Wednesday 4 July 2018
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
Speech, Language and Communication Support for Children
I beg to move,
That this House has considered speech, language and communication support for children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, especially given your own interest in communication, reading and writing.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt, Ms Pow, but I notice that a lot of Members are wearing jackets. There is a temporary air conditioning unit in the room, but I am not sure how effective it will be. If anybody wishes to remove their jacket, they should feel free to do so.
Thank you, Ms Dorries.
The most fundamental life skill for children is the ability to communicate, which has a direct impact on their ability to learn and develop friendships, and on their life chances. There are huge benefits to getting communication—speech and language development— right from birth, not just to the individual but to society and the economy as a whole. However, despite the best efforts of many involved in supporting children and young people, and some tremendous individual projects and programmes, such as the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which I welcome here today, the communication champion Jean Gross, the Communication Council, the charity I CAN, and many more, including individual teachers and early years staff, awareness of the importance of children and young people’s speech, language and communication among the public and decision makers still seems sadly lacking. That has a serious impact on individuals and society, hence this debate.
Mr Speaker must be commended for his dedicated interest in this area, and for the Bercow report, a seminal piece of work that was carried out 10 years ago. It was an independent review of the state of provision for children with speech, language and communication needs—that is a bit of a mouthful, so I will refer to it as SLCN. Much good work flowed from that excellent report, including the better communication research programme, and the communication champion I mentioned. However, the recent follow-up report, “Bercow: Ten Years On”, which was published in March by the children’s communication charity I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and launched in style in Speaker’s House with, I am pleased to say, the Minister in attendance, revealed that despite pockets of great achievement, not enough progress has been made, and that it is a Cinderella sector.
I surmise that that may be linked to the fact that the whole area seems to fall between two stools: health and education. Somehow, it fails to be allotted the place it deserves in this country’s national policy. The second report highlights that, as a nation, we are yet to grasp the significance that not fully focusing on the importance of speech, language and communication has on younger generations and, therefore, on society as a whole. As a result, thousands of children and families suffer needlessly.
Evidence gathered in the report from thousands of contributors concluded that 1.4 million children and young people in the UK have SLCN. That is 10% of children and young people. Of those, 7.6% have developmental language disorder, which is a condition where children have problems understanding and/or using the spoken language and there is no obvious reason, such as a hearing problem or a physical disability, to explain those difficulties. The rest of that 10% have language disorders associated with other conditions, such as autism or a hearing impairment, plus other difficulties, including stammering. I will not address those conditions; this debate will concentrate on the 7.6% with developmental language disorder. Left untreated, it will adversely affect them for the rest of their lives.
I am interested in this area for a raft of reasons. Much of my career has been spent as a journalist and broadcaster, so communication has been a crucial part of my world and I appreciate how important it is. I also ran a small business. Even as MPs, we are employers, and when we are looking to take someone on, we are often looking for someone who can communicate—someone who is pleasant, amenable, good with words and able to converse and write clearly. Speech, language and communication skills are essential in our world. Most importantly, I am interested in this area as a parent. I have brought up three children with my husband, Charles, who I hope might be listening, so I am aware that parents can make a real contribution to helping their children develop their communication skills.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on an interesting topic. To pick up on her point about the value of communication in all professions, we should not forget teachers and the ability to train them through voice coaching. Two Essex multi-academy trusts have invested heavily in voice coaching for their teachers, and they have a much enhanced retention rate of 90%. Ensuring that teachers are educated, coached and assisted helps retention, and it provides a powerful example for the children in their care.
I will move on to talk about teachers and their role, including the things they have noticed and how we might help them. It is such an important point. I am particularly interested in those voice coaching projects.
I mentioned the detrimental effect that poor communication skills can have on children. Affected children do less well at school. From the get-go, they make less academic progress in the early years foundation stage than their contemporaries, and when they leave primary school their attainment in reading, writing and mathematics is much lower than those without SLCN. The report states that only 15% of those identified reached the expected standards. Unsurprisingly, those children are also affected at GCSE level; only 20.3% of SLCN children gain a grade 4 or C or above in English and maths at GCSE, compared with an expected 63.9% of all pupils. The pattern is clear: poor SLCN attainment will directly affect their academic progress.
On top of that, unfortunately, there is a high chance that those children will develop mental health issues. In fact, young people referred to mental health services are three times more likely to have SLCN. There is also a strong correlation between emotional and behavioural disorders and language difficulties.
I thank the hon. Lady for her leadership on this subject, and it is great that she has secured the debate. The report’s recommendations on youth justice are really important, and it is clear that speech and language therapists can play a big part in reducing the risk of reoffending. Does she agree that it is important that those services are provided as early as possible to young people in the youth justice system?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly interested in this area. He makes a valid point, which I will move on to, because it all links up.
Everything I have mentioned so far affects children’s life chances. As the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) has just said, that is borne out by the fact that 60% of young offenders have unidentified speech, language and communication problems, so the link between the two is stark. Children with poor vocabulary skills are twice as likely to be unemployed in later life. Young offenders are often put on courses, such as anger management and drug rehabilitation, to try to help them, but if they do not have good reading, writing and communication skills, it is difficult for them to take advantage of those courses. I am sure that you will agree, Ms Dorries, that none of those things is desirable in a 21st-century society.
There is even more to these findings, because many of these children come from areas of social disadvantage. There is a very high prevalence of SLCN among vulnerable children, particularly looked-after children. Again, looked-after children are highly represented in the criminal justice system—the 60% figure emerges again. Unsurprisingly, many excluded children are also found to have SLCN, particularly boys—one study found that 100% of excluded boys had some sort of communication or behavioural disorder.
Unsurprisingly, the children of mothers who have just given birth and who sadly have mental health issues, which can develop just before or after birth, are often found to display SLCN, probably because as babies they did not receive the crucial stimulation they needed, which is so important from the absolute outset. Such children do not develop the essential language skills. Again, that highlights how important it is to pick up mental health issues in mums as early as possible, because they can have a knock-on effect on the babies.
Parenting is really important, so I will talk about that for a moment—it is not a digression, because it is all directly related. This issue affects not only people from disadvantaged areas, but all of us, wherever we come from. It was motherhood that prompted my interest in the importance of early communication. My sister is a speech, language and communication therapist specialising in early years children—I may have to register an interest. She made me aware of how I ought to engage with my babies from the word go. I do not think I had even held a baby before I had my own children, so I was pretty ignorant about children. I am not saying that my children are model success stories, but I have to say that the tips I was given really helped.
They were just simple things. For example, from birth to three months, parents should get very close to their baby, so that it has eye contact and starts to recognise the mouth, and learns that that is where sounds come from. If children are just sat down in front of a television or a laptop, they will not start to realise that. At six months, a baby starts to become very aware of its environment, so parents should start to talk about the things they are looking at. Obviously, they are not speaking at that point, but they are looking, so parents should start naming the object they think their baby is looking at, whether it is a dog, a cat, a mug or a cup. Then, from nine to 12 months, parents can start to expand on that. Their baby might be in a high chair and pointing at a cup, so the parent should say the word, and they should say it many times, because repetition is how our children learn. Many people think that children do not really communicate until they start talking, but of course they are; they are picking up all those vital signals that will help them to start forming words. It is an utterly fascinating subject.
I am told that dummies really are a no-no. Nurseries staff I have spoken to have borne that out. If a dummy is put in a child’s mouth too often, it can affect the way the mouth develops. I discussed that only recently with a specialist facial consultant at Musgrove Park Hospital, and she agreed that we do not want to influence what happens in a baby’s mouth, because that has to grow and develop as well.
I will turn now to an area that I know is close to your heart, Ms Dorries: reading stories, poems and even songs. We can never do enough of that with our children, starting from the word go. I recently read an article by the author Philip Pullman, in which he bemoaned the fact that, sadly, not enough children are read to anymore and that the bedtime story is disappearing. Indeed, staff at a nursery in Taunton that I visited recently told me that many parents are ditching the bedtime story. The bedtime story is a crucial way for children to learn how to communicate, and again it is not to do with how wealthy someone is, or how smart they are. It is a cheap activity—almost free—that can help our children so much.
Some very interesting research on teaching effective vocabulary—produced by A. Biemiller—has shown that at age seven relatively high-performing children have an average of 7,100 words in their repertoire and that they can learn, on average, three words a day. However, relatively poor-performing children have an average of 3,000 words in their repertoire and learn, on average, one word a day. That is an enormous gap to fill if those relatively poor-performing children are to catch up when they get to school—I am told on good authority that it is almost impossible for them to catch up. Vocabulary at age five is the best predictor of a child’s outcomes at GCSE level.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing such an important debate. Stoke Speaks Out is one of the national exemplars of how to engage with this issue. Does she agree that we need sustained funding for such programmes? We have seen engagement in this work. In my constituency, 84% of children were 12 months behind in oral skills at the age of two. There was heavy investment and they eventually did well in their GCSEs, but funding was pulled for the children in the next years and we saw an exact inverse relationship in their long-term attainment. Does she agree that, in order to break the cycle, we need sustained funding for every year?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she makes a good point. I have heard about that extremely good project, and there are others. I know that the matter is on the Minister’s agenda. I think that this is a process of joining up the dots, so that we can make good progress, because it is really coming to light how important this issue is for society as a whole. We cannot expect teachers to do it all. They must be able to pick up where they have to, and rightly so, but there is a lot that parents can do, and we could give them many more pointers when they have children. We must engage society on the whole issue
To pick up on the hon. Lady’s point, many nurseries and primary schools in Taunton Deane have joined me in supporting the idea that we ought to engage with parents to encourage them to do a little more. For example, staff at Topps Nursery at Musgrove Park Hospital, which I visited last week, are really concerned about the number of children arriving at their door who simply do not have the expected communication skills, whatever their age. Many of those children are not potty-trained, which is a problem, but many also lack basic communication skills. It was the staff at that nursery who mentioned dummies and said, “Please don’t use them.” They also expressed concern about too many children being dumped in front of gadgets, so that they are not stimulated and do not have normal levels of human contact.
I also met a couple of headteachers from two of my really excellent primary schools, St George’s Catholic School and Trull Church of England VA Primary School. When I mentioned that I had secured this debate, both of them said that they had experienced a marked rise in the number of children who do not talk when they start school, who cannot hold a conversation, who do not listen, who have speech problems and who therefore have poor social interaction skills. I was quite taken aback when they so quickly came up with this list of issues that our teachers are clearly facing. Of course, those issues put an added burden on our already hard-working and professional nursery and teaching staff and practitioners.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. She is eloquently explaining the factors that inhibit our children’s development of communication skills. It is more than 10 years since Mr Speaker produced his first report, so does the hon. Lady agree that it is now time to implement its recommendations? In my constituency there is a lady called Helena, who was diagnosed with selective mutism and social anxiety. It is felt that if she had received the support she needed as a child, she would now, as an adult, be better able to contribute to society. However, she has great difficulty communicating and so is unable to work or go out alone. Does the hon. Lady agree that implementing the report’s recommendations would help address such factors?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course I agree; early intervention is very much what we are talking about today. Intervention happens across the board in so many areas, but the earlier we can intervene to prevent an issue from escalating, the better—not only for the individual, but for society and the economy, because ultimately we will spend less money sorting it out. I spoke to one of my constituents, Clifford Mann. He heads up Musgrove Park Hospital A&E, but he is also the national clinical adviser for A&E. Although one might not think that this is his area, he expounded vociferously on the need for proactive pre-school engagement with this agenda—and others, such as tackling obesity—because it will pay dividends later for the NHS.
I do not want to be wholly negative, because there are already some exceptionally good programmes out there, doing good work and showing that we can improve in this area, not least the programme that my sister was involved in with Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, which is quoted in the report as a model project. It references lots of other very good projects, such as the Time to Talk project in Warwickshire, the No Wrong Door project in North Yorkshire, and Better Start Southend. Another excellent project in my constituency is A.R.R.O.W. Tuition, run by Dr Colin Lane. It is a very good model that works really well: a multi-sensory blend of techniques combining established and innovative learning strategies, with the student’s own voice central to the approach. That touches on what my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) mentioned—using the voice to train and encourage—and it really does work.
Dr Lane has run a trial project—he has projects all over the place, but I suggested that he speak to Taunton Academy, which is in a very disadvantaged part of Taunton. The academy has its issues, but it is really turning things around. It got in touch with me the other day to say that they took on Dr Lane’s project and it is working absolute miracles in the school. I am going back next week to present some prizes to the children, who have made so much progress with their speech and language. This is a project to help children once they are in school, so there are good projects, and I would appreciate the Minister’s views about how more of these projects can be harnessed and how we might integrate this very good practice and make the most of it. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we could just engage some more of these projects.
However, despite there being clear evidence of the huge benefits that improving children’s communication skills can bring, the second Bercow report highlighted that many parents and carers found it difficult to find help for their children. They were not sure where to go, and I have to admit that I had difficulties trying to find out where one would go in Somerset. When those parents and carers did get appointments, waiting times were long and many found the support wanting.
What needs to be done to tackle the clear communications crisis among our children, and thereby improve social mobility, health inequality and employment for so many people? There are some pretty straightforward steps, building on the good foundations that this Government have already put in place and are working on. First, there should be clear messages from the start, raising awareness of the real difference that addressing the issue could make. Secondly, simple guidance should be provided to parents. For example, I am going to put something on my website. How about writing to all parents who have just had babies, offering ideas and suggestions? I am sure that there are some simple things we could do.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham mentioned, there should also be training for practitioners, including health visitors. Health visitors are so often the ones on the frontline who get sent in; it is largely they who spot the really difficult cases and deal with them. I recently spoke to Alison Kalwa, one of the wonderful health visitors in my constituency. She said, “Just give me a few more hours and a bit more time, and I could make so much difference with language development skills with the mum or dad and their baby.”
Having been to the launch of the Bercow report, I raised a lot of these issues in a letter to the Prime Minister, and I was really pleased with the interest she took in her response. She referenced the Department for Education’s plans to work with Public Health England to enable health visitors and early years practitioners to identify children’s SLCN early and put the right support in place. I would very much welcome the Minister saying a little more about that.
Overall, we need an overarching strategy with speech, language and communication at its core, and with a recognition that early identification is key. I very much welcome the recent announcement of an additional £20 billion for the NHS. One of the planks of that is mental health, so perhaps we have an opportunity to engage and harness some of that funding to work on communication needs so that we can prevent people developing mental health issues in the first place. That is where it would be so important for health providers to link together, with all the public bodies playing their part, including Public Health England, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, NHS Improvement, Ofsted and the Youth Justice Board, which brings in the point that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent made about offenders.
How about including children’s SLCN in those sustainability and transformation plans we keep hearing so much about? Of the 44 sustainability and transformation plans published in 2016, only three mention the issue. Surely there must be scope there. Perhaps Ofsted inspectors might be trained to ensure that children’s communication is part of everyday life. What is overridingly apparent to me is that the issue must be approached jointly by the health and social care sector and by the education sector—even in deciding which Minister we might like to answer us. It causes a slight dilemma: should it be the Department for Education or the Department of Health and Social Care? Who would it be better to raise the issue with? I am optimistic that this Minister has great links and communication skills and will hotfoot it to the Department for Education so that they can work jointly. I would love to hear his views on that.
I am optimistic that the Government can work on the issue, and it is brilliant that all these things are coming to light and so much work is being done. While I am at it, I have to put in a bid for something. In Parliament I often focus on issues relating to the environment, nature and the countryside, and one thing I have noticed is that many teachers and nursery practitioners have said how our children adore forest schools and getting outside to commune with nature. That is a great way to stimulate them and get their communication skills going, so let us work some of that into what we do as well. Things should not all be separate. Forest schools are a great way of engaging our children.
To sum up, if communication was given the priority it deserves, the 1 million-plus children in England who are suffering with communication problems could be helped. We should be thinking about the 7.6% whose life chances could be improved. Not addressing the issue will be a cost to society and the economy. If there are things out there that we can do to help, we must try to do them. If the issues are addressed, by engaging some of the excellent recommendations outlined in the second Bercow report, we will have wins for the individuals, for society and for the economy as a whole.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I start by acknowledging the tremendous level of support and activism there has been throughout the country to raise the profile of the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report and the need to improve speech, language and communication support for children and young people. That support is essential in improving the lives of the more than 1.4 million children and young people in the UK who have communication difficulties, too many of whom are not getting the support they need.
I welcome the representatives of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists who are here today, and thank it for all the work it has done. I also put on the record my thanks to Gillian Rudd from Birmingham City University in my constituency for her work raising awareness of this matter.
The petition on Parliament’s website regarding the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report has more than 10,500 signatures. That demonstrates the public’s desire to ensure that support for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs is improved, along with the support for their families, carers, teachers and other professionals.
The nationwide figures are stark. More than 10% of children and young people in the UK—some 1.4 million—have some form of persistent, long-term SLCN, and in areas of social disadvantage up to 50% of children can start school with delayed language or other identified SLCN. Across Birmingham, that translates to more than 21,000 children and young people with communication needs, 7.6% of whom will have a developmental language disorder and at least 1% of whom will stammer. Those children and young people would likely benefit from long-term support to enable them to achieve their full potential.
Let us not forget that we are also talking about the need for parents, carers, teachers and other professionals to be supported and equipped with the skills that they need. Those who have difficulty communicating can have problems with understanding and expressing themselves, including in social interactions. Imagine for a moment not being able to make yourself understood, not being able to understand what is being said to you, and not being able to make friends or develop positive relationships; it is a truly frightening thought.
Left unidentified and unsupported, difficulties with speech, language and communication can have a huge impact on children and young people’s life chances across a wide range of areas: educational attainment, behavioural issues, mental health and wellbeing, health inequalities, employment prospects, and interactions with the criminal justice system. “Bercow: Ten Years On” has demonstrated that more needs to be done to ensure better speech, language and communication support for children and young people who have SLCN.
The Minister has written to me outlining some of the things that the Government are doing, including focusing on closing the word gap at age five and working more closely with Public Health England to support health visitors and early years practitioners. That is a good start, but more needs to be done, particularly for the children and young people who need help beyond the age of five. Can the Minister confirm what discussions his Department has had with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, and the Youth Justice Board regarding the report? Furthermore, what plans does his Department have to extend the proposals to improve identification and support in respect of SLCN to children over the age of five?
As the Minister knows, I have written to the Prime Minister asking what the Department of Health and Social Care is doing in response to the report, given the need for specialist services. Joint commissioning between education and health, and the impact of communication difficulties on mental health and health inequalities, is absolutely integral.
In separate correspondence, the Minister for Care, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) told me that
“more needs to be done to ensure that children with a stammer are able to access the communications support they need”,
“the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education will be considering what more could be done to strengthen commissioning of communication support.”
That interest from the Department of Health and Social Care is encouraging because, as the Minister knows, many children with SLCN are identified initially by health visitors. As speech and language therapy services are most often commissioned and provided as part of the health system, it is essential that the Department of Health and Social Care plays its full part in responding to the report. Only with cross-Government action can we improve the life chances of all children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.
“Bercow: Ten Years On” makes numerous recommendations to improve speech, language and communication support for children and young people, the most central of which is a cross-governmental strategy for children with speech, language and communication at its core. I wish to place on the record my support for the recommendations in the report. With that in mind, will the Minister commit to introducing a cross-Government strategy for children with speech, language and communication at its core? When will the Government formally respond to the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report? The Prime Minister committed to responding at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 March.
Finally, I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for securing this very important debate and, of course, the Speaker of the House, the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), for his leadership in this area. We all recognise how important communication is to our children, and I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues to ensure that we all play our part in helping to improve the life chances of all children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. If we do not, it is clear that we will be failing the next generation of children and young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this important debate on a very important topic. As soon as I became aware of the topic, it reminded me that the subject of speech, language and communication needs—she’s right that it is a bit of a mouthful, so I will refer to it as SLCN—is a key factor in supporting patients of a condition that has come to be very close to my heart.
I chair the all-party group on a condition called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome—again, a bit of a mouthful—which is sometimes known as DiGeorge syndrome. For the purposes of this speech, I will refer to the condition by the abbreviation 22q. The genetic condition is not so rare, but it is often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, and is estimated to affect anything from 1 in 4,000 to 1 in 1,000 births. It is the second most common chromosomal disorder after Down’s syndrome and is often described as “the most common genetic disorder you’ve never heard of”.
In the APPG meeting that I chaired last week, we were fortunate to be joined by clinical experts on the condition from Great Ormond Street, including Dr Debbie Sell, the principal speech and language therapist who specialises in speech disorders associated with cleft lip and palate, which is very common in 22q, along with developmental issues.
As a condition, 22q exemplifies the problems of SLCN. Indeed, speech and language disorders are a hallmark of 22q. Furthermore, given the very high incidence of mental health difficulties in people with 22q, irrespective of communication issues, combining the existing risk with the common existence of SLCN makes the group hugely vulnerable. Maximising their speech and language potential is especially important to their ability to benefit from non-pharmacological mental health interventions. Children with 22q frequently have developmental challenges, with language and speech disorders. Their understanding is often relatively intact, but words and sentences do not come at the expected age.
For example, three to four-year-olds might have only a handful of words and simple phrases. As pre-schoolers, they might need to be taught a gesture or signing system as an alternative means of communication until their verbal language starts to develop. During this period, therapy is essential in addressing attention and listening skills; developing the basic early communication skills of taking turns and making eye contact, much as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane described earlier; helping parents interpret their child’s non-verbal communication cues and oral attempts; and supporting parents in learning and implementing a gesture system.
Once sounds and simple words start to emerge, therapy changes to developing vocabulary and sentence structure. Speech is often severely unintelligible, with atypical consonant production often associated with a problem with the soft palate or the back of the throat. Some 75% of cases need surgery from cleft lip and palate teams. Surgery to correct the problem is less likely to be successful than the same surgery in children without 22q, and often more than one surgery is required. Although surgery will improve the anatomy in order to speak clearly, speech therapy is still required to eliminate consonant errors. That is not an overnight or easy task and often requires intervention over at least two to three years and often more. Therapists need expert advice on how to correct the abnormal articulatory patterns from the cleft team’s speech and language therapist, collaborating with the community-based SLT.
Unfortunately, we know that access to intervention is often woefully inadequate and becoming more difficult. In 2017, a report on behalf of the clinical reference group for cleft lip and palate for NHS England showed unacceptable inequalities in SLT provision and outcomes across the UK, with large differences in the timing, intensity, regularity and quality of therapy for each child. The “Bercow: Ten Years On” report, which I will refer to later, concluded that therapy provision is a “postcode lottery”, based not on evidence but on costs and demand.
