Wednesday 21 November 2018
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Self-identification of Gender
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposals to allow self-identification of gender.
I thank you in advance for your chairmanship and guidance, Mr Hosie. Following our conversation earlier this morning, I am fully aware that this is a sensitive issue. I have concerns about self-identification of gender, but they are not in any way directed at anyone who is unfortunate enough to suffer from some form of gender dysphoria. I have met many trans women who share my concerns about this and want nothing to do with the kind of activism that seems to be going on and shutting down debate. The criticisms I have are of Government, Ministers and politically motivated organisations, many of which have access to public funds.
The law at the moment is that anyone who wishes to change their legal gender has to apply to the Gender Recognition Panel. They have to show a number of things, including that they have lived as their preferred gender for two years and have been diagnosed with some form of gender dysphoria. They also have to commit to living as their new gender for the rest of their life. One thing that they do not have to do is undergo any form of medical treatment or surgery. They do not even have to be taking any hormone pills. The vast majority of people who change gender maintain the body in which they are born. As far as I can find from the statistics, only one in five people who have changed gender have had any form of surgery. This is the cause of concern for many people.
Self-definition of gender is already happening. Organisations seem to be ahead of the law, which the Government may or may not be about to change. There is a particular concern about what is going on in schools with children. Guidance is being given to schools by publicly funded organisations such as Mermaids and others encouraging children to question their gender and redefine it if they wish. They can do so without their parents even being told about it. That can quickly set off a chain of events that can begin with children as young as 12 being given puberty blockers, about which there are many medical concerns. At least one doctor in my constituency has been giving these drugs out to children as young as 12. That can then progress on to hormone blockers, which have powerful and irreversible side effects. Once people start on that road, there is a danger that they may end up having more drastic and irreversible surgery, because once one is on that pathway, it becomes difficult to get off it.
Teachers who have tried to question what is going on or who have fallen foul of the activist groups are liable to find themselves being disciplined. A teacher called Joshua Sutcliffe was disciplined by a school in Oxford for committing the offence—a new one on me—of misgendering a group of pupils. He had apparently said, “Well done, girls” after a maths exam, although one of the girls identified as a boy. For that, the teacher was disciplined.
That incident happened in my community. I would like to point out that how the hon. Gentleman is portraying the incident is far simpler than the bigger issues surrounding it. It was not just a single incident; there were a number of incidents with that teacher, not only in that specific case but in other parts of the school. I remind him that these things are sometimes over-simplified. Does he agree that over-simplification of such a sensitive and complex issue sometimes is not helpful?
The hon. Lady is right, but if I over-simplify, it is partly so that she can have a chance to speak. We have only 90 minutes, and this is the first time we have debated the issue properly in the House of Commons. I look forward to hearing her longer explanation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to Parliament. It is such an important issue, and this is a great opportunity for us to have a respectful debate and discussion, but does he agree that as parliamentarians we have a duty not to over-simplify and to ensure that we properly educate ourselves to have an informed debate and discussion?
Absolutely. That is why I have spent quite a lot of time talking to women who have concerns about the issue. Very few Members of Parliament have been willing to educate themselves and come along and meet people who have those concerns. It is notable that when we have had meetings in the House of Commons, very few people have turned up to listen to the concerns of activist feminist groups who feel that the potential change to the law will have a huge impact on their lives. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s support at future meetings we may have—we look forward to seeing her.
The Government are now considering legislation that would do away with the checks that are currently made and allow people to redefine themselves as any gender they wish. As far as I can see, that would mean that once the consultation has ended, if the Government do what the equal opportunities committee is recommending, people will be able to change their gender at any time. There would be no need to live outwardly as that gender, let alone to take hormones or have surgery. A 15-stone bearded man could simply define themselves as female and there would be nothing anyone could do to object. One might think that that does not matter—in fact, it does not, if that is what people want to do. I am a libertarian. I am a believer in freedom of choice. As far as I am concerned, it is absolutely fine, until it becomes an issue for other people and other people’s rights.
People who might outwardly appear to be male and possess a male body would, if they legally redefined their gender, suddenly gain access to women’s toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, refuges and prisons. They would have the right to undertake roles that people would normally expect to be done by someone of the same sex as those the service is being offered to, such as nurses or carers conducting intimate procedures, prison or police officers carrying out searches or staff working in refuges for victims of domestic violence.
We saw an obvious example a few weeks ago of what can happen, and will happen more regularly, when a convicted male sex offender who had redefined himself as female was able to insist on his right to be put into a women’s prison. Within a matter of days, he had carried out four sexual assaults on women. Another example was given to me by someone who was the victim of long-term sexual abuse as a young person.
The hon. Gentleman has cited a case and claimed that it proves that the Government should not change the law on gender recognition, yet that case, of which I do not know the detail, has happened under the current arrangements. Does that not actually point to a failure of risk assessment procedures, rather than a problem with the law?
No, because as I said at the start, organisations such as prisons and schools are ahead of the law. They are already allowing self-identification of gender. There was certainly a failure of risk assessment with the case I mentioned. Shortly after it happened and the court case concluded, I asked the head of probation and prisons in Wales whether there had been any change to the guidance given to prison authorities about housing transgender prisoners, and I was told that there had not. I subsequently sought an urgent question about that, because, as I hope the hon. Lady would agree, it is appalling that vulnerable female prisoners, many of whom have been victims of male violence, are being put at risk in this fashion. It was not deemed important enough to be discussed in Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is gracious to give way to me for a second time. May I clarify whether his assertion is that prisons and schools are doing something illegal under the current Gender Recognition Act 2004?
No, I have not asserted that at all. I have said that prisons and schools are allowing self-identification of gender at the moment. The law may well change shortly following the consultation, to give that a legal footing and to allow people to legally register their gender as being different from the one they are born with. The practicality is that that is already happening. I have made that point several times.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, but I am conscious that others may want to speak, and I do not want to use up all their time.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it seems strange to cite an example of a failure in the current system as a reason not to make improvements to the system? He mentioned women’s refuges. Linda Rodgers of Edinburgh Women’s Aid noted:
“The reality is that any service has the potential to be abused, and we would deal with that, whatever direction it came from on a case by case basis…I don’t think this should be used as a reason to restrict the rights of a particular group.”
Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that we should not make policy on the basis of the incidents he mentions or of some individuals who may abuse the system. It should be about equality and fairness for everybody.
Absolutely, but the point I am making is reasonable: if people are legally able to redefine their gender, the prison authorities, for example, will not be able to prevent a male who has redefined their gender from going to a female prison. That is already happening and is bound to become a lot easier.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Perhaps one last time. I will be guided by you, Mr Hosie.
There is plenty of time.
The hon. Gentleman appears to argue that women prisoners need protection only from trans women. In fact, we need to protect all prisoners from a range of potential hazards, and such things should be applied on the basis of individual cases, not on the basis of someone’s gender identification. How can he argue that a risk assessment should not apply equally? It could apply to other women, not only to trans women.
It could, but the reality is that the vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by males against females. I am told that the figure is higher than 90%, and I believe that. On extraordinarily rare occasions, women assault males, but let us be honest, it is very unusual. If we allow people who have been convicted of sexual offences as males to redefine their gender and insist on their right to go into female prisons, we will clearly put women at risk. I do not see how anyone can fault the logic of that. We have already seen what can happen when that goes on.
The other example I want to give is of somebody who has been involved in speaking out on this issue. She has been a victim of long-term sexual abuse and was helped by a women’s organisation in the south of England. I will not go into the detail of what went on, but it was horrendous. She told me that there is absolutely no way she would have been able to access that service from anyone who was male, or have anything to do with that organisation if anyone male was there. She has subsequently been told that anyone who defines themselves as female will be able to use the service and be part of the group that helps women who have been victims of sexual abuse. Because of that, she would not have accessed that service today. There are many other women in the same situation.
My point is that even before any legislation has been passed, we are already seeing organisations such as schools, hospitals and prisons allowing people to define themselves as a different gender from the one that they were born with, and to which in the majority of cases their body corresponds. That has an impact on others, and particularly on the right of women to privacy and to sex-segregated spaces.
One issue that particularly concerns me is the lack of debate that has gone on. I am grateful for the fact that we are able to have this debate here today. Although groups in receipt of public funds, such as Mermaids, seem to have an open door to Government and Select Committees, anyone who expresses concern about this matter is ignored. PinkNews seems to have abandoned any pretence at objective reporting and vilifies women’s and lesbian groups that want to save sex-segregated spaces. Women’s rights activists who have met to discuss the impact of the changes have faced verbal and physical harassment. Those who have resisted, such as Venice Allan, have been subject to ludicrous, vexatious legal action and dragged into court to defend themselves for speaking freely about their concerns.
I arranged a meeting in Parliament for a women’s group after a venue in London, at Millwall football club, had been cancelled. Numerous complaints were made to the House of Commons authorities before the meeting, and I was called into a meeting with the Serjeant at Arms. As the Minister knows, I have been an MP for 13 years and, like most MPs, I have organised numerous meetings for numerous groups. I have never before had to go and spend an hour with the Serjeant at Arms explaining myself. I have no problem with the conversation that we had, but it is very unusual for that to happen.
I tried to organise another meeting afterwards. Again, I was contacted by the Serjeant at Arms’ office. After the meeting took place, numerous complaints were made, mostly vexatious, but they resulted in a three-month investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Again, I have no problem with that and with the conclusion that she reached, but such investigations are very unusual. I was even told by another Member of Parliament that I could face police action because of what had taken place, because of the potential that a public order offence had been committed. This matter is one for debate, such as the one we are having now. We have a right to discuss these issues. If people know that meetings will result in investigations and legal action against them, even if it amounts to nothing, they will obviously be far less inclined to hold them.
The Government, whom I support by and large, are proposing fundamental changes that will have a huge impact on people. That is being done without proper consideration and in an atmosphere of menace. Many people are deeply concerned by what is going on. I urge Ministers and members of the relevant Select Committees to listen to the concerns and to meet some of the groups that are concerned about what is going on, rather than ignoring them, which I am afraid is what happens at the moment. Some organisations seem to have an open door into the offices of Ministers of Government, but others—[Interruption.] The Minister shakes her head, but perhaps she can tell me how many times Ministers have met Transgender Trend or Woman’s Place and how many times they have met Mermaids or other pro-trans activist groups.
People should not face dismissal from their jobs for suggesting that a woman cannot have a penis. It may be an issue about which we can have different opinions, but it is certainly a debatable point at the very least. Nor should they face dismissal for the so-called offence of “misgendering”.
Women who want safe same-sex spaces are not transphobic and are not committing hate crimes. They are simply reflecting a concern for their own safety, which, as a man, I have to say is based on a valid fear for far too many. I hope the Government will stop listening to some of the activist organisations and start listening to people, very often outside the M25, who have a different opinion. I say to the Minister, with all due respect, that I have supported the Government through thick and thin, as she knows, often in difficult circumstances, but I will not support the Government on this issue. Not only will I not support them if they go ahead with what I think they are planning, but I will do my utmost, in so far as I can, to stop any changes in legislation going ahead that will undermine the safety of women and change our society in ways that are very concerning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) on securing this debate. Although we are perhaps on opposite sides on some of the issues, I agree absolutely that not enough debate has been had in this House on this matter.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate today, especially because it is Trans Awareness Week. Yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day when we are meant to remember the huge inequalities and the number of transgender people who have died over the years because of the oppression that they faced. I hope the Minister will join me today in solidarity with the community that over the past few months has had inordinate amounts of abuse hurled at it from all quarters. However, today is an opportunity to shed some light rather than heat on this debate, particularly on the issues that underpin some of that heat.
I want to place on the record my thanks to my Liberal Democrat colleague and friend, Helen Belcher, whom I have worked with closely on this matter. I also want to place it on the record that I am wholeheartedly behind the Government’s proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I believe that they are proportionate and well thought through. It is time that Britain caught up with many other countries around the world—a point I will come to later.
That said, I absolutely appreciate the sincerely held concerns of not just the hon. Gentleman but many other people, including constituents who have contacted me to say that they are worried about aspects of the proposals. My constituent Juliette said:
“I am frightened by the fact that women’s voices are being dismissed and silenced”.
My constituent Nicola wrote:
“It’s taken me several days to build up the courage to email you for fear of being labelled transphobic or hateful and believe me, I am not—I fully support the rights of the trans community to live their life without discrimination”.
It is a damning indictment on not just us, although we politicians need to take responsibility for shying away from what is a controversial and sensitive issue, but on the media, which I do not believe have treated the issue with fairness on either side. In today’s debate and moving forward, we need to try to bring the two sides together, because I do not think there is a conflict between being a feminist and believing in trans rights.
Since my election in 2017, I have ensured that Ministers are aware of my constituents’ views on both sides of the debate. I particularly thank the Minister’s colleague in the other place, Baroness Williams of Trafford, for taking the time to meet me to discuss the issues. I have not attended the meetings organised by the hon. Member for Monmouth simply because I have been listening to my constituents and working on the issue in other ways. I take slight offence at the insinuation that because I have not attended his meetings I do not care deeply about the issue and have not been engaging in the debate.
I appreciate that Ministers are considering responses to the public consultation, but it would be encouraging to hear from the Minister about what steps the Government are taking to reassure people who are worried about the reform, and what active myth-busting is occurring, or is planned, regarding the misconceptions. That will be the crux of my speech.
It is important to put self-identification and self-declaration in the context of the Equality Act 2010. If we understand what that legislation allows, we can then talk about how the law might be reformed or changed. The Act protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex and gender reassignment, and describes the exemptions that allow single-sex spaces. Under the Act, it is a legitimate aim to provide safe spaces for women, but it is not proportionate to exclude all trans women from those spaces simply because they are trans, which is an incredibly important point. Furthermore, the Act protects those who have undergone, are undergoing, or are proposing to undergo a process, or part of a process, of reassigning their gender.
It is probably worth mentioning the sorts of interventions and operations that some trans people choose not to have. First, that is their medical choice to make. Secondly, think for a moment of the extensive operations that would need to happen. Many trans people are put off simply because it is painful, and in some cases expensive. Sometimes they feel unable to have operations because only a certain number of licensed practitioners in the country are allowed to perform them. Some trans people prefer to go abroad to have them, but that is not recognised in this country. There are many complex reasons behind the 93% figure. The proposed reforms would go some way to removing some of those barriers.
I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. May I bluntly ask her whether she would be happy sharing a changing room with somebody who was born male and had a male body?
I believe that women are women, so if that person was a trans woman, I absolutely would. I just do not see the issue. As for whether they have a beard, which was one of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments, I dare say that some women have beards. There are all sorts of reasons why our bodies react differently to hormones. There are many forms of the human body. I see someone in their soul and as a person. I do not really care whether they have a male body.
In essence, the Equality Act already works on the basis of self-declaration of gender, as it does for religion and sexuality. Coming back to the point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier about society being ahead of the Act, that is actually not the case; society is implementing the Act as it stands.
The concern voiced by some people that reforming the Gender Recognition Act to allow self-declaration would allow men into women’s spaces needs more discussion. Since my election, 12 constituents have contacted me on these issues, and that concern is a feature of all their correspondence. Other things come up, but that is the top concern. For example, Elizabeth says that she fears the
“risk of males choosing to change their legal gender in order to gain access to spaces and opportunities reserved for women”.
That is her main concern.
However, the Gender Recognition Act simply allows a trans person to change their birth certificate and have it reissued. It does not change what is in the Equality Act. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Monmouth did not want to take more interventions earlier, but my question to him would be: are we saying that we want to roll back the 2010 Act in the reforms? Allowing trans women into women-only spaces is provided for under that Act. If that is what is being questioned, it is a rolling back of the Act, and not a reform.
Let us think about what would happen if a man did self-declare as a woman using any of the gender recognition reform proposals, and then tried to enter a women-only space for nefarious purposes. This chap is so intent on doing that that he gets himself a new birth certificate. By the way, it is a fallacy that people can just say, “Oh, I’m going to decide this afternoon to change my gender.” Nothing in the reforms suggests that someone can just decide to do that on a whim one afternoon, or say, “In the morning I’m going to be a woman and in the afternoon I’m going to be a man,” or anything like that.
The proposed reforms are proportionate and considered. They are not knee-jerk and they understand that such decisions are some of the most personal that a human gets to make. It is about who they are, and how they fundamentally identify. It is not something that people do lightly. However, let us say that someone did want to do that.
The hon. Lady is setting out a hypothetical situation, but a number of countries already have simple self-declaration administrative processes for gender recognition: Argentina, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Norway and Colombia. Is she aware of Government single-sex service providers or criminal justice sectors in those countries reporting negative impacts from that implementation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, because as far as I am aware there are none. A lot of the concern comes from hypotheticals, anecdotes, and often very simplified versions of much more complex events. As a former science teacher, I care a lot about the evidence. What is the evidence about what has happened? I will return to the hon. Lady’s point, which was very well made, in a moment.
Let us assume that someone wants to go into a women-only space for nefarious purposes. That would be quite a stupid thing to do because, apart from anything else, if an offence was committed it would show evidence of premeditation, which would increase the person’s sentence. Also, had the certificate been gained for the sole purpose of entering such a space to commit a crime, that would be a separate crime under the Fraud Act 2006. If someone was intent on harming women, that would be one of the stupider ways of doing it.
Quite apart from that, it is a hypothetical situation that is removed from what the evidence shows. There is no evidence at all to show such harms in countries such as Malta and Norway over the past few years. Importantly, because of how the Equality Act works, we do not even have to look further afield—just look at this country, where the Act already allows self-identification for those who are even considering going through the process. What evidence is there from this country of any problems with self-declaration, which has been going for eight years now? There is none.
This has the signs of a moral panic being whipped up to demonise a community. I am not saying that my constituents are doing that, but there are some people who are intent on rolling back the Equality Act, and I am deeply concerned that they are not being called out for wanting to do so.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that when the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) cited violence against women, he was conflating two issues? Violence against women is mainly carried out by men; as the hon. Lady rightly points out, it has nothing to do with men identifying as women. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about violence against women, that is what he should focus on.
Hear, hear—I completely agree. It is really important to ensure that we are talking about the right thing. Violence against women is still ubiquitous. It still happens in our society and on our streets, and it should absolutely be called out, but these reforms are entirely separate. We need to come together on this. I am curious about whether the hon. Member for Monmouth has attended meetings in this House on violence against women.
A 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that the process of gender recognition was bureaucratic and costly. The Government’s LGBT survey, published in July this year, reported that trans women were being deterred from applying for gender recognition for some of the same reasons that I spoke about earlier; it noted that 93% of those who wanted gender recognition had been deterred from applying for it. The respondents to the Government consultation are not people who are thinking about changing their gender on a whim, but people who have grappled with the issue for a very long time. Their concerns are worth listening to.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that trans people, who face huge barriers and a medicalised process, are being damaged psychologically by our legal framework? The core of why we are here as elected representatives is to make the lives of our constituents better and to ensure a level playing field. If we do not act and work together, more trans people will commit suicide—we already know the statistics—and young trans people will face more significant barriers. We absolutely must work together to understand and address their concerns and make sure that their voices are heard.
I absolutely agree. Our laws were groundbreaking when they were introduced in 2004, but our law on gender recognition now lags behind those of other countries. It disadvantages trans people on some very questionable grounds.
I am not sure on what basis the people who raise concerns about gender recognition feel that it is wrong. It is one of our values that there should be a level playing field in our society. Society is evolving and becoming more complex, and we are rightly recognising more intricate parts of it.
It is incumbent on us as British politicians to protect minority groups and understand the issues that they face. The reforms are a logical next step in our evolving understanding of a very small and vulnerable group of people in this country. Yes, many are children when they first start to discover the situation, but as a former teacher and as the Lib Dem education spokesperson, I believe that schools are doing their utmost to make children feel that it is okay to be different and have a space in which they can discuss the issues. To suggest that that extends to encouraging them to change their gender is a step too far for the role of schools.
