the whole of my hon. Friend’s constituency is quite low lying. With rising sea levels, I do not see how we can do much about it.
That is the point of the debate; we have to do something about it, because no one would want to see the disappearance of such an important stretch of coastline or the nature reserves we have in the area. My hon. Friend is right that we have to focus on low-lying areas, but protecting the Chichester constituency coastline and the south coast will be increasingly important.
As an area, we must continue to invest in our coastal infrastructure. We look forward to the larger investment that will be required alongside our innovative approaches, such as managed realignment and active management. It is true that we cannot do it alone. We require further investment from the Department.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this debate, despite her tone at times and some of the substance, with which I did not agree.
Members may question why the Member for Livingston is taking part in a debate on coastal erosion. I do not have any coastline in my constituency, but I spent six years of my professional life in the north-east of Scotland in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen, and I saw the impact of coastal erosion on that area. I worked for Alex Salmond, the former Member for Gordon and for Banff and Buchan. One of the first things I dealt with in my time as his office manager was the flooding in Pennan and the impact it had on that community. I spent most of the three years working for him in the community, working with the families there.
I will never forget the experience of going into the house of an elderly gentleman who lived there—many of the homes in Pennan are second homes; only a small number live in that very important community—and convincing him to leave because the back windows had dirt coming in and he was at risk of being crushed if he stayed in his own home. As the hon. Member for Angus mentioned, there are challenges in dealing with insurance companies.
There is no doubt that we have significant challenges in coastal erosion the length and breadth of Scotland and beyond, and it is vital that all the Governments of the UK work together. I want to set the record straight on what the Scottish Government have done. I hope the hon. Lady will be aware of the £42 million a year that the Scottish Government have made available via the capital settlement since 2008—that is, £420 million—to enable local authorities to invest in flood prevention and coastal erosion works. That is backed up by some of the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) will mention, such as the marine protection monitoring and Scotland’s “Dynamic Coast” national coastal change assessments, which are being taken forward with various academic institutes across Scotland. As the hon. Member for Angus rightly said, we have to ensure the academic community are included.
I am a surfer. I took it up when I spent time in the north-east of Scotland, and having surfed various coasts in Scotland and around the UK, I have seen the impact that coastal erosion has on those communities and the surfing environment. The mudslides that I saw in Pennan during my time working in the north-east of Scotland showed me how complex and difficult some of the issues are; in many cases, there are no simple fixes, or indeed fast fixes. The hon. Member for Angus talked about the speed at which some of these issues need to be dealt with. I agree with her in many respects, but, given the geography of her constituency and the impact that it has had, she will appreciate that sometimes the issues are not dealt with as quickly as we would like. They can be very complex. I remember various discussions with Aberdeenshire Council about whether it was going to put the rocks in casings or pin them back. A significant geological survey often needs to take place, and that can be complex and difficult.
The hon. Lady is a great champion of her own constituency, and I have no doubt she will take her case to the Scottish Government as well. I hope that we can work together and not get ourselves into an overtly party political, partisan debate. As we go through the Brexit process, environment policy and the funding that will be available for our Government and for the UK Government will be significantly impacted. We have yet to know the real impact.
I want to draw attention to the marine protected area monitoring strategy, which allows fishermen to support the monitoring and surveying of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable marine habitats and ensure that detailed information is collected from the MPA network to create a more accurate picture of the health of marine environments. The Scottish Government ensured that we engaged as broadly as we possibly could and that those at the forefront of the issues of coastal erosion are those who are monitoring it and reporting back.
Of the areas around Scotland that have been eroded, 40 metres to 60 metres of beach have eroded since the 1980s, and that rate will continue over the next 30 years. That is a significant challenge to a country that has one of the biggest coastal areas in Europe. Our SNP Government in Scotland are committed to taking on those challenges. I hope that the UK Government will work with our colleagues in Scotland and that, as we go through the process of Brexit, issues such as coastal erosion and protecting the environment will not be lost in the noise coming from that debate.
In following the hon. Lady’s speech just now, I am not certain as to which is eroding more quickly: the coastline of Scotland or support for the increasingly incompetent SNP Administration in Edinburgh.
I want to confine my remarks to a particular part of my constituency, one of the jewels in the crown of East Devon: Sidmouth, a regency seaside town well known to my hon. Friend the Minister. Sidmouth is at the gateway to the Jurassic coast world heritage site, and a large part of the town is in a conservation area. For years now, I have been working with various bodies and individuals in the town—not least the local councillors, Councillor Stuart Hughes and now Councillor Tom Wright—to try to resolve what has become an increasingly difficult problem, particularly for the residents of Cliff Road, overlooking Pennington Point, which has seen erosion year on year. Indeed, earlier in 2018 it was widely reported in the national press that Cliff Road was one of the most endangered roads in the UK, owing to coastal erosion.
We are very dependent on the south-west coastal path in Sidmouth. We have replaced the Alma bridge, but the various different schemes have gone on for too long. Over the years I have had Sir James Bevan, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, down to see the erosion. Andrew Sells, who is in charge of Natural England, has been down. I even had my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who was then the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, come and look at it.
There are two issues at stake. One is the complexity of trying to get a satisfactory solution. It is a complicated engineering issue. Many different bodies are involved in the steering group: East Devon District Council, Sidmouth Town Council, local fishermen, the Environment Agency, Devon County Council, the National Trust and the Cliff Road Action Group. All of those groups have a rightful interest, but that has delayed the implementation of a scheme that can arrest the erosion that we see year on year.
The new scheme, the preferred scheme, for the Sidmouth beach management plan would see a new groyne wall installed on East Beach and a plan to raise the splash wall along the promenade. I am extremely nervous about the prospect of raising the wall along the promenade because we have seen what happened in the neighbouring constituency of Tiverton and Honiton: one can drive down the esplanade in Seaton and not actually see the sea. We would not want that replicated in Sidmouth. This part of the £9 million project would last around 100 years.
We now have a funding issue. East Devon District Council needs to raise £3.3 million, with the rest hopefully being secured from the Environment Agency. Work would begin in 2019 and be completed in 2020. When we look at the areas we can raise the money from, we see that we are left with either a local levy, the district council, Sidmouth Town Council, South West Water, local charities, visitors, East Devon housing, and residents. I humbly submit to the Minister that it is not satisfactory to try to leave a small local authority with a funding gap that will prevent the scheme from being realised.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way. My local authority has similar problems, but it faces a structural funding deficit. The Minister’s Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government must consider making some form of ring-fenced precept available to local councils, and perhaps there should be more contributions from town and parish councils inland.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is almost impossible to ask local authorities for large amounts of money to fill the gap because they all operate under very strict financial constraints now. Such schemes should not be held back by relying on the local authority to make up the difference, so I ask the Minister whether Bellwin can be extended. Can my residents of Cliff Road, who have found it impossible to get mortgages and increasingly difficult to get insurance as they see their gardens disappear, get a compensation package?
I hope that the whole area can be dealt with quickly. We need a masterplan for the whole Port Royal area along the esplanade, but there is no point in doing that until we have secured the Pennington Point and rock revetment scheme, because that would threaten the sewage works in the area, which could in due course flood the entire town.
I do not want to delay the debate unduly. The Minister is welcome to come to Sidmouth at any time to see the situation for himself. We are almost there now. This has gone on for so long. The scheme must be implemented. We cannot wait any longer. We have got people onside. We have got everything lined up now. I pay tribute to all those who have got this far, but we have a funding deficit and I ask the Minister to be creative in looking at the compensation issue for the residents of Cliff Road and also in helping with the funding that we need to get the scheme under way.
Order. If Members keep their contributions to three minutes, we will get everyone in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I am honoured to represent one of only three constituencies in the country that has two separate coasts: the beautiful, rugged north coast of Cornwall with its surf beaches and the south coast with its coves and ports. The Minister’s constituency also has that type of coastline.
I want to address the issue of planning. We are seeing more frequent and more severe cliff falls in Cornwall as a result of the weather. People’s gardens are being eroded and houses built on the cliff tops are threatened. There is an increasing trend in Cornwall for people to buy old properties and then apply for planning permission to build larger properties that invariably encroach nearer to the cliff edge. That is causing great concern, particularly in Newquay in my constituency. I pay tribute to Protect Newquay Clifftops, which has been campaigning for some time to try to stop that trend, which is not only spoiling the view of our clifftops, but putting those properties, I believe, at future risk as the erosion continues.
The national planning policy framework provides protection for coastal areas and clifftops, saying that plans should
“reduce risk from coastal change by avoiding inappropriate development”.
I am delighted that our local authority, Cornwall Council, often refuses planning applications where properties would encroach on the cliff edge. However, all too often those applications go to appeal, and the planning inspector, who does not seem to have any local knowledge or appreciation of the situation that we face in Cornwall, allows the building to go ahead.
I know this does not come under the Minister’s portfolio, but I am aware that the Marine Management Organisation plays a particular role in, and is often consulted on, such planning issues. Perhaps there could be an increased role for the MMO in the planning process to ensure that cliff erosion and cliff falls, which take place much more frequently in Cornwall, are a significant factor in policy when planning applications are considered for construction on clifftops, particularly in such places as Cornwall. I am concerned that we are storing up trouble for future generations by allowing such developments to take place. If the cliff continues to erode, properties will be put at risk. I ask the Minister to look into whether there could be an increased role for the MMO in the planning process in our coastal regions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing the debate. I welcome the Minister to his place, though I highlight the sterling work done by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), on the protection of the coast, both locally and nationally. I wish her well, and hope to see her back in her place very shortly.
It is vital that we have an effective coastal and flood erosion policy in place, as the challenge that we face is going to increase over the coming years as sea levels rise. The management of the coast takes place within a legislative framework that was set down in 1949. Although it has been adapted, that framework has drawbacks. Local authorities are fragmented and coastal defence is only one of a multitude of demands that they face. At a national level, there is a need for a more cross-Government approach. The Environment Agency’s focus is very much on the short term, but we need to look at the longer-term needs of coastal communities as well.
There is good news. Many innovative schemes are taking place around the coast. In East Anglia, in recognition of the impact of coastal change, all six coastal planning authorities in Suffolk and Norfolk are drafting a statement of common ground, and are taking a common approach to managing the coast in revising their local plans. Three schemes are taking place in my constituency. The Lowestoft flood risk management project is at its detailed planning stage and will be completed in 2020-21 at Corton and Kessingland.
To promote more cost-effective long-term strategic coastal management the Government need to address three specific issues. First, there needs to be better reporting on schemes from around the country, so we can learn from those projects. Secondly, we need to promote long-term adaptation of vulnerable coastlines, and make the planning system simpler to do that. Thirdly, as we have heard, the Bellwin scheme needs to be looked at more fully. If we do that, we can move away from a crisis management approach to more of a long-term, strategic, collaborative approach.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing today’s debate. Coastal erosion is an important issue, threatening livelihoods, homes, environments and economies. In North Cornwall, we have a great number of assets along our Cornish coastline that make up our heritage and our economy. The coast itself is the reason people visit Cornwall and the wider south-west. They come for our beaches, fishing villages and fantastic food, and, importantly, our coast paths. It is important that we include in that the south-west coast path. That huge asset is a big economic driver for the south-west tourism industry as a whole, as well as North Cornwall’s. It is great to see the fantastic “Poldark” back on our TV screens regularly on Sunday evenings, showcasing the great south-west, with Poldark parading around on our beaches and our coastal footpaths.
The south-west coast path is 630 miles long. It is the longest national trail in the country, stretching from Minehead across the north coasts of Somerset, Cornwall and Devon, and heading back along the south coast all the way to Poole in Dorset. With breath-taking views and leisurely walks, the coast path is popular with locals, tourists, hikers and charity walkers alike. If coastal erosion progresses in Cornwall, the south-west coast path will be one of the first things to fall into the sea, threatening numerous local economies.
In 2012, the South West Coast Path Association and Visit Cornwall released figures showing that walkers who used the path spent £436 million in the local economy. That was an increase of 15% on the previous three years, and I have no doubt that those figures will have increased since 2012. It is therefore essential that we protect the coast path and this beautiful asset for generations to come.
Tintagel castle in my constituency is another asset that could be vulnerable to coastal erosion, and which contributes hugely to the North Cornwall economy. Situated on Tintagel Island, the castle dates back to the 13th century and is linked to the legend of King Arthur. According to recent statistics, the castle was visited by a quarter of a million people in 2017—up by 70,000 over the past 10 years. That obviously creates huge tourism benefits for Tintagel and surrounding communities, and is an example of why we should take coastal erosion seriously.
Research shows that sea levels are rising, creating all sorts of challenges in coastal communities that we need to address robustly. That is why today’s debate is vital not only for Cornwall, but for other parts of the UK. I know mine has been only a small contribution, but the coast paths are vital to our economy. I know that the Minister cares about the issue because he has some beautiful coastline in his constituency. I hope that he will do all that he can to ensure that we protect this heritage asset for the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this extremely important debate. Moray has suffered from significant flooding over several decades. Millions of pounds have been invested in flood alleviation schemes in Forres, Elgin, Dallas, Newmill, Keith, Rothes and Lhanbryde, but none of those is a coastal community. Coastal communities, which suffer just as much as inland communities, feel neglected in our area. Portknockie, for example, suffered landslips just last year, and although I welcome yesterday’s announcement from Sustrans and Moray Council—in response to my correspondence— that work is being done to reopen a path between Portknokie and Cullen, I still have constituents living in homes at the top of a landslip, precariously close to the edge, who fear every day for their properties.
