Wednesday 9 January 2019
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered diabetes.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. C. S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, said:
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Every day, our constituents—people across Britain—are tested by the challenges that are the effects of diabetes, which is the fastest growing health crisis of our time. There is barely a family in Britain that has not been touched by it. As so many elderly ladies do, my late mother contracted type 2 diabetes when she reached her 70s. I spoke to colleagues from across the House in preparation for this debate, and many of them, including one this morning, said that they had a family member who had been affected by the disease.
In the last 20 years, the number of people in the UK living with diabetes has doubled, reaching 4.6 million. Every day, 700,000 people are dealing with the worst effects, and 700 people are newly diagnosed as suffering from some kind of diabetes. Amazingly, that is one person every two minutes, so this debate is not only necessary and apposite; rather, I would go one further and say that it is essential.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I shall just finish the next exciting sentence and then I will happily give way. By 2025, there could be as many as 5 million people living with diabetes in the UK.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. The statistic for Wales is that one person in 14 is affected. Does he agree that, going forward, we must look at prevention—seeing the warning signs and looking at lifestyle changes—as well as having excellent treatment for those who are formally diagnosed?
Absolutely. I will deal with that during my speech. Information that leads to a better understanding of risk, which in turn leads to prevention, is critical, particularly with respect to type 2 diabetes, which is the type that I mentioned earlier when I referred to my late mother.
I spoke of hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from type 1 diabetes—about 500,000 at the moment, but that could easily rise to 700,000—but of course 90% of sufferers are type 2 diabetics, and prevention is particularly critical in their case.
My right hon. Friend is making a very strong case. Is he aware of the new research into the treatment of type 2 diabetes, which suggests that a change of diet can eradicate it, giving the person a clean bill of health?
I was going to refer to the achievements of the deputy leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), later in my speech, but my hon. Friend obliges me to highlight them earlier than I had planned. He is a model example of someone who, having contracted type 2 diabetes, adjusted their lifestyle and diet, lost large amounts of weight, and fought back against—indeed, fought off—type 2 diabetes, exactly as my hon. Friend suggests. Many other hon. Members, including some in the Chamber today, are living with diabetes. Remarkably, our Prime Minister not only manages to hold down her job with immense dedication and determination, but manages type 1 diabetes simultaneously. I spoke about every family and every constituency, but many Members of this House have personal experience of dealing with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
During the debate, I will focus on three areas in which we can make real progress: the human and financial cost of diabetes; how education and technology can enable self-management and improve outcomes for both type 1 and type 2; and how, in the case of type 2 diabetes, intervention on societal and individual levels can prevent the onset and mitigate the effects of such a serious problem.
To prevent just a fraction of the complications arising from diabetes would have a big impact on the national health service, generating significant savings as well as fundamentally reducing pain and distress for individuals. Every week in England, over 160 lower-limb amputations result directly from the effects of diabetes, so the ability to provide high-quality diabetic foot care is of particular concern. The recently published NHS long-term plan makes a renewed commitment to the diabetes transformation fund, and I know that that will be welcomed by the whole diabetes community.
I hope that the Minister will set out what steps the Government are taking to encourage the use of education and technology to better support people in self-managing their diabetes, as that will reduce the burden of diabetes both on the individual and on the NHS. A few years ago, a family came to my constituency surgery, with a tiny, wonderful little girl. She was just about to start school. She had already been diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic. That little girl, Faith Robinson, was wearing technology that allowed her glucose to be monitored and insulin to be administered to her—that was absolutely necessary because she was so young. The family came to me with a request, which I will pass on to the Minister so that he can work with colleagues across Government to ensure that it happens routinely for all constituents who need it. They asked that Faith receive one-to-one support at school to manage that technology. The little girl was under five, and needed people at the school she was about to attend to understand the condition and how to deal with the challenges that she faced.
I estimate that there are constituents across the country in similar circumstances, with very young sufferers who need that kind of care and support. I invite the Minister not necessarily to comment today—I do not want to catch him out; that is not my intention—but to reflect on that and to say more about what can be done for that little girl, who I was able to help in that circumstance, and for many others like her.
I not only congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate but thank him for allowing me to intervene on that point. My second daughter was two and a half when she was diagnosed as an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic. I very much empathise with the story that he has just told us about his constituent. My daughter was barely able to describe her feelings because she was only just talking at the time, which was really quite challenging for the clinicians treating her, as she was unable to describe the impact of treatment and how she felt. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the introduction of technology—both a result and part of the significant research efforts in this country by charities and the Medical Research Council—is leading to opportunities in treatment provision, in particular the flash glucose monitoring device, which I know the Government will introduce across the country in a more even way than in the past. That is very welcome, but it remains subject to clinical guidance. I urge the Minister to look at that guidance and the attributes required for people to have access to those devices, because they remain quite restricted.
With the insight and acumen that characterised my right hon. Friend’s ministerial career, he has identified a point that I was going to make later. With his permission, I will amplify that in my speech. I was aware of his personal circumstances and of his expertise as a result of having a daughter with diabetes. He will recognise that the average sufferer spends about three hours a year with a healthcare professional. Self-management is therefore critical and, in turn, technology is essential to such self-management. We cannot expect a healthcare professional to be on call every time someone needs support or the kind of treatment that is routine for someone such as my right hon. Friend’s young daughter. I entirely endorse his remarks. The Minister will have heard them and will respond accordingly.
In essence, I want a world in which all people with diabetes have access to the right information, advice and training, not just at the point of diagnosis but throughout their lives. People will say, “Well, of course, we all want the very best, and we all want the ideal,” but if we do not aim for the very best, we will get something very much less than that, so I make no apologies for being definitive in my determination to aim for that ideal. It is critical that we as parliamentarians should look to more distant horizons than sometimes the prevailing powers in Government—as I know from my long experience of that—would encourage us to do. Such debates as this allow us to do that in a cross-party way, for this is not about party political knockabout but about something much more fundamental.
Only if we can achieve the ideal will people be well placed to gain confidence and to cope as the Prime Minister does—as I have described—and as the deputy leader of the Labour party does. They can manage their condition and do not have their lives inhibited by it, and so believe that their opportunities are unaffected by the condition.
To ensure the early uptake of education, it must be provided in a useful format: digitally and through every kind of agency, whether that is schools working with health professionals, or local authorities, which have a responsibility for public health following the Health and Social Care Act 2012, stepping up to the mark too. I shall say a little more about the co-ordination of that, although the Minister is already aware of my concerns. It is about ensuring that our public health effort on diabetes is co-ordinated, consistent and collaborative. That is vital, for reasons already mentioned by colleagues in interventions.
I welcome the commitment in the NHS long-term plan, as I said, to expand the support on offer for people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, including through the provision of structured education.
The right hon. Gentleman is making incredibly important points. He mentioned the deputy leader of the Labour party, who turned his life around through diet and exercise—nutrition. That is an incredibly important issue in my constituency. Throughout west Cumbria, we have serious levels of diabetes, health deprivation and obesity. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making what is an incredibly important point about bringing together health education at a very young age, and I encourage the Government to invest in that.
I hope that the Minister, in respect of that excellent intervention and my earlier remarks, will say how he will ensure that that kind of vital education is provided in a format and at a point that works for everyone. This is about getting to people by a means and at a place that will penetrate, have effect and be comprehensible. The objectives in the long-term plan are right, but how we deliver those objectives has become the vital next step.
We have already spoken in this debate about technology. A flexible approach to the provision of technology, as well as education and support, is critical. Once equipped with information and skills, people must have access to, and the choice from, a range of technologies to help them to manage their condition in everyday life, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) mentioned a few minutes ago. For people with type 2 diabetes, that is about ensuring access to the required number of glucose test strips. In the rapidly developing world of type 1 technology, insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors can radically transform lives.
Decisions on which technologies are available should be made with reference to advice from clinicians, patients and, perhaps most importantly, health economists, who will help to determine value to the NHS.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way, but I want to make my point before I do so, and it might well inform and inspire my right hon. Friend’s intervention: it concerns me that, in contrast to medicines, medical devices and now digital solutions do not have clear processes for appraisal and subsequent funding once approved.
My right hon. Friend has indeed inspired me. I do not have diabetes, but I tried a FreeStyle Libre sensor because a constituent of mine is involved in the company. Given my right hon. Friend’s remarks, he seems to agree with me that a robust process of cost-benefit analysis would show that the more people who are issued with that device, the more the health service would save in the long term from people being able to avoid catastrophic incidents because they can monitor their glucose levels much more effectively.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. In the modern idiom, we need to be technology-neutral about that, because the field is changing rapidly. As new technology comes on stream and improves, we need to be sufficiently responsive to and flexible about those changes to ensure that people get the very best, latest technology available to them, for the reasons he gave.
The limits on self-management by the restrictions on technology inhibit people’s wellbeing, confidence and, thereby, opportunities. I want to ensure that the provision of technology is consistent throughout the country. There are suggestions that such provision is patchy, that some places are better than others and that some of our constituencies are not getting all that they deserve. The Minister will not want that, because he is an extremely diligent and resourceful Minister—I know that from previous experience—and I want him to tell us how he will ensure that the technology is appraised properly, is delivered consistently and, accordingly, will change lives beneficially.
My right hon. Friend is being generous with his time. May I elaborate a little more on that specific point to give an indication to the Minister of the specifics that might cause difficulty between different clinical commissioning group areas? In my experience, those who are allowed to have clinical access to a glucose monitoring device already need to have their blood sugar levels under control—in single digits, below nine. For many people, however, the monitoring device is the one thing that gives them the ability to get better control of their blood sugar glucose levels. Therefore, if they do not get access to it until they are under control, it does not have the immediate benefit to their lifestyles that it would if the regime were slightly more permissive in the allocation of the devices.
My right hon. Friend makes a very shrewd point about cause and effect. In Scotland, for example, both the processes leading to allocation and the actual allocation of technology are much more routine, as he suggests should be the case. I hope the Minister will tell us today or subsequently how he will ensure that that becomes true for the whole of our kingdom—that the very principles set out by my right hon. Friend become embedded in the way in which we approach technology, ensuring that it is allocated according to need.
We all agree that the resources should be targeted to secure optimal outcomes for the 4.6 million people who have been diagnosed with the condition. In addition to those diagnosed, however, one in three adults in the UK have pre-diabetes and might be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if they do not change their lifestyle—a point made by a number of Members in interventions. About three in five cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed. A focus on preventing the onset of diabetes should be of paramount importance. G. K. Chesterton said:
“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
By seeing the problem, the solution will be implicit, because many more people will never develop type 2 diabetes if they make those adjustments to their lifestyle.
There is a dilemma, though: is it better that 50,000 people get a perfect solution and are prevented from having diabetes, or that 5 million people reduce their risk marginally? Let me set that out more clearly. Is it better that a small number of people achieve what the deputy leader of the Labour party, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, has done—losing immense amounts of weight, changing their lifestyle and completely revising their diet? Or is it better that a very much larger number of people make a smaller change, lose less weight and change their lifestyle more marginally, but by so doing significantly reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes?
That is a challenge in health education; it affects many aspects of the health service’s work. It probably means that, rather than seeing this issue purely from a clinical perspective, we have to democratise the diabetes debate, spread the word much more widely and get many more people to lose a couple of inches off their waist, to lose a stone or half a stone. That effect would be immense in reducing the risk of diabetes, not for tens of thousands but for millions of people.
If the figures I have brought forward are so—I have cited them only because I have learnt them from Diabetes UK and others who have helped me to prepare for this debate—we would change the lives of very large numbers of constituents in a way they would be able to manage, understand, comprehend and act upon reasonably quickly. I want the Minister to reflect on the dilemma I have described; it may not be quite so much of an either/or as I have painted it, but we need a democratic debate about that, which is part of the reason I have brought this debate to the House. Certainly we need an open and grown-up conversation about some of those measures and how we go about tackling what I have described as a crisis.
I do not want to speak forever, Mr Robertson—I know you and others in the Chamber will be disappointed to hear me say that. That will cause disappointment and even alarm among some, but I want others to contribute the debate. However, I have a couple of other points to make so I will move on—having taken a number of interventions already, I hope colleagues will bear with me.
I have been fascinated to read about research funded by Diabetes UK that proves that remission is possible. I would like to take the time to congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich East once again and to say that I hope many more people will recognise that remission is a real possibility for them by making changes in what they do.
Part of the issue is how lives more generally have changed. My father cycled five miles to work and five miles home every day, but now most people do not do that. Once many more people worked in manual jobs—my father had a physique like Charles Atlas, but the nearest I have come to Charles Atlas is reading an atlas. Part of the problem is the way we live now; far fewer people exercise implicitly in the way he did, and it seems that junk food is more appealing to many people than eating fresh, healthy produce—indeed, that has been recognised by successive Governments as significant for health outcomes.
Evidence shows the best way to reduce the risk of diabetes is through a healthy diet, being physically active and reducing weight. That can be facilitated through societal approaches and targeted individual interventions. Technology, including digital services to support lifestyle changes, is increasingly critical in diabetes prevention. To be sustainable, methods to prevent type 2 diabetes should focus on individual behaviour change, not just short-term activity levels.
We recently learned that, by their 10th birthday, the average child in the UK has consumed 18 years’ worth of sugar. That means they consume 2,800 more sugar cubes per year than recommended levels. The current food chain has become badly distorted. Basic knowledge that my parents’ generation took for granted about how to buy, cook, prepare and store food has steadily but alarming declined.
We have allowed soulless supermarkets to drive needless overconsumption of packaged, processed, passive, perturbing products, and it is time that the greed and carelessness of corporate multinational food retailers gave way to a better model. It is not a coincidence, it is something considerably more than that; as local food retailers have declined—people knew from whom they were buying, understood what they were buying and where it came from—the consumption of processed, packaged ready meals has grown. We need to rebalance the food chain in favour of locally produced, healthy produce and to re-educate people about how to buy, cook, eat and enjoy it.
I will certainly give no lectures on buying and cooking food, but does my right hon. Friend join me in supporting Diabetes UK’s Food Upfront campaign, which calls for a front-of-pack traffic light system to ensure that the content and nutritional value of processed foods is much clearer for people who are suffering from diabetes, and for a whole other range of dietary and nutritional needs?
Entirely; in fact, I call on the Minister to do just that: will he introduce a mandatory front-of-pack traffic light labelling system, which is supported not only by my hon. Friend but by 83% of the population when asked whether that should happen? The Minister will be in tune with popular opinion; he will become something of a popular hero by responding to my hon. Friend’s request, which I amplify.
We have Belisha beacons—could this not be the moment for Brine indicators?
It could indeed. Not only that—I wonder if we might consider a watershed on the advertising of junk food. Wherever children go, they face adverts suggesting that they eat all kinds of foods. As children, we never ate those things, did we? We were not exposed to the same kind of seductive, alluring advertising suggesting that children should consume that kind of food. There is an argument for cracking down, and Government have a role to play. Again, that kind of watershed on junk food advertising is supported by 76% of the population. The Minister would be a double hero if he did that.
Fitness matters, too. There must be a focus on exercise, given that studies illustrate that regular exercise pays dividends in respect of health and wellbeing, including diabetes. That is why we should not build on playing fields, close down sports halls and concrete over green spaces where people walk, play, run and enjoy all the opportunities to get healthy.
There is a link between poverty and ill health, as Members in the Chamber know very well. Although 6.6% of Britons have diabetes, that percentage falls markedly in wealthy areas. In Richmond upon Thames, 3.6% of residents have diabetes; in Bradford, the number rises to 10.4%. In south Lincolnshire, where my constituency is located, 7.3% of people have been diagnosed as diabetic. Such health inequalities must be addressed. It is with that in mind that I have campaigned so hard for the protection and maintenance of our parks and green spaces, which are often the only places that communities in less advantaged areas have to exercise, play sport and get healthy. In the case of diabetes prevention, do we perhaps take too puritanical an approach by rigidly pursuing individual outcomes? As I said, contrast that with what I described as the democratisation of the debate and the wider view that I have begun to outline today.
I commend, finally, the work of Government and the NHS on moving towards a fresh approach to diabetes in the NHS long-term plan, with a commitment to double the number of diabetes prevention programmes to 200,000 places. None the less, hon. Members will agree that that is a fraction of the 12.9 million people who are at high risk. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say how he plans to take a measured approach and appraise the evidence for all available solutions that might reach the wider population, beyond those targeted special programmes for that relatively small number—well, 200,000 is not a tiny number, but it is a relatively small proportion of the total number of people at risk of contracting diabetes?
Much commendable progress has been made, but it is now time for the Government to do several things. First, they must intensify their public information campaign and encourage everyone to speak about their own type 2 diabetes with their healthcare professional. Secondly, they should ensure that healthcare professionals offer a range of proven solutions, be that education or technology to enable self-management, or the resource to facilitate prevention at scale. Thirdly, they should continually review a rapidly changing environment and update the House on the tough political decisions being made to tackle this crisis of immense proportions. Politicians can no longer afford to abnegate their responsibility to a so-called expert class driven by bureaucracy. Too much is at stake. I know that the Minister will not be able to respond now to all my points, but I invite him to meet me and other concerned colleagues once he has had a chance to reflect on some of the issues, so that we can take the debate forward.
I began with C. S. Lewis, and I will end with him as well:
“We all want progress…If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
I do not think we are entirely on the wrong road, but we must be honest about what more we can do. That is not for our own interests or sake, and it is not even for the Minister’s heroic reputation that I championed earlier. It is for all those who are suffering, or who might suffer, from the crippling illness that is diabetes.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on giving us the opportunity to debate this subject, and on the comprehensive way he introduced it. He rightly spoke about the potential of technology—I will say more about that in a moment—and about the distinction between those who deal with type 1 diabetes and those with type 2 diabetes. It is important always to make that distinction, because type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition over which the person involved has no control. It is not a lifestyle-related problem; someone is born with a predisposition to diabetes and something—we do not really understand what—will trigger it at some point in their life, often at a young age. There is also increasing incidence of people developing type 1 diabetes at an older age, which is a relatively new phenomenon. I will confine my remarks to type 1 diabetes and consider what can be done to help people better to manage their condition.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is working with Cambridge University to develop an artificial pancreas. The problem with type 1 diabetes is that the pancreas does not work to produce the required levels of insulin—indeed, in most cases it produces no insulin at all. Currently, a person can have a device for continuous blood glucose monitoring, and if it is judged that the condition is not being managed satisfactorily, they can also have an insulin pump. Those are two separate devices; the beauty of the artificial pancreas is that through an algorithm the two are linked, so while the person receives continuous blood glucose level monitoring, the algorithm also enables the insulin pump to respond to a requirement for additional insulin, depending on the blood glucose level. The potential is enormous, and I commend the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for its work. The technology the right hon. Gentleman referred to is now close to being so good that type 1 diabetes will become much easier to manage, which is important.
Before Christmas, I secured an Adjournment debate on the development of the artificial pancreas in which I mentioned the fact that people are now devising their own artificial pancreases. It seems mostly to involve young people who, in some cases, are technologically savvy enough to devise their own algorithms and link a blood glucose monitoring device to a pump. They are devising those devices in their bedrooms or other normal settings. Someone who is a bit older contacted me after the debate and said, “I didn’t devise this in my bedroom. I’m an engineer and I did it on the kitchen table.” The point is that people are capable of doing such things. I am not saying that that is the way forward, because although many of those devices work and people are pleased with the results of the things they have devised, it cannot be right that they are being left to create such devices on their own without them being quality assured and tested by people who are competent to do so. It shows, however, the potential of what people can do for themselves.
We should not fool ourselves into believing that technology will resolve all the problems, because the situation is difficult, particularly for some young people. Think about when we were teenagers: no matter how well disciplined or well behaved people are, the lifestyle of a teenager does not easily lend itself to monitoring a diabetic condition. Going out with a group of friends for a meal or drink and having to adjust one’s insulin level with an injection can be awkward. Young people also face challenges with the way their condition is perceived by their peer group. In some instances, people confuse type 1 and type 2 diabetes and young people in school get bullied on the basis that they have brought their diabetes on themselves because they eat too much sugar. I have seen examples of that. An autoimmune condition is not triggered by one’s lifestyle at all, yet people get bullied on that basis and it is important that they receive the necessary support.
One of my worries—I hope the Minister will try to address this when he responds to the debate—is that there is often a need for psychological, or even in some cases psychiatric support, because the challenges of being a young diabetic are such that people need other support. Schools, by the way, need better training in supporting pupils with diabetes. There have been examples of young people becoming hypoglycaemic and, when they have tried to raise their need to deal with it with the teacher, being told off and humiliated because they happen to have that condition at that time.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I have friends and family members with diabetes, and there are tell-tale signs. At the moment there is a great schools initiative to encourage teachers and students to do CPR and first aid; perhaps spotting the tell-tale signs of a hypo could be included in that package, and promoted in schools. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in supporting that?
Yes. I will not labour the point, but the hon. Gentleman is right. I would add that quite often teachers are left with such responsibilities, although they have enough challenges in their working life, but there is a need for someone in the school to have the expertise and to be trained to deal with young people with type 1 diabetes.