I am pleased to support the reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, as well as maintaining my support for women-only services, which remain vital for many. The points made about violence against women and about the need to protect women from men who sexually abuse them are absolutely right, but being a feminist and being a supporter of trans rights are not in conflict; the two can absolutely sit together. We need to look at the evidence, not just about what the law currently says, but—
The hon. Lady says that she supports women-only services. By “women-only”, does she mean anyone who defines themselves as a woman?
The hon. Gentleman brings me on to my next sentence. I was about to say that trans women are women. Moreover, trans rights are human rights.
I am very grateful for today’s debate, because it has allowed some of us to broaden and deepen the debate and to start to set the record straight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who raised a number of issues. It is important that the debate remains respectful and that we can have a reasonable and decent conversation. I commend the UK and Scottish Governments on their consultations. The Scottish Government consultation received a huge number of responses, more than 60% of which were in favour of the proposals.
On number of occasions, the hon. Gentleman spoke in over-simplified terms. I must repeat what I said in my intervention: that is not helpful because deepening and expanding the debate about those concerns is vital. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) made an excellent speech. I greatly share her concerns about rolling back on the Equality Act. As her hypothetical example highlighted perfectly, we have to remember that what is essentially identity fraud would be a crime. The fact that 93% of people in the trans community have sought to get support and access services but have been turned away is a shame and a stain on our society.
Yesterday was Trans Day of Remembrance—a day when we took a moment to celebrate the incredible contribution that trans people make to our communities, and to reflect and remember our trans siblings who have been killed, committed suicide, faced prejudice or not been able to live or be recognised in a way of their choosing. I firmly believe that today’s debate is about exactly that: living in a way of our choosing, without fear or prejudice, under a legislative framework that supports people to do exactly that.
I started school in the year section 28 was introduced. Section 28 meant that schools and teachers could not talk to students openly about their sexual orientation or gender identity without fear of losing their jobs. So much legislation related to LGBTI rights has been, and still is, based on fear rather than acceptance, but we have come a long way in all parts of the UK. I commend the Minister and her Government on their work, as well as the other Governments around the UK—particularly the Scottish Government, who have gone a little bit further. I hope that at some point the Minister and I can meet to discuss how scrapping the spousal veto in Scotland has meant greater equality for trans people.
Section 28 was scrapped in 2003. By then I was halfway through my university degree. I grew up believing that, if I came out, I could not live a normal life and I would not have equal rights. I am an ardent feminist and an openly gay MP. I am not about to shut the door on the equality of trans people just because people like me now have greater equality. Those of us in the LGBTI+ community, and all of us who believe in equality and enjoy greater equality, must do all that we can to support others who are marginalised and discriminated against. Although the legislation on gender recognition was groundbreaking in 2004, it is now out of date. Medicalising and marginalising people who are trans is absolutely wrong.
We recently celebrated a new chapter in Scotland for LGBTI people. Inclusive education has become a reality—the UK Government are also working on that. I want to take a moment to recognise Liam Stevenson and Jordan Daly from Time for Inclusive Education, plus all the many organisations who have supported us with their briefings today, including Stonewall Scotland, LGBT Youth Scotland and the Scottish Trans Alliance, who worked on the legislation and policies in Scotland alongside John Swinney, Angela Constance and Christina McKelvie.
I appreciate that sexuality and gender identity are two very different things, but I faced challenges in terms of coming to my sexuality. I did not come out until I was 32. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for somebody who is trans who is trying to operate in a system where their transition is medicalised, where they have to travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles—as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned, many trans people feel that going abroad is their only choice.
I have met a number of young trans people in my Livingston constituency, some pre-op, some post-op. The challenges they have faced are truly heartbreaking. Even in Scotland, which came second top in inclusiveness on the LGBTI global index, we still have a significant way to go. Living in a country and society where someone’s orientation or identity does not have legal recognition, and where they do not have equal rights, is corrosive to the soul. At the core is the need to reform the legislation—changing our societal view and structures will follow from changing the law on gender recognition.
I recognise that the debate has become very polarised, which is a source of great sadness to me. I do not think it helps when the media sensationalise. There are cases where systems are being abused, and we must recognise and address those concerns, but we must not make policy based on a few individuals who seek to abuse the system. There will always be those who seek to abuse the system. That is regrettable and those people should be dealt with appropriately, but we should not make policy on that basis.
As the hon. Lady has rightly pointed out, a small minority would seek to cause others harm. However, more than half of trans people in the UK have attempted suicide and 84% have said that they have experienced suicidal thoughts. Does the hon. Lady agree that a lot more needs to be done to protect and support them?
I could not agree more. The hon. Lady makes a very powerful point. It is a stain on our society that many trans people feel so marginalised. In this debate and in the wider discussion, we must do all that we can to raise our voices to show our support and ensure that our policies and our laws properly support and recognise them.
The Scottish Government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 ran from 9 November 2017 to 1 March 2018. There were 15,697 responses and 60% of respondents were in support of the Government’s proposals. It is important to recognise and understand why 40% were not in favour, but those are the figures none the less.
The hon. Member for Monmouth raised a number of concerns about domestic violence and women’s services. I have a few quotes from organisations in Scotland for him. The chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, Sandy Brindley, said that the most important thing to say was that the proposed legal changes
“should make no difference to the provision of women-only services – that’s where some confusion has arisen. There isn’t any Rape Crisis which would ask to see documentation of gender.”
I mentioned Linda Rodgers of Edinburgh Women’s Aid, who said that
“there are concerns out there that our service could in some way be abused”
by allowing people to self-declare their gender. She said she had not heard that from the organisation’s staff or board. She continued:
“The reality is that any service has the potential to be abused, and we would deal with that, whatever direction it came from on a case by case basis...I don’t think this should be used as a reason to restrict the rights of a particular group.”
Many people are concerned about young people. Stonewall has said that accessing legal recognition would have a hugely positive impact on trans young people’s health and experience in education. Like all young people, trans young people get on better at school and college when they are supported to be themselves, which is particularly important given the alarming rates of transphobic bullying happening in Britain’s schools and the impact that that has on trans young people’s mental health. Lowering the age at which young people can obtain legal recognition would also raise awareness of trans young people’s needs and support schools and colleges to address the misconceptions and stereotypes that fuel transphobic bullying.
Stonewall provided a case study from a woman called Susan:
“My daughter deserves to have the legal status and identity that matches who she is. I don’t understand why people can’t accept that everyone has a right to live their life being true to themselves, as long as it doesn’t break the law or impact negatively on anyone else.”
Earlier in the year, I visited Malawi and met a number of trans activists and heard their stories. They live in a country where it is illegal not just to be trans, but also to be gay. Trans people have no legal standing in that country. One of the activists had been attacked in their workplace purely on the basis of being trans. They went to the police, and were told to go home, dress in their proper identity and come back—only then could the crime be recorded. That is a world away from where we are. The mental and physical toll on those activists was terrifying.
We absolutely have to recognise that changing gender is not something that anybody would do lightly. Should it be done for nefarious reasons, it would be very rare and should be dealt with appropriately.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. She said that the experience in Malawi is a world away. Sadly, 41% of trans people have experienced a hate crime in the past year. I know from talking to some of my trans constituents that that is consistent with their experience. In reality, do trans women not need precisely the same protection from male violence and access to safe spaces that other women need?
I absolutely agree.
I hope the hon. Member for Monmouth and others who have concerns will be reassured by the fact that women’s groups such as Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance, Engender, Equate Scotland, Close the Gap and the Women 50:50 campaign have come out in support of the proposed changes in Scotland, as have their equivalent organisations in the UK. We must recognise that there are concerns and we must address them, but we absolutely must hold a mirror up to those who are marginalising and attacking trans people and their rights. There is a groundswell of support for equality and for a change in the law to ensure that gender identification and the processes that trans people have to go through are not discriminatory at their core. We absolutely must change the law to ensure that they are properly supported, that the law reflects that and that our society reflects that.
I thank the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for bringing the debate to the House. It is absolutely right to say that we need to have this discussion. It should have happened sooner—if it had, maybe the void that was created would not have been filled with such hostility.
As many Members have recognised, yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I want to reflect on the 369 reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people—one was in the UK—between 1 October 2017 and September this year. I also want to reflect on the number of trans people who, as we have heard, have considered taking their own life, especially students.
It is important that what is discussed in the House is accurate and sensitive. I feel that some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Monmouth were not as sensitive as they could have been. We have to remember that people who are transitioning will be watching this debate, and that we are decision makers and lawmakers. They will be looking at how we address this issue.
It certainly was not my intention to cause any offence to anyone who is trans or otherwise. Perhaps the hon. Lady will educate me a little by explaining which of my comments she thought was insensitive.
You made a comment about people who are “unfortunate enough” to suffer from gender dysphoria. That has very negative connotations, just as it used to be said that people were “unfortunate enough” to be gay, to be a woman or to be black. The way you speak was picked up in your talking about simplifying—
Order. Please use the correct terminology.
Sorry, Mr Hosie. The hon. Member for Monmouth simplified cases to sensationalise them, which is unnecessary for this kind of debate.
It was not my intention to cause any offence to anyone who is trans; I have tried to make that clear throughout. My understanding is that gender dysphoria is a medical condition that must be diagnosed. I suggest that, if somebody has gender dysphoria and is unhappy with their gender, that might be an unfortunate situation to be in. By saying that, I am certainly not trying to undermine the rights of anyone who is transgender.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s comments will slightly reassure the transgender community. The UK’s legislation is so out of date that we are no longer considered a world leader on LGBT+ rights. We were once No. 1—right at the very top. We slipped to third, and we are fourth in this year’s rankings. The International Lesbian and Gay Association’s “Rainbow Europe index” report cites a surge in transphobic media coverage as the reason for our falling down that league table.
The Labour party has a proud record of championing equal rights, including LGBT+ rights. It was a Labour Government who brought in the Equality Act 2010 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and who abolished section 28 and created civil partnerships. We need to recognise that LGBT+ people still face widespread discrimination, and it is clear that we must do more to enhance their rights and protections. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 is now out of date and needs amending. The issue is about changing sex and gender on birth certificates, and we should talk about the facts. Apart from birth certificates, it is already possible to change one’s name, title and gender marker on all UK identity documents. That has been working well for more than 40 years. In fact, most trans people do not want to go through the indignity of applying for a gender recognition certificate. The Government will have the support of Opposition Members to amend the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
I will go through a few more facts. Deliberately making a false statutory declaration is a serious crime and is punishable by imprisonment. From the heartfelt contributions that we have heard, we know that changing one’s gender is not done lightly. Reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 does not affect access to single-sex services and facilities, which has been made clear.
On the issue of prisons, can the hon. Lady confirm that very high-risk trans women are sometimes not held on the female estate because there are no facilities to house them? Depending on a risk assessment, they are sometimes even held in male prisons. That goes to show that the current system already works: if somebody is considered a high risk to the exclusively female population, the system and guidelines already provide for that.
That is absolutely correct. In the case that was mentioned, there was a failure of the prison authorities, not of the system. The process should have gone through certain panels before the decision was made—it had nothing to do with the principles of the Equality Act 2010. We have good information that a transgender expert who consulted on that particular case was overruled. The failure of Leeds prison authorities to act on the expert’s advice arises from the reaction to Vikki Thompson’s tragic suicide in Leeds, which is maybe why that particular case happened. It was a failure not of the system but of the prison authorities.
Labour recognises the rights of all group to debate the implications of reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004. All views should be listened to and supported, and we have listened to various groups that have vastly different opinions. That does not mean that we will be bullied into taking one side or the other. Decisions and law should be made on the basis of facts and take into consideration the majority, not just people who are sensationalising certain aspects of a particular case. As I have said, with 45% of trans students attempting suicide, the Government’s delay in amending the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has contributed to fraught and toxic debate, from which I hope we can move on.
I have a few questions for the Minister, which I am sure she will appreciate. Will she outline the Government’s planned timetable for reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004, including the publication of their response to the recently closed consultation? Will she outline the Government’s plans to launch their separate calls for evidence on issues faced by non-binary and intersex people, and can she confirm that this will not delay the much-needed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004? In line with the LGBT action plan, will she provide an update on research on the feasibility of the “Tell Us Once” service as a sustainable model for trans people to update their name and gender only once across multiple Departments? I am sure this is the case, but just for clarification, will the Minister confirm that trans people will not lose any rights under the Gender Recognition Act reforms?
I will conclude by quoting a letter from a Labour activist, Heather Peto, but before I do so I want to thank the organisations that fed the views in to us, including Unison, Stonewall, DIVA magazine, my LGBT advisory panel, LGBT Labour and our parliamentary Labour party LGBT group. When we make legislation in this place, it is important that we listen to people’s lived experiences. For too long, laws have been made for people, about people, without their having a place around the table.
I spoke to a young trans woman who found herself homeless. She told me that she had been put into an all-men hostel and was scared for her life. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make law to protect all women, and that must absolutely include trans women?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Trans women suffer from abuse, violence, domestic abuse and assault in the streets, just as every other woman does. We need to recognise the intersectionality of women, including trans women; we often do not. Often, only some women are recognised and have a privileged position.
The hon. Lady has made an excellent contribution. I just want to share with hon. Members an excerpt from Baroness Helena Kennedy’s excellent book, “Eve Was Shamed”, about the experience of trans prisoners, which illustrates the hon. Lady’s point excellently:
“One of the most distressing cases I ever conducted was defending a young transgender woman who had been raped and vaginally damaged by a former partner. She had gone to the police and reported the violation only to be greeted with ridiculing asides and suppressed laughter. The case pre-dated the Human Rights Act and reforms in rape law and the Equality Act. Her experience at the hands of the police was so wretched that she decided to withdraw the allegation whereupon the police charged her with perverting the course of justice.”
That was a long time ago and things have moved on, but such cases show that there must be no rolling back of rights.
I thank my hon. Friend—I will refer to her in that way—for that intervention. That feeds nicely into the letter from Heather, who has been trans for many decades. She said:
“Not so long ago, I was assaulted in a club when a stranger came over and roughly grabbed my crotch and breasts ‘to see if I was a woman’. I would call that sexual assault, but the police with stretched resources gave it low priority as it was a ‘lad having a laugh when drunk’. Being pushed over and abused in the street has also become common place again. When it happens now, myself and other trans people have to weigh whether it is worth reporting it to the police at all. Is your indignity worth the time it takes to go through all the police processes, the triggering of old memories of being sexually assaulted and the police’s lack of concern? For the more minor assaults usually it isn’t, but for the rapes and domestic violence support it is, and transwomen need support and safe spaces just as other women do.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for securing this debate and enabling us to have this conversation about a very important area of our society in the 21st century. A lot of us are feeling our way in it.
I thank all hon. Members for the respectful tone in which they conducted the debate. I get asked about this issue regularly, and we all share a sense of sadness about the fact that this important debate sometimes gets taken over by loud and sometimes aggressive campaigning by activists. I am sure they hold their beliefs very strongly, but they perhaps lose sight of the fact that we have to be able to talk about this issue in a reasoned, respectful and caring fashion. The vast majority of the public—and, I am sure, parliamentarians—are in the middle. We want to talk about this issue in a caring and careful way so society gets to a position in which we are all comfortable with the consequences of the changes to legislation and so on.
There is perhaps a lack of understanding, so we need to help schools and the other organisations that have been mentioned to understand what the law is so they can apply it confidently in their services. I take that away not just from this debate but from the discussions we have more generally. We have tended to focus on trans women, but of course this debate also involves trans men, which I will deal with towards the end of my speech.
The consultation closed on 22 October. I hope that those who looked at it noted that the questions were very open. We deliberately tried not to lead people down a particular path because we wanted to ensure that we heard a range of views from as many people as possible to see how the current system is working. This debate is about self-identification, but no decisions have been made yet about what if any changes will be made to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The consultation was about seeking views, so people should not walk away with the idea that we have made up our mind. It is only a couple of weeks since the consultation closed, so no proposals have been put forward about self-identification or other ways in which we can deal with the Act.
The consultation ran for 16 weeks and received more than 100,000 responses, which shows the interest that this topic attracts. My hard-working civil servants are now analysing those responses. In response to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), we hope to have a Government response to the consultation ready in spring next year. She will appreciate that it takes a bit of time to work through 100,000 responses. We also want to ensure that we get the right response, in which we will set out the next steps.
The hon. Lady also asked about calls for evidence regarding intersex and non-binary people. We will publish the call for evidence shortly, and it will not cause delay to the response to the overall consultation. She also asked about the “Tell Us Once” service. Work is ongoing in the Government Equalities Office to deliver that commitment in the action plan.
The hon. Lady asked about trans people’s rights. Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth for securing this debate, because it gives me the opportunity to say that there will be no loss of trans people’s rights. This is an open consultation to determine what the law should be and explore people’s thoughts about its application in the 21st century.
I understand that my hon. Friend is concerned that the views of women and women’s groups have not been heard in the consultation. I reassure him that the Government are committed to hearing from everyone, including the groups he mentioned. We do not want to close down the debate. We absolutely do not agree with those who seek to vilify the views of people who do not agree with them. I, for one, have been on the record for some time as having grave concerns about the development of things such as no-platforming in our universities. It seems to me that we should have the confidence to talk about this issue, to express our concerns, to ask questions and to do so in a way that is met with respect so our questions are answered.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), said that Labour fully supports debate. The Minister has just said the same. Do they both support local authorities—Conservative and Labour—in allowing groups such as Woman’s Place UK and Transgender Trend to hold meetings in local authority buildings?
I take the view that we have the principle of freedom of speech. We should have a debate as long as it does not go beyond the legal markers delineating hate crime and so on. People are sometimes almost too scared to talk about things, which is not right. We do not want a climate of fear in the debate. We want people to be able to express their views respectfully and in a caring and careful manner, so that we ensure that questions are flushed out and answered.
The people whom my officials have met represent what I call the “rainbow full of views”—the spectrum of views on the topic. My officials have met women’s groups, those who run and administer refuges, domestic abuse charities, local government, LGBT groups, unions, service providers, transgender charities, Government Departments, European Governments, and organisations who campaign against reform of the Gender Recognition Act, including Fair Play For Women, Woman’s Place UK and Transgender Trend. They have also met feminist organisations that support reform of the GRA, because our priority with the consultation has been openness and listening.
As the Government consider the options, there are a couple of points I will make clear. Since the Gender Recognition Act came into force, transgender people have been able to acquire a new birth certificate matching the gender they live in. Experience has shown, however, that do not use the process because they find it to be difficult and intrusive. They are therefore left with a birth certificate that does not reflect the gender in which they live their lives. Without a new birth certificate, transgender people are unable to marry in the gender in which they live their lives, and cannot claim their pensions at the age appropriate to that gender. Those who are a little older live with the worry that their death certificate might carry a name and a gender that have not applied to them for decades. That is one of many reasons for the consultation.
For a transgender person, changing their birth certificate requires them to obtain a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria; to obtain a second report from a medical professional detailing any medical treatment that they have had, such as hormone treatment or surgery; to sign a statutory declaration that they intend to live in their acquired gender until death; to provide proof of having lived for at least two years in their acquired gender; to pay a fee of £140; and, if they are married, to obtain the consent of their spouse. That documentation is sent to the Gender Recognition Panel, which is made up of legal and medical experts, and which makes a decision as to whether the person has fulfilled the requirements. If satisfied, the panel will issue a gender recognition certificate, which is used to obtain a new birth certificate. The transgender person never meets the panel that makes that decision about them.
When the UK Government introduced the 2004 Act, it was world leading, as the hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned. We feel that the time is right to ask whether it is still appropriate and whether it needs improving. We have head from 100,000 people and from colleagues across the House.
Does the Minister agree that it is cruel not only that a transgender person does not meet the Gender Recognition Panel, but that they have no right of appeal?
That point was raised in the consultation.