For 10 years before being elected to Parliament, I was a councillor on Moray Council. Part of my Fochabers Lhanbryde ward was the communities of Garmouth and Kingston. They have suffered more than most. Ross House, which 10 years ago was 150 yards from the River Spey, now has the river lapping against its walls. That shows how much coastal erosion there has been. Garmouth and Kingston golf course, like Montrose golf links in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, has suffered considerably. We have had a par 5 go to a par 4, and it is now a par 3 because so much of it has been washed away.
I welcome the fact that Garmouth and Kingston could be designated as potentially vulnerable areas under the new Scottish Environment Protection Agency scheme, but I was struck by the words of my hon. Friend, who said that too much time is spent on studies and not enough on action. I endorse that wholeheartedly.
Many studies, at my request, have looked at dredging, for example. Every time that I, as an elected representative, and communities say we should dredge the River Spey, people come back to us to say, “Well, no—you’ve got to worry about the flora and the fauna.” I am sorry, but I do not worry about the flora and the fauna; I worry about my constituents, who are living in fear every day that their house might be flooded, that they might be moved away or that they could lose property altogether. Some of the studies have to look at the real personal impacts of flooding and coastal erosion in their area.
I would finish with a quote from a lady from Garmouth who said, “We want action, not sympathy.” They are fed up with warm words from politicians of all Governments. What they want now is action from their Governments, whether that be the Scottish Government, the UK Government or local authorities, because they are living in fear of coastal erosion. It is only right that we as politicians stand up for them to get the changes they need and deserve.
I ask the two Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople to divide up their time to give the Minister enough opportunity to wind up the debate and to allow the mover of the motion time for a brief response at the end. I call Kirsty Blackman.
Thank you, Sir David. I will do my best not to take too long. I am grateful to you for chairing the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling it.
This is a useful debate; it is clear that this is a serious and worrying issue with the potential for long-lasting devastating effects. The other point made clear today is that the issue is not the same in all areas. Just like the varied coastline throughout Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales, the issues that each part of that coastline faces are different.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) mentioned, the Scottish Government fund such issues on a recurring basis, with £42 million of capital funding per year since 2008. That is really important in relation to flood prevention and coastal erosion, which are linked.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s point, but the figure from the Scottish Government that she cites pales into insignificance when we take into consideration that the Elgin flood alleviation scheme alone cost £86 million. The funding coming from her Government in a year does not even fund half of that scheme.
The Scottish Government would have more money to spend on issues such as flood prevention and coastal erosion—
If they were not obsessed with independence.
The Scottish Government would have more money if Scotland was an independent country and we had the ability to raise our own taxes and, for example, support immigration and grow our population in the way that we would like it to grow. Immigration is important for coastal communities, particularly because of the people who have moved out of those communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston mentioned, many of the houses in Pennan are owned by second-home owners, not people who live there. We need to grow Scotland’s population so that people are living there and standing up for and protecting those areas.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) was very clear about how important it is that his constituents are protected, which I completely agree with, but I was concerned about his disregard for the flora and fauna that we also need to protect. A huge number of people have raised concerns about the effect of plastics in our oceans, for example, and I think many of our constituents would be hugely concerned about the impact on marine wildlife of any changes that are sought. That is why it is important that any decisions on protecting areas from coastal erosion are made with the best information, and why the Scottish Government have funded the national coastal change assessment. Phase 1 is completed and they are on to phase 2. Given the dramatic effects of climate change, and that coastal erosion is speeding up, it is incredibly important that any decisions are taken while looking at the current effects of climate change. It is an ever-moving feast and we need to have the best possible information before taking any decisions.
It was interesting to hear some of the issues hon. Members have with studies taking place. Angus Council’s study will not be finished until July 2019; the hon. Member for Angus is pushing for action right now, when the council has not completed its study. The other point that bugs me about what that council is doing is that it has not committed to use the full funding it has been given for the purpose of protecting against coastal erosion. It takes a special kind of hypocrisy for a council to say, “We are not spending all of the money we have been given for this purpose, but we would like some more.” I do not think that is a sensible position to take. The case made by the hon. Member for Angus would be much stronger if the local authority could evidence that it had spent all the money it had been allocated in the correct way to protect against coastal erosion.
Further on funding, the Scottish Government have committed to putting their Crown Estates money towards the betterment of coastal communities, which will be a recurring amount of money provided to councils such as Angus. It would be useful if that council would commit to using the money for preventing coastal erosion, particularly in relation to the concerns around the golf links that the hon. Lady mentioned and the erosion that is happening at some speed in that area.
I represent Aberdeen, with its beautiful beach that was immortalised in the mid-20th century railway posters as “the Silver City with the Golden Sands”. In 2006, action was taken in Aberdeen to protect our coastline from erosion and we now have what are called T-groins—large defences that ensure our beach is not washed away. It was good that that action was taken, but it did not receive universal buy-in when it was first put forward. People, not least the surfing community, raised a number of concerns. It has taken time for that to bed in and for us to be able to prove that it has not had the negative effects suggested.
One of the important things going forward with action on coastal erosion is to ensure that communities buy into it and that we are doing whatever we can to protect housing, properties and tourism, but also marine life. In Scotland, the marine litter strategy was introduced a number of years ago—it is not a new thing. It is about tackling the issues that damage the most vulnerable marine wildlife.
It is very important that we come together. We absolutely must look at making sure that studies are done so that the best possible, futureproofed, action can be taken, but we must get the communities on board, including those in the wider community—perhaps those who do not live near the coast but are particularly concerned about the impact on wildlife. As I have said in Westminster Hall a number of times, we need to work together and we can all learn from each other. Action taken in some places in Scotland could be replicated in some places in England, and vice versa. We need to make sure that with any action we take to protect any of our coastlines, we are learning from the experiences of others and ensuring that those coastlines are protected for future generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I join colleagues in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this debate and I thank her for a detailed and engaging speech, in which she outlined that 17% of our coastline is at risk of erosion, along with the infrastructure that is inseparable from those seaside communities. She told us that the second, third and sixth holes have already been relocated on the iconic golf course in her Angus constituency and she has done her constituents proud in making sure that their voices are heard in this debate today.
As the shadow Minister with responsibility for coastal communities, I agree that this debate is incredibly important. With rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather, our coastlines are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Hon. Members will be aware that my own constituency, while entirely land-locked, experienced devastating flooding in 2015, and so I am all too aware of how increasingly extreme weather can impact on all of our lives.
We have heard some compelling speeches. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) made a very important point about Flood Re and the Government’s failure to really get to grips with an insurance offer for flood-affected businesses. While Flood Re is working very well for domestic properties, we really do not have an offer together for flood-affected businesses. I hope the Minister will be able to offer some help to businesses and that this is not a problem put on the “too difficult to solve” pile.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) told us of the risks to Walney island in his area and talked of the risk of the unique biodiversity on the island being lost to the elements forever without intervention to protect it. The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) made a similar point about the nature reserves in her constituency. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) spoke with passion about the coastline in his area, which has been showcased by the BBC drama “Poldark”—I confess, I am not sure everybody watches “Poldark” to admire the scenery in the background. We have heard about the challenges in Scotland, and we have heard from hon. Members representing coastlines all over the country.
It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in his place, but I join the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) in wishing the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), a speedy recovery. She has a great deal of experience in this area, and will no doubt be watching this debate with great interest.
For a country of our size, the UK has an exceptional length of coastline, totalling more than 17,000 km. In contrast, the Netherlands has about 500 km. Although historically it has created opportunities for fishing, tourism and a variety of other economic interests, a significant proportion of our coastal landscapes are at risk of coastal erosion. About one third of the English coastline, and more than half of the coastline in my home region of Yorkshire and the Humber, is subject to erosion. Across the country, incredibly tough decisions are being taken about whether to hold the line or surrender it.
There is nothing new about coastal erosion; it has been taking place for millions of years. Waves and winds erode some areas, but can deposit matter elsewhere. The haunting story of what happened at Hallsands in Devon in 1917—the entire village of 29 homes was lost to the sea within 48 hours—is a reminder of the power of the sea, and coastal erosion can be accelerated by storms.
Although coastal erosion is not a new problem, changing weather patterns and rising sea levels are creating new challenges. It is increasingly clear that what was once termed “exceptional weather” is occurring with worrying regularity. Although it is difficult to link any particular extreme weather event directly to climate change, the trend is clear. Last month’s unusually warm weather was officially classified as the hottest May since records began, and December 2015—just over two years ago—was the wettest month on record, and there was extensive flooding. Speaking after those floods, Professor Myles Allen, of the University of Oxford, summed up the new reality well:
“Normal weather, unchanged over generations, is a thing of the past. You are not meant to beat records by those margins and if you do so, just like in athletics, it is a sign something has changed.”
Current UK annual damages from coastal flooding are estimated to be £540 million per year, which will almost certainly increases with future sea level rises. According to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the global mean sea level has already risen 20 cm since the 1900s. POST also notes that the rate of the rise was 1.5 mm per year between 1901 and 1990. However, from 1993 to 2014, it rose an average of 3.2 mm per year.
It often feels as if we are only reluctantly facing up to the devastation that could result from sea level rises. The Committee on Climate Change warned that
“for levels of sea level rise beyond one metre, which could occur this century, 200 km of coastal defences in England are projected to become vulnerable to failure in storm conditions”.
It is clear that we are facing a challenge of the most serious kind, which requires big thinking and effective action. We know that there is a very human cost for those in affected areas. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must be for a person to give up their family home because it has simply become too dangerous to live there.
We also know about the threat to our sporting heritage. As we have heard, the Montrose Golf Links faces many problems. It is estimated that one sixth of Scotland’s golf courses are vulnerable, due to their coastal location. Ironically, Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf course is also at risk of severe flooding, according to Ordnance Survey research, which predicts that the coastline next to the Trump International Golf Links resort will recede by tens of metres over the next 20 to 30 years. We look forward to seeing him still refuse to take action on climate change when his own golf course is underwater.
I hope the Minister can address a number of concerns shared by those living in coastal areas. I will be interested to hear his response to the Committee on Climate Change’s adaptation sub-committee report, published last June, which said:
“Sea level rise of more than one metre by the end of this century cannot be ruled out, and this would mean some communities in the UK would no longer be viable…Shoreline Management Plans identify areas where existing defences will become unsustainable or not cost-effective to maintain by the 2030s and beyond. This will have significant implications for some stretches of coastline, but the affected communities have not yet been seriously engaged in adaptation planning and need to, long before coastal defences become unsustainable.”
Given that the committee’s advice is so clear, what steps are the Government taking to ensure people living in those areas are aware of the risks and are planning for the future? Such conversations will always be difficult, but given the severity of the predictions and the actions set out in the management plans, people need to be clear about what is likely to happen.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), according to the national planning policy framework, it is not appropriate to allocate permanent new residential development within an area susceptible to coastal change. Local plans identify that coastal change management areas as likely to be affected by erosion. The Minister may be aware that a National Trust survey found that in 2015, only 29 of England’s 94 coastal planning authorities had defined coastal change management areas. One third of the coastal planning authorities did not have such policies. Can the Minister update the House about the situation? Has he been assured that all planning authorities in coastal areas are incorporating long-terms coastal erosion projections into their planning policies?
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Angus, I am keen to see the next national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. Although flooding is the most common consequence of coastal erosion, the Minister will appreciate the very different challenges in addressing coastal erosion and inland flooding. I hope that is reflected in the funding and resources dedicated to those different but not unconnected challenges.
More broadly, we cannot ignore the relationship between extreme weather, climate change and coastal erosion, so I must probe the Government further on what they are doing to tackle carbon emissions. In recent years, the Government have sold off the Green Investment Bank and scrapped the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and new low-carbon investment is now lower than it was when they took office. It is therefore not surprising that the UK is now on course to miss its carbon reduction targets and its legally binding 15% renewable target by 2020.
I appreciate that energy policy is not directly within the Minister’s remit, but I am afraid to say that, since the demise of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, it look like climate change has not been mainstreamed across Government, but has fallen through the cracks. I hope the Minister will urge others in Government to treat this issue with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.
Coastal erosion is a huge concern along significant lengths of our coastline. With rising sea levels, significant parts of our coastline face being literally swept off the map. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Angus that now is the time for long-term, joined-up thinking. I hope the Minister will respond to the points raised in this debate and assure us that the Government are serious about tackling climate change, defending our coastlines and, crucially, taking communities with them in facing up to these challenges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Like a number of other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing the debate. She articulated the problems facing her constituents in Montrose with passion, and was characteristically robust in the points she made. I am conscious that this issue affects many parts of the country, including my own, as my hon. Friends from various Cornish constituencies pointed out. It is good that so many Members turned up at 9.30 am to raise this important issue in the first debate of the morning when we might face a lateish night in this place.
As the shadow Minister pointed out, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), would normally lead on this part of the portfolio. I am covering this debate because, as a number of hon. Members know, she is recuperating from a recent illness. However, she will be following the debate closely, as coastal erosion is an ongoing challenge for her constituency of Suffolk Coastal. I very much look forward to receiving a text from her later this morning, as often happens after such debates, giving me an update on how I did.
As everybody is aware, responsibility for the management of coastal erosion is devolved to the Governments of the four nations of the UK. I will return later to some of what they are doing.
Coastal erosion is a natural process that always has and always will change the shape of our coastline, but change can be distressing for those living nearby. In March this year, we all saw the dramatic pictures from Hemsby when the “beast from the east” struck the coast of Norfolk. That county has a dynamic coastline, which has been retreating progressively over past centuries, but on that occasion the concentrated power of wind and sea eroded nearly 5 metres of shore along a 700-metre frontage, leaving 13 homes balanced precariously above the sea. Proactive management by the Environment Agency and the local council led to residents being evacuated by Great Yarmouth Borough Council. After the storm, 11 properties were demolished and, of the remainder, one property was saved by the owner rolling it back, and another needed only part of it to be demolished as it too was rolled back.