Children do respond to intervention and they can do well in the resolution of their early speech and language difficulties if they can access help. However, persistent expressive language difficulties and impaired abstract language are common in the school-age years. They struggle particularly when the school curriculum starts to become more abstract. Their language skills, involving humour, inferencing and sarcasm can drop off, and their academic skills can drop off too. My constituents who have children who suffer from a range of conditions often find that their frustration increases when their children move from one school year to another, and new teachers have to learn about the condition.
Accessing language therapy at school age is very difficult, and even worse in senior-school settings. The children start to fail educationally just at the time when their mental health issues can kick in. In the 13 months since I was elected to this place, I have had several constituents come to me who are affected by even rarer conditions than 22q, including genetic disorders such as Edwards syndrome, CHARGE syndrome—coloboma, heart defects, atresia choanae, growth retardation, genital abnormalities and ear abnormalities syndrome—and others. In those cases, I, along with the families affected, have been disappointed that clinicians sometimes view those rare cases as the statistical rarity that they represent, rather than treating the person as an individual patient in their own right.
The “Bercow: Ten Years On” report, which has been mentioned, states:
“Poor understanding of and insufficient resourcing for SLCN mean too many children and young people receive inadequate, ineffective and inequitable support, impacting on their educational outcomes, their employability and their mental health”,
as well as leading to an over-representation in the justice system. I, too, support the report’s recommendations, which are highly relevant to children and young people with 22q. It is critical that the Department of Health and Social Care plays its part in taking those recommendations forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and thank you for letting me indicate my wish to speak at such a late stage. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this important debate, and on the tenacity with which she has pursued this issue pretty much every time I have been in the Chamber for questions and she has been able to raise it. The perspicacity of her speech demonstrates that she clearly has this issue in her heart; it is not something that she is doing simply because she can.
I want to touch on the Stoke Speaks Out scheme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) mentioned. It is a wonderful scheme, which Janet Cooper and her team have run for a number of years. The purpose of the scheme is to identify at a very early age young people in Stoke-on-Trent for whom speech and language could be a barrier to their overall development, aspiration and further opportunity.
The team at Stoke Speaks Out do wonderful work, but they have the never-ending problem of constantly having to reinvent the service that they are trying to deliver in order to qualify for new rounds of funding from various different funding agencies and bodies. The reality is that they have a model that works. It has been statistically proven to work, and they have a quantified dataset that shows that their interventions cause improvements. In fact, the baseline for readiness in Stoke-on-Trent schools in 2016 showed that only 35% of our young people were ahead or on track for speech standards, but after intervention by the Stoke Speaks Out team that figure had risen to 54% by July 2017. I think we would all agree that that is a remarkable achievement in such a short period of time for an organisation that was operating on a shoestring.
This is not an issue with our schools. The schools in our city are rated good or outstanding overall. This is a community issue and a societal issue, and it is a problem that is often missed. The most pertinent point that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane made was about early intervention outside school years. We have a disproportionate number of young people in Stoke-on-Trent for whom the 30 hours of nursery provision or pre-school arrangements simply are not available, because of their work arrangements or the hours threshold. That means that a lot of young people go directly from a home situation into a reception class. Headteachers around the constituency consistently tell me that young people benefit from provision in a nursery school setting, and that there is a marked and quantifiable difference in readiness for speech and language skills between children who come into school aged four and those who have been through nursery provision aged three.
The simple fact is that early intervention teams within the community health team cannot pick up every case where somebody may have an issue with speech and learning development. Stark statistics suggest that around half the young people in the constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent Central have up to a 12-month delay in their language skills by the age of three. As the hon. Member for Taunton Deane pointed out, that is a huge impediment to their future success.
Schools also talk to me quite readily about the fact that they struggle to get some parents to engage with at-home reading. That is sometimes down to parents not making the effort—we must be honest about that—but it is also because adult literacy rates in some parts of my constituency mean that parents do not have the confidence to sit down and read with their children from a very young age. Again, that can cause issues around how people parent. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane rightly pointed out that the “digital corner parent”, as we call it in our house, sometimes has a much greater presence in the young person’s life than it should, to the extent that a headteacher in one of my schools said that one of their problems was children coming in with American accents, because they watch American cartoons and TV, and that has become dominant. In some of my local schools, the words “soda” and “elevator” are now more commonly used than “pop” and “lift”, because that is the way that some parents arrange things.
I hate to interrupt a narrative about American television, but one of the most important things that Stoke Speaks Out has done is to deliver 3,000 free books to children across our city as part of the Stoke Reads project. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is as vital for parents as it is for children, as those parents start reading to their children?
I thank my hon. Friend for her inevitable intervention. She is right: the more we can get parents reading, the better. My predecessor, Tristram Hunt, did a piece of work with every primary school child in Stoke-on-Trent Central. He arranged for them to receive a copy of H. E. Marshall’s “Our Island Story: A Child’s History of England” as they transitioned from primary to secondary school, so he could be certain that they would have something to read over the summer period. Those small things can go on to develop language skills.
There is also a wonderful organisation in Stoke-on-Trent called Beanstalk, which arranges for volunteers to go into school and read with children. I believe that the mother of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is a volunteer with that programme. Whenever I go round schools I see teachers and headteachers who have used their pupil premium money in very innovative ways to get young people reading and understanding where language comes from. I must admit that I was somewhat confused when my seven-year-old daughter came home, having done phonics in her year 1 class, with “oohs” and “aahs” and lots of new language sounds that I certainly did not learn when I was at school.
We can tell!
Yes, thank you—I was almost there.
That demonstrates to me that there are some wonderful ways in which we can start to tackle this problem, but the work has to be systemic and it has to be continued.
I will ask the Minister some important questions. How do the Government see early intervention work continuing, particularly for young people who are not in nursery provision before going to school?
On the subject of different charities doing good work, in my constituency we have two really good branches of a charity called Read Easy, which work with adults on adult literacy. A lot of adults are scared to admit that they cannot read, but it is a really gentle, lovely way of engaging adults, because of course they cannot help their children if they cannot read properly themselves. The hon. Gentleman made a very good point about that.
Once again, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. The headteachers I have spoken to in Stoke-on-Trent say that once they can get parents, who may have had quite an unpleasant time at school themselves, into the school and show them that it is a safe environment for them as well as their children, the engagement levels with those parents increase. Suddenly, the child’s homework gets better, the reading diary is filled in, there is more interaction with the school for pastoral and social events, and the family becomes a much more engaged part of the school community rather than simply dropping their children off and picking them up in the afternoon.
I would be grateful if the Minister explained what the Government can do on early intervention, because it looks as if many of the future funding promises will be geared towards schools, which are already overstretched. If we can reach young people before school, we can close the gap and ensure that their opportunities for learning are increased.
I would also be grateful if the Minister, if he is unable to answer today, could at least think about longer-term aspirational plans. Stoke-on-Trent is an opportunity area, with two wonderful co-chairs, Professor Liz Barnes and Carol Shanahan, leading the way. They know that early intervention and breaking the cycle early on is important. Will the Minister tell us how he sees that programme being funded sustainably? The opportunity area is a three-year programme and they will do what they can in their three years, but hat period will run out. How can we embed that work into our culture and society?
The schools in my constituency are working absolutely flat out to address this issue. I know that this is not a debate about fairer funding arrangements, but is there anything that the Minister could do to consider schools in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, where deprivation levels are higher than we would like them to be on every metric? Might there be longer-term intervention programmes for our city? We need to make sure that the generation of MPs who follow me and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North are not also discussing this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing the debate. She gave a wonderful, learned speech and talked of her own experiences. I found it really interesting.
Everyone who has spoken agrees that it is important that speech and language is set early on, and hon. Members have spoken of the different ways in which we can do that and how much it affects children’s life chances. That is also really important for the economy. I also give credence to the Bercow report and the follow-up report.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane talked about how many young offenders have speech and language difficulties, and that is an important point. I enjoyed how the hon. Lady spoke about teaching our children to speak. I have three children and three granddaughters, and I have always talked to my children. Sometimes now I notice that some of my grandchildren and some of my friends’ grandchildren—I am not pointing any fingers—are, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) said, growing up with an American accent. In some cases in Scotland, they are growing up with an English accent because they listen to English TV programmes made in England. Really, children should be speaking their own language—it makes it much easier for them all round.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) highlighted the problems across England and congratulated the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists on its work. I am glad to see so many members of the Royal College here today.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on 22q11 syndrome. I have had dealings with a constituent who left Banff and Buchan and moved to Motherwell and Wishaw, who has spoken to me at great length about that issue. I will help her, but am unable to help as much as I would like, because that is a devolved issue in Scotland. I have signposted her to the local Member of the Scottish Parliament so that she can get the help she needs. Some of the stories she told me are heart-rending—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan exemplified that point.
Language is such an important foundation for the whole education process. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned that 50% of children under three years old in his area have up to a 12-month delay in language skills. The UK cannot afford those delays, which affect the life of the children and which, as we have heard, can lead to offending. That must be addressed. The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of early intervention, which is a keystone of Scottish Government policy. If, as the First Minister hopes, we are to close the educational attainment gap, it is before children go to school that a lot of work needs to be done to help them.
The Scottish Government believe that it is vital that speech and language communication support for children is evidence-based and responds to the needs of the child. The “Getting it right for every child” plan is Scotland-wide and is at the heart of early intervention.
People talk about the crossover between health and education. Great progress has been made on that in Scotland. NHS Education for Scotland has recently announced a new educational resource to help meet speech, language and communication needs. It is an interactive, portable tool that people such as health visitors can take into family homes to pick up on language difficulties early on. It helps them to signpost parents to where they can get more help and support for their children, in order to prevent the gap and language delay before children start school or nursery.
There are many free book schemes in Scotland for young children at nursery age and in primary 1. Sometimes, if a child brings home a book, the parent is more likely to be pestered into reading to the child. That is also something that the Minister might look at. There has been some co-operation with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which also gives out free books. It is vital that children are read to and learn to read as quickly as possible so that their whole education has a much more sound basis.
In 2016, the Scottish Government held a communications summit jointly with the RCSLT, and work is ongoing. They have called for an action plan to support the changing and growth of speech, language and communication assets and have asked for key stakeholder support.
The Bookbug club runs in my constituency, as it does in many Scottish libraries—I do not know whether they run in England, but in Scotland, almost all local libraries run Bookbug sessions, to which parents with children as young as three months can go along. They work on language and singing. I attended one in Perth with my granddaughter and it was great fun. At one time, I wondered what the benefit was so early on—she was six months old when I took her—but it is of great benefit and supports the point about children picking up early on language.
I have a wonderful resource in the Wishaw part of my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency at Orchard Primary School. It has a language unit for children with a wide range of language difficulties. Some children need to be taught in the unit, but many go into the mainstream primary school. I have had great reports from constituents whose children are autistic or somewhere on the spectrum, who have been able to go on to a mainstream secondary school because their language skills have been so much improved by the unit.
The Scottish Government are still working with the Royal College, which is helping them to go over the submissions that have been made, to get the action plan up and running across Scotland to aid the development of our young children. The working group is looking forward to producing that action plan.
I ask the Minister to look at what the Scottish Government are doing and use that as part of the evidence. In Scotland, we sometimes do things differently—not always better, but differently—in a number of areas. Since I came to this place, I have noticed that there is sometimes a reluctance to look close to home, at what is being done north of the border, to see where it might help improve the situation. We are not exclusive. We want to help everybody, and we might help children in England as well, so I encourage the Minister to look at that. It is vital that our children acquire these skills, and I am happy to speak to him about anything he wishes to know. From my service on the Education Committee, I know that such discussion does not always happen. This is about children’s life chances and giving them the best possible start in life so that the whole economy can benefit. Children can benefit, and their families will too—everyone will benefits if we can put that into practice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for securing today’s debate, 10 years on from the Bercow report, on this important topic. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker, I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists for their groundbreaking work in this area, and to all hon. Members who have spoken today.
Many of us take communication for granted, but imagine being unable to express how you feel, what you think and what you need. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) described that scenario eloquently. The effects can be debilitating and can last throughout childhood and adolescence and well into adulthood if someone is left unsupported. I know myself how frustrating that can be. Growing up with dyspraxia—being different and standing out—caused me to have chronic low self-esteem and to isolate myself from my peers. Of course, I did all right in the end —I ended up in this place—but that is because I got lucky and have had the benefit of being surrounded, then and now, by some phenomenal people. For the 1.4 million children who struggle with speech, language and communication needs, it is vital that the right support is there when they need it, but it is often lacking. Our children are being let down to the degree that, at present, six children in every classroom do not meet the expected levels of communication and language skills at age five.
Children with speech, language and communication difficulties can access speech therapy and support via a number of avenues, including their health visitor, GP or school, but the Government have presided over a decline of more than 2,000 health visitors in the past two years. Fewer GPs are in place than in 2015, and our schools are facing the first real-terms funding cuts in 20 years—more than £2 billion is being cut from their budgets. It is little wonder, then, that the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report highlighted that 73% of parents and carers found it difficult to get help with their child’s speech, language and communication needs, and 52% thought their family’s experience of speech, language and communication support was poor.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) said, the original Bercow report called for early intervention that prioritises speech, language and communication therapy in Sure Start children’s centres, 500 of which the Government have closed. The report called for the workforce to be strengthened, but senior and specialist language posts are being lost due to a restructuring of NHS speech and language therapy services. It called for the primary and secondary curriculum to emphasise speech and language communication. Instead, speaking and listening has been removed from the national curriculum, the judgment of communication has been removed from the Ofsted framework and there is no assessment of spoken language in the curriculum after the age of five. Some 49% of early years practitioners receive little or no initial training in typical speech, language and communication development.
The Communications Trust—a large consortium of speech and language and communications skills charities—saw demand for its services increase by 33% last year, but in March this year the Department for Education told us that its contract would be ending. The tender to replace it has no mention at all of speech, language and communication. The “Bercow: Ten Years On” report highlighted that only 15% of survey respondents said that speech and language therapy was available as required in their local area. It is little wonder that, last year, only 234,076 children with speech, language and communication needs actually received any support.
The pattern of Government neglect is more apparent when children have needs in addition to speech and language difficulties, or get support via education and healthcare plans. The hash the Government have made of those plans is well documented. They were supposed to encourage joined-up planning between healthcare professionals and schools, but in reality that is not happening. It is often said that health is missing from the plans. At least 65,000 children were not moved on to the new plans by the Government’s deadline of March this year. A damning report by the local government and social care ombudsman, which looked at a large sample of plans, found many flaws in their execution.
A report by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists noted that children without plans are being left completely without support. Just 40% of respondents said that they have the capacity to deliver services to children without a plan, and 43% said that speech and language therapy is not being commissioned for the crucial age group of nought to two, or for people aged 18 to 25, who are preparing for work or further education.
The Bercow report revealed that more than half of parents and carers had to wait longer than six months for their child to get the help they needed. Six months is a long time in a child’s developmental cycle. My six-year-old constituent, Penny Whyte, has a speech disorder and has been receiving blocks of speech therapy since the age of three, but she has to wait an average of nine months between blocks. She was also referred to intensive therapy, but has had to wait three years for a place. Imagine being Penny’s mam, Donna, who knows that her little girl is just as bright and capable—perhaps more so—than everyone else, but she is falling behind her peers. Her true potential is masked because the support she needs is being withheld by a fragmented system that cares more about marketisation and the profit that can gleaned from health and education services than about their delivery.
The Government talk a good game when it comes to social mobility, but the reality is different. In areas of social disadvantage, 50% of children start school with delayed language and communication skills. Children eligible for free school meals are 2.3 times more likely than their peers to have language difficulties. Only 51% of those pupils achieve a good level of development at the end of their early years foundation stage, compared with 69% of their peers. Children with special educational needs or disability remain stubbornly over-represented in alternative provision and exclusion figures. Three quarters of pupils in pupil referral units have special educational needs. Last year alone, more than 4,000 were left without a school place. Some are subject to informal exclusions, and some are being home-schooled. The fact is that the Government have not bothered to keep track of those children, so we do not know where they are and what support, if any, they are getting.
I want to give a shout out, if you will permit me, Ms Dorries, to some of the non-verbal children I worked with in the past, who are now adults. They taught me the power of communication, which is so much more than words. It can be a smile, a sparkle in the eye, a nod of the head, a hand movement, a laugh or a cry. What they all had in common is that, once they had the right support and were able to use words, they were like different children. One boy I remember in particular transformed from being stoic and withdrawn into being a massive chatterbox—the life and soul of his classroom. That is the power of consistent and sustained speech and language therapy. That power is in the gift of the Minister and the Government.
The Prime Minister said months ago that she would respond formally to the report. She has not done so. The Minister said a few weeks ago in Education questions that he was looking closely at the recommendations. I have not asked the Minister any questions today, because I simply want him to respond to my comments, those of my hon. Friends, and the report’s findings and recommendations. The children struggling to get by, my constituent Penny Whyte and my younger self at least deserve that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) started well by asking us to imagine what it would feel like to be unable to communicate or explain one’s own feelings, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said the same thing. I do not need to imagine that, because I was that child. I came to this country with my parents as immigrants in 1978 at the age of 11, and I could not speak English. I sat at the back of the class. Initially, my teachers thought I had learning difficulties, but within six months I had picked up the language. I guess I am the embodiment of what speech, language and communication skills can do for a young child immigrant in this country who cannot speak the language properly.
I feel, however, that the hon. Member for South Shields let herself down by politicising this debate—we have had a good debate today—and attempting to weaponise it, whereas the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), and his colleague the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) in an intervention, spoke eloquently about the work being done by Stoke Speaks Out and in the opportunity area. I must say to both hon. Members that the opportunity areas are the best infrastructure I have seen, of any Government intervention, and have a real chance of working for those disadvantaged communities because they are bottom-up, with real, measurable targets and outcomes. My ambition is to ensure that we meet those targets over three years so that I can make the argument that we should keep supporting opportunity areas.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position on supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including those with speech, language and communication needs. I am determined to see children and young people with SLCN receive the support they need to achieve in school and in independent life.
I was pleased to be able to speak at the launch of “Bercow: Ten Years On”, and I am grateful for the work that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, I CAN and, of course, Mr Speaker himself have done. It was a good coming together of all the specialists, and I put it on the record that the Government will respond formally to the report in due course. I have recently accepted an invitation from the all-party parliamentary group on speech and language difficulties to discuss how we can work together to best support children and young people with SLCN. I hope hon. Members here, and others, will join me in attending the seminar.
Our latest figures show that SLCN is the second commonest need for pupils with an educational health and care plan, with 14.3% of pupils having that need. It is also the second commonest need for those with special educational needs support, at 22%. I know that the “Bercow: Ten Years On” review reports that there is a poor understanding of SLCN and insufficient resourcing for the sector, and many colleagues have talked about that. Of course, that is neither my nor the Government’s expectation. I expect children and young people with SLCN to receive the support they need to help them fulfil their aspirations alongside their peers, and we are taking action to make that a reality.
Turning to the SEND reforms of 2014, a lot of progress has been made over the 10 years since the original Bercow review was carried out. The Government have introduced, through the Children and Families Act 2014, the biggest change to the system in a generation. The reforms are about improving the support that is available to all children and young people with SEND. We are doing that by joining up services for ages nought to 25 across education, health and social care, and by focusing on positive outcomes in education, employment, housing, health and community participation. The move to a more child-centred, multi-agency and participative education, health and care needs assessment is improving the support that is available to children and young people with SEND, including those with SLCN.
As of 31 March, over 236,000 children and young people had had their statement of SEN converted to an EHC plan, which equates to 98.4%. That is great news, but we know there is much more to do. The completion of the statutory transition period to the new system is a great achievement, but it is not the end point for the reforms. We are only part of the way to achieving our vision. The biggest issue we now have to address is changing the culture in local government, clinical commissioning groups and education settings.
Will the Minister give way?
I am short of time and I have a lot to say about this subject, so the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not.
Supporting schools to respond to the needs of all their pupils is crucial to achieving our ultimate goal of culture change. We know that spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing, and that the quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak is vital for developing their vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing. The national curriculum for English, which colleagues mentioned in their comments, reflects the importance of spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum. At primary level, children should be taught to ask relevant questions, to articulate and justify answers, arguments and opinions, to participate in collaborative conversation, to use spoken language to develop understanding and to speak audibly and fluently, with an increasing command of English. Teachers should ensure the continual development of pupils’ confidence and competence in spoken language and listening skills.
Having developed those resources and many others relating to other specific impairments, we are now taking a more strategic approach to better supporting the educational workforce and equipping them to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of SEN. We have recently contracted with the Whole School SEND Consortium to enable schools to identify and meet their SEND training needs, and I am delighted that the Communication Trust is part of that consortium.
Through that work, the Whole School SEND Consortium will create regional hubs across the country to bring together local SEND practitioners. The hubs will work to encourage schools to prioritise SEND within their continuous professional development and school improvement plans. The resources provide leaders, teachers and practitioners with access to information about evidence-based practice that can be effective for SEN support, including for those with SLCN.
In terms of joint work and joint commissioning at local authority level, the duty to commission services jointly is vital to the success of the SEND reforms. We recognise that unless education, health and social care partners work together, we will not see that holistic approach to a child’s progression or the positive outcomes that the system aims to achieve. Joint working is one of the best ways of managing pressures on local authority and NHS budgets. Looking for more efficient ways to work together, to share information and to avoid duplication will work in favour of professionals and families.
Some areas are demonstrating excellent joint working. Wiltshire is an example, with positive feedback on the effectiveness of its local joint commissioning arrangements. It was reported that senior officers across education, health and care worked together effectively, adopting a well-integrated and multi-agency approach to plan and deliver services to children and young people with SEND. We want to learn from those examples. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned the evidence gathered through Stoke Speaks Out. It troubles me that that particular group of people have to keep reinventing and going back for different pots of money, rather than our looking at that evidence and beginning to scale it for the rest of the country.
One of the challenges with Stoke Speaks Out is that when it started in 2006 it had 30 staff, but in 2015 it went down to half a member of staff. Now it has gone back up to nearly 10, but its funding is being cut again. That inconsistency is not delivering for the children of Stoke-on-Trent.
I hear the hon. Lady’s point; I know she is a great champion of the project, and I pledge to her that I will look at this evidence and see what more we can do to ensure that there are consistent outcomes.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central talked about early years education. It is fundamental that we identify SLCN as early as possible, as we know that can have a profound impact later in life. Children who struggle with language at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected level in English at age 11 than children who have good language skills at age five, and 11 times less likely to achieve the expected level in maths. By age three, disadvantaged children are, on average, already almost a full year and a half behind their more affluent peers in their early language development. That is also why, from a social mobility perspective, the case for addressing SLCN in the early years is so important.
