Tuesday 6 November 2018
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Synthetic Cannabinoids: Reclassification
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reclassification of synthetic cannabinoids.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Howarth. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue in a debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to do so.
I am continuing my campaign for reclassification of synthetic cannabinoids, known as synthetic cannabis, Mamba or Spice. These drugs are becoming a serious national problem. I want to raise the profile of this issue to make people aware of the devastating impact of the drugs in my constituency of Mansfield and across the entire UK. It is time to take proper action on the drugs and get Mamba and Spice off our streets.
Contrary to the assumption of some in Parliament, I do not believe that reclassification is a silver bullet or a quick-fix answer. In my recent correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who is responsible for public health and primary care, he stated that
“synthetic cannabinoid use is often part of a complex set of health and social issues; there is no single solution, and short-term approaches can just displace the problem”.
I share that sentiment. We clearly need an holistic approach to deal with these drugs. However, reclassification, although not the only solution, is a step in the right direction to give our police and local services the powers that they need to deal effectively with users and dealers. The current class B classification is limiting the action that local services and the police can take, which is further damaging some of our most deprived areas, where resources are already stretched.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I disagree. My local police are adamant that on the street, in the town centre, they have more powers to deal with things such as heroin use than they do to deal with these drugs, and obviously the sentencing powers available through the judicial system are different. At the moment, when the police deal with things such as Mamba and Spice in Mansfield town centre, they do not work on the basis of drugs offences, but use antisocial behaviour and criminal behaviour orders, because they do not have the opportunity, through drugs legislation, to record what we are discussing today as offences.
I would like to reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does not the fact that so many police and crime commissioners are writing to us, calling on us to make the very changes that he suggests, reinforce the point that the police will attach a greater priority to these drugs if they are reclassified as class A drugs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: he is absolutely right. In the wake of an Adjournment debate that I held in July, 20 police and crime commissioners wrote to this Minister about the issue, stressing exactly what I am saying this morning: unless these drugs are taken seriously and prioritised by police forces in the way class A drugs are, the police will continue to struggle to deal with them at local level.
The point of reclassification is not to criminalise vulnerable users, but to prevent those users from being exploited by drug dealers and to get them the help that they need. The health Green Paper, announced only yesterday in an initial policy paper entitled “Prevention is better than cure”, is a welcome development. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, focusing on the responsibilities of patients is not about penalising people, but about helping them to make better choices.
Before my hon. Friend gets too much into the issue of patients, may I bring him back to the issue of policing? My local police have been doing a phenomenal bit of work cracking down on drug activity, and they made a number of arrests last week. They are concerned that there is not strong enough sentencing for the drug barons at the top, who too often are let off, basically scot-free. Does my hon. Friend agree that reclassification should be coupled with stronger sentencing for those peddling these drugs?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention: she is right. The challenge in many cases is that there do not seem to be significant repercussions for dealing in and manufacturing these products. Later I will touch on local examples of people who have gone round and round the judicial system, with a weak sentence for this and eight weeks for that. Not only are the drugs often more available in prison than they are on the streets, but there is no long-term repercussion for continuing to flout the laws, and people just go round and round the system.
I visited my local prison last Friday. It, too, is doing great work dealing with the drugs there, but the prison governor asked for stronger sentences for the people who commit crimes, especially violent crimes, in prison and said that those should be additional, not concurrent, sentences. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I think that that is a fair point, so I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I for one would like to see drug dealers and manufacturers removed from our streets for as long as possible, so I absolutely concur.
As part of my constituency work, I have focused heavily in the last year or so on homelessness in Mansfield and Warsop. To return to the health funding aspect, I think that we can use this week’s announcement by the Health Secretary and the funding that will be available for our NHS in the coming years to explore ways in which we can put in place community and primary care services for homeless and other vulnerable people and, for these drugs, preventive services. The preventive aspect is exactly what is needed from that funding and what could make a big impact. As I said at the outset, reclassification is not a silver bullet—it is not the only answer. It comes with a need for preventive services in our communities. They are two sides of the same coin when it comes to delivering for my constituents on this issue.
Mansfield District Council and the local police have done everything they can under the current framework to help users, and I commend them for their hard work and dedication. Alongside a local charity called Framework, the council and the police have launched a joint operation to tackle antisocial behaviour relating to the use of Mamba. In the town centre alone, one sergeant, six constables and six police community support officers are working closely with the council’s neighbourhood wardens and antisocial behaviour officers to deal with the problem; that is in addition to CCTV. That demonstrates the enormity of the issue. There are more police officers working in the town centre than perhaps ever before, but the police are still being stretched by this problem. Some kind of drug-related episode, whether it is someone passing out or causing another kind of issue for residents, is still a daily occurrence.
We should not automatically assume that all homeless people are taking these drugs. Of course they are not, but because of the incredibly low cost, there is a high correlation. To some extent, this has become the drug of choice. A dedicated taskforce is focusing on the root causes of homelessness by giving individuals the support that they need to end the cycle of dependency on drugs and alcohol and helping them to turn their lives around. Three outreach workers, who specialise in homelessness, mental health and substance misuse, are supporting the community in Mansfield and trying to build relationships with users, even when their help is rejected, as it often is.
Mansfield is learning from projects in other areas in order to work on its own best practice when dealing with this issue. More than 50 people shared their experience at a recent Mamba seminar, which will provide further guidance for the local authority. I have met people from the Nottingham Mamba clinic to explore new approaches, hear their experience and try to share their work in my constituency. Interestingly, even the drugs workers on the ground in the Nottingham Mamba clinic agree that reclassification would be an important aspect of managing the problem locally. A police inspector in my constituency, Nick Butler, says that the College of Policing has acknowledged that Mansfield is leading the way in dealing with Mamba users and tackling antisocial behaviour and rough sleeping. That is commendable.
We must accept that, in some cases, it gets to the point where enough is enough. Although we can offer individuals help until we are blue in the face, the fact is that people can refuse help or sometimes, for a variety of complex reasons, are not able to accept help. Instead, they end up in an endless cycle of reoffending. We have reached the point where existing powers to deal with repeat offenders no longer have an impact, and local police are calling for further support, as we saw in the example of the police and crime commissioners writing to Government.
Following my debate in July about the societal impact of these drugs, I asked the Government for two things. First, I asked for a national strategy to share best practice, seek medical intervention and support local areas in combating the issue and, secondly, I asked the Government to consider reclassifying these drugs from class B, comparable to cannabis, to class A, in line with heroin.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the debate. I hope that we all agree that the point about best practice should be endorsed, but does he agree that we need wider community buy-in, particularly across our urban communities as well as rural communities? Those communities have to buy in to the best practice process. They have to see evidence of outcomes, whether that involves the courts and police action or wider community resistance to this sort of activity.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: I agree. Ultimately, we all want to see tangible outcomes on the ground in our communities. We can make legislation here and change the classification, but that has to be bought into; it has to be delivered by local service providers and the police on the ground. My priority, the most important thing for me, is that my constituents in Mansfield town centre feel safer as a result. That is exactly what we are after. In the aftermath of that debate in July, 20 police and crime commissioners wrote to the Government in support of reclassification, which has received cross-party support and is backed by my local police leaders. Nottinghamshire County Council and other county councils have written to the Government on this issue.
Spice was originally sold as a legal high, and synthetic cannabinoids were developed as an alternative to cannabis, which leads to a common misconception that these drugs are not hard drugs. It is understandable that they would initially have been made class B drugs. However, the comparison of synthetic cannabinoids to cannabis is entirely inaccurate and their impacts are very different.
I cannot emphasise enough that reclassifying these drugs has no connection with cannabis or medical marijuana. In my view, there is a great deal of sense in the medicinal use of cannabis in some cases. I do not argue with that; indeed, in this debate I do not seek to suggest anything at all about cannabis, frankly. In fact, I want to make the point that the two—cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids—are not comparable and that these psychoactive drugs are not the same thing at all. We need to stop treating cannabis and synthetic cannabis as if they are the same thing, and we need to reclassify synthetic cannabis.
It does not make sense that, in accordance with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, synthetic cannabinoids are put in the same class as cannabis regarding relative harmfulness. The physical and psychological impacts of synthetic cannabis are more comparable to those of class A drugs, such as ketamine or heroin, yet that seriousness is not reflected in law. Seizures, heart attacks and chest pains are common physical problems, and synthetic cannabis users can experience frightening visions or hallucinations.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again, yet again he is making a really important point. I heard a tragic story when I visited my local prison recently. Three prisoners died after taking drugs. All three were also taking epilepsy drugs and there may be an issue there. With these synthetic drugs, we simply do not know what they do or how they interact with common medicines. Is that not another reason for treating this matter more seriously?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I absolutely agree. We have seen the impact of these drugs and not only on users; there have been cases of prison officers having to go home sick, having inhaled fumes exhaled by people taking these drugs. The impact is not only on users themselves but on the broader community, which—absolutely—is another reason why this matter needs to be taken more seriously.
It is not yet necessarily recognised in the literature on this subject, but there can be problems for users as bad as bleeding from the eyes and bleeding from orifices. Similarly, teeth falling out has been described by long-term users as a side effect of these drugs, and such things are not comparable with the outcomes and side effects of other class B drugs. It is ridiculous that these symptoms do not warrant a higher classification for these drugs.
Unlike natural cannabis, synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, or SCRAs, do not contain cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical that is sometimes sold in our high-street shops, and which appears to possess antipsychotic properties. The psychotic symptoms that occur relatively frequently following SCRA consumption might be linked to the high potency of the drugs and the absence of CBD. In many cases, however, we do not know what is actually in these drugs. That is partly why it is so difficult to have a clear national treatment plan for users; the drugs are manufactured locally and ingredients vary across different regions. Sometimes, the main ingredient is nail varnish remover, but at other times it is not, and the impact on health and symptoms can vary greatly.
Cases have been reported where users choose to take heroin instead of Mamba, as there is more treatment available for heroin. There is no substitute for Mamba in the way that methadone can be used to help heroin addicts to come off heroin. I have been told by service providers off the record that they would prefer to treat people who take heroin, as their understanding is greater and the pathways to support and help are clearer. The fact that drugs workers say, “Actually, I would rather you take this class A drug than a class B drug”, suggests that we have not got classification right.
I have been told anecdotally that these drugs are far more addictive than heroin or cocaine. An article in The Economist emphasised the difficulty faced by outreach workers as they try to help users. Although heroin addicts often have four or five hours of lucidity a day, Mamba is often chain-smoked continuously by users throughout the day. As Members can imagine, that makes having a coherent conversation with a Mamba user a nearly impossible task.
Last weekend, The Sunday Times contained a very interesting article by Rosamund Irwin, which included an account from a user about how much worse the outcomes of taking Spice are compared with those of taking any other drug. In the article, Karen from Blackpool said:
“I’ve been on heroin for over 30 years, I’ve tried every drug, and Spice is by far the most horrible. You can function on heroin, but on Spice I thought I was coming off the world.”
In the same article, Karina, who is from the Salvation Army, says that these drugs
“rob people of their personality, it’s very different to heroin in that you can still have a conversation with a heroin user, but when people are on Spice their body is there, but they are not.”
The impact of these drugs is immense and affects towns across the whole of the UK. Not only is the impact on individuals worse than that of many class A drugs, but the impact on others and on public safety is arguably the worst aspect of all.
I want to see heavier penalties for manufacturers and dealers; I want to see work being done to shut down supply chains for the ingredients used in these drugs; and I want to see that increased risk and difficulty make life harder for manufacturers. In the meantime, I want the police to act, in order to keep people safe on our streets.
I have spoken to the staff of many local services in Mansfield and Nottinghamshire who have seen at first hand the impact of these drugs on our town centres. It is clear that the low price of Mamba and Spice is a key problem. At the cost of as little as £5 for four or five hits, synthetic cannabis is one of the cheapest drugs on the market, but it is also one of the strongest. The effects of these drugs can leave users resembling zombies, slumped in a state of semi-consciousness, sometimes foaming at the mouth and sometimes passed out in the street.
It is uncomfortable enough seeing such things as an adult; it is devastating having to explain to your four-year-old child why there are people passed out on the ground in the market square in Mansfield town centre. That situation has clearly had a negative impact on town centres and local economies. It causes anxiety among shoppers and business owners, reduces footfall and discourages families from spending the day in the town centre.
These drugs have put an extra strain on ambulance services around the country. Figures from South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust showed that between August 2016 and July 2017 there were 157 calls related to synthetic cannabis. That jumped up to 960 calls in the following year. Most of the time, the users hop back up after 20 minutes or so; they are absolutely fine and do not need an ambulance, but that time and money has been wasted. This issue not only affects my constituents in Mansfield and Warsop; it impacts on constituencies around the UK and it is getting worse. The Government need to act now to stop things from worsening further.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. Having made those points about ambulance services, he might be interested to know that last year in Torquay some users of these drugs were getting two or even three ambulance visits a day because of the very situation that he is describing, namely that most users recover quickly after an incident. Again, that reinforces the fact that these are not class B drugs. They look like class A drugs, they work like class A drugs, and they should be class A drugs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I totally agree with him. I have seen examples of that kind myself. One of the prime spots for using these drugs in Mansfield town centre is next to a statue that is right outside my office. Indeed, one of my members of staff has been outside resuscitating people on a regular basis. The challenge is that not only is an ambulance sent, even though it may not actually be needed, but if that drug user is put into an ambulance and taken to accident and emergency, they often require more resource in A&E than the average punter. So the resource drain from the NHS as a result of this issue is absolutely huge; I agree with my hon. Friend in that regard.
I echo the sentiment of Nottinghamshire County Council that the illegal use of these drugs is a threat to public health and a matter of public concern. As 20 PCCs have outlined, these drugs are causing one of the most severe public health issues we have faced in decades. Quite frankly, enough is enough for me. I want my constituents in Mansfield and Warsop to feel safe, and I want the police and local council to have the powers to ensure that users are dealt with effectively. The localised manufacturing methods of these drugs vary, due to the range of different ingredients that dealers use. This variability means that the drugs vary in strength and quality, and the effects of consuming one hit of Mamba can vary hugely from week to week, from dealer to dealer, and from town to town.
Symptoms are unpredictable, and as a result medical intervention can be challenging. I have contacted NHS England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and it is clear that no organisation has yet taken responsibility for providing best practice in dealing with this issue. I do not believe that each clinical commissioning group should individually have to come up with its own guidance. The Government need to be proactive, and they must work on a national strategy to tackle a growing national problem.
These drugs are not only cheap, they are also accessible. I have literally seen bags of Mamba lying in the street outside my office. It is not expensive to replace, and the current laws and penalties for selling Mamba and Spice mean that there is not a real deterrent for dealers. If I can walk down the high street and pick up a bag of it—literally pick it up for free in the street—then it is clear that people do not fear the repercussions of being caught with these drugs.
The raw ingredients to make these drugs can be found freely available online and ordered, and then concocted as Mamba and Spice here in the UK. A recent investigation by The Sunday Times proved how easy it is for UK drugs gangs to import dangerous chemicals from China to cook up these drugs in their local areas. An undercover reporter was able to import industrial-grade chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid, to make Mamba in just 14 days. This method means that gangs are making much bigger profits; £50 of ingredients can make 2 lb of spice, which is worth nearly £10,000.
There need to be stronger judicial consequences, particularly for manufacturing and dealing in these drugs; currently, the profit outweighs the risk. It is only by putting the fear of God into manufacturers and cutting off supply lines that we can hope to make a tangible impact on the ground. Tougher penalties for dealers and manufacturers would lead to increased prices for users, and more powers for the police to protect local residents.
A recent conversation I had with a local police inspector highlighted the enormity of the task of dealing with Mamba users while the police have very restricted powers. Since April this year, one particular Mamba user in Mansfield has been arrested 12 times and sent to prison twice. While in prison, this repeat offender did not receive any education or rehabilitation, which was a huge missed opportunity in itself and led to an immediate breach of his criminal behaviour order when he entered Mansfield town centre on his release. I was informed only last week that he had been arrested within 24 hours of being released, after serving a 16-week sentence, and has consequently received another eight weeks. There are countless such examples around the country of people going round and round the system with very lenient consequences for their actions, and of their not getting the support they need and not fearing the repercussions—rearrest and reconviction.
Following the advice of my right hon. Friend the Minister, I wrote a cross-party letter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I am pleased that the council will consider the classification of psychoactive drugs in a review that is due to begin shortly. More imminently, the Home Office is due to review the operation of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 this month in accordance with section 58 of the Act, which commits it to doing so within 30 months of implementation. I look forward to the Government’s response.
This severe problem does not only affect my constituents in Mansfield and Warsop; it has far-reaching consequences for all areas of society around the country. I praise our local services. They do their best with the available resources to deal with the growing epidemic, but it gets to a point at which there must be national recognition of the problem and a plan to reduce the burden on them. I am calling on the Government to reclassify synthetic cannabinoids, so that local authorities have more power to take action that will get users the help they need and keep them out of the judicial system, and that will mean heavier penalties for dealers and increased risk for manufacturers. Most importantly, from the perspective of the bulk of the public, it will keep people safe, so that they do not feel scared or intimidated when going about their business in our towns and cities. We need to meet a severe problem with severe consequences.
Reclassification would also show a clear distinction between synthetic cannabinoids and cannabis. As I have demonstrated numerous times during my speech, the physical and physiological impact of these drugs requires a class A classification.
I understand absolutely that users need support and that preventing addiction is the desirable course of action, and I welcome the news that the Health Secretary is looking into NHS funding for preventive services. I raise that side of the coin regularly too, particularly with the Department of Health and Social Care; I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on numerous occasions. Reclassification is not the silver bullet. It is far too simplistic to believe that all users will want to accept help and wrong to think that we should not act when users make life hell for innocent people and town centre businesses. My first instinct is to protect my constituents.
I want Mansfield town centre to be a lively, upbeat place again, somewhere people look forward to visiting and to which they will return time and again. Mansfield is full of fantastic local shops and businesses that already face difficulties of their own. I am keen to help regenerate the town centre, and I know that the Government are working to support that—we can see it in many of the Budget measures from last week—but small retail businesses receiving a cut to their business rates will not attract people to town centres if people feel they are a hostile environment into which they do not want to bring their children. It is not right to let a small minority of people have such a huge impact on entire towns and the lives of thousands by turning our town centres into places where people fear to go. We cannot continue to let our children see this behaviour and think it is normal.
The issue peaked locally, in Mansfield and Warsop, back in July, at which time I was receiving multiple messages every day from constituents complaining about their experience with users in the town centre. The problem has worsened over a short time, and I do not think we have the ability to wait any longer. If dealers and manufacturers do not face harsh repercussions, what state will our town be in this time next year, or in five years’ time?
The issue cannot be ignored until it goes away. I urge the Government to consider it closely, to work with the advisory council and to reclassify these drugs so that we can regain control of our town centres.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this vital debate on an urgent issue for my constituents. I am immensely grateful to those I work with locally who are on the frontline, supporting users and the communities in which they live. Organisations such as Saltbox, Brighter Futures, Voices and Number 11 work tirelessly to deal with the consequences of the new substances. They are on the frontline with our brave public servants—the police, paramedics and A&E professionals—who deal with the consequences day in, day out. The huge spike in the use of synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice and Black Mamba and synthetic psychoactive substances such as Monkey Dust is causing immeasurable harm to my communities and drawing new battle lines in the war on drugs.
I am very proud to represent the people of Stoke-on-Trent. My city truly is a wonderful place to live, and I have a duty to protect it and to fight for my constituents. For too long our city has been at the epicentre of this growing crisis. Synthetic drugs such as Monkey Dust and Black Mamba are too easily available on our streets and can be found for as little as £2 or £3 a hit. The drugs are cheap, powerful and dangerous, and are wreaking havoc on our communities.