The key difference between fluvial flooding and coastal erosion is that, while still distressing, the impact of fluvial—river—and surface flooding tends to be temporary, while the impact of coastal flooding is terminal and carries much greater risk to human life. Of the £2.5 billion to be invested in flood defences between 2015 and 2021, nearly £1 billion is dedicated to coastal areas, reflecting how seriously we take that challenge.
Given my constituency, I understand people’s concerns. Cornwall has the longest coastline in England, at more than 1,000 kilometres, and the occurrence of coastal flooding is likely to increase threefold over the next 100 years. My constituency has both a north-facing and a south-facing coastline, and some of the exposed cliffs along the north coast have historical rates of coastal erosion of up to 40 metres in the past 100 years. They are likely to experience at least a further 40 metres of erosion in the next 100 years.
Sustainable coastal management needs to embrace change. I recognise that this debate was called on the back of a particular Scottish concern, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, but this is a UK-wide matter and I feel that I should consider how we approach things in each nation, starting of course with England, where the Government set the overall policy and local councils lead on management of coastal erosion risk in their areas.
Earlier this decade, a significant decision was taken by the Government to recognise formally that we would not defend every part of our coastline from erosion. We devolved decision making to a local level, confirming what had already been happening in practice. That made the process for councils designing a shoreline management plan more meaningful. Such plans set out at a high level the policy framework to manage the risk of change.
Covering three time horizons—20, 50 and 100 years—the plans recommend four approaches to management: first, advancing the line, or moving defences out beyond the coast, which is used in some circumstances; secondly, holding the line, which means using either soft or hard defences to reduce or eliminate erosion; thirdly, managed realignment, where we accept the inevitable but manage the process, taking account of local geology and wildlife; and, finally, an approach of no active intervention, which allows nature to take its course.
Much of the debate has focused on whether the devolved Administrations are doing enough to support their councils. I shall say a little about what we do in England. To support our councils, the Environment Agency provides a national picture of what is happening on the coast. It has established national coastal erosion risk maps that provide a consistent assessment of coastal erosion risk around the country and set out a best-practice method for calculating that risk. The agency is also supporting a national refresh of shoreline management plans to ensure that they remain based on accurate information. There is also investment, which, inevitably, was a big feature of this debate.
We put significant investment into coastal erosion prevention. In England, between 2015 and 2021, our plans will see £885 million invested in projects to manage coastal erosion and better to protect communities against flooding from the sea. At the same time as the Government made the decision specifically not to defend the entire coastline, they also made the important decision that any scheme with a positive benefit-cost ratio could still receive some Government funding to support partnership funding locally. We also established corporation tax relief for businesses to contribute to such projects.
Our partnership approach means that schemes that would not have progressed in the past can go ahead if local funding can be found through the partnership model. Our £2.6 billion capital investment programme is expected to attract more than £600 million in partnership funding contributions on top of that.
In Norfolk, an innovative public-private project will provide protection for nationally important gas infra- structure and enhance protection for local communities.
I hear what the Minister says about local businesses helping, but in a town such as Sidmouth, where the average local business is a small retailer already suffering under business rates and with lack of footfall on the high street, is it realistic to expect such smaller companies to contribute?
There will always be challenges in raising funding, but we are committed to the partnership model and projects that would not have been able to take place before we introduced those measures can now do so. I visited Sidmouth last year, so I am familiar with what my right hon. Friend highlights—his constituency has a beautiful, albeit quite hilly, footpath along the coastal road—but I am happy to visit his constituency again to look at those issues at first hand.
To complete my point about the innovative approach in Norfolk, we are seeing a technique called sandscaping, whereby 1.8 million tonnes of sand and gravel are deposited near the shore. That provides direct protection from storms and acts as a source for material to nourish beaches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus highlighted a comparison between the approaches to funding taken in Scotland and in England. The difference is that every year, despite budgetary pressures, we have increased funding on flooding, which is up from £399 million in 2010-11 to £502 million now. We have ring-fenced money specifically for coastal erosion, as she acknowledged.
This issue is devolved, so it is for each part of the UK to decide how to operate such matters, but it is complex and difficult, as hon. Members have pointed out, and we can all learn from each other, from the success or failure of the different approaches that we take. I am sure that the point she has made today will be heard by those in her constituency and, indeed, by the Scottish Government.
In those areas where defence from coastal erosion is neither practical nor economic, it is important that affected communities are supported and helped to adapt. That means anticipating the changes. Local authorities need sustainable approaches that reduce future burdens on communities, encourage a more positive approach and promote economic growth in a viable manner.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on the approach taken by the devolved Administrations. My hon. Friend raised the specific issue of Montrose, where up to 80 metres of coast could wear away in the next 50 years. In Scotland, the Scottish Government have concluded a piece of evidence called “Dynamic Coast: Scotland’s Coastal Change Assessment”, which was launched in August 2017 and identified some of the challenges ahead. I understand that Scotland has allocated a budget of £42 million a year to help local authorities with flooding and coastal erosion. In Northern Ireland, a gap has been recognised. The approach taken has been on the principles of the Bateman report, but, in the last Assembly, Ministers recognised the need for a more strategic approach to coastal management. They committed to work together on a baseline study, which is now under way. Last but by no means least, in Wales, I am aware that the Welsh Government have also made significant investments to improve coastal defence infrastructure over the past few years through new schemes.
To conclude, we have had a comprehensive debate covering many different issues and areas, with hon. Members raising issues relating to particular constituencies. It has been a pleasure to respond to the debate.
I thank the Minister and all Members who have participated in the debate. I am delighted to have cross-party support on an important issue for our constituents and for our beautiful coastlines throughout the United Kingdom. Clearly, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations are called on to do more.
I want to clear up one point about Angus. The studies finish next year, so we need the funding to be ready and, indeed, we need enough funding—the funding promised has a question mark over it and is not enough to put my constituents out of fear. I shall continue to campaign for the Scottish Government to confirm and release the funding sooner, and I shall continue to campaign for the UK Government to see whether we can implement a compensation scheme, so that our constituents need not continue to live in fear if they live in a coastal community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered coastal erosion.
Care of Prisoners’ Children
I beg to move,
That this House has considered care of prisoners’ children.
I will be considering the care of prisoners’ children following the sentencing of their parent. Are we doing all we can to support the wellbeing of children with a parent in prison, bearing in mind the traumatic impact that the detention of a parent can have on a child? It is estimated that more than 200,000 children a year are separated from a parent by parental imprisonment. About 17,000 of those children experience their mother’s imprisonment. Because women are more likely than men to be the primary carer, often children are suddenly separated from the closest relationship they have known in their lives. In up to 95% of cases, the children are suddenly without a parent or a home. I understand that there is no systematic recording or monitoring to support those children, so in many ways they are a hidden population.
The arrangements for the care of such children are often very informal, with the children being suddenly left with a relation, for example, whose life circumstances mean that they are ill prepared for the additional responsibility, with all the consequences that ensue for them and, importantly, for the children. One of the worst examples I heard was of a woman who was arrested in the middle of the night, but who was still nursing a baby. On the way to the police station, the police asked her, “Where shall we drop the baby off?”. She had to tell them a house where the baby was to be dropped off. That mother did not have the care of that child again for well over a year. That is a startling situation.
Before going into further detail about the impact on children and their carers, I thank Justice Ministers for their very positive response to Lord Farmer’s review, which was published last August, “The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime”. The acceptance of the importance of maintaining family ties to the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, which was implicit in the Government’s response to the review, was most welcome.
At the same time, it is important that we recognise that prisoners’ families, particularly their children, can experience severe difficulties following the imprisonment of a parent. Greater consideration of their circumstances and wellbeing would help to improve the likelihood of their parents’ better reintegration and rehabilitation. Importantly, it would reduce the risk of those children being imprisoned in later life. The statistics are devastating: some 60% of boys with a father in prison will end up in prison themselves. Staggeringly, I am informed that if they also have a brother in prison, that figure can rise to 90%.
We should take care of prisoners’ children not just to keep them out of prison, but to give them the best chance to make something of their lives when they have been placed in an extremely vulnerable situation at a young age. Research shows that prisoners’ children face significantly reduced life chances. They are less likely to be in education, training or employment in later life. They have an increased risk of mental health problems and substance abuse. The imprisonment of a parent can compound any pre-existing family problems that the child may have experienced or witnessed, such as domestic abuse, mental health issues or substance abuse.
Children who witness their mother’s arrest often experience nightmares and flashbacks. Separation from parents, particularly mothers, can be deeply traumatic for children and can result in the development of attachment disorders in young children. Children with a parent in prison may experience stigmatisation, isolation and discrimination, as well as confounding grief that is expressed in angry and aggressive behaviours. They may have no one at school with whom they can share their situation.
The emotional and physical stress after separation often requires intensive parenting, for which professional help and support ideally would be available, but often it is not. Family members who step in as carers at short notice are often unprepared for what their role involves. Often, they have to give up work to provide care. One grandmother explained:
“emotionally, it’s terrible. It’s like they’ve changed so much, they’ve got behavioural problems. They weren’t like that before. Especially the little one who cries for his mum all the time.”
Understandably, those who take on such caring roles do not always do so willingly. The subsequent breakdowns of family placements cause further harm to children. Families who do so willingly still often have to adjust their living arrangements, creating further difficulty for both the carer and the child. I thank Dr Shona Minson at Oxford University for drawing my attention to the gravity and scale of the situation. In her research, one grandmother’s experience exemplifies that perfectly:
“It’s cramped. What was my bedroom, I’ve now got two lots of bunk beds and four boys in there. The middle room is my daughter’s room and the baby sleeps in there and I sleep on the settee in the front room.”
Another grandmother explained the serious financial problems she encountered, having to go back to work to support her enlarged family and getting into debt at the same time.
Because of the difficult living arrangements and frequent relationship breakdowns in what can be very temporary homes, often there is accompanying schooling disruption. Children have four different carers on average during a mother’s sentence. Many encounter other significant changes, such as separation from siblings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on powerfully speaking out for some of the most vulnerable in our society. She has raised some powerful examples. She mentioned Justice Ministers earlier, it is excellent to see the Education Minister in his place and she also mentioned housing. Does she agree that this is a cross-departmental issue? It is important that the Minister works together with Ministers from other Departments to help some of the most vulnerable in our society.
I thank my hon. Friend for, as ever, making a highly pertinent point.
What I am speaking about forms part of a much larger piece of work that is encompassed in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. It was launched last September and has the support of 60 Conservative Back-Bench colleagues. It contains a range of policies that aim to strengthen family relationships. As my hon. Friend says, they straddle many Departments, from Health to Education, Defence, Justice, Work and Pensions, and Housing, Communities and Local Government. As part of the work on strengthening families, it is important that Departments across Government pull together and that the machinery of government works holistically.
Many Departments are doing good work to strengthen family life, such as through the recent announcement of £6 million for the children of alcoholics, and a much larger sum provided for children with mental health problems, many of which stem from their family backgrounds. However, a key ask in the manifesto is for a Cabinet-level Minister for the family. I am delighted to see the Minister with responsibility for children here. I would be even more delighted if he were promoted to the Cabinet and had the role of drawing together all the various strands for supporting family life, many of which could appropriately be channelled into family hubs in local communities.
I am delighted that there will be a roundtable this afternoon at No. 10, at which people from across the country will give examples of best practice for creating family hubs in local communities. Those are places people can go for support to strengthen their families—not just people with children from nought to five, but those with children aged up to 19, sandwich generation people who are struggling to support an elderly parent, and people whose marriage is at an early stage of breakdown and want light-touch early intervention to ensure that it does not fall apart completely and end up in the divorce courts. Family hubs may also be places for prisoners’ children and their wider families to get help.
There is often no official recognition of the plight of prisoners’ children, and they often have inadequate support, if any. Care givers are often not assessed, and they receive little, if any, financial assistance or other support. In the light of that, there appears to be a big difference in treatment between those children and children who are separated from their parents and go through care proceedings. The impact on prisoners’ children can be lifelong. They encounter multiple disadvantages, which often match those of children who are put before the court in care proceedings.
Children who are separated from their parents due to parental abuse or neglect are represented by lawyers and may be appointed a guardian ad litem, and a real focus is placed on their interests. If such a child is left without a parent, they are found a new home. Support is provided to those who care for them. Foster carers are assessed and receive training and financial support. The child is also likely to be classed as a looked-after child or a child in need, both of which open doors to additional funding in health and education, such as the pupil premium. That can ensure that the child is given more support and a more understanding environment at school. If the child moves to a new area, a school place is arranged for them.
However, in criminal proceedings involving parents of dependent children, the court may be completely unaware that the person it is sentencing has children. Even when the court is made aware, the impacts on those children often are not appropriately considered. For example, in a recent piece of research, the Prison Reform Trust reported that one mother explained that the jury
“didn’t ask me anything, didn’t even ask me if I had a child. I had to stand up and say ‘I’ve got a daughter at home who needs looking after.’ Thankfully, I’ve got a very supportive mother and she took the role of carer. I was not asked if she had a carer, it was just me they were focused on, just getting me to where I need to be.”
I called this short debate, in the light of that, to draw attention to the impact of parental imprisonment on those most vulnerable children. I ask the Minister what can be done more systematically and empathetically to identify and support the needs of prisoners’ children and their care givers, so that we avoid giving them a hidden sentence, which may be lifelong, when their parents are sentenced by the courts.