In our social mobility action plan, “Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential”, we announced our ambition to close the word gap in the early years between disadvantaged children and their peers.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some progress and then, as I think we might be all right on time, I will give way.
We have announced a range of measures worth more than £100 million to address word gap, including £20 million for school-led professional development for early years practitioners to support early language development, and a £5 million “what works” fund in partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation. The evidence is clear that parents have a crucial role in this area. The “Study of Early Education and Development” report showed that, aside from maternal education, the home learning environment is the single biggest influence on a child’s vocabulary at age three. We will therefore invest £5 million to trial evidence-based home learning environment programmes in the north of England.
On 1 July, we launched a £6.5 million fund and invited voluntary and community sector organisations to bid for grants to run projects that help disadvantaged families and children with additional needs, and improve children’s early language and literacy skills. Local authorities sit at the centre of a wide range of services and workforces that make a big difference to SLCN. We will work with local authorities through a peer support and challenge programme to deliver better early language outcomes for disadvantaged children, learning from the best evidence so that we can scale it. We will also publish an early years dashboard showing local authorities’ performance in early years outcomes, with a focus on disadvantaged children and early language and literacy.
We recognise the important links between a child’s early health and development and their later education outcomes. That is why we have formed a partnership with Public Health England, which my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane mentioned, and the Department of Health and Social Care to improve early language outcomes for disadvantaged children. In May, Public Health England launched a call for good local practice and pathway examples. At a workshop in London today, it will set out the key components of a model speech, language and communication needs pathway built on the best evidence and experience of implementation in practice. Those resources will provide health visitors with additional tools and training to identify and support children’s SLCN, and ensure that the right support is put in place early.
Let me turn to the mental health Green Paper. Mental health was another key feature of the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report, which highlighted the links between SLCN and mental health issues and made a number of recommendations about how the proposals in the Green Paper link with SLCN provision. The Government published the Green Paper, “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision”, on 4 December last year. The consultation closed on 2 March and we are currently considering responses. We will issue a formal response in due course.
The Green Paper creates clear expectations about the changes every area should seek in order to improve activity on prevention, partnership working between children and young people’s mental health services and schools, and access to specialist support. As part of that, we are incentivising every school and college to train a designated senior lead for mental health to co-ordinate a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing. We expect the designated senior lead to liaise with speech and language therapists to ensure that children with SLCN receive the help they need.
I thank the Minister for eventually giving way. He said that I had let myself down by making this issue political. I respectfully say that he is letting me and other hon. Members down. I listed a litany of failures by this Government towards children with speech, language and communication needs, and not once—
Order. Mrs Lewell-Buck, please make an intervention, not a speech.
Sorry. Not once has the Minister responded with anything practical. All he says is, “In the future we will”. What about now? This is urgent.
I call the Minister. Please remember to leave a minute for Ms Pow to wind up the debate.
Of course, Ms Dorries.
The Department of Health and Social Care recognises the need to support children and young people with SLCN who are in the justice system. Liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts identify and assess people with vulnerabilities and refer them to the appropriate services—where appropriate, away from the justice system altogether.
A comprehensive health assessment tool care plan is undertaken for all children, setting out their needs and the provision of health services. All sites have access to the full range of comprehensive child and adolescent mental health provision for children with mental health or neuro-disability needs, including child psychiatrists and psychologists, specialist nurses, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists.
Let me address the point that was made by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) about the devolved Scottish Government. I am more than happy to come up and learn what the Scottish Government are undertaking, and to share good practice from England.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) mentioned the niche chromosomal deficiency 22q11.2. I am happy to discuss that with him to understand it a little better. I already work closely with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to raise the issue of practitioners treating people as statistical outliers, rather than as real children with real families, and I will take what he said on board.
I am grateful for the support right hon. and hon. Members have given this agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane raised important concerns and I hope that she is happy with my update. The steps the Government have taken show the importance of SLCN, and I hope I have demonstrated that we remain firmly committed and have a real strategy, real funding and real commitment to ensure that children and young people with SLCN receive the support they need.
I thank my hon. Friend again for giving me the opportunity to speak about this subject. I look forward to seeing some colleagues who are present at the APPG on speech and language difficulties.
I thank the Minister, in particular for sharing his experience—I had no idea that he could not speak English until he was 11; it is remarkable how far one can go—and for his clear passion. I hope that stands us in good stead to answer some of the questions that have been raised. I hope that we can work together.
I thank all Members who took part in the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), and the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth)—Stoke had a good showing—and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). There is clearly great interest in this area, and I hope that the debate has highlighted that there are far too many children with speech, language and communication disorders, which affect their life chances.
Too many children end up having mental health issues, being excluded from school and being young offenders—and ultimately, many end up unemployed. That is not good enough, and we ought to be able to address it. The debate, the Bercow report and, indeed, many of the excellent people watching the debate demonstrate that things do not have to be like this.
As the Minister outlined, a great deal of excellent work is in progress, and there is much more in the pipeline. I get the feeling from speaking to him and from what he said today that he is committed to improving the situation, and there are some simple steps that could improve it. I was pleased to hear that there will be a particular concentration on joint working and joint commissioning of services between health and education, which was one of the things I wanted to ensure came out of the debate.
The continuity of programmes and good projects is also important. I know—especially from my sister’s input—about the awful drama and time-wasting that is involved in having to keep reapplying for funding when people already have a good thing going. That wastes time and everybody’s effort. Perhaps we could try to smooth that out a little.
I am pleased that the all-important issue of parenting was raised. I touched on that because it is not only about very disadvantaged people; it is about everybody. If we engaged a little more on that front, we could make huge progress together. I am optimistic that, with the commitment of the Minister and his Department and of the Department of Health and Social Care, we can make a change.
Question put and agreed to.
That his House has considered speech, language and communication support for children.
Will Members please leave the Chamber quietly? The next debate is about to start.
Management of NHS Property
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the management of NHS property.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. [Interruption.]
Order. Mr Zahawi, the debate has started.
I recognise that the management of NHS property is not the most enthralling subject, but many hon. Members from across the country will recognise that it as a growing problem in their constituencies. The problems are varied and many. My focus today will be on the community and primary care estate.
I will not talk about bricks and mortar or leaking pipes, or outline the detailed and manifold operational challenges posed by an NHS estate that in many parts of the country still relies on pre-1948 infrastructure. Instead, I want to talk about the places our constituents go to when they need care, where they welcome their children into the world and where they say a final goodbye to those they love. They are places where some of our most precious memories are forged, capable of delivering huge happiness and hosting unimaginable grief. They are hard-wired into our emotional DNA and the fabric of the communities in which they sit. They are places that are paid for by our constituents through their taxes, which our constituents feel ownership of and an enormous attachment to. It is in this difference that the notion of local or personal ownership is blown apart. The harsh reality is that our constituents do not own these properties. Moreover, they do not even have a say in how they are run or in their future.
Who owns them? Who runs them? How do they operate? How can users or stakeholders such as MPs influence change? Those questions are hard to answer as control of these special buildings is opaque to the point of absurdity. The lines of accountability are unfathomable and, as so many colleagues will know, incredibly frustrating to deal with. I have spoken to numerous colleagues across the House about these issues.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and grateful to the Minister for listening to my concerns about the Bootham Park Hospital site and intervening on that. A real programme of change for healthcare in York has now been put together. Does my hon. Friend agree that when looking at the estate it is important to develop plans that improve healthcare rather than seeing it just as buildings?
I agree. The building that my hon. Friend has been working on is iconic, and that case is a good illustration. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) has been dealing with a GP surgery in her constituency for a long time and can get no resolution. I have also spoken to my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), for Stroud (Dr Drew), for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for High Peak (Ruth George)—these problems are happening across the piece.
Will the hon. Lady join me in condemning how the parking company Smart Parking operates its fine system at the Townlands Hospital in Henley? It is a monstrous way of dealing with people; intimidating them when they are at their most vulnerable.
I cannot comment on the specific company, but trying to understand accountability and how systems work is frustrating for local people. Many of us are trying to make sense of it.
The estate was an afterthought for the coalition Government and their disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012—the Lansley Act. Their laissez-faire approach, which bordered on contempt, has saddled communities across the country with burdens and consequences ever since. The current Government recognised that in their response to the Naylor review, stating:
“The structural changes in recent years have distracted attention away from the importance of the estate as an enabler of high quality care, and the NHS has lost valuable expertise and knowledge in strategic estates planning, development and management.”
As we are developing the 10-year plan to transform our NHS into a more community-based, joined-up system, the function of the community and primary care estate as an enabler of service transformation becomes more critical. Although the Government said in response to Naylor that they want to incentivise local action, in practice there are no mechanisms to do so. My focus is therefore on the local roles of two national bodies: NHS Property Services and Community Health Partnerships.
The Lansley Act nationalised health centres, GP premises and, in my constituency, the South Bristol Community Hospital overnight. When the Government realised that no one was responsible for property managed by primary care trusts—mainly GP premises and health centres in poorer areas—they set up NHS Property Services, which became the landlord and asset manager on behalf of the Secretary of State. Community Health Partnerships took over the primary care trusts’ 20% control of local infrastructure finance trusts—LIFT companies—which were public-private partnerships for new GP premises and community-based services, such as South Bristol Community Hospital.
A key part of the LIFT incentive was that the companies made a profit and from that a dividend was returned to all shareholders, including the primary care trust. The Lansley Act passed that 20% local share to the Secretary of State. That LIFT company is still operating, as others are across the country. Bristol Infracare LIFT paid dividends totalling £823,000 last year and £2,344,000 in 2016. Community Health Partnerships received 40% of that, but 20% should have been retained in the Bristol health economy. In the last two years, that amounts to £633,400 in Bristol alone, and that is replicated across the country. I am here today with a simple message for the Secretary of State, via the Minister: I want control of this asset to be given back to the local health economy, and I want our money back.
The closer one looks at the labyrinthine structures that govern NHS properties, the more it seems that the opaque and impenetrable way in which these companies operate is not accidental. They appear to be purposefully disenfranchising and disempowering local people. Whatever the merits of the Lansley Act—I contend that there are not many—it was supposed to drive devolution, liberation and accountability.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful argument. One of the real problems we find in York is that NHS Property Services is very distant and difficult to engage with. It needs to sit down with local communities, whether in York, Bristol or elsewhere in the country, and engage with them about the assets that need to be reinvested back in those local communities.
That is exactly the point I want to make, but I will go on to show how that is difficult to do and make a difference.
Patients and frontline practitioners were supposed to be front and centre of the new NHS, but that has simply not happened because, as we have heard, control is ever more centralised. It really did not have to be that way. NHS Property Services was set up as a national body, losing a wealth of local expertise and institutional knowledge in the process. With expensive London headquarters, its teams across the regions are stretched. It spent its first period of existence creating a register of assets and a new market rent system. That resulted in disputed and unpaid rents, which necessitated additional loans from the Department of Heath to keep the company afloat and a complicated parcelling of subsidy via NHS England to clinical commissioning groups and GP surgeries. The early years have been an expensive disaster, with GPs and managers across the country not knowing what they were being charged for or who to call to sort out the problems. The profligacy of the system is matched only by its utter uselessness, and that is why I have been pursuing this scandal since I was first elected.
In my constituency two GP health centres and a healthy living centre are directly affected by these problems. The Knowle West healthy living centre was set up in a joint arrangement on Bristol City Council land, with public health services delivered based on the needs of a community that has some of the highest health inequalities in the country. It is no exaggeration to say that for many in the area the centre is a lifeline. However, with public health taken out of the NHS into local government, and the services now largely contracted via a third party, NHS Property Services soon came knocking on the door, bringing with it a charges bill increased by more than 200%. There was no discussion, no legal lease was in place and there was no service level agreement. Not only has the charity that runs the centre been forced to operate under the constant threat of closure, but it is unable to access the simplest forms of support. It recently asked if the windows could be cleaned, only to be told that that was not in the contract.
It has taken me three years to get even a modicum of progress—lobbying the clinical commissioning group and Bristol City Council, talking to local media, and raising the issue at the Public Accounts Committee and actively on social media, which finally resulted in a helpful meeting with the chair of the NHS Property Services board. The issue is still not resolved, however, and we still have some way to go. It has been a battle. It is tiring for everyone concerned—frontline practitioners in particular—debilitating and, most frustratingly of all, entirely avoidable.
South Bristol Community Hospital has a similar story. This facility was the focus of a 60-year campaign by local people, and it finally opened in 2012. Established by a partnership between the primary care trust, private equity and Community Health Partnerships, the local link was severed by the Lansley Act, as I said earlier. Now the board that oversees the community hospital meets far away from Bristol and with no Bristol involvement. An employee of Community Health Partnerships supposedly represents us in overseeing the management of the company that runs the hospital. Community Health Partnerships, like NHS Property Services, is an arm’s length body within the Department of Health and Social Care. The lease of the hospital is managed by a local foundation trust, University Hospitals Bristol, cobbled together in a last-minute deal with the primary care trust. Two other NHS bodies and a social enterprise are also tenants in the building. If that sounds confused, conflicted and convoluted, that is because it is.
I have been campaigning as the local Member of Parliament to get more services into the new hospital. It is a superb new building, with 96 community beds and an urgent care centre. A poll that I carried out among my constituents showed that 90% either were unaware of the services available in the building or felt that it was underused. A 2014 Care Quality Commission report found that the operating theatres were utilised only a quarter of the time, and the outpatient department were utilised only 55% of the time. We have made great progress since then, but the building is still underused as part of the health economy—on entering the building, people are faced with a whole floor with just a reception desk, and the corridors and lifts are typically empty.
The rehab unit, by contrast, is always full. The nurses, porters and other staff who keep it going all work tirelessly, but there is no escaping the sense that this facility is only rented or temporary. Everything is contractual and faceless, with rules abounding, while stroke patients spend their days and months staring at white walls because, according to the nursing staff, there are limits to what the landlord will allow—for example, there are no pictures.
The community hospital is on the southern fringe of our city, where 30% of residents do not have access to a car and the public transport links are historically among the worst in the United Kingdom. That same community has the highest rates of cancer, diabetes and asthma in Bristol, yet people are still expected to travel miles across the congested city for services that could easily be on their doorstep. I keep repeating the need for local health organisations to see sense, and my hope is that the logic is finally getting through and that we will see more facilities, such as diagnostics and perhaps even scanners, in the near future. Yet why has it taken such effort and such a long time?
South Bristol Community Hospital is perfectly placed to deliver the vision in the five year forward view and the aspiration of the 10-year plan—integrated with social care, providing a front and back door to other services to support the flow in the rest of the health system. However, progress towards those achievable goals is constantly frustrated by the fragmented ownership, the complicated money flows and the unfathomable accountability arrangements. My constituents, without fail, suffer as a result.
Time does not permit me to outline similar problems relating to the shady use of wholly owned companies, but chief among my objections to such companies is that every one of them is a lost opportunity to look at NHS estate management locally on a more joined-up basis, with some local accountability in the system. How can we promote a collaborative approach across healthcare systems when individual trusts go down their own selfish route?
The Naylor review offered some interesting recommendations to simplify the national management of the estate. The Government chose to establish a ministerial board chaired by a Minister at the national level, and it includes everyone—every NHS organisation seems to be on that board. I tried to map the board, who sits on it and how it links back to local communities, but I am afraid I gave up. Perhaps the Minister will help us with that.
Some big and controversial decisions need to be made about the estate, particularly in London, but they are being considered without any engagement with local communities. Not only does that ignore the wellspring of local knowledge that could help avoid a repeat of previous failures, but it fosters a feeling of communities being “done to”, and it makes any change hard—in most cases, impossible—to deliver. Hence, efficiencies that could be ploughed back into local health communities will not be realised.
Communities have been asked to submit estate strategies across their local health communities via the sustainability and transformation plans. They are now being asked to submit bids to a new capital programme, but how will estates run by NHS Property Services and Community Health Partnerships be factored into the mix? In addition to that complicated picture, NHS foundation trusts have their own schemes in play. Control and leverage of community and primary care estates cannot be done at the national level. That simply will not work. We cannot achieve the transformation for the next 10 years that is being talked about without local control of the architecture to deliver it.
When local leaders plan services as part of the sustainability and transformation plans, or whatever the next iteration of that is called, local people must have a say in how those services are delivered. There must be a mechanism to bring those properties, places and assets—and the people running them—back into the sphere of accountability of local health service communities.
Those are not bits of internal housekeeping; they are ways of doing business that are bad for the local health economy, bad for staff and, most importantly, bad for patients and taxpayers. Local communities across the country would like their voice back, and our local NHS would like its money back. The debate needs to do more than shine a light on a problem. I would like the Government to acknowledge that there is a problem and commit to fixing it, because anything less is a dereliction of responsibility and a huge opportunity wasted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms Dorries. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for bringing such an important issue before the House.
The hon. Lady opened by saying that property may not be the most exciting of topics but, as her speech set out, it is integral to the healthcare service offered in local settings. The substance of her remarks was whether we can better align the property estate with a place-based approach to healthcare. As we move to a more integrated and place-based approach to health, I think there is cross-party consensus that property has an important role to play as an enabler of that. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) kindly recognised that that is very much the approach that I have taken in my post, and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) recognised it in expressing his frustration with one or two meetings and asking whether decisions on property are aligned with the place-based approach.
The first point I will make to the hon. Member for Bristol South is that the long-term plan and the future discussions about the NHS give us the opportunity to look at wider system changes around integration and place-based healthcare, and how property aligns with that—for example in York, which has been discussed—as an enabler of change in a more holistic approach. As such, her remarks are timely as part of that wider debate.
The hon. Lady mentioned Knowle West health park, which, if I am honest, I looked at for the first time when preparing for the debate; I was not as sighted on that as I might have been. The issue is that, if NHS England provided that service, the additional market rent costs would have been reimbursed, but because it is provided by the county council they are not. However, as she recognised, there has been progress in recent weeks, thanks in part to her work. I am happy to take forward a discussion on that offline if that would be helpful, because I recognise that it is an important service and that we need to ensure that, where market rents are applied, it is not counterproductive to those services.
However, that should not get in the way of the wider point. The hon. Lady suggested that the new approach is a backwards step. I simply point out that there has actually been significant progress by NHS Property Services. The previous model had the inherent conflict that the primary care trusts were both the landlord and commissioner of the property, and therefore the use of the estate was quite opaque. As a result, we did not get transparency on the true cost of the estate, meaning that inefficiencies were not being flushed out and estates were not being utilised in the most effective way.
One driver of NHS Property Services applying market rents has been the need to encourage better utilisation of the estate by being more transparent on the actual costs. I point out to the hon. Lady that there has been significant progress as a consequence. Some £200 million in capital receipts has been unlocked, 500 capital investment construction projects are being launched each year and running costs have been reduced by £120 million. On balance, as we look forward to the long-term plan and pick up on some issues that the hon. Lady quite rightly highlighted, it is also important to recognise that the old system often allowed estates to be utilised inefficiently. Having truer market rents has actually enabled more transparency and driven efficiencies, with savings then able to be reinvested into the service.
The hon. Lady also mentioned salaries and bonuses, which again are part of a wider question. On the one hand, these are big businesses and their leaderships compete in a competitive market. There is a wider debate within Parliament on the right value to assign to senior salaries in the public sector in order to attract talent. These are big budgets, so we need to attract people of the right ability; it is a false economy to save a relatively small sum on lower salaries for people who then make incorrect decisions that waste much larger sums. At the same time, salaries should reflect the values of the NHS and should not be out of step with others in the NHS. There is a cross-party debate on that, and I am interested in the hon. Lady’s points about it.
The hon. Lady also raised NHS Property Services’ new offices. My understanding is that the previous model was highly inefficient. It had five different properties, so the move to Gresham Street was a consolidation of those five properties into one. That drives productivity, which is a key issue that we need to unlock within the workforce. Two thirds of NHS costs are in the workforce, so driving workforce productivity is a key objective. I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that the workforce being consolidated in one office enables a degree of productivity and efficiency that would be harder to achieve if they were disparate across five areas.
The hon. Lady mentioned the impact of the rent adjustment on Bristol. Some 15 GP practices in and around the city of Bristol occupy NHS Property Services sites. NHS England has been working with the Avon local medical committee, practices, NHS Property Services and the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group and has facilitated negotiations between GP practices and NHS Property Services on reviewing the levels of rent and service charges invoiced to GP practices, to ensure that there is transparency on them.
However, as the hon. Lady will be aware, rent and business costs incurred by practices are reimbursed to GPs under the premises cost directions, and GPs should be compensated for any rent changes through that route. The Department has provided an additional £127 million to the NHS England mandate, with effect from the 2016-17 financial year, to fund the increased costs in the NHS of this policy change.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about, and work on, Bristol. I agree that the estate was not always particularly well managed in the local health system previously, and that the correct incentives are needed. However, does he agree that he has outlined a merry-go-round of money keeping the entire system afloat? NHS Property Services exists on a large and continuing Department of Health loan, so it is not, in any sense—as the Minister described—a successfully run property business.
I was trying to make the point that greater transparency on the true cost of the estate drives behaviour to use the estate more effectively. Part of the difficulty has been that, because the estate was not adequately charged market rents in some areas, moving to a fairer and more transparent assessment of market rents—these things are independently assessed, I hasten to add—is a difficult adjustment. However, a consequence of correctly assessing the value of the estate is the unlocking of efficiencies where the estate is not being utilised, and that money can then be reinvested into the system.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s wider point, which I took as the substance of her remarks, that property is the enabler of system change. That also came out in the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, and has been inherent in points made by the hon. Member for York Central in our previous discussions. Property does not sit in a silo but is inherent to the wider service offering, and it also plays into reconfigurations. A key part of clinically led reconfigurations of estates to drive productivity will be what property there is to enable that and how to utilise it.
The point on which there is a degree of cross-party consensus, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) recognised, is that decisions need to be accountable. Likewise, I am happy to pick up on the point he raised on behalf of his constituents about there being no accountability. That is an absolutely fair challenge to the Department and one that I am very happy to look at. However, I am mindful, as I know he will appreciate, that these are often independent bodies making independent decisions, and we need to look at how they fit into the system.