I know that I assured you, Mr Robertson, that I would try to be briefer than I have been, but I am coming to the end of my remarks, and the matter is important. I join the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings in saying that it would be useful to have a meeting with the Minister to discuss the matter in more depth and get his thoughts about how to move forward. There is much that we can do to make people’s lives better. I hope that the debate will inform that process, and that we will be able to move forward on the basis of consensus across the House. The Minister faces challenges, and Members of this House will want to share the burden of them.
I am looking to call the Scottish National party spokesman at 10.28, and we have two more hon. Members wanting to speak, so please bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, because diabetes is so significant in the UK. There are 4.6 million people with diabetes and on current projections we are on track to have more than 5 million people suffering from it by 2025. Ninety per cent. of people with diabetes have type 2, and being overweight or obese accounts for 80% to 85% of a person’s risk of developing the condition, so I shall focus my remarks on what is causing the hugely unwelcome surge in diabetes across the UK and, more importantly, what we need to do about it.
The shocking fact is that a quarter of children go into primary school reception overweight or obese. By the time that they leave, one third are overweight or obese. They are being educated, but overall they are becoming less healthy, which has worrying implications for their future life chances. In the UK at the moment, 30% of all children and 60% of adults are overweight or obese. The worry is that it has become almost normalised. People do not notice it and do not think it is a problem. To me, that is a huge social justice issue. Obesity rates are twice as high in the most deprived communities as in the least deprived. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made that point eloquently in his opening remarks.
I was particularly impressed by the remarks of our wonderful chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, just before Christmas. She hit hard at a number of targets and came out with some important truths. She had the food industry in her sights—she said that it benefits from selling unhealthy food, that it does not pay for the harm it does, and that it clearly has not done enough. She raised the fact there is added sugar in baby milk and baby foods, for goodness’ sake. What is the justification for that, other than to put babies and very young children towards a life of sugar addiction? It is scandalous and we should call it out. Frankly, the Government should ban it as soon as they are able, and if we have to leave the European Union to do so it should be an early priority at the beginning of April.
I did not come into public life just to ban things. The corollary, of course, is that we need to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and to be all about promoting wonderful, healthy, delicious, nutritious—often British—food. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings made that point well, too. Dame Sally Davies discussed whether there might be a need for price subsidies for fruit and vegetables. Let us make fruit and vegetables—good food that will not cause obesity and diabetes—more accessible, available and affordable to our constituents. That could be done through the taxation system. Dame Sally also called for sugary milk drinks to come within the soft drinks industry levy, which is entirely sensible.
It is worth looking at some of the foods currently on supermarket shelves. Taking children’s breakfast cereals, for example, 37 grams out of 100 grams of Kellogg’s Frosties are sugar. The figure for Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut cornflakes is 35.3 grams per 100 grams. For Kellogg’s Coco Pops it has come down a little bit, but there are still 30.9 grams of sugar per 100 grams. Those are pretty appalling figures, when we think how much sugar that is.
In 2017, some own brands were not much better. Lidl Golden Balls had 36 grams of sugar per 100 grams. Aldi Sugar Frosted Flakes had 35 grams per 100 grams. Tesco Frosted Flakes had 34.9 grams. Those are Public Health England figures and some relate to August 2017, while some, such as the Kellogg’s ones, are current. We need to call that out. Not enough progress is being made, and unless healthier food is available for our constituents we shall not turn the supertanker around. We know from Public Health England that chocolate confectionery and biscuits between them account for more than 300,000 tonnes of sugar going into our diet every year. That is more than from all the other food categories put together.
My first plea is that we should do more with food manufacturers. They need to get with the programme and to know that many of us in the House have them in our sights. I am a Conservative and believe in the free market. I do not want the state to produce our food. However, there is a serious challenge, because we all pay for the NHS through our taxes and the food industry is causing a large part of the problem. Dr Chris Marshall, one of my best local GPs, had to defend the diabetes prevalence in his area and what was happening about it, but it is not fair to blame GPs when so much is stacked against them because of the food industry, among other things. The food industry needs to raise its game. It has been getting away with too much for too long and the Government need to play hard ball with it.
Active travel is another area I want to consider. I came to the House of Commons on a bicycle this morning, because I could. For our children, when we design new housing estates, let us make sure they can bicycle or walk to school. Let us get more cycling and walking in cities. It is a design and planning issue. Officials and a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care are here for the debate. We need a cross-Government strategy to build in active and healthy travel for children and adults to help the situation.
Calorie information is also relevant. Public Health England tells us that women should eat up to 2,000 calories a day and that men should eat up to 2,500. I wonder whether anyone here knows how many calories they had for breakfast, or how many they will have for lunch or supper. What is the point of giving us that daily total if none of us has a clue how much we eat? Here is a suggestion. For people who are waiting 10 minutes to see the doctor, why not have on the surgery wall examples of the different meals that the British public mainly eat, with a rough idea of how many calories there are in them? Would not that be a start to education? It would be free, easy, and a good use of the surgery wall in a public space where we all sit and wait. Why do not we try to get some of that public information out there so that we can do something and know what we are doing?
We have talked about schools. I do not blame teachers, who have more than enough to do trying to teach children, but they have a public education role. Given that we have gone from one quarter of children to one third being overweight or obese, there should be much more emphasis on providing proper education to children on food when they are taught to cook.
We must also look to Parliament. There has rightly been a move, which I am sure you approve of, Mr Robertson, to make this a more plastic-free Parliament. I approve of that and it is right, but the information in our catering outlets about their offerings is not as good. Let us set an example on our own doorstep.
I too congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on this excellent debate. The contributions have shown that we could have spoken at much greater length, given the breadth of issues faced.
I will talk from a personal perspective. Two years ago I received a phone call from my doctor’s receptionist, who said that the doctor would see me at 4 o’clock. Not catching on, I thought that was somewhat strange as I had not requested an appointment. I explained that I was in the House of Commons and very busy. She said, “Well, how about 9 o’clock tomorrow morning?” I agreed to go along on Friday, thinking that perhaps there was some issue that was going to be raised as a Member of Parliament.
I had forgotten entirely that I had had a regular blood test following quite a serious illness. A few years ago, I was in hospital for the best part of a year, in and out, and at one point none of my internal organs, including my pancreas, was working. I was obviously on quite a lot of painkillers. One of the many things they had evidently said was that I could be diagnosed as diabetic in the future but, to be honest, during that period of my life I was pretty much out of it on painkillers, so I did not listen particularly.
I was completely aghast when I turned up at the doctor’s and he said, “You’re diabetic, and at the end of this meeting I will probably have to inject you with some insulin and you may be on insulin for the rest of your life, but there are other options.” In the end, he decided that he would try to manage it through other drugs initially and I never went on to an injection regime, but it was quite scary.
It was also, I thought, quite embarrassing. I felt rather guilty and perhaps stupid for having been obese. Ironically, because of my illness, I was quite thin having come out of hospital. I had lost about five stone in total, so I was not a typical case, but I had eaten too much and not exercised enough. I am now getting back on track and staying on track, but when, as Members of Parliament, something happens to us, we have an insight into what our constituents are suffering from and their experiences.
There was a call in the debate for the best possible solutions. I would argue that we need a lot more diversity and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Diabetes is complex. A distinction has rightly been made between type 1, type 2 and juvenile diabetes, and while I have not spent the time on it that others have, there is a medical case for making further divisions in diabetes, particularly within type 2, for reasons that I suspect we do not fully understand.
On prevention, if I could have talked to my younger self and continued to exercise through my late 20s and 30s as I had as a child, I would perhaps not have the problems I have now. My diabetes is very much under control, and I praise the work of diabetes nurses around the UK, who have a little more time than the doctors and can coach people and point them in the right direction. For example, they mentioned a book to me, “Carbs & Cals”, which has pictures of typical meals and typical sizes and goes through the grams of carbs and the calorie intake—exactly like the type of poster that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) wanted to see in doctors’ surgeries.
We should have diversity because some things have worked for me and some things have not. The shock of being diagnosed as diabetic made me change my ways. For months I would not touch chocolate and I would have no carbohydrates whatsoever. I went on a course about diet for diabetics that took a slightly different approach, which I went on to adopt, counting carbs and managing things precisely. Personally, that did not work for me and abstinence from sugar or carbohydrates worked better, but maybe for others it is different.
Exercise, for me, has worked well. I am hoping to run the London marathon, but whenever I do something such as that I question it. If I speak to anyone who has run a marathon, they talk about the big meal beforehand and say, “Make sure you have plenty of carbs the night before—lots of pasta and so forth that will release slowly.” One of the benefits I find in doing that is that I understand a little more about how carbohydrates are broken down, not just theoretically, but personally, and how my body reacts to carbohydrates and sugar.
When I left the doctor’s surgery I had the prick test for glucose. I ended up having three different machines, one of which eventually linked up to my iPhone. I do not now need to do a prick test on a regular basis, but I find it useful as a way of understanding my short-term glucose as well as the six-monthly blood test that I do. Personally, as a type 2 diabetic, while I do not need to monitor my glucose on an hour-by-hour basis, I would find it useful to have something on me for a week so that I could see the effect of having a tiny bit of cereal this morning, or the difference in my glucose if I have had two glasses of wine the night before. What is the difference between running five miles and 10 miles? How many carbohydrates should I have to compensate? We need a lot more diversity in provision over time.
Having outed myself as a diabetic—as I said, one should not feel shame about it, but I did for quite a while—and spoken about it in the House of Commons, I hope that I, like a number of hon. Members, can be an advocate for diabetics across the country, understand not only my condition but those of others, and help to improve the situation over time. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for raising this incredibly important issue in the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for securing the debate, for his very knowledgeable introduction and for the consensual nature of the debate that has taken place.
We have had a number of contributions; I will just touch briefly on the main speakers. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) reminded us of the importance of recognising the two different types of diabetes, which cannot be emphasised enough. I was also interested in his comments on the artificial pancreas. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised the risk of diabetes being normalised and the impact of obesity, and the food industry’s contribution to exacerbating the problem. The figures he quoted on sugar intakes were genuinely frightening and should be a lesson to us all. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) gave his personal experience of his diabetes being under control. The very interesting thought of what we would say to our younger selves is one that we need to take out to our constituents in order to make an impact on the problem.
Health, of course, is a devolved matter. Consequently, it seldom features in my casework as a Member of this Parliament. That said, many of my friends have diabetes, either type 1 or type 2. It is the fastest growing health threat of our time and a critical public health matter. Diabetes is increasing rapidly, and one in 20 people in Scotland are now diagnosed with the condition—I stress diagnosed, because there will be many others who are undiagnosed. The latest figures published by Diabetes UK show that more than 3.5 million people in the UK were living with a diagnosis of diabetes in 2016-17, with just less than 290,000 of them in Scotland. Diabetes UK also reported that if nothing changes, more than 5 million people in the UK will have it by 2025. That is a figure that a number of people have used, and it is worth repeating to emphasise the impact of this health crisis.
In the Forth Valley area, which covers part of my constituency, more than 14,500 people are currently living with diabetes and there are more than 9,000 people with diabetes in West Lothian, which covers the other part. That helps to put the issue into perspective across a number of constituencies.
It is estimated that more than one in 16 people across the UK has diabetes, either diagnosed or undiagnosed, and it is worth remembering that around 80% of diabetes complications are preventable. I believe that in Scotland around 10% of NHS spending goes on diabetes—I think the English figure is fairly similar. If 80% of that is preventable, then think how much we could save by tackling this problem, in addition to the benefit to people’s lifestyles that could be achieved. Many of those complications are preventable or can at least be significantly delayed through early detection, good care and access to appropriate self-management tools and resources, of which access to diabetes technologies is a fundamental part.
When I last spoke about diabetes, a couple of year ago, we talked about technologies. I confess that at that time I had not really witnessed much of them first hand, so I was pleased over the festive break when I saw one of my friends, Paul Kingsley, who has lived with diabetes for some time. He has a Libre patch sensor and an insulin pump. He showed me how that worked, which was interesting to see. It has made a real change to his life. I can remember when he had to do the prick tests and take his needles with him everywhere he went. Technology is making a big difference to people’s lives.
With the challenge of the increasing numbers of people with diabetes, access to the technology to help those living with the disease becomes ever more important. There are 19,000 new cases of diabetes diagnosed every year in Scotland and numbers are set to increase year on year, particularly with rising levels of obesity. Early results from ongoing research, led by Mike Lean at the University of Glasgow and Roy Taylor at Newcastle University, showed that it is possible for some people to put their type 2 diabetes into remission using a low-calorie, diet-based, weight management programme, delivered by their GP. I believe that, as a result of those promising results, NHS England has committed to piloting a remission programme for 5,000 people with type 2 diabetes in 2019, and the Scottish Government, through their “A Healthier Future” plan, pledged £42 million to the prevention, early detection and early intervention of type 2 diabetes. There is a lot we can learn from each other from these processes and as the results of these tests come out.
NHS boards in Scotland will be able use that funding to deliver programmes to prevent type 2 diabetes and to put it into remission. One such programme that receives funding from NHS Forth Valley is the Braveheart Association, a Scottish charitable incorporated organisation based at Falkirk Community Hospital. The Braveheart programmes have been designed to provide resources to support and improve the health and wellbeing of Falkirk communities. They create community-led activities and outreach health services to improve the health of local people. One of the initiatives is Braveheart Plus peer support groups, which focus on those living with type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. One beneficiary of Braveheart’s walking project is a lad called Ali, a sufferer of heart disease and diabetes, who was initially reluctant to take part. Through participation, he now leads his own bi-weekly group, enjoys meeting new people and is able to manage his health conditions much better.
There is little doubt that eating a poor diet and being overweight or obese causes serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and it is clear that we must take decisive action. The SNP has an ambition to halve childhood obesity in Scotland by 2030, which is one reason why the Scottish Government are consulting with the public, and food and retail industries on restricting in-store marketing and promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt, with little or no nutritional benefit. That is very important; I think we have all been tempted.
On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good to hear from the Minister in his reply about when we will get the consultation on the 9 pm watershed and on promotions? Both are promised, but we do not yet have a date for them.
I fully agree; that would be very useful to have.
I think we have all been guilty of impulse purchases when out shopping. It is always worse if we shop when hungry and there is a temptation to get fast food and a quick fix. We are all more than capable of cooking good quality meals, but convenience and lifestyle often get in the way of that. There is a lot we could do if there was a better marketing regime. The consultation in Scotland is part of the diet and healthy weight delivery plan, which will inform an assessment of impact and possible legislation.
No debate these days can be complete without some reference to Brexit, and why should this one be any exception?
We were so close.
Yes, but it had to come in, given the requirement to stockpile insulin. Diabetes charities have warned that lives could be put at risk without reliable supplies of insulin, as the UK imports the vast majority of its stocks of the medicines. In response, stockpiles have been increased, which is good. Dan Howarth, the head of care at Diabetes UK, said in September:
“Insulin and other diabetes medication aren’t optional extras for the millions of people in the UK who rely on them. It’s incredibly important that the companies involved in their production and distribution, and those involved in guaranteeing their entry into the UK, work together so that supply continues uninterrupted.”
I would be grateful for reassurances from the Minister that that will indeed happen and about how long our supplies will last should we face the worst-case scenario.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Robertson.
I thank the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for securing this important debate, especially after the excesses of Christmas—in which I am sure we all indulged, which is relevant to the topic we are discussing—and for his characteristically informative, entertaining and articulate opening speech. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part: my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is co-chair of all-party parliamentary group on obesity and does excellent work in this area and the hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). They made excellent contributions.
As we have heard—I will repeat these facts because they are worth saying again—there are currently 4.6 million people living with diabetes. Over the last 20 years, the number of people diagnosed has more than doubled. Every day, around 700 people—one person every two minutes—are diagnosed with diabetes, which is really quite shocking. Diabetes UK estimates that if nothing changes, more than 5 million people will have diabetes in the UK by 2025. That is why this debate is so important, and I am pleased to be here to discuss treatment, remission and prevention.
I start with treatment and care. Once a patient has been diagnosed, it is crucial that they get the right treatment and care for them. Technology can play a role in that, particularly for people with type 1 diabetes. New technologies mean that patients can be treated and monitored, which can help to reduce diabetes-related complications in the long term. However, access to those technologies is subject to a postcode lottery, as are many other things. I have heard of huge variation of availability and use across the country. I was pleased to see the Government commit to making life-changing flash glucose monitors available for patients with type 1 diabetes by April 2019. Will the Minster please also ensure that basic technologies, such as test strips and meters, are available to all patients who clinically need them across the country? We cannot just say that everyone with type 2 diabetes would clinically need them—although I have bought myself one and they are good for monitoring—but if people need them clinically, they should be available, not subject to a postcode lottery.
Such technology can be redundant if patients do not know how to use it, or do not know enough about their condition and how to manage it. That is why educational courses, such as the one that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East said he attended after his diagnosis, should be widely available, to give patients the knowledge, skills, support and independence to look after their own health. I was pleased to see that get a mention in the long-term plan earlier this week. Can the Minister please elaborate on when he expects the
“structured education and digital self-management tools”
to be expanded?
It is crucial that patients know about their diabetes and the health risks associated with it. According to Diabetes UK, there are over 160 lower-limb amputations every week in England that are a direct result of diabetes. As someone with type 2 diabetes, I find that really scary. Four out of five of those cases could have been prevented. Local foot care teams help to prevent thousands of amputations each year, but diabetes-related amputation is now at an all-time high. Does the Minister have any strategy to reverse that trend?
Finally on treatment and care, one in six people currently occupying a hospital bed has diabetes; at some sites it is as many as one in four. The majority of patients with diabetes are admitted for treatment of a different condition, but while in hospital their diabetes should not be in ignored. When diabetes is not adequately cared for in hospitals, harm can result from the in-patient stay. Acute or long-term conditions can develop further, adding further costs to the NHS and complications for the patients.
The long-term plan includes a welcome commitment to introducing diabetes in-patient specialist nursing teams to improve recovery and to reduce lengths of stay and readmission rates. Will the Minister indicate when he expects that to begin? Will he also assure us that those teams will be available in all hospitals across the country?
On remission, as we have heard, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) has been very vocal about his own transformation—it has been huge—and the remission of his diabetes owing to exercise and changes in his diet. He has done a fantastic job, as we have all acknowledged, and I wish him all the best. Diet changes, when I stick to them, have also helped me in my management of my diabetes. When I have totally cut out sugar and reduced all carbs, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East said helped him, it has made a massive difference. While there is currently no evidence that diabetes can be completely cured, even by changes to diet and lifestyle—I am told that once someone is diabetic they always will be—people can take steps to control, reduce or even reverse symptoms of diabetes, and to put their diabetes into remission.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, research and trials by Professor Roy Taylor of Newcastle University—I am very proud that a north-east university is leading the way on this—has found that a low-calorie diet of 800 calories a day, which is low but manageable, can actually reverse diabetes, which was recently listed by MadeAtUni as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs in health. It is certainly an area that needs to be explored further. However, not everyone can make those changes on their own, and patients must have access to medical support and dietary advice if they wish to try. The NHS has confirmed that it will pilot diabetes remission services in England and Scotland. Some places are already rolling out the service informally. For example, I know that some GPs in Tyneside are piloting this model. Will the Minister please tell us when expects those pilots to begin?
On prevention, 12.3 million people are now at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Of course, not all of those will go on to develop diabetes, but such a high number of people at risk is deeply concerning. Type 2 diabetes has several risk factors, but as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire highlighted, being overweight or obese accounts for as much as 80% to 85% of someone’s overall risk of developing the condition.
Almost two in every three people in the UK is either overweight or obese. I am obviously one of the two at the moment. I strive and hope to be like the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East, who said he is now the one of out of those three. I congratulate him on that. I am back on a diet and cutting out sugar and carbs again and trying my best. However, if it was easy, nobody would be overweight. It is hard, and Christmas is not the best time to try to diet. This is why the nudge theories introduced by Public Health England are very welcome, along with proper traffic light food labelling and the “Eatwell plate”, for example.
However, we have to acknowledge that our society has become increasingly obesogenic and sedentary, and we have to address that as soon as possible, starting with the next generation in particular. In that regard, the Government launched the second childhood obesity plan last year, which will hopefully help to tackle this problem if they implement all the policies within it and do not only consult on them. Clear calorie labelling and introducing a 9 pm watershed for adverts for food and drink that are high in fat, salt and sugar are two steps that the Opposition would introduce if in Government, to help to reduce the high level of obesity in this country.
However, it is not all about diet, as Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is always telling me, but about exercise, too. Inactive children become inactive adults, which increases their risk of long-term conditions. According to ukactive, only 50% of seven-year-olds meet recommended physical activity guidelines. We therefore need to make sure that children have the space and resources to participate in sports, activities and play, which will benefit them in a whole host of ways, not just their health.
Nor should we forget the over-55s—or anybody, actually. According to ukactive, a total of £80.5 million could be achieved in NHS and healthcare savings on diabetes if one third of inactive over-55s were supported to be active over the next 10 years. The Secretary of State says that prevention is better than cure, and I think that that figure alone shows that it is.
The long-term plan committed
“to fund a doubling of the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme over the next five years, including a new digital option to widen patient choice and target inequality.”
That must target people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, who are six times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. We must ensure that any prevention programme reaches those communities as a matter of urgency.