As time permits, let me touch on one or two other points before the Minister responds. The relationship between a parent and a child is often damaged by the child’s inability to visit their parent. Many families would welcome more being done to facilitate visits, perhaps through the provision of travel funding that is not means-tested. Shona Minson of Oxford University found in a recent study that a number of factors influence the possibility of a child being unable to attend visits, including restricted visiting hours; unaffordable travel, which I mentioned; the frightening environment for children; traumatic endings; and indirect contact by telephone or letter, which children do not particularly favour. The Farmer review confirmed that face-to-face contact was the best way to develop family ties, and that family members found security checks frightening and stigmatising.
It would be helpful if prisons identified that family visits improve outcomes for prisoners and should be viewed as an intervention, not just to help reduce offending but to improve the quality of life of prisoners’ children. Family ties may also be strengthened through one-to-one mentoring support for prisoners’ children, parenting classes and courses to strengthen prisoners’ relationships with their families. There is plenty of evidence of good practice by faith-based and non-voluntary organisations, which are working together to strengthen prisoners’ family ties.
Let me give the example of a young girl and her family. During a family day visit at HMP Wandsworth, a charity worker from Spurgeons noticed that 14-year-old Jade, who was visiting her father, was sitting with him in floods of tears. When staff asked Jade’s mother why she was distressed, her mother confided that the family was having a difficult time. Jade was upset and struggling to cope with being separated from her father. Her school work was suffering as a result. Her mother had asked the school for help, but it seemed unable to offer any. Spurgeons staff sent a link worker to visit Jade’s school and put in an appropriate plan. Her mother thanked Spurgeons for that intervention and explained that, although she had been asking for help since the moment her husband was taken to prison, that was the first time anyone had actually offered the family any support.
Charities such as Spurgeons certainly have an impact on families such as Jade’s, but their reach and resources are limited. Diane Curry, chief executive of Partners of Prisoners, argues that that
“is one reason why provision is so patchy and a lot better developed in some geographical areas…than others.”
In the light of that, I ask the Government to look at improving services to support children such as Jade and their families. As I said, the strengthening families manifesto outlines that the Government need to focus on supporting families to ensure that policies for children are prioritised and co-ordinated across Departments. Ideally, they should also ensure that every local authority has a family hub, which can act as an important site for prisoners’ families to receive support services, and that prisons put families at the heart of efforts to reduce reoffending and improve the lives of prisoners’ children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate.
As Minister for Children and Families, I have listened and spoken to many people about the issues concerning some of the most vulnerable children in our society. I have been inspired by the commitment of our frontline practitioners, such as social workers, teachers and others in the sector—including charities, which my hon. Friend spoke about so convincingly. I commend her on bringing concerns to life through the voices of children and their families. Those practitioners work tirelessly to achieve better outcomes for children in challenging circumstances.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the support that children who are affected by having a parent in prison receive, both to maintain a relationship with that parent and to deal with the long-term challenges they might face in relation to their own outcomes. I share those concerns, and I reassure her that I will continue to do all I can, in my capacity as Minister for Children and Families, to ensure that all children get the help and support they need from across Government to live fulfilled and happy lives.
A parent going to prison can be hugely traumatic for the child—it can make them vulnerable or even put them at risk of harm. Effective multi-agency working is vital to ensuring that vulnerable children are identified and known to all relevant authorities from justice, which my hon. Friend mentioned, to social care and schools. Reforms introduced by the Children and Social Work Act 2017 underpin a stronger but more flexible statutory framework for local multi-agency arrangements that will support local partners to work together more effectively to protect and safeguard children and young people, and ensure the effectiveness of those processes.
We are also taking significant steps to improve information sharing on safeguarding children, which is vital to ensuring that an offender’s caring responsibilities are disclosed and services are alerted to changes in a family’s circumstances. Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities have overarching responsibly for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in their area, which applies regardless of what care arrangements are in place for a child. Where concerns have been raised about a child in need, the “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance sets out the principles of what good assessment looks like. Assessments should be child centred, involving children and families, and building on strengths as well as identifying weaknesses, and addressing the child’s needs within their family and, of course, the wider community.
I am listening with interest to the Minister, who will have heard my intervention about working across Departments. Will he be able in due course to explain to the House what work he can do across Departments—perhaps with the Prisons Minister, my hon. friend Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—in addition to the multi-agency work he is rightly highlighting?
I did hear my hon. Friend clearly. We already work across Departments, and I hope that in the rest of my speech I will be able to convince him that we are doing some really good work in this area.
There should be a clear focus on actions and outcomes for children, with plans for how assessment and support provided will be reviewed. All decisions regarding formal care placements will also be child focused to ensure that arrangements meet the needs of that child and promote their safety and welfare. That process is the same for each child, including in cases where a child’s primary carer goes to prison.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton rightly said that in many cases care arrangements might be with wider family or friends, often recognised as kinship care. We recognise the vital importance of those placements, which are likely to provide more continuity than a placement with previously unknown carers and can help to preserve a child’s sense of belonging to a wider family network. For most children, there is huge benefit from being brought up by a family member whom they trust and already have an established relationship with, rather than by a stranger.
The law requires local authorities to support the upbringing of looked-after children and those on the edge of care by their families whenever possible. That option should always be fully explored by the local authority before making an application for a care order, provided that it does not jeopardise the child’s safety or welfare.
Local authorities are under a statutory duty to publish a policy that sets out the authority’s approach to promoting and supporting the needs of all children living with carers who are family and friends, regardless of their legal status. The policy should be clear, regularly updated, and made freely and widely available. Approved family and friends foster carers receive the same support as other foster carers, including financial support. Family and friends carers in informal arrangements are treated equally with birth parents in the benefits system in relation to child benefit, child tax credits and other means-tested benefits.
Local authorities also have a statutory role where children are being cared for by friends, neighbours or certain other relatives under a private fostering arrangement. The local authority must visit such an arrangement within seven days of being notified of it and should speak to the parents and provide support and advice where necessary. Local authorities must also carry out follow-up visits to ensure that the arrangements remain in the best interests of the child.
I turn briefly to education. It is not only children’s social care that has an important role to play; school and college staff are particularly important as they are in a position to identify concerns early, provide help for children and prevent concerns from escalating. We recently published revised “Keeping children safe in education” guidance, which will commence on 3 September. Having worked closely with the Ministry of Justice, we have reflected on the importance of school staff considering the additional needs of children with parents in prison, so the guidance now highlights the fact that such children are at risk of achieving poor outcomes—including poverty, stigma, isolation and poor mental health—and signposts staff to the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders website, which provides specialist advice and resources for professionals who work with offenders’ children and their families.
All school staff should be aware of the systems within their school or college that support safeguarding, as well as being able to identify children who might be in need of extra help and protection, such as children of offenders. That is vital to avoiding children’s needs going unidentified and so that any trauma a child has experienced can be taken into account in responding to any behavioural issues.
The Department’s advice on behaviour says that schools should consider whether disruptive behaviour might be the result of a child’s needs, such as any arising from the trauma of a family member or parent going to prison. School staff should also be prepared to identify children who might benefit from early help. To be clear, if a child is in danger, has been harmed or is at risk of harm, a referral should be made to local authority children’s social care and, where appropriate, the police.
It is important that all children get the support they need. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is working in partnership with Barnardo’s to deliver the National Information Centre on Children of Offenders, which is an online resource to provide support for children affected by having a parent in prison. We are also supporting cross-Government programmes for prevention and diversion work, including the troubled families programme and those focusing on school inclusion.
Good mental health is another particular priority. We recognise the emotional upheaval that a parent going to prison can cause a child, and when children are struggling with poor mental health, that can have a profound impact on the whole of a child’s life. That is why the Government are investing an additional £1.4 billion nationally to transform children and young people’s mental health services. On top of that, the measures proposed in the Government’s Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health will provide £300 million of additional funding to introduce a new mental health workforce to work with mental health leads in schools and colleges and reduce waiting times for those with the most serious conditions.
The Ministry of Justice is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a series of trailblazers that will test such teams outside of mainstream schools, including with youth offending teams.
Where a parent is involved in the justice system, it is vital that families receive support from the outset and that courts are aware that a defendant has children before they are sentenced. That is critical to avoiding those children being unseen or unaccounted for, so we are ensuring that the National Probation Service’s pre-sentence reports, which assist the court in making sentencing decisions, highlight whether an offender has dependent children and the potential impact on those children of a sentence so that that can be considered. We are also working to encourage defendants to tell the court about children, overcoming reluctance or fear if there are concerns that their children will be immediately taken into care. That includes supporting the roll-out of training material developed by the academic expert, Dr Shona Minson, which raises awareness of the diverse implications of maternal imprisonment for children.
Families can play a significant role in supporting an offender. Positive family relationships have been identified as a protective factor in desistance, or ceasing to commit crime. For that reason, the Government are promoting strong family and significant other ties as an important plank of our prison reforms, alongside education and employment.
Lord Farmer’s report on the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties, which my hon. Friend referred to, was published last year. It made several recommendations to strengthen family or significant other ties to help offenders to turn their lives around and protect public safety. Across Government, and through the Ministry of Justice in particular, we have taken forward key recommendations, including giving prison governors the budget and the flexibility to spend their resources appropriately—such as on family-friendly visiting areas—to help prisoners to keep important family or significant other ties.
The Ministry of Justice is developing new performance measures that we will pilot this year for future full implementation. That will provide crucial guidance to deliver more consistent services to improve relationships between prisoners and their families or significant others, such as flexible visitations and family days across the entire prison estate.
A new family and significant other policy framework will be published this year, which will set out requirements for governors in that area. To support that new approach, from April this year all prison governors have been required to produce local strategies that set out how they will support prisoners to improve their engagement with friends and family. We know that maintaining relationships with loved ones is crucial for prisoners and for their families. In England and Wales last year, we spent—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered elimination of hepatitis C.
I should tell the House at the outset that I am not really the instigator of this opportunity to debate hepatitis. The colleague who had succeeded in securing the motion is not able to be here, but I am delighted to share my thoughts with the House.
I was a member of the Health Committee from 1998 to 2007, and during that time we certainly spent a lot of time considering hepatitis. I am also the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on liver health. I have been the chairman now for some 13 years—simply because I do not think anyone else wants to take on the mantle, to be frank. When we set up our all-party parliamentary group, we looked for a celebrity to head it all, as one does, and we chose George Best. The House might feel that George Best was an unlikely person to head up the charity, but at that time he was a reformed character, and he did a lot of good in those early years. Unfortunately, as we all know, a great toll was taken on his health and, sadly, he died.
We then looked for another celebrity, and—what a joy—Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, who was a wonderful and remarkable lady, became our patron. She died in 2007. The House may know that she contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion in 1971 and was unaware that she was living with the disease until 2004. A routine blood test revealed the diagnosis. She was a tireless campaigner, and we owe her a great debt of gratitude, but since 2007 we have struggled to find a patron to head up the organisation as president. If colleagues have any ideas, I know our APPG would be glad to hear from them.
The APPG recently conducted an inquiry into the elimination of hepatitis, and in March it launched a report entitled “Eliminating Hepatitis C in England”. It is my intention to refer to the report’s recommendations throughout my speech. We have an excellent Minister here, and I hope that both he and the shadow spokesperson have had sight of the report. If not, we will ensure that they get it in full; perhaps they could come back with their suggestions on how we might take the recommendations forward.
In our report, we suggest raising awareness, prevention, testing and diagnosis, care and treatment, funding and monitoring progress, so we have covered every single aspect. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Charles Gore, the former head of the World Hepatitis Alliance, and to the secretariat of the APPG, the Hepatitis C Trust, for all their assistance. They have been wonderful in all the work they do for us, ensuring that our group is effective.
On 14 December, I visited Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth—not because I had been sent to prison but, ironically, to accompany the Minister who has resigned from the Government today, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), although I do not think his resignation was the result of our visit. It was a very good visit indeed, and of course it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan).
The visit allowed us to tour the secondary screening and healthcare facilities in the prison and to participate in a roundtable on the subject of the hep C virus and the importance of testing and of attending appointments. It was a wonderful visit; I pay tribute to the governor, and I know the Government are focused on the excellent work that is being done there. We talked to inmates and the governor, and the Ministry of Justice, NHS England, the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England were represented.
Perhaps the Minister and I should have compared notes, but I will say a little bit about what hepatitis C is. As I am sure that most hon. Members are aware, it is a blood-borne disease that affects the liver. It can subsequently lead to liver cirrhosis and cancer, and it has been linked to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal pain, kidney issues and mental health problems. I see we have two practitioners present in the Chamber; they might want to contradict me if they think I have got the cause of hepatitis C wrong.
The virus is said to chronically infect some 71 million people globally. Sadly, 214,000 of them reside in the United Kingdom. That is why I welcome the United Kingdom’s decision to join 193 other states in signing the World Health Organisation’s global health sector strategy on viral hepatitis in 2016. It has the principal aim of eliminating hepatitis C as a major public health threat by 2030—and I believe that if we are serious about that, we can do it. At least one Member of the House of Lords, who regularly attends our APPGs, has the illness himself. He speaks with great passion in the other House about the challenges he faces.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I also welcome the target announced by NHS England in January of eliminating hepatitis C by 2025, five years ahead of the WHO. However, many problems surround the virus and its elimination, and confusion persists over how the virus is spread. Many people do not appreciate that it is spread by blood-to-blood contact. Instead, some still believe it can be spread by sneezing, coughing, spitting or other forms of physical contact. I am advised that that is not the case and it is only blood-to-blood.