On 4 September, it was reported that Staffordshire police had responded to no fewer than 950 Monkey Dust-related incidents in the previous three months alone—an average of 10 calls a day—and the situation is only getting worse. We are in the grip of an epidemic that has devastating consequences, not just for users but for the wider public. Every week I am confronted by a new horror story from one of my constituents, of threatening and intimidating behaviour, of drug users passed out in alleyways and parks, and of growing violence between rival dealers and gangs. My constituents too often have to tell me about the obstacle course of rubbish and drug paraphernalia they have to traverse on their way to work, and about the fear that prevents them from letting their children leave the house alone. One person wrote to me last week describing their street as something out of a zombie film, and another stopped me while I was out canvassing to tell me that drug users were walking up and down their street at night trying peoples’ door handles in an attempt to get into their homes.
The most harrowing story I have heard concerns a young woman who had a drug user jump into her car outside her house and refuse to get out. My constituent’s four-year old daughter who was in the car was forced to leap out in terror and she is now terrified. The same individual later forced entry into someone else’s house on that street and assaulted them. That is what we are dealing with. That is what my constituents—decent, hard-working people—are forced to endure, and it cannot be allowed to continue.
Our police do incredible work in tackling the problem, but they are stretched to their limit, and with Staffordshire police set to lose a further £6.6 million of funding, our local thin blue line is set to get even thinner. However, this is not just an enforcement issue. The people whose lives are being ruined by the drugs need support, whether treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, mental health support or, as in many cases, support to tackle the homelessness and rough sleeping that all too often leads to people turning to drugs and alcohol as a comfort and an escape—they are clearly self-medicating. All too often, that assistance simply is not there. Deep cuts to drug treatment and recovery support have made it much harder for people to seek help, and have left the police and social services with nowhere to refer users to for treatment.
Worse still, the low classification of these synthetic drugs means that they are frequently designated a low priority. What little support remains is instead directed towards those struggling with opiates and other hard drugs. In Stoke-on-Trent, local support charities have told me that they are supporting people who have started using heroin so that they will be eligible for the rehab support they have been denied when trying to get off Monkey Dust. Such is the desperation of those seeking to get clean that they are resorting to even more dangerous and destructive substances to access the help they need.
Even the provision we have in my great city is under threat. This year, Stoke-on-Trent City Council decided to cut drug and alcohol services by £751,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and I recently wrote to Ann James, the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, urging her to reconsider the cuts and to recognise the need to focus our energies on the new synthetic substances. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, and she should be ashamed.
More than anything, we need the Government to recognise the scale of the problem and to provide the resources we need before the potential of a generation disappears in a puff of smoke. I hope the Minister comes away from the debate with a clearer understanding of the urgency of the situation in towns and cities across the UK.
It is a pleasure to follow my colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth).
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to further my own efforts to counter the blight of drugs in Stoke-on-Trent South. Indeed, I recently met the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, to discuss the scourge of gangs, particularly those who are pushing and are profiteering from the misery caused by Spice. I also discussed the significant escalation of another synthetic drug in Stoke-on-Trent, Monkey Dust, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred. I am grateful to Home Office Ministers for their work to address the growing challenges we face.
Stoke-on-Trent has been hit with an unenviable reputation as a centre for Monkey Dust abuse. The human cost of this awful drug and the gangs pushing it is a problem for the city. Shockingly, it is reported that it is possible to purchase Monkey Dust for as little as £2 in Stoke-on-Trent, which is even cheaper than the drugs to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield referred. Even more worryingly, it has a highly hallucinogenic reaction, with cases of people jumping off buildings. In grotesque fashion, these miserable substances are also known as “super spice”, “herbal smoking” and “designer drugs”.
We must tackle the legacy of synthetic drugs, especially cannabinoids. The reactions to these drugs are often unknown, as has been discussed. People have died straight away from taking them. The consequences of the illicit drugs trade hit residents, who live in fear of gang violence, and add to the terrible challenges faced by those already struggling with the vulnerability of homelessness. The communities of Meir and Fenton in my constituency are now witnessing some of the highest levels of antisocial behaviour in the whole of Staffordshire. That is totally unacceptable, and my constituents should not have to put up with being terrorised by those committing offences.
Unfortunately, these dreadful drugs are often a corruption of research into alternatives to more traditional drugs such as cannabis. That research began in response to the legal ban on using cannabis for medicinal purposes. That ban on natural cannabinoids prescribed for medical purposes is rightly being lifted by the Home Secretary. I agree entirely with our police and crime commissioner, Matthew Ellis, that Monkey Dust—or plain Dust, as it is known in Stoke-on-Trent—and other synthetic cannabinoids used for what is laughably called leisure use must be reclassified as class A at the earliest opportunity.
Of course, reclassifying Dust will not in itself solve the problems of gangs—pushers will still promote gang activities and push drugs in our communities—but those who push Dust, which is a brutally dehumanising drug, should be held to greater account for their actions and face greater deterrent sentencing. That is especially important considering the drug’s exceptionally low street value, which fuels increased availability to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
That reclassification needs to be part of a wider push that includes much more action on preventive work to reduce the root causes of drug abuse and addiction. That should involve the police, local authorities, health services, schools and third-sector organisations working together to address the wider issues in our communities. In addition, there needs to be a wider conversation about how we divert young people from gang culture in the first place and protect the vulnerable, who are targeted by drugs pushers, from being criminally exploited.
We need to bring greater purpose to people’s lives and help them to take advantage of the opportunities opening up from our growing economy and record low unemployment. I am continuing to work on that with local partners in Stoke-on-Trent. I was out with Staffordshire police, housing officers from the local council and Stop Loan Sharks only last Friday in the East Fenton area. I was pleased to meet a number of local partners at Ormiston Meridian Academy in Meir recently to see what more can be done to improve things and provide facilities in the community as a distraction to antisocial behaviour, gangs and drugs.
We need to look closely at why people in employment, and even those in fulfilling employment, are attracted to drug abuse—it is not only those in the most disadvantaged communities. Sadly, class A drugs are part of designer lifestyles and have been for many years. Unfortunately, synthetic cannabinoids are just a new manifestation of an old evil. I will finish by mentioning that, should the Minister ever have time in his diary to visit Stoke-on-Trent, Commissioner Matthew Ellis and I would welcome the opportunity to show him some of the issues on the ground.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this important debate, and I rise to speak in support of the case he made. His constituency is not that far from mine and not that different from mine. Many people see Mansfield as a slightly less good Chesterfield, but suffice it to say they share many similarities. In Chesterfield, we have experienced many of the issues he will have experienced in his town centre.
One reason why the issue is felt so passionately is the scope of its impact, not only on the users, but on people right across the community. These drugs have a huge impact on those who become users. Being able to get hold of them is the only purpose in their lives at times. These people are victims and vulnerable people, but their actions impact on a huge number of other people. Many people are frightened to go into the centre of our towns because of the impact of Mamba and Spice users and the alarming state that people get themselves into on these drugs.
At times over the past couple of years, we have seen the homeless community coming together in Chesterfield. The availability of such a cheap and powerful drug is a big part of the attraction. That has a big impact on not only the town centre, but our businesses and on retailers. Retailers trying to run their businesses in tough times have contacted me, saying they have people under the spell of these drugs in contorted positions in their shop doorways. It is impossible for them to conduct their business. The issue has a big effect on shoppers and tourists.
I pay tribute to the work of Hardyal Dhindsa, our excellent police and crime commissioner for Derbyshire. Along with the force, he has put a huge amount of effort into trying to clamp down on these drugs. He introduced Operation Chesnee, which led to 70 arrests and a spate of convictions. At least 40 people have now been charged, and convictions are ongoing. Derbyshire police have put significant resource into cracking down on Spice and Mamba, but while they are class B drugs, there is a limit to the resources they can put in and the returns they can get. There is also the impact on the ambulance service. We have seen a sixfold increase in the past year in the number of ambulance call-outs to people who are on synthetic cannabinoids.
At the all-party parliamentary group meeting that the hon. Member for Mansfield held, people were worried that a reclassification would end up criminalising users. My sense is that we have widespread agreement that we want to try to reduce the incentive for dealers. It is not about going after those who are victims or vulnerable. Because of the availability of these drugs in prison, prison is no disincentive. I am very much of the view that it is not about criminalising users; it is all about reducing the incentive for dealers.
If we increase the classification and sentences rise, police tell me that they will no longer be getting people low down the supply chain. Currently, they are willing to take the rap because sentences are relatively short and they and their families will be looked after while they are in prison. Instead, those sentences will go higher up the drug chain to the people at the top, where they really belong. It is up to us as legislators to ensure that our directions for the courts achieve that aim. People may say that changing the classification will criminalise the victims, but it is up to us, when we get into the legislative process following the instruction this debate will give to the Home Secretary, to ensure that the directions to the courts are sufficiently robust for them to understand what we are talking about.
The hon. Member for Mansfield referred to antisocial behaviour, but that phrase understates the scale of the issue and its impact. “Antisocial behaviour” makes me think of children riding around on bikes in their local communities being noisy and knocking on people’s doors. The terror that is caused in our communities by behaviour that does not actually hurt people, but certainly frightens them, is much stronger than the phrase “antisocial behaviour” implies.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) talked about the impact on prisons. I recently visited Nottingham prison, which is one of 10 that gets specific direction from the Government on improving standards and reducing suicides. The impact that Spice and Mamba synthetic cannabinoids have on the running of the prison is incredible. People get themselves sent into prison deliberately to bring drugs in. Huge and complicated initiatives are put in place to get drugs into the prison. The prison governor is entirely realistic about the impact that that has and the inability of our Prison Service to address it. When drugs are so rife in prisons, it is absolutely impossible to do any kind of rehabilitation work. The prison governor told me about a video of one of his inmates who was on Spice. He talked to him and showed him what he was like and the guy simply said, “When I’m away on Spice I just don’t care about anything else in the world.” The drug has a substantial impact on our prisons.
The hon. Member for Mansfield was at pains to point out that reclassification is only one part of the solution. None of us has claimed that it will solve the issue. It is a social ill that afflicts us, but the chief cost of it and the comparatively low sentencing are important issues for us to tackle. Alongside that, where do we want to take the debate further? We need further resourcing for policing. If we are going to reclassify Spice ask them to and try to solve the problem, we will need to make sure there is additional resource for policing. We need a real attack—it has been inadequate so far—on homelessness. We need to recognise the link between welfare policy and many social ills. We need to ensure that drug prevention services are sufficiently robust and that we have proper support in our health system for people who want to come off drugs. We need to ensure we have targeted policing and sympathetic sentencing. We all recognise that reclassification is only one part of a much broader solution. Just because that does not solve everything does not mean that we should not try to do something. That is why I support the case made by the hon. Member for Mansfield today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this morning’s debate.
In recent years, Spice has been a growing problem in my constituency, particularly around the town centres, which, as we have heard this morning, is common across the country. The health and wellbeing impact on those taking such substances is a major concern, and there is a wider concern for their families and those in the community who witness the effect on individuals and the social impact on our towns and villages, with many users being in a zombie-like state. Seeing individuals in that state is unnerving and sometimes frightening for members of the public, and some have told me that they feel uneasy walking through our town centres. Again, other Members have highlighted similar experiences this morning. Clearly, the situation has to be tackled.
Residents have raised the matter with me in both Merthyr Tydfil and in Rhymney. I have discussed its impact with both South Wales and Gwent police, who each cover a part of my constituency. It is clear that Spice, like most drugs, destroys lives and has a major and negative impact on our communities. As we know, “Spice” is the common name for what we are discussing this morning: synthetically produced substances, commonly known as synthetic cannabinoids as they were originally thought to mimic the effects of cannabis. However, recent studies on how those substances react with the brain show that they bind to a combination of receptors, making their effects much more unpredictable and dangerous.
I am concerned about how easy it appears to be for individuals to obtain such substances and about the fact that they are seen as a stepping stone to other, harder substances. Although Spice is a class B drug, users describe it as “green crack”. Merthyr Tydfil has seen an increase in acquisitive crime, particularly shoplifting, to fund Spice habits. In my constituency, both police forces are doing their best to tackle this growing problem. Over the summer, South Wales police worked proactively in and around Merthyr Tydfil town centre with a range of partner agencies, which had positive results with a marked reduction in cases. I will share some thoughts on what has been done locally.
A multi-agency approach to dealing with Spice has been developed, predominantly for Merthyr Tydfil town centre. The approach attempts to break the cycle of possession and offending, with education, health, housing and drug and alcohol referral agencies participating in the pilot. The strategy has been twofold: first, support for users and prevention; secondly, disruption and detection of suppliers. The work has involved partner agencies such as Drugaid, Dyfodol, housing associations and various departments in the local authority basing themselves in the centre of Merthyr Tydfil. Users found in possession were taken to the services available to them to meet their acute needs as an alternative to prosecution. It proved extremely effective in identifying a number of individuals who were experiencing differing levels of vulnerability. It was coupled with robust action taken when dealers were identified.
I want to thank and congratulate both South Wales and Gwent police and the other agencies on their work on the pilot scheme. However, clearly, as we all know, police resources are tight. With police numbers much lower than they were just a few years ago, the police’s ability to continually mount such operations is limited. In addition, there are financial pressures on local authorities and other public agencies, meaning that they are less able to react and deal with the issues effectively. More therefore needs to be done to support the police and communities in my constituency and across the country to tackle the problem.
A review of the drugs policy would be a good start to finding a way forward to tackle the growing impact of drugs. I hope that today’s debate will allow the Government to consider what more can be done. I ask the Minister specifically to consider what action he can take to assist the police, other agencies and the wider community to help tackle this growing problem. We need the Government to be on top of their game in dealing with a problem that blights my community and many others across the country.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this debate on a subject very close to our hearts. Many others who would love to be here also support the aims of the hon. Gentleman and other speakers. I will talk about a specific case that the Minister is aware of. It is a success story in that Government policy has helped very much.
Members will know that I am a most sincere advocate for my young constituent, Sophia Gibson, who was prescribed medicinal cannabis. I watched the struggle of my constituents as they fought with every breath to legally get the help that their child needed, and today young Sophia is a different child. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister for his endeavours to make sure that that happened. He had the opportunity to meet Sophia Gibson, my parliamentary aide and me to talk about this matter. I know that he industriously, personally and sincerely pushed the matter for Sophia and I thank him for that. I also thank the Government for their help to make that happen. Without that help and intervention, we would not have the Sophia we have today. Like me and everyone who helped, the Minister has a photograph of that young girl who has now come on greatly.
Sophia needed medicinal cannabis to have any semblance of a life. Her courageous mummy and daddy refused to stop pushing, and refused to give in and accept drugs that had horrific side effects and did not address the severe medical issues that their daughter had. I cannot speak highly enough of Danielle and Darren, the mum and dad who put it all out there to get their daughter the help that she so desperately needed. They did it in the right way. They followed the legal procedure and paved the way for others who need an opportunity to get that help. The path is still not smooth, and the Government are honing the procedure, but because of Alfie Dingley’s mother Hannah and because of the Gibsons, it is now a possibility.
I recently saw a picture of Sophia dressed as Princess Anna for her school Hallowe’en party. That might not be noteworthy for everyone, but it was noteworthy for Sophia’s family because it was the first party that she had been able to attend at school. That says it all about what medicinal cannabis has done for that young girl and for her mum and dad.
A post on the social media page Help for Sophia’s Seizures, which updates people on Sophia’s progress, encapsulates why I stood with Danielle and Darren in their battle for help for their child, as the Minister and many in the community did. It reads:
“Nearly 14 weeks on from when Sophia was prescribed medicinal cannabis with THC on the NHS and she has NOT been hospitalised from 10th July, seizure length and frequency are reducing and Sophia is so much brighter, has a lot more energy and her ‘wee rascal’ personality is shining through. Sophia recently had a cold that lasted 5 weeks and any other year day 2 of a cold and she was hospitalised with back to back seizures but this year it has been so much different and at last for the better. Our little princess is getting bigger, stronger and better each day and we hope this continues looking into the future. This was never to cure Sophia as her syndrome is genetic but about Sophia having a better quality of childhood and that is what she is doing.”
I am undoubtedly in the corner of those in the medical profession who know that nothing else is working, but I must say clearly that that is where I draw the line. I believe that honing the process means educating doctors to know the situations that call for the prescription of whole plant cannabis, which has no additional substances added to it. I am not a doctor—far from it—and I am not medically trained, but the fact that whole plant cannabis has been proven to make such a substantial difference to young Sophia’s quality of life tells me that more research is needed into whole plant medicine. That will enable medical professionals to have the information that they so need to prescribe whole plant cannabis to others in Sophia’s situation, in which the currently available drugs are not working and are even damaging her in the long term.
We must remember the impact that every seizure has, physically and mentally, on a child’s capacity. There are people whose lives would massively benefit from whole plant cannabis. Information must be available for medical professionals to understand the medication so that they can prescribe it.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. As always, he is a doughty advocate for his constituents. Does he agree that there is no contradiction in believing that Spice, as a synthetic cannabinoid for recreation use, should be made a class A drug, but that cannabis-based medicine should be allowed for specific purposes? The medicinal use of a drug is a different concept from its abuse for recreational purposes.
I wholeheartedly agree. I want to make sure that we understand the side effects, but the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me back to a point that I have made clear throughout the debate: reclassifying cannabis to allow recreational use is something that I cannot support. Just as we use morphine under very select circumstances and in a controlled manner, but have rightly outlawed the use of heroin, it is right that we have classified cannabis products for medicinal use in select circumstances and in a controlled manner. That is the way I believe it must be.
I do not believe that we should allow recreational use of Spice or Mamba, or that we should advocate such use of any cannabis-derived product. Nor do I believe that legislating for medicinal cannabis means logically that we should legislate to allow recreational use, or to allow for those who believe that they can self-medicate.
We need to ensure that doctors understand the limitations of the change in legislation and can prescribe to someone whose case they know well and who is not responding to other conventional drugs. We need to ensure that people understand that the change in legislation does not give them carte blanche to grow their own plants. Finally, we need to ensure that children like Sophia Gibson who had no quality of life before medicinal cannabis was available can access medication that will enhance their life, as it has clearly done for Sophia, so that they can have a birthday party without ending up in hospital, attend school without having to drop out because they are not well, and have a semblance of normality. That is what I support and will continue to support, and there is a very clear difference between the two.
I thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for bringing this topic back to this place. As he correctly points out, we have to raise the profile of the issue because it exists throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Pushing it away instead of discussing it will never do anybody any good.
It is clear from hon. Members’ speeches today that we agree more than we disagree, but it is turning into groundhog day. We have had this conversation before. We agree that there is no silver bullet, that these drugs cause enormous damage, and that there is enormous strain on our local services. Where we disagree is on the effect that reclassifying these drugs will have. I repeat what I said at the start of the debate: reclassifying SCRAs as a class A drug will not grant the police any additional enforcement powers. It may make it easier for a police force to reprioritise, but it will not give it any extra powers.
Reclassification is all about longer sentences. The proposed solution would send problematic users, some with serious mental health issues, to overcrowded and understaffed prisons that are full of synthetic drugs, as has been pointed out. I do not see how that could possibly end well.
We are told that making synthetic cannabinoids class A drugs is not about trying to prosecute the end user, but about prosecuting higher up the chain. Are we going to leave the end users on the streets? We have heard how unpleasant our society finds that and how intolerant we are to people with mental health issues. If we are not going to arrest those people, why are we doing this? Is it so we can chase people further up the chain? If longer sentences for class A drugs worked, we would have no heroin or cocaine problem. We have tried that for years and it has not worked, yet we are going down the same path again.
I thank Transform, Release and Volteface for the information that they gave me in advance of the debate. Let me quote from a Volteface report:
“Dr Rob Ralphs, a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, has researched Spice in prisons and within the homeless community in the city. He believes that making Spice Class A will make no real difference to its use, but may make the situation worse. While the market for Spice is, at present, relatively stable with four or five different strains of the drug in circulation, he said its potential reclassification could drive innovation, leading to new strains being developed to circumvent it”,
as has happened in the past. The report further quotes Dr Ralphs:
“Every time there’s been a change in the law, the next generation…has been even stronger… The big thing is why the homeless and prison populations are using it in the first place. It’s about putting money into engaging people into treatment services and trying to reduce the market. If you can reduce the market, the demand for it, then you will reduce it.”