The Minister’s point about the time being right is important. She mentioned a number of organisations that she has met, but I am concerned that some organisations suggest that gender identification is a trend. To me, that is deeply offensive, because it is akin to somebody telling me that my sexuality is a trend, which I absolutely refute in the strongest terms. In reality, trans people across the UK face murder, homelessness and violence. It is important that we change the law as soon as possible.
I am about to move on to something that the hon. Lady spoke about in her speech. She may not know but I have said on record that I would never dream of using the word “trend” in this context, because its use risks demeaning or minimising the journeys that people are on or have been on. To my mind, that comes back to the point about being caring and careful in the way that we discuss the issue. If I may correct her for the record: the organisations I listed have met my officials.
I want to relay the story of a friend of mine whose spouse was asked to provide that certificate and found it deeply concerning. Their feeling was, “Who am I to stop my partner from defining who they are?” In fact, it stopped them from going through the process. Does the Minister agree that that is problematic and can she confirm that it is being looked at?
We will look at the matter of spousal consent and those responses as part of the consultation.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) gave a moving account of her personal experience, and other colleagues have given accounts of the experiences of people who have been on, or are on, their journeys, and the challenges, or sometimes the heartbreak, that they face. I know from conversations that I have had with trans people that there is often a great deal of sadness in the process of coming to a decision. That is not necessarily their own sadness, but can be the sadness of those around them. I am very conscious of the experiences of people who have been through that and, for me, the key words on the issue are “caring” and “careful”.
I say “careful” because of some of the concerns expressed today. I absolutely understand those who expressed them—for example, about women’s refuges. As a Home Office Minister, I will take the draft domestic abuse Bill through Parliament in the coming months. I know people are concerned that refuges will no longer be able to provide safe spaces for women. May I please make it clear that that is not the case?
Domestic abuse services, including refuges, have robust risk assessment procedures and may exclude anyone who might threaten a safe environment for victims and their children, as well as signposting sources of support for those people whose needs they might not be able to meet. I am very conscious from my conversations with refuge organisations that they take different approaches, which I welcome. We have to be in a situation in which we can offer support and refuge services to people regardless of their lifestyle, background and so on. I absolutely understand people’s concerns and I hope I have been able to offer reassurance to them.
We are committed to maintaining protections for single-sex services and will consider as part of our response to the consultation whether any further action is needed to reaffirm that approach. To be clear, the single-sex exceptions under the Equality Act 2010 allow a service provider to provide a service for women or men if an organisation needs to define it in a way that does not allow a trans person to access their services, or to provide a service to them in a different way. They are able to do that as long as they can show that it is a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim.
The issue of transgender offenders has understandably been raised as well. The case of Karen White in particular has been examined. I want to be clear that the case of Karen White is appalling. There was a series of terrible failings that should never have happened. In the light of that, my ministerial colleagues at the Ministry of Justice are looking again at the decision-making systems that apply to the management of transgender prisoners, as well as how they were applied in that case.
The issue of children is of concern outside the walls of this Chamber. We have no intention of lowering the age at which people may legally change their gender, namely the age of 18. We recognise the increase in referrals of children and adolescents to gender-identity services for people aged under 18, so we have committed to improve our understanding of the impacts on children and adolescents of changing their gender, and to gather evidence on the issues faced by people who were born female and who transition in adolescence. We are not the only country to witness and experience the increase, and we need to understand why it is happening.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth for securing the debate. I hope I have been able to reassure him on some of his concerns, and other hon. Members who hold different views on the concerns they expressed. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that everyone in our society can thrive, and to upholding the rights and protections that all our citizens enjoy. We want to support and protect women; we want to support, protect and improve the lives of transgender people; and I hope that those two ambitions have the support of the House.
Of course, everyone who has concerns about this issue in any direction totally condemns any violence against anyone who is transsexual in any way. Those responsible for physical or verbal assaults, or any other kind of abuse, deserve to be punished with the full force of the law. I have never met anyone who disagrees with that proposition.
I say respectfully to the hon. Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) that I have in fact tried to educate myself on the issue of violence against women over a number of years. In fact, I served on the Home Affairs Committee between about 2005 and 2010, when it brought out its reports on forced marriage and female genital mutilation, issues that I raised on many occasions in the House of Commons. I was glad when legislation was passed, especially on FGM, although I am disappointed that despite all the laws and fine words, there has still not been a single conviction for female genital mutilation—that probably wanders a little from the topic, but violence against women is an important issue.
On the consultation, I am not surprised that so many people seem to be in favour of changing the law. Mermaids, a publicly funded body, has published online a primer encouraging people to fill it out, which is not right.
The important thing—it comes down to this—is that if people believe a trans woman is a woman, then it is not possible to protect female sex-segregated spaces in the way that many campaigners would like. Many people do not accept the proposition that a trans woman is a woman. A trans woman is a trans woman, worthy of respect, absolutely deserving of protection under the law against discrimination, or physical or verbal assault, but not necessarily eligible to access single-sex areas.
Finally, I very much welcome the fact that on all sides at least lip service is given to the idea of debate. I hope the Minister sets an example by encouraging any local authorities that wish to in their areas to allow groups such as Woman’s Place to hold meetings, and by meeting with some of those groups. To the best of my knowledge, such meetings have not yet taken place, although I have certainly tried to facilitate them. I look forward to that happening in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proposals to allow self-identification of gender.
Rape Myths and Juries
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rape myths and juries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
In August, I submitted a freedom of information request to the Crown Prosecution Service about the conviction rates for rape. The answer revealed that less than a third of prosecutions brought against young men result in a conviction. Men aged 18 to 24 in England and Wales are consistently less likely to be found guilty than older men. Only 32% were convicted last year—the lowest of any age group. Successful prosecutions against men aged 25 to 59 were much higher at 46 %. The Guardian used those figures in its recent excellent series on rape.
Given the vast majority of rapes are acquaintance or date rape, the conviction figures suggest a reluctance by juries to find young men guilty of rape. We need to explore the reasons behind that and how rape myths, stereotypes and attitudes affect juries. The rates may reflect the prevailing attitudes in society, and therefore of juries, towards young women, who are often blamed for their own rape.
The number of men charged with rape in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level in a decade—a 23% decline in 2017-18, according to the Crown Prosecution Service’s annual “Violence against Women and Girls Report”. Yet at the same time, the number of rapes reported to the police soared to more than 41,000 in 2016-17, with a massive 150% increase in the last five years. Despite fewer charges, there was a 13% fall in prosecutions and a 12% decrease in convictions.
My hon. Friend highlights some figures; according to latest figures, just over half the reports of rape resulted in a charge. Of the cases that were prosecuted, 42% did not result in a conviction. The most vital thing for women who report rape is that they are believed. Does she agree that those figures cause serious harm to that principle?
I agree; women must have confidence when reporting rape that they will be believed and taken seriously, and that they will have justice.
There has been a 72% increase in the number of cases that have been administratively finalised—meaning the police have closed them after receiving advice from the CPS. A Guardian article on 24 September quoted a whistleblower who said that prosecutors were being told to
“ditch ‘weak’ rape cases to improve figures”.
That advice could severely limit victims’ access to justice and lead to cases involving younger victims, students or those with mental health issues being less likely to result in a charge. The overwhelming majority of rape victims still choose not to report to the police for fear of not being believed, yet the prevailing narrative in some sections of the media is that lying about rape is common. The opposite is true. Only 17% of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics for March 2017. The CPS estimated in 2012 that only 3% of the 1,149 cases heard may have been malicious.
Juries view evidence through the lens of prevailing stereotypes shared with the wider community. Rape myths still dominate in our culture, including that a woman who has drunk a lot cannot complain if she is raped, that it is rape only if someone has injuries, that real rapes are done by strangers in alleyways, that it is a crime of passion and that women invite rape by what they wear. Research shows that stereotypes about how rape victims are expected to behave remain prevalent in society and, by extension, in juries. There is still a lack of understanding about why a woman might not report an assault immediately or might not fight, or how a victim of a sexual assault might behave in the immediate aftermath of an attack. There are still huge gaps in the public understanding about what sexual consent actually means.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition commissioned YouGov research, which will be published shortly, that shows confusion among the public about what constitutes rape, particularly concerning the majority of rapes involving acquaintances. Almost a third thought it was not rape if a woman had flirted on a date but had not wanted sex. Juries take those attitudes into the court room with them. Defence lawyers play up those myths in an attempt to rubbish the character of the witness.
Dr Dominic Willmott, an academic at Huddersfield University, conducted a study in 2017 in which he replicated genuine trial environments to assess how attitudes and backgrounds had an impact on juries. The study found that nearly half of jurors in rape cases came to a verdict before deliberation, indicating a predictive relationship between juror demographics, personal experience and psychological make-up, with an impact on verdicts in rape cases. Dr Willmott said the research demonstrated
“that for all the best efforts of the courts, juries are not necessarily offering a fair and impartial assessment of the evidence, particularly within rape cases. Past experiences play a huge role in shaping the person you are, and inevitably affects your view on society. As well as the importance of demographic features of the jurors, attitudes towards rape were found to be the strongest predictor of high numbers of not guilty verdicts.”
We all saw how the culture at the time protected very well-known people such as Jimmy Savile. We saw how young girls who were victims of shocking sexual exploitation in Rotherham and Rochdale were seen as prostitutes who consented to their abuse. Language and how we talk about behaviour is very important; it shapes what we see. The Crown Prosecution Service has said:
“Addressing the low conviction after contest rate in cases involving young defendants represents a challenge for the entire criminal justice system.”
The Ministry of Justice responded to an open e-petition in July this year that called on the Government to produce compulsory training about rape myths for all jurors in rape trials by appointing Professor Cheryl Thomas to gather data from experienced jurors at a range of courts throughout the country. The Government response to the petition said:
“We know that rape myths exist within our society, and therefore jurors could believe these myths and that this could affect their interpretations of the facts of the case.”
In the light of the shocking figures on charging and convictions there should be a stronger response, because this situation can only get worse without action.
I would like an urgent independent inquiry that would include some controversial areas, such as a review of the use of juries in rape cases; jury vetting; specialist rape courts; current law; judicial directions; examination of the falling number of rapes charges by the CPS; low conviction rates for rape, especially date and acquaintance rape; the role of expert witnesses in rape cases; pre-recorded cross-examination; and sexual history evidence rules. I absolutely accept that the justice system needs to ensure that the innocent go free and the guilty are sentenced, but my concern is that conviction rates indicate that the scales of justice are tipped against the victim. The most common cause of unsuccessful prosecutions in rape cases is jury acquittal.
Other countries have been pondering this difficult question. The Law Commission in New Zealand published a report in December 2015 that concluded:
“The nature of sexual violence is such that, as a form of criminal offending, it is not well suited to fact-finding by a jury comprised of 12 laypersons.”
The German and French court systems have a collaborative court model in which professional judges decide cases with citizens. Sir John Gillen, who issued a report yesterday in response to serious concerns about low conviction rates for rape in Northern Ireland and the polluting effect of rape myths said:
“there is no doubt that there is a growing belief, particularly among young people, that a jury should be replaced by a judge or by a judge and two lay people such as we see in family courts and aspects of youth justice.”
Specialist domestic violence courts were introduced in the mid-2000s. At the time, the prevailing view was that it was the woman’s own fault if she did not leave an abusive husband. New specialist sexual violence courts could draw on experience from those courts of using specially trained staff, ensuring speedy access to victim support services and ensuring that the court is a physically safe space for the victim, for example by using separate entrances and special measures for giving evidence.
The roll-out of the successful pilots in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston of section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which allows pre-recorded cross-examination, has still not happened. Those pilots, which involved vulnerable child witnesses, were evaluated as very successful in improving the quality of cross-examination and stopping bullying attacks on the character of witnesses. I hope that the Minister can give us positive news about when pre-recorded cross-examination will finally be rolled out, and that she will consider offering it to victims whose access to a fair trial may be compromised by rape myths.
There is also controversy about the extent of the personal records and data that police request of rape complainants before going ahead with their cases. The nature and extent of the information requested from complainants varies widely across police forces. There is concern that intensive examination of a complainant’s communication and behaviour to establish their “credibility” is too often a proxy for rape myths and discriminatory assumptions. The new Director of Public Prosecutions addressed that issue in his first major speech, saying that rape complainants must have their personal privacy, including their mobile phone records, protected.
Dr Willmott has called for the vetting of juries for preconceived bias. He argues that although judges can tell jurors to disregard certain things, that does not make any difference:
“Our study highlights that even before the case has begun, jurors’ psycho-social make up predisposes them towards particular verdict decisions, making a vetting system for juries increasingly important. By implementing such a system we can reduce existing bias from juries, which should result in a greater number of fairer outcomes.”
There have been calls for experts to be allowed to give evidence about rape myths. There is a case for updating judicial directions to take into account the impact of social media and how it can feed into rape myths—another issue taken up by Sir John Gillen. Baroness Stern raised the impact of rape myths on juries in her 2010 review, quoting a specialist rape prosecutor who said:
“You can forgive juries for finding it hard to convict given the burden of proof and when the defence works so hard to discredit the victim’s case. There is a lot of general misunderstanding about trauma.”
In Scotland, section 275C of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 allows prosecutors to call expert evidence at trial. That would help jurors to understand typical psychological responses to rape.
Currently, UK law does not differentiate between stranger rape and acquaintance rape, which both carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Juries understand the evidence for stranger rape, but complex issues about consent in acquaintance rape are not so well understood. A senior police officer said that
“at the moment we are asking juries to do something incredibility difficult.”
That is true. We ask jurors to make judgments about consent to sex where the victim and the accused are known to each other and the victim may have consented to some sexual activity but not to penetration. It is challenging for juries to judge whether the defendant had a reasonable belief that consent was given, especially when drink was involved. That is where myths and stereotypes kick in.
The consent elements of rape, as outlined in CPS guidelines, are that
“B does not consent to the penetration and A does not reasonably believe that B consents”.
The CPS guidelines go on to state:
“Proving the absence of consent is usually the most difficult part of a rape prosecution, and is the most common reason for a rape case to fail. Prosecutors will look for evidence such as injury, struggle, or immediate distress to help them prove that the victim did not consent, but frequently there may be no such corroborating evidence.”
Sir John Gillen called for a
“discernible shift towards a requirement for some measure of affirmative or participative expression of consent and away from a focus on resistance as a means to prove the absence of consent.”
I have the greatest respect and admiration for members of the public who do jury service, some of whom have to sit through evidence of the most horrifying and brutal crimes inflicted by one person on another. Serving on a jury is indeed a public service. However, I return to my original figures. Juries are reluctant to convict young men of rape. It is no use wringing our hands about that. We cannot have a situation in which young women who have been raped feel that they have no access to justice, because that undermines the whole justice system.
Ministers need to take strong action, including a fundamental review of the whole system. They must take the lead to forge better public understanding of rape myths and what constitutes consent. Sir John Gillen, who suggested a large-scale publicity campaign and training for juries, said:
“Jurors don’t just land from the moon, they are people like you and me.”
A perfect storm is developing in which juries are reluctant to convict young men who are charged with rape, so the CPS is reluctant to prosecute and the police are therefore reluctant to refer. The result is that victims will stop coming forward and young women will be denied justice. The danger is that we will be thrown back to the dark days, when victims of abuse were silenced and dared not speak out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this incredibly important debate. She has done a significant amount of work to support young people in the criminal justice system and is a committed advocate for victims of sexual exploitation. Thanks to her hard work, all references to “child prostitute” were removed from legislation and the victims are properly recognised.
Rape is an extremely serious criminal offence that can lead to lifelong trauma for victims and their families. I take extremely seriously the great courage, support and perseverance it can take for victims to go through the criminal justice system in pursuit of justice—the bravery it takes to report the crime to the police, and the emotional strain and trauma of having to recount details of the incident to the police and then the CPS during the investigative stages. We know that the court process is often intrusive, uncomfortable and intimidating. It is vital that our court process should not aggravate and compound the victim’s experience.
In responding to this important debate, I will highlight the importance of evidence in this area, say what the Government are doing to protect rape victims, and finally look to the future. The hon. Lady, who began her speech with the facts she obtained in response to an FOI request, is aware of the importance of evidence and rightly highlighted a number of important statistics. She is right to underscore that more people are coming forward to report rape, which is very much to be welcomed, and to recognise that that huge social change followed much work by campaigners and a change in attitude towards women. She also highlighted that, despite that rise in reporting, the number of prosecutions has fallen. That is disappointing and worrying.
The hon. Lady said that convictions are falling. Although that is true for the period 2017-18, it is interesting to note that in June 2018 the conviction rate for sexual offences was at its highest in a decade, at 68%. It is therefore possible that, when cases reach court, they are more likely to result in a conviction. She also rightly pointed out that there are fewer convictions in cases where the complainant and the accused are known to each other and aged between 18 and 24.
In those circumstances, this is an important debate. We need to look into these issues to ensure that reports of rape are taken seriously at every stage of the process. At the heart of the debate are the questions why convictions are not being secured and why juries are not convicting. The hon. Lady said she believes there is reluctance on the part of juries to find young men guilty of rape because of rape myths in our culture. There is a fear that some believe that women who have drunk have only themselves to blame, and that juries acquit on the basis of their prejudices and attitudes to rape, rather than the facts and issues before them.
If that were right, it would be appalling. Women who come forward should have confidence that they will get justice. They should be judged on the facts presented to the court. It is important when we consider changing policy that those changes are driven by evidence, so I am pleased that we are currently analysing this important issue and looking at the reasons why juries come to their conclusions in rape cases. As the hon. Lady mentioned, Professor Cheryl Thomas, the leading academic expert on juries and jury research, is currently considering these issues. She has been commissioned by the president of the Queen’s bench division to conduct empirical research with jurors to help inform our understanding of the impact of rape myths and the development of future training and guidance for jurors.
Professor Thomas will be considering two things that are pertinent to this debate: first, to what extent jurors who have served on real trials believe myths and stereotypes about rape, and secondly to what extent further guidance to jurors, in the form of educational materials, might be helpful in ensuring that myths and stereotypes are not applied in cases of rape or sexual offence. That evidence will help us to understand the bias of juries and help to inform policy in that critical area. Once we have the evidence base, we can consider the matters identified by the hon. Lady, who raised interesting and important questions.
Protecting women—particularly young women—when they go through the criminal justice system is vital to ensuring justice, and across Government we are taking a number of steps in that area at every stage of a woman’s journey. During the initial stages of a complaint the Metropolitan police has trained officers and frontline staff to deal with victims of rape when they first come forward, to ensure accurate recording. All CPS prosecutors who work on rape cases have specialist training on stereotypes, rape myths and consent. The CPS has almost doubled the number of specialist prosecutors in its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences unit, and it has enhanced training and improved the support that it offers to victims through criminal proceedings.
When a victim goes through court, we must ensure that they are protected and get justice. We are committed to rolling out pre-recorded cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses in Crown court centres in England and Wales. The review of disclosure by the Attorney General’s Office, published on 15 November, referred to the importance of ensuring that complainants are not subjected to unwarranted intrusion into their privacy, or deterred from reporting offences or participating in the criminal process. The 2018 “Crown Court Compendium” builds on existing guidance, giving more examples of possible directions and listing situations in which jury directions may be needed in a rape case. Judges can sit on sexual offences cases only if they have undertaken specialist training from the Judicial College. More broadly, we have protected funding of more than £6.4 million for 85 rape support centres across England and Wales, and we have committed to continuing investment—£4 million a year until 2020-21—in sexual assault referral centres.
Let me turn to the questions that the hon. Lady raised about solutions to this problem. She highlighted a number of important questions, and we are thinking carefully about how we can educate jurors in this area. As I mentioned, however, it is important that we approach this issue on the basis of evidence. The judiciary rightly maintain that any course of action should be well considered and informed by empirical evidence, and therefore we will await the outcome of the review by Professor Thomas before taking any steps.