Furthermore, it is estimated that between 40% and 50% of the approximate number of people chronically infected with the virus in England do not know they have it. At the start of the debate, I pointed out that Anita Roddick did not know she had it until she was tested in 2004. Between 64,000 and 80,000 people are living in England without the knowledge that they have the virus. Even more worrying is the Polaris Observatory’s prediction that the UK is set to miss the WHO target of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030.
I welcome the efforts the Government are making to tackle this problem. I do not want to digress too much, but there is still the outstanding problem of contaminated blood. The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do, because we have had many debates on this in the House of Commons. Even the previous Prime Minister said he was going to do something, but nothing has really happened yet, and there have also been allegations that some of the records—for want of a better term—have disappeared somewhere. We asked for an inquiry into that in the last Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has done a fantastic job in bringing this issue to the attention of the whole House, but we must not take our eye off the ball. The hon. Gentleman is certainly right to remind me how important that issue is.
This country unfortunately lags behind Australia, Brazil, Georgia, Egypt, Germany, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands and Qatar, which are all predicted to eliminate the virus within the proposed timeframe. I have said to my hon. Friend the Minister that we cannot really compare those countries with the UK, but it would be good if we could perhaps make even more progress on eliminating hepatitis C in this country. In the words of Polaris Observatory, the UK is “working towards elimination” of hepatitis C.
The APPG’s report highlighted awareness. First of all, it noted that awareness of hepatitis C has gradually improved in recent years, which we celebrate. However, awareness is still relatively low, and the stigma of having the virus remains a hurdle to people actually getting tested, diagnosed and treated in the first place. The report also found that there is low awareness of transmission risks among at-risk groups, with many people underestimating the seriousness of the condition and the urgency of accessing treatment. Even so, there are still misgivings among those with greater knowledge of the condition. Within that group, there is still a lack of awareness of new treatments that are available, and many still have worries regarding the side effects of former treatments.
The same is true of the stigma attached to the virus. Although it has decreased over time, the report found that progress still needs to be made in this area, as that stigma often acts as a barrier to people presenting themselves for testing or seeking treatment. The APPG therefore recommended initiating local and national publicity campaigns in an attempt to increase awareness. That is why I mentioned celebrities. Although I am not big on celebrities, I suppose that people do not listen so easily to us politicians—they tend to switch off. However, a so-called celebrity who is prepared to speak out publicly attracts more attention.
The report suggests two ways to increase awareness. One is among primary care professionals, through targeted testing initiatives in primary care, together with additional resources—it is always about securing more money—and support for primary care workers. The second is to raise awareness among at-risk groups through peer-to-peer messaging programmes. During my visit to HMP Wandsworth, I witnessed a peer-led group operated within the prison by inmates. It was wonderful what they had achieved.
However, it should be said that raising awareness of hepatitis C is in fact a short-term goal. Our long-term goal of eradicating the infection should see a switch to the offensive—to preventing the disease in the first place. That is what we are really aiming for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and more generally on all his work on this issue and on promoting effective liver health during the many years he has been an MP.
On prevention, given that intravenous drug use is one of the primary causes of the transmission of hepatitis C, does he agree that at the moment a lot of drugs policy is seen far too much through the prism of the criminal justice system? We need to bring that much more into the health domain. Effective working with prisons and with the Ministry of Justice is vital if we are to get on top of this issue, reduce infection rates and provide proper treatment for people who are infected.
My hon. Friend was a Health Minister and has real expertise in this area. I shall use the expression “joined-up government”. He is absolutely right that we need Departments to work together. That is why it was so good that we visited the prison.
I may be able to help my hon. Friend here. As he knows, the drug strategy board is a cross-government committee. It met yesterday, chaired by the Home Secretary, and its members include the Justice Secretary, Health Ministers, Home Office Ministers, Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers and representatives from the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as senior police officers, representatives from the National Crime Agency and a representative of the police and crime commissioners. That board takes that cross-government look, and hepatitis C is certainly an issue I would like to see it look at.
That is excellent news. I thank my hon. Friend for that positive response to looking at this issue.
The testing and treatments initiatives in place will lead to a decline in the prevalence of the disease. However, prevention will come from identifying and educating at-risk groups. To do that, we need the help of substance misuse services, sexual health clinics and peer programmes that can educate those most vulnerable sections of society on the transmission of the virus. I am advised that these services are at risk of closure without sufficient increases in their funding. Perhaps the Minister will have some news on that when he replies.
Harm reduction is another paramount mode of prevention. If we can reduce the harm to at-risk groups, we can combat one way in which the disease is transmitted. That can be achieved by providing clean and sterilised injecting equipment. Our report also emphasises the treatment-as-prevention approach towards tackling newer infections. That approach has been successful in treating drug users and other users engaging in riskier behaviours to prevent the spread of hepatitis C.
As I said earlier, between 40% and 50% of people living with hepatitis C in England are undiagnosed, which is shocking. It is therefore vital that we continue to increase testing and diagnosis levels. It is generally believed that the vast majority of those who have been diagnosed and put in touch with support services have now been treated, which I welcome. The challenge is therefore to locate those people who remain undiagnosed. That is a tricky one; it will be a real challenge.
The hon. Gentleman talks about all of those people who have hepatitis C who have been diagnosed being treated, but my understanding is that these new antivirals are given to those with the most severe disease and have cirrhosis, rather than to everyone who is diagnosed with hepatitis C on a preventive basis. Can he clarify that?
I am concerned by what the hon. Lady says. No doubt the Minister will eventually be passed a note from his officials and will advise us on the situation. That does not seem right if it is what is happening, and I hope that the Minister will correct me if that information is wrong. It is also vital to re-engage those who have been diagnosed and have slipped through the net to the point where they are no longer in touch with those services.
The APPG thinks that the way to combat these issues is to change how we test for the virus. We recommend routine testing in substance misuse services, sexual health clinics and prisons. We also advocate increasing testing in primary care and in settings such as hostels, day centres and police custody. I know that that will not be cheap, but if it could be done it would be wonderful. Another solution is to test for hepatitis C on occasions when people are already having blood tests, which seems like common sense to me. For example, should we not consider testing people for hepatitis C while they are being tested for HIV, or when taking blood in accident and emergency centres?
Diagnosis is one thing, but accessing care is another. It is therefore essential that people who are diagnosed are referred for treatment as soon as possible, without delay. There should be a direct link between diagnosis and care. The time between diagnosis and the commencement of treatment should be minimised, to prevent patients from dropping out of the care pathway altogether. One way to achieve that would be to make treatment available immediately following diagnosis. That may be ambitious, but it is, ideally, what our APPG wants. Another way would be to streamline the referrals process. As it stands, some secondary care services will only accept referrals for treatments from general practitioners. Allowing referrals from any service at which someone might be tested and diagnosed, as the APPG recommends, would go some way to solving the problem.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. One challenge that we face is the fragmentation of the commissioning of substance misuse services and sexual health services. Those are commissioned by local authorities under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which I think we have to reflect on as a mistake in this context, as opposed to many secondary care services, which are commissioned by the NHS through clinical commissioning groups. Until we sort out that fundamental issue of commissioning, we will not be able to put in place the improvements that he suggests.
Oh dear! I say to my hon. Friend—I and, indeed, you, Mr Streeter, were in this place when we were dealing with all these issues—that the fragmentation is very worrying. My hon. Friend is right to point out that more work needs to be done on the issue.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a cap on the number of patients who are allowed to receive drugs such as sofosbuvir; certainly, hepatologists I have met in recent years report having to ration it to the most severe cases. The limit was set at about 10,000 patients a year. This year, it has been increased to 15,000, but that is not a target; it is a cap. It means that despite it having been stated that 160,000 patients in England suffer from hepatitis C, it would literally take 10 to 16 years to treat them all, so this is a matter not of referral but of access to the drugs.
I said at the start that I was totally the wrong person to lead this debate. I put my hands up: I was not aware of the cap. It, too, is a little worrying, but perhaps the Minister will have an answer. I am the first to admit that money is not always available for these things, but it is worrying that we are talking about another 16 years. That is not what our all-party group wants.
If services share data more effectively, the number of patients lost to follow-up will certainly be reduced. That will minimise cases such as prisoners who have been diagnosed being released before being referred to a service that provides the treatment that they so desperately need. Another example is where general practitioners have records of people who have been diagnosed but never received treatment.
On the subject of treatment, pioneering treatments have been in place since 2014. I am advised that they are shorter in duration and have higher cure rates and fewer side effects. They have thus been instrumental in making progress in the way we treat hepatitis C, and many people have been cured thanks to the drugs available since 2014. Notwithstanding that, we should continue to maintain targets for the number of people treated and to maintain universal access to treatment for those who have been reinfected. Those targets should be local, regional and national.
There is even an argument for making the targets more aspirational. Currently, there is a target to treat 12,500 people in England per year, and the all-party group would like that to increase to 20,000 new treatment initiations. If the target is not raised, there is little chance of achieving NHS England’s target of eradicating hepatitis C by 2025. It might be more pragmatic to have initially an even greater target, which would progressively be lowered in the future. That approach would reflect the assumption that, as overall prevalence falls and approaches minimal levels, those still living with the virus will be harder to locate within the population.
Treatment should be focused in the community. That will ensure that access is not hindered for those who have difficulty accessing secondary care services. The all-party group recommends making treatment more readily available in GP clinics and pharmacies, homeless shelters, substance misuse centres, sexual health clinics and prisons.
Funding is where the crunch comes, and we have quite a bit to say on it in our report. Although new curative treatments have considerably decreased in cost, pioneering new treatments for hepatitis C are not immune to concerns. The way in which the new treatments were initially rolled out by NHS England drew criticism at the time. For example, restrictions were placed on the number of patients able to access them each year in England. Of course, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has reminded the House of that. I am sure that the Minister is aware of recent negotiations between NHS England and the industry to develop a new funding model in this area and one that does not restrict access for patients. Without such dialogue, elimination in England would be severely compromised.
The all-party group has gone further, however. We recommend that any future deal should prioritise equitable availability throughout the country—I suppose we are thinking here of the postcode lottery—that does not discriminate against patient populations. On the subject of the all-party group’s recommendations, we believe that we should continue to monitor elimination progress with reference to progressive targets. The report calls for more diverse data on the virus to be collected and shared. It is the group’s belief that that would additionally allow for improved allocation of testing and treatment resources.
As the all-party group’s report makes clear, we believe that the eradication of hepatitis C in the foreseeable future is an extremely achievable goal—we really think we can do this. It is a goal to which our international partners are committed, which is very good. Some of them are making greater progress towards achieving it than we are, for whatever reason. For the target to be met, we must change our approach to hepatitis. It is my belief that the recommendations that I have summarised today must be implemented, and as soon as possible. Failure to do so will only prolong the existence of hepatitis C in this country. We have at our disposal the means to eliminate it. Let us do that.
Let me express special thanks to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for setting the scene. He said that he was not the master of the debate, but he was certainly the master of delivery. He told us about all the important issues, with the help of the two learned doctors in Westminster Hall today: the hon. Members for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford).
As my party’s spokesperson on health, I take an interest in all health matters in the House. Some people would say, “He takes an interest in just about everything in the House,” but that is by the bye. Health matters are my specific interest, so I am here to make a contribution in that capacity and will make a comment from a Northern Ireland perspective. Obviously, that will come into the debate.
First, I commend the all-party parliamentary group on liver health for the report that it has put forward. The hon. Member for Southend West is absolutely right: if people listen and read its recommendations, they will realise that the APPG has a really firm and dedicated interest in this matter. I am most impressed by the APPG’s recommendations and report; I am sincerely impressed by the work carried out by it. In my research for my contribution to the debate, I learned a lot from its recommendations and from the work that it does. The contents of the report are informative in the extreme. It provides lots of detail and information, which I hope will help us to contribute to the debate in a positive fashion.
I sincerely hope, too, that there will be such an opportunity for the Minister, who is always responsive and helpful. We are pleased to have a Minister who clearly has an interest in the subject matter. When he speaks, we will understand just how important that is. However, we need to implement the recommendations for so many people throughout the UK. I am also pleased to see in her place the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). I know that she will be equally positive.
The hon. Member for Southend West referred to George Best. He was the greatest footballer this world has ever known, according to Pelé, and what better person to say that than a man who many think was the best footballer in the world, even though whenever he has been asked he has said that it was George Best.
Unfortunately, George Best had problems; that was just the fact of it. With his talent and expertise came a problem, and the problem was alcohol. For a time, he and his wife lived in my constituency, just outside Portavogie, and he was very much someone who everyone wanted to associate with and spend time with. We well remember the day that he died and his funeral at Stormont. It was unusual for someone to be given the accolade of being buried from Stormont. I remember that it was a rainy day, but the crowds came from all over the Province just to be there and be part of what was a very poignant occasion as we laid to rest one of Northern Ireland’s greatest and, indeed, one of the world’s greatest when it came to playing football. I just wanted to say that, as the hon. Member for Southend West introduced it in his comments.
My parliamentary aide first went to Africa on a humanitarian aid project. She is a member of the Elim Church in my constituency. Elim Missions Ireland does some fantastic work out in Swaziland and Zimbabwe when it comes to helping with medical and education projects, as well as general all-round giving. It takes out a number of containers every year to help with that. When she told me about the list of vaccinations she had to get, one of which was for hepatitis A and another for hepatitis B, she said, “All I am really missing is hepatitis C.” Little did we understand in the office that the hepatitis C vaccine is greatly needed not simply on the plains of Africa, but in our own country. The hon. Gentleman referred to that.