To conclude, people with diabetes are sadly at greater risk of serious but largely preventable complications. For example, they are twice as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke. For those of us here who suffer from diabetes, that is a sobering fact. We must ensure that their diabetes is properly managed and cared for, so as to avoid those serious complications. What the Government do next as part of the long-term plan will be beneficial to those with diabetes, and I know that patients, campaigners and all of us here will keep a close eye on developments.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank all Members for their contributions and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for securing the debate. He introduced it with his usual flourish, and I know that people watching will have been interested in what he said and the issues that he raised.
We have to keep these issues high on the agenda. They affect a lot of people and we talk about them a lot in Parliament; I cannot think of a Health oral questions that I have been involved in as a Minister when diabetes has not come up. There is a reason for that: because it affects so many of us and our constituents. We must keep raising it.
This is a timely debate. We published the long-term plan for the NHS on Monday. Diabetes features prominently in the plan, which is no accident. We would expect it to, and if it did not, we would have a debate on why not. However, more than that, the plan has a strong focus on prevention and on building a health service for the needs of the 21st century that supports people to manage their own health—not only for diabetes but across the piece—and wellbeing.
We really support that agenda in this Department and with this Secretary of State. That matters for patients—our constituents—with diabetes and others. Chris Askew is a very good man and chief executive of Diabetes UK, and his welcome for the long-term plan and the diabetes sections within it greatly attests to that.
We have heard some excellent contributions. I very much enjoyed listening to the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and his suggestion about brine labelling to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who gave us insights about his two-year-old daughter, and to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who talked about the food industry and child obesity. We also heard speeches from the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who talked about an artificial pancreas, which was very interesting, and from the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman). I should be able to cover all those items. If I do not cover everyone’s points, I will of course write to them, as is my usual practice.
I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). It was a very powerful and insightful speech, as it always is from him, and it was delivered from the heart. He made the very good point that we are all different. That is one of the challenges not just for diabetes care, but for healthcare generally. Healthcare is not an exact science. I say that not as a doctor, but as someone who spends a lot of time with doctors.
My hon. Friend also made a point about the complexity of diabetes. In reality, it is a spectrum. We have heard a lot of talk this morning about type 1 diabetes—from the right hon. Member for Knowsley, for instance—and about type 2 diabetes from many others. But increasingly we hear about—it is not a new term—type 1.5 diabetes, otherwise known as LADA, or latent autoimmune diabetes in adults. As I understand it, that is not a clinical definition, but is generally used to describe a slow-onset form of type 1 diabetes that is often mistaken for type 2 diabetes. There are many support services for that condition, and people are increasingly talking to their doctors about it. There is lots of clinical debate around it, but the topic has been around since the 1970s. That goes to the heart of my hon. Friend’s point. Diabetes is a complex condition. There is a spectrum for diabetes, as there is for many other conditions.
I, too, pay tribute to the NHS staff, to the diabetes nurses and the doctors, but also to the support groups. My constituency has the Winchester and Eastleigh diabetes support group, which I spoke to recently. We will all have those groups in our constituencies. As MPs, we are very used to having in front of us people who are far more expert on the subject that they have come to talk to us about than we are—every single one of my constituency surgeries is an example of that—but never is it more true than when we talk to people with diabetes, who have a great and expert knowledge of their condition and the management of it. If they do not, we need to help them to have better, expert knowledge of their condition, because that is as much in our interest as it is in theirs.
There are a couple of points to touch on. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, in introducing the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire touched on the food and drink industry and healthier eating. It is important that we build on the world-leading action set out in both chapters of our childhood obesity plan. We have already seen real success. More than half of all drinks in the scope of the soft drinks industry levy are being reformulated. That is equivalent to removing some 45 million kg of sugar every year, as a result of the so-called sugar tax. And some products in the sugar reduction programme are exceeding their first-year targets. For example, a 6% reduction is being achieved for yoghurts.
We will consider further use of the tax system to promote healthy food—the challenge that my hon. Friend put to me. He mentioned sugary milky drinks. The Treasury was very clear, when former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne launched the sugar tax, that in 2020—next year—we would review the sugar levy and whether to extend it to milky drinks. As the Minister, I for one will certainly be welcoming that.
As part of chapter 2, we have already held consultations on ending the sale of energy drinks to children and on calorie labelling in restaurants. We are reviewing the feedback and will formally respond in due course. We will very shortly be launching consultations on restricting promotions of fatty and sugary products by location and price, and we will be consulting on further restrictions, including a 9 pm watershed, at the earliest opportunity, with the aim of limiting children’s exposure to sugary and fatty food advertising and driving further reformulation. What I will say, in answer to the challenge that I have been given on those products, is that not everyone agrees that we should do this. Let us be honest: there are people in our party who do not. I challenge them to look at the challenge that we have in our country with obesity and what it is costing our country and our health service. If we believe in a publicly funded health service, we believe in a public health system that challenges these kinds of conditions, so I say to my hon. Friends: keep raising the issue in the House. Next Tuesday they will have an opportunity to do so.
Alongside that, we are committed to exploring what can be done on food labelling when we leave the European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), who is no longer in his place, raised traffic light labelling. We cannot do that as a member state, but we will soon be free. Some companies have decided to take it on themselves. Kellogg’s, the cereal manufacturer, which has been mentioned this morning, announced just before Christmas that it intends to do that. I welcome that and give credit to Kellogg’s for doing it.
Wherever possible, the aim is of course to prevent type 2 diabetes from developing in the first place, which is emphasised in the NHS long-term plan. I am very pleased that NHS England and Public Health England, for which I have responsibility, and Diabetes UK, working hand in glove, have had great success in working on what is the first diabetes prevention programme to be delivered at scale nationwide anywhere in the world.
Will the Minister give way?
Very briefly—be quick.
I, too, am very pleased that Kellogg’s has brought in traffic light labelling, but does the Minister agree with me that, with Kellogg’s Frosties at 37 grams of sugar per 100 grams, there is much more to do as far as Kellogg’s is concerned?
Not only do I agree with my hon. Friend, but the company would agree with him. It is very aware of how much pressure that I and the Government are putting on it to change its products. I would say that it is top of my Christmas card list. Many other manufacturers have not yet made it on to my list, and I ask them to step up and raise their game to the level of the best. I am sure that they can.
In 2018-19, the diabetes prevention programme achieved full national roll-out, making England the first country in the world to achieve full geographical coverage. That is a great achievement, and the figures are good. As set out in the long-term plan, NHS England intends to double the capacity of the programme up to 200,000 people per annum by 2023-24. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, it is a modest number in context, but it is also a big number. This is still the largest diabetes prevention programme of its kind. He asked whether we keep these things under constant review and whether we have the ambition to go further. You bet we do, and I think we need to.
There has been much talk this morning about technology. We are also developing an online, self-management support tool called HeLP, comprising a structured education course that has content focused on maintaining a healthy lifestyle for people with type 2 diabetes. That includes content on weight management and alcohol reduction—that can of course help with many health challenges—and cognitive behavioural therapy related to diabetes-related distress. NHSE hopes, once the tool has been developed, to roll it out in the summer of this year.
In my opening remarks, I called for a new system for appraising technology and ensuring that it is allocated according to need and consistently across the country. On education, it does seem to me that there is a littered landscape. We have Public Health England, the NHS and local authorities. That littered landscape could easily lead to complication, confusion and even, possibly, contradiction, so will the Minister look at that, too?
Of course I will look at it. I talk to Public Health England regularly about all these matters, and I take my right hon. Friend’s challenge on board. In the time that we have, I cannot respond in any more detail, but I totally take his challenge on board.
There are public health campaigns such as One You, the behavioural change campaign aimed at people in the 40-to-60 age bracket—sadly, that now includes me—and designed to motivate people to take steps to improve their health through action on the main risk factors, such as smoking, inactivity, obesity and alcohol, which will help to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
I would like to say so much more, but as ever in the House of Commons there is no time to do so. What I will say is this. We have great ambition in the long-term plan. The long-term plan is a living document, a document that we will build on—we have ambitions to go even further—but I hope that the Government and I, as the Public Health Minister, have shown our commitment to improving outcomes for people with diabetes and living with it through treatment, but also to helping to prevent people from developing it in the first place. Our constituents demand that from us, and our health service, if we believe in it as a publicly funded, free at the point of use health service, which we do, needs us to deliver us on that, and we will.
I think that this has been, as the Minister generously said, a useful debate, but I hope that it is also the start of a process, rather than the end of a story. That process should involve, exactly as the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) recommended, a continuing dialogue with Government. I hope that the Minister will agree to the meeting that I suggested with a small delegation of colleagues, so that we can explore further the matters raised briefly today. There are real issues in relation to prevention and education, as I hinted a moment ago, but also with regard to treatment, as the Minister has acknowledged. The long-term plan puts the strategy in place. We now need to ensure that that strategy is delivered in a way that brings relief from need for constituents across this country. That need is illustrated by the commitment of all those who have contributed to this debate. I am immensely grateful for your stewardship of it, Mr Robertson, for all the contributions and for the Minister’s typically robust but sensitive response to the remarks made this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered diabetes.
RMB Chivenor: Planned Closure
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the planned closure of RMB Chivenor.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the other hon. Members who have taken the time to take part during the busy parliamentary schedule. In the 10 minutes or so for which I intend to speak, I will make the point that we should reverse the announcement originally made in November 2016 to close the Royal Marines base at Chivenor in my constituency.
For those who do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of such things, I will say exactly what we are talking about and why it is important. RMB Chivenor has been a part of the military landscape of North Devon and this country since May 1940. Prior to that, it was a civil airfield, but it was taken over by the RAF as the second world war kicked in. It played a vital role in our air defences during the second world war.
The proud military history of RMB Chivenor has continued ever since. It is now a Royal Marines base, home to a number of vital regiments. It seems to me that, in the world in which we live, which I think most people would agree is an uncertain one, now is not the time to consider the closure of such a vital and historic military base.
RMB Chivenor is home principally to 3 Commando Brigade. It is unique in a number of ways. First, it is home to branches of all three of our armed services. The Royal Marines—the principal force there—and the Commando Logistic Regiment use the unique environment, which I will speak about a bit more, in a way in which no other environment could be used. They use it for training, practice and maintenance, and they are able to do so because of the unique facilities that that location brings. It is also home to the 24 Commando Regiment of the Royal Engineers, which carries out an absolutely vital role in the maintenance of the infrastructure and hardware on which our military relies. Completing the link to its historical background, it is home to a significant RAF contingent as well.
The second reason why I believe RMB Chivenor is unique is its location. It is on the side of the estuary and contains sand dunes, wide open spaces and, crucially, access to a waterfront. It is a huge space that simply does not exist elsewhere. There is no other space, in my estimation, that would allow the Royal Engineers and particularly the Royal Marines to carry out their vital work.
As I mentioned, in November 2016, as part of the defence establishment’s review, the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), announced in the House that RMB Chivenor would be closing. The community of North Devon immediately mobilised—as it is so good at doing—effective campaigns to try to reverse the closure decision. I asked a question in the House on that first day as soon as the announcement was made, and have continued to push ever since.
I want to make it clear at an early point in my remarks that this has been a non-political and cross-party campaign. Many local councils, political parties, business organisations, economic groups and residents’ groups right across North Devon have been involved in the campaign to seek to reverse the closure of RMB Chivenor. All the local authorities have played a part: Devon County Council and North Devon Council, which are the principal authorities; and the local councils of Barnstaple Town Council, Braunton Parish Council and Heanton Punchardon Parish Council, which is the small parish in which RMB Chivenor actually sits. All of those councils have campaigned hard to seek to reverse this decision, as have many business groups and local residents. However, it is incumbent on me as the MP, with the unique access that gives me to Ministers and Parliament, to be the voice of the North Devon community, which I have done. I believe the Minister bears the scars of that to this day, as do many of his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence.
The campaign immediately swung into action and the then Secretary of State accepted my invitation to visit RMB Chivenor. I convened a roundtable of many of the organisations that I have just mentioned. The then Secretary of State somewhat took us by surprise when he told us that the closure of RMB Chivenor is “not a done deal”. That has given us hope.
However, time is now slipping away. It is now two years and two months since that original closure decision was made. The North Devon community and I feel that it is time to put an end to this uncertainty. The strength of feeling has not gone away in the long period of time since the original announcement; if anything, it has increased. There are now more people making the argument for reversing the closure of RMB Chivenor and there are a number of arguments as to why it is so important.
I have touched on why in my view, for military reasons, we must preserve the unique environment of RMB Chivenor as a military base. However, I do not seek to advance that argument today—it is an argument for the military, civil servants and Defence Ministers. As North Devon’s representative, I seek to make a very clear argument that the hit to the local economy of North Devon would be very difficult for our local community to accept or stomach.
Quantifying the economic advancement that RMB Chivenor gives North Devon is difficult. Some 1,200 military personnel are based at Chivenor at any one time, but that can fluctuate due to the military needs of the time, logistics and whatever operations might be ongoing. It is absolutely clear, however, that the families based at Chivenor play an enormous role in the local community. They send their children to local schools. They spend their money in local shops. They avail themselves of local service industries and businesses. The spouses of military personnel based at RMB Chivenor work in other jobs in the local community.
The effect on the local economy of North Devon, although difficult to quantify, undoubtedly would be serious. I am afraid to say that the uncertainty that we have had to put up with since November 2016 is only adding to that sense of uncertainty. It is time to put a stop to that. It is time to ensure that we keep RMB Chivenor open to ensure the long-term good of the area’s economy, the military personnel based there and the community in which they play such a major role and, I believe, the long-term military good of the job that RMB Chivenor does.
I gave my hon. Friend notice that I would intervene. I could not reiterate more strongly the points he is making. The same applies as strongly if not more strongly to Norton Manor Camp in Taunton, where 40 Commando is based. Economy-wise, society-wise and location-wise, there is a strong case for that camp remaining. It has been there for more than 23 years and has had significant investment from this and other Governments. It plays a huge part in our local economy. A new welfare centre, which cost up to £1 million, is about to open. We also have a new rehab and gym centre, which is well positioned for the Marines.
We need to look closely at why we would ever consider closing that camp, which also has the sword of Damocles hanging over it—it may close in 2028. Talking of swords, it is being awarded the Firmin sword of peace, which shows how revered those professional teams of people are.
Order. Interventions must be brief.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it needs a rethink?
I could not have said it better myself—and I would not dare to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of the arguments that she advances for her base, as strongly as she always has, apply precisely to RMB Chivenor.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Of course I will give way to a fellow Devon MP.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is a day of talking about the Royal Marines. The uncertainty that he spoke about is important. Does he agree that it is a cancer for morale not only in Taunton and Chivenor, but in Stonehouse Barracks and across the south-west? That is why we need certainty from the Minister about the future long-term basing arrangements for the superb Royal Marines.
As always, the hon. Gentleman speaks passionately for his constituency, which I completely understand and which I seek to do for my constituency as well. The two are intimately linked, because the original plan put forward by the Ministry of Defence would move some of the work done in Chivenor in my constituency, and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), to his in Plymouth. There might be a slightly conflict of interest between us, but we want the same thing: an end to the uncertainty. I suspect what that looks like is slightly different for us, but I want an end to the uncertainty, as does he, and as does my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, because that is causing the damage. We need a final decision, which should be that RMB Chivenor is saved.
The base provides employment not only for the military personnel based there but for people from the local community, so it is a significant boost to the local economy in terms of direct spending, the supply chain and local employment. Local public services such as the school I mentioned where many of the children of service personnel are educated would suffer a significant hit given the formula for per pupil funding.
We must look at the military and international situation. The world is becoming a less certain place. There are challenges to the foundations that have kept the peace, by and large, in the post-war period. Rivals are pushing us further. In such a climate, the Royal Marines are vital. Their flexibility and expertise is invaluable and must be preserved.
It is said that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. RMB Chivenor is home to the Commando Logistic Regiment and 24 Commando Royal Engineers, which are vital in any combat scenario. Again, RMB Chivenor provides them with a unique environment as a training ground. The landing beaches, the dunes and the estuary provide a unique combination of facilities for practising seaborne landings.
I want to give the Minister ample time to respond, so there are three key questions we need to ask. First, given the relatively small amount that the base costs to run, does it make financial sense to close it? Secondly, given the unique environment that it provides for all the work that is undertaken there, does it make logistical sense to close it? Thirdly, given the role it plays in the defence of our country, does it make military sense to close it? I believe the answers are clear.
I have raised the issue in the House on many occasions. Until now, the answer from the Ministry of Defence has been a pretty straight bat. A statement was issued by the MOD to the BBC on 3 January, in which an MOD spokesperson said:
“It remains the intention to continue with the release of sites set out in the Better Defence Estate Strategy announcement in Autumn 2016.”
In other words, the plan is for the closure to go ahead. I thank the Minister and say to him that it is time to put a stop to this. It is time to reverse the closure decision, end the uncertainty and save RMB Chivenor.
It is a pleasure to respond to the debate. As is customary, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) on securing the debate in Westminster Hall and on what he has done to represent his constituents and the armed forces by passionately making a case, lobbying and campaigning to get answers and discover what will happen to an important asset for our defence posture. He will be aware that the base sits in a wider frame of more than 90 sites that are being considered, and that there is a programme—a timetable—for us to release the news, for understandable commercial reasons. I will expand on that later. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work and I thank him for the invitation to visit Chivenor. I was hugely impressed by what I saw there and that has very much influenced the decisions that I hope to expand on later.
My hon. Friend spoke about the role that military bases have, not just as important defence assets but as sizeable communities that provide homes, jobs and a way of life, and whose supply chains link with the local economy. They are a living organism that has a symbiotic relationship with the wider community. The base—the garrison or whichever military establishment it sits in—develops a bond with the local community, as is the case with Chivenor, as he described.
Many of our military establishments have been in a place for so long that they help to define the area and add to its reputation, so it is always with some trepidation that any Defence Minister would try to tamper with or affect the size or longevity of a garrison, fully appreciating the strength of feeling and pride that local communities have for our military. A local bond is developed with service personnel and it is understandable that hon. Members would wish to ensure the long-term future of military bases in their constituencies, but hon. Members will also be aware of the wider need to rationalise our defence real estate.
The MOD owns 3% of the UK. We need to spend our limited defence budget—as much as I would like it to rise—wisely. It is simply not possible to retain in perpetuity that huge defence real estate, which is a legacy of the sea, land and air assets required to fight two world wars. We have been advised to conduct a wide-ranging study into MOD land, with a view to transforming our estate into one that better supports the future needs of our armed forces. With that comes more bespoke investment. We will be investing more than £4 billion in the next 10 years to create smaller, more modern and capability-focused bases and garrisons. I hope that hon. Members understand that it is important for such studies to be led by the armed forces, taking into account the issues and views of stakeholders.
The Minister has done more than most to flag up the need for more investment in defence. Can he assure us that, where contraction takes place for the reasons that he has explained, contingency plans are in place so that, if this country should regrettably ever find itself involved in a major conflict, expansion could equally easily occur?
My right hon. Friend, who is the Chair of the Defence Committee, makes such an important point. That is why Chivenor is interesting, because it has an airstrip, which is built on a flood plain. Do we want to lose that asset? We saw what happened at Heathrow yesterday. If things actually go in the direction that he suggests, it is important that we choose wisely which parts of our real estate that we close down and which parts we might need in the near or long-term future.
Will the Minister give way?
I am conscious of time and I have a lot to get through; I will give way for a very brief intervention.
I will be very brief. One of the reasons why the bases are really important in the south-west, and it is a reason why they should not all be moved to Plymouth, is in attracting personnel to work for the Royal Marines. In Taunton and Chivenor, we draw from the midlands region, and much as we think Plymouth is a great base, is it potentially too far away and may therefore detract?
I will not get into a debate about various aspects of the estate. The south-west does very well from the Royal Marines’ perspective and indeed from the armed forces’ perspective as well. I go back to the point that we have to make these difficult decisions on the basis of what is best for the armed forces, as well as for the wider communities. However, I have heard my hon. Friend’s point, and no doubt we will discuss it further in tonight’s Adjournment debate in the main Chamber.
Before I turn to the base at Chivenor itself, as I did in yesterday’s debate about RM Condor I will first pay tribute to the Royal Marines as a whole, because I would like to acknowledge their critical—indeed, unique—role, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon also acknowledged, in the wider spectrum of the armed forces’ capability.
The Royal Marines were formed in the reign of Charles II in 1664; they will celebrate their 355th birthday this year and they have much to be proud of. They played a vital role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar; earlier, in 1704, they had secured and defended the Rock of Gibraltar. Of course, there was also the infamous raid on Zeebrugge in 1918, in which two Royal Marines earned the Victoria Cross; and they were there at the D-Day landings, when 17,500 Royal Marines took part in the largest amphibious operation in history. More recently, in 1982 they were essential in the recapture of the Falkland Islands.
Today, the Royal Marines are the UK’s specialised commando force, our elite unit that is held at very high readiness and trained for worldwide rapid response. They are able to deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security challenges, and often operate in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, from amphibious operations to littoral strikes to humanitarian operations, as well as being specialists in mountain and cold weather warfare, and jungle insurgency. When diplomacy fails, it is the Royal Marines that provide the UK with a wide spectrum of hard power options with which we can respond. On behalf of a grateful nation, I say to all the Royal Marines who have earned that coveted green beret, “Thank you.”