A further point raised by the hon. Member for Bristol South, although it is slightly outside of the scope of the debate, was about wholly owned subsidiaries, which she also raised in more detail in the estimates debate. I make two points. First, as she knows, subsidiary companies actually give greater flexibility to trusts that want to compete in a local market and perhaps offer higher salaries offset by changes to pensions. That is one way in which trusts are empowered and enabled to hire in a competitive market, for instance in the case of maintenance staff. It is an enabler, and it often results in people getting paid more for a role, although there may be other, less favourable terms and conditions to offset that. I merely point out that those were exactly the arrangements reached for Members, and I do not remember too many press headlines suggesting that Members were being exploited by that change.
Secondly, I remind the hon. Lady that, as I am sure she is well aware, legislation introduced by the last Labour Government enabled wholly owned subsidiaries. Again, I do not recall Labour Ministers, when taking that legislation through the House, suggesting that it would provide a way of exploiting NHS workers or privatising the NHS.
I commend the hon. Lady for the points she raised. This is a timely debate given our discussions with the NHS leadership on the long-term plan. She is absolutely right—Government Members and other Opposition Members also recognised this—about the centrality of property to the place-based approach that we seek to take. I am happy to have a separate discussion with her on Knowle Park to check whether that is now in the right place or whether further work is needed. I look forward to further discussions with her on how we should utilise the property estate in the most effective way.
Question put and agreed to.
Commercial Sexual Exploitation
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tackling demand for commercial sexual exploitation.
I move the motion on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion).
This cannot go on. Our laws against commercial sexual exploitation are failing. They are failing to deter traffickers, failing to prevent pimps—those who profit—and failing victims. Crucially, we have known that for a long time. I have been fortunate to chair the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade for six or seven years, and I have grown increasingly frustrated that many political parties fail to engage with the issue. It forces us to examine a fundamental question: what do we believe prostitution inherently to be? Personally, I have moved to a position where I feel that it is a form of violence against women and girls; it is institutionalised exploitation for profit. We are forced to examine that question, and that is what this debate is about.
In 2014 the APPG conducted an inquiry into prostitution laws in England and Wales. Our conclusion was stark: because the law sends no clear messages about the nature of prostitution and what the goal of legislation is, it is by default those who are most visible—women selling sex—who are targeted, while men who create the demand in the first place walk away without being held legally accountable for the immense damage they do to individuals and communities.
To underline my hon. Friend’s point, does not the fact that 50% of women in prostitution in the UK are estimated to have started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old expose more than anything the vulnerability of people in this trade and how the almost rosy image that is sometimes given to it is very far away from the reality of what faces them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This goes right to the heart of the question of consent. How is it possible, under our current law, for someone to fail to give consent the day before their 18th birthday, but then to be in a position in which consent is assumed the day after?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. I have watched documentaries about the situation around Europe, and whether we are dealing with sex trafficking or the slave trade, for want of a better term, because women are forced into a form of slavery, things break down at the point of prosecuting men, whether they are just an individual using a prostitute or somebody running a gang. That is where the weakness is, and the law has to be strengthened to start to tackle that. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I will go on to say, and as other hon. Members will set out, one of the biggest single drivers of trafficking into this country and of child sexual exploitation is commercial sexual exploitation, which is why we need to take all measures to tackle it. Central to my argument, however, is the idea that by failing to tackle demand we perpetuate the inequality of focusing on the most visible part of the transaction, rather than on those who create the demand in the first place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate, and the hon. Gentleman on all the work he does with the all-party group. He mentioned consent. There is a parallel issue of choice. Sometimes it is said that there is a choice. Does he agree that there is more to the question of choice than initially meets the eye, and that “choice” is often driven by poverty, addiction or abuse?
I could not agree more. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There are all sorts of vulnerabilities that would cause someone who would not normally choose to go into the very violent and difficult world of prostitution to do that, but we must take responsibility for all those issues. Equally, prostitution is not a phenomenon driven by an over-supply of women—I am going to talk in gender terms, because this is a highly gendered phenomenon, although obviously we accept that a wide variety of people are involved. It is fundamentally caused not by an over-supply of people growing up wishing to go into prostitution, but by an over-supply of men who think that it is acceptable to purchase sex and to drive the scale of this trade.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—a fellow Co-operative Member—on the excellent case he is making on this terrible problem of exploitation in our society. Does he agree with me—I am looking at this particularly in terms of a Co-operative analysis of the economy—that many of the issues are driven by the insecure environments in which women find themselves? What we are talking about is the result of, in particular, poverty, addiction and coercion, but also of insecure work, zero-hours contracts and poor wages. All those things contribute to in-work poverty and are the reasons why women find themselves in those situations.
Again, I completely agree. As I will go on to say, a comprehensive model of legal reform would be one in which women who sold sex were decriminalised and those who bought it were subject to criminal sanction, but programmes to boost exit and allow people to go into other, much more secure forms of work are also hugely important.
Today, the Crown Prosecution Service rightly recognises women’s involvement in prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation, yet under existing law women involved in street-based sexual exploitation are criminalised for loitering and soliciting, creating a barrier to exiting and rebuilding their lives. It is currently illegal to place a call card advertising prostitution in a phone box, yet apparently it is perfectly legal for companies to make millions of pounds by knowingly hosting prostitution adverts online. We have an Act to combat modern slavery—the Modern Slavery Act 2015—but it has a huge hole in it, because it fails to acknowledge that prostitution drives sex trafficking in the first place. We have a law that prohibits men from soliciting women for sex on the street, but it gives them the green light to walk into a brothel and sexually exploit them behind closed doors.
That is not good enough. As I said to the Minister this morning, when she very kindly appeared before the Women and Equalities Committee, it has profound implications not just for women involved in prostitution, but for all women, because it perpetuates the myth that men have an absolute right to sex and therefore their sense of entitlement should overwhelm many others in society. The Minister for Women and Equalities, who is also a Secretary of State, put it best when she said earlier this year:
“You cannot help and support people, you cannot give them hope and a chance, you cannot promote human rights or the dignity of every human being—whilst paying them for sex, and whilst funding an industry that exploits them.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
The United Nations, which is having to confront sexual abuse and exploitation within its own ranks, has published a “Glossary on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” for anyone who is not clear what that means. It states:
“‘Sexual exploitation’ is a broad term, which includes a number of acts…including ‘transactional sex’”.
Transactional sex is defined as:
“The exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex”.
Offering someone money—or drugs, food or a place to stay—in exchange for them performing sex acts is abusive and exploitative. It is never acceptable. The aim of our law must be to end commercial sexual exploitation, not to “manage” it, not to regulate where it happens, not simply to pick up the pieces and not to prevent only the most heinous acts. Our responsibility as lawmakers is clear: it is to end sexual exploitation. And to end sexual exploitation, we have to end the demand.
How to combat demand is not a big mystery. As with any other form of violence against women, it starts with the law sending a clear signal that exploiting someone by paying them for sex is never acceptable, and that those who do will be held to account. We have to shift the burden of criminality away from women who are exploited in the sex trade and place it where it belongs: on those who create the demand. The end-demand approach is often referred to as the Nordic model or the sex buyer law. This three-pronged strategy involves criminalising paying for sex, decriminalising selling sex, and providing support and exiting services for people exploited through the sex trade.
France, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Norway have all adopted end-demand legislation. The first country to do it—this is important—was Sweden, which in 1999 criminalised paying for sex and decriminalised selling it as part of a Government Bill to tackle violence against women. Mia de Faoite, a survivor of prostitution, has said of Sweden’s decision to introduce the law:
“Prostitution is, was and always will be an absolute affront to human dignity and I know that because I have lived and witnessed it. Sweden didn’t do a radical thing or a controversial thing. Sweden just did the right thing in the name of freedom, justice and equality.
Colleagues will speak about the clear and substantial evidence that end-demand legislation works, in Sweden and elsewhere. However, I want to make this point, to the Minister and to the Government: if neighbouring countries are adopting legislation that makes it harder for people to be trafficked and sexually exploited, we run the risk that it will become easier to do that in England and Wales—on our streets and behind closed doors in every community we represent—because there is such a clear basis on which money can be made. We cannot divorce ourselves from what is happening in this great move across much of western Europe.
It is sometimes claimed that making paying for sex a criminal offence would drive prostitution “underground” and make it inherently unsafe. First, it is not possible to make sexual exploitation safe. The moment the money goes on the side or the counter, someone is buying consent and that sex buyer believes that they have an absolute right or entitlement. Secondly, as a recent European Commission study on trafficking points out about that policy, there is
“a logical fallacy at its heart since some level of visibility is required.”
In other words, if I can leave this room today and purchase sex by finding someone’s details online, so can the police. If sex buyers can locate women in prostitution, so can the police and support services.
To quote Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings,
“prostitution activities are not and cannot be pushed underground. The profit of traffickers, procurers and other prostitution operators is obviously dependent on that men easily can access women who they wish to purchase for prostitution purposes. If law enforcement agencies want to find out where prostitution activities takes place, the police can.”
In Sweden they have been doing that for nearly 20 years. We can look at the evidence of what has happened in that country.
The second myth I want to address is that by fully decriminalising the sex trade—an argument advocated by some—including brothel-keeping and pimping, women are made safer. That could not be further from the truth. It legitimises and fuels demand. Demand is met by significantly increased levels of trafficking. A cross-sectional analysis of up to 150 countries found that trafficking flows are larger into countries where prostitution is legal. That seems logical. Similarly, an analysis of European countries found that sex trafficking was most prevalent in nations with legalised prostitution regimes. The researchers suggested that
“slacker prostitution laws make it more profitable to traffic persons to a country.”
Take the Netherlands, for example. Third-party profiteering was decriminalised there in 2000. Seven years later, the national police force estimated that between 50% and 90% of women in the country’s legal prostitution trade “work involuntarily”. An evaluation of the law in 2007, commissioned by the Dutch Parliament, found that pimping was still “a very common phenomenon” that
“does not seem to have decreased.”
Fieldwork researchers reported that a “great majority” of women in Amsterdam’s infamous window brothels,
“works with a so-called boyfriend or pimp.”
Let me makes this point: there are few women directly involved in selling sex who profit from it. There is undoubtedly a huge supply of money, estimated by some to be £5 billion or £6 billion of our economy, but that money is not finding its way into the pockets of women who are exploited through this trade; it ends up in the pockets of pimps, exploiters and those who benefit from trafficking.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech. I am using this intervention to say that I have been advised that it would be inappropriate for me to speak today, given certain things that are happening in west Yorkshire. He knows that I have been campaigning on this issue for a very long time. This is my opportunity to say that I am here absolutely supporting him.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend.
The Government cannot continue to kick this can down the road. To some degree, all of us are culpable on that. We need comprehensive legislative reform with the aim of tackling demand as its underlying principle. We have a duty as parliamentarians to confront and take action against sexual exploitation, however difficult or uncomfortable that may be. The Government must tackle demand by criminalising paying for sex and decriminalising those who are exploited.
If hon. Members wish to remove their jackets—including the Clerk and the Hansard Reporters—they are entitled to do so, because of the rudimentary cooling system that we have today. I will, unusually, call Sarah Champion from the same side, because I know that she has been very significant in getting this motion to the House.
It is not only a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley; it is also a relief to be able to do so and I thank you for your kindness in enabling it to happen.
We need to recognise that there is a crisis of commercial sexual exploitation in this country. The trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls around the UK to be sexually abused is taking place on an industrial scale. That is for one simple reason: demand. There are a minority of men in this country who are willing to pay to sexually access women’s bodies. Currently, the law gives them licence to do this. For too long, Parliament has turned a blind eye to the suffering and societal carnage that these men create.
I am here today with two clear messages for the Minister. First, there is a sexual abuse scandal happening right now on her watch. It is enabled by prostitution advertising websites and driven predominantly by heterosexual men who pay for sex. Secondly, there is a solution: making paying for sex a crime to help stem demand and then helping the women exploited in the sex trade to exit it, by removing penalties for soliciting and providing them with properly resourced support services. The Government and the officials who advise them cannot claim that they did not know what was going on or were not aware of the scale of the problem. To end the exploitation, we have to end the demand.
Let me contextualise the scale of this problem. A recent inquiry into organised sexual exploitation by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade, of which I am a member, found that sexual exploitation of women and girls by organised crime groups is widespread across the UK. There are at least 212 active, ongoing police operations into modern slavery cases involving sexual exploitation in the UK. Our inquiry suggests that this represents just a small fraction of the true scale of organised sexual exploitation.
While most police forces do not proactively work to identify all the brothels in their area, some do track them. The scale that they find is astonishing. Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women in the year ending 31 December 2017. Some 86% of those women in the brothels were Romanian. Northumbria police visited 81 brothels between March 2016 and April 2018. Of the 259 women they met in the brothels, 75% were Romanian. Over half of those brothels were recorded as connected to other brothels, agencies or non-UK organised crime groups. Greater Manchester police has identified 324 potential new brothel addresses since March 2015. It told our inquiry:
“the majority of those identified reflect the hotspot areas for modern slavery in Greater Manchester.”
Let me quote Detective Sergeant Stuart Peall from Lancashire constabulary:
“From what we can evidence there nearly always appears to be a man or some sort of control involved. The females we encounter very rarely pay for their own advertisements. They also don’t pay for their own flights into the UK. There is clear organisation from what we have seen”.
The methods used by these organised crime groups to recruit women include deception, coercion and the exploitation of women and girls’ pre-existing vulnerabilities.
Let us be clear: women who are trafficked by organised crime groups are being subjected not to forced labour, but to rape. Based on evidence from the Poppy Project, Equality Now calculated that, on average, victims are exploited into prostitution for between eight and 20 months. Most women who are trafficked in the UK reported being forced to have sex six or seven days a week and see an estimated average of 13 sex buyers per day. From that, we can extrapolate that the average victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation is raped anywhere between 2,798 and 6,828 times. Those rapes are committed by men who pay for sex. If we scale that figure up to the 1,185 women referred to the national referral mechanism for sexual exploitation in 2017, we start to see the scale of the problem.
We must recognise that commercial sexual exploitation is part of a continuum of violence against women and girls. Commonly, it begins when they are just girls. Many women who are involved in prostitution experienced different forms of abuse, often sexual, when they were children.
The grooming process, and the beginning of a girl’s experience of the continuum of violence, is worth reflecting on. For many girls, it begins with something seemingly innocent, such as getting a slightly older boyfriend and going for car rides with him. Things then become more risky, and she might drink alcohol or smoke cannabis at the boyfriend’s insistence, and the pressure to return the favour with sexual acts then begins. Very quickly, as happened repeatedly in my constituency of Rotherham, that becomes organised sexual exploitation where the girls are passed between adult men who systematically sexually exploit them in the most horrific ways. Since the events in Rotherham came to light, attitudes in the UK have started to shift towards recognising that those girls are not prostitutes who willingly choose to sell their bodies, but victims who are exploited by men operating in gangs.
Now that child sexual exploitation is viewed as a national crisis, it is time for us to recognise that sexual exploitation does not stop when people turn 18. Instead, the girls who do not get the support they need to escape and repair their lives continue to be sexually exploited, perhaps by the same organised gangs or pimps, into their 20s, 30s and beyond. Finally, after years of campaigning, we consider the grooming and subsequent exploitation of a child to be abhorrent, but we must ask why society’s attitude is that when they turn 18, they are suddenly consenting adults who make a choice about selling sex, even when we are aware of past childhood abuse, trafficking, slavery, coercive control, intimidation, violence or drugs and alcohol dependencies in the background.
Let us confront the fact that the term “free choice” rarely, if ever, accurately describes a person’s path into prostitution and the sex trade. Sometimes we are talking about girls who have not escaped their early life trauma, who were perhaps in and out of care, groomed under the influence of drugs in their teens, or repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted throughout their lives. That may sound emotive, but it is corroborated by the supporting statistics. Home Office research shows that 50% of women became involved in prostitution before the age of 18, and three out of four women involved are aged under 21. Another Home Office study in 2016 showed that 70% of the women had spent time in care, and 45% had previously experienced sexual abuse. Do we really believe that those women and girls can give informed consent when many are inherently vulnerable or trapped in a cycle of abuse?
Commercial sexual exploitation is happening on a staggering scale, and prostitution procurement websites, where women are advertised to sex buyers, are key enablers of it. A buyer can go to sites such as Vivastreet or Adultwork, casually search for women in his area and contact the mobile number provided to arrange an appointment. It is quick, easy and highly profitable for the web companies. The Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre, which is hosted by the National Crime Agency, says that those prostitution websites
“represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK”.
Claims that the sites enhance women’s safety are deeply misguided. Prostitution advertising websites significantly increase the ease and scale of organised sexual exploitation in this country.
Thankfully, other countries have started to act. Since the United States signed into law the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 earlier this year, Adultwork and a host of other sites have shut down their prostitution adverts there. In France, the Paris prosecutor launched an official investigation into Vivastreet on charges of aggravated pimping, which has since shut down its prostitution adverts in France. In Britain, our inadequate laws against commercial sexual exploitation prohibit a person from placing a call card for prostitution in a phone booth but allow companies such as Vivastreet to make millions advertising women online. That has to change urgently. This week, Vivastreet claimed that it is
“working closely with the Home Office to help develop an industry-wide approach to identifying and preventing online trafficking.”
That is not enough. The Government must take on corporate pimps, not collaborate with them.
Our law needs to be updated so that it clearly sets out that it is a criminal offence to facilitate or profit from someone else’s prostitution. Under section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is already an offence to buy sex from a person who has been subject to force, coercion or exploitation by a third party, which means it does not have to be proved that the buyer was aware of the exploitation of the person they were paying for sex with. Sadly, research by Dr Andrea Matolcsi of Bristol University in 2017 suggested that there was only a low level of awareness of the offence and that the maximum fine of £1,000 did not deter buyers.
Our laws are simply not fit for purpose. To reduce demand for prostitution and sex trafficking, the law has to send a clear message that it is never acceptable to exploit someone by paying them for sex. To do that, the Government should urgently extend the existing prohibition against paying for sex in a public place to make it a criminal offence in all locations.
Although prostitution websites facilitate commercial sexual exploitation, they are not the root cause. The root cause is demand. Only a minority of men pay for sex. A study of 6,000 men by University College London found that 3.6% of men reported having paid for sex in the last five years. The men who were more likely to have paid for sex were young professionals with high numbers of unpaid sexual partners, which quashes the myth that the sex trade is a place of last resort for the lonely few. It is the demand of those men that drives the supply of mainly vulnerable women and girls into the sex trade. It is the money of those buyers that lines the pockets of the pimps and traffickers. The sex trade, and all the harm and suffering it entails, exists because of them.
Let me be clear: someone paying someone else to perform sex acts on them is abuse, just as exchanging accommodation, employment, services or other goods in return for sex is sexual abuse. A man who pays for sex is not a regular consumer, innocently availing a worker of their services. Offering someone money, goods or services for sex is sexual coercion. It is a form of violence against women.
Globally, 96% of victims of sexual exploitation are women and girls. When people pay for sex, they undergo a convenient act of forgetting. Only 44% of sex buyers who took part in a London-based study thought that prostitution had a very or extremely negative impact on women, which shows that many people who pay for sex ignore the fact that the women they pay for are likely to be vulnerable, may be in desperate need of money to pay off debts to their pimp, and have little or no agency in the situation. They do not think about the life or events that lead a woman to being in a brothel as opposed to working in an office or a shop.
There has rightly been outrage about the recently publicised cases of men working for aid agencies who exploited women overseas by paying them for sex, but where is the outrage when they come back to this country and sexually abuse in our own backyard? Across the UK, men are paying to sexually exploit vulnerable women and girls who they have shopped for online. We need to join the dots between prostitution, modern slavery, sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation. The common thread is men who pay to sexually access the bodies of women and girls.
There is no separate and distinct market specifically for sex-trafficked victims; the market is for sex. Detective Constable Julie Currie of the Metropolitan police’s modern slavery and kidnapping unit told the APPG:
“In the vast majority of cases, males paying for sex would give no thought to where the woman has come from or what circumstances have led her into prostitution.”
As Dr Maddy Coy from Florida University states:
“Policy approaches which presume a distinct market for the purchase of girls’ bodies for sex from that of the adult women are blinkered to the myriad of connections that span the age of majority.”
What links these forms of exploitation is the men who pay to abuse women and girls, their sexist attitude of entitlement and objectification, and the sex inequality that underpins it. Crucially, we need to acknowledge that there is nothing inevitable about this exploitation, and that we can and must take action to tackle demand from men who exploit vulnerable people by paying for sex.
I say to the Minister today that to reduce the demand for prostitution and sex trafficking, the law has to send a clear message that it is never acceptable to exploit someone by paying for sex. To do that, the Government should urgently extend the existing prohibition against paying for sex in a public space to make it a criminal offence in all locations. At the same time, it is vital that people exploited through prostitution are not criminalised, but instead supported to exit prostitution and access the services they need. As a result, penalties for loitering and soliciting should be removed from the statute book.
This “end demand” approach to prostitution is often referred to as the Nordic model, or the sex buyer law. So far it has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, France, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so it is already in operation on UK soil. We urgently need to extend this legislation to the rest of the UK.
There is extensive evidence of the effectiveness of the sex buyer law in reducing demand. In Sweden, which was the first country to adopt an “end demand” approach back in 1999, anonymous surveys conducted in 1996 and 2008 revealed that the proportion of men in Sweden who reported paying for sex dropped from 13% to 8% in that period. The most recent study of prevalence rates found that 0.8% of men in Sweden had paid for sex in the previous 12 months, which is the smallest proportion recorded in two decades and the lowest in Europe.
Crucially, public attitudes have changed. In 1996, 45% of women and 20% of men in Sweden supported criminalising paying for sex. By 2008, support for such criminalisation had risen to 79% of women and 60% of men. That is the point of the law—it changes attitudes and prevents commercial sexual exploitation from happening in the first place.
Reducing demand also makes countries more hostile destinations for traffickers. A review of the sex buyer law in Norway concluded:
“A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers... The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.”
Similarly, the head of Stockholm police’s prostitution unit has pointed out:
“How will the traffickers survive without sex buyers? The sex buyers are the crucial sponsors of organised crime. The traffickers are not into this because of sex... They are in this because of the money.”
Paying to sexually access another person’s body is a choice—a choice to abuse. The law must serve as a deterrent and send a clear message that society will not stand idly by while a minority of men exploit vulnerable women and girls.