The Northern Ireland Hepatitis B & C Managed Clinical Network is a website with great information that helps us to construct our speeches. Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, which is carried in the blood stream to the liver. We know that it can cause inflammation and swelling. It can cause fibrosis and the scarring of the liver tissue, and sometimes liver damage. It may subsequently lead to cancer of the liver and possible death. Over the years as an elected representative, I have represented quite a few people who have died of liver cancer, although that is a separate debate. I remember only one person in that time who survived liver cancer to live for a longer period.
In Northern Ireland, there are more than 2,500 people known to be infected. A large proportion of people, however, remain unaware that they have the virus. That is one of the key issues on which we look to the Minister for a response. How do we raise that awareness to address those who do not know they have it, but need to know today? We all know that we need early diagnosis. If we find out early that something is wrong, we can do something about it, but if people are carrying the virus in their system and do not know, that is a real problem.
Like so many unseen diseases, the problem lies in the fact that many people do not realise they have been infected with the virus, because they have not had any symptoms or they may have flu-like symptoms that can easily be mistaken for another illness. I declare an interest as a type 2 diabetic, which is a chronic disease. Every year, I get that flu jab to try to stop flu and colds. By and large it works—it has for the last few years, anyway. People who get colds and flu regularly might wonder whether it is just a cold or flu, or something more. That is the question we are all asking.
With the pressure the NHS is under, as we all know, there are few of us who would not struggle through the winter with a perpetual cold or flu, thinking we were simply run down. Few people would bother their doctor with a cold, yet for some that prevents treatment from being started when it would be most effective.
This is Men’s Health Week. Those of us who fit into that category know that we need to look at our health more seriously. In Men’s Health Week, we need to say, “If you have a problem, go to your doctor.” People say that man flu is one of the worst things to have, but us men, unfortunately, do not respond to our health issues as strongly as we should. We should be going to our GP.
I have learned that there are six types of hepatitis C virus, which all have different genes, which are called genotypes and numbered 1 to 6. Almost all people in the UK who have hepatitis C have genotype 1, 2 or 3. It is important to know which type a patient has, as different types respond differently to treatment. It is possible to be infected with more than one type of hepatitis C at the same time. I remember an awareness event in the House of Commons not too long ago—it may have been last year—on hepatitis C. That day aimed to highlight the issue and make us more informed of the problems.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and there is some stigma attached, because it can be transmitted sexually or through sharing needles. That is certainly true, but it needs to be publicised that the virus can also be shared through an unsterilized needle in a tattoo parlour or something as innocuous as sharing a toothbrush, a razor or other personal items, because the blood can survive outside the body. An old toothbrush, therefore, can bring about a whole mess of issues. One person in four will clear the virus, but it is possible to catch it more than once.
The APPG’s positive recommendations on how hepatitis C could be eradicated should be central to our thoughts on where we go. All the issues I have mentioned are reasons we are not finding it easy to meet our own target of eradication by 2025 and the World Health Organisation target of world eradication by 2030. People may not be fully aware. Will the Minister confirm what has been done to meet those targets? Can the targets be met? What is new in the way that we address or respond to these things?
We need to ensure that those who present symptoms are tested and those with a history are re-tested. Someone who has had the virus before can have it again, and they might not know. With new drug combinations, it is anticipated that it will be possible to cure approximately 90% of persons with the HCV infection. Those new combinations are effective against the infection in patient groups that were previously described as difficult to treat. We need to focus on those difficult-to-treat areas.
I agree in totality with the recommendation of the APPG on liver health regarding the fact that NHS England has recently entered negotiations with industry to develop a new funding model for hepatitis C, which is expected to guarantee access to treatment without restriction. That is good news. I agree that the resulting deal should include effective mechanisms to ensure that funds are distributed equitably across different geographies and patient populations, so that no one is left behind. I will go further: Northern Ireland must be a key part of the distribution list, not simply the mainland of England, if we are to eradicate hepatitis C and address the issues, whatever they may be.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, who is the Scottish National party spokesperson, will give us not only a Scotland perspective, but a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland perspective. We need to look at how we can do this with the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, despite the limbo land that it is in, through the permanent secretary. Any new funding must be accompanied by a comprehensive and strategic plan to ensure that it is implemented effectively.
To conclude, there is a way forward with hepatitis C. It is treatable. Let us put this in perspective: it can be done. All we need is the will and the strategy to make it happen. People need to be aware that they have hepatitis C in the first place, but other work needs to be done too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Hepatitis C was identified about 25 years ago. When I was a young doctor, it was simply known as non-A, non-B hepatitis, because no one had any idea what it was. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, we are talking about something that many people simply do not know they have. That is a key, underlying problem. Patients may only be aware that they have hepatitis C when they start to have liver symptoms, which is the start of cirrhosis or malignancy.
With any condition, we first want to prevent it. As was mentioned, at needle exchanges we already have blood screening to ensure that it is not coming from transfusion. We have to remember those in this country who previously suffered from contaminated blood that was iatrogenic—caused by doctors and the health service.
I agree with the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) that we need a more medical approach to the issue of drugs. If we drive problems underground, there is no possibility of detecting and treating people, to achieve the elimination that the World Health Organisation is aspiring to.
In Scotland we are recognised as world leaders, in the sense that we had a strategy in 2005, 2008, 2011 and then our elimination strategy, which was introduced in 2015. The 2011 strategy fed into what became the World Health Organisation strategy, as one of our senior leaders was seconded to it. The big change is sofosbuvir and ledipasvir—the new antivirals that are well tolerated and able to clear the viral load in 90% of all patients. Of course we would prefer a vaccine, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned; that is how we eliminated smallpox and how we are trying to eliminate polio. However, the problem with hepatitis C is that, as he said, there are six genotypes, but 50 subtypes, and it mutates regularly. It is one of those viruses with a coating that is very hard to get a handle on with the immune system and therefore to develop a vaccine for, so we need to use the drugs until a vaccine is available.
The Scottish Medicines Consortium passed sofosbuvir in 2014 and NICE passed it in 2015. Unfortunately, NHS England took the approach of trying to slow things down because the drugs are very expensive. However, dealing with liver failure and having to consider liver transplantation is even more expensive. A cap of 10,000 patients with cirrhosis and the most severe conditions from hepatitis C was set.
In Scotland in 2015, we took the opposite approach—a public health approach—to try to reduce the virus in the community and prevent it from occurring.
The hon. Lady is making very good points. I am sure she will correct me if I am wrong, but the other point to make is that in Scotland there has been a much more joined-up approach in tackling heroin addiction. Scotland is much further forward than England in addressing such issues, in having a co-ordinated strategy and in recognising how addiction leads to prisons and the criminal justice system. Indeed, there is not the fragmented commissioning of services that we see in this country. Does she agree with me that that is something that England can learn from in addressing the lack of joined-up working and commissioning?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As NHS Scotland is still a single public body, we do not have the issue around commissioning. We are also trying to take a much more health-based approach to addiction. As happens in England as well, we have multiple needle exchange programmes. This place has held us back from trying to introduce safe injection in Glasgow, which has one of our highest drug-addicted populations and highest incidence of drug-related deaths. However, that initiative comes under the Home Office and we have not been granted permission to try to take it forward. Always taking a criminal justice approach gets in the way of achieving the medical outcomes that we want.
It is really important to recognise the breakthrough of the drugs. With an eight or 12-week course, expensive as it is, more than 90% of patients will achieve a sustained virological response. That means they remain with undetectable levels of virus 12 to 24 weeks after the end of their treatment. The problem with rationing treatment to those who are actually ill is that it is the people who are not ill with hepatitis who spread it to other people, because they are out and active. If they are drug users, they are still using drugs. Someone who is so ill that they are confined to bed is not spreading it. That is why we took a public health approach to eliminating hepatitis C over the coming years. We certainly aim to achieve that before the World Health Organisation target date.
As the hon. Member for Southend West said, one of the key issues is people not knowing that they have the virus, so, in Scotland, part of our approach has been to create opt-out screening at various points of blood being taken. That will be from general practice in areas of high prevalence. It already includes bloods taken in accident and emergency. It includes screening at other times such as when we screen for HIV. Obviously, we screen for HIV when a woman has her booking appointment at the time of her pregnancy. We need to use all the opportunities that we can. Of course a patient always has a right to opt out, but when we make something the norm it becomes easier for people to agree.
The prison population obviously has a big problem with drugs, including IV drugs—either in the present or the past, before the prisoners were incarcerated. It is important that we get the tests taken up by such populations.
We also offer testing in more social settings, where there have been education events around hepatitis and HIV and where peer-to-peer work has been done. It is important that we raise awareness and try to reduce the stigma. There is a problem with always talking about HIV drug users, as opposed to recognising that someone might have been contaminated by blood in this country, while undergoing maternity care or surgery overseas, or, as was mentioned, in a tattoo parlour: it means that people do not care. We end up with, “Well, it’s their own fault”, which maintains the risk to everyone else and hampers elimination. As well as raising awareness, we absolutely have to reduce the stigma.
It is important to take a public health approach, as we have done in Scotland. I commend that to NHS England, which should remove the cap and do as we are doing: try to set a minimum target for new people to be found and treated as soon as possible. We have seen the new cases reduce from 1,500 in 2007 to 700 in 2013, but it is the chronic cases that have been out there for years that we have to find because they still carry the virus and can spread it to other people.
Of course, NHS England should try to get the price down. There is no right for drug companies to profiteer as opposed to having a fair return, but the issue must be taken in the round. We must recognise that eliminating the virus by using drug treatments while we wait for a vaccine will overall be an huge benefit to society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing this important debate and for the work that he has done as co-chair of the all-party group on liver health for many years, as well as for his excellent opening speech today. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), a vice-chair of the all-party group, is not in his place today, but I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done to raise awareness of this issue. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for their excellent contributions and I thank the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for his interventions.
Finally, I thank Professor Steve Ryder, whom I met earlier this year, for his expert briefing and for the obvious passion that he has for eradicating hepatitis C in this country as soon as possible. I also pay tribute to the Hepatitis C Trust and the Hepatitis C Coalition for the work that they do.
I welcome NHS England’s ambitious commitment earlier this year to eliminate hepatitis C by 2025, five years ahead of the World Health Organisation’s target. Healthcare professionals and experts are confident that hepatitis C can be eliminated, notwithstanding everything we have heard today about the cap on the treatment. Today is the first time I have heard about that, but I am sure the Minister will respond to the issue in his remarks soon. I remain concerned about some of the challenges that need to be faced by 2025 if the target is to be achieved.
Hepatitis C, as we have heard, is a hidden disease with patients experiencing few or no obvious symptoms for many years, but its long-term effects can cause severe liver damage if it goes untreated. Across the UK, around 214,000 people are infected with hepatitis C, but I understand that 40% to 50% remain undiagnosed. That huge percentage of people going undiagnosed is one of the biggest challenges to eliminating this virus—we cannot treat people if we do not know who they are. As Professor Paul Klapper and Pam Vallely of Manchester University ask in an article published this year,
“how do we identify those who are infected so that they can be guided into treatment and care?”
As I, and many others, have mentioned today, hepatitis C is a hidden disease. People may be completely unaware that they are living with the virus, and at risk of unknowingly passing it on to those around them. Although awareness of hepatitis C is gradually improving, low awareness and stigma remain a challenge to ensuring that as many people as possible are tested, diagnosed and treated.
Levels of stigma and poor awareness are particularly high among at-risk groups, such as former or current drug users, or those who do not access conventional healthcare facilities, possibly because of fear of being challenged or stigmatised. How will the Government ensure that those at-risk groups are reached—not only for testing but for continued treatment? Again, this is where the cap will come into things; as more people come forward and are diagnosed, we must be able to treat them.
People need continued support throughout their treatment to ensure that they complete the course of medicine—if they do not, it is just a waste of time and money. Will the Government provide extra support to at-risk groups to ensure that that happens? An effective way of raising awareness and breaking down the stigma of hepatitis C is to introduce peer-to-peer messaging programmes for at-risk groups. Such a provision could be increased in settings such as drug services and prisons, and would mean that there will already be an understanding and relationship between the two parties. Has the Minister made any assessment of the role that a peer-to-peer programme might have in achieving the goal of eliminating hepatitis C by 2025?
Although at-risk groups make up a huge proportion of those living with hepatitis C, people who do not consider themselves to be at risk also pose a challenge to the 2025 target. As we have heard, Anita Roddick from The Body Shop was one of those who would not have been in an at-risk group, and she would have had no way of knowing that she was infected with hepatitis C. The excellent all-party group on liver health stated that
“A high-profile, Government-backed awareness campaign should be considered, and awareness messaging should be targeted through novel channels at those who may not consider themselves to be ‘at risk’.”
Do the Government have any plans to support Public Health England in raising awareness of hepatitis C among the wider general public, and what format might that campaign take?
Crucially, awareness among primary care professionals should be increased through targeted testing initiatives in primary care, with additional resources and support for primary care workers. If we are to eliminate hepatitis C, we must seize the opportunity when people are already having blood taken—tests for HIV for example, or when bloods are taken in A&E—and test them for hepatitis C. Testing should become routine in substance misuse services, sexual health clinics and prisons, and it must also increase in primary care and community settings, such as hostels, daycentres and police custody. The prevalence of hepatitis C among the prison population is four times that of the population as a whole. If the amount of people tested increases, we will be closer to identifying the 40% to 50% of infected people who are living with it unknowingly, and we will be one step closer to eliminating the virus.
A big step in recent years has been the development of a new class of drugs—direct-acting antivirals or DAAs—that has revolutionised the treatment of hepatitis C. The drugs no longer carry the toxicity or side effects of previous treatments, and the short treatment courses effectively cure the infection in a high percentage of cases. Once patients are diagnosed, however, it is crucial that they are treated immediately, because the time between diagnosis and starting treatment poses the greatest risk of patients dropping out of the care pathway.