The hon. Lady mentioned a number of important statistics, but it is worth pointing out that there is conflicting evidence on the behaviour of juries in rape cases. In the year ending December 2017, approximately 44% of 5,784 not guilty pleas for sexual offences resulted in a conviction—a higher figure than for robbery and offences of violence against the person. In the same year, the sexual offences acquittal rate was close to the average acquittal rate for all offences at 56%, and that was lower than the acquittal rate for offences such as the possession of weapons and theft, which were both at 60%.
I am conscious that gender stereotypes unfortunately exist in our society, and I am aware of concerns that they can create an environment that enables violence against women and girls. As jurors are picked from society as a whole, it is possible that rape myths sometimes have an impact on juror decision making, but more research is needed firmly to establish that link. For that reason, I ask for the House’s patience while we await the results of research that is due to report in the new year. I will keep the hon. Lady updated on any developments, and I will be happy to meet her when that evidence is produced.
Question put and agreed to.
Nursing: Higher Education Investment
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered investing in nursing higher education in England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I am proud to speak on an issue close to my heart. Before I entered Parliament, I was privileged to work as a nurse for almost 40 years, and last year my daughter graduated as a nurse. Nursing is an incredible profession, a fulfilling career and full of opportunities for those who choose that rewarding path. Nurses are the most trusted profession in Britain, a position they have held for years, with 96% of the public trusting nurses to tell them the truth. It may come as little surprise to hon. Members that politicians are the least trusted. Let all of us in this House show political leadership now and listen to what nursing students and nurses are telling us. They are telling us what must happen to meet the needs of communities across England.
Everywhere there are people, there are nurses, but they are not necessarily doing what we might think they are doing. Yes, nurses connect with patients and families to understand what people need, but they are also diagnosing, prescribing, performing surgery, creating care plans, delivering treatment, overseeing clinics, managing hospitals, working as chief executives and designing primary care services.
My hon. Friend mentioned that nurses are valued, but if the Government really valued them, they would give them a decent wage increase and restore the education maintenance grants and, if necessary, bursaries as well. Does she agree that that would demonstrate how nurses are really valued in this country?
I do agree, and my hon. Friend will hear me refer in my speech to what he has just said.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and I commend what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said about the proposition that we need to pay our nurses properly to value them truly. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West agree that it is important that we have specialisms too, and that one specialism we require more of across the country is Parkinson’s nurses?
Absolutely. That is where nursing is important. Nurses are becoming specialists in Parkinson’s, Turner syndrome and sickle cell, all of which are specialisms that will be required in the future of nursing.
Nurses are working in cutting-edge research on ethics, safety, improvements to care and new ways of working. They are leading from the frontline, and as professionals they should be at the heart of strategic policy making. Nursing is at a critical junction in our healthcare and systems, yet the Government are without an independent chief nursing officer after the removal of that critical leadership post from the heart of the Department of Health and Social Care. That is an insult to the nursing profession.
How many of my right hon. and hon. Friends are regularly contacted by their constituents about health and social care issues—people struggling, writing about services being reduced or cut, unable to access support without help? Increasingly, that is happening because there are not enough staff to run things safely. Across the country, nurses are clear that staffing for safe and effective care is their most important priority and their biggest worry.
Does my hon. Friend accept that in the specialisms in particular—in my own area, the problem is with learning disabilities—there are such reduced numbers going through training because of the loss of the bursary that it will have a huge impact on care homes and other forms of care delivery? Does she see that as a total tragedy?
I do, and I will talk about that in my speech and touch on the lack of nursing students coming into those particular areas because of the bursary’s disappearance.
My hon. Friend is making a very sound speech. Does she agree that it is a completely false economy that, as a student nurse told me just today, of the 45 recruits to mental health nursing in his cohort, under the new financial regime only 18 remain on the course in its second year? We desperately need those nurses—what a price to pay!
My hon. Friend is totally right. Again, I will address that point in my speech, but it is noted. I am glad that my hon. Friends are intervening, because it shows the importance of this debate on nursing and the lack of it. I am glad the nurses came to my hon. Friend and told her what it is like. The situation is beyond shocking. There are almost 42,000 vacant nursing posts in the national health service in England. Without policy and funding intervention, that will grow to almost 43,000 by 2023.
My hon. Friend is making an important speech. On the current 42,000 shortfall, does she agree that with so many European Union nationals potentially leaving the health service, that figure could well be compounded in future?
That is definitely so. My hon. Friend is completely right, and with the way Brexit is going, that is understandable. People working in the NHS understand that.
Without policies and funding intervention, as I have said, the shortfall will grow to almost 43,000 by 2023, and that number is on the low side. It does not account for the one third of nurses who are due to retire in the next 10 years. It does not include nursing shortages in social care or public health. Students are being forced to plug the gaps. They should be learning, but instead they are providing care before qualification, without supervision and before they are ready—all because we do not have enough nurses. That is deeply unfair to students. It is risky for qualified nurses and it is unsafe for patients, and all because no one wants to pay for the solution.
Poor workforce planning in health and care is not new. Even in my time, policy makers pursued a boom-to-bust approach, rather than ensuring that supply was available to meet demand. Six years on from the Health and Social Care Act 2012, it is fundamentally unclear who is accountable for workforce strategy. As a result, it is not being done by anyone. Earlier this year, Health Education England held a consultation, but Professor Ian Cumming has failed to deliver a workforce strategy. We are told that it will be dealt with in the new 10-year plan. Mr Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, has been handed an additional £20.5 billion a year for the NHS by 2023-24, and it is widely understood that his long-term plan must address the extreme gaps in our nursing workforce by fixing the supply issue and providing funding.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I do not think it should focus only on the bursary, as some of the letters have—important though that is—but on the Government’s lamentable failure to bring in nursing apprenticeships, which provide such an important route for many youngsters from working-class areas in the Black Country, including areas in her constituency and mine.
My right hon. Friend covers a point about apprenticeships that I will address in my speech, because what we are saying is that it is one of the routes, but not the only route.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on a topic that is important to us all. The Royal College of Nursing has made it very clear that the priority for the bulk of investment in nursing education must be the three-year undergraduate degree, because that is the fastest and safest route for growth at scale. Does she agree with that, and does she agree that we must not try to do nursing training on the cheap?
Absolutely; I totally agree. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We should not be doing the training on the cheap. I will try to address that point in my speech.
There is a huge risk that the long-term plan will be like previous plans and that Simon Stevens will not provide or fund a solution. He is spending money on services that cannot be staffed. He is creating new posts that cannot be filled, because trained and qualified registered nurses to fill those posts do not exist. I wonder whether the Prime Minister knows that nurses do not grow on trees, just as money does not. The five year forward view substantially failed to create nurses. In fact, during that time, the opposite happened: we lost thousands of nurses. I ask right hon. and hon. Members what on earth should be prioritised above growing the number of nurses.
I agree that this is a really important issue and we must do all we can to support the nurses of the future, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is worth recording that there are 13,000 more nurses on wards today than there were in 2010?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but unfortunately, as someone who has worked on the wards, I have to say that we do not see it; it does not feel like that.
Simply put, there is no long-term plan without a registered nursing workforce. Whatever ambition the Secretary of State and Simon Stevens have must be matched by credible growth in the number of registered nurses.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Does my hon. Friend—
Order. It is not for me to rule on whether people should or should not give way, but I should say that it is not really on for people just to wander into the Chamber and seek to intervene within two minutes of doing so. I say that gently, but it is not for me to decide who should be given way to; that is a matter for the speaker.
Sorry, I have been at another meeting.
That is not the point, if I may say so to the hon. Lady. Would the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) like to give way?
I will take this intervention and then I would like to make some progress.
I will be brief. There was mention of how many nurses there were on the wards. I was a nurse on a ward, and I am getting older. The drop by one third in the number of applications means that, even with the new nurses, we do not have the number of people to fill the vacancies. The Prime Minister makes great play of how much money there will be for all these nursing vacancies. If nurses are not trained and people are retiring and those places are not being filled by new nurses, how do we do it?
I will address that in my speech. I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention.
I welcome the public commitment made by the Secretary of State at the Royal College of Nursing on 31 October to invest in growing the number of nurses through higher education, including through the long-term plan, because I feel that finally someone is paying attention. The Secretary of State has said that he will look into the possibility of introducing safe nurse staffing legislation. He has said that he will explore anything that might help to address the problem we face. I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State means it, because he and Simon Stevens have the power to fix this mess with proper funding and intervention.
That brings me to the crux of the debate. We have to grow our nursing workforce, so the only question that we need to answer is this: how do we fund what we know is the fastest and safest way to do that at scale, in the light of our crisis? Higher education is the best and most cost-effective way to ensure that we have the right number of registered nursing staff, with the right skills and experience, which patients need and deserve. New routes into nursing, which are welcome if done right, still cannot educate anywhere near enough nurses to an appropriate skill level to meet the current need, let alone the future one. It is time to fix the supply pipeline and for the Secretary of State and Simon Stevens to stand up and be counted.
In 2016, the Government removed the NHS bursary and replaced it with a student loan. The £1.2 billion that was taken out of healthcare higher education was framed as a saving, but where did it go? What did it save? Was it used to grow the number of nurses? The stated purpose of the Government’s reform was to increase the number of nursing students. It is against that goal that the impact of the Government’s reforms must be judged.
Let me bust a few myths. I expect the Minister to say, “The old bursary model placed an artificial cap on the number of nurse training places that universities could offer students.” That is factually untrue. Funding of nursing student numbers has always been a political choice. It has always been up to the Government to choose what they want to fund. I expect the Minister to say, “The loan model has not made it less attractive to apply.” In each year since the reform, applications to nursing courses have fallen. In September 2018, nearly 1,800 fewer nurses were due to start at university, compared with September 2016.
I thank my hon. Friend for the robust way in which she is laying out the case. Since the 2016 reforms, we have seen a significant reduction in the number of people over the age of 25 going into nursing. The Health and Social Care Committee has looked at that. Obviously, people over 25 have brought great value to nursing. Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes that we have seen have potentially been very detrimental to the nursing workforce?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; he is totally right. There is a difference between the mature students who come into nursing and those who are 18. There is a great loss to those people and a great loss to us in the public sector—to hospitals, GP surgeries and, indeed, all the places where nurses work in the NHS. It is a great loss, and I will cover some aspects of that issue in my speech.
The only thing that has changed is that loans have been brought in. It is ludicrous to look at the numbers and deny that forcing nursing students on to loans has led directly to a drop in applications. That is exactly what has happened. The result is that the diversity and background of nursing students has changed radically, excluding many who would previously have been able to change their personal and economic circumstances through a rewarding career in nursing. That is the very thing that my hon. Friend was saying.
I expect the Minister to say, “There are still two applicants for every place available for a student to study nursing at university.” It is the current structures that are limiting the system from being able to capitalise on that appetite to study nursing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a really important debate. It is essential that the Minister addresses the issues raised. Is not the drop-out rate for student nurses a real cause for concern? A student nurse contacted me—I did go to the lobby organised by the Royal College of Nursing this morning—and gave some examples of the mounting costs under the present system. That mental health nurse was telling me about the costs of trains, taxis and accommodation. She works 37.5 hours a week on a placement. Transport to her placement is costing her £500 a month. Surely that has an impact on a person’s ability to sustain their attendance on a course and achieve the necessary outputs.
I could not have put that as clearly as my hon. Friend has. I am glad that student nurses came and explained the situation to him, because that is the very reason why we are having this debate.
With the last bit of control that they have kept since the reform, the Government fund clinical placements, but they do not match the numbers to the volume of routes that they have created. They made nursing students, apprentices and nursing associates all compete for the same places. They did choose to fund, but it was not enough. Now it is a blame game full of finger-pointing. If there are so many people interested in becoming nurses and such high levels of vacant posts, why are the Government not doing more to convert the applicants into nurses?
I expect the Minister will say, “We have introduced new routes to expand the number of nursing staff.” There are nursing degree apprenticeships that few people are taking up, because employers do not have enough cash to release people to study. Nursing associates, who were introduced in a supporting role to the registered nurse, should never be a substitute for registered nurses. These efforts have been small and unpredictable. Most importantly, they have not addressed the heart of what grows the number of nurses safely and at scale: higher education. This is workforce panicking, not workforce planning.
I expect the Minister will say, “This Government have grown the number of nurses working in hospitals,” which is factually true, but distorts the truth that the overall number of nurses has only grown by less than 1% since 2010. While there are 7% more nurses in acute settings, there are 6,500 fewer nurses in the community, 43% fewer district nurses, a quarter fewer school nurses, nearly 5,000 fewer mental health nurses and 40% fewer learning disability nurses. Despite the Government’s rhetoric about moving more care into our communities, the workforce are simply not there to deliver it. Who has overseen that? Ian Cumming of Health Education England, Simon Stevens of NHS England and the Government.
Nursing students spend 50% of their time in placement, learning in the community, a care home or a hospital, but the services are so short of staff that students are being unsafely used to plug the gaps. Due to their placements and studies, they do not have time for part-time jobs to earn extra money. Like other hon. Members, I am contacted by constituents who tell me that they always wanted to be a nurse, but money worries and the pressure they feel are making them reconsider their choice. The personal cost of becoming a nurse is turning people away when health and care services need more growth. This is disgraceful, irresponsible and short-sighted.
However, our leaders have a real chance to secure major change. Nursing students need a new deal. All that is needed is political will, and for people to stand up and be accountable. I demand the bursary is brought back. Our future nurses urgently need more financial support if the Government are ever to tackle the workforce crisis. There needs to be an extension of the hardship funds for those who need more assistance.
At what point do we say enough is enough? How can we fail to act when faced with student nurses trying to balance their placement, part-time healthcare assistant work and trying to finish their coursework? How can anyone begin in a profession when they are already burnt out? It is disrespectful for any of us to stand here and tell stories about how much nurses make a difference to us, without acknowledging their professional expertise and their critical role in transforming services. We have to stop making their jobs harder and pushing people to the brink. No nursing student or nurse should have to grind their teeth and keep going, knowing that shortages mean that vital care is left undone. This situation is unsafe for everyone. It is morally reprehensible.
The Prime Minister gave an extra £20 billion to the NHS. Simon Stevens holds the pen. The Secretary of State will sign off the long-term plan. There is a small window of opportunity to change the future of nursing. We can either propel it forward or drag it back. I am determined to leave my daughter a legacy. I take public service seriously; that is why I went into nursing and why I am an MP.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the long-term plan will deliver the workforce strategy, how it will fulfil the Secretary of State’s commitment to creating more nurses, and how Simon Stevens and Ian Cumming will be held to account over fixing the nursing supply and investing in it. This is our moment to rebuild public trust and confidence, so I end by asking the Minister: what are you going to do?
There are about seven Members seeking to catch my eye. We need to get to the Front-Bench speeches by 3.30 pm. Therefore, I will impose a five-minute limit on all speeches straightaway. I should also point out that any interventions might reduce that further, so that is in colleagues’ hands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith), especially because she was a nurse. Incidentally, on her point that nurses are more popular than politicians, when the Houses of Parliament burnt down in the 1830s, the cheers could be heard from Westminster Bridge, where people took out their frustration with politicians.
It is wrong to approach this debate in an aggressive “them and us” spirit. We all aim to increase the funding for nurses to an appropriate and proper level. I agree that nurses do a fantastic job, but we should acknowledge those nurses who are involved in end-of-life care—in my hospital, they work closely with social care staff.
However, before addressing that, I should say that, only last week, I visited my hospital in Henley—Townlands Memorial Hospital—with the previous Minister for Health. I extend an invitation to the current Minister to visit the hospital, which has a unique way of doing business. We and the NHS see it as an exemplar in the country. We spoke to a number of nurses about the services they provide, particularly in relation to the rapid access care unit, which looks after people above a certain age very well—they typically seek treatment there. I pay tribute to those nurses.
In our conversation with the nurses, we raised the point about funding for their education. We had a very mature discussion about the lack of bursaries following Government action. As a result, there was a general agreement that the situation that existed with the bursaries was not particularly helpful to nurses seeking to become part of the nursing profession—the NHS effectively generated a cap on the number of people who applied—and that we need a system that encourages people to become nurses as well as go into other professions. We pointed out that, under the bursary system, 30,000 people who applied to become nurses were rejected, which is not a good situation.
We went on to discuss other things in relation to the nursing profession. In particular, the one thing they saw as inhibiting people from becoming a nurse was the price of housing, which is astronomical in the Henley constituency. We need a tremendous amount of affordable housing, to help people to get a start on the housing ladder, and to provide them with rented accommodation where possible.
In addition to visiting the hospital, I have worked with parish councils to encourage them to provide much smaller buses on much tighter routes to give people the ability to travel from their home to their job.
I have been told that the shortage of staff was due to EU nationals leaving, but when I raised that issue with the matron, it emerged that that was not the case at all—the shortage was due to operational reasons.
My mother is a retired nurse from the Windrush generation and my sister is in the nursing profession having studied midwifery and having been a health visitor. I value their contribution, and many other contributions, to health and social care in this country. I have some insight and understanding of the challenges that underfunding brings.
Health and social care in England is short of registered nurses. The NHS in England is missing nearly 42,000 nurses —it is estimated that, without significant funding and policy intervention by 2023, the figure will rise to almost 48,000. That is a conservative estimate drawn directly from the system-held data and should be seen as a public interest issue.
This serious underfunding for Royal College student nurses is a crisis in England and action must be taken to address it. England is now the only country in the UK without some form of bursary for the nursing degree. The First Minister of Scotland recently announced that the bursary for nursing and midwifery students in Scotland would rise to £10,000 by the academic year 2020-21. We in England are failing in that respect.
On 31 October, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care publicly committed to investing in nursing education, stating that nursing students must
“get the support they need to complete their training so they can serve in our NHS. That is something we will specifically address in the long-term plan for the NHS”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the important point is that the nursing course demands full-time study? Someone cannot do a part-time job while they are taking a nursing course. Unfortunately, because of the lack of maintenance grant, in most other areas of higher education students have to do part-time jobs in order to keep themselves alive, but it is not an option for nurses.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I will address that crucial issue.
What I need to know, and what student nurses, potential student nurses and England need to know, is this: when will we see the long-term plan to promote the sustainability of the NHS and when will the Government take it seriously? I ask because the number of applicants from England aged 18 decreased by 12% between 2016 and 2018, while the number of applications from those aged 25 and above from England fell by 40% in the same period. Furthermore, a decline in the number of mature students affects specialist areas of nursing such as learning disability and mental health.
In all areas of nursing, not having enough nurses means that the safety of care is a concern—it could become fundamentally unsafe. Frontline staff are compromised, and people seeking to access health and care services are not able to receive the quality of care that they need.
Nursing students spend 50% of their time in clinical practice and—as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin)—nursing courses run longer than many other degrees, which means that nursing students have no opportunity to take on part-time work to supplement their income. They deserve support that recognises the exceptional nature of nursing and we need to invest in their future. If we do that, we would also be investing in our NHS and, indeed, in England.
It is clear that student nurses work long hours, which demands much from them. This can be physically, mentally and in many cases emotionally draining. It is particularly difficult when a student nurse witnesses, for example, a newborn baby dying on a paediatric ward, or when they are caring for terminally ill patients or those with complex mental health needs. If the Government consider that training and the NHS worthy of recognition, when will they properly invest in student nursing careers?
I have been lobbied considerably. My local hospital is overstretched for health and care professionals, including for doctors and nurses. It seeks to recruit from overseas but, in the context of Brexit, the growth of the domestic workforce will be ever more important. The Government and NHS England must invest at least £1 billion a year in nursing, through higher education, as part of their long-term plan for the NHS in England.
Finally, I endorse and praise the work of the “Fund Our Future” campaign and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) for securing this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on securing a debate on this very important subject and the Minister for Health on his new role.