The report continues:
“Professor Harry Sumnall, who specialises in substance use at Liverpool John Moores University’s Public Health Institute, also believes reclassification could make the problem of Spice worse.
‘When you take a police-oriented approach to a complex health and social issue you can never address the fundamental root causes of why some cities in the UK are experiencing harms with these substances…I don’t think the emergence of Spice and the concentration of harms in some users of Spice is down to the fact that the police aren’t arresting enough dealers. I don’t accept the fact that the police can’t arrest people or are unlikely or unwilling to prioritise the pursuit of dealers because it’s a Class B. There’s nothing to stop police prioritising dealers or users of Spice.’
He said the harms associated with heroin and crack cocaine ‘haven’t been resolved by the fact that they’re Class A drugs’ and that focusing on targeting dealers with harsher penalties would not lead to users being safer or healthier.”
The point about safety is important. When we try to chase these things up the chain, as it has been said that we are planning to do, drug dealers protect their marketplace with incredible violence. If they feel threatened or their users are put under more pressure, that violence will escalate.
Criminologists argue that that makes the market more harmful because of the risk increase—an increase in the price of drugs makes the market more profitable, and the more profit involved, the more the violence is used to protect it. The types of organised crime groups that might then enter the market, because the profits are higher, mean that violence and secondary harm increase.
Professor Sumnall believes calls to make Spice class A are a “symbolic response” to the issue, which
“doesn’t actually translate into any meaningful public health action unless there’s a real commitment to ensure good coverage of high quality services for these individuals”
who use it.
Going back to this letter signed by 20 police and crime commissioners, a line states:
“We would urge that synthetic cannabinoid products are reclassified from class B to class A.”
The letter also states its concern, five times—
“an urgent public health issue…most severe public health issue…As public health and substance misuse services are not currently taking the lead in meeting this growing challenge it is falling to the police…public health, mental health and addiction services…a public health challenge”—
that this is, categorically, a public health issue and that those who should be addressing it are not doing so.
According to Professor Sumnall, it is not being addressed because:
“The broader context of the failings in the criminal justice system, the fact that mental health service provision is in crisis, that local areas are experiencing around about a 30% cut in treatment budgets—those are the fundamental issues that need to be addressed rather than a totemic, symbolic response by making it a Class A”.
The blame lies here, in Parliament. The Select Committee on Science and Technology concluded in its report, “Drug classification: making a hash of it”, that the classification system was “not fit for purpose”. Harms of different drugs often bear little resemblance to their status in the ABC system, which has been distorted by political considerations and doomed attempts to send a message. That report was written in 2006, and we are none the wiser.
What can we do about that? Plenty of options are open to us, with plenty of examples around the world. Last week, I spoke to Nuno Capaz from Portugal. I asked him a straightforward question: is there a synthetic cannabis problem in Portugal? His answer was short, sharp and to the point: no. How can Portugal get this right, but we get it so wrong?
Canada’s example is to legalise and regulate real cannabis. In the Netherlands, because cannabis is legally available, the market for Spice is almost non-existent. People prefer the real thing, so demand never developed, as in Canada, Uruguay and many US states. The subtext to that is what Prime Minister Trudeau said last week about legalising cannabis—they are not doing it because it is good for people’s health, but because we know it is bad for our children’s health. That is a mindset that we have to adopt.
In conclusion, to improve life opportunities for people who use SCRAs, it is imperative that we properly fund schemes around employment, education and housing. People who use SCRAs should be diverted away from the criminal justice system. The diversion scheme in Durham, called Checkpoint, diverts people after arrest on the condition that they undertake a four-month programme to address their offending behaviour. As long as they comply, they will not get a criminal record. Initial findings from the pilot found that those who were diverted to Checkpoint had lower reoffending rates than those who were subject to out-of-court disposals such as cautions. Participants in Checkpoint also reported improved outcomes with substance misuse, alcohol misuse, accommodation, relationships, finances and mental health. Is that not what we are trying to achieve? We cannot ostracise a subsection of our citizens, driving them into more damage by pushing them into the criminal justice system, when we all agree that we are trying to provide better social services—a wraparound service—and the only way in which that will ever happen is if we buy into that concept and it is properly funded by this Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this debate.
Cannabis substitutes, or synthetic cannabinoids, have developed at a staggering rate over recent years, with more than 100 chemical variants, largely imported from the far east. The biggest concern is that many are far more potent and toxic than cannabis itself. Some variants were identified and banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but that just led to alternatives being developed. In response, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was introduced, completely banning the production, distribution and sale of such substances, and gave police the power to search persons, vehicles and premises and to seize and destroy any products found.
The 2016 Act provided fast and encouraging results, with high street sales almost entirely ceasing within a short space of time. Criminals selling more potent versions, however, took to the market instead, resulting in all synthetic cannabinoids banned as class B drugs and possession being a criminal offence. Those measures heavily diminished the supply of the substances, but we would be naive to think that we are anywhere near solving the problem. The production and distribution of new variants will continue to evolve illegally, meaning many vulnerable people are still at risk.
Those synthetic alternatives to cannabis are cheap, which means that use of and dependency on the drugs among the homeless and those in prison continue to grow. In addition, the drugs are also often seen as a relatively easily accessible self-medication for those suffering from depression as a result of some form of trauma. Worryingly, the potency of the synthetic substances can vary, and the effects that they might have on people vary greatly. Many become dependent quickly and, although some experience few or no side-effects, paranoia and seizures are common. Far too many deaths have been attributed to the use of cannabis substitutes.
Appallingly, there is a prevalence of videos on social media ridiculing those under the influence of those obscene substances. Filming of those desperate souls is neither funny nor respectful, but we have all seen the dreadful condition that people get into after taking those evil drugs. Clearly, the interventions and legal changes made to date have failed completely to deal with the issue of synthetic cannabinoids and the rise in the use of them. If we are seriously to clear our streets, our prisons and our communities from those vile drugs, we need to overhaul our drugs policy completely to make it fit for the 21st century.
Those inflicted with that dreadful obsession should not be subjected to ridicule. They are not amusements for us to view on social media—they are real people who need us to address their addiction, look at treatment, support them, and not just lock them up to move the problem from the streets. The Government need to give us more guarantees that they are reviewing legislation, monitoring crime statistics and protecting our vulnerable communities from the dangers of those addictive, evil drugs.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This is not a debate about medicinal cannabis, but with your leave, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his update on Sophia and the Gibson family. Home Office Ministers are not regularly fed a diet of good news, but I was absolutely delighted to hear that. Perhaps, through him, I might pass my good wishes to the family.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and I send my best to the family, who showed enormous patience and dignity throughout a very difficult situation.
This has been a good debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on bringing the issue back before the House with persistence and tenacity. He is entirely right to do so. He described this as a serious national problem, and I do not think he is wrong about that. Statistics can be misleading. One might be lulled into thinking that synthetic cannabinoids are not a significant national problem by the statistic that less than 0.5% of 16 to 59-year-olds in England and Wales reported using a new psychoactive substance in the past year, which is broadly the same as the year before; it might seem a small number. However, as the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) pointed out, there is another number. There were 24 deaths related to synthetics in England and Wales in 2017. That is a terrible number to put alongside the evidence that has come, loud and clear, from Stoke, Chesterfield, Mansfield, Torbay and Wales, that the issue we are discussing causes real anxiety across the country. It confronts people with the terrible reality of its impact on some of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities, for whom, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) pointed out, £2 buys oblivion and a dehumanised state. We do not yet have that problem in Ruislip, Northwood or Pinner, but I have seen it with my own eyes on the streets of Newcastle, and it is a shocking and unsettling sight, which we do not want in our town centres, for all the reasons that Members of Parliament have powerfully articulated here today. As Members have said, the evolution of generations of such drugs is fast-moving and a major challenge.
I would like to assure the House that we are prioritising the issue, and I will set out some evidence for that. However, I remind the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North in particular that I get the urgency of the issue, and I will close with some remarks taking us forward a bit. We are prioritising the problem—the groundbreaking Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was a substantial piece of legislation. I confirm, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, that we shall publish our review of it before the end of November. However, as I have said in previous debates, there is evidence that the Act has had a powerful effect in removing new psychoactive substances from open sale and ending the game of cat and mouse between Government and backstreet chemists. Significantly, 300 retailers across the UK have closed down and are no longer selling the substances. Suppliers have been arrested, there has been action by the National Crime Agency to remove psychoactive substances and, in 2016, there were 28 convictions in England and Wales, with seven people jailed under the new powers. That rose to 152 convictions in 2017, with 62 people immediately sent to custody. In parallel with that legislation, three separate sets of controls on the progressive generations of synthetic cannabinoids have been introduced, in 2009, 2012 and 2016.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful contribution. I think that we can be clear, subject to what is in the review at the end of the month, that that groundbreaking legislation has had an effect. I can also point out targeted action by the Government, concentrated on areas where we know usage is especially high.
The fact that two Stoke-on-Trent MPs are taking part in the debate tells its own story about the sense of urgency and concern in that city. That will be noticed by me and by the House.
Prisons featured in several contributions, and I know that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) visited Nottingham Prison recently and was shocked by what he saw. There is clearly a significant drug problem in prisons, exacerbated by the emergence of synthetics and psychoactive substances. I can, again, point out a stream of action being taken. A new drugs force is working with law enforcement to restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery, and is working with 10 of the most challenging prisons; £6 million is being invested to tackle drug supply in those establishments. There is a new national partnership agreement for prison healthcare and a new £9 million joint Ministry of Justice and NHS drug recovery prison pilot at Holme House Prison. I could go on, but I see evidence of a proactive Government approach to drugs in prisons.
A number of colleagues mentioned rough sleeping, and made the relevant links with these drugs. Again, that is an unacceptable feature of too many town centres, high streets and shop entrances. I hope that there is cross-party support for the new rough sleeping strategy. The £100 million package is a step towards achieving the vision of a country where no one needs to sleep rough, by 2027. I could go into the details of that but I think that the House is aware of it.
There was, rightly, substantial comment about the need for effective treatment and prevention. I could not be more supportive of the emphasis that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield placed on that. If we have learned anything in this place from many years of evidence on many issues, it is that it is always smarter to invest in the fence at the top of the cliff than in the ambulance at the bottom. That is nowhere more true than in the matter of drugs. I can see from the statistics that people are seeking and receiving treatment from drugs services. Data from the national drug treatment monitoring system show that 1,223 adults presented to treatment for new psychoactive substances in 2017-18 in England, and 703 of those cases were for synthetic cannabinoids. Presentations for synthetic cannabinoids represented 0.6% of all adults who presented to drug and alcohol treatment in 2017-18.
To support those services, there is guidance on treatment for synthetic cannabinoids, including the recently updated drug treatment clinical guidelines, NEPTUNE’s “Guidance on the Clinical Management of Acute and Chronic Harms of Club Drugs and Novel Psychoactive Substances”, and Public Health England’s new psychoactive substance toolkits for the community and prisons. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there is also more investment going into the NHS. The Health Secretary has made it clear that prevention is a core pillar of his approach to the brief. He is right about that, and we must see the dividend from more effective prevention work in years to come.
I join others in offering congratulations on some excellent examples of partnership and multi-agency working and police work in Derbyshire, south Wales, Gwent, Staffordshire and Mansfield. There is clearly good leadership on the issue around the country, which is fundamental. The importance of local multi-agency working is clear in our drug strategy and modern crime prevention strategy. This is not just a police issue. We are not going to arrest or sentence our way out of it. The key is such local leadership and such multi-agency partnerships. Having been reading up in preparation for this and previous debates, and having got to understand a bit better the work going on in Mansfield, I join my hon. Friend in commending the work of Mansfield police and their partners. It seems extremely commendable —arguably “best in class” across the system. Part of my responsibility and engagement with the National Police Chiefs Council is to challenge the system, and learn from the rest of the system, about what works and what partnership working is really effective.
I want in my closing remarks to move things on a bit, as I think my hon. Friend is already aware of the things I have talked about so far; we have had such exchanges before. I am persuaded by his previous debates, this debate and correspondence from police and crime commissioners of different political persuasions that we need to go further. I hope he welcomes the major review of drugs that the Home Secretary announced on 2 October, including a focus on the workings of the drugs market and synthetic cannabinoids, which will be in the scope of the review. That is a major piece of work.
I have also asked the National Crime Agency to undertake a threat assessment of synthetic cannabinoids, which will be reported to the Department in spring. It will provide a richer picture of the threat faced by law enforcement. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes that too.
I think I welcome what the Minister is saying, but I want to clarify something. By saying that he is persuaded that we need to go further, is he saying that he will institute a review or that it will become Government policy that synthetic cannabinoids will be reclassified?
The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead of my remarks. I am sure he understands the context, because he is a sensible man. In this complex situation, when dealing with something fast-moving, the Government have to take decisions based on good evidence and a good understanding of the risks, the threats, the drivers of the market, the changes in the market and the likely consequences and implications of decisions, including about classification. I am setting out a series of urgent pieces of work that will look at the drugs market in a broader sense, which is a big step in itself, and a specific commissioning of the National Crime Agency to look at the threat assessment of synthetic cannabinoids—for the first time, as I understand it—with a commitment to report back to us in spring.
I am also asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, whose advice we rely on for decisions on classification, to advise on refreshing its assessment. We have not done that in the last few months because the honest truth is that it has not been that long since the council last took a view in 2014. In this fast-changing environment, however, and given the representations of real concern made by Members of Parliament and by police and crime commissioners, it is the right moment to ask the council to refresh that assessment of synthetic cannabinoids’ harms.
Hon. Members, and not least my hon. Friend for Mansfield, have been clear that reclassification is not a silver bullet—to use that cliché—and that we need to get several other things right. We should also be clear that reclassification would arguably not significantly increase the police’s powers to deal with the possession, supply and production of these substances. Instead, it would primarily increase the penalties for possession from a maximum of five years in prison to seven years, and for supply and production from a maximum of 14 years in prison to life. The House will have its own view on whether that change would have a material impact as a deterrent.
The Government rely on advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, whose last assessment was in 2014. Even though that does not seem that long ago, based on representations made to me, it is the right to time to ask it to refresh its assessment. I give that undertaking to hon. Members. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend for Mansfield for his tireless passion in pursuing this cause, and other hon. Members for making it clear to the Government that there is no room for complacency.
I am grateful to you, Mr Howarth, and other hon. Members for being present. I thank everyone for their contribution. This has been a good opportunity to continue to raise the issue of synthetic cannabinoids and to keep it on the agenda as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Department considers it. I thank the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for supporting my application for the debate, which was much appreciated.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his long-term support and his contributions to various debates on the subject. I also thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan). As much as we disagree on some of the implications of this, we agree that it is a public health issue—I hope I made that clear in what I said—and that the system currently gets it wrong.
From what the Minister has said, it is clear that the Government are looking at their drugs policy more broadly and how they might take it forward. There is definitely a discussion to be had. This campaign has a long way to go, but I am confident that we will continue to make progress. I welcome the Minister’s remarks, and I thank him for laying out what the Government are going to do, with reviews by the Department and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the work that is happening in prisons and the potential work in the health service. All that is welcome, and I take from it that the Government are taking the issue seriously.
I welcome with open arms the letter I received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last week about its review of reclassification and what that should look like, but I press the Minister on the speed of that review. The council suggests that it will take nine months to deliver its decision, which seems like a long time.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about the Government dealing with the issue and taking it seriously. I will continue to prioritise it and raise it during the reviews. I will keep having this conversation with the Minister, and I thank him for his patience on that. I will also keep prioritising the safety of my constituents.
I hope that in the coming months, and through the reviews, we will come to a conclusion about positive action that the Government can take to support local services and to benefit our communities by helping users and by keeping people in our town centres safe—that is the public safety aspect of the issue. In future, there needs to be proactive action and change from the Government to make that happen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the reclassification of synthetic cannabinoids.
Plymouth Challenge for Schools
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Plymouth challenge for schools initiative.
It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Howarth. Funding good schools is the best investment we can make in our children’s future. Teachers, teaching assistants and support staff do a superb job, but Ministers cannot keep asking them to do more and more with less and less. With rising costs, a crisis in recruitment and retention, and the mounting costs of the growing crisis in our young people’s mental health, the urgent need for decent school funding is as stark as any warning can be. I will speak about Plymouth, our funding challenge and how, by working with the Minister, we can create an initiative of which he, I and teachers in Plymouth can be truly proud. The Plymouth Challenge is an initiative worthy of the Minister’s focus, his Department’s energy and the investment of public funds.
Hon. Members will know that I spoke in the debate about school funding last week. I plan to touch on some of the same themes, but the crux of the debate is the specific funding ask for the Minister to back the Plymouth challenge. I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to meet me and a delegation of cross-party councillors, teachers and headteachers from Plymouth next month, but I will not waste another opportunity to pitch this fantastic initiative, thank the teachers and teaching staff who do such a superb job in Plymouth, and call for the urgent funding for children in Plymouth and the far south-west to get our fair share.
The Plymouth challenge is an example of collaborative action by several educational specialists that are working together to improve educational outcomes across Plymouth. The Plymouth challenge has cross-party support from Plymouth City Council’s Labour and Conservative leaderships and is backed by headteachers, and the regional schools commissioner’s office and the Plymouth Teaching School Alliance. Its focus is on promoting aspiration and leadership in secondary schools and helping to support schools to improve outcomes, especially at the end of key stage 4.
The Plymouth challenge seeks to replicate the success of other challenges across the country, most notably in London, but elsewhere in places such as Manchester and Hull. In each case, standards and teaching quality were driven up by the considerable and focused investment of time, energy and money in our teachers and schools. Focused deep learning enables teachers to improve on their weaknesses, build on their strengths, grow in confidence, share best practice and know that their passion and commitment to the children they teach is matched by a similar commitment to their development by their employers, the Government and their city.
Plymouth is in the bottom 10 of all local authorities for secondary school performance. We have one type of every school thought of by Governments since 1945, so it is not the lack of diversity or competition that is hitting standards. Results at the end of key stage 4 are below the national average, and the percentage of students achieving a strong pass in English and maths is below four in 10. On average, by the end of key stage 4, students have made less progress than similar students nationally. A shockingly high number of schools are judged inadequate—four out of 18, and five out of 18 before the studio school was closed in the summer, as the Minister knows.
Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and disadvantaged pupils are increasingly likely to be off-rolled or excluded not because of the work of staff and students, but because the support is not there for those pupils to function and succeed in a mainstream environment. Elective home education has nearly tripled in four years, and in some schools fixed-term exclusions have risen by more than 200%.
The contrast is clear when we compare Plymouth with London. In the capital, nine out of 10 children go to a good or outstanding school, and the national average is about eight in 10, but for children in Plymouth it is five out of 10. One in two—50%—of our kids do not go to a good or outstanding school as rated by Ofsted, which needs to change.
The Plymouth challenge has the potential to be a huge success, but at the moment it is a voluntary initiative that hard-pressed teachers must do in addition to a full curriculum—marking homework, preparing lesson plans, filling in paperwork and being surrogate mental health workers, social workers, mentors, leaders and role models. It cannot function simply on a voluntary basis. Plymouth City Council has said that only £900,000 to £1.3 million is required to implement the first phase of the scheme. That would be money well spent, and good value, too. In Plymouth, we have the will and the passion, but we simply lack the funding and time to make it work. Our teachers and teaching assistants need deep learning. That cannot be just one hour swapped out of a classroom for a quick update on skills; it must be deep, intensive learning so they benefit from the latest in teaching quality initiatives. The children who otherwise would have been taught by them must have a high-quality replacement to ensure that their education does not suffer because of their teacher’s participation in the scheme.