Looking to the future, the strategic defence and security review 2015 mapped out our commitment to the Royal Marines themselves, and I am pleased to say that, following the recent modernising defence programme, the future of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, which have been the subject of many Westminster Hall debates, has now been confirmed; the Royal Marines’ winter deployment programmes in Norway will continue, as will their training with their US counterparts; and shortly we will see women joining the ranks of the Royal Marines in close-combat ground roles for the very first time.
RMB Chivenor is located—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said—on the beautiful north Devon coastline between the town of Barnstaple and the village of Braunton. It started life as a civilian airfield in the 1930s. It then became RAF Chivenor in 1940 and was used as a coastal command station. After the war, the station was largely used for training, and that training role continued until the 1960s. In 1974, the RAF formed 2 Tactical Weapons Unit, flying BAE Hawks from Chivenor until 1994, when the airfield was handed over to the Royal Marines, although the RAF presence continued for a number of years, as RMB Chivenor was also the base for search and rescue flights.
As my hon. Friend also highlighted, today RMB Chivenor is home to over 1,200 personnel from all three services, who make up the Commando Logistic Regiment Royal Marines. It is also home to 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers. Those based at Chivenor provide the second-line combat support to the force, which is a critical role. They provide invaluable support—the constant re-supply chain that is needed for any final phase of an operation. For the initial 30 days of any operation, they are able to provide essential supplies for the frontline commando units by the transfer of stores from ship to shore, making the force totally self-sufficient. That is what is so unique about 3 Commando Brigade. It is widely acknowledged that a force’s combat capability and ability to achieve its commander’s objectives is defined by its ability to support itself logistically on operations. That is exactly what the base achieves.
At RMB Chivenor, we have been studying how best to ensure that the base is able to continue to have access to the facilities that the personnel there require to live, work and train. However, we have also been investigating the opportunities to make best use of the Royal Marines bases and Royal Navy bases across the south-west, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned earlier, to ensure that we make the most of our facilities to create the best possible future for base laydown for the Royal Marines across the country. Our intent remains to rationalise the number of Royal Marines barracks that we have in the south-west, but we recognise that the Ministry of Defence does not exist in isolation. As we continue with our plans, we will engage with relevant stakeholders at every level to ensure that sites are considered for use in a way that benefits defence and the surrounding local communities.
With regard to RMB Chivenor, we recognise the benefits of retaining a Royal Marines presence there. I make it very, very clear that RMB Chivenor will continue to have a role to play. However, I invite my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to listen to the next oral statement on the MOD’s defence estate plans, which is coming round the corner very soon.
I know that my hon. Friend wants answers, as do the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and, no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, the Chair of the Defence Committee. However, I ask him to appreciate the process that we must go through in the MOD as part of the wider rationalisation of over 90 sites, to ensure that we are able to move assets around the country, and so that we know which assets are best to continue and which are best to close, which are best to endorse and which are best to amalgamate. These are very tough decisions indeed. Although my hon. Friend has said that in more than two years no answer has been given, we need to get this process right and we must ensure that the right decisions are made. I hope that he can read between the lines of what I am saying, but I can no provide further details today. I simply say now that more details will be coming in the next few weeks.
I will end by underlining a point that has been made a couple of times in this short debate. Our world is getting more dangerous and more complex, and ever fewer nations have the ability and desire to help to shape the world on the international stage. When it comes to hard power, it is the people in our armed forces who allow our Government to step forward and stand up to those who wish us harm. Critical to that is the role of the Royal Marines, and critical to the work of the Royal Marines is their logistical capability. I hope that my hon. Friend is as satisfied as he can be at this stage by the response that I have given him today. Again, I invite him to listen to the next oral statement on the defence real estate, when I will be able to expand in more detail on the formal future of RMB Chivenor, an important asset to Britain.
Question put and agreed to.
Bailiffs: Regulatory Reform
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bailiff regulatory reform.
As ever, Mr Evans, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I wish all hon. Members a happy new year. As we embark on a year that will be dominated by Brexit—as we saw in the Chamber just a minute ago—it is good to focus on another concern of our constituents. I called for this debate on reforming the regulation of bailiffs because a shocking case of aggressive behaviour by bailiffs in my own constituency was presented to me at an advice surgery, and I have heard countless other examples from hon. Members and from the charities involved. I thank my local paper, which published an article on the topic over the Christmas period, and members of the public who got in touch with me.
My main message to the Minister is that we simply cannot let bailiffs become a law unto themselves. The Government need to take urgent action against bailiffs who break the rules, behave aggressively and act with apparent impunity. According to the evidence presented by Citizens Advice, StepChange and other organisations, this is not just a few bad apples, but a widespread problem. Although I welcome the call for evidence that the Government announced last year, I stress to the Minister that we are not discussing a minority of bailiffs, and I urge her and her Department to recognise that. After all, we have to face up to the scale of the challenge if we are to find the right solutions.
Some 2.2 million people in England and Wales have been contacted by a bailiff in the past two years. The regulations that the Government introduced in 2014 are welcome, but there are huge problems with the lack of enforcement. Since the introduction of those reforms, Citizens Advice has recorded a 24% increase in problems with bailiffs. One in three people who have experience of bailiffs have seen them breaking the rules, and 40% have suffered intimidation. Unfortunately, the fee structure has created a perverse incentive for bailiffs to make visits and reject repayment offers, which we have seen time and time again, as they can charge fees of £235 for every debt they collect in person.
I first became aware of the severity of this problem last year, when a disabled constituent came to see me at an advice surgery. Let us imagine for a moment being in her shoes: you and your partner are just getting up. You hear a knock at the door. Your partner goes to answer it. You hear loud voices, then feet on the stairs. A total stranger strides into your bedroom. You are absolutely terrified. The first thing he does is pick up your purse and take out all the cash. You think you are being burgled, but you are not: you are being visited by bailiffs. My constituent’s experience, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. Another man told me that bailiffs used humiliation in front of his neighbours in order to gain entry into his home. He said:
“They tried to push their way into my house saying they have a right to. When I asked to see the court papers the bailiff said—you have already had them and he would only discuss the case in the house. He then started shouting so that other people”
including his neighbours
“could hear him—this was obviously to embarrass us”
and to intimidate the man.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate on an issue that is faced by people across the country. Regarding the point she has just raised, does she agree that the current regulations give perfectly innocent people no opportunity whatsoever to prevent a visit by bailiffs or verify the authenticity of visiting bailiffs when they are not the debtor concerned? One of my constituents faced that situation—a traumatic ordeal along the lines that the hon. Lady has outlined.
From all the cases that I have heard about, those experiences are traumatic and have a lasting effect on the people involved. In many cases, they are not necessarily the debtor—they are not the person who owes the money—but they are still treated in an appalling manner. That is not to say that the debtor should be treated appallingly either, but bailiffs do not seem to have regard to the rules, which is that they can seize possessions that belong only to the debtor.
That brings me to another example—a person from the constituency of the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), whose son was in debt and who bravely spoke out on the radio today about his experience. He said:
“We invited these men into our home so that we could understand what was going on and in the belief that we could then work with them to resolve the problem. All they did once inside our home was to threaten us with public humiliation. At no time did they advise us of any of our rights. We were told that although we were in our own home that the only way we could prevent them seizing our property”,
including this gentleman’s car,
“was if we could produce receipts.”
I do not know about other Members, but I would not have a receipt for my car at hand if someone were to knock on my door. I know that the hon. Member for Harborough will speak in more detail about his constituent, whom I thank for coming forward.
In another case, a woman told me:
“I went to close the door and the bailiff put his foot in to my hall to prevent me from shutting the door. I got through to the police, explained the situation, was told he had no right to demand to come into my house. The bailiff had gone by then and did not return but I felt very intimidated and for a while found myself checking through the window before opening the front door.”
How awful that a person should not feel safe in their own home.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I wanted to raise the case of a constituent of mine, in which a bailiff put his foot in the door because he wished to enter the property, but the property he wished to enter did not belong to my constituent—the bailiff wanted to see a tenant of my constituent. Even so, not only did that cause a lot of problems when the police were eventually called, but of course the body camera worn by the bailiff was not working at the time, so no one corroborated whether my constituent was indeed assaulted.
How very convenient for the bailiff involved! We had a similar case in my constituency. At one point, we were told that there was a body cam, but when we pressed to see the footage, we were then told that there was not a body cam. The hon. Gentleman raised that in the form of a written question to the Minister and we should consider it. It will not solve all of our problems, but it would go some way towards helping to look at these disputes.
One man told me that, although he had moved out of his mother’s house and the debt was his and not hers, the bailiffs told her that if she did not pay, her son would go to prison. They marched her to the post office, where she was pressed to withdraw £550 to cover the debt. His mum was 73 at the time. There are countless examples of bad practice from all over the country.
Like other Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is she aware that there is a private bailiff trade body called the Civil Enforcement Association? Its code of conduct says that its members should be
“professional, ethical…polite, honest and non-threatening”,
yet all the examples that my hon. Friend has given are of behaviours that are the exact opposite. In 2016, the Civil Enforcement Association received 255 complaints about its members and yet expelled none of them. Is that not a perfect example of why we need better enforcement and regulation of the bailiff industry?
I could not agree more. I have had contact with that trade association. It is simply not realistic to expect a trade association, which is there to represent its members, to take action against those members. In fact, the lead of that organisation was on “World at One” on Radio 4 today claiming that there was a robust complaints procedure. I beg to differ and will address that point towards the end of my speech.
The worst case of this kind that I have heard—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) has raised it with the Minister and will speak about it today—is the devastating case of Jerome Rogers, who took his own life. He had offered to pay back the debt in stages, but the bailiffs refused. I pay tribute to the brave campaigning of his family, who are here today. We owe it to them to do all we can to change the culture of the bailiff industry so that they are there to help, not penalise people. There is a positive example from Hammersmith and Fulham Council in London, which has stopped using bailiffs to enforce the collection of council tax arrears because it thinks it is better to try to work with the people involved and help them pay back that debt rather than forcing them into a spiral of ever more debt.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which as she correctly said stopped using bailiffs to enforce council tax debts from April last year. Collection rates have not gone down since. One council cabinet member said:
“We have done this by intervening early with residents who may have trouble paying council tax, speaking to them in a respectful and supportive way to develop a sustainable repayment plan that both protects the council’s income while avoiding forcing people into making bad financial decisions to avoid bailiffs, such as resorting to payday lenders or missing rent payments.”
Should not all local authorities and anyone trying to enforce debts adopt that as their philosophy?
I could not agree more and would love to see other councils around the country follow that example, for which I thank my hon. Friend, who I am sure played a part in bringing that about. When we hear these cases, it is incumbent on all Members of Parliament to bring them to the Government. It is incumbent on all councils and any other public authorities that are owed money to seek a constructive way to get that money and to help people pay that debt back rather than threatening them with bailiffs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Five or six years ago, I had a Bill that would have established an independent body to regulate bailiffs. I had some very nasty cases in my constituency at the time, which prompted me. Unfortunately, the Bill did not go through because the Government stopped it. I hope my hon. Friend’s Bill gets through, because it is important that we regulate bailiffs properly and give them proper training.
An independent regulator, training for bailiffs and standards that are enforced are essential—I will come to that towards the end of my speech. I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for trying to push the issue a few years back. I hope I can follow in his footsteps. I have applied for a ten-minute rule Bill, and I hope I can get something on the statute book, although I also hope the Government will beat me to it.
The examples I quoted remind us that anybody could end up in this situation, although in many cases, the people involved are vulnerable. Often it starts with a small fine or debt that escalates, and it can spiral out of control. Citizens Advice recently found that such experiences have a very negative impact on people’s mental health and financial position. Some of those who are likely to fall into debt already have a mental health problem.
Bailiffs are supposed to have training to identify vulnerable people and to behave appropriately, but the reality is that it is not always obvious that someone has a disability or is suffering from mental ill health. Much more robust legislation needs to be put in place to protect those people.
We need more robust rules and we need more robust enforcement. My constituent is disabled and was facing a fine because her disability badge was out of date. That was because she was moving from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—that is another story. She was told by the bailiff that she did not look disabled. Her vulnerability has been questioned at every turn when I have raised her case. I thought it was obvious, because she is disabled, that she is vulnerable, but it is not always that obvious, as my hon. Friend says. We need much better procedures in place so that bailiffs recognise that.
Of those who had a negative experience with a bailiff, Citizens Advice found that seven in 10 reported increased stress and anxiety. I am sure that that very much chimes with the experience of the constituents that Members are here to represent. It certainly chimes with the experience of mine. Eight in 10 felt that the experience had a lasting effect and one in two saw their finances deteriorate further.
Is the practice by bailiffs of not accepting affordable repayments a cause for people getting further into debt, thus exacerbating the problem and leading to unfortunate experiences for those people?
Indeed it is. It seems to me that it is not in the interests of the local authority. For instance, Hammersmith recognised that if people are forced into more debt, they are unlikely to be able to pay it off. As I understand it, there is no compulsory obligation on bailiffs to accept a repayment plan, which the Government should consider carefully. In fact, all the incentives seem to be stacked against the bailiff being cautious or sympathetic to the debtor. All the incentives seem to be for the bailiff to collect as much money or as many possessions as possible on that visit.
Bailiffs have extraordinary rights to seize possessions and the police are the only other profession that I can think of that is permitted by law to enter someone’s property. The police can only do so if someone is suspected of serious criminality and they have to secure a search warrant and read someone their rights. Those with a complaint can report the police to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Bailiffs too need a court order, but there seems to be no requirement for bailiffs to tell someone their rights. Indeed, evidence suggests that bailiffs often misrepresent people’s rights to gain entry into their home and seize possessions.
The hon. Lady is moving on to the area of complaints, which is close to my heart. Does she agree that there needs to be a simple system that people can use that includes something like mediation—alternative dispute resolution—that is quick to implement but very friendly and not as intimidating as going to court?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts the next section of my speech, which is all about that. Short of taking a bailiff to court, there is no meaningful way of seeking redress, because there is no simple or clear complaints procedure. Arguably there is no meaningful complaints procedure, although I will come to that.
In the case of my constituent, I complained to the local council, which was enforcing a parking fine. The council and I complained to the bailiffs company, but it disputed my constituent’s version of events. I complained to the bailiffs trade association, which we have discussed. I got a letter back saying that it was the word of my constituent against the word of the bailiffs. I raised the case in Parliament and we are having a debate today, but even as an MP, I felt powerless to take the case any further, which was deeply frustrating. Can it be right that, short of taking the case to the courts, our constituents have no other means of redress? It cannot be, and the bailiffs know it—they know that most people in debt will not have the money to take them to court. There have been only 56 complaints in the courts since the 2014 reforms despite reported widespread bad practice.
One couple explained to me that their attempts to take a complaint forward had been blocked at every opportunity, including by claims from the bailiffs company that letters had been lost in the post—that old chestnut—and had taken nearly a year and cost thousands of pounds. Bailiffs are largely unaccountable, which is why I am calling on the Government to bring forward urgent reform.
Specifically, I call on the Minister to take forward the proposal of a cross-party group of MPs led by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). In a letter sent to the Minister today, they ask the Government to set up an independent regulator to enforce the rules. The regulator, which could be an existing body or a new body, should have a range of powers and responsibilities to set and enforce rules, and standards for bailiffs and to take both a reactive and proactive approach, investigating firms and individuals where there are complaints but also proactively monitoring standards. Crucially, a regulator must ensure access to redress. Alongside that—this speaks to the point of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—we need a fair, free, simple and transparent complaints procedure.
Crucially—I very much speak on behalf of my disabled constituent on this point—bailiffs must be required to identify vulnerable households. To end the targeting of vulnerable people, there have to be clear procedures for referring debts back to creditors when enforcement is not appropriate.
The impact of those reforms must be to change the culture of the industry. There are not enough sanctions on bailiffs, and all the incentives drive bailiffs in the wrong direction—to penalise people rather than help them. The debt advice charities are highly regulated. The debt collectors are also regulated. The bailiff industry is an anomaly. I ask the Minister to take urgent action. They are not difficult reforms and, crucially, implementing such changes would mean that bailiffs play by the rules and treat people with the respect that they deserve.
Order. As Members can see, there is a lot of interest in taking part in the debate. I intend to call the Front Benchers just before 3.40 pm. I plead for self-discipline and restraint regarding time when Members make their contributions. I call John Howell.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), who introduced this important debate.
The debate is timely. The subject is very much on the lips of the Minister and of members of the Justice Committee, as both the Minister and the Committee are undertaking inquiries at the moment. The Ministry of Justice inquiry, which has called for evidence, will look at the effect of the 2014 legislation, which although it has brought some benefits, clearly did not go far enough and has created new problems, as the Lady told us. Those problems are due to the behaviour of many bailiffs—the way they go about their job is a real problem for us. I believe the Ministry of Justice has promised that any proposed changes will be put out to consultation, so we will all have the opportunity to engage with them.
The Justice Committee also decided to conduct an inquiry on the subject, and we discussed yesterday how it would feed into the Ministry of Justice inquiry and how we could submit it as evidence. The Committee’s inquiry will look at the 2014 legislation and the way in which complaints are handled and dealt with throughout the process. Two issues emerge above all: the extent of regulation and the complaints system. The two are of course associated, but they need also to be looked at separately.
As the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) mentioned, the Civil Enforcement Association exists, but it is not independent. The system of regulation is effectively one of self-regulation or, in this case, pretty much no regulation. I listened to all the points made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East about why the system of regulation is not very effective. One point that came in, but was not actually mentioned, is that no sanctions can be levelled against a firm of bailiffs conducting its business in such a way.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Civil Enforcement Association is just a trade body. People have to pay a fee to be a member, but a bailiff does not have to be a member. The answer is to have an independent bailiff regulator capable of banning and prosecuting bailiffs who break the law. That is in the interests of bailiffs who respect the law and their customers, particularly vulnerable ones. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s description of how the regulatory system should work, but I do not think we should concentrate solely on the regulatory system. I completely take on board everything she said about what the regulatory system needs to include, but we need also to examine how complaints are dealt with if we want to have an effect on bailiffs who are not doing their job properly or are abusing their position.
The current complaints system has seen an enormous increase in people trying to make complaints, but fewer people have been able to do so legitimately. I propose to the Minister that, before she proceeds with the results of the call for evidence, she and I have a conversation. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, and I think we have the solution to the problem. The solution, which the rail system is using to try to deal with complaints, is to have in place a system of alternative dispute resolution, including such things as mediation, that can deliver quick advice.
One great thing about alternative dispute resolution is that it is much cheaper than going to the courts. That is what we need. If the Minister would like to have a conversation with me, I will propose a system to do that. From the experience that we have of how ADR has been used elsewhere, I think it will satisfy all the requirements that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East set out.
Order. We are looking for contributions of around four minutes if everybody is to get in. I call Sarah Jones.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for introducing the debate so eloquently that it is almost impossible to imagine the Government not wanting to act. I think there is cross-party agreement that action needs to be taken, which has to be incredibly powerful. I know that the Minister is listening, as she has listened to me previously, and that she will have listened to everything that my hon. Friend said.
As we know, bailiffs are the only part of the financial sector that is not regulated with an independent regulator. A powerful case has been made already in the debate, and by Citizens Advice and many other voluntary organisations, that the problem is worsening, that it is not being fixed by the changes made in 2014, and that something should be done. My involvement arose from a meeting with a constituent, the mother of Jerome Rogers from New Addington, who in 2016 ended his life at the age of just 20. Jerome had two £85 traffic fines from Camden Council that he had received in the course of doing his job as a motorbike courier. Due to the escalation of that fine and enforcement by Newlyn plc, the fines spiralled to more than £1,000. The Minister is aware of the case and last year she very kindly met with Jerome’s family and with me.
Jerome’s case is particularly tragic, but we must not think that it was a one-off. The coroner found that the bailiffs involved with Jerome had complied with the industry’s guidelines—guidelines that are self-written and self-enforced, as we have discussed. That is not something to be proud of; it simply highlights how flawed the guidelines are and how flawed the system of self-regulation is across the whole bailiff industry—especially in view of what Jerome was subjected to in the months leading up to his death. Each of these things underlines a systemic problem rather than a problem specific to Jerome.
Jerome was refused an affordable repayment plan. He called the bailiff after being told that he would be receiving a visit to his home and was told that he needed to call Newlyn. Newlyn then told him that he must pay the debt in full. After the bailiff visited his home, adding more money to his debt in the process, he was finally offered a repayment plan, but at £128 per week it was clearly not affordable. His average earnings were about £97 a week, and less than £20 after his work expenses. If Camden Council had offered him a repayment plan of £10 per week there and then, he could have paid off both £65 fines in three months.
Secondly, Jerome’s motorbike—his only means of earning money—was clamped. There was dispute over the valuation of the bike and whether it was even legal to clamp it, but looking beyond the valuation, it is surely wrong that a person’s sole means of income can be taken away by bailiffs. Thirdly, the enforcement fees were duplicated because the two cases were treated as separate, which is in the interests of no one but the bailiffs, who can charge £75 per case for simply writing a letter. It makes no sense that £150 can be added to a debt for a few pieces of A4 paper, or that two cases cannot be dealt with in the same letter. Bailiffs charge hundreds of pounds per case for every visit to a property, which might explain why they refused a repayment plan before the bailiff made his visit. The coroner viewed the bailiff’s behaviour as intimidating and raised the possibility that his actions could have been viewed as a form of harassment. They involved sitting outside the house for a prolonged period without telling Jerome why he was outside.