I do not think there is anybody in Westminster Hall today who would doubt the value of nursing or the importance of good nursing and nurse training. I have worked for my entire career as a paediatrician; I am now a consultant paediatrician. Nurses and midwives have had a significant impact on both my career and my personal experiences. When I worked on a neonatal intensive care unit, many nurses influenced my career. However, there was one in particular—a lady called Mary Palfreman, a nurse in Nottingham—who had a profound effect on me, because she is such a fantastic nurse. On a personal level, I was cared for through several of my pregnancies by a midwife called Marie Robinson, who was able to balance treating me as a medic, who had more knowledge of neonates and babies than the average first-time mum, with treating me as a mum. She recognised that I was a bit of both and perhaps needed a slightly different approach from others—even a unique approach. She treated everybody as she found them, and she is a fabulous woman.
None of us, therefore, would doubt the value of a good nurse and the importance of making sure that there are adequate numbers of nurses. Nursing is a great and varied career, which is something we should be selling more. Nurses have the opportunity to nurse in many different fields. As their career progresses, they can go into administrative roles, managerial roles and specialist technical roles in the community or in a hospital, and develop a good and, at the high level, extremely well paid career.
So what should a good training scheme do? Obviously, it should provide high-quality experience, so that students develop the necessary expertise; it should provide the opportunity for continuing personal development; and it should ensure that there is an adequate supply of nurses. We have a change in demographics: the population is getting older, there are more people with complex health needs, and the population is increasing in size. So we need to ensure that the number of new nurses keeps up with both those developments and the natural attrition of nurses as people retire and so on. We also need to ensure—this is very important to me as a Conservative— that anyone who has the desire and the aptitude to train as a nurse can do so and is not limited by how much money they have or where they are from.
Looking at some of the figures, it is evident there has been a drop in the number of people applying to become nurses, but at this stage there are still many more applications for nursing than there are nursing training places. I was not a parliamentarian when the new policy was introduced, but I understand that the aim behind it was to ensure that more places were available so that more people with the desire and the aptitude could train. The figures I have been given show there are 13,000 more nurses on the wards now than there were in 2010.
In January I was a member of the Select Committee on Health when it produced the nursing workforce report that the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) mentioned earlier. It showed specific shortages in mental health, learning disability and district nursing. I understand that the previous Minister undertook to give up to £10,000 to people training in that field to try to address the shortages. Will the Minister tell us how that is working and whether it is increasing applications? Also, the Government had recognised specific challenges for people wishing to go back into nursing or to develop nursing as a career after having children. Is the Minister looking into what support can be offered to those with disabilities and those with children to make sure that they are still able to access nurse training and become the fabulous nurses that they can be?
The issue of part-time jobs has been raised. Most of the nursing students I have worked with in my career have had part-time jobs, usually as a healthcare assistant, often on the same ward that they have worked on as a nurse, so I am not sure the point that was made entirely reflects what I have seen.
Finally, I want to mention alternative routes into nursing. There is more than one route to achieving a goal. There are opportunities for people to work as nursing associates. Some of the healthcare assistants I have worked with have done that, and they really enjoy their training. There is also the opportunity to go into a nurse apprenticeship as an alternative way of training while working. That is not for everybody, because people want different things, but it is another way in which we can increase nurse numbers without having an impact on training. I am aware of the time, but will the Minister update us on—
Order. The hon. Lady’s time is up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on securing this debate, and the RCN student nursing campaign, “Fund Our Future”, on putting the issue firmly on the agenda. I cannot speak with her authority from experience, but I am chair of the all-party group on students and also represent a significant number of student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in training at Sheffield Hallam University.
It is disappointing that we have to be here debating this issue again, because we have been over the argument several times. I remember the debate that we had in this Chamber in January 2016 when the Government first proposed to end the previous funding system and introduce loans and fees. I remember a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield). She talked about how hard it was to be a student nurse; how she bore the scars of her nurse training; and how nurses had to learn, take exams and also go through placement changes every eight to 12 weeks, which presented significant challenges for mature students. She also clarified that when we talk about mature students, in many cases we are talking about people not in their 40s and 50s but in their 20s and 30s—people with young families and single mums.
One of the students from Sheffield Hallam University who contacted me ahead of today’s debate was Clary Manners, who echoed many of those from her current experience. She said she gave up a well-paid job to train as a mental health nurse. She currently does 37 hours a week on placement and has a three-hour round drive there and back each day for the placement. She pays £10 in parking charges when she gets to the hospital. She takes no holidays. She has little spare time because she takes bank nursing jobs to boost her family income, but still her four children are on free school meals because of the struggle to get by on her income.
In the debate in 2016, the hon. Member for Lewes said—this view was echoed throughout the Chamber—that encouraging people to take on debt would
“definitely put them off entering nursing, and to say otherwise is madness.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 217WH.]
The then Health Minister, Ben Gummer, assured us that what the Government were trying to do—you could not make this up—was to share the benefits of the funding system for other students with nursing, midwifery and allied health students. Some of us questioned in what way a £50,000 debt was a benefit, but he was insistent that we would see an increase in applications. Now we know he was wrong. UCAS figures published earlier this year show that applications for the current year were down by a third on the same point in 2016—it is a continuing trend—and by 13% in the past year alone.
The changes have been a particular barrier to those from lower-income families, which is hugely important because nursing and midwifery has been one of the channels of social mobility available for many who do not enter conventional university. We have heard how the profession has traditionally been dominated by mature students, who have been particularly hard-hit in the fall-off in numbers. Overall, compared with when the changes to nursing degree funding were made in 2016, we have almost 1,800 fewer nurses due to start at university. I remind Government Members that although they talk about the 13,000 extra nurses now on the wards, many of them started their training before 2010 under a Labour Government. There is a pipeline for nursing supply, and the current system benefits from the pipeline that we put in place.
There are almost 42,000 nursing vacancies in England. Without action now, that could rise to 48,000 in the next five years. The Government have a responsibility to fix that, and they can do it by introducing a student funding system that is fit for purpose and that can reverse the drop in applications and encourage people to take up nursing in the way that they did previously.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) for securing the debate. I declare an interest: I am the child of two doctors, the sister of a doctor and the wife of a doctor. Through my entire life I have been humbled by how hard all the doctors, nurses and midwives in our NHS work and by their dedication to their patients and the fundamentally huge professionalism that they show every day.
A couple of weeks ago I visited the palliative care team at the J’s Hospice, which helps people towards the end of their life in Chelmsford and across large parts of Essex. I give my huge thanks to the nurses there for the work that they do. As I left, I asked them whether there was one thing that would change their lives that they would really like politicians to do, and they said, “Please can you get us a car park permit so that, when we go out to meet the patients we try to care for in their homes, we do not get a parking ticket if we end up having to park in a residential parking bay?” I do not know whether the Minister can change that, but that is a real ask from them. They do amazing work. One more thing they said was that if there was a little bit of capital funding, they would love some help with some digital technology so that they do not need to go back to base to fill out their patient records.
I am also proud to have a brand-new medical school in my constituency. Anglia Ruskin University has a medical school that opened this autumn. I spoke to the acting vice-chancellor earlier in the week and he told me that things are going really well. It has its 100 students, it is brilliantly vibrant, and it is doing great work. I also asked him how the nursing courses are doing. On the good side, ARU has pioneered alternative routes into nursing. Nurse apprenticeships and nurse associateships are going really well and are very encouraging. They give people who would not necessarily have gone on to a traditional nursing course an alternative route into the career, and it is really appreciated. However, it was pointed out to me that since the bursaries went, there has been a drop in the number of applicants from eight per place to five. So there are still many more people applying for courses than places on the courses, which is good news, as is the fact that the quality of applicants is not dropping.
There is concern, however, at the fact that in some areas there are not enough high-quality applicants because of the changes. Mature students in particular are more debt-averse—that is probably the best phrase—and concerned about taking on a student loan. Those older students tend to be women. Today is a special day for women; the 50:50 Parliament campaign reminds us that women have been able to do the job we do here for 100 years. We need to make sure that women across the country can do the jobs they want to do. The change in nursing bursaries has had an effect on more mature students, especially with regard to entering adult nursing and mental health nursing. That is particularly true in my constituency, although it is less of an issue at other nursing colleges further from London.
The acting vice-chancellor of ARU says that the golden hello that a previous Minister introduced for mental health and learning disability nurses is welcome, but asks whether we could please consider it for adult nursing as well. The previous Minister, now the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, was prepared to give help in the form of an additional £10,000 golden hello to help people in particular targeted areas not to have to take on debt, so can we consider that for adult nursing?
The second ask from Anglia Ruskin is a higher-profile campaign. There was some publicity, and a national campaign encouraging people to consider nursing, but it did not have much visibility. Nurses are wonderful people, and they make a huge difference to all of us. As well as encouraging the idea of supporting them through financial golden hellos when they are needed, we need more publicity about the routes into nursing, and the benefits.
Order. I am afraid that I shall have to reduce the time available for the last two Back-Bench speakers to four minutes. I apologise.
Last month my mum celebrated her 95th birthday. Like many Irish nurses of her age, 75 years ago she travelled to London from Ireland to start her career in the very first generation of NHS nurses by qualifying as a state enrolled nurse at Warlingham Park psychiatric hospital. Growing up, I saw at first hand just how vital a dedicated, passionate and happy nurse was for the welfare of the patients. That is why I am incensed when I see the treatment of trainee nurses today. Let us be clear. Nursing students are exceptional. Their courses are complex, their training is tough, and they spend significant amounts of time on clinical placement, working all hours of the day and night. They deserve a tuition and living cost funding model that recognises their extraordinary efforts and the importance of those efforts.
England is now the only country in the UK without some form of bursary for the nursing degree. That has crumbled the number of nursing applications and fostered an environment that is utterly unfair to nursing students and completely unsafe for patients. The Government promised that reforms would provide up to 10,000 additional nursing and health professional training places but, since the loss of the bursary, nursing applications in England are down by a third and falling fast. In fact, the 2018 figure was the lowest since nursing courses were first included in the UCAS system.
Nursing must be made an attractive profession for all groups, and restoring the bursary is a fundamental step to achieving that. Now is not the time to experiment with funding models for nursing students. One in three nurses is due to retire within the decade. Ensuring the long-term recruitment of new nurses must be a Government priority. That, of course, is before we take account of the Brexit impact: 75% of NHS trusts have done nothing to prepare for the UK’s departure from the EU. Meanwhile, there is an alarming trend for nurses and midwives to leave the profession before retirement, citing intolerable working conditions. However, it is not a numerical conundrum. It is a national crisis. A fall in student numbers is simply exacerbating our current recruitment shortage and it is patients who are being put at risk.
Ms H, a student nurse in London, contacted me this morning:
“I’ve felt completely unsafe on many occasions because of short staffing, not just because of my personal protection but more so because of the safety of the patients that I care for”.
Her colleague, Ms Y, found a young patient on an adolescent ward with a ligature tied around her neck. Short staffing meant that there was no one to debrief, and in fact no one even realised that it was a student who found the young patient. Ms H said:
“Most weeks of my final year as a student nurse I have cut out sleeping an average of 2 nights per week. Staying awake for 36 hours is the only way I can afford to train, study, and work to sustain a living.”
And yet her main grievance is not about the present, but the future:
“It just doesn’t feel like there is really light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, we will just enter a longer tunnel of a career completely unsupported by Government.”
The warning signs are loud and clear. The conditions described today are unfit for those who selflessly care for our most vulnerable. The devastating consequences of leaving the system broken would be felt for decades to come.
I was a mature student aged 41 when I started my nurse training, and I was a single parent. I could not have completed my training without a bursary, and could not have done a part-time job because it was a full-time course and I had a child to care for. My younger single friends also needed their bursaries, because everyone had bills to pay. I was a nurse for 14 years and my colleagues are still nurses. None of us could have trained without the bursaries, and none of my friends would have gone on to be nurses as they are to this very day.
There are currently 41,000 nursing vacancies in NHS England. For the second year in a row, more nurses are leaving the profession than joining it, and one in three is expected to retire in the next 10 years. The NHS has spent £527 million plugging staffing gaps with expensive agency staff. I do not know how that makes any kind of economic sense. Added to that, the reality is that patient safety is compromised. Agency staff are not experts in their field. I have been in an arrest situation in which, out of seven trained, only three were regular nurses. It compromises patient safety. In addition, the number of European nurses registered in Britain dropped by 87% compared with 2016-17 figures. That means that there will be even fewer nurses.
The Government must stop putting lives at risk by understaffing and underfunding the NHS. People just are not signing up to be apprentice nurses. It sounds all right in theory, but does not work in practice. There is not the take-up. If we genuinely aim to train sufficient nurses the Government must join the Labour party in committing to reinstate nursing bursaries. Until that happens, no matter how many nursing jobs the Government fund, as nurses of my generation retire and numbers of the newly trained gradually decrease, we will simply not have the trained nurses to fill the places.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) for securing this important debate, to which I have listened with great interest. I will not summarise what everyone said, but cut to my speech, as there are a few other important things I want to say. We have heard questions to the Minister from both sides about the state of nursing and applications to study nursing in England. It seems passing strange to me that the Government have chosen to abolish bursaries at a time when nurses from the EU are leaving NHS England, causing even further shortages. I was particularly struck by the hair-raising stories that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) gave us about patient safety and nurse safety—I hope the Minister addresses that.
As has been mentioned, the situation in Scotland is quite different. In case the Minister is not aware, I shall give him some ideas about how we do things in Scotland to see whether that will help. I do so in a spirit of help, to see whether we can improve things in NHS England. In Scotland, the First Minister has just announced an increase in nursing and midwifery bursaries—the bursary will go up to £10,000 in 2021. That is part of a drive to continue the increase in numbers of student nurses we have had over the past few years. The Scottish Government also have discretionary funds for those nursing and midwifery students who are most in need, and are upping the number of places for students of nursing and midwifery in the academic year 2019-20. We recognise the importance of those nurses.
On a personal note, after what I have been through over the past year, I would not be able to stand here were it not for the support of nurses throughout the entire stage of my late husband’s treatment and the end-of-life care that he received, and I appreciate the opportunity to put on record my thanks to St Andrew’s hospice in Airdrie, of which I am a patron.
The Scottish Government’s discretionary fund will give more money to mature nursing students—that cause has been mentioned—if we use the word “mature” to apply only to those who have children. Those people need extra support and are given it. As most previous speakers have said, it is important that we attract mature students into nursing, as well as those who come straight from school. From personal experience, I think that mature students bring an extra level of care and understanding that we do not always get right away from young entrants into the profession.
Student nursing and midwifery places in Scotland will increase for the seventh consecutive year, reaching record levels with the intake rising by 7.6% to more than 4,000. Upping intake for the 2019-20 academic year is one of a number of measures to support the sustained recruitment and retention of NHS staff, but it is also important to retain our existing staff. We have heard stories about the pressures that nurses are currently under, and they must be alleviated. In addition to increased student places, almost 460 former nurses and midwives have signed up to retrain through the Return to Practice programme since 2015. The Scottish Government are funding the Open University to deliver a pre-registration programme, which currently supports around 116 nursing students. In October 2016, 10,239 students were in education—an increase from 9,936 the year before—and we will get the 2017 data next month.
I often find myself standing in this place, especially in Westminster Hall, and asking Ministers whether they have looked at the situation in Scotland, because sometimes we are more progressive. Sometimes it is easier, because Scotland has a smaller national health service, but we also value the NHS in Scotland. Earlier this decade, the First Minister announced that, in all hospitals in Scotland apart from those built under private finance initiative contracts, parking charges would be withdrawn. That has been carried out. That simple measure can help nurses, and I urge the Minister most sincerely to consider it, as well as some of the other practices that we have taken on board to increase nursing numbers in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) on securing this important debate. The level of interest from Members shows how important this subject is. My hon. Friend spoke from great personal experience, and I thank her and everyone else who has worked in the NHS for their contribution over many years to make it an institution of which we are all rightly proud.
My hon. Friend comprehensively dismantled the Government’s arguments on the merits of removing the bursary. As she said, it is indisputable that the number of applications and the numbers of people starting courses have fallen, and that the age profile of students has changed. She was right to say that the decision to abolish the bursary was a political choice, and not one that the Labour party would have made. Along with other Members, she highlighted areas that have fewer nurses in community and district hospitals and in settings that treat those with learning disabilities or mental health problems. Given that the pipeline for delivering nurses is not working as it should, those shortages may worsen. My hon. Friend was right to say that higher education is the best way to train enough highly skilled nurses to meet the needs of patients.
I wonder how many Members are aware that the Education Committee will shortly publish the results of its inquiry into nursing apprenticeships.
I thank the hon. Lady for her public service announcement. Let me now refer to some other contributions.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made a fair point about how the price of housing exacerbates the shortage of nurses in some areas, and all Members will be aware that earlier this year more than 1,900 nursing vacancies were advertised in the Thames Valley area, although only five were filled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) gave a thoughtful and persuasive speech that highlighted the fact that the number of applicants over 25 has fallen by 40%, and she mentioned the impact of that in specialist areas. She was right to say that the nature of the nursing degree limits the opportunities for students to earn income outside their course demands.
The hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) made a considered contribution about her criteria for what would make a successful training course, and I will reflect on that good piece of advice.
As always, it was a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who has great experience in this area. He referred back to a debate in 2016, and was right to say that this policy has damaged mature students and social mobility. Many concerns that were raised back in 2016—including by Government Members—have been ignored, or indeed come to pass.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) gave us the benefit of the thoughts of nurses in her constituency. It is always a good idea to hear directly from those on the frontline, and she came up with some interesting practical suggestions about what could be done to make the lives of nurses easier. Along with other Members, she mentioned the impact of this policy on the number of mature students applying, and the impact that that has on particular specialisms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) set out why, due to a combination of factors, now is not the time to experiment with a flawed and unproven model. She mentioned the challenge of retention, and related some graphic and moving stories from her constituents. She was right to say that if we do not fix this issue now, we will pay the consequences for decades to come.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) spoke of her own frontline experience, and mentioned the expense and risk of over-reliance on agency staff. No doubt the challenges that we face and have discussed today will be exacerbated, which will place even more reliance on temporary and agency staff.
We have had a broad and wide-ranging debate. This is the Minister’s first outing in his role, and I welcome him to his place and congratulate him on his appointment. I was trying to work out whether he is the fourth or fifth Minister I have shadowed since I was appointed to my role just over three years ago, which shows that it is not just the NHS that has problems with retention.
The NHS faces a significant workforce challenge, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in nursing. England is missing about 42,000 nurses and, according to conservative estimates, without significant intervention that figure may rise to more than 48,000 by 2023. The situation is serious—other Members have described it as a “crisis”, which is absolutely right, but this crisis could have been avoided.
As Members have said, we are facing a perfect storm, with recent trends showing that more nurses are leaving the profession than joining it, the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, the fact that one in three nurses is due to retire within the decade, and the catastrophic decision to scrap bursaries for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals. According to the Royal College of Nursing,
“without enough nurses, care is fundamentally unsafe, frontline staff are compromised and people seeking access to health and care services are not able to receive the care that they need.”
The RCN also reports that services are sometimes so short-staffed that nursing students are inappropriately used to plug gaps in the workforce and have to look after patients before they are qualified to do so. That is an extremely worrying development.
This is a crisis of the Government’s own making. Before I come on to the current policy context of higher education funding, I will say a little about the circumstances leading to the decision to undertake the reforms back in 2015. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West said, workforce planning has not traditionally been a great strength of the NHS.
One of the first decisions of the coalition Government back in 2010 was to cut the number of nurse training places at university. In 2010-11, 20,092 places were funded, but that fell sharply to 17,741 in 2011-12 and dropped again to 17,546 in 2012-13. At that stage, David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester and a former chair of the west midlands group of universities said:
“We are heading straight for a national disaster in two to three years’ time.”
The RCN also warned that the cuts would cause
“serious issues in undersupply for years to come.”
Those warning were not heeded by the Secretary of State at the time, and a completely predictable and preventable crisis in the nursing workforce was created. Had the coalition Government only maintained the levels set by the last Labour Government, 8,000 additional nurses would have been trained in the last Parliament alone.