Training matters, because training and investment in a person’s development improves retention and reignites the passion for learning. I have spoken to countless teachers who have either left the profession or are considering leaving because of the pressure, the stress and the seemingly never-ending squeeze on spending and real-terms pay cuts. The Plymouth challenge could help to address that.
School funding has been a growing concern for a number of years, as schools in Plymouth and the far south west as a whole continue to be denied our fair share of resources. The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) is dealing with an urgent constituency matter, in which he has my full support, but has asked that his support for this call be added to my remarks. If other Conservative Members had been here today, I am certain their concerns about education funding in Devon and Cornwall would also be highlighted. Although it is a particularly dodgy socialist standing in front of the Minister today, many Members not only in my party, but in his, too, share this concern and back this solution.
Two weeks ago, I met headteachers during my one of my regular pastries and politics roundtables in Plymouth, and the seemingly never-ending pressures on finances, cropped up time and again. As the proud son of a teacher, I know how hard teachers work. Each of them is full of love and passion for their subject, but too often today their spark is being put out. Too many are left frustrated and demoralised by the double-edged sword of a lack of support and an increase in pressure to do more with less.
Schools across my constituency have suffered consistent underfunding since 2010, and a vicious cycle of cuts—particularly cuts that that do not sit in the education budget but affect things that local authority budgets previously took care of—has worsened existing conditions. As class sizes have increased, the number of teachers and teaching assistants has decreased, and the vulnerable and poorest students in our communities are increasingly in the most underfunded schools.
Plymouth has one of the lowest education spends per head in the United Kingdom—£415 less per child than London and £300 less per child than the national average. That shortfall has had a damaging impact on students in Plymouth, who continue to fall behind the national average for academic attainment. Funding and attainment are linked.
When the national funding formula is fully implemented in about 2020-21, Coventry will receive £4,806 per pupil, compared with Plymouth’s £4,532. That difference of £274 per pupil equates to a loss of funding of £9.4 million for Plymouth. Coventry is a city similar in size, population and demographics to Plymouth, but it has very different education funding. I have no fight with Coventry—except when it comes to football—but I use that example to illustrate that not all children are being valued in the same way across the country.
The Minister will know from my remarks during the previous debate on this subject that I have particular concerns, one of which is the maximum gains cap. I would like the Minister to consider reviewing and removing the 3% maximum gains cap, which is part of the national funding formula. One of the key principles of the national funding formula was that pupils with similar characteristics should attract similar levels of funding, wherever they are in the country. That is a good idea, but the maximum gains cap prevents schools that have been underfunded for many years from receiving their fair share of their current entitlement because their gains are throttled. For example, under the funding formula, Plymouth is due to gain £10.6 million, but the maximum gains cap means that, in practice, schools in Plymouth will receive less than half that amount— £4.7 million in 2018-19 and £8.7 million in 2019-20. The gains cap means that they will get less than they should be getting under the funding formula.
Even with the additional funding formula, Plymouth continues to receive considerably less than the national average. I would be grateful if the Minister could review whether the gains cap is appropriate, and whether it could be flexed or removed to give places such as Plymouth, which have received lower funding deals historically, a chance to catch up more quickly. It seems to me that the schools that have lost out the most will be disadvantaged in their progress towards a fairer position because of that historical underinvestment. It does not seem fair, equitable or justifiable that the Government put in place this policy. To achieve the objectives that the Minister rightly wants and to have a fairer funding formula for all pupils, we need to address the maximum gains cap, which throttles that benefit.
I am certain that many of the teachers watching this debate will be alarmed that Department for Education rules have limited the fairer funding formula. I would be grateful if the Minister looked again at the role of the maximum gains cap, and perhaps lifted the cap for Plymouth. That would provide some of the money that the Plymouth challenge needs. I remember from what the Minister said in the previous debate that, although the figures for the period between now and the end of the fairer funding formula are limited, that important retrospective gap must also be addressed.
Many of the teachers who got in touch with me ahead of this debate raised concerns about mental health funding and the increased pressure that that puts on their role in the classroom. The Government’s warm words on mental health are to be welcomed, and I back many of them, but there have been cuts to mental health provision for young people in primaries, especially in the Plymouth excellence cluster—a body that pooled mental health funding for our schools—which lost its funding earlier this year.
The three-year mental health funding deal for secondary schools in Plymouth is due to expire this year, and no replacement funding has been identified. That cannot be right, and I would be grateful if the Minister gave urgent consideration to providing support, especially for young people who are receiving mental health support. If money cannot be found for them from existing school budgets to replace that funding, they will lose it. Our teachers are brilliant, but they cannot also be professional mental health workers. Many of them have raised that concern with me.
Rather than hear it from me, it is more fitting if the Minister hears this from the teachers themselves. When I secure a debate in this place, I often let people know about it on my Facebook and Twitter pages, and even on Instagram. Last week, I asked people to send in their stories and experiences. I am sure many of them will be familiar to the Minister. Flex wrote to me to say:
“I’m a Supply teacher and a product of the ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme. Of the 50 teacher trainees that began the course and 2 years into teaching there are 12 of us left nationally. I have worked in many schools in the Plymouth area and many are seriously underfunded. TAs are invaluable supporting SEN or 1-1 children to simply keep a class running. I have worked in schools that have run out of books, paper or have a shortage of IT or Sports equipment. As a Supply, I regularly fund and bring my own resources into certain schools because I know some items will not be available such as pens.”
Plymouth City Council and many of Plymouth’s teachers wrote to me ahead of this debate to share the key asks. Unlike other challenge programmes around the country such as those in Manchester, London and Hull, there has been no targeted DFE funding, although it has provided official support on staff time. I would be grateful if the Minister committed to investigate what funding pots are available to support the Plymouth challenge and initiatives like it around the UK.
I would also be grateful if the DFE sent a clear message that all Plymouth children should expect to be able to attend a good or outstanding school, and set out a timeframe. At the moment, only half our children attend schools in that bracket. I would be grateful if the Minister set out a framework for working with Plymouth City Council and local schools and academies to support the Plymouth Challenge steering group to achieve that objective.
As part of our funding request, we seek resources to appoint a full-time challenge co-ordinator and for an outstanding headteacher or experienced professional from outside Plymouth to be seconded for at least a year to provide the professional challenge, curiosity and inquiry that is vital to making an initiative such as the Plymouth challenge work. I would be grateful if the Minister and his officials supported us in that endeavour.
The Minister knows that Plymouth has every type of school thought of by every Government since 1945. Diversity of provision is the daily reality in Plymouth, so lack of diversity is not the problem. The problem is the fragmentation to which that leads. I would be grateful if the DFE signalled a commitment to driving collective accountabilities instead of supporting that fragmented system. I recognise that there are challenges with that, but although there seems to be a belief that Plymouth has achieved the perfect level of competition that Ministers seek, it has encountered problems, perhaps earlier than other cities around the country that are progressing towards that.
Finally, given the growing focus on multi-academy trusts, I would be grateful if the Minister told us where there is intentional design of MAT development in the far south-west and Plymouth, and how successful MATs and school leaders can be secured to support the city. No school should lose out from the MAT process.
Let me read testimonies from two teachers who wrote to me ahead of the debate. Tom wrote:
“This is only my fourth year as a teacher and I am close to just about avoiding becoming one of those five year drop-out statistics. On a good day, it can be a hugely inspiring and rewarding job but the immense pressures involved mean that a remarkable number of passionate teachers have left.
I have been involved in one of the key elements of the Plymouth Challenge: the idea that local schools need to more efficiently collaborate with regards to curriculum planning, moderation, CPD etc. It’s a project with an admirable goal. However, rather than funding coming from the existing budgets of already struggling schools, the government urgently needs to provide an additional grant for the Plymouth Challenge as it did previously for other major cities.”
“I’ve been a teacher and leader for over 13 years and I love my job. I have also had a real terms pay cut again this year and seen amazing teachers leave the profession. I have been involved in Plymouth Challenge since early 2018.”
She stated that the main issue is that there is no funding,
“yet the expectations being placed on teachers to deliver results are significant. Schools, teaching staff, support staff and school leaders are keenly aware and can’t work any harder—but maybe we could work smarter.
Plymouth Challenge was sold to schools as a model by which subject specific hubs could be set up to organise training and develop and share expertise. But there’s no money and teachers who volunteered to help run these hubs were told we should think about what we could charge schools to attend and that we could have start up loans”.
Nina goes on:
“There is so much goodwill—so much expertise—but the lack of funding means there is a creeping scepticism and frustration. The Plymouth Challenge has immense potential but we can’t ‘maximise current funding streams’ to make it work – those funding streams are already maxed out.”
There is huge enthusiasm for the Plymouth challenge among teachers and teaching staff in the city. There is a window of opportunity in the next few months for us to secure it by getting to grips with funding it properly and providing wraparound support for teachers. The initiative can work, and it must work if we are to achieve the improvements in grades that we all want.
If austerity really is over, the Government have the opportunity by supporting this campaign to make up for historical underfunding in Plymouth and to improve the lives of children in my city in real terms. I say to the Minister: support teachmeets and online training courses focused on Plymouth priorities, support our young people’s mental health services, support our aspirations to empower disadvantaged students, and support co-operative models across Plymouth’s schools to look at how we can ensure that every child, regardless of their background, their parents’ jobs or their postcode, has a chance to fulfil their potential.
I genuinely look forward to working with the Minister. There is potential for us to work in a cross-party way to ensure that all our kids in Plymouth succeed and achieve their best.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. We share a vision for Plymouth of ensuring that every child in the city, regardless of their background or where they live, receives a world-class education that enables them to reach their full potential. That vision is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). They continually raise education issues with me in the Chamber and the voting Lobbies.
Let me say up front that I support the Plymouth Challenge, which is a school-led initiative supported by Plymouth City Council and the regional schools commissioner, who is appointed by the Secretary of State. The challenge was set up to tackle historical underperformance in a number of secondary schools in the city. It seeks to harness the many strands of school improvement initiatives currently being undertaken in the city and to add to those initiatives capacity, resources and experience from other schools in the area and from outside the area. It was developed by the headteacher strategy group, which is made up of secondary headteachers.
As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport knows, the Plymouth Challenge is organised around three strands: strengthening leadership, raising standards and raising aspirations. On the second of those, systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. It is hugely important to secure the basics to equip young people with the life skills to decode, read and understand the world around them. The proportion of pupils in Plymouth who meet the required standard in the phonics check rose from 58% in 2012 to 82% in 2018, in line with the national average.
At key stage 2, Plymouth schools and pupils have risen to the challenge of the more rigorous primary school national curriculum that we introduced in 2014. In 2018, 62% of primary school students in Plymouth reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. That represents an eight percentage point improvement on the 54% of pupils in Plymouth who achieved the same result in 2016. Despite that gain, Plymouth’s figure is still two percentage points below the national average. It is therefore important that the primary sector continues to deliver improvements and builds on that upward trajectory in reading, writing and maths to get it above the national average.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, outcomes at secondary level are mixed. In 2018, 40.4% of students in Plymouth entered the English baccalaureate, which is a core group of academic GCSEs—English, maths, at least two sciences, a language and a humanity. That figure outstrips the national average of 35.1% and is 1.5 percentage points higher than the figure for Plymouth in 2014.[Official Report, 15 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 4MC.] That means more young people in the city are studying and achieving through a core academic curriculum, which I firmly believe provides them with the knowledge and skills for a variety of careers beyond school life. However, we need the proportion of pupils studying the EBacc combination to rise significantly in every secondary school in the city.
On other key stage 4 measures, Plymouth lags behind the rest of the country. Its 2018 Progress 8 score is minus 0.32, which is below the national average. One way of improving standards, particularly at secondary level, is harnessing expertise both within and outside a city. A strong Exeter-based multi-academy trust is already having an impact by driving up expectations. Standards at two Plymouth secondary schools are benefiting from that expertise, and Reach Feltham, the top-performing London academy, provides that partnership with leadership support and challenge. That model is proving very effective.
We need to look outwards and build on great examples across the country, be that Michaela Community School’s marriage of high standards, exemplary behaviour and manageable teacher workload, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, Tom Bennett’s approach to improving behaviour in schools, or the myriad trusts finding success in the face of challenging circumstances.
There is also a benefit to be realised from more formal structural partnerships in the city. We welcome the increased engagement in Plymouth of high-quality multi-academy trusts outside the immediate region. Reach South Academy Trust is an example of a MAT that has done precisely that, bringing external expertise and experience into the city by creating a cross-phase hub and, as part of that, sponsoring UTC Plymouth.
The hon. Gentleman raised the national funding formula, specifically the maximum gains cap. Nationally, approximately 75% of schools, including those that were historically underfunded, will be on the national funding formula allocation by 2019-20. I reassure him that schools are already benefiting from that. The formula has allocated an increase for every pupil in every school in 2018-19, with increases of up to 3% for underfunded schools and more for the very lowest funded.
Changes to the formula have delivered significant gains in Plymouth, where schools have attracted an extra 3.3% per pupil on average this year. By 2019-20, that will be 5.9% more per pupil compared with 2017-18. That is equivalent to an extra £251 for every pupil, or a total increase of £10.2 million when factoring in rising pupil numbers. Furthermore, 15 Plymouth schools benefit from the formula’s minimum per-pupil funding level. These schools will not have their gains capped, so they will attract their full allocation by 2019-20.
The Department has also prioritised additional support for Plymouth through the strategic school improvement fund, with £681,000 approved to support 42 Plymouth schools, including funding projects focused on the teaching of phonics and maths. The high-quality training delivered through the secondary system leadership project has been welcomed. Although the project is in its infancy, I am confident that it will deliver increased capacity and capability in effective school self-review, peer review and school-to-school support and improvement.
Two Plymouth secondary schools have further benefited from £299,000 in emergency school improvement funding to drive longer-term whole-school support. The impact of that funding has been significant. For example, a “Ready to Learn” behaviour approach at All Saints Academy has fostered a culture in which rules matter and is proving to be an enabler of excellent teaching.
Furthermore, we have given strong trusts in Plymouth the opportunity to access additional funding to improve schools and increase social mobility through the MAT development and improvement fund. Four Plymouth trusts have been awarded grants and will access a minimum £298,000 of funding in this financial year. In total, that is more than £1 million in additional funding that the Government are injecting into the Plymouth education system. Funding for Plymouth schools is £149.6 million this year, rising to £153.3 million next year.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the importance of the Plymouth Challenge initiative. I share his vision of a high standard of education for all pupils and a system that enables all—regardless of background —to reach their potential. I have spoken about the collaborative stewardship role that we have taken in working towards transforming education in Plymouth, the impact of the funding streams that we have harnessed and committed to the city’s schools and the importance of working with stakeholders and learning from excellence outside the city. I have also spoken of the formal and informal ways in which we are strengthening leadership, raising aspirations and improving standards for the benefit of Plymouth pupils now and in the future.
I am keen to work with the hon. Gentleman and other Plymouth Members, and headteachers from his constituency, to explore how we can support the system, allowing schools to be at the forefront of improvement while continuing to challenge standards. I very much welcome his involvement in seeking to raise standards in Plymouth schools and very much want to be part of that process. Working with him, headteachers and other Plymouth MPs, I am sure that we can achieve a huge amount through the Plymouth Challenge to raise standards in all Plymouth schools.
Question put and agreed to.
Holiday Hunger Schemes
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered holiday hunger schemes.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and a privilege to have the chance to discuss such an important and timely issue.
Last week, children in the Potteries and across the country were home for half term. It would be nice to be able to use the phrase “enjoying their half term”, and I am sure that for many that was true, but not for all, because among their number there were children who returned to school yesterday hungry. For them the half term was a week not of theme parks and family outings, but of empty days and empty stomachs. That might sound shocking—indeed, it is—in a country as wealthy and as prosperous as ours, but it is all too common, and it is the awful reality of holiday hunger. I raised the issue in the House in my first question as a new Member in 2015, but neither time nor repetition have lessened the impact of the heartbreaking statistics that drove me to act.
Some 31% of children in my constituency are born into poverty. A third of parents across the country skip meals so that their children can eat during the school holidays. More than 1.3 million children on free school meals during term time find that that genuine lifeline is snatched away from them for 14 weeks of every year, with the summer holidays a potential nightmare. Behind each of those statistics lie the stories of those children: of wasted summers and wanting bodies; of children returning to school malnourished; of weeks spent in hunger and isolation because mum and dad cannot afford time off work or the extra meals that come from six weeks without the security of the classroom. There is no adjustment to the welfare system to compensate for the additional cost of 10 meals per week per child. With the cost of childcare during the school holidays, not to mention new school uniforms and other essentials, too many families are tipped into crisis.
It would be easy to dismiss the need for the schemes, but I have seen and heard the reality, not only from the examples that have been talked about nationally, including by the wonderful Lindsay Graham, but from seeing families who walk for miles to access the schemes in the summer months because they cannot afford the bus fare. I have seen mums queuing for more than an hour before the scheme was due to open so that they would be first in line; children who thought they needed to steal food from the holiday club so that they had something to eat that night; and grandparents at the end of their tether because childcare has fallen on them and they do not know how to stretch their pension to feed their grandchildren, and they do not want to tell their own children that they are struggling financially.
In my constituency, a wonderful scheme was provided by the Salvation Army this summer. We expected 30 children to turn up. The scheme opened at half past eleven. At 10 o’clock there were more than 30 people outside, but there was not enough food. The wonderful Tesco delivered food and its staff came to volunteer. During that one session more than 100 people turned up, which shows the level of demand that we have.
It is not just the heartbreaking stories that should us drive us to act. The impact on the long-term attainment of my wonderful children should be front and centre for the Education Minister. Not only does youth malnutrition impact on long-term health outcomes; it also has a direct impact on young people’s attainment, not least the fact that if young people stop using cutlery or writing implements for weeks at a time, they lose dexterity and muscle memory, which affects them on their return to school. Some of them, especially younger children, will not know how to hold a pen. Research suggests that the children who do not receive appropriate nutrition during the school holidays could return in September more than four weeks behind academically than they were in July, making it much harder for them and their families and for the teachers who have to help them catch up.
This is a very good debate. I do not want to stray from the main issue. In my constituency, there are teachers in schools who step up to the plate in the holidays. They put on special subjects, which they are not paid for, in order to arrange for food, meals and exercise for children who are not taken on holiday.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We are, at the moment, in the hands of those people who volunteer their time, and who give children access to their buildings and schools. If they did not volunteer those facilities, school provision could cost families up to £15 or £20 a day. My constituents cannot afford that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s cannot either.
Against the backdrop that I have described, in the summer of 2017, my local heroines, and the odd hero, set out to pull together people and organisations from across Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove to launch the first comprehensive pilot programme to tackle holiday hunger and deal with school holiday provision in north Staffordshire. At this point, I should make it clear that we all hate the phrase “holiday hunger”. It is misery-inducing and heartbreaking, but it can also be counterproductive, as no parents want to admit, or even accept, that they are struggling to feed their children, so they opt out of programmes. In 2017, therefore, we launched Fit and Fed, our pilot for the extended summer break of 2017, to help to reach low-income families and their children, and provide safe activities, as well as a proper meal, Monday to Friday, for six weeks.
The initiative was driven by the brilliant and formidable Carol Shanahan, whom the Minister has had the pleasure of meeting. My heroine, the managing director of Synectic Solutions, has ensured that we bring together as many people as possible, and she has enlisted the support of charities, volunteers and organisations across my constituency, to turn the pilot into a real project. I am indebted to each and every one of them: Synectic Solutions, the Port Vale Foundation Trust, StreetGames, Swan Bank church, North Staffordshire Allotment Network, Root’n’Fruit, the Salvation Army, City catering public health, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, YMCA North Staffordshire, Engage Communities, the Stoke City Community Trust, Netbiz, Purple Cow—interesting name—and Stoke-on-Trent Foodbank, which all supported the project. If anything shows the importance of all the voluntary groups coming together, it is the list I just read.