The fourth issue is one that has already been spoken about: the bailiff was paid by results. He had the potential to earn more if he seized assets, but if the debt was not cleared he would not get paid. Debt collection agencies are prohibited by their regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, from paying enforcement agents through such commission models. Those models are common in the bailiff industry, but we cannot stop them leading to bad practice when bailiffs have the power to seize assets and enter homes. It is systemic.
There is FCA regulation in the private sector to some extent, but not in the public sector, as in my hon. Friend’s example. Extraordinarily, the NAO’s recent report found that in many cases Government bodies are worse at fulfilling their duties. Does she agree that the Minister should look particularly at what local authorities and central Government Departments are doing in the area?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We must tackle all the aspects; we cannot just say that it is a problem for local authorities without also looking at independent regulation.
I realise that I have already spoken for longer than I should have, Mr Evans. I wanted to give other examples of cases and stories that people have written to me about, but I will write to the Minister about them instead.
The trade body is not fit for purpose as a regulator. Indeed, it has written to me, as have other bailiffs, threatening legal action:
“Please desist from using this tragedy to lobby for changes that are unrelated to the actions of the enforcement agents.”
The CEO of the trade body called our work on behalf of Jerome’s family
“a means to attract publicity for a populist campaign on behalf of the debt advice sector.”
For shame! That is not what we are doing; we are trying to honour the memory of Jerome and fix a system that is clearly broken. I really hope that the Minister will listen. I will work with her, as we all will, to make sure that we bring in the right kind of regulation.
Order. If I let hon. Members know that their speeches are timed on the monitors, it may assist them to keep to the four-minute mark.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing this important debate; she spoke incredibly well. She referred to the treatment that my constituents received at the hands of bailiffs. Let me add a little about their experience by quoting from a letter they wrote:
“My wife & I (both retired) were woken up by loud banging on our front door at 7.22am. When I answered the door I was confronted by two men who announced that they were bailiffs… The first we knew of the matter was when they…turned up at our door… We were…in shock…at the threat of a tow truck arriving at our door to remove our car and that we were to be humiliated by our possessions being publicly removed from our house… Later that day my wife and I sought advice from our local Citizens’ Advice Bureau... The CAB advisor informed us that we could have refused the officers entry…and that we could have signed a Statutory Declaration of ownership covering goods not belonging to our son which should have prevented our property being taken in lieu for my son’s debt. At no time did the officers inform us about this… My wife and I have never broken the law. Both my wife and I used to work for the prison service. We have both since we retired, been active as local volunteers… I…find it reprehensible that two pensioners should be coerced, albeit politely, into having to hand over their pension savings for something that they are not in any way culpable for. Nor can we believe that British law supports the kind of action we have experienced.”
They are absolutely right. It is clear that the law needs to change and that we need to go beyond the 2014 reforms, and I am glad that the Government have announced the call for evidence. I praise the campaigning work of Citizens Advice and the debt charity Step Change. I think six main things need to change.
First, we need an independent regulator, and I welcome that being raised explicitly in the current review. When I took up my constituents’ case, I was astonished to find that there was no independent regulator, given that there are industries such as the parking industry in which far less serious things happen but in which there is a clear independent regulator. Debt collectors who are not bailiffs and do not have bailiffs’ powers have a regulator, so this is a historical anomaly that needs to be fixed.
Secondly, once the regulator is set up, it needs to improve the process. Part of that is about communication —if my constituents had been informed about the debts at an earlier stage, they could have nipped the whole problem in the bud—but part of it should also be about the offer of an affordable payment plan, as several hon. Members have said. Affordable payment plans have become the norm in most types of debt collection and for most utilities, because we know that vulnerable people are much more likely to pay if they are offered a structured plan rather than getting a big demand all at once. As it happens, my constituents are bright, articulate, hard-working people, but even they felt totally humiliated by the process. Imagine how those who are more vulnerable feel.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only right that homeowners should be notified of the fact that a bailiff is about to attend? Of course, we should recognise data protection concerns as well.
Absolutely. That point brings me on to the third thing that needs to change: people need to be told what their rights are. My constituents never were. If someone is arrested, they are told their rights; the same thing should happen if a bailiff visits.
Fourthly, there must be a clear and simple complaints procedure through the new independent regulator, backed up with swift fines for bailiffs who break the rules. Fifthly, there must be controls on fees. My constituents’ son’s original debt was increased by half again, and we have heard about the tragic case of Jerome Rogers, which is incredibly moving. I was shocked that a publicly funded institution had initiated the debt collection against my constituents. As hon. Members have said, the incentives in the industry are to seize as much as possible in order to do as much business as possible, and there is no link between fees and ability to pay. Finally, the new regulator should improve training standards for bailiffs, as some have only a few hours of training. That is truly shocking.
A great injustice was done to my constituents, who are hard-working, law-abiding, public-spirited people. We are lucky to have a very able Minister guiding the Government’s response to the call for evidence. Every single day in this country, vulnerable people are being maltreated purely as a result of a historical anomaly. I know that she will want to put that right as soon as possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on getting today’s debate on the agenda. I agree wholeheartedly that we should be helping people, not penalising them, and that there is certainly a need for regulatory change on the British mainland.
May I cite the example of Northern Ireland? Bailiffs do not operate in Northern Ireland; we have a very different system, which I recommend that the Minister should examine when she considers how to take action on the points raised today. Indeed, the attitude of “If you have it and you haven’t paid, we will seize it” that I see on popular television programmes is alien to many people in Northern Ireland who face debt issues.
Enforcement officers in Northern Ireland can go out only if they have a court order and are accompanied by a police officer. Enforcement is strictly and specifically done via court order, and the individual in question knows that it is happening and, ultimately, when it will happen. It is therefore not a common practice, as it is on the British mainland. Even in the Republic of Ireland, where bailiffs do operate, the court order has to contain the name of the bailiff who will go to the person’s home. It is an open and transparent system, which can be challenged.
Why is that the case? Northern Ireland’s troubled past is very clear. Having gangs or groups of people who are allowed to “enforce” in Northern Ireland without police supervision could be very dangerous, given our paramilitary past and the issues that pertain there. Indeed, there are some very detailed cases that show why that should be avoided. Most recently, for example, in Roscommon in the Republic of Ireland, a Northern Ireland enforcement team was employed by a bank to seize a property that a mortgage had not been paid on for 16 years. The enforcement order in the Republic of Ireland contained the name of the bailiffs who would attend the property and remove the people who had not paid for it. Unfortunately, it spiralled into a very serious crime situation.
The bailiffs, or the enforcement officers from Northern Ireland who were employed, many of them ex-soldiers and some of them ex-police officers, were charged upon by about 40 people in a gang. A chainsaw was taken to the door, the door was removed, and the bailiffs were dragged out of the property, tied up and beaten. One of them received a fractured skull, another one a broken arm. The dog that they had with them to do security work and to look after the property that evening was killed. One of the bailiffs was forced with a gun pointed to his head to eat the faeces that the dog had left. So we had a very serious situation.
Thankfully, the Guards in the Republic of Ireland have arrested four people and hopefully charges will pertain in that case. However, it shows the difficulties in a situation that has grown up with crime, and I see crime developing here on the British mainland in many of our cities, where there is anger and instant “law of the jungle” retribution. We saw that here in this city last night, with people stabbing a boy who had driven into their car. Allowing that sort of attitude to develop in a country will lead to a law of the jungle mentality. The culture change that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East argued for is therefore absolutely essential.
We do not need gangs of people to be asked to do this work; rather, we need a managed response to debt. Debt has to be addressed and ultimately, of course, paid, and the person has to take responsibility for paying off their debts. But when enforcement officers humiliate people, and when they feel vulnerable in their own properties and do not know their rights, as Members have described, that needs to addressed through proper regulation. I therefore support the motion moved by the hon. Lady and hope that the Government will look at the example of Northern Ireland and ask, “How have they been able to get away from creating a situation that would have deteriorated into a downward spiral of the law of the jungle?”
Thank you for calling me, Mr Evans. It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the other interesting and vital contributions. I want to present a slightly different perspective. I have a debt collection agency in my constituency that has been very concerned and wanted me to speak in this debate, because it felt it was important to put on the record the practices of the good debt collection agencies. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said it was not fair on those who play by the rules, although there are clearly many examples of highly concerning practice, which Members from all parts of the House have highlighted, and I certainly do not take away from those for one second.
The point behind my contribution is to highlight for the Minister how the good debt collection agencies operate. Bristow and Sutor employs 156 people in my Redditch constituency and is already proactively improving the way that it operates, because it recognises many of the concerns that have been raised. Indeed, collecting debt in a fair and compassionate way results in more debt being collected, which is what we all want. We need to see that debt collected because it makes a vital contribution to our public services.
Importantly, Bristow and Sutor’s agents are all directly employed by the company. They are not on zero-hours contracts and are monitored and trained by the company directly. They have body-worn cameras when they go out and visit clients. The company has named people who deal with a particular client when they are visited and its agents are trained to deal with all the situations that they might come across.
Does my hon. Friend agree that reputable firms should be the loudest advocates for a system of regulation, so that they can mark themselves out from the rogue agents that behave unconscionably and make innocent people’s lives a misery?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I completely agree. I was going to say that this particular firm is not against further regulation at all. It merely makes the point that it needs to be done in consultation with the debt enforcement agencies, looking at the best practice of some of the good agents, who carry out vital work that needs to be done to recover funds that will go into our local government coffers. When I visited that firm in my constituency, it made the point that its recovery rate is much more effective than some of its competitors. It is the second largest enforcement agency in the country and covers 16% of all local authorities’ collections. It is not the one that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) referred to, and it does have a good reputation locally. I wanted merely to place that on the record, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to totally overhaul the system.
I am interested in what the hon. Lady is saying. She has made an important point about that company employing its agents directly. Does she feel that that has made a difference in its behaviour and practices?
Absolutely. I have visited the company, which is a long-standing employer in the constituency. People have worked there for many years, starting their careers in that business. The company takes that very seriously, otherwise it would not have loyal employees for such a long period of time who care about doing their jobs properly and respectfully and about treating their clients with dignity in extremely difficult situations. That gives further assurance that there is proper oversight.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but I need to conclude. I know that people want to speak. I very much support the calls for an independent regulator.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing this important debate and on the way in which she introduced the subject. As we have heard, we have all had many constituents contact us when they have received a bailiff’s letter or had one turn up at the door. Although we would want our constituents to contact us as soon as possible when things might be a little easier to resolve, we have to remember that quite often a Member of Parliament is not the first port of call for someone facing a debt situation.
There is the question of household debt, the availability of easy credit and, as we have heard, the way in which a seemingly small amount can spiral out of control once an enforcement process begins, so we need to think about what more we can do to stop debt becoming the debilitating and all-consuming terror that it often is. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, we should be not just tough on bailiffs, but tough on the causes of bailiffs, but that is perhaps a wider debate for another time.
I appreciate that there are important distinctions between the powers of a bailiff appointed by the court and a debt collector, but are those differences apparent to the public, particularly when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly demanding money? We know bailiffs must provide evidence upon request by the debtors, as well as sight of a warrant providing them with authority to enter, but how many people in such a pressurised situation will have the presence of mind to ask for those things?
We know that, as part of national standards, bailiffs are expected to treat the debtor fairly at all times. However, one recent example that I came across concerned a constituent who was unable to keep up with the payment plan they had previously agreed because they were in poor health and had been unable to work. The bailiff’s demand in those circumstances was to actually request that the monthly repayment be doubled. How is that a reasonable request? How is that treating the debtor fairly at all times? The national standards are not legally binding, which is presumably why we see such outrageous behaviour.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry; other people want to speak, so we have to move on.
An even worse example was when a constituent had agreed a payment plan with bailiffs, which she was paying on time and in full. She then received a letter from the bailiffs requesting that the repayment increase by £30 a week. There never was and has not been any justification given for that proposal. Following that request, and despite the constituent asking for an income and expenditure form to demonstrate that she could not afford the increase, she then received a letter asking that the full debt be repaid within 24 hours or goods would be removed. There then followed the threatening phone calls and visits to the property that we have often heard about. Such despicable behaviour cannot be justified, but in this instance, as in many, the original creditor had washed their hands of the whole business. They do not seem to care how unreasonable, threatening or intimidating the bailiffs get. They just want their money back. Even if they are outsourcing responsibility to recover the debt, they should not outsource their responsibility to ensure that the debt is recovered in a responsible manner.
Demands for unaffordable payment plans are probably the most commonly occurring issue that we get. We often find that bailiffs are unwilling to negotiate and then ask for the full amount owed. They even suggest that debtors should borrow more money to repay the debt. As we have heard, the situation is exacerbated by adding hundreds of pounds to the debt once a visit has been made by a bailiff, which can lead to punitive increases that are often totally disproportionate to the original sum being recovered. I appreciate that those wishing to recover the debts need to recover their own costs as well, but the fees, which are then treated as part of the debt, cannot make it any easier for the individual to repay the debt.
In conclusion, I support Citizens Advice’s call for the Government to report annually on the debt to government and essential service providers, and for the introduction of an independent regulator for the bailiff industry. It is time we gave people confidence that the difficult issue of debt enforcement will be given the same checks and balances that we rightly expect in many other areas of our lives.
If hon. Members aim for the three-minute mark, perhaps we will be able to get in everyone who wants to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on obtaining this important debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on persuading me to sign the letter of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) about trying to get change through a meeting with the Justice Secretary.
I am making my speech partly in my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on poverty. Clearly, poverty and debt are inextricably linked. I totally agree that there is a problem with bailiffs and support the call for an independent regulator. There are also problems with debt. Collecting debt must be a commercial matter. It can be very effective. I have to tell the House that in my business life we have a number of offices and, in 2008 when things were pretty tough in the economy, we were visited by the bailiffs and paid our debt very quickly on the back of that. We did not realise how quickly bailiffs could enter premises on a commercial lease without any notice, but we soon found out, so they can be very effective. However, there are other and better ways to collect debts in many instances.
Debt is a commercial matter and those to whom people are not paying their debts have a perfect right to try to collect them, but several hon. Members have spoken today about local authorities, over which we should have some influence. The local authorities in question should learn from and develop best practice on debt collection. I had a meeting with StepChange, the debt advice charity. Thirty per cent. of the people coming to the charity are behind with their council tax. That is by far the No. 1 area for debt that it works with. There has been a huge increase over the past seven years. Seven years ago, 21% of total debt was owed to utilities and local government. Today 26% of debt is with utilities, but 40% of total debt is with local authorities. Local authorities have been criticised by the Treasury Committee for being overzealous in their recourse to bailiffs and could make a significant difference to people’s lives if they adopt debt collection best practice. The Justice Committee will also consider that. Interesting research from Citizens Advice said that one in four people had made their bailiff an affordable payment offer that was rejected. Clearly there is a better way to deal with the matter.
What is best practice? The Money Advice Service has developed what it calls a supportive council tax recovery toolkit for local authorities to adopt, which talks about best practice and how to liaise with debt advice agencies, taking specific approaches to specific cohorts, particularly vulnerable people. On utilities, I have had dialogue with Yorkshire Water about how it deals with vulnerable households and how it makes sure it identifies those people. According to the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, 50% of people who are in debt have mental health problems, so it is a case of identifying them and taking a different approach. In my constituency, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), an excellent debt collection agency works with the utilities. I have visited it and it takes a supportive and collaborative approach to debt collection. The collection rates are at least as good as those obtained by traditional routes.
I absolutely support the calls for an independent regulator, but I also suggest developing best practice and perhaps creating a requirement for local authorities to follow it in the first instance. It would make a huge difference to people who are in debt and to people in poverty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing the debate. I have long been interested in bailiff practice both as chair of the all-party group on debt and personal finance, and from my long association with Citizens Advice as manager of the local bureau. I had hoped that the 2014 regulations would stop the bad practice I saw when I was doing that work. I saw bailiffs who threatened to take children into care. On one occasion I heard them trying to seize a family pet in front of the children. Perversely, the regulations have created consolidation into bigger firms, and it is easier for the people at the top of those firms to blame individual bailiffs as rogues, and to say that it is nothing to do with them, their training or their practices. I have sympathy for individual bailiffs. As we have heard, there are some very bad employment practices such as working on commission and payment by results. We must stop the cycle of desperate people chasing desperate people.
Bailiffs are still breaching the new regulations. According to StepChange, a third of the 2.2 million people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years experienced them flouting the law. Bailiffs forced entry and took goods needed for work. Half the StepChange clients surveyed in 2016 said that affordable repayment plans had been refused. I have certainly never known a bailiff to accept the single financial statement that most other creditors accept. Complaints are too difficult. Only 28% of people complain and, as we have heard, there have been 56 complaints to the court since 2014. Does that mean that we have had only 56 problems with bailiffs? The charities would certainly dispute that.
To me, the question is not why we should regulate bailiffs but why we should not. Everyone else is regulated. Debt collectors and debt charities are regulated, but bailiffs are free from oversight by an independent regulator despite dealing with people in probably the most vulnerable circumstances who should have the most protection. Their only protection at the moment is guidance. As others have asked, what are the sanctions if that is ignored? Many hon. Members have put forward the same solution: independent regulation twinned with a simplified single free and independent complaints procedure similar to the system used for debt collectors. It is not only the frontline charities who call for that—some bailiffs firms would like it because they want to get some of the rogues out of the business. Self-regulation has not worked. There is enough evidence to prove that there is a systemic problem and not just a few bad apples. Everyone who deals with people in very vulnerable circumstances is regulated, so I ask the Minister why bailiffs should be the exception. I ask her to act quickly to prevent anyone else paying the highest price, as Jerome Rogers did.
I shall not delay the House much. I want to focus on just one area. Many hon. Members have focused on financial recovery, which is entirely appropriate. To assist constituents and improve the perception of the bailiff industry, I want to talk about repossessions.
A landlord can for any reason apply to a county court to seek a possession order. It usually happens when a tenant has broken the terms of the lease. Subject to the decision of the court, the tenant will be given 14 or 28 days to vacate the property or, in exceptional hardship, the judge can allow them 42 days to leave. Such an order is presented and communicated to the tenant so that they are aware of it. Many people then decide to see the council, but local authorities tell people to remain in the property until they are physically kicked out.
On occasion, landlords can apply to the High Court to seek an immediate possession order and enforcement by a High Court enforcement officer. That requires no notice. An officer will turn up at someone’s house and tell them to pack the possessions that they need for the next few days. They will give them an hour to leave, and they can collect their property at an arranged date later. Imagine the hardship and distress that it causes someone when they are told they must leave the house immediately and that they can then take the paperwork to the council who will rehouse them.
Will the Minister consider speaking to her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the rehousing of people who have received possession notices, so that they do not have to go through that traumatic experience—particularly if they are elderly or vulnerable, or have children?
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I wish to make a few brief points in this important debate—there have already been many valuable contributions from across the House.
The debate should be seen in the wider context of growing household debt. The rise of rogue bailiffs speaks to a wider malaise in our economy. People face a range of challenges, including insecure work and zero-hours contracts, stagnant wages, benefit cuts and access to affordable credit, which all put pressure on household finances. It is no surprise that the No. l money concern for people seeking help from Citizens Advice is household debt. UK households owe an average of just over £15,000 in unsecured lending from credit card firms, banks and other household debt, and the level of unsecured debt is now the highest it has ever been—indeed, it is higher than it was before the financial crisis.
It is not a sound basis on which to build our future economic prosperity if more of our wages go towards servicing debt than spending on our basic needs. It is therefore not surprising in such an environment that more people are racking up debt and struggling to pay household bills, council tax and some of the other debts we are discussing. It is also not surprising that into such an environment step those rogue bailiffs who exploit people who are already struggling with debt, and who are vulnerable or in precarious circumstances.
Like the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), I am not arguing—I do not think any Member of the House would argue this—that creditors are not entitled to pursue their debtors. It would be unfair on those who do pay their debts if others are not encouraged and made to do so. The issue, however, is about obeying the law and exploiting people, especially if they already face financial hardship and are vulnerable. In truth, ballooning household debt means that bailiffs now have more scope to exploit some of the most vulnerable people in our society by refusing to accept affordable payment offers, and by misrepresenting their rights of entry or acting aggressively or unsympathetically on the doorstep. That is the issue we need to focus on, and where we need Government action.
Members have already mentioned the letter sent today to the Justice Secretary to ensure that the Government take seriously calls from across the House for an independent regulator. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said, the 2014 reforms have not worked and it is now time for such a regulator. I hope the Government seize this opportunity and take heed of the concerns raised and the examples that Members have given, put in place that independent regulator, and ensure that those struggling with financial difficulties are not exploited in the ways we have heard about.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to follow speeches on the important matters raised. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for securing the debate. As we have heard, rogue bailiffs are a blight on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and the issue affects those with debt from household bills rather than from consumer credit. People who are struggling to pay their council tax or energy bills—the essentials in life—are having increasing problems with bailiffs.