In the midst of this completely manufactured crisis, the abolition of undergraduate nurse bursaries was announced. I ask the Minister to consider whether that response to the crisis was the correct move. In just two lines in the 2015 autumn statement, with no consultation and no evidence base, the Government committed themselves to a huge gamble with the future of the NHS workforce and with patient safety. The then Minister described the proposal as
“potentially one of the most exciting things that we will do in the NHS in the next five years to increase opportunity and quality, and the presence of nursing staff on wards.”—[Official Report, 4 May 2016; Vol. 609, c. 196.]
We were told at the time that our many concerns were misguided, and that the changes would lead to an additional 10,000 training places being provided. However, as we have heard, the opposite has happened. As of September 2018, almost 1,800 fewer people are due to start nursing university courses in England. The number of mature students has plummeted by some 15%, which as we have heard has had a particular impact on specialist areas. There has been a 12.9% reduction in the number of mental health nurses since 2010.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, there has been a shocking 40% reduction in learning disability nurses. Learning disability nursing celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019. It will be an astonishing failure of the Government’s if they allow it to disappear altogether. That reduction comes at a time when the needs of people with learning disabilities has never been more paramount, with premature mortality resulting from complex health conditions and people being detained in assessment and treatment units for far longer than necessary.
We warned at the time that this policy would have precisely the effect that is has. After meeting with representatives from the profession and looking at the evidence, the Government carried on. On the other hand, they did not formally consult the Royal Colleges before announcing their plans. I know that there has been some dialogue since then, and I will be grateful if the Minister will set out his recent discussions with the sector about the impact of the bursary cut and what steps the Government are taking to deal specifically with the crisis in learning disability and mental health nursing, which have been particularly hard-hit by the changes.
As various Members have said, the new Secretary of State recognised the crisis by saying
“simply put: we need more”
nurses, and that:
“That is something we will specifically address in the long-term plan for the NHS”.
That plan is due to be published any time now, and we will examine it very closely. However, if the Secretary of State is serious about tackling the workforce crisis and increasing the nursing workforce, he needs to make a key element of the strategy the reintroduction of NHS bursaries. It remains our policy to do so, and there has not been a single jot of evidence since they were removed to dissuade us from our initial view that their abolition was short-sighted, damaging and, ultimately, self-defeating. In a written answer on 19 April this year, the former Minister indicated that the Department would publish an update on the effect of the plans later this year. Will the Minister advise us of where that is up to?
Although I have referred to a lot of large numbers to highlight the overall impact of the policy, it is important to hear, as we have from some Members, about the impact on individuals. I do not know if the Minister had the opportunity to attend the RCN drop-in earlier today. If he did not, I convey to him how well the students I spoke to conveyed how difficult it is to work what they and I consider to be unsafe hours to make ends meet; how the inclusion of the student loan in income for benefits calculations leaves families worse off; and how the students notice that, each time they return to the lecture theatre, there are fewer and fewer of them. What assessment has the Department made of the attrition rate of university courses since the abolition of the bursary?
In conclusion, the uncertainty created by Brexit means that the reliance on recruitment from the EU that we have seen in recent years is no longer an option to shore up nursing numbers. Our NHS staff cannot keep giving more at the same time as we give them less. The Government need to fund our future and invest in nursing higher education. They simply cannot afford not to.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, as I make my first speech in what I regard as one of the most important ministerial roles in the Government. I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith) for securing the debate. It has been a passionate debate that has reflected the importance that so many people—clearly everybody in this Chamber—place on NHS professionals. It has recognised that high-quality education and training for nurses is fundamental to ensuring that the highest level of nursing care is given to patients. I obviously recognise that the hon. Lady, having served in the NHS for more than 40 years, has first-hand knowledge of the difference that nurses can make to individuals and families.
The hon. Lady raised several points in her speech, many of which I will address. However, she quite rightly opened by saying that we need and must have staffing that is safe for effective care. No one in the House would move from that. She asked several questions, including on bursaries, mature students and the number of people in training, which I will come to, but also made several points about the long-term plan, which it is important to talk about that at the beginning.
The long-term plan will contain a chapter on NHS professionals and workforce planning, which I recognise will be the most important chapter. The hon. Lady will know that Health Education England undertook a consultation on the strategy for the workforce, which was published in draft last year. HEE also undertook a full consultation on the priorities for the health and care workforce, which concluded in the summer. The “Talk Health and Care” platform has been introduced, which the Government particularly expect to inform the work that NHS England is leading on the long-term plan.
It is also particularly important—it is potentially by accident—that the debate takes place on the day that the RCN produced a document, to which the Secretary of State and I have committed to respond. The shadow Minister is right: I deliberately took the time before the debate to meet a number of the students. I heard at first hand a number of their concerns, and I said to them—the hon. Gentleman will perhaps understand this, given his remarks about retention at the start of his speech—how important I think retention is, not only of nurses but of Ministers as well.
I am delighted that the Minister met the RCN and nursing students this morning. Will he confirm that hearing the voices of students themselves is absolutely vital in making decisions on the future?
Of course it is important. As my hon. Friend will know, as Members, and particularly as Ministers, we get all sorts of briefings, which are very helpful and contain lots of numbers, but not real-life experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the experience of nurses at his hospital. He made the point quite powerfully that there are several common issues that we need to address, but several other issues that are not necessarily common to every experience. It is right that we consider the issues they raise.
One of my constituents who is a student nurse has been to see me. She is struggling with her student nursing loans. She has two children, and she was literally in tears while telling me her stories about how difficult it is for her—the Student Loans Company is demanding the money back. She is working and has children, and cannot afford to pay back those loans. Does the Minister think that situation is tenable?
I will talk about that issue in more depth later, but if the hon. Lady wishes to write to me, I will look at her constituent’s case. I will point out that the learning support fund already offers a number of opportunities, including child dependants allowance, travel costs and an exceptional hardship allowance. I hope her constituent knows about and is taking advantage of those opportunities.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked whether the Government will publish an update on the impact of the reforms. That is currently being worked on with education and health organisations and stakeholders. We will look at the most appropriate way of making sure that, following receipt of the proposals by the RCN, and in the context of the long-term plan and the chapter on workforce planning, the higher education funding review takes place and feeds into that update. We will set that position out in due course—I dare say that the hon. Gentleman and I will debate it in due course as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) described what an excellent training scheme should look like, which was very helpful and powerful. My hon. Friend’s experience as a clinician is invaluable, and hopefully my speech will address a number of the points that she raised. I listened carefully to the asks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). Some are in my power and some are not, but she made a point about mature students, and the Government recognise that the number of mature student applications has dropped across the wider higher education sector as well as in nursing. We are working with organisations in the sector to see how we can attract more mature students and whether specific funding can be targeted more effectively towards those students via the learning support fund.
It does not really need saying that, at the national level, the Government understand how important nurses are. We are committed to making sure that the nursing workforce is properly supported and funded. In her contribution, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West made the point that funding to the NHS is increasing: by 2023-24, it will receive £20.5 billion a year more than it currently does, and the Government expect the long-term plan to set out a strategy for the NHS to ensure a sustainable supply of nurses, rolling that supply across the whole range of pathways. We expect NHS England to clearly set out its commitment to the nursing workforce in the long-term plan, and ensure that there is a clear way for that plan to be implemented. A number of significant interventions are already in place to boost the supply of nurses, including training more nurses, offering new routes and enhancing reward packages. As an hon. Friend pointed out, there are over 11,900 more nurses on our wards than there were in May 2010.
However, the Government, and I as the new Minister for Health, should never be complacent, so I will set out a few other things that I regard as priorities. Our priority is to get more nurses on to our wards. As has been referred to, the education funding reforms, which moved student nurse funding into the student loans system, were introduced to unlock the cap that constrained the number of pre-registration nursing training places. Those reforms allow more students to gain access to nurse degree training courses. We have announced funding for 5,000 more clinical training places to make sure that those placements can be put in place. We have also increased midwifery training places by more than 3,000 over the next four years, and in 2017, there were 22,575 acceptances—the second-largest number since nursing became a degree-only profession.
It is also important to note that the loans system gives more cash when compared to the bursary system—effectively, up to 25% more. A mature student with two children will receive up to an extra £7,500 a year. I recognise that a number of other things need to be, and should be, put in place and known about more widely. The Government have also targeted support for healthcare students on courses through the learning support fund, which provides additional non-repayable grants. Up to £1,000 is available for eligible students in childcare allowances and hardship funding provisions. None of that, of course, was available under the bursary scheme. More nurses are in training, and the Government are working with Health Education England and the university sector to ensure that students continue to apply for nursing courses up to the end of clearing this year. I am pleased to say that, this year, we have seen a 6% increase in the number of 18-year-olds applying for courses and being accepted.
As an hon. Friend pointed out, there continues to be strong demand, specifically for younger people. I have made the point that we need to address the issues faced by more mature students who wish to enter, or re-enter, the profession. That should be a key priority in the long-term plan. The Government, and I as the new Minister, recognise that we need to do much more to continue to encourage people to apply for nursing courses, particularly more mature students. Therefore, my officials are actively engaging with the Royal College of Nursing, the Council of Deans of Health, and Universities UK—all of those organisations have a role to play. The Government will be consulting on the detailed proposals on future funding for higher education that the RCN has put forward today. I said this earlier, but I want to recommit and make it clear that we regard those as serious proposals, and will be writing to the RCN to engage on those proposals. We will start that work straightaway.
I appreciate that the Minister is new to his post, and that it may be more appropriate for him to write to me in response to this point. I wonder whether he will address the attrition rates question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). There is a relationship between the falling number of applications, the funding regime, and the higher attrition rates. Does the Minister have numbers on that, and what consideration are the Government are giving to it?
Inspiration has just reached me. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Health Education England recently published a report on attrition rates on nursing courses—I made the point earlier that the rate of attrition among all people applying for university places has gone down. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. The report published by Health Education England describes how attrition rates on those courses have fallen considerably over the past few years, but I will write to him to be absolutely clear. He may then choose to make that letter available.
“The nursing workforce” report, which was published by the Select Committee on Health in January, identified that 30% of students due to complete in 2015-16 or 2016-17 did not complete within that period. Significant variability between different training institutions was also identified. Will the Minister commit to looking at why some institutions have such high attrition rates compared with others?
That is an extremely important point. There is not necessarily a universal reason why particular institutions have worse attrition rates than others, and that may well be key to retaining people who wish to stay in the profession.
In my last minute, I will finish on this point: NHS England, NHS Improvement and Health Education England are all working with trusts on a range of recruitment, retention and return-to-practice programmes. Some of those have met with some success: NHS Improvement’s retention programme works directly with trusts to support improvements in retention. However, I want to make clear that, as the newest member of the Government and of the Department, I regard the retention of our NHS professionals as a priority, and I am looking forward to making a contribution not only to things like the “Talk Health and Care” platform, through which there has already been positive engagement, but on this matter more generally. Retention is key, and we want to make sure nurses understand that we recognise how important they are. The long-term plan will set out a strategy to ensure a more sustainable future supply of nurses. They work incredibly hard, and it is absolutely right that this Government will commit to ensure that funding is dedicated to the supply—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of plastics in agriculture.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
My constituents in North Cornwall are incredibly concerned about the environment for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it is because we are a coastal constituency with a great deal of communities reliant on the sea, like the Minister’s constituency of Suffolk Coastal. It might also be because of the beautiful inland landscape of our countryside. Arguably the biggest threat to the environment, other than the ice caps melting, is the plastic we see in our seas and environments.
The invention of modern plastics transformed the world. It sped up processing and changed entirely how we store everything from food to medicine and how we wrap bulk items. However, with all the good that plastic has done in ease of use, it now poses an imminent threat. We all know that plastic is not biodegradable, and that is now coming at a price to our environment. The most noticeable damage being done to us in North Cornwall is undoubtedly plastic in the ocean. Around two months ago, I asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a question about marine conservation in which I congratulated Lewis Pugh on his mammoth swim from Land’s End to Dover. He did that to raise awareness of the tide of plastic we now find pouring into our oceans.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and raising this issue. Does he agree that quite a lot of the issues are caused by commercial waste collectors that do not make plastic recycling easy, particularly for businesses?
The hon. Lady makes an exceptionally good point. I will come on to talk about the environmental impact of industrial plastics later on. There needs to be a wider debate about not only residential waste but commercial waste.
Just last month, The Guardian reported that microplastic fragments are now finding their way into human stool samples. It is incredibly worrying that plastic is now entering the human food chain. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the plastics most commonly found. Although there is still little data on the long-term implications of those microplastics for the human body, it is causing serious concern.
Our food comes from our agricultural industry, which we rely heavily on. It relies on the use of plastics, and it is there that I believe we can make some progress. Plastics and the environment is a key issue in my constituency and for future generations. I am sure many Members have similar talks when they go into their local primary and secondary schools, but when I visit schools in my constituency, the first question they ask me, after my favourite football team—it is Plymouth Argyle, by the way—is always an environmental one. Often it is about plastics.
I certainly welcome the amazing progress that the Government have already made. We have made a commitment to leave the environment in a better place than we found it. We have seen progress in legislation to tackle the scourge of plastics in our environment. We implemented the ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads, and the coalition introduced the 5p carrier bag charge. At the time, I was slightly sceptical about that, but it has definitely changed behaviour, taking 9 billion bags out of circulation. There are the recent proposals for a bottle deposit scheme, which I welcome, and a ban on the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Most recently, the Chancellor has announced consultation on a world-leading tax on plastic packaging that does not include at least 30% recycled content.
Those policies are part of a cultural change in how the public view single-use plastics, and around the country we are seeing great examples of how that is coming about through grassroots organisations. Penzance recently became the first town in the country to go plastic-free, and was declared as such by Surfers Against Sewage. That was achieved by Penzance residents coming together and thinking of creative new ways of replacing plastics. For example, they have started to use food boxes made of starch. I commend the people of Penzance for their great achievement.
I welcome the nation’s action on the issue of plastics in the environment, but I want to focus specifically on plastics in the agricultural sector. In rural communities such as North Cornwall, plastics are used heavily on farms. In fact, PlasticsEurope, an association of plastic manufacturers, says on its website:
“A wide range of plastics are used in agriculture”.
Those include polyolefin and polyethylene, which tend to be used in mulch to protect saplings and conserve water. Polypropylene is used to make woven sacks for storage. Ethylene-vinyl acetate is used for sealing packaging. Polyvinyl chloride is used for plastic pipes for irrigation. Those are just a few examples of the plastics used in the agricultural space.
Those plastics provide innovative but not always sustainable ways of managing crops. Plastic irrigation pipes prevent the wasting of water and nutrients. Rainwater can be retained more effectively in plastic reservoirs. The use of pesticides can be greatly reduced by keeping crops in a closed space such as a greenhouse or by mulching under plastic film. Moreover, pesticide emissions into the atmosphere are reduced by having a fixed plastic cover in place.
At the end of their life cycle, agricultural plastics such as greenhouse covers can be recycled. Once retrieved from the fields, other plastics have to be washed to eliminate sand, herbicides and pesticides before they are ground up and extruded into pellets. That in itself is quite environmentally intensive, but the material can then be used again in the manufacturing of such things as outdoor furniture. When recycling is not viable, energy can be obtained from agricultural plastic waste through co-combustion. The recent call for evidence by Her Majesty’s Treasury on single-use plastics, “Tackling the plastic problem”, was intended to explore how changes to the tax system or charges could be introduced to reduce the amount of single-use plastics.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that dealing with plastics through incineration is 12 times less fuel-efficient than burning the original stock fuel?
I have learned something today. I was not aware of that. The whole principle is that reusing plastics rather than burning them is a much better way of dealing with the scourge we have in the environment.
I know the Government are keen to explore new and innovative measures in this area. The National Farmers Union recently said that it recognises the potential for new production opportunities in the industry and would like to see some Government action. It said:
“However, it is important that food safety and quality are not compromised”.
“to encourage the phase-out of single-use plastics. Agriculture is responsible for only a small proportion of plastic packaging waste.”
We clearly need to find a way to make agriculture more environmentally friendly without putting a heavy burden on our fantastic farmers. In some cases, farmers have taken the initiative. For example, plastic mulches took over from materials such as straw leaves and wood chips as they are more effective to install in large-scale indoor animal enclosures, but there are cases of financially viable modern-day farms that have turned their back on single-use plastics and have gone organic to cover crops. I was recently made aware by the Horticultural Trades Association that its new plant pots are recyclable and do not contain any carbon pigment. The Government need to get behind a move to organic materials, or at least material that can be recycled. A further problem to which we need a solution is that some farms are remote and struggle to get a private contractor to come in and collect waste. That sometimes leads to farmers burning waste, which has a huge impact on the environment and is not the right way forward.
I originally came up with the concept for today’s debate after visiting a constituent called Phil who runs Kernow Farm Plastics in Cornwall. His business is part of the national farmers recycling service, which operates across the whole of the south-west. Kernow Farm Plastics offers a service to farmers to collect and recycle their agricultural plastics. Phil took me round for half a day to show me his business and to educate me—it really was a bit of an education—on the different kinds of plastics in agriculture and their environmental impact.
One thing that is not made of biodegradable material, and which I am particularly concerned about, is net wrap, which is used to tie large bales of hay. It is not the plastic coating that goes around the outside—the black stuff. Net wrap holds the bale in place, and is made up of a very thin strand of non-recyclable plastic. It is terrible for wildlife and the marine environment, and ultimately could find its way into watercourses and then into the sea. That is my main focus in the debate.
I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand to let him know about an innovative scheme. My local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, yesterday became the first in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to install a marine sea bin, which has the capacity to sieve 2 million litres of sea water annually and trap plastics in its mesh. The sea bins cost about £3,500 each, and use a low-energy motor that can be run for about £1 a day. Each bin can capture 3 tonnes of litter a year, and 70% of each unit is made of recyclable plastic. Does he agree that such initiatives can and must be recognised and encouraged? Ards and North Down Borough Council, as the first council in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to install a sea bin, is leading the way.
I absolutely agree. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great champion of his community, including his fishing community. Like me, he understands that our marine environment is vital. I hope that we see more of those schemes around the country.
We need to find biodegradable and organic alternatives to net wrap. The original alternative was binder twine. We used to see lots of twine used for tying bales, but that seems to be less prevalent now. Twine has traditionally been more durable than plastic, but is prone to rotting away. It is not nearly as suited to the job as plastic. In many industries, plastic has been seen as a much more effective alternative, but not necessarily for the environment.
Net wrap is a key example of where we need an alternative that is easy and safe to recycle. It is unacceptable for us to continue to use this stuff on an industrial scale when we could use something that is recyclable. My ask of the Minister and the Department is that they set up a research and development fund to try to find a way of ensuring that all plastic farming materials can be recycled, and to encourage viable alternative organic production methods wherever possible so that we do not end up with plastics in our environment, among our wildlife and in our oceans.
We need to make the debate on plastics as wide as possible so that we can get the best results, and I know that the Minister gets that. It has been a pleasure to take part in today’s debate, and I am really looking forward to listening to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing the debate. I recognise the extensive introduction he gave to the marine impact of a lot of plastic getting into rivers and oceans. I fully share those concerns, and we are working exceptionally hard in a number of ways to tackle that important issue. However, I will mainly address his questions about the use of plastic in agriculture.
The Government share concerns about plastic waste polluting our environment from all sources, including agriculture. Our priority is to prevent plastic from entering the environment in the first place. My hon. Friend will be aware that the overarching ambition is to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25-year environment plan, but ideally sooner.
As a material, plastics are incredibly useful and versatile, as my hon. Friend mentioned. They are flexible and durable and have a multitude of uses in the agricultural sector. Plastic is used on farms for a variety of purposes, including wrapping hay and silage bales, transporting feed and fertiliser, and insulating soil and horticultural crops. Wrapping animal feed such as silage, hay and straw in plastic protects it from the weather and saves time while baling. It is a handy way to store valuable feed that is used to feed stock through the winter.