I am also thankful for the financial support of the Greggs Foundation, which donated £5,000, and I am grateful to Warburton, Makro, Freshview Foods, JB Oatcakes and High Lane Oatcakes—I am talking about Stoke-on-Trent, after all—all of which supplied food, as well as, of course, to FareShare. As I said, Tesco has been extraordinary. Special thanks must go to it and its team, led locally by the inspirational Rich Evans. They volunteered their time as well as huge quantities of food at very short notice, to ensure that people were well fed. Most of all, I am grateful to the dozens of volunteers who contributed more than 600 hours of their time so that within the pilot, 4,323 meals were dished up to local children and their families. That was in addition to the thousands of meals provided by other amazing voluntary groups, including the Chell Heath mums and the Big Local. The goal of the pilots was not just to make holiday provision for those that really needed it. It was to pull together hard data to work out what delivery systems are most effective, and to begin to develop best practice that can guide similar projects nationwide.
As soon as my hon. Friend mentioned the word “data” I was reminded of the encouraging statement to the House yesterday by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about public health. The one thing he seemed to back away from was the link between poverty and poor health. Does not what my hon. Friend is talking about today exemplify the link between poverty and poor diet, which the Government seem reluctant to make?
In fact, the Government of Canada have done research to demonstrate the cost of poor nutrition to the public purse over a lifetime, in lack of attainment and job prospects. Also, it ends up costing the NHS a lot; if someone starts from a low base and does not get the right nutrition, it costs the public purse even more in the end. To me, the individual families are the most important part of the issue, but there is also a question of how much it ends up costing the general public if we do not get things right. My hon. Friend is right, and I hope that the Department of Health and Social Care will view what I am talking about as part of the prevention agenda within public health.
As for data collection, six different methods of tackling child food poverty and holiday provision were tested in my constituency. Some of the methods involved the direct provision of food alongside sport and craft activities in both primary and secondary school settings. Elsewhere, the direct provision of food and activities were maintained, but the programme was taken out of an educational setting. Instead, Wesley Hall, a modern church in the heart of Sneyd Green, was used. The YMCA facilitated community meals. The whole family could turn up at lunchtime and enjoy a hot meal as part of the scheme. That was an extension of its wonderful monthly community lunch programme—once a month, on a Friday; I highly recommend it. There was even a meals-on-wheels-style scheme, where food was delivered directly and discreetly to the doors of families who could not access any of the schemes easily. Each of the approaches was found to have pros and cons, and it is clear that a broad mix of delivery approaches is necessary to reach as many of the most vulnerable families as possible.
The pilots were to my knowledge the most structured and rigorous attempts to address the challenge of holiday hunger conducted in Staffordshire, certainly—and I suggest, as I am very proud of us, nationwide. However, they were not the only activities taking place in Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove. Across the constituency, local people who had heard what we were trying to achieve got involved and organised their own projects to make sure that the kids in their community were not left behind. My favourite, and the most chaotic, was in Chell Heath in my constituency. Thirteen mums from the local children’s centre came together expecting to look after 25 to 30 children a day. They ended up with more than 100, which was not quite what they were prepared for. When you walked in, it was complete and utter chaos—organised chaos—and a delight to visit. It shows the demand out there for proper holiday provision.
All in all, last summer, more than 10,000 meals were dished up across the constituency. I am so proud of the way local people pulled together to deliver such an enormous project. Together, they touched the lives of hundreds of children who without the projects would have faced a summer of hunger and isolation.
My hon. Friend has been doing brilliant work. We had a pilot scheme in Bristol, and what I found particularly interesting about it, and about the national results, was that children really wanted the fresh fruit. They regarded it as something of a luxury. Also, taking the leftover food home at the end of the day was very important. It shows the level of food poverty in which those children exist.
I could not agree more. One thing that we must look at is how people cook—there could be cooking classes in some of the activity programmes—and also ensuring that there is enough food at the end of the day for the whole family to have a meal that night, if necessary; it is not just about the children participating in the schemes as a secondary consequence of making sure they get wonderful holiday provision.
Many Members have just come back from the church service to commemorate 100 years since the cessation of the first world war. Does my hon. Friend recall, from learning history, that it was only when we started recruiting soldiers for the first world war that the extent of malnutrition in this country’s children as they reached 18 was realised? Nutrition was below the standard of any other country in the Commonwealth. Has my hon. Friend, with her community groups, looked at how good the data is on the effect of poor diet in the holidays on children’s overall health? Are GPs and clinical commissioning groups monitoring that?
That is a fascinating point. There have been more than 100 years of free school meals. One of the things that I find extraordinary about free school meal provision is that we did not think about school holidays. That is because there used to be community provision. Historically, schools were built with the kitchen at the front, so that when they were closed the kitchens were still open. As for the long-term health benefits, one of the great partnerships we had was with the public health team at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. This year and next year, we are working with Keele University, which will help us to assess the long-term impact.
The very best part of the fact that the schemes happened last year is the point that they did not end there. The pilot was not a one-off. Local efforts to tackle holiday provision have grown and grown. This summer, we had 12 holiday clubs operating in my constituency, with many more across the whole of Stoke-on-Trent, under the flag—for those who know Stoke-on-Trent—of Ay Up Duck. I cannot really do the proper accent. The organisation was set up to continue the work of the previous year, to move it on from the stigma that might have been associated with holiday hunger schemes. More than 5,926 meals were dished up by the Ay Up Duck scheme, and 460 parents accessed the food too, which was a significant development on last year. The scheme continued last week with a full programme of activities in half term, and will continue at Christmas, next half term and Easter before we get to next summer. Although Ay Up Duck did not receive direct funding as part of the national pilot, it got support from our local opportunity area. I welcome all support, as the funding provided by the Department for such projects has made a positive impact in supporting civil society to tackle child food poverty in local communities, but I fear it is insufficient, given the scale of the problem.
I have some questions for the Minister—this is his bit. What plans does he have to roll out the funding to every local authority? Our experience suggests that to ensure that schemes are co-ordinated and safe, a central point of contact and support is vital. Can the Minister inform us of his conversations with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about establishing a point of contact with each council? One of the challenges for holiday provision schemes is ensuring that they prioritise the right people for support. What conversations has he had to encourage family support workers to engage in such programmes outside term time? Many schools are struggling to find the additional funding to encourage them to work during the holidays.
We all have a responsibility to ensure that we are sharing best practice and not reinventing the wheel. Can the Minister update the Chamber on what he is doing to disseminate best practice? Specifically, what is he doing to ensure that appropriate support is in place to ensure that safeguarding requirements are met where all the schemes are being run?
The people who have made these projects happen have demonstrated our potential to effect real change in communities. They provided a lifeline to families in desperate financial situations and to others who just needed a little help, and they delivered a summer of fun, food and learning to children who may otherwise have gone without. Their example deserves to be celebrated and I am delighted that we are doing that here, but as we celebrate the work that is taking place in the Potteries and across the country, we must remain focused on the scale of the challenge. Although programmes to tackle holiday hunger are increasing, so are the number of families struggling to get by.
On 15 August, The Times Educational Supplement reported a 150% increase in the number of children receiving support from FareShare, the UK’s largest redistribution charity, compared with last year. The poverty that stands between our children and their full potential is still with us. The gaping hole in provision during the school holidays too often remains unfilled. For far too many families, the simple dream of a summer holiday of fun and comfort remains just that. These projects have made a real difference to people’s lives. It is my privilege to share their stories, and my duty to say that there is much more to be done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this important debate. My constituency is particularly blighted by food poverty. It has four food banks and there are a further six in the rest of the city. My office operates a makeshift food bank, where my staff regularly—in fact, daily—give out food parcels to constituents who have come about another issue such as universal credit, employment and support allowance or working tax credits. Once we start peeling away that onion, we find other issues under the skin, so we regularly give out food parcels.
In summer 2017, I was at a family fun day in my constituency to mark the start of the summer holidays. I received a call from a food bank, which told me that 36 families with children had turned up the day before, so the shelves were completely bare—there was nothing left. It was concerned that that would be a huge problem. I talked to some people, including media people who were at the event, and we put out an appeal, which resulted in a tremendous amount of food being donated to that food bank and others that were experiencing similar.
Reflecting on that, it became evident that the sudden demand for families to visit the food bank had to be due to something, which was obviously the fact that the schools were closed and the children who normally had free school meals could not get them. Families who live hand-to-mouth throughout the year, many of whom work but are on low incomes, become dependent on free school meals to provide their children with at least one hot meal a day.
I have spoken to countless teachers who have said that working families are struggling and that they can tell if the children are hungry. In my experience, I know the children are hungry. If someone has three school-aged children receiving free school meals, they will have to find 90 extra meals over the summer holidays. If the children have free breakfasts too, they will have to find another 90 meals. That is a lot of money and a lot of food to find for parents who are struggling.
For the last two years, my staff and I—they have been absolutely wonderful—have taken it upon ourselves to run our own summer lunch club. In the first year, I begged, stole and borrowed from anyone who cared to give. From bread and cheese to milk, yoghurt and bottles of water, we threw it together. We targeted children who were participating in free activities, such as free swimming or free play schemes, or who were in community centres that were providing free children’s activities.
We would start at 7 o’clock in the morning, work through until about 9 o’clock, and then go and open the office. On the first day, I remember thinking that if we could feed 500 children in 10 days, we would have achieved something. By 10 o’clock that morning, after we had made the first delivery, I was getting phone calls from people saying, “Is that the sandwich lady?” I did not disillusion them, but said, “Yes, it is. How many do you want?”—I think I am still known as the sandwich lady.
In that first year, we served nearly 6,500 meals. They were primarily sandwiches, although with the resources we got from asking the food bank for food, we were able to provide a limited hot meal service at three centres. This summer, however, we provided 10,000 meals. We were able to convince the staff at Admiral and at Arvato, which is the shared services centre for the Department for Transport, to help.
My hon. Friend will know that, in a previous incarnation, I was a Welsh politician at local council level—my ward abutted your constituency. Such programmes had tremendous support from the massive number of staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The staff were great charity organisers and gave marvellously. Not everyone has a good experience with the DVLA, but the people who worked there were some of the best people helping local charities, and I wonder if that continues.
I apologise, Mr Stringer.
We have had help from organisations such as Bidfood, which is a huge wholesaler; Boss Brewing, which provided us with a kitchen; the Coastal Housing Group, which provided resources and the delivery service; Dignity Funerals, which is connected to my children’s funeral fund campaign and has donated a huge amount of money; and Morrisons and Warburtons.
I recently met the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, which represents wholesalers up and down the country. It explained the good work that its members do to help to prevent holiday hunger and to provide children with the food they need during the school holidays. One of its members, Brakes, has been part of the “Meals & More” holiday hunger scheme for many years, and recently pledged £100,000 a year for the next five years to aid the initiative. That is a wonderful example of how businesses in communities are helping those communities. When you see a child grabbing a bag containing a cheese sandwich, a yoghurt, a packet of crisps and a bottle of water with enthusiasm and excitement because they are hungry, you cannot fail to be moved. It does not just pull at your heartstrings, but makes you think about how we take things for granted. Many kids do not get sufficient nutrition during the summer holiday. Even more importantly, many do not get basic food to fill their stomachs.
Now to the political bit. I was going to talk about the fact that, this Christmas, I am providing more than 100 food hampers to be delivered to those in need in Swansea. That will be done with the help of many people in my constituency who are giving me the money to work with Morrisons to provide a full Christmas dinner, including a joint and everything else that we take for granted, such as chocolate biscuits and mince pies. For people on low incomes, those things are luxuries to which they can only ever aspire.
Last year, the South Wales Evening Post launched a scheme called “Everyone Deserves a Christmas”, and collected clothing, food donations and everything else we take for granted. That tells us that there is a community spirit. Day in, day out, in times of austerity, people work hard to ensure that people in our communities, and especially children, are looked after. Surely there is more the Government can do to help them. Surely we can find ways to support people. It should not be done on a charitable basis, although nobody who gives to the work we do, and nobody who receives it, considers it to be charity, because it has become a necessity. I urge the Government to do everything they can to ensure children do not go hungry at any time of the year, and especially not when they do not have access to free school meals.
I commend the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on the absolutely amazing work she is doing to ensure her constituents are fed, although it is incredibly sad and frustrating that we have to do that in our society.
Some fantastic work is being done in my constituency, and I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to a couple of examples. Organisations in my constituency and right across Glasgow have grasped holiday hunger incredibly well. It is important that the help for families is not just a handout. We want to get the biggest take-up of holiday food provision, so it must be free from stigma. It must be community-focused and provided in an inclusive, welcoming environment.
Dalmarnock Primary School in my constituency took the lead with its “Food, Families, Future” scheme over the summer holidays. More than 80% of the children who attend Dalmarnock Primary are in Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation category 1—the lowest category—and 30% have English as an additional language. Many of their parents have no recourse to public funds due to Home Office decisions, so sadly they are also in need of support and food over the summer. The Home Office sometimes does not allow them to work—I am not quite sure where it imagines they will be fed.
The summer project is fantastically well thought out and has had input from partner organisations from all over Glasgow, including Possibilities for Each and Every Kid—PEEK—which is brilliant at doing play work with children and giving them a proper summer to remember. The project did not just provide food for kids, but used the school’s resources to tackle several key poverty-related indicators. It was more of a summer camp than a food bank. In addition to holiday hunger, it addressed social isolation for parents, who often cannot take their children out to different places, and find being stuck in the house on their own all summer isolating and lonely. Being on a tight budget over the summer holidays means that there is limited scope for play and entertainment. Parents face a long period in which they cannot take up work because they have got caring responsibilities. Working is difficult because they have to pay for childcare.
The Dalmarnock Primary School scheme was about more than just free meals. It gave families the chance to support one another, and for children to take part in sports and other activities in a safe, familiar space—they got to go to their own primary school over the summer. Such projects offer a crucial link for families and communities, and build strong support networks so families are more likely to access help that they need in the future and parents are less likely to feel isolated. They build up peer-group friendships, which they might not otherwise have been able to do.
Glasgow City Council has since allocated £2 million for Glasgow children’s summer food programme, hoping that similar projects can be replicated throughout the city. The fund makes awards available to organisations that can feed children over the holiday period, in ways that support their wellbeing and a healthier relationship with food. The Scottish Government have made Scotland the only UK country to have defined statutory targets for tackling child poverty, through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. They have allocated £1 million towards the tackling child poverty development plan, which sets out practical assistance for measures to improve food security during the school holidays.
It is important to acknowledge that child poverty cannot be solved by one strategy, one Department or one Government. It is a complex issue and we have to consider the wider context in which any policy is operating.
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is a cross-departmental issue. The other day, the Environmental Audit Committee quizzed four Ministers from four Departments about the sustainable development goal to end hunger, and asked them where responsibility sits within the Government structure for ending hunger. I was extremely alarmed when they all looked blank. They all looked at each other, and nobody knew the answer. It is important that we have a departmental lead —a Minister with responsibly for fulfilling that sustainable development goal.
I absolutely agree. If no Minister is responsible for it, it is easy to pass the buck, ignore it and say, “It’s not my job.” It has to be somebody’s job, but it is nobody’s job. That is an important point.
A point that is often missed in debates about child poverty, hunger and food banks is the cost of infant formula. A report that the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities will launch soon details that the cost of infant formula has increased, but the wages in people’s pockets and healthy start vouchers have not kept pace, so families have to make the impossible choice between feeding themselves or feeding their infants.
The Chancellor said that austerity is ending soon—perhaps, maybe—but it will be a very long time before families in my constituency feel any change. There is no denying that, over the past 10 years, austerity has been a huge underlying driver of child poverty in Scotland and across the UK. The Scottish Government are doing what they can to mitigate the effects of the cuts, but the actions that can be taken are limited. Their analysis shows that, this year, 130,000 more children in Scotland could be pushed into poverty as a result of the UK Government’s welfare cuts. That is approximately the population of Dundee. If the number of children in poverty can fill a whole city, something has gone drastically wrong.
Universal credit has started to be rolled out in my constituency, and will hit the Shettleston jobcentre on 5 December. Somebody applying for universal credit on the very first day of the roll-out at the Shettleston jobcentre will not get any money until 9 January. The Government often say that people can get advances, but they push people below what the Government say they need to live on for a year as they clear that debt. That is absolutely unacceptable. They rob themselves in advance to get an advance on universal credit.
I have always found the idea of independence for Scotland attractive, but I do not want it for its own ends. I want it so we can have a Government that we elect, not a Government that chooses austerity over the future of our children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for securing this important debate.
In Scotland, there are approximately 170 non-school days a year when children cannot access free school meals, putting a lot of pressure on low-paid families that rely on them. The absence of a free school meal for children can cost families on low incomes between £30 and £40 per week. The Trussell Trust has warned that food bank use spikes not just in the Christmas period but during the summer. As we have heard, in 2017, 593 organisations running holiday clubs across the UK provided more than 190,000 meals to more than 22,000 school-age children.
As we have a bit of time, I have some stats from the Glasgow South West constituency, where activities like those happening in other hon. Members’ constituencies are taking place. Southside Housing Association delivered its Southside Summer Connections programme this year in Cardonald in the Glasgow South West constituency. The housing association delivered the programme as lead partner, along with Hillington Park parish church. This year’s funding was awarded from the Glasgow children’s summer food programme, which is funded by Glasgow City Council. The housing association based the programme on the model it used in the previous two years, providing a breakfast club with free healthy breakfasts and activities on two days a week over the school summer holidays.
The housing association delivered 12 sessions. A total of 311 individuals—112 adults and 199 children—attended or benefited from the programme. Based on attendance figures, the housing association provided a total of 1,182 healthy breakfast meals. There was an average of 99 participants at each session. The programme cost £4,800 for food and activities, and was backed by 17 volunteers from Hillington Park parish church and the housing association. I thank those 17 volunteers for their remarkable work.
Does the hon. Gentleman think there is a lack of comprehension of what goes on for constituents such as his and mine and those of other hon. Members who have spoken? Is it not the fact that, at the top of our country, there are people from the soft parts of Surrey and from Maidenhead who just do not understand the pressures and the situations that people on low incomes face in the age of austerity?
The hon. Gentleman was referred to earlier as a veteran of Parliament. When I arrived here in 2015, the first thing to hit me—it hit me right between the eyes—was the class differential between some of us on the Opposition Benches and those on the Government Benches. I agree that there seems to be a lack of understanding of what happens in the daily lives of far too many of our constituents as they struggle to navigate their way through life and the social security system. I recommend that he looks at the work of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I am a member. That lack of understanding is evident to us.
Southside Housing Association staff told me that they saw the visible signs of poverty and hunger, and believed that its programme helped people. The housing association also had a back-to-school uniform bank. It alarms me that not only do we have food banks but toy banks, baby banks and school uniform banks are starting to emerge. Some 2,000 items were donated by Glasgow South West constituents in that bank. That is just some of the work the Southside Housing Association managed to do in Cardonald in Glasgow South West. It did similar work in Pollokshields in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
As others said, we need to look at the punitive social security reform and austerity measures that lead people into poverty. Tackling poverty and inequality must be Parliament’s key priority. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the UK Government need to follow where the Scottish Government have led on helping children to access food during school holidays. Early intervention will reduce the need for people to rely on holiday hunger schemes and help to reduce the stigma of using such schemes.
The Scottish Government’s tackling child poverty delivery plan helps parents to work more flexibly and increases their incomes by helping them with the cost of uniforms, childcare and the like. The fair food fund aims to ensure that everyone can feed themselves and their families. That fund supports community projects such as Crookston Community Group in my constituency, which offers dignified and sustainable responses to food poverty.