There are serious, structural problems with how some bailiffs operate, and are allowed to operate, and 850,000 people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years have experienced law breaking. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said, just 56 complaints have been launched with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service. The complaints system is not fit for purpose and lacks teeth. When someone complains directly to a firm, there are no statutory guidelines about how complaints should be reviewed, or about the sanctions or compensation that should result. The process is long-winded, confusing and inaccessible, and rarely leads to any real consequences for the bailiff involved. However, rule breaking by bailiffs has consequences for those they contact. Refusal to accept affordable payment offers is a huge problem—almost one in four people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years had an affordable payment offer rejected.
My constituency suffers from income poverty and has one of the highest levels of suicide. There are also high levels of prescriptions for anti-depressants. One of my constituents, a 65-year-old woman, has already had her personal independence payment stopped and is subject to the bedroom tax. Her gas supply has been capped and she has rent arrears, and has received an offer from the housing association. She now has to pay back a council tax debt at an amount that is simply unaffordable to her. After bailiffs knocked at her door, she was frightened and agreed on the spot to pay the amount suggested. This woman sleeps on a couch—she does not own a bed. As a direct result of bailiff action, my constituent’s mental and physical health has deteriorated.
Almost two in five of those contacted by bailiffs in the last two years experienced some sort of intimidation. I call on the Minister to act as quickly as possible and to take steps to alleviate the problems faced by my constituents and those who are suffering across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing this important debate. I wish to raise a few cases that my constituents have brought to my attention, and I will focus on vulnerability, which has already been mentioned by some of my colleagues.
Constituents have contacted me in a state of real despair and great distress. One constituent has multiple health conditions, all of which qualify her to be considered vulnerable under the bailiff’s own policies and guidelines, but despite her advising the bailiff about it, her vulnerability was entirely ignored and the debt agency would not take it into consideration until my office intervened. At one stage of the interaction between my constituent and the bailiffs, rather than trying to assist or advise her constructively, she was advised that prison might be an option.
Another constituent has two young children and was pregnant with her third. She too would be considered vulnerable under the bailiff’s own policies. She regularly received threatening letters about the removal of her property and her possessions. She had so few possessions that she was regularly on the phone to my office, in tears, fearing that her children’s toys would be removed to settle some of those debts. The fact that the bailiff would not take into consideration any of the vulnerabilities detailed in its own policies until my office stepped in tells me that the current systems are not working. The extra stress placed on my constituent during her pregnancy made it even worse, and every letter sent and visit made accrued extra financial burden and added more to a debt that she already had no idea how to pay.
Another constituent was harassed by threats of the removal of belongings, and there were many visits and additional letters, ramping up those artificial charges. My office intervened and managed to put in place a reviewed payment plan, but unfortunately the bailiff entirely ignored that agreement, and the following day they turned up at my constituent’s home demanding payment. After an attempt to intimidate my constituent, we had to step in again, but when her health condition meant that she ended up in hospital and unfortunately missed a £10 payment, the bailiff was back at the door as soon as she was out of hospital, demanding payments at a much higher, unaffordable level, and saying that the debt had increased. That was not the case at all, and was completely false advice about the current situation. Fortunately, we were able to resolve the problem again, but it shows that the bailiffs’ code is falling short and self-policing is not working. Today, a clear case has been made for far better enforcement, although if that adds to the burdens of local authorities, the Government should not seek to take action without ensuring that additional resources are in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This has been a fantastic debate from I have learned a great deal.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) secured the debate to shine a light on the case of her disabled constituent, who thought she was being burgled when debt collectors forced their way into her home without showing ID, and stole cash from her purse. As we know, that was not an isolated incident. The hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) described a case where constituents of his suffered total humiliation. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about threatening and intimidating behaviour, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) spoke of vulnerable constituents receiving threatening letters and living in fear and anxiety.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) spoke about the tragic death of Jerome Rogers. That should concentrate all our minds on the importance of this debate. Jerome was a young man with plenty to live for when he took his own life, but it seems he felt that he just could not go on in the face of the stress and despair he felt after months of interaction with bailiffs. Looking at his story, it is striking how unfair and pointless his treatment was. He was struggling with debt and was trying to get out of it, but the odds were stacked against him.
Two unpaid £65 traffic fines spiralled to debts of more than £1,000 in a matter of months. Sky-high bailiff fees meant that there was virtually no cap on what they could take from Jerome. Knowing he could not cope with the debt and the eye-watering fees, he contacted the bailiff company and the individual bailiff dealing with his case, asking to set up an affordable repayment plan. He was met with a flat refusal and little to no human compassion. At least he could earn some money using his motorbike to deliver blood supplies to London’s hospitals—but no. It seems that the bailiffs were systematically cutting off every escape route he could think of. They clamped Jerome’s motorbike, despite the fact that its value fell far below the £1,350 threshold for seizing or taking control of goods. Not only did Jerome have no money and no agency to solve his problems, but he had the added pressure of the intimidating presence of a bailiff outside his home. The stress was unimaginable, and ultimately Jerome just could not take it anymore.
As many people have said, we are not talking about a one-off case, or the case of a few rogue bailiffs and their firms. Recent research from Citizens Advice shows that one in three people have experienced bailiffs breaking the rules, and half of StepChange Debt Charity’s clients said their bailiff refused to accept an affordable repayment offer. This is a systemic failure in our society that must be dealt with.
The current legislation covering bailiffs is complex and fragmented. It has failed to protect vulnerable people going through hard times from aggressive and intimidating behaviour. There were some positive measures in the 2014 reforms to taking control of goods, but they just have not worked. It seems that bailiffs are ignoring many of the provisions, as they did when seizing Jerome’s motorbike, refusing affordable payment plans or engaging in threatening behaviour. We cannot allow the bailiff industry to continue marking its own homework.
I have had similar problems in my constituency with the bailiffs hired by my local council. Bristow and Sutor—a company that the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) mentioned—uses cameras to take photos of people’s possessions and threatens them with those possessions being sold off if they cannot pay a full demand up front, immediately. It also refuses payment plans. My constituents say its bailiffs have even visited elderly relatives, refused to leave their properties and made them feel intimidated. I am sorry to say that even where we have better practice, with directly employed agents, very serious complaints are still being made.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Story after story shows why reform is necessary. Unlike similar industries dealing with vulnerable people, such as debt collectors, the bailiff industry is not overseen by an independent regulator. As Labour recognised with our successful payday loan campaign, self-regulation is just not suitable for industries with intrusive powers over vulnerable people’s lives, homes and finances. It is just too easy for unscrupulous companies to be greedy or to mistreat people when they are at their lowest. None of the main trade bodies for bailiff companies seem interested in enforcing the law or holding the industry to account, and even if they were, they do not have the teeth to do so, just as we saw with payday lenders.
There is also no simple, accessible complaints system for people to report the horror stories or infringements of the bailiffs they are dealing with. The only thing that will do, as so many colleagues have said, is to replace the broken system of self-regulation and piecemeal reform with independent bodies that will hold the industry to account and allow people’s complaints to be heard and dealt with. We need either a new regulator, or to bring bailiffs within the remit of the Financial Conduct Authority—that went a long way towards reining in payday lenders. It does not matter what body we choose as long as it is fully independent and has the teeth and the will to put a stop to unscrupulous behaviour.
We also need a simplified, free, independent complaints procedure, adjudicated by an independent body. We need to listen to the myriad voices calling for change—organisations that in many cases are working on the frontline of the effects of the broken bailiff system. They include AdviceUK, The Children’s Society, Christians Against Poverty, Citizens Advice, Community Money Advice, the Institute of Money Advisers, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, the Money Advice Trust and StepChange Debt Charity.
Many colleagues said that the current system is not fit for purpose. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the current system of regulation not working because there are no sanctions, as did the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who also brought a mental health angle to the discussions and suggested some practical solutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) talked knowledgeably about how the law needs to change, and made a wider point about use of bailiffs being a symptom of increasing household debt. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) brought a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate and talked about how enforcement orders are used. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made a wider, and important, point about the need to be tough on bailiffs and tough on the causes of bailiffs. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) talked of desperate people chasing desperate people and brought her long-standing expertise to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) talked about how the complaints system is not working and is not fit for purpose, and the wider issue of poverty.
There really is no excuse for the Minister not to act. As the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) explained, some of the bailiff companies are themselves calling for independent regulation. I have a fundamental request. Will the Minister agree to enact a properly independent regulator, and will she set a timetable today to do so? Will she also urge other local councils to follow the example of Hammersmith and Fulham and not use bailiffs? Will she heed the call from the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for councils to look at how they deal with repossession and rehousing? Every day that we wait is another day of stress and despair for too many people struggling with bailiffs.
I remind the Minister that it is customary to leave a minute or so for the proposer of the motion to wind up. I call the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing the debate on a matter that I know has affected her constituents greatly, as she spoke to me about it a few weeks ago.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members for the quality and passion of the contributions today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, this is a timely debate because on 25 November the Government launched a call for evidence to inform their second review of the 2014 reforms that regulate enforcement agents, in order to ensure that that important area operates well. We have framed that call for evidence against the points that have been raised with us about how the system is not operating as it should. We have heard much today that will help us reflect on that call for evidence.
It is interesting that three colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) and for Hendon (Dr Offord)—all raised examples of bailiffs taking action against people who were not even the debtors.
I welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to review the matter. Does the Minister agree that it is important to stop innocent homeowners being caught up in the collection of debts that they have nothing to do with, including where those debts have been incurred through fraudulent credit card applications, as in the case of my constituent?
That is a very interesting point, which I just highlighted—three of my hon. Friends raised the issue of whom the action is taken against. I know my hon. Friend feels strongly about this, and it is something he has talked to me about before.
Before I turn to the review in more detail, I want to set out a bit more about the subject of debt enforcement more broadly. Enforcement agent action has been, and is likely to remain, a highly divisive subject. People who experience debt problems represent a broad spectrum of society, including some who are extremely vulnerable and others who deliberately refuse to pay for products and services.
It is important to note the two points that were made in this debate by a number of Members. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) highlighted the need for people who owe money to pay their debts, because the recovery of debts is important to the economy and the justice system. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) highlighted the good practice of a company in her constituency. The Government are committed to ensuring that all enforcement agents treat debtors fairly and operate responsibly and proportionately. Our role as a Government is to strike the right balance between ensuring that debts can be collected effectively while protecting debtors from enforcement agents’ aggressive behaviour.
With those principles in mind, and after an extensive period of research and engagement, the Government imposed significant extra regulation on the enforcement process and the behaviour of enforcement agents in April 2014. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East welcomes those reforms, which included a comprehensive code governing when and how enforcement agents can enter somebody’s premises; the safeguards to prevent the use of force against debtors; which goods agents can and cannot seize and, if necessary, sell; and what fees they can charge.
The reforms stopped enforcement agents entering homes when only children are present and introduced important safeguards for vulnerable debtors. They aimed to make all parties more aware of their rights and responsibilities and introduced a new certification process for enforcement agents to ensure that they are the right people for the job. They introduced mandatory training to ensure that enforcement agents have the skills required to perform the role. The Government undertook to review the implementation of the reforms after one, three and, if necessary, five years in order to check that they are working as intended. The review, which was published in 2018, found that the reforms had many positive benefits, such as better awareness of debtors’ rights and how to complain, as well as more clarity for debtors about the fees that can be charged, the processes that should be followed and where to go for advice. However it also reported that debt advisers and debtors still perceive some enforcement agents to be acting aggressively and, in some cases, not acting within the regulations.
The Government take those concerns very seriously. While many enforcement agents work within the law, we will not tolerate any who pursue aggressive tactics and bad practice, who make people’s lives a misery and ruin the industry’s reputation. For that reason, we launched the call for evidence to shine a spotlight on the behaviour of enforcement agents. Many of the points that have been raised today are the subject of that call for evidence. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and for Wolverhampton North East highlighted the problem of threatening behaviour, which is part of the call for evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East raised the issue of complaints, which is also a subject for the call for evidence. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough raised issues about training—again, that is a matter for the call for evidence.
The independent regulator, which is part of our consultation, was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Henley and for Harborough, and by the hon. Members for Coventry South, for Wolverhampton North East, for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). The treatment of vulnerable people was raised by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), and that is also covered in the call for evidence, which is running for 12 weeks until 17 February 2019. As part of that, we are meeting representatives from the advice sector to get a better understanding of the research they have conducted and their concerns, and we will also be talking to enforcement agents and creditors. However the call for evidence is not just about collecting data; we are very keen to hear from people about their individual experiences. A number of hon. Members have shared the experiences of their constituents, whom I encourage to respond to our call for evidence.
I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to meet the hon. Member for Croydon Central and her constituents the Rogers family, who sadly lost Jerome following visits to their home by enforcement agents. Like others, I am pleased to see them here today. I thank them for their contribution to this important issue and for their continuing efforts to highlight this matter.
A number of hon. Members have suggested that the Government’s reforms should go further by introducing an independent regulator, and that there should be a simpler, free and independent complaints procedure. As set out in the call for evidence, we are considering these suggestions. The call for evidence asks whether independent regulation is needed and, if so, what form that should take and how it should be funded. We would welcome any input on all those questions. It also asks about the complaints procedure, as I have said.
In addition to reviewing the behaviour of enforcement agents, the Government are working more widely to help people who fall into problem debt by providing them with protection and ensuring that creditors are acting responsibly. For example, the Government are increasing funding for free debt advice via the Money Advice Service, which will spend £56 million this year to help more than half a million people. After consultation, and via regulations to be laid this year, the Government will implement their 2017 manifesto commitment to introduce a breathing space in order to give people in serious debt the right to legal protections from their creditors for up to six weeks. We will also introduce a statutory debt repayment plan to enable those with unmanageable debts to enter into an agreement to pay their debts in a realistic timeframe. The Ministry of Justice is a member of the Government’s Fairness Group, which works with the advice sector to look at the issue of fairness in Government debt management and in enforcement practices.
I would like to end by commenting on the cross-party support to address this important issue. It has been invaluable to me, and I am sure to others, to hear not only people’s tragic personal stories, but articulate and thoughtful arguments about the principle behind these issues.
Will the Minister meet her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss possession orders and assist local authorities in rehousing people before such a possession order is escalated to the High Court? That would ensure that they are removed from a property immediately, preventing the hardship and stress that many people experience.
I note that my hon. Friend made a very eloquent speech on that subject, which we can of course look into.
Enforcement agents play an important role in recovering money. It is a matter of regret that some are not behaving as they should, and that many members of the public do not hold them in high regard. It is vital that the public has confidence in them.
I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East for the opportunity to respond to this debate, and I look forward to the finalisation and conclusion of the call for evidence on how we can take this matter forward.
I thank Members from across the House, including our Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister, for contributing to this debate. For those who have given such powerful examples of bailiffs’ poor, aggressive and intimidating behaviour. What has been striking about this debate—it is not always the case in this place—is the cross-party consensus that the current system of self-regulation is not working. There is a need for an independent regulator, a clear and simple complaints procedure, the training of bailiffs and better protection for vulnerable people.
I welcome the Government’s call for evidence and the Justice Committee’s inquiry that has just started. We must see this issue in the wider context of rising levels of household debt, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West. The need for change is urgent. We have to do more to root out aggressive and intimidating behaviour. We have to address the anomaly that somehow bailiffs are not properly regulated but debt advice charities and debt collection agencies are. Above all we must ensure that, in a civilised society, everybody is treated with respect. The focus should be on helping people who get into debt to get out of debt, not forcing them into a spiral of despair, which in some cases has led to the most tragic events, as we have heard with Jerome Rogers taking his own life.
I know that the Minister is listening to Members of different parties, and I thank her for doing that. I hope that after the period of the call for evidence, the Government can quickly put in place these reforms, for which there is cross-party support. I hope that we can work together to ensure that this aggressive behaviour is rooted out.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered bailiff regulatory reform.
Social Mobility: North-west
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered social mobility in the North West.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Social mobility is a term that we frequently use, but what do we really mean by it? At its core, we are discussing the life chances of every person in our constituencies, but what impact does the place we live, the family we were born to, our age, our career, our earnings or our parents’ background have on our educational and career opportunities and our life experiences?
Perfect social mobility would mean that, wherever we come from and whatever our background and our parents’ experiences, we have a fair shot of success. Sadly, many of the constituencies represented by hon. Members in this debate are all too familiar with what poor social mobility looks like. It means that in areas such as Leigh, the place in which a person happens to live or have grown up in too often dictates their opportunities in life and blocks their shot at success.
I am doubly delighted, as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility and as a north-west Member, to be present in this debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just a regional issue, but is much more nuanced? It varies between individual towns, and there are rural issues too. Social mobility is a much more finessed geographical issue than is sometimes imagined.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for all the work he does on the APPG on social mobility. I think he is referring to the 2017 “State of the nation” report, which stated that it is no longer inner cities, but remote rural and coastal areas and former industrial areas where social mobility is a huge problem. He will agree that that goes against everything we should stand for as MPs. It cements inequality into our society. It excludes and isolates whole areas of the country from our joint prosperity. It demotivates and demoralises, and can even lead to the breakdown of our social fabric.
Unfortunately, in the north-west we know exactly how that can feel. The region has some of the highest poverty rates and some of the lowest attainment rates in the UK. Fewer than half of children from low-income families—48%—are school-ready. Just 3.9% of children eligible for free school meals gained five A grades at GCSE, and nearly three quarters of local authorities in the north-west have more than one in four workers earning below the living wage. As the Social Mobility Commission said in its annual report, and as I just mentioned,
“old industrial towns and coal mining areas that have struggled as England has moved from a manufacturing to a services-based economy now dominate the areas identified as social mobility coldspots.”
As the Member of Parliament for Leigh and, most importantly, having lived in and represented our post-industrial towns, I know exactly what poor social mobility can lead to. I grew up in neighbouring Salford, and I did not have the best start. Back in the 1980s—I am probably giving my age away now—I did not have the best education. I left school without qualifications, and so did many of my peers and friends. I was lucky because I got supported, but that was not the case for many of my friends.
There are many drivers of social mobility. What more does the hon. Lady think can be done to keep people who have achieved social mobility and become successful in the communities they came from, rather than moving away and taking their success with them? What more can local communities and perhaps local authorities do to help people to remain in place?
I thank my constituency neighbour for that contribution. He is absolutely right. Particularly in places such as Leigh, we see that if people become qualified, get a good education and go on to university, they do not bring their skills back.
I am conscious that we do not have much time, so I will be brief. On that point, we found in evidence to the APPG that it is important that people who have moved on go back and give youngsters something to aim for, aspirations, ideas and a belief that they can get on and do different things in life.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and, again, for all the work he is doing in the APPG.
It pained me to read in a recent House of Commons Library analysis that the constituency of Leigh is ranked 501 out of 533 on the social mobility league table, but we must be up front and honest about why we are there. As a post-industrial town, which was once at the heart of the first industrial revolution, we knew what success and prosperity looked like. As the mines closed and the Beeching cuts took away our railway stations, we were left without the infrastructure to prosper or the investment to succeed.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I congratulate her on securing this debate and thank her for being such a fantastic neighbouring MP. We represent towns and villages across St Helens and Leigh that are intimately linked because they were, and still consider themselves to be, coalfield communities. Does she agree that the Government should continue to support those proud, resilient communities through organisations such as the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Industrial Communities Alliance, which are implementing programmes that create employment opportunities, increase social mobility and give ambition to our young people in those communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point. He is absolutely right about the support that is out there for communities such as ours. Later in my speech, I will talk about what we can do to come together to make this issue work for places such as Leigh and St Helens North.
We have been left isolated from our booming cities, without the tools to remedy our situation. There is no doubt that the talent and aspiration is there. I am often struck by the energy and determination of our young people, who are desperate to get on in life and succeed, and by the passion of our incredible community leaders such as Peter Rowlinson and Elizabeth Costello in the Leigh Film Society, who work relentlessly to put Leigh on the map. Without outside help and meaningful plans for inclusive growth, towns like Leigh are left feeling helpless.
I am very lucky to live in a constituency that has very good transport links into London. I was in Manchester at the weekend and had the pleasure of travelling on the trams there. Does my hon. Friend think that greater investment in the transport system would benefit Leigh and overcome the social mobility issues?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point. Again, that is something that I will talk about later in my speech. This is not just about education, but about a whole-system approach, which includes transport. We need to bring it all together.
Let me talk about the pathway of a young person growing up in Leigh and share that experience. The statistics and Ofsted reports show that our school provision is good. We are not letting young people down between five and 16, as they progress through education, but when a young person reaches the stage of deciding their career path, they hit a brick wall. There is no obvious industry to enter as there used to be. We are desperately short of inward business investment, which often comes with the offer of apprenticeships and training. With only one sixth-form college in the whole constituency, achieving A-levels is difficult. Our young people have to travel out of the constituency to gain decent A-levels. A higher education is even more difficult with no providers at all. Where other constituencies might rely on transport connectivity to access those opportunities, the young people of Leigh cannot. They are brought up in the fifth largest town without a railway station in the country. Those young people are left with the looming question at the end of their mandatory education: “Then what?”