Changing the law around the selling and buying of sex is crucial to prevent sexual exploitation, but there are other ways in which we can reduce demand. We should seek to change attitudes towards women, exploitation and abuse through education. We need to confront the uncomfortable truth that many children are being groomed for sexual exploitation from an early age, so we really need age-appropriate relationship education in primary schools. When it comes to reducing the demand for commercial sexual exploitation, we should also educate boys about respecting women’s bodies, about gender-based violence and about negative gender stereotypes. That is why I am very sad that last week the Secretary of State for Education rowed back on his commitment to introduce relationships education in 2019; now it will hopefully be introduced in 2020.
Providing routes out of commercial sexual exploitation is also important. Solutions are required that provide wraparound care at the moment that a woman presents in crisis. The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which proposes the provision of up to 12 months of rehabilitative care, recovery and support for victims, could be vital in ensuring that vulnerable women and girls are fully supported in their exit from prostitution.
In line with that, the Government need to properly fund sexual violence support services, such as Rape Crisis, which are struggling to keep up with demand. As the MP for Rotherham, I have borne witness to what happens when, confronted with the evidence of widespread sexual abuse, those in authority have looked away; when they have described exploitation as a choice; when they have dismissed it, or minimised it; and when they have known about it but failed to do all they could to prevent it.
We have a duty to act now, not to look away. It is time for this Government to recognise that prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls. I urge the Minister to legislate now to end demand by criminalising those who pay for sex and by closing the loophole that enables websites to facilitate abuse. Being abused is not a choice, but our seeming indifference to it is.
Before I call the next Member, who is Fiona Bruce, I will just say that I do not intend to put a formal time limit on speeches. I think everyone will have time to speak, provided that they bear in mind that I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 3.28 pm. Members therefore have about six or so minutes, without a formal time limit.
I commend the speeches of the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker), who are my colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group, and I wholeheartedly support their powerful expressions of support for women who are in prostitution and trapped in prostitution.
Although prostitution is often referred to as the oldest profession, it is more accurately viewed as one of the most enduring forms of exploitation. It has been my privilege to meet and talk with several women who have lived through prostitution. The stories they tell of being treated as an object or commodity, and of feeling that they had no choice but to sell sex in order to survive, are a sobering contrast to the fictional glamour in the popular myths surrounding the industry. As one of those survivors, Rachel Moran, has written in her excellent autobiographical book, “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution”:
“I pay no respect or accommodation to the glamorising or sensationalising of prostitution. These are not true depictions of prostitution...My assessment of prostitution and my opinions of it I take from the years I spent enduring it and everything I ever saw, heard, felt, witnessed or otherwise experienced at that time. There was no glamour there. Not even the flicker of it. Not for any of us”.
No one reading Rachel’s book could believe anything other than that women involved in prostitution are abused women; no one could doubt that prostitution is an utterly exploitative experience.
As we have heard, circumstances in early years—such as homelessness, family breakdown, problems with drugs or alcohol, or being in local authority care—are often precursors to young people entering prostitution, which then becomes a trap for years.
I, too, have met Rachel more than once and read her book; it is truly compelling. Will my hon. Friend say a little more about the evidence that we both heard on this issue on the Conservative party human rights commission—that it is wrong to describe prostitution as a genuine choice, because there are so many underlying reasons for it that it would be wrong to say that those in prostitution are there out of choice?
Absolutely; I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The argument that women—it is mainly women—who are engaged in prostitution and being paid for sex are consenting is a fallacy. They are never consenting; they are coerced. They are coerced by their circumstances, such as those I have described, and then exploited by those who use them for sex and by the pimps who sell them for sex.
Research for the Scottish Government has shown that
“most respondents who provide services and support to those involved in prostitution emphasised a range of risks and adverse impacts associated with prostitution in the short and longer term in relation to general and mental health, safety and wellbeing and sexual heath.”
The loss of self as a result of being objectified time and time again comes across profoundly when one talks to or about women who have been involved in prostitution. The techniques that they operate to block out from their minds what is happening to them, so that they think of themselves as an object, are so profound that they often cannot then move on with their lives.
Although some British nationals, especially young people, are affected, as we have heard, commercial sexual exploitation now often affects foreign nationals who have been trafficked here and are vulnerable. A Police Foundation study in Bristol found that only 17% of the people providing sexual services in the city’s brothels were British.
Prostitution and the commercial sex industry are intrinsically linked with modem slavery. As we have heard, the market for commercial sex operates as a pull for traffickers and organised crime groups. It is heart-rending when one hears accounts from organisations such as Hope for Justice. I believe that the daily figure of 13 sex buyers a day mentioned by the hon. Member for Rotherham is often a gross underestimate. I remember an account from the founder of Hope for Justice, which rescues trafficked women from prostitution. On one occasion he was told about a young girl who had been rescued. One day she had decided she would count how many men had abused her that day. After 100 she stopped counting.
To reduce modem slavery we must reduce the demand that creates the market in which so many people are exploited. That is why I support what has been said here today. At the same time, we must also provide real exit routes for women who are trapped in prostitution. It is not enough to say, “You can have health checks and clean condoms.” They need genuine opportunities to gain education, to be rehoused, and to understand how they can support themselves in a different way, because they often see themselves as having no alternatives at all.
The Conservative party human rights commission, which I chair, is in the middle of its own inquiry into the different legal approaches to prostitution and the impact they have on the fight against modern slavery. I am very pleased to see the evidence coming through now from the countries where “end demand” legislation has been implemented, including in Northern Ireland, where the law is fairly new. The police have found the offence much more effective than the partial offence that existed before, which we still have here. I congratulate the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland on securing its first conviction two weeks ago in a contested court case following the implementation of the new law.
The culture has been changed in Sweden, as we have heard. It is now considered almost demeaning to pay for sex there. Only a minority of men in this country pay for sexual services—only about 11% of men have ever paid for sex and only 3.6% have done so in recent years, according to the most recent survey data published. However, their behaviour harms individuals, fuels organised crime and contributes to the global networks of modern slavery.
Many people suggest that the law should not intervene in matters of prostitution. They say that that would stray into regulating the behaviour of consenting adults, but, as we have heard, one of those people, often not an adult, is not consenting. The law needs to be looked at again. If the cost of protecting such extremely vulnerable people from exploitation and modern slavery is to reduce the choices of a small group of people, it is a cost we should be prepared to pay.
I welcome the research that the Government have commissioned into the scale and nature of prostitution in England and Wales, and I commend the Minister for her own interest in the subject. I look forward to the findings of that report. I hope that perhaps during the summer recess the Minister will have an opportunity to read Rachel Moran’s book and that the researchers undertaking work of the inquiry will look at it, too.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue, which I have a great interest in. I congratulate the hon. Members for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on setting the scene. I will give the Northern Ireland perspective and describe what we have done legislatively. I suggest the Minister does the same here on the mainland, because it is the way forward.
Two weeks ago a court in Northern Ireland convicted a man in the first case to be contested under the legislation introduced in 2015, under which it is an offence to pay for, or, in this particular case, attempt to pay for, the sexual services of another person. One might be forgiven for thinking it has taken some time for the first conviction to be made, but, in addition to that case, data up to the end of March this year records 13 individuals who have been cautioned or received another discretionary disposal having admitted their guilt.
Would I like to see the Police Service of Northern Ireland making greater use of the offence? Yes, I certainly would, and so would you, Mr Paisley. However, the arrests show that this simple offence is much more effective than the more complex offence we had before. Previously our law targeted kerb crawlers who seek to buy sex in public and those who purchase sexual services from a person subjected to force, which are the laws that England and Wales still have. The kerb crawling offence has limitations because it can address only those who seek to purchase sex in a public place, yet research suggests that the majority of prostitution in the UK now happens indoors in brothels, private residences and hotels. The offence that applies where a person is subjected to force is difficult to apply because, although there is no requirement that the offender know about the coercion, there needs to be proof that the coercion is happening, which is not always easy to document in the time required by a relatively low-level offence. PSNI statistics show that no one was arrested or charged for that offence in the whole time that it operated, so the change in legislation has given the PSNI the power it needs to be effective and to change attitudes. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that we need such changes here on the mainland.
One objection to the sex buyer law is that it has been used only in Nordic countries that have a different jurisdiction from our own. The examples that the hon. Gentleman is giving are powerful because they show that our own jurisdiction can cope with such laws and that they work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree wholeheartedly with him.
We changed the law in Northern Ireland because we needed a law that would enable us to tackle the demand for commercial sexual exploitation more effectively. The Northern Ireland Assembly overwhelmingly supported the provision by 81 votes to 10, with the four largest parties in the Assembly—the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionist party—in support. Both Unionists and nationalists supported the legislation. Lord Morrow, who was a Member of the Assembly at the time, was one of those who did the good work.
People are easily moved around the UK, across the border with the Republic of Ireland and more widely within Europe. Germany and the Netherlands, which have legalised prostitution, have become destination countries for so-called sex tourists and also for traffickers and their victims. Legalisation has not stamped out organised crime or trafficking. It has not worked. The change that we have had in Northern Ireland is needed here. Fighting sex trafficking by using the criminal justice system might even be harder in the legalised prostitution sector.
Some might ask, “Why tackle the demand at all?” The simple answer is that without the demand for paid sex there would be no need for a continuing supply of women tricked, bullied or forced by circumstances into prostitution. Reducing the demand is the key to reducing the number of people who end up in commercial sexual exploitation and is the key to reducing human trafficking.
I want to quote from a lady who addressed the Northern Ireland Assembly and came here as well. Her name is Mia de Faoite. She spoke powerfully at an event in Stormont to mark the coming into force of the offence of purchasing sex, and spoke in this House as well. She said:
“It is my firm belief that everybody on this Island be they born here or not is entitled to live a dignified life, and prostitution is the systematic stripping of one’s human dignity and I know that because I have lived and witnessed it, and it must no longer be tolerated and now in Northern Ireland the next generation of girls, will grow up knowing that the bodies to which they have been born into are respected and at no time will they ever be up for sale.”
She spoke at an event that took place here in Westminster, which I co-hosted with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the former Member for Slough. Women and girls across the whole of the UK deserve the same freedom. Northern Ireland has led the way in the British Isles. The Republic of Ireland followed suit, and it is now time for England, Scotland and Wales to join us. Taking action to tackle the demand for commercial sexual exploitation is the first step, and I encourage the Minister to follow the actions of those in Northern Ireland. That is the way forward.
I shall keep my remarks short, and hopefully then the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) will be able to speak. While I was gathering my thoughts for the debate, I was reminded by a number of people of the importance of the terminology and language I should adopt. I discovered that two groups of people on the same side of the debate disagree about that language and terminology. Experience tells me that as a man I am walking on eggshells, but we shall never change the world for the better if we cannot enter into open and honest debate about issues that matter. The issue we are debating matters, and we all want a better world, so I apologise to those whom I may be about to offend. It is not my intention to disrespect them or their views, but I am putting my views as a man attempting to help, in a world where people—primarily women—are abused by men.
Most sex buyers are male, and that group pays predominantly for sexual access to the bodies of women. Therefore it is important that young men should be raised not to see women as a commodity to be bought and sold. If we do not deal with that, women will, as has happened in other countries, be trafficked and sold into a deeply exploitative trade, to supply the demand. A five-country study, led by the Immigration Council of Ireland, of men who paid for sex concluded that
“irrespective of a buyers’ knowledge of human trafficking as a crime and as a phenomenon, it is unlikely that they will consider the possibility that a seller may be a victim of trafficking when purchasing sex.”
We need to educate those doing the buying, before they even start.
The overwhelming majority of people exploited through the sex trade are highly vulnerable even before they become involved, and suffer acute harm as a result. Prostitution is about violence and control. Mia de Faoite—sorry, Mia; four or five people have butchered your second name this afternoon—is an activist and survivor of prostitution. She said, when asked why men pay for sex:
“I think it’s partly the fact that they can and society says they can and the law says they can...You must ask yourself what are they buying? It’s power. It’s a very powerful thing to have control of someone else’s body in that way. It’s a power-fix and they know it”.
We can legislate, and we may get it right. In that case we help, even if we do not completely resolve the situation. If we legislate and get it wrong we could drive prostitution underground, and that would be disastrous for those being trafficked and abused.
Criminalising paying for sex while decriminalising selling sex has been shown to reduce demand for sexual exploitation, change public attitudes, and make countries more hostile destinations for traffickers. In recognition of the centrality of combating demand in preventing sex trafficking, the Council of Europe recommended that states adopt that approach
“as the most effective tool for preventing and combating trafficking in human beings”.
I acknowledge that it is not perfect, but I believe it is the best path forward. The only way we can guarantee to resolve the issue is by reducing demand to zero. Demand for prostitution is not inevitable. Prevalence rates vary over time and between countries. Demand is context-dependent, based on a decision-making process by each man who pays to exploit someone sexually.
Most men do not pay for sex. It is a minority who do. We should have a UK-wide education programme, counteracting the growing normalisation of sexual exploitation. Through a concerted body of education we should aim to create a society where the concept of buying a person is inconceivable.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that in the main Chamber today Members are considering a Government Bill to stop the sale of part of an animal from other countries. They are legislating to reduce demand for ivory. They are acting, by means of a Bill. At exactly the same moment, there are women face down being abused in this country, who have been trafficked from somewhere else or exploited here. Ivory is an important subject for me, but it is not as important as the girls in my kids’ class, and it never will be, so I ask the Government to act and not to keep kicking the matter into review after review. We can act for elephants; we should act for women.
Normally I spend time in this place giving voice to victims, or to women—standing up and speaking the voices of people who have got in touch with me. Today I want to give voice to some of the punters of sex work, to try to prove that paying for sex is not like paying for any other service; it is abuse. I apologise, because some of this is not particularly pleasant. I have three quotations from men who reviewed women they had exploited on the prostitution review website Punternet. The first states:
“This is a classic case of ‘the pretty ones don’t have to work hard’. Vicky is beautiful, but frankly can’t be arsed. She’s Polish, and her English is not good… I was reminded of the Smiths song ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’... All the while she seemed completely disinterested and mechanical... After a while, during which she remained completely unresponsive, I offered to lick her—she was stubbly, which I dislike, but carried on regardless, and got the same lack of response... I finally decided to fuck her, in mish. Her pussy was hot and tight and I came after less than ten minutes. All the while, she kept her face turned to one side.”
The next stated:
“Very pretty and young girl. Approximately 165 cm tall, nice legs and beautiful breast, nice skin. Very young... If you want to try a fresh, young (says she is 18) and pretty girl is ok, but maybe as she just started to work, is quite passive, scarcely kiss without tongue, doesn’t want to be kissed on the neck or ears, can’t do a decent blowjob and really rides badly on you, i had to stop her several times when she tried to use her mouth or when she got up on me. She really can’t speak a word of English”.
The writer says that he thinks she is Romanian “or something like that”, and that her English is “zero”.
The third stated:
“Saw this girl’s pictures on the other site and thought she looked nice. How wrong I was. She does NOT offer any of the services offered and actually had the cheek to ask for more money to perform things that she is advertising as part of her services!! Her attitude was derisory... I did have sex with her which was a bit like shagging a blow up doll. I should have asked for my money back but given the very dodgy looking bloke with a very aggressive dog downstairs I thought it best to just get out as fast as possible.”
Lovely. So that is just like any other service then. I would ask all Members of the House to think about people speaking of their daughters, wives and mothers, and the women who live in their constituencies, in that way.
There is a significant parallel between domestic violence and prostitution. The all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade found that the “boyfriend” model described by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) was a common way to coerce women into the sex trade from existing relationships. It is fairly uncommon that people get caught for that, but the following text message conversation is between two men who were convicted of sex trafficking in the UK last year. It is between Razvan Mitru, the lead member of the trafficking gang, and Alexandru Pitigoi. They are discussing recruiting Pitigoi’s girlfriend to brothels in the UK and openly acknowledge what they want to do.
“let me talk to her too cause she doesn’t really want anymore”.
Mitru replied “ why:))”. Pitigoi answered:
“cause she is not happy about it”.
“what the fuck is she not happy about?”
“and she doesn’t really like it as you can imagine it’s hard on her bro”.
“she doesn’t have a penny in her pocket and she is being fussy maybe it is hard for her but if she fucked at least she knows what for not for nothing”.
Pitigoi replied, “I know that:))”
I have met that woman hundreds of times. A review is not enough. I ask the Minister to do everything that was set out by my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and for Rotherham, and to do it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker) on securing the important debate. They have both campaigned relentlessly on this issue. It is unfortunate that it is happening in Westminster Hall, because it should be in the main Chamber. Too often such important discussions happen here first, when they deserve to be on the Floor of the House.
As we have heard, prostitution is a form of gendered violence. It is both a cause and a consequence of sexual inequality. It is interesting that the debate has so far focused not purely on tackling commercial sexual exploitation, but particularly on demand. As we have heard from the hon. Members for Luton South and for Rotherham, the demand from sex buyers fuels sex trafficking and organised crime. Without the demand from sex buyers, there would be no need for a supply. We are therefore looking at tackling the root cause of that form of sexual inequality, rather than a symptom.
The demand for commercial sexual exploitation is not an inevitable fact. Most men do not pay for sex, and the figures for those who do vary over time and between different countries. However, those who pay for sex are predominantly men, and although they are a minority, they make a conscious choice to do so. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) quoted the words of Rachel Moran, who said that there is no glamour in prostitution. There is sometimes a false element of choice, but the majority of people who have been exploited through the sex trade were highly vulnerable before they entered the sex industry, and often suffered acute harm as a result.
We have already heard a number of statistics and I do not want to bore Members with yet more, but it has been estimated that 152 sex workers were murdered between 1990 and 2015. Although sex workers are often victims of violent crime, such incidents often go unreported to the police. If those are the statistics we have for murder, I hate to think about how many times a day women are sexually exploited and physically abused because of this industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) rightly points out that in order to begin to tackle this problem it is essential to educate young men and boys. This is an issue of violence against women and the abuse of power. As we heard from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), the words used by those men are abhorrent; and if that is the language they use, their treatment of these women on a daily basis must be unimaginable.
The issue is not exclusive to this jurisdiction. The Scottish Government recognise that prostitution is a form of violence. As a result, the “Equally Safe” campaign in Scotland seeks to create a strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 made it an offence to exploit another human being. Exploitation is defined within the Act, which covers sexual exploitation and makes specific provision for support and assistance to victims of trafficking.
There are clear links between human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and Europol representatives have suggested that the trafficking of human beings, particularly women and girls, has increased in countries where prostitution has been legalised. I do not believe for a single second that such measures go far enough, which is why I advocate doing more, and not only in Scotland but across the UK. We should be led by the example of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which have taken swift action in this regard. We must be careful not to allow this form of abuse to increase as a result of measures that aim to protect victims of that abuse.
As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, this is a crisis of commercial sexual exploitation on an industrial scale, and more must be done to protect vulnerable individuals from this criminal activity. Such exploitation cannot and must not go on, and I hope that the Minister will heed the comments from across the House and take further action.
I congratulate all Members who have spoken on their passionate and moving speeches—I, for one, was extremely moved.
Prostitution is a nationwide issue. Women are selling their bodies on streets up and down the country, putting their health and safety at risk. Prostitution is violence against women and girls. Each time a woman is met by a purchaser to trade a sex act for money, drugs, food or some other commodity, she is in a potentially life-endangering situation. Prostitution causes damage to those involved with it, and it can never be made completely safe.
Prostitution is the abuse of vulnerable women. Last summer I spent quite a lot of time in Swansea talking to women who were engaged in, and victims of, prostitution. One lady I met had lost her six-year-old daughter in a road accident 30 years ago. Thirty years ago I lost my eight-year-old son in a road accident. Thirty years ago the woman I met turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain because she had no support or family. She needed something to take the edge off it, which led her into prostitution. I, thankfully, had a loving family around me. I was cosseted and nurtured, and I am standing here today. The maxim, “There but for the grace of God go I” is so true when we do not know what is around the corner. I also noted that this woman was heavily bruised. She is in her late 50s, and I commented that she had really bad facial scarring and bad black eyes. She said, “This happens all the time. This is because I didn’t give good service”. These women hold themselves entirely responsible for not giving the service that is demanded of them by the purchasers.
Young women and girls are on the street or in backstreet brothels, selling their bodies for as little as £5, or in exchange for drugs and alcohol or, in some cases, for food or bed for the night. Those women are not dressed in expensive clothes and fancy shoes; they are in grubby tracksuits and trainers. The idea that prostitution is a choice that women have is simply not true. People are pushed into exploitative and harmful situations because they are trying to survive.
We must understand and address the root cause of prostitution, which is normally a man’s demand for sex. Using prostitutes has become so normalised that men now go to brothels with their friends before a night out. The stigma of men paying for sexual services has vanished, yet the stigma of women selling their bodies remains. As we have heard, the sex buyer law on prostitution decriminalises all those who are prostituted. It provides support services to help people exit prostitution, and it makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking. It makes it clear that buying people for sex is abhorrent and wrong, and it sanctions discouraging people from doing it.
Education programmes in schools, and training for police, other emergency services and frontline professionals, is vital to target sex traffickers and help those women who need support. A lack of understanding could put women straight back into the hands of their abusers—every woman I met who had been involved in prostitution was there because she repeatedly went back into the same abusive relationship, time after time, as if it was her only option and there was nothing else for her. Women need to feel that they have a place to go, and that help, support and people are available to help them break that cycle.
Women involved in prostitution should have access to excellent, reliable and life-changing information and support. They should be treated fairly, positively and—most importantly—respectfully, and they should be given genuine alternatives to a life of prostitution, regardless of where they find themselves. If that is not provided, those women will never break away from the situation they are in. Britain must become a hostile place for sex traffickers and other third-party profiteers of sexual exploitation. That requires a holistic approach that puts prevention at its heart, while mobilising all available measures to disrupt and robustly respond to sexual exploitation. There is no argument other than that prostitution is violence against women and girls, and we must always fight to protect women and girls from living a life of violence and abuse. These women need help and support; they do not need prison sentences or criminal records. They need our help, and they need it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I thank the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker) for securing this important debate on tackling the demand for commercial sexual exploitation. We have a full Public Gallery, and I am sure this debate is being watched on television. The accounts that have been given have clearly touched many people, and they have shown in an incredibly compelling way the risks, harms and agony that prostitution can cause to those who are most vulnerable. I also thank the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade for its work in this area. I am pleased to see so many of its members present in the debate, and I thank them for their report, which I read with great care.
I thank Members for addressing the House in a compelling but hard-hitting way. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about the fallacy of choice and the loss of self. Those are phrases that were borne out in the quotations that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) gave from websites, and in the description the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) gave of a lady whose life path changed 30 years ago and who has suffered the terrible consequences of that. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has brought the developments occurring in Northern Ireland to the Chamber. I will be watching with interest the results of that change in their law.