Regularly skipping meals has a massive impact on children’s behaviour, concentration and development. The children’s charity Cash for Kids was granted £150,000 to help community organisations support children during the school holidays with activities and access to meals. That funding is the first of the £1 million that will be allocated over the next two years to tackle food insecurity outside term time, and it is just part of the £1.5 million fair food fund, which supports projects to help people move away from emergency food provision and access healthy, nutritious food through community-based activities and support. A number of Scottish local authorities are planning to provide free meals 365 days a year to children from low-income families—a proposal that was welcomed by the Child Poverty Action Group.
However, we need significant social security reform from the Government to ensure that families and children do not go hungry during school holidays. The pressures of child hunger are exacerbated by the benefit freeze and social security reform—decisions on social security have a direct impact on hunger. The overall benefit cap needs to be raised and the benefit freeze ended so that households are not forced into destitution. With the introduction of universal credit, deduction rates for advances, arrears and overpayments, and all other third-party deductions, need to be reduced.
The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), drafted a Bill, which I supported, that would place a duty on local authorities to ensure that disadvantaged pupils were fed during school breaks. I would like the UK Government to adopt that Bill and that approach, and learn from Scotland and elsewhere.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, as it was to serve under your leadership as a young councillor on Manchester City Council. I suspect the love-in will cease there as we approach Manchester derby day on Sunday, given that we support different colours of the city. We will just have to try to get along as best as we can over the next few days.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on her excellent speech and on securing this timely debate. I will be critical of some Members in a moment, but it was really interesting to hear the passion with which all Members spoke about this issue in their constituencies. I will know my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for ever more as the sandwich lady, and the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) know exactly what is going on in their constituencies with respect to hunger. Before I came to the Chamber, my parliamentary assistant sent me my monthly digital bulletin to sign off. In it was an appeal for more food for food banks, which are running desperately low as we approach Christmas. That is a worry for many of us in our constituencies.
Hon. Members will be aware that I am not my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who should be answering the debate—she cannot be here, for which she apologises. I pay tribute to her and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for their work on the All-party Parliamentary Group on hunger. They do not just walk the walk on this issue—they talk the talk. They set up a charity to tackle it after touring constituencies up and down our land.
Let me return to my Scottish colleagues for a second. After you, Mr Stringer, bid for the Olympic games for Manchester and secured the Commonwealth games, I became a huge friend of Glasgow’s. As a director of Manchester velodrome, I supported Glasgow through its bids to build a velodrome and to host the Commonwealth games. However, having changed hue last May, Glasgow City Council is still being forced to implement millions upon millions of pounds of cuts—£53 million of cuts to services in the constituencies of the hon. Members for Glasgow Central and for Glasgow South West—by the Scottish Government. Last year, it cut more than £5 million from education budgets. We begin to see that it is not just central Government who are to blame for this issue—there are other Governments up and down our land who have not walked the walk or talked the talk. I am sorry to have to raise that, but it is the case, and there is sometimes very little scrutiny in this place of what goes on north of the border.
Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that the Scottish Government have a fixed budget, a lot of which comes from this place? Austerity comes from Westminster and is only passed on up the road to the Scottish Government and then to Glasgow City Council.
I did not realise that we had any Liberal Democrats in the room. That is the old cry of, “This is the problem and they are to blame for it,” without the Scottish National party’s taking any responsibility, despite its control over lots of levers of power, which is important.
As has been pointed out, more than 3 million children were at risk of hunger during the school holidays this summer because they were not getting their term-time free school meals. That is shameful. At the heart of the debate is the impact of the Government’s eight years of unrelenting and indiscriminate austerity. Universal credit is failing in many of our constituencies, and the urgent question on it the other day was really interesting. There should be preferential options for the poor when we make public policy in our country, and universal credit should have a preferential option for those who are in the poverty of having mental health problems. Its impact on those people causes much stress and tips them over the edge.
More than 4 million children are growing up in poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North made an absolutely fantastic point on inequality, which I see in my constituency and other Members see in theirs. In some schools, 40% of children are not school-ready—they do not know about reciprocity or play or how to hold cutlery or pens, which my hon. Friend mentioned—but in others in my constituency, that figure is up to 80%, and growing, because of the austerity of the last few years.
More than 1 million people now go to food banks, and the situation is predicted to get worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the number of children living in poverty is likely to soar to a record 5.2 million over the next five years. Government Members should hang their heads in shame that families in that situation cannot afford to feed their children in the school holidays.
It is interesting how, in our city, Mr Stringer, schools compete over which of our two great teams runs their holiday club. Schools generally choose the team that provides the most free school meals, because that is what some of our schools desperately need. The football clubs are having to look at this in their summer holiday provision in our cities.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. There are opportunities in places with Football League clubs. It is wonderful that, in my city, Port Vale and Stoke City came together to deliver something. My hon. Friend may even get Manchester United and Manchester City to do the same.
We will certainly look at that. I think that Mr Stringer and I would say that we are excellently served by the community schemes of both great football clubs in our city, as my hon. Friend is in hers.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields set up Feeding Britain, a charity focused on demonstrating how hunger and its underlying causes can be addressed. The United Nations estimates that more than 8 million people in the UK are food-insecure. At the moment, the Government have no way of measuring that and understanding the scale of the problem. The Food Insecurity Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, is awaiting its Second Reading. It has a simple ask of the Government, calling on them to provide for official statistics on food insecurity. That is supported by more than 20 national organisations and, so far, more than 150 MPs from across the House. The APPG on hunger, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have also advocated the measurement of hunger. Will the Minister commit today to supporting the Bill on Second Reading?
The Bill makes a cost-neutral proposal to bring the living costs and food Survey into the 21st century and to enable the Government to fully understand the challenge of food insecurity, which puts more than 3 million children at risk of going hungry in the school holidays. A Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that sought to enact the recommendations of the APPG’s report on countering hunger among children during school holidays sadly did not progress on Second Reading earlier this year.
However, the Minister stated that the Government would provide funding for research and pilots on holiday provision over the summer. Feeding Britain and the APPG provided information to the Department to help inform that research and pilots. Have we had the promised announcement on the outcomes of that research and the national roll-out?
We had it about four hours in advance of the debate. That is not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, Minister. I am sorry to sound like a schoolteacher, but that is how it is.
When all is said and done, we can launch as many pilots as we want, but the fact is that we live in a society where parents cannot feed their children in the school holidays. Will the Minister commit to ending the sticking-plaster approach and talking to his Cabinet colleagues about a genuine end to austerity and the introduction of a real living wage of £10 an hour, to ensure that every family has enough to make ends meet and that no child will have to go hungry?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this important debate. I know that she is passionate about this matter and was instrumental in establishing the Fit and Fed pilot scheme in Stoke-on-Trent in 2017. I will embarrass myself by attempting the accent, but hearing about Ay Up Duck was truly inspiring.
I also thank the many colleagues who have spoken. I think the local paper of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is already writing the headline, “The Sandwich Lady has DVLA on her hit list”. I have to say that for her, her team and her constituents to have delivered 10,000 meals this summer is truly admirable. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) contributed, and I am grateful for her courtesy in sending me a note to explain why she was slightly delayed in joining the debate. There were also many interventions from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is no longer here. I did not agree with all of them, but some were worth noting, including those on his work in local government.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment to delivering a country that really does work for everyone. For most children, the school holidays should mean fun experiences and a chance to make memories with friends and family. We want to make sure that those opportunities are available to all children, regardless of their background.
Let me first set out what the Government have done on our key priority of tackling poverty and disadvantage. In 2017, we published the “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” strategy, which focused on measures to tackle the root causes of poverty and to improve children’s welfare. For most people, work represents the best route out of poverty. Unemployment has not been lower since 1975, and the proportion of workless households is at its lowest since records began.
However, we recognise that there is more to do. One of the Government’s guiding principles is to promote social mobility and to ensure equality of opportunity for every child. My Department plays a leading role in ensuring that a package of support for disadvantaged children is in place to help them reach their full potential.
We recognise the benefits of providing healthy food to disadvantaged children. Through our free school meals policy, more than 1.1 million disadvantaged children currently benefit from a free meal at school. In September 2014, we extended that to include disadvantaged further education students—that has not been raised in the debate, but it was clearly an area that we needed to extend to policy to—and to give free school meals to all children in reception and years 1 and 2 in England’s state-funded schools.
To get the best out of their time at school, children need a healthy breakfast. We have invested up to £26 million from the soft drinks industry levy to support the national school breakfast programme, delivered by Family Action and Magic Breakfast. Through that programme, we will set up or improve more than 1,700 breakfast clubs in the most disadvantaged areas of our country, focusing on our 12 opportunity areas. Last week, I visited St Mary’s Primary School in Battersea, 50% of whose children are on pupil premium, and saw for myself the advantage of a nutritious breakfast and activities, whether we are talking about maths, English or just running around the yard. One bonus, one upside, that the headteacher told me about was that attendance had increased.
I shall now talk about the subject of this debate—the holiday activities and food programme of work that my Department has committed to. I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North that “holiday hunger” is the wrong title, which is why I prefer to talk about holiday activities and food. Earlier this year, in response to the private Member’s Bill mentioned by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and promoted by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), I announced work to investigate how to support the most disadvantaged children to access free healthy food and enriching activities during the school holidays. The purpose of that is to allow us to gather more evidence about the scale of the issue, the most effective ways of tackling it, and the costs and burdens associated with doing so. As a result, we will be able to make an evidence-based decision about whether and how we should intervene in the longer term.
As part of our 2018 programme of work, my officials have reviewed the available research evidence and engaged with national and local delivery partners. We have learned that the evidence base for the schemes, although still in its infancy, shows that they can have a positive impact on children and their families. We have learned that the most effective forms of provision seem to be those that deliver consistent and easily accessible activities and involve children and parents in the preparation of healthy food. Throughout that programme of work, we have engaged with those on the ground delivering this type of provision, those building the evidence base and those supporting providers. I am referring to people such as Carol Shanahan—she is absolutely brilliant and truly an inspiration and, alongside the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, set up the Stoke-on-Trent pilot in 2017—Lindsay Graham and Professor Greta Defeyter.
Our stakeholders have told us that providers want to work better with other stakeholders to improve targeting and referrals, and link up with other people who could support them, such as food providers. They told us that they want greater co-ordination across the sector to help to raise awareness of provision and to ensure that provision exists where it is most needed, so it is targeted. Providers need support to improve the quality of provision through the introduction of minimum standards, guidance, training and support. I think you will agree, Mr Stringer, that this is enormously powerful stuff.
In March, I announced a £2 million fund to support organisations to deliver healthy food and activities to children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country during the 2018 summer holidays. We awarded funding to seven organisations, which told us that, with that money, they were able to support about 280 clubs—including three in Stoke-on-Trent—reaching about 18,000 children. The information that we have gathered from the projects—from data on attendance reported by the projects, from visits to a small sample of clubs and from conversations with the organisations that we have funded—has helped us enormously in thinking about how we as a Government can add value in our 2019 programme.
We have today published figures evaluating the performance of the clubs. I am aware that there was some confusion about the number of people helped by the programme. Today’s figures relate to the number of children who have been helped by the scheme. They show that thousands of children—approximately 18,000—have benefited from the programme. In July, a figure of 30,000 was used. However, for one supplier, the figure estimated the number of times that children would be helped by the programme, so it was slightly misleading. I wanted to set the record straight on that.
We will be able to say more about what we have learned from the 2018 projects later this autumn when we announce our plans for the 2019 programme, but for me, the key messages from the projects that we funded this summer have been as follows. First, I want to pay tribute to and thank all the staff and volunteers involved in the clubs for what they achieved with limited time, resources and people. Secondly, there was huge variation in the types of provision on offer. For example, some clubs were open all day, every day over the holidays, but others opened for an hour or two over lunch a couple of days a week; my officials saw clubs in a range of venues that offered a range of activities. Thirdly, we want to preserve that variety and ensure that clubs can operate in a way that responds to the needs of those attending. However, it was clear that there are areas where the sector needs support and where a more strategic and co-ordinated approach could add real value and achieve real efficiencies, and that is what we want to focus on during the 2019 programme.
As an example of where greater support and co-ordination could help, I would like to focus for a while on the food aspect of provision. Many clubs benefited from having the facilities, knowledge, experience and volunteers to be able to prepare and cook delicious, healthy and nutritious food and snacks. Others had arrangements with providers such as Brakes’ Meals & More, which delivered healthy and nutritious food to them, saving them time in the kitchen. However, other clubs were not so lucky. My officials visited clubs with no on-site catering facilities and clubs that relied on food donations through schemes such as FareShare. That meant that it was sometimes harder for them to provide a varied menu of healthy and nutritious meals across the summer holidays. Healthy meals are so important if we are to tackle issues such as childhood obesity, which has been mentioned and which disproportionately affects children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead has just joined us in the Chamber. It is a privilege to have you here, sir. You were namechecked earlier in my remarks.
We intend to do much more next year to support clubs to deliver the healthy and nutritious food that is the key to supporting children’s health and learning, as well as to tackling obesity. Throughout 2018 we have listened and learned and, as a result, for our 2019 programme we are exploring options for establishing a grant fund. I think that this was one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. We are looking to establish a grant fund to set up local co-ordinators of free holiday provision for disadvantaged children in a number of local authority areas across the country. Our plans are not yet confirmed, but we envisage that those co-ordinators will fund, support and promote free holiday provision in their area, aiming to ensure that there is enough to meet demand—one of the issues raised by the hon. Lady—to improve its quality, to increase awareness, promotion and targeting and to implement a more efficient and joined-up approach locally.
The hon. Lady also mentioned safeguarding, which I know many groups find challenging. We recognise the importance of safeguarding and are looking at how local co-ordinators can support providers on that, including through the use of minimum standards. We will also look at how we can disseminate best practice after the 2019 programme. As I said, the plans are not yet confirmed and we will look to publish further information about the 2019 programme and invite organisations to bid to become involved later this autumn.
Before concluding, I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Members for Glasgow Central, for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East on universal credit. A strong economy is the best route to raising living standards and giving everyone people the opportunity to make the most of their talents and hard work, no matter who they are or where they live. Since 2010, we have supported nearly 3.4 million more people into work. That is more than 1,000 people a day, every day, producing a record rate of employment and, as I mentioned earlier, the lowest unemployment since the 1970s. The introduction of universal credit will mean an extra 200,000 people moving into work, because work will always pay. It will add £8 billion per year to the economy when fully rolled out. The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East mentioned disabled people. Around 1 million disabled households receive an average of around £110 more per month under universal credit.
In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for securing this debate, highlighting this important issue and speaking with pride about the team in her constituency who have delivered above and beyond. We know that the school holidays can be particular pressure points for some families. I think this afternoon’s debate has spanned our approach to tackling disadvantage more generally, as well as some of the specifics about work we have undertaken on support for disadvantaged children during the school holidays.
I am fully committed to taking forward work to explore how we can support disadvantaged children and their families during the school holidays, to complement the Government’s package of support in schools for disadvantaged children. That will ensure that all children have access to healthy food and are engaged and invigorated after the school holidays, so that they are ready for the new term.
I hope that I have left enough time for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to wrap up.
I thank everyone for their participation today. I am in awe, as ever, of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is obviously “the sandwich lady from Swansea East”; I usually call her the queen, but now I will have to rename her.
We have seen from the varied contributions quite how important this issue is and I thank all my colleagues for their contributions, with a special “honourable mention” to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), without whom we would not have got as far as we have.
I am delighted that the Government are now looking at a more strategic approach for delivery. The one caveat, however, which I raise with the Minister, is that of those families that have an income of £15,000 a year, 30% of them go without a meal in the school holidays to ensure that their children can have one. This is a working poor issue as much as it is an issue for those people who live on benefits, and I hope that will be reflected in future schemes.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered holiday hunger schemes.
Post Offices (North Yorkshire)
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Post Office provision in North Yorkshire.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Let me begin by saying up front that I strongly support post offices and want to see them thrive. Everything that I will say about how we can make our post office network more sustainable for the future is to be taken in that positive way.
I sought this debate because of the closure of the Cold Bath Road post office in Harrogate and the proposed relocation of the Crown post office in Harrogate from its location on Cambridge Road to WHSmith. However, it is not just Harrogate in North Yorkshire that is affected. We are seeing the same relocation to WHSmith being proposed for York, Scarborough, Selby, Northallerton and, more widely in Yorkshire, in Beverley and Pontefract. We are seeing it in other parts of our country, too.
This debate has attracted attention from other parts of the UK. We are being followed by sub-postmasters up and down the country. I have had emails from the west country, Wales and much closer to home. They confirm that the underlying points I will raise are of wider concern. That was also clear from the meeting last week of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, which discussed the relocation issue.
Post offices are an important part of our national infrastructure. They provide access points not only for post office services, but for banking and Government services. We are seeing huge growth in the parcels business through internet shopping, and the Post Office has developed very good products. We are seeing increasing use of post offices for their banking services. That is particularly important as the number of high street bank branches has fallen. That point has been highlighted to me by smaller, often independent traders. We are also seeing increasing use of the gov.uk Verify scheme. That service matters, as it helps to tackle the growing issue of identity fraud. The passport and driving services have been highlighted by local residents in Harrogate and Knaresborough as being valuable. The services matter, so post offices matter. The question with the relocations then is about how we ensure that the people of Harrogate can continue to access the services.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. In York, we too face the challenge of a post office closure. The post office has been there since 1884. It is on the main thoroughfare for tourists and residents coming into the city, and it is due to relocate to an area where footfall is falling massively—it is 15% down in the past two years. Does he agree that we need to look at the business case and the impact on the local community and local businesses when assessments are made of the future viability of a post office?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I entirely agree that as these relocations are considered, the implications for business and the community must be considered in the round. I am aware of the location of the post office—York is a very near neighbour to Harrogate and Knaresborough—and its importance, and I strongly agree with the point that she has made.
Post offices matter and the services matter. The access point is absolutely critical, and I am not happy with the proposals. I have enormous reservations about the relocation of a Crown post office to a WHSmith. In Harrogate’s case, it is moving from Cambridge Road to the Victoria Centre. My key reservations are about access and security. On access, both locations are in our town centre, but parking in the immediate proximity is easier at the existing location. Disabled parking in particular is good at Cambridge Road, whereas for the Victoria Centre it is across the A61, a very busy road.
I did not know how the proposed location in WHSmith would work until I received an email from WH Smith at lunchtime today with significantly more information, followed by a six-page letter from the Post Office a couple of hours ago. Having been in meetings today, I have not had the chance to go through it in detail yet, but I will do so directly after the debate. Clearly it will answer some questions, but I think it will raise even more.
We now know that the proposal is to locate the post office on the first floor of WH Smith. There are lifts, escalators and stairs in the store, and the shopping centre entrance will be flat, but first-floor retailing inevitably has a lower footfall than ground-floor retailing. I spent many years in retail before I came to Parliament, so I know that first-floor and ground-floor locations are very different. I am sure that the email that I received at lunchtime was trying to help, but in reality it has made my fears worse. However, at least the Post Office has confirmed that all the staff in the very good Crown post office team will be TUPE-ed across and have some security, which is reassuring news for everybody.
On products and services, the Post Office has confirmed that all existing services will transfer with the location, but that Home Office passport services will not transfer. That is a loss. It feels as if the Post Office is in retreat, both physically and in its offer, when the opposite should be happening.
I must draw the Minister’s attention to the nature of the Post Office consultation. When it first got in touch with me, its email said that
“any proposed changes will be subject to a public consultation”.
However, at the all-party group meeting last week, it announced that the franchising decision has already been made and that it is a private commercial matter. I am not sure that those two comments are in any way consistent. We need a proper, wide consultation.
I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene again. I, too, was at the APPG meeting. The Post Office made it very clear that its consultation was more about information exchange, rather than being a proper consultation. It said that it had already looked at access issues, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that it will not take note of those crucial issues?