Removing the wrap from hay bales can be a burden for farmers. Failure to do so, and to dispose of it properly, means that animals can sometimes eat the plastic wrapping and injure themselves when it enters their rumen. We urge farmers and agricultural workers to take responsibility for their waste, and to follow guidance to ensure that they capture plastic waste and deal with it properly. A coalition of groups has published information to help farmers and land managers to do the right thing with agricultural waste as part of the “right waste, right place” campaign. That campaign was sponsored by the Environment Agency and supported by the National Farmers Union among others.
Plastic wrap used for hay bales can be recycled, and the infrastructure exists within the country to manage that. However, contamination levels, the relatively high costs of collection and other costs associated with cleaning plastic waste before it can be recycled mean that demand for farm plastic waste is very low. I recognise and welcome the valuable work of operators in the farming sector who are taking proactive steps to recycle farm plastic waste. For example, yesterday Grassroots Recycling organised a meeting that brought together the NFU, the Environment Agency and 10 farm waste collectors, including Kernow Farm Plastics Ltd, to which my hon. Friend referred, and Agri Cycle Ltd, to consider the challenges for recycling farm plastics.
As my hon. Friend laid out, it is important that such a service is available to the farming community right around the country in order to help farmers deal with some of their regulatory requirements. He will be aware that, if a farmer chooses to sell a bale of hay, they need to participate in the packaging recovery note system, although if it just gets reused on their own land they do not need to because it is just a transfer of product.
It is fair to say that there were concerns that the end markets are challenging at this time, particularly as recycling processes tend to take plastic waste from other sources, given the issues that I outlined. I must admit that today is the first time that I have heard somebody talk specifically about the problem of net wrap. After my hon. Friend’s eloquent explanation of the challenges in how it is used, I fully understand his concerns about how net wrap in particular could easily become part of the litter that ends up going into watercourses, having the impact to which he referred.
My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a research and development fund to look at alternatives. There is an opportunity for people to apply for funding from our plastics innovation fund, which is led by Innovate UK under the steering of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He will be aware that there are many producers, so this is a good challenge.
As we announced in the Budget, we are introducing what is effectively a new tax for plastic products that are not at least 30% recycled. There may be a possibility to apply such measures to wider plastic wrap as well as the net wrap. However, I am conscious of what my hon. Friend said about alternatives. I strongly agree that, just as we are looking at alternative uses for plastics industrially as well as recreationally, there may well be more we can do once the opportunity for innovation is explored.
The Minister mentions money for research into plastic wrapping, but there is also a problem with plastic mulching. We do not know what effect plastic mulch may have when it gets into watercourses, rivers and seas, but it is a potential source of microplastics and it may also go straight into the soil. It could be a widespread problem, but there is a lack of research into plastic mulching and a lack of knowledge about its effects.
I had never heard the phrase “plastic mulching” before either, but I am conscious of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Elements of plastic can end up in the natural environment in different and unintended ways. Some broader research has been done into the impact of plastics, but I recognise that there is more to do. I think Public Health England has been considering the matter.
I welcome what the Minister says about encouraging biodegradable fibres and bioplastics, but until those materials are available more widely, we will need a domestic solution to recycling. China is now refusing to take plastic waste and other Asian countries may follow suit. Recycling plastic has recently become more complicated and expensive than ever before, so I hope that she will say what the Government are doing to encourage domestic recycling solutions.
The reality is that until now, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries have largely been happy to accept our plastic because they have seen it as a raw material that they can use to generate more products. Plastic recycling is technically possible and exists in this country already—it is just that it is not as economical. People have to pay to recycle various sources of plastic rather than getting a benefit from them, although that is changing. We recognise that China has reduced the amount of contamination that it is prepared to accept in plastic—it does not ignore all plastic, but effectively it has closed the market and made it less worth while. I am sure my hon. Friend is eagerly awaiting our strategy on resources and waste, which will appear in due course. Perhaps more can be revealed at that time.
I mentioned the measures in the 25-year environment plan we published in January, as well as the Government’s commitment to taking action against the problem of single-use plastics waste as part of our wider strategy. We have given £20 million to the plastics innovation fund, which is co-ordinated by Innovate UK and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and which aims to reduce the environmental costs of plastic and litter. I am pleased to say that, in the Budget, we announced not only a tax on plastic products that are not at least 30% recycled, but a further £20 million of funding: £10 million extra for R&D and £10 million to pioneer innovative approaches to boosting recycling and reducing litter. The fund will be made available during the 2019-20 financial year. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall that innovation is vital in supporting developments to tackle plastic waste, so we will continue to explore commercially viable options.
Beyond the farm, we have worked with retailers and with the Waste and Resources Action Programme to explore the potential for introducing plastic-free initiatives. At the end of the month, WRAP will publish a technical report on the evidence for providing fresh produce. Its purpose is to inform a dialogue on providing uncut fresh fruit and vegetables loose, and it will contain advice on how to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging without unintentionally increasing food waste. I am sure that the famous cucumber scenario will be mentioned many times in the discussions about whether plastic is a benefit or a horror. The opposite environmental aspect that we need to consider is food waste, especially in regard to carbon. The technical report will be available for consideration and discussion by signatories to the 2025 Courtauld commitment and the UK plastics pact.
The Government want to create a vibrant market for recycled materials in the UK, including plastic. We want to increase the quantity and quality of materials collected by local authorities in England and accelerate greater consistency. My hon. Friend referred to biodegradable materials, which may be seen as a solution that would reduce the impact of plastic waste. However, if disposed of incorrectly, they can be more environmentally damaging than non-biodegradable materials. We are concerned that, in the absence of standards, claims about the biodegradability of plastic-based products cannot be verified, which has the potential to lead to confusion in the marketplace, increased levels of consumption and environmental harm at the point of disposal.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on plastic. Some may see it as a niche issue, but he is fully aware of its importance and I congratulate him on all his work and campaigning. The issue needs to be tackled at the source in every possible way, and we need constantly to challenge ourselves, our agricultural industry and other similar industries to do so.
Question put and agreed to.
Leaving the EU: Legal Services
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of legal services after the UK leaves the EU.
I am pleased to have secured this timely Brexit debate on the provision of legal services. This is a key moment for our country’s wellbeing and direction, and the implication for the provision of legal services is significant. I introduce myself as a non-practising solicitor and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal and constitutional affairs, which produced a report in October that noted serious issues that merit further debate. I take this opportunity to thank the APPG’s secretariat from the Law Society for its assistance with the report.
Before I launch into Brexit issues, let me explain why the legal services sector is so important to our economy. The legal services sector is a great UK success story. The UK has the second largest legal services market in the world and the largest legal services sector in the EU. In 2017, it contributed more than £26 billion to the economy—equivalent to 1.5% of GDP—and was responsible for net trade of some £4 billion. It employs and trains over 380,000 people.
The jurisdiction of England and Wales is recognised as a global centre for legal services, particularly for international, commercial and corporate transactions, and dispute resolution and arbitration. In 2015, more than 22,000 commercial and civil disputes were resolved through arbitration, mediation and adjudication in the UK. In the commercial court, which is housed in its new, modern building, nearly 1,100 claims were issued, of which two thirds involved at least one party whose address was outside England and Wales.
Our legal services sector is a great international success story, but we have no natural right to retain that business. Indeed, over the past 10 years several jurisdictions have sought to compete with England and Wales. We keep the work because of the excellence of our professional lawyers and judges and because of foreign parties’ trust in our rule of law and our reputation for judicial efficiency and fairness.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Surely one of the biggest threats to the UK comes from Singapore, which is developing a good range of courts to tackle commercial issues. I have raised the subject on several occasions, but there does not appear to be a united Government front to see off the threat from Singapore.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Other jurisdictions are also mounting challenges. We must avoid doing anything that might impair the reputation of the sector.
My hon. Friend talks of the reputation of the sector. It is also about hard cash. At the end of the day, the legal services sector makes a contribution of about £25.7 billion per annum to the economy. It is really significant for our economic wellbeing.
My hon. Friend makes another very important point.
English law is the most widely used legal system in the world—27% of the world’s 320 legal jurisdictions use it. There are more than 200 foreign law firms with offices in the UK, from more than 40 jurisdictions. The UK legal services sector is forecast to produce turnover of £30.82 billion and net exports of £4.25 billion by 2025.
Brexit will be the largest ever change to the UK’s legal framework and it represents both opportunities and risks for the legal sector. The impact of Brexit on lawyers, law firms and legal practices will be significant. Negotiations around the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the transition period have been agreed, but questions remain, especially about the future relationship of the UK and the EU.
Legal services amount to the equivalent of 1.5% of GDP. Both the Bar Council and the Law Society have issued warnings that any form of Brexit will have a significant impact on the sector. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it would be better for the legal services sector if we remained in a single market?
Yes, and the hon. Lady is going to hear me explain how the post-Brexit situation that I want to see is as close to that as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on highlighting in this place the importance of the legal services sector to our economy and our justice system. Will he indicate what he believes the direction of travel for the legal services sector is in the proposed deal? We would all be interested in his initial reaction.
That is exactly what I shall be doing.
The legal sector has broadly welcomed the Government’s negotiating stance so far. However, concerns remain that withdrawal from the EU and our future relationship will not deliver in a number of key areas for legal services. There are concerns over whether the Government’s current approach will deliver sustainable market access for legal services and flexibility for services. Unlike financial services, there is no in-depth common rulebook or Europe-wide regulator in legal services. Instead, legal services remain regulated autonomously by each EU member state, while functioning on the principle that an EU law firm should be treated as equal to domestic lawyers and firms. There is therefore no great benefit for the legal sector in maintaining regulatory flexibility when pursuing trade agreements with third countries.
I would point out, from my time on the Exiting the European Union Committee, that that is the view of most service industries. They have every intention of following EU rules whether they are mandated to or not, because that is what their business dictates. Certainly, from a legal services perspective, the preservation of the present system should be prioritised, so that lawyers from EU member states, European economic area states and Switzerland can practise freely across the continent.
The APPG inquiry focused on mutual market access and on how legal services will be able to operate following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. We accepted written evidence and held sessions in Parliament to hear oral evidence from interested parties, including law firms and chambers, individual practitioners and other stakeholders. We sought evidence on the impact of Brexit on legal practices, the workforce, business structures and client bases. We explored how lawyers currently practise across borders, looking at everything from rules on immigration and practice rights to the recognition of professional qualifications, and how that is anticipated to be affected by Brexit. We sought to understand where contingency planning was taking place and what steps firms were already taking to mitigate any effect of Brexit on the sector. We sought to understand the key concerns of the sector about the effect of Brexit, and we published the final report in October—if anyone wants a copy, I have some. It explored the concerns and comments raised in the oral and written evidence.
We made 10 recommendations. First, the Government should ensure that mutual market access is retained, as currently envisaged, in any transitional arrangements. Secondly, we urge the Government to seek to retain mutual market access as far as possible in any future relationship with the European Union. Thirdly, the Government should ensure that UK lawyers are able to continue to serve their clients post Brexit on what is called a fly-in, fly-out basis. Fourthly, the Government should ensure that any future relationship with the EU includes a mechanism for UK lawyers to practise EU law via the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and law firm structures. Fifthly, the Government should seek to secure the rights of audience in EU courts, such as the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Sixthly, it is vital that, following Brexit, the Government provides for the ability of the legal sector to easily recruit skilled individuals from outside the UK. Seventhly, the Government should ensure that our immigration system does not block lawyers from continuing to provide services in the EU. Eighthly, the Government and the EU should agree on the draft withdrawal agreement as soon as possible to ensure a transition period that provides legal certainty—that one, hopefully, gets a tick. Ninthly, any transitional agreement should replicate the current legal framework as far as possible to ensure legal certainty and prevent businesses and individuals from having to adapt to changes in their rights and obligations twice—once during a transitional phase and once upon implementation of a new UK-EU agreement. Tenthly, a no-deal scenario should be avoided at all costs.
Let me address a few of those points, taking first the ability to practise, mutual recognition of professional qualifications and rights of audience. Of key concern to the legal sector was the ability to practise in Europe. The current framework, which allows for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, rights of audience and the ability to practise and establish firms in EU member states, has hugely benefited the UK legal services sector, providing a large net contribution to the UK economy, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). As far as possible, mutual market access should be retained.
The withdrawal agreement does of course refer to mutual recognition, but only for the transition period. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that creates further uncertainty for the legal profession, which, as has been pointed out, already contributes such a lot to our economy?
I will be making the case that the hon. Lady has just put.
On labour mobility, the legal services sector has profited from the ability to attract talent from across the globe and the ability to work in the European Union. Frankly, many people going into the offices of a City law firm would be staggered by the number of nationalities and the depth of EU and world legal experience that we have in the UK. For instance, an American client would quite commonly run its European company acquisition strategy from London—because we speak English, yes, but also because they trust our jurisdiction and courts, and because we have European expertise here in London. We do not want to lose that. It is very important that a labour mobility framework that guarantees those abilities post Brexit is put in place.
The legal services sector requires legal certainty throughout the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Law firms and their clients are already, sadly, beginning to implement contingency plans and move business elsewhere. We now have a draft of a detailed transition agreement, and the sector believes, as I do, that that agreement must be confirmed as soon as possible to ensure the sector has the legal certainty that it requires.
Does my hon. Friend agree that having a swift and clear transition agreement is important not just, as he rightly says, to give law firms the certainty they need to continue their operations, but to ensure for their clients contractual continuity and, above all, the enforceability of contracts and judgments in commercial matters and a whole range of other matters?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. Avoiding a no-deal scenario and securing the right future relationship with the European Union is of the utmost importance. The APPG supports the view of the legal services sector that a no-deal scenario would be devastating to the sector and should be avoided at all costs. Of course, there have been significant recent developments. Last week, on 14 November, the Cabinet collectively agreed to the draft withdrawal agreement and the political statement on the future relationship. Following a special European Council meeting on 25 November, the Government intend to lay a final version of the agreement before Parliament for debate.
It needs to be recognised that the draft withdrawal agreement contains a number of positive elements for the legal services sector, including provisions on mutual recognition of professional qualifications and on lawyers continuing to obtain qualifications throughout the transition period, and clarity on continued recognition and enforcement of judgments and orders throughout that period. Lawyers will continue to have the right to represent a party in proceedings before the CJEU in all stages of proceedings where a case can be brought by or against the UK. The automatic transfer of an EU intellectual property right into an equivalent UK right before the end of the transition period is very welcome.
The non-legally binding declaration, however, is a work in progress. To be frank, it is worryingly brief and it is vague on services, especially legal services. The relevant part of the political declaration explains that the goal is to secure
“Ambitious, comprehensive and balanced arrangements on trade in services and investment, delivering a level of liberalisation in trade in services well beyond the Parties’ WTO commitments”.
It says that the Government will put in place
“Appropriate arrangements on professional qualifications.”
I have to say that this is pretty sketchy stuff, and so we continue to have concerns about the lack of detail contained within the political declaration between the UK and the EU.
First, it is pretty unambitious for the UK-EU agreement to say only that it will go “well beyond” the parties’ World Trade Organisation commitments, and it is likely to lead to significantly less market access for services. Secondly, like with the Government’s White Paper, there are concerns about the continued focus on regulatory flexibility, as I mentioned before. The preservation of the present system, whereby lawyers from EU member states, EEA states and Switzerland can practise freely across the continent, should be prioritised instead. Thirdly, it is good to see a reference to professional qualifications, but that only goes some way towards giving lawyers the ability to practise in the EU, and generally it is not their preferred route.
Fourthly, it is disappointing not to see a reference either to civil or commercial co-operation, unlike in the Government’s White Paper. The UK and the EU currently enjoy the gold standard in civil and judicial co-operation, which should continue. Fifthly, without an agreement on judicial co-operation, judgments made in UK courts might be unenforceable in EU countries in the cross-border settlement of trade disputes, which might result, for instance, in debts owed by EU entities to UK businesses not being recovered. It follows that uncertainty about whether judgments from UK courts would be enforced could make the UK less appealing as a jurisdiction of choice for contracts and dispute resolution, which would lead to the growth of competing jurisdictions.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I am not sure that I heard him mention the family courts in his list of things that we need to establish good relationships over. The family courts are very important, because sadly the amount of work that they undertake—on both sides of the channel—is growing. There is enormous mutual responsibility for them.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. The Brussels II regulation is a single legal instrument that helps families resolve disputes about divorce and the custody of children where they involve parties in more than one EU state. Under the regulation, EU courts automatically recognise judgments on matrimonial and parental responsibility that are delivered in other states. That will no longer apply to the UK when we have left the EU. Similarly, the maintenance regulation, which helps to ensure the payment of maintenance in cross-border situations, will no longer apply.
In a no-deal scenario, the UK and EU27’s trading relationships in legal services would be governed by the general agreement on trade in services, or GATS, which falls far short of replicating the current EU framework. UK lawyers would be subject to myriad rules and regulations in each of the 31 European Free Trade Association states rather than to a single legal framework. UK judgments are automatically recognised and enforced across the EU27, but they will not be in a no-deal scenario, unless the UK unilaterally signs The Hague convention.
At the moment, clients can receive UK law advice from UK lawyers however and wherever they want in the EU; in a no-deal scenario, clients in some jurisdictions might be limited in how they can received UK legal advice from UK lawyers. Currently UK lawyers have the automatic right to set up practices in an EU host state with minimal bureaucracy; in a no-deal scenario, UK lawyers’ ability to set up practices in an EU27 jurisdiction will depend on local laws and regulations. If establishment is possible, permitted activities still might be limited.
Currently UK lawyers have the right to advise clients who are based in the EU27 on EU law, because their legal professional qualifications are automatically recognised. In a no-deal scenario, clients based in EU27 jurisdictions might no longer be able to receive EU law advice from UK lawyers, as UK legal professional qualifications might not be recognised. Now, law firms can set up in one EU member state and export their services across the EU by establishing branches of the same structure in other member states. In a no-deal scenario, legal entities would lose the automatic right to use their preferred business structures in certain EU27 countries, and the UK corporate form of limited liability partnerships might no longer be accepted in some jurisdictions. As can be seen, we must avoid a no-deal scenario.
Growing concern that the UK could exit the EU without a deal has led the Law Society to publish a series of papers that give solicitors guidance on how to take steps to mitigate some of the risks. Law cuts across every area of life, and often UK and EU lawyers work across borders and enforce and litigate on family, data or business disputes. The first tranche of Law Society papers gives advice on some of the potential rule changes where a deal between a business here and in the EU goes wrong, what happens in family law if a couple splits up, and how we should approach data sharing should we quit the EU without an agreement. There is another paper on providing legal services in the EU, and I understand that further papers are in production. Perhaps the Minister could take this opportunity to explain how her Department is preparing itself and the legal services sector for a no-deal scenario.
It is fair to say that services, including legal services, have not been given the same attention in the Brexit process as manufactured goods have. The sector wants a bespoke agreement that comprehensively covers legal services and is based on mutual market access, mutual recognition of regulatory frameworks, regulatory co-operation and continued mutual access to talent. I have high regard for the Minister, her understanding of this sector and her ability. I hope that she takes the opportunity provided by this debate to set out how she will champion the English legal services sector in negotiations on the future relationship with the EU, with the intention that legal services are not left behind and will be given the tools to maintain their world-leading reputation for excellence after Brexit.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I will not speak for very long, but I want to raise an important point about international arbitration while wearing my hat as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, which looks at arbitration, mediation and other forms of dispute resolution.
I was pleased to see that the withdrawal agreement commits us to international arbitration to resolve any disputes between us and the European Union as we exit it. That is a very positive step forward and a good compromise to have received from the European Union. I pay tribute to the authors of the withdrawal agreement for getting the EU to agree to that. I put so much emphasis on international arbitration because it is arguably a cheaper and much quicker way of resolving disputes. As we have heard, we are a leading centre for arbitration, as the number of people who come to us from around the world indicates. They do that because of our distinguished judges and arbitrators, and because English law is admired around the world.