The Government’s priority is to protect those selling sex from harm and exploitation and to target those who exploit vulnerable people and those involved in exploitation. Just this afternoon, a group of people are meeting just along the corridor to discuss how we can prevent exploitation in hand car washes. We know that nail bars are another area rich for exploitation. Of course, the most difficult area of exploitation is the sex industry involving adults and children.
I come to this matter drawing on my experience outside the House. I used to prosecute serious organised crime. I remember a woman who I defended many years ago. She was caught because she had illegal documentation. This was back in the 2000s, when sadly we had a different attitude towards victims of slavery. I am pleased to say we have much improved it since. She told me her story, through her interpreter, of how she came to be in our country. It was a tale not dissimilar to the tales we have heard already today. She showed me her wrists—I remember this; it haunts me—and they bore the physical scars of her experience in a brothel that she had managed to escape. She was treated as a criminal for having documentation papers that were not legitimate, and I am genuinely so pleased to say I have complete confidence that now she would be picked up, put into the national referral mechanism, treated as a victim and supported through her journey to a better life. I feel as though she and the many, many other women we have heard about are sitting in this Chamber with us as we debate this topic today.
As a Minister, however, I cannot proceed only on the basis of compelling, heartbreaking stories; I have to proceed on the basis of evidence. That is why we have commissioned research through the University of Bristol to understand the scale and nature of prostitution in the 21st century. We know it is different from how it was 10 years ago through the proliferation of the online sites that the hon. Member for Rotherham described, which I will deal with in a moment.
The Minister said clearly that she would look at the legislation in Northern Ireland. Will those who are doing the research to which she has just referred look at the evidence of what Northern Ireland has done, the change it has made, including in attitudes, and its success?
It is a team of respected academics in the field, and it would not be right for me as a Minister to point them in the direction of their research. I am sure they will be looking at the example the hon. Gentleman mentions, as they will look at other examples across Europe. It is something I can look at, too.
Before I descend into the details, I add that I am pleased that colleagues have talked about the role that education has in tackling demand. Colleagues will know that I spend a lot of time talking about that when it comes to how some crimes are perpetuated against women and girls. Relationships education is absolutely key. The hon. Member for Rotherham mentioned the Secretary of State for Education. My understanding is that while some schools will be in a position to provide this education very quickly because they have the teachers and skill sets available, other schools are not quite at that place. We are trying to help them get to that place so that the policy is consistent and high-quality across the country.
The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales, but many activities that can be associated with prostitution are offences, and we have heard about them today. When those offences were designed, the basis of them was to protect vulnerable people involved in prostitution. They relate to activities such as controlling prostitution and buying sex from someone who has been a victim of trafficking. We are aware of the different legislative approaches taken elsewhere, including the Nordic model and the regulated decriminalised approach in Germany and the Netherlands. We are seeking unequivocal evidence as to whether any one approach is better than others at tackling harm and exploitation. That must remain our priority.
The Minister has referred to the research that is going ahead. Does she not agree that if a large number of women who are involved in prostitution are being exploited—however we define that—and a small minority appear to work relatively freely and not under those same conditions, that small minority should not be able to outweigh the huge number of people being exploited? Should public policy not seek to reduce the impact on the most vulnerable first and foremost?
That is a perfectly fair and proper question. It is a question that I will have to answer when we have the independent research, which we will be able to analyse the results of. I understand why colleagues are anxious to act immediately, but I have to act on the basis of academic research and evidence.
I know that the Minister cannot direct the research, but I have read various reports in my time working in this field. Amnesty’s report is one that is often cited against my viewpoint as someone who worked with women in the national referral mechanism. Can the Minister ensure that women in the national referral mechanism, which the Government have access to, are taken account of in the research? I cannot remember a single trafficked woman ever being asked their opinion in any research piece that I have ever seen.
I am conscious of the independence of the researchers and of giving the research the weight and respect I hope and expect it to be given. I am a little bit cautious about trying to interfere. With my modern slavery responsibilities, I am conscious of the impact of sex trafficking on people in the NRM. There is that body of evidence there as well, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to point it out.
I am conscious of time, and I want to give hon. Members time to respond.
You don’t have to.
I am grateful, Mr Paisley.
Members have spoken compellingly about what can be done by criminal gangs who traffic and pimp women. We are looking at whether prohibition is the most effective policy response to that. We know there are some evaluations and research pointing to the benefits and negative impacts of the Nordic model. It is a contentious area, and a lot of conflicting and contradictory evidence is cited on both sides of the debate. That is why I am currently having to tread the path that I am. As I say, we are doing more to develop our evidence base. We have commissioned research from the University of Bristol. We anticipate that it will take a year to complete, with a final report expected in April next year. From that, we can look at the evidence and analyse what the best approach is.
As I have said, we know that the picture on prostitution has changed from what it was even just 10 years ago. We need to understand the nature and scale of the issue, so that we understand the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, of any changes to legislation.
The Minister is responding very thoughtfully to the comments that have been made, but will she give us her view on whether prostitution is fundamentally exploitative and the act of prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls? Whatever the researchers say, those of us who are concerned about this matter would be interested to know her view on that, having heard today’s debate.
My hon. Friend puts me in a difficult position, given that we have commissioned the research and are very clear that it has to be respected by people from across the spectrum of views, and that we will review it appropriately. I do not feel able to give my personal view given that I am speaking on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I will say that I sat on the Home Affairs Committee some time ago when it conducted a report into prostitution. That report came to a certain viewpoint, but there were many shades of view in that report. I feel it is right that colleagues know that.
We are clear that we have to help victims, by protecting them and helping them to leave prostitution and get into the way of life that they seek outside of prostitution. We are not waiting for the publication of the research for that to happen. We have provided more than £2 million to organisations supporting sex workers, including the £650,000 from the violence against women and girls service transformation fund that we have given to the police and crime commissioner of Merseyside to provide a victim-focused service for sex workers—
And prostitutes who are victims of, or at risk of, sexual or domestic violence, abuse, exploitation or human trafficking. I have used both words deliberately through my speech.
Only one is correct.
Forgive me. In that case, may Hansard note that when I have said “sex workers”, I was referring also to prostitutes, and vice versa? I do not want to fall over on the language, as other hon. Members have mentioned.
In addition, our focus on protecting victims extends to the £13 million trusted relationships fund, which we launched in February. [Interruption.] I am sorry about my microphone, Mr Paisley—it seems to be doing something. I do not have Siri on me, just in case anyone is wondering. The trusted relationships fund will provide funding over four years for initiatives to protect the most vulnerable young people from child sexual exploitation and wider forms of criminal exploitation. We have received more than 100 expressions of interest from local authorities for initiatives aimed at developing the protection that builds resilience in children and increases the consistency and quality of support for children and young people who are at risk.
The Government’s strategy to tackle sex trafficking facilitated via online classified advert sites, otherwise known as adult service sites, comprises three main strands of activity. First, the National Crime Agency is leading a multi-agency operational plan to investigate, disrupt and prevent sex trafficking facilitated via such websites. I have visited the unit at which that work is done. Again, I thank the officers involved in that work. They sit at computer screens, see the websites, read words very similar to those that have already been cited in the debate, and they then have to find a way of dealing with that when they leave the office and go home to their loved ones. My eternal thanks and gratitude go to them for doing that.
Secondly, the operational push is supported by the development and use of innovative technological capabilities to help identify trafficking online. Thirdly, in support of the work the Home Office has spoken to the largest adult services websites operating in the UK so that it takes a proactive role in identifying trafficking-related material and preventing such material from being hosted. I am clear that the websites have a responsibility. Through engagement with such industries, we seek to ensure that they do what they should to ensure that their sites do not host criminal and exploitative behaviour.
Colleagues have mentioned the United States’ approach. Alongside our current work, we continue to monitor the impact in the US of the recent change in legislation brought in by the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as FOSTA. The Act gives sex trafficking victims more power to sue websites that knowingly support sex trafficking. Although such an approach has much to commend it at first blush, we are conscious of some emerging evidence that the prohibition of such sites results in the displacement, rather than the prevention, of abuse, and disperses trafficking-related advertisements across myriad smaller websites where they are harder to investigate. However, we will keep looking at that and see whether there are lessons to be learned from that approach, and from approaches elsewhere.
Will the Minister give way?
Yes, although I am just about to finish so that the hon. Lady has a chance to respond.
I will give my time to the Minister, because I would really like her to answer three questions. First, will she legislate to ensure that websites cannot financially benefit from exploited women? Secondly, will she stop criminalising women who are forced into prostitution? Thirdly, will she criminalise both the buyers and those who force women, and benefit from forcing women, into prostitution?
The Minister has two and a half minutes.
I am so sorry—I was unable to note all the questions. I suspect and hope that this is the first of a programme of debates that we will have on this issue in the period while the research is being developed. May I take those questions away? The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot commit to legislate on my feet in Westminster Hall—would that it were so—but I undertake to write to her on those points. She knows, given the work that she has done in other areas and on other matters, that I am always more than willing to listen; indeed, it is my privilege to do so. I will take away her questions and consider them, and we will see where we get to.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tackling demand for commercial sexual exploitation.
Palestinian Education System
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered incitement in the Palestinian education system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians provokes strong passions and much disagreement on all sides of the debate. Wherever we stand, I hope we can all agree that to bring that tragic conflict to a close, it is vital that old hatreds and prejudices are not passed on to new generations of children and young people. That is why I requested this debate.
I unreservedly support a two-state solution and I believe that a strong and competent Palestinian Authority have an important part to play in achieving that goal.
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady just after she has started, but she made an excellent point. Has she noticed, as I have, that textbooks for Palestinian children contain the phrase that cities in Israel such as Tel Aviv are in occupied Palestine? That goes completely against the two-state solution.
I cannot but agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are some terrible examples of what appears in the textbooks, which I will come to shortly.
Given Britain’s long-standing advocacy of the two-state solution, I believe it is appropriate for us to provide aid to the Palestinian Authority, but as is recognised in the memorandum of understanding between the Department for International Development and the PA, and the partnership principles that underpin it, British aid is not a blank cheque. Crucially, it demands that the PA adhere to the principles of non-violence and respect for human rights, and requires DFID to take action when they do not.
Is my right hon. Friend concerned that the textbooks she talks about call on children to
“annihilate the remnants of the foreigners”,
as well as talking about sacrificing blood? They call on young children to believe that “death is a privilege”. Does she believe that that kind of teaching to very young children is compatible with seeking co-existence?
I do not believe it is compatible with seeking co-existence; to warp the minds of young children is a serious form of child abuse.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
For the last time, I think, yes I will.
We find extremists and people who foster hatred in all communities on all sides of all conflicts. What worries me about this is that some of the material is in books that are officially sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority. Is the answer not to use more of Britain’s aid budget to promote projects that bring young people together, such as the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow project that I have visited in Jerusalem, where young Israelis and young Palestinians work together, co-operate and discuss the issues? Is that not a building block for the peace process that we all want to see?
My hon. Friend is right. There is no question that co-existence projects work. They are crucial in building that constituency for peace and in demonstrating that Palestinians and Israelis can live alongside each other.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will give way one more time, to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That is going to be it.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing this debate forward. Does she agree that texts for a science class phrased as has been described can do nothing other than teach hatred? Does she agree that we should use all the diplomatic pressure available to press for textbooks that teach facts and methods, not hatred and rage?
Absolutely. It is completely indefensible that officially sanctioned textbooks used in school and sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority contain material that is really harmful to children. It certainly does not bode well for building peace.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will make a little bit of progress and will come back to my hon. Friend—I do not want to leave out the last person who wants to intervene.
There are many instances where the PA have clearly and repeatedly flouted the principles I referred to. Perhaps most egregious is its payment of salaries to those who commit terrorist attacks—a truly grotesque policy that further incentivises violence by rewarding those who are serving the longest sentences, and thus have committed the most heinous acts, with the highest payments. The official PA media are also saturated with vile anti-Semitism and the glorification of those who commit acts of violence against Jews.
I fail, for instance, to see how children’s television programmes in which poems are recited that refer to Jews as “barbaric monkeys”, “wretched pigs” and the “most evil among creations” do anything to advance the cause of peace, reconciliation and co-existence. Neither do I view the naming of summer camps and sports tournaments after so-called martyrs who murder Israeli schoolchildren as in any way conducive to furthering a two-state solution.
I confine my remarks today, however, to the question of incitement in the Palestinian education system in general and the new PA school curriculum in particular. In 2016 and 2017, the PA published a reformed curriculum covering both primary and secondary school students. It represented the most substantial revision of the curriculum since the establishment of the PA in the wake of the Oslo accords. As the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education outlined in a series of reports, the new curriculum represents a significant step backwards. Based on standards for peace and tolerance derived from UNESCO and UN declarations, it found that the new curriculum
“exerts pressure over young Palestinians to acts of violence in a more extensive and sophisticated manner”
and has expanded its focus
“from demonization of Israel to providing a rationale for war.”
“more radical than ever, purposefully and strategically encouraging Palestinian children to sacrifice themselves to martyrdom.”
The incitement is pernicious and pervades subjects across the curriculum and across every age group. Children of 13 are taught Newton’s second law through the image of a boy with a slingshot targeting soldiers. For the avoidance of any doubt, I have here the textbook and can show hon. Members the relevant photograph. The evidence is not difficult to come across. Children of 10 are asked to calculate the number of martyrs in Palestinian uprisings in a maths textbook, and I have that here too.
Order. I would advise the right hon. Lady that it is not possible to use exhibits. Apart from anything else, how is that to be recorded in Hansard? The right hon. Lady should use her expertise and education to describe in words, rather than use exhibits.
Thank you for your guidance, Sir Christopher. I shall abide by it.
Children of 11 are told that martyrdom and jihad are the
“most important meanings of life”.
They are taught that
“drinking the cup of bitterness with glory is much sweeter than a pleasant long life accompanied by humiliation”.
To ram home that terrible lesson, martyrs such as Dalal Mughrabi—who led the infamous 1978 coastal road massacre in which 38 Israelis, including 13 children, were brutally murdered—are held up as role models. Let us be absolutely clear. This is, as Hillary Clinton once suggested, a form of child abuse: teaching children to hate, to kill and to sacrifice their own lives. Palestinian children deserve so much better than to be taught that the best they can aspire to in life is death.
Those are just a few of the dozens and dozens of examples of incitement that litter Palestinian schoolbooks. Less obvious, but no less malign, is the fact that the curriculum continues to suggest that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque is under threat. That false and incendiary claim has frequently triggered violence. The curriculum offers no education for peacemaking with Israel or any suggestion that the path of peace is preferred to the path of violence. It implicitly argues that Palestinians will return to a pre-1967 Israel through violence. For instance, it teaches nine-year-olds the necessity of “sacrificing blood”, “eliminating the usurper” and annihilating the “remnants of the foreigners”.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her generosity in giving way once again.
“Building a house is like killing 100 Arabs. Building a whole settlement is like killing 10,000 non-Jews.”
Those are the words of settler leader Moshe Zar, not at an unofficial gathering but at an official Israeli Ministry of Education event, and reported in Ynetnews. Does that not indicate that incitement exists on both sides and has to be tackled on both sides? Was not the suggestion made in 2014 of a tripartite committee to look at all incitement, involving the PA and the Israeli Government and chaired by the Americans, a useful way forward? Why did the Israeli Government reject it?
I am not making an argument for the Israeli Government. I have stood on a platform with Benjamin Netanyahu and said to his face—I think my hon. Friend knows this, because I have said it before—that I do not agree with settlement building and that I think there should be a settlement freeze. I think it is a barrier to peace. I do not think it is the only barrier and I do not think it is insurmountable, but I do not agree with it. Israeli textbooks see peace as the ultimate goal and depict it as highly desirable and achievable, while war is a negative, although sometimes necessary, occurrence.
This is not some unfortunate tale about events in the middle east, for which Britain has no responsibility. British aid to the PA helps fund the salaries of 33,000 teachers and Ministry of Education and Higher Education civil servants. As the Minister clearly stated in answers to parliamentary questions I tabled in March:
“According to the Palestinian Authority…Ministry of Education and Higher Education, all of their schools in the West Bank are using the revised 2017 PA curriculum.”
UK-funded public servants and teachers under the Ministry of Education and Higher Education are therefore involved in the implementation process. Moreover, as the former Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), stated in correspondence with me last year:
“The MOU...includes a commitment from the PA to take action against incitement to violence, including addressing allegations of incitement in the education curriculum.”
I first brought the new curriculum to Ministers’ attention last September. With my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who is here today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I wrote to the International Development Secretary and the Prime Minister, whose intolerance of extremism does not appear to extend to her own Government’s expenditure. Since then, the Government have blustered, prevaricated and delayed. They first dismissed the objectivity of the IMPACT-se report. They then claimed that IMPACT-se was, in part, basing its view of the curriculum on a report published three years before the new curriculum was introduced. Seven months on, they announced that they would conduct their own independent assessment of the Palestinian curriculum. The net result is that Palestinian children have been served up this diet of hate for another year.
Given that a new set of school textbooks will be distributed in September, the Government’s review risks being out of date by the time it is completed. The big reforms introduced last year mean that those books are likely to contain very few changes. However, that will still allow the PA to argue that there are new books— a tactic they have successfully deployed with international donors in the past. I simply cannot understand why Ministers have been so slow and reluctant to confront the Palestinian Authority. We could and should have prevented this by saying, “No,” and stopping the cheques. It really was not a hard call.
In the time the Government have been stalling, the European Union has passed legislation requiring that all teaching and training programmes financed through EU funds, such as PEGASE, must reflect common values such as peace, freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination within education. The legislation
“asks the Commission to ensure that European funds are spent in line with Unesco-derived standards of peace and tolerance in education”.
Once again, I urge the Government to take action. First, they should suspend all aid to the PA that directly or indirectly finances those teaching and implementing this curriculum until the PA commit to wholesale and urgent revisions of it. Secondly, I have suggested previously that Britain cut its aid to the PA by 14%—double the percentage of the PA budget that is used to pay terrorist salaries—and invest that money in a Palestinian peace fund aimed at young people. It would support education projects in Palestine not tarnished by the PA’s anti-Semitism. While money that would have paid the salaries of teachers and Education Ministry public servants remains suspended, it can be redirected into that fund. I am suggesting not a cut in the funding but a change in where it goes. Palestinian children and young people must not suffer due to the acts of their leaders.
Finally, given that the UK is so heavily invested in education, we must ensure that we monitor far more closely what is going on in Palestinian classrooms. I urge that, in keeping with new legislation being considered by the United States, the Secretary of State for International Development be required to issue a written statement to the International Development Committee each year to confirm that she is satisfied that the content in the PA curriculum does not encourage or incite violence, that it conforms with standards for peace and tolerance derived from the UNESCO declarations, and that no UK aid is being used directly or indirectly to fund educational materials that do not meet those standards.
I recognise that the Government have decided to conduct their own review, so I request that the Minister addresses the following questions in his response. In their correspondence with me, the Minister and the Prime Minister have emphasised that the Government regularly engage with the PA on issues of incitement. First, will the Minister give us two or three concrete examples of action taken by the PA, as a result of that engagement, to curb incitement? Secondly, will he tell us when the DFID review will be completed? Will he agree to place a copy of it in the Library of the House?
Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that, as IMPACT-se did, the DFID review will examine every page of every PA textbook through the prism of defined methodologies? I have a list of 133 textbooks, which I am happy to furnish him with. When the review is completed, will he place in the Library a list of all the textbooks that DFID officials examined? Fourthly, will he confirm that the DFID review is being given access to the full curriculum?
Fifthly, I know the Minister will wish to ensure that the DFID review is stringent, robust and evidence-based. Will he therefore confirm that DFID’s methodologies, like those deployed by IMPACT-se, make reference to or are in accordance with articles 1, 4.2 and 5 of the declaration of the principles on tolerance proclaimed and signed by the member states of UNESCO on 16 November 1995; principles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the UN declaration on the promotion among youth of the ideals of peace, mutual respect and understanding between peoples, signed in 1965; and articles 9 and 18 of the integrated framework for action on education for peace, human rights and democracy, approved by the general conference of UNESCO at its 28th session in Paris in November 1995? Finally, will the Minister undertake to place in the Library of the House a copy of the research methodologies that DFID’s review is utilising?
It is highly regrettable that the Government have effectively made British taxpayers complicit in the delivery of this curriculum of hate. We must stop funding this incitement to violence and terror; we must cease subsidising this abuse of Palestinian children and young people; and we must do so before young minds are poisoned, thus perpetuating a tragic conflict that has gone on for far too long.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, as always.
I thank the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for securing the debate. I shall not be able to answer all her questions this afternoon. The time I had available to prepare was cut short because earlier in the main Chamber I had to deal with an urgent question about the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar. Some Members present were there for that, but not everyone. I am afraid that it ate into my time, so I have not been able to do as much preparation as I would have liked. None the less, I am grateful to her for raising a subject that is, across the House, of considerable interest and concern, which is shared by me and all Ministers.
The UK strongly condemns all forms of violence and incitement on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We continue to urge the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to avoid engaging in or encouraging any type of action and language that makes a culture of peaceful co-existence and a negotiated solution to the conflict more difficult to achieve. Nowhere are the values of peace and tolerance more important than in education.
It was perfectly right and proper for the right hon. Lady to cite a series of examples. None of them was justifiable, and the United Kingdom would not seek to justify them in any way, but we have discussed such matters too many times in this place, and too many attitudes are born out of the conflict’s history and context, making them difficult to escape. None the less, if a future generation is to have the opportunities that we want for it, that will have to start in schools—all the schools, and all the teaching of those who go to school. As I mentioned earlier, one of my concerns is that over time the distance between young people and others, between Israelis and Palestinians, is harder than it used to be, because of the length of time the conflict has gone on and because of a hardening of attitudes on all sides. We have to start with that, but we have to see what we can do about such an important issue.
In May, in Ramallah, I raised incitement with the Palestinian Education Minister in a meeting about the UK’s future support to the Palestinian Authority. To give the right hon. Lady the concrete example she is looking for, I sat across a desk from the Education Minister and asked him about incitement in textbooks. We talked about what to do and he answered me. It is that direct—straightforwardly, with a colleague. I shall move on to what we will do in a moment, but British officials hold similar conversations with other Palestinian counterparts, so it is done and it is done directly. The Education Minister welcomed the prospect of an independent international review of Palestinian textbooks and assured me that the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education would take seriously the findings of any such review. I shall move on to that in more detail in a moment.