That was indeed a very disappointing part of the Post Office’s response at what was otherwise a very good APPG meeting. I want the consultation to be much more wide-ranging. I want it to consider the views of the people of Harrogate; I am sure the hon. Lady wants the same for the people of York, and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) wants the same for his constituents. The issue affects locations right across north Yorkshire.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Post office services are always critical, but particularly now. Banks in villages and towns such as Kirkbymoorside and Filey in my constituency are closing, handing over responsibility for banking services to post offices and walking away, yet there is no long-term guarantee of how long those post offices will exist. Does he agree that it is critical that we continue to invest in our post offices so that people have physical access to banking services and to the many other services that post offices provide?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point; I totally agree. From a business perspective, I have no doubt that in some parts of our country, post offices are the last opportunity for local banking. They play a critical role, and the need for their preservation has to be a consideration not just for the Post Office but for the Government when they consider how the financial services structure of our country can thrive in the future.
I learned from the correspondence that I received this afternoon that the consultation will start tomorrow; I do wonder whether I would have received the information with quite the same urgency if the debate had not been scheduled for today. I am sure that there will be a big response to the consultation. My campaign to collect local opinions on the proposal has already had hundreds of responses. A summary of the views submitted is that, overwhelmingly, people value their post office and want a secure future for it without loss of service. Consultations on other branches across the country that have moved have been very shallow, so I hope this consultation will be better, instead of being just a paper exercise. I will make sure that all the responses that I have received will be fed into the considerations.
I am not blind to commercial pressures on the high street. I recognise that the internet is changing business models and that the Post Office, like all companies, must evolve—that is a given. The Post Office is to be commended for returning to profit last year for the first time in 16 years. I can see why it may wish to leave the Cambridge Road location, because it is a very large building—the team showed me round some years ago—and much of it is unused. Leaving space empty is bad business, but has the Post Office considered a new smaller stand-alone location more tailored to its future needs, in which it could continue to offer good access and a complete transfer of services without any erosion? I fully recognise that unnecessary overheads make business unsustainable, but a search could easily reveal a location that would make the post office fit for the future.
I ask the Minister to raise in her discussions with Post Office management a few points for consideration about the relocation programme across North Yorkshire and particularly in Harrogate. Are the consultations genuine and proper or are they a paper exercise? Do they address matters of principle or smaller, peripheral matters? Will she review with Post Office management the process for reletting sub-post offices and the speed at which they do it?
We need a new sub-postmaster at Cold Bath Road post office, which has closed. It is a popular branch: when it was earmarked for closure by the Labour Government in 2008-9, we held a protest march, which is quite unusual for Harrogate, that attracted significant attention. We marched from the Cold Bath Road post office to the Crown post office, and we changed the Government’s mind. The post office stayed open and became a valuable part of our local business network and our thriving community. We want it to open again, but it needs a sub-postmaster to run it. The process needs to be speedy, so I ask the Minister to consider the process and speed of reletting sub-post offices. That issue has been highlighted by hon. Members who are not present for our debate because they do not represent North Yorkshire, but who recognise the same issue in their constituency.
At a time at which the Government are taking action to support high streets and make them viable, through significant Budget measures such as the future high streets fund and the changes to business rates, it feels as if the Post Office is taking steps in the opposite direction. People and businesses need post office services, from parcels to banking, and from passports to savings, but a business does not thrive by making it harder for its customers to find and use it. It should do the opposite. Instead of thinking about a retreat to fewer services, we should think about growth towards more.
Those are the points that I will raise with the Post Office, because I want to see all post offices thrive in Harrogate and beyond. I ask the Minister to raise them in her discussions with the Post Office, because the issue affects many parts of our United Kingdom. Post offices are a valuable part of local communities right across the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir David.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) on securing this debate on post office services in North Yorkshire. He has been an energetic and passionate advocate of post office services in his constituency. Post offices play such a vital role at the heart of our local communities, so it is only right that we have opportunities to debate the Post Office and the services it provides locally. The Government recognise and value the economic and social importance of post offices, in particular to communities in North Yorkshire. That is why our manifesto made a commitment to safeguard the post office network and to support the provision of rural services.
I point out that I am the Minister with responsibility for post offices, so it is right for me not only to champion the Post Office but to listen to hon. Members’ concerns. I, also offer challenge directly to Post Office Ltd in our role as its Government owner. I will first look at some facts.
Between 2010 and 2018, the Government provided nearly £2 billion to maintain and invest in a national network of at least 11,500 post offices. Ninety per cent. of the UK population must be within one mile and 99% within three miles of their nearest branch. Government investment has enabled the modernisation of more than 7,000 branches, added more than 200,000 opening hours per week and established the Post Office as the largest network trading on a Sunday.
I will make some progress first.
Post office banking services enable 99% of personal and 95% of business banking in any one of 11,500 branches, supporting consumers, businesses and local economies in the face of accelerated bank closures. Financial performance has improved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough outlined, from a loss of £120 million to a trading profit of £35 million in financial year 2017-18, thereby reducing Government funding from £415 million in 2013-14 to £50 million by 2020-21.
I encourage the House to look objectively at those facts. They clearly show that the network is at the most stable it has been in a generation. All that has been achieved notwithstanding increasingly challenging trading conditions in the Post Office’s core markets and in the wider retail sector. The Post Office offers a huge range of products and services to the UK public, while ensuring that those services remain at the heart of towns and villages throughout the country. In doing so, it offers great value for money for the taxpayer.
Finally, we recognise that changing consumer behaviour presents a significant challenge for small retailers, including the many postmasters up and down the country. In the Budget last week, therefore, we announced a one-third reduction in small retailers’ business rates bills for two years from April 2019. A retailer could save up to about £8,000 per property per year, which will benefit a range of retailers, including post offices.
Will the Minister look specifically at the case of York’s Crown post office? It is in a prime location in our city for both residents and tourists. Will she look at it in the light of it being a profitable post office, so that the whole business case is properly reviewed?
As I said before the debate, I am happy to look at York specifically in the future, asking any questions that the hon. Lady might have of Post Office Ltd directly.
I appreciate that the proposed changes to the delivery of post office services can cause much concern to the communities affected. Post office branches, however, are not closing but are being franchised, whether on site or to be relocated to high streets. Franchises typically provide the same range of post office services as those offered at Crown branches.
Working with a retail partner is a sensible response to the challenges faced by our high street retailers, with the benefit of shared overheads across the combined post office and retail business, including property and staff costs. Franchising is a part of the Post Office’s strategy to ensure that the network is secure, sustainable and successful in the long term. In fact, more than 90% of post offices throughout the UK are operated successfully by independent businesses and retail partners.
Moving the directly managed Crown offices to retail partners has helped to reduce the losses in part of the network from £46 million as recently as four years ago to break-even today. I must stress that franchising is not about closing branches, but about moving a branch to a lower-cost model while continuing to offer high-quality service, more convenient hours and better locations. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has questioned location, and we can look at that, but Citizens Advice found that franchised branches deliver the same or better standards of service to the customer.
Regarding the recent WHSmith announcement, the communities of Harrogate and Knaresborough, as well as other communities in North Yorkshire, are not losing their post offices, which will be relocated to WHSmith branches, making services more accessible to customers.
The Minister makes a good point on the Government’s support for the post office network. The concern is where, because of the closure of banks, post offices end up being the only physical premises at which someone can bank. If the Government were to withdraw their support, those towns will have no banking service. Can we do more either to stop banks closing the last branch in a town, or to give longer-term support to post offices to ensure that that does not happen?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the role that post offices play in the banking sector. As he knows, the Post Office and the banks have an agreement about the enjoyment of post office facilities for use in offering services traditionally provided by high street banks. The Post Office is in negotiation with the banks to renew that agreement. As the Minister responsible, I have been clear about what I believe: the Post Office needs to benefit; customers need to benefit from a banking framework; and the banks need to accept their responsibility for the role now being played by post offices.
For example, those WHSmith changes will add four and a half hours to the opening time of the Harrogate branch in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Rest assured, however, that the existing branches will continue to serve the community until the changes are finalised by the Post Office.
My hon. Friend is right that the Coal Bath Road post office closed on 1 October. Post Office Ltd is committed to delivering a new partner or provider for that branch. There have been commercial issues with regard to provider and post office. Sometimes, unfortunately, contractual matters get in the way, but I absolutely accept that it is something we want to deliver.
With regard to the process, my hon. Friend is right that Post Office Ltd will carry out the consultation from tomorrow. Again, I request that anyone who can puts in a response to the Post Office, because it has to look at the consultation to ensure that it answers the questions and deals with the concerns expressed by the community. I will, however, raise the questions of process directly with the Post Office. He is right to challenge me as the Minister responsible to pass that challenge on to the Post Office.
The Post Office runs local consultations to engage local communities and to help shape its plans. That is in line with its code of practice on changes to the network. Citizens Advice reported that the process is increasingly effective, with improvements agreed or reassurances provided in most cases, demonstrating that the Post Office listens to the community. I know that the Post Office will continue to engage with local communities and to consider all options to ensure provision of sustainable post office services before its plans are finalised.
My hon. Friend wants the Post Office to consult on the concept of franchising before it consults on any new locations. However, these decisions must be commercial ones for the business to take within the parameters set by Government to ensure we protect our valued network. Post offices operate in a competitive environment and we should allow the business to assess how best to respond to the challenges it faces in order to meet our shared ambition of securing post offices for the future.
On the reduction of services that my hon. Friend thinks is taking place, he is correct that the biometric enrolment for UK Visas and Immigration, which is currently available at 99 branches, is not easily transferrable. He is absolutely right that that agreement is directly with the Home office, and it will obviously cause him concern.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about first floor access for the disabled to the WH Smith and that post office, and about car parking. We need hon. Members to challenge the Post Office about those directly to ensure that it provides accessible centres within our communities.
Finally, the Government are completely committed to ensuring that we strengthen and support our post office network throughout the UK. To date we have done that effectively and kept branches open, of which I and the Government should be proud. We have seen a reduction, but we should celebrate what we have done.
We want our post offices to remain at the heart of our communities. We want them to provide services that are more accessible for our communities. They have always been at the heart of our communities and I hope they remain so. As the Minister responsible, I assure my hon. Friend that I will do my best to ensure that the Government—the owner of Post Office Ltd—duly represent our constituents regarding any issue he raises about the post office network. I am happy to have further conversations with my hon. Friend over the next few weeks as the consultation progresses. I will happily meet him and any other hon. Member any time to discuss the consultation and any changes.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It has been an opportunity to challenge the new franchise system but also to celebrate what the post office system is doing and the value that post offices bring to our communities. Without them, we would be in a very different place. It is absolutely right that the Government continue to back the Post Office. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to mention the individuals who work within the post office network, who are integral to ensuring that those services are delivered day in, day out throughout the country.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the badger cull.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, in a debate on this very important issue, because I know that you take a close interest in it.
I am amazed that five years after the badger cull started we are still debating it. If you will bear with me, Sir David, I remember speaking on this issue on 5 June 2013. I quoted Lord Krebs, who chaired a review team that originated the idea of the randomised badger culling trial. He was interviewed on the “Today” programme on 12 October 2012, and said:
“The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle.”
I have found no scientists who are experts in population biology or in the distribution of infectious diseases in wildlife who think that culling is a good idea. People seem to have cherry-picked certain results to try to support their argument.
I also quoted Lord Robert May, a former Government chief scientist and President of the Royal Society, who said:
“It is very clear to me that the government’s policy does not make sense…I have no sympathy with the decision. They are transmuting evidence-based policy into policy-based evidence.”
Another former Government chief scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington, also refused to back the cull. More than 30 scientists signed a letter that was published in The Observer on 14 October 2012 and states that
“the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it”.
The letter ends by saying,
“culling badgers as planned is very unlikely to contribute to TB eradication.”
It may have been in that letter that the experts concluded that the badger cull was unscientific, ineffective and inhumane. I have seen no evidence since the experts reached that conclusion that it is anything but unscientific, ineffective and inhumane.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, because the last five years have clearly demonstrated the predictions that the scientists made all those years ago, but the Government have proceeded in the teeth of the evidence. One would think that, as legislators, we should seek to embark on evidence-based policy and legislation, rather than taking a punt in the dark, as the Government seem to have done.
The cost of the cull has already exceeded £50 million and is rising, but there has been no breakdown of it since 2015. The irony is that there is a humane, less expensive alternative. It costs about £200 to vaccinate a badger compared with £1,000 to shoot a badger. The Zoological Society of London says that badger vaccination is a viable alternative. The Government initially ruled it out, but I believe they earmarked about £130,000 for the badger edge vaccination scheme. When we compare that with the tens of millions of pounds that they have wasted on this cruel policy in the teeth of scientific evidence, one wonders why they took that line of action.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. When will the Department carry out a full cost-benefit analysis that compares badger vaccination with badger culling? When will Sir Charles Godfray’s review of the Government’s TB policy be published? Will it consider the use of vaccination as an alternative to shooting?
Some horrific video footage has been obtained from the badger cull area in Cumbria. A caged badger was shot and took almost a minute to die, writhing in agony. The shooter then flagrantly disregarded the biosecurity guidelines, took the badger out of the cage and failed to bag it up—little wonder that the Government’s policy has not been particularly successful in reducing the spread of TB. That is just one small example—I will come on to others in a moment.
The contractors are paid about £30 to £50 for each badger they kill, but of course the shooters have access to thousands of trapped, caged badgers, and a live badger can fetch about £500 on the black market. We know that there are badger baiting and dog fighting gangs, so ruthless individuals would be quite happy to purchase a live badger for their perverted pastime. Given that there is no effective monitoring—the horrific video footage clearly demonstrates that—who is to say that that is not happening? The Government’s policy therefore potentially creates more wildlife crime in our country. They need to step up and take a different approach.
We know that the badger population is under threat. Between June and August, we had the highest temperatures on record—we will all remember it, won’t we? Experts tell me that it is therefore likely that large numbers of badger cubs and sows died during that very hot weather due to heat exhaustion and lack of food and water. Natural England has not undertaken any detailed or accurate population survey of badgers for more than a decade. It is important that we know what the state of the badger population is at this point in time.
About 50,000 badgers are killed every year on the road, and many die as a result of building development. The combination of the cull and other pressures is leading to the potential collapse of the badger population in certain parts of the country. Let us remember that badgers have inhabited our country since the ice age, so it would be a tragedy if they were eliminated in certain parts of it. I hope the Minister will respond to that point.
The Government claim that the badger cull reduces bovine TB in cattle, but the Zoological Society of London begs to differ. It says that there is no robust evidence at all that the policy is working. Indeed, the proportion of infected herds is about the same as it was in 2013, so the policy has been a spectacular failure. Will the Minister commit to releasing all the cull data held by DEFRA for independent verification? I would be interested to hear his response to that point.
In my opinion, we need better biosecurity, more reliable testing and movement controls. That is the real issue. We know that the TB skin test, which is the primary method of detecting TB in cattle, is not 100% successful. In fact, on average, one in four of the tests failed to detect TB. There are more accurate tests available, but the problem is that farmers are expected to meet the cost. Will the Minister commit the Government to funding the more accurate tests, rather than relying on the pretty inaccurate testing system that is currently being used, which contributes to the problem? I have already mentioned biosecurity. Slurry, which can contain TB bacteria, continues to be spread widely on farms, with few, if any, biosecurity controls. Millions of cattle continue to be moved across England with insufficient movement controls. New outbreaks of bovine TB were therefore pretty inevitable, and that is what happened in Cumbria and the Isle of Skye relatively recently.
TB fraud is also a major problem. Cattle are moved illegally, ear tags are taken out and cattle passports are altered. The enforcement controls are completely inadequate, so will the Minister explain what the Government are doing to address the inadequate biosecurity? Will he also outline what steps he is taking to address illegal cattle movements?
I was absolutely amazed to see reports in the media that infected carcases are being sold for human consumption. Several supermarkets have banned such purchases, as have several burger chains. However, The Daily Telegraph reported that a spokesperson for DEFRA, which makes £10 million a year from selling infected carcases, said:
“All meat from cattle slaughtered due to bovine TB must undergo rigorous food safety checks before it can be passed fit for consumption.”
I do not think that many people will find that particularly reassuring. I am sure that many people, if they were aware of that, would be incredibly alarmed. Is the Minister happy to continue selling carcases infected with TB for human consumption?
The Sunday Times recently reported on growing concerns about the sale of raw meat products as pet food, claiming that it could lead to an increase in TB in cats, which, in turn, could infect their owners. DEFRA does not monitor TB in domestic animals. Do the Government have any plans to investigate the scale of TB in domestic pets?
Before this cruel cull started, experts said that the policy does not make sense, that the cull is not the answer to TB in cattle and that culling risks increasing cattle TB. It seems to me that the last five years have proved that the Government’s policy is completely wrong-headed. Cicero reputedly said:
“Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.”
I just hope that, when the Minister gets to his feet, he will prove that he is not an idiot.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am surprised to be speaking so early in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. He said that he is amazed that we are still debating this issue after five years. I must admit that, as I was preparing my notes, the phrase that sprung to my mind—it is a moot point whether Einstein actually said it—was:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
That seems to be what is happening with badger culling. We do not have the scientific evidence to support it, as the hon. Gentleman set out.
The hon. Gentleman correctly highlighted the cost of the cull to date, and the fact that there are cheaper alternatives, such as vaccinations. He also correctly highlighted that the Government have now committed to carrying out some vaccinations in edge areas. However, I would like the Minister to explain how there will be proper controls on that, how the effectiveness of the vaccinations in each area will be compared with the effectiveness of culling, and how the Government will make sure that there is no cross-contamination so that the different methodologies can actually be compared.
It was quite disturbing to hear about the poor practice in Cumbria. My research has highlighted real concerns about the shooting and inhumane treatment of badgers and the suffering that they undergo as a consequence. We need to hear what the Minister has to say about the monitoring of the rules and compliance with them. I also agree with the call from the hon. Member for Derby North for the Minister to say how we will deal with the possible terminal decline of the badger in certain areas because of the level of culling deemed necessary to allegedly eradicate bovine TB.
The UK Government’s initial 10-year randomised badger culling trial was actually terminated, with the independent scientific group that monitored it concluding that it was not effective. There was then a change of Government and the new Government pounced on some of the figures that showed that bovine TB could be reduced and decided to permit the cull. However, the quoted possible reduction of 12% to 16% was over several years, demonstrating that the cull is not effective when measured against the effort required. It seems to me that it was a strange policy choice by the UK Government. It is stranger still that the cull is now a shooting exercise, rather than using a more humane method.
As we heard from the hon. Gentleman, as the years have gone on, the costs have accumulated and cull areas have become more extensive across England and Wales, but the disease still exists. However, proper scientific evidence of the effectiveness of culling does not exist. Culling is being rolled out further, but the evidence, if it exists at all, has not got any stronger. As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has observed, the fact that culls are being operated so differently from the original trials means there is no way to assess their effectiveness. We do not really have any baseline figures against which to properly gauge them, so they seem a futile exercise.
The independent scientific group set out key parameters that should be followed—having boundaries that are impermeable to badgers to ensure a controlled area, and areas of between 150 and 500 sq km, for example—but those are not being adhered to in the current exercise. Again, independent guidance has not been followed, so we really do not know how effective culling is.
Scientific evidence from Ireland suggests that direct contact between badgers and cattle may not be the mechanism for bovine TB transfer, and that badgers actually tend to avoid areas where cattle are present. That means more work is required on the thesis that it is contaminated environments that allow a lot of the transfer of bovine TB. Clearly, the environment remains contaminated even if badgers are culled. We need to do much more research on that aspects rather than continue the culling exercise.
The UK should be able to assess the cost and success of culling against the cost and success of vaccinations. I appreciate that in recent debates—there have been a number on this issue—Members have highlighted that there has been a shortage of vaccinations at times, but that does not seem to be the case at the moment. There have also been new developments, such as oral bait for badgers, which seems to be more cost-effective. All that ties in with the hon. Gentleman’s call for the Government to conduct transparent cost-benefit assessments and release the data so that we can have confidence and scrutinise what goes on.