Quite simply, our failure to provide adequate options in answer to that question, which should be at the top of our list of priorities, is an enormous failure of us all as a society. Although I am enormously optimistic that this week’s draft spatial framework in Greater Manchester will explore the options for a railway station in the constituency—I will be working closely with Transport for Greater Manchester on that—we must look at the Government’s broader responsibility to promote and ensure inclusive prosperity. When I look at their response however, I am left asking, “Where is the pathway for local areas to propose local plans? Where are the resources to tackle”—in the words of the Prime Minister—“those ‘burning injustices’? And where is the joined-up strategy across Government needed to tackle such an enormous problem?”
As delighted as I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) will respond for the Government, why has it fallen to the Minister of State for Children and Families to respond to an issue in desperate need of a cross-governmental approach? Social mobility needs a whole-Government approach that opens the machinery of government up to local areas. This is not only a children’s or educational issue, as it feeds into our infrastructure needs and our transport connectivity, and it crosses into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury. This truly is a cross-Whitehall task that needs the resources of a cross-Whitehall response.
Too often, token vanity projects from the Government are hailed as the golden bullet for social and economic progress. They include, for example, the creation of the Social Mobility Commission—it went nearly a year without commissioners after they all resigned—the northern powerhouse and HS2. HS2, a prime example, was meant to connect northern communities with London and the south-east—the famous trickle-down model of economic inclusivity. HS2 will cut through the middle of my constituency, however, and offers no connectivity whatsoever. The nearest station to access HS2 will be an hour away for some residents. How does that help our northern communities, which are feeling isolated and held back?
We must also recognise that the Government’s response cannot be blanket across the country, but needs to complement and respond to plans drawn up locally with the input of the community, and in Leigh, we took the first step last year. I recognised that our towns face unique challenges, so I organised the first Leigh social mobility roundtable, where the local council, schools, businesses, community organisations and stakeholders were all invited to discuss our situation, what can be done and what needs to be changed to help everyone in Leigh to succeed.
As I am sure the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—to whom I am grateful for attending our roundtable—would agree, what quickly became apparent is that without Government support for local plans or the devolution of investment and infrastructure decisions, towns such as Leigh will never be connected to the educational and employment opportunities in nearby cities or their thriving economies. Put simply, without a railway line and with such poor road infrastructure, which already struggles to cope with our daily pressures, how will constituents access educational and retraining opportunities outside of the town, and why would businesses decide to invest in our towns? The people of Leigh have been left in this never-ending cycle of limited employment, low pay, and restricted opportunities to upskill or retrain.
To us, Leigh is a beautiful place to live and bring up a family; a place with rich culture and heritage, near to both Manchester and Liverpool. But we have seen our town transformed from the thriving powerhouse of the industrial revolution to a place left feeling isolated and held back; a place that no longer offers the opportunities that it once did. For the first time, the next generation may not see fulfilled the promise of a better life than the generation before them. That sad reality underlines the importance and urgency of taking action to leave our community on a better footing than when we found it.
I therefore urge the Minister to review the approach that the Government take, recognise the importance of locally produced models and commit to empowering and entrusting our communities with the investment decisions that have such a heavy impact on their lives.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) for securing this vital debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. She spoke powerfully of her experience growing up and the experience through the eyes of a young person growing up in Leigh.
At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who was born and bred in Leigh. He grew up and left school with only five O-levels and no A-levels, went to hairdressing college, opened a salon, which became the biggest hair salon and chain in the Leigh area, before he became the MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale. His son is a lawyer from Leigh. That is a true example of social mobility in Leigh. I also thank the hon. Members who have so far contributed to this important debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for St Helens North (Conor McGinn).
We welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Leigh—it is important that we take a close look at social mobility. Rightly, social mobility is a critical priority for the Government and, as she argues, it is a challenge that requires action across the whole of Government in order to make progress. Our social housing Green Paper, for example, makes social mobility a key priority, and we are the Government who introduced the national living wage and increased it at the last Budget. The hon. Lady is also right to single out the importance of good transport connections for regional prosperity. That is why £48 billion will be invested in modernising our rail network over the next five years.
To ensure that our efforts are joined up across Government, the industrial strategy provides a comprehensive plan to ensure that no place is left behind when it comes to boosting opportunity and growth. That strategy sets out the steps that we are taking to spur productivity and to create more high-skilled and high-paying jobs. We are delivering that agenda not only across Whitehall, but through our local industrial strategies, local enterprise partnerships and with mayoral combined authorities.
As a Minister in the Department for Education, however, I hope that the hon. Lady will understand if I focus the majority of my remarks on that subject, although not just because of my day job. As someone who came to this country unable to speak English, I know at first hand how education can change lives and open the doors of opportunity. We still live in a country where someone’s start in life far too often determines their future success. Education can and should break this link by helping everyone to fulfil their potential. I am pleased to say that the Government have made significant progress in closing the opportunity gap when it comes to education. The difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has been reduced across all stages of education, and through our opportunity areas programme, we are targeting extra support at some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.
Yet there can be no room for complacency. It is both an economic and a moral imperative that we ensure the schools system works for all and that it does so up and down the country.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that, on youth social mobility, my constituency comes 73rd out of 553 constituencies from around England and Wales? I also want to support the idea of a huge sense of responsibility—a duty—not only for local entrepreneurs to invest in the local communities but for local councils to support local business, provide opportunities and enable those businesses to invest. It is so much more inspirational when someone comes from our own community.
My hon. Friend makes the point about engagement by local councils eloquently. He pursues such engagement passionately, locally and nationally.
The reason why we take action in every region and at every stage of a young person’s life is to close the opportunity gap. I will now take each of the stages of education in turn, reflecting in particular on the progress that we have made in the north-west of England.
Good early years education is the cornerstone of social mobility and we are making record investment in that area. Too many children, however, still fall behind early, and later in life it is hard to close the gap that emerges. Today, 28% of children finish their reception year without the early communication and reading skills that they need to thrive. The Secretary of State has set out his ambition to halve that figure by 2028. We have announced a range of initiatives to deliver it, including a local authority peer review programme, which we piloted in Wigan, and a professional development fund for early years practitioners in 54 local authorities.
The Government are committed to help parents to access affordable childcare, which is why we will spend about £6 billion on childcare support in 2019-20, a record amount. That will include funding for our free early education entitlements, on which we plan to spend £3.5 billion this year alone. I am pleased to say that, in Wigan, take-up of all the Government childcare entitlements is high: 93% of eligible children there took up care that we made available for two-year-olds, which figure is substantially higher than the national average of 72%; equally, 95% of three and four-year-olds took up an entitlement place, which is also higher than the national average. During the first year of delivery, more than 2,700 children in Wigan benefited from the places that we made available under our policy offering of 30 hours of free childcare.
On school education, we target extra support at the poorest areas of the country to raise standards and to attract great teachers to our primary and secondary schools. I know that schools have faced cost pressures in recent years, but I am happy to report that schools in the north-west will attract an average of 2.8% more funding per pupil by 2019-20 compared with 2017-18.
Will the Minister give way?
I am trying to make headway, but if I have time, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman towards the end.
This year, the north-west received more than £369 million in additional funding through the pupil premium, giving more than 300,000 disadvantaged young people extra support for their education.
On post-16 education, our efforts do not stop when school comes to an end. Social mobility means that everyone must have the right level of ongoing support to help them on to a path to a skilled job. That could be via university, but it could also be a more practical, technical path. I am sure that the hon. Member for Leigh and I agree that getting that right is critical to boost regional growth and to expand access to opportunity for all. In the current academic year, we invested more than £750 million in the education of 16 to 19-year-olds in the north-west, with £80 million of that funding allocated specifically to support disadvantaged students in reaching their potential, whether that is for employment or ongoing education.
For those who want to take the academic route, we will ensure its availability as well. We therefore welcome the fact that more disadvantaged pupils than ever before go on to university. In 2010, more than a quarter—27.6%, in fact—of 18-year-olds from the north-west entered university; by 2018, that figure had risen to one in three, or 33.1%, so the north-west outperformed all English regions outside London and the south-east. Data released by the Department for Education in November of last year showed that 23% of students eligible for free school meals from the north-west had entered higher education by age 19 in 2016-17. That compares with 26% for England, with only London and the west midlands having a higher rate.
In the north-west, the Office for Students has invested more than £15 million through its national collaborative outreach programme, with key programmes in Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. The Government have also embarked on a long-overdue overhaul of technical education, which is why we are acting to expand high-quality apprenticeships. In the 2017-18 academic year, the 58,120 apprenticeship starts in the north-west were 15.5% of all such starts in England.
Skills challenges and priorities differ not only across the country, but within regions such as the north-west. We heard that from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. We must therefore collaborate with local partners in order to ensure our reforms make sense on the ground, which was very much his point. That means working with employers and providers, and supporting individuals who want to succeed in life and work. We have also introduced skills advisory panels, which will bring together local employers and skills providers to pool knowledge on skills and labour market needs in the regions. That will help to address local skills gaps more effectively.
We are to introduce a national retraining scheme, an ambitious and far-reaching programme to drive adult learning and retraining. It will be in place by the end of this Parliament. The Chancellor recently announced £100 million to roll out initial elements of the scheme across the country. That accompanies funding announced in the previous budget for the Greater Manchester combined authority to test different approaches to encourage and support adults to undertake training.
I am happy to take an intervention if the hon. Member for St Helens North still wishes to make one.
The Minister is so generous to take one intervention from the Opposition in the 10 minutes for which he has spoken. None the less, I appreciate it.
When I visit schools in my constituency, teachers and headteachers tell me that they have less money, fewer resources and larger class sizes. Does that have an impact on social mobility?
We have protected the schools budget. I hope that I made that clear earlier in my remarks, when I also recognised that there are financial pressures on schools.
Progress on social mobility is critical to our shared prosperity. No progress is possible without action in every part of a young person’s education and in every part of our country. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leigh for beginning the year with a debate on a subject that is fundamental to our future success as a country. Again, I thank my colleagues for their contributions—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston, for Enfield, Southgate and for St Helens North—and congratulate my brilliant PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, on his ability not only to build a great business but to be a very successful musician. He has delivered real social mobility in Leigh.
Question put and agreed to.
Journalists: International Protection
I beg to move,
That this House has considered international protection of journalists.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.
Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.
There are varying figures for the record over the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.
Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group, as he will know from his previous role. It is the case that 152 named individuals, many of whom are based here in London, working for BBC Persia have been stopped from buying or selling property, and their families have been accused of the most hideous things, which is impacting their relatives in Iran. Does he join me in calling for the Minister to do everything he can to protect those individuals?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend. I will call upon the Minister to make it a routine matter to raise concerns about the safety of journalists whenever we have contact with countries where, sadly, imprisonments or deaths have taken place.
I rise as the chair of the cross-party group of the National Union of Journalists. I was very interested in the figures the right hon. Gentleman presented. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related incidents last year. In the light of that, does he agree that the UK Government might be called on to do everything possible to support the call for a new United Nations convention on the protection of journalists and media workers?
It is correct that there is a small difference in the figures from RSF and the International Federation. What we all agree is that the figures are extremely worrying and have been going up. That is the reason for the debate. I absolutely join the hon. Lady in calling on the Government to do more. I know the Minister will want to set that out in due course.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I welcome this debate. Does he agree in the same vein that the Foreign Office has a very serious and important role in the protection of journalists, and that it must do all it can to protect journalists and our citizens wherever they are?
I agree. I was going to say and probably will say again that I absolutely welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to prioritise this issue and for the UK to take a lead internationally in pressing for more to be done. The hon. Lady’s calls have been heard in the Foreign Office and I hope this will prove an opportunity for the Minister to tell us a little about what is intended.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IFJ. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of the IFJ and the NUJ? Does he agree that strong trade unions are a force for good in protecting democracy and freedom of expression?
I do not always leap to say that trade unions are a force for good, but in this instance I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The International Federation of Journalists does great work alongside the other organisations that I mentioned. This is a priority area for non-governmental organisations and a lot of work is being done but, unfortunately, one reason is that the record is so poor at present.
I talked about countries that perhaps will not have come as a great surprise—places such as China, which has the worst record for imprisonment, and Afghanistan and Syria. Sadly, it is also happening in Europe. I want particularly to mention the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta at the end of October 2017, and the death of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria. The climate that provokes hostility towards journalism is, to some extent, encouraged by intemperate remarks from people who really should know better. I do not want to single out President Trump, but I think his attacks on journalism generally have not helped in this regard. When someone such as the President of Czech Republic holds up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”, that clearly will lead to a climate in which journalists have reason to fear.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else. As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk in order to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.
I agree with the hon. Lady. Like almost everyone in this House I suspect, I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society. Therefore, to some extent we have to take the reports that we do not like alongside those that we do.
Since we are talking about Europe, does my right hon. Friend welcome and support the work of the Council of Europe to protect journalists, and the new platform it has set up that makes it very public which journalists have been attacked and imprisoned unjustly?
I very much support the work of the Council of Europe. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which also highlights journalistic abuses but, unfortunately, as I just said, Europe does not have a spotless record. Indeed, the new country holding the presidency of European Union, Romania, has a poor record of intimidation of journalists.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with interventions. He will be aware that the Council of Europe has taken up the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist who has been in prison for nearly two years for the so-called crime of slander. He has been on hunger strike for two weeks. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government should also take up Mr Huseynov’s case and make representations to the Azerbaijani authorities?
I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. I have my own criticisms of Azerbaijan and regard it as a badge of honour that I am blacklisted from visiting. That is a particularly bad case and he should be added to the list of those we are pursuing internationally at every opportunity.
I want to allow as many people as possible to speak, so I will make just two points to finish. First, as I indicated, I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s statements that he wants to prioritise this. I understand that the British Government intends to organise an international conference on the subject of the protection of journalists later this year, which is a very welcome initiative. As the newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I intend to organise a parallel conference alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one. While the FCO can try and reach agreement among Governments that more needs to be done on as wide a basis as possible, we can try to mobilise parliamentarians from different countries to give this priority. I look forward to working with the Minister in due course.
Secondly, there have been calls for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. That would demonstrate the importance with which the issue is held by the UN. At present, it comes within a broader remit, but the specific appointment of somebody to highlight the safety of journalists would help. I understand that something like 30 countries have signed up to that proposition, so I hope the Government would consider adding our support in due course.
Sadly, there are a lot of cases and I could spend a great deal of time talking about them. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise some of them. I am encouraged that so many of them have come to the debate, so I will deliberately keep what I say short so that as many as possible have the opportunity to contribute.
Order. I have seven speakers listed and intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople by 5.14 pm. If Members who I call can confine their remarks to four minutes each, we will get everybody in.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is the new chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which I am a vice-chairman. The IPU does very good work on the human rights of Members of Parliament all over the world, and that includes many journalists who are in trouble.
The debate is particularly timely, in the light of the brutal murder of the Washington Post columnist and Saudi national, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, and the very real dangers faced by journalists around the world in carrying out their work. I note that TIME magazine collectively named Jamal Khashoggi and other journalists who had been killed or imprisoned as its person of the year for 2018. Its editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, explained that
“influence—the measure…for nine decades…of TIME’s Person of the Year—derives from courage,”
and that the named journalists and one news organisation being recognised
“have paid a terrible price”
to receive that accolade.
Journalists and the media are important civil society actors and fundamental to ensuring that information is collected, disseminated, exchanged and evaluated to illuminate the dark corners where suffering, discrimination and injustice prevail, and to hold those in power to account to prevent tyranny and corruption. It is not surprising that those with something to hide, or who are motivated by power, greed or hatred, are often particularly keen to undermine, stigmatise and silence those endeavouring to bring their actions and abuses to light, by enforced censorship, the creation of a climate necessitating self-censorship, intimidation, persecution, unwarranted criminal or civil prosecution, imprisonment, or even disappearance and murder.
The International Federation of Journalists, which is a global group, notes that 84 journalists, cameramen, fixers and technicians died last year in targeted killings, bomb attacks and cross-fire incidents. It highlights an ongoing safety crisis in journalism, which was dramatically illustrated by the cruel murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Interestingly—and worryingly—IFJ figures reveal that more journalists were killed last year for trying to cover stories in their communities, cities and countries than for reporting in armed conflict areas. Increasing dangers are posed to journalists by a growing intolerance of independent reporting, by populism, by rampant corruption, by organised crime and by the breakdown of law and order in countries such as Mexico, India, Pakistan, the US, the Philippines and Guatemala.
The Committee to Protect Journalists recently published a report on the numbers of journalists imprisoned by Governments. At least 251 journalists were jailed in 2018, underlining authoritarian Governments’ ongoing attempts to close down critical reporting. According to the CPJ, Turkey, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea are imprisoning the highest number of journalists, as the right hon. Member for Maldon mentioned. For the third year in a row, Turkey, China and Egypt are responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world. Turkey again has the dubious distinction of taking the number one spot, further to President Erdogan’s attempt to stifle all peaceful debate, criticism and potential challenge to his rule. That includes a number of people I met when I took an IPU delegation to Turkey, where we met journalists who were in fear of being imprisoned and subsequently have been arrested and imprisoned. People feel that fear daily: they do not know when a knock at the door will come.
For the third consecutive year, every one of the 68 journalists behind bars in Turkey was facing anti-state charges, including alleged membership of a terrorist organisation, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, spreading propaganda or engagement in terrorist propaganda. Although Erdogan began the crackdown against his opponents before the 2016 failed coup, repression has undoubtedly intensified since then, with the closure of more than 100 news outlets by decree and thousands of journalists losing their jobs as a result. As mentioned last week, a Turkish journalist and member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was sentenced to more than a year in jail for her work on the Paradise papers, simply because those papers and that investigation revealed details of the business activities of the country’s former Prime Minister, who is now speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Binali Yildirim, and his sons, despite the Yildirim family admitting that the articles about their Maltese businesses were accurate.
Sadly I appear to have run out of time already, but I want to say that I went to Iraq after the invasion—or the liberation—and met journalists who had to write their copy at that time according to press releases given to them by the Iraqi Government. Of course, they were what Saddam Hussein wanted them to say, rather than their own observations.
I pay tribute to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, based in Islington, which trains journalists and was then in the process of retraining journalists in Iraq. I went along to one of those meetings and asked whether they had any questions for me. One of them put his hand up and said, “Why did it take you so long to get here?” They now felt that they were free, which they had not been before, to observe what was going on in their country and give accurate reports on the excesses of the Saddam Hussein regime. As an ex-journalist myself, I value the freedom that journalists have and take all over the world, and the bravery they show when they are likely to get into trouble in the countries in which they are reporting.
I am going to call John Howell now. I am imposing a four-minute time limit on your speech, Mr Howell, consistent with my previous guidance. I indicate to other speakers that after that, there will be a three-minute guideline.
I will try to keep it as short as possible, Mr Bailey. I will start by re-emphasising the point I made in the intervention; I know that I am a bit of a Council of Europe buff, but I make no apology for saying it here. The issue is of great importance to the Council of Europe, both keeping journalists up to the mark and ensuring they do not exploit people, and ensuring that they are safe and that there is suitable protection for them.
The reason we are concerned about this in the Council of Europe is one of self-preservation. So many journalists from around Europe are there that there is a great need to ensure that their interests are kept up to the mark. For example, the head of the Ukrainian delegation is himself a journalist, and he and I have a lot of discussions about journalism in Ukraine. In addition to Azerbaijan and the problems we have with Russia at the moment, Ukraine is also a place that needs to look after its journalists in a big way where they are under threat from the Russian invasion.
Of course, the Council of Europe relies on the European convention on human rights, and article 10 is the appropriate bit. While I hope it is not necessary all the time to come back to the courts in order to ensure the protection of journalists, I am pleased to see that the European Court of Human Rights has produced a number of judgments that thoroughly protect the rights of journalists.
The other thing that the council has done, which I will just mention, is to introduce a platform for the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. The platform is a public space to facilitate the compilation, processing and dissemination of information on serious concerns about media freedom and the safety of journalists in Council of Europe member states—it obviously cannot go outside those member states, but it does those things within member states. The two things required for that are, first, to ensure that we are all alerted on time when journalists’ safety is threatened, which it does by putting their pictures up on a public database and, secondly, to take a systematic approach, ensuring that every journalist who is threatened is there, which I think it does.
The platform has a number of things that people need to comply with: it must be a serious concern about media freedom, it must take place in a Council of Europe member state, the information must be reliable and based on fact, and the information must also be in the public domain, which I think is a sensible requirement so that we do not have things that are half-hidden. With all that, I am encouraged that this mechanism is in place to enable the safety of journalism and journalists to be protected.
George Orwell said:
“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.”
I will offer three reflections on that statement in three minutes, but before I do so, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on his exposition, which demonstrated his typical clarity and brevity. Whatever our political differences, he and I have always shared an enthusiasm—a love, even—for freedom of the press.
That is my first point: the decisions we make in this House matter. In our nation we are lucky to live among only 13% of humanity who enjoy freedom of the press. The vast bulk of the world does not. When we make decisions, as we did last year about whether there should be punitive damages on news organisations that did not sign up to a state-approved regulator, those decisions matter, because dictators around the world look at what we are doing. I am proud that our party changed its policy and our deputy leader said that never again would we advocate that. When did “mainstream media” become a term of abuse? When did “balanced news” become a term of abuse? That has entered our politics as well, and what we do here is important for what happens in the rest of the world.