The UK is a long-term supporter of Palestinian education. Last year UK aid helped up to 24,000 Palestinian children in the west bank go to school. I saw for myself the positive impact of our money on the lives of just a few of those boys and girls during my recent visit. The children I met at an elementary school in Ramallah showed me with pride their school garden and artwork, and told me about their hopes and aspirations for the future—to be doctors, engineers and teachers. They need our help to have a fair chance of making those dreams a reality. They are the peace-builders of tomorrow, and that is why it is vital that the UK and other international partners support them.
Our continued support will come with a continued strong challenge to the Palestinian Authority on education sector incitement. Let me be very clear: education has no place for materials or practices that incite young minds towards violence. I have seen the reports expressing concern about the content of new Palestinian textbooks, and I take the findings of those reports seriously. Our response must be rigorous, evidence-based and made in the company of other international supporters of the Palestinian education system, in order to ensure that the Palestinian Authority hear a strong, credible and unified voice about what must be done so that their textbooks support peace and do not incite violence.
That is why we are in the final stages of discussions to establish an independent textbook review jointly with other donors. The plan at the moment is for the review to be completed by September 2019. Department for International Development officials have begun preparation for that independent review. It will be evidence-based and rigorous, to ensure that the Palestinian Authority hear that strong, credible voice. In the interim, we shall continue to express concern about incitement with the PA.
A specific concern was the new pilot textbooks, which is why they are the most appropriate focus for analysis and our immediate work with the PA. Separately, we are interested in the role that education can play in promoting tolerance and inclusion. We shall, accordingly, look at other aspects of the education system, including the broader curriculum.
Why are we seeking a joint review instead of doing it ourselves? We think that joining up with other donors will provide a rigorous analysis of Palestinian textbooks and a unified voice from the international community about what the PA need to do. That will also deliver value for money and avoid the risk of two different analyses from competing authorities.
I did have one concern when the right hon. Lady mentioned the review. She suggested that in some quarters the review of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education was disregarded, but I too was concerned at some of the findings. The Department has met IMPACT-se to investigate further, but we thought that an objective review was also necessary—it is right to have done that.
In answer to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on co-existence, as I think the House knows, I value such projects very much. Some are proceeding at the moment with £3 million in support, but we might well have more in future. I have listened to the right hon. Lady, the hon. Gentleman and indeed the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on that, because if such co-existence projects are to work, they must come with support from all sides. There is more that we can do, and that is important.
Our ambition for inclusive education must be much greater than simply to ensure that textbooks do not incite violence. To contribute towards a just and lasting peace, we must promote positive portrayals of others to instil the values of peace and tolerance in the minds of young people. That is why the UK will continue to seek ways of ensuring that our current and future support for education brings young people together to build confidence, trust and understanding across communities.
To conclude, I reiterate that the UK condemns incitement in all its forms. I shall continue to raise the issue directly with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, both during and upon conclusion of the textbook review. I shall also continue to encourage positive portrayals of others on both sides of the conflict, because that is vital to deliver a two-state solution that will lead to a just and lasting peace.
To repeat one or two of the things that I said in the earlier debate, a lasting and just peace is based not only on words but on actions. Actions that are detrimental to a two-state solution and look likely to make it more difficult will be condemned by the United Kingdom Government—we do make such condemnations, such as that of the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, which started earlier today. On both sides of the conflict, things are done that make peace more difficult. Incitement is wrong and should not be any part of the situation. Each party to the conflict, whether Hamas pushing people towards the fence to be killed or those involved in actions likely to make a two-state solution more difficult, bears responsibility for the peace we need in the future.
This House is clear in its determination that a two-state solution is the only viable future. We have to continue to be clear and determined about that. We have to ensure that those we talk to know that we mean it seriously. Removing incitement will play a key part, and it cannot be ignored by those who may think that the experience of occupation is so severe that in some places it can be condoned. No, incitement cannot and will not be condoned. We will be clear about speaking out on everything that gives rise to the perpetuation of a conflict that, as the right hon. Lady concluded, has gone on for far too long.
Question put and agreed to.
Five-year Land Supply
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the five-year land supply.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to have been selected to introduce this important debate. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister. It is great to see so many colleagues here—their presence underlines the importance of this issue.
The phrase “five-year land supply” sounds innocuous, but it cuts through to one of the most critical parts of the planning system. We all know the national picture. There is consensus that we need to build more homes because of the crisis of home ownership and the fact that housing is very expensive in large parts of the country. Those houses have to be built somewhere. There is often tension in communities about where properties should go, so we rely on our planning system to come to fair decisions about how sites are allocated and developed. I fully accept that the Government require a method for measuring the extent to which councils deliver those homes, but the five-year land supply system—although it is understandable in the way it is set out—is fundamentally flawed. Rather than encouraging the delivery of homes, it encourages speculative development. That is true not only in my constituency, because a number of colleagues have spoken to me about it.
Let us understand why the situation arises. If the council or planning authority in question does not have a five-year land supply, rather than local policy taking priority when planning applications are considered, the national planning policy framework becomes the priority. Neighbourhood plans fall away and local policies become far less important.
Let me correct my hon. Friend. Neighbourhood plans do not fall away. The law was changed, under ministerial guidance, to bring the five-year land supply down to three years where there is a neighbourhood plan that allocates sites and is two years old. My constituents have made a lot of that important concession.
I know that my hon. Friend was influential in neighbourhood plans. I was going to make that point, which is certainly true, so that was not so much a correction as a preview. I always say to my communities, “If you’re going to do a neighbourhood plan, allocate sites, because it will still be relevant if there is only a three-year land supply.” That incredibly important development was confirmed by Gavin Barwell when he was Housing Minister.
I fully support my hon. Friend. In Wokingham we have 11,000 outstanding planning permissions and a required build rate of 900 a year. People might therefore think that we had a 12-year supply, but until recently the Government said that we had less than a five-year supply. They do not want to endorse our decision, which makes a lot of sense, to have four major sites with infrastructure and other support.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. That chimes with the situation in my area and many others, as I have heard from colleagues. I will come back to that point.
To understand why the system leads to speculative development, it is important to understand that when I say local policy becomes less important in the absence of a five-year land supply, I basically mean that it becomes far easier for a developer to get an application through on appeal. That is the nub of the issue. The district may still reject the application, but the point is that a developer with savvy lawyers and all the rest of it can game the system and get their application through on appeal. When it goes to appeal, the local community and local democracy have almost no say and the system becomes unaccountable. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that.
One might say, “Hold on a minute, we want to build more homes. Isn’t that the way we should be doing things?” Let me use as an example the district of Babergh, which is entirely within my constituency. Babergh has been charged with providing 7,820 homes over the next 20 years. It has already granted unbuilt permissions for almost 5,000, so almost two thirds of 20 years’ worth of permissions have already been granted, yet we are seen as not having a five-year housing supply. That is extraordinary.
The irony is that that land is sitting on balance sheets rather than being delivered. That precludes smaller builders and developers from taking on sites. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to find a way to resolve that and allow some of our smaller builders to deliver?
I know that my hon. Friend is passionate about that issue and has come up with some radical suggestions in that regard.
The experience in Babergh is common around the country, and it underlines my main point. It sounds good in principle to say to councils, “Nimby councils will be held to account—you must deliver the homes,” but they are doing the right thing. They are granting permissions—in fact, they are granting way more than they are meant to—and going through the pain of taking controversial decisions in planning committees and so on, but sites are not being built out.
I led a debate on this issue earlier this year, which my hon. Friend supported. Does he agree that although we must get the detail right, there is also a question of principle? Through the Localism Act 2011, we set out to be the party that, when in government, gave local communities the chance to shape their future. We are now in danger of looking like we are in favour of speculators, profiteers and out-of-town developers, who dump housing estates that we legislate for, with no responsibility being taken locally. That is not what our party should be about.
That is an excellent point. The key word, which we will hear a lot in the coming days, is “control.” We call it speculative development because the community loses control. Let us be honest: if an area has a five-year land supply, there will still be controversial planning applications, but those will be determined by the local authority. People will be unhappy about homes being built in—this is a terrible phrase—their backyard, but the point is that the local community will have a say; it will have control.
Colleagues know what speculative applications are like. They come forward, often from a new breed of company called the promoter of a development, rather than from a builder. Those companies work the system to their advantage, putting out brochures that often boast, “Your local district doesn’t have a five-year land supply.” We get extraordinarily unpopular applications that get people marching down our streets, yet we find there is nothing we can do about them. It is not like councils are not doing the right thing; they are giving out thousands of planning permissions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he rightly says, there is a need for local councils to deliver housing where that is appropriate. Mid Suffolk and Babergh failed for a number of years to address housing provision. Only under new leadership, with a new chief executive, did they take the issue forward and look at developing a local plan, underneath which neighbourhood plans will sit. What does he say to those councils, and how can we make councils look at their local housing need and deliver homes for people who need them?
That is a perfectly fair point. Many councils will have been seen as recalcitrant in the past. My point is about build-out rates. The councils I am talking about are delivering permissions; the issue is the build-out rate. No one disputes that. The Government themselves appointed my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) to review the delivery of permissions, and I very much welcome that.
I am not going to speak for much longer, because colleagues wish to contribute and I think we will be interrupted by Divisions. I have a simple ask. The Government are looking at what measures to bring in to compel, incentivise or encourage development, so that permissions become properties in which people can live. While those powers are not at hand, there should be a transition period during which councils are assessed purely on the number of permissions they grant. If councils do not have the power to compel development, how can we punish them for sites with permission not being built out? That is the core of my ask.
What effect would that have? What would happen if we said tomorrow, “Councils will now be measured purely on the number of permissions they grant rather than on the build-out rate”? The answer is simple: builders would have to build out the sites for which they had been granted permission—hey presto! That is surely how the system should work. The Government clearly do not want this to happen, but as many as 60, 70 or 80 councils do not have a five-year land supply, which means that, rather than more delivery, they get speculative applications that undermine consent for the planning system.
What does this issue boil down to? It is about having sustainable development rather than speculative development. Sustainable development does not mean that everyone welcomes development in their backyard and is excited about 150 new houses being built in their village or market town, but it at least means that they trust the system is legitimate and give it their consent. That is being squeezed out by the five-year land supply system. I simply say to the Minister that he should listen to me and to colleagues when we say that we need to look seriously at reforming this area.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I shall be brief, because we are likely to be interrupted by Divisions.
I am pleased to say ditto, because we have exactly the same problems in Stroud district. We face the dilemma that for all the houses we might want to build, we have a huge number of extant planning permissions—more than 5,000—but no ability to force recalcitrant developers, promoters or landowners to develop those sites, whoever they may be. That is depressing, because we have an acute housing need.
There are two other elements. First, the Government have substantially increased the number of houses that we are expected to get built. We are mystified by how they came to the number they did. Hopefully the Minister can do some work via his civil servants to find out why our numbers increased so dramatically when other authorities in Gloucestershire have had minimal increases, a standstill or actually a reduction. That would be helpful, because we think we are being punished for the simple fact that we have been quite good at delivering on our housing, despite all those extant sites.
Secondly—we all know about this—there is the viability assessment. Developer after developer comes back to us and says, “We can no longer afford to build those affordable units. The scheme is now very different from when we got planning permission. We cannot afford to provide the infrastructure we said we would and, more particularly, we will have to reduce, or indeed remove completely, the affordable units that are part of the existing planning permission. If we can’t do that, we will appeal or—worse—move ourselves off the sites,” and then we get no housing at all.
Those two elements make it difficult for a small district authority to keep up with demand—we are trying to build houses, as the Government and the Opposition want—while dealing with those people who say to us, quite rightly, “This was the planning permission. We might not have liked it, but we were getting some affordable houses out of it, so we stomached it. And what have we got? We’ve been kicked in the teeth.” It is as simple as that. Therefore, parish councils that might have proposed innovative schemes say, “Well, that other parish council got turned over big time. Why should we even consider this?” The process and environment is totally negative, adversarial and difficult.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that one injustice in the current system is that those councils—parish councils, in my case—that lead and put together a neighbourhood plan normally propose more housing than the district council had done, but they end up being punished for doing so, not rewarded? Three villages in my constituency did so and have ended up with a Gladman-led development forced through against their wishes. That destroys rather than enhances public trust in planning.
We actually beat Gladman in my constituency, so there is at least one aspect where we are slightly different, but the reality is exactly that. It is most difficult to persuade parish councils that they can do more when they have seen their neighbouring parishes turned over big time.
There is a generic problem, so I appeal to the Minister to look at the process—and in particular at Stroud district, because we have a specific problem with our increase. We will never build anything like the numbers of houses we want unless we solve that quickly. We need clarity so that people know that what is promised will be delivered. Dare I say that we could get rid of some of these extant sites? If the developers do not want to use them, they should lose them. We will find other people who will come and build on them appropriately, and then we will begin to deal with our housing problems.
The last time I was in this Chamber, I had cause to warn the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), that in Sussex we have a habit of burning an effigy of people who have particularly irritated us. At the moment, those who run Govia Thameslink Railway are at the top of that list, but running a very close second are those responsible for undermining the neighbourhood planning policy, which should be heralded as such a great success for this Government. It was the policy by which power was to be returned to local people, who were to have control over where development went. Decisions taken in neighbourhood plans are entered into by the whole community, having been drawn up by volunteers and then voted on by that community in local referendums. Just as we are now debating nationally the importance of honouring a referendum result, so it gravely undermines democracy locally when decisions taken by local communities can be so easily overridden. I am afraid that is exactly what is happening.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his place. I hope that he will take this message back to his Department. This is like groundhog day: we have had this debate endlessly in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House, and we are constantly told, “Yes, the Government understand the problem and will do something about it.” Indeed, in December 2016 Gavin Barwell, then the excellent Housing Minister and now the Prime Minister’s excellent chief of staff, introduced helpful new guidance precisely designed to deal with the problem, ensuring that neighbourhood plans would be respected and that speculative developers could not win in the way my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) has ably described. The problem with that guidance is that it can apply only to neighbourhood plans made up to two years before the date of that guidance, and if local authorities did not have a three-year land supply it did not work at all.
Subsequent to the introduction of those new measures, I have had at least two decisions taken right up to the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State and then lost on appeal because that guidance could not be used. It offered no protection to the local community on those technicalities and the speculative developers won. It is important to underline my hon. Friend’s point: that is not the way to increase house building in this country. We stand united in our desire to increase housing supply, which is a political, economic and social imperative. Everybody gets that, but the whole point is that neighbourhood plans delivered significantly more housing than was anticipated and, best of all, they did it with local consent.
Local communities were brought together and told that they would be given power. They were asked to accept responsibility and they did so, taking difficult decisions, sometimes in the face of strong local opposition, and agreed that development should go in certain places while other places should be protected. Those communities worked on the assumption that what they had been told was true, so those areas were to be protected for the 15-year life of the plan. However, almost within months they see that meant absolutely nothing; the developers could simply charge in.
Worse, those communities were given promises by their local Member of Parliament that everything would be made better by the new guidance, from December 2016, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England, I and hon. Friends who worked on it all said would help. No doubt it has helped in some circumstances, but by no means all, as I indicated. What happens then is support for neighbourhood plans collapses. In West Sussex, I now find it difficult to persuade communities that have not done neighbourhood plans to enter into them. They say, “Look at what happened in the neighbouring village. They went through this process, which costs a lot of money and costs the volunteers a lot of grief. Is it really worth it? The developers come in and simply overrode the plans anyway.”
My right hon. Friend is putting a powerful point to the Minister about the undermining of trust in the system. Does he agree that something else is going on? Where, in my case, the district council agreed to put housing in the right place, down by the main road—the A11 in this case—the developers are banking those permissions for later, because they know that they will get them, and using the five-year land supply to force the wrong development in the wrong places. Not only is trust in the system undermined, but we are getting the wrong development in the wrong places, which is deeply undermining people’s ability to say yes to new housing. It is compounding the problem.
My hon. Friend puts it incredibly well, and I strongly agree. That is why this is so cynical. We have to understand that developers are not just taking advantage of a loophole but gaming the system. As a consequence, I believe we are building fewer houses than we could if developers had to do what policy should require and deliver. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) has been charged with looking at this, and that is important, but there are changes we could make in the meantime, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has suggested.
I will make two final points to the Minister. First, the Government are incorporating the guidance they issued in December 2016 into the new national policy framework. Could they look again at the threshold for the three-year land supply and the longevity of the test? Under both those things, the suitability of this as a remedy is being lost. It is not as effective as it should be. Could the Government also look at the wording they are using to incorporate it? It defines “recently brought into force” neighbourhood plans as meaning
“a neighbourhood plan which was passed at referendum two years or less before the date on which the decision is made.”
That is leading some to believe that neighbourhood plans simply fall after two years, which I am sure is not what the Government mean. It would be helpful to clarify that they do not mean that.
Secondly, and more importantly, our policy needs to change and we need to move away from five-year land supplies to delivery as the test. That is the fundamental change that needs to be made if we want to build houses and we wish to do so with public consent. I suggest that is the better way to do it.
I will say first of all that I am fully aware of companies such as Gladman gaming the system. Gladman did exactly the same in my constituency, and I am pleased to say that on one occasion we managed to fight it off and turn it down. The question that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) asked initially was how many councils there are without a five-year land supply. When I have asked that question of the Department, the answer that has come back is that they do not know—they do not collect the information in that format; they do not collect that information at all. My first request is that they start collecting that information, because without it the whole system has a gap in it. What makes that important is that we have changed the way we calculate the housing need for communities. It has been brought down to a much more robust formula, which is having a big effect on communities. This is a suitable opportunity to address the issue full time.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk already mentioned the three-year housing land supply, which is important to bear in mind. I have also asked that it be given permanence and that the arguments that have been made about whether it lasts for two years and whether renewed neighbourhood plans have it for an extra two years be settled. The assurance I have been given is that that is being looked at.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
It is very rare for me to be cut off in the middle of a sentence, so allow me to sum up where I was before the Division bell rang. In relation to the consultation on the national planning policy framework, I have had conversations with members of the Department about the three-year housing land supply figure. The Department is looking at whether that should be permanent, or, if not, how long it should apply for.
The other change that I have called for as part of my work with the local plan expert group is to ensure that we do not continue to lose the millions of pounds that are lost each year through councils having to go to law to defend their five-year land supply. I have suggested that the five-year land supply becomes part of the council’s annual report, and that once it is in there it is not challengeable in the courts for that year. That gives the council a year’s breathing space each year, once the figure is agreed. As for the calculation of the land supply, I am perfectly open to whether it is based on planning permissions or delivery. I can see the logic for it being a calculation based on delivery.
Members have spoken about how neighbourhood plans are delivering about 10% more houses than were predicted. That is actually quite a lot of new houses. There are something like 2,500 communities across the country that are going through or have been through the process of producing a neighbourhood plan. The results of the referendums have been North Korean in style, as was witnessed in the village in which I live, where the approval rate in the referendum was something over 90%. I think that is a great triumph for everyone who was involved in it.
I remain positive about neighbourhood plans. I have been around the country speaking to those involved in them, and if hon. Members want somebody to come and talk about neighbourhood plans, that is the job that I have, and I am happy to do that for any hon. Member who asks me to do so.
On a point of order, Sir Christopher. In the great excitement of commencing my speech, I failed to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
That is noted; thank you.
Order. To inform hon. Members of the timings, we will now finish at 6.8 pm, which means that we will start the wind-ups at 5.53 pm. That means that there is time, between now and 5.53 pm, for the four hon. Members who seek to catch my eye.
The simple truth is that our constituents, the public, have no faith whatever left in the planning system. That is hardly a surprise when one is dealing with, to be frank, the rank incompetence of a council such as Leeds City Council. It has created a totally over-inflated housing target figure, which even the academics at Leeds University have claimed simply could not be built in the timeframe laid out, yet in the next couple of weeks we are to go into a public inquiry in which we assess whether Leeds City Council’s site allocations plan is sound. How can something be sound if it is based on fantasy figures?
Leeds City Council has lost almost every single Planning Advisory Service appeal; every time, the PAS comes forward and says, “You don’t have a five-year land supply.” But the figure is being inflated to say that we need tens of thousands more houses than we actually need. It is, therefore, very difficult to come up with the land supply for houses that are never going to be built.
What are the consequences of that? Sites are coming forward to be built on that actually should never been involved. They are the prime sites, where a developer will say, “I’m going to build on that site and get the housing numbers up.” They quite legitimately do not have to build on the brownfield sites, because the council has said, “This is a site you can build on.” The developer then starts to build on that green-belt and greenfield site, and they get far more revenue from that. There is no incentive for them to move elsewhere.
In the past five years, Leeds City Council has granted 25,148 planning permissions. Of those, 4,429 expired—they were not built within the specified timeframe—and only 3,680 were built. Therefore 17,039 remain unbuilt, yet Leeds says that we need to find planning and space for another 70,000 houses.
I realise that the Minister cannot respond to this, but his constituency neighbours mine, and the councils in his constituency, especially Harrogate Borough Council, are planning to build tens of thousands of houses on the border of my constituency. At the moment, Leeds City Council is not taking any notice of that, and it is saying that we need to expand. Councillor Alan Lamb from Wetherby, Councillor Ryan Stephenson from Harewood, and Councillor Matthew Robinson have been at the forefront of fighting back against Leeds City Council, but it is a Labour majority council by quite some margin. Even the independents—I pay tribute to Councillor Mark Dobson, who is an independent in Garforth in my constituency—have been fighting against the Labour council on those numbers, but they just get ridden roughshod over.
On 1 August, I will be sat in a site allocations plan inquiry arguing why a grade II listed parks and gardens site should not be built on. I will be doing that because Leeds City Council refuses to reassess the numbers it came up with on the basis of totally out-of-date migration figures from the early and mid-2000s, when figures were much higher than they are now. Even now, demand is declining, although the council says that it is going up. The inspector has said, “It is not my job to assess the numbers. That was done in 2012. We are here to judge the soundness of the SAP.” How can we possibly judge the soundness of the plan when we are dealing with fantasy numbers?