Fortunately, the risk of bovine TB in Scotland has historically been very low, and there is no evidence of a wildlife reservoir of bovine TB. In October 2009, Scotland was added to the list of European Union member states and regions that have been declared free of bovine TB. The European Commission attributed that to the success of Scotland’s livestock industry working in conjunction with the Government. The Scottish Government recognise the need for confidence on the issue and have introduced a stringent package of measures, including tissue sampling during farm visits, an epidemiological risk assessment, the tracing of cattle, contiguous herd assessments and the need for two consecutive tests with negative results to retain bovine TB-free status.
That aligns with the RSCPA’s call for better cattle husbandry, high biosecurity and improved testing to mitigate cattle to cattle transmission. Its point on cattle husbandry ties in with what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for strict enforcement of controls on the movement of cattle to ensure that they are not moved illegally, that proper source to source tracing is carried out and that people cannot change cattle tags or falsify records. That is clearly important for stopping cattle to cattle transfer.
I hope the Minister will explain how scientific information will be collated, co-ordinated, assessed and interpreted in a completely neutral manner—neutrality is important—and how relevant expert opinion will be taken where required. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate and making such a powerful case.
Last year, almost 20,000 badgers were killed across England as part of the largest destruction of a protected British species in living memory. That policy is cruel and inhumane, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said. We need more action and a more ambitious animal welfare agenda to stop this senseless suffering.
Hon. Members will be aware that Labour is the party of animal welfare. We legislated with the landmark Hunting Act 2004 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Animal welfare has been placed highly on our party’s agenda, and that is still true today. We want to ensure that animal cruelty is consigned to the past. If animals suffer, we all suffer.
The Opposition’s position is clear: we are opposed to the culling of badgers to control bovine TB and would immediately end the ineffective and cruel badger cull. A Labour Government would instead focus on an evidence-based approach driven by science, not ideology. Every badger matters, but badgers do not have a voice. They do not have a say in politics unless we give them one. The Government are pursuing a cruel and uncaring policy towards badgers, and worst of all, it does not work.
While Ministers seek the headlines, the real hard work often goes undone. Why are Ministers not strengthening the foxhunting ban or bringing forward a Bill to increase sentences for animal welfare cruelty? We need action, not just words. Tackling bovine TB is important, especially to those in our rural communities, so we need something that actually works, unlike the badger cull. As long as Ministers cling to the ideological slaughter of British badgers, actions that genuinely tackle the spread of bovine TB are being overlooked. The badger cull is spreading, as we have heard. In Devon, the county I come from, we now have 12 culling sites—more than any other county. Thankfully, there is no badger culling yet in Plymouth, the city I represent, but I would not predict that it will not happen in the future.
A little over a month ago, The Observer published secret film taken in Cumbria, which showed a badger that took almost a minute to die after being shot in a cage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North mentioned. In fact, recent reports say that up to 22% of badgers can take more than five minutes to die in the cull, which is needless animal suffering. Over the summer the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), brought to the Government’s attention the horrific way in which badgers were being left to die in the extreme heat. Caged badgers spent hours on end trapped in the sun with no water, suffering from heat stress and eventually dying of dehydration. Despite that coming to light, little action was taken. That cruelty serves no purpose, and is another example of why the Opposition believe the badger cull to be cruel.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North mentioned, there is no scientific basis for the policy. The science does not support a badger cull, the evidence does not support a badger cull, and the Opposition do not support a badger cull. Why are the Government pursuing a policy that does not work? Why do they want to look like they are doing something? They need to look busy because if they U-turned, it would make them look weaker than they already do. We need something that works, not just a policy that is stuck to. We need animal welfare policies that are based on science, not ideology.
The Environment Secretary may be tired of experts, but this is what the experts are telling us about the cull: a study commissioned by the Government into bovine TB transmission from badgers to cattle, which took place from 1996 to 2006, concluded that
“badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.”
According to the Badger Trust, an excellent organisation that does superb work, only 5.7% of all bovine TB outbreaks involve possible transmission from badgers to cattle. That means that 94% of all bovine TB outbreaks must come from other sources. The Zoological Society of London says that most herds acquire the disease from other cattle. Ministers need to consider ensuring high levels of biosecurity, tracking movements between herds, and looking at the movement of other animals, such as foxhounds, across agricultural land.
The Minister must not sit on the report that we know his Department has received. When did the Department receive the Godfray review on the Government’s bovine TB strategy? When will it be published? Will he commit to publishing it in its original form? Can he confirm whether he has asked for any edits to the report’s recommendations or alterations to its findings? I would be grateful if he could answer those questions and address the concerns expressed by farmers, especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), that the Department is telling them that their herds are TB-free when they know they are not. That is a serious issue that undermines the essential confidence between farmers and the Department.
Bovine TB is a cattle problem that needs a cattle-focused solution. A start would be to improve the current skin tests, which expose an infection in the herd but not the individual cow, which makes it very difficult to narrow down.
The badger cull is a phenomenal waste of money that could be better spent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North mentioned. The Badger Trust estimates that when everything has been added up, killing a badger costs about £1,000 per animal. The trust considers that more than £100 million could be spent on killing badgers by 2020. Just think how much better that money could be spent in rural communities. That £100 million could go an enormous way in dealing with rural poverty and the actual concerns of rural communities. Does the Minister not agree that the best way to save money in the fight against bovine TB would be to stop spending Government resources on an ideological policy that has no scientific evidence of reducing bovine TB?
Research shows that vaccinating badgers is not only a better and more humane way to eradicate TB, but is much cheaper. I recently had the opportunity to meet Dr Brian May with my hon. Friends the Members for Workington and for Stroud. I was a little star-struck. As well as being the legendary guitarist from Queen, he has been pioneering badger vaccinations on his farm and has demonstrated their effectiveness and suitability as an alternative to the cruel badger cull. The Badger Trust estimates that vaccinating badgers costs less than £200 an animal, as compared with £1,000 for killing it—what a saving.
When the hon. Gentleman mentions a cost of £200 a badger, is that a lifetime sum or an annual sum? Vaccinations are an annual requirement, rather than a once-in-a-lifetime event.
If it is £200 for a vaccination and that has to be done annually, it soon gets to £1,000. We should also bear in mind that the vaccination will be completely pointless if the badger already has TB, as it is not a cure, and therefore the money is being wasted whatever the cost.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pursuing me on that point, which he has rightly spotted. However, I point him to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North raised about the cost-benefit analysis of culling versus vaccination. Clearly decent testing needs to be part of the mix. It is about the combination.
I am interested in the point that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) made about vaccination. I am not an expert, but my understanding is that when someone is vaccinated, they are vaccinated once and that protects them. I do not know whether badger physiology is different in some way, but as my hon. Friend the shadow Minister has pointed out, it would be useful to get that cost-benefit analysis. If the Government would come clean, we would all be in the picture as to the reality of the situation.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree with his points.
I will conclude, as the Minister has an awful lot to respond to and I would like him to get to his feet in a moment. As my hon. Friend said, there is no logical reason for the badger cull to continue, or even exist, other than an ideological one: to make the Government look busy when they are failing farmers and rural communities on bovine TB. There are less cruel ways to eradicate bovine TB than killing badgers on a massive scale. Whether it is more accurate and frequent testing of cattle, badger and cattle vaccinations or more rigid control on cattle movements, the solution should be focused on cattle, not innocent badgers. DEFRA’s priority should be to look at the other ways in which bovine TB is transmitted, rather than scapegoating badgers and perpetuating unnecessary animal cruelty. I would be grateful if the Minister could answer the points about the Godfray review in particular. An awful lot of people are waiting for the evidence base. DEFRA sitting on the report for as long as it has creates the impression that there is something in it that it wishes to hide.
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing it. I am aware that this issue is contentious. The badger is an iconic species. It is a protected species in our countryside. I completely understand that many people have strong feelings about the policy and the approach we are taking. As I and the Secretary of State have said before, none of us wants to cull badgers for any longer than is necessary. However, to answer his question, the reason why we still have these debates is that the Government are of the clear view that it is necessary to have a badger cull as part of a coherent strategy to eradicate TB. We believe that that is firmly underpinned by the evidence—I will return to that because the hon. Gentleman and others raised questions about the science.
The badger cull is just one part of our wider strategy to eradicate TB. The absolute heart of our strategy has always been regular cattle testing and removal. In the high-risk area, we currently have annual testing; we have four-yearly testing in the low-risk area; we have pre-movement testing; we introduced compulsory post-movement testing; we have radial testing in the low-risk area, where we get a breakdown; and we have contiguous testing in the high-risk area on the farms surrounding a breakdown. All of these measures mean that we are regularly testing our herds and regularly removing reactors to that testing.
Diagnostics, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are important. We recognise that TB is a difficult disease to fight. It is difficult to detect because it is a slow-moving, insidious disease, and none of the diagnostic tests is perfect. However, one thing we have done is make greater use of the interferon gamma test—the blood test—to remove infection from herds when it is picked up. We are also deploying that test more proactively in areas where the cull has taken place so that we can bear down on infection in cattle. We have also introduced a more severe interpretation on inconclusive reactors to the skin test. Diagnostics are important and part of our strategy is to improve testing. We are supporting a number of initiatives to improve testing, but at the moment we are using the more sensitive blood test in conjunction with the skin test to improve our detection rates.
A number of hon. Members mentioned biosecurity, which is important—biosecurity is a key part of our strategy to eradicate TB. A few years ago, I introduced a new accreditation scheme—the cattle health certification standards scheme, or CHeCS. We encouraged farmers to sign up and to take steps to manage risk to their herd, both in terms of risk-based trading for the cattle that they bring on to their holding and in terms of protecting the herd and their farmyard from badger incursion, for instance using fencing. We recently changed the compensation regime to incentivise farmers to sign up to the biosecurity scheme, meaning that if they do not sign up to it they face receiving lower compensation for cattle reactors that they bring into their herd.
We have always been clear that vaccination, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, could have a role, particularly in the edge area, and possibly as a way of getting an exit strategy from the cull once we have borne down on the population. We have been supporting vaccination pilots in the edge area—the so-called badger edge vaccination scheme, or BEVS, which we restarted this year once vaccines became available again.
The difficulty with vaccination, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, is that we have to catch badgers regularly to top up the vaccination. It is not the case that we can inject them just once. Vaccination does not cure badgers that have the disease, so the scheme has limitations, but we have always maintained that it could have a role to assist in an exit strategy. That is why we continue, for instance, to fund work to try and get an oral bait vaccine that we could deploy in the badger population.
How do we measure the vaccination in the edge areas as opposed to culling, which has already been happening? The Government must ensure that they correctly compare two different methodologies and that there is not cross-contamination, as it were, given the movement of badgers.
That is a very good point and precisely why we have focused our vaccination efforts in the edge area, where we are not culling badgers. The culls are being rolled out predominantly in the high-risk area where we know the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population is a persistent problem, and are using vaccination in the edge area to ensure that we are not vaccinating badgers only to cull them.
We are also looking at cattle vaccination. We have been developing work to do a so-called DIVA test, which can differentiate TB-infected from vaccinated animals so that it would not affect our trade. Cattle vaccination deployed in the hot spots could help to give immunity to our herds, and clearly cattle vaccination is easier to deploy than badger vaccination, because a herd of cattle can be run through a crush and vaccinated—we do not have to capture wildlife to do it.
Our strategy is incredibly broad. No one single intervention will give us the magic solution to tackling this terrible disease. It is a difficult disease to fight, so we need to use a range of interventions. The badger cull is just one part of our strategy, but there are no examples anywhere in the world of a country that has successfully eradicated TB without also addressing the reservoir, the disease and the wildlife population.
TB was first isolated in badgers as long ago as 1971. In 1974, a trial was conducted to remove badgers from a severely infected farm, with the result that there was no breakdown on that farm for five years afterwards. Between 1975 and 1978, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funded extensive work that demonstrated conclusively transmission between badgers and cattle in both directions. Subsequent work in Ireland reaffirmed that finding. In the Krebs review, which hon. Members cited, it was observed that between 1975 and 1979 TB incidence in the south-west fell from 1.65% to 0.4% after the cull—a 75% reduction.
Subsequently, therefore, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, more extensive work was done in three exercises. One was in Thornbury, where the TB incidence fell from 5.6% in the 10 years before culling to 0.45% in the 15 years after culling, which was a reduction of 90%. In Steeple Lees, there were no breakdowns for seven years after badgers had been cleared. In Hartland, the incidence dropped from 15% in 1984 to just 4% in 1985, which was a reduction of more than two thirds.
I am interested in the Minister’s comments. Will he comment on why the weight of scientific evidence before the Government embarked on the latest cull, including from people involved in the randomised badger culling exercise, suggested that it would not work? No credible scientific evidence supported the Government, yet they ploughed on regardless. Indeed, the number of herds infected with TB has not diminished either. If anything, the situation has got worse, because we now have TB in Cumbria and the Isle of Skye. Surely controls on movements and better biosecurity would be far better than continuing with this cruel cull.
I do not agree, for reasons I will come to.
There were claims that those trials in the ’70s lacked a control or a comparison, which was a fair point. That is why the randomised badger culling trial took place. Despite the challenge of a foot and mouth crisis right in the middle of it, the RBCT concluded that, in the four years after culling, there was a significant reduction in the incidence of TB. The RBCT supported what the previous trials had shown. In fact, 18 months after the culling ended in the RBCT, there was a 54% reduction in the incidence of the disease. People say that there is no scientific evidence, but I can give them all the evidence they want.
On the current trials, we now have some peer-reviewed evidence conducted on the first two cull areas. It compares the cull areas with control areas where there was no cull. That detailed analysis of the first two cull areas, over the first two years only, was published by Dr Brunton and her colleagues in 2017. It showed a 58% reduction in the disease in cattle in the Gloucestershire badger control area, and a 21% reduction in Somerset after two years of badger control, compared with the unculled areas. As I said, that is a peer-reviewed piece of work. The Animal and Plant Health Agency published raw data, as we do every year, in September 2018, showing that there has been a drop in TB incidence in the first two cull areas, where the number of new confirmed breakdowns has decreased by about 50% in both areas. In Gloucestershire, the incidence rate has dropped from 10.4% before culling began to 5.6% in the 12 months following the fourth cull. In Somerset, it has dropped from 24% to 12%. Dr Brunton and her colleagues carried out further detailed analysis into the third year of the cull in the first two areas, and it will be published shortly.
A wealth of consistent evidence, from the 1970s onwards, shows that badgers are a reservoir for the disease, that there is transmission of the disease between badgers and cattle, and that a cull of badgers in infected areas where the presence of the disease in the wildlife is known to contribute to that can lead to substantial reductions of between 20% and 50% in incidence. That picture has been consistent for at least 40 years.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, but he did not really answer my question. The body of scientific opinion before the Government embarked on the cull was opposed to it and said that it would not work or, if anything, would make matters worse. I do not think that he has addressed that point.
A number of scientists said that it was not logistically possible to sustain a cull over a large area and to remove the number of badgers necessary. We have demonstrated that that is possible. It is a difficult and contentious policy, but it is possible to do that. No credible scientist has said that badgers are not implicated in the spread of the disease. Sometimes scientists debate the extent to which badgers have a role, but no one doubts that—the evidence shows this clearly—a cull of badgers in infected areas leads to a reduction in the incidence of the disease. Arguments tend to be about the logistical possibilities of delivering such a policy but, as I said, we have been able to demonstrate that that can be done, difficult though it is.
Let me deal with some of the hon. Gentleman’s other points. One was about vaccination and, as I said, that is part of our plan, and we envisage doing more of it in future, potentially as an exit strategy once we have seen a reduction in the badger population. That brings me to his claim about the possibility of a collapse in that population. It will never happen because we have always had provision in the licensing for an absolute maximum that must never be exceeded in any given cull year. Everything we do is absolutely compliant with the Berne convention. Furthermore, we are doing this only in high-risk areas, so we never aim to remove the entire badger population or to cause a collapse in it; we simply aim to suppress numbers while we get to grips with that difficult disease.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned cull data. That is published each and every year. Usually in or around December, we give the House a written ministerial statement and an update on all the figures from the previous year’s cull. We shall do so again this year, in the normal way, as we have done in all previous years.
If my recollection is correct, it is common for the figures to be released on the very last day of the parliamentary term before we adjourn for Christmas. Will the Minister give us an assurance that they will be published a little earlier this year, so that we have time to reflect on them before we disappear for our Christmas holiday?
I cannot give any undertakings about when exactly that will take place but, typically, we do it in December, once we have collated all the data. The hon. Lady will have to be patient and wait for the data to come out. However, we publish that every year and we are absolutely transparent about it. Every year, we also publish details about incidence and prevalence of the disease—I know that there has been an argument about whether incidence or prevalence is the right figure to use, but incidence is the correct one for measuring the role of wildlife in the introduction of the disease to cattle herds.
On costs, again we publish the figures every year. The 2018 costs will be published shortly, but those for previous years have already been published. Last year, the total cost of the cull was about £4 million, which covers policing, licensing and all the monitoring work done by Natural England.[Official Report, 12 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 1MC.] I do not recognise the figure given by the hon. Member for Derby North of £1,000 or £2,000 a badger; it is probably in the region of a couple of hundred pounds. The costs have reduced substantially, as policing costs have come down as we have rolled out the cull but, in reality, cost per badger is the wrong way to look at it; we have to view it in the context of the fact that the disease already costs us £100 million a year—if costs are what worry us—and that if we want to get it under control, we have to use all the tools in the box.
Finally, I confirm that we received the Godfray review on 2 October and, as the Secretary of State said at DEFRA questions a couple of weeks ago, it will be published shortly. “Shortly” means what it says, which is that Members probably do not have long to wait. I can confirm that it will be published in its entirety and that we have not requested any edits or alterations. It is an independent review, led by Sir Charles Godfray, who will publish it shortly, along with his conclusions.
I should point out that Sir Charles Godfray’s review is of our strategy, so it looks at every component, including the role of badger culling, vaccination, diagnostics and whether they can be improved, biosecurity, compensation and behavioural change. It reviews every feature in our original strategy and gives some pointers about other areas that we could advance in future. I think it is a good report, and I am sure that hon. Members look forward to reading it.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way for what will perhaps be the final time. My conclusion from what he says is that it is pretty clear that the only way in which the badger cull will be brought to an end is with the election of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Government.
All I can say is that I have explained why we think the badger cull is critical. I know that it is contentious, but it is the right thing to do, and sometimes Governments have to the right and responsible thing. We have this mess today because the last Labour Government put their heads in the sand, meaning that we had 15 years of total inaction during the early part of this century. The disease got out of hand, and we are now trying to get a grip of it and to roll it back.
I am disappointed that the Minister did not give way at the end. I think it is very unfair to characterise the situation as being the fault of the previous Labour Government. Let us remember that it was the previous Labour Government who—rather controversially—actually backed the randomised badger cull tests from which the conclusion was drawn that the way to tackle bovine TB was not through a badger cull.
I repeat that the body of evidence from the scientists involved in the randomised badger cull tests showed that carrying on with the badger cull could have made matters worse. We have seen over the last five years of this horrific cull, which continues, that, even putting the appalling cruelty to one side, it is simply not working. It is all very well for the Minister to get up and say that various peer-reviewed reports have implied that it has worked, but the evidence speaks for itself. How can the Minister stand there and say that it has worked when the proportion of TB in cattle herds is virtually the same as at the start of the cull, and when it has even spread to other areas?
The Government are looking in the wrong direction. I heard what the Minister said, but I implore him to go back and look again at pursuing a different route, at the cattle movements, at the fraud that takes place, at biosecurity and at doing proper testing and supporting farmers in doing so, rather than expecting them to stump up for the bill. This is an appalling state of affairs. I repeat that there is no scientific evidence to support the Government’s position. Public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the badger cull, which does not serve the farming community in any way, shape or form and certainly does not serve the interests of wildlife in our country. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the comments made and adopt a more sensible and humane approach to the bovine TB situation in this country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the badger cull.