Secondly, the BBC has been mentioned. I was up early on Sunday morning and heard a religious and ethical programme on Radio 4 called “Sunday” on which Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, spoke about this very issue. She said that it is the worst time ever in the world to be a journalist, and she explained that statement in a couple of ways. She said that the respect that journalists reporting internationally around the world enjoyed when she was young is less apparent now. She said that that was partly because in the past, even the most hard-nosed terrorist organisations needed journalists to get their message out. Now they do not need them so much, and there are more kidnappings. She also pointed out that 98% of journalists who are imprisoned are local journalists, not renowned international journalists from the BBC or CNN. That is because, in the past 20 years, such journalists have had more outlets through social media and so on, but they are also very exposed to oppressive regimes around the world. We must admire and honour them.
My final point relates to another thing that the right hon. Gentleman and I share: a love of Ukraine, which has already been mentioned in this debate. In November or December last year, I went to a commemoration of 85 years since the holodomor—Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine. It was British journalists, Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge, who helped to expose it, all those years ago. Gareth Jones’ reporting was printed in The Guardian, which was doing good work then, as it is now. That fearless journalism is needed in Ukraine now, particularly in Donbass, to give truthful accounts of what is happening and what Putin’s regime is up to in that part of the world. Never has freedom of the press been more needed in Ukraine and, indeed, throughout the world.
I will speak specifically and in a little more detail on behalf of the BBC Persian journalists and their families who have been targeted for harassment by the Iranian authorities, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), whom I congratulate on bringing this debate.
The BBC World Service states that the Iranian authorities have systematically targeted BBC Persian journalists who are mainly based in London and their families in Iran since the service launched satellite television in 2009. However, recent measures have escalated that persecution and the World Service has serious concerns for the safety and wellbeing of the journalists and their families. I commend the bravery of those journalists and of their families who support them.
In 2017, the Iranian authorities commenced a criminal investigation into journalists working for the service in London, alleging that their work was a crime against Iran’s national security. That was accompanied by an asset-freezing injunction preventing 152 named individuals, comprising mainly current and former BBC Persian staff, from buying or selling property inside Iran, as we have heard.
Other measures against the journalists and their families have included arbitrary arrests, interrogation and detention of family members in Iran, confiscation of passports and travel bans on family members leaving Iran to prevent them from seeing their relatives who work for the BBC Persian service, ongoing surveillance and harassment, and the spread of fake and defamatory news stories designed to undermine the reputation of those staff and their families, for example by accusing them of prostitution or infidelity, much of which is targeted at the female journalists.
Since August 2018 there have been targeted attacks on several journalists in Iran’s state press, using inflammatory language and providing names and photographs of the journalists. Before I give an example, I ask the Minister if he will once again raise these concerns with the Iranian authorities. Time precludes me from going into the full details in my speech, which have come to me this week directly from the World Service, but if I may I will provide the full text to the Minister.
To give a recent example, in August 2018, on Iran’s national day for journalists, comments were made about BBC Persian through the Mizan news agency, which is affiliated to the Iranian judiciary, describing BBC Persian staff as a “mafia gang” who
“must be held answerable for their actions against the Iranian people”,
“will surely be exposed one day before the Iranian nation, and God’s hand of justice will manifest itself through the arms of the Iranian people, and they will be punished for their actions.”
Those who follow Iranian politics will know that language is ominous—it has been used in the past with regard to extrajudicial killings. BBC World Service staff are extremely concerned that the statements represent a significant recent escalation of the threats made against named BBC Persian colleagues.
Order. I have just realised that my arithmetic was slightly out and that I will have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.9 pm, so there is a now a two-minute time limit.
I will keep my comments short. I only want to raise with the Minister the case of Mehman Huseynov, who, as I said earlier, is an Azerbaijani journalist, human rights activist and blogger who has been in prison for the so-called crime of slander since March 2017. As has been said, independent human rights organisations view Azerbaijan as one of the world’s most repressive countries, and its judicial system is not seen as independent of its powerful Executive. Azerbaijan is a part of Europe, and is not very far from here.
Further charges were levelled against Mr Huseynov in December and he is now on hunger strike in protest against them. The charges against him have been dubbed “bogus” by the Washington Post, and his case has also attracted support from the Assembly of the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch and US Senator Marco Rubio.
Because of Mr Huseynov’s hunger strike, his health is deteriorating. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights saw fit to make an intervention earlier this week, calling the Azerbaijani deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to raise Mr Huseynov’s case. She told the deputy Minister that the charges against Mr Huseynov should be dropped because they lack credibility and underscored that the authorities are under an obligation to afford the necessary medical care to Mr Huseynov, whose condition is extremely worrying. She particularly asked the officials to transfer Mr Huseynov to a civilian hospital for medical care.
Mr Huseynov is a very young man. He was born in November 1992. His plight is particularly shocking when one thinks that he is basically in prison for simply exercising what we in this country would take as natural—the right of free speech.
I am sorry that I was a bit late coming into the debate, although I was actually on time—we started early. I have two minutes, so I had better get on with it.
I will talk about the protection of journalists in conflict. Some 26 years ago, as the UN commander, I was sent to Bosnia by the British Government with the explicit instruction that I was not to protect journalists. I was not to look after them, I was not to sustain them, I was not to give them food and I was not to give them fuel. They were not my responsibility and I was to leave them alone.
The Ministry of Defence then accredited 102 journalists to my battalion. I thought that something was weird. Then, on 20 October 1992, I recovered the body of a BBC journalist who had been cut in half by an armour-piercing round. He was a dreadful mess. He was dead, of course, which I was very upset by. His name was Tihomir Tunuković. I brought him back and thought something was wrong. On 1 November, three more journalists were in my hospital. I thought, “This is actually wrong. I have been given rotten instructions here.” They were British journalists but, British or not, any journalist required my protection, so I changed the instructions.
I note that I have 33 seconds left, so I will say only one thing. The Geneva convention should have a new protocol—perhaps the Foreign Office could start that process—to protect journalists, because the Geneva conventions are actually the laws of war and conflict. Thank you, Mr Bailey. I am sorry that I screwed up my speech.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) never screws up his speech. He spoke exceptionally well.
I thank the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for bringing the debate. I was shocked to read some of the stats that have been read out already. The Reporters Sans Frontières worldwide round-up of journalists killed, detained, held hostage or missing in 2018 is sad reading, with 80 journalists killed, 348 in prison and 60 held hostage. I represent Strangford in Northern Ireland. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that there was a campaign of murder and attacks on journalists during that terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland, with newspaper offices and delivery vans burned and offices blown up. That was all part of that 30-year conflict of terrorism and malicious murder.
These people are simply doing their job and reporting the news. While I have sometimes had difficulties with how some news is reported and sometimes struggle with what could be deemed as biased reporting, there is no doubt in my mind of the right of the reporter to present factual information. An impartial reporting mechanism, and not simply a propaganda machine, goes hand in hand with democracy.
The figures for journalists murdered across the world include 15 in Afghanistan, 11 in Syria, 9 in Mexico, 8 in Yemen, 6 in the United States and 6 in India. Some 31% were killed on the job, while 48 were premeditated murders. Many of those figures worry us greatly. Over the past 10 years, 702 professional journalists alone have been killed around the world. That trend is increasing even in Europe, the region that respects press freedom the most but that has experienced the sharpest decline in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
It is clear that freedom in any nation should include freedom of the press. That freedom must be protected, and protection is an active thing. It is not tutting when something goes wrong, but actively declaring, and using diplomatic pressure to assert, that freedom of the press is essential. That is something that I and the House believe in. Hopefully this debate will make things better for journalists across the world.
I will make just one additional point. I too have seen at first hand that many people go overseas to report in areas of conflict, in places as far away as Syria and Yemen, but also in conflict zones where the British Government are doing great work on humanitarian support and conflict resolution.
As the Government take forth their strategy and policy this year, I urge the Minister to use our bilateral footprint across the world much more emphatically and robustly at a Government-to-Government level, while at the same time integrating our approach. We spend a great deal of UK taxpayer resource not only on humanitarian issues but on capacity building—supporting institutions, strengthening governance, working with NGOs and civil society organisations. We can support journalists, free speech and freedom of the press.
As we approach World Press Freedom Day in May this year, there is a fantastic opportunity, notwithstanding UN conventions and Geneva protocols, for the United Kingdom to lead the world—as we already do when it comes to aid, foreign policy and our humanitarian approach—to strengthen our profile internationally and to give voice to those who need support to safeguard international freedoms, as well as political and press freedoms. The UK Government could do that quite robustly.
The number of Members here despite the magnitude of events in the main Chamber just goes to show the high regard in which we hold international journalists. I do not have time to go through everybody’s contributions, but I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on bringing the debate to the House and particularly on his proposals for a UN special representative on the safety of journalists. I think that proposal will garner cross-party support, and I will absolutely add my name to it. I studied media and journalism, and when I was at university I wanted to be a war correspondent—I held the likes of Kate Adie up as absolute stars. I did not realise that dream, but I did end up in another reasonably good job.
Over the holidays, I read Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin”. Her incredible life is depicted in a film that is about to come out, “A Private War”. The places that Marie reported on included Chechnya, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka—where she was injured and lost an eye—Syria and Africa. She was, we believe, assassinated in Syria in 2012. She held Martha Gellhorn, who reported the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in high regard; Gellhorn was one of her heroes. The plight of female journalists is a particular issue. As we have seen in recent years, all international journalists are under threat and it is an increasingly dangerous time, but female journalists in particular have had terrible experiences.
In an address that Marie Colvin gave at St Bride’s church on Fleet Street when she returned from Afghanistan, she reflected on the injury suffered by a colleague who stepped on a landmine and had to have both legs amputated. She said:
“The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares.”
I want to share with the House something else that she said:
“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”
Lindsey Hilsum wrote about Marie’s determination to bear witness and its importance. She said that Marie was
“the champion of bearing witness so that even if no one stopped the wars, they could never say they had not known what was happening.”
That goes to the heart of the issue. Marie’s death, or assassination, in 2012 was a tragedy not only for her family and friends, but for journalism and the truth. Her ability to report and bear witness was vital.
Journalists are our eyes and ears on the international stage. They go where we cannot. They see what we cannot see. They hear what we cannot hear. That is particularly important for politicians. There is often a relationship of conflict between journalists and politicians, but we must hold them in the highest regard—indeed, cherish them—because their accounts help to direct our decisions about aid and about troops and intervention. Without them, we are blind to the great atrocities that, as we have heard, many Governments and regimes are visiting upon their own people and other nations.
If we do not protect international journalists, if we do not protect their integrity and their safety, we risk becoming detached and distanced. I want and hope to hear from the Minister what more we can do, particularly from a Foreign Office perspective, because as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services and assistance, I have interviewed a number of partners of those who have been incarcerated, including Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari, and Daniela, the wife of Matthew Hedges, who was studying in the United Arab Emirates. Their experiences are unbelievable. We must remember that academics and researchers are just as important as journalists. We must be able to protect them, and we must not fall foul of the trade relationships that we may have with countries coming above the diplomatic relationships that we have, in protecting journalists and others who in order to tell stories travel to places where we cannot go.
On a point of order, Mr Bailey. I am so sorry, but I was flustered when I spoke and I want to correct the record. Tihomir Tunuković, whose body I picked up, was killed on Sunday 1 November, not on 20 October. I hope that the record can be amended accordingly.
I am sure that it can be, Mr Stewart. Thank you for that correction and, indeed, for the very interesting tale that you were able to tell us today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my right hon. Friend, if I may call him that, the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on securing and introducing this debate. This is a timely moment to have such a debate, and in many ways it is a shame that it could not be for three hours, not the one hour. I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part on their excellent contributions. They were brief contributions, but powerful none the less.
I think that Labour Members strongly agree with the proposal made by the right hon. Gentleman that there should be a new UN convention on the protection of journalists. We also heard contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), who in the past was, I believe, chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who always tells excellent and very relevant stories from his own experience, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel). I thank them all for their extremely good contributions.
The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi last year was a frighteningly vivid reminder of the serious threats that journalists face globally today. It is the most dangerous time to be a journalist globally in more than a decade. As has been said this afternoon, the freedom of the press is one of the most powerful platforms for freedom of expression. It is a means of informing, of scrutinising and of disseminating information and is a fundamental pillar of democracy. Article 19 of the UN universal declaration of human rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The protection of journalists and their sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom, but in the last two years alone journalists have been murdered in Europe—in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Malta. Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders have called on Governments, including the British Government, to create a special rapporteur with the responsibility to protect journalists and press freedom. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that in a few minutes.
I shall give some statistics to remind hon. Members here this afternoon. In 2018, 94 journalists were killed, an increase from 82 in the previous year—far too many. Afghanistan was the most dangerous country in which to be a journalist, with 16 journalists and reporters murdered. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 251 journalists were jailed for their work in 2018. There are currently 126 journalists detained across member states of the Council of Europe, and almost 70 of those are in Turkey, as we heard. It is the case that 98% of jailed journalists are local people imprisoned by their own Governments, that 62% of journalists killed covered politics and political activity, and that 70% of jailed journalists imprisoned globally were arrested on anti-state charges, including terrorism.
Fewer than 10% of the killings of journalists end up with a prosecution. The impunity definitely exacerbates the cycle of violence against journalists. As we have heard, three countries—Turkey, China and Egypt—were responsible for more than half the journalists jailed globally. There has been an increase in politicians and other individuals labelling journalists as “enemies” and making false and damaging claims about the media.
Examples include Donald Trump—he has already been mentioned today—labelling media outlets such as the Washington Post and CNN as enemies of the people; media outlets run by close associates of Viktor Orbán in Hungary listing journalists and academics as “mercenaries” for George Soros; in Turkey, President Erdoğan forcing the closure of media outlets for allegedly “terrorist propaganda” and supporting the 2016 coup attempt; and BBC Persian staff in Iran, as we have heard, having their assets frozen. I am very grateful to Julia Harris from the BBC World Service for the information that she provided to me and all of us this afternoon. She does an excellent job for the World Service. Other examples are media outlets in Venezuela—this has not been mentioned—being forced to shut down by authorities alleging irregularities in their licences and, as we have heard today, authorities in Azerbaijan targeting the last independent news agency in the country, Turan, with claims of “financial irregularities”.
The results are that many media outlets are shut down and quite often the licences and assets of those organisations are given to close supporters of the Government or regime in those countries. Of course, that means reduced media pluralism and the creation of pliant media that will toe the Government line. We all stand against that and we all need to do more to oppose it and to ensure that journalists have the freedom that keeps our society free and fair.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for securing parliamentary time to debate this very important issue. His passionate commitment to the strategic issues around global media is of long standing. Let me take this opportunity to personally pay tribute to his previous outstanding work in this important and increasingly high-profile field, both as Secretary of State and as a two-term Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.
We were also delighted to hear contributions and interventions from a range of other hon. Members, and I will try to respond to the points that were raised, but first, I will share some of what the UK Government are already doing to try to improve the climate for media freedom and our plans to do more over the coming year.
There can be no doubt that media freedom is under increasing attack across the world. The figures speak for themselves: 80 journalists were killed in 2018, 348 are languishing in prison and 60 are being held hostage. It is appalling that these numbers represent a steady increase on those of previous years. Countries are increasingly using restrictive laws to stifle freedom of expression and to prevent the functioning of an independent media. The climate is worsening fast.
Naturally, for many people—even those in public life—it is uncomfortable to find oneself in the glare of the media spotlight, but I hope that all of us, as publicly elected representatives, believe and appreciate that such scrutiny is an essential part of a vibrant and healthy democracy, and that it is of huge benefit to society as a whole. It is no coincidence that countries with the freest media are also generally the most transparent and the least corrupt. Needless to say, the same applies in reverse. Powerful people may think twice about abusing their position if there is a good chance that their behaviour will be exposed in the media; conversely, an absence of scrutiny can lead to the very worst abuses of power and corruption.
Here in the UK, we have long had a culture of supporting freedom of expression. We are rightly proud of our tradition of an independent media, which underpins the fundamental values of our democracy. As a consequence, we collectively tolerate the excesses and at times the low journalistic standards of our tabloid press. That is a price we have to pay. However, in recent days in the vicinity of the House, the Sky News journalist Kay Burley and my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) were subjected to unacceptable levels of harassment. The wealth of media expertise and innovation in this country not only strengthens our own media sector, but supports the development of a strong and independent media in many countries overseas.
Regarding UK Action, I was very taken by the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). Let me reassure her that posts overseas routinely lobby Governments, often on a bilateral basis, wherever and whenever serious violations occur. My fellow Foreign Office Ministers and I also raise these issues routinely with our counterparts, and we will continue to do so, while also taking up individual cases personally—a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), as well.
We promote freedom of expression and media freedom all over the world, and we routinely raise concerns about serious violations with foreign Governments. One such case was highlighted during my trip last week to Vietnam, where I raised with ministerial counterparts concerns about the plan for a new cyber-security law in that country. I know that such discussions go on in visits that Ministers undertake across the globe. We also support media freedom through our Magna Carta Fund in some of the countries where human rights and democracy are most at threat.
In the multilateral sphere, we will continue to use our influence to support media freedom, the safety of journalists and freedom of expression at the United Nations Human Rights Council. A current example of this is seen in Mexico—a country that has been named by Reporters Without Borders as among the world’s five most deadly countries not at war. In November, we raised concerns about limitations to freedom of expression and violence against journalists and human rights defenders during the United Nation’s universal periodic review of Mexico. We raise these issues as important international principles in their own right, but in the past 12 months we have also raised concerns in all of the specific countries mentioned in the debate.
We shall also utilise our active and ongoing membership of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We will continue to use those important vehicles to highlight our concerns, galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways to use them to greater and more meaningful effect.
Tribute should be paid to our own Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, who is the general rapporteur in the Council of Europe for media freedom and the protection of journalists.
That tribute has indeed been paid. I also take on board the proposal that we support a UN representative or convention on the protection of journalists. I know that is something that is actively being pursued.
In the coming year and beyond, we will strengthen our efforts yet further. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon referred to the work being done by the new Foreign Secretary, who is very focused on this issue. We shall continue to work through those important multilateral bodies to galvanise consensus and effect change, and we are looking actively for ways of building on their work. We will also use our membership of like-minded groupings, such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the Community of Democracies, to step up our efforts specifically to promote media freedom and the safety of journalists. We shall continue to work closely with civil society and media organisations to ensure that we use the influencing power of Government to good effect, to complement and build on their own efforts. However, it is also important that we ramp up the bilateral response with countries with whom we have strong connections, whether through the Department for International Development or in a range of other areas. We will continue to work together in that regard.
We must also recognise that we cannot do all this work alone. That is why, later this year, we will host in London an international conference on media freedom. Our aim is to bring the issue to global attention, promote the value and benefits of a free media—indeed, a free internet—to a wider audience, and mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists, as the obvious guardians of those freedoms.
A robust, free, vibrant and varied media landscape is also one of the best antidotes to hostile state disinformation. Like restrictions on the media, disinformation also requires a concerted response. Here, too, we feel that the UK is at the forefront of a growing international consensus on the need for action. At home, we are drawing, among other things, on the experience of our Nordic and Baltic partners, which means taking a whole-of-society approach to this matter. That involves working towards three key objectives in relation to disinformation: first, deterring the use of disinformation by exposing and disrupting the perpetrators; secondly, increasing transparency and accountability online to make it more difficult and less rewarding to spread disinformation; and thirdly, making people more resilient through education and empowerment. We are investing £100 million in that effort around the world, which includes, at the moment, £8.5 million in eastern Europe and central Asia alone.
To respond to some specific points raised by Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) talked about Iran. The reports of BBC staff in Iran being harassed and subjected to asset freezes and similar forms of mistreatment are deeply worrying. The Foreign Secretary specifically raised our concerns about the harassment of BBC Persia staff and their families in Iran when he was there during his visit on 9 and 10 December. Officials at the British embassy in Tehran have also twice raised concerns with leading figures in the Iranian Government. Members should be made aware that in December 2018, we once again co-sponsored the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, specifically highlighting the poor record on freedom of expression.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) asked about the case of Mr Huseynov in Azerbaijan. We regularly express our concerns about the rights of political prisoners with the Azeri authorities. Over the past two years, we have attended a number of Mr Huseynov’s court hearings, and we met with his lawyer most recently on 3 January this year. The UK will continue to follow the case closely and is considering next steps with our international partners.
I will conclude with this thought. A free press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, because it holds the powerful to account, helps to expose corruption and lack of integrity, and is one of the best antidotes to disinformation. That is why we must take action to stop the intimidation, harassment and persecution of journalists across the world, and is why this year we will place as many of the resources as we can from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not only financial, but in time terms, too—behind a campaign to reverse the worrying trends outlined in this debate.
I thank all my colleagues who have come this afternoon. My only regret is that we have had only one hour in which to hold this debate, but the fact that so many have spoken, representing five parties from across the House, is an indication of how important the issue is seen in all quarters of Parliament. I was therefore particularly pleased to hear confirmation from the Minister that it will be one of the priorities of the Foreign Office in the coming year, when we will be holding the conference. I hope that this debate will act almost as a curtain raiser, and that we can return to the issue in due course as that conference approaches and thereafter. As I said earlier, I hope to organise a parliamentary conference in parallel to the Foreign Office one, so that parliamentarians from across the world can come together to talk about the issue too. I thank everyone who has come along and contributed this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered international protection of journalists.