We have lost every PAS site appeal in my constituency. The only one left is Scholes. The plan to try to save that PAS site and build somewhere else on the Parlington estate would increase the traffic flow through that village by 300%—that is Leeds City Council’s highways department’s own figure. Even the solutions that Leeds City Council comes out with to try to save a village actually destroy that village by shifting the problem elsewhere.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). It has to be about how many houses we build, not how many permissions we have. Quite simply, in my constituency alone, almost 75% of the planning permissions have gone unbuilt. How on earth can someone put forward a plan that says, “Actually, Elmet and Rothwell needs another 12,000 houses”, when 75% of the permissions granted have not yet been built? The whole thing needs to be reassessed.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to feed back to his Department that, unless the numbers are accurate, these processes are completely unsound. All we are doing is giving a licence to build on the green belt and greenfield land, rather than tackling brownfield land, which consequently means there is no affordable housing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on securing the debate. The problem is country-wide and it affects North East Derbyshire. At times, this debate has seemed like a self-help group where we all put our concerns and difficulties on the table.
We are experiencing similar difficulties in my constituency, because a council has abjectly failed to discharge its responsibilities over several years—more than a decade. Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) described, that will bring about a plan loaded with too high a number of houses to be built in my part of the world. At the same time, because the five-year housing land supply has only just been put in place, it has caused a significant number of speculative planning developments to be submitted in places that are inappropriate under the plan and objectively inappropriate for people who live in the area and know it best.
Over the past couple of years, North East Derbyshire has experienced 11 separate planning applications in areas that the local plan would not allow to be developed under any other circumstances. Those applications are for more than 1,300 homes. Given that our district has to build only 6,600 homes over a 15 to 20-year timeframe, 1,300 homes that should not have been applied for in the first place represent a significant increase in the number of houses that are needed. The area in the bottom half of my constituency is already slated to take 3,000 new houses that local residents have accepted and, in some ways, embraced, so this is not about nimbyism. It is about houses being built in the wrong place because councils are failing to put in place the right plans and failing to discharge their responsibilities. As a result, we are seeing the loss of greenfield sites and other places where houses would otherwise be considered completely inappropriate.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to two problems with the five-year housing land supply. The first is methodology. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell made the point about over-inflated numbers. In the same way, my district council did not get the target figure of 280 houses a year right in the first place, and it is now about to replace that with a figure of 332 houses a year, which will further undermine local residents’ confidence that our planning system knows what it is doing.
Despite not having the correct top-line figure, when the council assesses the deliverability of the planning permissions that have been put in place, it talks to the developers themselves, so the developers get a second opportunity to say whether they will build in places where they already have planning permission. That retards the overall five-year housing land supply and gives developers more opportunity to get housing planning permissions through. That methodology is a huge problem.
The second problem is competence. The political leadership in my local council has been thoroughly incompetent in ensuring that North East Derbyshire is protected from inappropriate and speculative housing developments. The authority monitoring report, which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) outlined to some extent, is a publication that appears and disappears at will. The 2014 version appeared a year late—a full year after the council decided it had a 2.15-year housing land supply. The 2015 version did not even appear, and was just amalgamated into a 2015 and 2016 report. Again, that appeared nine months after the number was calculated.
We did not know what our housing land supply was until a special report was taken to the council in October. I am pretty sure, because I spent some of last summer trying to calculate it, that the council knew many months beforehand that it had hit the five-year housing land supply, but it chose not to report or announce it until October. When some planning applications went through, including one on Fanny Avenue, Killamarsh, it was stated that the absence of a five-year housing land supply was at least partly why they were approved.
My council is clearly completely failing, not just on the plan as a whole, but on the five-year housing land supply, and as a result I have to go and talk to residents in Wingerworth, Old Tupton, Ashover, Killamarsh and North Wingfield, where another 250 houses have just been put on a site that should not be developed on, and never has been, because the plan is not in place. That is unacceptable. I support the Government’s localism angle, and I accept that it works in principle, but when councils do not discharge their responsibilities, we reach the point that North East Derbyshire has got to. A huge number of houses are being built, potentially in the wrong places, and the only way to stop them is a huge amount of heartache and angst and huge numbers of planning inquiries.
On the point about councils’ incompetence, Leeds City Council has been heard to say that it simply cannot be bothered to reassess the numbers. It has now moved to a position of saying, “We will assess the numbers after the site allocations plan.” If it reduces the numbers, it makes it even easier to build on the green belt and greenfield land.
My hon. Friend makes a correct and important point.
The only way that we can have any semblance of control over the planning system is by extraordinary displays of public opposition to applications that should never have gone through in the first place. Hundreds of hours of residents’ time are lost on many meetings that should not have to happen. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are allocated to planning inquiries that should never have started. All of that retards confidence in a planning system that is quite rightly trying to deliver the houses we need in this country for the long term. I understand that this is a challenging area, and hon. Members from both sides of the House have outlined why, but when councils do not discharge their responsibilities, we get to the place that North East Derbyshire has got to, which totally undermines the trust and belief that councils and the planning system can deliver.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on securing this important debate. I concur with everything he said—in the interests of brevity, I will not repeat his comments. I will use my contribution to give the example of Milton Keynes, our surrounding authorities and indeed the whole Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge arc, to show why there is an urgent need for much greater flexibility in the five-year supply requirements.
Milton Keynes has over 20,000 housing permissions granted, yet our build-out rate is such that we have recently been judged by the inspector as not having a five-year supply. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk and others have suggested, that is the open door for speculative developments, both small and—ironically—large ones. It defies common sense that, if there is an inability to build out existing large developments, developers will have the resources, skills and raw materials to develop new large sites. It just defies logic.
In addition, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) mentioned, there are neighbouring authorities to consider. Aylesbury Vale District Council, which is next door to Milton Keynes, is planning substantial new developments right on our boundary, which will be technically part of its authority but for all intents and purposes part of the urban footprint of Milton Keynes, using all our infrastructure and services without those being enhanced to take account of the additional population.
Within the whole Oxford-Cambridge corridor, for which I am the Government’s champion, there is a complete misalignment of timescales and objectives. The National Infrastructure Commission has an ambition for 1 million new homes—the Government are yet to publish their formal response to that. This is an area of the country where there is a need for new homes, and in many parts of it there is an appetite for them, but not for homes that are just scattered around the place randomly. They must be properly planned, they must be sympathetic to the existing urban and rural environment, and they must have proper infrastructure and public services.
Yet all the timescales are misaligned. Councils have to make short-term decisions on their housing allocations without knowledge of, for example, where the new Oxford-Cambridge expressway is going to be routed. That does not make sense. So there is an urgent need to realign these timescales, and to pause the current local plan and five-year supply timetables, so as to give a space in which to properly sequence all these decisions.
That is not to say that we do not need houses now; we absolutely do. Many areas in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor have an overheated property market, which is not just pricing people out of living there but is actually inhibiting economic growth, because employers cannot recruit the people they need, because the people they need cannot find a place to live that is affordable or suitably connected.
We have to find a way of accelerating the build-out rate of existing developments. As has been mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) will bring forward a range of solutions to the problem, and I urge the Government to implement urgently what he proposes. That would give us the space, if the Government are willing to give some leeway on the targets, to align properly all these decisions that have to be made. People have an appetite for development, but only if the houses are of quality. We need to look not only at overall numbers, but at the types of housing that we build—social housing, houses for the elderly, and traditional, family-sized homes. Much more careful thought and planning needs to go into these long-term developments.
Development must be sympathetic to existing settlements and the rural environment. People will not just accept endless, soulless, identical housing estates being scattered across the countryside. However, we can use our knowledge and expertise in this country to build quality, attractive places that people will actively welcome, which will enhance existing settlements and provide the homes for future generations. That is within our gift, but we have to get away from our current rigid and inflexible system, which does not have public consent. Indeed, it is undermining the whole process of neighbourhood planning and local accountability.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on securing this important debate and on his thoughtful speech.
Let me take a step back. Why is it that the centre of Government in the UK has felt the need over successive generations—from the planning by appeal of the 1980s, to the regional spatial strategies of the 1990s, to the five-year land supply—to have some vehicle to ensure that councils come up with local plans and that they deliver housing? Why is it that so many people oppose new housing in our country and so many councils oppose what developers come up with?
I think that there are two underlying reasons why people oppose so much new development. First, we build in the wrong places. Too much development is tacked on to the end of existing villages and towns, without the proper infrastructure—the new roads, parking spaces, GP surgeries and school places—that is necessary to support it. There is a terrible example of that in my own constituency on the Gartree Road, where the local Lib Dem-run council has decided to put in its own local plan a proposal for a large site on a road that is already congested, with the proposed houses being pushed right up against existing residents’ homes, when there is no need for that to be the case.
Secondly, there is no benefit or compensation for existing residents who are affected by new development. On Farndon Fields in my constituency, residents have to put up with construction traffic coming past their new homes, as well as dust and noise from the construction site, and there is no pay-off or compensation of any kind for them for putting up with all that.
How can we remedy these underlying reasons why so many of us oppose new development? The first thing we need to do is capture more of the benefits of development for the community. At the moment, only around a quarter of that huge uplift in value that we see when planning permission is granted is captured by the local community, with the overwhelming majority going to the lucky landowner and the developer. Other countries capture far more value from development for the community, which is then ploughed into decent landscaping, greater separation areas, more green space and better infrastructure for the community.
The second thing we need to do is give councils greater discretion over how they spend the revenues they get from the community infrastructure levy and section 106 agreements. Although we capture more value than we did 10 years ago, once we take out the amount that is spent on social and affordable housing, less money is actually being spent now in real terms than 10 years ago on landscaping, community infrastructure and all the things that benefit existing residents. Therefore, let us give councils more discretion over the way they spend those revenues.
Finally, let us make sure that councils have the powers—be it through compulsory purchase order, or through their ability to buy and control land—to do what local councils in other countries in Europe, the US and Asia already do: provide a lead role in assembling and preparing land for development. That is the norm in most of the rest of the world; the UK is unusual in not having that arrangement. That is why a UK council cannot control the speed with which a developer builds out.
In fact, in the UK the one thing that is not up for negotiation is the price paid to the landowner. Everything else can go hang. The amount of social contributions can be pushed down by the developer, and the speed of build-out can be extended over many, many years in order to keep the price up. The only thing that is fixed in our system is the price paid to the landowner. Let us turn the system around and have a more European-style approach to the matter.
As well as doing all those things, let us have a different approach to the way we go about development. In more rural or suburban areas, such as mine, I would love to see more development happening in stand-alone developments, so that we can provide infrastructure and a whole planned approach to a new community, rather than tacking things on and overloading all of our existing villages and towns. Let us build new communities where we will disturb fewer people.
On that point, I share my hon. Friend’s view that when there is the demand to build such huge numbers of homes, there should be a stand-alone community. However, the phrase “stand-alone” must mean stand-alone, and not a community that is dumped in a place, such as the Parlington estate in my constituency, which would have a massive effect on the villages around it? Development needs to be stand-alone.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we are lucky to have with us here today one of the Members for Milton Keynes, because Milton Keynes shows us what proper, planned development can do; it can create nice places that lots of people want to live in.
I would like to see more of the development in this country happening in our cities. Changes such as the development of the modern knowledge-based economy mean that our cities are both where support for new development is highest and where the demand for new development is highest. Let us try to build more in our cities. Let us help inner-city councils build more, by liberalising building up, by giving them devolved powers over public transport, and by giving them the powers to assemble land, in order to unlock fragmented brownfield sites, so that we can actually get more built in our cities. That is how we can have a new approach.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk is right to raise the issue of the five-year land supply. At the moment we have three tests on local councils: the requirement to have a local plan, the five-year land supply and the new delivery test that will be coming in over the coming year. Effectively, we have a belt and two braces. Of those three tests, the most opaque is the five-year land supply. It is extremely difficult for a council to know whether it has a five-year land supply, and it is extremely easy for developers to game that process and keep councils deliberately below the five-year land supply to stop them getting control over development in their area. It is the weakest of the three existing tests.
I end by agreeing strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk. He said, “It is perfectly reasonable to expect our councils to have a local plan, but how can we impose these tests on them without giving them the tools to control developers, development and where things happen?” The heartbreaking thing in many constituencies is where a council wants to do good development and build a real new community with proper infrastructure and a real heart, or the community has worked for two years to come up with a neighbourhood plan that works for the specific circumstances in that area, and developers come along, game the system and cut off at the knees our local elected representatives and the people who have worked hard to build neighbourhood plans. That is the killer in those situations. There is nothing more corrosive for public support for our current planning system than when we see councils wanting to be brave and do good new development having their good plans cut off at the knees by developers gaming the system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. It is also a pleasure to bring some gender balance to this debate. I counted 15 men and one woman when we started. I do not know what it is about planning that attracts men more than women, but we need to consider that, because this is such an important subject and it is vital for our communities. Why are there not more people here today?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for bringing this debate to the Chamber and for giving us early sight of what he was going to say in The Times “Red Box” this morning, which was very helpful. The debate comes at an important moment for local planning policy, as we look towards the Government’s new revised NPPF. Sadly, there is not much time to debate that in much detail. We all agree on the problem, which is that we need to build more homes and that the current systems are not working. Since 2010, home ownership has fallen to a 30-year low, rough sleeping has doubled and the number of new homes being built has still not recovered to pre-recession levels. We know that it is not just politicians who want to build more homes, because public opinion has shifted in recent years. The public now do not just support more homes; they support more homes in their local area and more council and affordable housing in their local area. We have the public’s support when it comes to building.
We know that the planning system is not currently working. Members have already mentioned the lack of trust in the planning system, which is significant. I have it in my constituency. The number of homes that have not been built despite receiving planning permission soared last year, as has been said. Sites for hundreds of thousands of new properties are being left undeveloped. In February this year the Local Government Association published an analysis that showed that more than 400,000 homes were granted permission in 2017 but were still waiting to be built. That is a huge number and a rise of 16% since 2016. More than a quarter of authorities with a local plan cannot demonstrate an adequate five-year land supply, and 61 local authorities lost an appeal in the year to April 2018 due to not having a five-year land supply. Under the new NPPF, the conditions on authorities will become tighter. The five-year land supply requirement will be combined with the need for a local plan and a new housing delivery test.
In a recent analysis, Savills projected that 110 local authorities will fail on two or more of those required measures by 2019. Those local authorities account for 37% of national housing need and risk losing control of where and what housing development will take place in their areas. The hon. Gentleman raises a problem that we all accept, and the evidence bears out his argument. When vague national policy takes precedence over local priorities with this presumption in favour of sustainable development, it entrenches a bias in favour of speculative developers. That does not just cause an issue for communities that are sidelined in the planning process; it threatens to sideline any significant affordable housing in those areas, too. We see more slow build-out from developers and an inability for councils to influence that—councils have no levers to pull.
We agree on the problems, but we perhaps disagree on some of the solutions. We want more homes to be built—particularly affordable homes—but measuring councils on build-out rates rather than permissions will not necessarily help. As hon. Members said, if developers are gaming the system, do we not have to change the system? Should we not instead focus on giving councils the mechanisms to ensure that homes are built once planning permission is given, and to guarantee that affordable homes are part of that equation, which is a particular issue for the Opposition? That is one of the big problems with the proposed NPPF.
It is vital that, once local need for affordable housing has been properly assessed, mechanisms are in place to ensure that it is delivered. We would introduce a “use it or lose it” policy for permissioned but unbuilt sites and a new duty to deliver affordable homes, linked to a better measure of local need for affordable housing. We would establish an English sovereign land trust to work with local authorities to enable more proactive buying of land at a price closer to existing use value. As part of that, we would consider changing the rules governing the compensation paid to landowners.
We would introduce a presumption that there is no development without affordable housing, and a Labour Government would lift council housing borrowing caps to their prudential limits to kick-start the highest level of council house building in 30 years. Finally, we would remove the viability loophole that allows developers to dodge affordable housing obligations, and we would consider a range of wider reforms to overhaul the system.
I could say so much about quality, infrastructure, design and need, but we do not have time, so I conclude by saying that it is clear that we in this place and the wider population agree that we need more homes. I urge the Government, after eight years at the helm, to consider creating the climate and the local levers for that to happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Christopher, for the first time in this hot seat. It is also a great pleasure to have listened to some fantastic contributions from colleagues from across the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). Everyone who has contributed to the debate has been an outstanding champion for their local area. It was heartening to hear so many passionate speeches from right hon. and hon. Members. Before I respond to some of the points made, I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing work to raise such important issues. He has great knowledge of the area and has spent many years of his professional life in the sector. I also read his well-informed “Red Box” piece in The Times today.
Many years before I was elected—before I had even considered going into politics—I asked the Member of Parliament for Selby at the time, the late Michael Alison, “What takes up most of your time?” He told me about the various issues, and I asked, “What about planning?” He said, “Planning is simple—I ignore it, don’t get involved in it and leave it to the council. That’s the way forward.” Times have changed a bit, because I think we can all agree that planning takes up an enormous amount of our time in this day and age.
I should point out that the Secretary of State, as Members know, has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system. I am sure everyone understands that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of individual decisions or plans, but I can talk about the issues that have been raised more broadly. I will set out our national policy aims and then speak more generally about the technical points of each case. I just need a steer on when I am meant to be finished by, following the 25-minute suspension.
Eight minutes past.
I have about nine minutes left—that is about right. My thanks go to a great Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Issues with the current five-year land supply model and slow build-out were a key feature of the housing White Paper. The Government are seeking to address that through a package of reforms to the planning system, including revising the national planning policy framework, which will be published this summer. The review of the NPPF is fundamental to delivering the 300,000 homes a year we need, and sets out a comprehensive approach to ensure that we get the right homes, built in the right places and to the right quality.
The revised framework implements around 80 reforms that were announced last year, and retains the emphasis on development that is both sustainable and locally led. Those changes include clearer expectations of local authorities and developers to deliver their commitment to unlock land, fulfil planning permissions, provide essential infrastructure, and ensure that homes are built to meet the diverse needs and expectations of communities. The measures include a standardised way of assessing local housing need; reforming the plan-making system to ensure that every part of the country produces, maintains and implements an up-to-date plan; and an opportunity for local authorities to have their five-year housing land supply agreed on an annual basis. The last two points are particularly relevant to today’s important debate.
It is important that local authorities plan effectively for the new housing required in their areas. Ultimately, new homes need to be provided through up-to-date local plans, produced in consultation with local people. Up-to-date plans, produced in consultation with communities, are a vital element of the planning system. They are the starting point for planning decisions by planning authorities and inspectors. I welcome the progress that Babergh District Council, working with Mid Suffolk District Council, has made with their local plan preparations. I understand that the local authorities are aiming to submit them for examination by the Planning Inspectorate in spring next year.
It is important that adequate land is available to build the homes we need. Local authorities play their part by producing up-to-date local plans and identifying a five-year supply of housing sites. That provides clarity to local communities and developers about where homes should be built so that development is planned rather than the result of speculative applications. Every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber will have had experience of that. I have great sympathy with communities that feel that they have no control over planning, and nobody wants to see companies overtly gaming the system. However, we need more homes, and that is why communities should consider a neighbourhood plan—championed by many right hon. and hon. Members here today—to give them more control over the issue.
Demonstrating a deliverable pipeline of housing sites has been a long-standing Government policy. Since the existing NPPF was introduced in 2012, local planning authorities have been asked to identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites, and to demonstrate a five-year land supply. Where the local authority cannot demonstrate that, the lack of supply means that plan policies are not considered to be up-to-date, and applications are assessed against the presumption in favour of sustainable development.
However, the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not, and should not, mean development at all costs. Any adverse impacts of the development will still need to be taken into account. The housing White Paper acknowledged that the current policy has been effective in bringing forward more permissions but has had some negative effects, as we have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk. In response, we have proposed reforms to how land supply is calculated. The draft revised NPPF includes proposals to allow local authorities to agree their five-year housing land supply position on an annual basis and to fix it for a one-year period. The Department believes that taking up that opportunity should reduce the number and complexity of appeals, and provide greater certainty to all parties.
The Minister is making a fantastic speech. I am glad he has reached that point about appeals, because it seems to me very welcome that once someone has the five-year land supply and it has been signed off, they then have 12 months of security. At the moment, as soon as a council says, “We’ve got the five-year land supply,” there can be an immediate appeal by a developer and the certainty goes away. The issue therefore arises with councils that do not yet have the five-year land supply and do not have that security, but are giving many permissions. Can there be greater flexibility on that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) suggested?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. We are hopeful that that will go a long way to eradicating some of the issues that he and right hon. and hon. Members have experienced. The idea is that it can be fixed at a one-year period. We will also see what other reforms are proposed as part of the review that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is planning.
It is worth mentioning that in return for being allowed to agree their five-year housing land supply position on an annual basis and to fix it for a one-year period, local authorities will need to be more realistic in planning to meet housing needs. The draft NPPF includes further clarity on how to calculate five-year land supply, and we intend to provide further guidance to support local authorities in their role.
I know my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has concerns about the time that it takes to build homes after sites are identified and permission is granted. The Government want homes to be built faster, and expect house builders to deliver more homes, more quickly and to a high standard. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, it is important to recognise that after planning permission for new homes is granted, a variety of factors can prevent development from starting and can slow down delivery.
Last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset was commissioned to examine what can be done to speed up building on major sites. The review has been looking into the build-out of sites that have been granted planning permission. The aim is to close the significant gap between housing completions and the amount of land permissioned for new homes. The initial analysis, which was published last month, has presented some interesting findings on the delays in building out large sites and what helps to speed up build-out rates. I look forward to reading the final report, which is due in the autumn.
Coming on to the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk talked about local communities not having a say on speculative development. Applications for speculative development are still subject to local consultation, as are all planning applications. He also mentioned, as others did, that existing permissions are not being taken into account. The draft NPPF encourages the use of shorter timescales for starting development before the permission will expire, to encourage developers to build the permitted homes more quickly.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), who is flying the flag brilliantly for Her Majesty’s Opposition, talked about viability assessments. We recognise those concerns and, again, the draft NPPF includes new policies on viability assessments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) talked about burning effigies at the start of his speech; that was slightly worrying, as I live in York, where Guy Fawkes was from. I hope my right hon. Friend takes that into account. Neighbourhood planning protection was included in the draft NPPF. We consulted on the draft wording, and I thank him for his continued work and suggestions in this area. We are considering those responses and will publish the final NPPF in the summer.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who I cannot see in his place, talked about what we are doing to encourage small developers. We need to support small and medium house builders and bring forward a greater variety of sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who does a fantastic job as the champion of neighbourhood plans, said that the Government do not know how many authorities have a five-year land supply. Guidance is being produced to advise local planning authorities on how to publish their supply figure, so it will be publicly accessible.
I thank and pay tribute to Councillors Lamb and Stephenson, the hard-working councillors of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), who continue to fight for their local communities but appear to be being ignored by their local council, Leeds City Council. I hope that Leeds will have heard today’s debate and my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) talked about the reporting of a five-year land supply. Alongside the—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).