For example, a prisoner who is diagnosed and treated while in prison but who is then released might not continue with the treatment and could be at risk of infecting others, as well as of not being cured. What mechanisms will the Government put in place to ensure that those who begin their treatment can finish it, regardless of any change in circumstances? Quicker referrals are also needed to simplify the process of linking people into care. Currently, some secondary care services will only accept referrals for treatment from GPs. The all-party group on liver health recommends that referrals for hepatitis C treatment should be accepted from any service where someone might receive a test and be diagnosed. Has the Minister made any assessment of that recommendation?
Finally, I move on to prevention. If we are to eliminate hepatitis C—we all want that to happen—we must ensure that the number of new infections falls. Substance misuse services and sexual health clinics have a crucial role in that, but their funding has consistently been cut by the Government. The King’s Fund estimates that spending on tackling drug misuse in adults has been cut by more than £22 million compared with last year, and funding for sexual health services has been cut by £30 million compared with last year. What role do the Government expect such services to play in the elimination of hepatitis C, given such finite funding and resources? Those services provide not only a testing service, but an educational one that could help reduce reinfection rates—a further challenge to the elimination of this virus.
I am sure the Minister will agree that serious challenges lie ahead in meeting our ambition to eradicate hepatitis C by 2025. All those challenges need to be addressed—not only to meet NHS England’s target, but to ensure that this potential public health crisis is averted. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on how the Government plan to tackle those challenges in the months and years ahead.
It is genuinely a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to be back in Westminster Hall on such a quiet day in Westminster. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is sadly not in his place today, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing and leading this debate. Although he said that he was not the best person to introduce the debate, he could have fooled us because he did it very well.
Hepatitis C is a significant health issue in our country, and for too long it has been overshadowed by other public health concerns that, despite the superstars involved, have had higher public profiles. I pay tribute to the Hepatitis C Trust and the wonderful Charles Gore, whom I have got to know in this job. He is a colossus in this area, and has become a friend. I also thank the Hepatitis C Coalition—this issue has been central to both those organisations.
My hon. Friend mentioned lots of local services for Southend residents, and a lot is going on in his constituency. Few MPs champion their constituency more than he does, so for his press release I will mention that screening and onward referral services are provided by the Southend Treatment and Recovery Service, known as STARS. For primary care, GP practices refer people to the specialist treatment services in my hon. Friend’s much-loved Southend Hospital. Local drug and alcohol treatment services in Southend hold outreach screening sessions for hepatitis, and all positive cases are referred for onward treatment. Big local successes that I noted in my papers included last year’s hepatitis C roadshow, which took place in my hon. Friend’s area, and there is the hepatitis C operational delivery network educational event 2018—he can see me after class for more details if he would like.
It is always good to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place, speaking so knowledgably and passionately about this issue, as well as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter).
The World Health Organisation has set ambitious targets to reduce the burden of chronic hepatitis C over the coming years, with a pledge to eliminate it as a major public health threat by 2030. The UK Government are committed to meeting and beating that target, as has rightly been said.
A few years ago, hepatitis C-related mortality was predicted to increase in our country, but through the measures that we have in place and the hard work and dedication of so many unsung heroes in the field, 9,440 treatments were delivered nationally against a target of 10,000 in 2016-17; the number of deaths fell for the first time in more than a decade, and that has been sustained for another year; and between 2014 and 2016, there was a 3% fall in deaths from hepatitis C-related end-stage liver disease. That is good news.
However, hepatitis C continues to make a significant contribution to current rates of end-stage liver disease. I welcomed the recommendations to tackle that in the report, “Eliminating Hepatitis C in England”, which was published in March by the all-party parliamentary group on liver health, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West is co-chair. I often produce a recommendation-by-recommendation response to Select Committee reports in my area, but when I checked with my officials during the debate, I found that I did not do it for that report—I was not asked to by the group—but I offer to do so. In fact, I will go further than that—I will go crazy and do it. The group will get that from me as a written response to its report.
This is a timely debate, because NHS England recently launched its procurement exercise for the new generation of hepatitis C antivirals. If that exercise delivers successfully, the ambition is to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat earlier than the WHO goal of 2030, and to get to 2025.
Given the experience that we had with NHS England on HIV PrEP medication and its argument that that was a public health responsibility, which I believe was wrong and which was legally found wanting, will the Minister ensure that he holds its feet to the fire on hepatitis C so it recognises that although it is a public health issue, it has a responsibility for the effective procurement of antivirals and for making them available to all people with hepatitis C?
Point taken; feet will be held to said fire. I do not think that NHS England is found wanting in this area, and I will go on to say why, but I take my hon. Friend’s point and will follow it through, because I want this to work.
The new industry deal may allow for longer contract terms that cover a number of years, but whether a long-term deal can be reached and what its duration is will be contingent on the quality and value of the bids submitted by industry. I expect the outcome of that in the autumn.
On local delivery networks, NHS England has established 22 operational delivery networks across our country to ensure national access to the antiviral therapy. I will touch on the issue of the cap in a minute. Those clinically led operational networks are given a share of the national annual treatment run rates based on estimated local need.
That local operational delivery network model ensures better equity of access. Many patients with chronic hepatitis C infections come from marginalised groups that do not engage well with healthcare, as has already been said. Through the development of networks, it has been possible to deliver outreach and engagement with patients outside traditional healthcare settings, such as offering testing through drug and alcohol services and community pharmacies.
As hon. Members know, I have a great soft spot for community pharmacies, and I think that they can and do play an important role in this space. In April, I hopped along to Portmans Pharmacy, which is just up the road in Pimlico, to see the pharmacy testing pilot of the London joint working group on substance use and hepatitis C that is going on there. I saw the testing and the referral to treatment that takes place in pharmacies that offer needle and syringe programmes across six boroughs in London.
Portmans Pharmacy has provided a needle and syringe programme and the supervised consumption of methadone for a number of years. Those points of contact with people who inject, or previously injected—a key distinction—drugs provide an ideal opportunity for us to make every contact count and to test for hepatitis C, as we think that about half of people who inject drugs in London have the virus.
The approach of Portmans Pharmacy and the London joint working group is innovative. It aims to provide quick and easy access to testing and a clear pathway into assessment and treatment in specialist care, which is obviously critical. I pay great tribute to the work that the group has done. It has rightly received a lot of coverage and a lot of plaudits. I am anxious and impatient—as my officials know, I am impatient about everything—to see the peer-reviewed results of that work and where we can scale it out more.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned treatment in respect of the cap. It is different north of the border, but NHS England offers treatment as per the NICE recommendations. The drugs that she mentioned are expensive, which limits the number of people who can be treated each year, but treatment has been prioritised for those most severely affected. The NHS then provides treatment to others who are less severely affected. So far, 25,000 people in England have been treated with the new drugs and a further 13,000 will be treated this year. The NHS procurement exercise should allow for even larger numbers to be treated each year. Of course, nothing is perfect in life. Resources in a publicly funded health system are finite, which is why we have to target them at the most challenged group. That is one of the reasons why making every contact count through primary care and pre-primary care, as I call community pharmacies, is so important.
Does the Minister accept, though, that the people who are likely to continue to spread the condition are those who are less ill? The old concoctions tend not to be so effective or well tolerated. That is a big difference from the new antivirals, which are very effective and very well tolerated. It strikes me that in England, we may be letting more people become more ill before they qualify for the better drug.
Of course, the hon. Lady states a fact not an opinion, and I accept that, which is why I speak of the importance of primary care and of making every contact count. The people who Portmans Pharmacy interacts with are not all sick. People who have a hepatitis C infection or a drug-use issue have other issues—they get flu too—so they interact with that pharmacy, and the pharmacy makes every contact count by grabbing people earlier. That is one reason why I am so passionate about the way that that underused network can help us to reach the ambitious targets that we have set.
Everyone has rightly talked about prevention—in many ways, I am the Minister with responsibility for prevention and it is the thing that I am most passionate about in our health service. As well as testing and treating those already infected, an essential part of tackling hepatitis C must be the prevention of infection in the first place, or the prevention of reinfection of those successfully treated, which would not be a smart use of public resources.
NHS England and Public Health England, which I have direct ministerial responsibility for, are actively engaged in programmes at a local level to prevent the spread of infection. As people who inject drugs or share needles are at the greatest risk of acquiring hepatitis C, prevention services, particularly those provided by drug treatment centres, are key components of hepatitis C control strategies. Clearly, the key to breaking the cycle of hepatitis C is to prevent infection happening in the first place.
The fundamental issue is that there is no greater evidence of fragmentation—I speak from my own clinical experience—and failure of joined-up working than the fact that local authorities commission substance misuse services but that the NHS commissions mental health services for the same patients and secondary care services for hepatitis C patients. People are falling through the gaps. Many people who have hepatitis C do not present to GPs, and are not even routinely on their lists, so the issue has to be looked at in a much more effective way if we are to make a difference.
I hear my hon. Friend’s experience of the frontline and I would not disagree that in some areas there is unhelpful fragmentation. If I remember rightly back to those happy early days of the election of my hon. Friend and I to this place, we sat on the Health and Social Care Bill Committee. That piece of legislation, controversial as it was, enacted the decision to pass that responsibility to local authorities and, of course, all local authorities are now, in effect, public health bodies. All of them—well, top-tier authorities in England—have directors of public health.
Just because there are challenges and fragmentation, that is not a reason to redraw the system. I do not think there is any desire within the system for a top-down or bottom-up reorganisation—I suspect that, as a doctor, my hon. Friend would agree with that—but there is a challenge to the system to come up with a much better whole-system approach, to make sure that people do not fall between those cracks.
My hon. Friend and I could debate at length—I am sure we will—whether those cracks can ever be filled, and whether there will ever be Polyfilla that is big enough or strong enough to fill those holes, but I do not think that it is a reason to break open the system.
I give way to my hon. Friend for the last time.
This fragmentation of commissioning is a really important point and it comes up in so many debates in Westminster Hall and, indeed, in the main Chamber. I urge my hon. Friend and indeed the rest of the health team—we have got to put right the things that we got wrong. If we want to get this issue right, and get it right for people with hepatitis C, and for people with mental health conditions who are not getting access to services because of this fragmentation, then we have to revisit it.
I urge my hon. Friend to go and spend some time out on the frontline with some professionals and to get them to talk to him candidly—not on a ministerial visit. He should get them to talk to him candidly about these problems, because we have to recognise that this situation needs to change for the benefit of the people we care about, who are the patients.
I will not prolong this discussion, Mr Streeter, but I take my hon. Friend’s point and I think it is a subject that will receive further airing, to put it mildly.
Will the Minister give way one last time?
One last time and then I must conclude, because I want to touch on prisons.
Obviously, this debate has emphasised the importance of diagnosing people and getting people to undergo testing. However, does the Minister see that it is much easier to encourage people to undergo a test when they can be promised that they will get effective, tolerable treatment that will be successful, as opposed to their perhaps being left languishing on what is now relatively old-fashioned treatment that is full of side effects?
Yes, of course, and that is why I have talked about the local networks, and about early detection and prevention. What the hon. Lady says is self-evident.
The Hepatitis C Trust, which has rightly received many plaudits today, has played an important role for us in recent years in piloting pretty innovative ways of increasing testing rates, through mobile testing vans—for example, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West—and the pharmacy-based testing work that I mentioned, as well as the introduction of peer educators in prisons, which a number of people have mentioned today. My hon. Friend mentioned his visit to Wandsworth Prison, which he was right to say is a very good example of peer educators working.
The subject of prisons is one the House knows is of great interest to me. Given the number of people who, sadly, actively inject drugs across the criminal justice system and the custodial system today, it is obviously likely that a significant proportion of those in the infected but undiagnosed population will have spent some period at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
As part of the health services commissioned for those in detained settings, an opt-out testing programme for blood-borne viruses, including hepatitis C, in adult prisoners was fully implemented across the English secure estate last year, 2017-18. Because of the expected higher rates of prevalence, opt-out testing for blood-borne viruses is offered in 100% of the prison estate in England, as part of the healthcare reception process, although, it has to be said, with differential success and outcomes. We are currently addressing that through a range of initiatives that have been put in place to improve the delivery of testing and the provision of successful treatment in prisons. So, in some areas the whole-system changes are being piloted.
My shadow, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), made the very good point that we’ve started, so we must finish. Absolutely; as I said earlier, it would be a very inefficient use of public resources to start treatment inside the secure estate. That is why, when we talk about through-the-gate treatment, that treatment must include health treatment. That is something—I cannot believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) is getting a second mention in this debate; I see that he is on his feet in the main Chamber—that I look forward to talking to the new Minister with responsibility for prison healthcare about, whenever he or she takes up that lucky role in future hours or days.
Let me take the opportunity once again to congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on liver health. It is not the first time that I have said this and it will not be the last: so much good work in this place goes on in all-party parliamentary groups, including so much informed debate. As a Minister—I am sure that others in the Chamber who have been Ministers would concur—I think that those groups are incredibly valuable to us and to the work that we do.
That is why I spend so much time listening to all-party parliamentary groups, helping them, including helping them to launch their reports, and then writing back with line-by-line responses to their reports, because their work is so vital to us. It is critical on a public health issue such as this, which, as I said at the start, is often overlooked and sometimes brushed under the carpet as being a little bit, “We don’t want to discuss this.” That is because, exactly as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said, there may even—God forbid—be an unspoken feeling that, “Well, with their behaviour they had it coming.” She is very brave to say it and I have no qualms in repeating it, but I think that feeling does exist.