I raised that issue with the Lord Chief Justice this week, and I asked him how secure he is in believing that we will be able to continue with this regime after Brexit. He said, first, that it is difficult to see it continuing unless we do something about the fact that the number of judges is so diminished at the moment. That is a very important point. Arbitration is not solely based on judges, but we need judges with a great deal of experience.
The second thing he said—I made this point in an intervention—is that we need to be more aware of the alternative centres that are emerging around the world to deal with arbitration. I mentioned Singapore, which has put tremendous effort into developing a commercial solution. I hope that in the summer recess—assuming we still have one—I will be able to go out to Singapore to see for myself how its arbitration courts work and what sort of cases they deal with. We should be concentrating on those important things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) said that legal services make an enormous contribution to the UK’s economic activity. I will not repeat what he said about them, other than to underline their phenomenal contribution.
I want much more emphasis to be put on tying up the elements that I have mentioned. We should not take for granted our legal position as the pre-eminent jurisdiction for arbitration. Our officials need some fight to ensure that we keep our jurisdiction and our reputation so that we can continue with that.
I stress the importance of ensuring that we have some sort of reciprocal arrangement for the family courts. My hon. Friend mentioned Brussels II and the maintenance regulations that apply to it. It is not the ideal form of governance of the situation with the European Union, but it is undoubtedly better than what preceded it, and we should be very careful about throwing it out.
I was disappointed not to see more in the withdrawal agreement about the protection of legal services. There is a gap there. It would have been nice to see more about how they will operate in the new environment and about how qualifications will continue to be recognised beyond the transition period. Those points have already been made, but I am happy to make them again because they are important and we need an answer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing the debate. I congratulate the all-party group on legal and constitutional affairs on its excellent report, which mirrors the Justice Committee’s conclusions in our report in the 2016-17 Session on the implications of Brexit for the justice system, especially in the areas that relate to co-operation in civil and commercial law. Our report, of course, went further and stressed the importance of continuing co-operation on criminal law and law enforcement, but our conclusions on the civil front are exactly in line with those of the all-party group. That is not surprising, because the evidence is entirely consistent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who serves on the Committee with me, stressed the other issue that we want to raise: family law. This is not just about the clients of big commercial firms. The ability to enforce judgments makes a difference to parents who are seeking to get maintenance from a partner in another EU jurisdiction. At the moment they can enforce their maintenance agreement without any difficulty, but they would be at a grave disadvantage if they were not able to do so.
Many of us will remember the problems that arose in the past with the growth of what is called parallel litigation in family cases, in relation to divorce, financial arrangements and child custody arrangements. The last thing we want is a crash-out arrangement. In theory, that would mean that, as of 1 April next year, a parent in the UK and one in another EU jurisdiction would be capable of commencing parallel proceedings in family matters.
My hon. Friend is stressing the role of the family courts, but he might also want to mention the ability to handle child abduction equally on both sides.
That is entirely right. Some of the worst examples, before we developed the mutual enforceability of judgments, related to child abduction. In cases involving non-EU states, in which we are a third country, the parent here—frequently the mother—was at a significant legal disadvantage and did not have the protections that we have under the current arrangements, particularly the recast Brussels arrangements. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that issue.
I want to make two other points very briefly. First, I support my hon. Friend’s point about English law. Those of us who have practised know that, because of the reputation of our system, it is almost the norm to find English law clauses in international contracts. We want that to continue, but it is concerning that the Bar Council and the Law Society have been reporting evidence—so far anecdotal, but strong—that the uncertainty and the risk of a crash-out arrangement without contractual continuity is leading some firms to advise their clients to have clauses excluding English law from contracts. It would be extremely troubling if that were to persist. The longer the uncertainty, the greater the risk.
Simmons & Simmons, a leading law firm, conducted a survey of clients in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands to look at what the courts in those countries might adopt if we were a third country and could not rely on the current arrangements. It reported that 88% of clients—people abroad buying British services—thought that the Government needed to make an early public statement to remove uncertainty, and 50% said that, without that, they would be inclined to move away from choosing English law or jurisdiction clauses. The situation is urgent, so I will back the withdrawal agreement because it will get us into a transitional arrangement, which will give continuity for that period. More importantly, contracts will run beyond the date on which we leave, and significant commercial litigation will almost certainly take more than two years to work its way through. I hope that those issues will also be taken on board.
Will the Minister consider a couple of suggestions by the City of London Corporation and TheCityUK, to which I am grateful, about failsafe devices—I do not like to use the word “backstop”, because it has certain controversial associations—that we could have in parallel with seeking to get the withdrawal agreement through and get into the transition period? It has been suggested that it would be reasonable to look at a means of copying the text of the Rome I and Rome II regulations into our own private international law. Those regulations, of course, determine the applicable law for contractual obligations. As well as seeking the transition, many lawyers think it would be advisable to copy those texts—in parallel, I suggest, as a belt and braces operation—which are much superior to anything that went before, into our law. It is also important that we consider resigning The Hague convention as an independent party. That would be a failsafe, not my preferred objective, but we need to have those eventualities in mind. That would assist with certainty.
In her Mansion House speech, the Prime Minister talked about the Lugano convention. I think that most people would concede that Lugano, in its original form, is nothing like as good or effective as Brussels I and II in their recast form. They are the gold standard that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon referred to. Will the Minister take away the idea that, to get us anything like as good as we have under Brussels, any Lugano would have to be a Lugano plus plus plus?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, for giving way. The comments made in this debate bear a striking similarity to those made in the debate that followed the production of the Committee’s report. That just goes to stress the urgency of the situation. Law firms cannot wait forever to get a degree of certainty; the time for action is fast running out. Does he share my concerns about that?
I agree that there is a danger of us becoming a legal version of groundhog in these debates. I know that the Minister is absolutely committed to achieving continuity, but there is a real sense of frustration among practitioners because, although there are warm words, promises and statements of intent, and a Brexit law committee in which practitioners are involved is being set up, none the less, despite those strong wishes, the detail on future arrangements remains extremely scarce. If the Prime Minister succeeds in moving us on to the next stage, as I hope she does, it is absolutely critical that that detail is fleshed out at the earliest stage. I hope that we will take the opportunity of strengthening the political declaration that comes as part of the package with the withdrawal agreement, as the Prime Minister said today, so that it makes more reference to legal services in particular.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing such an important debate, and I will touch on some of his remarks. He mentioned that the legal services sector contributed £26 billion to the economy. Like him, I look forward to hearing the Minister outline what her Department is doing to prepare for a hard Brexit, should that occur on 29 March.
My colleague on the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), mentioned a point made by Lord Chief Justice on the paucity of judges in the English system, which has come up from time to time in the Committee’s deliberations. I have made it a habit not to disagree with the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), because he is wise and rarely wrong, and he was right again, particularly when he brought up the potential position of family courts post Brexit. He also mentioned that the discussion is akin to groundhog day, which I am pleased to tell him is on my birthday, so I look forward to a nice bottle of malt from him.
Does the hon. Gentleman want single or double?
Whatever the hon. Gentleman can afford; I would be most grateful.
On a more substantive point, we have heard today that Brexit has the capacity to complicate and disrupt every aspect of our lives. Over the decades, European co-operation on justice issues has undoubtedly led to countless criminals and victims getting justice. Brexit seriously risks that successful current arrangement for very little gain. It is vital that the UK Government do everything in their power to ensure that cross-border legal service arrangements are as close as possible to the current arrangements.
At the moment, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement will pass the House of Commons. On top of countless other problems, a no-deal Brexit would discard the agreement to have reciprocal recognition of legal qualifications. With their technical notice, the Government have provided something, but it does not provide anywhere near enough clarity on justice arrangements after a no-deal Brexit. I welcome the fact that under the withdrawal agreement, mutual recognition of legal professionals would continue at least during the transition period.
That is just one example that highlights how European Union membership benefits our justice system and society more widely. The Scottish National party will continue to argue that the best course of action for Scotland and the UK’s other constituent nations is full membership of the European Union. Failing that, even single market access via the European economic area and customs union membership would also allow current arrangements to continue unhindered.
We are hurtling rapidly towards a blindfold Brexit, with no clarity on what future arrangements will look like. Despite some of the welcome guarantees, we are still none the wiser about what the arrangements for legal services will look like. We remain gravely concerned about the future of legal services in Scotland and across the UK after transition. I urge the Minister and the UK Government, in the strongest possible terms, to get their act together and address that urgently in the future partnership arrangements.
No one can know for certain what will happen in the next few months, but it is clear that the Prime Minister will struggle to gain approval for the agreement, and a damaging no-deal Brexit is still a real possibility. As we heard from the hon. Member for Huntingdon in his opening speech, the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, the lawyers’ services directive and the lawyers’ establishment directive all provide reciprocal arrangements between EEA states for the recognition of qualifications, creating arrangements for European lawyers to register to practice permanently in another EEA state as a registered European lawyer. As the Government’s technical notice clearly states, if no deal came to pass, those reciprocal arrangements would cease to apply, which would result in a sharp end to them on 29 March. As we have heard in great detail, that would be an unmitigated disaster for law firms and lawyers who operate in the EU.
The Law Society of England and Wales carried out research on Brexit. Some £3 billion could be stripped from the sector’s turnover by 2025 if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, and a hard Brexit could cut the legal sector’s rate of growth by half. The UK is a world-leading centre in legal expertise, as we have heard, and that standing could be irrevocably diminished because of Brexit—“global Britain” indeed. The Scottish National party has been consistently clear that freedom of movement and all the advantages that it brings should be allowed to continue in Scotland. Ending freedom of movement will jeopardise the continuing success of the legal sector in a country that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. That will be heavily damaging and deeply unfair. It is vital that the legal sector continues to receive the benefits of freedom of movement, and retaining freedom of movement is the simplest way to secure that.
Andrew Langdon, Chair of the Bar, told the Justice Committee that
“without the free movement of lawyers nothing else of much importance will be salvaged”,
arguing that lawyers’ ability to represent local clients in cases with EU connections is important for the individuals and businesses they represent.
Stakeholders and leading legal experts are desperately calling out for clarity and decisive action from the Government. A sector that is especially vital to the UK economy is under threat, and our lawyers need answers beyond the transition period. If the Prime Minister cannot get an agreement through the House, we seriously risk subjecting the sector to further irreparable damage. It is therefore better to reverse the whole shambolic process and remain in the European Union, so that we would retain the benefits, not only in the justice system but in countless other areas that have enjoyed benefits for decades. At the very least, we should come to an agreement on retaining membership of the single market and the customs union, but, if, as I fear, we do not, I suspect many Scots will feel that they have no choice but to exercise their democratic right to regain all those benefits by choosing an independent path of their own within the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing the debate, and thank him for his comprehensive speech, which dealt with the issues and challenges we will face once the Brexit negotiations have been carried out. I commend him on the work that he has done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal and constitutional affairs in the inquiry on the effects of Brexit on legal services.
This has been a thoughtful and considered debate. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who does a superb job as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution. He discussed the need for arbitration and how it, too, is important to UK legal services. I hope we have further debates, for example on family law protection or the European arrest warrant post Brexit. Serious concerns have been expressed in all parts of the Chamber.
As we have heard, Brexit will be the largest ever change to the UK’s legal framework, which presents many concerns and risks for the legal sector. Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, we need to ensure that citizens and businesses in the UK continue to have certainty about access to justice in civil, commercial, consumer and family law matters. That requires clarity on the responsibilities of the courts in the United Kingdom and in the European Union, and certainty that judgments can be enforced with a minimum of delay and cost.
The UK legal services market, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, is worth anything between £25 billion and £30 billion in total, employs 370,000 people and in 2015 generated an estimated £3.3 billion of net export revenue. Central to that market is the ability of barristers, solicitors and other legal professionals to provide legal services in the European Union. Equally importantly, our exporters’ confidence in doing business abroad depends greatly on the ability of their lawyers to establish and provide services in the countries in which they seek to trade and invest. Numerous aspects of the work of barristers and solicitors will no longer be possible when we leave the European Union, unless existing cross-border rights are preserved.
The Government must therefore have regard to the nature of the legal work that comes to the UK as a result of the UK legal profession’s expertise, not least in European Union law. Will the Minister tell us what measures the Government are taking to maintain cross-border legal practice rights and opportunities for the UK legal sector, given efforts by European Union law firms to use Brexit to win clients from UK competitors?
The draft withdrawal agreement, like the White Paper before it, continues to emphasise regulatory flexibility in the context of services, which would not assist the legal sector. Legal services do not need further regulatory flexibility: the regime in the European Union is already considered to be among the most liberal in the world, and provides lawyers with the freedom to advise and represent their clients anywhere in the EU and in any dispute resolution forum.
The Government have also made mention of adopting the approach of a free trade agreement to services. That is disappointing. Will the Minister explain how a binding EU-wide regulatory framework for legal services could be agreed in the context of a free trade agreement? Is there a danger that the legal profession in the UK would be left to negotiate different bilateral agreements covering the provision of legal services with many of the EU member states? Will that leave a patchwork of rights and obligations, varying from country to country?
I am also concerned that lawyers from England and Wales might lose their right to advise on European law when in the EU. UK businesses, which will still need to operate under EU law, will be unable to have their trusted UK legal professionals by their side and will instead be forced to hire EU lawyers with whom they are not familiar, and vice versa—despite language and other barriers—to protect and defend their rights within the European Union. Indeed, lawyers from England and Wales will even lose the right to defend the UK Government, as well as UK businesses and UK citizens, before the Court of Justice of the European Union, despite a former president of the Court recognising the UK profession for providing some of the best advocates. That would be a huge loss to both the UK and the European Union. Will the Minister in her response confirm that the Government will ensure that any future relationship with the European Union includes a mechanism for UK lawyers to practise EU law via the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and law firm structures?
The deal lacks the detail that the professional services sector needs to know in other respects, in particular with regards to temporary mobility for business travel. Do the Minister and the Government appreciate that that is essential for the quick delivery of legal services? For example, a lawyer might need to see a client at short notice in one of the EU members states, or to represent that client in an arbitration or mediation meeting. Will she ensure that, post Brexit, UK lawyers are able to continue to serve their clients on a fly-in, fly-out basis? Does the Minister recognise that the UK risks not only the loss of the tax revenue from legal services, but an erosion of the enormous influence and soft power generated by our legal services sector in Europe and internationally?
Finally, I remind the Minister that the UK is the largest market for legal services in Europe, and globally is second only to the US. The Government must do all that they can to protect Britain’s legal services sector after Brexit if the country is to remain the world’s jurisdiction of choice. Equally, it is vital to ensure that international parties understand the ongoing benefits of using English law and legal services once the United Kingdom has left the European Union. An efficient and cost-effective resolution of disputes is critical to that goal and to the ongoing development of English law. After all, that is at the core of the international attractiveness of the United Kingdom.
I hope the Minister and the Ministry of Justice will consider properly some of the representations made by the Law Society and the Bar Council. We all want the best for legal services, and I hope the Minister will respond on such an urgent issue and perhaps tell us what concrete steps the Department and the Government have taken to deal with it, and with the concerns. I am sure the concerns are not new and that the Government are not unaware of them, so I look forward to hearing from her.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in it, as the future of UK legal services and their promotion after we leave the EU is important. I am particularly delighted to respond to a debate of my hon. Friend, who not only has extremely ably occupied my role as a former Justice Minister, but is knowledgeable on this issue as a non-practising solicitor, the co-chair of the APPG on legal and constitutional affairs and a member of the Exiting the European Union Committee. I am also grateful to him and to his APPG for their thorough and helpful report.
In that report, the APPG and my hon. Friend recognise the significance of our legal sector. As he rightly said, it is a great success story. The sector is worth at least—it varies—£24 billion a year. The UK’s trade surplus in legal services has nearly doubled over the past 10 years and now accounts for about 10% of global legal services fee revenue. Importantly, the sector provides jobs—it drives employment by employing well over 300,000 people. Those jobs are found throughout the UK, although we also have a huge hub of specialist lawyers, many of whom support our vital financial services sector.
English law, as many people have said today, is the most widely used in the world, with 27% of the world’s jurisdictions using it. International firms want to operate in this country, which is why more than 200 foreign law firms have offices in the UK. UK-based firms also operate around the world, and nearly 7,000 practising solicitors from the UK work abroad. My hon. Friend is right to identify that people come here for their legal disputes because of the integrity of our judges, the professionalism of our lawyers and our respect for the rule of law.
My hon. Friend highlighted that the report recognises that
“Brexit will be the largest ever change to the UK’s legal framework and it presents both opportunities and risks for the legal sector.”
It also recognises that the ability of solicitors, barristers and chartered legal executives to practice as lawyers in the EU is important to lawyers and, as my hon. Friend Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) mentioned, the people whom those lawyers serve.
As far as the transitional period is concerned, market access will remain the same. The draft withdrawal agreement provides that, during the implementation period, EU and UK professionals working in the UK or EU will continue to have their professional qualifications recognised. We set out in the future economic partnership White Paper our proposal for new arrangements for services and investment after we leave the single market. We must recognise that we will no longer be in the single market and that there will be implications for market access.
The outline political declaration made last week identifies:
“Ambitious, comprehensive and balanced arrangements on trade in services”.
Those go well beyond World Trade Organisation commitments. The political declaration also identifies the need for provisions on market access and the importance of non-discrimination, and records the need for arrangements on professional qualifications. Alongside that, the mobility framework will support businesses to provide services—that includes travelling freely without a visa for temporary business activity, for example.
The outline political declaration will be built on and finalised with the aim of producing a full political declaration, which we hope can happen before the end of the month. In a no-deal scenario, there will be no basis for reciprocity—registered European lawyer status, which allows European economic area lawyers to practice permanently in the UK under their home title, will be phased out after exit. New entrants will be able to seek recognition of their qualifications and be admitted to the UK profession in the same way as third-country lawyers. There will be a transitional framework until 31 December 2020 for EEA lawyers and business owners to transfer their qualifications or adapt their business model.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) asked me what preparations my Department was making for no deal. As a competent Government, we are making preparations for no deal. We have issued two technical notices, we are preparing our no-deal statutory instruments and we received £17.3 million in the spring statement, which was allocated to our Department to make suitable arrangements. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made important points about laws that we can take advantage of in the event of no deal. We will incorporate Rome I and Rome II into our laws and we will sign up to The Hague convention in our own right.
Beyond negotiations with the EU27, we are working with the sector to promote the benefits of market liberalisation. We want to ensure the continued pre-eminence of UK legal services and English law. The Government are committed to championing the legal services sector. We are building our international and domestic and relationships and leveraging them to promote the sector overseas. We are working to improve legal services market access. We will seek opportunities in future trade agreements to include ambitious provisions for services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) was right to identify the importance of international arbitration. Companies often choose the UK as the seat of international arbitration, which is an important part of the sector. The Ministry of Justice is working across the board to prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU, as well as continuing to promote legal services on the international stage.
It is not often that I get the chance to respond to the Minister, because normally so many people want to speak. I am pleased to do so. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for their contributions, and the Minister for her response.
I did not hear a lot of difference in the approach across the piece. We know the issues and what we want to get to. Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst spoke about a Committee report from two years ago that dealt with the same issues. Two years later, we have come to the same conclusions in this report—it is not even as though this is a new finding. We all want mutual market access, we want the importance of a labour mobility framework and we see the need for legal certainty.
Several hon. Members said that if those things are not achieved and, as a result, English law clauses are included to a lesser degree in contracts, there is potential for very lasting damage to our legal services. That must be of great concern to everyone in this room. Various treaties were mentioned—Lugano and so forth—but relying on those would be second best. We want the best for our legal services sector. I hope the message has been received and that, as we go into further negotiations, the Minister will bang the drum for legal services as I am sure she will.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the provision of legal services after the UK leaves the EU.