The measures that I have spoken about today are not a panacea; the target is an incredibly challenging one for us. However, the Government, Lord O’Shaughnessy—who speaks for us in the other place on this subject and shares an office with me—and I are all passionate about this issue. We passionately believe that it is something that we can and will beat. We are taking it seriously, and we are in a good position to push forward and significantly reduce the burden of hepatitis C, in line with our commitment on it.
This debate shows us that improvement in hepatitis C testing and delivery of treatment are best delivered where there have been whole-system improvements. The Government, together with the wider health and social care system, have got to take all the opportunities available to us to address this key, but sometimes overlooked, public health challenge.
I am really happy with what my hon. Friend the Minister has said about all-party parliamentary groups because, sadly, the recommendations of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue were not listened to over a number of years, and of course we had the Grenfell disaster. However, I get the distinct impression from my hon. Friend that he is listening to the recommendations of this report by the all-party parliamentary group on liver health.
It has been a great privilege to learn one or two things from other colleagues with more expertise in this field than I have. In every sense, this debate has been time well spent, and I am very, very optimistic about the future progress towards eliminating hepatitis C. I thank all colleagues for the time that they have spent here in Westminster Hall, participating in this debate, and I very much look forward to celebrating with my hon. Friend the Minister within a few years the elimination of hepatitis C.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered elimination of hepatitis C.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered protection from logbook loans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I really did not expect to have to bring forward this debate, and it is with regret that I do so.
Until about four weeks ago, a Bill to reform logbook loans was expected in this parliamentary session. It was included in the Queen’s Speech, the Law Commission was tasked with drafting the text and the draft Goods Mortgages Bill was duly published last December. In effect, that was it—we were ready to go. And then the Government pulled the plug. On 14 May, we were told that there would no longer be a Bill and that the matter was to be referred to the Financial Conduct Authority—the FCA—in what looked like a kick into the long grass.
Many of us are nonplussed by the Government’s U-turn. The Bill is largely uncontroversial and will have all-party support. It is undeniable that in their present form logbook loans cause great consumer harm. To say that reform of the loans is long overdue is pretty much an understatement. The case for reform is absolutely overwhelming. Bills of sale—their official title—are governed by two statutes that are dated 1878 and 1882. They were designed in a different age to be used in a different age. They are antiquated and have no part to play in the consumer credit marketplace of the 21st century.
Andrew Bailey, the FCA’s chief executive, recently called them “quaint”. They are a lot more than that: they are downright dangerous. Although they are not a huge part of the high-cost credit market, they affect a really vulnerable group. Citizens Advice, for instance, found that clients with logbook loans had twice as many debts as those without.
Logbook loans are a way for borrowers to use their car or van as security for a loan. The problem for the borrower is that the vehicle becomes the property of the lender until the loan is repaid. If any payments are missed at any time during the agreement, the vehicle can be repossessed without a court order—and that routinely happens, not least because the interest rates are so high. One example from logbookloans.com is that if a customer borrows £850 over 18 months, they will pay flat-rate interest of 132%, with an annual percentage rate, or APR, of 450%. That equates to 18 monthly payments of £140.70, and a total cost of £2,533.
I will give a case study of someone who took out a logbook loan. Sophie lives in Greater Manchester—that is around my area—and she needs her car to get to work. Two years ago, she took out a logbook loan for £2,700, with payments of £688 a month. She kept up with them until recently, when she had to pay a large council tax bill and she fell into arrears. The logbook loan company repossessed her car. She tried to negotiate with the company, but it would not listen. It demanded the total cost of the loan—£7,000—in full and is threatening to add charges. She cannot get to work, as she has no car, and she has a loss of income and the risk of losing her job.
I do not think borrowers always realise what they are letting themselves in for. Many borrowers are desperate. Logbook loans are aimed at people who cannot borrow from anywhere else. They do not fully engage with details of the loan agreement. Frankly, the tone of the advertising is irresponsible. I quote from an online lender, Mobile Money Ltd:
“You could get a same day loan without leaving the house. Try out a loan from the UK’s longest running logbook loan lender. Click ‘Apply Now’.”
To suggest that someone should “Try out a loan” makes it sound more like pizza delivery than a serious lender. Those words are not appropriate.
The other key fact is that logbook loans do not just disadvantage the original lender; unlike any other kind of lending, they can also harm people who are not party to the loan. Someone who buys a car that, unbeknownst to them, is subject to a logbook loan can have it repossessed because the original owner did not keep up repayments. There is nothing they can do about that, even though they bought the car in good faith. It is not even as though they can do a hire purchase investigation check, which can be done with cars bought on hire purchase. That is a real legal loophole.
The Law Commission measure—the Goods Mortgages Bill—would have given borrowers protections similar to those offered by hire purchase law. They would have gained a new right to hand back their car to the lender without being responsible for the remainder of the loan, and there would have been a new requirement for lenders to obtain a court order before seizing goods, provided that the borrower had paid off a third of the loan and had opted in.
Crucially—and this is one of the issues on which the Financial Conduct Authority cannot help—a private individual who bought a vehicle in good faith and without knowing it was subject to a logbook loan would become the owner of the vehicle and not be made liable for the loan. What protection can the FCA offer to an innocent third-party purchaser?
We all agree that it is not a perfect Bill. Some have questioned whether vulnerable customers should have to opt into protection, instead of it being by default. We might ask why protection does not extend to those who have paid off less than one third of the loan, but, taken in the round, the Bill would have been a huge step forward. StepChange, Citizens Advice, the Money Advice Trust—all the agencies said, “It may not be perfect, but it is a huge step forward.”
That brings me to the obvious question: why on earth is the Bill being dropped? Some say it is because of a lack of parliamentary time, but that cannot possibly be the case. Only last week, I spoke on Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill, which irons out an anomaly in the business rate system as it applies to agricultural land. The Minister confirmed in that debate that the anomaly has applied to just a handful of people since it came to light in 2015, yet we had a Government Bill on the Floor of the House to deal with that handful of people.
Logbook loans affect 50,000 people a year, yet we cannot find time for a Bill? What is more, a Law Commission Bill, as the Minister knows, is able to use a special parliamentary procedure that minimises time on the Floor of the House. The procedure is designed to save parliamentary time, so it would be ironic if a lack of it was cited as an excuse not to bring it in.
There must be some other reason. Is the legislation more controversial than expected? If so, how? Could the issues not be dealt with by the parliamentary process? It could be argued, of course, that since the FCA has been undertaking a review of high-cost credit, the matter of logbook loans should sit with the regulator. However, the FCA explicitly declined to include the matter in the recent review, despite the fact that it took on responsibility for regulating logbook loans in 2014. Of course, the FCA knew that the Law Commission was taking on the task of looking at the issue and that many of us have had meetings with the Law Commission about it, and that may have prompted the FCA to shelve the issue. That could be seen as quite reasonable in the circumstances.
Even so, it means that the regulator is on the back foot and that wholesale reform, which is what we need, is years away. I have questioned before and I question again whether the FCA has the powers to deliver the protections that would be enacted by the Goods Mortgages Bill. The consensus is that we need a new statute, and the FCA cannot deliver that. Clearly, the FCA has not prioritised logbook loans, and it needs to do so now.
The FCA could do a number of things. For example, it could impose an interest rate cap and ban top-ups or roll-overs, as it did for payday loans. It could enforce more stringent affordability checks. It could do something about the kind of irresponsible advertising that abounds in the industry, or it could prohibit completely any products that allow for summary repossession. If it plans to do any of those things, it needs to do so quickly.
Frankly, anything the FCA brings forward can only be a sticking plaster—a temporary cover that will not heal the wounds. Outdated legislation, designed for the purchase of hansom cabs and distorted to fit a modern world by unscrupulous lenders, is causing misery for tens of thousands of the most vulnerable consumers every year. I urge the Minister to reconsider and allow the Law Commission Bill to make the progress that was promised in the Queen’s Speech.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for raising this issue and for the leadership she has shown on it. She has been following it for some time. The constituents and cases that she has raised are very serious. I am grateful for her involvement in the matter.
Like the hon. Lady, we believe that consumer credit plays an important role in society. It helps individuals spread income and costs over time and cope with unexpected financial shocks. However, it is vital that consumers are treated fairly and that we ensure that their interests are protected, particularly in the case of high-cost products, of which logbook loans are an important example. The hon. Lady set out a number of instances where the costs incurred in some logbook loans are egregious. One would have to question whether individuals should take out such loans.
It is worth pointing out that the number of logbook loans has fallen substantially in recent years. They now make up a very small percentage of the wider high-cost credit market. The total value of outstanding logbook loan debt was less than £100 million in 2016, compared with £2.7 billion of debt from payday loans, doorstep lending, and rent-to-own.
Does the Minister agree with me and Citizens Advice, who fear that the message being sent by not putting the Bill forward will increase and mainstream logbook lending?
I hope I can give some explanation over the course of my remarks as to why we have chosen not to proceed with the Bill at the moment. My opening remarks that the market has shrunk considerably is not to diminish the concerns that the hon. Lady has raised about some of those logbook loans. It is important context to the debate, though, that the market appears to be shrinking, at least for the moment.
The number of bills of sale registered at the High Court has fallen from 52,000 in 2014 to around 35,000 in 2016. That compares with 760,000 people taking out a total of 3.6 million payday loans in 2015 alone. Logbook loans remain an important, if small, part of the loan market and are worthy of attention.
In September 2014, the Government asked the Law Commission to examine the Bills of Sale Acts—the legislation that underpins logbook loans. As the hon. Lady set out, those Acts hark back to a long-distant era. There were concerns over stories of consumer exploitation and high levels of interest, and she has given further examples. Those stories include vehicles being seized too readily on default and unwitting third parties buying a vehicle subject to a logbook loan. All of those things are cause for concern. The Law Commission concluded that the Bills of Sale Acts were out of date and recommended that they should be replaced with a new Goods Mortgages Bill. The Government were sympathetic and agreed that the Law Commission should prepare a draft Bill, which it did, consulting on the draft clauses in the summer of 2017.
Separately, in September 2017, the Government, again showing our good faith and desire to progress the matter, consulted on the aims of the Bill and published the consultation response in May 2018. Although the consultation responses undoubtedly showed a degree of concern about the logbook loan market and broad support for the proposed approach set out in the draft Bill, many stakeholders raised significant concerns, which I will discuss in a moment. Overall, there was less agreement on the detail of the draft Bill than we would normally expect following the Law Commission process, and less than we would wish to see before being ready to proceed with it.
Let me set out a few of the concerns from different stakeholders. Consultees suggested that the draft Bill did not do enough to provide clarity for courts, and expressed concern about its requirement for consumers to opt in to the court process, rather than its being the default. Some consultees also said there needed to be more clarity about the circumstances in which a lender could repossess a secured good without requiring a court order—an important issue, to which the hon. Lady alluded. Other consultees highlighted the risk of borrowers exploiting the protections in the draft Bill for fraudulent purposes.
In addition, a number of consultees argued that the draft Bill could encourage lending to vulnerable consumers by making it easier for consumers to grant security over their goods. Access to credit is obviously an important issue to Members on both sides of the House. The Government are determined to ensure that any legislative changes lead to better outcomes for consumers and do not have unintended consequences.
Having given careful thought to the concerns raised in the consultation, we decided that it was not the right moment to take forward the Bill as currently constituted, and that we wanted to give the matter further consideration. In the light of that decision, the Financial Conduct Authority has decided to look more closely at the logbook loan market, and we welcome that. The FCA will use its supervisory and policy tools to assess whether further action is required, including new rules that are necessary to protect consumers.
The hon. Lady has already set out examples of some of the actions that the FCA could choose to consider, at its discretion. The Government believe that at the moment that is a more proportionate approach, given the declining numbers in the logbook loan market and the concerns that were raised in the consultation about the Bill as currently drafted.
Could the Minister explicitly say what powers the FCA has to protect innocent consumers who buy cars in good faith, who cannot check anywhere whether they are subject to a logbook loan, and yet who can still have them repossessed?
That is one of the matters to which the FCA will need to give careful consideration. We hope that it will take that forward. It is also considering, as the hon. Lady suggested, a number of measures with respect to the high-cost credit market. It published an update on 31 May announcing a package of initial measures to tackle problems in the high-cost credit market, including a proposal to cap the cost of rent- to-own.
Those measures show the seriousness with which the FCA is taking the wider issue, and I hope that it will give this issue the consideration that it deserves. The hon. Lady has raised one of a range of issues to which the FCA will need to give careful thought. This is an example of the FCA using the powers that it has been given by the Government to protect consumers. We will continue to work closely with the FCA as it undertakes its review of, more generally, the high-cost credit market and, in particular, the logbook loan market. We will consider whether the Government should take any further action in the light of its findings. This is not the end of the story. We want to give the matter a great deal more thought.
Alongside that, the Government are taking further action to protect borrowers. We are supporting families to build their financial literacy through the Money Advice Service, and £27 million is provided every year through MAS to co-ordinate financial education in schools and to improve the public’s financial capability. A further £49 million was spent in the previous financial year on providing more than 440,000 free-to-client debt advice sessions across the country. We want to continue to look for measures to protect the public and to improve financial literacy and awareness.
I know that the hon. Lady is disappointed by the Government’s decision at this stage. I reassure her that the decision was not taken due to pressures on parliamentary time, although that is always a consideration when introducing legislation. The Government’s primary objective is to ensure that, if we legislate, we do so correctly, and bring in interventions that will protect consumers without unintended consequences. That is why we decided, following the consultation, that the Bill was not yet in the right place.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).